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.


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?


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.


Where are all the must-have Alexa skills?

Is it me or is Amazon's Alexa loaded with nothing but gimmicky skills? I like audio news streams as much as the next guy but where are all the amazing skills this platform should be offering by now? I wrote earlier about a use-case publishers and content consumers could get excited about but the capabilities I outlined then are still nowhere to be found.

My various Alexa devices are great at streaming music. The Echo Show I got for Christmas sits on my nightstand and randomly shows photos from my collection. It's a rather pricey, over-engineered picture viewer and alarm clock though. A few months ago I bought an in-car Alexa device but soon realized it doesn't add much value beyond what I already get from my phone's podcast app paired via Bluetooth.

Speaking of phones, the Alexa platform seems to be where the app stores were in the early days of both the iPhone and Android devices. Come to think of it, it's still pretty hard to find new, useful apps amidst all the clutter. If you're like most people, you have dozens of apps on your phone but you probably only use a few of them on any given day. At this point in the life of Alexa I thought we'd see at least one or two can't-live-without-it skills but I can't think of a single one.

I'm still extremely bullish on voice UIs and I believe the future is bright for publishers who are willing to transform their content for delivery on them. That process becomes a lot easier as the text-to-speech services continue improving, btw, and I recommend we continue experimenting with skills and capabilities.

I'm guilty of adding to the clutter as I'm working on a skill for an audio version of my website. Amazon makes it sounds simple enough but I ran into a snag about 10 minutes into the process. I've run out of time today but I'm going to see if I can troubleshoot and take my skill live soon. I encourage you to do the same; even if your new Alexa skill isn't a game-changer, it's important to immerse yourself in the process and stay on top of this important platform.


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.