Our Yearning For Immediate Gratification

Sunny days wouldn’t be special, if it wasn’t for rain
Joy wouldn’t feel so good, if it wasn’t for pain

– 50 Cent (Many Men)

When I was a little kid I’d go with my dad to his office. He ran a sales team that did a lot of direct mailing and I got to stuff envelopes for awesome prizes Рlike a can of Mountain Dew from the cafeteria. Seeing the stack of sales material and envelopes turn into a box of ready-to-send mail was so rewarding. It was easy to measure my success and fun to try to get more done in the same amount of time.

As I got older, the lead time between work and gratification got longer and longer. Now, the delay is so severe that sometimes it’s hard to tell which work led to which gratification. That’s a serious issue if the gratification is what’s driving your decision making.

A few of my friends have told me they have similar feelings – and a bit of yearning for activities that have immediate gratification. Maybe that’s why many of us fill our social time with easily measurable activities with clear gratification. You set out to climb a mountain in the morning and you are fist pumping at the summit in the afternoon. You set out to run a race and you crossed the finish line to the cheers of your friends and family. You set out to cook a meal and your friends are licking their plates at the end since it’s so good.

A few weeks ago I noticed that I got enjoyment from watching my own flossing progress each night. What!? I set out to write a blog post about why this simple act would bring me joy, and look, it’s all written up. Hopefully you’ll enjoy and share it and give me some of that gratification that I crave.

Our Yearning For Immediate Gratification

The 5 Dysfunctions Of a Team

Hate a liar more than I hate thief.
A thief is only after my salary
a liar is after my reality.

– 50 Cent (I’m A Hustler)

One of the lessons from school that has shaped my thinking about team building is the “5 Dysfunctions Of A Team” concept. It’s a powerful lens by which to view the culture you are building and something that I’m constantly reminded about. Here is the pyramid:

five-dysfunctions-pyramid

This obviously doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Suffice it to say that as you are building your team, or scaling it up, think a lot about how you baseline those relationships and nurture trust, encourage dissent, promote commitment all while keeping people accountable and humble.

Culture is the most important advantage a startup can have. Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of that, something I learned the hard way. A long time ago I had this paper up in my office, when I setup my new office it’s getting its prominent spot back.

The 5 Dysfunctions Of a Team

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

Prioritizing Like A Survivor – Lessons From The Backcountry

Gotta feed the block, niggaz starvin’, they got appitites
And this is er’day, it never gets old…
This aint a rap song, nigga this is my life

-Young Jeezy, Soul Survivor

Learning to prioritize for yourself and others is a vital skill to run a team and your life. It also happens to be very difficult for the hustler startup founder to develop. By our nature we are constantly looking to expand our opportunities by chasing the next big thing.

My backcountry adventures (especially those with my brother, an amazing backcountry survivalist) have taught me a lot of lessons in prioritization and focus.

  1. Only worry about what you can control
    The wilderness removes a lot of unnecessary responsibilities and distractions. The day you get on trail, you are faced with the very real fact that you do not have control over your surroundings. It is freeing, you can stop worrying about whether things will go right and concentrating on those things you can control.
  2. Multi-tasking keeps you from accomplishing high priority items
    Your top priorities in the backcountry are finding shelter, water and food. As soon as any one of those things is missing, you become hyper focused on rectifying the situation. Anyone that has realized a water source they were depending on is not available can tell you that they thought of nothing else until they found water. I’ve learned that it is much more efficient to work this way and I now keep a prioritized task list (made every morning while I eat breakfast) that I work down one by one.
  3. Switching costs are high, reprioritize only when necessary
    On the trail you find that every decision that you make comes with very clear costs and benefits. “Do I try for the next water spot tonight or double back 6 miles where I know there is water.” Clearly you are not going to start heading for the new water source and then double back half-way through that part of the journey. Business decisions don’t always have clear switching costs. “Should we build this new feature that will get us new customers or rebuild our back-end so we can develop new features faster.” I’ve become acutely aware of these switching costs. This past Easter, we decided to do a last minute promo and I relearned the lesson on switching costs…

The wilderness offers so many lessons and this won’t be the last post to draw on what I’ve learned there. Do you have other lessons you’ve learned from your adventures, tell everyone in the comments!

Prioritizing Like A Survivor – Lessons From The Backcountry

Immediate Differentiation: A lesson from being foreign

Look at my sales, let’s do the math, if I was black, I would’ve sold half,
I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln high school to know that

-Eminem (White America)

One of the lessons I focused on during my recent trip in South America was differentiation. Most of us spend our entire lives trying to fit in and be accepted and yet those that differentiate are the most successful. While not new, it fascinated me that my foreignness drew curious people towards me and got me preferential treatment at bars and restaurants.

All it took was saying a few sentences in heavily accented Spanish and they’d be interested in a conversation. Where are you from? What are you doing in Argentina? The fact that I was different, made me interesting immediately, and they wanted to engage.¬†I did nothing to hide my American accent, actually I did the opposite (much to the Chagrin of my¬†embarrassed¬†brother).

So the question I ask myself is how does Card Gnome create the same sense of differentiation. How can I get people to immediately feel that we’re special and take steps to engage with us. To me, it comes down to three areas:

Visual Branding: Use bold stylistic cues that are different than one would expect from your industry. House Wine, has done this well by taking a completely different take on wine labels. You may not like it, but you won’t miss their bottles when you stroll the aisles. Steve Lowtwait has done an excellent job giving our logo the same special treatment.

Informality: Companies have traditionally used buzz words and conservative language when communicating with customers. We decided a long time ago to talk with our customers as if they were our family and friends. Our informality helps them to feel comfortable having a conversation with us. We already see the fruits of this labor in an active artist community that is willing to give us candid feedback and refers to us by our first names. Consequently all company updates come from “Chad and Joel” never from an anonymous no-reply email address (thank you Holly Hamann for leading the way on that with the BlogFrog video updates)

Trust people: Don’t be overly-protective with your product. Let customers touch it, feel it and play with it. Have you ever felt welcome in a store that prominently displayed signs that said “you break, you buy” or that has metal detectors? No. Websites that force you to sign-up before a purchase or into onerous sign-up processes are the virtual versions of these unwelcoming environments.

What methods have you found for differentiating your product?

Immediate Differentiation: A lesson from being foreign

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

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?

5 lessons before launching your startup

‚ÄúNine to five is how to survive ‚Äď I ain‚Äôt trying to survive‚Ķ I‚Äôm trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot‚ÄĚ

-Jay-Z

Last week I had a discussion with someone considering leaving their job to launch a startup. ¬†They wanted some honest feedback on their business model. It occurred to me that objectively evaluating a startup idea is a skill that can only be learned through experience and that I finally felt marginally comfortable giving advice on the topic.¬†After 8 months of making mistakes, listening to great mentors and thinking through many ideas it felt great to give back. For those of you I haven’t spoken with, I wanted to jot down some of the key lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

1 РUnderstand your goals РYou need to be honest with yourself about whether you want a massive business or a lifestyle supporting income source.  All your thoughts about the startup must flow through the answer to this question.

2 – Passion –¬†If you are creating the next big thing, realize you’ll need to have the passion to devote 70+ hours a week for 3-5 years to make it a success. Is this an industry and product you will stay excited about? Note that I’m not saying the product has to be sexy, plenty of people make huge profits on products others didn’t even consider working on.

3 РTest instead of talk РTry to test your idea without spending money and time on development. If your core-product is a consumer website, there are ways to test your prototype extremely cheaply. Once its built, give it to customers and ask them if they are willing to pay for it. Try to avoid the echo chamber of your friends and family. Their support will carry you through the tough times, but they are terrible judges of what constitutes a great business idea.

4 – Financial resources – You need to eat, you need a roof and you need to provide for your family. If you can’t do this while devoting the time and effort for a startup, then its not for you. Getting funding is a long and arduous process and will likely require that you’ve already gotten traction with your product.

5 –¬†¬†Product-Resource Fit (Viability) – What resources do you need to make your company successful? Do you have, or can you acquire, the skills, money and other resources needed to implement your idea? Be optimistic but honest. In order to make your dream a reality you will need to fully believe you can do it.

A lot of you are founders of companies, use that comment box to talk about your own lessons or expand on mine.

5 lessons before launching your startup

What kind of company culture are we building?

Over the past few weeks Chad and I have been recruiting engineers to join our Card Gnome team. It has forced us to be introspective and verbalize our company culture to prospects. It has been illuminating to look at how our personal belief systems have manifested themselves into an operating entity. It comes down to 4 core tenants:

Passion/Motivation: Life is short so we believe it should be spent doing things we are passionate about. We truly believe that intrinsic motivation produces the best long term value and we foster that in ourselves and others. Money by itself is not a motivator, only an indicator that your business has added value. We are trying to build an amazing organization of passionate individuals, therefore acceptance of mediocrity is unacceptable.

Independent Debate: Chad and I are both fiercely independent thinkers with nearly opposite personalities and core skillsets. Our debates are epic but always respectful. We put all the details on the table and force each other to justify our thinking. It has given us a deep appreciation for how the other person thinks, which only serves to make the debates more honest. At the end of each debate though we come to a conclusion and agree on a path forward. I cannot, at this moment, think of a situation in which we were not in complete agreement on the correct decision. There is very little grey area, we both agree that a decision is the correct course or we keep talking. Compromise has its place, but it generally doesn’t build a compelling product.

Experimentation: We  are wiling to implement our ideas purely to learn what will happen. In fact, adding printed cards was originally one of these ideas. A few people had asked whether we could print our eCards for them and so we decided to give it a try. A week later, after receiving amazing feedback from consumers and artists, we decided to change our core business. Other trials have been failures, but the freedom to try something new is what makes us entrepreneurs, and heck its fun.

Respect for others: Our company is not just about profits, its also about meaningfully improving the lives of our customers, employees, partners and ourselves. When we make decisions we think deeply about how the decision will effect our stakeholders.  Making them happy and treating them fairly is the only way to build a great company.

We haven’t written a formal values statement yet, and there are certainly things I’ve left out, but this post is a good start. Use the comments below to let us know what you think about it.

What kind of company culture are we building?

Pivoting to success

A pivot is the term for a company that changes its business model in order to take advantage of an opportunity. ¬†The opportunity is often only visible after the founders have progressed with their initial concept enough to learn about their market and its needs.¬†Many of the hottest companies today, from YouTube (which started as a dating site) to Flikr (which was a videogame) are examples of great pivots. ¬†The founders in these companies tested their hypothesis and realized they wouldn’t work, so they moved in the direction that would. The affectionate name for this is “failing fast” and its a good thing. ¬†Chad and I did just this about 3 weeks ago when we changed our underlying business model.

Our previous idea was a marketplace for creative messaging services, from funny eCards to custom phone calls from voice impersonators. ¬†What we found was that people wanted ways to interact, but our product offering was too wide. ¬†We were talking with too many different target markets. We needed a much more narrow product offering which would enable us to target just one demographic and build a core user group. Our customers and artists told us repeatedly that they were interested in printed cards. ¬†We heard “I love the eCards but I want you to mail it as a real card” and “I hate going to the store to buy cards, I end up not sending them! Can you make some of your eCards available to print?”

We started researching the greeting card market and realized that it is massive. Over 7.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year in the US, representing a $11B market with over 3,000 independent publishers. Only a handful of small companies currently print and mail cards from a web marketplace and none of them are executing the concept particularly well.  Chad quipped that we could do to greeting cards what NetFlix did for videos, bring the card buying process online.  As soon as that came out of his mouth, we both instantly realized the market potential.  We were hooked.

That was 3 weeks ago. ¬†Since then we’ve repurposed our website and launched the new features as a minimum viable product. ¬†Try it out, you can actually have us print and mail a card for you right now. Don’t forget to let us know what you think of this new direction in the comments.

Pivoting to success