Discover more from Scatter Brain
Sriram Krishnan, on-demand entertainment critic, social media product leader, and an investor
A wide ranging conversation with a very online person
Sar : You have quickly gone from a successful and well regarded product leader across FB, Snap & Twitter with lots of takes on Twitter to my on-demand entertainment critic whose taste is very much aligned with mine. I cannot honestly tell if I like your tech tweets more at this point! I go to your twitter profile for finding new tv shows and movies weekly.
Let’s talk about entertainment. What streaming service has caught your attention the most these days? I feel Apple TV is very underrated. The online discourse in our tech and media twitter world seems overly tainted by the business strategy behind it. If you just look at the content like a normal human being, I am actually digging it! Tehran, Defending Jacob, The Morning Show, Ted Lasso! I believe the majority of their hit shows weren't produced by them. That means they are really good at picking and paying up!
What does this mean for Netflix? How does preferential attachment work? Can you also tell us how you think about Netflix as a cultural tastemaker?
Sriram : First, there are so many assertions there that might necessitate the “this claim is disputed” meme that has been going around Twitter. Well regarded tech executive? WIth good entertainment? I want that to be my tagline forever.
Second, “The Bureau”. I know you didn’t ask it but this is my goto when people ask me “ok what is your one goto can’t miss show?”. It’s a French espionage series which is near perfect TV. Watch it, thank me later.
Third, I know nothing about making entertainment and have never worked in it so I relish the opportunity to opine on things I know nothing about. No one asks me these things!
I have to confess I had low expectations when Apple announced their original offering. But they’ve surprised us all! Ted Lasso might be the show of the year and Mythic Quest, The Morning Show have been spectacular too. There might be a lesson here on being patient, building a great team and having the right strategy in place.
Having said that, Netflix is still ahead by a mile. There is a strong preferential attachment effect here which compounds their advantage where better shows leads to distribution, which leads to shows. I can’t imagine a world where Ted Sarandos isn’t the first call for any A-list showrunner/writer who has an idea. Netflix is the new landing the cover of TIME or Vogue in terms of influencing the national conversation. I can’t tell you how many people outside tech have said some version of the below to me in the last few months
“So you worked in social media?”
“Yes…” (expecting a request to be verified)
“So, I saw this documentary The Social Dilemma...”
Whether you have a cause you want to promote, a sport you want to get people excited about (F1-> Drive to Survive, Chess -> Queen’s Gambit (data), Cheese rolling -> We are the champions) or be seen as having “made it”, the signature Netflix ta-dum sound is the best way be a part of the discourse right now.
Sar : The Bureau definitely sounds like the type of show I would love. It reminds me of shows like Castle and Suits that I love but can’t easily watch because they are unavailable on streaming services. I go through the hoops and often pay for such shows individually but I often wonder what’s the rationale behind not making these old shows available on at least one streaming service. Do you think not being on one of the dominant services is as good at not existing at all for the younger generations now?
Sriram : It’s a matter of time/incentives. I’m always fascinated by how shows from the 90s/2000s like Friends or The Office still dominate streaming numbers. Friends isn’t as appreciated in pop culture today but the numbers show that every few years a new set of young people discover it and it somehow appeals to them.
Having said that, I’d be shocked with the number of streaming services where every old show isn’t mined/made available over time somewhere.
Sar : Did you use Quibi at all? What's your take on what happened there? Hot takes only. Please take nuance to twitter where it belongs! There is this commonly cited framework of how SV is a race to figure out the culture of an industry X before X figures out the culture of SV. Netflix is the obvious company to think about here. Putting aside the arrogance of the founders in public statements they made pre-launch, the entire saga highlights how crucial the role the biases of the leadership play even in companies with great employees.
Sriram : Objection, leading the witness!
I was reading “The Splendid and the Vile”, this new WW2 book with Winston Churchill recently (highly recommended). There’s a line in either the book or one of the author interviews where the author talks about the intimidation of writing a book about Churchill in 2019. Do you really have anything new to add which hasn’t been written about for decades before by giants like William Manchester? Any historian has to ask themselves “After all of these giants, I’m going to add my own take to this body of work. Do I really have anything new to say?”.
It is the same trepidation I find staring at me when it comes to opining on Quibi. Do I really have anything new to add that hasn’t been tweeted, memed, TikTok-ed, WSJ-oped-ed? Probably not but let me try nevertheless!
A good friend likes to talk about how a lot of things in life have a “barbell” pattern to them. This might be a dominant factor in video entertainment where on one end of the barbell, you have premium content from Netflix/large studios. This is Avengers, GoT, James Bond, Queen’s Gambit . And on the other end of the barbell, you have Youtube, Tiktok, the long tail of creativity with everyone with a phone playing creator. It might very well be that there are such strong gravitational pulls and distribution loops on either side that anything in the middle is challenging.
The second theme here might be that it is very hard to be something to everyone and to break through the noise. If you look at new large consumer platforms like TikTok they had to have many things go right *and* spend a very, very large sum on customer acquisition. A better strategy might have been to focus on a niche and use that as a beachhead to break into a larger audience.
Here’s a hot take though: I think all of it is...fine? We tried something, it didn’t work, let’s try the next thing. As someone in the business of consumer platforms, I’m fascinated by the effort it takes to have one that makes a dent in culture.
Sar : I agree with that take and that is in line with what typically we have seen as an effect of the internet in virtually every market!
We have been twitter friends forever and we finally met in SF when you were still at Twitter. You are one of the very few people in SV who has reported to Evan Spiegel, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. I will let readers read your blog and listen to interviews on what you have learned from them in your career. What surprised me the most 15 minutes after we ended our chat was just how intently you listened to me. I came in with questions to ask a person who is way more accomplished than me and you ended up asking me most questions. Obviously I need to work on that. What I want to ask you is how does someone who has a vast repository of knowledge pull that off so well.
Sriram : I laughed when I saw this question because being a good listener is something literally no one has said to me. Jeff Van Gundy on NBA commentary likes to say from time to time “Kids watching this, this is how you shoot a jump shot/set a pick/etc”. Well, kids reading this, this is how you get an interviewee to open up!
In all seriousness here are a few secrets that have genuinely helped me.
Secret #1: What a lot of people think of as raw IQ from CEOs is actually a) access to information from smart people b) the compounding effects of (a). When you’re the founder/CEO of an iconic company, you can tap into the knowledge/expertise/raw intellect of the top percentile in any field of your choosing. The compounding effect of that is remarkable because you can sit at the intersection of many domains and see patterns very few can.
I learned this from Charles Songhurst (he talks more about this here) who is genuinely one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Look at every company and you’ll see an inner circle of incredibly smart people. Microsoft had Nathan Mhyrvold, Charles Songhurst and dozens of people with much less public profiles who were at the top of their fields and Bill could tap at any moment.
Secret #2: Twitter and the internet are force multipliers for secret #1. It turns out Twitter is an *amazing* place to find people doing interesting work. When I want to learn any new space, I try to find the people writing the smartest/most interesting things and send them a note. In no other time in history is it so easy to find the people at the top of every field.
Secret #3: cold email people! Some of the best things in my career have happened because I cold emailed people doing interesting things on the internet. I wrote a longer thread on how to cold email people that might be interesting.
Secret #4: Try and keep an eye out for people before they become “famous”. I try to cold email/DM people who are relatively unknown but are obviously fantastic at their work through their tweets. Which brings me to you! It was so obvious to me a couple of years ago that you, dear Sar, were going to be a real player in SV. I would read your tweets and think to myself “How is this person who hasn’t worked for very many years in SV constantly tweeting these remarkable things and engaging in conversations at such a high level?”. That piqued my interest! And your stellar trajectory since then has proven my intuition right!
Now excuse me as I send this comment to all the people who have accused me of being a terrible listener…
Sar : I feel obligated to stop here and tell our readers I did not pay you to say that about me! I don’t know how or when I will be a “real player in SV” but I will call you when I do! It’s best to move on now….
Sriram : Did I already do the “this claim is disputed” joke? For this might be another good moment to use it.
Sar : Yes you did. Moving on...
Despite an explosion of high quality free content, you have created a nice niche for yourself in our online world. You first started this trend of collecting and sharing influential memos. Then you started an interview series called The Observer Effect where your first interviewee was Marc Andresseen and second was Daniel Elk! I'm very available for being interviewed btw. This is just a long ruse to get there! You really are the perfect type of person in my mind to take on such projects. What motivates you? What’s the thinking behind them? I often go back and forth between lasting external value of such content. On one hand, it is very interesting to read impactful pieces of writing that help us make sense of a series of events that followed it and it’s great to see how successful people think. On the other hand, is it just healthier junk food for the intellectually curious? My dilemma isn’t about your content but about that genre of content that people in our world read, write, and share.
Sriram : You’re definitely on my list!
The origin story behind The Observer Effect is the convergence of two different personal themes.
The first is that it actually started from a very selfish place. No one really tells you this but at some point in your career you go from the person making presentations to being the person presented *to*. You find yourself running the Monday morning meetings, figuring out how to motivate and lead people while also building something your customers want. And most people don’t know how to deal with that change, there is no playbook or induction ceremony where you’re taught how to do this. I definitely found myself lost for a while. When you’re the person running a product review you have all these thoughts in your head “Should I be complimenting the team?”, “Should I be making a call or ask them to own the decision?” “Should I weigh in or will it bias the discussion?”
So I started asking around - my mentors, people I worked with, senior leaders I respected - about how they dealt with the little things. How did they run a meeting? How did they structure Monday mornings? I learned a LOT from some of these conversations and incorporated many of those into how I personally approach leadership and management.
The second theme: I’ve always loved The Paris Review and especially their interview with writers (I highly recommend these collections ). They are timeless. You read the one with Ernest Hemingway and you instantly feel inspired. I always wanted to see if I could capture even a small version of that.
When I found myself with some free time this year, I decided to bring those together and just start talking to interesting people about their personal “systems” and publish it. I take my time with each one and try to research the person deeply even when I know them personally beforehand. If after a decade there are just a dozen of these, I would be more than thrilled!
Your point on junk food is interesting for I see this as the opposite: it’s just the fundamentals (a friend calls it “information paleo”). It is literally just me asking people how they work, how they spend their day and writing up the answers directly with no editorial. Simplicity is a big theme for me from the format, the way it is presented to the content itself.
My hope is by keeping it simple it endures the test of time and is relevant down the road. I’m still very selfish when it comes to the content - I’m looking for lessons I can myself apply when it comes to building organizations.
Sar : If you were in your twenties today and had the opportunity to intentionally redesign your career knowing what you now know, what would you do differently?
Sriram : Here a list of things in the “I wish I had known this sooner” bucket.
Instead of focusing on every new role in just itself, it’s more useful to think of a career in terms of many “innings” (in the cricket sense). Sometimes it’s worth settling for a smaller role/title/compensation package because it gives you the skills/network/path to get to where you eventually want to go.
The first few months are critical in every new job. I tried to write up some of the patterns I’ve learned over the years here.
I used to be extremely engineering/technology focused earlier in my career and extremely shut off to the people around me. It turns out you really need to be able to motivate and bring along people to get anything of impact done. I wish I had learned that sooner.
Sar : Do you have thoughts on path dependence and the types of personalities that tend to thrive in our fast moving world? I often feel like we are living at 2x speed when I talk to people outside of our world of startups.
Sriram : To last for a long time in SV, you need to genuinely love change and the idea of building new things.
I remember meeting Vinod Khosla for the first time socially many years ago. Here’s someone who has seen more than a few amazing companies over his time here and it struck me how enthusiastic he was with every new idea, with every new founder. The people who train themselves to ask “What does it mean if this works? How can this be made to work?” rather than say “This would never work. There’s nothing new under the sun” seem to do better here.
Sar : What is the least talked about aspect of why Silicon Valley works? More often than not, the public discourse gets dominated by analysis of the most easily explainable and relatable factors. People like Alex Danco have done a great job at articulating the intangibles of the culture. Curious if you have landed on something that's subtle but powerful.
Sriram : I loved Alex’s post and it captures a lot of the social dynamics of the “pay it forward” culture that power SV.
Two themes about SV that it took me a while to understand.
The first is the value placed on creating new things. The closer you are to the building of new things in the valley, the closer you get to the “inner loop” of this place. It’s partially why some of the more notable people from here tend to be involved in building new companies.
Second underrated theme about SV is the network driven nature of it and how much it values “well known companies”.. There are many versions of this but one of the most powerful in my experience is “alumni from a successful company”. The Paypal mafia gets a lot of attention but I suspect other alumni - Stripe, Coinbase, etc will match or surpass them some day.
This is a roundabout way of saying: if you’re an outsider, join a “well known SV company” if you can, even if it’s not the perfect role. That stamp of credibility will elevate you for future career moves in so many ways even if it’s a short stint there.
Sar : You have been investing in the US and India for quite some time now. What changes are you observing in India today? I left India a long time after you did. Startup culture was basically non-existent when I was growing up. Now, when I read all these stories about startups, venture capital and American giants expanding India, I'm very amazed at how far India has come in just 5-7 years.
Sriram : I’m not an expert here by any means and my experience is limited to a few investments I’ve made in India. From early signs it looks like a lot of the similar patterns that you see here in SV are playing out in India. For example, you now see the second and third generation of founders being funded by, say, the alumni of Flipkart.
The big change I see is when I talk to college students in India or people early in their careers, they’re no longer as focused on moving to SV as, say, my cohort was. They’re a lot more focused on joining well known Indian startups.
One last cultural observation: it’s fascinating to see entrepreneurship now show up in the pop culture zeitgeist in India in a way that it never had before. I was watching a recent Tamil hit and almost fell off my chair when the protagonist explains what venture capital is and several sequences are pitch meetings! India is embracing founders in a whole new way which gets me very excited.