What I wrote & read in 2021
Sajith Pai’s irregular newsletter #12
Here is issue #12 of my somewhat irregular newsletter, which yes, seems to be getting less irregular. This is the third issue this month:)
It is the last day of the year, and also lends me an opportunity to look back at what has been a strange, turbulent but also ultimately a positive year for me. I know some of you may not have had a similar positive experience. April-June 2021’s Delta wave was a nightmare for all of us; one that we all eventually came out of, but with relatively few unscathed.
Here is hoping nothing similar happens this coming year with Omicron - the data and news from countries that have been hit hard seem to suggest milder infections and hope a similar trend prevails here too.
Over to the newsletter. But some housekeeping news first.
I am making changes to the traditional structure of the newsletter. The traditional ‘Listening(s)’ section where I shared thoughts and notes on podcasts is getting unbundled into a separate newsletter. This will be a monthly affair. I also have a collaborator there. More on that soon!
The Reading(s) segment where I share interesting reads, their links and what I found interesting about them stays, though I might not explicitly mark it as such.
I wrote three pieces over the last two weeks. I have always found the slow pace of the latter half of December a good time to write. Last year, I wrote a long piece that became The Indus Valley Playbook, one of my most popular pieces. This year I have gone the other way, writing shorter brain-clearing pieces to think aloud on a particular topic. Here they are.
Tokeni$eMe: A fictional look at the future of venture investing. I believe that we will start seeing investments in people directly rather than the companies they build, and that new structures and tools will emerge to enable this. I wrote this as a fictional news report from 2023 to illustrate how this could work.
Native Ecommerce Models: I posit that there are native ecommerce models, for each type of ecommerce category. Amazon solved for branded commoditised goods with its marketplace model. GoPuff and Rappi solved grocery delivery with its dark store + rider + limited SKU model. That leaves us with Fashion and Home. So what are the native ecommerce models emerging here? A brief look at the possible native ecommerce models emerging.
Unbundling Religion: I wrote this to think through whether startups could create a product that could act as a proxy for religion. To think through this, I found it useful to look at religion as a bundle of Faith + Rituals + Identity + Community + Precepts. I find that Faith can be unbundled out of Religion to create a ‘product’ that does many of the jobs to be done that Religion serves - mindfulness, mental hygiene, belonging etc.
Overall I wrote 22 pieces this year, up from 19 last year! Of these, two were long form pieces - The Indus Valley Playbook that I referred to earlier, and a piece on how startups are valued, called Exhaust Fumes. The return that these long form pieces provide is much greater than shorter pieces that could have come in its place. So if a 6k word piece takes X hours of time and you can do 3 x 1,500 words in that place, you will find that the 6k word piece has greater impact than the 3 smaller pieces (typically). ‘The Indus Valley Playbook’ got me multiple podcast appearances including in the popular The Seen and The Unseen, while ‘Exhaust Fumes’ got me appearances in the influential Diff and Capital Allocators newsletters (as well as a session where Bernstein got me to meet with their crossover investor base).
Of the shorter pieces, I am most proud of the two pieces I did on Product-Market Fit (Defining PMF, and How Founders Should Think About PMF) This is a topic that interests me immensely, and I will be doing a lot more work on it in 2022. In addition, there were two related pieces that I thought were good - these are in what I call the advice to Founders category:) - they are The Congruent Square, and How the Best Founders Drive Learning at their Startups.
2021 readings - books
I have an excel file where I track book every book I read since 2004! This year’s stats don’t stand out spectacularly by any means - i read 21 books this year. It is well over the number of books I read last year, which was 15. But it is well below my peak of 39 books in 2016. I dont have a target as such for reading but typically I have found that in recent times I have clocked a pace of 3 books every 2 months. One concern has been the lopsided share of nonfiction (or faction as I call it) books. Last year I read no fiction, and this year I read just one. Clearly this is one area I want to focus on.
Here are some of the books I enjoyed reading this year (not in any order)
Working Backwards: On how Amazon works, and their best practices - related tweet
The Lean Startup: I should have read this a while back. OG guide to nailing it before you try scaling
Atomic Habits: If you want to make it a habit, build it into your identity
The Wright Brothers: Incredible how 2 bicycle mechanics from a small town in USA invented the first flying machine; one of my fave reads of the year, incredible story of grit and inventiveness - related thread
Creative Capital: a biography of Georges Doriot, one of the founding fathers of venture capital - related thread
In-n-Out Burger: One of the two books I read this year on my fave retail brands - incredible section on how the automobile spurred fast food and retail innovation - related thread
Becoming Trader Joe: This was the other fave retail brand I read about - related thread
Extreme Economies: Fascinating look at microeconomies and markets that emerge in prisons, refugee camps, migrant routes and what learnings they hold)
The Unicorn Project and The Phoenix Project: these are 2 business ‘novels’ a la The Goal, which uses a fictional business situation to drive home learnings. I learnt a lot about Dev Ops and IT / Tech from these two books.
Most disappointing - Trillion Dollar Coach (what was all the hype for, folks?), The Right to Sex, The Contrarian (on Peter Thiel).
2021 readings - beyond books
Unlike books, I haven’t tracked my article consumption, nor do I have a ready list of articles I found interesting. Perhaps I will keep one for 2022.
A big area of reading was Web3, Crypto, NFTs. I took some baby steps as well on the crypto front, including picking up a ENS domain (sajithpai.eth obviously!). Hopefully a few NFTs in 2022.
I did get to read a lot more long form articles this year - thanks to picking up a Remarkable2. As much as the articles I read, I also read podcast transcripts. I have come to the conclusion that podcast transcripts are to our world, what biographies are to the external world - they provide the biggest learning bang for the buck invested.
Reading podcast transcripts is something I plan to ramp up even further this year. To that end, I have started reducing my newsletter consumption. There are only so many reading hours available and that has to be rationed!
Looking back, looking ahead
2021 was a satisfying year on many counts, personally and professionally, though in my case the two do conflate.
I am grateful that my family and I came away unscathed from the horrendous April-June Delta second wave. I know many of my friends who have struggled with losses in their family, and my heart goes out to them. I hope those days never return.
I do have ambitious plans for 2022. I don’t think I have planned this systematically ahead for the year in recent times. Perhaps 2016 end, planning for 2017, when I was looking to navigate out of my previous job, was the one where I invested the most time previously:) Here is hoping the planning pays off this coming year too though the coming year’s goal sets are entirely different from that of 2017!
I wish each of you a very happy new year, and hope you are able to make progress this year, towards your long term and short term goals.