Things We Don't Understand

February 24, 2014

You can divide all the people who might care, or might find it interesting that a company like Facebook spent nineteen billion dollars on a company like Whatsapp, into what are essentially three groups. 

1) People who get the purchase, and the reasons behind it

2) People who don’t get the purchase, but never claimed to understand why Facebook does what it does

3) People who don’t get the purchase, and are horrified and annoyed that they don’t get it

First of all, LOTS of people who claim to be in Group 1 are really in Group 3. Let’s just get that out of the way, because this isn’t a post about false expertise or imagined credentials or anything like that. Analysts and pundits feigning understanding is standard operating procedure, not something interesting.

What IS interesting is how big Group 3 really is — how many confused tech industry people there are struggling to process the implications of this kind of deal. “Nineteen billion dollars for an SMS app? Doesn’t Facebook have a perfectly good messaging application, and doesn’t practically everyone have Facebook? Even if this is something worth purchasing, how could it possibly be worth SO much money?”

i don’t get it either, but that’s okay

I’m not going to try to answer those questions, because there are smarter people out there  with a better understanding of things like international social networking business models who can do that for you, and because that’s not really the kind of thing this site is about. What I am going to do is write about the feeling of suddenly not understanding something you thought you understood, and how to deal with it.

Everybody has blind spots, and in my experience, they’re not necessarily intrinsic; they’re usually formed — somewhat ironically — from experience and expertise. Anytime you learn how to do something in the real world, you find efficiencies to exploit and irrelevancies to ignore as you learn how to do the job. That’s why you get better at your job, of course. Before you know it, you’re confident, effective, and comfortable blasting through the questions and obstacles that might paralyze a less experienced professional than yourself.

That’s when you get your blind spot. Marketers and media people assume everyone is on Twitter, designers assume that everyone has good taste (and cares about it), VCs assume that all good ideas get funded, developers assume everyone smart can code well, companies with sales lock-in assume their products are competitive, and the Knicks assume great players will demand to play in New York

(Okay, I can’t explain that last one — some people are just delusional.)

This process happens to everybody. You can bring in consultants, and sometimes that helps (hi!), but what’s more important than a voice coming from outside your organization is a voice coming from outside your discipline or culture. Facebook doesn’t need a consultant from some Bay Area design firm; they already have a very good version of that perspective in-house. What they need is to figure how to deal with people outside that universe who post ugly memes and political rants, and also happen to comprise a majority of their user base. 

One of my old co-workers joined a company that made some kind of automation software for the government, and wanted to expand sales to the private sector. Great — except they used their government product/sales/marketing approach to do it, and refused to deviate because it had worked so well in the past, even when it didn’t work. They couldn’t see past the similarities of the two markets (“the purchasing guy at this telecom company used to work for the FCC!”), and as a result missed the differences. Success had made their world so small and focused that they lost the ability to live outside of it, or even to recognize that this had happened in the first place. 

MY blind spot

I brought up the Facebook/Whatsapp deal because it’s a great example of this happening to lots of people who consider themselves more resistant to blind spots — people like me. But in my case, I’ve already been disabused of the notion that I understand international social networking — when I started working for EEx, I was introduced to WeChat, China’s enormously popular (and profitable) messaging/social app. Internally, I dismissed it immediately. It was ugly, weird, and full of gimmicks like voice messages and the ability to send a message in a virtual bottle. Everything I knew about software, applications, and human beings said this app was a joke. 

As it turns out, WeChat is the opposite of a joke. It has 600 million users, including 70 million outside of China, and more importantly, is an active, immediately-understood method of communication in a huge market, and a vibrant ecosystem for things like Paypal-style payments and additional apps. My blind spot — a combination of my inability to see the potential of a platform based on messaging, along with my own personal preferences for design and usability — kept me from seeing WeChat for what it is. Fortunately, EEx has a great team of people from different disciplines and cultures, and we listen to each other. WeChat seemed insane to me, but the people telling me how important it was did not, so I got over it. 

I wouldn’t say that’s the IDEAL way to handle blind spots; if you’re doing strategy or planning, you probably want to focus on not developing them in the first place. But you’re only human, and ten or twenty years in an industry is likely to cause them no matter how open-minded you are. In that case, your best defense really is your ability to find and hear those outside voices — the ones that can tell you your technology is weak, your product is lame, or your sales channel is closing.

Hey, nobody said being in charge would be easy.