Episode 27 – Ubernomics with Barbara Gray

Barbara GrayWhen Barbara Gray thought about pulling together the research she’d done over her years as a top-rated equity analyst into a book about the fundamental disruption within the fast-moving market, she asked some friends for advice on publishing.

‘The publishing model is broken, Barb,’ they told her. ‘Sorry.’

She did have a chat with an agent, but realised that if she took that route the book wouldn’t see the light of day until 2018, by which time it would be ludicrously out of date. So instead she took to the Reedsy publishing marketplace, found an editor, and is in the process of managing publication herself.

In this interview she talks about that process, and about how the shift from scarcity to abundance – the key theme of Ubernomics – has empowered authors and changed the dynamics between publishers, authors and readers.

Alison: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I am thrilled to be here with Barbara Gray, the author of Uberonomics. Barbara is an equity analyst and a strategy consultant at Brady Capital Research and she’s passionate about business books. (Aren’t we all?) She’s also passionate about developing new ways for investors to look at and value companies. Welcome to the club Barbara.

Barbara:         Hey, thanks so much Alison.

Alison: Really good to have you here. Shall we start? Just tell me a little bit more about UBER-nomics, great title. What is it and why does it matter?

Barbara:         Thank you. In the broad sense if you think about economics, it’s the science of choice under scarcity. UBER-nomics, actually I originally called it Copianomics when I came up with the idea back in September of 2014 when I wrote my first report on the sharing on demand economy, is really about the science of choice under abundance.

Alison: Yeah

Barbara:         And what’s happening, it’s absolutely fascinating because since the recession, we’ve really seen structural shifts in three forces: technological, economic, and societal. What’s happening is that these are basically leading to the emergence of three new social value drivers which are enabling companies to defy traditional economic principles of scarcity. Since the research analyst, it’s pretty amazing to think about this because this is what causes stock prices to go up or go down. I have made a lot of money so it’s quite an interesting phenomenon. In the more narrow since, UBER-nomics is about the new business model of market places which is really the next generation of e-commerce. If you think about e-commerce, think back to the dot com boom and bust, e-commerce was about one to many.

This new market place is about many to many, and this is really allowing companies like AirBnb and Uber to defy traditional economic scarcities. If you think about it in the terms of the two economic levers in terms of supply you’re seeing what I call the long tail of supply. I give credit to Chris Anderson who came up with that concept a decade ago. What’s happening is the companies can now basically access a long tail of assets, goods, and services in terms of expertise time or skills with no time or capital constraints. Which is incredible.

Then on the demand side you’re going to be seeing what I coin the Blue Ocean of Demand, which is he term by Renee Mauborgne and W. Chang Kim when they wrote the book Blue Ocean Strategy back in 2005. That allows companies to expand their whole addressable market beyond traditional categories. That’s really in essence what UBER-nomics is about.

Alison: I’ve always loved that Blue Ocean model. As in contrast to red ocean where the sharks are and all the blood.

Barbara:         Exactly.

Alison: Just basically making competition irrelevant by finding a completely new space. It’s really interesting what you say about the title actually. Why did you make that change from, I’m thinking Cornucopia, you don’t mean Cornucopia but it’s something like that. Wasn’t it? What was the name?

Barbara:         Copianomics.

Alison: Copianomics.

Barbara:         The reason I said that Copianomics is suvilica the Latin word for abundance, it’s copia, like cornucopia.

Alison: Right, cornucopia, right.

Barbara:         I turned that back in September 2014. It totally did not resonate. In January of this year I was like, “Okay, this is …” You know when you come up with something you think, “this is clever.” I think the underlying thesis of my new economic model is quite sound, but if you don’t find a good name for it, you know, just like when you’re coming up with a business book title, it doesn’t work.

Alison: Absolutely.

Barbara:         Then I looked up UBER-nomics. It wasn’t a new term, there were actually already I think 4500 references to it on Google — but it really works and I’m applying not in terms of sense of just Uber, but more what the whole marketplace model means.

Alison: Okay. That’s what I was going to ask you. Is it Uber as in “beyond economics” or is it Uber as in the car [inaudible 00:04:04]? Or both?

Barbara:         No, because Uber is actually a German word that means “above all.” That’s why the title of my book is UBER-nomics: How to Create Economic Abundance and Rise Above the Competition. It’s really Uber “Above Economics.” It’s really turning economics on its head, actually.

Alison: It really just shows you, doesn’t it, how important it is to get your ideas out there, start talking about them and see how they land. Imagine if you’d written this book kind of closed away in a room, and come out the title and everybody had just gone, “huh, don’t get it.”

Barbara:         Yeah, exactly.

Alison: That point you make about the shift from scarcity to abundance — you make the point in the book, which I found fascinating because I’ve talked about this quite a lot as well, in terms of the future of publishing, that it all starts with contents. That’s what’s of course disrupted publishing and the media industries and so on.

Now, as a business book writer, and obviously people listening to this are business book readers and writers as well, is that kind of bad news? Or is there opportunity folded in there for us?

Barbara:         It’s interesting. At the beginning of this year when I decided I was going to write a business book, basically I’ve been writing, and I can talk more about later, but I started blogging in 2012 and before that I’ve been an analyst two decades. I’ve been writing my whole career. I had this idea of bringing together all the research and the articles I did into this book.

So I reached out to the quite successful business book authors I know and I asked them, “You know, I’m thinking of doing this. How should I go about getting a publisher?” And what they said to me is, forgive me if this is offensive, but they basically said, “You know, the publishing model is broken Barb. Sorry. If I was going to do it again I wouldn’t use a publisher, necessarily.”

Alison: That’s exactly the phrase that I used when I left traditional publishing. “This is broken. I’m going to reinvent this.” I hear you.

Barbara:         Okay, that’s good. I don’t want to offend anybody. I sort of took that advice, and I actually did have a call with an agent, and the agent expressed interest in my book, but the problem was because my topic is so timely. I’m updating it as of yesterday, because things just keep coming up. Things change with Uber, things change with AirBnB, some of these sharing economy companies, actually eight of them bankrupt of the 75 I looked at since September. It’s in a constant state of flux. If I had to go through an agent I probably wouldn’t have realistically been able to get the book published until 2018.

It would be redundant, so much the content. I just wanted to put it out and really control the process myself because the whole reason why I’m trying to do Brady Capital Research, my own investment research firm is so I don’t have to necessarily work as an employee for somebody.

Alison: Which reminds me of Hugh Howey’s point about self-publishing being like having your own company, and getting rid of publishers being like an employee. So true, isn’t it? It’s all about that balance of control and risk.

Barbara:         There’s definitely risk, because … People looking to write a book, what’s amazing now is you can put your book on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, and create space. There’s no cost to get it published which is quite amazing. If you think of the three new social value drivers, they actually empower authors or potential authors.

The first is advocacy, which arose from the democratization of influence. In the past, actually you can probably talk more to this, you needed a publishing house because you had no way of getting your book out.

Alison: They were the gatekeepers, that’s right.

Barbara:         Exactly. Whereas now you can go on social media. I’m on Twitter; I don’t have very large following at all, but I don’t use it a lot. LinkedIn is probably where I do most of my writing and I’ve got almost 4000 followers on LinkedIn. You have the advocacy. What you need for the advocacy is you have to find your unique voice. You just can’t write anything, you have to be yourself. You have to be authentic. You have to be transparent.

The second social value driver is the social value driver of connection, which arose from the democratization of data. Companies like LinkedIn … when I wanted to look at your profile I checked you out on LinkedIn. I’m like, “Who is this? What’s her credibility? What’s her education? You know, who does she work for?” It’s really an easy to quickly assess people, and then you can connect with them if you want. That’s a really good way to engage with people.

The last social value driver is collaboration, and that’s really the key because that’s arisen from the democratization of physical and human capital. I think it was through Reedsy, through Emanuel, he’s the one that put the two of us in touch, and their platform’s powerful. I found my content editor through them.

Alison: That’s right, I love Reedsy, it’s a great platform and a great example of what you’re saying, that kind of democratization, that lowering of barriers, of the supply and demand, absolutely.

Barbara:         Exactly, because you can find the talent. I mean I could do it myself but it’s hard, it’s touch and go. Whereas with Reedsy they’ve got it all there in one place. You can search by the type of publication, by your genre, by the specialization of service that you need, and it’s really good. What I’m looking forward to is using their book editor. I’m actually going to be putting my book on it tomorrow.

Alison: That’s great. I haven’t used that yet. It’s quite new, isn’t it?

Barbara:         It is. Unfortunately they don’t have all the features there yet, so it’s really just basic right now. You can’t actually collaborate with an editor on it. Once they allow that collaboration aspect, that will be incredible. Right now, I’m just going back and forth with my editor using word.

Alison: I need to get Reedsy on once that’s properly live and get them to talk about it because it is so exciting.

Barbara:         That would be great. What’s the nice thing about their book editor is that it automatically formats everything for you. Which is great. It really empowers you. So I think the shift from scarce to abundance has really empowered authors.

I guess the negative is because there’s so much abundance, because there’s so many people self-publishing … I mean, I don’t know, you build it, you hope people will come, I have no clue. The hard part, and I guess I find this out when I publish it next month, will actually be how do you get into the hands of people when there is such a long tail of supply of amazing content available.

Alison: I think that’s why the writing the book is the first phase, the publishing the book is the second phase, and the third phase, which is just as important and just as crazy, is promoting the book. Otherwise, you’re going to build it and they’re not going to come because they’re not going to know about it.

Barbara:         Yes.

Alison: Fascinating. That’s so interesting. The scarcity/abundance thing going across the economy and I’m very much in publishing so it’s quite interesting to see how it plays out in all the others as well. I’m also really intrigued by your point about speed which I agree is so important. You know, three months from manuscript to publication for the books that I publish. Have done it quicker — it nearly killed me, three months is sort of standard.

Also the flexibility. So when I publish a book, if an author wants to change it, they can, because they own the files and the rights and so on, and that I think is becoming increasingly important. As you say with a traditional publishing cycle, it’s nine months, twelve months before the book comes out. By that time you’re tearing your hair out as the author because you know that what’s going out is wrong if it’s a topical book.

Barbara:         Mm-hmm (affirmative), no, definitely.

Alison: Print on demand has changed everything, hasn’t it?

Barbara:         I never published under the old model, so I don’t know. I’ve read books. It’s interesting, I’m actually looking at my bookcase as we speak, I love books and I’ve got a whole book shelf of business books; but then most of the books I have now since I guess 2011 have been on a Kindle. You can’t see them on your shelf, but it’s nice because they’re searchable. It’s different.

Alison: Yes, I have sort of a hybrid model. If I love a book, I know I’m going to read it again, I tend to have it in print, but I love having my whole library with me on my Kindle. Let’s talk about your business book library. I love this, on your site you actually have a library section, which is great. I thought, “Everybody should do this; this is wonderful!” Why do you think it’s so important for business people to read books?

Barbara:         You have to. Things are changing so fast. You need fresh ideas. If you’re not reading books you’re not keeping up to date with things. You can read Twitter, you can read LinkedIn, you can read blogs, but books go deep. They make you think, and I think it’s really books that you bring … like, I’ve read over 200 business strategy books since 2010. It’s just, you get so many ideas from it. If I hadn’t read those books … you know I did my Commerce degree, I did my CFA, my Chartered Financial Analyst designation. All of the ideas I have come from the books I’ve read. You can have an MBA you can have whatever but if you’re not keeping up to date and reading the latest books you don’t have the current knowledge. You really need to have these flow with the knowledge.

Alison: It’s really interesting that you pick up on the up-to-dateness of them because actually that’s a charge that’s often levelled against books. ‘You don’t need books because you’ve got blogs, you’ve got Medium, you’ve got all this kind of reasonable quality stuff going out on the internet.’ I love that phrase that you use, that ‘books go deep’. There is something about that sustained argument isn’t there, that’s qualitatively different.

Barbara:         I think so, because books really, at least my book, really represents my body of work that I’ve done since 2010, and maybe even before that because in order to have the insight to develop the ideas I had I need to have my whole career as an analyst before me. You can dive into the whole knowledge base of a person, it’s fascinating. I’m sort of a book groupie. You know, people like rock stars and stuff, I like business strategy authors.

Alison: I hear you. Do you think it’s even more important if you’re planning to write a book to have that kind of… garbage in, garbage out, what’s the corollary of that? Good books in, good book out?

Barbara:         I think so, because I think authors, at least most of them, seem to build their ideas upon other people’s ideas. I mean if you look at the footnotes/endnotes of most business strategy books they’ve referenced so many people and I’m the same way. I just actually finished doing all my endnotes and I think I’ve got 75 endnotes, most of them being business books.

Alison: I love the way-

Barbara:         It’s incredibly important.

Alison: I thought you were very transparent and very generous in the way that you cited not just books, but even talks, and people who sort of planted seeds that then you took off in a different direction. I really like that. Often I find especially first-time authors nervous about reading too much and being seen to take ideas from other people, as though somehow that devalues them. Actually it’s standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t it? It’s taking something and combining it with something else and adding something of your own and creating something new and fresh.

Barbara:         Yeah, exactly. What’s interesting if you think about it from the perspective of an analyst is that’s called Mosaic Theory. Really taking unrelated pieces of information, putting them together, and coming up with a thesis that will give you insight into whether to buy or sell stock. It’s really that element of it. Most analysts tend to be more quantitative; they’re more looking at the numbers. I look at the numbers of course, but what I like doing is looking at the qualitative side. That’s really where the business books come in and actually one of the companies — I don’t know if you have it in London, Lululemon Athletica? If you’re familiar with them?

Alison: I know Lululemon, they’ve done some great stuff. It was interesting, because I was thinking about that case study today earlier on when you were saying about the timeliness of it. Obviously you’re reporting the latest figures on them aren’t you? You’re sort of making predictions that you’re going to need to go in and check.

Barbara:         Yeah, definitely. I was actually one of the first analysts to initiate coverage of them when they went public back in the fall of 2007. One of my theses was that they… I actually had just read Blue Ocean Strategy, so I used those ideas in my research report, which most analysts don’t do. Basically came up with the thesis to justify their extremely high evaluation at the time, that they were creating this Blue Ocean strategy. It’s funny because I was actually just going through my notes from … I read this book back in 2006, and I actually had highlighted how it pertained to Lululemon in the notes that I saved like a decade ago, and it’s pretty cool from that perspective.

Alison: That is amazing. How interesting, because I remember you’re making the point in the book about how the conventional strategists looking at the figures in the old way were making predictions that were way out of kilter with the actual performance of the company. They weren’t allowing for that qualitative stuff…

Barbara:         Definitely, and I think nowadays because things are accelerating so quickly. I mean think about all the shifts you’ve had. You know you’ve had the technological shift, the economic shift, the social shift, things aren’t stable like they used to be. It’s more dynamic, it’s changing, so you can’t look at the numbers in the rear view mirror, because you’re going to be wrong.

Alison: Yeah, you’ve got to have that base. I love that mosaic thing, I’m going to look that up. I really like that idea.

For somebody who’s such a passionate reader, it must have been a really big deal for you to write your first book. How has it changed you, personally and professionally?

Barbara:         It was really just in the new year that I decided to take all the research and the articles that I’d been writing since 2010 and make it into a book. It’s always been on my bucket list to write a book, because I always thought that would be really cool, because you know, I admire all these people. I thought, “You know, one day it would be cool to have my book on a shelf next to these authors.”

I think the biggest thing that changed me was really starting to do the blogging. I started that back in 2012, I created my own BradyCap website and started writing my own blogs. It was really when LinkedIn opened up its publishing platform in early 2014 that I really found my voice and that I could share and put it out in the world and there’s one … it’s hard now, because they’ve got too much supply. There’s no real estate left, so you publish a post you’re lucky if you get 100 views on it. Back when it was in the early days I was one of the first of 25,000 people publishing on it. I was early in, so I was able to actually get my stuff out there because everybody in the world wasn’t publishing on LinkedIn.

I wrote one article back, and I talk about that in the book, June 4th 2014, sort of when I discovered AirBnB and Uber for the first time and the dots finally connected. I called that ‘Social Capital: the Secret behind AirBnB and Uber’. That post was wild, it went viral, and it’s now being viewed by 396,000 people, professionals, on LinkedIn.

The writing hasn’t really had any impact on me professionally. Probably, not in the negative sense, but it’s made me realize how important it is for me to have my voice, and to be true to my values, so I’m actually less likely to take things, to just settle for things. I feel like I’ve been planting these seeds for six years, and I’m still planting them. I’m hoping that one day there will be this beautiful garden that will spring up.

If you want to get in to the finance business, which is quite difficult, at least in Canada and the States, one of the biggest requirements of the union card is to have this thing called the CFA designation, Chartered Financial Analyst designation. It’s quite tough; you have to write three years of exams, sort of a 50% pass rate each year, most people coming in to write have an undergrad, MBA, accounting designation already. It’s difficult. What I’ve realized is that writing a business book is sort of what this union card is to be a consultant. You really have to have your body of work there.

What I have done, though, from a professional sense is I started this UBER-nomics strategy group. Basically, taken the people on LinkedIn that really liked my stuff and brought them in to my own closed group and I’m publishing and sharing my stuff with them. That’s really where I’m trying to get my stuff out to these days, and just slowly build it. I think I’m 150 plus people now, but very high-calibre level professionals. Just one-on-one I invite people to join it that I meet …

You can’t just get overnight success. I’ve been planting this garden now for six years and it’s still in the seed stages.

Alison: What’s fascinating about that, with lots of interesting stuff there, but one thing to particularly pick up on. On the one hand you’ve got that mass distribution, the way that that one post went viral, LinkedIn, you know, how exciting that is. On the other hand, you’ve got that real tight curation where actually you’re having a quality conversation with hand-picked people. I think that’s really interesting that you’ve brought both those models in there.

Barbara:         Well, what I realized is when it goes viral, it’s great, but it really does nothing for you because, at least with LinkedIn, you can’t connect with people. I pay for it, but I only get 15 email credits a month. You can’t connect with people. It’s great to see those numbers but you really have to wait until they reach out to you or email you. It’s hard to really connect with people on a mass basis.

Alison: Yeah, absolutely. That’s so interesting. I think that that sense of curation. It’s interesting, Michael Basker and I were talking about this a few weeks ago, and it’s sort of in that world of abundance. You almost have to create your own scarcity on your own to really make things work, don’t you? Fascinating.

Barbara:         Definitely.

Alison: What impact has the book had on your business so far? Now I realize that it’s not published yet, I get that, but I’m just wondering even before it’s published are you talking about it to people? How is it changing things for you?

Barbara:         It’s difficult, because you know I was a top-ranked equity analyst before so I had a reputation before. I think the book might be giving me a bit more credibility in terms of sort of in this new economic sense, sort of the UBER-nomics, and people hear that and think it’s a sexy word, and they’re like, “Oh Barb,” you know.

I went to Toronto and met up with a lot of my former colleagues and clients two months ago. What I realized is a lot of them really were excited about the research I was doing. They could see the impact that it’s going to have on their industry, and their companies, and the whole investing landscape. That’s what I’m most excited about – but again, we’re at early stages now. It is yet to be seen. I’m still trying to figure out if I really want to go back down into the industry research route, or into the consulting route; I really want to just go where I can add the most value.

Alison: It sounds as though to me, and it sounds from what I’ve heard from other people say as well, that once you have that book out there you’re probably going to find new doors opening up that you haven’t even considered yet. You’re going to have options. How exciting. I hope you come back in a few months and tell us how it went.

Barbara:         It will be interesting.

Alison: Fantastic. What’s the one piece of advice, you know, if there’s somebody listening to this who is envying you, your book just about to be published, finished the writing stage, and they’re still in the throes of it – what’s the one best bit of advice that you’d give to somebody in that position now?

Barbara:         I would say don’t just write a book. I’d say just start writing. Start publishing on LinkedIn, and just start putting content out there. Start seeing how it resonates. You know I don’t think I could have sat down and written this book because the book features stuff that I wrote back in 2010, 2011, 2012. It’s basically the story of this intellectual journey I’ve been on, and I think there’s so much depth, at least I hope, depth to the story and insights and sort of my thinking unfolding. I don’t think I could sit down and do it in one writing. I’d say really just live your story, write the content, and then if the story evolves out of it, then bring it all together.

Alison: I love that.

Barbara:         I think the one thing I don’t like is that I think a lot of business owners, especially, might be using it as a transactional means because a lot of companies are like, “We need to publish content,” so they hire 20-year-olds to write basically garbage commodity content that has no real value, that has no insight, that offers no depth. Really just to gain people to their website, to their company. I think that’s bad if someone writes something from a transactional viewpoint. I think it should really be done from like a heart and soul viewpoint. You want to put knowledge out in the world, to share with others and to build upon, as you said, the shoulders of giants, those that came behind you.

Alison: Brilliant, so keep some idealism about this as well. It may be something to do for your business in terms of writing it but actually, there’s a real kind of ideological principle behind it as well. I couldn’t agree more.

Now, I always ask my guests to recommend another guest. It’s great, I’ve discovered so many wonderful people this way. Who do you think has something interesting to say about the business of business books? Who do you think would make a good guest for this podcast?

Barbara:         I think there’s an individual, her name is Heather McGowan. I connected with her on LinkedIn actually. She reached out to me after my Social Capital article went viral. She’s fascinating. She’s got an MBA, she has a design background, and she’s doing really fascinating research into the intersection of work and learning. She’s contributed to a number of books, and she’s writing a book right now called The Great Unbundling, which is about the automization and augmentation of work. I interviewed her on my podcast recently. She would be quite fascinating.

Alison: She sounds great. I love that title, The Great Unbundling.

Great, thank-you so much Barbara. What a fascinating interview. Now if people want to find out more about you, about BradyCap, and about UBER-nomics, where can they go?

Barbara:         You can go to my website, it’s Brady Capital Research, and the website is www.bradycap.com, or they can find me on LinkedIn, just look on Barbara Gray, Brady Capital Research. My book should be … I’m actually just am going back and forth on the final with my copy-editor right now, and so it should hopefully be available for publication next month.

Alison: How exciting. Well I hope you enjoy the launch party. It’s such a great term, isn’t it? It’s about to get launched on the world. Thank-you so much Barbara, for a very wide range discussion now. We touched on some huge topics. I can’t wait to see the book come out, and I hope it’s a massive success for you.

Barbara:         Thank-you very much Alison. I’m loving your podcast. I’ve been listening to it ever since you reached out to me and I really enjoy it when I walk along the seawall, it’s great to listen to.

Alison: I love that it’s going right round the world, that’s brilliant. Thank-you so much Barbara.

Barbara:         Thank you.


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