by Will Schreiber

Radio, SF, and cultural stopgaps

Growing up, I remember “Save Public Radio” stickers all over the place. Beanie-wearing hipsters would sip lattes and bemoan the iPod’s war on radio. There were petitions for grants to keep WBHM’s lights on.

But radio is a tiny blip in the history of music. Ancient Rome had lyres and tubas and bagpipes. Everywhere we discover ruins, we discover instruments. For tens of thousands of years, we had to gather together in order to hear each other strum and hum.

Then, less than 150 years ago, we figured out how to mechanically record sounds. A few decades later, we started transmitting speeches over radio waves.

Radio was a century-long stopgap, a bandaid in-between the invention of recorded music and the invention of the Internet.

Radio’s reign was a four-generation blip.

We complain about losing lots of things as if they’re a part of civilization’s natural order. “People don’t get coffee with friends anymore.” “When’s the last time you called a friend to catch up?” “The dinner party is dead.” But coffee shops, long-distance phone networks, telephones, and McMansions are all recent inventions. 19th Century humans found happiness without them.

Similar to radio, the “death” of San Francisco is being widely reported. Who knows, maybe it’ll continue to be the heartbeat of software. Maybe it won’t.

But what bugs me is when people talk about SF as if it has always existed as some oasis, as if it has always been the center of the technology industry.

San Francisco did not exist as a city until 1850.1 In the 1960’s, San Francisco was a hippie town. Silicon Valley was exactly that - a valley - until Hewlett-Packard and Fairchild Semiconductor sprung up around Stanford. VC’s and entrepreneurs have migrated north to SF in only the past two decades.

SF’s reign has been a one-generation blip.

San Francisco could easily remain as the burning core of the software industry, but crazier things have happened. London is no longer the world’s biggest financial center. Milan is no longer the heartbeat of fashion.

The world keeps changing, yet we keep holding onto things that “once were” and onto how things “should be.”

Cities evolve. People move. We discover new physics equations.

Movies replaced live shows. Now binging habits on Netflix are destroying the movie as a medium.

Talk radio replaced Lincoln-Douglas debates. Now podcasts are replacing talk radio.

Office spaces, cities, cars, suburbs, drive-thrus, jet engines, restaurants, cheeseburgers, hotels, Airbnbs, trains, Zoom, colleges. All of these are cultural stopgaps, blips enjoyed by some number of generations until they’re replaced.

These things are not the natural state of civilization. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

by Will Schreiber

Can I smell as well as a bloodhound?

Bloodhounds can smell whether or not a human has merely touched a Coke bottle.

When Richard Feynman discovered this fact in a Science article, he decided to try it himself. He handed his wife a six-pack and told her to handle one of the bottles for a couple minutes while he was out of the room.

When he came back in, he immediately picked the bottle she’d touched. “As soon as you put it up near your face, you could smell it was dampish.”1

He repeated the experiment with coworkers by telling them to take books off a shelf, open them, and put them back. He then proceeded to correctly guess which books they had touched based on smell alone. They were so surprised that they thought he was pulling a “confederate” magic trick.

Bloodhounds, of course, have a much better sense of smell than humans. They can easily follow the path a human has traveled across a carpet. When Feynman got down on all fours and tried to sniff his friend’s trail, he failed.

But bloodhounds having a good sense of smell doesn’t mean humans have a bad sense of smell.

My entire life I’ve been amazed whenever a dog has smelled my hand and then started barking because they knew I’d been cheating on them.2 But not once have I thought to hold my hands up to my nose to see if I, too, could smell the difference.

I do this all over the place in my life. I see art friends have painted, read stories like The Egg, hear analogies from heroes of mine, and think I could never come up with that.

But I usually don’t get down on all fours and press my nose to the carpet. Maybe I should more often.

  1. From the “Testing Bloodhounds” chapter in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
  2. In his book experiment, Feynman remarkably paired the books to the people who touched them. He explains how humans hands also have quite distinct smells. Imagine a smoker’s hand.
by Will Schreiber

Tailwind saved me from a coding ice age

I started programming a decade ago. I’ve gone through four distinct coding phases.

PHP: the Jurassic beginning

In high school, I had an idea for a group texting app. I wanted to assign phone numbers to groups of friends, and then whenever anybody in the group texted the number, everybody else would get the text. “Twitter for friends,” I tried to explain.

Only one person in my high school - Robert - knew how to code. He put together a Twilio script and after a few weeks we could text each other via a shared number. Magic.

Then we went off to college.

I kept searching for somebody to work on the idea. One day, a friend added me to a GroupMe text thread. GroupMe? I googled the company. They’d launched just four months earlier. Fuck.

In 370 days, GroupMe went from launched to scaled to sold to Microsoft for $80 million.

The next time I have an idea, I’m going to build it myself, I thought.

I walked to Barnes & Noble and bought PHP for the World Wide Web. PHP is what Robert had used for our little texting script. And it’s what Zuckerberg built Facebook with. So it must be good!

My introduction to programming was lonely. I’d take my book to Central Library and work through the chapters. Learning how to assign values to $variables was a breakthrough. But how do I get the values to save permanently? I wondered.

The library closed at 1am. I’d walk back to my dorm, grab a Coke from the vending machine, plug my laptop in to my Cinema Display, and keep struggling.

I loved the ifs/thens. I loved the logic games. I loved the idea of building something from nothing. I was hooked.

My roommate was less hooked. “Dude, your monitor is so bright, you gotta turn it down.”

I launched at least a dozen websites and apps with PHP, including RageChill. All of them were spaghetti code. But I didn’t care. I felt powerful.

Rails: a Cambrian explosion

Senior year, instead of going to class, I’d put on a button-down and drive downtown to the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to work on Stadium Stock Exchange.

My love for programming was reaching fever pitch just as I discovered the Hartl Rails tutorial. I’d always heard about Object-Oriented Software, but I’d never seen it until I saw Rails.

Don’t worry, my Rails code was still spaghetti. But at least now I had Model spaghetti, View spaghetti, and Controller spaghetti.

The volume of spaghetti I cooked up was terrifying. Between February and August of 2013, I rebuilt RageChill, built an iPad app (Objective-C! Pre-ARC!) as a freelancer, and shipped both a Rails app and iOS app for Stadium Stock Exchange.

I didn’t mind spending hours tracking down bugs that pushed UILabels off the edges of UITableViewCells. I had lots of patience for refreshing Chrome over and over again, testing sign-up flows and fake stock trades.

CSS didn’t scare me. Nor did learning Swift or keeping up with Rails or dealing with App Store Submission Hell.

It was new territory. It was fun.

JavaScript: my ice age

I’ve always loved the self-reliance ethos of the Rails community. The monolith really is majestic. Server-rendered HTML is zen-like. What Basecamp has done with HEY is genuinely inspirational.

But over the past two years, I’ve started to feel stuck.

I must be doing it all wrong because the idea of making even a few images move around a page in Rails stresses me out. I know there’s Stimulus and Turbolinks and remote calls and it’s probably easy to do it with some fancy new CSS animation. But my Rails views always end up as cluttered junk. I’m storing all sorts of crazy variables as attributes in the DOM.

Meanwhile, React and Vue feel like they’re one bridge too far. I’ve got to maintain another whole app? Setup authentication? Separate calls for every snippet of data I want to bring in? And I need to manage state? Like another database?

After nearly a decade of launching products, I could feel my creativity being drained. In an era of Heroku and and AWS and Stack Overflow and Rails and React and Vue - the golden days of programming! - why did it feel so hard to launch anything online?

It’s because frontend development was sapping my energy. I was building web apps with Bootstrap. CSS gave me nightmares. The thought of building everything with JSON endpoints felt overwhelmingly heavy.


Tailwind: redemption

Enter Tailwind.1

I cannot stress this enough: Tailwind has single-handedly returned my web creativity back to what it was in 2012.

When I started going through the Tailwind tutorials, I realized the painstakingly slow CSS iteration loop was what had been breaking my back.

Before, I’d create a div, invent a name, move over to a CSS file, paste the name, Google for CSS attributes, trial-and-error getting flex boxes to work in IE, hope the asset pipeline regenerates the CSS files properly each time.

Then, with Tailwind, I stopped inventing class names2 and stopped Googling obscure CSS rules.

Swapping from manually-crafted CSS in separate files to simple class-level styles has felt like being released from prehistoric amber. Building frontends feels fast again. And since it feels fast, it feels fun.

With CSS anxiety quelled, picking up Vue and React has been pleasant.

Thank you, Tailwind.3

  1. Thank you, Lindsey and Courtney!
  2. “There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.” -Phil Karlton
  3. Thank you, Adam Wathan and Steve Schoger.
by Will Schreiber

Bierstadt and breakfast

Mt. Bierstadt is the closest 14’er to Denver. It’s also one of the easiest to climb.

The parking lot was full at 9am. Cars were spilling out, parked on both sides of the road for a quarter mile in each direction.

The trailhead sits at 11,600 feet. From there, it’s four miles and 2,460 feet of elevation to the top.

We passed college kids, retirees, babies in backpacks, and lots of dogs along the wide and busy trail. There’s only a little bit of rock scrambling at the very end.

As we drank water at the top, I decided to join Elizabeth in her goal to climb all 53 Colorado 14’ers. I’ve got 51 to go.

The best part about the hike was that I didn’t get hungry.

I’ve been intermittent fasting for three weeks. After I eat dinner, I wait until noon the next day to eat again.

When I wake up, I chug water and drink black coffee. Sometimes I start prepping my muesli bowl at 11am in eager anticipation, but usually I don’t notice any hunger.

An empty stomach keeps me focused while writing and programming. It also gives me more energy. Back in high school, during debate tournaments, I’d go full days without eating. I knew if I ate, I’d struggle to focus during the next round’s speeches.

It never occurred to me to make intermittent fasting part of my daily life. I used to roll my eyes when life-hack-salespeople talked about optimizing their eating schedules. But Elizabeth just finished reading The Obesity Code. The science behind insulin and digestion makes sense.1 So I decided to give it a go.

Since I started fasting, I’ve avoided running in the morning. I didn’t think I’d be able to wait until noon to eat. But I also thought hiking up to 14,060 on an empty stomach might cause me to feel faint or dizzy or light-headed or empty.


At 14,060ft

  1. James Clear has a simple breakdown of the science: The Beginner’s Guide to Intermittent Fasting
by Will Schreiber

Big vision, little start

Elon gets credit for creating huge, new markets. But all of his companies started with existing markets.

Start: Put satellites in orbit
Someday: Colonize Mars

Start: Make an electric McLaren for people with private jets
Someday: Electrify transportation

The Boring Company
Start: Move people across big convention centers1
Someday: End traffic

Start: Make Parkinson’s more manageable
Someday: Blend with AI

After Neuralink’s recent demo, pundits focused on clickbait “Elon wants to put chips in our brains” articles. They ignored the most interesting part: there’s an existing market of people with Parkinson’s and other degenerative disorders who already embed electronics in their skulls.2 Can Neuralink improve those implants first, before they drill holes in all of our skulls?

I can’t think of another entrepreneur who’s been so consistently good at applying new technologies to existing markets. His companies’ massive missions merely linger in the background.

Zuckerberg and Oculus are taking the opposite approach. They’re building a new market for immersive VR. MKBHD pressed him on why he wasn’t addressing existing problems first. “We’re focused on connecting people,” he said.3 He’s not interested in other use cases.

Would it not be smarter to start with existing problems for VR? Perhaps surgeons or medical device reps virtually visiting operating rooms? Why jump straight to a non-existent market?

I often say, “You need $100 in revenue before you get $10,000,000 in revenue.”

This is the same class of problem.

Elon’s visions are in the clouds - literally. But his implementations always start small.

  1. This “tiny” project brought in $50 million for The Boring Company.
by Will Schreiber

Avoiding a bad day

If I do any of these things, I have a bad day:

  1. Hit snooze
  2. Scroll Twitter before getting out of bed
  3. Fail to chug water in the morning
  4. Do 0 push-ups before noon
  5. Open when opening new tabs
  6. Watch YouTube videos
  7. Fail to run by 6pm
  8. Fail to write at least one sentence
  9. Spend all day on calls
  10. Go to more than once
  11. Spend hours figuring out a banal customer support ticket
  12. Feel envy
  13. Feel jealousy
  14. Feel regret
  15. Not talk to anyone all day

The easiest way to have a good day is to avoid a bad day.

Today I had a good day.

by Will Schreiber

2020 > 1924

Munger often says that, for a white guy with a math brain, there wasn’t a better time or place to be born than in 1920’s Nebraska.

I strongly disagree.

No doubt, Munger had impeccable timing. The concept of putting money into a 401k and expecting to buy a beachfront mansion in Florida at the age of 63 is long gone. The rate of return over the next 80 years isn’t going to match America’s post-war industrial boom. See’s Candy can’t be bought for $20 million anymore.

But Munger isn’t giving himself enough credit. He wouldn’t be buying companies if he were starting over today. The number of ways to make money has increased exponentially.

The mom-and-pop-hardware-store world of yesteryear is vastly overrated.

The reality of the 20th Century is that if you didn’t have a cushy corporate executive job, you didn’t have it that good. Ho-hum, 9-to-5, go to work, sock a little away, hope you’re able to enjoy retirement “some day.”

Engineers had to wear white button-downs and spend their entire careers with IBM, musicians had to convince labels to distribute their music, authors had to find publishers, marketers were men who lived near 5th Avenue, Wall Street was the only place an Ivy League grad could make a fortune.

Now, anybody can publish software and charge for it. Anybody can record their own talk show. YouTube stars have bigger audiences than A-list actors on TV. Engineers at Facebook make more than analysts at Goldman Sachs.

Opportunity has always been distributed, it just didn’t used to be discoverable.

The challenge in 1920’s America was being matched with the opportunities that did exist. Munger was lucky to have worked for Warren Buffett’s grandfather at the Buffett & Son grocery store. Without that stroke of geographical luck at birth, he may have never partnered with Warren.

Nowadays, opportunities are both distributed and discoverable.

You can talk to Richard Dawkins on Twitter. You can find partners and customers and coworkers and jobs by publishing articles. You can distribute software and books and music without a suit’s blessing.

As the odds of discovering opportunities increase, skills become more important than time or geography in determining success.

I’d choose being born today over 1924 every single time.

by Will Schreiber

The Needles, Canyonlands

The West still feels wild. America’s interior has only recently been fully explored.

The canyons of the Colorado River were unmapped until John Wesley Powell’s expedition in 1869. He floated from Wyoming to Nevada, passing through what is now Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Ten people started the journey with him. Four of them abandoned their boats, climbed the canyon walls, and quit. The other six made it to the end.

We’ve been waking up early and hiking before opening our laptops most mornings. Last week, we woke up at 5am and drove 1.5 hours south into The Needles of Canyonlands.

The sun was starting to peak above the rocks just as we reached the Elephant Hill trailhead. I felt like I was on the set of A Land Before Time. We hiked and trail-ran an 11-mile loop - through deep canyons, around rock towers - and got back to the car around noon.

Here’s a picture we took along the way. When we got back to Moab, I pulled up the location on Google Maps. It looks even cooler from above.

The Needles
by Will Schreiber

To the next chapter

Yesterday, the movers showed up at 9:15am. Our apartment was empty by 1pm.

We loaded up the Subaru and started driving up I-80. Goodbye, San Francisco.

The air quality index was “Dangerous” when we went to bed near Squaw Valley’s mountain base last night.

The air cleared up a bit this morning. “Dangerous for those with existing conditions,” the app said.

We walked over to the Exhibition ski lift and walked partway up the mountain before turning around to get back to our laptops for the workday.

I’m glad most of our stuff is in storage. We’ve got skis, clothes, two giant widescreen monitors, and a car. It feels like we’re hauling around a lot of stuff, but at least we’re mobile. We’re heading to Moab next, then Colorado, then we’ll decide where to settle for 2021.

I liked San Francisco. I’d move back once offices, coffee shops, and Barry’s reopen. I’d also go to a new city.

I love cities. I’m young and I want to meet people and make more friends.

But for now, we’re back to the nomadic lifestyle.

Empty apartment
by Will Schreiber

Unlearning school

It’s taken me years to unlearn things I learned in school.

I used to write introduction paragraphs first. I used to reference the thesaurus. I used to drink eight cokes a day. Those were easy enough to fix.

But the most damaging thing school taught me was the “Herculean All-Nighter” folly. Unlearning it has been a slog.

In school, semesters are only four months. Tests come every few weeks. Homework takes a couple hours. “Huge Tests” mean studying all day instead of starting after dinner.

I got used to being able to finish projects with one up-until-dawn push.

By the time I was in college, I knew it took me exactly one hour to write one page of an essay. At 8am the day before my Economic History of the U.S. paper was due, I stopped procrastinating because I was down to the exact amount of time it would take me to finish: 25 hours.

There was a certain satisfaction in these heroic pushes, in chugging Coca-Cola and cramming for tests and walking across campus with a coffee in hand and sliding a paper onto the professor’s desk.

When I first started building apps, I applied the same Herculean mentality to the challenge. I binged PHP tutorials and stayed in Central Library until they shut the lights off, trying to properly release objects in pre-ARC Objective-C.

I always thought apps were one all-nighter away from being finished.

One time I told a guy I’d have an app I was working on finished by the next morning. “Easily,” I thought. When we met up for coffee the next day, I had massive bags under my eyes. It messed up my sleep for a week.

Process goals have finally replaced the Herculean strategy I used to carry around. I wish I’d learned about them a decade ago.

The most rewarding things in life - wealth, health, sourdough pizza - cannot be built by brute condensed force. They all require consistency.

Doing things (n) < Doing things well (2n) < Doing things well, consistently (2n^2)

by Will Schreiber

Surprises generate smiles.

Catchy music is catchy because it’s predictable. We tap our feet to the beat as our brains guess upcoming notes.

Then, we click Next. If the song doesn’t surprise us, monotony sets in.

The best musicians, writers, speakers, and conversationalists surprise us. They don’t describe villages as “nestled in the foothills” or talk about the weather as a “nice day today!”


In Norm Macdonald’s book Based on a True Story, he writes about being booked to perform at a mental hospital in the north forty of Canada. It takes him hours to drive there.

“Why they built a hospital so damn far away from everybody, I couldn’t figure. It was way out in the middle of northern Ontario, where you have to pray your car doesn’t break down, and if it does, you have to pray you freeze to death before the timberwolves find you.”[^1]

I could’ve sworn he was about to say “you have to pray you have a winter coat.” I smiled when I was wrong.

Confessional omg-I-blacked-out-and-stole-a-Tesla comedy also makes me smile. But elevated shock levels eventually break the scale. Tucker Max can only have sex with so many people.

Whereas the GOATs are consistently, subtly surprising.

by Will Schreiber

Shared Lyft to Dunkin’ Donuts

I left Andy’s house at 4:30am to catch the first leg of my ATL-LAX-CAN-PNH journey. I ordered a shared Lyft, hoping somebody else would also be heading to the airport that early.

When the car showed up, a woman and her kindergarten-aged son were in the backseat. The kid kept dozing off as we drove across midtown, his head resting on his Spiderman backpack.

We pulled into a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. They hopped out. I noticed she was wearing a Cintas Dunkin’ Donuts t-shirt. She was heading into work and presumably couldn’t leave her son at home.

Knowing Lyft prices in Atlanta, she couldn’t have paid more than $5 for the shared ride. Of course it made sense to take a Lyft to work instead of a crazy patchwork of never-on-time buses. Incredible.

Yesterday, as I was reading about Uber and Lyft’s battle over AB5, I saw a surprising stat: 38% of Lyft rides start or end in low-income neighborhoods.1

My mom mentors a college-aged woman in Birmingham who lives in a low-income household of eight. Because her family shares one car, she usually spends three hours riding and waiting on buses to get to her job at CSV. Each way. So she quit.

The debate about whether drivers like ridesharing is an interesting one. Are they employees? Are they not? We need a third worker definition, something in-between an employee and a contractor. The labor markets created by Uber and Lyft do end up with fixed-hours dynamics.

But the benefit to riders is undisputed.

It’s so undisputed that “life before Uber” conversations at dinner parties are boring. Everybody has a story about standing in the rain for hours waiting for a taxi, or being kicked out of a car on the side of the road, or being refused service because “Oh my credit card machine is broken.”

Riders can see pictures of their drivers, prices are transparent, the app tracks you, and there’s no longer a 10 minute waiting penalty for being non-white.2

Plus it’s cheap. UberX was cheap. But Uber Pool and Lyft Line are holy-shit cheap. They’re better for the environment, low-hassle, and did I mention cheap?

Even five years ago, taking a private car door-to-door to a job at Dunkin’ Donuts would have been unheard of. But it makes sense. Compared to taxis, Ubers are less than half the price, require 1/3 of the waiting time, and are willing to go about anywhere in the city.

Buying, owning, and maintaining a car is expensive. Bringing down the cost of point-to-point transportation is having really interesting impacts beyond the rich-kids-going-to-bars impression most people (myself included) have of ridesharing.3

I hope it doesn’t go away.

by Will Schreiber

Pascal’s Scam

Bertrand Russell imagined what he’d say if he found himself on the wrong side of Pascal’s Wager: “But Lord, you did not give us enough evidence!”1

Pascal’s Wager uses the weight of infinite hell to distract from the fact that the odds of God’s existence is unknowable.

“If you don’t believe in God and God isn’t real - nothing happens. If you don’t believe in God and God is real - damned to hell for all of eternity. Why risk it?”

To answer the wager of whether or not you should believe in God, you have to convert the odds of God’s existence from an unknown quantity to an assumed quantity, from “I don’t know, how can we know, what is God anyway?” to “okay I’ll give it one-in-a-billion odds that God exists.”

Pascal was a mathematician. He knew odds even as low as one-in-a-billion were no match for hell. Why risk it?

The bait-and-switch is the forced implicit conversion of the unknowable into assumed “low-probability” numbers. It’s like trying to divide by zero. It’s invalid.

That’s Pascal’s Scam.2

At least the original wager is infinite and feels unknowable. But there are many finite, seemingly knowable, hard-to-reason Pascal’s Scams out there exploiting the same false logic.

“Put 2-3% of your net worth into Bitcoin, in case the hodlr’s are right and USD collapse is imminent.”3

“Stock a nuclear bunker with 30 years of food, in case the doomsdayers aren’t crazy.”

“We must shut off all of Earth’s radio signals, in case we’re vulnerably giving away our existence to more sophisticated aliens.”

Finite Pascal Wagers give the illusion that risks can be quantified and that outcomes can be measured. Be careful. When it’s impossible to tell if an event has a one-in-a-thousand or a one-in-a-trillion chance of occurring, it means the projections and models are unfalsifiable. Even small tests or evidence should bound the range of outcomes to within a few orders of magnitude.4

Buy BTC, but for a reason other than Pascal’s Scam.

  1. My brother has joked, “Vintage Second Breakfast, this post has a Hitchens reference.” Guilty as charged, again. Hitchens impersonates Russell’s answer to Pascal’s Wager in several speeches and in his book, god is not great. I haven’t been able to independently verify that Russell indeed said this, but “it’s all true or it ought to be!”
  2. I came across the term “Pascal’s Scam” in Nick Szabo’s post from 2012:
  3. I am a hodlr, but think this is a bad reason to buy Bitcoin.
  4. This is a distillation of Michael Crichton’s Aliens Cause Global Warming in a lot of ways. “Don’t trust models or things that can’t be falsified.” I think his logic is correct but that global warming can in fact be quantified and the risks are real enough to act.
by Will Schreiber

New one-mile PR

There’s a homeless tent encampment surrounding the SF DMV at the far east end of the Panhandle. It’s where I started my run yesterday.

Through the park, into Golden Gate, past the conservatory, and to the first bridge is 1.5 miles.

I turned around at the bridge, went back up JFK, past the conservatory, and back into the Panhandle.

As I passed the toddler playground, the only other person on the path was a woman 200 yards ahead.

As I got closer, I noticed she was talking to herself. As I got even closer, I noticed she was shouting at the trees.

About 50 yards out, she turned and starting running toward me, hands moving up and down, screaming, waving a crackpipe like a wand.

I swerved left into the grass. She threw the pipe at me.

Two women standing in the yard glanced at us, then turned their attention back to their young kids.

I kept running and didn’t look back.

by Will Schreiber

Personality is the force majeure of the internet.

I follow @shl on Twitter, but not @gumroad; @elonmusk, but not @Tesla; @sm, but not @Winnie. I pointed this out to Sahil. He said, “funny because I write both accounts :)”1

Personality is the force majeure of the internet.

When I used to travel, I’d skim through the USA Today left outside my hotel room each morning. But I’ve actually never done the digital equivalent by typing “” into Safari. Instead, I get news directly from @MKBHD and @benthompson.

Why? Why do I follow people and not brands online? I wondered.

For one, hot takes are more interesting than edited corporate drivel. I like the added context people provide. I like the back and forth, the personality, the arguments, the flaws. This isn’t new. Hitler and Churchill both rode cults of personality into power. So did Caesar.

But until this century, you would have had to buy your own printing press to widely distribute pamphlets, or pay the NYT to run full-page ads to appeal directly to the public.2 Newspapers had distribution monopolies and thus were de facto curators. “All The News That’s Fit To Print,” the NYT reminded us at the start of each and every day.3

Now that I see all the news that isn’t fit to print, I wonder Why’d you leave that out? Why’d you choose that headline? What else is being censored? I don’t trust the masthead. I don’t even trust the journalists. Usually I seek out the subjects directly on Twitter.

The New York Times and NBC and Walmart used to pick what we read, saw, and ate. Two brothers in San Antonio decided that commuters across the country would hear Rush Limbaugh every morning on their way to work. If a ketchup company wanted their product on shelves, they had to convince buyers in Bentonville to stock their bottles.

But then came the 747, the shipping container, the 18-wheeler, and, as a final death blow to distribution monopolists everywhere, the internet. Stories weren’t limited to 22-inch sheets of paper, voices weren’t crammed between 87.5 MHz and 108.0 MHz, and products weren’t stuck on transcontinental rail tracks.

Distribution’s commodification has changed everything. It’s given rise to Warby Parker, Casper, Away, and other somewhat predictable direct-to-consumer businesses. Why pay leases and middlemen when you can pay the Instagram Tax instead? Kidding, kidding, I love DTC brands.

I’m not surprised I now buy products directly from the source. But I am surprised that I no longer trust Macy’s to carry the best shoes. I’m surprised I no longer trust the NYT to decide what’s “fit to print.” It turns out the old distribution monopolists weren’t curators by skill, but by chance.

As the ease of distribution increased, the number of choices we had exploded exponentially. I don’t trust Macy’s buyers or NYT’s editors to help me navigate all those choices. They are nameless and faceless to me. Instead, I trust personalities that I like online.

We’re in a multi-decade shift from trust in institutions to trust in people.

ESPN is being replaced by Dave Portnoy. Sephora is being replaced by Kylie Jenner. The Tonight Show is being replaced by Joe Rogan. HGTV’s shows are being replaced by Demolition Matt.

In the early days of DTC, I thought there would be a need for a “Curation Brand,” a Trader Joe’s of online grocery. Something like Brandless (RIP). I’ve been waiting.4 So far, no brand has emerged that I trust to maximize price and quality for me.

Perhaps that will change. But so far, it’s personalities that dominate online. They curate for me. I trust them because I know them, or at least I have the illusion of knowing them. I’m willing to hear what “the influencers” have to say and I’m willing to buy what they’re selling.

I can’t say the same about the distribution brands of old.

A few predictions:

  1. Brands tied to people (Elon’s Tesla, Kylie’s Kylie Cosmetics, etc.) will significantly outperform brands that aren’t tied to people.
  2. Online curation will happen around personality (“here’s what Tom Brady stocks in his fridge”) vs. traditional store branding (such as Kirkland Signature or Trader Joe’s).
  3. The amount of money paid directly to journalists via Substack and podcast subscriptions will be greater than the revenue of all newspapers in the country, combined.
  4. DTC logistics (online ordering, easy subscriptions, same-day-deliveries) will also be commoditized; DTC brands tied to influencers will beat those that aren’t.
  5. The GOP and DNC will continue to decline in importance, as their ideologies become unrecognizable soup. The leaders of each party will be those with the largest online followings.
  6. Industries with distribution advantages (Starbucks with retail, Southwest with airport throughput, Apple with iOS) will continue to have durable brands.

  1. funny because I write both accounts :)

    — Sahil Lavingia (@shl) February 7, 2020

  2. Benjamin Franklin in particular was famous for distributing his ideas on pamphlets during the American Revolution. Cornelius Vanderbilt frequently took out full-page ads in New York newspapers to complain about the federal government and corruption.

  3. Christopher Hitchens, as usual, was ahead of his times here. He hated the insulting nature of “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” Here’s one of my favorite Hitchens quotes.

  4. Wirecutter does this. I rely on Wirecutter heavily to make about any purchase, lest I drown in a sea of choices on Amazon. But I’m surprised there isn’t a brand that I trust to just buy everything from directly.

by Will Schreiber

“All You Need To Know”

Last night, as we waited outside for the table ahead of us to finish dessert and pay, the hostess walked out with two glasses of champagne. “I’m sorry we’re running behind,” she said. Elizabeth and I clinked glasses.

Back in the kitchen, we heard the hostess complaining to the chef about a woman who’d been sitting at a table by herself for three hours. “I don’t know what she’s doing!”

The chef was tempted to walk out and tell her to leave, but he didn’t want to risk another negative review. A month earlier, after reopening for patio dining, somebody had posted to Yelp: “Great pizza, nice staff, odd decor.” 1 star.

Hearing their sighs and shrugs reminded me of a story I once heard from my grandfather.

Grandad had joined an International Harvester dealership in Norfolk after the war. He’d worked there for several years before offering to buy the business from its nearing-retirement owner, Mr. Bell.

Mr. Bell agreed, so long as Grandad partnered with his nephew Lewis Gibson. No problem.

Grandad went to get a loan. “What’s the name of your business?” the loan officer asked. Hmm, he hadn’t thought about it. “G&S Equipment,” he said.

It was a Monday morning when Grandad and Lewis and Mr. Bell met at the dealership to finalize the transfer. Mr. Bell, after signing his final dotted line, stood up, grabbed his coat, and headed toward the door.

Grandad was surprised. “Wait! Aren’t you going to stick around for a couple weeks? Have a transition period?”

Mr. Bell turned around. He paused.

“All you need to know, is the public is a bitch.”

And then he walked out.