Virtuous Cycles, Platforms, Flywheels, Snowballs, and Tidal Waves

M30B35 Flywheel

I’m working on writing down my thoughts on space. I’ve learned a ton since deciding space would be my next mission. Some pretty clear thoughts are forming, and whenever that happens, I’ve trained myself to write, write, and write to really solidify things.

Space is big. In fact, it is, literally, the largest domain. Given the vastness of the domain, I need to formulate a Taxonomy and Lexicon that resonates to gain clarity. I’m a systems thinker, so I first went to the factors that appear to be driving growth in humanity’s investment in space-related endeavors.

I’m sure there’s some confirmation bias here but all the crazy talk and investments going on right now reminds me of what I witnessed in the mid-1990s and the Internet. We used to joke, “The Internet Is Going to Be Really Big Someday.” I’ve been joking recently “Space Is Going to Be Really Big Someday.”

This made me think of and re-read Bill Gate’s Internet Tidal Wave memo from 1994. I decided I’d title my “what’s driving space” memo “The Space Tidal Wave.”

Then I wrote it. As I did, I realized the model floating around in my head mimicked Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Flywheel. So I (badly) drew what was in my mind’s eye:

I then wrote what I meant by the arrows and stuff and was pretty happy. I shared the draft with a few friends and family members, and feedback included a consistent suggestion “You need to explain how a Flywheel is related to a Tidal Wave.”

So I started writing THIS blog post to see if I could.

I couldn’t.

I couldn’t explain the relationship for two reasons:

  1. I was mixing metaphors.
  2. I was confusing the concept of a singular company’s growth engine, with the dynamics of a broader industry.

I’ve long used the words below relatively interchangeably to refer to either the growth engine of a company or an industry:

  • Platform
  • Ecosystem
  • Flywheel
  • Snowball

I’ve always implicitly prefixed these with the word virtuous because, in my mind, they are all synonyms with virtuous cycle, which is defined as:

virtuous circle (noun) · a chain of events in which one desirable occurrence leads to another which further promotes the first occurrence and so on resulting in a continuous process of improvement. Also known as a Virtuous Cycle.


Interestingly, dictionaries don’t include a definition for virtuous that supports its use in this way.

Likewise, I find it fascinating (and frustrating) that no modern dictionary defines platform in how most business people use it. The closest dictionaries come to define an operating system as a platform:

platform (noun)  the computer architecture and equipment using a particular operating system

Definition of Platform by Merriam-Webster

Bill Gates defines platform by saying

 “A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.” – Bill Gates

The Bill Gates Line – Stratechery by Ben Thompson

I absolutely love this. Since platform is such an over-used term, and because no dictionary actually provides a definition that fits, most people are just confused about what they mean when they use it (read the Stratechery link above).

In describing Amazon’s growth engine (singular, because initially Amazon only had one), Jeff Bezos used the term flywheel.

flywheel [ˈflīˌ(h)wēl] (noun) · a heavy revolving wheel in a machine that is used to increase the machine’s momentum and thereby provide greater stability or a reserve of available power during interruptions in the delivery of power to the machine.

 Oxford Dictionaries

He drew this, now very familiar, diagram with “growth” in the middle:

When I was at Amazon, leadership regularly talked about how blessed Amazon was to have THREE flywheels: Marketplace (the original), Amazon Prime, and Amazon Web Services. I say blessed because few other big companies have more than one. The advertising engine at Google is Google’s only flywheel today. Facebook only has one as well. I’d argue Microsoft has several (Windows, Office, and Xbox).

Leaders at Amazon are challenged to Think Big and figure how what they are working on might be a FOURTH flywheel. The massive investment in Amazon Alexa is partially motivated by a belief that it may become Amazon’s 4th Flywheel.

snowball [ˈsnōˌbôl] (noun) · a ball of packed snow, especially one made for throwing at other people for fun.

a thing that grows rapidly in intensity or importance. “the closures are expected to have a snowball effect, impacting jobs and tax revenues” · “a public-debt snowball”

Oxford Dictionaries

When I describe a virtuous cycle to folks, I often have to explain what a flywheel is using the flywheel metaphor. I get it; I’m a gearhead and have actually held the flywheels in my cars in my hand as I installed them. But it turns out, a lot of people don’t immediately grok them.

In addition, real world flywheels don’t gain mass over time. They don’t generally have more than one input causing them to turn. Thus the metaphor, when applied to businesses’ (and industries’) growth engines fall short.

Snowball works better, kinda. More people seem to get the idea that a snowball rolling downhill is literally a virtuous cycle (it naturally grows and accelerates as it rolls and attracts more snow). But the problem with the snowball metaphor is a) snowballs don’t keep rolling, and b) when they stop rolling, it’s often because they crash into something.

ecosystem [ˈēkōˌsistəm] (noun) · a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

(in general use) a complex network or interconnected system.

Oxford Dictionaries

Another oft-used term when discussing virtuous cycles is ecosystem. A vibrant, growing ecosystem is one where the entities in the ecosystem (animals, plants, companies, and/or customers) exchange value with each other to benefit not only themselves but also others.

Often, at the center of a startup’s ecosystem diagram is their product, or the part of their product they think of as their platform.

Back to Bill Gates’ and the memo he wrote in 1994 to give Microsoft a swift kick in the ass: He was not describing a virtuous cycle, but a phenomenon that was happening, happening fast and seemed unstoppable.

tidal wave [ˈtīdl ˌwāv] · (noun) an exceptionally large ocean wave, especially one caused by an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption (used as a nontechnical term for tsunami).

a widespread or overwhelming manifestation of an emotion or phenomenon.” a tidal wave of crime”

 Oxford Dictionaries

Now that I’ve written all of this, I do believe there is a space Tidal Wave coming. It feels like it’s happening fast, and I am convinced it is manifest. But the memo I’ve written (which I will be publishing soon as a blog post) describes a virtuous cycle. So I won’t title it the Space Tidal Wave after all.

Thanks for letting me rant.

Debate this topic with me:

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