Beautiful Words

When I was a burgeoning writer in middle school, I was taught that the most beautiful word/phrase in the English language is “cellar door”. It has stuck with me all this time because, frankly, don’t get it. The double L and soft C are great, and I could buy cellar as a beautiful word on its own, but door throws it all off. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

In any case, to be filed as one of the most random things you’ll read this week, here’s a list of some of my favorite words, from an acoustic and phonetic perspective:

  • Candle: This is probably my favorite word in the English language. At first it seems as if it will be harsh, opening with a hard C. But the combination of three consonants in the middle of the word has the wonderful sound of warmth.
  • Hush: Borderline onomatopoeic, the aftermath of saying this word fills the silence that it’s supposed to evoke. The bookend Hs really pull their weight here. It also can carry a lot of meaning, working in all emotions, and even as a potential name for protagonists and antagonists alike.
  • Atlas: First, a confession – The inclusion of atlas as a beautiful word may have a lot more to do with my upbringing or affinity for maps than it’s actual construction as a word. But bear with me. The tl digraph here is up there with candle’s trigraph as a beautiful grouping to me. Acoustically, as in candle, the combination of letters also demarcates a new syllable, and I find beauty in that. Together it creates visual beauty, apart the digraph leads to aural beauty.
  • Flurry: Flurry takes the double consonant beauty of cellar to the next level. The F, softened slightly by its neighbor, is a great beginning as well. Upon hearing, it also evokes both ends of the speed spectrum: either a wild throw of punches or the soft falling of winter’s first snow.
  • Salt: This word provides just as much flavor as the compound it represents. Alongside the next word in the list, it’s also one of the hardest sounding words on the list, at least to my ears. But that doesn’t stop it from being gorgeous. Easy to say, easy to read, it’s a fantastic word to utilize in a number of ways. Seasoning, emotional pettiness, the sprinkling of actual rocks to accomplish a task like melting ice. Salt is a real utility player while looking good all the while.
  • Horizon: Perhaps an odd inclusion in the list, as the z in the middle of the word jumps out like an unwelcome blemish on one’s face. But in fact, it’s the ending of the word that truly sets it apart for me. Granted, the worst part of the word is the “or”, which is the same phonetic sound I dislike in cellar door. But the hard I and the flourish of an ending more than makes up for it.

Have you ever thought about the aesthetic value of the words we use regularly? What are some of your favorite words?

Song by Song: Mumford & Sons’ Delta

While this may be a bit of a confession, in general, I enjoy Mumford & Sons’ music. It is accessible folk music that has a lyrical depth that, while not genius-level writing, is generally beyond what’s found in popular music today. When Delta hit the primarily metaphorical shelves this past month, I was excited to dive in. My thoughts summarized? Many bright spots and many low spots  produce an end result that highlights the Sons’ need for an editor. That said, the bright spots are pretty enjoyable and a few songs from the album will likely be in my rotation for a few weeks.

Overall, I give Delta a 6/10. The songs that will be in my rotation would’ve been a solid album on their own, and likely would’ve moved the 6 to an 8 or 9. Below, a look at the album song by song.

42: The album’s opener immediately unloads with the signature acapella that we’re accustomed to from Marcus & friends. Booming keys dot the growing landscape as the song builds through the first couple of verses…but the song never really resolves, leaving the listener hanging. In the context of the album, it’s a decent opener, but certainly far from a song that stands alone. 42 needs the next song to fully resolve; this is by design, it seems, with the included lyric “I need a guiding light”. It’s a little unnecessary, to be honest, which is unfortunately something can be said for a large part of the album. 4/10

Guiding Light: The first single off the record, Guiding Light is highlighted with a chugging acoustic melody and punctuated with a chorus and bridge that draw the listener into the feelings behind Mumford’s belting. While not nearly as catchy as other singles from M&S, it’s still a decent record. That said, it’s unfortunate that it’s the single, considering the strength of other songs from the album. Hopefully there will be subsequent singles that give the album attention. 6/10

Woman: I’ll reveal my bias here off the bat: this song is incredible to me. The lyrics, the guitar picking, the rasp in Marcus’ voice that isn’t usually present in his vocals, and a catchy pre-chorus/chorus combo make for a really enjoyable track. The Sufjan-esque crooning between lines provide an emotional bent that make Mumford & Sons’ music special. 9/10

Beloved: Placing this track right after Woman was a great call. Woman is heavy and sharp whereas Beloved is a bit more glittery and bright. Utilizing the extra syllables in be-lov-ed gives the word a level of sophistication that the song would otherwise miss. Musically speaking, I’m a big fan of the high-end guitar fill that fits the song’s latter half, and the drums also make their first star appearance on the album here in this solid fourth track. Between Woman and Beloved, it’s obvious that we’re in the meat of the album. The good parts. 8/10

The Wild: If you’re the kind of person to listen to a track until you can’t take it anymore, you may miss The Wild. The first three quarters of the song has Marcus Mumford doing his best Justin Vernon impression which, while above par, doesn’t quite work out. The last fourth of the song however has Mumford & Sons doing their best Bon Iver impression…which does absolutely work out. The strings layer adds complexity to the song which lends it a natural beauty. It seems as if the entire song were written just for the last few measures, which while stunning, isn’t quite enough to elevate the song into greatness. 7/10

October Skies: After a stellar start to the album, I think we hit a low point with October Skies. It’s tolerable but not something I’d put on just to listen to. While lyrically quaint, I honestly think it doesn’t provide anything additional to the album and could’ve been left on the proverbial cutting room floor. 2/10

Slip Away: This song has all the makings of the third single to come off the album. While not the best song off the album (spoiler: it’s Woman), it checks a lot of boxes. It’s very Mumford-ish, is accessible to the general populace, and would tickle the sonic fancy of people who joined the Brit bandwagon so many years ago. A singable chorus and a climax that meets expectations, it’s only harmed by the odd falsetto bridge forced in at the midpoint. 7/10

Rose of Sharon: Hands down the most fun track on the album…and perhaps the most controversial. The titular character is a nod to the Biblical text and the sappy poem from Solomon is almost matched with Marcus’ mushy words. However, the most peculiar thing about this song isn’t the verbiage, it’s the music itself. A West African beat underlies the poetry creating a very catchy musical hook, although very reminiscent of a kazoo chorus. Some find it off-putting, I personally find it acoustically interesting…though the words of romance are a bit much for me to listen along. 7/10

Picture You, Darkness Visible: Forgettable songs that yet again should have been left on the chopping block. Picture You is yet-another-poppy-song that could have very well come out of Shawn Mendes’ mouth. Darkness Visible tries so hard to be an anthem for those loathing but instead makes me loathe it’s inclusion on the album altogether. 1/10

If I Say: Now we’re talking. This second single from the album embodies what vocal battles really do to all participants. I know I came off better than you hit home for me personally, but the composition underlying Marcus becomes ever more haunting as the song abruptly ends after the somber crescendo. This song belongs on a movie soundtrack as the lead character’s heart breaks…or breaks another’s. 7/10

Wild Heart: Meh. Yet another song with Wild in the title, yet another song that could’ve been cut from the album. The keys are simultaneously the standout and the letdown here, constantly dancing in the background but never becoming the star of the show that they’re meant to be. This song sounds like it could’ve been recorded live in a saloon, which would have been much better released as a candid Youtube video than as a produced track on an album. 4/10

Forever: The full band really hits here, and I appreciate the harmonies on this track…but the writing is subpar. Do it for the girl is pure eye-rolling cheese and nothing else on the track really makes up for the seemingly phoned-in lyrics. Considering the vocals on the track, it’s really a shame. 4/10

Delta: What a way to end an album! The songs leading up to this title track were mediocre at best, but I’m glad that I made it to the end. The interlude is thoroughly enjoyable, Marcus’ voice really shines through here, and while the lyrics aren’t exactly mind-bending, they’re emotionally charged in the way that we expect from the boys from West London. 8/10

Discovering Darkstar

The other day, I had a morning meeting in the NoHo neighborhood in Manhattan. Knowing that I would want a cup of coffee prior, I left a bit earlier than usual to stop into my normal haunt in that neighborhood: the La Colombe on Lafayette. I left the Broadway-Lafayette stop, walked a few blocks, and opened the door to a throng of people. The place was packed, and I was not about to wait in that line for a slightly-above-average cup of coffee.

So what to do? I did a quick Google search for coffee spots between my location and the meeting, knowing for sure that I’d have to settle for subpar coffee. I found a spot only a block away on Great Jones that had solid reviews and decided to stop in. I’m glad I did.

Darkstar Coffee & Espresso is one of my new favorite spots in the city. It’s a sister coffee bar to the next door audiophile store (full of high-end headphones), and they use that to their advantage. Walking in, I heard the beautiful notes of jazz played through a tube amplifier setup. The gentleman behind the counter was courteous, knowledgeable, and personable. Counter Culture beans. My cappuccino was delicious.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about the crowd at La Colombe just a block away. How many people in that crowd would enjoy Darkstar just as much? How many people would enjoy it more? DarkStar, by comparison, was empty. I found out from conversing with the barista that they’d been open well over a year. No crowd. No throng of people. Better experience, better product.

 

They have those God-awful punch loyalty cards. I’m sure they do minimal marketing of some form. But other than that, how does a small business owner in a market like New York get the word out? Word of mouth is the primary channel, obviously.

If nothing else, this thinking has made me even more bullish on what we’re building at Exeq. I’m grateful for an opportunity to build technology that impacts the way we spend as consumers…and the success of fantastic businesses like Darkstar.

If you’re ever in NoHo, check it out. It’s great. And if you see me in the corner, say hi.

Startup Killer #4: Leading by Comparison

If you ain’t first, you’re last. – Ricky Bobby

One of the most dangerous things to any company, regardless of stage, is paying more attention to your competitors than your customers. When you lead by comparison, every TechCrunch article with a valuation number becomes a distraction, every minor feature release from another company tangential to yours becomes an existential threat, and other companies’ cultures become more important than your own. Constantly comparing yourself and your company to the successes of other products and companies is a surefire way to guarantee being behind your competitors.

In the same way that social media has inflated and exacerbated our natural tendency to compare ourselves to the Jones family, it’s done so in the professional world as well. The difference is that in the business world, we aren’t often aware that news articles and press releases are filtered just like our selfies. Often more so.

“But Derek! If we’re not aware of the market landscape, how can we continue to succeed?”, you say. I’ll let Jeff take a stab:

If we can keep our competitors focused on us while we stay focused on the customer, ultimately we’ll turn out all right. – Jeff Bezos

Focus on the customer, not the market. By focusing on customers, you won’t constantly react to what the market is doing, you’ll actually define what the market is doing. By listening to customers more than you listen to the press, you’ll begin making headlines rather than reading them. This is a much better position in which to be as a company.

But it’s difficult: TechCrunch is easier to read than user feedback. It’s far more fun to talk valuations as some kind of measuring stick rather than focusing on one user who thinks that boxes with borders is a dumb design decision. When you’re out with friends talking about your business, they are comparing you against other businesses. Investors are comparing you against other companies. Ironically, leading by comparison requires you to follow industry norms. But it’s vital to your sanity, your team, your customers, and your company that you refuse to play the game. Focus on what matters, and execute.

Don’t worry about your competition; let them worry about you.

Startup Killer #3: Challenging Nothing

While indigestion is the most prevalent threat to early-stage startups, starvation is just as dangerous. The most talked about form of starvation is running out of money. But again, I think that’s most often a symptom more than a root cause. Instead of challenging everything within an industry, many startups challenge absolutely nothing within an industry. This is a death knell.

How do startups even begin by challenging nothing? There are a couple of ways this can happen. Most often, it’s because while the industry is already defined, there is room for multiple winners in the space. So companies start, looking to take a slice of the space. In essence, they are starting up to take second place. This is what I’d call the aggressive version of challenging nothing. They do it on purpose.

Instead of challenging everything within an industry, many startups challenge absolutely nothing within an industry. This is a death knell.

The other primary form of challenging nothing comes from founder comfort. It’s much more passive, and therefore much more deadly. At least when you’re intentionally challenging nothing you can be aware of the implications. This “founder comfort” is an unhealthy and inflated version of founder-market fit and is often disguised as such. However, their familiarity with the space causes blind spots to some of the opportunities for disruption. What ends up happening, however, is that the founder(s) do what they’ve always done, and they end up challenging nothing new. Sometimes this leads to a positive result for employees and investors…but sometimes it leads to a quick and sudden death.

For me, there’s two positive observations here:

  1. Founders working in related industries is best. Whether it’s someone from traditional finance moving to crypto-economics, someone from wealth management moving into personal finance, or someone from Uber starting a scooter company, I’ve personally seen founders from one industry transitioning to another, tangential industry extraordinarily well. A couple things result from this: first, finding founder-market fit is accelerated. There’s a foundation of knowledge for the founder(s) to work from and build on top of. Secondly, they’re able to translate challenges faced in one industry to another. They’re immediately challenging something because they’ve seen challenges in a prior, related space.
  2. Between challenging everything and challenging nothing, challenging nothing is the easiest cultural snag to overcome. During the course of building the business, it’s quite possible that you’ll see and seize a key opportunity. Seizing that one opportunity when presented is a lot easier than killing off the inertia of solving multiple challenges. As a leader, I’d much rather deal with the challenge of finding a challenge than trying to narrow down a set of challenges.