We live in an 80 / 20 world. In most major areas of economic life, it is a fact that 80 percent of the value is created by 20 percent of the participants. Most startups fail, a few make billions. Most products fail, a few become block busters. This can be applied within a business all the way down to the order and line line. A few customers, a few orders, a few products… a few opportunities create most of the value.
In fact, this trend is only accelerating as digitization advances. We’re seeing an even more intense form of the 80 / 20 allocation in the form of winner take most markets. Google’s organic search results are a great example of this. We’re going to rank every website that is possibly related to your term and show them in order. First gets 60% of the clicks, next gets about 25%, third place around 10%, bottom of the first page gets 1%. Anything after that is consigned to oblivion. That’s not an 80/20, that is closer to a 64 / 4 or a 51 / 1. A brutal second or third derivative of the 80 / 20 concept.
It’s not just Google. The same dynamic applies on Amazon. Or LinkedIn and Monster.com. Facebook. Tinder and dating sites. Any place in the economy where infinite players can compete for a finite resource. Like Highlander, there can be only 1 (top result).
This doesn’t just affect companies. It affects your career and social partnerships.
Winning Values For the 99%
The short version is that 99% of your growth bets are doomed to failure or lingering mediocrity. Failure is usually preferable, by the way – it gives you closure and helps you move on.
You’re wasting your time 99% of the time.
So how do people usually process this?
- Mindless Enthusiasm: If you can’t suit up, you don’t get to play! (I thought we were finished with this when I quit football. The laws of physics keep me out of the NFL)
- Rationalize Failure: At least we learned something! (uh, the 80 / 20 principle applies here as well. You won’t find a practical application for 80% of what you learn).
- Check Out: Rationalizing nihilism and public dependency on a grand scale.
But maybe there’s a forth option….
Engage in Energy Efficient Exploration
Let us assume we still want to play the game (and win). What’s a rational course of action?
Make lots of bets. If the odds of each bet are one in a hundred, we need a ton of them. Increasing our total volume of bets raises the odds of stumbling across a big winner.
How do you make lots of bets? You keep them cheap.
In fact, prior to hitting a big winner, your best strategic objective is to just stay in the game. Optimize your betting process to keep your bets as small and cheap as possible, ideally within your ability to fund them without raising capital. (another great reason to learn to code, but I digress)
How do we keep them cheap? Two time-honored principles:
- Laziness: Doing as little as possible
- Procrastination: Waiting until something is actually needed
Combined, these provide a way to massively decrease your average cost of making bets. Refusing to ship any feature that is not specifically requested takes out cost. Refusing to build that feature until someone is standing in your office demanding it prevents you from building things which don’t get used.
This principle can be applied recursively. Test a side project instead of a startup. Test a packaging change instead of a product. Test a landing page instead of a packaging change. Or just ask the target customer a question. Either way, your effort per bet is reduced.
The real value of winning the bet is the opportunity to invest in a larger (usually safer) bet.
Cheaper Bets. Funds more exploration. Increases your odds of finding a big winner.
So smile, comrades!
You’re not slacking off and wasting time, you’re optimizing your odds of victory!
And now… how to explain that to my teenagers….