Friday, February 26, 2010

Stop delegating. What you can learn from Joe DePinto, CEO of 7-eleven

I've been blogging a bunch lately about doing a job yourself instead of feeling stuck when you can't find someone to do the job for you or doing your own customer support.

A big benefit of doing a job yourself and not always relying on delegation (of even the stuff you don't like doing) is that you learn so much about all aspects of your business and the people you will eventually hire to replace you.

Here's an awesome example of this in action. CBS's Undercover Boss.

CEOs like Joe DePinto of 7-eleven works the front line here with his employees. He works a graveyard shift, in this video. But in the whole episode he spent time doing deliveries on a truck, in the factory making donuts, and trying to sell coffee at the busiest store in their chain.

He learned a great deal about what makes his stores tick. It's not the coffee for example that people keep coming back for, it's one of the store employees who everyone loves like a mother.

Or in this clip he learns that folks working at the stores feel they aren't really part of 7-eleven as a whole company and can't advance anywhere. He also learns that 7-eleven's food donation program is off the rails and needs fixing.

Over and over again he learns great stuff each place he works with the people doing jobs he obviously is always delegating.

I even get the benefit of this working in a small business of just a few people. A couple weeks ago Javan was out. Javan normally handles most of the support of the in house installations we do of our prediction market software. So I had to handle support for this, and it's just eye opening at how much work this is for him as well as where some pitfalls exist in the installation.

We get too accustomed to wanting to hire other people to do things for us. And usually that means separating ourselves from doing the jobs that are the most customer facing. Be very careful with your desire to delegate everything. The lessons you can learn doing it yourself are tremendous.

Also, I highly recommend watching Undercover Boss.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

500 Benjamins or Bust, a last attempt to save a small business

Got an interesting email from a small business called Drinks over Dearborn.

Basically a guy trying to get 500 people to prepay for product at $100 each giving him $50,000 he needs right now. And if he doesn't get the 500 people, no one ends up paying anything. Reminded me of Andrew Mason's The Point.

I'm not endorsing this one way or another exactly. I have been a customer of the store once before and was pretty happy that the owner there, Kyle, introduced me to a bourbon I had never tried before and really enjoyed and ended up purchasing. He let me sample a few and gave me an education on bourbon and scotch.

But it looks like they have cash flow problems, and this was a way to solve it that I hadn't quite seen before. A very transparent note about the state of their business and a plea to basically prepay for products that you haven't yet picked out.

Also, reminded me a little of the Spreedly Kickstart. A very open an honest request of visitors to fund the future of the business by contributing a larger amount of money now than you normally would. Seemed to work out for them and give them some money to work with to build more of their product.

There's a lot of businesses out there that struggle with cash flow especially right out the gate. Some have to shut down. Some think hard enough though and forgo a little pride to come up with ways to use honesty to help fund their businesses.

I haven't yet decided to commit my money or not. I'm leaning on doing it since the place after all has been more helpful in finding stuff I like than many other places.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Expand your mind using constraints. Cooking with 7-11 and Cadbury Mini Eggs.

I've always enjoyed cooking. But running a startup has made it hard to find the extra time to enjoy cooking like I used to. That and where we live now, there isn't a grocery store in easy walking distance. (Living where we live and driving to the grocery store isn't a great solution).

Cooking for me has usually been: let's plan a few meals, then plan a list, then go get all that stuff on that list to make the recipe exactly like it says. But now that it's so much harder to go to the grocery store, the planning step gets longer and even less fun.

So for 2010, I was fooling with the idea of only cooking meals with ingredients that I either have luckily from some random trip to a grocery store or farmers market + whatever I can buy in a walking distance from me from places like Walgreens and 7-11. My 7-11 and Walgreens are loaded with food that you might not notice in their grocery sections.

There is a treasure trove of stuff to be found in things they carry that can be substituted into recipes.

I'm finding adding this constraint to my cooking has actually liberated me.

With fewer options, there's less planning, more doing. With fewer options, now we get to be creative. A great example of this was last night's dinner.

I've been really digging mole sauce lately. Mole is basically a Mexican sauce that has chocolate as an ingredient. I also really love Cadbury Mini Eggs, which are prevalent now around Easter.

I decided "wouldn't it be great if my mole sauce was composed of Cadbury Mini Eggs"?

So I looked up a quick mole recipe.

Looks great. Only problem is, I don't have garlic or onions or chicken stock or diced tomatoes or peppers :)

Is this a problem? Not with my new line of cooking. What has tomatoes and garlic and onions and liquid already in it?

Pasta sauce! And that's easily findable at Walgreens and 7-11.

So I took this recipe and just didn't add the stuff I didn't have. Instead I used a bunch of pasta sauce. And for the chocolate I took those Cadbury Mini Eggs in a plastic back and put a rolling pin on them to get them to meltable pieces.

The whole time doing this, I knew that this could be a disaster. I knew that we might have to fall back and eat plan B. But I'm never going to know unless I try.

Luckily for me, it turned out great! Here's a photo of the result.

This was just another example of encountering two very important things in my life.

You need to be willing to experience failure to enjoy the rewards of experimentation.

Also, you can dramatically (and paradoxically) expand your mind, expand your experiences, by embracing your constraints.


I was asked if these are like the Cadbury eggs with cream inside. No, that would be yuck :) These are the solid chocolate eggs with a candy coating.

So using a Cadbury chocolate bar might be a good idea, but we had these on hand and are easily gettable at Walgreens, and they are delicious.

Monday, February 22, 2010

David Chang, famous chef and restauranteur, is a progression of accidents

I enjoy this interview with David Chang for a couple reasons. The biggest being he has recognized that his success isn't determined by something he has that everyone else doesn't. He doesn't have some god given gift that no one else will have.

He recognizes that his success has largely been a series of experiments and accidents. He just keeps putting himself out there. After all, if an opportunity or dream you have only has say a 1 in 20 chance of having some kind of success or impact, you better be putting 20 of those out there.

I also dig that he just doesn't give a shit that his shirt is incredibly wrinkled :)

Here's more David Chang interviews.


Dale Levitski was another recent example of someone we pointed out who has started succeeding again because he started putting himself out there again, willing to get knocked down.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Long shot

I listened to a This American Life episode today about Long Shots. In the opening sequence, Ira Glass brings up the 2009 Kentucky Derby where a horse with 50-1 odds, Mine That Bird, comes out of nowhere to win. It was the second biggest upset ever at the Derby. However you feel about horse racing, it's undeniable this was an inspiring story.

In an interview after the race, the jockey, Calvin Borel, was asked why he thinks this horse, who cost its owner only $9,500, did so well. Borel replied simply, "I rode him like he was a winner."

Here's a replay of the entire race in case you missed it last year:

How much time did Picasso spend following other people?

From the age of seven, Picasso received formal artistic training from his father in figure drawing and oil painting. Ruiz was a traditional, academic artist and instructor who believed that proper training required disciplined copying of the masters

- Wikipedia

Most of the people reading this are from places like Hacker News, where we spend a great deal of time reading the thoughts and works of other people creating cool stuff. Of course we are also creating our own stuff, but have we found the right balance in how much following we do?

This question came to mind because on my recent trip to Ireland I noticed how little I missed checking Twitter, blogs, aggregators, etc. This isn't a rant about the value of these things. I know they are valuable and have been educational and inspirational for me for years.

But what does concern me though is that it feels I haven't figured out the right balance of following other people's work and ignoring everyone else completely, and many of us users and followers of Twitter/Hacker News/37signals/etc. are in the same boat.

Afterall, I see way too many people just debilitated into reading yet another book or article on success, or the next article on how great 37signals latest feature was designed, or the latest thing that Google has made that will "kill the competition".

I hear from too many folks who just can't get past the "I can't do X, because Google or so and so is already doing it" state.

Javan was telling me that his friend, an artist, said "the most important reason to study art history is so you don't inadvertently make something that looks like a copy of someone else's work".

But when does this start to work against you?

I'm curious what balance Picasso ever found in following other people's work and tuning them out completely. I imagine back then he probably would lock himself in his art studio for days at a time, never looking at what someone else was doing.

But in our internet life today, who of us turns off Twitter and other people's blogs for days at a time while we create our own masterpieces? I can definitely go hours cranking on things without those influences, but days or weeks? I couldn't remember the last time I tuned out like that until I took this trip.

I know there's probably not a magic consistent formula, and each of us has our own balance. But I'm positive many more of us need to detach ourselves from the influence of other people's work and accomplishments while we crank on our own.

Of course there are tools to measure activities online like RescueTime, and tools to block out distractions (I write my blog posts in WriteRoom), but nothing I have found that encourages me to find an optimal balance between education and influence and isolation.

What are your stories? Anyone turning off everything for a week at a time? Anyone find some kind of circadian rhythm like routine of influence and isolation?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

We need more conversations, fewer performances

I recently got back from a trip to Ireland. One of our tremendous experiences was a traditional Irish music pub crawl.

Traditional Irish music isn't a performance; it's a conversation - Des, one of the musicians that gave us our tour.

When you go into pubs around Dublin, many of them have some kind of live music going on. But as Des explained, most of these performances aren't traditional. These non-traditional performances are played with amplification first of all, making it something that's intended for an audience. But a traditional Irish music session is a conversation amongst a group of musicians in a corner of a pub. Often, at some point, anyone who wants to can share a song whether they can sing well or not. And any audience that does form plays more the part of an eavesdropper.

As wikiepedia further explains:

The objective in a session is not to provide music for an audience of passive listeners; although the punters (non-playing attendees) often come for the express purpose of listening, the music is most of all for the musicians themselves. "Audience" requests for a particular song or tune of the players can be considered rude. The session is an experience that's shared, not a performance that's bought and sold.

What really stands out here, is how great the traditional music is versus a performance. It's a bit apples and oranges. But it's a shame there aren't more apples in life.

I look at the parallels this might have for me in my life of running a company, building products, and making software.

There's not enough people that are allowed to come together in a conversation and not perform. I'm sick of bringing up the examples of 3M and Google allowing their employees to work on their own projects. I can't believe there aren't more of these efforts to allow people in corporations to create things more spontaneously with each other in a way that's not associated with a performance.

Of course it can't be all the time, but it needs to happen more often than it does.

I look at working at the places I've worked before Inkling. It's crazy that people work on the same project or the same client or the same technology for many many years, and too few of them get the chance to come together just to converse about creating something great that's not directly associated with day to day "performance".

If you're at a major consulting company, wouldn't it be great, if Bob working on the United Airlines SAP project could stop in for a couple weeks at the Best Buy CRM project to lend a hand or work on a quick project with some folks there? Maybe he'd bring a beginner's mind. Maybe he'd bring a new skill. He'd certainly round his skills and learn new things.

Of course not everyone wants to do this. Fine. But please, let more folks do this in your organizations who want to and encourage people to try. Give them the freedom to be creative, and not just create what you as a manager or owner dictate to them.

Some examples of these non-performance conversations might be things like Startup Weekend and Layer Tennis, whose 3rd season gets started tomorrow.

Startup Weekend is a weekend where anyone who wants to can come together and spontaneously create a startup. Sometimes the projects go nowhere but at least some talented people get to meet and jam together and maybe form a relationship for another project. And other times, some serious startups get started like Skribit.

Layer Tennis is a competition where 2 designers volley designs back and forth and see what they come up with. Layer Tennis you might argue is a performance, but when I watch these, I get the impression that these designers are just doing this to converse with each other about design, and they really don't give a shit what the people moderating it or watching it think. We are just there to eavesdrop.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Why are companies in a rush to act big?

An interest of mine is watching how companies grow when they get venture funding.

There seem to be two paths:

On one path, the portrayal of the company publicly suddenly changes. It's like the founders sit down and say. "OK, now we have to get Serious." On their "about us" page they have Vice-Presidents of This and Vice-Presidents of That, and a picture of their office space. Maybe a description of their new expensive espresso machine to help portray their company as a Good Place to Work. They get a toll free number and a phone tree. The pictures of their founders change from 3 people having fun to a sport coat and button down shirt (no tie of course) for the men, skirt suit for the women. And only people at the VP level and above get pictures. Internally instead of just doing, there is a lot more talk about how to do it. Someone puts together an org chart. There are a lot more meetings. Planned outings explicitly for the sake of "employee morale" vs. the spontaneous ones they used to have.

On the other path is "smart growth." A certain vibe is maintained. Meetings are kept to a minimum. When you talk to the employees of the smart growth companies, they talk about what a great place to work it is. Not because there are bean bags all over the place but because there are people working there who respect each other and who challenge each other. If they get a 1-800 number it's because their customers need it. If they get new office space it's not to fill an ego, it's to make the employees happy. It's not superficial growth, it's necessary growth and it's smart growth.

Obviously the second path sounds like one we'd all like to follow as our companies grow, but then why do so many companies follow the first?

I would argue too many companies are simply in a rush to act big because they think that's the only way they'll be taken seriously, especially if they're selling to other businesses.

Maybe this is because of ego, or maybe they feel a 12 person company really does need a bunch of CXO's. There's also the pressure from their investors to not just be a dreaded "lifestyle business."

Sometimes it's smart business to get bigger and act like it, other times you run the risk of worrying so much about perception that you're damaging yourself. Two specific examples come to mind:

When it comes to security, acting bigger than you are can help. There are plenty of things we do in the daily operations of Inkling that if we had a consumer focused business, we would never do. That's because big companies, when it comes to your software, evaluate you on two levels. The first is business value. The second is security risk. It doesn't matter how good your product is if the BigCo Information Security Department doesn't sign off on you.

On the flip-side, when it comes to customer support, acting small has proven to be the smartest thing we do. I was reminded of this earlier this week as we helped a bank install Inkling on-site.

We only do installations when absolutely necessary because they are "high touch" situations and don't scale well vs. our hosted software business. As great a job as Javan has done on building and maintaining our installer, when someone wants to run Inkling on their own hardware in their own datacenter, we're dealing with a unique linux configuration each time which inevitably causes complications. So we've learned to do two things which seem to be right based on the positive feedback we've been getting. First, we put their sysadmin in direct contact with one of us. We own his problems with him until the installation is complete. We also use a tgethr group for all correspondence to keep everyone else on the project apprised of progress via email. In the case of the bank, those of us on the outskirts watched as our guy and theirs went back and forth troubleshooting until it was completed 48 hours later.

Basically, we acted small. We didn't have any 10-person phone meetings, we didn't charge them extra, we didn't say it wasn't our problem. We just worked with them until it was done.

Several years ago I had a boss who pounded in to my head that 1 bad customer experience requires 10 good ones to make up for it and I think he was right. But that has nothing to do with being big or small, or growing purely for perception's sake so you can be a Serious Company.

In other words, being small doesn't have to be a liability. In the right situations, being small or just acting small (but smart) can be a key strength and differentiator.

In our own world, we've run in to exactly one company who has explicitly questioned our size and chosen not to work with us because of it. Dozens of others went the other way and did choose to work with us because they like our product and we try to be easy to work with - even if we kept blowing them off when they asked us to get our Senior Vice-President of Global Everything on the horn.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How old were you when you decided to start giving up?

When a 7 year old tells his mom, "Mom, I can't do my math homework. It's so hard. I'm no good at it", how many parents tell their kid "You need to hire someone to do that for you".


This is a constant lament though of adults. Especially adults trying to start businesses and their own projects. In any kind of gathering of people talking about starting businesses, the odds are huge that you are going to hear someone say "I have this great idea for a software company, I just need someone to build it. How do I find a technical co-founder and build this business in a couple months?".

First of all, the relationship between co-founders of a business is very much like that of a married couple. So that's like asking "How can I find a wife and get married in 2 months?" Sounds ridiculous.

Secondly, why let your lack of knowledge of how to do something ever stop you from what you want to accomplish. Learning math and reading was hard at one point, but we all learned some of it. I remember arriving to math class my Freshman year in high school, and the teacher began with a review of what everyone already knew. Everyone except me. He asked everyone what FOIL stood for. Every single student knew that it was First-Outer-Inner-Last. Except me :)

I tried on my own to learn it, and failed. So I showed up for tutoring every day for about 2 weeks until some of this brand new material started to click for me. And then I was out of the starting blocks.

And most of us continue to learn something new our entire lives. So when do some of us reach this point where we start feeling "you know what, I'm too old to learn something new, and I'm going to have to watch my dream go unfulfilled unless I meet someone else to do it for me."

I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not saying you'll magically get good at this skill you don't have right now. But you can probably learn it enough to accomplish at least a baby step of your goal.

Programming is often this skill people don't have that they need someone for.

I look at my mom. She's almost 70. Hasn't had a programming class or even the desire to learn to program her entire life. But she wants to sell flip flops. She has a few things she really wants like to display a slideshow of her wares. Problem is, inserting a slideshow into a Shopify page isn't an easy task for someone like her. Where do you insert this chunk of weird bits of code? Well she figured it out. She didn't wait around for someone to do it for her. She left some extraneous characters of course in her html :) which is then easy for someone who does know what they are doing to remove (I'll leave it for now as an example)

I look at the example of starting Inkling. We knew we wanted to make work places more efficiently democratic, and prediction markets were a means to accomplish that. We also knew we wanted to use an algorithm to make the tool easy to use. The great part was this algorithm was out there for everyone to read. The bad part was a very smart economist wrote it.

And so I had this scientific paper laden with math describing something that I wanted to do but was pretty foreign to me. I tried to get a friend with a PhD in Math to help me out, but he was busy with his post doctoral stuff at MIT. Only one good way to make sure it gets done then. Learn it myself. Took some time. Hurt the brain a bit. Doubted myself a ton. But eventually it clicked, and we had it working, and were on our way.

Don't get me wrong about building good teams though. I very much believe in partners and finding awesome people to collaborate with. I have people at Inkling that do many things a thousand times better than I could ever do.

But if I didn't have them, I refuse to sit on my hands, hoping to meet someone to help me accomplish what I want to do.

Even the act of learning a new skill for the sake of accomplishing your goal, is a great way to meet that partner of yours. So your project might start off rickety because of your amateur hands, but you'll start surrounding yourself with people either through classes, or conferences or online forums, wherever, who might just make the perfect spouse to take your seedling and grow it into a success.

If you have the resources, then by all means hire the right talent to get your projects done. But if you don't, if I don't, I refuse to let my dreams slip by.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The LA Times launches Oscar prediction iPhone app using Inkling API

Developed by iLarious, the LA Times has launched "The Envelope", an iPhone app for predicting the winners of the Oscars. In its first week of availability in the App Store, there are already ~1,000 players who have made ~8,000 predictions.

What makes this app especially cool (in our most humble opinion) is behind the scenes, Inkling is driving all the predictions using our API.

We don't talk a lot about our API, but it's being used every day by our clients to do single sign-on and drive development of custom widgets and reports. And now a small development team was able to leverage it to put together a pretty robust prediction and news mobile app in about 6 weeks.

I've been using this app on a daily basis and have admittedly been doing pretty terrible in my predictions! But in addition to predicting who you think the winners are going to be, you can see the latest LA Times headlines and compare your performance to other players AND the entire LA Times Entertainment staff who are all participating. In fact, you can click on any LA Times reporter to see what their predictions are and how they're doing.

Here are some screens from the app:

If you have an iPhone, you can download the app here.

Bug fixes for your Investments

If you see a change in your investment worth today, there's a couple bug fixes that were deployed. One was to fix the fact that some old positions that had already been cashed out were being included in the calculation. We also were over penalizing the worth of some positions where the stock price had gotten close to zero, and that's been fixed.

Monday, February 08, 2010

AT&T's direct mail - genius or irritating?

I hate snail mail. Except when I don't. I'm the type of person who so rarely checks the real mail box, the mailman has more than once had to knock on our door to ask us to empty the box because he can't jam any more inside :)

But every now and then, there's a piece of mail that captures my attention. Sometimes it's even useful.

Here's a couple recent examples.


Normally all coupons and promotions are easy to spot and I throw them in the trash. But there was a very plain unmarked envelope that I noticed. All it said was "Valued AT&T Customer" and my address.

So the "Valued" part looks handwritten. For some reason, anything handwritten seems to grab my attention since this piece of mail looks like it could have been a letter or invitation from a friend. Or at the very least, someone took the time to write me something by hand, so that might be something at least friendly to read.

Opening up the mail, it's an offer for something :) Damn. But the offer did try and keep this ruse up.

The letter looks like it was photocopied, but then "a friend" went ahead and used a blue marker to highlight the super important parts for me :)

In the end their offer or execution failed to keep my interest or get me to care. And on closer inspection of the envelope you'll notice it's not actually handwritten text. Each of the same letter looks identical. This is machine made.

But they got me to open the envelope which is an impressive feat.

Sapori Trattoria

There's an italian restaurant near my house. We didn't love it the first time we went there. But the owner has some great ways of pulling people back in. He mails them half off coupons on their half birthday. Who on earth recognizes your half birthday?

Not only that but the mail that he sends you is a little like the AT&T example, except it's really handwritten. In fact, the entire envelope that he sends is littered with real handwritten text about "Happy Birthday" "Can't wait to see you", etc. It really catches your eye when you see it because you think it's a friend of yours trying to send mail from prison or something and he only has so much room to write.

I definitely opened up that envelope. And went back a second time.


I'm curious if direct snail mail is a lost art. I'm also curious how it might still be utilized by software companies today that tend to do most of their marketing and business online. For example, could 37signals send out postcards to small businesses to introduce them to Basecamp with some success?

If they did, I'd recommend handwriting at least the address on the envelope.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A new calculation of your worth. An explanation if you lost inkles overnight.

We deployed a new calculation of the total worth of your investments that you see in the "Investments" portion of the right top corner of your dashboard. "Investments" is also the number that gets used to calculate your entire worth on the site for purposes of the leader-board rankings.

Before, we were calculating how much your investments were worth just taking how much stock you own in something and multiplying it by its current price. You could for example, buy 1000 shares of something starting at a penny, and even though that might only cost you $100 or so dollars with the stock then at $0.55, your investments would shoot up to be “worth” $550. Even though you really are only going to be able to sell them back right now for $100. You could then buy a bunch of cheap stock and shoot up on the leader-board.

This was causing confusion amongst new and seasoned players alike.

We came up with a way for us to be able to much more accurately capture how much in total those investments are really worth if you sold them right now. So buying those 1000 shares starting at 0.01 will now decrease your balance by $100, but also increase your investments by $100 leaving your total worth not changed at all.

Unfortunately some players saw some of their worth evaporate last night. It might even change a couple leaderboard rankings, though for most of us we'll all be affected relatively.

I'm sorry about the shock this was to some people. This seems like the right thing to do though.

Your worth now doesn't just immediately increase because you move cash into stocks, just like it wouldn't in the real stock market. Similarly you can't game the leader-board just buy buying lots of cheap stock.

But we welcome all feedback about this. Let us know what you guys think.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Gross National Happiness

The concept of gross national happiness (GNH) was developed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than gross national product or GDP. - Wikipedia

That's interesting. Wonder if Zappos is measuring something like this of their customers or employees.

GNH was first coined in Bhutan and Wikipedia further mentions:

In a widely cited study, "A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?" by Adrian G. White of the University of Leicester in 2007, Bhutan ranked 8th out of 178 countries in Subjective Well-Being, a metric that has been used by many psychologists since 1997. In fact, it is the only country in the top 20 "happiest" countries that has a very low GDP.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Designing for failure

One of the things that impresses me the most about a product, either offline or online, is how well the product is designed to fail. Whether it's the fault of the user or the product, things are not always going to work according to plan, and it's important to guide a user back to what is normal.

This is a tough thing to do of course for a couple reasons. A biggie is because by this point most of us are trying to follow Pareto. How many of us are trying these days to build simple things? We are focusing on the 20% of the product that will get 80% of the use.

But what's tough is that the 20% changes. For brand new users, that 20% of the product that's getting used in the first 5 minutes are error pages and learning and exploring. It's not the "normal" flow.

Another reason we are bad at designing for failure is because we have the curse of knowledge. I wrote about an experiment mentioned in Made to Stick recently. The experiment was to prove that people are stuck in the curse of knowledge. People were picked as tappers and listeners. Tappers were to pick a popular song and tap it out for listeners. Tappers were extremely overconfident that listeners would understand the song they were tapping. Why? Because the the tapper can hear the song in their head. And it completely changes the perspective on their task.

So designing for failure is so much harder to do because of this. We can "hear" the product in our head already. We know all the normal paths and don't need to discover features. And we neglect to remember that our users aren't there with us yet. They'll be failing a ton for at least a minute or two.

Let me pick a case where things aren't designed for failure and show a couple that are.

37signals Highrise

Here's an example where 37signals' Highrise isn't designed for failure very well :) I'm doing this because I have a lot of respect for 37signals' design and they are often considered a gold standard, we also use Highrise quite a bit these days. They even wrote a book on this very subject. Yet we all have trouble with designing for failure.

Here I want to add a new Contact into Highrise. I emailed [email protected] recently. I didn't have the person's name, but I wanted Highrise to track the conversation with this company. So I clicked "Add a new person" from the Dashboard and here's the add a contact screen with company and email filled out.

Dashboard - Highrise

I hit the Add this person button below this, and nothing happens. Not an error, not a success. Just nothing. Like the button doesn't work. I realized at some point that First or Last Name are required. There's no indication of that other than the labels are bigger than the other field labels. But that might indicate they are both required? No, they aren't. Only one is. But I don't have a name at this point. Shoot. It's when I started clicking around though directly to the Contacts tab did I discover a "Add a new company" link where I could add the company, my [email protected] and not have to enter in the names of this contact.

So this is where some extra thought could have been applied to handle errors related to not entering required fields.


How often have you mistyped something on a computer expecting it to be the right command? Git takes the approach of trying to figure out what you might have been typing.


I mistyped git merge as git mrge and git tries to educate me that there is a command called git merge instead, or I can use help. Such a little but useful touch they've added to help when things go wrong.


One area that we are proud of in tgethr is how tgethr handles a couple error conditions. When you send a tgethr group an email and there's a problem, we'll send back help about the problem. We started with a generic, "there's been a problem" kind of error that most people throw up by default when an error can only be handled generically. But we wanted tgethr to be more helpful than that.

An example is now when someone tries to send a message to a tgethr group and their group only accepts signed messages, but they forget to sign their message, we tell them.

Inbox (29600 messages)


No one is going to be perfect at doing this. But I can testify that in the cases where we get this right, we hear about it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

We now have opinion polling

There's often situations where folks, including us, have wanted to run traditional polls gathering opinions alongside their prediction markets. Now you can.

Using the "ask a question" wizard, you'll see a checkbox

Screen shot 2010-02-02 at 12.47.39 PM.png

If you check that box while asking a question to your marketplace, Inkling will know to treat that question like a traditional poll.

The question wizard is also smart enough too to figure out if you are probably asking a poll versus a prediction market like question too.

Screen shot 2010-02-02 at 12.47.24 PM.png

And a poll looks like this

Screen shot 2010-02-02 at 12.50.01 PM

So you can still capture how strongly people feel about their poll choices.

Poll type questions don't cost any of your virtual currency to trade in. Instead users are rewarded for answering these types of questions with "karma". You can see how much karma you have on your dashboard.

Screen shot 2010-02-02 at 2.08.24 PM

We'll be doing a lot more with karma points soon, so stay tuned. If you want to try it out, you can share your opinion on the Kindle versus Apple's iPad debate here.

Cuban's missive missed the mark

"The simplest way to create more jobs is to allow small business and entrepreneurs to spend less time and money on lawyers and accountants and redirect that intellectual and financial capital to the core competencies of their business." - Mark Cuban

I, like anyone, would love to spend less time and money worrying about taxes, but Mark Cuban is off here.

His argument:

1) Reduce the overhead and paperwork of doing taxes. Then small businesses can put that time and money to work building their business.

2) The goal of the government to make small business loans more accessible is wrong.

3) Reduce the paperwork involved in raising capital.

Reducing paperwork

I've met hundreds of startups during my life and I've had dozens of starts, sputters, failures and successes in my own startups.

For example, I tried to get a startup off the ground doing database administration software for mobile devices. I never got the software done. Didn't have any trouble forming an LLC though and getting an accountant to help me file taxes for some consulting work the LLC did.

I also got my mom on her way to selling flip flops. The problems this startup has are things like technical know how and marketing.

I also have a handful of friends that want to open up restaurants, bars and bakeries. And I try to help, where I can, get those dreams off the ground.

And now today, we've been running a small business for over 4 years.

But not once in any conversation have we ever heard someone say "Man, I would start a business, but I just can't deal with the taxes or hiring an accountant". Or "I wish I could grow my business, but taxes and the accountant are just killing us over here, we are going to have to fold". Or "people want to invest in us, but there's just too much paperwork to fill out, we're going to pass and keep working our jobby job".

Small Business Capital

I agree a bit with Cuban about the loans. The government should probably stay out of the loan situation. How would making small business loans easier to obtain be any different than the situation we just had in this last bubble? Loans got a lot easier to get to buy houses, and a bunch of unqualified people bought houses and couldn't repay back the loans.

If anyone could get their hands on a small business loan, and then couldn't repay those back, couldn't we have another implosion, where all of a sudden banks are foreclosing on those small businesses?

But this is still an area where I do hear people talking. Micro investing.

Instead the government could focus on making things like Kiva and Kickstarter work for startups here. Make micro investing a reality. If I want to pool my $500 with some others for a tiny fraction of some stock in a startup, why shouldn't I be able to? At 21, I can blow that $500 at poker, but not give it to some smart people to build a business and hope for some kind of return on that investment through stock?

Right now that's an area where the SEC makes it a very difficult thing to do.

Other areas the government could actually help

Here's another thing that you keep hearing from wannabe business owners. The intellectual property agreements at their day jobs.

I remember signing one of these at Accenture and Digital River, and they were pretty all encompassing documents about owning anything you think of in the shower type things :). And wouldn't you know, I want to start a business, and now have this fear that no matter what I do, even at home, it's going to belong to my emplower.

I ended up trying to start that mobile database administration startup back then, and in order to do so, I bought my own laptop so I could keep all projects, code, documents separate from Accenture stuff. But I still worried exorbitantly that if anyone at Accenture found out what I was doing I'd hear something from somebody about ownership and legal problems.

And I can confirm a bunch of people felt like this. Everyone I talked to about stuff I was moon lighting on was telling me Accenture's going to own it, or don't tell anyone else.

This is an area the government can improve. I believe there's state law that if I were brought to court by Accenture trying to own things I was working on on the side, a bunch of the IP agreement wouldn't hold up. But it was just a hunch from what I read online. I'm not a lawyer and didn't consult one about this. But this was a much bigger problem for me then worrying about getting an accountant to do my taxes and help me startup an LLC.

I've thought about a couple other areas a government could focus on in improving a startup.

Folks more often then not, just need a kick in the ass to start companies. They also need a vision that it's easier than they think to start something. Maybe not their empire, but a small version of their empire could get done.

Maybe it's just more education. Free education.

I took a set of "entrepreneurship" classes many years ago which were decent for folks thinking about building a restaurant or retail service. Could this type of education be something a government should subsidize more often and be the thing that's needed to kick people in the ass a little to get their project started.

Maybe it's funding more incubator programs. Places where it's not about the money, but its about having people around that have done it before.

Building a restaurant is hard because it requires so much capital and licensing (at least in Chicago), but could there be a way to incubate new restaurant ideas. At least for wannabe restaurant owners to get a feel for what it takes to start a restaurant from scratch without laying out all the capital for their own real estate, equipment, and chefs.

A government could also focus on bringing more business to small businesses. How? I'm not entirely sure. One way is to make it easier to become a vendor of the government. Inkling is a vendor of the US government, and it was quite a difficult task.

Could a government also do some marketing for new businesses? A chamber of commerce is a place where businesses are supposed to get support like this. Maybe these need more funding? Maybe they need to be more proactive? Like go out and find small businesses getting started and be like "we've looked at your business and we'd like to introduce you to this person or this company".

I don't have all the answers, but Cuban's missive missed the mark.