Category Archives: Personal

Deconstructing The Economist

Ozzy Osbourne in 2010.
Image via Wikipedia

The Economist is my favorite newspaper.  It’s also one of the only profitable news publishers.  Why is it successful while the rest of the industry is gasping for air?  It’s not because they’re extremely innovative in how they charge for or deliver content.  They don’t have a splashy online presence although they slowly waded into crafting online-only content that takes advantage of the web’s interactivity.  They don’t have a fancy iPhone or iPad app yet.  The simple reason for their success is the content itself.

There is no close substitute for The Economist‘s product and so people are willing to pay for it.  They cover business and political news with a breadth and depth that is unequaled, and because they are a weekly, they can chew a bit more on their stories before publishing.  Most importantly, they are transparent about their views (socially liberal, fiscally conservative).  They take a side on every issue but deliver arguments in an even-handed way, enabling the reader to agree or disagree with the facts and data presented.  They don’t even publish bylines, making it all about what is written and not who has written it.  Since I like their style, and would love to read more news written this way, I thought I’d briefly deconstruct a typical article to see how their editors tick.

Each article’s headline is brief and opaque (i.e. “Race to the bottom” or “An empire built on sand“) or non sequiturs (i.e. “No, these are special puppies” or “Cue the fish“).  Sometimes the headlines read like the Old Spice guy wrote them (“I’m on a horse”), but that’s part of dressing up what could otherwise be dull subject matter.  The non sequiturs force you to read on just so you can understand what they’re talking about.

The sub-header is all business.  There’s no fat and they read like well-crafted tweets.  For an article on genetic testing, one reads, “The personal genetic-testing industry is under fire, but happier days lie ahead”.  The subheader is usually one or two sentences and plainly states the paper’s view on the issue (“Google has joined Verizon in lobbying to erode net neutrality“).  I really like this method because at bottom all journalists have an opinion, so why not be transparent and lay it bare?  By laying out the conclusion in a couple sentences upfront, it also allows the reader to get something even if she’s just paging through.

Many times, the lede introduces the article with a story or quote.  In the article about personal genetic testing, it starts with a quote from Ozzy Osbourne, “By all accounts, I’m a medical miracle”.  It gets the reader interested and humanizes what would otherwise be a purely technical subject.

The next paragraph or two include a strong argument in support of the subheader.  In the genetic testing article, the author writes about how Osbourne “is not alone in wondering what mysteries genetic testing might unlock”.  It goes on to say that Google is invested in a genetic testing company and that Warren Buffett himself has been tested.  It discusses the promise of people understanding their risk for getting a disease and how that information holds great promise for treatment.  At this point, the reader may be wondering how anyone could oppose genetic testing.

Not so fast.  In typical Economist fashion, the next paragraph eviscerates the thesis of the article.  While the subheader supported genetic testing, the next paragraph cites a damning report from a credible source that found many test results were “misleading and of little or no practical use to consumers”.  Game over.  At this point, the reader is scratching her head thinking, “I thought testing was supposed to be a good thing”?!  By so willingly presenting a counter argument, The Economist strengthens the credibility of the view it supports in the subheader.  It’s an effective writing tactic and their use of it has made me a more critical reader, forcing me to always search for the other side of the story.

The bulk of the article then presents a series of facts from either side, filtering each one through the views presented in the subheader.  The facts are laid out, but placed in context.  The reader can decide which facts are convincing and which might be discarded.

The final paragraph is almost never definitive.  It summarizes the main arguments and concludes with an open question of whether or not The Economist‘s view will come to pass.  It’s not that they waffle, they’re just practical.  And they don’t play the prediction games that all the cable news talking heads play.  I think it’s a refreshing approach that lets readers decide on the future for themselves.

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One Way to Join a Startup and “Try Before You Buy” Hiring Practices

Earlier this week Bijan Sabet at Spark Capital wrote a post, “An inspiring way to join a startup“.  The post describes how a couple of companies in Spark’s portfolio had individuals offering to work for free in exchange for the possibility of a full-time position.  I don’t know what the exact circumstances were for each candidate, but if the candidates were switching industries and this was their first startup, I’m a little surprised that this path is considered unique.  Having lived this process as both a newbie and an employer, below is the story of how I got into the startup world and some thoughts on “try before you buy” hiring based on my experience.

In August 2001, after I had worked for a couple years at JPMorgan (my first job out of undergraduate), I finally decided to quit and join a startup.  I had known since before day one that I didn’t want to make a career out of banking.  To me banking was a two-year graduate school program that would provide much-needed skills in finance and accounting that I didn’t get while studying economics and Russian in college.  By the time I left, I thought I had the wind at my back.  I had been offered a promotion to Associate and naively figured it would be easy to get a startup job.  Wrong.

During my two years at JPMorgan I had been reading everything I could about the NY startup scene and keeping a spreadsheet of all the NYC-area startups.  I had even gone on a few interviews to test the waters.  About a month after I left, I was out in San Francisco visiting a friend and woke up early on September 11, 2001 to catch my flight back to New York.  I won’t recount that terrible day here, but needless to say I was in San Francisco for another week.  Returning to New York many days later, I arrived in a different city than I had left.

This was not a good time to be looking for a startup job.  New York was reeling from 9/11 and the internet bubble had burst.  Then I tore my ACL playing soccer at Chelsea Piers.  Awesome.  The day it happened, I had 24 hours left to send in my COBRA before it expired.  I had the surgery and then focused my efforts on getting a job at Colloquis (then called ActiveBuddy), a developer of natural language software systems.  I had already been following the company’s progress for some time.  To me, Colloquis’s technology was indistinguishable from magic.  I totally fell in love with it and decided I had to work there.  My initial application (through the company’s website) was rejected.  Then I had a stroke of luck and was introduced to the CEO, Steve Klein, through a mutual friend.  Finally, I got a meeting with him.  I remember it well.  Steve was firing questions at me, and at one point he asked, “how much did you make at JPMorgan?”.  I told him and he laughed.  “That’s ridiculous!”, he said.  “You’re two years out of school.  You have no real experience.  Nobody is going to pay you that outside of finance.”  I told him I knew that and that I wasn’t expecting a similar salary.  Of course, the other Colloquis-specific factor at play here was that the company was in major trouble.  Management had been recently replaced and the company was scrambling to close necessary financing.

Regardless, Steve was absolutely right.  Sidebar: there’s no chance in hell that a startup is going to pay someone with no operating experience a six-figure salary.  In fact, if you find a startup willing to pay you a six-figure salary when you have no experience, you should run in the other direction.  They’ll be toast in a year.

Despite my lack of experience, Steve saw how fired up I was and he gave me a shot.  I asked that we formalize the arrangement in a letter.  We worked out an offer letter outlining what my responsibilities would be, success metrics, etc.  While I agreed to work for free he offered to pay my expenses: cell, internet, etc.  It was April 2002 and the company was still trying to close its next financing round.  A few months after I began working, Steve unfortunately had to lay off 75% of the New York office.  It was terrible and those were the worst days, but the short story is that the remaining team turned the company around, built it back up, and we successfully sold Colloquis to Microsoft in 2006.  I started earning a salary around the time Steve pared down the company to five in NY (I was the only person left on the business side plus Steve), and by the time of the sale I was a member of the management team.  It was an amazing experience to have worked with such incredible people and to have lived through all the ups and downs with them.  If there is any lesson to be learned from this it is that sometimes you need to realize that you know nothing – you must take a few steps back before you can start climbing again.

Years later, and having the experience of hiring individuals as an employer, I am a big fan of “try before you buy” hiring practices, particularly for job seekers switching industries.  It’s very difficult to know how someone will perform until they’re actually working.  A period of purgatory gives a company the opportunity to get to know the individual, and likewise.  These trials can take many forms and don’t necessarily translate into working for free.  One path might be to give candidates a discrete paid (or unpaid) project to complete.  In any case, timing and objectives should be laid out in writing beforehand so that both parties go into the evaluation period with the same expectations.  While “try before you buy” is not possible (or even preferable) in many circumstances, it can be an effective tool to ensure that you get the right people on the bus.

Owning Your Digital Self

Despite the power of new communication and publishing technologies, I’ve generally used these platforms to share things with relatively small groups of friends, family, and coworkers.  I wanted to have some sort of privacy.  The problem with that is digital media doesn’t lend itself to limitations on distribution.  Plus, nobody has much control over what gets posted anyway.

Even for the most hardened defenders of privacy, choosing not to participate online is not really a choice at all since you won’t be present to manage or claim your digital self.  You are even worse off in this case.  If you’re going to participate in life, there will be content involving you in the public realm that other people will consume and distribute without your approval.

So, I’m over it.  I don’t think living a truly private life is possible and I’m not sure what there is to hide in any case.  But that’s not event the point. The value of broadly connecting to others by sharing your ideas and content massively outweighs any real or perceived risks.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be sharing my most private thoughts or wearing a SenseCam anytime soon.  This blog is a personal and interactive narrative that I hope will provide some context for the interconnected fragments of pictures, videos, people, conversations, events, and ideas around me.   It’s about claiming and owning a digital voice.  Having that sense of ownership over one’s digital presence is at the foundation of privacy and that’s my reason for this blog.  Maybe privacy isn’t dead after all.