Sunday, January 31, 2010

The iPad and a dwindling offline escape

Last week, I, like everyone else, was anxious to see what the Apple iPad was going to be like. I monitored the "live-blogging" on the day Steve Jobs took the stage to see the features and form factor it would have and how much it was going to cost. I suspect sooner or later I'll buy one.

Most criticism I saw after the announcement came from developers about the continued closed nature of the platform. The iPad, like the iPhone is (legally) immune from hacking and customization. You can write applications for it, but Apple has to approve them which sucks for many people who are used to being able to iterate at will on their web apps. Others complained that the iPad was just an oversized iPhone and didn't offer anything revolutionary except a bigger screen.

I appreciate both these arguments, but admittedly, I just like things to work, and if they do what I want them to do and provide me value in some way, I perhaps selfishly tend to not have the capacity to get amped up as an active soldier in the religious wars.

But as I pondered what the impact of the iPad and other devices would be beyond the developer community, I was surprised to feel a sense of sadness. Not because of what will surely be the continued bloodletting of "old world" industries -- a lack of adaptation in business always means that bleeding will be fatal -- but instead for what the iPad will mean for my own lifestyle: the continued march of being online and accessible even more, which is not a good thing.

A new year's resolution I've had for several years is what's called in corporate HR circles a better "work/life balance." For me, trying to meet this resolution usually means spending more time reading for pleasure. For example, I've been on a mission lately to read all the classics that should have been included in my High School English curriculum, but weren't. (I just finished Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, for example - a great book.) I also spend a lot of time in cafes, not only just to work, but to also occasionally pick up a New York Times and a tea or read my book for an hour as a break.

With these different forms of pleasure reading, the transition from online to offline for an hour or two is an easy one because my laptop today still feels like a productivity tool. I shut it and immediately I'm fully immersed in the physical world around me. The people in the cafe, the book I brought, the music we're all enjoying at the same time. Sure I do a lot of casual reading on my laptop, but if I want to escape a glowing screen in front of me, I can.

But with the iPad, which is specifically designed as a leisure device to consume what I now mostly read in physical form, my ability to truly be offline and only connected with the physical environment around me will slowly continue to deteriorate.

Offline pleasures and voluntary isolation are conflicting with convenience, efficiency, and scale.

I think this same clash is why I've felt trepidation about the proliferation of wi-fi access on airplanes. I'm sure it will feel novel to be instant messaging at 35,000 feet, but it's oh so nice for just a few hours to be disconnected. I can read, think, work, or sleep and know even if I wanted to, I cannot be accessible. Everyone else accepts it as a valid excuse as well. There are no expectations of me for those precious few hours.

In contrast, I picture my world in a year or two where my reading escape of newspapers and magazines is now on my iPad, conveniently equipped with wi-fi and a 3G data plan. Indeed the iPad is a form factor that can closely match the venerable book or magazine, but one that still has silent vibrations and little red counters slowly adding up just a couple fingerprints away, vying for my attention.

Forget work/life balance, I just want a little segregation.

I've never been a luddite about technology's progress and may change my mind about the pending evolution to our world of physically available newspapers, magazines, and books. For now though, I'll be appreciating just a little more my time on the couch with a closed laptop upstairs and a blissfully offline New Yorker in my hands downstairs.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A couple more unique business cards

Business cards are usually a waste of paper. That's why it's amazing when someone creates one that you actually keep around and pull out just to tell others about.

Recently I met Ryan Graves who's doing some cool stuff. The guy definitely knows how to take a "baby step" into working in the world of small businesses and startups. He's working with Foursquare helping them in all sorts of ways: customer development, sales, and now putting together a street team. The thing is he works for GE still full time. The business card that he handed to me stood out too. It said:

"This card confirms that we've met in person and that you thoroughly enjoyed the experience".


Here's another one that stood out recently. Javan introduced us to this blog: Sweet Juniper!. According to their about page it's "a blog. We are just two more yuppies raising their kids in the most dangerous city in America." And the writer has an image of his business card:

Nothing monumental here, but a couple people making an impression doing just a little something different with the usually forgettable tradition of giving someone a business card.

Making a collective intelligence tool more intelligent

Thousands of questions have been asked across all the Inkling marketplaces we run. Not surprisingly, we've seen some strong correlations between the words people use and the type of question they're asking. So now we've added a little intelligence to the "ask your own question process" to hopefully save people some time and make the process even more automated.

Here's what the "ask a question" screen looks like before I've entered anything:

Let's say I want to ask a question about who is going to win the Super Bowl. So I start typing "Will the Indianapolis...":

You can see that Inkling knows that the answer to my question is going to be yes or no, so it automatically chooses that question type. But if I start typing "Who will win..." Inkling knows that I'm going to need multiple possible answers to that question, so it chooses that question type instead:

And if I want to ask abut something that's going to happen during the game, I may start typing "When..." and Inkling knows I'm asking about a date:

Notice of course that if we get it wrong, there's always the ability to choose from among the other question types.

We still believe it's incredibly important to disseminate the ability to ask questions in the marketplace and allow participants to ask their own. This is just another way we're trying to make it easier for them so they don't have to worry about how things work behind the scenes. This automation also makes it easier on administrators because they're far less likely to get questions that have been constructed erroneously.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The War of Art and My Meat Couch

"Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all it is to offer encouragement"

- Steven Pressfield in the War of Art

Here are two works of art I'm sure to most of will sound disgusting or baffling or insane or silly.

  1. A couch made of meat.
  2. The artist was eating felt suits because she was becoming a moth.

What's crazy though is that out of all the art I've seen in my life, which is probably an amount that is above average, these are the 2 pieces of art I've talked about the most.

The most? I can't remember the last time I actually shared my feelings on a Van Gogh with a friend or acquaintance. But I've been sharing a bit of the experience in seeing these very odd works of art with friends, acquaintances and strangers for the last 10 years.

The artist is Jana Sterbak. The name of her collection stuck in my head too: Metamorphosis. Here's a bit about her moth stuff and eating suits. And her meat stuff.

10 years ago when I saw this at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and until pretty recently I was loudly critical over it. This isn't "art". This is stupid. This is skill less or talentless?

But now, much more recently, I realize that even though I might not have understood it at the time, this art made some crazy impact. Maybe if only that I still remember it. Maybe if only that it was different enough to stand out among all the other pretty "normal" art.

Or maybe because it taught me a lesson that I need to be more accepting of other people's explorations of something different. Or maybe I need to be more exploratory and experimental myself in how I create things.

After all Van Gogh is awesome. But it's never had the impact on me of encouraging experimentation like Jana has.

So I'll end with this. A web comic. :) I just recently (last weekend) started taking a crack at doing some vector drawing on a computer. I have very little skill right now. But forever I've wanted to add imagery that comes from my own brain to accent the other stuff I create. The websites. The blog posts. The businesses.

A few people I've shown it to liked it. And a bunch of other folks were a tad on the other extreme :) My favorite so far was this:

"Either this borders on retardation or Its going over my head" - Robert

So here is episode 1.

If you feel like it, let me know if it's useful at all to you. I hope, maybe one day I can make a meat couch for Robert.


Steven Pressfield wrote a great book called the War of Art, which I'm in the middle of. The only reason I'm reading it, is because Merlin Mann brought him up while interviewing Seth Godin about his new book Linchpin. Merlin Mann hadn't read Linchpin yet and didn't realize Seth Godin coincidentally takes a great deal of inspiration from Steven and has a bunch of mentions in his book. Merlin's interview is worth a listen.

So I thought I'd take a gander at this seminal book for Merlin and Seth, before I read Linchpin. Seth, I promise, Linchpin is next!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Walk around

"...'Late Night With Conan O'Brien,' an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program and airing at 12:35 each weeknight on NBC...he's the host who should never have come...clearly he should be the head writer of the show, not the star...O'Brien is a kind of walking shambles all by himself"

- Tom Shales, well read TV critic in the Washington post, in 1993 after Conan's first show

The path to doing something great is going to be littered with people who don't like what you do. You're going to have to walk around them.


Found a bit more about Conan and his first critics during his 2000 Harvard commencement speech.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spam your bosses

I have a friend that works at a pretty large company that has a very strict atmosphere: tie at work, no lunch at his desk, monitored personal phone call use, etc. It's the kind of atmosphere that tends to strangle your soul and personality.

Recently though he's made an important discovery.

When he opens his mouth and voices his opinion, people listen, things get done better, and his bosses appreciate it. Now they keep giving him promotions and raises. It wasn’t always that way for him. He was stuck a bit before he found that he wouldn’t get in trouble for being more vocal or having educated opinions different from those around him.

I used to be completely stuck at work too.

When I got out of college, I went to work in information technology consulting as a "process" analyst. All that meant was I had to do non-technical things as it relates to technology. Like: gather requirements, form testing plans. This was very much not what I wanted to do.

I wanted to develop. I wanted to build useable and useful things. Not create documents and meetings.

But I was a chemical engineer in school. I didn't have the skills yet.

So I worked my ass off in my off hours developing things and trying out new projects. I had dialup at home, so I remember downloading floppy after floppy after floppy of the Java SDK to take home with me to install and learn on my home PC.

But it wasn't enough. No one really cared.

Things changed though when I just stopped caring what would happen to me at work for sharing my opinion.

My head was filled with ideas for projects maybe my company could be working on. Some of them were pretty out there. I had no idea if we had the resources to work on them, but they sounded promising. I always backed them up with a bit of market research and competitive analysis.

So these weren’t just ideas for "we need straws in the office kitchen" kind of thing.

Then I started looking in our enormous company directory. Who were the executives and partners who might care about some of these ideas?

Then I just started emailing them. I emailed dozens of them. "Hello, I saw you are head of such and such. I'm a new analyst and had this idea yada yada yada. People spent $X on this last year, and we could built ABC for our clients to accomplish XYZ."

Just like my friend above. I never got in trouble for this. Never. Some people ignored them. But more often I got replies and phones calls. Those replies led to someone talking to my current boss. They wanted to channel this. Not fire me.

I finally ended up getting a transfer to where I wanted to be. I was removed from "process" and put in the research and development group, a group responsible for shaping business decisions using new technologies. It wasn’t all roses over there :) but it was a HUGE step in getting out of a bad situation. One that was achievable because I stopped caring that other people might hate my ideas and opinions.

This technique has followed me to where I am now. But there’s definitely a pressure to stop putting myself out there. There’s "more" on the line. There’s more people who could be offended. But I realize, great things happen when you can push those worries aside.

Some recent examples of doing this today at Inkling. I've emailed Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Marc Benioff, Mark Cuban. And wouldn't you know, we've gotten meetings with Starbucks, Salesforce, a 6 note email exchange with Cuban. Not everything ends up in some kind of deal, but it's knowledge that's very helpful for us. And yep, sometimes it ends up in deal.

There's a wrong way to do this. I'm not encouraging being the sales guy I have calling and emailing me every single day right now from this company whose trial software I just signed up for. And the CEO of your 10,000 person company may not be the right person to send your idea on lunch and learns to. But you might be surprised at how receptive the 10 people you met with this morning might be. Or your boss. Or your bosses boss.

Give up the fear of what sharing your opinion is going to do. You'll be surprised where it can get you.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Why not accomplish tiny little versions of your long term goal today instead of waiting for a miracle to occur tomorrow?

Too often people get mired in the details of doing something big. They want to do what they love, like baking. But opening up a pastry shop consists of countless steps, $100,000 of capital, buying or leasing property, renovations, ovens, and on and on.

I bet for most examples of what people want to do there are tiny little versions of your long term goal that are far more achievable today than trying to achieve the entire goal tomorrow.

I love examples of people doing small things well before they try and do enormous things. I brought up the example of Dale from Top Chef 3 a couple weeks ago who fits the bill. He really wants a 200 seat restaurant in downtown Chicago, but until then he's running an awesome 35 seat restaurant not in downtown Chicago, and it's kicking ass. One step onto something bigger.

Here's a few other examples that stood out recently.

1. Stephanie Izzard. Another Top Chef contestant. She came in first place and wanted to open a restaurant. Luckily for her a restaurant is coming together. But instead of waiting and treading water until it's done, she's doing something called The Wandering Goat.

She just hosts a dinner party at someone else's place like someone's backyard. She's definitely doing this to market herself and her upcoming restaurant. But this is a great example of doing something smaller and easier as a chef than opening up an entire restaurant.

2. Looking at Stephanie then, maybe there is someone taking advantage of being a wandering chef even more full time?

Yep, these guys: The Ghetto Gourmet. They put on backyard/warehouse dinner experiences. And just wander around from place to place. They get do what they love and cook without the huge steps and stress of starting their own restaurant.

3. Any kind of business that requires property is going to require a big step.

Stephanie and her husband have been doing art for years. They really want to open up their own art studio. But that's just a dream right now that's going to require a ton of capital, resources, and risk. So until they can accomplish the audacious goal, they do a wandering art school.

Bottles and Brushes.

They come to you or host an event at another art studio or even a bar. They bring all the supplies and an artist and basically provide a quick and dirty art school.

This sounded so cool, we did it ourselves and just had Stephanie and one of her artists Betty Brown at our place this weekend. It was awesome. If you're in Chicago and looking for a bit of a different party to throw or event to attend check it out. It's even got a few of our party attendees resurrecting their old painting or drawing hobby. It's definitely inspired some creativity.

Most of us have some pretty fantastic dreams and goals. Some of them are so fantastic that it freezes us because they look and are just too big to accomplish in one step. Take some time and figure out a baby step you could take today to do what you want to do. They'll eventually get you to where you want to go.


Thought Conan's final Tonight show remarks were fitting here too.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"What do you think about my idea?"

Who cares what I think.

Here's a common scenario. Someone tells a bunch of people at work or on the internet or wherever: Here's my idea, what do you think?

The odds I can pick out a winner business or project from what you just described is close to 0. You think I would have said "yeah an iPhone application that makes fart noises is going to sell real well"? No friggin way.

People giving their elevator pitch reminds me of the problem tappers have.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: "tappers" or "listeners." Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as "Happy Birthday to You" and "The StarSpangled Banner." Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table).

The listener's job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there's a good "listener" candidate nearby.) The listener's job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton's experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here's what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2.

- Found in Made to Stick

We are overconfident when we think people should understand our ideas when we are "tapping" them out at work or on the internet. And then we take their feedback to heart? Problem is the listener rarely hears or sees exactly what we are talking about.

Ignore what everyone else says. Use it maybe as some feedback that you might not be explaining how awesome whatever you are making is, and you need to teach them better.

People have to get better at looking inside themselves. Would you pay for what you are making? Do you want or need a solution to whatever problem you have so bad, that you'd be willing to use a completely terrible solution to your problem?

For example, could you cobble some stuff together to give you a crappy version of your idea. Hard code some things, use manual data entry, hand draw some graphics. Do whatever it takes to get something that applies to your problem done today. Even if it only works for you and no one else.

Now, use that for a couple weeks. After a bit you should have a good feeling of whether or not you love this crappy prototype. If you keep going back to it because it's so useful, than you have something great on your hands you should go back and complete.

Just a couple examples of seeing this in my life. I've seen Zach Kaplan over at Inventables putting Wufoo forms together to prototype an application he thought might be handy. Perfect example of using tools that already exist for the job. Of course it didn't have logins or user management or whathever whiz bang feature you think everyone else is going to need. But he at least got to see if it was something he could use with some frequency.

At Inkling we were pondering a project to do with an integrated search. Did I code up some webcrawler fancy index mechanism? Nope. I hardcoded some iframes pointing to some places that already had search pages so I could see all the results on one page. Did you have to login to each iframe? Yep. :) Could you slap a price tag on this? No way. But we could use it very quickly to see if we kept coming back to it.

Figure out a baby step you can do today to solve your problem. The crappiest, quickest, dirtiest way to meet the need you have. Everyone is sweating this product + market fit stuff. Forget the market. Figure out the product + you fit. You aren't so much different than thousands of other people out there. If you find you want to use your own product constantly, you'll have something awesome. Then start worrying about making other people awesome.


A bit of a cross post from an answer I gave to someone's what do you think post.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Decisions are too often made in secret because decision makers are afraid of getting caught not knowing what's going on.

"It took me 4 years before my blog paid off. You can't just sprinkle these things on top or you have a meatball sundae" - paraphrased from a talk by Seth Godin at The Business of Software 2008 conference.

A meatball sundae is this disgusting mix of two good things. Meatballs + sundae toppings.

Seth's meatball sundae is usually a metaphor he uses to talk about how marketing has changed but often the underlying business that wants to use that marketing has not.

It's also a great reminder why Enterprise 2.0 (or probably just better called collaboration) is a bit of a meatball sundae for too many companies.

I hate that word, Enterprise 2.0. It's abstract, means nothing for the people that really need to know what it means the most, and is yet another meaningless version number.

I believe that for many companies and many project teams, big and small, collaboration tastes a lot like Seth Godin's meatball sundae.

Take the smart employees and managers who bleed loyalty for their company but still work in an old guard way of management; sprinkle wikis or blogs or prediction markets or Basecamp on top. And you've got a great environment where collaboration and decision making is going to taste terrible.

"Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships." - The Cluetrain Manifesto

This very much includes company leaders and their employees. Cluetrain still reads as true today as it did in 1999. Again another reason I dislike 2.0. This change of "social media" was being observed back in 1999 with no mention of a version number.

But at far too many places we still find structures of command and control. Employees treated like machinery. And there are tons of secret meetings behind closed doors where decisions are made by only a few people and then expected to be carried out in a vacuum. Yet, these same places want their employees to act like business owners. But business owners who have zero input in making decisions?

We know it's difficult to change this. We've spent many years in this same environment. We know some fundamental changes need to be made that have nothing to do with buying another tool. Take Microsoft Sharepoint for example.

Microsoft Sharepoint has been around since about 2001. Conceptually it's pretty easy to understand. It's software to help share things like conversations and documents with teams in a very web like way. Instead of all this stuff stuck in email, it's shared in Sharepoint. In a nutshell Sharepoint is a wiki. It's a lot more. But a wiki sums it up for a lot of people.

But we are finding companies who just now are reaping the benefits of Sharepoint. This is 10+ years after Cluetrain, 9+ years after Sharepoint 1.0 and just now some very important companies are getting that using the web to connect their employees better has great rewards. And even some of those Sharepoint projects take over almost 2 years of having the tool for people to start getting it.

My point is, it's going to take some patience. It's also going to take a lot more than a budget for new tools. At many places it's going to take some rebel managers to open up and ask their employees "Hey, we can't always predict the right decisions to make, what do you guys think we should do?". Let go of the secrecy. Let go of the fear that employees will riot when they realize you don't have all the answers. They'll figure it out eventually :)


If you have 45 minutes to watch or listen Seth's exceptional talk, here's the link to his presentation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Complaining is like a drug. We get addicted to the euphoria of self importance, but inevitably it leaves us unfulfilled.

At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru (who aren't necessarily bad, but all too often fit a stereotype of someone selling snake oil) I thought I'd share a story.

I didn't used to spend a lot of time thinking about positive thinking. But one day during the lunch break of the very first Y Combinator Startup School I went to visit the Harvard Book Store. I just randomly picked up a book I saw there The Attractor Factor by Joe Vitale.

The act of buying and reading this book overnight that night in Boston was actually the most poignant thing that happened to me at Startup School. No disservice to Y Combinator or Steve Wozniak :), Startup School was great. But my attitude about achieving my goals changed considerably after reading that book 4.5 years ago. And I went on to apply for Y Combinator, start a business we've been running ever since, and achieving almost every bullet point of a goal I wrote down back then.

Again, I need to interject. I am not whole heartedly endorsing this book. There's probably some better versions of this type of thinking that aren't trying to backdoor sell you some other goods. I also don't subscribe to the thoughts that some magical mojo power of the universe thing is going on. Or that it's only our fault when bad things happen to us.

I just fell in love with the premise of ending the habit we all have of bitching, and visualizing goals like they've already been accomplished.

I look at super star athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Both these guys have expressed how important visualization is to their games. I also look at how the placebo effect of medication is actually increasing today.

So I'm super interested in what the difference might be like if my mind is more positive about the things it's involved with.

My boiled down non-secret of the universe version of this stuff is basically:

- Stop complaining, you're wasting your breath and your time.

- Instead of keeping all your ideas in some vague space in your head, write them down.

- Now dream a bit larger and stretch those goals. Make them more audacious.

- Proceed to write a story or visualize it in your head, what you'd be like or feel like with those goals already accomplished and behind you.

- Then, let go of the goals. Realize that the goals could change. Your intent is to hope for these things or something better. It's impossible to know how life is paved in front of you. Accept that you can achieve these things or something better.

- Final step is to write down some things you can do today to get started on your goals. Baby steps.

I proceeded to work on this stuff immediately. I found it pretty tough to change my behavior of complaining and vague goal planning. But I liked the results of what I started back then.

The reason I bring this up is because for some reason it's so difficult to keep at this behavior. I look over that list from 4.5 years ago and I achieved so much of it. But there's still some things I wanted to get done, and a lot more new things to add.

But it's 4.5 years later and I've totally given up on all the steps above.

Not sure why, they seemed to work.

One reason is I (like most people) really enjoy complaining. It makes us feel more important. But like a drug, the high wears off and we are left with nothing truly accomplished. We also are afraid of making our goals less vague. If they remain vague and cloudy, then we can't really fail at them, can we?

This year, I'm back on the path described above. Back to nixing this habit of complaining. Back to visualizing some future awesome accomplishments behind me. So far so good, and I'm happy again with the results.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Can't start a business only eating a Tombstone pizza every day

"Dreams are always a work in progress." - Dale Levitski, almost winner of Top Chef Season 3

I love following examples of people doing things small. Taking baby steps to get somewhere. All of us seem to have a crazy impatience inside to accomplish everything right now. We want to pick up a golf club for the first time and be Tiger Woods. We want to open our business and be Steve Jobs tomorrow.

This impatience unfortunately makes many of us just give up on the challenge. The climb just looks too daunting. And if anything gets in our way, we can't deal with it and we cave.

I know how that impatience feels. I had it when we started Inkling. We started with just 18k from Y Combinator over 4 years ago that dried up on paying rent for 3 months. It's real easy to give up at that point. Real easy to give up when a few deals go south or take a lot longer to accomplish than planned. But we've persisted and now run a profitable business that feels pretty great to run every single day.

Here's an example of just giving up. Thankfully though he picked himself up again.

Dale Levitski lives a block from me. I see him constantly. He was cooking at this lounge on Thursdays that my wife and I would go to. We went there 5 or 6 times, and it was delicious.

I started a conversation with him at that lounge so now I can say hi to him on the street and he comes over and just chats with me. :)

We always found it confusing though. He was a tremendous chef. We loved his food. But he only cooked this one night a week, and bartended on another night. What's his story? Why isn't he running some crazy restaurant?

Dale almost won Top Chef. Came in second. But second means very little. He had some idea in his head to open a 200 person restaurant in downtown Chicago called Town and Country. And he needed 4 million dollars to do it. He was going to use the Top Chef winnings of $100,000 as a stepping stone to get there.

Problem is he lost Top Chef, and never could get his 4 million.

So he gave up. Sat in an apartment he couldn't pay for. Ate a Tombstone pizza every day and gained 30 pounds.

Unfortunately it took his mom dying to realize he needed to get off his ass and keep trying.

Through some renewed persistence he got "lucky". He didn't just get lucky sitting around drinking, not answering his phone and being lazy. He got lucky AFTER he started persisting again. People look lucky, but often it's a result of their persistence putting themselves out there in the world. Their idea. Their name. Their hustle.

Today Dale is now the executive chef of a restaurant in Chicago called Sprout. It's just 35 seats. It's not the empire he had in his mind he wanted tomorrow. But it's a start. It's a baby step in the right direction. And a 5 star rating on Yelp isn't a bad baby step at that.


Time to read more about Dale? Here's a couple other great articles on his efforts. Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Tribune.

Fan Mail

Commenting on our weekly activity report that went out yesterday for our public marketplace, a user wrote:

I love Inkling. You read all about predictions for sports, politics, business, celebrities, technology ... and then you get markets like "Will patent applicants be required to explain the materiality of submitted prior art before the end of 2009?" and "Will I get out of this parking ticket?" Rock on.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Are employee reviews a waste of time?

"Performance reviews are fundamentally broken. Managers hate them and fear them and resent the drain on their time. Employees often leave reviews demotivated, cynical and with no clear idea of how well they’re doing and how to improve." - Alexander Kjerulf, Chief Happiness Officer

I know as both a manager and a employee I hated employee reviews. At 99% of the places I've worked and have friends working, these all look the same. They happen once or twice a year and are such a pain for managers to accomplish, and as employees, they make a lot of people nervous and often upset.

I also know too many of these reviews contain surprises. It's a surprise to find out what you're "rated". Or it's a surprise to find out that they didn't like your work on such and such. I could go weeks or months between speaking to the person giving me my review.

And this is coming from someone who did very well in these reviews.

At Inkling we are a small company so we have the luxury of being able to say forget about employee reviews. We hopefully give enough feedback to each other on a daily basis that a review would be completely redundant and a waste of time.

I can see in a large organization, like a consulting company where employees change managers frequently, it would be a pain to track the feedback if there were zero of these documented exercises. Maybe then the problem is that these exercises only happen twice a year. Why don't they happen twice a week?

It's kind of like building a product. The best way to build a product is build something quickly and get feedback early and often from people who are going to use that product. You are inviting disaster if you build and build and 12 months later finally show someone something for their review.

Same goes for employees. Why only help them build themselves every 6 or 12 months? Why only help them build you even less than that with their feedback of how you are doing?

And then if you get good about constantly giving and soliciting feedback, then what we really need (if we really need this stuff documented), are better mechanisms to capture the archive of this feedback. Not a 12 month late brain-dump of it. But some kind of summary of all those emails, chat transcripts, and phone calls of this stuff.

A couple thoughts on better archiving feedback would be to use something even like Highrise to track emails and summarize feedback conversations you have with your employees. Or use a note taking catch all like Evernote. If you find yourself forced to summarize all these feedback notes you've taken, one thing that could maybe help with that is Word's AutoSummarize feature, which I haven't used often but seems to do a pretty fair job of pulling out key points.

I don't have a perfect solution for a large business to do feedback better. But I do know most of these feedback reviews are still broken and need fixing. Any effort here would do wonders in improving employee morale, which continues to get beaten down in this economy.

There should be much more focus of providing and getting feedback constantly. If you need the archive, experiment with some ways to find the one that works the best for you so that you're creating accurate summaries that contain zero surprises.


You can read more about Alexander's and Joel Spolsky's take on it here.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Building our next Tower of Babel

"Why someone sometimes has a great deal of difficulty understanding a point which you see as obvious, it maybe because it's a little hard to translate what you just said into his particular framework" - Richard Feynman

Had a funny conversation over the holidays that I'm sure anyone who works inside a corporation can attest to.

A friend, Friend A, was talking about someone who told someone else that they had to put her idea "in the parking lot". I had no idea what this meant. I asked if that was like "putting a pin in it", a phrase I've heard a bunch.

Someone else, Friend B, said "No, its a bit more derogatory. And like saying stop talking about it, it's off topic". Then Friend A said she had never heard of "put a pin in it". And asked what that was.

Friend C who works at the same company as Friend A said "it's an analogy to putting a pin in a grenade. And you use it to mean, let's put a pin in it to stop it from blowing up."

Well, I had to chime in and be like "Uhh, really, I thought it was like put a pin in a pinboard kind of thing. Like 'let's save it for later'". As I've relayed this story I've had other people tell me, yeah I hear that all the time, oh, but I've never heard that one.

Note that all the friends in this conversation have been working in corporate environments for many years. Even at the same places. And they have a language of code words they can't even use amongst themselves with high reliability.

We need to kill the buzzphrases. We are creating our own Tower of Babel. And for what? So we can save a couple words? Or does it make us sound cool?

If you are in a meeting using these buzzphrases, the odds are enormous some people in the room have abolutely no idea what you are talking about. There's also high odds, that someone else thinks they know what you are talking about but don't.

At Inkling, I think we do a pretty good job of just sticking to words that we think we all are going to understand. We recently banned using "FYI" even. FYI is short for "For your information". Imagine someone telling you on the street "For your information: xyz". Sounds insulting in 90% of the cases I imagine in my head. You could get beat up saying something like that. :)

Does FYI make it that much better? Maybe in only in your head it does. But for the people you are sending your FYIs to? These days we might say "heads up". Or just forget this disclaimer all together, because why don't we let the intelligent person on the other end of the note decide if this is something they need to react to or "put a pin in" "or move it to the parking lot" or "find someone with a better wheelhouse than theirs" :) What the frig is a wheelhouse?


If you have some more time to read, here's the video of Richard Feynman explaining a discovery he made in how different people can think about doing the same exact thing.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Ignore Everybody but Take a Shower

"the engineers didn't like Jobs. His unkempt appearance, and his belief that his fruit and yogurt diet meant that he could go without showers, didn't add to his popularity. Jobs's supervisor finally arranged for him to work late at night."

- The Little Kingdom (Michael Moritz on Steve Jobs)

I've recently been on an unintentional kick reading about doing the opposite of everyone else. Or similarly, giving up caring what everyone else is doing or thinking.

A couple recommended books of this genre are Ignore Everybody by Hugh Macleod and Whatever you Think Think the Opposite by Paul Arden.

This is a principle that goes overlooked in quite a few areas of business and personal development.

Look at things like poker, investing, and Aikido (a Japanese martial art form). In these things, people succeed by going against the grain. Doing the opposite of the herd, or their competition. Pulling when someone is pushing. Playing aggressive when people are all being passive.

Doing the opposite of the traditional norm has been a big help for things we've succeeded at with Inkling. Here's a couple quick examples of ours.

When we started Inkling Markets we realized we were creating software that would fall under "enterprise software". One of the odd norms of enterprise software is that most vendors make it very difficult to learn about or try their software on your own without signing up for an immediate bombardment of sales pitches. So we've stuck to making Inkling prediction markets very easy to try and learn about on your own. Someone can ask us for assistance anytime, but it's up to them when they are ready.

This is quite the opposite approach most sales staff take. I was reminded of that especially around the holidays. You go into too many retail stores and someone is nudging up to you as soon as you walk in the door. They'd like to shadow you and your wallet around the entire visit.

I know doing the opposite here at Inkling has made our customers more comfortable and our product easier to learn.

Another example of us doing the opposite is with tgethr, our tool for simple group email communication. If you peruse what the majority is offering for collaboration tools, you see a multitude of Twitter inspirations encouraging tiny snippets of information popping up in real time for tons of people to see - or even watching you type :) We wanted something very much in the other direction. Something that was asynchronous, encouraged more long form writing again, that was totally private and secure, and still used email as it's central medium. Turned out it looks like a bunch of people would agree that's what they still want (evidenced by the recent vote for email as the best collaboration tool from Life Hacker)

A third example of this thinking isn't from us, but from Trevor Squires. In software development, a huge majority is thinking about 2 things: building a new web application or building an iPhone app. Trevor built a desktop application. A desktop application that merely makes someone else's product better. It's not a twitter client either. It's for a web application that pales in comparison to the traffic Twitter gets. It's for Campfire, a business group chat application from 37signals.

I can't say a lot about the monetary "success" Trevor has achieved with this. But I can say he has happy paying clients with us. And I believe even some of the guys at 37signals who built Campfire are using his application as well.

Being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian can be a quick way to being a jerk. And I wouldn't recommend not showering like Steve. But I would recommend questioning what everyone else is doing as a frequent goal and daily mantra in order to increase your creativity and differentiate yourself and your business.