Cannibalisation Is Not A Useful Choice Of Language

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, doesn’t like the word “cannibalisation” because it’s zero sum. It implies that you’re the guy doing the eating or being eaten.

He says being in business is not like playing a sport or being in warfare. It’s more like music, it’s more like art. It’s not a zero sum game.

I absolutely agree with Libin, and in the long run his view is the only healthy and constructive way to think about business. However, this doesn’t account for the popularity of books among business people like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or Machiavelli’s “The Prince”.

What’s going on here?

Why does Libin think about business as music, whereas many others think only of warfare?

A first explanation is that most people who think and write about business are not C-suite executives or founders of successful companies, and so they are typically exposed to the hostilities that are inevitable in trying to rise upwards. Even in the friendliest of work environments employee performance will be reviewed annually and productivity will be compared against other employees working at the same level.

Large professional service firms typically place employees in a kind of tournament like dynamic where they are shown the promise of a small number of well-paid managerial roles and the implicit threat of being fired if they fail to perform better than their peers.

A second explanation is that some industries are more zero sum than others.

Any industries dealing in the real world of atoms (for example, mining, farming or transportation) are likely to see the world in a more zero sum way. The customer either buys my coal, corn or transportation or they buy someone else’s.

Industries dealing in the virtual world of information on the other hand (for example, tech start-ups) are likely to see the world in a more collaborative way. After all, there is always more information and goodwill to go around.

That being said, I would suggest that Libin’s view of business should apply not just to the technology industry but to all sectors.

Economists have coloured our thinking by painting traditional business as a place where firms compete to maximise profits through the sale of goods and services, forgetting of course that businesses can only sell their products by first engaging in some form of marketing. And what is marketing, if not the pure and free exchange of information.

Libin is in the technology industry, but in a strange and unexpected way, so are we all. And as a result, talk of “cannibalisation” is not a useful choice of language.

Love vs Lock In

Economists love to talk about “scarcity” and the fact that we live in a world of limited resources.

However, in the digital world this need not necessarily be the case.

Phil Libin of Evernote is of the view that if you’re in a traditional industry like minerals extraction or transportation, then customers will either go for your stuff or your competitors stuff, but almost certainly not both. And so it’s more or less a zero sum game.

However, Libin believes that in the world of technology it’s really not zero sum. There is room for people to use multiple products. It’s not a scarcity based economy. If anything, it’s a love based economy. It’s an economy where the affinity that people have towards your products and towards your brand controls how much money you make. If you’re in the technology industry it’s a mistake to think about the world in terms of scarcity.

Libin believes that while the tech world does lend itself towards having one business dominate in a particular segment (for example, Google in search), this is only because the tech world is becoming more of a meritocracy than it’s ever been. Libin asks, quite reasonably, why would you use the second best product when you can use the best?

The problem with Libin’s view about meritocracy (apart from the fact that it seemingly contradicts his view that there is room for everyone in Silicon Valley’s love based economy) is that it’s only a half truth. One of the strongest forces that enable (or inhibit) many technology companies are network effects. Companies that have lots of users can be extremely valuable because users benefit from each other rather than from anything that the company itself provides.

A case in point is Facebook. There is not a month that goes by that I don’t consider leaving the network, or don’t talk to a friend who is thinking about doing the same. But people typically return when they realise that, despite Facebook being a horrible and pointless waste of time, everybody else they know is on there too.

Network effects can protect incumbents long after their time has passed and this explains not only the persistence of Facebook but also that of other technology products including Microsoft Office and Whatsapp.

The technology industry may not be a zero sum game, but nor is it quite the meritocracy that Libin would have us believe.

Free Services vs Privacy Online

Big data (combined with data analytics and machine learning) offers exciting opportunities to decipher patterns and solve complex problems more quickly and cheaply than ever before, but it also has the potential to infringe the privacy of individual users.

Looking at a company like Evernote, which uses a freemium business model to help tens of millions of people be more productive at work, it would be easy to think that there is an inherent trade off between providing a free service and dealing with issues like surveillance and data oversight.

CEO Phil Libin rejects the idea that there has to be a trade off between free services and privacy online.

“We don’t have a big data problem”, he told Stephen Chambers in 2013, “we have millions of small data problems … Everything that people put into Evernote is yours, is private and it should be completely up to you what you want to do with it.”

A few years ago, Evernote published three principles of data protection:

  1. Your data is yours,
  2. Your data is protected (that is, it is not data mined or used for affiliate marketing), and
  3. Your data is portable (that is, you can easily take your data and leave).

Libin’s principles for data protection are admirable, and they certainly provide a level of comfort for Evernote users that doesn’t exist everywhere elsewhere.

Facebook, for instance, has been pretty cavalier with user data over the years. Whether it be adding features that share a user’s location, preventing users from easily downloading their own data, or it’s recent and widely criticised initiative to provide a limited number of free internet services in developing markets which digital rights groups have argued undermines net neutrality, freedom of expression and the privacy of users.

While Evernote actively favours data protection, there are strong indications that Facebook definitely doesn’t.

Why do Evernote and Facebook have such a different approach to data protection?

The answer appears to lie in the different business models that the two companies have chosen to adopt. Facebook is a free service and apparently always will be. It makes money through ads, and exploits user data in order to serve those ads more effectively. On the other hand, Evernote has adopted a freemium model. It offers a free product to all users and offers a more premium version of the product to paying customers. Happy customers can upgrade if they want to, and this is where Evernote makes all of its money.

There is money to be made online through targeted ads, and this is how Google and Facebook make money. There is also money to be made by providing products that people are willing to pay for, and this is how Netflix, Audible and Evernote make money.

The issue with the targeted ad approach is not that it lacks profitability, but that it requires the companies involved to harvest and analyse user data, and these companies are often elusive about exactly what data they are collecting and how they are using it.

Transparency would restore a lot of trust.

Libin’s Law

Libin's Law

(Source: Techworld)

Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote, was one of the guest speakers during Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford which was hosted at Oxford’s Said Business School a fortnight ago.

As part of the conference there was a debate held at the Oxford Union, the world’s oldest debating society, the motion being “This House Believes that Humanity’s Augmentation with Technology Creates a Better World”.

The debate was a heated one, and Libin was a speaker for the proposition.

In making the case for technological progress in general (as you would expect from a tech founder), and for human augmentation in particular, Libin argued that “[t]he upsides of making people better and making people smarter will far outweigh the downsides.”

At the same time he was quick to acknowledge that some of the potential risks associated with human augmentation are likely to come true, and we will need to be prepared to minimise and mitigate these risks.

These risks were variously acknowledged to include (a) the creation of an unrivalled and potentially immortal tech elite, (b) the creation of artificial intelligence which has been characterised by Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk as a technology with extreme downside risks, and (c) the creation of greater inequality worldwide since only the wealthy will be able to purchase augmentation technology in the early stages, and so they may gain a self-sustaining advantage over everybody else.

In response to the risks outlined by the opposition team including their references to Murphy’s law, Libin proposed a law of his own.

“The opposition talk very intelligently about Murphy’s Law … but there’s an alternative to Murphy’s Law, which I’d like to propose here. In fact, I would very much like from here on out, for this to be known as Libin’s Law … It’s the combination of Murphy’s Law and Moore’s Law. It says that the number of things that go wrong will roughly double every year and it’s for this reason that we need technology and that we need augmentation.”

Whether it be artificial intelligence, or some other form of existential threat like climate change or nuclear proliferation, are you inclined to agree with Phil Libin? Do we need to augment humanity in order to protect and save it from these escalating risks?