The Messenger Memo

The Messenger Memo
Photo by Alexander Shatov / Unsplash

I find internal memos to be a great way to learn business and a host of other skills that are important in 'business strategy' at large.

I wanted to take the time to deconstruct it, learn from it, and share my insights on the structured and clear thinking that results in such articulate memos. Needless to say, Messenger has not evolved in the way Mark wanted it, up to now, but perhaps it may be going that way in the future. I haven't researched what's Messenger's strategy going forward and how this memo fits into that, if at all. Regardless, this memo is useful for understanding business strategy principles and thinking.

First, having read the memo, I notice that Mark uses writing as a tool for thinking. His memo is largely descriptive, not prescriptive. On many occasions, he says 'we should do X' but on others, he also says 'we should do X, but maybe not,' or 'we should do X, but maybe not now.' I find this style of writing to be informative, helpful, and evocative. The purpose of this memo is not to enforce a particular strategy, but rather, to put thoughts out there that can help evoke others' thinking.

Mark uses "I think" 8 times in this note, meaning, he wants to show how he's only using this memo as a 'tool for thought' which is descriptive, not prescriptive. Notice that Mark also starts this note by saying, "At the highest level," again, helping readers also go through the process of thinking with him. I think Mark's style of writing this memo here is symbolic of persuasion design to a great extent — You want to give people their own reasons to come to conclusions, not impose the end-product of what you think on them, assuming that they'll just 'get it.' In that context, then, Mark's memo is to be seen more in the context of 'knowledge-sharing' rather than 'business-development.'

The note is sprinkled everywhere with his intermediary thoughts, identifiable (and hidden) nuances, and potential growth opportunities. The note is also reasoned in its approach — there is a method to why he is saying what he is saying. Mark shows you this method, which makes it all the more convincing. When you read the note, it seems pretty 'obvious'; it seems as though this is the natural next-step for Messenger. Of course, this happens partly because this note is coming from Mark (and one assumes as if Mark knows everything he's talking about), but let's say that is not the cause for your belief that this is the next-step for Messenger. The note is still pretty good because it takes you through Mark's reasoned, careful, and slow + deliberate thinking, which is the reason why you find this note pretty obvious.

In the memo, Mark also does a great job at showing what he believes in, what he doesn't believe in, and why. For example, he starts off paragraphs 4 and 5 by saying 'I do not believe,' whereas in the 6th one, he reverts to saying 'I believe...' This is a super-interesting way to put something forward: 'Start with what you do not believe, and then explain what you do believe.' Also, notice that putting it clearly out that what you don't believe gives enough room to the reader to disagree instantly.

This is another area we could go into later, but for now, let me just put out what I think Mark's writing enables one to do: 'It enables you to disagree easily.' By being clear, assertive, relatively opinionated, and deliberate about his thoughts, Mark is doing two things: i) showing his assumptions/beliefs, and ii) abstracting away whatever he thinks is not important to Mark's own point. These two things help you also process what Mark is saying, analyze it, and internally critique it, thereby setting your own brain in motion.

Which leads me to another thing — good writing helps you think automatically. But that's for a later time.

The second thing that strikes me about this memo is the structureless-structure, meaning it follows a deliberately-imposed structure, but this structure is itself organic.

Have a look at these excerpts:

Now, needless to say, Mark does follow this structure in most places, but one might question: 'Where is this structure even coming from?' And that's the point I'm making here — it's organic. It doesn't follow the classic 'why', 'how', 'who', 'what' approach, or an essay-kind-of-a response approach. It's very fluid, organic, and seamless. It's natural. It's what a business-inclined person should think, when he thinks about strategy. That is why I like how this note is structured. It's not super rigid or tight; at the same time, it's not a super-fluid stream-of-consciousness. Maybe that's how business strategy notes are meant to be. They're supposed to be fluid.

This is pretty self-explanatory, but really, here, Mark is outlining the broad vision for Messenger with a clear business case for highly-specific examples and use-cases. In that regard, I'd say this memo is broad enough that it communicates the vision and specific enough that it communicates how exactly we can realize that vision. Having a note written from these two contexts is what makes this super-interesting and useful. It's more like a cross between Ben Thompson's writing, with Matt Ball's thoughts, with Venkatesh Rao's reasoning, except it's all in a prose and number-less paragraph format. I find one reason why 'strategy' is often laughed at or is accused of being 'fluff' is that it's often too abstract / meta. But if the strategist can be specific enough to pin-pointedly articulate what exactly they have in mind... That'll go a super long way.

Keeping in mind the above point, going one level meta, note that the memo is not about one business; it's about the 'Messenger business ecosystem,' something that's 10x more informative of Mark's thinking. The lesson — Don't think about your business in isolation and innovation in your business as a siloed thing. Instead, think of how you can spur the entire ecosystem in many different ways.

Another thing I regularly note in this memo is how it takes many twists and turns to eventually converge to the same strategy. Sure, transactions is only a proxy for enabling the right businesses to come onto the platform. Sure, Google is likely to have a much better conversational search assistant in the future. Sure, WeChat has integrated a ton of features into its app. And yes, Messenger should do all of these, but it should do all of these with the sole purpose of it becoming a better performance-ads business. The end-goal, the holy-grail, the endpoint of all of this is super-clear in Mark's minds, and the memo touches on a few touchpoints and midpoints to help realize this end-goal.

This memo is also nice because it touches on what we're building, but does not leave out how we can build that thing. Again, if strategists have their hands dirty with the real-world technical limitations of building X, Y, or Z, maybe 'strategy' as a field would not be considered too abstract or too fluffy.

Notice that Mark is also absolutely clear about the fundamentals of different *types* of businesses.

How do ad-business work? Mark writes: "Like any ads business, the two levers to understand its potential scale are how many ads you can show and how well the ads perform." [emphasis added by self.]

When Mark distinguishes 'brand ads' and 'payments,' he is clear that these two businesses can be "potential" run-offs of his model; so he is also careful to show you many nuances. But, read a bit further and you'll see how beautifully he says that both payments + brand ads play an important role in the ecosystem of Messenger, ie performance ads. Mark writes: "A great payment system dramatically reduces friction in all transactions and therefore significantly increases the value of ads."

As an aside: This just reminds me of systems thinking and how one has to think of businesses, models, ecosystems, their interactions etc etc etc as systems in and of themselves. This is a super-important skill that we ought to develop, if we want to master business strategy.

Another recurring theme I notice throughout the memo is how Mark views the Messenger business model in two broader contexts: Facebook's own ecosystem + external ecosystem. This re-links to a point I made above, but I still wanted to highlight it as a standalone point.

I think the strategy that Mark highlights can be gone into for more and more detail and analysis, but given that Messenger has evolved into a 'Chats' and 'People' area, rather than a 'Chats' and 'Discovery' area (as Mark writes in the memo), it's more prudent to just close this discussion here and summarize a few key takeaways:

  1. Mark's writing is clear, simple, example-based, and conversational. This is gold. Absolute gold.
  2. Mark's writing reminds me of the essay: Write Like You Talk by Paul Graham.
  3. Mark evokes thinking rather than drill down his thoughts. Super interesting again.
  4. Mark takes you through his writing process, which is very important for everyone to be on the same page.
  5. Mark has an organic structure which is original and makes intuitive sense.
  6. Mark summarizes his thoughts brilliantly, as is seen in the 7 points on the last 2 pages of the memo. Again, gold.

Lots to learn for aspiring strategists.