✍️ Amazon’s writing culture, explained


February 16, 2021

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Revtown

Texas residents faced rolling blackouts as a winter chill swept over the state, straining natural gas supplies.

In response, Chris Bakke — a former My First Million podcast guest — dropped a near perfect tweet: “Texas is proof that if you assemble enough Californians in any one place, a rolling blackout occurs.”

The Big Idea
ecommerce

For the next big ecommerce trend, look down and east

To predict digital trends, the saying goes, look down and east. “Down,” as in your phone, and “east” as in China. Today, there’s yet another reason to look down and east.

Around the world, Chinese people are celebrating 2 things: the Year of the Ox and the year livestreamed ecommerce went BIG.

So big, in fact, it was the main focus at China’s New Year’s Gala…

viewed by 1B+ people. The star of the show was 36-year-old influencer Huang Wei, known as Viya, China’s livestream queen.

Spotlighting Viya shows China’s dead serious about leading the world in livestreamed ecommerce:

  • As of March 2020, 560m people were watching shopping livestreams in China, an increase of 126m compared to the summer of 2019.
  • China’s livestream commerce market reached $170B in 2020, up from $66B in 2019.

Think of China’s livestreamed shopping platforms as the intersection of QVC and TikTok. Anyone can be an influencer, offer fan discounts, and promote flash deals in real time.

China’s hoping the trend can rejuvenate its battered economy

Though influencers can sell practically anything (no joke, Viya sold a rocket launch service last year), Beijing is pushing influencers to promote nationally important products.

Many influencers promote local foods to help China’s 130m farm households. One platform says it even helped 5m sellers from China’s poorest villages market ~$3B in agricultural products in 2019.

When will livestreamed commerce trend overseas?

In the US, we’re already seeing its early stages. Amazon launched an in-house QVC platform — Amazon Live — in 2019, and Walmart tested influencer-driven live shopping on TikTok in December.

It’s a good start, but to catch up with China’s 560m viewers, there’s clearly a ways to go.

Viya, China’s livestream queen, literally selling a rocket online (Source: The Sixth Tone)

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Snippets
  • Skynet going live? Per the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon aims to introduce autonomous vehicles (including helicopters and undersea vessels) in the not-so-distant future.
  • EV win: Jaguar Land Rover announced its Jaguar brand will be all-electric by 2025 and Land Rover will release 6 fully electric models over the next 5 years.
  • Uber-sized problems: Ahead of an EU review of gig economy regulations, Uber recommended a model in which drivers aren’t employees but still receive some benefits.
  • Parler returns: The embattled company — which was blacklisted by Big Tech and hasn’t had a CEO for weeks — released a new site, though it’s not clear who’s hosting it.
  • This year’s Sundance Film Festival went remote (and got a bit weird) with quarantine-friendly fare including Zoom, Instagram, and VR content, per The Verge.
Energy economy

Why oil and battery metal prices are surging in parallel

Metals used in electric vehicle batteries are going to the moon.

Cobalt, lithium, copper, nickel,and some rare earth metals have seen prices surge in recent months as electric vehicle (EV) demand — especially in China — rises.

According to The Economist, the bullish run is also due to COVID-related supply constraints in China (rare earth), Indonesia, and South Africa (cobalt) — among others.

Another energy-related commodity is also seeing prices jump.

On Monday, WTI crude oil hit $60.77…

… a pandemic high, per CNBC. The commodity is now up more than 20% for the year and is a long way away from negative futures prices of April 2020.

Supply constraints are also an important consideration for oil. The winter weather sweeping through Texas could potentially freeze wells and take oil production offline. Further, many O&G companies are shedding production budgets, which will strain supplies.

Add to that, greater energy demands — to deal with cold weather and the longer-term expectation of economic recovery — and you have the recipe for rising prices.

This may all be a sign of a “strange pattern to come,” writes The Economist: higher prices for both oil and the metals that may help replace it.

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The Power of Writing

Amazon’s writing culture, explained

Making fun of PowerPoint presentations is a popular pastime in corporate America (to be fair, they really do suck).

Back in 2004, Jeff Bezos actually did something about it: In lieu of crafting a PowerPoint, Amazon employees had to write a narrative-driven, 6-page memo before executive meetings.

In their new book Working Backwards, longtime Amazon execs Bill Carr and Colin Bryar explain the company’s writing culture, including why memos are better than PowerPoint:

  • Decision-making requires narrative: While PowerPoint is good for conveying data, decisions require persuading stakeholders. Memos are better at achieving this goal.
  • Higher information density: People can read faster than people can talk. One author says a memo conveys 10x as much information as a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Ideas > charisma: A charismatic PowerPoint presenter can sell a bad idea, while a poor presenter may be unable to sell a good idea. In a memo, the idea wins.
  • Better analysis: PowerPoint’s hierarchical (and sequential) structure is not ideal to address complex issues. Narrative-driven memos can be multi-causal and provide a 360-degree view on a topic.
  • Shared understanding: Whether or not one agrees with the memo, a focused reading of it puts everyone on the same page to begin discussions.

It’s not just memos, either

The book’s title comes from Amazon’s product development philosophy: Instead of creating a product and then finding customers, Amazon asks, “What does the customer need?” and works backwards toward a product.

As part of the process, employees write a mock press release, which accomplishes a few things:

  • Forces big thinking: You don’t write press releases for incremental improvements.
  • Creates an FAQ: This document answers all potential customer questions, and also uncovers potential hurdles and opportunities.

If you want a PowerPoint of this article, email us and we definitely won’t get back to you.

(Check out the book’s authors on the a16z podcast for much more.)

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Bubble of the day
old photo

When the bike is nice, but your outfit is way fresher (Source: Giphy)

Electric vehicles (EVs) are having a huge moment, with Tesla’s valuation nearing $1T and every automaker throwing its hat in the EV ring.

If it turns out to be a bit of a bubble, it’s not the first time an emission-free vehicle has gone through a hype cycle.

As detailed by academics William Quinn and John Turner in Boom and Bust, the bicycle industry went buckwild in the 1890s.

In one year (1896), 671 new bicycle companies raised £27m on stock exchanges. That was equivalent to 1.6% of the British GDP (by comparison, the US SPAC boom — which includes many EV companies — raised 0.4% of the US GDP last year).

The good times didn’t last, though: 50% of these companies flat-tired by the turn of the century.

TRENDS

Billion dollar lessons from a “nation of unicorns”

When President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, the former investment banker vowed to make France “a nation of unicorns.”

A little more than 3 years on, and funding for French tech startups has reached an all-time high of over $4.3B.

France’s startup scene is taking off.

So, our analysts put together a comprehensive report on the subject. In it, we outline the lessons any entrepreneur can take from the billion-dollar startups redefining the French economy.

When you read the report, you’ll learn:

  • Which industry has seen a 2,297% increase in funding in just 2 years
  • The “super apps” that have swept Europe, and the opportunities still available to capitalize on
  • How one French company took advantage of post-COVID trends to raise $93.6M in funding
  • And so much more.

If you’re not already a member of Trends, sign up today for a $1 trial to get access to the full report.

Get Access →

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