Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall

Several smart people I follow have talked about reading a book called Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall, so I figured I better have a look. It's a great read that's loaded with interesting stories and provocative perspectives.

I still have about 60 pages to go but I've already learned about how radar was almost completely overlooked as a breakthrough technology, why Pan Am is no more and how Polaroid met its demise. You might think you already know most, if not all, of these stories but I promise you the author presents new information you probably never previously heard or considered.

The most intriguing part of the book is where he talks about The Moses Trap:

[The Moses Trap is] when ideas advance only at the pleasure of a holy leader -- rather than the balanced exchange of ideas and feedback between soldiers in the field and creatives at the bench selecting loonshots on merit -- that is exactly when teams and companies get trapped. The leader raises his staff and parts the seas to make way for the chosen loonshot. The dangerous virtuous cycle spins faster and faster: loonshot feeds franchise feeds bigger, faster, more. The all-powerful leader begins acting for love of loonshots rather than strength of strategy. And then the wheel turns one too many times.

Bahcall distinguishes between what he refers to as P-type and S-type loonshots. The former is product-based whereas the latter is strategy-based. The S-types are similar to the examples Clay Christensen refers to in my favorite business book, The Innovator's Dilemma, which is probably another reason why I've thoroughly enjoyed Loonshots.


When is a failed business model worth revisiting?

One answer is when you apply it in a completely different business segment. Thanks to my new favorite business podcast, Snacks Daily, I learned that the MoviePass all-you-can-watch model, which is circling the drain, is being embraced by the NY Mets in a new subscription campaign offering standing-room-only (SRO) access to almost every home game.

That's brilliant. Why? For most MLB teams, revenue is not just about filling seats but also selling high-margin concessions. MoviePass is failing partially because the theaters are beholden to the movie studios. Bring the model to an entirely new business and it could flourish. In this case, there's almost no incremental cost in admitting a few thousand additional fans to the game; the same number of gate attendants are probably still required whether attendance is 20K or 23K. The likelihood of cannibalizing higher-priced seat tickets seems low so it looks like a smart way to bring more fans to the game as well as make money off over-priced sodas, hotdogs, hats, etc.

It's interesting to think about other failed business models which might have potential in new categories. I expect other teams to follow the Mets' lead, even beyond MLB. Although many of those SRO fans will probably end up sneaking into an empty seat, is that really a bad thing? Empty seats are an embarrassment on a TV broadcast and this model should help reduce the number of vacancies, even though that's not the primary stated mission. It might also lead to more casual fans stopping by, taking in a few innings after dinner or before doing something else in the area. Very cool.


What are your adjacent business opportunities?

More often than not, the best growth and disruption opportunities can be found in some of the most unexpected places. We get so hung up studying our direct competitors that we completely lose sight of a potential marketplace newcomer who isn't just out to protect the status quo. I find it's best to look beyond your obvious competitors and consider what's going on in adjacent markets. I recently had an opportunity to do just that and it resulted in me advocating and leading the due diligence for an equity stake in a very exciting startup.

This particular startup, Biblezon, produces Android-powered tablets with models for adults and children. One of the cooler aspects of the latter is that there's no browser on the device, so you can safely give it to a child and never worry that they'll end up on an inappropriate website.

Our company isn't in the hardware business but we do produce a lot of content every year and we have a rich, deep backlist of timeless material. Biblezon and their tablets represent an entirely new distribution channel, one that we can help develop. We're only in the very early stages of this partnership but I'm excited to see how we can work together, as adjacent businesses, to extend the reach of both organizations in the years ahead.

Biblezon is definitely an adjacent business for me but it's not the only one I'm currently exploring strategic alliances and financial investments with. I'm fortunate to work in an organization where we recognize the fact that plenty of innovation and disruption happens outside our four walls. That's why it's so critical to look beyond the usual list of competitors for inspiration.

What would a short list of adjacent businesses look like in your segment and what are you doing to explore ways of working with them?


Embracing the subscription economy

I'm about halfway through a terrific book called Subscribed, by Tien Tzuo. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in disrupting an existing business or creating a completely new one. The author was an early Salesforce employee and used to be their chief marketing officer as well as chief strategy officer, so he obviously knows a thing or two about subscription models.

The overall premise covered in the book, where more customers are shifting from owning to renting products, isn't exactly new, but the author provides countless thought-provoking examples and visions of a subscription-based future. Here's a wonderful example:

But just imagine what would happen at the next Apple keynote if Tim Cook announced a simple monthly Apple subscription plan that covered everything: network provider charges, automatic hardware upgrades, and add-on options for extra devices, music and video content, specialty software, gaming, etc. Not just an upgrade program, but Apple as a Service.

If you dismiss this logic because you can't imagine your products or services in a SaaS-like subscription model, consider this:

Here's the secret we use -- tease out the service-level agreement that sits behind the product [or service]. It works for everything. So instead of a refrigerator, it's the guarantee of free, cold food. Instead of a roof, maybe it's a guaranteed source of solar energy. Instead of excavators, it's the expeditious removal of a certain amount of dirt.

There's an added dimension to consider here as well: the community engagement you have the opportunity to develop and lead. The author points out that, "loyal newspaper subscribers are willing to pay for enhanced experiences." My local paper, for example, is working hard to create an insider program featuring access to community-oriented products and services which serve as add-ons to the core subscription. Over time, it's easy to see where the original product simply becomes one of many elements of a more robust subscription. In short, you're forced to think more about the solution and experience while focusing less on the individual product.

I hope you'll take the time to read Subscribed and consider how it affects your own business segment as well as the broader consumer experience.


Disrupting and improving communication with machine learning

The topic of artificial intelligence (AI) is generating a lot of buzz these days and it's often difficult separating fact from fiction. For example, what are the most interesting AI applications today and where is the technology heading tomorrow?

I recently started reading a good book on the topic called Prediction Machines, by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb. Prediction Machines offers a solid overview of AI fundamentals while also providing plenty of real-world examples. One of my favorite examples is Grammarly, a tool to help improve written communication. Here's how the authors describe the service:

Grammarly achieved these corrections both by examining a corpus of documents that skilled editors had corrected and by learning from the feedback of users who accepted or rejected the suggestions. In both cases, Grammarly predicted what a human editor would do. It goes beyond the mechanical application of grammar rules to also assess whether deviations from perfect grammar are preferred by human readers.

Years ago there were a few grammar-checker software products that tried to solve the problem the old-fashioned way, with brute force. They certainly helped fix a lot of grammatical errors but they often didn't produce the results you'd get from a good human editor.

I'm using the free Grammarly service, both as a standalone app and as a Chrome plug-in, so this article was made better thanks to Grammarly. I'm also going to let Grammarly have a look at some of the documents I write at work.

There's a danger in all of this. Google has dumbed us down, making us over-reliant on their search and map services, for example. I spend less time thinking about the best route and instead simply plug the address into Waze and let it tell me. The same thing could happen with Grammarly where my writing skills decline as I get lazy and rely on the service to fix my errors. My plan is to stop and think about each correction Grammarly recommends and do my best to avoid making the same mistake again but we'll see...

I hope you'll try out the Grammarly service as well. If you're interested in where AI is heading, be sure to read Prediction Machines and think about how this rapidly changing technology is likely to impact your business and your job.