When it comes to information, there is too much skimming and surfing. Too many soundbites, so little substance. We have a duty and privilege to inform and educate ourselves. Thankfully, a few publications don’t shy away from high word counts and provide deep reporting backed by tremendous research and fine writing. What follows are some of the better, longer business reads from last year. They are all jewels but among the shiniest are Marker‘s work on Alex and Ani, GQ‘s account of an infected cruise ship, and Leland Nally’s queasy look at Jeffrey Epstein’s black book in Mother Jones.
Much of the recent solid business writing is more true crime than entrepreneurial inspiration. I did not seek those out, I swear. Reporters and readers are drawn to the corporate grifters, start-up downward spirals, cult-like leaders with nefarious intent, and the shockingly inept. To be sure, they entertain and all stories carry lessons. So read on, learn and enjoy.
Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani
Medium’s publication, Marker, exposed me to a business and brand I’d never heard of. How reasonably priced bangles created such a wealthy soap opera will puzzle. The article eloquently chronicles a fall from towering grace. You’ll want to shake the main player so that the hubris falls off. It is also well written, “Clad in a simple pink cardigan over a T-shirt, Rafaelian stood at the lectern in a hotel conference room, her gum-snapping accent lending a common, relatable touch to what might otherwise have seemed a dubiously lofty message. “Every single person in this room is divinely put here by God,” she said, explaining that she knew this because He told her so.”
The Man Who Turned Credit-Card Points Into an Empire
Over-tourism is a concern of mine. I believe we as a race should re-examine our travel. To see historic and natural sites literally worn out by armies of ignoramuses, mammoth cruise ships threatening the horizon of quaint ancient ports, people snapping photos without experiencing anything…grosses me out. What is worse, tourism has ironically crowded out the locals, who are the real reason to visit anywhere. I don’t give a shit about a leaning tower as much as the family who has lived next to it for generations.
“In 2018, according to the United Nations, global tourist arrivals reached a record annual high of 1.4 billion — a 56-fold increase since the end of World War II. This boom, like all booms, had its clear-cut losers (locals, the environment) and winners (home-sharing platforms, crowdsourced review sites, wanderlusting influencers).” Travel has been made possible due to credit cards loyalty “points”. A false economy, a fictional carrot dangled to the greedy masses. Behind it, two sets of geniuses work the algorithms. It is a war between those who set up the rewards system and those who work it. Inherent in the conflict is consumer psychology, “People are willing to pay anything for a free ticket.”
This is a fascinating look into points and the lure of a better life without any real work. It covers how travel has changed due to the pandemic, profiles a guru of points who exhorts his readers to pile on, and a society who leaves a trail of discarded coffee cups upon the pristine sites visited. Lemmings have nothing on humans. “2 for 1” has never existed, and it never will.
We Quit Our Jobs to Build a Cabin—Everything Went Wrong (and it was awesome)
Two desk-locked guys were sick of the grind. They take us on a fun odyssey to simplify and connect in the right ways. Good on Outside magazine for sharing this story (it helped that both men are gifted writers). The events are pre-pandemic, mostly taking place in 2018, “We were in our thirties, young, but not so young. We’d seen the articles linking sedentary lifestyles to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and misery. We wanted to get out of our respective offices and try something different.”
As expected, the story covers the challenges of building and collaborating. Wrongly cut lumber, long days, short tempers, bugs, heat, rain, deadlines coming and going. But there is more, “Throughout the region, real estate listings of half-finished cabins abound, places where tattered bits of insulation hang from unfinished walls. They haunted us. As we progressed through the build, we understood how they came to be. People run out of time and money. They realize they don’t know what they’re doing. They give up.” Read this one as an escape and silently cheer the two authors on vicariously. The ending will not disappoint.
The 8th Wonder of the World
The Foxconn debacle in Wisconsin is the physical manifestation of the alternate reality that has defined the Trump administration.” This is really not a Trump story as it is as much a story of a global corporate grifter, Foxconn. It deserves its own Netflix documentary covering the promise of jobs, tax dollars, and giant new manufacturing facility. It shows how politicians salivate when it comes to economic development and capital projects. In Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, families were forced out for a huge hi-tech plant – but three years later, it still hasn’t been built. And relocation monies have not been paid. Josh Dzieza provides a headscratcher in The Verge where no one is accountable.
The Eco–Yogi Slumlords of Brooklyn
The Cut does not hold back on this story and rightfully so. It exposes two landlords, that “are more Artful Dodger than Ebenezer Scrooge. Underlying their apparent success is a tangle of questionable business and real-estate practices — some brazen, others not uncommon for entrepreneurs like Brooks-Church and Gendville, small-time prospectors mining for gold in the postrecession Wild West of Brooklyn gentrification.”
Bridget Read tells of this couple who promote “yoga on the outside” but are “pure capitalism on the inside”. Loretta Gendville and Gennaro Brooks-Church are despicable folks. The piece is highly educational when it comes to housing serving as a financing tool rather than the main asset promised in the American Dream. And when that dream is threatened, it is downright scary how threatening and dangerous the entitled and delusional can become. Since this piece ran, the pair finally received the proper attention of the authorities. They have been penalized and fined numerous times before but kept operating. A December, 2020 lawsuit may change all that.
The Devastating Decline of a Brilliant Young Coder
Wired provides the script for a dark episode of the comedy, Silicon Valley. The piece is brilliant as it starts off like a true business crime story but soon gives way to a most human one. Any more background would result in spoilers. Suffice it say, the article hits in unexpected ways and sweet empathy is expressed beautifully.
Inside the Nightmare Voyage of the Diamond Princess
“It was their fourth night aboard the Diamond Princess—a floating city of a ship that had been churning south from Yokohama, Japan—and they were all still unaware of how much their journey would transform them, and even the world.” That could be the first line from a novel rather than the first real Covid-19 story.
I have read many scary apocalyptic books but this true tale of the 18-story ocean liner, its 2,666 guests, and 1,000 crew members is terrifying. As GQ shares, a cruise ship is the wrong place for a pandemic, “an environment designed to pack people in and then entertain them with communal activities.” Told from many perspectives, this long read will place you uncomfortably onboard.
I Called Everyone in Jeffrey Epstein’s Little Black Book
The author’s odyssey through Epstein’s contacts nearly left him with a case of PTSD. Leland Nally writes, “It’s almost unbelievable what a string of seven to 12 numbers can get you. All I did for weeks was sit on my couch, feel like dogshit, flip through this haunted book, and call people up one by one in between bouts of stress diarrhea.”
This was a compelling bit, “About 12 seconds later I was dialing Melania Trump’s personal cell phone. Voicemail. Then I sent a text to David Copperfield. “David, we need to talk. It’s about Jeffrey.””
Nally covers the myth of Epstein’s genius and his puzzling fortune which when you finish this article, may not be too puzzling at all. “The truth is that the elite world that Epstein ascended into, the one I tapped into by way of the black book, is populated with hordes of loathsome, boring, untalented people living their bumbling, idiotic lives while just so happening to wield some share of the preposterous global bounty that he and the rest were after. For all the mystery surrounding Epstein’s fortune, its existence is hardly more inscrutable than the wealth of any of his other billionaire peers. He earned it the same way they all did, which is to say precisely not at all.”
If you are looking for justice or to hear the voice of his countless victims, you will have to look elsewhere. You will barely hear from those most complicit in Epstein’s world.
Garbage Language: Why Do Corporations Speak the Way They Do?
As a corporate communications professional and writer, I’ve shared this article numerous times with clients. It is well-penned and full of insights on why businesses speak gobbledygook, “The hideous nature of these words — their facility to warp and impede communication — is also their purpose.”
The piece explores the warped use of language including acronyms. Each industry and business have their own ‘speak’ and tons of homegrown acronyms. As a consultant at Price Waterhouse, the first thing I did on an engagement, was create a glossary of terms for our team so we would know what the client was saying. Carswell Publishers liked it so much, they had their terms included in employee orientation kits. Author Molly Young, writing in Vulture, nails it with her last line, “The meaningful threat of garbage language — the reason it is not just annoying but malevolent — is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.”
Lavish Parties, Greedy Pols and Panic Rooms: How the ‘Apple of Pot’ Collapsed
“It has become the WeWork of weed, an overhyped startup whose sky-high valuation has come crashing back down to Earth.” WeWork must hate all these comparisons but this account from Politico cannot help it given the facts that indict MedMen’s two leaders, “excessive spending on security—including installing a panic room in Bierman’s home—as well as using company funds on the likes of a custom Tesla SUV, “pearl-white” Cadillac Escalades, and a salary for Bierman’s personal marriage counselor.” The latter earning $300,000 annually.
This is more than the familiar story of greed and ineptitude, it provides the backdrop of legalization. What I once referred to in The Toronto Star, as a combination of “the wild west, the end of prohibition, and the Gold Rush.” Everyone from regulators to businesses to consumers has gummed the whole thing up. My favourite bit was reading about their stores and how the influence of Apple and Starbucks drove the design. Bierman and Modlin had decent timing and cool ideas but were the wrong guys to execute. Why people cannot recognize their own shortfalls is echoed in many of the stories from 2020.
How to Learn Everything: The Masterclass Diaries
I subscribed to Masterclass for two years and was overwhelmed. Once signed, I avoided quitting for fear of being judged as a lesser human being. Masterclass is a brilliant business offering learning content from Annie Liebowitz on Photography to Salman Rushdie on Storytelling to Alicia Keyes on Songwriting. Recent classes influenced by the pandemic include gardening and bread baking. The format is a series of videos from celebrity subject matter experts/thought leaders with an accompanying workbook.
Irina Dumitrescu spent half a year chugging through the curriculum starting with Malcolm Gladwell on Writing, “Gladwell’s MasterClass leaves me energized. Writing seems more manageable now, simply a matter of the right tools and attitude.” Dumitrescu moves onto Anna Wintour on Creativity and Leadership, “Sitting in a discreetly lavish apartment, and wearing a stunning green dress with bulky statement jewelry, Wintour describes her vertiginous rise to the top — from somewhere remarkably close to the top.”
The author’s journey through ‘famous people curriculum’ is hilarious, “I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course.” Yet, there is redemption at the close. She finds that the courses (and life) are not about mastery but rather ______________. You will have to read it, to fill in the blank. If you like this topic, read The Atlantic‘s, What Is MasterClass Actually Selling? BTW, I completed just 3 courses in 2 years.
The Bay Street Ex-con Who Fooled Investors – Twice
The entire “crypto” thing has a branding problem. Every time I hear that word, I pat my physical wallet to ensure it is still there. Toronto Life does a great job telling the tale of a sharp fellow who tests ethical and legal boundaries. Shaun MacDonald also had good timing, “In the early 2010s, wealthy investors and fund managers were eagerly on the hunt for the next big thing, and crypto capitalized on this desire.”
Grifter stories intrigue because we wonder if these smart folks would do well if they played it straight, “The man who called himself Shaun MacDonald is a great financial opportunist, a brilliant confidence man, a nerd in search of a cult. Over the course of two decades, he convinced thousands of trusting investors to give him their money, and he did this not once but twice.” Consider this read a preface, I expect much more to come on Shaun.
How a Hot $100 Million Home Design Startup Collapsed Overnight
Ben Huberman of Long Reads provides this introduction to the story, there was no point in trying to better it, “Every time I think I couldn’t possibly read another startup post-mortem story, a new one lands, and I find myself — once again — drawn in. This genre plays on the seductive power of schadenfreude and voyeurism, but at its best, it also explores something broader and more nefarious about this moment, and not just in the tech industry. Courtney Rubin, in The Marker, does just that when she chronicles Homepolish’s collapse. There’s the usual mix of a polarizing founder (in this case, Noa Santos), hubris, and greed disguised as a desire to “democratize design.” But there’s also a deeper story about exploitation, class, and the gap between (heavily filtered) appearances and the ugly reality on the ground.”
The plan was to simplify the fragmented interior design landscape, making it more approachable and affordable for those who would never engage a designer. The company planned to revolutionize the way designers everywhere worked, helping them find new clients and becoming the go-to for billing, ordering, and other administrative tasks. What resulted was a toxic combination of a board not paying attention and a first-time founder in crisis. It is also an indictment of our fake social media obsessed world.
Here are more long reads for consideration including Vox‘s piece on SoulCycle whose horrible toxic environment may somehow survive the pandemic. And, just this week, Vox and many other news outlets covered one of SoulCycle’s celebrity instructors lying to get the vaccine. We do not yet live in a cashless world, as evidenced by armoured trucks still driving around. Learn how GardaWorld lost millions of tactile dollars in this piece from the Tampa Bay Times. And the last one is a socio-economic tale from ProPublica that makes dollar stores look like the wild west.
There you have it, tons of great long reading with too many lessons to easily summarize. That is what education and learning should be, difficult and involved, not quick and presumptive. Cheers!