Five Audiobooks Generating Buzz

Monday, July 25th, 2016

The Wall Street Journal discusses five audiobooks generating buzz, starting with A Game of Thrones:

The first book in Mr. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, read by British actor Roy Dotrice, has sold more than 100,000 audiobook copies this year, bringing total audio sales to more than 700,000 since its 2003 release, according to Penguin Random House Audio.

Amy Poehler’s Yes Please was among the five best-selling audiobooks of 2015 on both Audible and iBooks.

Celebrity memoirs — particularly ones by comedians — are audiobook gold, when narrated by the author.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina also made the list:

Audible and other audiobook producers have found success hiring A-list actors to narrate classics. The latest is “Anna Karenina,” read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Released on July 12, it immediately hit Audible’s best-seller list. “I feel like performing this novel is one of the major accomplishments of my work life — it was so challenging and so deep,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said, according to a description on Audible. Other pairings include Charles Dickens’s “The Chimes,” read by Richard Armitage, and Helen Mirren’s telling of “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots,” a rediscovered Beatrix Potter story to be released in September.

Oddly, those “other pairings” took some work to find in Amazon’s listings.

I wasn’t learning toward Anna Karenina but rather War and Peace, but I don’t know if I’m up for 61 hours of audio.

Rory Sutherland

Sunday, July 24th, 2016

Rory Sutherland is an ad man and entertaining raconteur:

7 Things Learned in Architecture School

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School includes these 7 nuggets of wisdom:

Be specific. “The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon a specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.”

Ideas can take away from or add to the essential idea. “When designing a stair, window, column, roof, lobby, elevator core, or any other aspect of a building, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the essential idea of the building.”

Throw away your best loved ideas. “A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea.”

The most important skill for a designer to develop. “Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.”

Think about how you think. “The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” This means you’re aware of how you’re structuring your thoughts while you’re thinking. You want to test ideas, challenge yourself, see if you understand the other side of the argument, criticizing, and redirecting your thought process.

Don’t make it too complex. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”

Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”

Waterstones is thriving

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

Waterstones, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, is thriving:

The company was £170 million (about $260 million) in debt and about to file for bankruptcy when, miraculously, it was rescued by the billionaire Alexander Mamut, a complicated, influential figure in Putin’s Russia who one British broadsheet dubbed “the most powerful oligarch you have never heard of.” Mamut had been talking to Daunt before the sale and immediately brought him aboard to right the ship. “He wanted to make a mark in the United Kingdom, where he had a house, educated his son, and this seemed a positive, beneficial thing worth saving,” Daunt said of Waterstones’ benefactor. “Other people buy football clubs, fund art galleries — this was his thing.”

Once at Waterstones, Daunt tore up the business plan. His first target was the so-called planogram, a kind of map that tells chain booksellers which new books go where, ensuring that each store assigns exactly the same prominence to exactly the same titles. The very best locations in the store are actually sold to publishers. This includes the so-called best-seller list, whose rankings are determined not by the popularity of a given book but by how much a publisher is willing to invest to promote it. (A similar policy of “bookstore baksheesh,” as one editor dubbed it, seems to exist at B&N.) In 2011, Waterstones earned around £30 million just for this kind of advertising, Daunt said. Considering that the company was hemorrhaging money when Daunt took it over, forfeiting this revenue stream seemed crazy, and it also offended many publishers. “By giving control back to the booksellers, we were telling the publishers, ‘We know what sells better than you.’ That’s never a pleasant message,” said Daunt. “There was extreme nervousness. But we had the advantage of being bankrupt. Crucially for us, Penguin said, ‘Sounds mad. But what are the options? So we’ll support you.’ ”

By freeing up the placement of books, Daunt was able to optimize the selection for each store based on the type of customers coming in. What sold in working-class Gateshead wasn’t the same thing that sold in affluent Kensington. In some stores, he would discount. In others, he wouldn’t. “This is sort of difficult for booksellers to get their heads around, but some of the customers actually don’t want a discount. There is a fair price for a book, I think,” he says, picking up a doorstop history by the likes of Ian Kershaw. “You’re investing a lot more than 25 quid in this. For most readers, that will probably take a good month of your life. Almost the least important thing is how much it costs.”

I remember Art DeVany making that same point years ago.

Next came the staff. Daunt shrunk Waterstones’ central office and fired half of the store managers. He gave those booksellers who remained almost complete autonomy over how to arrange their stores — from the windows to the signage to the display tables — but controlled the stock with a dictatorial zeal. Out went books you wouldn’t want to browse: reference, technical guides, legal textbooks. That — along with the real estate freed up by eliminating publisher-sponsored placements — allowed Daunt to grow the total number of titles in stores by about a quarter. With more books to browse, sales increased. The number of unsold books that were returned to publishers fell from about 20 percent before Daunt took over to just 4 percent today.

A leaner staff and more autonomy resulted in everyone working harder, but Daunt says the staff is curiously happier as a result. “You love being in a shop where people are busy,” he says. “It’s much better than being out the back, filling up boxes of returns and thinking your life is a drudgery of doing pointless administrative tasks for some nameless bureaucracy of a head office who you despise because they just dump innumerable amounts of crap books on you.” As is probably clear, Daunt still has an indie bookseller’s contempt for the big chains, even though he now runs one of them. Of Barnes & Noble, which appears more and more like a cross between an airport gift shop and a toy store, he said, “My faculties just shut down when I go in there.”

For a CEO, Daunt is refreshingly impolitic. He has called Amazon a “ruthless money-making devil” and has relished the recent resurgence of print and the plateauing of e-books. He stocked Kindles in his store up until earlier this year, when he pulled them, gleefully, citing “pitiful” sales. The revival of print, and of Waterstones, confirms in a way Daunt’s worldview. “Do not underestimate the pleasures of reading,” he said last year. “The satisfactions of the book, in the age of social media and proliferating cultural choices, are very singular.”

Cerium-141

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

In 1945, Eastman Kodak suddenly received a flood of complaints from business customers who had recently purchased sensitive X-ray film:

Black exposed spots on the film, or “fogging,” had rendered it unusable. This perplexed many Kodak scientists, who had gone to great lengths to prevent contaminations like this.

Julian H. Webb, a physicist in Kodak’s research department, took it upon himself to dig deeper and test the destroyed film.

[...]

According to an article Webb would write in 1949 for the American Physical Society, the paper and cardboard used for packaging in the ’40s were often salvaged from wartime manufacturing plants where radium-based instruments were also produced. Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that can cause flecks of spots or fogging when “in intimate contact with (sensitive film) for a period several weeks.” During wartime, Kodak took precautions to avoid radium contamination. It moved packaging manufacturing to mills where Kodak had full control over the raw materials.

One of these mills was located along the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana; it specialized in producing strawboard, used as a stiffener board between sheets of film. When Webb investigated the mysterious fogging in 1945, he found that it originated not from the X-ray film itself but the packaging, which he tracked to this particular mill, and specifically, the production run of strawboard from August 6, 1945. After testing the radioactive material on the strawboard, he discovered — rather alarmingly — that the spots on the film were not caused by radium nor any other naturally occurring radioactive material, but “a new type radioactive containment not hitherto encountered.” What was this unknown radioactive material, he must have wondered, and what was it doing in southwest Indiana?

[...]

While he was studying the Indiana samples, Webb got word that a particular production run of strawboard from a plant in Tama, Iowa was also contaminated and fogging the Kodak film it carried. While Tama was 450 miles from Vincennes, there were striking similarities. The two production runs of strawboard had been completed within a month of each other. Tama’s radioactive spots also failed the radium test, meaning the cause was something else. Most telling, however, was that both mills sat next to rivers, with Vincennes on the Wabash River and the Iowa River cutting through Tama.

Webb found that the strawboard from both mills had a significant concentration of beta-particle radiation activity but little to no alpha-activity. (Beta-particle radiation can penetrate paper, human skin and are sometimes considered dangerous. Alpha-particle radiation is stopped by paper, easily absorbed and generally considered safe if not ingested). Additionally, photographic evidence allowed Webb to estimate the half-life of the artificial radioactive material he was seeking at approximately 30 days. The results corresponded to the presence of an artificial radioactive material he would later identify as Cerium-141, which is “one of the more prolific fission products of the atom bomb.”

Furthermore, Webb concluded there was no possible way the straw could be the carrier of the containment, since it was stored in warehouses (and not outside) for a considerable amount of time prior to being used. Had the Cerium-141 gotten directly into the straw, it would have decayed by the time the straw was processed, rendering the radiation hardly detectable. This brought Webb to a frightening explanation: The contamination came from the river water. Additional evidence would fall in the rain. According to Webb, “stronger activity occurred in the strawboard” after periods of heavy precipitation, establishing that the radioactive material was being deposited via precipitation and came from a far-flung place.

While it is unclear whether Webb knew about the Trinity test when he was conducting his research in 1945, his report from 1949 is unabashedly clear: “The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.”

The problem came up again later:

On January 27, 1951, the first atomic detonation at the new Nevada Proving Ground took place. Days later and 2,500 miles away, a Geiger counter at Kodak’s headquarters in New York state measured radioactive readings 25 times above normal after a snowstorm. Declassified 1952 documents obtained by Popular Mechanics reveals that Kodak alerted the Atomic Energy Commission about this out of concern this testing would wreck its film just as had happened in 1945. The AEC responded that it would look into it, but assured Kodak there was little reason to worry, even allowing the company to issue a press release to the Associated Press stating that snow “that fell in Rochester was measurably radioactive…” but “there is no possibility of harm to humans and animals.”

In March 1951, a frustrated Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for the “considerable amount of damage to our products resulting from the Nevada tests or from any further atomic energy tests…” Finally the company and the government came to an agreement. The AEC would provide Webb, by now the head of Kodak’s physics division, with schedules and maps of future tests so that Kodak could take the necessary precautions to protect its product. In return, the people of Kodak were to keep everything they knew about the government’s Nevada nuclear testing a secret.

America’s Dying Shopping Malls Have Billions in Debt Coming Due

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

America’s dying shopping malls have billions in debt coming due:

About $47.5 billion of loans backed by retail properties are set to mature over the next 18 months, data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch show.

[...]

Green Street estimates that several hundred malls could shut down over the next decade, with properties reliant on Macy’s, JC Penney and Sears at the most risk. Sales at department stores, once the engines that powered shopping centers across the U.S., have declined almost 20 percent since 2006, according to the firm. About 800 department stores would need to shut down to restore balance between sales and profitability, Green Street said in an April report.

Larry Page’s Secret Flying Car Factories

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

We were promised flying cars, and Larry Page is funding two companies to make that promise come true:

The Zee.Aero headquarters, located at 2700?Broderick Way, is a 30,000-square-foot, two-story white building with an ugly, blocky design and an industrial feel. Page initially restricted the Zee.Aero crew to the first floor, retaining the second floor for a man cave worthy of a multibillionaire: bedroom, bathroom, expensive paintings, a treadmill-like climbing wall, and one of SpaceX’s first rocket engines—a gift from his pal Musk. As part of the secrecy, Zee.Aero employees didn’t refer to Page by name; he was known as GUS, the guy upstairs. Soon enough, they needed the upstairs space, too, and engineers looked on in awe as GUS’s paintings, exercise gear, and rocket engine were hauled away.

Zee.Aero now employs close to 150 people. Its operations have expanded to an airport hangar in Hollister, about a 70-minute drive south from Mountain View, where a pair of prototype aircraft takes regular test flights. The company also has a manufacturing facility on NASA’s Ames Research Center campus at the edge of Mountain View. Page has spent more than $100 million on Zee.Aero, say two of the people familiar with the company, and he’s not done yet. Last year a second Page-backed flying-car startup, Kitty Hawk, began operations and registered its headquarters to a two-story office building on the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac about a half-mile away from Zee’s offices. Kitty Hawk’s staffers, sequestered from the Zee.Aero team, are working on a competing design. Its president, according to 2015 business filings, was Sebastian Thrun, th­e godfather of Google’s self-driving car program and the founder of research division Google?X. Page and Google declined to speak about Zee.Aero or Kitty Hawk, as did Thrun.

AmazonBasics

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Amazon is using insights from its store to build a private-label juggernaut that now includes more than 3,000 products — from apparel to laptop stands:

At first, AmazonBasics — launched in 2009 — focused on batteries, recordable DVDs and such. Then for several years, the house brand “slept quietly as it retained data about other sellers’ successes,” according to the report. But in the past couple of years, AmazonBasics has stepped up the pace, rolling out a range of products that seem perfectly tailored to customer demand.

“When we saw AmazonBasics products as bestsellers in several categories, our stomachs dropped and [we] started thinking, ‘we need to learn from them,”’ the report’s authors said. AmazonBasics now has more than 900 products, including 284 launched last year alone, according to Skubana.

[...]

Initially, Amazon partnered with traditional chains such as Gap, Nordstrom and Eddie Bauer but retailers decided to pursue their own Web stores. Now, a shopper searching Amazon for a “women’s v-neck sweater” will find a black cashmere number from Lark & Ro, which also sells dresses and swimwear.

Lark & Ro is one of seven apparel brands trademarked by Amazon. Besides women’s clothes, the company also sells men’s dress shoes from Franklin & Freeman and suits from Franklin Tailored. Scout + Ro makes kids’ clothes. Altogether, Amazon’s apparel brands sell 1,800-plus products, according to Edward Yruma, a retail analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets.

While Amazon’s apparel brands remain relatively obscure, the online behemoth has a huge advantage over better-known labels. Shoppers increasingly start on Amazon.com to search for products, bypassing Google and traditional chains’ websites. In a survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers conducted by digital marketing firm BloomReach, 44 percent said they go directly to Amazon.

So not only can Amazon track what shoppers are buying; it can also tell what merchandise they’re searching for but can’t find, says Rachel Greer, who worked on the private label team until 2014. Then, she says, “Amazon can just make it themselves.”

Old Music Outsold New Music

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

The simultaneous advent of streaming music and the vinyl renaissance has led to some very interesting recording industry statistics over the past few months:

Last month, the RIAA reported that vinyl revenues outpaced sales from streaming services, despite actual streams vastly outnumbering physical vinyl sold. Now, Nielsen has released data revealing that, for the first time ever, old music (the “catalog,” defined as music more than 18 months old) outsold new releases in 2015.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who also notes this factoid: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the third-best-selling vinyl record of 2015.

The Munger Operating System

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

In 2007, Charlie Munger gave the commencement address at USC Law School and effectively spelled out the Munger Operating System:

  • To get what you want, deserve what you want. Trust, success, and admiration are earned.
  • Learn to love and admire the right people, live or dead.
  • Acquiring wisdom is a moral duty as well as a practical one.
  • Learn to fluency the big multidisciplinary ideas of the world and use them regularly.
  • Learn to think through problems backwards as well as forward.
  • Be reliable. Unreliability can cancel out the other virtues.
  • Avoid intense ideologies. Always consider the other side as carefully as your own.
  • Get rid of self-serving bias, envy, resentment, and self-pity.
  • At the same time, allow for the self-serving bias in others who haven’t removed it.
  • Avoid being part of a system with perverse incentives.
  • Work with and under people you admire, and avoid the inverse when at all possible.
  • Learn to maintain your objectivity, especially when it’s hardest.
  • Concentrate experience and power into the hands of the right people – the wise learning machines.
  • You’ll be most successful where you’re most intensely interested.
  • Learn the all-important concept of assiduity: Sit down and do it until it’s done.
  • Use setbacks in life as an opportunity to become a bigger and better person. Don’t wallow.
  • The highest reach of civilization is a seamless system of trust among all parties concerned.

The Tim Ferriss Effect

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Ryan Holiday discusses the “Tim Ferriss Effect”:

In publishing circles, something called the “Tim Ferriss Effect” has been known for some time. The concept refers to the power of a single author and his blog to drive the sales — in some cases in the tens of thousands — for books he chooses to recommend to his army of fans. I, myself, happen to have been a beneficiary of this effect on a number of occasions. In fact, I felt it before I was even an author. A simple article I wrote on Tim’s site in 2009 prompted the first inquiry I ever received from a book publisher.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the decline of what most people used to refer to as “blogs.” Most companies have shut down their blogs, some popular bloggers have closed up shop. But somehow, the Tim Ferriss Effect not only still exists — it’s become something bigger than I think anyone could have imagined.

I’m not an impartial observer of this phenomenon. Tim is someone I have worked with and a friend (he’s even published my books — one of which he turned into a runaway hit that changed my life and another one on the way soon). Even so, I’ve been continually shocked with his ability to predict trends and master new technologies. Many of us have friends that start podcasts — not very often do those shows turn around and do 70 million downloads. Plenty of us agree to appear on our friends’ podcasts — what’s unusual is recording the episode and then getting emails from NFL coaches, A-list actors and multi-platinum music titans because they “heard you on the podcast recently.” As one of the first guests on The Tim Ferriss Show, it’s been strange and humbling to watch myself get utterly eclipsed by every subsequent guest over the last two years — from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sophia Amoruso to Jamie Foxx — and listen to each one, riveted, just like every other fan.

It’s like being friends with Oprah from when she had a small morning show in Chicago. And that’s really what Tim’s podcast has become. He’s the Oprah of Audio. Is there a more fitting moniker for someone whose show can sell 50,000 copies of a book or drive a product out of stock at Whole Foods nationwide? I don’t think so.

Which is why I wanted to interview Tim to get him to explain how exactly the hell this all happened. How does one create one of the biggest podcasts in the world with essentially no advertising or promotion? How does one expertly interview huge stars, introverted authors and enigmatic artists with compelling ease? How does one build a potential $2-4M a year business — as he recently described it in an article — but decide not to fully monetize it because he doesn’t want to exploit his fans?

I had so many questions and thankfully, he had plenty of answers.

Why are you excited about podcasts? Are they the future of media?

I love podcasting because it’s a mass-audience format that offers 100 percent creative control with low production cost. My last few books and TV show were created alongside a lot of committees and corporate complexity, which exhausted me. This is a return to basics — focus on content, period. No internal debates, no design by consensus, none of that. The CPMs ($20-80 CPM) and rewards for experimenting have also never been greater.

Politics-ridden publisher models are antiquated and reflect an old paradigm of pushing content via distribution oligopolies (e.g. the first 20 feet of a retailer effectively being owned by Coca-Cola, Simon & Schuster, etc.). I know startups that have had to sell to larger companies simply to increase distribution footprint. In podcasting, it’s totally different: you pull people into your content. The quality attracts audience, SEO, and more audience; this is a sharp contrast to distribution forcing audiences to consume only a handful of options (e.g. old network TV).

Starting around 2008, I began experiencing the power of podcasts as a guest. People like Joe Rogan, Marc Maron, and Chris Hardwick (Nerdist) produced ripple effects that blew my mind. This inspired me to try it myself on the other side of the table.

I think podcasting — or audio more broadly — is one element in the future of media. Unlike video or print, audio is a natural secondary activity. Audio can be consumed while you commute, cook, exercise, walk the dog, etc. The more smart phones and broadband blanket the globe, the more powerful audio will become.

Last but not least, good long-form content will be around forever, so it’s part of the future. Despite the masses of people trying to emulate BuzzFeed, and despite the chorus of “long-form content is dead” or “long-form content can’t be monetized,” I see exactly the opposite. The Kindle has made it possible for people to impulsively buy two to 10 times the number of books they did in 2000. My techie friends in SF and NYC binge watch hour-long TV series on Netflix more than ever.

Long-form content isn’t dead; it’s simply uncrowded and neglected. I double down when formats are out of favor.

You’ve said you started your show as a six episode experiment with Kevin Rose, but clearly it’s grown into something much bigger than that. What do you see it becoming now that you’re on the verge of hitting 100M downloads?

I’d like it to become a clearinghouse for thought leaders who want to go deep, or set the record straight, or leave an interview they’d want their kids to remember them by. Sadly, two-minute TV interviews and other sound-bite media just don’t allow smart people to be smart.

I want to showcase intelligence and record a legacy-worthy interview. In brief, this is the response that I’d love every guest to have:

For guest selection, I’ll continue to mix super celebrities (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Edward Norton) with world-class experts who don’t normally do interviews (e.g. Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, master interviewer Cal Fussman, tech investor/founder Naval Ravikant).

From an audience perspective, I’d like The Tim Ferriss Show to become the default “second activity” for many tens of millions. I want a few months of listening to my podcast during commutes, cooking, dog walking, etc. to trump a full-time year at any MBA program in the country.

One of things that I think has driven quality in the podcast market is that they’re listened to by subscribers. Most blog posts are competing on social media for attention, whereas podcast episodes are about delivering value to loyal listeners. You seem to have doubled down on podcasts as well as on email as a way to communicate with your army of fans, why was that? How has it worked?

E-mail and the podcast are my two highest priorities at the moment, and they work in tandem. Let’s touch on e-mail first.

Unlike, say, Facebook or Twitter, I own this communication directly and it’s less subject to the whims of algorithm changes (e.g. “Oops! Now you only reach 20 percent of your audience.”). Some people insist that email is dead for younger generations, and they’re right… until those young people get jobs. E-mail will stick around for a while, despite our attempts to kill it. It’s still the most reliable broadcast delivery mechanism.

The podcast, much like e-mail, is a free subscription. Although people can choose to listen a la carte, the subscription is most desireable.

At the risk of stating the obvious: subscribers subscribe to things as a habit. I use the podcast to promote my newsletter (specifically, 5-Bullet Friday) and I use email to increase the podcast listenership. The goal is subscription in both cases, but I’m not adding a new behavior. This has a much lower CPA than shotgunning on Twitter, for instance.

This pairing of email and podcast has been a revelation. The podcast is already typically a top-25 podcast on iTunes overall, and I expect to double its size in the next six to 12 months. Having a fast-growing alternate subscription (5-Bullet Friday) is critical to this. It’s 100% necessary but not sufficient. PR, paid acquisition, and many other elements round out the execution. Some (e.g. paid acquisition) are directly useful for audience growth, whereas others (e.g. PR features in name-brand outlets) is a powerful indirect contributor that makes high-profile guest recruitment easier.

At the same time, something that folks like Gretchen Rubin and others have pointed out, it’s hard for a one hour audio file in iTunes to go viral or get shared the way a blog post can. How have you managed to promote and grow your show so quickly given that reality?

Longer shows can absolutely go viral. We just need to define terms and ask a few additional questions. It’s easy to chase “viral” without stopping to ask: What is the goal? What are we measuring? Why do those metrics matter?

For instance — What communities, demographics, or psychographics are you targeting, and what is the measurable objective? For me, it’ll be specific for each episode or post. Hypothetically: I want evergreen content that will hit 1,000,000 downloads by X date, spread like wildfire in the spec-ops communities (because I have future goals involving that world), and continue to get at least 100,000 downloads a week for 3 months. I can look at historical data and reverse engineer an outcome like this.

If you’re chasing the phantom of “favorites” or “shares,” etc., it might impress a boss who loves vanity metrics, but I personally track fan acquisition in new verticals, predictable revenue (MRR) growth, and a few other things that move needles I care about.

The virality profile — or kinetics of contagion — are different for long-form content than for a 60-second YouTube video or 300-word “11 reasons your dog hates you”-type list. As with real viruses like influenza and ebola, the onset, duration, means of transmission, persistence, etc. vary widely.

For long-form examples, look at Serial, or even my episodes with relative non-celebs (compared to, say, Edward Norton) like Seth Godin and Derek Sivers. These shows take longer to initially spread, as they rely on 90- to 180-minute content versus 30 seconds or name recognition, but they have far greater permanence than the shorter content, in my experience.

Spread can be increased by creating assets like extensive show notes with links, highlighting short audio sections via Overcast for rushed people (see “If you only have a few minutes…” here), and crafting related blog posts that link to multiple episodes (e.g. The Unusual Books That Shaped Billionaires, Mega-Bestselling Authors, and Other Prodigies). I have perhaps a dozen more tricks that enhance “transmission” of long-form viruses.

Keep in mind that I’ve tried very short content. My “how to peel hard-boiled eggs without peeling them” YouTube video has 7M+ views, and it’s far less valuable to me than a good, in-depth podcast with even 500,000 listens. The former is a drive-by viewing; you’re one more shout in the noise. The latter can turn casual listeners into long-term listeners and devotees. I can’t out BuzzFeed BuzzFeed, and that would be the wrong goal for me.

Mass “virality” is overrated for a minimalist outfit like mine. Would you rather have 100,000 people in the US, selected at random, consume your content once and know your name, or the entire audience at TED and Davos listen to your podcast at least once a month? I’ll take the latter every time.

When in doubt, read Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” and niche down. If you want to be widely known later, focus narrowly first.

Even though episodes might have trouble spreading, some of these bigger shows like yours have the power to send an immense amount of traffic or interest to a guest or a product. What’s been the most powerful example of that on your show? Have you seen the “Tim Ferriss Effect” work in audio as well as it has on your blog?

It’s exceeded all expectations. I didn’t expect audio to be as powerful as it is. Text, after all, has plenty of direct links. And no one will listen to a 2-3-hour podcast, right? Well, let’s consider some history.

The “Tim Ferriss Effect” from the blog (it can outsell CNN TV spotlights, major op-eds, etc.) took a long time to establish, perhaps 4-5 years.

The podcast hit the “sell out” impact in less than 12 months. Just a few example that come to mind: It has helped launch a book to #1 New York Times bestseller (e.g. SEAL Jocko Willink episode), it can outsell full-page features and ads in the NYT or Esquire (e.g. sponsor Mizzen+Main), it can take used book prices to nearly $1,000 on Amazon (e.g. billionaire Chris Sacca episode), and — my fave hilarious example — my episode with Dom D’Agostino sold out Wild Planet sardines in Whole Foods around the country (one typical tweet). This is fun for guests, too. One A-list actor told me the impact matched a big studio movie launch. Eric Weinstein, a well-known Silicon Valley mathematician-investor, mentioned his favorite movie was Kung-Fu Panda in our conversation, and the writer reached out to him that same week on Twitter. It’s wild.

My theory is that more media — and busy people, in general — listen to the podcast as a second activity (e.g. during commutes) than would consume my usual five- to 20-page blog posts. It’s a blast to see text pieces in the NYT and WSJ that mention the podcast and its guests, or to get contacted by CNN after an episode on psychedelic research, which turned (in that case) into a huge nationwide TV segment, which then helped me fuel research at Johns Hopkins.

As a follower of your site, I notice you tend to write less now. You’ve done short episodes that I imagine in the past would have been blog posts. Do you think podcasts are a replacement for blogs?

No, I think they’re complementary. Either can lead to the other. These days, I’m writing fewer posts but ensuring they’re comprehensive (e.g. my “startup vacation” post, podcast business post), which gives them evergreen staying power. I’m focusing on audio largely because I’m enjoying it and fans are asking for more.

One of the things that struck me after appearing on your show was the people I heard from. It wasn’t so much the quantity — though it was a lot — but much more the quality. I heard from NFL coaches, managers for some of the world’s biggest bands, authors, even people I know really well but didn’t peg as podcast listeners talked to me about it. The only similar experience for me was when I did a big NPR show. Is it just that smart people listen to podcasts?

This happens to nearly every guest, and there could be a few explanations.

First, both NPR and I take our time. I don’t dumb things down, and I go as long and as deep as necessary to uncover good stories and tactics listeners can use. Smart content, which I try and create, attracts smart people.

Second, at least 50% of the celebs, power brokers, and experts who’ve appeared on the podcast were regular listeners of the podcast first. In other words, the type of people who appear on The Tim Ferriss Show also listen to it…just multiplied thousands of times over.

That begs the question — why? It was partly luck and partly by design. The 4-Hour Workweek first became popular among tech startup founders and investors in Silicon Valley and NYC, and they were the tipping point, sending it to #1 NY Times and keeping it on the NYT business bestseller list for more than 4 years straight, unbroken. These readers were also kind enough to rebroadcast my work into every imaginable industry and subculture. Subsequently, I realized this could be done deliberately in different worlds to create an interwoven network of thought leaders. If The 4-Hour Workweek immersed me primarily into the business and travel worlds, then the content of The 4-Hour Body spread me into the highest levels of sports, nutrition, and military (as they obsess over training). The 4-Hour Chef did the same for culinary, but also for media and publishing due to the buzz and controversy surrounding Amazon Publishing, the launch of which was announced in the NYT with the acquisition of my book.

This combination of good luck and planning has led me to the most incredible audience I’ve ever been exposed to. I learn 10x more from them each week than I put out.

Marc Maron and Simmons have both had Obama on. Who is your dream guest for the show? You’ve had some amazing ones, obviously, but if you could get anyone on the show, who would it be?

This one is easy — Oprah.

I’ve followed her since high school, and she’s been a force for good for decades. She’s stayed that course, even when it’s been incredibly difficult. Not many people can walk that walk when their feet are to the fire.

To have tea with her and really connect would be a dream come true.

I’m not in a rush to pitch her, and I’m happy to let the universe decide timing, but it could happen. I’ve been fortunate to interview some wonderful people who know her, including Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, and others.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone asking themselves: “Should I start a podcast?” what would it be?

Do it, but commit to doing SIX episodes.

Even if they’re short and you never publish them, this volume is enough to learn lessons that transfer elsewhere else. It’s a minimalist experiment for improving overall thinking: improving your ability to ask questions, fixing verbal tics (e.g. “ummm” “ahhhh”), getting better at listening without interrupting, learning to sit with silence until someone else continues, etc. Even if your format isn’t interviewing, perhaps like Hardcore History (my fave), you’ll improve your ability to craft good narratives, tell stories, and be a better human. We are hardwired to be story-telling and question-asking machines; you might as well be good at it.

One to two episodes isn’t enough to hit the hockey stick in the learning curve, so commit to six.

Just be forewarned: you’ll likely hate listening to yourself. I was mortified. I’m very insecure about my own voice, but over a few episodes, you learn to curse, exhale, smile, and say “What the hell…let’s try it again.” This is what we want — by facing your own rough edges, you polish them or eventually accept them.

Rule No. 1: Relax. No one’s going to die. Just get a little better each time.

Rule No. 2: Keep it simple. This applies to format, gear, editing, everything. Constantly ask yourself “What would this look like if it were easy?”

Rule No. 3: Be yourself — weirdness, warts, and all. In podcasting, this is a huge competitive advantage… and a huge relief. Have fun with it.

Kay’s Other People’s Money

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

John Kay’s Other People’s Money argues that the growth in the size of the financial system hasn’t been matched by improvements in the allocation of capital:

He proposes that financial services are not as profitable as some headline numbers would suggest. And he suggests that the replacement of those who are good at meeting clients on the 19th hole with those who were good at solving complex mathematical problems was not always a good thing — sometimes clever people are the problem, particularly in a complex environment.

On that last point:

The organisational sociologist Charles Perrow has studied the robustness and resilience of engineering systems in different contexts, such as nuclear power stations and marine accidents. Robustness and resilience require that individual components of the system are designed to high standards.… More significantly, resilience of individual components is not always necessary, and never sufficient, to achieve system stability. Failures in complex systems are inevitable, and no one can ever be confident of anticipating the full variety of interactions that will be involved.

Engineers responsible for interactively complex systems have learned that stability and resilience requires conscious and systematic simplification, modularity, which enables failures to be contained, and redundancy, which allows failed elements to be by-passed. None of these features — simplification, modularity, redundancy — characterised the financial system as it had developed in 2008. On the contrary, financialisation had greatly increased complexity, interaction and interdependence. Redundancy — as, for example, in holding capital above the regulatory minimum — was everywhere regarded as an indicator of inefficiency, not of strength.

The Last Days of Target Canada

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Target Canada failed big:

Roughly two years from that date, Target Canada filed for creditor protection, marking the end of its first international foray and one of the most confounding sagas in Canadian corporate history. The debacle cost the parent company billions of dollars, sullied its reputation and put roughly 17,600 people out of work. Target’s arrival was highly anticipated by consumers and feared by rival retailers. The chain, whose roots stretch back to 1902, had perfected its retail strategy and grown into a US$70-billion titan in its home country. Target was a careful, analytical and efficient organization with a highly admired corporate culture. The corporation’s entry into Canada was uncharacteristically bold—not just for Target, but for any retailer. Under Steinhafel, the company paid $1.8 billion for the leases to the entire Zellers chain in 2011 and formulated a plan to open 124 locations by the end of 2013. Not only that, but the chain expected to be profitable within its first year of operations.

(Hat tip to David Foster.)

Lawyers and Salesmen

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

One of the things the Z Man has learned in life is that the salesmen for a company will be the most honest with you about their company:

That’s not to imply that salesmen are all honest in their sales pitch. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about life inside the company. Ask a sales guy, who is not selling you something, about his boss and his co-workers and he’ll usually give you the unvarnished truth. Often, they are the guys who know the flaws best, because they have to work around them to make deals.

That’s the thing with sales people.  They work for themselves, even though they take a salary and are employees. Some portion of their pay, maybe the bulk of it, is derived from their performance as a salesman. All sales people have quotas and have to produce. Otherwise, they get fired. There’s no hiding in the bureaucracy for them. That means self-deception is not of any use to them. They have to know the defects of their firm and its products in order to mitigate them in front of clients.

The weird thing about salesmen is they never assume they are the cleverest guy in the room. Paranoia is a healthy trait in sales, as there are a million little things that can scuttle a deal. Working from the assumption that there could very well be someone in the room who knows something you don’t is a good way to avoid surprises. You ask more questions and you listen better. If you’re walking around thinking you are Wile E. Coyote, a safe could fall on your head.

I used to fish with a guy who made his living selling cars. He got into it as a way to pay for college. He would sell cars on the weekend and at night, while going to school during the day. When he finished college, he found that he could make a better living selling cars than anything else so he kept selling cars. Eventually he settled into selling BMW’s and Mercedes. He was able to make a nice, middle-class living at it, without too much stress.

Making small talk one day I mentioned something about lawyers and he laughed and told me that lawyers are his best clients, followed by stock brokers. I naturally assumed it was because they made a lot of money and had expensive tastes. That was not it at all. He told me that overselling a lawyer was one of the easiest things to do in car sales. They walk around thinking they know everything and so they fall for every car sales trick in the book.

So, where’s he going with this?

I’ve been thinking about this watching the political ructions. Donald Trump is a salesman and a very good one so he is doing extremely well as a novice politician, because politics is about sales. His competitors are mostly lawyers, who never took him seriously, because they are lawyers and smart. Everyone knows this so surely the smart lawyers will have no problem with the sales guy and his cheap theatrics.

The commentariat is similarly full of lawyers and people who went to law school.

[...]

Now, the guys in the sales department have a different experience. They also have high verbal skills, but they spend their days losing many more deals than they win. They face the reality of their limitations every day. They also know that if they don’t sell, they don’t eat. There’s no failing up in their business. It’s why the sales guys can feast on lawyers. They have no illusions about themselves.

It’s another reason to wonder if the recipe for the managerial state contains ingredients that poison the stew. Failing up is a feature of the managerial class. They go from one failure to the next, rarely ever answering for their blunders. The economic team that advised Obama on the stimulus, for example, landed cushy positions in the academy. Tim Geithner is making millions influence peddling for Wall Street. This despite being 100% wrong about in their predictions.

A system based on mediocrities walking around convinced they are the smartest people in the room will inevitably become unstable.

Take the First Fall

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

When was the last time your feedback improved someone else’s life?

The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot. Even when we’re well-intentioned, the message gets lost in the transmission. It’s like the old saying “What counts is not what’s said, but what’s heard.” We respond emotionally to criticism, even if it’s just implied criticism. (Are you sure you still fit into that dress?) This makes it difficult to help others improve. In other words, we fail to understand and appreciate human nature.

According to Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp’s Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, there are three different kinds of feedback:

  • Appreciation
  • Advice
  • Evaluation

Their advice is not to mix the three:

  1. Express Appreciation to Motivate
  2. Offer Advice to Improve Performance
  3. Evaluate Only When Needed
  4. Take the First Fall