Venture capitalist, entrepreneur, author, and all-around business rock star Guy Kawasaki has succeeded the old fashioned way: by working hard and having uncompromising standards.
He’s well known for what he’s done and how he’s done it. He changed the way businesses practice marketing through product evangelism. At the same time, Guy has been an advocate for the importance of exercising values and behaving with grace and dignity – an ethos that has influenced business leaders such as Gary Vaynerchuk. In his new book Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life, Guy Kawasaki shares some of the lessons he’s learned throughout his life. Wise Guy is not a biography in the linear sense. Combining a self-effacing sense of humor with clear-headed analysis, he tells stories about people who have taught him something and about incidents that have shaped his life (and continue to).
You quickly learn that although he has accomplished a great deal in his life, his childhood was pretty ordinary. He did not overcome poverty to cure cancer by age 15. In fact, as a college student, he was interested in dating girls and someday owning a nice car. He tried out for football and quit. He studied law and quit. In other words, he grew up a lot like many of us do – which makes him more human and his story more relatable.
In the business world, though, he experienced epic adventures. For instance, at Apple he famously worked for Steve Jobs. And Wise Guycontains some fascinating stories that will make you grateful that you never worked for Steve Jobs. His career as an Apple product evangelist (he popularized evangelism as a marketing approach) and later as a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist makes for some engaging stories and lessons learned. And there are many in Wise Guy. But for me, the most memorable and telling details in the book are not necessarily the most glamorous. (And I’ve read the book twice – an early draft for which I was privileged to provide feedback, and then the published version.) For instance:
He once read the entire Chicago Manual of Style cover to cover. And let me tell you – The Chicago Manual of Style isa massive book with some excruciating details about the finer points of the English language. Why did Guy read such a book? Because a demanding high school English teacher instilled in him a respect for minding the details of the English language. If you’ve ever worked with Guy (as I have), you know he continues to apply high standards today and does not hold back with constructive criticism. Lesson learned: there are no short cuts to doing the job right. You have to understand every nuance of a skill to master it.
He left a fortune on the table by leaving Apple— and then left a bigger fortune on the table by turning down a chance to interview for the CEO job at Yahoo! Guy freely admits he left Apple too early, long before it became one of the world’s most valuable brands – a decision that cost him tens of millions of dollars. And taking a pass on the Yahoo! opportunity probably cost him billions. In both cases, he did not grasp how big either company would become, something that still bothers him. But he does not regret why he chose something else over Apple and Yahoo! With Apple, he left to pursue a career as an entrepreneur. “[I]f I had stayed at Apple,” he writes, “my life would have been less interesting. I wouldn’t have started companies, become a venture capitalist, advised dozens of entrepreneurs, spoken at hundreds of events all over the world, and written fifteen books.” With Yahoo!, he chose time with his family over the demands of being CEO. “What price can you put on being around when your kids are growing up?” he asks. Lesson learned: stay true to yourself and your values.
He learned ice hockey at age 48. And then he learned how to surf at age 62. These are not the easiest sports to learn at any age. In fact, Guy says that surfing is one of the most difficult challenges he’s ever tackled. There’s an obvious lesson learned here about continuing to push yourself no matter where you are in life – highly relevant as our population ages. In addition, his determination to learn is a tribute to hard work and the value of learning for the sake of learning. “The acquisition of skill is a process, not an event, and the process itself can be the reward,” he writes. “My path to surfing competency was the same as my path for speaking, writing, and evangelizing: grit, repetition, and hard work, not ‘natural talent.’”
Steve Case once honored a handshake agreement even though he didn’t have to. In the early days of AOL, Steve Case asked Guy to do some consulting for $2,000 monthly plus stock options. Guy agreed, and the arrangement lasted a few months. Many years later, he saw Steve Case, who asked him if AOL had ever given him his stock options. “I told him I hadn’t done much work, so the company wasn’t paying me, and I had never gotten the stock,” he writes. “I told him to forget about it.’” But Case insisted that he get options for two thousand shares. The options mushroomed into a lucrative payday. Lesson learned: be honorable in all that you do.
The Steve Case story is the most important. Guy Kawasaki writes and speaks often of acting with values, and treating people as you would have them treat you. In fact, he wrote an entire book about the business value of enchanting behavior, Enchantment. I think his legacy is that being a decent person in business is not only honorable but sensible – which is more important than being a marketing guru, an engaging author, or an exciting speaker. Wise Guy is Guy Kawasaki’s lasting statement. I recommend you buy Wise Guy — and learn from it.
Jeff Bezos is a market maker. As I wrote in Fast Company in 2013, market makers do more than sell products. They influence beliefs and behaviors. Jeff Bezos is changing how people live and businesses operate through voice and cloud computing.
Amazon is ushering in a voice-first world along with Google. With astonishing speed, Amazon has unleashed products such as AI-powered smart speakers that rely on voice commands to manage our homes, search for things, purchase goods and services, and navigate our cars.
In the home: per Amazon, the number of devices with Alexa built-in more than doubled in 2018. More than 150 products have Alexa built in, ranging from headphones to smart home devices. Consumers can choose from 28,000+ Alexa-compatible smart home devices from more than 4,500 brands.
On the go: more than one million customers requested an invitation for Echo Auto, Amazon’s new Echo designed for vehicles, shortly after Amazon announced its availability. Several automotive partners announced support for Alexa at CES 2019. For example, Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship with Amazon that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps.
At work: in 2017, Amazon launched Alexa for Business to begin a voice-first transformation inside enterprises. Amazon wants employees of businesses to rely on Alexa to schedule meetings, manage their personal calendars, and handle a host of other tasks. Brooks Brothers and Conde Nast are among the companies that use Alexa for Business to manage meetings according to Amazon. In addition, businesses are creating Alexa skills to manage several functions. To wit: financial services firm TIAA recently announced a new Alexa skill that helps its customers get financial information and obtain customer service. And now that Amazon has made it easy for anyone to create Alexa skills, I predict that so many more businesses are going to adopt Alexa that the creation of an Alexa skill won’t be news.
Jeff Bezos is so enamored with voice that he mentioned Alexa six times in Amazon’s fourth-quarter earnings announcement. In fact, Alexa is about all he talked about in a prepared statement:
Alexa was very busy during her holiday season. Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year . . . The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear. In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20% through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017. We’re energized by and grateful for the response, and you can count on us to keep working hard to bring even more invention to customers.
Typically in earnings announcements, CEOs don’t dive into the details of how their products are evolving. But not so with Jeff Bezos. His words demonstrate his belief in the power of voice.
Bezos’s comments about making Alexa more accurate might make him sound a bit geeky, but accuracy matters. Amazon needs to make Alexa more effective at recognizing human speech to make us comfortable using the voice interface to buy things — which is what Jeff Bezos wants us to do while we are on Amazon. Right now, for the most part, people use their smart speakers to check the weather and listen to music. Jeff Bezos’s vision for voice is all about commerce, not checking sports scores. The question is not whether, but when, Amazon will realize that vision.
Going hand in hand with voice computing is Bezos’s ambition for businesses and people to manage their lives on a virtual network known as the cloud. Amazon founded its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services (AWS), in 2006. Today AWS provides the backbone of Amazon’s entire voice ecosystem. When you use Alexa in your home, on the go, or at work, you use AWS.
Bezos envisioned the rise of cloud computing long before voice came along, though, and the cloud powers more than Amazon’s own voice ecosystem. In his 2007 letter to shareholders, he wrote of people using their Kindle e-books to read and record margin notes “on the server-side in the ‘cloud,’ where they can’t be lost.” Eight years later, in his 2015 letter to shareholders, Bezos spoke of the cloud in much more grandiose terms:
Whether you are a startup founded yesterday or a business that has been around for 140 years, the cloud is providing all of us with unbelievable opportunities to reinvent our businesses, add new customer experiences, redeploy capital to fuel growth, increase security, and do all of this so much faster than before.
And he was not exaggerating. By 2015, AWS was providing the backbone for businesses to adapt to the cloud. Today, AWS powers so many companies that it made $25.7 billion in 2018. For example, if you use Airbnb to book a room or Slack to send a message, you’re relying on a business that uses AWS. And Netflix famously relies on AWS to keep its 24/7 content stream going.
Where would cloud computing be today without Amazon Web Services?
Vision Costs Money
But building voice and cloud-based products and services costs money. In 2018, Amazon increased its marketing and advertising costs considerably. As noted in CNBC, Amazon reported a $13.8 billion marketing expense for 2018, up 37 percent from the prior year. Nearly 100 million viewers of Super Bowl LIII saw some of that spend in the form of a number of 30-second spots promoting Alexa. Those spots cost $5 million each.
And here is why Amazon’s advertising services, bundled under Amazon Advertising, are so valuable. Amazon Advertising gives Amazon a way to recoup its costs though an increasingly lucrative revenue stream. Through Amazon Advertising, businesses on Amazon promote their products through various forms of display advertising and sponsored product displays that appear in a consumers’ search results on Amazon, similar to how advertising on Google works.
Amazon’s ambitions for advertising go beyond serving up ads on Amazon itself. As the New York Times reported, Amazon also targets ads to people across the digital world by tapping into the data it has amassed about consumers’ purchases made on Amazon itself. Since Amazon knows exactly what you’ve searched for and purchased on the site, Amazon can advertise for other brands with pinpoint accuracy, as these examples from the New York Times article illustrate:
When a chain of physical therapy centers wanted new patients, it aimed online ads at people near its offices who had bought knee braces recently on Amazon.
When a financial services provider wanted to promote its retirement advisory business, it directed ads to people in their 40s and 50s who had recently ordered a personal finance book from Amazon.
And when a major credit card company wanted new customers, it targeted people who used cards from other banks on the retail site.
The advertisers found those people by using Amazon’s advertising services, which leverage what the company knows better than anyone: consumers’ online buying habits
Just the Cheese, a brand run by Specialty Cheese Company in Reeseville, Wis., makes crunchy dried cheese bars that have taken off as a low-carb snack. By using algorithms to analyze how Just the Cheese’s search ads performed on Amazon’s site, the ad agency Quartile Digital noticed that people who searched for keto snacks and cauliflower pizza crust, both low-carb diet trends, also bought a lot of cheese bars. So Quartile ran display ads across the web targeting Amazon customers who had bought those two specific product categories. Over three months, Amazon showed the ads on websites more than six million times, which resulted in almost 22,000 clicks and more than 4,000 orders.
That 20 percent conversion rate — a sale to one out of five people who clicked on the ads — was “amazing,” Mr. Knijnik said. “That is the kind of powerful granularity for building the target audiences that just Amazon can give you.”
And, just like that, Amazon is upending the digital ad industry while creating a mini-industry of companies such as Quartile Digital that offer services related to Amazon’s advertising products. And herein lies an undeniable reality: Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh. With advertising, Amazon takes business away from established players like Facebook and Google while spurring the launch of new companies that capitalize on Amazon.
“Amazon Is Not Too Big to Fail”
Advertising has helped Jeff Bezos pull off a feat that is extremely hard for a publicly traded firm to do: invest for the long haul while rewarding shareholders in the short term. He also does not take Amazon’s success for granted. As he told employees recently, “Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.”
Whether Jeff Bezos is correct about Amazon’s future remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has helped unleash technologies whose impact is incalculable.
The old music institutions are losing their grip. The Super Bowl LIII halftime show February 3 was a bust because of a musicians’ boycott. And now musicians who matter are blowing off the Grammy Awards. Childish Gambino, Drake, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar have turned down the chance to perform at the 61st Grammy Awards on February 10. What’s going on?
The Super Bowl halftime show boycott was a matter of principle. Musicians such as Cardi B, Jay Z, and Rihanna boycotted the Super Bowl halftime show as a show of solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Grammys are about relevance.
The Grammys, run by the Recording Academy, call themselves the music industry’s highest honor. But the Grammys have demonstrated an astounding lack of relevance year after year. This is the institution that once awarded Best Rock & Roll Recording to “Winchester Cathedral” over the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” among other notable gaffes. In recent years, the Grammys have been taken to task for failing to recognize progressive music from women and people of color in its nominations and choice of performers during the telecast. In 2018, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow came under fire for making a condescending remark about women while at the same time the Recording Academy snubbed Lorde as a performer (even though she was up for Album of the Year), and Alessia Cara was the only solo female Grammy winner.
Who can blame the musicians for skipping the Grammys? Artists build their fan bases on their own digital platforms, not at the Grammys. On digital, they can reach a more relevant audience that listens their music, attends their concerts, and buys their merchandise. Consider Ariana Grande. She dropped her new album, thank u, next, two days before the Grammys. You’d think a televised appearance before millions of people would be the perfect opportunity to promote her new music. But instead she just gave the Grammys a very public middle finger.
Ariana Grande doesn’t need the additional exposure. Her 294 million combined followers on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTube alone do a powerful job promoting thank u, next, and to a more relevant audience (compared to the 19.8 million who watched the Grammys on TV in 2018). She’s already dropped two singles from the album, one of which was her first-ever Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. She was the top-streamed female artist in 2018. Ticket sales for her Sweetener tour, launching in March, appear to be strong based on her adding shows. She’s headlining Coachella in April.
What would the Grammys do for Ariana Grande except associate her name with a stodgy, out-of-touch brand?
It will be interesting to see if more musicians avoid the institutions of yore such as the Academy Awards. But I wouldn’t count on any of the old-guard television events adapting. They’re using a playbook created last century. Meanwhile, the artists are creating a new game.
The Super Bowl halftime show used to feature marching bands and harmless American cheese such as Up with People. Then the show became a high-profile global stage for big-time musicians such as Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. This year, it’s a lightning rod for controversy and an embarrassment for the NFL.
For the Super Bowl LIII halftime show occurring February 3 in Atlanta, the NFL has struggled to find performers to land a gig so prominent that stars are usually willing to perform essentially for free. That’s because a number of musicians have staged an unofficial boycott of the halftime show to express their solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Colin Kaepernick Factor
In 2016, Kaepernick triggered a national culture war and a public battle with NFL owners when he took a knee during pre-game national anthems to protest oppression of people of color. He became a free agent before the 2017 season, but no team signed him. In the wake of his not being signed, he filed a collusion suit against the NFL that is expected to move forward in 2019.
Over the past two years, Kaepernick has become transformed from an NFL star into a social activist. His public profile received a major boost when a Nike ad in September 2018 positioned him as a leader who transcends sports. And now the NFL Super Bowl halftime show has done the same although certainly not by design.
The Rihanna Factor
Normally, artists jump at the chance to perform at the halftime show, and it’s easy to see why: since 2010, Super Bowl viewership has ranged from 103 million to 114 million, giving halftime show performers a gigantic stage to promote their music and elevate their personal brands. But when the NFL approached Rihanna to appear at Super Bowl LIII, she reportedly turned down the gig to support Kaepernick. And when someone with Rihanna’s clout acts, others follow. Musicians joining the unofficial boycott include, reportedly, Cardi B, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj. The NFL finally confirmed Maroon 5 on January 13, and then Big Boi and Travis Scott agreed to join them. By contrast, the NFL confirmed Justin Timberlake, last year’s headliner, five months before the Super Bowl.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII, Big Boi, Maroon 5 and Travis Scott have faced criticism on social media and from other artists. For example, Roger Waters has challenged Maroon 5 to take a knee onstage as Colin Kaepernick did before the national anthem. T.I. has called Travis Scott selfish for agreeing to perform. Black Twitter has spoken out as well. The show has now become a racially charged PR fiasco for the NFL, an especially embarrassing situation given Atlanta’s prominence as a burgeoning hip-hop center and its reputation as the black mecca of the United States.
Two Big Questions
In the aftermath of the media storm surrounding the controversy, two questions remain:
Will all the drama hurt Big Boi, Maroon 5, and Travis Scott? Yes and no. They’ve lost credibility with other musicians for crossing the unofficial boycott line. But fans are another story. An artist has to try really hard to alienate their fans to the point where they stop buying their music. If anything, the media exposure will help Maroon 5 and Travis Scott sell more tickets for their tours, which are in progress. Big Boi just released two new songs in advance of the Super Bowl. He’s banking on the controversy to help him.
Will the NFL be affected? Not on Super Bowl Sunday. Fans are not going to boycott the game because of the halftime show. But it says something that musicians were willing to skip a show that should have been a no-brainer decision to do. The NFL can be wounded (especially when Rihanna wields the sword). The unofficial boycott has called attention to Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem controversy just when it seemed as though the issue had become dormant. The NFL would prefer that the Super Bowl buzz focus on football, not on racial injustice. But the artists have stolen the narrative. They have collective power that they could exercise in other ways in the future, such as turning down Super Bowl ad spots.
Meanwhile, the halftime show mess has probably helped the man at the center of the boycott, Colin Kaepernick, by keeping his name in circulation as his grievance against the NFL goes to trial. The graphic below shows the volume of searches for Colin Kaepernick in the United States within the past month. Searches for his name spiked on January 16 when a story broke about Travis Scott reportedly meeting with Kaepernick before Scott joined the halftime show lineup. Interest is climbing again on the eve of the Super Bowl.
I doubt that Colin Kaepernick’s protests have had any impact on NFL viewership. NFL fans, like music fans, are very good at compartmentalizing. Viewership ratings have dipped and then increased over the past few years, and the quality of the play on the field has made the difference. But Colin Kaepernick never said he was protesting the NFL when he took a knee. He was, and is, calling attention to oppression of people of color in the United States. He has succeeded. Musicians have helped him keep the conversation about racial injustice in the public eye. And this conversation is bigger than the Super Bowl.