Memo: A Five Year Reflection

The writing of this memo shared a day with a podcast conversation with Bradley Tusk, the former campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg’s third mayoral campaign and political acolyte. Tusk is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Tusk Venture Partners, a New York venture capital firm that notes:

TVP invests in early-stage technology startups operating in heavily regulated markets, or creating new business models where no regulatory framework exists.

As I write this, one of the most substantive articles written about 2PM and its mission is just days old. Written by Sherrell Dorsey, Annaliese Griffin, and Rachel Jepsen: the essay encapsulates where 2PM is today.

One of the most compelling aspects of 2PM is the deft way Smith mingles deep data sets with historical narrative context, using thrice-weekly essays to explain not just what Americans are consuming, but how and why. He’s as much a sociologist as a trend forecaster. Smith has a way of moving seamlessly from retail and entrepreneurship, to access to capital and real estate, to the social forces, particularly race, that shape the market. A conversation with him might leap from retail square footage in the U.S. to Brown v. Board of Education to the current pandemic. Makes you understand why he chose the name “2PM” — “to polymaths.” [1]

The business of 2PM has long evolved since the first newsletter was mailed to a testing group of 12 (yes, twelve) friends in October of 2015. But this isn’t about the business of newsletters, this is about the content – itself. As the time and research devoted to publishing these letters increased over time (thanks to the growth in subscription revenue), so did the depth of discoveries made. This led to a slight revision of the company’s stance on matters of socio-economic and socio-political significance. I’ll explain.

The idea for 2PM came about while seated in the conference room of Gear Patrol, my former employer. There, I served as its head of eCommerce operations. Many of these commerce strategies were in place elsewhere: Hodinkee, Uncrate, and Barstool Sports already maintained robust commerce operations. At the time, I was taking a break for the world of direct-to-consumer brand development. By building online retail capabilities into the strategy at the now-Hearst owned publication, I was able to understand how media and commerce established a new playing field. But it was another revelation that set me off on this path.

2PM was designed to drill down on matters of digital industries.

The autumn of 2015 was a tumultuous one for American media. The upcoming Presidential election of 2016 meant that the vast majority of publishers found new angles to publish issues related to the game-changing election. As you know, it was an election that pitted the first-ever female nominee of a major party and a reality television star turned political firebrand. And every last publisher wanted in on the traffic. It was a field day for a lot of the venture-backed media companies who – like the New York Times – positioned the coverage to ride the wave of the most captivating elections in recent history.

Overheard in that very conference room, that day: “Is there an angle for us to cover this election?” No matter the area of interest, media sought to devote resources to topics in and around the arena of politics. The result was that industry-driven insights, stories, and reports grew harder and harder to find. Gear Patrol chose not to, but the idea was set. I found myself lagging in my work, unable to see the industry as a whole. I was tied to the minutiae and unable to guide the company’s next steps. The idea for my newsletter was born; I believed that by studying a cross section of industries, belief systems, and sciences – you would become better prepared to lead your own operation. 2PM was designed to drill down on matters of digital industries. To facilitate this format of curation, I avoided discussing matters that could be perceived as political. I wanted none of it.

On the eve of the beginning of the newsletter’s fifth year, a reader will be hard pressed to find references to party politics throughout 2PM’s archives. I am slow to explain developments by pointing to the happenings of news cycles, a skill that is aptly performed by Ben Thompson. But the essays have certainly evolved. There’s good reason that a former political operative like Bradley Tusk has taken an interest in writings like Sanitized Urbanization. Or why the landmark case on school desegregation Brown vs.The Board of Education is referenced by The Plug‘s Sherrell Dorsey in the context of the essay on the acceleration of malls: in The Ballad of Victor Gruen, I explained America’s journey to over-retail by pointing to the commercial tax incentives that succeeded this landmark decision. The United States saw one mall turn into 25 in just two years. In the decade that followed, 25 malls became 1,000. America’s resegregation was the culprit. Is that political? It shouldn’t be – it’s merely the correct analysis. A more recent example explores recent educational shifts and the potential of long-term impairment of our consumer economy.

The key to middle-class growth has been the pursuit of the aspirational American Dream. A family makes a good living, their children go to good schools, those students are afforded better experiences that provide a ladder to an even better life. Between 1945 and the close of the 1970s, this approach provided a virtuous cycle that served as the basis for the golden age in middle-class economics.[1]

While far from political in the contemporary sense, 2PM has not shied away from the impact of socio-politics on our industries, our realities, and the innovations that accelerates those trends or upends them altogether. What I have come to learn is that there is an incredible advantage to viewing today’s industries outside of the narrow scope that typically constrains their narratives. 2PM will always include the practical sciences of commerce. But the higher you are in leadership, the less that practical knowledge determines outcomes. There are always other forces to consider.

And with this revelation, yes, 2PM has evolved greatly from the first public issue [2] in March of 2016. By setting the expectation that I’d omit all mention of American politics, the readership suffered by way of incomplete data and shallower insights. The great literary giant Thomas Mann once quipped, “Everything is politics.” This is an over-simplification. Any decision that involves human nature can be perceived as politics. But relaying the role of policy, human nature, and the sociological impact of our history of decisions are far from political. Rather, those elements complete the context. They paint the entire picture.

I believe that this style better prepares the industrialist by shedding light on the past, contextualizing the present, and providing forecast to the future. The readers of 2PM, today, are much better prepared for it. Here’s to another five years and the discoveries that will come.

By Web Smith | Editor: Grace Clarke | About 2PM 

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