WRITER'S DESK

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Where are all the European unicorns? — September 1, 2019

Where are all the European unicorns?

And does it matter there aren’t that many?

“The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” — President George W. Bush

Smartphones make our lives easier. The whole world is shown to us and mediate through the shiny screens that nearly all of us carry around. Ordering a taxi, discovering new music, staying in touch with friends or colleagues, and booking your next holiday is done quickly with a few taps. And a lot of money has been made making life easier.

The companies behind these technologies have become massive. They have grown from small start-up teams with only a good idea to private firms worth over $1bn. These are the unicorns. Some have become public and are now worth tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.

Uber, Facebook, and Amazon all emerged in the age of the internet and are now worth over $1.5trn together. The smallest of that trio, Uber, alone is worth $55bn.

One thing, though, stands out. In the unicorn stable, only a few were bred in Europe.


Companies founded in the US since 2000 are now worth $1.37trn; in China, they’re worth $675bn. In Europe, that figure is only $240bn.

Europe is as large a market as both the US and China. There are more people in Europe than in the US and nearly as much money. It is not as simple as size. The true causes are historic and cultural as well as prosaic and regulatory.

One theory for the lack of European unicorns is that Europeans are just not as entrepreneurial as Americans or Chinese. They don’t have the ambition to create massive companies. That viewpoint is summed up by that famous (though probably fake) quote of President Bush. And it is a viewpoint that is wrong.


There are plenty of ambitious and talented people in Europe. It has traditionally been the birthplace of many big companies. On the Fortune 500, the list of the largest companies in the world, 160 were founded in Europe. Only 132 were American born. Traditionally, then, Europe hasn’t had a problem with producing ambitious individuals.

University campuses across the continent are full of students dreaming of founding great companies, shaping the world, making a difference. From Israel to Ireland there are entrepreneurs-in-waiting, fantasising of making it big, becoming the next Bill Gates or Elon Musk.

Musk himself isn’t even American. Many unicorn founders aren’t. Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork, was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. Patrick and Joe Collison of Stripe came from Tipperary in Ireland. That’s only three. There is Russian Sergey Brin of Google, Ukrainian Jan Koum who set up WhatsApp, France’s Renaud Laplanche founded Lending Club, Mikkel Svane moved Zendesk from Denmark to the US after early funding gave it the money to do so. Zendesk is now an American unicorn, despite its start in Europe.


Silicon Valley attracts startups, whether they’re European or American. It has the conditions that founders are looking for. These founders don’t leave their countries to make it big somewhere else just because. They are coming to Silicon Valley for something.

Part of that is that many startups have found success there. It is where people with the skills that founders need gravitate to. It is a black hole, sucking in all those of building a unicorn. The talent pool is massive and it makes sense to start there. Success breeds success.

There are other reasons Silicon Valley provides a good environment for start-ups beyond the plentiful talent. There is a support structure for when things get tough, with lots of mentorship and advice from those that have gone through it before. That type of knowledge, concentrated in one area, is powerful.


London is the most successful startup hub in Europe. Of the roughly 70 European unicorns, 17 can be found in London, more than in any other one place. Many of the big ones, such as Monzo, Revolut, and TrasferWise, specialise in financial technology.

They are disrupting how money is stored, used, and moved around the globe. The talent they need to do this could only be found in London, one of the biggest financial centres in the world. Talent attracts talent.

Talent also attracts money. An investor looking at two different companies, everything else being equal, would lean to the one better placed to use its money. Unicorns chase growth, they burn money to grab a large part of the market and depend on scale for profitability. With the talent pool already in place in Silicon Valley, then they are better placed to burn that cash to reach a profit-making scale in Silicon Valley.

Investors want to be close to their investments. It makes more sense to base yourself in Silicon Valley or America than in Europe. The constant gossip of the Valley helps them find new startups to back. Flying to Europe all the time to hunt for new opportunities, to keep an eye or offer advice to a startup isn’t feasible. The money stays in Silicon Valley and is worked hard.

There is more money looking to invest in American startups as well. The success of previous unicorns has made some investors bolder, wanting to get on the next big thing before it takes off. Compared to a more conservative investing market in Europe, the US has around 14x the capital looking for a tech startup to invest in, according to Siraj Khaliq of Atomico, a European venture capital fund set up by Niklas Zennstrom, one of the co-founders of Skype.


With a much tighter financing market, European companies must focus on earning revenue quicker than their American counterparts. There isn’t as much money going around, and they have to make the most of what they have. Growth and potential are behind much of the valuation of US companies, but it can’t be such a focus for European ones.

This allows US competitors to snap up European companies before they can make it to the truly big time. Shazam was acquired by Apple in 2017 for $400m and has incorporated it as a key part of Apple Music.

Alphabet has gobbled up Belarussian AIMatter, which built a product that allowed users to transform images and videos in real-time. Booking.com, a Dutch startup, might have been worth around $50bn today, but it was acquired by Priceline, another American company, for $113m before it had the chance.

Supercell, the Finnish games company behind Clash of Clans, is owned by Chinese giant Tencent. Supercell was first acquired by SoftBank, the Japanese venture fund, for $1.5bn. After only three years, in 2016, it was sold to Tencent for $10.2bn.


European startups can make it big. Just it isn’t often throughout Europe. While the European Union has done a lot to bring the continent together, such as harmonise banking regulations that have made it easier for fintech firms like Revolut to access a large market, there are still national divides.

Zalando is a German online shopping platform worth more than $14bn. It is mainly active in the German-speaking part of Europe, Germany (of course), Switzerland and Austria. It has hardly made a mark outside its home territory.

A US company is just American, a Chinese firm is only Chinese, but a European one can be British, French, German or dozens of other nationalities. All countries that have historically not got along. National pride still acts as a barrier after regulations have been torn down.


There is one more factor to consider. What if American unicorns are being valued far higher than they should? That would mean that the sober European investors are better at pricing a company and not getting overhyped about a good idea that might not pan out.

There is some evidence for this. The recent IPOs of Uber and Lyft show that some valuations are overly optimistic. Uber went public in May with a share price of $45. It has slid to $32. It is a similar story with Lyft. It debuted at $72 and has declined to $50. The public markets are valuing these companies below what private investors were.

Even Slack, which had a well-received IPO, has taken a hit. Shares are trading at around $30, instead of the $38.50 they started at. Investors want to back the next Facebook or Google. They can fool themselves into thinking that the hyped private tech firm could be it. Each of these unicorns is unique — they are often the only big company with a similar idea (except for Lyft and Uber). If an investor thinks it is a good one, can work at scale and earn massive amounts of money, they are more likely to get involved. A look at the numbers behind a brand may dim that initial enthusiasm though. That’s could be what’s happening in a more risk-averse European market.


Europe has plenty of problems, though building unicorns isn’t one of them. There are plenty of exciting tech companies in the Old World, but the unbridled enthusiasm of the States is not present. There may be less eye-catching headlines, but it makes for a more stable market. There are as many European unicorns as there should be.

Should Amazon spin-off AWS? — August 26, 2019

Should Amazon spin-off AWS?

A breakdown of why some people think Amazon should spin-off AWS — and why some say it shouldn’t.

Amazon is two companies. The first is the one we all know about. It is the marketplace, the place to go to buy and sell on the internet. Buying a Prime membership gives you access to a lot; free shipping, exclusive savings, deals, and streaming video and music services.

The last of these, the streaming services, gives us a glimpse at the other business that makes up Amazon. It takes advantage of Amazon’s logistics expertise. This is one of Amazon’s main competitive advantages, as noted even by its leadership.

Amazon uses a lot of bandwidth. But it doesn’t use it all the time. It was better and cheaper for Amazon to build data centres. So, what could it do with that infrastructure when it was not being used?

The answer was simple; make money by renting it out. This was the beginning of Amazon Web Services (AWS). It began in 2006, and since then it has exploded. It is now the largest cloud computing provider in the world.

AWS provides the backbone for some of the biggest online firms in the world. It lets you binge-watch terrible movies and engrossing series on Netflix. It enables you to watch as streamers play games on Twitch. AWS helps you book your next holiday on Airbnb. That focus on selling to enterprises, rather than consumers, is one of the significant differences between AWS and Amazon.

Another came in 2015. It began reporting its financial results separately from the rest of Amazon. That gave us a glimpse at how much Amazon relies on AWS.

During the second quarter of 2019, AWS took in $8.38bn. That only represents an eighth of Amazon’s revenue of $62.4bn during the same period. But its operating income of $2.1bn was over two-thirds of Amazon’s $3.1bn.

Amazon without AWS wouldn’t be as big or valuable as it is today. That has led many to ask: shouldn’t AWS be its own company?

Some influential people in the industry think that Amazon should spin off AWS into its own firm. Number one among them is Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU and a tech industry analyst. Another is Mark May at Citi Research.

There are plenty of good reasons why it is a good idea.


Regulators are looking at Amazon. Right now, there are three significant investigations in the US looking at the tech industry giants. One was launched by the Federal Trade Commission, another by the Department of Justice and a final one by attorneys-general of around twenty US states.

Spinning off AWS might take the heat off Amazon. It wouldn’t have as much power in the market. It wouldn’t be the dominant player in two massive sectors, e-commerce and cloud computing. It could save Amazon billions of dollars in fines or restructuring costs. It might be forced to do it anyway, so why not do it now?

AWS dominates cloud computing. The other two big players in the industry are Microsoft’s Azure platform and Google Cloud. None are separate companies. Investors have nowhere to put their money if they want to bet on only cloud computing.

If you don’t think digital advertising, e-commerce or operating systems will grow as much as cloud computing, tough luck; you’re saddled to an investment you only half believe it.

If AWS goes its own way, it will hoover up all those investors who believe in cloud computing above everything else. This would boost the value of AWS beyond the hit Amazon would take by losing it. An AWS unshackled from Amazon could focus on cloud computing and dominate the market to an even greater extent.

AWS, right now, subsidises the rest of Amazon. It could use that money instead to invest in itself or pay dividends to shareholders. AWS’s operating margins, how much money is leftover from a sale after the costs of goods sold and operating expenses, since 2013 is 23%. For the rest of Amazon it’s 1.5%.

Amazon uses that reliable money sitting in the bank to fund research. Between 2001 and 2009, covering a period when AWS wasn’t even a thing, Amazon’s research budget grew by around 19% each year. From 2010 to 2018, that figure was 42%.

New products, some of them failures, are continually emerging. The Kindle, Fire phone, Alexa and others are, in effect, paid for by AWS. If they fail, it is no big deal. Unlock that money and AWS would be one of the ten biggest companies in the world.

That’s what Scott Galloway believes. He has form when it comes to predicting what Amazon will do. He called them buying Whole Foods, and he predicted where their new headquarters would be. Scott knows Amazon.

But others aren’t as convinced.


All those subsidises leaving Amazon would hit it hard. Those small margins from its retail business would stop Amazon doing what it wants to do: investing cash flow into growth rather than giving back money to investors as dividends.

A recession will hit Amazon, as a consumer-facing business, hard. If people have less money, then they have less money to buy on non-essentials which they shop on Amazon. Enterprise customers, which rely on AWS as the backbone of its product, can’t stop buying from AWS. Their costs are for essentials. Keeping AWS will limit Amazon’s exposure to any volatility in the market.

AWS also enjoys the cheap money Amazon can generate. Setting up a modern server farm is expensive. In the second quarter of 2019, AWS had a capital expenditure of $3.31bn. Amazon issued a 3-year bond in 2017, which yields 2.53%. China’s 3-year government bond has a yield of 2.8%.

When you can borrow money cheaper than China, you’re a business in a good place. AWS wouldn’t be able to raise capital at such a cheap rate. That would make its large capital expenditures a lot more expensive. This handbrake on growth would limit its chances at dominating the sector.


There are good arguments on both sides. But what will happen? What is the hot take?

The answer lies in Jeff Bezos’s philosophy.

He has set up Amazon to chase long-term growth rather than short term profitability. If he wanted a quick buck, then AWS might well be spun off. But that isn’t the case. For the foreseeable future, AWS will remain part of Amazon.

When Bezos wants to cash out and rake in the piles of dollars that are waiting for him, AWS will become its own firm. It won’t happen before that. When it does happen, buying things on Amazon, then, will become a lot more expensive.

Reimagining the Western canon — August 21, 2019

Reimagining the Western canon

Do we even need a canon?

The great books are those ones that we must read. They form the foundation of your appreciation of what great literature is. In the Western world, we have inherited centuries, millennia even, of literature. Some of this makes the cut. Some of this outlasts fads and fashions. It transcends the boundaries of time. This is the Western canon. All that’s good, and great, and true.

An educated person must tick several boxes. One of these, the most important, is to have read the great books.

Shakespeare, Kafka, Eliot, Woolf, Milton, Joyce all find themselves on this list of worthy literature. I’ve read some of them — but not all.

Does that disqualify me from talking about literature? Does that stop me from being able to enjoy the books I do read?

There is a problem with the canon. It is unwieldy. Collections of the traditional canon, for this I’m using the Great Books of the Western World as a guide, run to dozens of volumes (there are others out there, such as Harold Bloom’s list). Hundreds of books and plays. Once we learn to read, to really read, this pile is dumped in our laps. It comes with a sign: read this or else.

Collections of the canon cost around £1,000 on Amazon. It is expensive, intimidating, and even though it stretches to what must hundreds of thousands of pages, it includes both too much and not enough.


The idea of a canon emerged in the Western world. That original canon was not one we would recognise today. Medieval students studied the ancient masters. Cicero, Aristotle, Euclid, Sophocles and Thucydides made up their education. The contemporary and vernacular was at best second rate if not dismissed entirely.

That began to change in England in the late 17th century. It was the beginning of English global power and the emergence of the idea of the nation-state. That idea spawned another.

National culture and cultural identity were becoming increasingly noticeable. The educated middle class was emerging and growing, though without as much Latin or Greek as previous generations. They wanted to read something worthy and English.

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

Great essayists, the forerunners of blogs, were making their mark. The most famous of these was Richard Steele, who wrote and published The Spectatorand The Tatler. In The Spectator, Steele compared Milton’s Paradise Lost to the ancient epics.

While he found some faults in the poem, he ranked it on the same level as Homer and Virgil. For a culture that had before appreciated only the venerable, the literature that had emerged from the enormous gap of time with its reputation still intact, to praise the (relatively) modern was a break. The fact that it was a Christian poem, as opposed to the paganism of the past, no doubt helped elevate it to forming the first part of the nascent English canon. Shakespeare, of course, was also added to this small list. The ancients still reigned but there was now the possibility of new entrants.

The canon grew over the centuries. More books were added. Names such as Pope, Swift, Sterne and Fielding joined the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as a growing number of English speakers. Years past and the canon grew. It stretched beyond the British Isles to take in French, America, Russian and German writers.


Still, they all had something in common. They were all white men. In the more inclusive culture after the Second World War, that began to change. Slowly there were rebels, dissenting voices that said more voices should be added. Woolf, Murdoch, Walcott, McCullers, Baldwin, Naipaul, Tagore, Marquez got the recognition their writing deserved.

Photo by Giacomo Buzzao on Unsplash

After reading some of these masters, their voice and experience add new ways of understanding, thinking about and appreciating the whole breadth of human life. The canon is now more representative of the world we live in. That is a good thing. But it stretches and strains to try and cover every aspect of life. It has attempted to become an exhaustive list, rather than a core.

The list is huge. No one can read all of it. No one can take in all of it (except for Harold Bloom). It has become a checklist, one that can never be completed, and that size means it is failing to do its job.


Would it be better to abandon the idea of a canon? No. There are many benefits to having a recognised core of texts we should all be familiar with.

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats is definitely part of the canon. But it wasn’t until I had read some of his poems, most notably The Second Coming and Sailing to Byzantium, that I understood the influence he had. And what having a canon does for a culture.

I could see homages, little quotes, built into the titles and body of other works. Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching toward Bethlehem¸ steals its title from The Second Coming. Knowing that coloured my whole reading of that book.

Having a canon allows those books in it to act as the body language of literature. Not enough to be noticed all the time, but noticeable by its absence.

Slouching toward Bethlehem as a title told me enough to understand what Didion was trying to do with her work. It served as a three-word introduction to the collection. It was neat and elegant. It served its purpose perfectly.

The canon represents the critical and influential books of society. It provides the cultural foundation on which others can build. A canon is necessary, even just for university reading lists. Exploring the great works of the past allows people to build on it, enhances their reading of contemporary work, and allows people to talk with one another with a common understanding. A canon is needed.


The canon we have inherited is bloated. It tries to represent all our current culture rather than the main texts. To take even the field of literature and poetry, leaving alone film, music, and nonfiction, the time needed to get caught up, to even arrive at the conversation, is too much.

Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

There are two ways of building a canon. You can make a reading list out of books that can’t, under any circumstances, be left out or you can create one based on what could be included, what is worthy to sit beside the other titles. We have been building our canon using the second definition. We should keep that. These are the masterpieces. But we should also make one using the first.

I don’t have the background to put that together. No one person does. It involves a conversation. Nor do I want it to be a project that returns the canon to its old unrepresentative roots. If nothing else, it wouldn’t be doing its job of allowing us to have a conversation.

A lot of discourse today revolves around oppression and exploitation. To talk about these things properly, we need Baldwin and Morrison. We need Rushdie and Naipaul.


The first book, though, will have to be the Bible. Even in an increasingly secular world, the Bible has informed so much of the cultural output of the past, of the language we use and how we think about morality. It is a given.

Selected works of Shakespeare are added to the list too. Not all of him, I don’t think reading Cymbeline adds much, but the significant plays. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, should be enough to get people familiar with much of Shakespeare’s influence on our world.

Yeats, of course, would be part of it too. He allowed me to hear what Joan Didion was saying. Those three little words carried with the weight of allusion and influence. They spoke to me and made me listen with a true ear. That is the power of the canon.

Now it must regain that power. We must look at the canon we have constructed and see it is no longer fit for purpose. We must reduce it to something an inspired reader can get through. We must allow it to regain the power that it once had.


Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear what you think are the books that people have to read are, as well as if you disagree with any of my limited choices.

Why WeWork’s IPO will be a failure — August 19, 2019

Why WeWork’s IPO will be a failure

WeWork’s recently released IPO prospectus should have sent investors running. The office and hot desk rental company, after SoftBank pulled out of a $16bn investment, is looking to raise up to $3bn from the public market. It won’t be getting a dollar from me.
Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash

WeWork’s business model is simple. It leases property from landlords, does them up, and sells spaces to self-employed workers, start-ups and larger enterprises. It typically leases a location for 15 years and sells desk space on a monthly basis. It thinks that it should be worth $47bn.

It is, instead, likely to join the other big unicorns who launched their IPOs this year in stumbling to a much lower valuation. Think of Uber and Lyft.

Why won’t WeWorks model work?

They take on long-term obligations and only require short commitments from their members. They have $47bn in lease obligations, and that figure will only grow as they open more locations. They pump loads of money into their sites, making them fit for a hip, millennial freelancer or start-up. That’s where a lot of their losses come from, but that high up-front cost must be recouped over more than a decade. It would be risky in a stable, growing economy. Right now, we’re headed into the first recession for over a decade.

Will the coming recession hit WeWork hard?

The UK and Germany both announced that their economies were shrinking last week. The stock market took a considerable hit from the news. All around the globe, people are expecting a recession sooner rather than later. Trade wars, Brexit, and a mature business cycle all contribute to that feeling. Yield curves have inverted. Such an inversion has preceded every recession for the past fifty years. Only once have yields inverted without a recession happening.

The S&P 500 peaks within 3 to 22 months of a yield curve inversion. We could have two years before a downturn hits, but it may happen a lot quicker than that.

What is a yield curve inversion?

Government’s sell bonds to finance their running costs. These are very secure, not many countries default on their debt. But things are always more secure in the short term when we know more of the risks an economy might run into. This means that usually long-term bonds give better returns than short term ones as there is more risk involved. When a yield curve inverts, markets believe that short term risks are greater than the long-term ones and want to protect their money. In other words, bad times are coming sooner rather than later.

Recessions are bad for all parts of the economy, so why should you be more concerned about the effect one will have on WeWork in particular?

WeWork’s customers are mostly small teams, freelancers and the self-employed. Renting a hot desk in a WeWork location in London costs around £600 per month. When a recession hits, it hits those small businesses and freelancers hardest. An easy cost to cut is that hot desk. Someone is £600 richer and can just work from the kitchen table. Not as lovely as the kombucha, microbrew offerings of a WeWork, but you’ve got to save money. And it is a natural expense to get rid of. These memberships are done on a monthly rolling basis.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

WeWork recognises this problem and has been trying to attract more enterprise customers. In their IPO prospectus, however, they have redefined what enterprise customers are, from businesses with 1,000 employees down to those with 500. Even then, they only make up 29% of WeWork’s business.

When the next recession hits, there will be a lot of space in WeWork locations.

Is WeWork overvalued?

The company’s sky-high valuation, around twenty-six times revenue, is based on its reputation. It brands itself as a tech company, in the same field as Facebook, Google or Amazon. ‘Technology’ is mentioned 93 times in their prospectus. But it isn’t a tech company. It rents office space. It might rent the most beautiful office space on the market, but it is still renting office space.

The brand of WeWork is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It calls customers ‘members’, its mission is to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’, and it opens its IPO prospectus with the lofty declaration that ‘[w]e dedicate this to the energy of we — greater than any one of us but inside each of us’. That is a whole lot of bullshit. It rents office space.

IWG, which rents office space out, has revenues of over $3.25bn, much more than WeWork’s. Yet it is only valued less than $5bn. It doesn’t have the explosive growth of WeWork, but that growth is risky in risky economic circumstances.

Are there any signs of optimism?

In 2018 WeWork brought in $1.54bn. That’s nearly double the $764m it did in 2017. That’s stupendous growth and would auger well for a lot of companies. The losses, though, are on a similar trajectory. In 2017 it lost $900m, in 2018 that was $1.9bn. It costs WeWork $2 to make $1.

That could change in the future. High up-front costs recouped over decades unless a recession hits, can be sustainable. But even WeWork doesn’t think this is likely:

“We have a history of losses and, especially if we continue to grow at an accelerated rate, we may be unable to achieve profitability at a company level… for the foreseeable future.”

Adam Neuman, CEO and founder of WeWork, doesn’t even believe in the company. He has sold $700m of his stock already, and the prospectus even says ‘there can be no assurance that Adam will continue to work for us or serve our interests in any capacity’.


WeWork is a lousy bet. Its fundamentals are lacking, it’s facing a tight market, and it will be found out. Can a successful business be built of its model? Yes, but IWG has already done it. It’s not sexy or hip. But it works. The problem is that it has a value less than a tenth of WeWork’s.

When WeWork IPOs, it will be the early investors and backers who make money. The rest of us will soon be held WeWork shares that are plunging in value. Its backers have pumped the company up; now they’re ready to dump the stock before it falls.

Originally published on Medium

Smart Thinking is anything but — May 31, 2019

Smart Thinking is anything but

Bookshops are taking the joy out of buying books

A new section misses the magic of exploring a bookshop

There is something magical about walking to a bookshop with no idea what you will walk out with. This whole vista of knowledge is open to you. The sum of learning. Coming across something you had no idea you wanted to learn about and then holding and having the keys to a new kingdom in your hands. More magical still is coming across a completely new field, new topic, new section.

In a Waterstones recently I became aware of a new section. Not history, not science, not linguistics, not anything like that. I could instead become a neophyte of ‘Smart Thinking’. This ‘new’ genre of popular non-fiction was populated by books with titles that read like your university friend’s drunken idea for a really great book. All constructed in the same way. Pithy title; explanatory and long-winded subtitle. The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking or The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

They draw you in.

The label ‘Smart Thinking’ turns me off. It takes this wondrous experience of being able to forge your own path through the garden of human learning and thought into something which is just there to be consumed. Not enjoyed or personally cherished. Instead, it makes the individual and private act of passionate learning into a performative act. Here are the books you need to read to be an interesting dinner party guest. The world is broken down into its tiny, irreducible parts and interpreted in a way that means that only economics (Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything), or anything else, can truly explain the world. It puts forth no argument, it tolerates no compromise. It reduces these books, all great individually I know, into an exercise in branding. I loathe it because it works so well on me.

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

The individual quality of these books is ignored. It simplifies our messy world into a neat and easy collection. It is the TED talk ethos repurposed for marketing. ‘Smart Thinking’ is positioning. It positions certain books so obviously as being the only section you need bother to spend your time exploring. It robs you, me at least, of that magical feeling of exploration. It reduces your scope for serendipitous discovery. Fiction isn’t broken down into the ‘Happy Endings’ or the ‘Worthwhile Literature’ section. Yes, you do have tables with recent prize winners or shortlistees laid out. But is this the same as attaching a big sticker to the books saying ‘This is the one you need to read’ or that this is the book you need to post about on Instagram. Sip a trendy coffee in a sun-drenched, filtered café and watch as the likes and comments flood in.

Buy me for no other reason but to be seen to buy me.

Our lives were always a conversation between our private selves and our public personas. Neither was the genuine article. There was a handsome balance between the two. As we construct and constantly reinterpret our identities, private reflection always gave us a chance to monitor and evaluate how we presented ourselves. But the private and the public have nearly and neatly collapsed into one another. Smart Thinking drives us toward a purpose beyond just enjoying the nerdy aspects of our private selves. It forces us to justify those aspects to a wider audience. We lose the ability to discover for ourselves. Our purchases and passions are instead for an audience.

Smart Thinking is not a genre. It’s not a topic. It is not a guide toward discovery but a simple signpost beckoning you to the already accepted — a clarion imploring to join the zeitgeist. The books in the Smart Thinking section have their place. But Smart Thinking is not that place. I have read, enjoyed and found great value in many of them. They don’t belong together. They belong in the hinterlands. Under the History, the Science, the Politics banners. They are only positioned together as a short cut to an acceptable, Instagramable moment where you prove your credentials for a crowd that really doesn’t care. It takes the private joy of reading and turns into a public performance. One that needs as its justification the acceptance of the audience.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The joy of learning is discovering the unexpected. It is the sudden flash of understanding. The first spark starts with the realisation something is missing from your understanding of the world. It grips you suddenly as a learning lust. A title, a spine, a hint of a world beyond your current understanding all spark it. To walk into a place where that can all happen but then be confronted with the ‘Smart Thinking’ books section softens that feeling. Smart Thinking strikes me as a way out of indulging your foibles and fancies. It reduces the spontaneous urge to a corporately compiled list of titles emailed out every first Thursday of the month.

I still buy books from the Smart Thinking section. I tell myself that it is not because of the marketing bullshit, but what do I know? I don’t like Smart Thinking. I don’t like it because it works so well on me.

Welcome to Writer’s Desk — November 30, 2018

Welcome to Writer’s Desk

I’m glad you’re here. 

Writer’s Desk is here for everything you could ever want to know about the world of writing and editing, and using the most beautiful stationery.

From the realm of paper and the best cheap fountain pens (and I’ve got a few of those) to the most insightful writing and style guides you will get a jump start on things I’ve had to spend years gathering myself. 

We’ll go beyond Strunk and White and a half chewed Bic. 

And it’s not just longhand stuff here. I do actually use a computer for a lot of writing and editing. The best word processors, the most useful desktop publishing programs and where to publish your work will get their time in the lime light.

So, ink your pen, smooth down the page – we’ve got a lot to get through.