#4 – Eric Rosen – Chess

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This interview with Chess International Master Eric Rosen is wide ranging. From his background and journey from beginner to master, to his emphasis on having a growth mindset, to talking about the ways top Grand Masters think and how to use a chess engine properly, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this podcast!

Where’s the Fire?

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Many businesses liken the problems they face to fires. These businesses spend a lot of time fighting the fires, and they even spend time putting those problems into an inordinate amount of quadrants to help understand whether it’s a bright fire, a hot fire, an oil fire, or a pontiac firebird.

But most of the people running these businesses are asking exactly the wrong question. The type of fire matters, surely, but not nearly as much as where the fire is.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Harvard Business School case study model is largely to blame here. Management seems to get the impression that if they know everything about the fire, they can put it out. Unfortunately, they aren’t seeing the forest for the kindling.

What are they missing?

A fire on a ship is a big deal. A fire on a submarine will kill everybody if it isn’t put out right away. A fire in your hearth is fine and good.

Some problems are simply part of running a business. Where companies really get themselves into trouble is when they think a fire is somewhere that it is not.

When the company thinks the fire is in the fireplace of a house, but really it is a fire on an airplane, instead of asking for who has the extinguisher, people start writing memos about the fact that if we put this fire out and tonight is cold, we might need to start another fire for warmth. Wouldn’t it be more convenient if we just let this one run?

The repeat offender that comes to mind here is Yahoo. The company had the internet in the palm of its hand and somehow managed to let fire after fire burn through the enormous head start they had on most other internet companies until all that was left was a stake in Alibaba. Every time something was going wrong, I have to imagine management told themselves, “that may be a fire, but that isn’t really the important area of our business.” Or “google may be taking over search, but how will they possibly monetize it?” Or, close to home, “yahoo finance may be a total nightmare to navigate, but it’s the most popular place to get financial data, why sink money into something that ain’t broken?”.

Somebody who has gotten it right? Satya Nadella and Microsoft are a nice counterpoint. Adding just a tinge of irony, here’s the yahoo finance graph for MSFT from February 2002 through February 2012:

MSFT from 2002 through 2012

Satya took over in 2014, and here’s the rest of the MSFT graph:

MSFT from 2014 through Present

I will leave it to you to search for explanations of Satya’s success, such as this one from techcrunch: https://techcrunch.com/2019/02/04/after-5-years-microsoft-ceo-satya-nadella-has-transformed-more-than-the-stock-price/. Suffice it to say, I think he has a knack for knowing where the fires are and whether he should stoke them, ignore them, or make damn sure they are put out.

Ironically, small firms often get this the most wrong in the other direction — they have a fire that they think is about to take down the ship, but really there is no threat. On a recent Investor’s Field Guide podcast, the founders of Instagram talked about how they got rid of a feature that was mostly clunky and never what they intended, but that had a use case with a small (but vocal) group of role players on the platform.

They started getting bombarded with negative feedback, but were able to correctly ascertain that on the way to a billion users, they were going to have to drop a few niche features that most people considered clutter but a few people found ways to use. They realized that the fire was in the fireplace.

The oft-mocked Silicon Valley ethos often illustrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” strikes me as a natural way to help young companies avoid the trap of fighting fires they should let burn themselves out. These small companies realize that most of the fires that can start have no fuel — they are simply too small. And even if they are going to burn the house down, the whole point of the startup is that it is nimble enough to be building another house while the first one falls apart. Catering to an app’s first 100 users is unlikely to be a strategy that scales to a hundred thousand, let alone a hundred million.

Here’s to hoping the next time somebody yells “fire!”, the reaction isn’t to run for the hose and start spraying, or to get some more wood and throw it on, but to simply ask, “where?”

Forecasting – Rivers and Butterflies

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Most of us are familiar with the story of the six foot tall man who drowned in the river that was five feet deep “on average.”

Of course, we understand the lesson. Just because the average is five feet, that does not mean there can’t be an important detail hidden by that summary statistic. In the case of this cautionary tale, the river has a spot that is too deep for the man.

But what about the opposite? Is it ever the case that knowing just the average is better than knowing all of the detail?

Sure, if it is very costly to know all of the details or very costly to implement your plan around them, you’d rather have just the average.

In business, not only can it be costly to get all of the details, but frequently they are unknowable by nature.

Many businesses fall into the trap of trying to forecast every single outcome, but forget that, as the founder of general semantics once said: “the map is not the territory.” Then they are surprised when the forecasts are not good.

Is there a better way? Of course. As long as the process is relatively normal and is going to be repeated many times, we can guarantee we get every single individual prediction wrong but that our average estimate is quite good.

Imagine we run a business selling butterflies. The insect kind. Most of us know there are four stages to their lives — first they are an egg, then a caterpillar, then a pupa, then we have our butterfly.

Let’s pretend we live in a world where each of these stages takes on average 10 days, but that any individual can take a longer or shorter time to go from one stage to the next.

If we want to forecast our butterfly population and the different stages, should we ask our butterfly keepers to give us an estimate for each individual? They can probably do better than average.

No! We probably should not! Why? There are many reasons. It will take a long time. We may even need to hire more butterfly keepers just to make estimates. Our keepers may be able to keep up with fewer other duties like making sure the butterflies have what they need. There may be a systematic pressure in the organization for the keepers to estimate either too short or too long a time depending on whether they think they are expected to be optimistic or conservative.

And we have an excellent alternative! We can simply assume that each individual future-butterfly is five days away from being at the next stage. And tomorrow we will not assume that individual is four days away, she stays five days away! That’s the magic.

But what if that one moves from caterpillar to pupa, shouldn’t we change the estimate to 10 days till butterfly since that’s the average? No! It is totally unnecessary as long as we don’t care about this individual butterfly specifically. Why? Because we have an equal number of pupae on day nine that we are still assuming are five days away from being butterflies.

We will always be wrong by five days when any individual moves from one stage to the next — we always forecast that it is five days away, even when it is imminent. Say it loud. We will always be wrong! We will never guess correctly! But our estimates will kick ass. And our keepers will only have to know how many are at each stage at any point in time for us to have an awesome estimate.

So before you think about the level of detail you want to gather to create an estimate, ask yourself: is this a river or a butterfly farm? Are the details more important than the average or less important? Let that guide your thinking.

DoorDash Steals Just the Tip

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Though it has been known for much longer, a couple of weeks ago the outrage machine mobilized against DoorDash’s policy toward tips.

Twitter is a particularly polarized place, but this topic seemed to create a special type of rift, one that happens only an entertaining few times per year.

The root of the matter is this: DoorDash had a policy (since changed) where they guarantee the minimum that a driver will make for a delivery. However, they also have a base fee that they calculate for the delivery, and if that base fee plus the tip from the customer is greater than the guaranteed minimum, the driver gets that instead.

The scene is now ripe for our scenario where a large fraction of people feel that DoorDash is pocketing tips intended for their drivers, and another large fraction think that there is nothing wrong with this policy, and in fact it is worker friendly. I realize I quoted 4:1 here, but believe me when I say those in economics were just as far one way as the journalists were the other.

I believe the current state is both inevitable, and the disagreement is totally understandable. That’s because the way DoorDash’s policy is perceived relies on path-dependent arguments as well as the point of view from which you observe them. People have never been very good at this, and especially not on Twitter.

Imagine first the point of view I think is most relatable, feeling like DoorDash is undeservedly taking your tip. Here’s the path:

  1. You think about ordering some delivery food, you use your DoorDash app because it is convenient.
  2. When filling out the checkout cart, you have ordered $30 of food and decide to tip $6 (you can always change this later!).
  3. The food comes, it is great and warm and the driver doesn’t miss your address, you are happy they got $6.
  4. You read an article that explains that they were probably paid $4 by the app on top of your $6, but that they were guaranteed at least $10 for the delivery by DoorDash, so your tip was effectively you paying them rather than the company.
  5. The company took your money and none of it – on net – went to the person you tipped.

Of course you are pissed! This is not how tipping is supposed to work and not how you are familiar with it in most of your experiences with restaurants.

Let us consider another path, but from the point of view of the driver (dasher) and the company:

  1. The dasher earns a base fee for driving plus whatever tips the customer pays.
  2. It turns out roughly 15% of customers don’t tip, and there’s some serious disparity amongst those who do.
  3. This causes the dasher to face serious uncertainty about how much they will earn in a shift, uncertainty they’d rather not have.
  4. DoorDash, needing to keep their dashers happy working for them rather than switching to the many other platforms they are just an app away from, proposes the following:
  5. DoorDash will make a minimum guarantee for each trip, enough to make it worthwhile for the dasher even if there is no tip. If the old way they calculated pay, base pay plus tip is higher, the dasher can keep the tip.
  6. The driver always makes at least as much; DoorDash can afford this because they know on average they aren’t doing very much subsidizing, they don’t have the problem of doing only 3 deliveries in a shift and not getting any tips; and the person ordering delivery pays just the same. Everybody wins!

In fact, not only does everybody win, but both drivers and orderers are welcome to switch apps if DoorDash isn’t their preferred app to use.

In any state that we reach that looks like the current one, I believe we will have this dichotomy, and most people will not be able to understand the other side.

Now of course, we know who won this battle, DoorDash has announced a change in policy so that all tips will be received by drivers. But the implications are obvious, the anonymous redditors quoted by the NYT (I can hardly believe I’m writing that) who work for DoorDash nailed it – DoorDash will reduce the guaranteed minimum payment to offset the new costs. Drivers will be worse off, but at least orderers will know their tip gets into the hands of the person they intended.

I think we can expect to stay in this state of unease indefinitely, because there are far more people who order from DoorDash than who deliver for it, so when it turns into a shouting match, the customers will win. However, as many on the other side have pointed out, the company and drivers seem to prefer the other method, and without them, there is no product.

All we can do is enjoy the show.