Sunday Snapshots (12/20/20) – Groceries, Safe jobs, and Apple's Pollyannaish attitude
In which I ask myself some hard questions about individual responsibility
|Sidhartha Jha||Dec 20, 2020||2|
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!
As we finally settle into the end of the year lull that characterizes most activities, I’m happy to announce that at Snapshots HQ, we (I) are hard at work trying to figure out what the next year of the newsletter looks like. The core tenet of the newsletter has always been building relationships with interesting people, but I do want to couple that with sustainable growth and personal fulfillment. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like yet and would love your input.
If you’ve gotten any value from Snapshots over the lifetime of your subscription, please let me know what do you like about Snapshots and what kind of things would you like me to write about more?
In the meantime, I collaborated with Jake Singer – fellow D.C. resident, cold brew connoisseur, and newsletter writer – on a piece about what Lululemon’s expansion into new product lines can teach us about its acquisition of Mirror. If you’re interested in the much-beloved apparel brand, how companies evolve over their lifetime, or how Lululemon manages to appeal to both Jake’s tie-wearing dad and my girl friends who swear by Soul Cycle, you should check out our article:
In this issue of Snapshots, I want to explore:
How the dark side of the grocery business implores us to ask questions about personal responsibility
The flight to safe jobs during economic downturn and how that affects startups
A re-share of some thoughts on Apple’s privacy efforts
Audio’s opportunity, HBO’s soul, and media’s future
Book of the week
A couple of months ago, a Snapshots reader wrote back about how something that I had discussed reminded him of the fact that “if you look into anything deep enough, you’ll find something interesting about it.” To that reader and to the rest, I offer a corollary:
If you look into anything deep enough, you’ll find something depressing about it.
And it turns out, you don’t need to look particularly deep to find what’s depressing about groceries. You only need to open up any random page of The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr.
I can certainly write about how the author does a great job of going from the cheerful, whimsical world of Trader Joe’s and the shrewd brilliance of its founder to the dreary but equally whimsical (not the fun kind) world of long haul truck drivers and the financial knife’s edge at which they exist. Or the lessons learned from the dangerous dance between wholesale buyers and sellers when they negotiate what, where, how much, and for how much “product” needs to be bought and sold. Or the deeply ironic situation of a Whole Foods worker who despite working for a company that investors consistently gave financial leeway to for decades thinks that if push comes to shove, he would not get any leeway at all.
But as I will certainly make my way to the nearby Target to add some much-needed storage – the dis-assembled contents of the box I will buy involving similar stakeholders – later this week and have my own grocery runs planned every Monday night, it’s tough to avoid the deeply uncomfortable questions that lay bare the futility of trying to decouple personal decision making and broader societal problems.
Do I have a personal responsibility – by virtue of being a “divinely discontent” customer – in creating the economic situation of truckers who cannot even take a break to urinate lest they are off schedule and thus have to use a gatorade bottle while they are driving? Is my indulgent cold brew habit where I go through packs of coffee beans disturbingly quickly built on the backs of underpaid workers justified by some abstract and artificial notion of “this is what the market values their services at”? How can I – or can I – improve thing at the individual level without going full folded beanie and trying to occupy Wall Street?
These questions are not rhetorical. Part of the reason why I write Snapshots is to become better at decision-making and to expose myself to different points of view. And these purchasing decisions are an example of low impact, high frequency decisions that compound over a lifetime to some non-significant footprint. And my point of view is of someone who has the luxury (temporal and financial) to think about this and admittedly does not currently do much about it.
I gotta say, ignorance truly is bliss. And just like I added a corollary to a phrase at the start of this section, let me add an addendum to this one. Heuristics truly are bliss. It’s easy to see the word “organic” and use that as a heuristic for safe and ethical responsible. That’s hardly the case and the deeper you look, the more you recognize that this is not the case. For me, the first step here is to fight against these heuristics.
If you want a not-super-fun but deeply empathetic book, I recommend that you pick up The Secret Life of Groceries.
Long read of the week
Flight to Safety: How Economic Downturns Affect Talent Flows to Startups by Shai Bernstein, Richard R. Townsend & Ting Xu
From the abstract:
Using proprietary data from AngelList Talent, we study how individuals’ online job searches and applications changed during the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis. We find that job seekers shifted their searches toward larger firms and away from early-stage ventures, even within the same individual over time. Simultaneously, job seekers broadened their other search parameters, considering lower salaries and a wider variety of job types, roles, markets, and locations. Relative to larger firms, early-stage ventures experienced a decline in the number of applications per job posting, a decline driven by higher quality and more experienced job seekers. This led to a deterioration in the quality of the human capital pool available to early-stage ventures during the downturn. These declines hold within a firm as well as within a job posting over time. Our findings uncover a flight to safety channel in the labor market, which may amplify the pro-cyclical nature of entrepreneurial activities.
Business move of the week
I don’t have anything interesting to share here this week that I felt I had a differentiated take on. Instead of wasting your time on something I didn’t feel particularly passionate about, I’m re-sharing something that I wrote about earlier in the year and which was in the news this week – Apple’s privacy efforts and how other companies are affected by it.
Apple’s Safari tracking blocker in iOS 14
Apple has made privacy a key differentiator and a PR wedge against its other big tech competitors. At WWDC, they announced further restrictions on how your activity can be tracked as you traverse the interwebs. While users and developers have praised such moves, Apple's dominance and the apparent lack of competition in the consumer tech space is extremely troubling on two levels: practical and philosophical.
1: The Practical
This move has massive second and third order consequences.
The one casualty that immediately comes to mind is the whole idea of niche-driven companies. These companies – companies like Allbirds, Native, Harry's, Warby Parker – capitalized on the ability to target advertising users that had high purchase intent. They found these users through this tracking apparatus. These companies have not only disrupted long standing monopolies and conglomerates, but have served historically under-represented audiences. For example, the razor company Bevel caters to Black men who have different needs from their grooming products. Bevel is uniquely enabled by the internet and its tracking apparatus.
Let’s say that these companies find out a way around this. There still remains a philosophical problem with future moves like this.
2: The Philosophical
Even in the supposed meritocracy of the internet, we're seeing immense centralization. Apple is increasingly a part of how we pay and how we look at our health. It's also a gatekeeper for how we log in to other services. While this centralization does offer a more unified and seamless experience, this perspective can switch on a dime.
Consider this: Would you be okay with giving Facebook this level of power over your pockets, your health, and other parts of your life? I'm guessing not. Well, then you shouldn't be comfortable giving any company this level of power. Most worrying is that Apple and its users are completely convinced of its righteousness. They may even be correct in their thinking – today. Expansion of authority and centralization sounds nice when its in the right hands. Tim Cook might be the best and most considerate CEO ever, but what happens when the baton gets passed on the next generation of maybe-not-so-great leaders? You don’t need to think too hard for parallels.
Add to this the fact that at the center of this empire sits the device that controls your entire life and literally gives you separation anxiety.
Beyond the strategy and specific features talk, we must think more structurally about the tech industry. There's tremendous scope for good, but we must not have pollyannish assumptions.
Odds and ends of the week
Three articles this week:
🔈 Audio’s Opportunity and Who Will Capture It: What Matthew Ball writes, I read. Enough said. If you need some convincing, in this essay he deconstructs the rise of apps like Clubhouse, Roadtrip, and Chalk. He also outlines why the medium is uniquely positioned to power the next wave of social networks.
📺 Inside the battle for the soul of HBO: It seems that the HBO Max, HBO Now, and HBO Go naming/brand debacle was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the mess that HBO finds itself in in. This surprisingly good piece from CNBC shows the backroom decisions that have led to this point. If you love Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or – most importantly – Succession, you should read this.
🐦 Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy: Some interesting points in this short piece by NYT reporter Taylor Lorenz. An excerpt I whole heartedly agree with:
Just as an entire industry of secondary workers has formed around YouTubers, TikTok stars, and streamers, we’ll also see more supporting jobs crop up to support this new class of journalist/creators. Perhaps the new entry-level media job will be editing a big-name writer’s Substack, or helping an independent journalist with their Patreon podcast launch.
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,