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Apple Demos vs. Amazon Memos
How two tech giants bring ideas into the world.
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Today, we’re talking about the different approaches that Apple and Amazon take to bringing ideas to life.
Also this week:
Can Bing take on Google search?
Lebron breaks the NBA scoring record
Some dope memes (including advice for sitting)
Remember this tech org chart cartoon? It’s sooooo good (and the best visual representation of the saying “you ship your org chart”).
The Bonkers World cartoon is from 2011, so I’m not sure how accurate it is now (eg. Microsoft’s cutthroat culture reached its apex under Big Daddy Ballmer, who left the CEO job in 2014). But I recently saw the cartoons and it got me thinking about how different organizations bring ideas to life.
Specifically, it reminded me of two books I read that explain how Apple and Amazon create products. Both books were written by former company execs:
Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
Here is the TLDR: Jeff Bezos instilled Amazon with a writing culture while Steve Jobs and Apple designed products through product demos.
These approaches are very different. But they have a key similarity: both forced ideas from the brain into the real world. The lessons are very applicable for anyone trying to create anything in their daily life (in my case: writing stuff and making very very dumb memes).
With that in mind, let’s walk through:
The Fragility of Ideas
On June 9, 2004, at 6:02 p.m Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sent an email to his inner team — dubbed the S-team — with a very ominous subject line if you’re a fan of slide decks: "No powerpoint presentations from now on at s-team."
Here is the body of the email:
A little more to help with the reason "why."
Well structured, narrative text is what we're after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than "writing" a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the inner-connectedness of ideas.
Bezos made this decision to address a major problem: the S-Team would finish 60-minute meetings without making any decisions. The email morphed into Amazon’s famous “6-page memo” that execs had to type up when presenting an idea in a meeting (and before the meeting starts, each participant reads the entire document in silence).
Here are 6 advantages of writing a memo over whipping up a Powerpoint:
Information density: People read faster than people can talk meaning that — for a 60-minute meeting — reading a memo before discussing an issue conveys much more information (one of the authors of Working Backwards says it’s 10x more info). Narratives are also more memorable.
Ideas over charisma: In Powerpoint presentations, a great presenter can sell a bad idea. Conversely, a poor presenter may be unable to sell a great idea. In a memo, the idea wins.
Better analysis: Powerpoint's hierarchical (and sequential) structure is not ideal to address complex issues. Narrative-driven memos can be multi-causal and provide a 360-degree view on a topic.
Focusses a meeting: If every meeting participant spends the first 1/3rd of a 60-minute meeting reading, there is a huge transfer of information. It's a forcing function to get everyone on the same page and makes the remaining 40-minutes a high-quality discussion.
Shared understanding: Whether or not one agrees with everything in a memo, focussed reading of a document provides a shared knowledge base to begin discussions. Further, a new employee can quickly "get up to speed" by reading past memos.
Decisions need narrative: Powerpoint and Excel are great at communicating data. However, at the executive level, you are making complex decisions and leading a group. This requires a mastery of narrative (AKA memo writing) to persuade stakeholders.
While the “6-pager” is probably the most famous artifact of Amazon’s writing culture, there was another piece to the writing puzzle: Bezos asked his execs to write mock press releases and FAQ documents for potential new products.
Why? Because you “work backwards” from those mock releases when deciding on whether to launch a new product (hence, the name of the book).
The typical playbook for 20th century retail was:
Create a product
The early Bezos philosophy was to flip the model and start with the question “What does the customer need?" and then work toward the product. And you start by writing a mock press release to determine if the customer need makes business sense:
What problem is the new product solving
Why is it better than existing options
To persuade a customer, the document has to be jargon-free and tell a story
Further, press releases force big thinking. You don't write a press release for an incremental improvements (although, I’m tempted to write a press release for Bearly AI’s new shade of grey on the landing page). Creating a product worthy of a press release means really solving a customer problem and targeting markets with large TAMs (aka total addressable markets).
Then you add in the FAQs, which force execs to think up every potential customer question. Addressing these questions help identify hurdles to getting something to market...and also uncover opportunities.
The rationale behind Bezos’ insistence on good writing is straightforward. At 20 employees, Bezos could be in every meeting. But as the company scaled. With headcount (tens of thousands) and product lines (“The Everything Store”) grew, Bezos had to find way to “inject his lens of thinking” into the organization.
His annual letters were one way and creating a culture of writing was another (side note: creating legibility and transparency to help Amazon scale was also the justification behind Bezos’ equally famous 2002 “API mandate email” that forced Amazon units to “expose their data and functionality” and “communicate” through service interfaces; this mandate laid the groundwork for Amazon Web Services).
While Amazon had ambitions to compete in countless product lines, Apple after the return of Steve Jobs in 1997 was about identifying a few great opportunities and absolutely dominating them (spoiler alert: it worked in an all-time epic run that includes iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad
and the Apple Pencil).
According to Kocienda’s Creative Selection book, the “demo” — AKA demonstration of a service or product in front of key decision makers — was how Apple created and shipped products.
Kocienda — who developed iPhone’s autocorrect among other things — says Jobs used “demo reviews as his chief means of deciding how Apple software should look and feel and function” and that he “made all important product decisions.”
Ever secretive, Jobs had a small inner circle who ran tons of demos on their own to decide who got to eventually demo to Jobs. The inner circle had earned Jobs’ trust by delivering on their own demos, where they exhibited decisive decision-making and taste (truly understanding how to delight and improve an Apple customer’s life).
Apple’s product development process was effectively a pyramid of demos. The best features got an audience with Jobs. And seeing Jobs was no ordinary experience per Kocienda:
Steve was at the center of all the circles […]
From my standpoint, as an individual programmer, demoing to Steve was like visiting the Oracle of Delphi. The demo was my question. Steve’s response was the answer.
While the pronouncements from the Greek Oracle often came in the form of confusing riddles, that wasn’t true with Steve. He was always easy to understand. He would either approve a demo, or he would request to see something different next time.
Remember that Apple cartoon org chart? It looks a whole lot like “Centre of all circles” doesn’t it?
To be sure, Apple no longer has someone at the “centre of all circles”. Jobs passed in 2011. Its legendary head designer Jony Ive left in 2019. And Apple has been “design by committee” ever since (in fact, the head of hardware design — who replaced some of Ives’ role — just stepped down and won’t be replaced).
Bezos “injected his lens of thinking” into Amazon through the written word. When it came to Apple, though, a culture of 6-page memos flying around the office wouldn’t mesh well Jobs’ secretive approach.
At Apple, the demos injected Jobs’ taste and thinking through the organization (related note: Jobs launched Apple University in 2008 as a way to teach his philosophy in a secretive training facility).
Here is Kocienda in a Twitter thread from May 2022:
[Jobs] insisted on concrete and specific demos that showed what the product we were trying to make would be like. Not documents, plans, slides, or hand-wavy abstract talk. Demos.
These demos focused everyone. They helped to eliminate vague thinking. Everyone knew we had to produce work that would be up to his level, a demo ready for his review.
The demos had to be perfect too, to the extent of what they included. If a detail was shown, it had to be an exact proposal for what we might ship.
Wasting time is a great way of thinking about this too, since his demo review method saved time. Nobody produced useless content that wasn’t the product. We went directly at the problems we were trying to solve and the products we were trying to make. He insisted on it.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a demo worth? (I don’t know, probably a lot more than 1000 but def less than 30,000)
The Fragility of Ideas
Neither the Amazon Memo nor the Apple Demo is perfect. They both led to product misses and the details in this article are closely linked to the first decade of the 2000s. It’s also worth mentioning that the Jobs approach — which included many heated tirades — puts a sizable burden on a single decider with rare taste (these individuals don’t grow on trees).
The wins far outweigh the losses, though.
And even though the organizations are so different — Amazon (legible, memos, “Everything Store”) vs. Apple (secretive, demos, focused-product lines) — the through-line between the memos and demos is a structured way to bring ideas into the world.
Prior to “6-page memos”, Bezos was annoyed that no decisions were being made in S-team meetings. The 6-page memo and mock press releases were forcing functions to make decisions.
Apple demos served a similar purpose. “Demos made us react, and the reactions were essential,” writes Kocienda. “Direct feedback on one demo provided the impetus to transform it into the next. Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions…making a succession of demos was the core of the process of taking an idea from the intangible to tangible.”
Ultimately, the Memo and the Demo created a bias to action. It forced people to start making decisions. And build up momentum. The contra is to mistake thinking and planning for productivity (paralysis by analysis).
I have personally fallen in the “paralysis by analysis” trap. For any article I write, there are countless more sources or ideas I could try to shoehorn into the piece. But endless reading and collecting ideas is a form of procrastination.
While I may not be $3T+ in combined market cap, I’ll share my forcing function for bringing ideas into the world: typing random bullet points into Apple Notes. Once I do that, the task has gone from intangible to tangible. And, usually, I can’t stop thinking about the idea until I’ve added bullet points under each idea and barf out the first draft of an article into a word editor.
Here’s the Notes I typed up for this article while going for a walk:
Writing in The Wall Street Journal on the 10th anniversary of Steve Jobs’ passing, Apple’s former design chief Jony Ive relayed why it’s so important to have a process for bringing ideas to life:
As thoughts grew into ideas, however tentative, however fragile, [Steve] recognized that this was hallowed ground. He had such a deep understanding and reverence for the creative process. He understood creating should be afforded rare respect—not only when the ideas were good or the circumstances convenient.
Ideas are fragile. If they were resolved, they would not be ideas, they would be products. It takes determined effort not to be consumed by the problems of a new idea. Problems are easy to articulate and understand, and they take the oxygen. Steve focused on the actual ideas, however partial and unlikely.
Ideas are fragile. So whatever your craft, it’s important to put a system in place — a memo, a demo (or a ridiculous Notes entry) — that works for you to help bring ideas to life.
Today’s SatPost is brought to you by Bearly.AI
Do you read and write all day?
If you do, check out my AI-powered research app called Bearly AI (pun intended). It saves hours of work by helping to boost:
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Oh, and there really is a new grey shade on the landing page.
Links and Memes
Can Bing take on Google search? Satya Nadella presented his vision for Bing x ChatGPT on Tuesday. It’s truly full circle for Microsoft’s CEO. Before taking the top job in 2014, Nadella ran the company’s Cloud unit and Bing.
Today, Bing has a tiny 3% share of the search engine market. But search is so big that Bing still does ~$12B a year (and is now profitable). Crucially, the existence of Bing gave Microsoft massive optionality over the past decade. And the company is capitalizing on it now by integrating OpenAI tools (including ChatGPT answers in Bing and AI features directly into the Edge browser).
When asked by The Verge about search competition, Nadella said he has the “greatest of admiration for Google” and its CEO Sundar Pichai. Then he followed by dropping an unexpectedly fire line: “I hope with our innovation they will definitely want to come out and show that they can dance. I want people to know that we made them dance.”
Google tried to response by demo-ing its own chatbot called Bard but the presentation — which included false information on a search query — was so bad that the company shed $100B of its market cap following a stock sell-off.
Can Microsoft actually take on Google? Mario at The Generalist has a great breakdown of Chat vs. Search and the thing that stood out to me is that traditional search still dominates for the most popular queries like navigational (“where is this thing?”) and real-time informational (“when’s the concert” or “did the Chiefs win?”). Of course, there’s a wide swath of questions that are better served by a chat interface and therein lies the opportunity (Nadella says 50% of search can be improved by Chat).
I think Microsoft is just playing with the house’s money. Bing’s search revenue last quarter was ~6% of its total ($3B of $53B). An additional percentage point of the search market is worth $2B of sales. Nadella also pointed out that Google has huge gross margins and we all know the Bezos quote: “your margin is my opportunity”. At a minimum, Microsoft ends up adding a few billion in ad sales, get more share for Edge and forces Google to dance.
A great YouTube link: “The Ingenious Design of the Aluminum Beverage Can”
Lebron James broke the NBA scoring record. I’ve been following Lebron’s career for two decades and it was def cool to see him break the record. My favoriate part of the celebration was a response from the former scoring record-holder, Kareem-Adbul Jabbar. For years, many speculated that Jabbar would not be happy with Lebron passing him. In a widely-read article, Jabbar set the record straight including these two really good quotes:
“I’d already written several times stating exactly how I felt [about Lebron] so there really wasn’t much to speculate about. It’s as if I won a billion dollars in a lottery and 39 years later someone won two billion dollars. How would I feel? Grateful that I won and happy that the next person also won. His winning in no way affects my winning.”
“If I had a choice of having my scoring record remain intact for another hundred years or spend one afternoon with my grandchildren, I’d be on the floor in seconds stacking Legos and eating Uncrustables.”
PS. Here is Lebron’s record-breaking shot (see if you can find Phil Knight, Nike’s founder and the only person not on his phone).
…And here some wild tweets.
One Twitter experience that other social networks will never ever be able to duplicate is the real-time shitposting that happens during the few “everyone is watching” events we have (eg. World Cup, Oscar’s, Succession or Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives). The next such event is on Sunday — Super Bowl — while the last such event was the Grammy’s…which gave us a lot of banger memes (Affleck with a classic “married guy at event he doesn’t want to be at” face):
Finally, I threw out my back badly a month ago. The following tweet provides a clue as to why my back was ripe for injury: