I’m on the West Coast to meet with the CEO of global tech firm, see my dad, and spend a few days in LA. In addition, I’m doing a bunch of meetings about if and how The Four becomes a documentary, movie, podcast … dinner theater?
I grew up in LA. The biggest change? Waze. LA traffic is what I imagine Bangkok was like before the BTS Skytrain. The app forces you to take byzantine routes through the circulatory system of LA. Despite the app, which feels like it has sentient qualities mocking us, one gets to marvel at the alchemy of grit, cement, palm trees, zero humidity, and “fabulous” that LA projects.
My agent (yes, I have an agent) said Blaze Storm (name changed for anonymity) likes my work and asked to meet with me. Blaze is (no kidding) a household-name actor in the prime of his career. His movies have grossed billions.
Blaze was more thoughtful and dialed into tech than one would think (actor stereotype). He was joined by a colleague who was also uber-impressive and who’s worked with him for over a decade, also reflecting well on Blaze — good relationships, loyal, can manage people. I don’t remember much about the conversation past about 30 minutes in, when he mentioned he’s in his late 40s. Blaze looks 31… maybe 32. No, 31. I couldn’t stop staring at him, wondering how he looks like he does, and I look like I do. Ughhh. But I digress.
Blaze and his partner were generous, offering advice on how a professor from NYC gets his work in front of a larger audience. They didn’t want or expect anything in return. Both seemed like high-character people.
My mind wandered. What if Blaze signed a contract with one production studio for the rest of his life? Unless global tastes change, dramatically, the winning studio would detonate a prosperity bomb in the company cafeteria worth billions. Blaze, as he is thoughtful, might assemble an RFP and ask each studio to put their best foot forward. It’s likely the studios would try hard, really hard, to impress Blaze — invest time, energy, and scant resources on the pitch.
But what if Blaze had already picked the studio? All along, it was the studio down the hill from Blaze’s house, as he’s decided life is too short for commuting. Ends up Blaze was just playing the field to extract resources, and use the grift to extract every penny from the studio he knew he would ultimately pick? We’d assume that Blaze lacks character.
The most-read story in the NY Post several weeks ago (yep, I read the Post) was about a guy who would lure women with the promise of a budding relationship. They’d have dinner and he’d leave, sticking his date with the bill.
Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s watching.
—Representative J.C Watts, 1994 Republican Convention
Jeff Bezos is one of the most impressive people alive today, a visionary whose intelligence and drive have changed the world. Two hundred thirty-eight cities, many economically insecure, all wanted to work with Jeff. However, Jeff recognizes one of the few things he can’t buy is immortality. At 54, the slope of the pace of years left increases, exponentially. Years become seasons, then months.
So, as the wealthiest man in the world, Mr. Bezos gets to decide where he wants to spend time. More important, he gets to decide where he doesn’t want to spend time: the DMV, parking lots, the Olive Garden, commercial airports, and any city he doesn’t love.
The wealthiest man in the world = greatest command of the word “no.” Mr. Bezos was never going to spend 12 minutes, much less 12 weeks a year, in Indianapolis. MacKenzie Bezos, tied for the wealthiest person in the world, likely doesn’t think, “I’d like to spend more time in Columbus, Ohio.” (Btw, a great place that comes close to Spielberg’s version of America.)
Amazon’s HQ2 search was not a contest but a con. Amazon will soon have 3 HQs. And guess what? The Bezos family owns homes in all 3 cities. And, you’ll never believe it, the new HQs (if you can call them that) will be within a bike ride, or a quick Uber, from Bezos’s homes in DC and NYC. The middle finger on Amazon’s other hand came into full view when they announced they were awarding their HQ to not one, but two cities. So, really, the search, and hyped media topic, should have been called “Two More Offices.” Only that’s not compelling and doesn’t sell. Would that story have become a news obsession for the last 14 months, garnering Amazon hundreds of millions in unearned media?
Note: The Bezoses also own a home in Los Angeles.
Principal for a Day
My kids’ school has a charity auction every two years. If two parties pull away and bid irrationally, the auctioneer knows what to do. As the bidding stalls, the auctioneer announces they will deliver two “Principal for a Day” experiences, and both bidders are “winners.” Boom, double the revenue with scant incremental resources. It’s unlikely that, if at the start of the auction, they’d announced they were offering two different days, we’d see the frenzied bidding. It’s similar to doubling the print run on a piece of art after claiming only a certain number would be printed.
Amazon’s HQ2 was over before it started. DC and NYC were always the winners. I believe when the pushback to the con became a reality several weeks ago, Amazon’s communications teams went into crisis mode. Teams were sent to several cities (Dallas, Chicago, Miami) as a head fake. It appears Amazon then leaked stories that they were seriously considering these cities and stories about the benefits cities accrued by just being part of the process. According to the bullshit articles planted by Amazon, cities’ economic development teams were now better prepared to woo other job creators.
We are not only witnessing the 1% pull further away from the 99% in our hunger games economy, but certain metros begin to pull away from the rest. Of more than 400 metros in the US, five account for over 20% of the growth. And, you guessed it, two of those five are DC and NYC. This is not Amazon’s problem, but this was an opportunity to do something extraordinary. Locating HQ2 in Detroit would have been transformative.
Despite all the whining about the inefficiencies of government, the public sector has hemorrhaged jobs as they struggle with runaway pension obligations and propositions/suicide pacts (like the need for two-thirds approval from the State Senate) that inhibit their ability to raise taxes. These 238 cities now have dramatically fewer resources to woo other firms that are genuine about investing in urban areas. Billboards in Calgary, cacti sent from Tucson … “HQ2” was Amazon’s term for “bad faith.”
The heat kept increasing the last couple weeks as the ruse became more obvious. However, Jeff is (seriously) smarter than us and did an interview with Walter Isaacson last week, saying, “Ultimately the decision will be made with intuition.” This was a prophylactic against likely outcries and possible investigations/discovery revealing the selection was not based on any hard data or consistent criteria (see above: con).
But still, more heat and suspicion. I know, let’s release the announcement into the busiest media business cycle of the last 24 months. We’ll release the winners on the afternoon before the most covered midterm elections ever. And the country won’t notice.
We all have a code. How do we want to live our lives at home and at work? How do we ensure our actions foot to our values? This gaming of the commonwealth (HQ2 … and 3) reflects a gestalt that is pervasive among big tech: a lack of regard for the commonwealth. Jeff Bezos and his board are impressive, and 238 cities wanted to work with them. The Amazon HQ2 process was not transparent, but illuminating: Mr. Bezos and his board lack character and code.
Life is so rich,
P.S. This week on the Pivot podcast podcast — will we see regulation of big tech next year and why I’m the future ambassador to Estonia.