What Ben Thompson gets right?

I love Stratechery. For one, I like reading good stuff. Second, I believe I have a fair amount of interest in businesses in general and tech in specific. So you can say that I am the niche he is targeting. But what else? What are the elements of his writing that got me hooked and continue to keep me there? Why his content is the only thing I am paying to read right now (apart from Wait but Why but that’s optional and the amount is nominal)?

To begin with, I think the product is compelling. He is probably the best business analyst of this era. Period.

Moving on…

Ben has designed the boundaries of what he talks about and what he does not very well. So every time there is something new on the Internet, he already knows if it’s something that he wants to touch or not. More importantly, we know if this is something important or not. Everything has to fall inside those preset boundaries. He talks about business. And despite all the hype around the new material used in iPhone, this is something he won’t go into the details of. And we know that. There is no confusion point. Product is what it is. Take it or leave it. While this might seem easy to do on the surface, it’s actually pretty hard to avoid the temptation.

Second, like all great writers/thinkers he actually has some theories to judge a business model on. From the start he has divided all businesses into either horizontal or vertical. And while it’s tricky to come up with something that big in the first place. It actually makes your job a bit easier in the long run. Perhaps, most importantly it actually sets the expectations of your readers straight. It helps that he has worked for two companies that are the most prominent examples of horizontal and vertical businesses respectively i.e. Microsoft and Apple.

One of the landmark pieces he has ever written is the articulation of aggregation theory. It’s actually so good that once you get it, your understanding of Internet businesses twofolds—at least. I won’t be exaggerating when I say that it matches up the disruption theory by Clay Christensen in importance. Yes, it’s limited to Internet businesses. But that’s fine because 1) every business in foreseeable future is in some way an Internet business. And 2) it’s actually a good sign because every theory has certain anomalies attached to it. For example, disruption theory does not work where users are willing to pay the premium for the experience.

Speaking of anomalies. One of the most misunderstood word in tech industry is disruption. People use it in places where it might not be applicable in the first place. And it’s not Clay’s fault. Businesses change. More importantly, users’ behaviors change. And Clay actually welcomes these anomalies. He has a sign board outside his office saying “Anomalies Wanted”. But you have to go to Harvard to make your case in front of him. In the case of Ben Thompson you just need to go to a slightly different URL i.e. Stratechery forums. What Internet has enabled here is just phenomenal.

Ben can get the feedback instantly on his proposed theory. Which means he has an ample amount of time to think about what he said. Clarify any anomalies users might have pointed out. And most importantly change his mind on something before the thing actually gets stigmatized to his name. And he does that very often. Which makes reading it all more fun and human.

Ben recently spoke about what he is doing and aggregation theory at Code conference. He writes four pieces every week. One of them is free and three are paid. There is no trial period. This is gutsy but it works. By making the decision more difficult he is creating an, often required, placebo effect. And it’s very smart. Because once I have paid in advance, I am inclined to actually read the stuff. Not just skim but read because I want to get the full value. In turn, that uncomfortable act from day one gets me on the hook to look forward to more.

And then there is the free article. It’s normally the best piece of the week. All big concepts/theories Ben ever talked about started with a free article. Yes, the aggregation theory is free too and you can read it here. But once you have read something like that you are inclined to know how all that fits in with respect to a certain news that just made headlines. Those details are normally in daily updates. And you can’t help but pay because the free article was so intriguing that you want more of that. This is not some smart trick. It’s careful business design. And like Ben says himself, media companies need to align their content with the right business models.