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An idea from fighting bullies, inventing, and product positioning
On Friday, I’m going to the Comedy Cellar in New York.
The Comedy Cellar is basically my church and comedians are my pastors.
I love standup comedy because it’s philosophy disguised as entertainment. The comedians I admire tend to wrap profound observations about human nature into deceptively-innocent packaging.
The other thing I love about standup is how often comedians turn the seemingly-trivial or negative things about themselves into the very thing that makes them brilliant on stage.
That spirit inspired today’s email.
At some point we’ve all probably dealt with a jerk who’s mocked something that’s different about us.
In my case, a bully in middle school exploited the fact that I was friendly. He sized me up as a nice guy and not the fighting type. He was correct. He’d approach me each day with a generous offer: “give me your lunch money and I won’t beat your ass.”
I eventually grew sick of this daily shakedown. I figured it was time I learn how to fight. I plotted out my personal transformation from nice guy to hardened street fighter.
But then it dawned on me: maybe my “weakness” was actually useful, but I had to be creative about to use it.
I started to see another way out. I sought out classmates who were bigger than me and enjoyed violence. I’d sit next to them in class. I’d lean into my agreeable, cheery side and make friends with them.
Within weeks, these new friends defended me and forced my bully to set his sights elsewhere.
In the summer of 1877, Thomas Edison and his team were up late testing materials for their new telephone transmitter.
Edison had been partially deaf since childhood, so held his finger on the phone’s transmitter to feel the vibrations of the sound.
As he felt the transmitter vibrate that night, something clicked for him. Every vibration represented a distinct sound. If he could capture the movement that various sounds created, he could play the sound back.
He turned to his assistant Charles Batchelor:
“Batch, if we had a point on this, we could make a record of some material which we could afterwards pull under the point, and it would give us the speech back.”
His team rigged together a cylinder they could turn with a crank. From The Wizard of Menlo Park:
“Edison sat down, leaned into the mouthpiece... [and] delivered the stock phrase the lab used to test telephone diaphragms: ‘Mary had a little lamb.’”
The needle vibrated as he spoke, etching tracks into the wax paper wrapped around the cylinder. And then:
“...Batchelor reinserted the beginning of the [strip on which the phrase had been recorded]... out came ‘ary ad ell am.’”
That night, the human race recorded and replayed sound for the first time.
Early in her career, April Dunford led marketing at an enterprise software startup called Janna Systems.
Things were not going well.
Janna sold a cheap alternative to Siebel, a competing product roughly 1,000 times their size. Janna tried selling into same companies that Siebel did, but most of them just saw Janna as a crappier version of Siebel. And they were right – Janna’s product wasn’t nearly as developed.
But Janna worked differently in a few small ways. At a meeting with Goldman Sachs, April’s team showed off how it could model relationships. The head of investment banking at Goldman cut them short.
Banker: “Wait a minute. Are you saying that if this person used to be on a board with this person, you could model that?”
April’s team: “Yep.”
They signed up immediately. But April’s team had mixed feelings. They wanted to build a product that every large business would use, not just banks. Investment banks might love us – but how many investment banks are there? Can this business really get that big?
After mulling it over, they said screw it. We’re not growing anyway and banks are the only people that seem to like us. They re-positioned themselves as a CRM for investment bankers.
In 18 months, they grew from $1M to $70M in revenue. Shortly after, Siebel bought them for $1.7B.
April later wrote:
“While we were a fairly unremarkable CRM, we were the world’s greatest CRM for investment bankers.”
Wrapping it up
Imagine a genie who can grant you any reasonable wish.
If you’re dealing with a bully, I’m not sure you’d wish for a friendly personality.
If you plan to reinvent the telephone, I’m not sure you’d wish to be deaf.
And if you intend on building a massive software business, I’m not sure you’d wish that most companies find your product useless.
I’m glad this genie doesn’t exist. We might wish for all the wrong things.
Sources: my 6th grade bully (fuck you, Marc), The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross, April Dunford’s interview with Foster, and April Dunford’s blog.
This was the 113th Stew's Letter. 3,500 more to go.
P.s. stealing my wife’s Thesaurus (fire TikTok)