Written by Scott Galloway, “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google” reads like the highest aspiration of the edgy business book genre. Flipping to any page, and putting a finger on any sentence gives you about a 70% chance of reading an (at least semi) meaningful insight, wrapped in a warm snarky blanket.
The book is a hodgepodge of fact, opinion, humble brags, and advice. I enjoyed The Four thoroughly, you may not. I was a fan of “Winners & Losers” a Youtube based finance analysis show hosted by Galloway, and this book is written in the style of that show. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
If you read the book and dislike it because it’s too edgy, you’re right. If you read the book and love it because it’s edgy, you’re also right. What I don’t think the book can be criticized for is a lack of multidimensional analysis. The T-Algorithm used as the bases to analyze the companies mentioned is thorough. None of the information is new (even in 2017), however, the book is a clear aggregation of facts with analysis that is well worth reading.
You may dislike the writing style, and may disagree with some claims. Example: every person I know working in cyber security for any entity other than the US government disagrees with Galloway’s assertion that Apple could build a backdoor into its operating system without making it vulnerable to hackers. However, while perhaps crass, Galloway is generally thoughtful and explains conclusions; rarely does a business book do so to this extent.
Who are the Four Horsemen
The books premise is clear from the title on; Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are huge, powerful companies, being protected by supporters, subsidized by governments, funded by investors buying a grand vision, and nearly unavoidable in modern life. They are the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Galloway considers the horsemen to be “god, love, sex, and consumption”. Each company shares global reach, likability, differentiation in the market and access to capital that even most fortune 50 companies would never hope for.
I’ll break down each of the horsemen, as paraphrasing the book and provide a bit of commentary.
God or Google
People now trust Google to know everything about them. Think that bump could be cancer? You’ll probably ask Google before you ask a doctor. People trust Google enough to ask it the questions that they wouldn’t ask their closest friend.
No philosopher, religious leader, guru or scientist will be asked the range of questions people type into Google daily. “About one out of six queries posed to the search engine have never been asked before.” — To Galloway’s point I used Google Books to find that quote.
I don’t trust Google, I use DuckDuckGo and Firefox to minimize the amount of contact I have with the big G. But even so, I use an Android phone, start most days checking into my Google for Work email and spend hours each month on Youtube.
Even with my healthy fear of Google, I, more than most, feed them information. I have a Google Phone in my pocket all the time. Set up Google Tag Manager and Google Analytics for clients websites, helping to build Google’s understanding of the web. I directly pay Google to use Drive and Email. I’m part of the advertising audience by watching YouTube videos and I manage ads across their network.
Love or Facebook
“As measured by adoption and usage, Facebook is the most successful thing in the history of humankind.” Facebook is love or at least access to loved ones. I can attest to this first hand, last month I quit facebook, but not really.
After leaving Facebook, I still had Instagram & Messenger. I even logged into Facebook at least twice a week, just to see what’s up. Social media, in general, is fueled by fear of missing out. Facebook, in particular, is fomo + nostalgia. Facebook is embedded in my life and has been for a long time.
I don’t love Facebook. But I remember the pit in my stomach after I lost years of text messages with a person I did love. I also remember the feeling of relief at how many messages were sent using Facebook Messenger.
From events to WhatsApp & Messenger Facebook’s impact on communication is profound. Facebook, like Google, has information about even non-users. If one of your friends has Messenger on their phone, Facebook knows your phone number and much more.
Facebook is not my friend. However, much like a close friend’s less than desirable significant other, Facebook is deeply associated with my friends.
Sex or Apple
Galloway equates Apple to peacocking, the logo a status symbol to make yourself desirable as a mate. “The Apple Logo, which graces the most coveted laptops and mobile devices, is the global badge of wealth, education and western values.” Perceptually this is true, at least among Apple fans.
I’ve used Mac OS exclusively for years. In the very beginning, I had compelling reasons; the product were just better and I needed OSX exclusive software. My job has changed, my industry has evolved and Apple has gone downhill. Check out Louis Rossmann’s breakdown of Apple’s repeated engineering failures.
My next laptop won’t be a MacBook Pro and that is related to quality. But the opinions shared by me and a prominent Apple repair technician won’t change the fact that Apple is essentially a luxury brand. Apple is more closely related to Louis Vuitton than Microsoft, Dell or any tech company I can think of.
Apple fits into a place in the hearts and minds of its diehard fan base that isn’t rational. I well remember defending Apple’s quality and customer support. The reality was, the MacBook Pro I had was a lemon with a bad graphics card and should have gotten a replacement under warranty.
Paying 2.5 times the price of a comparable laptop by any other brand meant it had to be the best, right? Apple was the best because they told me they were. Apple was the best because I didn’t waste my money. I became an onlooker in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, I’m not the only one. Galloway is right; People will defend Apple in ways that defy reason.
Consumption or Amazon
“Amazon eases the pain of drudgery – getting the stuff you need to survive.” — What Walmart has done to small towns, Amazon has done to major cities. People I respect choose to order only from Amazon because it means fewer companies tracking them.
Using only Amazon also means creating a corporate giant. One I suspect will someday bite its adoring customers. Just as it shocked retail stores the day it became clear Amazon was a threat to their businesses. This will happen with brands too.
Galloway’s interpretation of Jeff Bezos is a man who wants universal basic income. Because, well… he needs customers and doesn’t imagine a world where most humans have jobs.
The chapters on Amazon paint a portrait of a company with the power to tank any competitor in any industry – 30% in 60 days with 30 press releases. His solution is that the government should break up Amazon, as they did Bell System. I’m hesitant to agree to the government breaking up companies. But the time for subsidies to Amazon was never. It may be worth considering that only the government can save us from a problem the government helped to create. Reason Magazine had a great take on the Amazon HQ2 bidding war in the video below.
My Favorite Part
I started what became my favorite part of the book with an eye roll. Sorry Prof, but after seeing the words “New York Times Company” my first thought was “‘Come on Scott, I’m reading your book, spare me the story of sitting at the big boy table for the Times.” — Galloway’s story of how he came to be on the board for the New York Times, his plan to create a confederation of top news outlets that would force search engine’s to pay the content, and the reason it didn’t work out are a pretty solid set of lessons for anyone in business.
Galloway’s strategy may not have worked, but it is certainly worth reading about. He was at least conceptually correct. Google without a lot of quality content is a library without books: useless. The story has tons of entrepreneurial lessons, not giving up board seats as a gesture of goodwill would be near the top of that list. Not sacrificing core competency to maintain a tertiary revenue stream as The Times did with About.com is another valuable lesson.
Scott Galloway’s Video Summary
I think the book is well worth reading. I’ve recommended it to many people, but if you want a summary, the best one comes from Galloway himself.