Adam Zerner

The best frequently don't rise to the top

There are a variety of YouTube channels I've come across that seem like they don't get nearly enough views.

The best example that comes to my mind right now is probably Massimo Bottura. Wikipedia does a good job of describing who he is:

Massimo Bottura is an Italian restaurateur and the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy which has been listed in the top 5 at The World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards since 2010 and received top ratings from L'Espresso, Gambero Rosso and the Touring Club guides.

...

Osteria Francescana was ranked The World's 2nd Best Restaurant at the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in 2015. In June 2016 Osteria Francescana was ranked No. 1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants and No. 2 in 2017. The restaurant returned to rank No. 1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2018.

So... arguably the best chef in the entire world. On YouTube. Showing you how he cooks. How he thinks.

Yet his videos only get 10-20k views. That might sound like a lot on the surface, but pay attention to view counts on YouTube and you'll find random housewives consistently getting hundreds of thousands of views for their cooking videos.

I think you have to consider that some sort of failure. Market inefficiency, false negative, non-meritocratic, whatever.

Another good example is David Heinemeier Hansson. Another wildly successful and influential person. DHH is the creator of Ruby on Rails, which is perhaps the most popular web framework out there. He also is a best selling author, and founder of an incredibly successful company, Basecamp.

I feel like I didn't do him justice. He's one of the people I think of when I think about who's had an impact on me. Maybe I should have let Wikipedia introduce him like I did for Massimo.

Anyway, DHH has a YouTube channel where he lets you inside his brain and shows you how he thinks about writing software. How many views do you think those videos get? It's in the same ballpark as Massimo: 10-60k. And also similar to Massimo, you can find people who are way less qualified consistently getting hundreds of thousands of views on similar videos.

I want to focus on my core point here. DH6, not DH5. You might be able to make points about how being brilliant doesn't necessarily make you good on camera, or about how marketing and promotion matters a lot, or about releasing videos on a consistent schedule, or about how maybe they're not producing the types of content YouTube viewers want to watch. Some of those might be fair points, but do you think that they refute my core point? My core point is that there are people like DHH, like Massimo, who should be getting way more views on their videos, given the quality of the content they're producing and what they've done to promote that content. Do you disagree with that?

Here are some examples of very high quality content coming from what I'd consider to be diamonds in the rough, rather than being from famous people like DHH and Massimo:

Maybe you're thinking to yourself: "Ok? So, what's your point?" My point is just that it's not meritocratic. That quite often, the best don't rise to the top.

Again, maybe you're still thinking to yourself: "Yeah, of course the best don't always rise to the top. Duh. Is that it?"

Yeah, pretty much. If this point is already obvious to you, then this post probably won't be very interesting. I'm just saying things you already know. But to me, it's not obvious. I still have an instinct that the best stuff would rise to the top way more often than it actually does.

I should be upfront about something: I have a pretty big personal attachment to this question. I spent over five years working on two separate startups that both failed pretty miserably. And in both cases, I felt like the market wasn't very fair to me. I felt like I had pretty good quality products, and that my level of success was not even close to proportionate to the quality I produced. Well, not just the quality of the product, I'm trying to talk about product + marketing + everything else. My logic was, roughly:

If my quality is, say, a 7/10, my level of success should be somewhere in that ballpark. Maybe the market would be inefficient and I'd only reach a 5/10 or a 4/10. Or maybe I'd be lucky and reach an 8/10 or 9/10.

That didn't happen. And if you talk to other startup founders, I'm sure they'll tell you that I'm not alone. Paul Graham likes to say that you have to be 10x better than the competition to overcome inertia. That is so true.

I think the same thing is true in other fields too. Cooking is one that comes to mind. I know that over time, I've walked into random little restaurants that seemed to be pretty low on business, but had fantastic food! And it's not like the location or service were terrible or something. They did really well on whatever all encompassing metric of quality you want to use. But despite that, they had very little success.

I've been watching the show Chefs Table on Netflix recently. They basically do a little profile/biography on different world class chefs, and I've been noticing a similar trend where early in their careers they had serious problems with lack of success. Financial issues, depression, coming close to closing down, in some cases acutally going out of business and then re-opening. And then, for whatever reason, in comes a rush of success.

But the quality didn't really change! Maybe it changed a little bit, but not enough to account for the amount of change in success. It's not like quality went from 3/10 to 10/10, more like 9.5/10 to 10/10, perhaps. Before the rush of success, they were basically the same world class chefs producing the same incredible food. For whatever reason, the success just didn't come. They hadn't risen to the top yet. They were still diamonds in the rough.

I get the sense that lack of meritocracy is an issue in most fields, not just startups and cooking. I recall an anecdote about writing and the arts from a blog post I read today:

Further, I also know that many writers who are Quite Fucking Good go completely unnoticed throughout their lives. As is the case with virtually everything in the arts, it’s not exactly an easy thing to do — to be externally successful.

Again, I don't really have any insightful takeaways here. I've just been noticing myself slowly realizing that the best don't always rise to the top, and these are the examples that have been sticking out to me.


If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email: adamzerner@protonmail.com.

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