As Peter Thiel noted in zero to one, it is common for companies to lie to themselves and to others, and claim they’re in a league of their own.
The fatal temptation is to describe your market extremely narrowly so that you dominate it by definition. Suppose you want to start a restaurant that serves British food in Palo Alto. “No one else is doing it,” you might reason. “We’ll own the entire market.” But that’s only true if the relevant market is the market for British food specifically. What if the actual market is the Palo Alto restaurant market in general? And what if all the restaurants in nearby towns are part of the relevant market as well?
In a similar vein, if you’re making something people read, watch, or play - anything they spend their discretionary free-time engaging in, then you’re competing with Netflix, and a whole slew of other scary characters. Even if you’re not a game you’re competing with Minecraft and Fortnite. Games, social media platforms and media services that have built addiction into their product road-map. Leveraging “dark” UX patterns, human frailties and cognitive biases they’ve built products that compete with basic necessities like sleep itself.
“You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep, and we’re winning!” - Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO
We are living in the golden age of television, heralded in by the likes of The Sopranos and Mad Men. In mid-2018 Goldman Sachs estimated Netflix will have spent between $12 and $13 billion on content by the end of the year, followed close-behind by Amazon, Apple and HBO. If that doesn’t scare the shit out of you, it should. Your blog post, tutorial, or screen-cast is up against Tony Soprano and Vito Corleone. Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. Robin Hood, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jaws, Jason, Beowulf and Batman. Ever book that’s ever been written, game, viral cat video, classic movie, epic album and blockbuster television series. You’d better make sure it is the best and most authentic thing you can make.
This one-sided contest doesn’t just hit you hard if you’re producing content. How are we supposed to get anything done with all this amazing shit to watch, play, listen to and read? This wouldn’t be so bad if we actually spent our time dining from this amazing, infinite buffet of michelin 3-star content. Sadly we often binge-consume information junk-food while our un-watched queue of amazing documentaries and technical videos continues to grow. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the disappointment of sitting down in the evening with the intention of reading a good book or watching an educational video, only to return to our senses a few hours later as we realize that we should be really getting off to bed and that we’ve spent the entire evening watching the afore-mentioned cat videos. It is amazing and depressing to see how much of our free time we spend on trivialities. There is nothing wrong with cat videos per se, but we recognize there is a problem when we’re disappointed because we didn’t spend the time how we wanted to, and in hindsight how we wish we had spent it. It’s not that something better came along and we changed our plans. Invariably something worse came along, and we let our attention wander without consciously thinking about how we were spending it.
What to do? It is much easier to stop doing something if you never start doing it in the first place. Some people will spend the first few minutes of their work day or their morning reading the news of the day. The time we spend doing this can easily stretch out to be much more than we intended, and sets a pattern for further distraction later in the day. Other people have an evening routine of watching something over dinner, which starts them on a path of further consumption into the evening. Recognize our own weakness - our inability to stop watching those amazing cat videos - and create a routine that minimizes our exposure to these things, and emphasizes the things we want to spend more our time on.
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” - Seneca
Attention to a certain topic is like violence - it begets more of itself. Some topics provide a constant stream of distraction without much substance, lasting wisdom, or value. Once we’re drawn in to following these topics they can easily become large time-sinks in our lives. Politics, celebrity news, the latest gadgets, and sports can easily absorb a large amount of our free time and attention if we let them. Viewed over the timeline of years and decades most of the day-to-day discourse on these things is just noise. That’s not to say these things have no value - if you get great satisfaction and enjoyment from following them, and have no regrets about how you spend your time on them then that is great. If you wish you were spending your time differently creating routines that avoid these topics altogether, or strictly schedule and timebox their impact on your life, can really improve your attention on the things you want to attend to.