A few weeks ago I expressed skepticism here about businesses with multiple business models. “It’s difficult to succeed at just one thing,” I wrote, “and the desire to succeed at multiple things strikes me as deeply naïve.”
Of course, it was too broad a claim, and a smart reader called me on it. It’s not as if I would bet against anyone who serves multiple customer bases or sells multiple kinds of stuff. Nor would I claim that diversifying one’s business necessarily results in worse outcomes, or makes it harder to achieve good ones. But I do believe that business model diversification increases complexity. It introduces financial and (perhaps more importantly) organizational nonlinearities, making it really hard to prepare for an uncertain future.
I’m about halfway through (re)reading The Idea Factory with The Prepared’s Members’ reading group right now, and am struck by just how focused Bell Labs’ commercial goals were. After the 1956 consent decree allowing AT&T a monopoly over the US telephone network, all of Bell Labs’ patents were issued royalty-free; Bell was effectively barred from having a technology licensing business model. Moreover, Bell repeatedly declined to pursue new technologies due to concerns about being broken up. They (and regulators) ultimately saw themselves as a phone company, and their job was to milk that vertical monopoly as hard as they could - not to get distracted by satellites, or integrated circuits, or any of the other technologies that Bell pioneered and which now dominate modern life.
I don’t believe it’s an accident that Bell Labs was both *so* innovative and also *so* focused on a narrow (and deep) commercial opportunity. But for the topic at hand - for the issue of whether it’s a good idea for the random entrepreneur to go to market with multiple business models - I don’t think it even matters. Most folks aren't motivated enough, or driven enough, or agile enough to start and maintain a business as a plumber, where the technologies at play are mature and the customer is often *quite* motivated to write a check. Why would those same folks - heck, why would I - be capable of building a company that’s *much* more complex than that?
Planning & Strategy.
- In about 2013, I was doing some work for GE Corporate Strategy when a friend there marveled about how GE Capital - not GE Aviation but GE Capital - employed a team of pilots who were tasked with flying airplanes around when they were due for service. The reason was GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS), which owns about 1650 aircraft (for context, Delta operates just 768), leasing them to airlines and, critically, providing service on both those airplanes and a whole bunch of additional jet engines. And so GE Capital employed not only pilots but also mechanics, and aircraft operations consultants, and also teams of underwriters and analysts and other folks to help their airline customers "eliminate residual value and asset disposal risk."
Which is all to say that early 21st century GE was kind of the ur example of a high complexity business. But they’ve done much to unwind that complexity, and recently announced that they were selling off GECAS - a move that will make a new, much more focused company worth ~$40B.
- Me, writing in Why Is This Interesting, on the inherent morality of maritime right of way laws and how they could (and should) be extended to our roads.
- A rather unexpected argument that privately developed elevators should be converted to public ownership. “Elevators are almost exclusively privately held. That is not unusual for new forms of transportation—New York’s original subway lines were built out by private investors, as were its commuter lines...The technology, however, has long since become mature and developed. There is no justification for continuing to sanction private monopolies on the vertical realm: we are ready for the public elevator.” I especially love the analogy between elevators and cul-de-sacs.
- A profile of Puritan Medical Products, a nasal swab manufacturer which is run by two cousins who hate each other. “Nonetheless, Puritan almost has a monopoly on the market for Covid swabs in the U.S. now and is positioned to dominate a global medical swab industry that could be worth as much as $4 billion by 2027...For now, new competitors don’t seem much of a threat. Experts did design injection-molded and 3D-printed testing swabs, but production is expensive, and clinicians are reluctant to switch to devices from new companies.”
- A recap of Apple’s Racial Equity & Justice Initiative, which includes a developer academy, an investment in Harlem Capital, and a learning hub for HBCUs.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Me, on the Cool Tools podcast, sharing a few tools that I’ve really loved lately.
- Some pretty rad back counterboring tools. I especially like the Autofacer AFA, whose cutter folds in when the tool spins one way and flips out into cutting position when spun the other way.
- A very detailed corporate blog post on liquid-jet guided laser machining, in which a jet of water is used as a wave guide so that a laser cutter can create fine features with very high aspect ratios.
- Robin Sloan on the joy that comes with living in a truly mixed use neighborhood. “A hundred years ago, every American city had manufacturing mixed in; today, nearly all of it is either relocated or gone. I'm grateful that the vicissitudes of history marbled these activities together here in my neighborhood, and even more grateful that history failed to separate them out again.”
- The Sporkful Podcast is making a new pasta shape, and from what I’ve listened to so far it’s a very fun process. Dan’s Instagram posts provide some good context; I especially like this photo comparing the surface finish of mafalde extruded with teflon and bronze dies.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The quality of the municipal water supply for the city of Warsaw, Poland is monitored by clams; Minneapolis’ water supply is monitored by mussels. “Snuggled up side by side, a dozen mollusks live in a tank with water continuously being cycled in from the Mississippi River. If the mollusks come across anything funky like gasoline or heavy metals, they’ll all clam up, setting off tiny sensors attached to their shells.”
- A good, succinct explanation of why ISO 8601 is the only suitable date/time format - for legibility, for consistency, and for its ability to transcend language and culture.
Distribution & Logistics.
- A good StackExchange thread on The Space Runway, a theoretical method of getting objects into orbit. The core idea is that while it’s hard to get things up to, say, 200 km, it’s *way* harder to get them into orbit at 200 km. The Space Runway, therefore, is a big long tube (longer than 20 km) that catches a suborbital object and accelerates it into orbit using magnets & eddy currents. This whole idea is somewhat outlandish (and would exert a *lot* of force on the payload, making it unsuitable for humans) but the cost reductions it might offer are pretty remarkable.
- US utility companies will need to spend between $1,700 and $5,800 in grid upgrades for each new electric vehicle added through 2030.
- A little web app that lets you encode your own message in a Perserverance-style parachute.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- The E6B is a circular slide rule - an analog calculator - used mostly in small aircraft to calculate fuel burn, estimated time of arrival, and “wind vector solutions.”
- A very clear explanation of Millikan’s Oil Drop experiment, which in 1909 established the electrical charge of the electron. Millikan would receive the Nobel Prize for the Oil Drop experiment, and his assistant (and uncredited collaborator) Harvey Fletcher would go on to become a key part of Bell Labs.
- An interesting idea I had never thought of before: Farmers put a ton of effort into understanding how different light sources affect livestock, engineering LEDs “to help optimize pullet growth, age of sexual maturity, egg weight and egg production” in chickens. Of course, it stands to reason that light quality affects humans as well, but the quality of research is markedly different due to ethical concerns.
- TikTok’er frantically guesses paint colors while watching pigments being mixed.
- A few interesting cargo bike designs:
- The Flevobike Green Machine, a recumbent with a fully enclosed drivetrain and a Rohloff 14-speed internally geared hub that operates as a totally enclosed mid-drivetrain gearbox. Older Flevobike models are even weirder, as are all of the wacky remixes and adaptations on the Flevobike Fanclub Site. See also these old (and rather moody) Flevo engineering sketches.
- XYZ Cargo sells a line of 2, 3, and 4 wheeled cycles made of square aluminum tubing, bolted together with end connectors. Based on an open source (Creative Commons FTW!) design called the XYZ Spaceframe Vehicle, they look a little floppy to me but have some pretty rad configurations due to their modular framing system.
- CW&T’s Penny Pelican is a front-loading cargo bike made of bolted-together aluminum tubing & plate. I found the handling geometry totally incomprehensible the one time I rode it, but to be fair to Che-Wei it didn’t have a seat installed at the time - and anyway, seeing him riding around Brooklyn with his two kids loaded into the Pelican case is *extremely* charming.
- A fun thing I’ve been playing with at the shop with the kid: The Great International Paper Airplane Book, which was published in 1967 and still very much holds up. And yes, I’ve got a bunch of White Wings lined up too ;)
- I blasted through The Ice at the End of the World while installing a new door last weekend. The book is partly about the field of glaciology, partly about climate change, and partly about a bunch of variably unsavory explorers doing all sorts of crazy stuff in Greenland. The book reminded me of ice-albedo feedback (the effect that as polar ice melts, it exposes materials that are usually less reflective than ice - increasing the amount of solar energy absorbed by the earth and therefore accelerating climate change) and learned of Eismitte, a shelter dug into the inland ice sheet which allowed explorers to survive the extreme cold.
- Sodium citrate, which is often used to keep melted cheese emulsified and gooey, has the chemical compound Na3C6H5O7.
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