The ‘Add an S’ Heuristic. (Last Mover Advantage)

My Mom has an incredibly vast vocabulary.

I love doing things with my Mom.

Naturally, these collisions of interest led us both to the game of Scrabble. As a kid, I’d find moments to fit in games, usually a matchup of titans that also included my younger brother.

My Mom would always play very unique, impressive words with solid point values. Quorum comes to mind. Her words would often draw ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from my brother and me for their creativity. Her strategy was to win through sheer mastery of the English language.

I had a different approach.

There was only one letter that I wanted to find after reaching into that noisy pile of little wood tiles: the S.

I’d stockpile these nuclear weapons in my war-chest and wait for just the right spot in the board to appear. Maybe Mom placed Quorum right before a triple word, which just so happened to line up with the tail end of my brothers Zit.

My fingers quivered with anticipation the moment before I’d expose the dream killer.

I’d swiftly slam down the single point SI’d confidently relay the number to my brother, our official game accountant so that he could add it to the overall tally.

‘That one is worth 81.”

My deflated counterpoints demanded we consult the Scrabble Elders to assess the legality of this seemingly unjust manipulation. Too late.

To them this was unfair leapfrogging. To me, it was art.

Don’t build the board, fill gaps.

Some of the most successful technology companies have won using this ‘Add an S’ heuristic. For example:

Airbnb ‘S-ed’  Couchsurfing.

Facebook ‘S-ed’  Friendster.

Google ‘S-ed’  AltaVista.

Startups are not built to spend all their cash on customer education. They are supposed to spend it on customer acquisition. These two are easily conflated yet they are definitely not the same thing. For example, TiVo was a $200m customer education exercise that paved the way for millions of knockoff Time Warner DVRs to acquire all their (now wonderfully educated) customers.

I’m not arguing here that customer education is inherently evil. What I’m saying is that education is a strategy designed to eventually transition money from your customer’s wallet into yours (not someone else’s).

If you sell a product before anyone deeply feels the unmet need it solves, you’re unfortunately going to be spending a boatload of money making them feel said need. You’re going to be building the whole Scrabble board from scratch.

If you find that it is going to take too much time and money to incept your customers into acquiring a taste for your product, modify your offering.

In all likelihood someone bigger is waiting for you to do their R & D for them on your dime. Sure, if you move fast enough maybe they’ll acquire you instead, but ‘let’s cross our fingers and hope we get bought’ is not a strategy.

Instead, scale as if you need to become an actually functional business with a clear path to market saturation independent of acquisition scenarios. You can’t do that if you are spending all your time on heavy-handed customer education in the market you think you want in lieu of acquiring customers in a market that already want the thing you can make.

Uncover that stagnant industry that has not been Warby Parker-fied. Reconfigure an asset class that has not been Uberized. Attack that bloated sector that has not been SpaceX’d. Ask yourself what are the cleverest ways to solve an existing need 10x better on a dimension customers will still care about 10 years from now.

Find your gap, build your game piece, and look for opportunities to Add an S.


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Most startups should be tweets

As a creator, you should always aim to nudge the ideas you feel are valuable to others out into the world. This is the art of idea deployment. To do this well, you as the creator have to think carefully about which reality deployment channel your idea best fits into.

Would it be best presented as a scientific paper? A painting? A blog? A conversation? Perhaps the idea should manifest as a physical object. Maybe a diagram, or just a post on social media.

On very rare occasions, it may become apparent that the idea you’ve discovered can only be brought to life if a lot of smart people work really really hard on it for several years. This idea can’t be made truly real in a blog post alone.

That’s when you have to create an organization of people that also want this particular idea to exist in reality. That is when you create a startup. That’s the ONLY time you create a startup.

But right now, deep in the echo-chamber of startup-y madness land, a frightening thing is happening that’s worth calling attention to. Simply put, people are wasting their lives working on ‘startups’ that are better off as mere tweetsThey are all choosing the wrong channel to deploy their ideas.

Each top ten startup city is filling up with founder-clones building the next B2B VR drone AI bitcoin disruptor. They’re doing it because having a startup is great for their personal brand. Or because they see it as a way to earn fame. Even more likely, they don’t know why they’re doing it. They’re ‘why-less.’

Beyond the redundancy of ideas in the echo-chamber, most new ideas are incredibly thin. While it’s extremely helpful to be able to communicate a complex roadmap in a blog post, don’t mistake a trite blogpost for the roadmap itself. Startup ideas must go deep, down to core human drivers and raw economic arguments. They must stand up to ruthlessly candid feedback. They must include a non-BS reason that you’re one of the few people in the world that should be working on that problem.

A competitive advantage is not a clever sentence you toss in a slide deck the night before a pitch. A competitive advantage is a unique worldview only attainable through the past experiences you’ve had. A startup worthy of all your time and attention should be the crescendo of long bubbling social observation and excruciating self-awareness. The nature of a startup is hardcoded into it by the natural inclinations of the founder.

The requisite nuance and insight that produces great startups can’t fit in a tweet. You can certainly tell us what you’re working on in 140 characters, but that should be merely the first layer of a deep dive down into the deltas you see between actual reality and the way you want it to work.

So the next time you read a TechCrunch article and are met with a burst of inspiration to move to SF and reinvent the way the on-demand Pastrami economy operates, ask yourself if it’s really worth nuking 10 years of life in service of the idea. It may be wiser to pop off a quick tweet about the idea to let it get out of your system. The opportunity cost of spending time on things you don’t care about is far too high.


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