Saturday, December 28, 2013

Glamorizing Villainy: Ink Trumps Intention

This Christmas, Martin Scorsese debuted his new movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street," which chronicles the sleazy rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a penny-stock manipulator who stole hundreds of millions from unsophisticated investors.

The critical reception to the movie has been warm (77% on Rotten Tomatoes), but as with many of its predecessors (Wall Street, Boiler Room) it has come under fire for glamorizing its villain protagonist.

When people think about "Wall Street", they think about Gordon Gekko and "greed is good" (which he never actually said).  When they think about "Boiler Room", they either think of Ben Affleck's speech or Vin Diesel selling a phoney stock.

Pride goeth before a fall, but movies sure do a great job of making pride look like a lot of fun.

Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of the criminals featured in "The Wolf of Wall Street," wrote a powerful criticism of this practice:
"Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket? And not just on any day, but on Christmas morning??"
The thing is, the filmmakers generally don't intend to glamorize the villain.  Oliver Stone made "Wall Street" as an anti-Wall Street polemic. Scorsese probably sees Belfort as a villain as well, just as he saw the characters in "Goodfellas" as bad men.

The problem is that ink trumps intention.  The time that a movie or book lavishes on a villain trumps the intended criticism.  And the standard "pride goeth before a fall" formula is particularly prone to this.

By letting the villain drive the story, storytellers portray the villain as energetic, forceful, and charismatic. The villain also gets most of the good lines. (Can you think of a single line of dialogue spoken by Martin Sheen, the conscience of "Wall Street"?)

The same principle applies in fact as well as fiction.  Want to hurt a villain?  Don't feature him, ignore him.  The more you rail against clever schemes and villainy ("I can't believe he's getting away with it!") the more you make the villain a compelling figure.  Or if you need to warn the world, make sure you emphasize the boring and pathetic aspects of the villain.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Vacation Highlights, Part 1

This winter break, Alisha and I decided to try something new, and are taking a 48-hour getaway to Santa Barbara.  Rather than writing at length mid-vacation, I'm just going to post some of the highlights; I might write a lengthier post after the vacation wraps up.

Stuff that was great:
  • The BBQ tri-tip slider with candied bacon from the Old San Luis BBQ Co.  This San Luis Obispo Q tri-tip slider is simple: A soft roll, some Santa Maria-style BBQ tri-tip, sauce, and candied bacon, but it is divine.  Don't get just one!
  • The sauces at the Brasil Arts Cafe in Santa Barbara.  Alisha got a tri-tip sandwich with fries.  The sauce that comes with the fries in lieu of ketchup is amazing.  It's a mix of onions, tomatoes, and something magical.  The cafe also provides an awesome hot sauce, with whole mini-peppers in it.  We had a great lunch there.  The cafe also has great service and atmosphere, complete with Brazilian music, and a capoeira studio in the back of the restaurant.
  • The braised pork belly and chocolate chip bread pudding at Bouchon in Santa Barbara.  What's not to love about pork belly, which is the foundation of bacon?  The braised pork belly first course at Bouchon is amazing, pairing the braised pork belly with a crisp potato croquette, arugula, and a poached duck egg.  We wished we had ordered more than one!  The chocolate chip bread pudding was also a standout.  It's basically like eating a warm mixture of chocolate chip cookies and cookie dough, all topped with vanilla ice cream.
  • The look and decor of the Hotel Santa Barbara.  This is a beautiful boutique hotel, located in a historic building in downtown State Street.  Most important, the beds are incredibly comfortable.
  • The Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  Because Bouchon is so popular, we couldn't get a reservation until 8:45 PM.  That left us plenty of time to enjoy Thursday night at the museum; every week, the museum is free to the public for one night a week.  They obviously know the way to my frugal heart!  This is an awesome, well-curated, well-run museum.  It's also a perfect size--big enough to contain a great collection, small enough to avoid the museum fatigue that I find sets in with monumental collections.  The main exhibition was "Delacroix and the Matter of Finish," which featured the works of the French Romantic master, along with a previously unknown painting.  The museum did a great job of providing context for Delacroix's work, comparing it to both Neoclassicism and Academic Art, as well as showing the difference between his work, and the reproductions made by his apprentices.  The galleries let you get up close and personal with the paintings; I could bring my face to within inches of the canvas to see the details of the individual brushstrokes.  I also learned something I hadn't realized before--one of the reason Delacroix's works seem so dynamic is his use of diagonal composition.  Rather than the static, somewhat distancing horizontal lines of the Neoclassicists, Delacroix used diagonals to convey a sense of motion, and to bring the viewer into the same visual field as the subjects of the painting.  If you want to check out this exhibit, you'd better hurry--it runs through January 26, 2014.

Stuff that was not so great:
  • The BBQ chicken at the Old San Luis BBQ Co. was a bit bland.  This might simply be a matter of the contrast with the awesome tri-tip, but it didn't grab me.
  • The main course I had at Bouchon, a pan-seared sea bass, had great flavor, but not great texture.  When I get sea bass, I'm looking for a delicate, melt-in-your-mouth texture.  The sea bass I got, while flavorful, seemed overcooked.  It was also a pain to detach the meat from the chewy, crispy skin.  Perhaps this was intentional, and I was meant to eat the seared skin, but I gave it a shot with one bite, and found both taste and texture displeasing.
  • The elevator in the Hotel Santa Barbara.  It's kind of cool to have a historic elevator, but technology has advanced quite a bit in 100 years.  The elevator is slow, cumbersome, and noisy (I can actually hear it from my hotel room).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hipster Hatred and Conspicuous Consumption

Like many people, I'm not fond of hipsters.  To me, skinny jeans and Hitler mustaches look ridiculous, not stylish.  Which is why my antennae went up when I read about Brooklyn's (hipster ground zero) latest specialty store, the Brooklyn Porridge Company, which serves artisanal porridge.

A bowl of gluten-free, non-GMO, porridge costs $7.95.  Porridges include "the Truffled Heart with shaved parmesan, artichoke hearts, and white truffle oil."  Self-importance sold separately.

But rather than dwell on the absurdity of artisanal porridge (what's next, premium butt wipes for men? Oh wait, we already have them:, I'd like instead to scrutinize my own reactions and figure out why we hate hipsters so much, and whether that hatred is justified.

1) Running an artisanal, gourmet porridge shop seems like it's being cute for the sake of being cute.

It's important to note that artisanal porridge dish in a high-end restaurant doesn't seem as annoying to me; the goal of haute cuisine is to surprise and delight with unexpected juxtapositions.  But setting up a store to sell nothing but gourmet porridge seems like showing off, just like restaurants that only serve grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  The infantilization of diners by offering kids food as expensive cuisine is just the icing on (ironic) cake.

2) Eating at an artisanal, gourmet porridge shop seems like it's being cute for the sake of being cute.

My impression is that the people who eat at a gourmet porridge shop are the type of people who want to tell others that they ate at a gourmet porridge shop and then document the experience with a FourSquare check-in, an Instagram photo, and an arch Yelp review.

What the two points above illustrate is the distaste that I (and presumably others) have for self-conscious acts of performance art.  In neither case is the focus on creating or eating tasty food.  The story is more important than the substance, which rubs me the wrong way.  Storytelling is incredibly powerful in food, but I prefer it deployed in a sincere, authentic way, not for its own sake.

3) Artisanal, gourmet porridge seems like a wasteful indulgence.

This is one of my fundamental objections to hipsterism, which is the same objection I have to yuppies and frat boys.  When people spend money in ways I perceive as wasteful, it rubs me the wrong way.  I work hard for my money (not as hard as some, harder than others) and when people spend money in a manner that seems frivolous, it makes me feel like they don't appreciate hard work.

Many feel the same way when reading about the over-the-top conspicuous consumption of the mega-rich, even if they earned their money honestly.  For example, even well-liked billionaires like Richard Branson take flak for buying jumbo jets and private islands, or hiring famous rock stars to play a kid's bar mitzvah.  "Spend your money how you want," we seem to say, "But don't rub our nose in how much you have compared to us."

I also get a sneaking suspicion that spendthrifts have other sources of unearned money, be it trust fund or inheritance.  And if there's anything we dislike more than people throwing around earned money, it's people throwing around unearned money.

In summary:

A) Hipsterism seems like a self-conscious performance art which focuses on style, rather than substance. (And really, there is no valid justification for men wearing skinny jeans)

B) Conspicuous consumption is irksome enough when the deserving rich engage in it; it's even more annoying when we think someone is throwing around unearned money to show off.

In the end, it's justifiable in my book to be annoyed by hipsters, but hipster hatred seems like the same kind of over-the-top and inauthentic performance art that makes hipsters so irritating.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Don't Mistake Winning for Accomplishment

We love winning and winners.

In sports, we hand out trophies and belts to scorers and champions.

In business, we celebrate CEOs who increase their stock price.

In politics, we anoint winners and losers based on the votes they win.

What do these have in common?  In each domain, it's easy to keep score.

In sports, everyone knows the score.

In business, you always know exactly how much a publicly traded company is worth.

In politics, polls and elections provide constant validation (or despair).

And because it's easy to keep score, we end up focusing on winning.

In doing so, we mistake winning for accomplishment.

In the startup world, it's not that easy to measure accomplishment.  We try to keep score with the metrics we have (headlines, rounds of funding, vanity metrics), but unlike sports or politics, these metrics don't define success.  At best, they are loosely correlated.

Stop worrying about winning.  Start worrying about accomplishment.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Credit and Blame

Credit and blame are two faces of the same coin, and both aren't worth as much as you think.

When I was young, I was very concerned with credit and blame.  My old mentor, Thor Johnson, called me "a shameless self-promoter," and he meant it as a compliment.

When things went right, I made sure I was positioned to take credit.  When things went wrong, I made sure that someone else got the blame (I had to be pretty subtle about that!).

Yet now that I'm older, I realize that focusing on credit and blame is a waste of energy, especially in the startup world.

Credit only matters when there's a success for which to take credit.

Blame only matters in big organizations, where you're trying to avoid getting fired by a pointy-haired boss after some disaster.

Both are a second-order concern, orders of magnitude less important than making sure your startup is actually successful.

When an entrepreneur comes to me and tries to take credit for success, I just smile and remind him or her of Winston Wolf's line from "Pulp Fiction": 'Let's not go sucking each others' d--ks just yet.'  There will be plenty of time for that after the company sells.

When an entrepreneur comes to me and tries to blame external circumstances, I'm not interested.  I only care about figuring out the causes of failure in order to avoid it in the future, assuming there is a future.

In other words, credit AND blame are both a waste of time.

When you raise a lot of money, you raise the degree of difficulty

Investors are fond of telling entrepreneurs about how dangerous it is to raise too much money too early on.  We advise entrepreneurs to minimize fundraising until they achieve product-market fit, and are ready for scaling up.

The problem is, entrepreneurs don't want to hear it.  It's like telling Americans to lose weight by eating less and exercising more.  It doesn't matter how right you are if you can't get people to change their behavior.

Therefore, rather than explaining the perils of down rounds and the benefits of being able to select your investors, let me boil it down to one thing:

When you raise a lot of money, you raise the degree of difficulty

If you raise a lot of money, you need to demonstrate major traction to raise more.  After all, if investors have already given you $20 million, and you haven't taken off, another $20 million isn't likely to make a difference.  And an organization that's big enough to spend $20 million is pretty expensive to keep alive.

In contrast, if you raise a little money, you can raise more money simply by showing promise.  After all, if you're able to do this much on a shoestring, think of how much you could do with more resources!

In other words, raising money raises the degree of difficulty.  The curve gets tougher, until only runaway success is sufficient.

Now it's always possible that you happen to have a startup that can't possibly succeed without a pile of money, yet can turn a pile of money into runaway success.  But I (and your investors) probably don't want to bet on that.

Lazy Consistency and Denial

Most of us have the desire to be consistent.  In general, this is a good thing.  Think of how frustrating it is to deal with someone who is always changing his mind.  As just one example, look at how we treat politicians who can be branded as flip-floppers.  "I was for it before I was against it!" doesn't satisfy either side of an issue.

But the desire to be consistent can be dangerous when we get lazy about fulfilling it.

For example, many people in Silicon Valley like to think of the region as a near-perfect meritocracy.  When confronted with evidence that women and minorities are dramatically underrepresented, they face a choice:

1) They could admit this imperfection and examine the ways in which their unconscious biases might be affecting their actions, or...

2) They could attack their critics as attention-seeking troublemakers, allowing them to dismiss the evidence as biased.

Which do you think is more common?

Denying reality is particularly dangerous for entrepreneurs, whose situations are unusually risky and tenuous.  The rich and powerful can afford the cost of ignoring the evidence; startups cannot.

When you encounter discomforting evidence, don't take the lazy way out.  In fact, these are probably your greatest learning opportunities.