An Announcement On What’s Next…
April 1, 2022
To friends, family, and curious onlookers:
I hope this letter finds you well. I have been using the Blackberry with pleasure for the past 165 months. Atul Gawande, a Surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, remains (from afar) one of my favorite reads. He laughs that reading scientific studies has long been a guilty pleasure. Reading telecommunications reports has long been one of mine.
What I hope to accomplish here is to give you insight into what has transpired behind the scenes in ways you might not have otherwise heard about. Many of you misread my most recent statements on TikTok, where many of these topics were addressed. But for all of you, I hope that this provides a deeper look into what you have in front of you. Accordingly, you should anticipate some mild cheerleading (of others) sprinkled with a healthy dose of self-flagellation about things I’ve done wrong.
There has been much criticism of my approach. There will be more. A judgmental society like the United States necessitates a zig while consumers comfortably zag. I often chose not to defend myself against much of the criticism, largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room to my happiness. To attempt to convince others that my actions are just will serve to paint me in a different light among some of us as progressives worth emulating, versus adversaries worthy of their disdain. Call me old-fashioned (you did), but sometimes the optimal place for your light is hiding directly under a bushel.
Lastly, this letter will only speak to the part of my life that I’m today’s steward of: my consumer choices and their integration in my life. With strong leadership running your business operations, you are in good hands. I can assure you that when your technology is eventually able to evolve deep into the future, you will ably and efficiently separate the good people from their wallets on your behalf. Worry not.
A world with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn’t look like much progress, if any. Abraham Lincoln said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
In May of 1969, a 38-year-old Warren Buffett sat down at a typewriter to inform his investors that he was closing his fund (then Buffett Partnership). His reason: market conditions were such that he no longer had the requisite confidence that he could make good decisions on behalf of the investors and deliver on his commitments to them. So he would stop investing on their behalf.
For me, that’s today. Given all the changes to Blackberry development, I no longer have the confidence that I can make the good decision to stay with Blackberry. So I should step away. And I have.
In one sense, it pains me that it has come to this and that I would go at the end of a particularly down year in the world, one that has been painful for all of us. But the fact is — and a young Buffett said it much better than I ever could — “I am not attuned to this environment, and I don’t want to spoil a decent record by trying to play a game I don’t understand just so I can go out a hero.”
Keying about Physical Keys
I admire Seth Klarman a great deal. I am consistently impressed by his conviction and humility, a rare combination. About their approach at Baupost, he says, “it isn’t the only way of thinking, but it’s how we approach it.” Below is some insight into a few things I value and how I’ve approached decision making as a Blackberry user.
First, this list is anything but exhaustive, and hardly mine alone (mostly it’s S.B. Hinkie’s). Whenever possible, I think crosspollinating ideas from other contexts is far, far better than attempting to solve our problems in communication as if no one has ever faced anything similar. Accordingly, this approach comes from a frequent search into behavioral economics, cognitive science, and a lot of observation and trial and error over my 11 years of smartphone usage. And mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes.
To begin, let’s stand on the shoulders of Charlie Munger, a giant to me. He is a man that’s been thinking about thinking longer than I’ve been alive. Let’s start with him and his approach. His two-part technique is:
1. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered?
2. Second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things — which by and large are useful, but which often malfunctions?
To do this requires you to divorce process from outcome. You can be right for the wrong reasons. In our lives, you’re often lionized for it. You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be for physical keys. There is signal everywhere that the keyboard is unique, from the practice meetings in Lawrence, Kansas to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to Doha, Qatar where keyboards do something awe inspiring far too regularly. I remain hopeful (and optimistic) about their long-term viability, but we don’t yet know exactly how it will turn out. The decision to pick Blackberry, though, still looks to me to be the correct one in hindsight given the underlying reasoning. But to call something that could be wrong (“failed phone design”) right (“good decision”) makes all of our heads hurt, mine included.
So we have to look deeper at process. Here’s a go at it:
(I would be dismayed if you don’t see pockets of this kind of thinking throughout your organizations. In fact, I will feel like I’ve let you down.)
The importance of intellectual humility
Lifelong learning is where it’s at. To walk down that path requires a deep-seated humility about a) what’s knowable, and b) what each of us know. People should hire for this aggressively. I celebrate this internally.
And we’ve been known to punish when we find it woefully lacking.
We talk a great deal about being curious, not critical. About asking the question until you understand something truly. About not being afraid to ask the obvious question that everyone else seems to know the answer to. And about the willingness to say three simple words, “I don’t know.”
Tesla’s Elon Musk describes his everyday stance as, “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.” The physicist James Clerk Maxwell described it as a “thoroughly conscious ignorance — the prelude to every real advance in science.” Bill James of the Boston Red Sox added a little flair when asked whether the learnings available via examining evidence were exhausted: “we’ve only taken a bucket of knowledge from a sea of ignorance.”
A way to prop up this kind of humility is to keep score. Use a decision journal. Write in your own words what you think will happen and why before a decision. Refer back to it later. See if you were right, and for the right reasons (think Blackberry releasing an all-touch screen phone. Good decision, didn’t work). Reading your own past reasoning in your own words in your own handwriting time after time causes the tides of humility to gather at your feet. I’m often in waist-deep water here.
The other reason to keep track yourself is you’re often the only one to see the most insidious type of errors, the ones the narrative generating parts of our lizard brains storytell their way around — errors of omission. You don’t have a wobbly understanding of just the things you got wrong, but the things you got right but not right enough. Listen to Charlie Munger talk about how he and Berkshire Hathaway should be measured not by their success, but by how much more successful they would have been if they bought more of something: “We should have bought more Coke.”
The necessity of innovation
Investing in disruptive innovation doesn’t ferment misunderstanding, it necessitates it. Jeff Bezos says it this way: “There are a few prerequisites to inventing…You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to think long-term. You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”
A yearning for innovation requires real exploration. It requires a persistent search to try (and fail) to move your understanding forward with a new tool, a new technique, a new insight. Sadly, the first innovation often isn’t even all that helpful, but may well provide a path to ones that are. This is an idea that Steven Johnson of Where Good Ideas Come From popularized called the “adjacent possible.” Where finding your way through a labyrinth of ignorance requires you to first open a door into a room of understanding, one that by its very existence has new doors to new rooms with deeper insights lurking behind them.
In most endeavors, it’s fine to be content to woodshed until you get something near perfect. You want that to be you. Grit matters. But it won’t be long until some innovation makes all that effort newly obsolete. You want that to be you, too. The keyboard was still a useful and necessary tool, as was the security. But the updates in the ecosystem around Blackberry, that innovation in the absence of changes for RIM, necessitated change.
The longest view in the room
It is critical to be cycle aware in a technology-driven society. In a situation like mine, where a variety of circumstances left me near a trough in the cycle (and falling), amplifying this cycle became crucial. Today’s outcomes for every person are heavily impacted by decisions past (who is your provider, what was your first phone, where do you see your phone taking you).
Jeff Bezos says that if Amazon has a good quarter it’s because of work they did 3, 4, 5 years ago — not because they did a good job that quarter. While some people have this as part of their ethos, for others it is the ethos. Check out the 10,000 Year Clock. It is no mere thought experiment, but an actual clock being designed to be placed inside a mountain in West Texas, wound, and left to tick and chime for ten thousand years. Why? Because to design something that lasts that long makes us all consider what the world will look like between now and then. In return, we might be inspired to do something about it.
More practically, to take the long view has an unintuitive advantage built in — fewer competitors. Here’s Warren Buffett in the late 80s on this topic: “In any sort of a contest — financial, mental, or physical — it’s an enormous advantage to have opponents who have been taught that it’s useless to even try.” Ask who wants to trade for an in-its prime Blackberry and hands go up quickly. That’s because they knew their audience and what they could deliver. But that took stability and a long view that has eroded over time.
A contrarian mindset
This one is tricky, and getting more so in a nation as healthy and popular as the US that is covered by beat writers, columnists, tech bloggers, commentators, and Apple sycophants minute-to-minute. If you want to have real success you have to very often be willing to do something different from the herd.
Step away from telecommunications and imagine for a moment this is investment management, and your job is to take your client’s money and make it grow. It’s January 1, 2015 and the S&P 500 is $171.60, exactly the same price it has been since January 1, 1985. No fluctuation up or down. Flat every single day. And your job for every day of the past 30 years is to make money for your clients by investing. What would you do?
Howard Marks describes this as a necessary condition of great performance: you have to be non-consensus and right. Both. That means you have to find some way to have a differentiated viewpoint from the masses. And it needs to be right. Anything less won’t work.
But this is difficult, emotionally and intellectually. Seth Klarman talks about the comfort of consensus. It’s much more comfortable to have people generally agreeing with you. By definition, those opportunities in a constrained environment winnow away with each person that agrees with you, though. To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What hardware feature do you think is most undervalued? Get it for yourself. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.
There has to be a willingness to tolerate counterarguments, hopefully in such a way that you can truly understand and summarize the other side’s arguments at least as well as they can. And then, after all that, still have the conviction to separate yourself from the herd. So every time someone lamented Blackberry was not doing what it needed or that the model was outdated, I demurred and endured. Committed to what was right for me and my desires. The absence of that is not a failure, rather it is embracing a different contrarian mindset for some: maintaining connection to the Android community.
Be long science
Science is about predictions. Understanding the world until you can make a prediction about what will happen next. If you’re not sure, test it. Measure it. Do it again. See if it repeats.
“So if we want to think like a scientist more often in life, those are the three key objectives — to be humbler about what we know, more confident about what’s possible, and less afraid of things that don’t matter.” That’s from Tim Urban, who will soon be recognized as one of tomorrow’s polymaths (like many of you, he lives in New York — I’d recommend meeting him for coffee sometime).
In sports I recall the Philadelphia 76ers under Sam Hinkie’s leadership (again a great influence for this document). Their organization began efforts like tracking every shot in every gym where they shot, making predictions in writing about what will happen with a player or a team, and generally asking more questions about the game than some are comfortable to have said aloud.
A healthy respect for tradition
While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. In basketball that looks like get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot. These things are real and have been measured, precisely or not, by thousands of men over decades of trial and error. Hank Iba. Dean Smith. Red Auerbach. Gregg Popovich. In professional communication, that sits with Alexander Graham Bell. Mike Lazaridis. Douglas Fregin. The single best place to start is often wherever they left off.
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A reverence for disruption
So often a new management regime looks at an organization and decides that the primary goal is to professionalize the operation. For you, I hope that doesn’t happen next. As I described to you in our first ever board meeting, we were fundamentally aiming for something different — disruption. We should concentrate our efforts in a few key areas in ways others had proven unwilling. We should attempt to gain a competitive advantage that had a chance to be lasting, hopefully one unforeseen enough by our competition to leapfrog them from a seemingly disadvantaged position. A goal that lofty is anything but certain. And it sure doesn’t come from those that are content to color within the lines.
This is true everywhere, as the balance in any market or any ecosystem ebbs and flows until something mostly unexpected lurches ahead. We see it in spades — past, present, and future.
• New Zealand’s flightless bird the moa (measuring in at 10 ft, 400 lbs.) had the life tramping around the South Island for a great long run; then the first Māori explorers washed ashore in canoes, and that was that.
• I still miss Blackberry’s keyboard, but the 2007 iPhone debut rendered it nearly obsolete to all but a few of us curmudgeons.
• Watch what’s happening with the collaboration between IBM’s Watson and M.D. Anderson or Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo. It won’t be just an ancient board game that’s disrupted. It’s also anything but a game to Lee Sedol.
Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck got right to it: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” That sounds harsh, more harsh than anything I would ever say. But think about it in your context as a regular consumer partner in the telecommunications ecosystem. Every April you will watch 16 of the 30 teams — the last time that exact configuration of players and coaches will ever be together — “die” as their season ends. Within a few weeks, another seven go fishing. By early June, 29 of the 30 opponents are forced to see the light of the competition’s greatness as only one raises the Larry O’Brien trophy.
I can imagine that some of these sound contradictory: contrarian thinking, but respect for tradition, while looking to disrupt. That yin and yang is part of it — keep looking. Questioning.
(Enjoy the inspiration for entire this post here)
A sincere thank you
Thank you for the opportunity to participate with this storied franchise. My gratification is beyond my power to express. What is unequivocal is that the principal beneficiary of your largesse has been me. Thank you.
Blackberry has been wonderful to our family. Lincoln said that to meet with the public “renewed in me my perceptions of responsibility and duty.” Those words rang hollow until I joined the “Crackberry” community and talked with our fans. Everywhere I went, lifelong Blackberry fans told me stories about how they wanted the phone to be good again — really good.
It’s clear now that I won’t see the harvest of the seeds planted long ago. That’s OK. Life’s like that. Many of my friends cautioned me against the kind of seed sowing that felt appropriate given the circumstances for exactly this reason. But this particular situation made it all the more necessary, though. Part of the reason to reject fear and plow on was exactly because fear had been the dominant motivator of the actions of too many for too long.
I will be repotted telephonically. That is often uncomfortable; most growth is. But it’s also often healthier over the longer sweep of history, too.
In the interim, I’ll probably be alone to reflect on my next steps. If you need to reach me — now or later — I am available at [redacted] and I suspect you’ll see me on Twitter via @allenlinton2.
I wish you the best of luck, Blackberry. Like other fans, I will cross my fingers for you on your endeavors clicking and clacking in the future.