in Alex Danco, anti-fragile, Shopify, worldbuilding

Anti-Fragile versus The Red Queen

In reading Alex Danco’s writings on world building and anti-fragility, I’ve found it was very useful and illustrative to think how these aspects of “games” (video or otherwise) can be applied to building software products and business.

In Danco’s work titled, “Worldbuilding and Antifragility”, he gives an example of how Shopify has excelled at being anti-fragile in a number of ways but the most notable being where their company has mastered “flash sales”. Specifically Shopify has teams of engineers working on solving problems where flash sales invites hackers/bots to automatically arbitrage on the sales and reselling the wares somewhere else either by cornering or some other mechanism. I don’t know too much about the topic itself but Danco seems to and illustrates this as one of the areas where Shopify has become anti-fragile.

In Danco’s rationale, Shopify’s ability to “win” at this never-ending game of building better processes to prevent bots during flash sales is both “worldbuilding” for those Engineers (as there’s a well-defined objective without requiring too much hand-holding) and it’s anti-fragile because the “stressor” of having better bots creates more certainty with an even more sharpened objective for the engineers on where to double-down and/or focus their new efforts on. While that all seems logical and great thought-exercise in and of itself, it seems an even more obvious point that I’ll talk about below.

Danco describes “worldbuilding” in a nutshell what I would more generically refer to as culture. The famous on (company) culture being:

“Culture is what people do when no one is looking.”


Worldbuilding in the more narrower sense that Danco talks about at length is probably more nuanced than that, but it’s a good proxy for what he’s illustrating.

As a company builder, what you want is a trusted set of individuals and groups that can culminated in their behaviours without the need to require too much external influence or forces. In other words, at some point, across this rubicon is a threshold where the world is built out fully enough that people just live and live their lives in it. It may even go beyond that — in Danco’s words: “You need to build a world so rich and captivating that others will want to spend time in it, even if you’re not there.”

In the example that Danco gave about flash sales, I’m not entirely convinced that those Shopify Engineers are spending time on something so captivating. They may be, I just don’t know. But it’ll be silly to assume that it is rich and captivating without knowing more. Danco doesn’t offer much in the way that that is what is happening.

Separately, Danco’s thesis that coding again flash sales bots are a form of anti-fragility is pre-mature. If the ultimate desired outcome is to engage engineers and ever increasing new strategies and tactics, then I think it might well indeed do the trick. But that’s the only thing that any one product or company is trying to optimize for.

More and more (and more)

Taken in isolation, it may very look like that part of Shopify has some anti-fragile characteristics, but from the outside, it looks as though Danco’s example is more indicative of what is The Red Queen Effect.

Take the time to read up on it if you’re not familiar with it, but the reality is The Red Queen Effect / Hypothesis is very real in biology, ecology and in business life.

Imagine it as a treadmill. In any competitive environment, any two parents are locked in a death-match to win. The more ways to tip the scales to one side is quickly exploited and the other side (should they become resilient amongst) quickly try to match and/or find it’s vulnerabilities.

Danco’s example is more indicative of this situation; Hacker create bots that exploits holes/gaps in Shopify’s anti-flash sales engine and Shopify Engineers respond by plugging those holes.

What Danco is talking about is just the fact of most business life across a wide variety of applications. And is just the nature of cutthroat competition, nothing that is different in different contexts. It certainly doesn’t require the worldbuilding to the extent and nuances that he has detailed.

But maybe we uncovered a proxy for anti-fragility: anything that has the red queen effect and survives. But one must then be mindful of the survivorship bias and that it’s really a proxy for it, not really the true thing.

I would hypothesize that anything that needs to take on the red queen effect can be anti-fragile insofar as the game and the context of the game being played doesn’t change too much over time. If it’s a well-define problem that requires increasing amounts of complexity going forward then I would say it’s likely to be not truly anti-fragile. Entropic forces compounded by complexity will itself make it anti-fragile.

I can. It can also signal that because of the ability to survive in the midst of such an onslaught, it has proven itself to be anti-fragile. But only up to this point in time. The past is not a prediction of the future and if it’s only because of the successes so far that we were basing our thesis that this team at Shopify is anti-fragile then I think that’s pre-mature.

At the end of the day, anti-fragility (in my opinion) cannot be determined beforehand. It’s also not just a state or a destination (where you arrive at), it’s an inherent characteristic and in real world conditions unpredictable. One process and work in this this context but when transplanted elsewhere with the same process, it doesn’t work out.

Like many things in business, I think we tend to get carried away by narratives rather than what we do know for sure. And there’s very few things we know for sure in business and life.