Wednesday, March 31, 2010

BusinessWeek names Inkling one of America's most promising startups

"How can companies the size of Microsoft (MSFT), Ford (F), and Cisco (CSCO) use their massive workforces' knowledge to improve performance? Nathan Kontny and Adam Siegel think the answer is in prediction markets." - John Tozzi at BusinessWeek

Wow, I actually remember reading my first BusinessWeek in highschool when I was in a public speaking/debate club. Yes, I was and still am a geek. Today I can wear that as a badge :)

BusinessWeek was an extremely important tool to us doing Extemporaneous Speaking (Extemp). We'd carry around a giant briefcase of BusinessWeeks that we'd collect in order to do any quick research for topics we were given to talk about.

So this is very awesome to see our names and something I've helped build mentioned by these guys.

Here's the link to the article.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New profile pages

Last week we completely revamped our user profile pages and think they're much more useful now for both yourself and those who like to be voyeurs. I've certainly found myself spending a lot more time clicking on people's names than I have in the past.

First off, the layout is completely different. We had an issue we wanted to address where these profile pages looked pretty bad if someone was new to a site or hadn't done much. Now we're bringing in more data and granular activity about each user to minimize this problem.

Second, we've added a lot more data points about each person while still maintaining their anonymity. The one we're most excited about is the data under the "Track Record" section. To give people a better sense of how they're performing, we've introduced the concept of accuracy: looking at people's historical performance for trading in the "right direction." We're then taking this one step further to see the specific categories and tags the person was most accurate on. For example, this person is considered an Inkling expert in Movies, Sports, and Politics:

And doesn't everyone want to know how they're doing compared to the rest of the world? So we now show a bar graph comparing your level of activity vs. everyone else in your site vs. the average activity across all Inkling sites.

We've also introduced the ability to earn badges for doing things in Inkling. Make a certain number of trades? Get a badge! Ask a certain number of questions or make a certain amount of comments? Get a badge. Those are some of the obvious ones but there are others people can earn that will just happen when they happen. :)

Finally, we've imported our activity feed from the homepage to each individual profile to see a stream of items only related to you. Everything from the questions you've participated in to comments you've made and badges you've won.

This is just a start for what we have planned related to profiles and other data-related insights, but hopefully everyone agrees these changes go a long way in making profiles more interesting to view (and more useful for those who care about enhancing what a business knows about its people!)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Achieve Less

I learned a lesson when I was 15 that I continue to forget, and remember, and forget, and remember. :)

I've always been a pretty hard worker especially at school. Did plenty of all-nighters even in grade school. High school started no differently. I got put in all honors classes due to my grades and my entrance test scores. I was pretty surprised by how well I did.

I didn't realize I could compete with so many people at getting good grades.

In fact, Sophomore year, I was with some students in the auditorium and to my surprise they awarded me a friggin' medal for the top GPA for freshman year. So all of a sudden Sophomore year, I realized I'm ranked #1. Absolute craziness. And this is where things start to turn.

Sophomore year sucked. I had my first AP class in Art History and Appreciation and I had an insanely hard time getting a good grade in that class. Above that class, work was starting to really pile up. And I still had extracurricular activities like volleyball every evening almost all year long.

I knew my grades weren't what they were Freshman year, and I could see a couple other kids were about to achieve a higher GPA that year, and I was stressed. The stress continued on to Junior year. Even more work and AP classes, and this insane desire to compete. Life was insanely not fun and making me nuts.

Until I just decided to forget about it. Not sure how it happened. I just decided to start slacking. Maybe because I had no choice. But on a few homework assignments that were stressing me out because it was tough to get them done by the deadline, I just didn't do them. :) The teacher would sometimes give me an extension on the project for a lower grade, or just fail me for that project all together.

I got an F for a big paper in AP English because I didn't bother doing it. Didn't make a fuss for the teacher. I just didn't turn it in. Does it make a bit of difference today? Nope. Still got a 5 on the AP test, the highest grade on an AP test you can get.

Still got other good grades on some stuff, and bad grades on other things. And it doesn't really matter today. I still got into the school I applied to. I slacked there too and didn't feel like filling out multiple school applications. I filled out one to a good school, a good program, and one that was going to be my most affordable choice, the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana).

My point is, I realized so many of the things I was trying to achieve were stressful and useless in the grand scheme of things. My mood about school and life changed completely Junior and Senior year when I decided to just start achieving less.

Great things still happened to me, for so many other reasons than me stating some lofty goals of getting this grade, or that rank, or doing better than that kid. Great things happened probably because I still worked hard, but just started enjoying it for its own sake.

I fell in love with physics, and reading all the cool stuff we were reading in English class. The grades stopped mattering. It was the act of learning that became more enjoyable.

This is a lesson most of us don't seem to learn or keep in our heads too long. We create artificial goals of getting promotions or more money or buying things and it causes us an insane amount of stress. And all it takes is a bit of a change in perspective that all that stuff likely doesn't matter as much as you think it does. And you could really just enjoy the act of whatever it is you're doing. Life becomes a lot more fun.

I'll be writing some more stuff about achieving less soon. But let me know what you guys think. Have there been times you've let go of lofty goals because those goals were eventually unrealistic and not very useful? Anyone studying Taosim? Just picked up the Tao of Pooh which I haven't read for about 10 years, but seems to be a decent introduction to a philosophy I'd like to learn a lot more about.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Psychological Need to Promote Your Company (Even if it Annoys Everyone Around You)

Recently David Heinemeier Hansson published a blog post about the fact they're never selling their company, 37signals. "37signals for life!" is their proverbial battle cry. Subsequently "DHH" took some fairly universal flaming about over-promoting themselves and over-generalizing. At first I was right alongside these folks. "Another post about how great 37signals is and how we should all be like them," I lamented.

But going back and reading the post again, I think I know where sentiments like these are coming from. Where all the self promotion and very public lessons learned are originating. I think I have a sense of their souls. :)

Besides a small investment from Jeff Bezos, 37signals built their company from scratch. They've also been at it for 10 years. 10 years of worrying how they're going to pay the bills, 10 years of worrying about if their customers are going to buy their product, and 10 years of constant strategizing. 10 years of ups, downs, and everything in between to try and figure out how to make money and be a successful business. For the past few it has looked easy, but unless you've lived it, it's also easy to forget that for the majority of those 10 years I'm sure it felt slow and long and sometimes painful. The fact now that they're rolling in dough, have a best selling book, and have complete control of their own destiny has to feel pretty damn good. And they did it without a lot of outside help, without a heavy infusion of cash and a bunch of people trying to guide their destinies for their own benefit. In every business sense, they've "made it."

When you start a company and decide to live and die for any period of time by your revenues vs. investment, it's practically the only thing in your life that is completely yours. You control it. If you make a decision and it works out, you reap the rewards. If you make a decision and it doesn't go your way, you suffer. You created this beast, you guide it, you own it. That level of freedom is unparalleled in practically any other aspect of your life and psychologically, they must feel the need to promote it to continue to sustain themselves.

We've had some pretty nice wins recently ourselves. But instead of celebrating those accomplishments, I find myself just worrying more, being perpetually paranoid about what comes next. The best analogy I can paint is like being a junky. I need the next hit of success; each previous one never quite being enough to satisfy me for long. My friends and family don't get it when I tell them for example that Microsoft is a new client, yet I'm still listing 5 other things that aren't so good. In some ways these caveats and lack of satisfaction are strong drivers. But I've begun to realize it's also quite damaging at a personal level to never celebrate your success.

This is it. This is what running your own company is all about. Celebrating successes whether large or small is all you have. If you don't honor success in some way either publicly or privately and just bask in it, even for 5 minutes, what's left?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Are affiliate links dirty?

I'll preface this with saying I have respect for Tim Ferris, and dig most of what the guy does. I've enjoyed some stuff out of 4 hour work week, his blog, and am looking forward to reading his next book.

But I observed something I'm not sure how to feel about the other day.

I was reading his blog and saw this review of 37signals latest book Rework. But whenever you click on one of the links to Rework it takes you to Amazon with his affiliate link (tag=offsitoftimfe). So he gets a little bit of money any time someone buys that book from his link.

I'm not trying to flame Tim Ferris here, and please don't think I expect insulting comments about Tim here either as those will be deleted.

What I am trying to do is figure out what I should be doing with this gray area of education + marketing + capitalism here on this blog.

I review excerpts and link to Amazon all the time. I read an insane amount of books. Here's a post from the other day about a book about Game design where I link to Amazon.

Sometimes those posts generate a ton of traffic for our blog, and a fair number go check out Amazon. But I've never used an Amazon affiliate link. It's dawned on me to try, but if I do, doesn't that taint the review a little? Does't the review look a little forced and biased in your eyes then?

There's a similar area of grayness that happens when people buy things like eBooks. A ton of the eBooks out there (maybe not the Kindle versions of non-eBook books), are loaded with affiliate links to other people's products.

So you get this feeling that you bought someone's book to be educated about a certain subject, but that education is soured, because the whole time this person is trying to make some more money from you peddling someone else's stuff. You get left thinking, would these people even be recommending these tools, services, or strategies, if they weren't getting this extra cash on the back end?

If I wanted to see a ton of ads and read something, I'd buy a magazine. But even a magazine has sections that when it looks "educational" but is actually sponsored they have to say "Special Advertising Section". And even tweets now can be bought but those tweets are required to say "sponsored tweet" inside them.

So if that's the right spirit of things (and sometimes the law), when you tweet or mention a book you should check out, shouldn't that mention say something like "affiliate link" or "sponsored link" or something?

I hate more rules though myself, so maybe this is nice that one doesn't have to do this.

What do you guys do or like to see done? I'm a capitalist, and want to increase the money Inkling makes as well. So should I get over my weirdness of adding affiliate links to posts here, or am I onto something and you guys get weirded out too by someone trying to make money on the exact product they are recommending or reviewing?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Envy is a lousy partner

"I've never read a biography of someone and then wanted to be that person" - Lynette Kontny

Some thought provoking words my wife spoke last night. Has there been any biographies of people you've read and you wanted to "bear their cross" instead of your own? My wife commutes a ton for work so listens to an insane amount of audio books. She's gone through quite a few biographies of famous politicians, rich people and nobel prize winners. In the end she wants to be herself.

Reminded me of envy I used to have of Corey Feldman and Corey Haim in gradeschool for all the attention and fame those two had. Obviously the belief that they were on a better path than me was wrong and misplaced.

The grass is greener for someone else largely because you have absolutely no idea who that someone else is. Especially these days when we "follow" people. We follow their blogs and their tweets. Little tiny slices of exactly what that person has decided to share with us today.

At least a biography is longer and people are encouraged to share the bad with the good.

But all too often these days, we all still envy our colleagues at work or friends with other jobs or other entrepreneurs. The guy with the book deal telling us he's making more money than we are making, surely must have it better then me?

I doubt it. You have no idea what demons that person has. The things they desire and can't have. The things that keep them up at night and make them feel like shit. Mostly because they choose not to share it with you. That's a story they feel wouldn't help them sell whatever it is they are selling today.

Be careful with envy. She's a lousy partner. She can sometimes fuel you to keep working at achieving the things you have your heart set on, but she'll also seduce you to overlook all the awesome things you already have today.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

New Feature: Group Management

Most of the time when you ask a question in Inkling, you want everyone possible who has some perspective to answer. But sometimes because of the sensitivity of a question or because of the danger of excessive "noise," you only want that question to be sent and viewed by certain people: a single department, or people at a certain level in your organization, for example.

For a long time Inkling has had the concept of private questions - the ability to define an invite list to expose the question to a subset of people. The problem was you couldn't save that list and use it over again. So we recently introduced the concept of groups. Here's how it works:

When you log in to an Inkling marketplace, you'll see a new link called "manage groups"

If you click that link, then click to make a new group, you'll see this:

You can search for people to be included or enter a bunch of email addresses. You can give your group a name, a description, and even start assigning questions to your group. Once you assign questions to a group, they will only be available to this group.

You can also assign questions to a group (only ones you wrote if you're not an adminsitrator) as you're proceeding through our question wizard. Once you get to the privacy tab, just click to limit access, then choose the groups you want to limit access to.

Right now group functionality is limited to access to questions, but we're thinking more about how we might have public groups too with more capabilities, so for example you could have an NCAA Tournament group where there is a separate discussion area, a list of questions related to the tournament, etc.

"You're stupid looking, do something else" - one man's persistence

I'm constantly surprised by how quickly people want to give up on their projects. Our company started with 18k in a 3 month "startup camp". But 3 months is ridiculously short to try and make revenue, and I've seen a lot of people just have this expectation that they'll start this thing and in 3 months it's either going to be making a ton of money or it's going to be acquired for a lot of money.

Trouble is, that's not how it usually works.

It took us 8 months for us to start making enough money to begin paying ourselves salaries.

Building a business takes time, and it's something that when you sign up should be something you're marrying. I get it that one day you might want to start something else, but 3 months? Even 3 years, before most people want to give up?

I loved Sylvester Stallone's story told by Tony Robbins. A story of just pure perseverance.

This post is related to another post I've read recently.

"It’s going to take five years"

Monday, March 15, 2010

Look everywhere else for inspiration

I'm reading a neat book by Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design.

He had an awesome section on inspiration and a lesson he learned from his juggling days.

He was at a juggling festival when he was 14 and saw someone in a powder blue jumpsuit juggling there who really stood out from all the other professional jugglers. Not because of his suit, or because the guy was doing anything complicated, but because he had a style about him that was very unique and remarkable. This impressive juggler saw that Jesse was watching him and they had this conversation.

Powder blue jumpsuit: "Know why my tricks look so different?"

Jesse: "Uh, practice".

Jumpsuit: "No - everybody practices. Look around! They're all practicing. No, my tricks look different because of where I get them. These guys, they get their tricks from each other. Which is fine - you can learn a lot that way. But it will never make you stand out."

Jesse: "So where do you get them? Books?"

Jumpsuit: "Ha! Books. That's a good one. No, not books. You wanna know my secret? The secret is: don't look to other jugglers for inspiration - look everywhere else. I learned this one watching a ballet in New York (as he does a trick) And this one I learned from a flock of geese I saw take off from a lake up in Maine... See, these guys can copy my moves, but they can't copy my inspiration (After pointing out someone copying a move but looking bad in the process)."

You also see this type of copying Jesse saw at the festival all the time in this industry of ours of selling online software. Application after application looks like a knock off of someone else's design. Which is great for learning, but as pale blue jumpsuit pointed out, these things will never look as good as the original because they lack inspiration.

An example from our business that might fit this lesson of where to find inspiration is one of the reasons we created tgethr, an online project management application we use.

I threw a potluck dinner party of about 10 people and realized how much I enjoyed these small groups of friends sitting together enjoying a meal instead of trying to mingle with these same people at a much larger and louder party. Or even trying to eat at a much louder restaurant with hordes of other people.

I also realized that Facebook and Twitter felt like huge loud parties too me, and the conversations I have there are short and choppy because of the noise. The people who I hear in those places are the ones that are yelling the loudest and most often.

We wanted to create a space online where people felt more like they were at a small dinner party sitting around the table with family and friends to have a conversation without yelling in short sentences. And now today we think we've accomplished that somewhat. I end up having much better conversations with friends and family online than I was having before. Of course, these conversations aren't like the real thing, but they feel like we accomplished something great, when people tell us what tgethr feels like to them, and it matches what we were inspired to do.

"i love it. unlike facebook and twitter, i don’t feel like i’m broadcasting my business out to hundreds of my ‘friends’, making sure it’s generic and non-offensive… and even more important not getting random blurts from people i barely remember. tgethr feels more like sitting around a table chatting with your peoples." - Isaac K., Chicago


Here's the Google Book's snippet of the inspiration section from Jesse's book. I haven't finished the book yet, but there's a lot more great stuff in here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chicago startup extravaganza

Last night I had the pleasure of being a judge at a start-up competition/meet up put together by MidVentures here in Chicago. 25 local start-ups were chosen to be in the running for some cash and prizes, and several in addition to that just came and set up tables anyway. Myself and the other judges (the founders of GroupOn and OpenTable, a Google executive, the founder of an options trading house, and a VC partner from OCA Ventures) got to walk around for 3 hours talking to all these start-ups, then compiled our scores to come up with a top 5, and ultimately our top 1 after hearing the top 5 pitch to the crowd for 3 minutes each and answer questions from the judges.

Some random thoughts I wrote in my moleskine on my train ride home after the event:
  • These were mostly early stage companies, so lots of people bootstrapping vs. having taken funding. Being largely bootstrapped ourselves, I obviously have a lot of respect for this approach but also recognize it's a tougher road.
  • Because of all the bootstrapping, lots of focus in the start up pitches about how they're going to make money, customer acquisition costs, etc. There was no "we'll figure out the business model later."
  • Related, I didn't meet a single team who was trying to use advertising as a primary revenue model.
  • Disappointing number of founders lacking the actual skills to build and design stuff themselves. Lots of business people "outsourcing" the technology development.
  • I saw very few name tags of people from big companies in the area. No Boeing, no Motorola, no McDonalds, no Kraft. Maybe they were there, but from this and other evidence I've seen, there seems to be a disconnect between the entrepreneur community and big Chicago business which is unfortunate. I think those companies would have been interested in some of the companies there last night.
  • Lots of discussion about the lack of respect Chicago gets as a start up hub even though some incredibly successful companies got their start and operate here. Time to get over it though and just keep pushing ahead - there were over 400 people that showed up last night which is testament to the promotion job MidVentures did but also for the enthusiasm that already exists locally.
  • The influence of Paul Graham and a few other luminaries we all read is pretty evident. Heard many "just trying to get to ramen profitable" quotes.

The winner, by the way was

Other start ups I saw that I really liked:
  • Rent Monitor - Beautiful management software for landlords
  • JoeMetric - Mobile platform for conducting market research
  • Genlighten - Outsourced genealogy research using qualified librarians all around the US
  • Give Forward - Personal campaign software to raise money for medical expenses of sick relatives

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finding the fundamentals. A lesson an old friend taught me about searching for too much advice

There's been some new debate around how to run a business and manage projects, especially caused by new efforts from Joel Spolsky of FogCreek and Jason Fried of 37signals. These two are very successful business owners and effective managers, but have many differences in how they run their businesses.

For example, Joel's given up blogging, but of course Jason thinks it's critical to building an audience. Or their views on VC funding, Joel's working on getting some and Jason's pretty anti-VC. Frequently they have their differences and different teachings.

Made me think of a lesson I learned many years ago from observing a great friend of my father's. His name was Roy Bystrom.

Mr. Bystrom was an awesome inventor. He was dyslexic and largely self taught in everything he did. But he was also awesome at everything he seemed to touch. First of all, he's like a household name in go karting. He had a company that made clutches that many karters would use. Here's some people remembering their karting stories of Mr. Bystrom.

Here's a patent he had on clutches too.

But Mr. Bystrom also fixed microscopes and sold things like thermocouples he'd build and sell to the government. Not only was he this great engineer, but he was an award winning photographer.

Where am I going with this?

Well Mr. Bystrom also had a hobby that consumed him. Golf.

But the thing is, Mr. Bystrom never mastered golf like he did the other things. And his problem was that he constantly overanalyzed how to play golf rather than just playing his own game of golf.

He had every book, every magazine, every gadget. He even built his own.

And he'd practice like a mad man. But whenever he practiced, he tried a new way to swing. A new way to putt. One day he'd be trying to bring the golf club slowly back, one day he'd do it quickly, one day he'd try and start with his weight on this foot, one day he'd do this and that.

He once took a lesson with a golf pro who was my boss at the time, and an awesome golfer himself, O.B. Sanders. When Mr. Bystrom was taking this lesson, he asked "O.B., so I have these two different Golf Digest magazines, and one article says you should start with your weight on your right foot. But this Golf Digest says to start with your weight on the left foot. Which is right?"

O.B.'s advice was: it doesn't matter. What matters is what works for you, what your comfortable with, and what you can learn to do without even thinking about it.

Running a business is a lot like that. So many people read every friggin business book ever written. They go to every blog and question and answer site. They are constantly asking the same question over and over and over again, looking for a secret.

And guess what? People are going to have different opinions on raising money, managing employees, developing code and prototypes, and on and on. And if you read enough of them, you'll find people that you hold in the very highest respects, who are more successful running their business than you think you'll ever be, but who have completely different opinions on being successful.

The lesson though from Mr. Bystrom's experience, is that it just doesn't matter. What feels right to you? Joel and Jason clearly show that you have multiple options on this path. So what feels natural and good to you? You like making paper mockups and having meetings and getting more and more partners in VCs to help you run your business. Than bingo. That's not my way, but if it's what you like doing just go and run it, that way.

Sure, you need advice and education. But you need to figure out what you feel are the fundamentals. All the debate and all the worry about the one correct golden secret formula someone else has to running your project or business is just going to lead you to playing a poor game. You'll be spending more time wavering and changing and working against how you naturally want to work, that you'll never be comfortable, and neither will your employees, or your customers.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Be a comedian

Lately I've been inspired by what comedians do.

Not the school or office clown.

But the guy that gets paid to share his view of the world.

I very much believe that building an audience through a blog and through teaching are an important aspect to marketing yourself and your business. And a great way to build an audience and teach is to develop a point of view that other people don't have yet.

Comedians spend all day doing this.

Comedians also spend a great deal of time pointing out things that don't make sense. Things that are hilarious because of our foolishness. Things that need fixing.

One huge favorite of mine is Louis C.K. Here's a bit about him being broke and some of the absurdity that follows from it. Or how we take life and technology for granted to the point of feeling entitled to things: "Everything is so amazing and nobody is happy."

Another comedian that I've been following a bit, who most people don't even realize is a comedian is Matt Linderman who works for 37signals. For many of the people reading this blog, Matt is recognizable from his gig at 37. But Matt also does standup under a pseudonym. Here's some of his stuff on youtube.

What stands out to me is that Matt is one of the most prolific writers on the 37signals blog which is a pretty important tool for them to market their business.

Matt also cowrote the first book with Jason Fried at 37signals, and I believe is a big part of the second, Getting Real. (Oddly his name doesn't appear on their latest book Rework that was just released which I'm a bit surprised by. Maybe this was more an effort just from Jason and David this time. )

Any time he spends, opening up his mind to observe the world from different angles for use in finding comedy, exercises part of the brain that too often goes unused for most of us. The part of our brain that works on forming our unique opinions of the world.

We are good about coming up with opinions when we know other people already have had them. But most of us have a hard time sifting through our thoughts finding the things that are different and unique. And we also have a hard time sifting through and finding the things that we should be teaching others.

Matt and many of his fellow comedians though are working constantly at this, and I think a lot more can be learned from studying them.

Comedy is also a way of story telling that invokes a physical reaction. Which as writers and teachers we strive to accomplish and improve even if our material is a bit more... cerebral?

To study comedy a bit more as a way of expanding my mind and thinking, I've picked up a Groupon to take a class at Chicago's ComedySportz. I'll let you know how it goes.


Funny, in researching this post, I found Matt's favorite comedian is Louis CK :)

And here's another great one about standing up to failure.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Inkling in 50 of the Best Websites Developed Using Ruby on Rails

Andy Boyd of Setfire Media created a list of "some of the best rails sites out there", and Inkling Prediction Markets got a spot amongst some big ones like Basecamp, Github and Hulu.

"A highly original site with a unique take on question asking and answering."

Thanks Andy!

$2 and the beach is a great way to neutralize the burn of ambition

"It doesn't cost anything to go to the beach" - Anna Torv (the actress who plays a part on Fox's TV show Fringe)

Although this is a tiny stretch, it's pretty much in the ballpark. Especially in Chicago when it's warm.

A beach here is a great equalizer of sorts. Sure some guys might have taken a white Lamborghini to the beach ;) But anyone else that needs transport to a Chicago beach can get there for a $2 bus ride if they can't already walk.

Water and warm weather are crazy. They're like magic. For me, it's often where I can put ambition in check. Where I can find balance with my desire to always improve and become better.

Ambition is like a dangerous chemical.

It can be used to achieve great things. Brilliant chemical reactions. But it can also burn like an acid.

For some reason for me, and seemingly for many others, beaches of warm sand and water seem to bring us back to the now and remove us temporarily from our ambition. At the beach, again especially in Chicago, are all demographics, all ethnicities, all income levels and professions. All usually doing the same exact thing.

Enjoying a perfect moment.

I read the quote above on a trip to San Francisco last week. Coincidentally I got to spend some time just walking by water. The weather was a bit chilly and the water is always too cold to swim in, but still, the water has a way of providing calm.

I also got to visit a Japanese tea garden, where I found a splendid but tiny waterfall.

What is it about water? Especially running water and waves that does this for us? Again even this simple waterfall has the impact of bringing people back to the now.

That seems to be a big point of a Japenese tea garden. They even have these zig zag bridges which according to Wikipedia, are zig zagged to encourage you to pay very close attention to how you're walking across them. Because if you have your mind on something else, it's very easy to fall in the water they cross.

Hopefully, you have found the things that help you step back from your ambition. Afterall, even though we want to achieve more and get more and be better, in the end, we usually all enjoy pretty much the exact same things. And often those things are actually achievable today without having or doing much more than spending $2 on the bus.


*When it's winter in Chicago, you'll need to find something else :)

Friday, March 05, 2010

Oscar Predictions Guide

I, like many others will sit down to watch the Oscars on Sunday night, at least until I doze off after a boring string of categories or get tired of the continued cheesy rendition by the Oscar Orchestra of some theme song for an 8 or 9 time winner.

So going in to the weekend, I thought it would be fun to report on what some of the predictions are according to the people participating in The Envelope, the LA Times Inkling powered iPhone prediction app we helped with. So here goes:

Category Leading Answer Chance of Being Correct Total No. of Trades
Music Score Up 80% 898
Best Song "The Weary Kind" 93% 939
Cinematography Mauro Fiore / Avatar 56% 1,033
Documentary The Cove 74% 1,060
Foreign Language Film The White Ribbon 68% 974
Director Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker 80% 3,331
Lead Actor Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart 95% 2,648
Screenplay (Adapted) Jason Reitman - Up in the Air 74% 1,091
Screenplay (Original) Quentin Tarantino - Inglorious Basterds 68% 1,393
Best Picture Avatar 50% 7,711
Lead Actress Sandra Bullock - The Blind Side 68% 3,125
Supporting Actor Christopher Waltz - Inglorious Basterds 99% 2,080
Supporting Actress Mo'Nique - Precious 98% 3,000
Visual Effects Avatar 98% 1,155
Animated Feature Up 92% 1,802

A non-weird way to talk to your friend's girlfriend/wife - a collaboration tool

Or boyfriend/husband.

I wanted to point out something funny I observed. So we have this project management/collaboration tool for messaging called tgethr right? Well one of the main uses I have for it outside work is to put groups of my friends together.

But what is the most popular group of friends I notice I'm putting together?

Our couples friends.

I make groups of 4. My wife and I and the other couple. This way we can plan couples dates and all know what's getting planned.

But here's another huge benefit.

I can email or continue a conversation with the opposite gender in the other couple without it being super weird.

An alternative would be emailing my friends wife or girlfriend directly about that book she mentioned or thing she's doing at work. And that would never happen. Because it's weird. Right? :) Private conversations like that get suspicious and awkward fast.

So the solution: make the conversation like it's still at the dinner table. Everyone is privy to it. Use whatever project management or collaboration tool you want, but I think this might be a little overlooked way to improve conversations with the couples you are dating :)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The repetition of death

"People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily." - Zig Ziglar

I have no idea who Zig is, but I like this quote. Especially because I recently noticed how much I've been surrounded by stories of death:

- Just re watched the Steve Jobs Stanford speech. Key point: if you live each day like it will be your last, one day you'll certainly be right.

- Saw the Gabrielle Bouliane video and even showed this to a bunch of students I spoke to at the University of Illinois. Key point: she had stage 4 cancer when this was filmed. "Don't you dare waste your fucking time".

- "Instantes" by Jorge Luis Borges. Key point: "If I were able to live my life anew, In the next I would try to commit more errors... But already you see, I am 85, and I know that I am dying."

- I'm reading the book of one of the main executives behind AOL, The Business of Happiness by Ted Leonsis. Key point: This guy thought he was going to die in a plane incident, instead he lived and has been trying to lead a life of achieving happiness.

It's crazy how quickly we get a boost of motivation from listening to the reality of how life is truly short. But then that motivation fades. Sometimes within minutes.

My wife and I were just talking about all these death anecdotes above and agreeing with their impact, when, seriously, minutes later there was frustration about the mess in the kitchen. It was like, "yep we are going to die soon, and we need to accomplish more of what we want before then, but oh, we better not die with this pile of papers on the kitchen counter, and we better get frustrated about it" :)

It was interesting too when I showed the video of Gabrielle. The host of the conference had seen my slides and the video a few times. But the time I showed it in front of the students she started crying. She already knew what was coming, but the impact was even greater on the 3rd time watching this thing.

It's crazy how often these stories need to repeat constantly for us to continue to be impacted by their message (or even once at all): Life is short.

But we need to keep hearing it over and over. Like Zig says, we are constantly getting ourselves dirty in this life. People criticize us, things don't go our way, we fall down and get scraped and bruised. We and others around us need the repetition.

Look at musicians. They keep singing songs about heartbreak and we just keep listening and looking for the twist they provide.

Look at 37signals. Their philosophies aren't that unique. Cornerstone of their philosophy is "less". Minimilism, less, simplicity and clarity also happen to be cornerstones of guys like Mies van der Rohe in the early 1900s and I'm sure you can trace those themes much further back. But 37signals shares how these themes work inside their own company and with their own bits. They sing their own song.

And people love and need to hear the theme again.

So next time you feel like you can't blog or write or teach or create because someone else has done this before. Are you sure? Are you sure you aren't unique? People need repetition, and they need the same thing in different packages often enough that you better think long and hard about giving up on something just because you think someone else is doing it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Thinking about competitors

A great quote from Henry Ford came through my twitter stream (thanks @ArikJohnson) today that really resonated with me:

"The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time."

When we first started out 4 years ago, we were pretty obsessive about monitoring what our competitors were doing. I had google alerts set up for everyone and everything remotely related to prediction markets and collective intelligence and monitored my RSS feeds obsessively.

I'm not now saying "be more naive." We certainly still keep an eye on things, try competitive products out when they launch something new, and are mindful of what criticisms are being levied against us whenever we are in a competitive bidding process so we can respond accordingly. But we've made a marked shift from those early days and have really tried to just focus on ourselves vs. having knee-jerk reactions to competitive activity or criticism from bloggers.

For a more mature industry, especially one that may have strong price sensitivities, it makes sense to be more directly attuned to what your primary competitors are doing. In fact we know several companies that use Inkling to predict what their competitors will do in the future.

But when you are in a market where only a small percentage of companies have even heard of what you do like ours, the playing field is vast.

Keep your head down, focus on how you want to evolve your business to maximize growth opportunities, take signals from your existing users and clients instead of your competitors, and don't worry so much about what everyone else is saying and doing.

Your business will be better for it, and you'll be less anxious and paranoid to boot!

Monday, March 01, 2010

New corporate homepage

We put up a new homepage today. A lot of the content has been refreshed to better reflect the way we've been doing business lately: focusing on specific business solutions vs. a swiss army knife approach and using a delivery methodology as the basis for working with our clients. We also have tried to better describe how our software can be deployed and what features it has to continue to differentiate ourselves from our competition.

You can click to the site and have a look yourself, but what I wanted to really discuss in this post is a great testing utility called Five Second Test one of our friends at GrubHub told us about. Basically you take a screenshot of your draft design and it gets put in front of people for 5 seconds. You can either ask them to click on the things they notice the most in those 5 seconds, or just view the design, then write everything they remember after the 5 seconds.

The couple rounds of testing we did were certainly illuminating. For example, we know the two most important things on our site are driving people to set up pilots and reading about our business solutions. As you can see on the click map, they got noticed, but only after we made the buttons opaque vs. translucent. The translucency looked cooler but function needed to follow form in this case. We also learned people were clicking on things we hadn't made linkable. In response, we made sure to eliminate all those dead zones so every major element goes to something.

One aspect of the design I'm still concerned about is the link to login or sign up to our public marketplace. We used to have a sticky with some handwriting on it that people complained they missed when on our site. This time I used the "highlight color" in our palette to help it stand out against the darker background, but people still didn't notice it as much as I would have liked in our testing. Fortunately Five Second Testing makes it really easy to go through a number of iterations and get feedback in minutes which we'll surely continue to do.

If you get a chance, have a look at the new site and let us know what you think. We even welcome you to stay longer than 5 seconds.

Oh and be sure to click on the paper fold in the upper right!

HTML email campaigns - is sending them a waste of your time?

One of the things in our series of tasks of running a business is marketing ourselves. And part of that marketing is sending out email campaigns. Specifically our email campaigns are used to tell users who've signed up for accounts that some new important stuff is available to them.

Don't those HTML emails that you get from places like Apple and 37signals look awesome?

Don't the HTML templates and wizards from MailChimp, CampaignMonitor, MadMimi make it look like you can have something gorgeous too?

Don't you assume that "man, if my emails look gorgeous, we'll get more potential customers to pay attention and convert to actual customers?

I bet. I know I expect those things.

The problem is those HTML emails are tough to create. The mailing tools might have some decent wizards now to make them, but they still require testing to make sure they look ok. But with soooo many email clients, there's soooo many things that can go wrong with your email. From images turned off, to how styles are applied.

Making an HTML email can take a long time and end up costing you some good money.

So are they worth it?

Over the years of helping run Inkling I've been becoming a non-believer in HTML email so I set out to prove it to myself.

My hypothesis was that most HTML email looks like spam or maybe something more benign, but still stuff you can easily throw out without missing a thing. My hypothesis also was that a short plain text email might catch your eye because it looks less automated.

So we setup a split test with MailChimp. They've got a pretty good split testing feature (but split testing completely different designs was some additional pain).

tgethr, our web and email-based project management software got a pretty cool and important new feature lately that we thought people should be updated about. For our test, we crafted up a pretty HTML email as well as what looked like a plain text email, but was really HTML so that MailChimp could track opens and clicks.

We sent this test out to a fraction of folks who own tgethr groups. Group A got the pretty email.

Group B the plain text looking one.

Here are the results:

What do they say? Statistically it is inconclusive that either Group A or Group B is better. Conversion in my test being "a click" over to tgethr, our blog, or our survey. The plain text looking email got 11.3% conversion and the fancy email got a 9.3% conversion.

So if there is a tie here or rather the results are inconclusive and would take thousands of more clicks just to tell if there is a better click through rate for the fancy email, is making the fancy email worth it?

Doesn't seem like it to me. While I know there is something more to sending out a pretty email than just getting clicks -- maybe more of those clicks end up turning into customers down the road, or perhaps people remember you more because of that beautiful design.

But I'm not convinced. And the most important metric in these emails is probably whether or not anyone bothers to click back to your site. Since that didn't improve with the effort of making our email fancier, for this campaign, I'll likely send the remainder of users the plain text email.

I will continue to test campaigns like this for ourselves. Because, you could argue that it's possible the single screen shot in the HTML email explained the feature enough and people didn't feel like they still needed to click. And of course there's the argument that people don't like the word "Hello" in the image header, and changing those things would actually lead to better results.

All this is true, and just means you should test and not take this stuff for granted. But I think there's some evidence here that should make you real cautious with just assuming that you need to be sending out pretty HTML email campaigns.

If you are Victoria Secret, you probably NEED to show pretty emails. And obviously Apple thinks they do too. But I'm curious, would Apple have much better click throughs in their emails if instead of showing me a picture of a new iPad, maybe its a three sentence email "from Steve" telling me to check out the new iPad in the Apple store? They should probably test it.

You should test this stuff yourself too. I expect many of your competitors are wasting time on HTML emails. Time better spent on building stuff or marketing in some other way.