Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Upstarts by Brad Stone

The Upstarts by Brad Stone was an interesting book on Uber and Airbnb, two still privately held companies that in the past decade have become behemoths in their respective spaces.

Stone is a Businessweek writer who also previously wrote The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon and while having The Upstarts be on two companies felt at times to make it harder as a reader to get a consistent flow from the book than was the case with that on Amazon, it also made sense to include both as Uber and Airbnb very much linked in their dual reliance on sharing economies and similar paths to success.

Stone details very well the founding stories of each company, with Airbnb from CEO Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk, and how they early got attention Selling Obama O's and Cap'n McCains cereal around the 2008 Presidential election. This helped them get into the Y Combinator startup school in Silicon Valley as the story and mental toughness it showed impressed Paul Graham, the program's co-founder who told them "you guys are like cockroaches, you just won't die."

Uber was started by Garrett Camp, who made money from founding StumbleUpon then became interested in the idea of transportation and the woeful taxi industry in San Francisco, and Ryan Graves and now CEO Travis Kalanick joined early on. The company started out with licensed town cars delivering a premium service and then moved from being about luxury to more about time and convenience. Price also is an interesting factor around Uber's growth, with how Uber would utilize dynamic customer pricing to entice more drivers.

Stone wrote that while Chesky as CEO of Airbnb known as having a less publicly adversarial approach than Kalanick, both are fiercely competitive leaders and two huge factors leading to the success of each company have been fund raising and public demand. Each has raised huge amounts of money and it was interesting reading of how initial investments made by people would get diluted through later fund raising. In terms of public demand, especially Uber found footing through the sheer force of people wanting the service and the success of each company has been in part from building momentum and public will to overcome legal hurdles.

The story of Airbnb and Uber up to present day is a fascinating one well told by Stone and makes me think back to writing that I did on each years ago, with a May 2011 post on a Fast Company Sharing Economy piece on Airbnb and other firms and an April 2012 post on an interview with early Uber investor Chris Sacca that noted the hustle of Ryan Graves.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis was the latest book from the bestselling author who I've now read eight book by, with the others: Flash Boys, The Big Short, Boomerang, The New New Thing, The Blind Side, Moneyball, and Home Game. 

The Undoing Project has the subtitle A Friendship that Changed Our Minds and is about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Israeli psychologists credited as the forefathers or at least popularizers of the fields of Decision Sciences and Behavioral Economics. Lewis details in the book how the two men greatly influenced people including economists and writers Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, NBA General Manager Daryl Morey, and Lewis himself, with Moneyball being in many ways about the need to mistrust intuition, and the work of Kahneman and Tversky about where the bias behind that intuition comes from. Much of the contribution from Kahneman and Tversky was about how people make decisions, and how their choices get framed by circumstances. People develop beliefs and make decisions not in a vacuum, but out of the context around them that leads to those beliefs and decisions.

Along with The Undoing Project being on the work of Kahnman and Tversky, Lewis also very much wrote a biography of the two men, starting from childhood, then with each in the Israeli military, later close collaborators, and with their relationship strained prior to Tversky's death. It's noted in the book that Israelis were interested in people and what made them tick, and both men brave soldiers, with each brilliant, and yet having wildly diverging personalities. Kahneman at times felt like he wasn't developing fully his ideas, whereas Tversky's views commanded attention from early in his career and he certainly seemed both aware of that and to bask in it. Additionally, Tversky was combative about his ideas and decisive regarding his time and attention, with Lewis writing that "his likes and dislikes could be inferred directly and accurately and at all times from his actions." Part of the book by Lewis was very much about the difference between the men and how they drifted apart.

From later in Tversky's career I found compelling mention of how he was brought in by the Training Department of Delta Airlines to help improve pilot decision making, and the result of that was an encouragement of co-pilots to more readily question pilots and their actions, basically to work on the circumstances around which decisions are made to improve the odds of the correct ones resulting.

Lewis noted at the end of the book how after Tversky died, Kahneman continued producing well-received work and is the author of the best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Undoing Project presents a really thorough look at the men, their work, and how they influenced those to follow.