Archives For Fanatic

Mark Spencer 1

Mark Spencer
Photo Credit: Digium, Inc.

Update: I originally published this essay in late-2012. My attention recently drifted back to the topic of disruption in the telecom industry, prompting me to revisit what Mark Spencer achieved with Digium and the Asterisk product. I’m no less impressed today than I was four years ago, and so I put this at the top of the blog list again. What Mark accomplished is impressive and a worthy model for other disruptors to consider.

Mark Spencer presents me with a philosophical conundrum. Before an interview earlier this month I text him to say I’m so excited about our conversation that I hardly slept the night before. (He is understandably cautious of my enthusiasm.) After we spoke, I’m so confounded by the way he chose to tell his tale that I don’t sleep well for several more nights as my mind grapples with what it’s heard.

Mark is chief technology officer and founder of a company called Digium in Huntsville, Alabama. It supports and develops for an open source telecom platform called Asterisk which Mark (for lack of a better term) invented. Digium is to Asterisk what Red Hat is to Linux. And much as Linux evolved into the open source alternative to proprietary operating systems offered by companies such as Microsoft, so has Asterisk become an alternative to closed technology from the likes of telecom giants Cisco and Avaya.

Not everyone likes the open source model, but enough do that Red Hat has made a thriving business out of providing software, support and consulting services to those that do choose Linux. Likewise with Digium. It has found a loyal and growing base of followers who align with Asterisk’s open source philosophy, its price and its flexibility. Some subset of those Asterisk users, mostly small- and medium-sized companies, find value in paying Mark’s company to help them use the platform.

I have little doubt that Mark bristles at my word selection in the paragraphs above.  That I call it “his” company and that he “invented” Asterisk. But those are accurate descriptions. Though he turned over day-to-day operations of the business to professional managers after raising a round of venture capital in 2007, he remains majority shareholder and has de facto voting control over board decisions. But Mark prefers inclusive language. Digium’s success is the result of the efforts of many, not just Mark, he points out several times in our interview. Asterisk’s adoption did not happen because of the code he originated, he adds, but because countless independent developers have committed their considerable energy and intellect to enhancing it and making it a better product for users.

Though its story is still being written, it’s not a stretch to call Digium a success at this point in its existence (which Mark characterizes as being in its late-adolescent or early-teenage years). The same applies to Mark. He has done more in his 35 years than most people could muster the ambition to even imagine accomplishing in their lifetimes. But he lets out a deep sigh when I ask him to tell the story in the context of this success.

Mark rejects my basic premise. “What is success?” he asks with implied disdain but unflinching politeness.

Call it success or call it something else, when he talks about where he is today and where Digium is, Mark has no interest in talking about the things he did. He takes me in a different direction altogether.

Let’s not tell a story about talent or skill leading to success, he intimates. Let’s talk about the importance of luck.

So it is this matter of luck, and its effects on outcomes – success or failure – that has kept me up more nights than I should admit since my last conversation with Mark.

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Sport is vicious, what with the zero-sum outcomes of winners and losers. World Cup group play tames that a bit by giving a point for a draw and the hope of moving on. But the bitterness of that last minute goal – the beautiful arcing ball from the world’s best player, placed perfectly on the forehead of his teammate for the equalizer – threatens to linger. We were so close to the sure thing…to making it out of the group of death into the round of 16! Now the US Men’s National Team must face the juggernaut Deutscheland and rely (perhaps) on fate to see us through.

I confess to waking up last night, replaying the long pass in my head, agonizing over the “what-if” scenarios. What if we didn’t dawdle with that final substitution? Maybe the keeper of the clock would have added one minute less of stoppage time. That would have been enough to keep the ball from Ronaldo and his final assist. What if, what if, what if. My wife did the same, the what-if curse being worse for her as each soccer match transports Kate back to her own college-playing days. Now imagine what those players are thinking.

Were I in that locker room after the end-of-game jersey-swaps and given the chance to address the players, I would say job well done. Now let it go. Don’t let the what-ifs into your minds. You can control process, but the outcome is the domain of the fates. You had a good strategy. You were conditioned well and played hard. You left nothing on the field. You were prepared, and the process was right. More often than not that will be enough to see you through, a good process will create victory. But sometimes you can do everything right, and bad luck rears its ugly head. That’s what happened last night in the final minute of stoppage time.

Here’s a matrix from the 2001 book, Winning Decisions, meant for business but maybe better suited for sports. The US men were prepared. That high level of preparation gives them the best chance of landing in the top right square, “deserved success.” But sometimes unlucky failure strikes despite your process. You end up in the bottom-right quadrant.  All you can do is shrug it off and move on.

Preparedness Luck matrix B Shadow

The real test comes next. Is this team resilient enough to bounce back from being so close to a sure thing? Can they trust their coach, each other, and the process to bring it one more time against Germany? Can they use this matrix with its oversimplified logic to rid their minds of the what-if curse and focus on preparing for the next match?

I believe…

I believe that…

I believe that we will win.

Demetri Martin SUCCESSWhat Standup Comedians Understand About Success That You and I Don’t

Demetri Martin, the 39-year old standup comedian and alumnus of The Daily Show, published the sketch above in his book, This Is a Book. It’s been making the meme rounds on Twitter for a few months now, finding a welcoming audience among the business illuminati. They are glad to have a champion who can convey the wisdom (with such brevity and clarity) that the path to success is a tangled and circuitous mess, not the simple story that we so often hear of ascension in a straight line.

With these few scribbles, Martin betrays an insight into the nature of success that seems to be best understood – strangely enough – by standup comedians. As we’ll explore below, they must all hone their craft through constant tinkering in the control setting of comedy clubs. The best of them never quit this testing mindset. They allow themselves plenty of little failures. They don’t wrap themselves in the success label, considering it something to strive for continuously rather than a status to defend.

In other words, they don’t get caught up in “being a success.” We’ll call that the success mindset. They keep experimenting, keep pressing the envelope, and keep finding new ways to make their customers laugh.

There is something here to be learned by entrepreneurs and business leaders.

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The Fanatic, as profiled in this previous post, is a construct to apply to all investing opportunities. Two vantage points to consider:

Vantage Point One – Is the business you’re evaluating run by a fanatic?

This presents its own set of opportunities and challenges that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, investing with fanatics requires that you possess a deep conviction in the upside of the opportunity for market growth, the fanatic’s ability to win that growth, and his ability to win it in a way that provides suitable returns on capital over the long-term.

As the profile suggests, fanatics will not show many traits of shareholder friendliness while engaged in the thrall of winning market share from the competition.

Vantage Point Two– Can the business you’re evaluating survive attacks by the fanatic?

This the more common construct you’ll use in evaluating investment opportunities. It forces you to understand the deepest competitive advantage of any business by forcing your thinking process outside the simplistic world of rationally-motivated agents.

A rational agent competitor will work through MBA uber-logic in determining whether and how to compete with your business.

Ponder this…

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How does a business compete against a true fanatic?

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A fanatic with a winning model?

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A fanatic with access to resources?

 

The fanatic is, by definition, either oblivious to criticism – so convinced his path is correct – or he is constitutionally impervious to its effects.

He is NOT a rational player who sticks to conventional rules or employs conventional tactics. He has a higher threshold for pain, does not keep banker’s hours, and revels in keeping foes off balance.

The fanatic chooses a path, making appropriate corrections as he proceeds, and sticks to it with stubborn resolve.