Swapping the Golden Idol

Early in 2023, I received a cold email suggesting I switch to a different ad network than the one I was currently using. I declined, but the man followed up seven more times. His tenacity was admirable.

Each time he emailed again, he tried a different angle. “Google is laying off people, meaning ad revenues are declining.” “Here’s our ad index showing revenues might be lower this year.” “Our system is more dynamic than the one you are using.” And so on.

Surprisingly, he even got to the heart of the problem: the cost of switching waves. “I’m confident our system can out-earn your current one on its own, but we’re happy to neutralize your risk by agreeing to a minimum payout. What are your thoughts on testing us with a revenue guarantee?”

It was an impressive show of empathy and commitment, but in the end, I couldn’t take the bait, no matter how sweet it looked. He wanted me to swap the golden idol — and that’s almost always a mistake.

In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s genre-defining opening scene, Indy outsmarts a bunch of deadly traps to reach the treasure waiting for him on a pedestal in a cave. The golden statue looks innocent enough, but Indy knows: This, too, is a trap. Thankfully, the man came prepared.

He takes out a bag of sand from his pocket, hoping he can swap the idol for something of equal weight, thus not triggering whatever punishing mechanism awaits. He looks, he thinks, he weighs the bag in his hand — and he takes out a fistful of sand. What was supposed to be a final adjustment quickly turns out to be a lethal mistake: No more than five seconds post-swap, the entire cave starts collapsing, and Indy must run for his life.

When I read those cold emails, I could feel the golden idol in my hand. “What if I will make more revenue?” I wondered. But I could also see myself sprinting out of a cave with poisoned darts flying right behind me. “How much more could I possibly make? Will the result be worth the hassle?”

Time is limited enough as it is. Why spend it optimizing a machine that already runs smoothly? Could I squeeze out another 10%, 20%, or even 30% of ad revenue by upending my entire system? Perhaps. But if I can seek newer, bigger treasures in different caves, why swap the golden idol? Why bet the house if all you can gain is an extra garage?

In business, replacing an income stream with a similar income stream that might make slightly more is a bad idea. Whether it’s replacing one affiliate with another, shutting down a line of popular shoes for a new one, or taking on a client you’ll have to sacrifice another client for, often, the switching cost is higher than the gain — and even if not, the two might cancel each other out. In either case, you’ve spent a lot of energy with little to show for it.

Life, too, is full of shiny golden idols. The cute guy at work seems extra attractive after a big fight with your boyfriend. The new gym in town beckons with machines no other gym has. But here, too, making the swap will likely only get you in hot water, not out of it.

Now, killing a course business to start selling books, taking a complete dating break, or quitting the gym in favor of outdoor workouts, those, too, are risky — but at least they’re risks with true potential for gain.

If you’re going to chase a treasure, make sure the reward is worth the run. Don’t swap the golden idol, and don’t let anyone derail your train if you’re headed in the right direction.