10 Years, 10 Lessons: Year 1: The Smell of Success is Intoxicating

10 Years, 10 Lessons

At the tail end of the gold rush, on October 1st 1999, my wife, two dogs, and I arrived in Silicon Valley from Australia.  Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work in marketing and strategy roles for startups, and while I’ve never found a pot of gold, I’ve enjoyed the journey, and believe there are a few nuggets I can share.  In the fine tradition of popular non-fiction, I’ve made a list of 10 lessons from the 10 years.  To keep it manageable, I’m aiming for 1 lesson each day for the next 10 days. I’ve included key takeaways and sign posts for the condition associated with the lesson with each year.

Photo courtesy of lushpup

Photo courtesy of lushpup

Year 1: The Smell of Success is Intoxicating

Greater mission vs. enlightened self interest

There is nothing more fun than working in a startup where everyone believes.  The energy is palpable and infectious.  People work joyfully around the clock and you jump out of bed every day, busting to get started.  Perksatwork.com was like this, my best ever year of work life, a veritable the-journey-is-the-reward, pot-of-gold experience (I’ve been trying to recreate this ever since).

I’m a great believer in a mission that people can believe in, but in this case, we had a nice idea (help people balance their life and work) and believed we could do anything, but either the team just got along really well, or Adam Smith was right and the prospects of success were driving the dedication.

Key Takeaway: Teams that believe (for whatever the reason) are a lot more productive and fun than those that don’t.

Sign Posts: Consistency of explanations about the overarching objective, and unshakeable confidence.

Caveat: The smell of success can be so blinding, you miss what’s going on in the market.  At my second startup we ignored the structural changes going on in the market for too long (see You Don’t Know What Customers Want).

Sign Posts: What are you worried about? (Nothing = blind spot – there’s always something to worry about)

Tomorrow: Year 2: Any guesses on the topic?  In the meantime, what lessons would you like to share?

Do We Still Need Harvard?

I’m not sure I need the magazine. And I’m not sure you need the degree.  Oh sure, it looks great on the resume, and it opens a lot of doors (especially coupled with a stint at McKinsey) , but does technology create compelling alternatives?  Having done an actual MBA, I participated in an online learning experiment this year and wanted to share some perspectives.

Who Needs the Magazine?

I recently re-started a subscription for Harvard Business Review – it used to be packed with amazingly timely and actionable ideas for freshly minted MBAs but after Suzy got the boot for her romance with Jack Welch back in 2001 it lost some of its sparkle and relevance for me.  Having recently rejoined the consulting world, it felt like time to dip in again.  So far, no spark.  This October issue’s theme “Spotlight on Riskcompletely ignores the compliance issues faced in heavily regulated industries like pharma.  (I’m writing an article on the challenges and opportunities presented by the increasingly prevalent Risk Evaluation Mitigation Strategies (REMS) required by the FDA, so I was hoping for a few ideas).  I have the sense that unless you work for a large corporate, you’re not going to get a lot out of it.  That seems to be the case for a smaller number each year.  Inc. is much more my style these days.

Who Needs the Institution?

I’ve always loved study, and come from a family of PhD’s, so I’ve felt compelled to examine this issue.  What do you get from a college degree and how can we improve on the traditional model?

Who Needs Harvard is hardly a new idea. The Atlantic covered the topic in October 2004 finding that the difference between the super-selective name brands and the next tier down had never been smaller, and the TIMES in August 2006 repeated a similar theme even finding advantages beyond cost savings.  In 2005, Wharton released a study showing that the percentage of Fortune 100 CEOs with Ivy League backgrounds had fallen from 14% in 1980 to 10% in 2001, while public colleges backgrounds had grown from 32% to 48% in the same period.  Witness the effectiveness of Mark Hurd at HP with a a business degree from Baylor University (’79) on a tennis scholarship vs. that of Carly Fiorin with her MBA from University of Maryland (’80).

Fast Company profiled a few ideas in their September issue to leverage technology to cut the cost (College education costs apparently have inflated faster than any other good or service since 1990).  “More than 200 institutions in 32 countries that have posted courses online at the OpenCourseWare Consortium” according to the article.  You only have to look in iTunes U to get a sense of the breadth of free content out there now.  Getting free content online is just the start.  And it’s not as if the books in the MBA are any great secret – The Personal MBA is a great roundup of the best business books out there.  So the value of a university degree is clearly not just the information – you have to learn it somehow.  A Hulu.com quality interface and aggregating disparate content sources will help, but you still need to learn, and a lot of that comes from interaction with others.  Social networking tools may offer some options here.  The third pillar, as noted by Fast Company, is accreditation and assessment.

Seth Godin tested an Alternative MBA this year: ” a new way to learn about a new way of doing business” and was thrilled with the results.  He found the book learning was the easy part, it was doing the work where the learning really happened.  He also observed that “making friends for life is difficult to overrate” and I thoroughly concur – the best part of my MBA was the friends I made and what I learned from working with them.  The stronger your network of relationships the better off you will be, in every sense of the word.

Inspired by Seth’s program, Paul Pettengill convinced some other applicants to start the alt-mba program, 26 great business books in 26 weeks each presented by a student, ideally with expert interviews, class exercises and discussion.  We leveraged ning.com and pbwiki to meet, post materials and discuss.  The group was to vote on the best presentations and to provide support for the Big Ideas of the participants. It was a fabulous experiment, at breathtaking pace.  The weekly presentations and discussions on the books were of excellent quality, and we were privileged to have gurus like Marshall Goldsmith, Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin interview for the program.  Ultimately the challenge was maintaining enthusiasm at such a hectic pace in such a disparate group with no clear reward.  Seth was right again – doing it is the hard bit.

What Does A Meatball Sundae Have to Do With the Emmy’s?

You really don't want to eat one of these

You really don't want to eat one of these

If  you think you know the answer, you can skip to the final paragraph 🙂

After finishing the alt-mba (26 great business books in 26 weeks, more on that inspired idea another day), Paul Pettengill graciously sent the graduating class a signed copy of Seth Godin’s Meatball Sundae. Fantastic, I thought, another book to read! Turns out, I loved it.

As you know, Seth is a great marketer and prolific writer.  Dan and Chip Heath of Made to Stick fame, could have used Seth’s book titles to prove the value of “Unexpectedness”.

Having been and seen inside traditional enterprise software and pharmaceutical companies, I have strong anecdotal evidence to support the central thesis: you can’t just slap New Marketing (the sundae) on top of Old Marketing (the meatball) and expect results.  You have to either build a new organization from the ground up to support the new realities or just keep the traditional approach and accept the increasingly lackluster results in the face of the new reality.

Seth details 14 trends in the book, many of which you can guess at now (hey, it was written in 2007): increasing connection between consumers and producers, increased power of the consumer, need for authenticity, lack of attention, the long tail (must get Chris Anderson‘s book), outsourcing, infinite niches supported by search and addressed by more targeted communication (note death of mass advertising), increasing communication between consumers, shifts in scarcity and abundance, power of disruptive service or product ideas, inversion of the price/volume bell curve (be cheap or exclusive – just don’t get stuck in middle), and the rise of the new gatekeepers (bloggers).   It’s a thought provoking book – just consider alone the list of what was scarce (storage, bandwidth, international telephony, overnight shipping, airtime, information about other people) and what was abundant (spare time, attention, trust, natural resources).

This where the connection with the Emmy’s comes in.  The idea that traditional marketing is dying a long, slow death was captured by David Bianculli on Fresh Air yesterday when he observed the death of broadcast and the rise of fervent niche audiences for cable shows like AMC’s awesome Mad Men.  David brilliantly noted the accompanying death of the US car companies: in 2009 no one cares about either the new fall line up of cars, or broadcast shows. No amount of whipped cream and cherries will solve their problems.

iPhone: Ultimate Kid’s Toy?

Is that a phone or a trumpet?

Is that a phone or a trumpet?

No, she’s not trying to eat the phone. And she’s not playing Ocarina.

It’s an awesome game from those whizzes at IDEO called “Balloonimals”. Outstanding child entertainment for the princely sum of $1.99 (funny how all the free apps on the App Store cause you to think twice about spending $2) The pics tell the story – choose a balloon color, blow up the balloon till it dings, shake (with all the squeaky rubber sound effects of an actual balloon being bent into shapes) and voilà an animal (t-rex, crab, unicorn, dog, snake, fish, kangaroo and baby joey) Tap the animal and it surprises with movement – feet stomping, claw clacking, you get the idea. The pièce de résistance is you can blow up the animals using a bike pump symbol until they pop. Holland plays with this for hours and the laughter and expressions on her face are priceless.

Ideo's beautifully executed ballonimals game

Ideo's beautifully executed balloonimals game

There are a wide range of great learning apps for kids – learning words, shapes and numbers. Couple this with a few movies, TV shows and games and you’ve got a brilliant child minding device in a very tiny package. It’d be nice if you could selectively disable some features like email and the phone when you give it to them, but you should be paying attention, right 😉

This has really cemented the learning for me that the apps are really the killer app for the iPhone. It’s a great phone on an ok network. It’s a phenomenal piece of intuitive design and convergence that has transformed the smart phone market. But the endless creativity of the apps is what blows your mind.

When Good Enough is Absolutely Not

Step off and on again for a different answer

Step off and on again for a different answer

Earlier this week I wrote with joy about when good enough is perfect.  The comments inspired further thinking, so tonight we contemplate the other side of the story.

The simple scale at left suited the decor (a minimalist design) and the price was right.  What could go wrong?  Apparently just because its a scale, doesn’t mean it weighs correctly.  Every time I step on again I get a different reading.  Some people would call this a benefit – keep trying till you get the answer you want.

We pulled out the instructions.  Apparently we are supposed to step on it once to set the scale and then a second time to get an accurate reading.  So now we just ignore the first answer and keep trying till we get two consecutive answers.  Frustrating as hell.  Clearly, the right answer is a refund and a new scale.

Turns out we haven’t had too much luck with scales.  The previous model was one of those fancy Body Mass Indicator scales with alleged accuracy of +/-0.1 lbs and +/- 0.1% body fat.  You could drop 2-4% body fat by just having a shower.  Would that it were true.  I’d have been much happier with a scale with a good enough resolution (say +/- 1lb, +/- 1% body fat) that gave consistent measurements.

My conclusion: apply good enough thinking to the feature set (accuracy to +/- 1lb and don’t bother with BMI), but please don’t apply good enough to the execution of the primary benefits (in this case accurate, consistent and quick weight measurement).  That won’t benefit anyone.

Bye bye pledge drive

Stitcher.com: Tivo for Radio

Stitcher.com: Tivo for Radio

I love NPR. When we first moved to the US it was a wonderful discovery – Car Talk one week, Fresh Air the next.  Countless driveway moments.

I don’t love pledge drive.  Twice a year, for what seems like forever, your local NPR station tries to raise money, which they desperately need.  We subscribe, but that doesn’t stop the pledge drive interruptions.

Enter stitcher.com.  This wonderful free app (available for iPhone and Blackberry) is like a DVR for radio, but even better.  Listen to a wide variety of sources, in any order you want to, anywhere: driving, working out, cooking dinner… Discover great new podcasts and news sources.

Highly recommended and ridiculously easy to use.  It comes pre-loaded with a set of favorites and six categories.  Like the awesome Pandora interface you can give thumbs up or down to a track, start/stop and skip to the next one.  Like google mail you can favorite a track by selecting the star and its automatically added to your favorites station.  You can re-order the favorites. It display how many refreshed favorites tracks you haven’t listened to. The ads are non-intrusive banners and most programs have no audio ads. Sorry if this post sounds like a commercial (I have no association with the company, just love both the idea and its execution).

What would I like to see: better search functionality so you can find a specific show (I was thrilled with both the amount of NPR and Australian programming available), perhaps some indication of duration of each track, maybe linking to the tracks website and tagging so you can follow up on something interesting you hear about or play something again. And of course, the iPhone needs to be able to let apps like this run in the background.

Just like Tivo changed TV forever and for better, stitcher has changed radio for me.  Let me know what you think. Bye, bye pledge drive.

When Good Enough is Perfect

Perception is reality

Perception is reality

My nearly-4 year old daughter taught me another valuable lesson this weekend – how good enough can actually be perfect.

She is currently into Disney’s Little Einsteins.  Rather than go buy more crappy pieces of plastic, and inspired by a recent Wired article on a Japanese paper plane that broke the world flight record (27.9 seconds and BTW, they have the design for the Sky King in the magazine and it is awesome!), I decided try to make the toys instead.  I used to love making models as a kid.  Apparently I still do.

Anyway, dug around the counter and found the glitter-encrusted, dry-lentil filled plastic ball you see in the photo.  We glued on some paper, colored and cut-out the rotor blade and feet from an amazon.com box, and held it all together with a rubber band.  Total build time was maybe 10 minutes and she’s been playing non-stop with it, a purple plane and a red rocket we made ever since.

If it had taken longer, she would have become bored. Making it together was so much fun (you might just be able to see that she chose to decorate it with ink stamps) and we did our little bit to save the planet as well.  This was just good enough for her to associate with the green helicopter in the show, and nothing more.  This crude toy and its effectiveness reminded me of IDEO’s preference for rapid prototyping. If I had obsessed over building a perfect replica, it never would have been finished, or I would have been mortified if she broke it.

Call it serendipity, but the same issue of Wired included Robert Capps thought provoking article, the good enuf rvlutn, which uses the examples of Flip in video cameras, Predator in military aircraft, MP3s in music formats, skype for calls, netbooks for computers, etc, to argue that accessibility and ease-of-use in a low-cost “good enough” solution trump perfection for most of us.  In the case of kid’s toys, I couldn’t agree more.

Quick Mint

Aaron Mints $170M

Aaron Mints $170M

I never imagined this would be my first post, but last night I wrote down that Intuit needs a product to compete with mint.com.

Today, I received the email from Aaron Patzer, that Intuit is buying mint for $170M.  So I thought I better get started!

This is brilliant for Intuit, as mint solves the biggest problem of Quicken – its relentless insistence that every user account for every last cent (I don’t know about you, but I don’t balance the checkbook, I just need something to tell me with the least possible effort what we’re spending money on each month so we can adjust course if necessary) –  and adds the fabulous auto-categorization of major expenses, all within a gorgeous UX.

On GigaOm,  they point to the value of masses of customer data, but I think the value is in the team that has created an online finance solution that people actually like.

Brilliant for mint users?  Time will tell, but it’ll be tough to keep the team together if they’ve made a boatload of cash from the transaction.  It’d sure be nice if they keep up the pace of recent improvements such as the improved budgeting and charting released on August 19th.  I’ll certainly retreat to Excel if they turn mint into an ugly step-child of Quicken.