Competition

January, 2017

I really struggled in college. I remember taking the first exam of my college career, in multivariable calculus. I totally bombed it. I think I got a C-, or a D+. I eventually eked out a B+ in the class with a lot of work.

This was pretty much the story of my undergraduate career: class after class of hard, grinding work. Calculus, semiconductor physics, electricity and magnetism; do all the homework sets, go to office hours, prepare all week for an exam, and then after all that, I'd squeak out of the exam with a C. The professors didn't seem to mind, though: you worked for that C in ECE Illinois. Slackers got Ds and Fs. I don't know the official statistics, but probably 25% of my freshman class didn't make it past two years.

I lived in a scholarship house all four years of college and what really chafed me, was how little work my housemates, in much less rigorous degrees, ever seemed to do. [1] The workload felt a little pointless.

I'd taken an internship at Microsoft after my second year of college (2005) and decided to go back after I graduated. Say what you will about Microsoft, but they've had some extraordinary successes over the years, including monopolies with Windows and Office. Microsoft has a pretty high hiring bar and they aren't shy about turning people away in their interview process.

Thankfully, many people in my life aren't in tech. My mom is a clinical dietitian, and my fianceé Caroline is an architect. Talking to them about work, it's striking how little they think about "the competition". They have challenges, certainly, but competition isn't high on the list. Their competitors might include a few firms in the same town/region, but even one state over is essentially a whole different market.

Whereas high-tech is economic trench warfare. Salaries are high, people work long, stressful days, and projects get billions in funding because companies are playing to win, building unassailable economic franchises that, once established, can last decades. Microsoft did this with desktop PCs. Mobile is now controlled by Google and Apple. facebook controls social networking. Amazon is building the next consumer platform with Alexa. Each of these firms reaps billions in profits, each year, from its competitive position.

It took me a long time to realize most businesses don't have the competitive dynamics of high tech–in a nutshell, that the kind of work I do is weird and different from what most other people across the economy do. High-end investment banking, Hollywood, and large-scale manufacturing are similar, but restaurants, auto dealerships, wedding planners, and almost anything called "local business" doesn't.

But, they will, because "local business" is a shrinking category.

Newspapers used to be "local business", now everyone just pulls out their phone and spends an hour a day on facebook. [2] Music was "local business" too, before music was recorded and sold. Video rental stores were "local business" before Netflix. Amazon Fresh is hitting grocery stores. Ditto for taxis with Lyft/Uber. And it's happening with clothing, as Everlane and Bonobos pushes Gap and Aeropostale closer toward bankruptcy.

As this wave sweeps through every sector of the economy, everything will get more competitive. Truck drivers will increasingly compete with software. To someone not used to it, it will feel like the NBA against a high school basketball team. And there will be regulatory backlash. But it's coming. All of this brings massive benefit to consumers, of course, but I can't help but thinking back to the guys in my scholarship house, who went on to be local journalists, small-time lawyers, or work in mid-market ad agencies. They'll adjust, as people always have. But it might be a rough couple of years.

Notes

[1] Note I used the word "rigorous", not "technical". It's perfectly possible to take a rigorous course of study in, say, English literature. That's not what these people were doing, though.

[2] This is not an exaggeration, as reported in the New York Times