Were we born to run?

Do you remember running as a child? If you’ve got kids watch them run. Unbridled joy and beautiful form in any kind of shoe. Why do so many lose this as they get older? What happened?  Currently, I’m training for my first 50 miler, the Quicksilver 50 Mile on May 8th. Tell people you’re running 50 miles and they look at you like you’re crazy. But lately, I’ve been enjoying running like I was a child again.

The unabridged audio version of Chris McDougall’s Born to Runhas only fanned the flames, filling me with conviction that I’m rediscovering what we were all meant to do. I was heading out in some brand new shoes when I got to the section which argues the heel strike advocated by Nike’s Bill Bowerman was only enabled by the cushioned shoes Nike was trying to sell, and this modified foot strike, is the source of most running injuries. Apparently, people get injured running more often now than they did in the 70s before the rise of this new foot strike and shoe type.

I was a prolific teenage runner, who used to have a natural midfoot-toe strike and who used to love just running.  About 10 years ago, I developed knee problems with a heel strike and overstriding (extending the leg straight out in front prior to impact).  Since reverting back to my natural style and spending more time barefoot, I’ve been running faster and with less injuries.  Chris McDougall tells of similar experiences.

The Vibram Five Finger shoe is the poster child for this new barefoot/natural running movement.  It’s a bizarre invention to those of us used to the modern running shoe, and certainly a conversation starter – a Vibram rubber glove for your feet.  You only have to look at the customer reviews to see how much people love these things, injuries decrease and they never want to wear heeled shoes again.  I’m going to get a pair myself to see if they address the chronic ilio-tibial band (ITB) issues I’ve been dealing with.

BTW, the book is fantastic on a number of levels and also a wonderful audio book that will make any workout fly by.  It builds to this incredible 50 mile race on the Tarahumara‘s home turf, by way of Chris’ personal story, and many wonderful side bars on legends and characters in the sport of ultrarunning like Scott Jurek, 7 time Western States 100 mile winner, and Ann Trason.  He explores nutrition and running shoes, and the amazing story of persistence hunting – a technique still practiced by a very few Kalahari bushmen, and a theory that we evolved to be able to actually consistently run antelope and other pray down via exhaustion (the key is not speed, but 3-5 hours of endurance and team work) and we evolved very specific body parts to assist with this.  In other words we were born to run.  If nothing else, I no longer feel like I’m the odd one for taking on a 50 miler.

Finding the time to Crush It!

photo courtesy of IanL

If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of Gray Vaynerchuk’s Crush It!, do yourself a favor.  As Gary admits, during one of his many ad libs, he dictated the book to a ghost writer anyway, so this is actually the format it was meant to be heard in.  Scrap that, you need the video-cast, to get the full “gary vee” experience (like his awesome Wine Library TV video blog).

For those not familiar, Gary is another of the social media celebrities, who helped grow his family’s wine business from $4M to $60M in 5 years, who has a ridiculous number of followers on twitter and fans on facebook. He brought passion and a raw approachability to demystifying the enjoyment of wine, which the industry sorely needed.

If you need to get pumped up about whatever it is you are passionate about doing, the audio version of this book  could get just about anybody excited.  The passion and excitement in his voice is palpable and infectious. And for most of us, finding time to listen in the car or working out is a lot easier than finding time to read.

Now this takes us to the crux of the problem – finding the time.

Unlike Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week, Gary is not suggesting creating a “muse” that will earn big dollars for you with minimum time investment, so you can life the life of your dreams now.  He’s actually suggesting a LOT of hard work.  Your priorities are family, health and then your passion.  Kiss the wife and kids good night and get to work 9pm-2am.  Every night. Repeat.  Don’t worry about the stats, if you’re the best in your narrowly-defined field (finding a niche small enough that you can be best in the world at it is key), and passionate about it, the rabid fans will come and stay, and, over time, you’ll be able to monetize your passion, and give up your day job.  We’re not talking crazy wealth here, just $50-100K which is good enough for a decent life, and at least your spending your waking hours doing something you give a damn about.

The book has a decent amount of tactical advice on how to do all of this, from getting a URL to setting up a blog site, to creating great content.  Where all the work comes is in engaging with the audience.  This is of course where most of us fall down.  We get obsessed with the content and forget about building the community.  They won’t appear all by themselves, you have to make them want to come, again and again.  If you want to understand the degree of this dedication, he still answers every tweet or email, despite the staggering volume he receives..  I tried this and its true.  Less than 24 hours after tweeting props about the audiobook, he @ replied back with a thank you.  Amazing.

After hearing the book, I was naturally pumped to try this out.  And that’s when it dawns on you.  You have got to want this more than anything else to make it happen.  You need the chutzpah and the hustle to self-promote.  Endlessly. I can handle a few late nights in a row, but then I run out of gas.  And I love spending time with my family.  And I have an awesome day job.  So now, I want to combine Seth’s Linchpin with Gary’s Crush It! and make this happen on my day job.  Because that’s near and present.  And that way it doesn’t have to be 9pm-2am every night.

My lizard brain wants me to stop…

But I must ship this before the publication date. Even if its not perfect.

A mother and daughter in the row in front of me start arguing over something like who paid for the DIRECTV. The argument escalates into a rehash of an apparently longstanding feud with lots of name-calling and cussing. They eventually settle back into an episode of “Keeping up with the Kalashnikovs” or whatever they call it – life imitating art I suppose. The girl next to me is whining incessantly on the phone about some injustice her father has apparently inflicted upon her. None of the flight crew is doing anything more than trying to survive this flight. I picture them all with lizard heads poking out from their shirts and retreat back to my advance copy of Linchpin, Seth Godin’s latest, desperately hoping for a little art or the opportunity of a gift in the day.

The Ritz-Carlton in Ft. Lauderdale comes to the rescue with an artful greeting (the magic is achieved with headsets relaying the guest’s name to the check-in desk) followed by the unnecessary but delightful step of helping me find my room, confirming that it is ok, and asking about the purpose of my stay. I hesitated at the conclusion (time for the tip), as Seth suggests that money cheapens the gift, but the protocol is pretty clear on tipping (unlikely many other aspects of American tipping which I continue to find baffling and embarrassing) and followed the easy path of convention. Seth suggests adding a why it was great through a “Thank you and …” construction – I guess I’ll need more practice on that one.

I love the central idea behind this book and the logic of the call-to-action. Your choice:

  • Take the apparently risky and courageous path of becoming an indispensable human, and in the meantime discover meaning and lifelong employment, or
  • Follow the indoctrination of many years of society and education and remain a faceless cog in the machine, increasingly dispensable, and at the mercy of your employer and the forces of globalization

If you accept the hypothesis that we all have this choice (and Seth argues that regardless of nature or nurture that we all have genius within us), or even that it’s better to die trying than not, it’s pretty obvious which is actually the less risky path.

Much like Dan Pink’s wonderful A Whole New Mind, which I reviewed previously, Godin passionately argues that times have changed, and a new approach is the key to success. The good news is the new approach should make you not only more successful but happier and wealthier at the same time. Bring it on!

In the last few weeks, I’ve reflected on my life and current work. There is no doubt that when I’ve put in that extra effort at work or home it’s typically yielded noticeably better outcomes, and been warmly acknowledged by the recipients, which has given back to me a sense of fulfillment far in excess of that extra effort. In the same few weeks, by actively pursuing ways to go above and beyond I’ve significantly elevated my value in what becomes a marvelous positive feedback loop – do something unexpected and great, be acknowledged, feel great, create and give more art. This concept is not new, but the imperative for action is arguably stronger than ever.

The table of contents is brilliantly presented as an executive summary with sentences describing the key ideas under each chapter title. Godin proposes that between management and workers (the cogs in the machine) there is room for a new class of indispensable workers – the linchpins. Like Ayn Rand’s heroes but more forgiving in the sense that linchpins work with the world as it is, rather than running off to form their own utopia. The book is peppered with Seth’s trademark pithy one-liners, clever observations, arguments and definitions (for example “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient“), and fabulous quotes such as this one from artist Hugh MacLeod: “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.” Best of all are the hand-drawn charts. and Venn diagrams like the one at left from page 101.

If you’re inspired to try to become a linchpin (and most of the readers will be), there are a few tips and guidelines but importantly no map to enlightenment. Everyone’s destination and path will be different and ever-changing. The resistance to this life of art and gift giving will be driven by the lizard brain, the primitive bits called the amygdala that “apparently takes over whenever you are angry, afraid, aroused, hungry or in search of revenge”. One key tactic is to remember that artists ship. If you procrastinate and never publish your work, you can’t succeed. With that in mind, I better stop here and press the button.

Seth, thank you for this little gem of a book – you are a constant source of wisdom and inspiration.

Dear readers, good luck out there. May you all choose wisely.

Less is More: Cleaning Up Packaging For Kids

Been a busy couple of weeks, so I’m going to leave the deep and meaningful for a quick observation on packaging for kids. In brief, less is more: costs less, cause less mess, makes customers happier.

Yogurt tubes are a great idea – convenient packaging for on-the-go snacks for kids.  Why do they fill them up so much?

yogurt1

Another full tube

yogurt2

Another messy outcome

When you tear off the top, you invariably get large globs of yogurt in your lap and on your fingers.  Can reduce a kid to tears.  If you’re opening the tube (often requires too much dexterity and strength too open for kids under 4) you get covered.  Particularly annoying if driving and defeats the purpose of convenient packaging.  I ‘m going to write a letter to Horizon and Stonyfield today to suggest they increase the size of the package or put less in them.  Either would be fine with me.  Fill to bursting is not a good solution.  Could cost them less in the long run, and result in cleaner, happier customers.  Isn’t that a win-win?

clifshotenergygel

A smarter design retains torn off top

Be nice if they copied the idea from Clif Shot Energy Gels and made the tearing a little easier and had a strip to retain the torn off piece (see phot0).  But let’s just start with the level of fill.

 

 

 

 

Same goes for portable juice boxes.  Check out this video.  Again, too much fluid is the culprit.  They might as well call these thing juice pistols.  Insert straw, give to child. Child grabs with hands that are still learning how to grip at the appropriate level of force, juice goes all over their outfit, they cry, and you have to put on a new outfit and start again.  In the video they’re flogging a non-squeezable holder to put the juice box into.  That’s one way to solve the problem, but doesn’t address the cause.  Might be better to put a 1-way valve on the container that only opens when they suck on it.  Would make serving easier, as pulling off the straw and unwrapping it adds time and effort.  When you’re dealing with kids, every second counts.   Guess that’s going to take some more letters.

Finally, the ultimate evil – blister packs.  Is shop lifting so bad that we all have to endure these insanely strong and sharp packages?  I think there’s beenso much passion here for so long from so many (see the comments on this blog), that that things might actually be starting to move in the right direction.   Obviously, less would be more here as well.

MBTI: Useful or Just Interesting?

IntuitionBySandyMcMullen

Intuition by Sandy McMullen

I’m fortunate to work with a very smart team. One of them has had a lot of experience and training with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and led a session at a recent offsite.  (If you’re not familiar with MBTI, there’s a good description on Wikipedia, but essentially a series of questions are used to diagnose a preference for Introversion or Extroversion, Intuition or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, and Judging or Perception.  This test gives each individual one of 16 types, such as ENTJ, made up of all combinations of the 4 pairs of opposites.)  It’s all very clever and fascinating, and remarkably popular, but I’m constantly struck by its complexity and the question: What can you actually do with it?

You may not be aware that a score on one of the four axes simply indicates the clarity of preference, not ability.  It also is not a score of the strength of the preference (I interpret this as: not how much you prefer introversion for example, but how reliable the prediction is likely to be accurate that you are actually an introvert).  On the T-F dichotomy the test indicates (most times) that I have a slight preference for F.  Having low clarity can be due to cultural, social, family, or other reasons.  My colleague has explained that if someone scores an even split, e.g. 12 for T, 12 for F, then the tie is broken in the opposite direction of the governing societal bias.  In America this means ties are broken in the direction of I, N, F or P.  So given that MBTI doesn’t predict preference or ability, just because you score I, doesn’t mean you can’t either be a brilliant presenter (once of my B-school’s favorite lecturers fell into this camp) and/or enjoying being in a crowd.  Wikipedia puts it bluntly “Someone reporting a high score for extraversion over introversion cannot be correctly described as more extraverted: they simply have a clear preference.” Hence my question, what should I actually do with this?

I’ve gone through MBTI testing and workshops about 5 times in the last 11 years.  I’ve never seen anyone do anything useful with it.  I’ve have seen it create fear and doubt in the participants, wondering what it will be actually used for.  The workshops have typically been lively affairs, as people enjoy typecasting their colleagues and chuckle nervously as their intimate inner workings are potentially revealed.  There are labels applied to each of the 16 types such as Author (INFJ) or Field Marshall (ENTJ)  that people latch onto (as they are much easier to remember, and create a potential story).  The presenter typically throws up a grid of the 16 types with the team’s names in each of the boxes and people not sagely and ruminate on the potential implications.  By the next day, every participant has forgotten at least their colleagues’ types, and perhaps even their own, can’t remember the difference between everything except I and E, and there are no ongoing action items.  Is this symptomatic of a weakness with how MBTI is taught or the underlying methodology or both?

Circling back to the key question: if it doesn’t indicate strength of preference or ability what do you do with it?   Our current team has too many ENTJ’s and ENTP’s and only 1 person with a dominant S (our only female consultant).  I’m sure this means we have too many white upper-middle class males on the team, but I didn’t need a MBTI test to tell me we lack diversity.  We can’t use the MBTI for hiring, so we need another tool to decide what we are looking for to fill in these blind spots.  Perhaps I should ask the Meebo team (at Failcon they spoke about their explicit policy to hire those not like them.)  As I mentioned in that post, my experience at RSM with highly diverse teams was mixed – I’m not sure how you get the optimal amount of dissonance to drive creativity and fill blind spots yet still play nice together.

I was intrigued by the idea that in times of stress MBTI could be used to predict what behavior one would revert too.  If you knew a colleague’s type and their likely behavior under stress you could potentially develop the capability to detect they were stressed and a method for addressing it.  That does mean you have to know them pretty well, but its certainly possible.  I’ve actually found the best resource for dealing for stressful situations is outlined Crucial Conversations.  In this brilliant book, the authors describe how, when people get stressed, the amygdala section of the brain (the primitive “fight or flight” instinct governor) kicks in resulting in emotional and dangerous communication in which people invariably say things in ways they ultimately regret, typically escalating rather than resolving situations.  We’ve all experienced this in our professional and personal lives.  Some of us let it all out, and some run away or shut down.  Neither of these approaches is very effective.  Crucial Conversations provides some practical tools for detecting these situations as they occur, and then helping whoever is no-longer in a safe place (yourself or the other party) get back there by searching for and stating common objectives and using these to guide the conversation back to a productive place.  I’ve found it to be tremendously helpful both at work and home, but it does take practice.

The most useful workshop I ever went to on personality typing was led by a sales guy.   We all love to typecast salespeople as ADD, and maybe that characteristic (plus being a sales guy) resulted in his promotion of a simple and effective set of tools.   After you meet someone in a sales situation, you have to rapidly decide how best to communicate with them.  The best way to do this is to meet them on their side of the differences.  In other words, be more like them, and you’ll get along better.  The well-known aspects of this include searching for areas of commonality (a sporting interest, kids, people you’ve known, locations you’ve lived in) and echoing physical position.  You’ve probably met someone who likes to talk before getting down to business and others who are the opposite.  In this workshop, we learnt how to read those first responses to opening questions (expansive vs. short) to gauge when to start talking shop.  My takeaway is that in the vast majority of interactions you can’t whip out the MBTI test, you’ve got to make a snap assessment based on a few indicators and go with that.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people typically tend to prefer to either work collaboratively: thinking aloud, in public and on a whiteboard or projector, or to work privately and use meetings for review cycles.  This can be hard to read, but when someone is quiet or getting uncomfortable in a group session its usually an indicator of the latter.  Likewise understanding whether people prefer numbers and factual evidence to anecdotes and stories is hard to read, but typically comes from reading the non-verbal communication – are they nodding heads or frowning, arms crossed or even not paying attention.  Of course there could be some other personal or work crisis weighing on their mind, but at least these are indicators worth investigating directly.

Apologies to the legions of MBTI fans out there, but my conclusion is that MBTI is great for amateur Jungians and psychiatrists, but too complex and inconclusive for the rest of us.  It may have some nuggets in it, and with this much time invested, I’d love to know what they are.  What would be great is tools for:

  • Understanding rapidly the key dimensions that affect how we should interact and work with others,
  • How to deal with situations when emotions get out of control (like Crucial Conversations)
  • Indicating true strength of preference and ability (to help put people in the right jobs)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who has experience with tools that attempt to measure strength of preference and strength of ability,  or that can be used to help in difficult conversations.

Exercising A Whole New Mind: Meaning

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photo courtesy of Fabio Marim

Meaning is the last of Dan Pink’s six senses for the Conceptual Age.  Pink has to walk a tightrope here between spirituality and organized religion.  For many of us, as we age and have kids, the “why are we here?” question looms larger.  And surprise, surprise, if employees feel like their work is meaningful it becomes more rewarding and they become more productive.

I was surprised to see Labyrinths covered.  My mum, proving again how prescient she can be,  got into them about 5 years ago, and I had no idea what the appeal was.  She even launched a directory to Australian labyrinths. Don’t confuse them with mazes.  Mazes offer one right direction and many wrong ones and the goal is to get out.  Labyrinths are all about the journey: you walk in a spiral and reflect.

This important topic includes some really good exercises:

  • Say Thanks: being grateful increases contentment and happiness.  David Freudberg has covered this on HumanKind.  Don’t just save it up for Thanksgiving.  I’ve tried to think of one thing to be grateful for once-a-day for the last 3 months and it is definitely rewarding to do this.  I like the idea of a birthday list – for every year write down one new thing to be grateful for.
  • Dedicate Your Work: this is a beautiful and simple idea.  If you’re doing something that matters (say a presentation),  make a quiet, genuine dedication to someone that matters to you.
  • 20-10 Test: Jim Collins suggests you ask yourself two questions: If you had $20 million in the bank, OR only 10 years to live, would you be doing what you’re doing now.  I like the time-frame he uses because the die tomorrow would suggest much more radical action that might not be warranted – 10 years is actually plenty of time to do some interesting things, but no so long as to waste another year.
  • Picture Yourself At Ninety: What will your life be like?  What will you have done?  Who will your friends be?  Stephen Covey talked about Leaving a Legacy and thinking about how would you be remembered.  Like the 20:10 test this can help provide focus and motivation on what you should be doing now.
  • Use AND to fix the BUTs: “I’d like to read more, but I can’t find the time” is solved with the addition of “So, I need to get books on tape so I can listen on the go and in the gym”.  Think of all the things you want to be doing, but have a potted excuse for not doing.  Then think of something concrete you can do to make them happen.
  • Take a Sabbath: Check out of email and news for a day per week.  A good way to recharge.  Love him or hate him, Tim Ferriss’ media holiday is actually pretty relaxing – no news for a week.  (Just got completely distracted because the second Google suggestion after Tim Ferriss is Tim Ferriss scam!  This led me too Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist.  I’m going to have to subscribe (and now Inc. has her listed one of top 19 blogs to read) – authentic writing and confirmed many niggles in my head about Mr Ferriss –  a few nuggets of truth amplified in a story and sold as hope.) I had a really great chat, with a buddy on a run, about how the interesting news is the indicators of trends and analysis of trends, not random events like the Balloon Boy or yet another bombing in a country ending in -stan.  On that topic, it’s interesting how The Daily Show is actually a better source of news and news analysis than any of the mainstream news shows.  This sidebar really needs a full post.
  • Check Your Time:  This is revealing and motivating. Keep track of everything you do.  I’ve done this in 1/2 hour blocks for about a month now.  You discover how much time you’re wasting and if you know you have to record that 1/2 hour’s activities at the end of it, it tends to get you back on track.  In case it’s not obvious, you’ll want to turn this off on non-working days, unless you’re trying to make best use of your leisure time or understand how you are using it.

Hopefully this review of the six senses was helpful.  Mr. Pink includes a brief afterword to inspire readers to engage their right brain now in the “age of art and heart”. What exercises will you try?  Could you make your life and work a little richer?

Silicon Valley Finally Flaunts Its Failures

tedcommandments

TED commandments courtesy of dullhunk

On Tuesday last week, I joined 400 others in the basement of the Hotel Kabuki city for FailCon, the first conference I’ve known to examine past failures to look for secrets to success. While you might think the valley is all about learning from failure, people still struggle to openly celebrate or even discuss failure, presumably at odds with the cultural preference for “winners”.

I’m a big fan of the TED presentations (and would love to go to one of these events), and so I was pleased to be reminded of the TED commandments (pictured right) for talks which include “speak of thy failures as well as thy successes”.   Of course a few speakers couldn’t resist couching success in failure and Dave McClure was quick to shoot down panel members that followed the “my biggest failing is I work too hard” model. In Internet terms if you get more than a million users that’s usually a success story. I imagine Cassie Phillips had to dig a little to find speakers who would be a draw and talk honestly about past errors.

Lynne Johnson of the Advertising Research Foundation kicked things off with some advertising failure examples.  I particularly liked the example of Sir James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame, most are familiar with the 5000+ prototypes before inventing the dyson vac that doesn’t lose suction as it fills up.  I didn’t know that he was a believer in consciously doing things the wrong way to learn a better way.  Very right brain and anther example of how specialization can trap the mind in familiar ways of thinking.

Seth Sternberg and Sandy Jen, co-founders of Meebo, the popular (42M!) unified instant messaging platform, brought some sage advice on team building.  Seth has learnt not to try and do everything himself and is a strong believer in putting together a team made up of people not like you.  This is an elegant simplification for hiring complementary skills and behavioral characteristics.  It doesn’t address the riddle of how to evaluate their skills (because, by definition, they’ll have skills you aren’t knowledgeable in) and whether the cultural fit will be there (as you’ll naturally be drawn to feel comfortable with people like you and like less those not like you).

I was lucky enough to attend Rotterdam School of Management in 1998.  We had 100 students from 50 countries with no dominant ethnic group as no more than 6 came from any one country.  This drove creativity but also incredible frustration because of varying cultural mores and communication capabilities.  For example, in general, the southern Europeans had a more relaxed perspective on rules and attribution than the Northern Europeans and Americans.   The coping method (and apparent route to greatest output) was typically that only 2-3 in any group of 4-6 would do 90% of the work.  Whether this just indicated that most of us failed as facilitators or moderators, or whether it’s an unreasonable expectation to effectively bridge all team differences on a fast-paced project is still unclear to me.  The answer, as if often the case, is probably in the gray middle, quickly assess the team makeup, recognize the likely team differences and identify any necessary coping mechanisms, start, and then isolate any disruptive influences not easily bridged.

Brandon Schauer, Experience Design Director at Adaptive Path made a beautifully clear and compelling presentation on how to improve use experiences.  I thought Brandon must have been reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind with all the talk of left brain, right brand and how to get empathy into your business.  There was a rather cool left-brain tool that tried to measure the customer value created by a new design which I’ll have to investigate further.

A fiery panel led by Larry Chiang followed, fuelled mainly by to and from between David Hornik; Partner, August Capital and Adeo Ressi; Founder, TheFunded.com (and previously of F&*ckedCompany.com from the .com days).  Adeo was trying to get David to admit that VC’s have companies in their portfolios that are effectively walking dead that they pay little attention to and have mentally written off.  Having been in two such companies, I had to side with Adeo on this one.  It was nice to hear that even management blunders don’t preclude future funding in new ventures, but major integrity failures probably would.  It wasn’t mentioned but burning bridges also tends to close off options in the VC communtity.

The final session before lunch (fortunately not after lunch) was led by Craig Jacoby,  Partner at Cooley Godward Kronish LLC, one of the best-known law firms for startups in the valley.  Unfortunately many entrepreneurs don’t know the basics when it comes to avoiding major legal SNAFUs.  Craig provided some of the necessary legal downers, such as: don’t create your new business on someone else’s gear (in other words get a personal laptop and phone, and do your side projects on your time, at your place, with your equipment.)  The other one, appropriate for the conflict-averse Bay Area crowd: have the difficult conversation about ownership sooner rather than later, so you don’t have different ideas about exactly how the percentages are defined, determined, and earned.

After lunch in the eerie, haunting and deserted world of Japan Town, Max Ventilla, co-founder of Aardvark suggested that entrepreneurs should actively seek to reduce risk.  Given the inherently risky nature of startups it makes tremendous sense to evaluate risks and develop mitigation strategies, just as one should for any project management. He also stressed the need to hire A-players.  Given all the current press on Ayn Rand driven by two new biographies, I’ve started thinking her philosophy might be the origin of the valley cliché about A’s move you forward, B’s hold you in place and C’s take you backwards.  It’s no doubt delightful to dream of creating a Galtian utopia, or that the valley has somehow created the same, but the harsh reality is most people are by definition B’s, so either you’re not going to have enough employees, or your fooling yourself that you’re surrounded by A’s.  I’m sure the answer is you have to hire the best you can find, but in the heat of the moment, when you’ve evaluated the candidates for an urgent position and none are ideal, does that really mean you should just not hire? Tough call.

Eric Marcoullier, co-founder of MyBlogLog told an authentic heart-wrenching story of realizing his business was wrong and having to fire 7 of 12 engineers.  The quotable quote: “Misery is nature’s way of telling you to do something else”.  You might be able to fool your investors and your colleagues but you can’t fool yourself.  If you keep waking up dreading going to work, you know its time to make a change.

An interview with Max Levchin, founder of PayPal and founder and CEO of Slide, revealed an amusing metric of success: the success of his employees: would the cash they generated by them a house (Google-style), a car, a bike or just lunch?

My personal favorite of the day was an authentic, off-the-cuff presentation by Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, a hugely successful social gaming company, full of quotes like “don’t try to build your resume: you screwed that up when you became an entrepreneur, so just go for it”.   An interesting tip from experience was always to negotiate for control, not valuation: he said he’d take 1/2 the valuation for more control. If it’s your ship you want to be able to steer it where you want to go, which may be different to what the investors want.  I saw this with Abilizer, when we were forced into the general portal market by the investors because they believed we should “follow the money”.  If we’d stayed in the less technically attractive HR market which we dominated, we may well have been much more successful than the also-ran we became competing with ~500 other dot coms in the general portal market.

Ali Moiz, of Peanut Labs presented start up screw up lessons including: #3: Funding. Too Frequent, Too Much. Makes you lazy. As I wrote in Year 2: Raise As Little As Possible, this is certainly my experience.

Miracles do happen. The standout stroke-of-luck story was related by Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, the awesome online unified memory application with over two million users.  Apparently last October, on the eve of shutting down the business due to lack of cash, Phil received an email at 3:23 am from a Swede, who loved the application and wondered if he was still looking for investors.  $500,000 later, Phil’s lesson was never ignore emails from Sweden J  Perhaps what he meant to say was don’t ever give up, you never know where help will come from.

My lesson of Change or Die was oft repeated.  If you’re driving into a brick wall (a changed or non-responsive market) you’ve got to course correct.  Interestingly Scott Rafer, CEO and Co-Founder of The Lookery spoke from the heart about having to shut down his business, and how he would not pivot in the future.  The subtle distinction here is that a pivot is easily accomplished when you’re in the early stages shaping the business, but once you’re up and running and funded, and trying to scale, a pivot is nearly impossible.  I certainly saw this at Abilizer and Edge Dynamics.

The after-party at 111 Minna was well attended.  The San Francisco start up networking crowd always appears so hip compared to their staid colleagues in button-down shirts or polos and khakis on the peninsula.  I can’t quite work out whether its just the effect of the suburbs or the type of events held in each location, as many of these startups are actually based in Palo Alto, Mountain View and other areas of the valley.

In summary, a most enjoyable day with a few extras to add to my 10 Lessons.  As I mentioned in the preface to those lessons, everyone’s experience will vary with every new business, so this is no surprise.  At the very least, great to bond through shared experiences with others inflicted with a passion for startups and entrepreneurship.

Exercising A Whole New Mind: Play

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try to have this much fun!

Kids are so good at play.  Their ability to experience such unadulterated joy just running around and laughing is a pure delight.  We could all do with more of this.  Not only will you live a longer, more enjoyable life, you might actually work better too.

Turns out video games can be good for you too.  The US Army is finding they help with perception, the medical industry is finding they can be used for simulations.

And a little humor can help ease tense situations and help everyone get along.  Who doesn’t like where this is going?

In terms of the exercises, I’m not convinced by the laughter club, the humor scale, or joke dissection. There are many game recommendations but I’m always scared to try new games, because I know if I like it, I’ll end up staying up all night playing it.  He does recommend two specifically for developing the right brain: Right Brain Game and Right Brain Paradise that I would like to look at.

Cartoon Captions: one more reason to subscribe to the New Yorker: playing the captions game.  BTW, about 2 years ago we received a gift subscription with a KQED membership and it soon became one of my favorite magazines – we have been subscribing ever since – the covers are brilliant, the writers are incredible (definitely something to aspire too), and I love the film, TV and book reviews.

Watch Kids Play: this is a winner.  The energy, laughter and joy are infectious (at least until you or they get tired).

Tomorrow we finish the series with Meaning.  I’m also going to post on FailCon as there were some good adds to my 10 Years, 10 Lessons series.

Exercising A Whole New Mind: Empathy

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photo courtesy of D. C. Atty

How was your day? It’s all relative, but I bet it was better than this guy’s.    Today is all about empathy.

The most famous design firm, IDEO is huge on this. At FailCon today Brandon Schauer from Adaptive Path was big on this. Empathy is all about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Pink writes about the life or death differences in healthcare that empathy can bring.

My favorite exercises:

  • Eavesdrop: listen to nearby conversations and imagine yourself as a protagonist.  Now you have an excuse to eavesdrop at restaurants: “sorry, just exercising my right brain, didn’t mean to intrude”
  • Play “whose life”: this sounds fun – go through someone’s backpack, purse, … (removed of stuff bearing their name) and divine their life.  This section mentions the IDEO Method Cards  – $49 for a bunch of their techniques.  If you get one good idea from one of these techniques its covered the cost.
  • Empathize on the job: Experience a day in the life of your colleagues or customers.  Very illuminating.  I like shadowing.  Pink suggests having people guess their colleagues highs, lows, frustrations and rewards and then have them describe reality.   Results will vary with culture and individuals.
  • Do a home made greeting card: we do this each Christmas.  Its fun and very easy with digital cameras, and shutterfly or Kodak Gallery.  I also like doing calendars because they force you through that exercise of picking the best 12-20 shots for the year, which is a delight because you reflect on what you’ve done and get to see a bunch of photos you didn’t watch when they were first uploaded.

Tomorrow: Play.  Much more upbeat.

Exercising A Whole New Mind: Symphony

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drawing courtesy of Craig Spence

Symphony, fortunately, is not about musical ability.  According to Dan Pink its the ability to put together the pieces.  Capabilities such as: find patterns, cross boundaries to bring knowledge from one specialization to another, create metaphors, see the big picture.

My favorite exercises from this list:

  • Hit the Newsstand: buy mags you’ve never noticed before and look for ways to use the content in work or life.  I haven’t tried this, but I definitely want to.  May indeed be confusing for rest of family though…
  • Draw: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is the classic by Betty Edwards (I was lucky enough to get this from my mom in my teenage years).  Line drawing is such a meditative in-the-moment exercise – once you start concentrating time flies and you feel quite peaceful once you’re done.  And there’s that pleasure of rediscovering how to draw – you can still do art!  (BTW, the picture above is just one of the exercises, recreating a childhood drawing.  You can see others in Craig Spence’s photostream. You will actually learn to draw well from this book 🙂 ) Thoroughly recommended.
  • Follow the Links:  An argument for random surfing via U Roulette or Random Web Search (as if we don’t do enough of this already – the last thing I need is a right-brain exercise as justification!)
  • Look for Solutions in Search of Problems: could you take a solution and use it somewhere else, or flip the default to make it work?
  • Books: I’ve been wanting to pick up George Nelson’s classic How to See but that puppy is $75 used!  Thanks DWR.
  • Brainstorming: Pink summarizes the IDEO brainstorming technique from Ten Faces of Innovation.  I first tried this out back in 2007 when I was interviewing with IDEO and was working on a new car seat design.  Its amazing: had about 10 friends over and 30 minutes later, 100 novel ideas which you cull later.  The basics: go for quantity over quality,  encourage wild and crazy ideas, defer judgment, and use pictures and change the focus when the ideas slow down.

Tomorrow, time for some Empathy.  Have a good one.