Sunday Snapshots (09/20/20) – The Birth of Singapore, Open Source Software, and Starbucks' Rewards Program

In which I think about how to spend my time

Hey everyone,
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!

There is no better weather than crisp, chilly air on a sunny day. On these back-to-back perfect days this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the high opportunity cost of doing anything with your time. We’re constantly bombarded with requests from others, our existing commitments, and seemingly perfect side projects that magically balloon into something much larger. The punch line is: when you say yes to something, you say goodbye to potential future versions of yourself.

It can be overwhelming to imagine this – I know it is for me. What if some potential versions of myself are better than the version I will actually end up becoming? Probabilistically, that’s almost certainly the case. Under this known unknown and countless unknown unknowns, how do I decide what to work on and spend time on? I default to saying yes, but that means I’m constantly context switching and going into late nights on a Thursday night for something I’m only mildly interested in.

Some version of this is an accompanying focus: because the cost is so high, the hurdle rate for any action must be very, very high. Lose some serendipity to gain efficiency points. I’m not sure where I want to be on that spectrum and I’m not naive enough to think that it will be static decision across time.

Anyways, thanks for indulging me in that mini-newsletter-as-therapy session. If you have any thoughts, send me a note by replying to this email.

In this issue of Snapshots, I want to explore:

  • From Third World to First: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew

  • Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure by Nadia Eghbal

  • A masterclass in building a rewards program by Starbucks

  • Buying Myself Back by Emily Ratajkowski

  • The craft behind HBO’s Succession

  • Sam Hinkie’s famous “Trust the Process” resignation letter

Book of the week

How does a colonial outpost living in the shadow of its former overlord survive independence? And if it does survive, how does it turn into a global power?

Those two questions are central to Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First: The Singapore Story. Lee Kuan Yew reigned as Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. During that time, he demonstrated a masterclass in ruthless pragmatism against all odds that made Singapore what it is today.

The book also asks other questions silently. Is a benevolent dictator the best model we can get on the 2x2 matrix of liberty and progress? What does a country that is an extension of a single person’s worldview look like? How can we continue to come up with new models of governance that reflect the new 2020 reality that we live in, not one based on the realities of 1215 or 1776?

I’m about a third of the way through the book and here are my broad thoughts:

Racial diversity and national military service: Singapore has roughly 75% ethnic Chinese, 15% indigenous Malays, and 10% Indians. While tensions between these communities have/will always exist, relations were particularly hostile immediately after independence. There were a number of policies that LKY implemented to combat this, but the one that stood out as the most fascinating is national military service. After the British removed their vestigial military installments from Singapore, this tiny nation had to defend itself from larger powers in the region. By inculcating the youth of the country (all male citizens serve 2 years) and organizing the whole society around it (for ex: even high-powered business executive serve as reserves and have to take a week off every year to participate in training), you create national unity in the face of racial diversity. Two birds with one stone.

Fleeting windows of political opportunity: My fascination with fleeting windows of political opportunities travels with me to this book. LKY identified that the British way of policing the island nation was more civil than what can be expected from the newly crowned superpower, the United States. It must have been hard to ignore given what was going on in Vietnam. He used this to his advantage to galvanize his people into becoming self-sufficient militarily with help from other small nations like Israel. Examples of this ability to seize these fleeting opportunities are dotted through the book.

That’s it from this week. Next third of the book coming next week.

Long read of the week

Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure by Nadia Eghbal

What a fascinating read about an ignored part of our every day lives. An excerpt from the report:

Nearly all software today relies on free, public code (called “open source” code), written and maintained by communities of developers and other talent. Much like roads or bridges, which anyone can walk or drive on, open source code can be used by anyone—from companies to individuals—to build software. This type of code makes up the digital infrastructure of our society today. Just like physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure needs regular upkeep and maintenance. In the United States, over half of government spending on transportation and water infrastructure goes just to maintenance. But financial support for digital infrastructure is much harder to come by.

If you like the report, consider grabbing a copy of Nadia’s amazing book, Working in Public.

Business move of the week

If you’ve been a Snapshots reader for a while, you’ll know that I have a bit of a hobby of following merchant-specific rewards programs. Uber Rewards has particularly received a lot of attention from me. But my favorite is the Starbucks rewards program.


Because there is no other program that is so tightly integrated with the broader business strategy.

Here’s an example of this that I noticed this week:

  1. When you log into the Starbucks app, you see that rewards, not purchases are at the center of the Starbucks app. This is driven by the intuition that app purchases are driven by repeat customers so they will be willingly to go through a couple of taps to make a purchase. It also offers them the chance to highlight the most important things – this week, this was how the rewards program is changing.

  2. They are changing the program so that pre-loading a card gives you 2x the reward points for purchases compared to 1x for all other payment methods. Incentivizing customers to preload a card to pay for their daily coffee by offering 2x baseline rewards seems like a win for customers with no upside for Starbucks. But according to their 2019 annual report, they hold $1.6 billion in these cards with an average of 10% breakage – that’s value that will never be redeemed. So effectively, Starbucks is borrowing from its customers at a -10% interest rate.

Every one who works on any type of rewards program should stop everything they are doing and deconstruct the Starbucks rewards program. It will make you so much better at your job.

Odds and ends of the week

A sobering read, an exciting video, and a blast from the past:

📷 Buying Myself Back by Emily Ratajkowski: The most moving story I’ve read in a while from the most unlikely source. At its core, it’s really about how you lose control of your own identity once you reach a certain level of success in your field. The Emily Ratajkowski, Michael Jordan, or Elizabeth Warren we think we know are different from the real Ratajkowski, Jordan, or Warren. The problem is certainly worse for women. I highly recommend you read the entire piece. If nothing else, it’s an exercise in empathy and re-visiting the classic “don’t judge a book by its cover” principle.

💰 The Craft behind Succession: Intersect my obsession with HBO’s Succession with my new found love for cinematography and you get this video essay about how power, emotions, and dialogue are presented in the dynastic drama. And if you want to get the usual dose of business strategy with a side of Succession goodness, check out this essay I wrote about the audio streaming wars with Packy McCormick on his amazing newsletter, Not Boring.

🏀 Trust the Process: Re-reading this amazing resignation letter by Sam Hinkie, the former 76ers GM, about trusting the process and much more. Courtesy of Blake Robbins.

That wraps up this week’s newsletter. You can check out the previous issues here.

If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.

Until next Sunday,