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Episode 71 June 27, 2017 | 36min

A Conversation about Amazon and Whole Foods

Our co-founders ruminate on Amazon's latest purchase—and talk Russian ecommerce sites.

Show Notes

This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade start by trying to rationalize Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, a conversation summed up by Paul as, “You can Occam’s Razor this bad boy down.” They move on to Amazon’s strategy at large, the departure of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, whether our individual actions can ever have any broader effect on the planet, and the harrowing saga of the time Rich tried to buy a watch from a shady Russian website.

[Intro music]

[0:16]

Paul Ford Hi! My name is Paul Ford and you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City! I’m joined by my co-founder, Rich Ziade.

Rich Ziade Paul, sounding pro today.

PF Just gonna get right in there [are you?] and have a great day. I just had a very strong cup of coffee.

RZ Alright. Literally.

PF Very motivated to have a GREAT podcast today.

RZ Go!

PF Ok. Rich, what does Postlight do? I’ve forgotten.

RZ Postlight is a digital products studio [mmm] based here in New York City, USA. Um—

PF Great town.

RZ Great town and uh we design, architect, build platforms and the apps and sites and all sorts of services that run on top of them.

PF That’s right. You go to your web browser, you hit something big, Postlight might’ve built that.

RZ I feel like you sell it short everytime you say “web browser.” We build the bot. We’ll build the service. We’ll build the—

PF I don’t think most people in the world are sitting there going, “Ah! It’s on the web, not just mobile.” I think people are engaged with what’s on their browser, they still think that’s cool.

RZ I think so. I mean [exhales sharply]—

PF Our little world, everyone is like, [in whiny voice] “Uh it’s not—it’s not mobile enough.”

RZ A friend of mine, his daughter is in her teens, pre-teen. And she doesn’t have an email address [sure] but she’s deep in Instagram [mm hmm], deep in uh I don’t know, Facebook’s cool, I guess Snap, I guess [mm hmm], but no email [sure]. And I—if I sat her down and said you know what are your favorite book marks? I don’t know if she’d have an answer. To be frank. I just don’t think it’s there.

[1:49]

PF I know. People get it. But I also don’t want to portray us as like the place you come to for your exciting editorial strategy for Snap.

RZ Well we’re also—we’re also not targeting preteens.

PF No, we build the big things.

RZ Yes.

PF Yeah—

RZ But if you are a preteen and listening to this: welcome.

PF Welcome.

RZ We—we love having you here.

PF We build the plumbing and pipelines that will get your content onto Snap.

RZ Yes.

PF But it’s a little lower level than you might be thinking.

RZ And higher!

PF Yeah.

RZ Yeah.

PF Look, hey, we’re design [anyway], we’re engineering, we’re everything.

RZ It’s a terrible sales pitch right there.

PF Ah it’s a big pile of abstractions, it’s really complicated but let’s talk about something big that just happened.

RZ Ok.

PF Alright. So, it’ll be about a week and a half old by the time people hear this but let’s—let’s like—a couple days ago [do it] I woke up and I checked my phone and Amazon had bought Whole Foods.

[2:34]

RZ Whole Foods.

PF Whole Foods—

RZ—capital W, capital F.

PF—the legendary Whole Foods where you can like a two dollar celery spritzer.

RZ Yeah.

PF Portobello . . . something.

RZ Yeah, they do this thing where they like—they let a light mist come over the vegetables [yeah] so you feel like you’re in the Amazon.

PF Oh yeah!

RZ And no pun intended but you literally feel like, “Oh my god, look at the life that’s breeding here.”

PF Yeah they just—they really care about—my zucchini is alive [yeah] and they don’t pretend otherwise.

RZ Ah look: I shop Whole Foods.

PF Sure.

RZ I’m not gonna lie. And uh—

PF One moved into Brooklyn, on 3rd Avenue [yeah], and changed the—the texture of that part of town.

RZ Yeah and uh it’s very good quality stuff. That’s—that’s real.

PF You know that’s built on just a terrible super fund site. I used to live around there.

RZ I think it took an extra year before they could build it because [they had this sort of—] they had to—

[3:22]

PF Like put on it on stilts and do all kinds of remediation.

RZ Take the sludge out. Yeah.

PF I used to sneak into the current Whole Foods site for weird DJ parties . . .

RZ Alright. Let’s move onto what we really wanna talk about.

PF Which is why would an Amazon . . . buy a Whole Foods?

RZ You know, it’s funny when acquisitions like this happen and how everyone starts to theorize about, “Well why would you do that? Why would they do that?”

PF We’d never do that! Let’s go ahead and theorize.

RZ And—and go ahead and put yourself in that—that strategy room. I imagine like Bezos is in a room with like a star chamber where there’s like a 360 degree screen and whiteboard that just rotates around you.

PF Sure, I mean they have a series of white cats that they go through on a day to day basis.

RZ Exactly and they’re thinking at such an abstract, high level and then we’re like, “Well, does that mean I’m gonna get my Kale . . . on Amazon?”

PF Look: here’s what I think: first of all, Amazon’s been in the grocery business forever. It’s like ten years now.

RZ They’ve been trying at it. It’s Amazonfresh.

PF Yeah, so that’s been going on. Amazon’s ships stuff and there’s lots of distribution centers.

RZ And it hasn’t been stickin’ for ‘em.

PF No, and there’s been an ongoing conversation. I’m sure—I’m sure Whole Foods was like, “Yeah it’d be kinda nice to sell Whole Foods and get all that money.”

RZ Uh huh.

PF And there have been four or five like well, who could buy it? And the reality is that not that many places could blow 13 plus billion dollars on  a grocery store.

[4:42]

RZ Right.

PF So Amazon’s one of them. Microsoft probably didn’t want it. You know like it [stutters] lines up with Am—Amazon is interesting cuz it’s not just a tech giant in the way that we think of tech giants being around software. Google is an advertising company with a lot of software wrapped around it. Microsoft it’s SQL [sequel] server and Microsoft Word. Apple: they make computers—

RZ They sell hardware.

PF Yeah.

RZ Apple’s primary business is selling hardware.

PF They sell hardware and they make the software that makes the hardware really cool.

RZ Mm hmm.

PF And they’re really good, really good at marketing.

RZ But these are the drivers.

PF Well and that—those businesses have all been roughly the same for like 45 years.

RZ Right. And you need—you need about three census to—to draw ‘em out.

PF And then Amazon which is a giant beast with 400,000 tentacles. You know they’re like, “Ah you know video’s interesting, let’s buy Twitch.”

RZ Utterly fascinating. I think this company is just really, really unique and really fascinating.

PF Well, you know, I’ve been thinking about it: there is also some historical precedent though like you look back there was an era in the 60s—50s then, especially the 60s and 70s where conglomerates were all the rage, and the one that was really big was this company called ITT [ok]. You pay any attention to ITT at all?

RZ [Exhales sharply] I used to see the ads when I was young.

PF That’s right. And they bought everything and they got involved in like bad stuff in—in South America where they like helped overthrow a—a government. I think something to do with pineapples. Like a really—like I’m not being ironic. I can’t remember [right] the exact details but they popped into my head cuz there was a guy in charge of ITT named Harold Geneen [mm hmm] and he was just a classic operator. And the idea was you know you’d bring this conglomerate together and you would be able to achieve all these efficiencies and optimizations by having all these different business integrated.

[6:21]

RZ Yup.

PF So the hypothesis I look at with Amazon is that it’s growing into a 60s or 70s style conglomerate except what it’s assuming is that in this case the advantages of centralization and the advantages of sort of true digital optimization around just about every part of the business will generate an unbelievable behemoth that’s kind of unstoppable. Right now it’s hard to look at them and say that that’s a wrong—that’s an incorrect thesis. They are a behemoth!

RZ Yeah but that’s not—like you know how companies create that one sentence?

PF Right.

RZ That’s supposed to be who they are.

PF That’s right.

RZ Like every company will say, “Our goal is to be a behemoth.” That’s just a by—that’s a—

PF Not just behemoth. I—I think like with the old conglomerates it was a, you know, it was early days cybernetics and we’re gonna just bring everything together. You know or like what McNamara did with the Ford Motor Company in the 50s. This idea that like optimization and spreadsheets [mm hmm] like on paper at that point would get you to a place of—of sort of logical progress [ok]. And I’m seeing this with Whole Foods, right? Like it doesn’t make sense to us as human beings but—

RZ I—I—I wanna make a case for it. But I want you to make a case for it first.

PF Make a case for why they should’ve bought Whole Foods?

RZ Well, they did. Why did they buy Whole Foods?

PF I mean—

RZ What was their rationale for—look—

PF To me—

RZ You know what’s a fun exercise?

PF Look: I think the whole thing is very organic . . . Sorry [laughs]. I’m happy with myself even if nobody else is.

[7:50]

RZ Ok.

PF I think that this—I really do think it was organic in that if you—[chuckles] if you look at Amazon, it’s products going into houses and it’s distribution centers.

RZ Yes.

PF And Whole Foods is products going into houses and distribution centers.

RZ Yeah.

PF And, you know, there’s a—it’s a good demographic, it’s a well known brand, and even if—if I’m Amazon—like you don’t have to—you don’t actually have to have some great, synergistic vision for this to make sense. You could just start with like, “Well good, let’s get that. It’s a pretty good business. It’s profitable.” Aaaand I mean I’m assuming it was profitable, “And let’s put uh Amazon lockers in every single one and see what happens.” Like you could start there actually.

RZ Yeah. I think you’re onto how they see it.

PF Right. So there’s like one percent progress that you could make with your Amazon locker. It’s like, “Well, what else could we do if we have all these stores and they’re big?” [Right] I mean, “Well, you could, you know, what other Amazon things could we do?” “Well, you know, we can um [sucks teeth] we could ship things out of the Whole Foods. So people—we can—instacart’s got a business going.”

RZ I think you’re onto something there. Like geographic touch points, right?

PF Yeah.

RZ Like Amazon’s put enormous, enormous investment in sort of these regional warehouses where everything goes out and they’re like—

PF That’s right but they’re dependent still on the um on the postal service.

RZ That’s right.

[9:09]

PF So this gets them more distribution, closer, it’s pretty good real estate [yup]. They’re probably saying, “We can do better with that real estate than Whole Foods can.”

RZ Yup.

PF You know, “We’ll take where they’re putting lettuce. We’ll get half as much lettuce and we’ll put some uuuh electronics [yeah] and phones in there too and then we’ll get a guy with a bike [mm hmm] and he’ll get those—those phones over to you.” I guess what I’m saying is like you can actually Occam’s razor this bad boy down. Like it’s not—

RZ Yeah. It’s not insane, by any means.

PF And it’s also—it’s also not this like giant, incredibly abstract conceptual move of—of like a master chess player.

RZ Yeah.

PF It’s just like you can see the two businesses lining up and go like, “Eh, it feels weird but ok.”

RZ Yeah. You know what’s a fun exercise? It’s actually hard to come up with a business that if you said Amazon bought them, you’d completely conclude that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Give it a shot. Pick a company.

PF But see this is the—this is the social role, right? Like if I pulled out a copy—one of the things I enjoy looking at at home and my kids love it too is a copy of the Sears Roebuck catalogue from 1880.

RZ Ok.

PF Ok? And it’s a reprint. It’s 1880, 1890, somewhere around there. Everything is in there. Houses. You can buy a house. And it will come to you on a train.

RZ Right.

PF And you can buy a gun, and you can buy all your books, and you can buy, you know, condensed milk [mm hh] and everything, right? Because what they were doing is a sudden network had emerged in the form of the railways, and they had created a set of optimizations around getting you your products. Cheaper than the local purveyors could.

RZ Sure.

[10:41]

PF Now that business is—

RZ This is very similar.

PF That’s right.

RZ To Amazon.

PF So, you know—

RZ It’s found efficiencies . . . such that it’s actually costlier and slower, less convenient—

PF Yeah.

RZ—to go get it from the little shop.

PF Here’s the thing that we are assuming when we assume that Amazon will take over the world: we are saying that the optimizations that it has found are in any way permanent. And we said that about Sears Roebuck, and we said that about ITT, and we said that about AT&T as well, [mm hmm] that they owned and controlled whatever network and whatever distribution channel happened, and then it turned out that that—there’s always—someone might—might find a better way to compute.

RZ Sure.

PF Always—someone might—might find a better way to compute. Someone mind find a different set of options.

RZ I think they very much think that way too. I think they very much have that paranoia about—

PF Well I think the difference here is that these companies had enormous resources to pick up and buy things. Like I think Facebook sees WhatsApp, right? And I—I think internally Facebook doesn’t think of 19 billion dollars as 19 billion dollars. They think of it as like 38 Facebook coins. Each one of which is worth half a billion dollars.

RZ Yeah, whatever.

PF Oh my god. Get me some Facebook coins and let’s buy that thing.

RZ Right.

PF Cuz if they were thinking about it in dollars everyone would lose their mind.

[11:51]

RZ Right.

PF So, I think that Amazon and—and all these—all these giant orgs are kind of in the same boat where they’re like, “Let’s go and get that before it gets too big.”

RZ I think that that paranoia is real and is there.

PF Which is—

RZ Whole Foods is not growing—

PF Here’s the thing: it’s not—

RZ Whole Foods is actually stru—not struggling, but not growing.

PF Whole Foods is strategic. It’s not competitive.

RZ It’s not competitive.

PF Nobody else was—Facebook wasn’t gonna buy Whole Foods.

RZ No.

PF This is about—so this has to be about like distribution and long term business growth and like a nice—like there’s no hockey puck because they got this.

RZ Yeah.

PF It’s not like Instagram where you buy it for a billion and it’s worth 30 billion in [right] your business, like five minutes later—

RZ No, no, no. That wasn’t the picture. That was—they’re—they’re putting pieces into a puzzle. You know what this makes me think about? I have to say: I sat there and wondered about this for probably a good six months when Amazon drew a dotted line from Amazon Prime which for years for me was, “Woah. 80 bucks and I can get second day delivery [mm hmm] on anything I buy from Amazon as long as it has that little check mark?” That’s incredible! So I signed up for it. And I signed up for it and I kept it for years.

[13:00]

PF Well we should be—You’re a pretty serious Amazon user. You use it for a lot of stuff.

RZ It’s just convenient. I don’t own a car, like I live in—in Brooklyn with two kids.

PF I come home, I live in a—in a apartment building, and—

RZ Just piles of Amazon.

PF There’s a pile of Amazon stuff every single stuff every single day.

RZ Everyday.

PF Now including Sunday.

RZ Everyday.

PF There are at least like four Amazon boxes in the—in the lobby.

RZ Easily, easily. It’s a beast, right. So I’m happy with this second day delivery, right?

PF Mm hmm.

RZ Right? It didn’t take a whole lot to recoup that—that value. And then they put . . . I think it was music first. “Hey, you have an Amazon Prime account? Listen to some music with it.”

PF Sure.

RZ And I logged in and it was awful. The catalogue was terrible.

PF Amazon’s music download and playing experience has been basically done by the dogs who play poker are the ones [RZ laughs] who are hired to do it.

RZ Right. Early days: it was—and also, the catalogue. Like what was available—

PF It was so bad.

RZ It was like Seals and Croft—

PF “Would you like to download for like a—” It was a buck for an mp3 of a Seals and Croft—

RZ It was a mess.

PF Yeah.

RZ No, no, no, but this was streaming, Paul. This was like [ugh] unlimited li—it was like their own version of Spotify except everybody—the party was over and a couple of people were sticking around [it’s fascinating] sipping—

[14:10]

PF It’s fascinating when you see what they think of content. Like—like Amazon’s opinion of content is not hot.

RZ Well, and I don’t know about—hold on. Let’s see this through, right?

PF Alright.

RZ So this is what it is: I’m like, “Well that was stupid.” Why the hell would you take advantage of my Prime subscription and put music in front of me? And then . . . it starts to pick up [mm hmm] and it starts to pick up. And then they add video and then they—the first thing they did was some movies and it was like—it was like Rambo III—

PF That’s the—the sequels were rough. You know their rough when—

RZ They start with the sequel package from the [yeah]—from the movie company—

PF This happens with Netflix too. You know the heartbreak is 48 hours but then you look closer and it’s another 48 hours.

RZ It’s another— yeah. It’s a bad scene, right? So now they add—they had video and movies and then they start to land their own content. And the whole collection around TV and children’s stuff and all this is starting to really take hold. And now—

PF The kids stuff is smart too, right?

RZ It’s nuts. It’s huge.

PF They did a show like a—a locomotive that parks [that’s right] for two hours [that’s right]. Parents will do it.

RZ So how much is Amazon gonna spend—they’re gonna spend hundreds of million—Jeff Bezos was at the damn Academy Awards!

PF Yeah sure.

RZ He funded—which one was it—the depressing movie in New England where like the guy’s brother—

[15:27]

PF Manchester by the Sea?

RZ God that movie is dreadful.

PF Yeah, I’m not gonna see it.

RZ Did you see it?

PF No.

RZ It’s just misery beginning to end.

PF No. I’m good with Afflecks, I don’t need anymore Afflecks in my life.

RZ Exactly. So, they funded this movie! They’re funding movies, they’re funding shows. I wanna pitch a show right now—

PF Well, Man in the High Castle and all that stuff.

RZ Catastrophe is one of the best shows of the last three years.

PF It’s a BBC show. But yeah sure.

RZ It was—I mean Amazon bought the US rights and whatnot. It’s awesome. It’s a great—now so here’s what’s happened now, like that [stutters]—The service that I use to sign up to get orders, boxes to my house, more quickly is now driving the content I’m experiencing both video and audio through Amazon as a content provider.

PF That’s right. They want as much of you as possible.

RZ They are not seeing that profile. That profile, the value of that profile transcends physical delivery.

PF Mm hmm.

RZ And content delivery.

[16:20]

PF I look there—

RZ And it will go on and on. That—that thing is a passport, it is literally truly citizenship.

PF Sure.

RZ They aspire to have such a footprint that that thing is pervasive in a very meaningful way.

PF But I think we run around with our arms in the air like, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” But it’s like, nah, I mean Sears Roebuck—you lived in a Sears Roebuck house, read Sears Roebuck books, you know, had a Sears Roebuck [oh yeah] window in—in your bathroom, and shot a Sears Roebuck gun.

RZ That’s right.

PF And then, you know, the one that always comes back for me is the Bell system which—you spent more time engaged with Bell system than almost anything else. Like there still hasn’t been anything quite like it.

RZ It was that internet.

PF It was the single network that bound all of America together, and the world together [yeah] for like a century.

RZ They’re—the articles are out there where it’s like, “Are we gonna lose our minds sitting and talking into a plastic handle?”

PF Oh sure.

RZ “When we could be looking into each other’s eyes?!”

PF Yeah. Yeah exactly.

RZ There’s no doubt that—that’s out there. About what it’s doing to our psychology.

PF So this is a new variation on like the semi-monopolistic, super optimized network platform.

RZ Correct.

PF Ok so we’re—we’re back here again. What’s different this time? I don’t even know. It’s the internet. The internet is fast and kind of anonymous. You don’t have to do—

[17:30]

RZ You know what? It’s—it’s arrogant.

PF It’s fast!

RZ The—the—What’s different this time was asked 70 years ago.

PF Yeah.

RZ They just keep askin’ the same question.

PF And then it happens again because of crazy network effects and the fact that it’s always faster. Like faster kills on this. So you could be entertained more quickly than you ever could. There were better movies at Blockbuster but I’m gonna watch Man in the High Castle.

RZ I don’t have to get off my couch.

PF Oh I mean literally—

RZ I don’t have to sign up. That’s another bit—I’ll find it cheaper at jet.com but I gotta go through the whole process—

PF Ah that’s too much work.

RZ—and introduce myself. No, no, no, no. I can hit two taps. They keep—they keep fightin’ those taps and they just keep cuttin’ them down. There’s that “Buy with one click”. They have those little buttons you put on your dishwasher.

PF Mm hmm.

RZ So that when you’re done with that—with the soap, you can hit the button—

PF [Jinx with RZ] You just hit the button.

RZ—and it makes the purchase and brings it over.

PF Yeah.

RZ You can subscribe to hand lotion.

PF Yeah.

RZ This is where we’re at, right? Like this—they wanna permeate everything here. Like I mean is that good? We could always pause and say, “Good god, can’t you just go to the store and say hi to the shopkeeper?”

[18:33]

PF Let’s not worry about the ethos for one second because what I’m seeing here—there is a motive underneath the organization to wherever we can drive to a transaction of any kind [yeah] let’s get that transaction. If you can hit a button and get Tide [yeah]. They don’t care about whether it’s Tide or hand lotion or a funny hat.

RZ They don’t give a—

PF Or! Or! Um you watching Man in the High Castle.

RZ Yup.

PF What they care about is that a transaction occurred and that the platform increased in scope because you gave ‘em a little data—

RZ That’s exactly right.

PF—and they learned a little more, and you got a little—they got a little money out of you along the way. And so they’re just gonna keep blowing that platform up bigger and bigger until it hits some natural limit. And it will! Like this is—we—We assume that they will eventually expand until they completely take over the planet and end up in the earth’s mantle, powering everything.

RZ Yeah.

PF But—

RZ They might bump into antitrust some time.

PF See that’s the thing: we’re probably—The government has to change up a little bit but it might and [yeah] we are probably getting close to antitrust or like it’s gonna start getting raised here and there.

RZ Yeah.

PF And, you know, someone like Al Franken will stand up and be like, “You know? We need to think about whether—”

[19:42]

RZ Yeah. Start the conversation.

PF “Is this good for America?”

RZ I have a friend who boycotts Amazon. She thinks what it’s done to local businesses and blah blah blah. I would boycott [PF sighs] it too but god, when I can get a kite in like day.

PF You know what I’ve noticed? Is that no matter how progressive someone is when they have young children—

RZ [Laughing] Yeah, it’s out the window!

PF Everyone’s just like—

RZ It’s like, “God, I can get ‘em Playdoh tomorrow.”

PF I mean I’m just like, “These bottles are—are so much less expensive when you buy them from the American Nazi Party. It’s just I feel—I feel [RZ laughs boisterously] terrible.”

RZ “I’ve also been sitting in this bathtub for a day and a half. I’m not gettin’ out.”

PF Yeah.

RZ Alright so let me end this with I wanna pitch a future product [ok] that is part of the collaboration between Whole Foods and Amazon. It’s the Amazon Compost Bin.

PF Mmm.

RZ And what it does is it has cameras right at the lid. So that when you throw in a used ear of corn [mm hmm], it scans it, and automatically adds corn to your shopping list. And corn will be there the next day. If you put in the top of a tomato where that stinky stem is, and throw that into the compost bin, it picks up “plus one tomato”.

PF So this is all machine learning right? It’s like Alexa but instead of a little—

RZ No, it’s—

PF No, of course it is. It’s gotta be.

RZ Don’t—don’t say machine learning.

PF It is.

RZ You know how I feel about that term.

[21:00]

PF But this is—this is what happens. Alexa becomes a garbage can.

RZ Alexa becomes a garbage can.

PF It’s got a little camera built in and it takes pictures of [that’s right] your garbage.

RZ And then what happens? . . . Paul . . . not enough cauliflower in your diet.

PF Yeah that’s true. And then Amazon Toilet starts to see it all.

RZ Amazon Toilet is like, “Uuuh there’s a lot of—I’m not seeing ruffage here, guys.”

PF Ugh!

RZ “Let’s get this going.”

PF Cuz they already have those sort of like analyzing toilets. That’s a Japanese thing.

RZ Toro.

PF Yeah.

RZ There’s like 10,000 dollars for a toilet thing that like whispers in your ear.

PF Uh imagine now—Amazon’s gonna make it possible for you to talk to your toilet.

RZ “Alexa, get out of the bathroom for a minute.”

PF Yeah, “Alexa just leave me alone!”

RZ “Give me a minute in the bathroom!”

PF No, not possible.

RZ Alright.

PF Ok. That’s where that ended up.

[21:49]

RZ Wow. That was cor—like [clears throat] industry analyses at it’s [laughing] finest.

PF All the way from—through the digestive tract of the Silicon Valley.

RZ Yeah.

PF Uh—or Seattle. Alright.

RZ We’re gonna cover some other stuff, Paul?

PF You know, Rich, let’s talk about Uber.

RZ Oh, here we go again.

PF Travis! Your boy!

RZ Yeah.

PF Had to take a little break.

RZ [Sighs] He’s at a resort in Arizona.

PF Oh boy what do you—[laughing] what do you do? Where do you go?

RZ I mean yeah that’s the question, right? Where do you go?

PF I mean, first of all, he’s had a bad—he’s had a true personal tragedy: his mother passed away in an accident.

RZ Oh is that true?

PF Yeah.

RZ Oh I did not hear this.

PF His parents were in a boating accident. So this happened a couple weeks ago.

RZ Oh boy.

PF His company just is a complete nest of hyper testosterone madness that gets continually leaked. It’s just like it’s this bad balloon that just won’t stop leaking testosterone.

[22:44]

RZ Well, I mean a particular culture took hold.

PF Yeah.

RZ And now it’s been revealed, right? So.

PF Well and I think what happened is this thing—That culture’s everywhere. It is everywhere. But I think what happened is this thing got to such a scale and started to approach the level of public utility and what we’re seeing that’s interesting is that long before the conversation about monopoly power could happen, that there became a large conversation in the media and on social media about the ethics of the organization that really blew up in their face. And that—this actually had tremendous impact on—on the leadership. I don’t think that would’ve happened in the same way 30, 40 years ago.

RZ Oh for sure. I mean definitely not. I mean that was like, “Uh, that’s part of business.”

PF There’s a story there, right?

RZ “Boys being boys.”

PF Like people saw there was a story there and they went for it and it’s had a direct reaction in—in the overall structure of the company [yeah]. So that—that is new. I mean that’s a new cultural force where social media pressure [mm hmm] and media pressure changed the company—Like this has happened many times through history but like that was a—I haven’t seen anything quite at that scale with that kind of power [true] in quite a while.

RZ True. I love the—the people that decided to boycott Uber. Meanwhile every driver has Uber, Lyft, Juno—they’ll push any damn—

PF This is a—there’s an essay—

RZ They’ll push any damn button [laughs] that lights up [laughs].

PF Look: there’s an essay I wanna write one day about how ambition and adulthood bring out your hypocrisy, and how you manage hypocrisy is a real part of your—You know because there’s a set of beliefs that you might have, and then a set of facts on the ground, and how you negotiate those is very, very interesting.

[24:18]

RZ Yeah, yeah. Yeah I think—I think people should be more comfortable with the decisions—like you’re not a terrible person if you called an Uber last night, right? That’s the—that’s where hypocrisy comes in, right?

PF Global warming is real. Just go ahead and buy an SUV because you want one and could use one right now, or not. It doesn’t really matter . . .

RZ It doesn’t. And. Well. It does if you’re going around lecturing people about it, right?

PF But statistically your SUV usage is trivial compared to a) containerized shipping; and b) air travel.

RZ True. True.

PF Right? I mean it’s not—it’s trucks more than—far more than cars.

RZ People that are having a bigger impact on this are—have a bigger responsibility is what you’re saying.

PF That’s right so at that point start with containerized shipping.

RZ Yeah. If you can afford a hybrid, then go get a hybrid. If that makes you feel good but.

PF But this is the thing: it doesn’t even matter. Containerized shipping I mean it’s—

RZ Yeah. The chart is way off.

PF It’s a big deal. Cars are a big deal [yeah] but you’re really down on the—So I feel—

RZ Yeah but people—there’s a counter argument for that, right? Which is, “Hey, if I don’t compost, what’s the big deal? I’m only one person, right?” But it turns out in an aggregate scale—So it turns out you’re— you are a bad person.

PF Without a doubt I’m a bad person.

RZ You’re not a bad person.

PF No, but see actually I believe that some level, fundamentally, we all are.

RZ I think we’re—I think. Exactly. Right?

PF Right.

[25:41]

RZ There are comprom—I think I’m a decent human being. I’m just gonna go out and say that about myself.

PF That’s fine. It’s a—it’s a good thing. You kinda need that like, you know I could—I can point to lots of pieces of evidence of you—You’re a very specific kind of decent human being.

RZ Yeah, yeah.

PF Right?

RZ I didn’t nail aaaaal the—I didn’t check all the boxes. I admit that. I admit that but overall I think I’m a—I’m a decent person. So.

PF Well there’s a lot of Bay Ridge in you. You like to take care of the people who are close to you. That’s a very important thing in your world.

RZ It is.

PF Right?

RZ Yes.

PF And that is—when somebody’s in your world, that’s a really good thing.

RZ Yeah. I’m almost irrationally protective in a weird way.

PF That’s right. And so it’s like yeah, there are different dynamics. Anyway, we’ve gotten way off from Uber.

RZ Way off from Uber! Uh I think the point here is he’s—he’s gettin’ rest.

PF Yeah [laughs] he needs to [he’s]—he needs to rest up so he can do some more [there are like—] sexual harassment.

RZ There are a couple of rocks on his forehead as we speak. So um—

PF But they’re probably only letting like big, burly Russian dudes massage him right now because he just—it’s all a bad look.

[26:40]

RZ It’s—it’s a bad look and I [stammers]—as I’ve always said, I think I’m glad Uber came to life because others would not have come to life had it not been for Uber. And I love what it dismantled.

PF So you think he’s got a couple stones on his head and he’s gettin’ a nice massage and sort of thinkin’ some thoughts?

RZ A lot of tea.

PF I hope so.

RZ A lot of like—

PF He needs to like go read The Bell Jar and think about what it all means.

RZ What do you call the tea that it’s not a bag but it’s like loose in a—like a mesh thing?

PF I wouldn’t know. I’m an animal.

RZ It’s like a little sifter thing.

PF Oh yeah! Like a tea I dunno.

RZ Like they make it for you and they put it in this little metal orb that lets the leaves come through and there’s like, “Oh. Lemme talk to you about the bushes that were involved in this.”

PF An infusion.

RZ Fine.

PF He’s having—

RZ There’s a lot of that going on.

PF Yeah.

RZ Cucumber water. Everywhere.

PF Yeah, exactly. Just a lot of just—

RZ “Can I get a normal cup of water . . . somewhere?”

PF No. No.

RZ He’s busy screaming that right now [laughs].

PF No, it’s just agua fresca everywhere.

RZ He’s screaming for Poland Spring right now. He can’t get it.

PF Well—

RZ Alright! Paul, I wanna talk to you, and close this with a little story [alright]. I don’t know where to take it. And it speaks to a few things, maybe a little bit about Amazon. Sometimes we buy things to feel good.

PF Mm hmm. What do you buy? You’re—Well, you’re a watch guy.

RZ Uh I like watches. I’m not a collector. I actually don’t—I’m not possessive about them.

PF Do you collect anything?

RZ No, I don’t care about stuff.

PF I did start buying um recently on eBay, old copies of Omni Magazine.

RZ That’s very cool, actually.

PF It’s really fun. I have them from the 70s. It’s like—

RZ That’s Bob Guccione.

PF Yeah. It turns out—they’re like four bucks an issue. So it’s not—

RZ That’s really cool.

PF Yeah, it’s just a fun like—

RZ Nostalgic.

PF I’m gonna make a little spreadsheet of which ones I have and which ones I don’t.

RZ Yeah. The preteens who are listening don’t know what you’re talking about.

[28:23]

PF [Chuckles] It was a sci-fi magazine that was about sort of cutting edge science. It was very cool.

RZ It was like quasi-scientific sci-fi.

PF And you picked it up in the 80s and 90s and it was like, “Woah! What’s going on?”

RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF “Mind Drugs” [yeah] and stuff like that.

RZ It was fun.

PF So, anyway that’s—that’s my hobby. You like—you do like watches. You kind of like these like cheaper Russian watches.

RZ Well [sighs] I just landed on it. I was on Pinterest . . . which, by the way, has the most messed up algorithms I’ve ever seen. I’m into rebuilding old Mame classic arcade cabinets, and watches, and Pinterest concluded that I like flat bread, and Emma Watson.

PF It’s not wrong.

RZ It actually—as I’m sifting through, I’m like, “Alright, she’s kinda cute and that looks delicious. That mushroom risotto flatbread looks pretty good.”

PF Yeah but it’s not—those are not your things.

RZ They’re not my things.

PF You’re not an Emma Watson slash flatbread guy.

RZ Not my things. No. Pinterest tosses it around.

PF You’re a watch guy.

RZ Which I kind of appreciate.

PF So, wait, where did you go to buy this watch?

RZ Ok. So it’s XYZ—I’m not gonna state the name. Dot info. And there’s an em—there’s a dash in the name.

[29:33]

PF Ok so you went to buy this watch from a website that has dashes and dot info at the end.

RZ That’s right.

PF Ok. So did Google like pop up and say, “Don’t do this. Don’t even think about this.”

RZ It’s strange, it’s never happened before, it minimized my browser and a pop up came up and said, “Rich, why don’t you get away from the machine?”

PF Yeah.

RZ And so I said, “Eh, that’s weird. Lemme open this back up.”

PF “Lemme get this watch—”

RZ And it was a beautiful watch but they—

PF They are really cool looking.

RZ They’re like this—this like tiny detail to the Russian watches that’s really nice. They’ve got a little bit of a retro look.

PF Well, and they’re—they’re built sort of along the same mold and model as they have been for 50 years, right?

RZ That’s right. That’s right.

PF Ok.

RZ And it loo—it reminds you of like old submarine gear . . . It’s kinda neat. Pretty cool looking stuff.

PF I’m able to do really good prompting on this story because I’ve heard so much about Russian watches.

RZ Yeah. So I buy the watch. 350 bucks.

PF Into—

RZ Out of PayPal.

PF Yeah.

[30:26]

RZ I got what looked like—looked really good. It looked like a pretty solid receipt.

PF So like saint dash petersburg dash timekeepers dot rue dot org dot uk?

RZ [Chuckles] I got a receipt.

PF Ok.

RZ PayPal. The money was out.

PF Ok.

RZ Alright. This is April . . . May goes by and I’m figured, look: Russia’s pretty far away here. Let’s give them a minute.

PF It takes a minute.

RZ And then I email them . . . no answer. And then I email them again . . . no answer. Aaaand now I’m gettin’ a little worried. And I start emailing them in broken English hoping maybe just if I give them like no adverbs, and just use the big words, this will make it through.

PF Sure.

RZ And nobody’s answering.

PF What’s an example email that like, “WENT TO—WHERE WATCH?”

RZ “WHERE WATCH?” Uh, “WAIT. GET—” Everything’s all caps, all the time.

PF Yeah. Cuz that’s how they communicate with you.

RZ That’s how they communicate with me. That’s right.

PF Yeah.

RZ So I loop Paul into this. Saying Paul, help me out here. You’re a good writer. And then Paul starts chiming in.

[31:26]

PF That’s right I start writing things like, “WENT TO POST OFFICE MR.RICH BUT NO—”

RZ “NO WATCH AVAILABLE.”

PF “TELL ME HOW PROCEED.”

RZ Yeah. “NEXT STEP.” Right. Exactly. So this goes on back and forth and back and forth and finally I put in pitch for PayPal. I was like, “Look: I never got anything. I wanna put a dispute in.”

PF Well and we’re—at this point, this is comedy.

RZ This is comedy. I—I probably got more joy out of this experience than I would’ve ever gotten out of a watch.

PF Because we’re—we’re trying different voices and like—

RZ Yeah.

PF You know what could get the Russian watch people to respond to us.

RZ Exactly. And so PayPal they’re fraud protection kicks in and, I have to say, they’ve got I think five days to show proof that I got the watch. So they have to step forward and show either I guess a, you know, a DHL confirmation or something that it was shipped and then I got it. And they didn’t and they gave me the money back [mm hmm]. PayPal actually transferred the money back to me. And then four days later, I get a package from Russia. And it’s a DHL box.

PF Oh you got the watch!

RZ I open the box and there’s another box and it’s this beautiful wa—box like a wooden box with a—it has like a logo emblazoned on it. Like burned into the wood.

PF Like laser burned.

RZ Somebody put some work into that. It looked beautiful.

PF So you got—so you opened it up, expecting to see your watch.

RZ That’s right. And . . . the box is empty . . . Now [sighs]—

PF You think—so what happened is they got that PayPal thing and just shot you the box?

[32:59]

RZ Maybe that’s what they did [mm hmm] I don’t know.

PF They just sent you an empty box—cuz they don’t have the watch.

RZ They clearly don’t have the watch.

PF So they sent you an empty botch—box but they—they don’t have it together enough.

RZ Yeah. And you know [stammers] what’s the term the use nowadays? Like it’s not about the goods, it’s an experiential—we live in an experiential economy or something?

PF It’s true. We have—you had a genuine experience of the global economy.

RZ I mean it was like—it was like The Hunt for Red October.

PF Yeah.

RZ Except in a smaller form.

PF The irony is that I know you very well. The number of things that piss you off is a legion. This was actually kind of your entertainment.

RZ It was joy.

PF Getting screwed over by the Russian watch people.

RZ It was absolute joy.

PF Cuz you’re like, “I wonder what’s gonna happen now?”

RZ Yeah.

PF And then you’d send them another email. Oh they would write sometimes. It’d be like, “WATCH COMING.”

RZ “WATCH COMING. WANT 45MM?” Which is the size of the—the face. And so this is going on and the thing is what made this so great was in the backdrop is Trump/Russia.

PF Right.

[34:05]

RZ So it was kind of like . . . it was like a—a shitty school play. Not a school play. Like an avant garde kind of a play where the watch symbolizes um corruption? I don’t know.

PF So you were contributing—you—there was a—There’s this larger narrative and then you’re sort of jumping in.

RZ Yeah. You’re the writer here! You could piece together like what happened to me as sort of a microcosm . . . of what’s happening in the world. So it was beautiful. I don’t want the watch. I think this story, which I get to tell over drinks, I’ll probably tell it one too many times, frankly. But I think it’s great. I think—

PF Well, you got your money and you got this weird empty box that has—

RZ It’s a beautiful box.

PF It has a little pamphlet in it with a hammer and sickle on it and it’s all in Russian.

RZ It’s all in Russian.

PF But it’s pretty beautiful it came empty.

RZ I think it’s beautiful it came empty.

PF They—they were gonna DHL this to you and demo to—to PayPal that they had—

RZ That might be it. And I think they may have run out of time.

PF They just didn’t have it together. This—this is clearly scammy.

RZ It’s scammy. I mean I waited almost three months to get nothing.

PF Right.

RZ And so I mean—

PF And so like—

RZ If you—if you can’t get me the thing, then, ok, email me and say, “We’re out of stock.”

PF No, no, no. They—they were trying to keep that money and string it along. There’s no way around that.

RZ Yeah, yeah. I think that’s right.

[35:15]

PF Like this—cuz that’s not how business works.

RZ Correct.

PF But they—this often happens like scammers can’t get it together . . .

RZ Well, you know they’re not [sighs], they’re not organizational, right?

PF No, they just—they had a good thing going.

RZ They’re not detail oriented.

PF Look: for you there’s probably like—

RZ The good ones are, by the way.

PF Well sure.

RZ The good ones are very detail oriented.

PF Sure.

RZ But this guy was a little sloppy.

PF Well, no watch. But a box.

RZ It’s a beautiful box. Maybe we’ll put as the photo accompanying this podcast a picture of the lovely box.

PF That’s a great idea.

RZ And maybe with like a—a montage of like . . . Lenin and who’s the other guy?

PF Now it’s starting to feel like real labor. Let’s just show the box.

RZ Alright. Let’s just show the box.

PF [Music fades in] So, look: we try to keep things efficient here at Postlight.

RZ Yup.

PF So we’re only gonna show you the picture of the box. Postlight, you’ve been listening to our podcast called [both chuckle] Track Changes.

RZ We really stayed on track today.

PF That’s right! My name is Paul Ford, I’m the co-founder of Postlight.

RZ And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder.

PF So if you need anything, send an email to [email protected] If you don’t need anything, well you don’t have to. Just keep listening. We love knowing you’re out there. And if you wanna rate us five stars on iTunes, we’re always happy to have that.

RZ We love five stars.

PF Anything you need, just let us know.

RZ Have a great week.

PF Bye! [Music ramps up, plays alone for 16 seconds, fades out to end.] [Transcript by secondhandscribe.com.]