Categories
Book reviews

Born to Run: Notes

Summary.

The story builds upon the author’s own running experience. Being a semi-enthusiastic runner, he kept getting injuries. Speaking to doctors, they told him that humans simply were not built to run long distances, and injuries therefore inevitably would occur. However, he did not take those answers for granted, and started investigating the subject on his own. He hears rumours about “the running people”, a Mexican tribe called the Tarahumara. Supposed to be some of the greatest runners in human history, while avoiding injuries, the author wants to find out how they manage it.

This sparks a fantastic adventure, switching between tracking down the Tarahumara, researching their history, ultra-marathons, meeting some wonderful characters, as well as a hefty attack on the shoe industry.

Notes.

On why we are born to run by Dr. Lieberman.

“…You’ve got to ask yourself why only one species in the world has the urge to gather by the tens of thousands to run twenty-six miles in the heat for fun. Recreation has its reasons.”

Dr. Dennis Bramble

“Forget about speed; maybe we were born to be the world’s greatest marathoners.”

“Even though biomechanically smooth human runners have short strides, they still cover more distance per step than a horse, making them more efficient. With equal amounts of gas in the tank, in other words, a human can theoretically run farther than a horse.”

Which is also proven, in the yearly 50 mile “Man Against Horse Race” in Arizona, where human regularly beat horses in endurance.

“Dr. Bramble discovered that when many quadrupeds run, their internal organs slosh back and forth liker water in a bathtub. Every time a cheetah’s front feet hit the ground, its guts slam forward into the lungs, forcing out air. When it reaches out for the next stride, its innards slide rearward, sucking air back in. Adding that extra punch to their lung power, though, comes at a cost: it limits cheetahs to just one breath per stride. Actually, Dr. Bramble was surprised to find that all running mammals are restricted to the same cycle of take-a-step, take-a-breath. In the entire world, he could only find one exception: you.

Springy legs, twiggy torsos, sweat glands, hairless skin, certical bodies that retain less sun heat – no wonder we’re the world’s greatest marathoners.

The reason for humans to develop into long distance runners were simple: to catch prey. Dr. Lieberman says “To run an antelope to death, all you have to do is scare it into a gallop on a hot day. “If you keep just close enough for it to see you, it will keep sprinting away. After about ten or fifteen kilometers’ worth of running, it will go into hyperthermia and collapse. We can dump heat on the run, but animals can’t pant while they gallop. We can run in conditions that no other animal can run in.

Unlike our true ancestors, the running men, the Neanderthals were the mighty hunters we like to imagine we once were; they stood shoulder to shoulder in battle, a united front of brains and bravery, clever warriors armored with muscle but still refined enough to slow-cook their meat to tenderness in earth ovens and keep their women and children away from danger. Neanderthals ruled the world – till it started getting nice outside. The new climate was great for the running men; the antelope herds exploded and feasts of plump roots were pushing up all over the savannah.

But there’s a problem. Our greatest talent also created the monster that could destroy us. Unlike any other organism in history, humans have a mind-body conflict: we have a body built for performance, but a brain that’s always looking for efficiency. We live or die by our endurance, but remember: endurance is all about conserving energy, and that’s the brain’s department. The reason some pople use their genetic gift for running and others don’t is because the brain is a bargain shopper. For millions of years we lived in a world without cops, cabs, or Domino’s Pizza; we relied on our legs for safety, food, and transportation and it wasn’t as if you could count on one job ending before the next one began. You could never be sure that you wouldn’t become food right after you catching some. The antilope you’d chased down could attract fiercer animals, forcing you to drop your lunch and run for your life. The only way to survive was to leave something in the tank – and that’s where the brain comes in. The brain is always scheming to reduce costs, get more for less, store energy and have it ready for an emergency. You’ve got this fancy machine, and it’s controlled by a pilot who’s thinking “okay, how can I run this baby without using any fuel?”
You and I know how good running feels because we’ve made a habit of it. But lose the habit, and the loudest voice in your ear is your ancient survival instinct urging you to relax. And there’s the bitter irony: Our fantastic endurance gave our brain the food it needed to grow, and now our brain is undermining our endurance.

We live in a culture that sees extreme exercise as crazy. Because that’s what our brain tells us: why fire up the engine if you don’t have to?

To be fair, our brain knew what it was talking about for 99% of our history; sitting around was a luxury, so when you had the chance to rest and recover, you grabbed it. Only recently have we came up with the technology to turn lazing around into a way of life; we’ve taken our durable, hunter-gatherer bodies and plunked them into an artificial world of leisure. We’ve taken away the jobs our bodies were meant to do, and we’re paying for it. Nearly every top killer in the western world – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, hypertension, and a dozen forms of cancer – was unknown to our ancestors.

“We monitored the results of the 2004 New York City Marathon and compared finishing times by age. What we found is that starting at age nineteen, runners get faster every year until they hit their peak at twenty-seven. After twenty-seven, they start to decline. So here’s the question – how old are you when you’re back to running the same speed you did at nineteen? The answer is sixty-four. Isn’t that amazing? Name any other field of athletic endeavor where sixty-four-year-olds are competing with nineteen-year-olds!”

On ultramarathons and coach Joe Vigil:
“No other elite coach could give a hoot what was going on at that giant outdoor insane asylum in the Rockies. Self-mutilators, mean motherfuckers or whatever they called themselves – what did they have to do with real running? With olympic running? As a sport, most track coaches ranked ultras somewhere between competitive eating and recreational S&M. Super, Vigil thought, go ahead and sleep, and leave the freaks to me – because he new the freaks where onto something. He loved the fact that ultrarunning had no science, no playbook, no training manual or conventional wisdom. That kind of freewheeling self-invention is where big breakthroughs come from. These runners were like mad scientists messing with beakers in the basement lab, ignored by the rest of the sport and free to defy every known principle of footwear, food, biomechanics, training intenstity…everything.

On the beginning of Barefoot-Ted:
“…He got checked by a chiropractor and an orthopedic surgeon, and both said there was really nothing wrong with him. Running was just an inherently dangerous sport, they told him, and one of the dangers was the way impact shock shoots up your legs and into your spine. But the docs did have some good news: If Ted insisted on running, he could probably be cured with a credit card. Top-of-the-line running shoes and some spongy heel pads, they said, should cushion his legs enough to get him through a marathon. Ted spent a fortune he really didn’t have on the most expensive shoes he could find, and was crushed to discover that they didn’t help. But instead of blaming the docs, he blamed the shoes: He must need even more cushioning than thirty years of Nike air-injection R&D had come up with.

After doing research on his own, Ted discovered that Leonardo Da Vinci considered the human foot, with its fantastic weight-suspension system comprising one quarter of all the bones in the human body, “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” He learned about Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian marathoner who ran barefoot over the cobblestones of Rome to win the 1960 Olympic marathon – and about Charlie Robbins, M.D., a lone voice in the medical wilderness who ran barefoot and argued that marathons won’t hurt you, but shoes sure as hell will.

Shoes block pain, not impact!
Pain teaches us to run comfortably!
From the moment you start going barefoot, you will change the way you run.

“No wonder your feet are so sensitive,” Ted mused. “They’re self-correcting devices. Covering your feet with cushioned shoes is like turning off your smoke alarms.”

On his first barefoot run, Ted went five miles and felt…nothing.

There was an important point in all of this: running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot. Barefoot Ted, in his own weird way, was becoming the Neil Armstrong of twenty-first-century distance running, an ace test pilot whose small steps could have tremendous benefit for the rest of mankind. If that seems like excessive stature to load on Barefoot Ted’s shoulders, consider these words by Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University: “A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee-injuries.”
And the cost of these injuries? Fatal disease in epidemic proportions. “Humans really are obligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep roots in our evolutionary history,” Dr. Lieberman said. “If there’s any magic bullet to make human beings healthy, it’s to run.”

On the Tarahumara.
“The Tarahumara aren’t great runners,” Eric told me. “They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different. Runners are assembly-line workers; they become good at one thing – moving straight ahead at a steady speed – and repeat that motion until overuse fritzes out the machinery. Athletes are Tarzans. Tarzan swim and wrestles and jumps and swings on vines. He’s strong and explosive. You never know what he will do next, which is why he never gets hurt. Your body needs to be shocked to become resilient. Follow the same daily routine, and your musculoskeletal system quickly figures out how to adapt and go on autopilot. But surprise it with new challenges – leap over a creek, commando-crawl under a log, sprint till your lungs are bursting – and scores of nerves and ancillary muscles are suddenly electrified into action.

For the Tarahumara, that’s just daily life. The Tarahumara step into the unknown every time they leave the cave, because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint after a rabbit, how much firewood they’ll have to haul home, how tricky the climbing will be during a winter storm.

On Caballo Blanco.
“I’d get up at four-thirty in the morning, run twenty miles, and it would be a beautiful thing. Then I’d work all day and want to feel that way again. So I’d go home, drink a beer, eat some beans, and run some more.”

Categories
Book reviews

The Everything Store: Notes

Summary & Thoughts

“The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon” is a mix between a biography of Jeff Bezos and a history of Amazon.com, much like “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. I’ve wanted to read this for a long time, and had high expectations. I’m very happy to say that the book delivered everything I wanted plus more!

“There is so much stuff that has yet to be invented.
There’s so much new that’s going to happen.
People don’t have any idea yet how impactful the Internet is going to be and that this is still Day 1 in such a big way.”
– Bezos

The start
Bezos started his career at a Wall Street investment fund:
While the rest of Wall Street saw D.E. Shaw as a highly secretive hedge fund, the firm viewed itself somewhat differently. In the owner David Shaw’s estimation, the company wasn’t really a hedge fund but a versatile technology laboratory full of innovators and talented engineers who could apply computer science to a variety of different problems. Investing was only the first domain where it would apply its skills. So in 1994, when the opportunity of the Internet began to reveal itself to the few people watching closely, Shaw felt that his company was uniquely positioned to exploit it. And the person he anointed to spearhead the effort was Jeff Bezos.
It was through this time the idea of “The everything store” first were born. Bezos later left D.E. Shaw to start his own company, which eventually became Amazon.

Amazon was started on a shoestring budget. Bezos backed the company himself with 10,000$ in cash. He later added 84,000$ in interest-free loans and received a 100,000$ investment from his parents.

Books where not a coincidence
Amazon’s first product catalogue consisted only of books, which were no coincidence. They were easy to send, had the same format for packaging, no expiry date etc. There were also a gigantic number of books available, which meant Amazon could compete with traditional bookstores by simply offering pretty much every book available in the world, since they were not limited by a small, physical store. This also meant that Amazon’s first customers were hardcore, loyal fans, often purchasing books they simply could not find elsewhere. This also lead to a positive word of mouth, as they would tell their friends were to find those hidden gems.

Later, when researching new product categories to stock, Amazon hired a “SWAT team” to research categories of products that had high number of SKU’s (unique products), were underrepresented in physical stores, and could easily be sent through the mail. This was a key part of Amazon’s early strategy: maximising the internet’s ability to provide a superior selection of products as compared to those available at traditional retail stores.

Fun fact
One early challenge was that the book distributors required retailers to order ten books at a time. Amazon didn’t yet have that kind of sales volume, and Bezos later enjoyed telling the story of how he got around it. “We found a loophole. Their systems were programmed in such a way that you didn’t have to receive ten books, you only had to order ten books. So we found an obscure book about lichens that they had in their system but was out of stock. We began ordering the one book we wanted and nine copies of the lichen book. They would ship out the book we needed and a note that said “sorry, but we’re out of the lichen book.”

The review function
Amazon early developed a review feature, coded by one of the early developers over a single weekend. Bezos believed that if Amazon.com had more user-generated book reviews than any other site, it would give the company a huge advantage. A lot of the book publishers where unhappy about the feature, due to negative reviews from non-professional critics. However, it went on to serve as an organic marketing channel, where customers used Amazon as a reference guide for purchasing books, looking at the hundred of thousands of user-generated reviews.

How they outcompeted established stores like Barnes & Noble
Bezos had predicted that the chain retailer would have trouble seriously competing online, and, in the end, he was right. The Barnes & Noble owners were reluctant to lose money on a relatively small part of their business and didn’t want to put their most resourceful employees behind an effort that would siphon sales away from the more profitable stores. On top of that, their company’s distribution operation was well entrenched and geared toward servicing physical stores by sending out large shipments of books to a set number of locations. The shift from mailing small orders to individual customers was long, painful, and full of customer-service errors. For Amazon, that was just daily business.
A lot of the big players in the markets Amazon challenged made the same type of errors. Semi-motivated attempts to build a digital presence, but unwillingness to commit due to a historically stable and more profitable physical market.

Amazon warehouses/distribution centers
After hiring Jeff Wilke, a Walmart logistic executive to rebuild Amazon’s distribution centers, Bezos told him he wanted a distribution system that was ten times larger than it currently was, and not just in the United States but in Amazon’s new markets in the UK and Germany. When asked what products they would be shipping, Bezos replied “I don’t know. Just design something that will handle anything,” Wilke recalls. “I’m going, you’re kidding me, right?” And Bezos said “No, that is the mission.” I had to have a solution to handle everything but an aircraft carrier.”
At Walmart, distribution centers shipped containers of products predictably, once a day, to all stores in the surrounding area. At Amazon, there were innumerable packages going to countless destinations. And there was no predictability, as Amazon sales were growing 300% a year and constantly adding new product categories.

“A customer might order one book, a DVD, some tools – perhaps gift-wrapped, perhaps not – and that exact combination might never again be repeated. There were an infinite number of permutations. We were essentially assembling and fullfilling customer orders. The factory physics were a lot closer to manufacturing and assembly than they were to retail.”

To get things under control, Wilke started a series of daily conference calls with his general managers. He told them that on each call, he wanted to know the facts on the ground: how many orders had shipped, how many had not, whether there was a backlog, and if so, why.

Amazon Marketplace
In november 2000, Amazon announced a new initiative called Marketplace. The effort started with used books. Other sellers of books were invited to advertise their wares directly within a box on Amazon’s own book pages. Customers got to choose whether to purchase the item from Amazon itself or from a third-party seller. If they chose the latter, either because the seller had a lower price or because the product was out of stock at Amazon, the company would lose the sale but collect a small commission. “Jeff was super clear from the beginning. If somebody else can sell it cheaper than us, we should let them and figure out how they are able to do it.”

Insane growth
During an early investor presentation, Bezos would tell the investors he projected $74 million in sales by 2000 if things went moderately well, and $114 million if things went much better than expected. This was high goals, but the actual net sales in 2000 tells the story about the explosive growth: $1.64 BILLION.

High demands for the workforce
An early employee worked part-time, which amounted to 35 hours a week. If he wanted to be accepted as a full-time employee, it was expected to almost double that time to around 60 hours a week.
During interviews, if the potential employees made the mistake of talking about wanting a harmonious balance between work and home life, Bezos rejected them.
At Amazon, everyone on the team was supposed to work harder than everyone else. The assumption was that no one would take even a weekend day off. “Nobody said you couldn’t, but nobody thought you would. There was deadlines and death marches,” says an early employee.
As Amazon’s growth accelerated, Bezos drove employees even harder, calling meetings over the weekends, starting an executive book club that gathered on saturday mornings, and often repeating his quote about working smart, hard, and long.
As a result, Amazon had a high churn rate of employees, and a lot of executives left the company when they wanted to have children, as it was not a family-friendly environment.

“Even though we were probably faster than ninety-nine percent of companies of the world, we were still too slow.”

“If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you’re good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.” – Amazon employee

Some of the quotes from Jeff, remembered by the employees:

“If that’s our plan, I don’t like our plan”
“I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”
“Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself”
“Why are you ruining my life?”

But most Amazon employees also acknowledged that Bezos was primarily consumed with improving the company’s performance and customer service, and that personnel issues are secondary. “He had this unbelievable ability to be incredibly intelligent about things he had nothing to do with and he was totally ruthless about communicating it. Jeff doesn’t tolerate stupidity.”

“This has to scale to infinity with no planned downtime. Infinity!” – Bezos

“…It was considered a Jeff project, which meant that the product manager met with Bezos every few weeks and received a constant stream of e-mail from the CEO, usually containing extraordinarily detailed recommendations and frequently arriving late at night.”

“The meetings can be intense and intimidating. “This is what, for employees, is so absolutely scary and impressive about the executive team. They force you to look at the numbers and answer every single question about why specific things happened. Because Amazon has so much volume, it’s a way to make very quick decisions and not get into subjective debates. The data doesn’t lie.”

On investments.
In the company’s first letter to its shareholders, Bezos wrote: “We will make bold rather than timid investments decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.”
Amazon went on to invest in companies like IMDB.com, Exchange.com, Pets.com, Gear.com and a lot of similar companies.
Ultimately, Amazon ended up losing hundreds of millions of dollars on these investments. “Amazon had to be focused on its own business. Our biggest mistake was thinking we had the bandwith to work with all these companies,” says one Amazon executive from those days.

On innovation

“The thing about Bezos is that he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

Jeff have a grand vision for Amazon – that it be not just an everything store, but ultimately an everything company.

“If you look at why Amazon is so different than almost any other company that started early on the internet, it’s because Jeff approached it from the very beginning with that long-term vision. It was a multidecade project. The notion that he can accomplish a huge amount with a larger time frame, if he is steady about it, is fundamentally his philosophy.”

A major Amazon shareholder once asked Bezos at the profitability prospects for Amazon Web Services. Bezos predicted they would be good over the long term but said he didn’t want to repeat “Steve Jobs’s mistake” of pricing the iPhone in a way that was so fantastically profitable that the smartphone market became a magnet for competition.

When brainstorming around the Kindle reader: Bezos felt Amazon needed to control the entire customer experience, combining sleek hardware with an easy-to-use digital bookstore. “We are going to hire our way to having the talent,” he told his executives in a meeting. “I absolutely know it’s very hard. We’ll learn how to do it.”

When speaking to a design team: “I’ll figure this out and it is not going to be a business model you understand. You are the designers, I want you to design this and I’ll think about the business model.”

In 2002 he started a new personal ritual: He took time after the holidays to think and read. Returning the company after a few weeks, Bezos presented his next big idea to his team. One of this ideas was to split all divisions into smaller team, that set its own “fitness function”. For example, a team in charge of sending advertising e-mails to customers might choose the rate at which these messages were opened multiplied by the average order size those e-mails generated. A group writing software code for the fulfillment centers might home in on decreasing the cost of shipping each type of product and reducing the time that elapsed between a customer’s making a purchase and the item leaving the FC in a truck. Bezos then wanted to personally approve each equation and track the results over time. It would be his way of guiding a team’s evolution.

“Step by step, ferociously.” The phrase accurately captures Amazon’s guiding philosophy. Steady progress toward seemingly impossible goals will win the day. Setbacks are temporary. Naysayers are best ignored.

On brutality
For the big book publishers, Amazon’s dawning monopoly in e-books was terryfying. As suppliers had learned over the past decade, no matter the category, Amazon wielded its market power neither lightly nor gracefully, employing every bit of leverage to improve its own margins and pass along savings to its customers. If the company didn’t get what it wanted, the reaction could be severe.

One competitor said: “They have an absolute willingness to torch the landscape around them to emerge the winner.”

“We don’t have a single big advantage, so we have to weave a rope of many small advantages.” – Bezos

Fun facts.
Bezos was one of the original investors in Google, his company’s future rival, and four years after starting Amazon, he minted an entirely separate fortune that today might be worth well over a billion dollars (based of a supposedly 250 000$ investment).

Categories
Book reviews

Alibaba’s World: Notes

Facebook, Google, Apple, Ebay, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, Netflix, Microsoft, Snapchat, Slack, Yahoo, Adobe… American companies dominates the list of the worlds biggest tech-companies. While Silicon Valley pukes out one behemoth after another, the rest of the world struggles to keep up. However, there are some rare exceptions. Alibaba is one of them. 


Why I read it & expectations

Before I read this book, my knowledge of the company was limited. I thought it was some sort of chinese Ebay, and a place to find eastern manufactorers where half of the providers probably was scammers. I did notice the occasional news headlines like “Alibaba eclipses Black Friday sales records” and so on, and I thought it would be interesting to read about a non-US company for once. In addition, you cannot ignore a company with numbers like:

  • As of this writing, Alibabas market value is 430 billion $
  • Their “singles day” campaign sold products for 25 billion dollars. In one day…

Main takeaways

The author
The book is written from the perspective of Porter Erisman, the head of international marketing in Alibaba and one of the first non-chinese employees. Its very refreshing to get the story told from an inside perspective. It details the journey of Jack Ma, Alibabas founder, from a humble english teacher with big ambitions.

The start
One of his first endeavours into the tech-world was to create a company that offered website services for chinese companies. At the time, internet accessability in China was limited, and the website had to be created in the US. To show its customers that they actually created the webpages, they had to send printed images of the websites from US to China by mail!

Local impact
Taobao, a “chinese ebay” company owned by Alibaba, has made a really big impact. In several chinese villages, the marketplace of Taobao has become so important for the communities that it accounts for a large percentage of its total commerce.

The book illustrates just how important Alibaba and Taobao has been in leapfrogging China from a offline to online country. For example, earlier this summer they announced a project to bring high-tech infrastructure and next-day deliveries to 150 000 new villages in the vast, rural China.

The importance of localisation
When battling with the US giant Ebay, Alibaba used its knowledge about chinese culture to outmanouvre its western competitor. While Ebay had a minimalistic and clean user interface, Alibabas websites was the manifistation of a designers nightmare: flashing icons, glowy text, endless gifs… While most westernes would dismiss this as ugly and chaotic, the thought behind this was to resemble a traditional busy chinese marketplace, filled with color and noise. It worked. To the chinese this was a sign of a place teeming with life and great deals waiting to be discovered, while Ebay’s minimalism was considered boring and lacking “soul”.

Alibaba also knew that one of the biggest obstacles to chinese e-commerce was trust. As a country completely new to internet and a strong tradition with face-to-face trade, building trust between users was of outmost importance. They solved this by implementing a free chat tool, allowing users to get to know each other before settling a deal.  

The massive scale
Every month, about half of chinas population (600+ million users) use Taobao or Tmall (another Alibaba company) services.

Alipay, a payment service developed by Alibaba, is now the worlds biggest payment system with 520 million users.  

A total of 86 000 employees. 

Did I mention the market value of Alibaba is 430 billion dollars? 

Conclusion

Alibabas World ended up changing my perspective on several things, including my view on China. I have always considered them to simply copy/paste western successes, but the amount of innovation they are doing is quite astonishing.

The book made me realise that I really need to expand my knowledge about the country. The sheer size of its websites (did you know 4 of the 10 biggest websites are chinese?) and companies starts to dominate the world, and I believe its worth shifting some of the focus from Silicon Valley and over to the east.