Investing in Omaha

In an age when all the attention is on rich Silicon Valley people designing things for each other, it’s interesting to read why the world’s most successful investor lives in Omaha, Nebraska:

Buffett is known for investing in quality businesses that have fallen out of favor with the market, and he said being in Omaha helped him do that.

“In some places it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” he said.

Buffett said being far from Wall Street actually helped him.”It’s very easy to think clearly here. You’re undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments…If you can’t think clearly in Omaha, you’re not going to think clearly anyplace.”

I’ve worked with several rich and famous technologists, and I always wonder if their prior success helps or hinders their future efforts. I think it’s a bit of each, but no matter how rich you are, there’s one thing you can’t buy–the groundedness and perspective of life outside the bubble.

Capitalism as cancer

It’s been extremely successful; then again, it has to be:

A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting social ecologist Murray Bookchin

On surfboards and yachts

And being close to the water:

Baldwin: How many sitcoms could you have launched with the imprimatur of your name on it? You could have your own channel. The Jerry channel.

Seinfeld: Yeah. But I didn’t take that bait…because most of it is not creative work. And it’s not reaching an audience. You want to be on the water? How do you want to be on the water? You want to be on a yacht? You want to be on a surfboard? I want to be on a surfboard.

Let me tell you why my TV show in the ’90s was so good…In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show, 50% of the time is spent on dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99% of our time writing, me and Larry.

Think small

A nice example of thinking small first, similar to Brandon Schauer’s Cake model.

Faster horses and tone-deaf designers

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse – Henry Ford (allegedly)

This quote has always bothered me. Not only is it dismissive of customer input, but I’ve seen it misused terribly by a wide range of people, who cite it as an excuse to ignore other people and design whatever they want. So it was with great delight that I found this marvelous debunking of the “quote” and the philosophy behind it.

Let me dispel with the suspense; it doesn’t appear that Henry Ford ever actually uttered this famous and polarizing phrase. We have no evidence that Ford ever said those words…

However, even if Ford didn’t verbalize his thoughts on customers’ ostensible inability to communicate their unmet needs for innovative products — history indicates that Henry Ford most certainly did think along those lines — his tone-deafness to customers’ needs (explicit or implicit), had a very costly and negative impact on the Ford Motor Company’s investors, employees, and customers.

Speculative spending

It’s actually very difficult to spend meaningful amounts of money, relative to Google’s scale, on things that are speculative.

One of my favorite Larry moments was when he used to regularly ask the whole company to work on artificial intelligence and no one would do it:

My own experience within Google is that it’s hard to get people to work on those kinds of things because of the personal risk they feel they’re taking…

I’ve told the whole company repeatedly I want people to work on artificial intelligence – so we end up with five people working on it. Guess what? That’s not a major expense. There’s a reason we talk about 70/20/10, where 70% of our resources are spent in our core business and 10% end up in unrelated projects, like energy or whatever. [The other 20% goes to projects adjacent to the core business.]

Actually, it’s a struggle to get it to even be 10%.

Getting on rocket ships

When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on. – Sheryl Sandberg


Consuming and transforming

“Consumer” is one of those words I’ve never been comfortable with. Along with “user”, it refers to real people as simply receptacles for whatever companies churn out for them. It’s a lazy, impersonal, demeaning, and ultimately unhelpful word.

Alex Bogusky thinks that as consumption is inevitable, people just need to be better consumers. I agree that’s needed, but still believe our word choice matters and can be improved. Lots of other people think so too.

The most obvious and simple change is to substitute “people” for these dirty words. That works almost universally, and I use it effectively in my design practice. But today I stumbled upon a use of another word that is more than benign–it’s empowering:


The article itself takes the side of “producers”, acknowledging that nothing is truly produced; it is merely transformed from one (perhaps natural) state to another. Carrying that theme through to the people we design for emphasizes that they too will transform what they receive, putting their stamp on it, doing good or ill with it.

Transformation happens to products, commodities, experiences, and ideas. The word transformation recognizes that people have the opportunity to improve what they receive, but also the responsibility of managing it.

I’m going to try substituting the word “transformer” for “person” in my work–probably just to myself at first–to see if it changes my design decisions.

Beans and Noses

One piece of advice I keep coming back to is about managing expectations. It came from an old friend, just a few days after I’d started my consulting practice. He was a seasoned consultant himself and I had asked him what I should know, just starting out.

He told me his First Rule of Consulting: No matter how much you try, you can’t stop people from sticking beans up their nose. – Jared Spool

Designers with no power

It’s ok not to have power, provided you don’t act like you have it. What decisions, as a designer, are truly yours? There is probably a small set of decisions you can make without implicit approval of someone else. And if you want more of your ideas to make it out the door, you either need more power, or to get better at borrowing the power of others to get things done. – Scott Berkun