I Went To Colombia For a Month And All I Brought Was an iPad and an iPhone

I’m a compulsive minimalist and am always looking for ways to reduce the “stuff” in my life while maximizing experiences. Last month I was in Colombia for a 3 week extended trip. For the first time, the macbook was left at home and the iPad became my primary means of work for 5-8 hours of work per day. It required a bit of planning to make sure I could do all work that I expected to have to do. Skipping the obvious things like having email and cloud storage setup, here were the other things that I did:

  1. Basecamp & Pivotal Apps for keeping tabs on the team
  2. Google+ for hangouts
  3. Go To My PC so that I could login to my laptop and do whatever I needed with Photoshop and PowerPoint. I kept my laptop plugged in and turned off the auto-off power saving features. PRO TIP: Load photoshop and powerpoint on the computer before you leave, loading them using Go To My PC is time consuming
  4. TurboScan for taking scans of documents. It’s amazing how the minute you leave on a trip someone needs a document hand-completed
  5. Keep a copy of your signature in photos (I used Zen Brush to create mine) so you can attach it to digital forms. I’ve heard good things about SignEasy too
  6. Photoshop Express is a great app for quick tweaks to images without needing Go To My PC
  7. Desk.com app is absolutely necessary if you are taking care of customer service issues

I’d have written a great article about how great this setup was, but on my first day in Colombia a guy stole my iPad and I was forced to use my brother’s laptop the entire time…

I Went To Colombia For a Month And All I Brought Was an iPad and an iPhone

Hacking A Better Travel Experience – Flights

We used to use umbrellas to face the bad weather
So now we travel first class to change the forecast

– Jay-Z

Our commercial aviation system is arguably one of the most complex logistics system ever created. It effectively standardizes the movement of > 1.5M people around the US every day.

Understandably a web of processes have developed to handle the massive volume of exceptions.  We’re not just talking about technology but cultural and business process ones as well. It is a perfect environment to exploit loopholes for personal gain. Over the years I’ve learned a few things about how to get what I want, here are my 8 favorite hacks:

  1. Politeness:  Airline employees are assaulted by an endless avalanche of BS from anxious customers. They develop what I like to call the “Bureaucrat Shield” which allows them to hide behind company policy instead of confronting customers. The truth is that airline employees, especially those outside of the US, have a large amount of flexibility. I’ve been put on other airlines to get somewhere faster, had airplanes held on the ground for me, given hotel rooms to stay overnight and received a ridiculous number of unwarranted upgrades. All based on the good graces of airline employees who I went out of my way to treat politely.

    It all comes down to being overly polite so that they realize you aren’t just another angry customer to be dealt with. Put on a big smile and use “sir”, “miss” and “maam” even when things are miserable. This is the best hack there is and if you use it you’ll find yourself hearing “I’m just not able to do that, it isn’t possible with our system” far less often.

  2. Deal with people of the opposite sex: I find I get a better result when I deal with women than men and I’ve heard the opposite from my well traveled female friends. Smile, put on the charm, and if you think you can pull it off, flirt. If you are on a foreign flight, use their native tongue whenever possible, it is charming. Learning just “please” and “thank you” are not that hard.
  3. Never use face-to-face customer service: If something goes wrong you’ll end up in customer service purgatory. The face-to-face line is a disaster zone of waiting and heartache that you should avoid like the plague. Call the customer service phone number and use the frequent flier specific call-in number if you have it. I violated this rule last week and paid for it with an extra hour of waiting & an error ridden return ticket.
  4. Bring food with you: Airport food is full of fat and salt and will not help your body deal with the stress of flying. Bring healthy foods like fruits, wraps and granola bars. One of my favorite tricks is to grab a few of those small cereal boxes they have in hotel breakfasts and then get milk from the beverage service. If you are traveling to a different time zone, drink lots of water which will help your body recalibrate.
  5. Be specific about what you want: Airline employees aren’t usually creative, so tell them exactly what you want and in situations where a creative solution can be helpful, make your thoughts known. You want upgrades to first class, ask for them. You want them to put you in empty rows even if it is farther back in the plane, let them know. Willing to fly through a different city or take a layover in a cool city you’ve been wanting to visit, offer them those options.
  6. Use Tripit, Flightview & MobileDay: These apps will keep you organized and efficient on the road. Tripit organizes all of your travel logistics in one easy to view itinerary. Flightview keeps you updated on the status of your flight and any other flights you are waiting for. MobileDay gives you one-click dial-in for conference calls so you don’t need to memorize access codes when you are running between flights.
  7. Keep frequent flyer numbers in a note on your phone: I keep a password protected “wallet” note with frequent flyer numbers in it. Most of the younger readers probably already do this.
  8. Keep notes for the places you visit: Whenever I tell people where I’m going they inevitably tell me all the great off-the-beaten track places and things to do. I keep notes for each city on my phone and just take noties whenever I talk to people. You’ll also get a huge amount of information to share when people ask you about places you’ve been and things to do.

Have some priceless hacks, put them in the comments.

Hacking A Better Travel Experience – Flights

Distribution is the only obstacle

Hi, my name is, my name is
(What? Who?)
My name is Slim Shady

Ahem, excuse me
Can I have the attention of the class
For one second?

– Eminem “My name is”

Distribution is the ability to get a product in front of its target audience. Hopefully most of the people in it. This is the hardest obstacles for startups, and plenty of companies build amazing products but fail because they lack distribution.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to do it successfully. There are plenty of examples that entrepreneurs can adopt and tweak to their own unique needs. Over the past year we’ve seen a lot of strategies, but most of them fall into a few high-level categories:

The PR machine – Constant attention from traditional and non-traditional media. Constant new “events”, “deals”, “scandals” keep the companies name in popular discourse and bring in a steady stream of new users.

The Social Virus – A product that by its very nature, or through added game mechanics, incentivizes you to share it with your friends. Twitter, Facebook, Quora, Groupon and Zynga have exploded into public consciousness through intelligent use of this strategy. You’ll find some of the top minds in the tech startup world, from Dave Morin to Tom Higley amongst many others, are working on mastering this new strategy.

We’re Mad Men – You can pay someone else to give you millions of target market eyeballs on your product. Its expensive, but if you can successfully acquire customers for less than you make from them in the lifetime that they are a user, then keep spending money.

The Partner – The idea here is to find a partner that has the right eyeballs, but wants additional ways to monetize them. The startup offers the company a cut of its profits in exchange for help getting them to adopt the new product.This is one of the most popular strategies, because it normally requires less up-front costs and improves a new company’s brand.

Word of Mouf – It needs to be included, because nearly all new companies think that if they build a cool product people will instantly get the word out. The truth is that most startups take time to get product/market fit during which time their product isn’t something groundbreaking. Its an avenue for growth, but companies will normally run out of money before it gets them enough traction.

At the end of the day, the right distribution method will likely be a combination of a few of these strategies. Have you used any of these strategies? Have any pros and cons you can share? We’d love to hear what you (our awesome readers) think.

Distribution is the only obstacle

Appraisals, the GE way

During our five years at GE, Chad and I went through a rigorous appraisal process. Through open, honest and frequent feedback we learned a lot about ourselves and about how others view us. A key aspect of the process was that our managers and mentors actively supported our development on a daily basis, there were no surprises during formal reviews. It is the only GE practice that we copied into our new organization in its entirety. Startups don’t usually have rigid processes, but this is one that we think other startups owe to their teams and themselves. So here is how it works:

Step 1 – One manager talks with everyone on the team about the person being reviewed

Step 2 – One manager writes up a review based on 5 criteria:

Critical thinking – Clear thinking, problem solving, creativity
Expertise – Knowledge in a specific practice area, technical skills
Communication – Able to communicate in a clear, concise, respectful and persuasive manner
Execution – Getting stuff done, fast. Completes what they say they’ll complete, when they say they’ll complete it
Leadership – Autonomy, being a positive/motivational force on the team, mentoring others

The key in the formal write-up, is that each area must include at least one positive observation and one “development opportunity.” For each comment, specific real world examples are required. For every development opportunity, the manager must come up with an action plan for the person to improve. Its the manager’s responsibility to help the person improve through continuous coaching.

Step 3 – All managers discuss and tweak the appraisal and decide how to deliver it effectively.

Step 4 – The appraisal is delivered face-to-face, and ample time is given during each portion for a discussion. Points are not belabored, each development opportunity is delivered candidly. How an appraisee receives and acts on feedback is extremely important. If they are extremely defensive, or get upset, this becomes a serious development opportunity.

Step 5 – The entire team reviews the managers using the same process from steps 1-4. A manager always delivers the feedback to the other manager based on the team’s consensus. This ensures the team is honest with their feedback and not afraid of retaliation.

The entire process is repeated on a regular basis, usually every 2 months. Do you have some questions on how you can better integrate this process into your team? Shoot us an email and we’re more than willing to give you some forms and advice.

Appraisals, the GE way

What Wikileaks can teach an entrepreneur

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Behind the divisive politics, pundit rampage and laugh-out loud diplomatic correspondence of the past month lies a few great lessons in strategy. Every unexpected or game-changing event must be looked at as an opportunity to revisit our objectives and further our interests. As with most things in life, attitude and resilience in the face of a shifting environment is what defines success.

The market is never in our control, the best we can do is understand its basic dynamics. When the environment changes, much like it did for diplomats following the leaks, calm determined actions are required. The US government knows it can’t stop Wikileaks, so while they developed new strategies in each region, they also acted like very publicly like they were in panic mode.

Startups often get caught in in reverence for honesty and openness and forget that business is a complex strategic game. Their is a time and place for openness, and also for deception. A startup by its very definition survives by the sheer disbelief of the establishment, quietly building market share and technology assets. Help them ignore you and believe you are a non-entity.

What Wikileaks can teach an entrepreneur

How the hell do I do that?

Most of the entrepreneurs I know have long to-do lists with “sticky” items that never seem to leave the list. It confounded me for weeks because at my previous job I was really good at completing tasks, prioritizing and executing methodically. Over the past 8 months I’ve found myself frequently tempted by low-hanging fruit and wooed away from completing high-priority tasks.

So of course, I asked myself what was going on. What I found is due to something I’ll call “Task Diversity.” Whereas at GE I was doing things I largely understood how to do or had sufficient direction, I now find myself doing many new and functionally disparate tasks each day. The new items are usually the sticky items because I don’t even know where to start, they sit there and fester while I sit there afraid to get started.

My to-do list has 3 columns (High/Medium/Low). Starting now the first thing I’ll do each morning and right after lunch will be to tackle a high value item. I’ll probably institute some other strategies as well. Any suggestions?

How the hell do I do that?

Why do 80% of our visitors not sign-up?

For the past two months we’ve been developing functionality for our site at a breakneck speed. Simultaneously learning to code, learning to design and trying to keep up with the suggestions from users. As you can expect our front-end could be a lot better. So over the past week we’ve invested some of our free time in improving our UI using 3 learning methods.

First, we turned to Google Analytics to see what was happening on our site. Our main question was whether we are effectively explaining our concept and getting artists to sign-up and provide content? The short answer is that we’re not yet… we have been getting between 20 and 100 unique visitors daily for a couple weeks but less than 20% are signing up and even fewer are providing content. We use the analytics to highlight where in the user “funnel” from the landing page to the sign-up form to the nudge creation screen people were leaving. We noticed that most artists never even entered the funnel we setup, 90% of all users searched for nudges to send rather than signing up to be artists. We needed to do a better job of funneling artists to a sign-up and create a content funnel that was separate from the normal search process. We’ve now changed the landing page (in dev anyway) to direct artists to an FAQ and sign-up page rather than the view available nudges page. We are using this page to explain that we’re in alpha mode, explain the vision and preemptively answer questions that if left unanswered may lead a user to leave our site in confusion.

Secondly, we’ve been using online tutorials and shamelessly copying the best design elements. We use a tool called CSSedit along with firebug to analyze how our favorite sites do things. A big thank you goes out to sites like REI, Tumblr, Etsy, and Everlater. We don’t just copy the site, we take small elements and design cues and create something completely original. It’s the equivalent of Pretty Lights taking Biggie Smalls quotes and inserting them in their songs. Hopefully the owners of those sites will read this and feel pride in our love of their front ends. If you want some other great examples for your own site, check out the webby award winners, their sites are amazing. In addition check out Smashing Magazine for tutorials on creating great tables, forms and everything else.

Our third method is to listen to experts. There are plenty of them around Boulder, including Lyn Bain of Chili Interactive. She has advanced degrees in psychology and a storied career in usability testing and design. Out of pure serendipity we met her at a coffee shop and she offered to give us a few minutes to critique our site. Some of the key take-aways were:
1 – Laptop and mobile users don’t fiddle with their mice so they don’t see rollover elements. (We’re removing ours now)
2 – Buttons need to be descriptive of the very next screen, so instead of our button saying “send a nudge” it might say “Select this nudge and fill in delivery details.” This way they aren’t scared that something will be sent before they put in the right details.
3 – Users give you 3 seconds to understand your site and decide whether to heed a call to action. Make your messaging clear and your calls to action obvious.

If you want similar feedback, Lyn is giving back to the entrepreneurial community in a HUGE way, with UsableFeedback.com where you can get video walkthrough with actionable feedback from her company’s experts for only $139. This is a tiny fraction of her usual billing rate and is being done solely to help startups and small businesses! There are other fantastic designers around Boulder, people like @AndyInColor and @StirlingOlson. Can designers reading this give us one rule of thumb you think all startups should know when designing their sites?

The bottom line is that we improved our UI significantly by using statistics on how our users interact with our site, copying design elements from the best sites and reaching out to experts for unbiased feedback. We still have a long way to go in both design and UI, so keep giving us honest feedback. As a reminder, we’ll be buying beers for people who give us suggestions!

Why do 80% of our visitors not sign-up?