Always Search For The Mechanism Of Action

I’m a weirdo.

I don’t mind admitting my eccentricity, because I believe that some of my unusual habits help me in life.

One of these habits is my obsession with figuring out the mechanism of action.

I don’t remember the details of when I first learned the term, though I believe it was in the context of the pharmaceutical industry, when I learned the terrifying fact that we don’t really understand the mechanism of action for some pretty important drugs. We just know that they work!

This reminds me of the common VC mania for “pattern matching,” which I take to mean “a fancy word for gut instinct without any reasoning behind it.” If you operate without at least hypothesizing a mechanism of action, how can you effectively evaluate and refine your approach?

Ever since I learned about the mechanism of action, I’ve tried to develop the habit of searching for it whenever I can.

For example, at a recent tech conference, I attended a classic exhibition hall cocktail hour with a fellow investor.

When she expressed her boredom with turning the crank on yet another tech event, I let her in on one of my secrets: You can always search for the mechanism of action, and this analysis can turn a boring chore into an edifying and even entertaining learning opportunity.

As we swept through the exhibition hall, I narrated my stream-of-consciousness analysis of the hidden drivers of the behavior around us.

First, I steered us around the massive crowd of people right at the front entrance. This kind of traffic jam happens at almost every event, because people unthinkingly enter the space, run into someone they know, and plant themselves in place as soon as they strike up a conversation. Like an accretion disk of dust and gas slowly condensing into a solar system, the first few clumps of people exert an unseen gravity on everyone who enters later, and pretty soon you have the equivalent of Jupiter sweeping everyone into a loud, uncomfortable ball.

Instead, we conducted a quick survey tour of the entire space, scouting out different potential landing spots. The booth area was relatively uncrowded, but lacked any drinks or sitting areas—an opportunity that the vendors must have overlooked. When I ran booths for my various companies, I always found ways to modify the environment to my advantage. This would typically include enlarging my space by bringing over chairs from nearby sitting areas, moving sources of food and drink to attract attendees to our location, and if necessary, bringing in our own supply (one of my greatest trade show hacks was realizing that you can’t sell or serve alcohol, but the laws of the State of California allow you to give alcohol as a gift; one quick trip to Total Wine and More to obtain miniature liquor bottles later, and we had the most popular booth at the show).

We also scouted out the booth giveaways. The only one that stood out was the IBM booth, where they had a stack of stylish-looking white plastic lunch containers with bamboo tops. The bamboo tops had the classic IBM logo burned into them, presumably at great expense, and likely via laser. Alas, since I like to travel light, I didn’t take one home with me.

I’m always amazed by how so many companies fail to consider the mechanisms of action behind a successful booth. After all, all of their staff have presumably attended a trade show, and yawned at the uncreative booths and giveaways. But when given their own chance, they roll out the same tired setup.

The equation for a successful booth is simple. The simplest way to succeed is to have a universally known and desired product, but this is also the hardest—if you had that, why would you bother with trade shows? Barring that, you need to find a way to attract people to your booth, and hold them there long enough to tell a compelling story. Finally, you need a giveaway that will survive the hotel checkout and carry-on bag purge, and remind the person of your company and product.

For several years in a row, I ran a booth at a major trade show. One of the major exhibitors had a great idea—they hired a photography company to take professional headshots for their LinkedIn profiles. They always had a huge line of people waiting for their session. But amazingly, they did nothing to take advantage of this asset. The booth staff didn’t engage the people in line, nor did they have any special giveaways (though this setup did allow them to collect email addresses). I took advantage of this by printing out a survey card and having people answer lead qualification questions under the guise of industry research. They had to turn in their card (with their contact information) at our booth to collect their alcohol gift and have a chance at winning a larger prize. The mechanism of action was offering bored people something to pass the time, combined with the certain reward of free alcohol, and the uncertain reward of something actually valuable. We collected hundreds of leads per show, all thanks to our unwitting benefactors who paid far more money for a giant exhibition area and professional photographers.

Back in the present day, my VC friend and I finished scouting the rest of the room and picked a high table, away from the crowds, where it was easy to converse and we could easily survey the room and intercept any trays of wine or champagne as they left the catering area. From there, we were able to pass a pleasant cocktail hour without straining our voices or letting our feet get sore from standing around for no good reason.

The lesson is that almost every situation and environment can be analyzed and optimized if you search for the mechanism of action. You can accomplish more, enjoy yourself more, and build a base of knowledge that will serve you well in the future.

Or, you could do what everyone else does, and just operate based on habit and “pattern matching.” The choice is yours.

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