This post is about search… but first, a little anecdote. I was playing poker with some buddies this weekend, and it reminded me of a thought I have often had about my friend Jon’s bluffs: he’s very succesful at finding that threshold “pain level” above which our other friend Will and I are hesitant to call the bluff. That is, he knows what the minimum raise is that he needs to make to intimidate us out of the pot. Typically it’s about 3-4 times the big blind.
On a related note, I’ve also been fortunate to go to schools with reasonable size classes most of my life. Even now in university, I’ve got some seminars that are tiny – there’s 18 of us in “Legal Education” with prof. Rod MacDonald (who is awesome, if any other law students are reading this … definitely worth taking). That’s allowed me to observe interaction in small environments pretty closely.
Throughout these years, there’s always been a girl or two who stood out as being more attractive than the others, at least in classes where the size was 20 – 30 students. The same can be said of some one or two people really standing out for their intellect. I don’t mean just being smart. I mean “remarkably smart.”
In university, the dynamic has changed to a certain extent. In my larger classes of 60 – 80 people, there’s often 4-5 outstandingly intelligent people.
Now, put all the hot people in a room? What do you get? The Coors-Maxim party my friend went to. Girls that would stand out in a normal crowd looked average in his pictures, because you could only compare them to one another.
Now, put all those smart kids in a room? What do you have? Law school classes (present company excluded from the ‘smart kids’ designation)… where commentary and questions that’d be notable otherwise are average.
However, in law school this effect is more pronounced since you study in isolation from people in other programs. This is especially true in my third year of law school, as I’ve gotten used to this environment of overachievers where having a brain isn’t suspect. The Coors-Maxim girls could still be compared with fresh memories of other, less attractive girls, since there’s no closed beauty environment.
So from this, I draw a few different conclusions:
First of all, being remarkable on the web is incredibly more difficult than it is to be remarkable offline.
The reason is that online, the field to compare with is that much bigger. You’re competing directly with other folks offering the same products or services – to which there’s often little barrier to entry – plus you’re competing with everyone else for attention in the media etc.
Offline, you only have to compete with whoever else is available locally. Who do you have to beat? The local butcher and the 3-4 supermarkets within a 10 minute drive?
Second, you’re better off finding a field where the competition really sucks, since the effort it’ll take for you to stand out enormously is much less. Luckily for us, there are plenty of business rating sites like Yelp and BOTW Local that can help you find those places where the competition sucks. Not to mention places where people rate their bosses, their jobs … the web ironically makes discovering pockets of dissatisfaction incredibly easy.
A few keywords you might use to help your searches: “rate my ___” “___ reviews” “___ sucks” and other synonyms.
Third, you don’t need to beat that many folks to stand out. Life and business aren’t zero sum games. This sounds like it contradicts point one, about competing online being much harder. While that is partly true, I exaggerated to make my earlier point – you aren’t competing with everyone. Anyone could compete with you … but most people won’t.
People’s attention is limited, markets are inefficient, RFPs don’t go out to the most-deserving firms … you don’t need to beat Google for the mainstream media’s attention every day of the week. (Only every Monday – Friday and any day there’s a Google “product” release… I hate the word product for online services… It sounds really pretentious. Is that just me?) You just need to beat out the other people emailing a journalist with a story pitch on that particular day.
Just those 15 other girls in your 30 person class. And sometimes, the girl just dressing nicely puts her ahead of the other folks around you.
Fourth, if you’re going to enter an existing market, rather than play “feature catchup,” play “feature/benefit changeup.” Instead of creating a robot that crawls the web to answer searchers’ questions, create one that crawls for vulnerabilities in terrorists’ websites. Instead of a social networking site that lets you poke cute members of the opposite sex, create one that helps people find teammates for their sports leagues.
Fifth, in isolated environments such as niche industries, what people become accustomed can provide a barrier to entry to outsiders, especially if it’s an environment or culture people get used to. For instance, I thought recently about what it would mean if I switched to studying business. Probably the culture would be less academic… and having already suffered from being around anti-intellectual neanderthals, I’d rather be here in law school.
Am I right? Wrong? Being pretentious myself trying to explain what remarkability is to an audience that is incredibly intelligent and experienced? Let me know in the comments! As usual, I’ll edit with dofollow links for quality comments.Ideas