Antifragile: Exploiting Smallness

I was recently introduced to the writing and thought of Nassim Taleb. He coined a term, antifragile. Loosely, it means having a career or business that not only is largely immune to the inherent random changes in a marketplace or in life, but better, seems to exploit those inherent random changes. Taleb gives the example of two brothers, one a taxi driver and the other an office worker. Both brothers can be fired for making mistakes. The taxi driver can lose a customer and recover quickly by finding another. The office worker can lose his job and be devastated because that was his only gig. Not only that, but the taxi driver brother has daily practice in getting more work. The office worker brother has likely not exercised that muscle in a very long time.

By Taleb's thinking, the taxi driver brother is antifragile. He can recover quickly from economic setbacks. In fact, the randomness of economics serves him. He is positioned and practiced such that he can be informed and fed by observing economic patterns as they emerge, especially when they appear random. For example, the taxi driver brother has the power to easily change variables that affect his work. He can change his standard route and experiment with a different part of town at a different time of day. In so doing, he opens himself to randomness. His experiment can work slightly and show a bit of promise. He can test another small idea built on the previous success and eventually work himself into an entirely new business paradigm. This approach is antifragile because it cedes power and control over to randomness and natural selection instead of rooting itself in the notion that one person can predict market changes and new opportunities.

I have a colleague who runs a business that serves, almost exclusively, small clients in a localized region. My colleague’s business is antifragile. It is immune to the risks inherent in working for a small group of people. And in addition to this, his business also benefits from the ability to experiment on a small scale. He can try out ideas on just one or two of his hundreds of clients. These ideas can fail and all is not lost. Comparatively, a company that serves just a handful of large clients is not in a position to expose itself to randomness in the marketplace. In fact, such a business must become increasingly conservative as its existence becomes more dependent on retaining each client and less about innovating.

I recently gained a new client just around the corner from my office. This client operates a local yoga studio. The studio is faced with a classic small business challenge. They need to be able to easily update their website. To that end, they need a CMS. Compared to other Solspace clients, this client is small. In working with them, however, I was struck by how much I enjoyed digging in and learning about the challenges facing them and in helping them to come up with solutions. I enjoyed the client / vendor relationship with this small business just as much as I have enjoyed relationships with my larger clients. Large or small, my clients feel the same sense of urgency about their web projects. Much of the pleasure I derive from my work comes from working with people and solving their problems. What I learned from my experience with the yoga studio was that I don’t actually care about the size of the client or the size of their problem. Large or small client, a project always boils down to individual people driven by undeniable urgency to solve problems and reach goals.

There is an additional intriguing characteristic about my yoga studio client. Because of their size, they were more open to experimentation. I have been looking for a client who would allow me to try out the new Craft CMS. Most of my larger clients cannot be persuaded to change their choice of technology stack. Their decisions regarding such options are made within very rigid and, at least to me, highly incomprehensible frameworks. I have yet to understand these decision-making processes or to affect them. With a smaller business, one where I am talking directly to the decision maker, I can present the validity of some experimentation. In these situations, I am also able to bear more of the risk. And it is from this vantage point that I expose myself to the randomness that Mr. Taleb speaks about. It is here that I can throw myself at the randomness of the marketplace. It is here that I am free to experiment, learn and adapt in increments. In this workshop setting, I do not have to comprehend the picture as a whole. I do not have to predict it. I find satisfaction in exploring, responding and evolving incrementally.

As you consider the shape of your business, find ways to expose yourself to experimentation and surprise - to serendipity. The marketplace is smarter than you are. Acknowledging and embracing this reality will increase the pleasure as well as the stability you derive from your work.