Tag Archives: Words
The most powerful threat to greatness isn’t evil. It’s mediocrity.
Of all the colorful ways to articulate that truth, one of the best is what Elon Musk told Chris Anderson of Wired magazine, back in 2012.
They were talking about Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX, which grew out of Musk’s “crazy idea to spur the national will” to travel to Mars–by first sending a private rocket to the red planet.
He tried to to slash the cost of his quixotic dream by buying Cold War Russian missiles to turn into interplanetary rockets. While negotiating that deal, he realized that it wasn’t lack of “national will” that held the U.S. back from exploring space.
Instead, it was a lack of affordable technology–and the high cost, he told Anderson, was the result of some “pretty silly things” in the aerospace industry, like using legacy rocket technology from the 1960s.
Anderson: I’ve heard that the attitude is essentially that you can’t fly a component that hasn’t already flown.
Musk: Right, which is obviously a catch-22, right? There should be a Groucho Marx joke about that. So, yeah, there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.
That’s the quote that I liked so much, especially those last six words: a “bias against risk,” because everyone is “trying to optimize their ass-covering.”
It’s funny–but also poignant. And, of course, it applies to a lot more than space exploration.
It applies to the vast majority of successful companies that get stuck producing legacy products–because they can’t risk that innovation might upset their own profit models.
It applies to the service providers that make a mockery of the word “service” (say for example, big airlines and utility companies)–because cost-cutting with crappy service maximizes shareholder value.
It applies also to temptations in our personal lives, and in the lives of those around us.
Think of the colleagues you know who hold onto uninspiring jobs for fear of going after the careers or entrepreneurial dreams they really want.
Or think of the friend you might have (I think most of us do), who stays in a lousy relationship because he or she is more afraid of being alone than of living with less than they deserve.
We’re all a little bit afraid of risk. Yet, each day represents a new chance and a new beginning. At the start of the year, that sense is especially acute.
And sometimes we need a little inspiration to take the leap.
Whatever is the thing you’re afraid of trying–a new business, a new adventure, a new relationship–maybe now is the time to give it a try.
Cast aside your risk aversion. Be uncomfortable for a while as you try something new. Accept the chance that you’ll fail.
Don’t optimize your ass-covering. Instead, optimize your opportunities. And find your own mission to Mars.
Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I’m writing this in a hotel room.
But that’s only because I’ve stayed at this hotel for more than 20 years and I’m a sentimental fool.
Oh, and I once had an indifferent Airbnb experience here in Miami. And the price difference between my hotel and the local Airbnb’s is negligible.
Usually when I’m booking a trip, I look at Airbnb first these days.
I’ve now had many good experiences, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Indeed, I’ve had truly wonderful Airbnb hosts — and apartments — in Oslo and Lisbon, especially — that made me never want to stay in a hotel again.
This doesn’t worry Airbnb CEO Arne Sorenson.
I know this because he told the New York Times’s delightful Ron Lieber that he’s never even tried Airbnb.
In my naïveté, I’d always thought that one of the principal jobs of a CEO was not just to know your competition, but to get your hands on its product.
Yet Sorensen explained that “his daughter has [tried Airbnb]. She told him he had nothing to worry about.”
What a relief.
Whenever I wonder about a product, all I do is ask one of my Starbucks baristas. If they don’t like it, I know it’s no good.
Sorenson, though, expanded his views on Airbnb: “They were the toughest competition when they were offering a true sharing-economy product. The more they get to offering dedicated units, which they’ve done as they’ve grown, the more they look like the competition we’ve faced for decades.”
However confident you might feel, the reek of complacency can incite the flames of arrogance.
It’s true that Airbnb has strategic challenges.
It may be that ultimately it becomes something different from its current persona.
What it surely does have, though, is millions of users who have been only too happy to get away from the disturbingly inflated pricing and the nauseating nickel-and-diming of too many hotel groups. (Hey, don’t you just love resort fees? In New York.)
These Airbnb users now have an emotional relationship with the brand. Yes, just as they might have once had with certain hotel brands.
I used to seek out the W Hotels (now owned by Marriott) in cities. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in one.
Airbnb guests are still prepared to forgive its occasional errors, partly because, as they travel the world, they find hosts becoming friends and apartment life becoming far more enjoyable.
Even if they have to make their own beds.
On my last stay in Lisbon, we had a gorgeous 800 square foot apartment in the middle of the city that was one-third of the price of nearby hotel rooms.
Still, some people at Marriott have apparently tried Airbnb.
The company’s global brand officer Tina Edmundson told Lieber that it was “OK” and “fine.”
I know that when my girlfriend tells me something is fine, it means it’s anything from dull to disgusting, depending on her precise intonation.
Edmundson expanded on her thoughts by admitting that “her standards might be particularly high.”
Or snooty, you might fear. Or just a touch OCD.
“I like the notion that someone professional has been in and cleaned it,” she told Lieber.
Coincidentally, here’s a disturbing headline I just read: “COURTYARD MARRIOTT. YOUR BEDS REALLY BUG ME …Allegedly Bitten Guest Sues.”
Here’s another one along the same lines.
Marriott isn’t, of course, the only hotel group to be subjected to such issues. Even Airbnb isn’t immune.
The point, though, is a simple one.
A new competitor comes along. It’s doing something different. People have warmed to it. Learn from that by really getting to know it and why people love it.
New competitors can be easy to dismiss. Ask then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Yes, that iPhone thing was a real joke.
Imagine what Microsoft shareholders and employees thought about those words a few years later.
Imagine, too, what Marriott — and newly-acquired Starwood — customers might think of Sorenson’s, um, (over?)confidence.
If you’re the boss, it’s incumbent upon you to experience, not just read or hear about, your competitor’s offering.
You never know what you might discover.
Humility, for example.