Innovation: Yeah, Maybe a Bit Overrated

“Crack cocaine […] was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.”

From an Aeon article by Andrew Russell, in which he argues that maintenance is more important than innovation. For the most part I think this is a pointless dichotomy, and Russell’s assertion that Clayton Christensen’s work has been “discredited” is bizarre (see Ben Thompson’s extension of disruption theory), but Russell does make a few good points. Such as the above-quoted one.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

People Who Shaped My Intellectual Growth

I came across Tracy-Gregory Gilmore’s list of people who have influenced him, and I found the idea really charming. Exposure to a few different people’s ideas has been incalculably valuable to me, and I want to publicly thank them in the same way Gilmore did.

These are people I consider “remote mentors” (a concept I wrote about in August, 2016). Two writers in particular have profoundly shaped how I see the world: Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex and Ben Thompson of Stratechery. Their names are repeated on the list below, but they deserve special recognition.

In chronological order:

  • Vladimir Nabokov, who penned the infamous novel Lolita, is my favorite author. That book in particular turned me onto postmodernism and moral complexity.
  • Ben Thompson of Stratechery is a business analyst who writes about the tech industry. Reading his articles got me interested in business and economics, and I learned a lot from his commentary on incentives and the structure(s) of markets.
  • Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex is… well, professionally he’s a psychiatrist, but online he’s sort of a cultural philosopher. His essays on identity, community, and politics have been very illuminating. Everything is virtue-signaling!
  • Venkatesh Rao, creator of Ribbonfarm and Breaking Smart, is a writer in a similar vein to Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. The label “cultural philosopher” once again feels like it fits. His area of expertise is breaking people’s mental models and then helping reconstruct them.
  • Meredith Patterson and Alice Maz are both programmers who wrote essays that helped me become more empathetic. Patterson wrote “Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy” and “When Nerds Collide”. Maz wrote “Splain it to Me”.
  • Adam Elkus and David Auerbach are two polymath scholars who incisively understand the meta-politics of the cyber age (which is only just dawning, I might add).
  • Lou Keep’s Uruk Series is a phenomenal tool for understanding modern discontent and the failure cases of social control systems. Start with the essay on Seeing Like a State and then skip to the essay on witch doctors.

Last updated 8/13/2018.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

The Entrepreneur’s Blindspot

I borrowed the title from something that business analyst Ben Thompson wrote about Dropbox in 2009. In that essay he said:

“[O]nce you’ve developed a product that meets your needs — and many products start out this way — how do you market it to a population that is not like you at all? […] And so it goes for all too many tech companies. Amazing technology is followed by lots of funding and backslapping in Silicon Valley, and far too few ‘normals’ from the rest of world.”

This phenomenon worries me. In fact, it’s the whole reason why I wrote Product Communication Basics — bootstrapping is particularly difficult because people who excel at building software don’t necessarily excel at marketing. Getting all those skills united in one or two people is difficult.

You build something cool. It solves your problem. You think it’ll solve other people’s problems too. But how do you communicate that? How do you convince them that you’re trustworthy and that you’ll deliver the value they need? Will they feel comfortable with the level of ongoing support that you’re able to offer, compared to larger competitors?

From the potential user’s perspective, buying from a small bootstrapping company is risky, especially if they’re going to rely on you for business-critical tools. I think the answer to this problem is bringing passion to the table, and explaining that your success hinges on their success. You have to take your users’ needs seriously, or you’re out of a job…


User lgray pointed out on Barnacles:

“This doesn’t really jive with how my business has come to be. For me, the hard part was finding the right problem to solve. I wanted a problem that:

  • Was clearly a problem.
  • Didn’t have any satisfying solutions yet.
  • Interfered with people’s businesses.

First point made the marketing really easy — all I had to do was tell people I had a solution to their problem. I didn’t need to convince anyone that they had a problem they didn’t see. Second one meant I didn’t have to convince anyone to change products. And the third one meant that people would be willing to pay money, since it was in an environment where money was changing hands.

Not that there’s anything wrong with starting a business in a situation unlike the one I’ve outlined. Just thought I’d point out that the problems raised in the OP aren’t always problems.”

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

The Economics of Writing Online

“Failures in Self-Publishing” just went up on The Digital Reader, so now feels like a good time to post an elaboration on how to actually make money by writing online. (Scroll to the bottom for the other reason I’m putting this up now.)


As a person with many opinions but only moderate hustle, I’ve ended up writing for free a lot. Not just writing for free, but being published for free. I’m okay with that — I have a day job. I also understand supply and demand: personal essays aren’t scarce, so they’re not particularly remunerative. When I have been paid, the check was usually a pittance that amounted to minimum wage (and that’s before self-employment taxes!). I resented this when I was freelancing professionally, but now that I do it as a hobby, I shrug and tell myself, “This is what the market dictates.”

Price, after all — especially average price — is a number synthesized from the desires of the various players in a commercial endeavor. Customers want to pay less and merchants want to charge more. They agree somewhere in the middle, depending on which side has more leverage. Who is willing to walk away? Who is anxious to make a deal? If customers have many other merchants to choose from, the price is low. If merchants face a deluge of eager buyers, the price is high (*cough* iPhone 6s *cough*).

It’s not a new observation that this problem plagues digital media. Readers can easily jump from website to website without sacrificing anything. Publishers, on the other hand, need as many eyeballs as possible and therefore must be flashy and attractive, as well as careful not to alienate their audiences. Most website-owners are stuck in this game, straining to make a couple of advertising cents per reader. You can’t convince people to pay money for a subscription unless you offer unique, high-quality content, which is extremely hard to produce.

Writers have the same relationship to publishers that publishers do to readers — there are plenty of other fish in the sea, so unless you offer something very compelling that can’t be obtained elsewhere, you’re probably shit outta luck. Don’t get me wrong — there is money to be made in writing to entertain a general audience, but not enough for the amount of people who are trying to make a living at it. Incumbent media outlets and winning internet-age startups like Vox Media have flooded this territory.

There are several ways to deal with the evident economics of writing online. One is to be a typical professional from nine to five — in fact, being a smart and prolific blogger will get you a better job and a better salary than you would earn otherwise. It will also bring you surprising opportunities — I landed a copy-writing gig via Twitter recently. Good writing demonstrates key communication and analytical abilities, which are important to every kind of skilled labor. Does having a day job mean that you can’t devote most of your time and intellectual energy to writing? Yes. Such is reality. The other options are to 1) work for peanuts and write thousands of words per day or 2) develop expertise in a particular niche where there is a market for quality.

In closing, I would like to note that I owe a majority of the ideas in this piece to Ben Thompson of Stratechery. I highly recommend his blog and newsletter.


Additional note: I originally wrote this in late September and it was published on Samantha Bielefeld’s blog. I asked her to take it down because of this drama. Summaries of the situation can be found on Building Twenty and Analog Senses. I resent being duped and exploited, and I don’t want my name associated with someone who is essentially a fraudster. If you want to explore the whole brouhaha, you can read everything I’ve said about SB on Twitter (scroll down to September 25th and read upward) as an introduction.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Kindness Makes Communication Work Better

Niceness is pragmatism.

Tech-culture podcast Exponent came back from its summer hiatus on the 6th. In the most recent episode, hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth discussed Amazon’s work culture in reaction to that now-infamous New York Times article. Their conversation touched on the necessity of soft skills even in creative environments where solid ideas take precedence over everything else.

Successful companies set high standards and enforce them. They must! There is no other way to ensure excellence. Trade-offs are inherent to this arrangement — you can’t care profoundly about your professional results, work devastatingly hard to build something amazing, and still spend plenty of quality time with your wife and kids. The laws of physics forbid it — you can only be in one place at a time. If you’re at the office, then you’re not tossing a frisbee around in the backyard.

office drone lyfe
Illustration by Yue Wu.

More crucially, competitive companies develop and cherish workplace cultures that demand people to identify and demolish subpar ideas. When you prop up bad suggestions to make their progenitors feel good, you guarantee a future of low-quality initiatives. Next stop, loss of market share! It makes sense that brilliant executives want to stamp out the impulse to be nice. Except wait, no, it only makes sense superficially.

Allworth called this attitude “the primacy of ideas”. He pointed out that brutal honesty about the merit of any proposition favors “thinkers” over “feelers”. We INTJs and the like are able to maintain some emotional distance, to take a step back and rationally examine feedback. (Which doesn’t mean we aren’t hurt by criticism — Thompson added that this type of person also views their work as their source of human value. If the output is deemed inferior, we judge ourselves very harshly.)

Allworth explained that a workplace culture hostile to people who prioritize relationships will end up being a monoculture, alienating the voices of potentially useful employees and limiting diversity of thought. Well… yeah. It will.

be well at work :)
Illustration by RSO.

I’m probably reacting emotionally (ha) and not being fair to either Thompson or Allworth, but it was frustrating to listen while they grudgingly came to the conclusion that there’s value in being nice. I can’t help but think that only men would hash this out at length before tentatively agreeing that maintaining relationships is important. I even felt bitter while listening. It seemed like a classic example of “feminine” strengths being devalued, left invisible by default. Of course, the conversation’s outcome was better than if they had decided soft skills weren’t worth anything at all — but did it really need to be debated?

I’m an intellect-first, analytical kind of person. I’m also a woman, socialized to be nice and put up with a lot of nonsense from other people. Maybe the combination of those contradictory tendencies makes it easy to realize that you need to present information in a way that people find acceptable. Intellectual merit isn’t everything — in fact, it isn’t anything without soft skills. Smart people who can’t work with other people aren’t going to get anything done. (To be clear, this is something the Exponent hosts mentioned and agreed on.)

illustration of a good idea taking off
Illustration by Senya Pixelev.

Of course, I went through the same personal-growth phase that Allworth and Thompson also discussed, aggressively wanting to be right and constantly believing that I knew best, before I realized that a good idea you can’t get anyone to buy into has the same results as a bad idea. That’s really my whole point here:

A good idea that you can’t persuade people to believe in is functionally the same as a bad idea.

Even famously brutal tech founders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos had to figure out people-friendly ways to present their plans. We know this happened in part because otherwise Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon wouldn’t be iconic companies.

Luckily, collaborators can give each other straightforward feedback without being cruel. Thompson and Allworth do it on the podcast all the time! (More on this in an upcoming review of Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green’s book Managing to Save the World.) I think that’s why I was so frustrated — the necessity of niceness, or at least courtesy, seems utterly obvious, even if only based on their own dynamic. I don’t think the topic shouldn’t have been mentioned — here I am mentioning it at length — but I wonder why the conclusion surprised them.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you).