Dogs, Dog Food, and the Curse of Some Talent

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The thing is, Butch, right now you got ability. But painful as it may be, ability don’t last. And your days are just about over. Now that’s a hard motherfn’ fact of life, but that’s a fact of life you’re gonna have to get realistic about. See, this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherf’rs. Motherf’rs who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don’t. Besides, Butch, how many fights do you think you got in you anyhow? Two? Boxers don’t have an Old Timers Place. You came close but you never made it. And if you were gonna make it, you would have made it before now. 

“Pulp Fiction” (1994)

We’re a week into the relaunched Epsilon Theory, and I’ve got mail.

I was wondering whether both you and Rusty have what Taleb calls f*** you money? Enough for yourselves and your needs and wants that you are not counting on Epsilon Theory to be financially successful in order to be happy? 

Will you keep writing as long as you still have something to say, or if ET is not paying the bills like you expect will you shut shop and do something else?

Regards, M.

Hahahahaha! Hooo-boy, that’s a good one. Ummm, no, neither Rusty nor I has f*** you money. We are all in with Second Foundation Partners and Epsilon Theory, meaning that we are risking everything to make this work. Yes, we’ve secured enough funding to give us plenty of runway to make it work, but if we’re wrong about the business model for Second Foundation … well, then, we’re wrong, and we’ll have to pick up stakes and pursue our dream and talents in some other form.  It’s the same story as thousands of other start-ups and thousands of other entrepreneurs in America today, no better and no worse. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here’s a lesson I learned in my early start-up days. It was told to me by a very successful entrepreneur and occasional angel investor, and I didn’t believe it at the time. Now I know it’s the Truth with a capital T.

“Ben,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of money and I’ve got a lot of rich friends. We could probably fund this idea of yours for a long time with the 3 F’s – family, fools and friends. But that would be a big mistake. You need to know if a professional VC will invest in this. You need to know if real customers will pay you money for this. You need to know if dogs will eat the dog food you’re serving up. Because if dogs won’t eat the dog food, you shouldn’t do this, even if you’ve got funding secured for years, even if you can fund it all yourself.”

Like I say, this didn’t make me happy at all when I heard it. I thought this was the angel investor’s way of blowing me off, and maybe it was. But he was absolutely right.

Entrepreneurs should fully expose their ideas to the steely gaze of real investors and real customers as soon as humanly possible.

And if your great idea dies under that steady stare, it dies.

Be grateful for that.

Why? Because the great tragedy for an entrepreneur is NOT a failed idea. You will have other ideas! No, the great tragedy for an entrepreneur is a zombie idea, a business that has no chance of growth and vibrancy, but is kept alive through some witch’s brew of too much friendly capital and too much misplaced hope.

Stealth mode? 99 times out of 100 it’s a crock, a smart sounding excuse for hiding behind a non-competitive curtain. Self-financing? Ditto. The courage of an entrepreneur isn’t risking your own money. Of course you’re doing that. That’s the necessary condition, not the sufficient condition. The sufficient condition is risking your identity in the very public arena of competition and capital.

It’s the Curse of Some Talent, when you’ve got an idea or a venture that seems great to you, but isn’t quiiiiite great enough to make it in the cold cruel world. But you remain convinced it’s SUCH a good idea, you remain convinced that you really really do have the talent to make it big, and you’ve got the resources to keep going. That’s how one year turns into two. That’s how two years turns into ten, a decade of meh, all because you didn’t listen to what the world was telling you, all because you couldn’t bring yourself to put down the merely good idea, all because you never forced yourself to dream the NEXT idea.

As Marsellus tells the some-talented boxer Butch in Pulp Fiction when he’s arranging for Butch to take a dive in his next fight, “if you were gonna make it, you would have made it before now.”

Marsellus is absolutely right.

If it’s truly a great idea, Epsilon Theory will succeed commercially.

And if it doesn’t – if the dogs don’t eat the dog food – then no matter how much I believe it’s a great idea whose time has come … it’s NOT. I will be WRONG, and I must have the courage to confront that possibility today and that reality tomorrow, if it comes to pass. 

And all the f*** you money in the world won’t change that.

What does Clear Eyes, Full Hearts mean for an entrepreneur?

It means seeing your business venture for what it IS, not what you hope. It means seeing your business venture through the eyes of real investors and real customers, not just through the eyes of people who care about you. It means having the courage and the strength of identity to pull the plug and admit failure publicly if your great idea is, in truth, merely an okay idea. It means having the courage and the strength of identity to know that you will have another great idea in the future, and that one may truly be a great idea. Or not. But if not, there will be another. And another. Because you’re not just a person of Some Talent. In some way, shape or fashion, some field, endeavor or profession, you are a person of Talent. Period.

I’m not saying to give up on your dreams. I’m not saying to quit easily. I’m saying that you should see clearly what the world is telling you, and have the strength of character to evaluate fairly and accept graciously what you see.

Here are two representative emails that show what I’m seeing and evaluating with Epsilon Theory.

Hi Ben,

I have not joined as a “member”.  However, I feel like I am a pack member. I read every article that comes out, and have binge read almost your entire archive.  You have affected my thinking, hopefully it is more critical than before I started reading ET.

I cannot figure out why you allow spammy clickbait ads on your website.  For example, with Edge, here is the ad that showed up after I took the above screenshot [Motley Fool ad].  It just does not seem consistent with your message.  Could there be a bigger bunch of raccoons than Motley Fool?  This ad is the antithesis of ET of everything I understand ET to be for, and yet here they are on your website.

When I read your Membership Options, I see that the $20 per month is necessary to get rid of the ads.  The rest of benefits of a membership are not compelling to me.  The free offering, plus twitter feed, is all I need.  I will probably continue to read your material in spite of the ads and trackers.

Best, N.

Here’s a guy who clearly finds ET to be valuable, who has read almost everything I’ve written, which is A LOT. And yet he’s willing to pay … nothing for that value. What he needs is the free offering. Oh, and can you do something about all those crappy ads that are interfering with my free reading experience?

Look, I get it. Dogs don’t only eat dog food. This is a dog-eat-dog world, too. We’re all transactional “takers” when it comes to the Internet and content, including me. We’ve all been well and truly trained to expect everything for free, all the time. So let me be really clear about this.

Do you have to subscribe with a paid membership to be a bona fide member of the Epsilon Theory pack?

NO.

But you have to be willing to balance your “needs” with the needs of the pack. Meaning that the pack doesn’t exist unless Epsilon Theory is commercially viable. Meaning that a true pack member is delighted to see ads on the website, even Motley Fool ads. Meaning that a true pack member wants to pay his or her fair share for keeping Epsilon Theory strong, either with a paid subscription or with their tolerance (and occasional click) of ads.

The Big Gamble that Rusty and I are making is this: we are betting that there is a critical mass of people who WANT to pay for useful online content and WANT to support a community of like-minded truth-seekers. They’re not FORCED into paying. They’re not TRICKED into paying. They WANT to pay.

N. does not WANT to pay. If the world is only comprised of N.’s, if there is no critical mass of non-N.’s, then Rusty and I will lose our bet.

On other hand …

Good afternoon Ben,

I was prompted to sign up for the Premium Membership of Epsilon Theory yesterday after reading and then re-reading your introductory essay “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts”, in which you explain your purpose for Epsilon and your motivation for contributing your thoughts and insights to the evolving debate around the state of body politic and our markets, and indeed our very way of life. I felt moved to offer you the best gesture of support a market participant can make by purchasing a subscription and making my very small contribution to your so valuable effort. 

Thank you for your writing and thank you for creating a forum in which lucid thinking, free from short term partisan imperatives and a commitment to personal integrity in a free and liberal social economy form the framework for intelligent debate and thoughtful reflection. 

Good luck and best wishes – S.

So far, judging from the email flow, for every N. who doesn’t get it, there are about 100 S.’s who do. So far, there’s a critical mass of people who WANT to pay, either in their money or their ad-welcoming time and attention. We’ve quintupled our web traffic since we went independent two months ago. We’ve got something special happening in the comments and participation on the site, a quality of response and engagement that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the internet.

All this may change. The human animal is nothing if not … disappointing … over large numbers and long periods of time. But for now at least, here at the beginning, we are seeing clearly the start of something different. And we think something great.

We are Second Foundation Partners, the publishers of Epsilon Theory, and we are committed to real change in the practice of investing and the practice of citizenship. We are a completely independent voice for change, with no obligation to anyone but our readers, our clients, and our partners – our pack.

We invite you to join us, not just because we can help you become a better investor, but because ALL of us can help ALL of us become better citizens. This is the power of the crowd watching the crowd. It builds cathedrals, it starts revolutions, and it darn sure moves markets. It’s the most powerful force in the social world, and we invite you to help us figure it out.

If this is your pack … if Epsilon Theory is useful to you as an investor or a citizen … we hope you will join us.

All the best, Ben

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

All from memory and, clearly, paraphrasing, but I’m sure the WSJ was always a paid site – even in the “please, please, please read our stuff for free” days of the ’90 web-world – because, the WSJ editor at the time said, “we offer value that is worth paying for / we’d be diminishing ourselves if we just gave it away for free” (in those days, web advertising was de minimis).

And, IMHO, he was right – it’s worth the subscription as, despite its flaws, it is one of the very few papers that offers real value. Also, what a great message that stance must have sent to every single WSJ employee.

ET offers real value and, like with the WSJ, I don’t pay grudgingly but happily and willingly as I know (1) I am getting great value for my dollars and (2) I am signaling a vote of confidence to what everyone at ET is doing.

Does it always work – no, as my local old-school bookstore proves (I patronized it ’till its dying day, but I don’t have any regrets) – you don’t do things simply because they’ll work; you do them because they are the right thing to do.

Ben, could you explain specifically the distinction between / the structure relationship of Second Foundation Partners to ET? Thank you, Mark

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Eric Cheung
Member
Eric Cheung

I’m happy to support Epsilon Theory in any way I can.

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Stuart Spector
Member
Stuart Spector

i, like N, binge read much of what is written on your site…there is so much rich content here, it’s amazing…i’m a value-based consumer…if my contribution shows support for you to keep providing knowledge, it’s worth far more than the monthly fee you charge…glad to be part of the pack…incidentally, i make my dog’s food and he loves it…

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Lorne Inglis
Member
Lorne Inglis

Happy to be a paying member.

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Molly Trombley-McCann
Member
Molly Trombley-McCann

I do think there is an interesting conversation to have about what kinds of ads a website owner is willing to accept for their site, and what (if anything) the ads say about the site. I’m pretty sure you (meaning Ben and Rusty) wouldn’t run ads for the Daily Stormer, so I’m curious where you do draw lines for ad content. I’ve noticed an add targeting men with depression that shows up pretty regularly and for some reason it makes me laugh every time. Epsilon Theory isn’t THAT much of a downer! Or are the men assumed to be depressed before they get here?

As far as paying goes, I mostly read blogs via Feedly which means I see all the ads and I’m happy to pay anyway because I want to keep hearing what you have to say. I’m similar to N. above in that I read everything you publish, and basically devoured your back catalog when I discovered you a few months ago, and that is the kind of content I am excited to throw money at.

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Howard Wetsman
Member

Ben,
As you said, we can pay with time or money. To me the $200 annual subscription was way cheaper than my time and attention on ads. But it’s a market because we’re all making our own choices. I have no problem with someone making a different choice, but part of the value I’m receiving is the ability to interact with the pack. The money is not wasted. Thanks for everything you’ve done here.

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Fitz Wickham
Member
Fitz Wickham

Sheep Logic was my first ET read some time ago. I insisted that colleagues, friends, my wife, even my teenage kids read it. SOme of them actually did. Since that start the bees, wolves, raccoons and others made this the easiest decision to spend 200 bucks I’ve made in some time. The pieces incorporating Quid (which really brings home the potential for AI for a non-techie like me), while short on gentleman-farmer analogies, are eye-popping. Can’t wait to see where this goes.

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LudwigvonMises
Member
LudwigvonMises

Joined today.

N. may be shrewd in the short term, but in the long term he will not have much to read. In the long term, N. is dead, of course, as another short-termer who got us into our current mess once said.

One hopes N. is at least grateful for the S.es of the world. Doesn’t look so.

Good luck Second Foundation Partners.

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Stephen Bickel
Member
Stephen Bickel

Hi Ben, I read the emails from N and S, and I think I understand what both of them are saying. Like N, I don’t think there’s that much difference between the regular Pack membership and the Premium membership. And like S, I decided to become a Premium member not so much because of the added benefits but primarily as my way of supporting your and Rusty’s work, which I think is profound. But I would interpret N’s point a little differently–the reason there’s not that much difference between the regular and the Premium memberships is because YOU’RE GIVING OUT SO MUCH GREAT STUFF FOR FREE!!! So kudos to the two of you, and you deserve all our support, and whatever way you have to structure this to make it a viable enterprise, count me in! All the best, Steve

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