"We Didn't Do Anything Wrong, But Somehow, We Lost"

Sep 03, 2020

Optimizing for not failing is very different from playing to win.

Tech is becoming more and more competitive, and that means companies and teams have to do everything right.

Doing everything right includes knowing when to do things your own way and do better than best practices.


– Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, 2013

During Elop’s tenure, Nokia’s stock price dropped 62%, their mobile phone market share was halved, their smartphone market share fell from 33% to 3%, and the company suffered a cumulative €4.9 billion loss.

Best intentions. Doing everything right. Every decision optimized locally.

It’s tempting to follow the wisdom of the E Myth and make sure we’re always working “on the business” instead of “for the business.”

Why do the work when we can build teams that do the work? Within that team: why should we do the work when we can build platforms that abstractly do the work for the customers?


I’m not advocating for holocracy or an extreme case of market-based management. What I’m saying is, you have to do everything right, and that includes knowing where best practices are working not for you but against you.

Building abstractions does not absolve you from being customer obsessed. Platforms are just a means to an end - that end is over-deliving for your customers and cementing your lead at pole position in the market.

Without an obsession for customers, platforms are just a pernicious abstraction that you and your team will focus on while your competitors continue doing things that might not initially scale as well in the beginning, but will pay dividends when they’re the market leader.

Worse, you won’t have one problem but two: internally, everybody is doing the right thing. Everybody is talking about the value of their contribution, but globally, you’re lost in a bewildering array of microservices and alphabet soup where somehow everybody is up for internal promotion, but your market position is flat and/or trending downward.

Most of us know these Sirens:

We have to re-write everything in React.

Only to spend 2 years understanding that it’s just faster to render something in plain HTML with some jQuery sprinkled in.

We can’t use tables anymore. In fact, we have to create a design system and style guide.

Only to realize customers don’t Open Web Inspector.

We can’t just solve problems, we have to build systems that solve problems.

Only to get surpassed by companies that selflessly focus on their customer so they build the right system.

Our values are: honesty, do the right thing, innovate, be candid.

Are there any companies who advocate the opposite? You don’t have to be Claude Shannon to realize this contains exactly 0 bits of information.

I have nothing against React, div tags, or Radford. I think they’re all great. They’re just all examples where the ostensible benefit is obvious, but the costs present as feedback loops. Situations where you can easily measure the benefits up front, but the costs are hard to measure.

But if the unknown unknowns aren’t keeping you up at night, you might not be paranoid enough.

Doing it right is table stakes. That’s good for the customer.

When you compete at these upper echelons, doing “everything right” is table stakes. Everybody has the best advisors and talks to the winners from the previous generations. It becomes competitive, and ultimately that’s good for the customer. People loved to complain about VC-subsidized sharing services while tweeting from an UberXL.

Love Disruption, but also: Meet Thy Nemesis

We extol the virtues of disruption. Fintech. Insurtech. Agtech. We love the portmanteau and we love the multiples that tech companies get, both public and private.

But just like those who held the throne before you, you probably won’t get a warning message about the new new thing.

When a competitor shows up, it won’t be branded as fin-tech-tech. It’ll just be a competitor with one tenth the funding but 10x the customer obsession.

If you want excess returns, if you want to beat the averages day in and day out, you have to have an institutional mandate for doing things your way. And it’s up to you to think about what your way is. And that’s really hard to get right.

If you just want to keep up with your peers, invest in admiral shares and go spend the rest of the quarter on a beach somewhere.