A Context Free Grammar

The Everything Store has a story in it about how Jeff Bezos came up with the idea for Amazon, an ’everything store'.

Bezos concluded that a true everything store would be impractical—at least at the beginning. He made a list of twenty possible product categories, including computer software, office supplies, apparel, and music. The category that eventually jumped out at him as the best option was books. They were pure commodities; a copy of a book in one store was identical to the same book carried in another, so buyers always knew what they were getting. There were two primary distributors of books at that time, Ingram and Baker and Taylor, so a new retailer wouldn’t have to approach each of the thousands of book publishers individually. And, most important, there were three million books in print worldwide, far more than a Barnes & Noble or a Borders superstore could ever stock.

We all know how Amazon became a success in the dotcom boom. What isn’t quite so well remembered were the imitators: pets.com, eToys.com, and other websites sprung up trying to be the Amazon for pets or toys. These businesses tried to copy Amazon’s visible activities of selling a category of product online, without understanding the context, business model, and reason for choosing books to sell. The x for y phenomenon is still going strong today. A few years ago it used to be Facebook or Pinterest of Y. Today it’s Uber for Y. These companies are copying the visible parts of a business, but they can’t copy the context, and underlying reasons for a business’s success.

The same thing happens when companies copy design. It’s one thing to copy the trade dress of a product, and this takes some effort and thought. But you can’t copy the thinking that went in to the design of a product, and you’re likely to miss the small touches when you do so.

A few years ago I read how Stripe handles group email with Google Group lists and I wanted to replicate it at my job. I imagined how efficient this would let us be in our communications and how it would help us deal with projects much more efficently. But in the back of my head I had a nagging feeling that it wouldn’t work for us. At the time I didn’t know exactly why, but I parked the idea. Looking back I understand it now. I was trying to copy a practice that had grown out of Stripe’s specific company culture and values and transplant it into my own workplace with completely different values and world views. I could copy the system but I couldn’t copy the context.

When looking to learn from another business, instead of looking at the superficial exterior that is easy to see and understand, we should look at the core of why a product or process exists, and why people use it. Only once we have that understanding, can we see how to apply it to our own contexts or look for new opportunities based on that insight. Clayton Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be done’ theory is a powerful tool for doing this.

A context free grammar may be useful for describing regular expressions and automata, but it’s not so useful for analysing businesses, products and processes.