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.


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.


Managing book highlights and excerpts

In the pre-ebook era we didn't have a lot of options for managing book highlights and excerpts. They generally lived on your shelf and if you didn't have that book with you, well, you were out of luck

The 2007 launch of the Kindle platform dramatically expanded the capabilities for highlights and excerpts...sort of. You didn't have to carry all those books around anymore but your thoughts were pretty much trapped in the Amazon ecosystem.

Not much has changed on this front over the past 10+ years but there are other tools that can unlock your book thoughts and notes. I'm talking about Evernote and how I use it to manage my book notes.

When I start reading a book I immediately create a new note in Evernote with the book's title. I'm reading more print books than ebooks these days, but the same approach I'm about to describe can be used for either. When I find a page or section I want to highlight or create a note about, I simply use the camera option in Evernote on my phone, take a picture of that page and stick it in the book's Evernote entry.

The result is a set of excerpts and notes that travel with me on all my devices. Better yet, I can share those notes with friends or colleagues. In fact, I'm using this solution right now to collaborate and share thoughts on a book I'm reading with one of my co-workers.

Evernote has optical character recognition (OCR) built-in and I often take pictures of hand-written meeting notes to save digitally. Oddly enough, Evernote is almost always able to translate my awful handwriting but it often has a hard time recognizing printed words on a book page photo. It works better on the Mac than my Android phone but it's still hit and miss. The downside is that your book page photos often aren't searchable within Evernote and I'm hoping they fix this soon.

Despite that issue, Evernote is a terrific tool for managing and sharing your book highlights, excerpts and notes.


Revisiting "The Innovator's Dilemma"

What's the most impactful business book you've ever read? Mine is Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma. I first read it many years ago and I figure now would be a good time to read it again. I must have given my original copy away, so I stopped by the used book store and picked up another for $8.99.

What was so memorable about my first read of this classic? Christensen opened my eyes to think like a startup, an innovator and a disruptor. One of the key takeaways is that many innovators chip away at the low end of the market, causing entrenched market leaders to ignore them, figuring they can have that less profitable segment but they'll never truly compete with me in the more lucrative segment. By the time the leader realizes their mistake, the innovator has already stolen much of the market and is on their way toward total domination.

OK, it doesn't always end that way but this book describes many examples of significant disruption by new market entrants. I've referred to this book countless times in my career and I'm confident the lessons it offers are as relevant today as they were when it was originally published.

I'm looking forward to starting the reading journey again on this one and I hope you'll join me. I'll be sure to share my thoughts, as well as my preferred method of book highlighting in an upcoming article. (Hint: the highlighting approach involves Evernote...)