Written in Stone

There is a lot of talk these days about building. I have considered the question, “but what to build?”

It seems natural that I would want to build something that is valuable and lasting. But then again, even the greatest castles are ultimately proven to have been built of sand. In the eternity of the universe, I am aware that all will be washed out by the waves of the ocean eventually. Still, this knowledge is not enough to stop me from wanting to build something valuable and lasting. It is only enough to urge me to consider a third factor which should be prioritized as well, that is, my enjoyment of the ride. It may be convenient then if it is true what Steve Jobs said, that “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” I, for one, believe it.

So beginning with the consideration of value and longevity, how can one project the ultimate value of something that they might consider building? I actually think the common definition of lifetime value (“LTV”) which subscription software businesses use to measure the projected value in dollars to be received from their customers over the course of their lifetimes (as customers) presents a reasonable formula, conceptually at least. Basically, I believe it is helpful to think of the ultimate value of something as the product of its projected average value per unit of time multiplied by the projected duration of its existence (the total units of time for which it is projected to survive).

The contrast in prioritizing one side of this equation versus the other can be demonstrated by the difference between two hypothetical builders, each of which could be connected to reality by multiple examples throughout history. The first is the epic entrepreneur who builds an amazing company without an effective enough succession plan to prevent the company’s demise soon after his or her own. The second is the amazing artist whose work fails to gain acclaim within his or her lifetime but physically outlasts them and gains such appreciation in the eyes of its evolving audience that posthumously the artist and his or her work become world-renowned and persist to offer value, for example, to visitors in museums around the world. Together, the museums have given the artist’s work something much nearer to immortality than was ever had by the entrepreneur’s long ago bankrupt business, but some businesses do become extremely valuable for a certain period of time, and many artists never are materially discovered, before or after their deaths.

To provide a related example illustrating the nature of value, I would argue that fire may be one of the most valuable inventions of all time, not because it is insanely valuable in every instance it is used, such as to roast a marshmallow, but rather because its usage has persisted for so long and for so many fundamental purposes which could not have been achieved without it.

To consider a widespread creation that was not very valuable because of its failure to survive, Myspace may have seemed valuable to many people for a brief time, but its ultimate value in sum was compromised by the fact that the product did not endure. In fact, one could argue that Myspace’s most valuable function in the end was in the way that it helped clear the path for Facebook, which again seems valuable now, but likely will seem less so in a few years, decades, or centuries, depending on how long its relevant lifetime will be.

The idea of periodic value is not limited to social media companies. Do you know how much Alcoa Steel is worth today? How about Exxon? Exxon was the most valuable company in the world just 10 years ago and today it isn’t even worth half of Tesla in terms of market cap. Companies like these which were once among the largest and most important in the world are now less relevant and less valuable and may even be counterproductive in some ways by the stubbornness of their incumbency.

All of that said, it seems to me that the most persistent things which people have built in the history of the world have been architectural and written. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some of the very oldest texts in the world are the Pyramid Texts, inscribed on the walls of an Egyptian period roughly 5,000 years ago. Perhaps it is no coincidence either that the English phrase used most often used to describe something as permanent or everlasting is to say that something is “written in stone”.

Perhaps I am in need of more humbling, but the truth is that I am confident I could build a successful company if I wanted to. In the last year alone, I have probably had a dozen fundamental ideas for companies which I think would have reasonable chances to succeed. Still, I cannot help but question what the point would be if they were not to last well beyond my lifetime and if I were not to enjoy the ride more than the one I am on now — reading, writing, podcasting, and all the rest.

It seems that if I want to build something that will last, I am doing so in this very moment by writing. It seems too that the internet has introduced a new universe of that which will last, and though the company Facebook may not, any content (like a podcast, for example) which is sufficiently spread beyond centralized platforms should survive in perpetuity as well. In the history of humanity, there may have been nothing more lasting one could do than to build with, or write in, stone. Perhaps now, the most lasting thing one can do is to write and record conversation and to otherwise build in a decentralized manner which could live possibly forever on the internet.