The best laid plans…

this month's cover

Happy New Year everyone! Sorry to have been out of touch – lots and lots of work in the day job, and then we kicked off the year with a family circuit of the over-hyped swine flu (comes out of nowhere, knocks you flat, then vanishes without warning – maybe they should have called it surprise flu…)

I realized today that many of us start a new year (or even more portentous) a new decade with big plans and resolutions only to see many fall by the wayside. This should in no way be discouraging. Life and work are full of unexpected twists and turns. (Imagine how dull it would be if we knew what was going to happen.) It’s how we respond that matters.

You may remember I wrote recently with much pride about finishing an ultra giving my surefire tips for success with minimal training. I was lucky – about the only thing that didn’t go my way was some salty watermelon (it almost went the wrong way).

For Christmas, my generous and lovely wife (perhaps unwisely?) bought me a subscription to “Ultrarunning” a mag for the hardcore crazies full of 50k, 50 mile, 100 miles and more race reports.  One of the articles (those mavericks, they take pride in keeping content offline) gave advice to newbies, and the most important point was something (and most likely many things) will go wrong, it’s how you respond that determines how you finish.  Various body parts will fail, you’ll get nauseous, your gear will fall apart, your support crew will get lost…  Like everything else in life, you choose if you get pissed off, and become captive to the negative reaction, or accept it and move on, deciding how best to move forward with the newly understood reality.

On a lovely morning run at  Windy Hill this morning, I finally caught up with the audio edition of Economist Christmas special and was struck by this quote on the human condition: “Ms Neiman asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy. Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us.”  In other words, it is imperative that we keep trying to get better yet we should never expect to reach a destination of perfection.  So write down those resolutions, give it an honest effort and don’t beat yourself up if life gets in the way.  Now, back to work.  Big launch day tomorrow.

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AT&T waves the white flag at the mobile Internet buffet

Hope you’re all enjoying the excesses of the holiday season.  AT&T appears to be suffering.  Imagine deciding to stop selling your hottest product in your second largest target market. The location with the presumably second highest concentration of bloggers and influencers after San Francisco. Apple must have been livid.

Courtest U.S. Naval Historical Center

The recent decision by AT&T to stop selling iPhones online to people with a NYC zip code was not officially promoted or explained.  An online customer service rep reportedly explained “New York City is not ready for the iPhone.” If AT&T is lucky, the quick reversal of this heinous error may prevent its complete nullification of the millions spent on national advertising campaigns for their allegedly superior 3G network.

You can pummel people over the head with old school marketing, but if you stop selling the phone, no matter what the excuse, especially after your CTO admits how challenging its been and your CEO starts talking about charging based on data use, you’ve basically proven your network can’t keep up with demand.

If its really the case that they can’t keep up with surging demand, then all carriers and users are in for hell as the mainstream discovers the joy of a mobile all-you-can-eat Internet buffet.  Enjoy the streaming video while you can 🙂

How I ran an Ultra on 3 days/week with bad knees

Me, happily finishing the 2009 Quad Dipsea

Health and wellness are key components of a rich life.  You only have to lose them for a day to realize how precious they are.

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, I successfully finished the Quad Dipsea (roughly 29 miles and 9300 vertical feet of climbing) in 5 1/2 hours placing me at 29th out of a field of 250.  The feeling of joy and sense of accomplishment as I crested the final hill and knew I was going to finish almost brought tears to my eyes and will be with me for a long time.  An unlike a road marathon, I was walking well the next day, and headed out for a little trot on Monday to stretch out the legs.

This is the first ultra I’ve run since Way Too Cool 50k in 2003 and I wanted to share a few tips on how I pulled this off with a 12 week training program including only 3 cardio training sessions per week.  For those of us who want to take on a significant athletic challenge but have families and careers, I thought it’d be helpful to know you can do it.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been nursing temperamental knees, ankles, plantar fascitis, achilles tendons and hamstrings, yet somehow managed to avoid surgery or stopping running altogether, so several of the tips pertain to preventative maintenance which becomes more important as our bodies age and tighten.

1. Periodize Your Training

The human body gets stronger through a process of increased intensity followed by rest.  This is why they don’t climb Everest in one shot, but go up and down between the base camps getting used to progressively higher altitudes.  What this means for a training program is don’t build from your base to the max in a continuous line, but add a little, maintain, and then back off, before building again.

My 12 week training plan for the 2009 Quad Dipsea

For a 12 week training period this would mean breaking it up into 3 x 4 week periods each containing 2 Medium, 1 Hard, and 1 Easy week.  You can see my training plan on the left, and read an explanation of the key components in following sections.  The great benefit of this is you can typically take it really easy in the Easy week following a Hard week if you push it too hard and some body part gets aggravated (quite likely on an accelerated training program like this).   Also, its much easier on the mind to break down the challenge of the 12 weeks as 3 manageable chunks each of 4 weeks.

2. Long Runs are Top Priority

Time Commit: Build from 2.5 to 5 hours per week.

There are a number of reasons for prioritizing long runs:

  • If you can finish a long run at 2/3 – 3/4 of your ultra (I built up to 21 miles  for a 29 mile ultra), you can finish your ultra.  Long runs give you confidence.
  • Once you start going over 2 1/2 hours, you use up all the carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your body and the body starts to turn fat into energy.  This is typically associated with “hitting the wall” in a marathon (the point in time at which  your body turns to fat as a fuel source). You’ll need to train yourself to keep running when you reach this point to successfully run an ultra.
  • You can practice using different nutrition and pieces of equipment to find what works.  What are you going to eat and drink, when to provide rehydration and energy without causing nausea or cramping?  How are you going to carry all this stuff ?    Do you need to lubricate certain areas to prevent chafing?  What socks and shoes won’t cause blisters?

I highly recommend training on terrain as similar as possible to the ultra, at race pace (more on this later).  Find some beautiful trails close to home that you can enjoy running on.  After long runs, take a 10-15 minute ice bath (I’ve had good success with just cold water), very unpleasant on entry, but brilliant for recovery.

This is the most intensive time sink on the weekends, so start as early as possible to minimize the impact on family time, negotiate in advance with any significant others for the time, and find some interesting podcasts to listen too (I’ve enjoyed learning French with Coffee Break French, listening to Free by Chris Anderson and Triibes by Seth Godin (both free downloads), TED talks, iinovate, and the Economist).

3. Interval Workouts with Stairs & Hills are 2nd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1.5 hours per week.

If you’re doing an ultra with a lot of climbing, stair climbing sessions are a necessary evil.  My “favorite” 1 hour workout combined 20 minutes of stair climbing with approx 25 minutes of walking at 4mph on a 15% slope, finishing with a couple of miles at a fast clip.  Fast walking uphill when tired is an extremely useful skill in ultras as is getting used to the transition from walking to running when you crest a hill.  If you substitute elliptical or bike for the run at the end, you have a low impact workout.

4. Mid-week Run and other Cardio are 3rd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1 – 2 hours per week.

Don’t add miles for the sake of it.  But a second run is good conditioning for the legs (at the end of the day the best training for running is running).  If cardiovascular endurance is your main challenge and the musculature is strong, add more runs.  If  you’re worried about injuries, use elliptical or bike to add endurance.   The bike is great at the gym because it’s so easy to read while you’re on it (use a HR monitor until you know what level to ride at), and out on the roads for building quad strength climbing hills.

5. Use Trail Races to Test Race Pace and Nutrition and Build Endurance

Time Commit: 3-5.5 hours once per month

There’s nothing quite like an organized run to get the competitive juices flowing.  I’m a big fan of the runs put on by Pacific Trails.  They’ve found the most fabulous scenic and hilly trails in the Bay Area, they have about 25 events per year, each one offering distances from 10k to 50k they’re great hosts and very well organized with clearly marked trails and well-stocked aid stations.  And they know the ultra community so well, so you can learn anything you need to.

One of the key things to do in races is to learn how hard you can go without blowing up.  Its good to get on the wrong side of the line a few times for the conditioning effect and reminder of how humbling that can be.

The other key component is getting your nutrition right because its under stress that things start coming undone – especially dehydration, cramps and nausea.  I nearly blew the Quad via nausea by taking watermelon with salt at the first Stinson Beach turnaround because they had no potatoes.  So use the trail races – about 1/month to work out what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t).

6. Use Yoga to Build Core and Flexibility

Time Commit: 2.5-3 hours per week

Yoga has been the big find for me this year.  It provides great core strengthening, balance and flexibility improvements.  I’m particularly inflexible and yoga has offset the compression of running to keep my iliotibial (IT) band stretched enough to not bother my kneee. Twice a week of Vinyasa or other flow-based practice seems to do the trick.  And learning how to be grateful and at peace with yourself while practicing a little flow is good for your happiness as well 🙂

7. Roll, Stretch, Strengthen, Ice, Repeat

Time Commit: 30 mins in front of the tv, 3 times per week

I’ve got to believe most people have a long list of items to watch on their Tivo/DVR.  So its just something productive to do when you’d otherwise be completely immobile on the couch.  Using a foam roller will really help to break down scar tissue forming on your legs. Roll until you find a sore spot, hold for 20 seconds, roll to the next spot.  Then stretch out problem areas – nice long gentle stretches of up to 2 minutes duration without bouncing (believe it or not, stretching improves through relaxing, not forcing the muscles).  If you’ve got a few strengthening exercises (squats, 1-legged squats, leg raises, crab walks, etc) from your physical therapist or chiropractor now is the time to do them.   A few sit-ups, planks, crunches, and  back extensions are good if you’re not doing any yoga.  Then strap an ice pack on to the tender areas (in my case, knees) for 10-15 minutes.  You should ideally roll and stretch before exercising. 

8. On Race Day, Back off  the Pace, Have More Fun and Finish Quicker

Time Commit: 5.5-9 hours, Memories: Priceless

This is the most critical piece of advice I can give.  From bitter experience, if you go out too hard, you’ll most likely blow up.  Back off, enjoy the beautiful scenery and if you feel good later, pick up the pace.  If I go out too hard, (typically characterized by getting anaerobic on the first couple of hills) I typically get severe cramping after 2.5 hours, no matter how many salt tablets and/or water I take or stretches I do.  If I back off 5-10%, the cramps don’t happen.  In the Quad I ran the Double in 2:37 vs. my personal best of 2:27.  Those 10 minutes made all the difference in the world.  I had to consciously keep reminding myself to slow down on that first leg – coming into Stinson Beach the first time I just felt fantastic.

I hope this experience will provide some guidance and inspiration for others.  You really can make this happen off a pretty small base (say 3 days of cardio a week with an 8 mile long run) even with less than perfect knees.

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.