May 01

This post is part of an ongoing series entitled “a post a day for the month of may.” It’s an unfolding exploration of the concepts from the book “Get Lucky.”

“Get Lucky” proposes a framework of skills that when practiced work in concert to amplify the level of serendipity in one’s life. The eight skills are:

  1. Motion
  2. Preparation
  3. Divergence
  4. Commitment
  5. Activation
  6. Connection
  7. Permeability
  8. Attraction

There’s thirty-one days in the month of May which translates to roughly four days devoted to each skill. Let’s look at Motion first.

Motion in the context of this book refers to the practice of deliberately placing yourself in new situations and unfamiliar environments. It’s not the same as randomly throwing a dart at a map and traveling there, that’s just random movement. Motion is consciously mixing up your routine and the circles of people you associate with. The result of motion is what they call “creative collisions.” The book uses the architecture of the Pixar office as one example of to bake the principle of motion into a company’s fabric. Core services like food, recreation and restrooms were placed centrally in an atrium that by design caused people from disparate departments to have more chance encounters than they would if each wing of the campus was self-contained.

Parallax

A byproduct of motion is parallax, or the apparent shift of objects relative to a backdrop when you change viewing angle. Astronomers use relative motions of planets and stars against the backdrop of far away galaxies to calculate distances. If you’ve ever dropped a small object on an obnoxious carpet, odds are you used the phenomenon of parallax to find it by shifting your viewing angle until the object stood out against the background. The authors don’t explicitly name this effect in their book but I would say from personal experience it’s every bit as relevant as “creative collisions” in terms of value for unearthing unseen opportunities.

There are immediate opportunities hiding in plain sight now that we never see because they get lost against the noisy wallpaper of daily life. Whether through lethargy or the intentional pursuit of a routine we fall into ruts of routine movement that make us become accustomed to the viewing angles and we lose ability to identify these parallax shifts. Deviating from routine restores some of the parallax shift that allows us to notice things that we never even thought to question.

My biggest parallax experience was the six months I lived in Quito, Ecuador back in ’95. At my age then I just assumed that continuous electrical power was something everyone in 1995 had. Not so. During that time they were conducting power rationing across the city such that throughout the week there would be eight hour blocks where the power just shut off. I thought I knew what a family was and understood how it operates only to learn they do it very differently down there (children stay in the house much longer, many times to the age at which they end up taking care of their folks and never leave). Drinking water out of the tap? Yep, learned that one the hard way. I assumed the worst case scenario of government corruption was palm greasing with a shady lobbyist. Not so. The second day I was there the vice president of the country fled with six million dollars. I knew America’s entertainment industry had worldwide fans but never would I have expected how thoroughly star-crazed a 2-million-person city could be over Bon Jovi. I learned that there’s a whole population of people who eat KFC with plastic gloves and do 1000 other little idiosyncratic things differently than us. But most importantly for the first time I vividly saw class distinctions and what it means to be extraordinarily wealthy and unimaginably poor. Before that class distinctions were an academic concepts in school and occasionally images on a TV but now they were the people sitting next to me on the bus.

My point of parallax is that independent of the value motion provides in creating “chance collisions” it has other added benefits that enable people to see the world differently and therefore gain unique invaluable perspective. This leads to another byproduct of motion which is revealing occluded objects. I’ll discuss that one tomorrow. For now change your tune: The Lumineers – Ho Hey

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Nov 16

This is a random observation while listening to some on a pair of good headphones:

We like to in hindsight attribute the success of disruptive products to practicality when in truth these products succeeded because they elicited some previously-impossible emotional experience in their user.

Here’s the crux of the epiphany: When I was eight I got one of the very first Sony Walkman’s (this is the closest pic I could find but I swear mine was even more old school). I had a bunch of teeth pulled right when this miraculous device debuted and my parents figured it would a good distraction to fill my head with music during the recovery period. This turned out to be a genius move on their part and worked really well. In spite of having awful pain from every corner of my mouth, this new incredible way to experience music trumped everything and transported me beyond the pain. Now here’s why this is relevant:

Clayton Christensen (and by proxy many others) have cited the Sony Walkman in their explanations of disruption usually saying something to this effect: “The Walkman achieved disruption because it enabled young people to listen to music out of earshot of their parents for the first time.” This is a functional/practical motivation (ie. listening privacy, facilitated quiet rebellion) and while it may partially account for its success, I would submit that there was a more fundamental emotional-based motivation: “it enabled for the first time the undeniably cool & irreproducible experience to have music originate from between one’s ears.” This is akin to experiencing dry ice, static electricity or pop rocks for the first time- it’s just freakin’ cool!

No doubt practical motivations overtake the cool factor at some point and most disruptive products with any longevity can’t subsist indefinitely on coolness alone. But in the vast majority of past product success analysis from today’s vantage point, the coolness factor gets way undervalued. The ubiquity of white earbuds now makes it difficult for us to imagine thirty years back to a time when experiencing music that originated between your ears instead of from external speakers was as untangible as anti-matter & black holes are to us today.

Anyways, there’s no call-to-action here other than to observe that our “coolness bar” is perpetually raised higher each year and it’s impossible to see those case study products via the same lens of wonderment we would have had at the time they presented. I don’t dispute Christensen’s ideas on disruption re: underserved markets, competing against non-consumption, etc. but I think we need as entrepreneurs to acknowledge the role of a more parsimonious “I just gotta have the music inside my head!” motivation in explaining the success of a product like the Walkman.

No doubt when Apple someday develops the ability to deliver any smell on demand via the appstore, we’ll all run out and purchase an iSniff because “I gotta have any smell on demand!” And years afterwards the business historians will all concoct elaborate theories about the runaway success of this product explaining how we were economically-motivated and seeking to reduce trips to flower stores.

Oct 04

Ok here’s a plea for any developer who knows how to write browser extensions to write one that lets me do basic spreadsheet operations right in the web page. I would pay $20 for this add-on in its most basic buggy incarnation and up to $50-75 for a pro edition depending on how well it worked. Here’s the issue:

It’s too cumbersome to ask simple questions and do basic data wrangling of tabular numbered data in web pages.

I play with data probably five times a day via various web sites (sometimes our own, sometimes ones in the wild). Here’s a practical example from right now- we’re running some email campaigns for and I get this report:

Which is just a set of numbers and has no meaning until you can see relative %’s and how campaigns compare across iterations. I would like to be able to quickly calculate the open rate, CTR and bounce rates of each of these five campaigns. And then get average totaled across all mailings.

Now sometimes you luck out and can copy/paste the table into Excel or Numbers and do basic summing / averaging / math ops there. But it’s a crapshoot – half the time it pastes the entire table into a single column which makes it useless. You wind up w/ this:

(sorry if you haven’t seen this Spinal Tap scene that bread reference will make no sense at all).

Pasting to a desktop app makes you leave the browser and adds just enough friction to the process to where you might not ask a question of the data that you would have otherwise. Google Docs is getting us closer and their copy/paste tends to work better, but that too is still an extra step and cumbersome & flakey. The other alternative on small datasets like this is to Command-Space to open Spotlight and manually run some calculations there typing in the numbers. But alas that sucks as well.

What would be truly spectacular is a FF or Chrome extension that gave me this right in the context of the web page:

aaaand… boom:

Select. Click. Done. Two motions to get immediate insight into tabular data on web pages. Like I said, I’d pay $20 no question for the basic version and if you start adding spiffy extra spreadsheet functionality, that number goes up to $50 and beyond very quickly. This is a valuable/painful enough situation where it would be pretty easy to make me happy even with a crappy extension.

So my question is “would you pay for such an extension?” Heck, I’ll setup a Pledgebank and hire a programmer to create this if enough people want it. I think it could do miracles for startup founders in terms of wiping out the friction associated with casually asking questions of data in web pages. My hunch is some developer could give away the very most basic version and charge a grip for the professional edition similar to how iMacros has done it. Leave a comment or a tweetback if this is something you’d use.

Jun 04

I had a bit of an “ah-hah” moment this past Thursday evening at the Phoenix Ableton Usergroup (a free monthly group I organize for musicians who use this piece of software). Here’s the gist of what changed in my thinking: prior to Thursday if you would have asked me “what makes a great integrated development environment?” I would have said:

The toolset allows you to manifest what’s in your head with the least friction and most fidelity.

Post Thursday night, here’s my new opinion:

A tool whose design is so inevitable, irreverent, spartan or unique that the tool itself inspires creative ideas that weren’t there before its use.

Pat Metheny Pikasso 42-string guitarA friend of mine Brandon conducted an experiment called awhile back called “month of music” where he forced himself to author a new piece of original music every day for a month using new and different instruments. He found that the introduction of new and unfamiliar tools generated musical ideas which hadn’t existed before.

Ableton is a piece of music recording software that has (for the past four months since I began using it) continued to blow my mind at each turn with untold possibilities. It’s admittedly one of the most daunting interfaces I’ve ever had to learn and reminiscent of 3D Studio Max in its complexity. But it’s one of those rare software programs that comes along, shatters the traditional paradigm and opens up a world of possibility that sends your mind reeling with ideas. For me it’s been a “Don’t know what you don’t know” advancement – the equivalent of taking off a pair of dirty sunglasses you didn’t even realize you were wearing.

If you’re a musician and have plateaued with your musical inspiration via your current multi-track DAW recording software, check out Ableton Live. The learning curve is going to feel like standing at the base of El Capitan looking up so you’ll ideally want a trainer, a user group or a bunch of time to dedicate to watching the various Youtube video tutorials out there. But once you can get over the “suck threshold” with it, it’s amazing.

I’ll write more on Ableton specifically as I become more advanced with it but think about whatever tools you’re using now and how you might shake loose some new creative inspiration by going out of your way to do things using a decidedly unfamiliar instrument.

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Feb 16

Let me explain this convoluted title. Ignite Phoenix #9 was this past Saturday and it frigging ruled. I just happened to run into the entire Ignite organizing crew at a coffee shop in Scottsdale that actually came about via a talk at the first ever Ignite. Oh and there happened to be one of the Ignite presenters here that I got to randomly chatting with so it was basically a lot of ignition going on.

Anyways the event on Saturday was flawless in every respect (mad props to the organizing committee for continuing to improve on something that was already amazing – I’ve been to 8/9 and they’ve gotten progressively better). My only ounce of negative feedback for Jeff and team was that one of the talks was clearly just a pitch for this lady’s barter business. And hey I get it: you get a captive audience of 800 people and the temptation is to pitch your biz and advance your cause. I understand, but it makes the audience roll their eyes and basically ends up being a buzzkill.

So anyways, here’s a suggestion I want to propose: we need the equivalent of a super-budget, anonymous jury system to shame people out of trying this at future events. And now here’s an even wackier proposal for what that might look like:

What if every member of the audience got a snapple cap upon coming through the door and the moderator explained the protocol that if presenters pull shenanigans and start Amwaying the crowd, the audience is to “cap their ass” with a collective gong of popping their Snapple caps to make that annoying clicking sound?

If you know you’re going to be publicly shamed on stage when you willingly violate the presentation guidelines and slang your own stuff, you’ll either a) steer clear of this practice or b) violate it and provide some serious amusement for the audience. Either way- WIN!

Anyways, I leave this suggestion in Jeff’s capable hands and will pledge to buy a few cases of Snapple to arm the audience if they decide to adopt it. Even if they just gave the front row this duty I think it would work (but it’d be way more impressive to see 800 people capping a presenter that did this). If you’re down with this idea or have feedback on how to improve it, chime in with a comment.

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Oct 27

The title is a reference to the final scene of one of the radest 80’s movies ever: “Back to the Future.” I remember walking out of that theater as a kid hopped up on red vines, Huey Lewis, the prospect of time travel, and all the possibility that a flying delorean represented. It seemed like anything was possible.

I have a similar optimism today with this swirling curling storm of a revolution that’s promising to change how products will be test marketed, built and delivered. I predict this fundamental change is going to do for product development and business model generation what test-driven development did for software dev. And it’s pretty freakin’ exciting to be swimming in this stew of startup activity while this storm is developing. To explain the essence of this mentality let me first tell a story that will reveal a double entendre in this post’s title:

I don’t have the original source on this anecdote but supposedly at a California college (Cal Poly?) they were redesigning the campus and trying to figure out where to build the new sidewalks. It was a complex arrangement of buildings and there were a bunch of conflicting opinions about where the sidewalks belonged. Someone had the ingenious idea that rather than speculating, they should instead run an experiment and let the market speak. So they planted grass the first year and waited. At the end of the year they took an aerial photo and the tread-worn ground became the blueprint for the optimal sidewalk routes as chosen perfectly and implicitly by the student body.

So what does this have to do with startups?

I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing some major changes in how products are brought to market. If you follow the Lean Startup, Four Steps to the Epiphany, Customer Development movements then you have the core philosophy already. But what’s interesting is the emergence of tools that allow you to apply these concepts very rapidly on a large and targeted scale via online experiments. We in the tech industry no longer have to build and tear up sidewalks – we can just plant grass first. Rather than explain the techniques for “virtual grass planting,” I figure it will be easier to simply publish the data and methods for experiments I’m conducting now with a local Phoenix startup that I advise. Here’s the gist of it though:

You can think of this mentality like test-driven development for business.

Test-driven development (TDD) is a methodology for creating software where you seemingly put the cart before the horse and write the tests up front. You then go back and do the necessary coding to satisfy the tests. Once the code meets the test, then (and only then) do you go back and fine-tune, refactor and optimize things. Having been a confessed “cowboy coder” back in the day this style of development sounded completely absurd until I saw it in practice at the San Diego Java User Group. Writing the tests first forces you to think differently by getting consensus on the destination and then worrying about the implementation details of how you get there after the fact. In the same way it’s now possible with all these tools to front-load much of the learning about product-market fit, price elasticity & messaging before you ever actually do an ounce of engineering. It’s all about systematically removing uncertainty and converting unknowns to knowns before charging ahead with the concrete.

Anyways, I don’t mean to leave anyone with startup blue balls but we’re not quite ready at this point to open source our experiments. This is an exciting time to be in this space though. To get a good flavor for this type of thinking check out Kent Beck’s talk from the Startup Lessons Learned conference on the logical extension of Agile development to business. And if you’re new here sub the RSS of this feed or this Twitter account to follow along on how we’re validating and iterating at 88mph and 1.21 gigawatts.

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