March 1, 2023

Be so good you can be bad

As of this morning, Berkshire Hathaway is worth more than $667 billion. With just the change found in CEO Warren Buffett’s couch cushions, they could hire a phalanx of the best designers on the planet. Their website must be stellar, right?

The website of a $667 billion company

That’s a site that looks like it hasn’t changed in about 25 years. And for the most part, it is.

Buffett and his team at Berkshire Hathaway are some of the most successful investors in the history of investing. They have a reputation so big and so deep, that they don’t need their website to sell for them. They have nothing to prove.

In physics, our understanding of the universe “breaks down” at extreme scales. The equations and models we learn in high school don’t hold up when we look at massive black holes and at the infinitely small quantum scale – the math has a pesky habit of going haywire. The same phenomenon happens when we look at how some people and organizations communicate.

For most businesses, they will generally benefit from having an attractive, informative, and usable website.

But Berkshire Hathaway is that gigantic center of gravity that breaks the math. They only have downside risk on building out a more modern website or spending money on gussying up their reports. Is there anybody who will invest more if they had fancy animations and slick photography? Probably not at this point. Would that new site potentially send a destabilizing signal that this giant has weakened, and now needs something? Maybe.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I genuinely think making a static HTML website that renders in plain black Times New Roman on white in 2023 is punk as fuck</p>&mdash; Ian Coldwater 📦💥 (@IanColdwater) <a href="">February 24, 2023</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

A number of years ago, former Politico journalist (and now digital media exec) Ben Smith wrote a blog post calling AOL email addresses a “status symbol.” Nearly all millennials, and probably all Zoomers, are using Gmail as their email provider, with a few outliers scattered among Yahoo, Hotmail, and iCloud. But for a class of older, established professionals, that legacy AOL address carries a certain amount of DGAF prestige.

In that 2011 piece, Smith mentions Obama-era political creatures from David Alexrod to Jim Messina that still used AOL. In media, Ariana Huffington, David Brooks, and Lawrence O’Donnell were still using the aging inbox. He wrote, “Now that my mother has switched to Gmail, virtually the only people I email at AOL accounts are bigshots -- people who were already so important by the time the various new fads (and technical advantages) arrived that they couldn't be bothered to switch, and had nothing to prove to anyone.”

That’s the goal for many people and brands. Be so good that you can be bad. (But until then, focus on being good!)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out in fall 2023, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my book, it's coming out this fall.

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