Booze, Pizza, and Ambulance Rides - Startlingly Awesome and Refreshingly Modest #2

There’s nothing like a two-week break after the first issue to really get your audience excited for regular content, or so I’ve heard.

I went on vacation to the startlingly awesome and surprisingly unknown white sand beaches, aqua-marine surf, and 75° August days of the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. And I tried to sit down and write you a newsletter, but I was forced into a nightmarish cycle of sun, swimming, beer, sunsets, and late night Ticket To Ride sessions.

Thankfully, I’ve left all that behind and I’m now enjoying yelling at my kids to get ready for school already it’s time to go dammit, overflowing email inboxes, quickly-approaching deadlines, and the sweltering furnace that is south Texas.



Here’s a quick distillation* of a bunch of things you probably sort of know into something you didn’t realize was so simple:

If you ferment grain, you get beer. If you ferment fruit, you get wine. If you distill beer, you get whisky. If you distill wine, you get brandy.

Everything else is edge cases and exceptions. Some things get their own special names (mead and rum, for example) because they’re made from almost pure sugar sources instead of fruit or grain. Rice wine is more accurately a really strong beer, because it’s made from grain. Vodka is just the less flavorful parts of the distillation process (the first “cuts”), and often re-distilled to remove even more flavor, which means it can start with less-appealing stuff like fermented potatoes and beets. Scotch is whisky plus smoke.

If that little bit of knowledge strikes your fancy, you might enjoy this exceedingly nerdy yet somehow very awesome guy showing you how to make banana brandy [~20 - 40 minute watch, depending on the following advice]. If you do watch this or some of the other videos from this peculiar polymath, be sure to use YouTube’s play speed controls to make him go at 1.5x or 2x. Didn’t know you could do that? You see, your subscription to this newsletter is totally worth it.

* See what I did there?


There are two situations where we very badly need to know a bunch of things about a person so that we can make a long-term, life-altering decision about them, but social custom forces us to do something far worse than investigate: take their word for it.

The first is dating. The second is hiring. Both are notoriously low-percentage games.

Sometimes, people try to take a shortcut. For instance, in 2005 a Montana-based pizza chain was asking people who wanted a minimum-wage hostess job to write an essay about how awesome MacKenzie River Pizza Company was.

Alas, there are no shortcuts in life. So I ghost-wrote a very subtle (read: over-the-top) satirical response [~5 minute read] for a very special someone who wanted that job. I’m not sure if anyone actually read it, but she worked there for a few days before dumping them for something better.


If there is a theme in this newsletter (besides self-aggrandizement and humility), it is that I love when one concise piece of information can instantly bring focus to something that was previously fuzzy.

I call these “I see dead people” moments, and I chase them with fervor. (If you haven’t already seen 1999’s The Sixth Sense, that reference will not make as much sense as it does for those of us who have made better decisions with our lives.)

To me, there is nothing better than the feeling of hearing or reading something that just turns the whole story on its head. Except for thinking one up yourself, which is rarer still.

One of my favorites is this: companies cannot grow on the backs of loyal customers.

Doesn’t it just make you want to replay every conversation you’ve ever had about business and marketing?

“But Donnie,” you protest, “Who is more important than the base?” Notice I didn’t say they weren’t important. Just that they’re not the direct source of growth.

A great example is Coca-Cola. In his 2010 data-backed missive How Brands Grow, author Byron Sharp shows convincingly that the majority of Coke sales come from “light buyers” — which means as little as one or two sodas in a month. The majority of their sales are to people who would probably tell you (and themselves) they don’t even drink Coke!

So their advertising can’t be aimed at the person with the cart full of two-liters in front of you at the grocery store. What they have to do is make sure that the person who “doesn’t really drink soda”, the once-in-a-blue-moon, I’m-feeling-frisky-today-and-I-think-I’ll-have-some-sparkling-sugar-acid person, is driven subconsciously towards the red labels in the cooler instead of the blue when that occasional purchase happens.

Which is why Coke’s TV commercials don’t say “This week only, Coke is 20% off at your local retailer!” Instead, they are just 30 seconds of a bunch of hippies singing on a hilltop, or they feature pudgy anthropogenic polar bears finding the Christmas spirit in a bottle of carbonated poison.

That, in a nutshell, is what brand-level advertising is and why it’s important.

And for me, the satisfying moment in which this idea brought the world of advertising and my entire career into focus was the moment I read this wonderful piece in the Financial Times called How The Mad Men Lost the Plot [~15 minute read].


A while back, the owner of a pizza joint in San Francisco was so frustrated with the protection racket that is Yelp that he decided to go for broke. He put out a sign offering 25% off a pizza for anyone who left him a one-star review.

And it worked [~9 minute read]: the publicity outweighed the algorithms.

Then more recently, a school PTO found a moment of fame [~5 minute read] when they included an option on their annual fundraiser wherein they would “lose” your contact information for the whole year in exchange for $50 up front and set new fundraising records.

Sometimes we can’t see that our goals and the paths to those goals are separate, and separable. To sell pizza, we need new customers, and to get new customers, we need good Yelp reviews. To raise enough money for the PTO, we need volunteers and buyers for the fundraisers, and we need to send thousands of emails twice a month to guilt enough people into participating.

We tell ourselves this story — the most likely path — so often that we forget there may be another. And we forget Yelp reviews aren’t actually our goal — selling pizza is our goal.

So the next time you’re searching for a way to move the needle, make sure it’s the right needle. There might be another way, especially if everyone else in your line of work has been telling themselves the same story for a while.


Every time an Ambulance takes someone to a hospital, they deliver the patient, as well as a short but detailed form.

That [usually handwritten] form lists what they’ve done to the patient so far, what drugs have been administered, what symptoms they’ve noted, and everything else they’ve learned about the situation.

The doctors at the hospital use these forms to guide care, and mistakes can be deadly. Because 30 million of these things are filled out every year, even if just 1 out of a thousand contains a mistake that costs one doctor one hour of wild goose chasing, that’s 30,000 doctor hours wasted. Scale is scary.

Anyway, there’s a computerized version of this that would probably save lives and tons of time and money, and it’s already installed in most Ambulances, but EMTs don’t use it because it’s a bit laggy.

I think this is terrifying and illuminating, and I thank Hillel Wayne, a software designer who just got certified as an EMT, for pointing it out. [~ 3 minute read]


I feel bad for leaving you with the second SMBC comic in as many issues, but really the blame lies with SMBC.


Thanks for making it to the end. You’re the best.