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Playbooks + Pattern recognition.(John Chambers)

When I saw that Patrick O’Shaughnessy had posted an interview with John Chambers last week, I rushed to listen. The following quote contains a number of gems which I will continue to mine.

When Chambers uses the term “pattern recognition” and explains the concept, it’s so much more coherent than the latest BI and data science geek speak.

And when Chambers mentions “[seeing] the patterns so accurately… for 40 quarters in a row” the whole concept of “engineering growth” comes to mind, especially regarding the implications of a public company that can successfully and near-perfectly engineer growth over long time horizons. Cisco’s case reminds me of what I learned about Netflix’s growth levers, and Enron’s artificially engineered growth.

John Chambers was the CEO of Cisco from 1995 to 2015 where he helped grow Cisco from $70 million to $40 billion in annual revenue.

Begin quote (via Invest Like The Best)

Pattern recognition defers to the numbers. [It’s] the ability to be able to see the patterns based upon how an order rate went in a given day of any month, in a given week of any month [or] quarter, of a given quarter in a year—and to see the patterns so accurately that for 40 quarters in a row, we not only didn’t miss… we were plus or minus, always at the midpoint or above in the range of the market. [And that’s] even though eighty percent of our business was new every quarter. So we not only hit our year forecast, [but] we hit the quarter forecast, always at the number, usually 2 cents [per share] above…

…it was that pattern recognition that allowed us to spend money during the quarter and be able to develop in ways that others did not. [It was] pattern recognition that [enabled us so that] if there was a problem or an opportunity, we saw it at the very beginning, which we could then adjust appropriately to.

But it wasn’t just at the top, it was all the way empowered down through the various engineering and sales arms. They were able to see the numbers so accurately. [And] they knew what they needed to change and correct ahead of time on it.

So that pattern recognition is so key. The pattern recognition has always been driven by customers… I get an idea about a market transition enabled by a new technology and then I go straight to customers and say, “what do you think?”

[It’s the] pattern recognition amplified by listening to the right customers at the right time, on what they think, either on the issue or the company, [that] allowed us to do 180 acquisitions with the highest track record… in the hi-tech industry… we were a machine on acquiring [companies]…

We ran playbooks on everything that we did, from acquisitions to being [number] one or two in a product category, to how you digitize a country, etc., in terms of direction.

It is that pattern recognition [which is] then put into playbooks that allows [you as a company] to move at a speed that others can not.

A simple issue: Playbooks. Pattern recognition. Then replicating that pattern much like a great sports team… [for example, the] Warriors team that passes 130 times per game, which is more than anybody has ever done in history, and wins 98% of the games when they pass 130 times…

Watching the patterns, then replicate it and playing it through, and being able to tell those stories again of what works and why it’s applicable.”

End quote

One act at a time. (Jonathan Sacks)

News of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ passing hit me pretty hard. I had met the man only once, yet through his teachings I felt so close to him. I’ve been reading his book, Lessons in Leadership, once a week for almost a year. I listened to many of his audio classes and interviews, especially enjoying his appearances in secular mediums, like his recent interview with Tim Ferriss.

It’s not difficult to describe why I am so attracted to Rabbi Sacks’ teachings. He was, in my opinion, a great rabbinic leader who made Torah accessible. His ability to dance between biblical sources, academic references, and business lessons was supremely attractive to my modes of thinking, learning, and perceiving the world around me. My worldview was and will continue to be heavily influenced by his work.


I hope that I can play some small part in contributing to Rabbi Sacks’ legacy, which I believe is to embody a fusion of both the Torah of the Jewish people and the wisdom of the world, in thought, speech and action.

The following is a powerful leadership quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay on this week’s Torah portion, Ḥayei Sara, from his book, Lessons in Leadership:

“Perhaps….the most important point of [parashat Ḥayei Sara] is that large promises—a land, countless children—become real through small beginnings. Leaders begin with an envisioned future, but they also know that there is a long journey between here and there; we can only reach it one act at a time, one day at a time. There is no miraculous shortcut—and if there were, it would not help.”

This quote is apropos to so many current events in the world, as well as past and current events in my own life. And it resonates with me in an especially deep way as it connects to my current work with entrepreneurs on the theme of “growth”.

My name, Etan, in Hebrew is spelled איתן (spelled Alef – yud – tav – nun). Also, איתן was one of Abraham’s names. As I learned from Rabbi Moshe Schlass years ago on the streets of Jerusalem’s old city, the letters of my name represent the beginnings of future tense conjugations of Hebrew words:

  • א (Alef) = I will be…
  • י (Yud) = He/She will be…
  • ת (Tav) = You will be…
  • ן (Nun) = We will be…

Back to the Sacks’ quote and the theme of growth—we don’t know where tomorrow’s blessing will come from. Predictive data models based on past performance can take us only so far when it comes to estimating new revenue, customers, or other metrics we are tracking (and working to get more of) in a business.

The smartest data scientists, economists, and analysts will tell you the sameprediction isn’t perfect. With the current rise of AI, better prediction is becoming cheaper, but it’s still prediction, which is and will always be imperfect. I’m bringing up prediction here because I often see businesses fall into the trap of putting the “prediction work” (aka business intelligence, forecasting, etc.) in the category of “execution”. I believe that “prediction work” should be bucketed as “vision” (and not “execution”).

Great entrepreneurs and investors know that even the best ideas are free, and without execution they are worthless. You don’t know; you can’t know what will happen tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade, etc.

What Sacks is teaching us through the story of Abraham, is that we need both vision and day-to-day action, and further, we need to understand which is which, and which is real at any given moment. We can emphasize maintaining a strong and clear vision, putting the actual work in, embracing uncertainty and obstacles, and be ready to receive blessing whenever it comes.

A point of view spreads. (Jason Fried)

I’ve been following Jason Fried and his unconventional business wisdom for years, via his books like Rework, and Remote: Office Not Required (published 7 years before coronavirus was a thing!). I enjoyed this bit from his recent interview with Kara Swisher, where he talks about what I’ll call mission-driven business-building.

Instead of asking, “what products can we develop to generate profits”, and later trying to incorporate sustainability and mission, Fried takes the reverse approach. He and his team at Basecamp, and now their new ambitious email service, give the impression that their values permeate who they are, what they stand for, and everything that they do as a company.

This idea also touches on the rising trend of new open-sourcing models as a distribution method.

I think [you can have a significant impact as an entrepreneur] is… about igniting a bunch of different fires. For example… [at] we’re going to open-source part of our tool. We put together a list of 40 or 50 services that track people… and are making that available on GitHub [so that] other people can add to that list.

If this feature ends up in 12 other products, wonderful.

We don’t have to dominate the world to have this [feature] spread. [It’s] the same thing with ideas.

As a small company we [at Basecamp] have had a very big impact on the industry. We’re a small company, but we have ideas and a point of view, and that spreads. And other people then pick up that point of view and maybe some adopt it, maybe some change it, maybe some reject it. But it gets spread, and it gets spread in other areas. And then those things happen.

It’s like seeds blowing in the wind… it’s not about one seed. You’ve got to seed ideas. And then the world will go with what is better.

But you have to provide an alternative to [products seeking global domination.

And if our impact is [only] 100,000 customers who are paying us for Hey, or 50,000 businesses that pay us for Hey… but it shines a spotlight on the ideas that have, the concepts that we have, and the point of view that we have… and other things sprout up because of that… that’s how you really change things versus going out and trying to dominate the world.

Competence + Confidence [Personal Theme]

I shared in the Growth Mentor mentee community yesterday:


And I don’t mean that as some kind of trope.

What I mean is the following:

All of the top performers, ever, made mistakes. There’s that famous Wayne Gretsky quote about missing 100 percent of the shots you never take. Michael Jordan missed a lot of shots and the opportunity to win many games for the Bulls. One of the reasons Jordan is known for making so many buzzer beaters (25 game winning shots) is because he tried. Jordan missed a lot of shots, too (He was 9-18 in the final 24 seconds and 5-11 in the final 10 seconds). Yes, he had an amazing record, but imperfect, and mortal like all of us.

I think one of the necessary ingredients in winning is just trusting yourself. You got this.

I come up with these 2-word themes every couple of months, that serve me as kind of a theme for everything I do professionally. I write these on a piece of paper that I tape to my fridge, for the constant reminder (I work from home as many of us do these days). Throughout the summer it my theme was “Focus + Courage”. That had a lot to do with career uncertainty and just figuring out “what game” I was playing (more on that, and Jordan, on my blog here).

Now I feel like I’m in a place where I have clarity on what the personal flywheel I’m building, and what I need to do (happy to elaborate about my own flywheel and what I’m building, but this isn’t about me; it’s about you). I’m happy to share my new theme with you, which I just put up on my fridge this week. And that is “Competence + Confidence”. And I think that’s relevant to Growth Mentor for obvious reasons.

Trajectory (Michael Seibel)

Michael Seibel, Partner at Y Combinator and CEO of YC’s Startup Accelerator explains what signals and patterns they look for in applications from startups:

The number one thing that I look for, above all else, is that the team who’s applying has the ability to build and launch the first version of the product. And the second, and very closely tied item, is, I want evidence of forward motion.

Given the amount of time the founders have been working on the company, I want to be impressed with what they’ve done. And I don’t care if that amount of time is two weeks. I don’t care if it’s two years. I just want the sum of what they’ve accomplished during that time to be impressive.

And I think this is a hard concept for people to understand. I think everyone is trained on school where there are these absolutes (what was your SAT score? what was your GPA?). School doesn’t really measure trajectory, at all. Whereas with us [at Y Combinator], it’s really the only thing we care about. It’s trajectory. It’s, how much forward motion and momentum are you creating, as opposed to starting position?

My first cease and desist letter

🏁Here’s the story of my first cease and desist letter, and what I learned from that experience.

TL;DR… in business-building at any stage you will encounter friction. It’s not supposed to be easy. Push forward and turn the setbacks into advantages.

– – –

The year was 2005 and I was gearing up to take my t-shirt company to the next level. Well, at that point it was more of just transitioning from hawking a couple of my initial designs to more of an actual business.

Step 1? Logo!

Without getting into the philosophy of why I called the brand “Welcome to the Zoo”, I headed to Google image search for inspiration. That’s where I discovered and loved this lion emblem.

I played with the lion graphic in photoshop, interweaving different fonts and trying to make it my own. After a few hours of work I called it done. I felt really, really good about this logo. It felt regal, and it felt like me.

This is the original logo design which I still proudly wear after 15 years. ☺️

Fast forward about a hundred t-shirt sales later, and I was surprised to receive a cease and desist letter in the mail. What! No way!

The funny thing is, and I remember this well, is that it felt REALLY GOOD to get that letter. I felt like I HAD MADE IT.

How is that a college freshman deep in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts can attract the attention of a real company, and a real lawyer? I also had a real company… but I didn’t have real lawyers. And I knew their claim was right–I had taken their image and used it as my own.

Thankfully that was pretty early on in the business and didn’t result in any significant costs. I changed the logo (this time around to a silhouette of a gorilla) and built up a brand over the next couple of years that was relatively successful (I was able to buy a used Accord and had beer money throughout college 🍻).


➡️This this story taught me a fundamental lesson about what originality means (and doesn’t mean) in the context of copyright law.

➡️One of the deeper lessons I took away is that in business-building at any stage you will encounter friction. It’s not supposed to be easy. At the end of the day, you are trying to capture value in a unique way, and you might hit a snag like receiving a cease and desist letter. There are no instructions or guidebook on how to capture value, and sometimes there’s no better way to learn than to just go forth and conquer.

Clinical vs. emotional thinking (Marc Andreesen)

How is that professional gamblers consistently win? Andreseen explains in his interview with The Observer Effect:

“I would never be a professional gambler but one of the things you find about professional gamblers – they may play poker at night but what they do during the day is they hang out together and they make side bets for large amounts of money. And it’s literally a side bet of sitting in a diner and betting on whether there are going to be more red cars than blue cars passing by. What they’re doing is ‘steeling’ their own psychology to be able to pull the trigger on bets like that with a purely mathematical lens and with no emotion whatsoever. They’re trying to steel themselves to be able to be completely clinical. And so as contrast, what they then hope for that night when they sit across the table from someone is to hope they’re dealing with somebody who’s super emotional. Because the clinical person is going to just slaughter the emotional person.

It’s this weird thing where it’s the kind of activity that should result in these wild highs and lows but the true pros are just indifferent. They don’t care because it’s a probabilistic outcome. That’s just part of the game and they’ll come back and they’ll probably be better the next day.”

Channeling deeper focus with emotions (Josh Waitzkin)

I’m definitely one to try and suppress emotion at times, which is why I love how Josh Waitzkin thinks about using emotions to one’s unique advantage. This quote is from his book, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.

“There are performers who recognize the disruptive potential of emotions and try to turn them off, become cold, detached, steely. For some personalities this might work, although in my opinion denial tends to melt down when the pressure becomes fierce. Then there are those elite performers who use emotion, observing their moment and then channeling everything into a deeper focus that generates a uniquely flavored creativity. This is an interesting, resilient approach based on flexibility and subtle introspective awareness. Instead of being bullied by or denying their unconscious, these [performers] let their internal movements flavor their fires.”

Free-flowing unconscious process (Josh Waitzkin)

This Josh Waitzkin quote is from his book, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. I love how Josh thinks about leveraging the power of unconscious states of mind. He refers to this in the context of chess and other learning mastery as “the moment when psychology begins to transcend technique.”

“…much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered. This is a nuanced and largely misunderstood state of mind that when refined involves a subtle reintegration of the conscious mind into a free-flowing unconscious process. The idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide.”

What is intuition? (Josh Waitzkin)

This Josh Waitzkin quote is from his book, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence. I love how Josh defines intuition, calling it “our most valuable compass in this world”.

“In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass is this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick.”