Monday, October 26, 2009

Hire employees to boss you around

"If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Hire people who can not only manage themselves but can even manage you.

You're going to laugh, and I'll probably lose 90% of readers here :) But for full disclosure: I've just now gotten around to reading 7 habits by Stephen Covey. There's actually some good stuff in there. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mission statements, win-win, Synergy! :) yada yada yada.

But I've recently been working on speed reading, and upgraded my reading speed by 3-4X. So now I can pick up books and get a lot more value out of them, because their verbosity and redundancy isn't slowing me down or wasting my time. (I'll share some speed reading tips soon.)

Anyways, Covey has a good bit in there about him teaching his 7 year old son to take care of the lawn. He basically helped show him how and then gave his kid some basic guidelines. Here's part of the conversation with his kid, Covey begins:


"So you boss yourself. Now, guess who your helper is."


"I am," I said. "You boss me."

"I do?"

"That's right. But my time to help is limited. Sometimes I'm away. But when I'm here, you tell me how I can help. I'll do anything you want me to do"


Everyone's trying to figure out how to keep their employees motivated. So many of my friends and family express that the dread in their workplace is palpable. It's the economy, it's the weather, it's something. So I can't help notice the questions folks ask about hiring, or motivating their employees, or how to get them kick started again "to be innovative" :)

I've found the best "motivation" is to treat your employees like the smart adults they are. They become demotivated when they are treated like worker bees. Not every company feels they have the luxury to treat their employees this way, but look at the successes at 3M, Google, Facebook, 37signals, where they give tons of freedom to employees to invent their own projects.

Make sure your employees have some guidelines about where you want to go. Then go ask them what they want to and should work on. Maybe it can't be 100% of the time type of project, but you might be able to give them a good chunk of time to work on it. There's nothing more motivating than when they become their own bosses and start creating or just doing what needs to get done like a human being naturally does.

I make a habit of constantly asking - what do you think we should be working on?, what kind of technologies would you like to be working with?, and then we make an effort to try out those projects. I never had that kind of opportunity in my 7 years of working for other people, and I hated almost every minute of it.

I love it when folks I manage assign me tickets. "I added this feature we were talking about, can you take a look at it to see if it does what it should do?" or "I saw an issue and made the following change... can you double check it before I release it?" or "I'm thinking this new feature might really help people do..." This helps me manage my time by putting these things in the queue by priority and allows employees to move onto the next thing instead of waiting around for feedback.

Let me know what I need to do to help you.

Too many companies just want their employees to work like drones. If you want your employees to feel like drones, just keep feeding them tickets in the ticket system without opportunity for input.

Find people who can boss you around.

"My new Icelandic trainer's rule: what you ask of your horse, YOU must be able to do. I've been riding up hills, fast. I'm toast."

- Kathy Sierra

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Amazing sculpture at PopTech

PopTech doesn't get enough press. Had the pleasure of attending it last year, and there's some awesome things going on there. I didn't get to go again this year. But you can still watch all their talks streamed live.

Here's some video of a gorgeous sculpture Reuben Margolin built that he showed off today.

"It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses."

- Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pay for your own dog food

By now you probably haven't missed someone extoling the virtues of eating your own dog food. Just in case you have, all this means is that you use your own product.

Using your own product comes with a ton of benefits, because you become your own customer. The quality of your product likely increases because you can't ignore it's problems. They aren't just your customers problems. They are your problems.

But I know a ton of people that don't actually pay for their own dog food.

Starting a new product or business can be tough. One of the challenging debates is:

"How much should we charge" or "What should our pricing plans look like"?

Pricing can be a complicated discussion. Especially since you want to make sure you make profit over the costs of running whatever it is your selling.

But the best way to short circuit some of the debate is to simply ask:

What would I pay for this?

At Inkling we don't just ask.

We've gotten in the habit of actually taking out our own credit card and using it on our own account sign up page. Yes, it's a bit silly when the credit card processing takes some money off the top. But it makes the feeling very real that you are paying for this, and now it's an expense just like it's going to be an expense for your clients.

So when we started Tgethr (our simple tool to collaborate with groups over email), I stuck my credit card in to pay for the plan that met our own team's needs. Through doing this, I found I was paying $99 just to support the groups of family and friends and the folks at work with this software.

After a couple months of getting dinged that $100 for my particular situation, it didn't feel right. We were charging too much. So we tweaked the plans to offer more storage, more groups, so that I could move myself to a smaller plan and now start paying $49 a month, which feels much more realistic or fair to me as a customer.

So if you are debating how much you are going to charge for something, I'd start with doing exercises like this. If afterward, you find your pricing + customers don't support your costs, then you are going to have to provide much more value to justify raising prices.

(Part of this is a cross post of an answer I gave at, a new and pretty useful site for startups who want to ask other entrepreneurs questions.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

How successful would a football coach be without ever having played a single game of football?

Not very, right?

And yet constantly, people (a business owner, a manager) try and manage the production of something they have never had an ounce of experience producing themselves.

I get asked a lot by friends without any experience programming: "how do I build this idea for this software application without any experience?" or "how do I find technical employees or co-founders"?

To curtail the objections, I'm not saying a business owner of a software company needs to be a software engineer. I'm not saying a division lead of a consumer products company has to have run the stirring vats making soap.

Look at Mike Tomlin, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl and the current coach of the Steelers. He hasn't played a single game of professional football. But he did play college ball.

I'm saying any experience in the thing you are trying to lead or manage will pay extremely huge dividends.

So if you are a "business guy" and you want to start a business that makes a new iPhone app. It would behoove you to buy the most basic iPhone building tutorial you can and try to at least get past the first chapter.

You don't have to work on the application you intend to build. You don't have to finish the book. You don't have to raise your blood pressure or feel even successful at the tutorial.

Just that smallest iota of that book: downloading some tool, making the iPhone beep or print "hello world", gives you a huge leg up in what you are trying to accomplish.

A great example of this is Adam, one of our founders and CEO. Adam isn't a developer. But he's learned a bit about Ruby, the language Inkling is developed in. It saves him an enormous amount of time when a little thing needs to be tweaked. He can do it himself rather than wait until a developer has the resources available.

Secondly, he has a much better idea of the effort many of the tasks might take that he needs to manage, design for, and communicate to our clients. His effort in experiencing the pain of development has been an investment he's made with a big return.

At Inkling we manage many functions being a small business. We aren't lawyers or PR people or trained marketing people, but we have experience now doing these things for ourselves. So when we do hire the experts to work on these things with us, that experience makes the conversations and projects we manage 100 times better.

The struggle and challenge you go through doing this type of exercise, will change your perspective about the people you want to lead. You'll have much more knowledge and confidence working with the people you now have to hire to actually get the job done well.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Catching the Crazies

My Sister a couple years ago introduced this great phrase to me which I try to use whenever I can. When she thinks I or someone else is being ridiculous she says: "Adam, you've caught the crazies!"

It seems every few months when something unexpected happens, journalists and pundits who monitor prediction markets "catch the crazies."

The latest example is the round of Nobel prizes. Today, Elinor Ostrom from Indiana University and Oliver Williamson from Berekely were awarded the prize in Economics. Conventional wisdom said Williamson was an outside shot and Ostrom wasn't even on anyone's radar screen. On our public marketplace, Williamson consistently had a 3 or 4 percent chance of being the winner. Did this mean Inkling "had it wrong?" No, it meant Williamson was perceived to have an outside shot based on the information available to people interested in these things.

Why is it consistently so surprising then to the media that the prediction market prices reflected this? It's not like they were reporting anything different. Prediction market prices are simply an aggregation of information available to people and their reaction to that information in the form of buying or selling shares. Markets about Nobel prize winners and the like are great fun but with a lack of information available to traders because of the secretive process, they're not going to be very useful.

Contrast this with a question asked internal to a company where a great deal of information is available, the traders are typically influencing the outcome or they know the actors who are, and there is usually historical precedence. That is an appropriate use case for judging prediction markets on their ability to not only match forecasted probabilities with reality, but provide tangible business value in the form of cost savings and risk awareness and avoidance.

The name "prediction market" is one I've never liked because it oozes having "crystal ball" powers which means there is inevitably going to be a backlash by the media and bloggers when public prediction markets fail to look like they had the inside scoop. Unfortunately I don't think many writers will suddenly explore the nuance of what a prediction market price means or a good question vs. bad as it's certainly easier to just say "they got it wrong" or "they got it right." It's a design challenge we continue to work on to see how we can continue to simplify the output of a prediction market and make it as digestible as possible. We also try to help people understand what prediction market results mean and when a question is going to garner good feedback vs. unreliable feedback, but it's clearly a road we still have a ways to go on.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"Criticize by creating"

- Michelangelo

Great business card design on recycled cereal boxes

Business cards seem so antiquated these days and yet there's still a constant need for them.

One day we might even all be able to bump our phones to exchange data. But "back in the day" we used to have infrared on our phones and PDAs that promised that same convenience of shooting our contact information over the aether. But alas, we never seemed to actually do that.

We still pass around bits of paper with our email and phone numbers on them. Because it's still the most convenient exchange in a meeting with someone new.

No one has to find a pen or clickity clack on their blackberry or iphone.

Business cards remain around, even if they just exist long enough to pass the email address to someone who proceeds to enter it into their address book and throws out the card.

Some business cards though still make an impression. Here's one that I recently saw that raised an eyebrow.


Caught my eye right away as the card isn't even cut straight :) But it gets the job done. The info isn't letterpressed or even laser printed :) Just a stamp. A crooked stamp at that.

Turn the card around and you see it's on the inside of a cereal box.


Still seems like a pain in he butt to be cutting these up and stamping them yourself. But now I'm interested in having my own.

(Nat & Hellens is a great store by the way if you are looking for cool gifts for babies)

Monday, October 05, 2009

"An interesting new study looks at how being able to count your own heartbeats - the most elemental form of biofeedback - correlates with better decision-making, at least when playing the Iowa Gambling Task."

- Jonah Lehrer: Listening to Your Pulse

A failed project in a previous job. And Seth Godin's advice.

"Today, R&D organizational work processes focus on generating the final specification that is handed off downstream to manufacturing. This work generates the equivalent of 5% of the total information created. More importantly, 95% of the effort and knowledge created along the way, critically vital information, ends up being lost unless processes, systems, and databases are in place to capture these critical organizational assets."

- Howard R. Moskowitz

I had the pleasure of presenting what prediction markets are all about to an audience at Palladium's 2009 Business Performance Conference.

One thing I touched on was a project that failed at a previous job. Let's call it Project Fail.

This project had already been going on for a few months with 5-6 people before I came on board. And they brought me on to put to add some finishing touches to help roll it out the door as something presentable to potential clients.

The specifics of the project aren't all that important.

What is important, is that the project was doing something that seemed an awful lot like another project I had friends on 4 years prior to this (Project Forgotten). Project Forgotten was shut down for various reasons, and I had heard of those reasons around the water cooler.

We didn't have social networks after all 9 years ago. This was just talk in a computer lab. We didn't all have our own computers back then either :)

So when I saw what was going on at Project Fail, I immediately saw some of the same things going on that happened on Project Forgotten.

I felt there was a major risk of Project Fail getting shut down.

I brought it up with my boss who had to bring it further up the management ladder to someone who could make the important decisions here.

I explained the evidence that there was a huge risk of this project facing those same legal challenges.

They heard me out.

But didn't take the threat seriously. I think they also felt that the project was far enough along, what could they do now anyways. They had to see it to some completion.

Wouldn't you know, a few days later my boss's boss gets a call from someone further up in the company that got wind of the project. This guy wasn't happy since some of those retail websites were clients of ours, and the competitive use of this data could be a big risk to those client relationships.

Project cancelled.

Seth Godin in the video below talks about the concept of "thrashing" he learned from Steve McConnel's writing and Steve's work at Microsoft. Thrashing is all the conversations and debate and meetings and more meetings that occur when more than one person starts getting involved in a project.

Seth Godin would have said we needed to start "thrashing" more on this project when it was cheap. When the project was just ideas and words on paper.

Thrashing this late in the game of new product development wasn't very useful. If I had had a way to pay attention to all the projects going on in my little group/world at this much larger company, maybe I could have raised this issue before they wasted months of money and time on this project. Maybe they could have steered the project in a direction to make these clients happy. Maybe they would have just killed the project. Before all the waste.

If we had had a social network or a more social project management experience that would have helped a great deal with moving the thrashing earlier in the project.

And I'm even more sure a prediction market would have given us the incentive to pay attention to those projects within our group.

Prediction markets are social networks for metrics.

Things get measured. A culture of metrics starts to form. And people have an incentive to keep paying attention to those metrics.


Seth Godin: Quieting the Lizard Brain from 99% on Vimeo.

To deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have "strong opinions, which are weakly held."

- Bob Johansen about wisdom

Friday, October 02, 2009

Predicting Milestones with Inkling (ala Basecamp)

Since we've launched widgets in Inkling, it's become trivial to integrate a prediction market with most other applications that could benefit from better decision making.

For example, now you can get some help coming up with your project milestones. We'll take a look at what this could look like using a scenario with 37signals' very popular (and rightly so) project management application Basecamp.

Let's pretend I've already setup a first crack at predicting that our company will have a hypothetical integration with Amazon's Mechanical Turk done by Friday, Oct 9. Here's the milestone in Basecamp.

Inkling > Milestones

We'll use a comment to this milestone as a container of our widget. So click on the comment icon to add a comment.

Now, let's go create a prediction market that asks when this milestone is going to be accomplished. (We won't go through the steps of creating a market here. There's plenty of instruction inside :) But please let us know if you ever need more help.)

Here's our market ready to go. I can now click the "Trade from your site" icon on the market page to get the embed code for the trading widget.

When will Mechanical Turk integration be ready? (Sandbox)

Grab the embed code your given or tweak it to match your desired design. And just add that to a comment in your milestone. Here we go back to Basecamp and add the new comment.

Inkling > Mechanical Turk Integration

"Add this Comment" and now your Basecamp users will have a prediction market clickable right from inside Basecamp. They don't even have to login or give any care in the world that you're using Inkling.

Inkling > Mechanical Turk Integration

And after I've shared my answer.

Inkling > Mechanical Turk Integration

So there it is. Prediction markets in more places. You can have the power of better group forecasting without forcing your coworkers or employees to ever leave the applications they are most comfortable with and already enjoy using.

Hope that provides some more ideas of where you can use prediction markets next.

"We spent some time in our family talking about what's the trade-off we want to make. We spent about two weeks talking about this. Every night at the dinner table"

- Steve Jobs on the decision making process he used to pick a washing machine.

"Of course, this wasn't really about washing machines; it was about passing along the concern for design to his children and perhaps to (his wife) Laurene"