Monthly Archives: February 2012

The wisdom of low quality

There are some things in life where it’s important to do a great job. For example, the difference between being an OK musician and a great musician is an enormous amount of work … but it’s worth it, both to the musician and the audience.

Surprisingly, there are things where it’s NOT important to do a great job – it’s only important to do it. And trying to do a great job where you shouldn’t can actually prevent you from doing a great job where you should.

I thought about this yesterday while shoveling snow. The difference between shoveling and not shoveling is huge – you can’t get your car out of the driveway if you don’t clear a path. But the difference between shoveling and shoveling perfectly is insignificant. Does it really matter if there are little strips of snow between shovel strokes? Does it really matter if the sidewalk has perfectly square edges? No. It’s snow – it’s going to melt eventually anyway. Just push the snow around to clear a path for your car and clear a path for pedestrians as quickly as possible – time saved doing a mediocre job shoveling is time that can be spent doing something more worthwhile.

So what about building a startup – is there anything like shoveling snow in a startup, something that’s more important to DO than to DO WELL?

One thing that comes to mind is managing email. Fred Wilson spoke about email the other day – he gives it an hour in the morning, an hour at night, and maybe an hour in the middle. He does what he can during that time, but he’s not willing to invest more in the overall process. For him, “doing email” seems to be like my shoveling the driveway – just get as much of it done as possible, but it can never be perfect.

I’ve never emailed Fred Wilson, but I have corresponded with Brad Feld and Seth Godin, two other famous startup people who receive a shocking amount of email yet respond personally to any reasonable request, usually within 24 hours (in fact usually within 5 minutes). How do they do it?

For starters, their emails (at least to me) are very short. They trust that I will be thrilled to get a reply from them, so they don’t bother setting me up with useless niceties like “It’s very nice to meet you, Patrick …” It’s more likely to be a reply like “thanks” or “yes” or “not at this time.” Seth once gave me very quick feedback that I wrote something “generous,” which meant a lot to me, coming from him. I once asked Brad for an interview, and he simply replied back, including his assistant, saying “+1 [assistant’s name] please schedule.”

I want to be the kind of person who replies back to every email I receive and doesn’t leave loose ends. I am not that person yet – not even close. To get there, I’m pretty sure I need to learn what Brad and Seth (and probably Fred) were forced to learn a long time ago – it’s better to get email done than to get it done perfectly. If I don’t have an answer for a request, I’ve got to learn to reply back with something like “I have forwarded your message to a colleague, and I will let you know when I hear back” or even “I don’t know, but I will let you know if I find out.” That’s better than what I do now, which is stroke my chin, put it in a “tickler” folder that gets buried worse than my inbox, and never get back to it.

I want to answer every email with a wonderful nugget of helpfulness, but I simply can’t. Too often, that reality ends up burying me, which gets me down. And that feeling of defeat impacts my ability to do the rest of my job well.

The fancy word for this is satisficing: “a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.” Every email requires a decision. If you attempt to maximize every one of those decisions, you will never “finish” your email. That leaves you with a stack of unmade decisions which is worse than a stack of adequate – but completed – decisions.

Email is never going away. I just need to learn how to do each one a little bit more poorly – it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s counterintuitive, but the end result is actually “doing email” better.

A warm welcome

Last night was the holiday party for Microsoft’s West Michigan office. I work at home, and I report into a different organization than most of the people who work around here – heck, my boss is based in St. Louis – so I only get to see my local coworkers once or twice a year. The last time I saw people like Tom and Matthew and Kim and Robert and Nate was at last year’s holiday party.

I had a conflicting work call (Smart Bear Live recording), so I walked in late to the dinner. Like many people, I have slight social awkwardness about such situations, essentially thinking “I wonder if any of these people will remember me?” But when I walked in, I was greeted so warmly that I was almost embarrassed. It was a really good feeling.

After dinner at The BOB, we went upstairs to the comedy club and watched a pretty decent open mic followed by two quite funny professional comics. All in all, it was a very pleasant night.

Driving home, I remembered how nice my coworkers made me feel when I walked in, and I couldn’t help but ask myself – how often do I make other people feel that way? Something to think about.

A little hungry

Don’t forget – Smart Bear Live recording is today, 2/9/2012 at 5p EST with special guest VC Mark Suster! Join us at Jason’s BlogTalkRadio channel.

A friend posted a recent video of me speaking (no, I’m not linking to it), and I have to confess … I looked fat. Not terrible, but not good. When I crossed my arms – as apparently I am prone to do – they tended to rest on my belly a bit. Not a good look. It didn’t help that I was wearing a t-shirt that was a bit on the tight side. Can’t rock that right now.


My wife tells me I just need to dress better, and I am going to work on that. My weight hasn’t fluctuated from 155/156 for several months, so at least I’m not increasing. I can afford a couple of gut-hiding outfits.

I don’t believe in diets per se – if I want to lose weight, I assume I need to slowly consume fewer calories than I burn. I have to create a slight calorie deficit and maintain that until I reach my target.

I’m only 5’5” so 155 is technically overweight, as my doctor has informed me a couple of times. Last time I ran a marathon, I was down to 132, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to set a target weight of 140. That’s “only” 15 pounds. Surely I can do that.

To get there, I’m going to change just three things in my diet (exercise is a bonus – I’m running every day, but I think it’s time to add some resistance training to the mix). I’m going to eat a smaller lunch – since I’m at home, sometimes I pig out. Can’t do that and lose weight. In the afternoon, around 3p, I’m going to make a point of eating a healthy snack, whether I want one or not. If I don’t, then I’m going to be too tempted to eat junk. Finally, I’m going to give up my beloved cookies with my herbal tea before bed, at least for a while. I’m going to just drink my tea and notice that I’m a tiny bit hungry.

Thank goodness it’s 3p, because I am a little hungry now – time for a banana.

User expectations

I had work in Chicago yesterday and today (I’m taking the Amtrak home at the moment). I stayed at the Swissotel. It’s a nice hotel – great bedding, good bathroom, and one of the best views I’ve ever enjoyed in a hotel room.


Whoever designed the hotel apparently wanted it to be kinda hip, so they did a couple of things a bit differently …

First, the elevators don’t have any buttons in them. Seriously. Before you get on the elevator, you type your floor into a keypad, and then it tells you which elevator to get on (A through F). That elevator is going to your floor.

Second, the light switch in the bathroom doesn’t just go up and down. No sir, this one goes up (full on), middle (off), and down (half on). Clever.

I’m sure both inventors were confident they’d found a better way of solving a problem. Perhaps the elevator mechanism is more efficient in some scenarios. I’m pretty sure that dividing 30 people evenly across 6 floors is WAY more efficient with this mechanism than with the standard one. Many people would arrive at their destination faster and the total mission would be accomplished sooner.

And the light switch is neat – two on settings in one switch! Surely that’s better than 2 separate switches. But I only discovered it because I’m apparently a heavy off-flicker of lights.

Here’s the thing … the old way was FINE. I don’t want to re-learn how to use an elevator, especially not for a short stay at a hotel. I could MAYBE see it in an office building, but even then – there are two many visitors. It’s just not worth it. The only upside is getting to watch a random usability test every time someone new checks in.

As for the light – it was actually kind of irritating the second and third time I tried to turn off the light and only made it halfway off. Not the feeling of delight I assume the designer was going for.

As a user, I have pretty ingrained expectations of the way these things work. The inventors might think their ways were better, but I am confident that a survey would show few other people prefer these specific inventions over the “norm.” If you’re going to change something where users have ingrained expectations, you better make it a slam dunk. It better be a LOT better. Some examples:

  • Josh Linkner just talked about a new thermostat that users seem to like a lot better
  • Digital photography is a LOT better than film for most applications. Even though it had a couple of negatives at the beginning (slow response, lower quality images), the pluses were so much better that film is essentially dead
  • I’m biased, but I think the live tiles on my Windows Phone are WAY better than a grid of apps (join me people!)
  • Remember when the little red squiggly line replaced the old spell checker in Word 2.0? SLAM DUNK BETTER

The point is, when users have an expectation, you can’t just change it to a way that YOU think is better. You have to change it to a way that MOST users think is better – preferably a LOT better. Otherwise, you might as well just meet users’ expectations.

While we’re on the subject of hotels, here is what I DO want: I want an easily accessible plug right by my bed. I use my phone’s alarm clock, and I recharge my phone over night. I need a plug near my bed to meet both of those needs at once. And please – give me a clock in my room with a dimmable light or no light at all. I don’t like big LED’s shining into my eyes. Often, I have to pull out the nightstand and unplug the clock to dim the light and have access to a plug. Dusty. Low rent.

But you know what – the Swissotel had both of these things! Perfectly dimmable clock and a classy plug on the lamp. Combined with great bedding and a great view, it made me quite fond of this hotel.

One more thing I want in a hotel – a bathroom nightlight that’s on by default but that doesn’t shine so bright it’s annoying from bed. Would eliminate a lot of bruises and cursing.

What do you think – am I wrong (about user expectations or hotels)?

Node.js on Windows Azure

Last week, I wrote about getting a node.js hello world app running on my local machine in 10 minutes. But what if you want to run node.js on Windows Azure? Turns out that takes about 10 minutes to get running as well – and you can do it from Windows or Mac … in fact, any machine that runs Chrome (or Firefox or Safari … any major browser except IE, the market leader that gets no love Winking smile).

While you can create a local environment for node.js development on Azure, the Cloud9 IDE runs in a browser. That’s a very low-friction way to get started. Eventually, you still might want to get the Visual Studio environment working, because the remote debugging features are pretty outstanding, and they require VS. But for now, just follow these instructions for creating a node.js hello world on Windows Azure.

I considered writing up a separate set of instructions, but I don’t think I could improve on these. If you have any trouble as you are following along, don’t hesitate to contact me. Remember that you can get a 90-day free trial easily, and if you are a startup you have access to a LOT of free Azure through your MSDN subscription (in fact, if you have an MSDN subscription from any source, it includes Azure benefits).

The experience is awesome – I’ve been excited about the possibility of a browser-based development environment for some time, and node.js on Cloud9 to Azure delivers. I could see building a fairly sophisticated app purely in this environment (although again, I’d probably want to take advantage of remote Visual Studio’s debugging or unit tests at some point).

The only thing I found to be slightly janky in the example is creating a new deployment … if you choose to create a new one on this screen:

create a new deployment

Then make sure you overwrite the existing deployment name that shows up on the next screen:

create a new hosted service

In future node.js post, I’ll discuss some scenarios that are good fits for node, and I’ll review javascript itself and what’s different programming server-side javascript compared to client-side.

Startup stages

Startup America is an organization created to help startups, and it’s funded by the likes of Steve Case (AOL), The Kauffman Foundation, Michael Dell, and many other big names in entrepreneurship. They want to sign up lots of startups, so they reached out to partners like TechStars and Microsoft’s BizSpark to help recruit.

My teammate Brian Gorbett is the Microsoft startup evangelist for my part of the country (Yay Central Region!). Technically, I’m more of a not-yet-huge-software-company evangelist, but my passion is obviously with startups. Brian is the one actually responsible for making sure startups get signed up and get what they need from Microsoft resources (primarily BizSpark).

Recently, Brian started promoting Startup America – and he’s engaged in a challenge with our counterparts in the West and East to see who can do a better job spreading the word about it. If you have a startup with 2 or more people working on it, please sign up using Brian’s link. You’ll get access to some useful tools, and we’ll get to talk smack about the other regions. Win-win. To sweeten the pot, Brian is offering an hour of startup mentorship to anyone who signs up using his link. He’s a smart and helpful guy, so I think that’s a pretty good offer. I hope you take him up on it. Tell him I sent you.

The most interesting part of Startup America’s site to me is their explanation of startup stages and the way they relate it to company size:

  • Idea – you’re a single founder
  • Startup – 2 or more people … you’ve taken on at least one co-founder
  • Rampup – 6 or more people … your company now has employees
  • Speedup – 25 or more people … your company is making it big

It’s not a perfect model, but Startup America appears to be focused on startups as a job-creation engine, so it makes sense in that context. They want companies to hire, hire, hire. One implication of this is that they don’t nurture companies at the Idea stage – you have to have at least 2 people to join. I don’t have personal experience with the organization, but it looks interesting, and it doesn’t cost you anything.

If it sounds interesting to you, please sign up using Brian’s link.

Quantity begets quality

Yesterday, I tapped out a blog post using the WordPress app on my Windows Phone, quoting wisdom from Jerry Seinfeld. It was a bit self-referential, and my twitter friend Adam called me out with some good-natured ribbing – he claimed that I was cheating, that I wrote a tiny blog post merely to keep my streak alive of blogging every day. He was absolutely right … but I didn’t break the chain.

Why start a writing streak? Why start any streak? More importantly, why keep with it? Why deal with the considerable annoyance of doing something on those days when it’s enormously inconvenient – or when you just don’t feel like doing it? Surely Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” concept doesn’t work … I mean, what’s to be gained simply by doing something every day?

If getting good at something is important to you, then you need to do it a LOT. Especially when you’re a beginner, you need to fight through doing something poorly in order to get good. And you have to do it over and over.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I love this story about Quantity vs. Quality from the book Life is a Verb:

A college ceramics teacher decided to do an experiment with his two fall pottery classes. He told one class they would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced that quarter and their grade depended on the number of pots they threw — so the more the better! The second class was told their grade would be determined by the quality of their work and they only needed to produce one “perfect” pot.

The better quality pieces came from the class that was graded on quantity. As they were making all those pots, they were getting better and better at pot-making. Instruction, knowledge, effort – they’re all useful for getting better at something, but NOTHING replaces doing it over and over … quantity leads to quality.

Writing is important to me, and I want to get good at it. There are all kinds of ways I can learn more about it, but nothing can teach me as much as doing it over and over. By deciding that I’m going to blog every day, it forces me to ask myself how important writing really is. I was very busy yesterday – we had a birthday party for Gus (9!), and afterward, I took him to a YMCA campout. Those things are obviously more important to me than some stupid blogging streak, but I could have planned ahead. The streak nagged at me, and I’m happy it did. I’m also happy to live in a world with mobile apps that let you do just about anything.

I have so many things happening in my life – I know that when I do break the chain, I’ll likely blow off writing again for days, maybe weeks. Before long it becomes one of those things that I’ll get back to it “someday,” but someday never seems to come.

For me, a streak is just a fun way to remind me that I need to do something over and over.

What are you learning that’s important to you and what are you doing to get better at it? What are you doing to make sure you do it a lot? If you’re going to get to it “someday,” how can you make that someday come now? If doing something every day isn’t your thing, consider using one of these Zig Ziglar workbooks that Seth Godin republished.

Don’t break the chain

I read where someone asked Jerry Seinfeld the secret to success. “Don’t break the chain,” he said.

He was referring to a chain of big Xs you make on a calendar … You figure out what’s important to you, and then you do that thing every day. When you do it, you get to cross off that day, making a chain of days in a row …

Don’t break the chain.

It’s OK to build things

So much of the writing for startup founders these days focuses on Customer Development / Lean Startup: prove your market before you spend a lot of energy building a product. I agree with those principles and even started a column in Visual Studio Magazine primarily to discuss them further. These are Good Things.

But if all you want do is build things – THAT’S FINE, TOO. Just be honest with yourself and recognize you are taking a different path. There are lots of great ways to build things that don’t involve Lean Startup:

  • Build something small – Actually, Lean Startup doesn’t say you can’t build anything – it just says you should build the minimal amount practical to learn something – to prove or disprove a hypothesis. If you have a business idea, and you can whip up a mobile app or basic website to implement it in a weekend, then go for it! If nobody else but you likes it, who cares? You only spent a weekend on it. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback, you can make changes and put it out there again next weekend. Being a good hacker is a great quality for any startup founder, especially if you’re willing to ship early and often.
  • Build something slowlyMichael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe, is a proud advocate of the classic idea to “scratch your own itch.” He did it with Nozbe, and it has worked out very well for him (I interviewed him here). Recognize, though, that this might take you longer than using Lean Startup, because you are making a lot of effort to satisfy yourself first. It took Michael 2 years before he was willing to show Nozbe to any potential customers. If you are super quality-obsessed, this might be a good approach for you … but you better be patient and have the ability to stay focused for a long time without promise of return.
  • Build something free – take Audacity for example. I spend a few hours every week using this fine tool. It’s free – I’ve used various paid tools, but I simply prefer this one (at least for podcasts – it’s crazy simple for voice editing). I don’t know what motivated its creators, but for whatever reason, they decided it was more important for them to build a great piece of software than to build a software company. That’s a perfectly reasonable choice, and the world is a better place for having Audacity in it. You could do something similar (BTW, I also use the donation-ware Levelator and the for-pay GoldWave in my podcast production activities. They all rock at what they do.)
  • Build something at work – you don’t have to create a startup to build your own software. That’s what work is for! Whether you work for a huge company or a startup that someone else created, you can be paid to build cool stuff without ever having to take financial risk yourself. If all you want to do is build cool stuff, then consider finding a job that will pay you to build cool stuff – there are plenty of them out there.
  • Build something for your community – if you don’t want – or are not quite ready – to build a startup but still want to create something brand new and leave your mark on the world, then consider finding a worthy project in your (geographic or thematic) community, and build something useful and cool for them. There are even organizations dedicated to connecting creative people like you with worthy causes – check out GiveCamp, for example.
  • Build something risky – yesterday, I mentioned that I have the deep-down feeling that I have great vision, “just like Steve Jobs.” I think most entrepreneurs feel that way. And if I have that kind of vision, surely I don’t need to do Lean Startup, right? Well … whether or not I have that kind of vision, I don’t have Steve Jobs’s guts, timing, or post-first-stint-at-Apple financial resources. Vision alone doesn’t ensure success, but it certainly helps. If you DO have the guts and financial resources and suspect you have the timing to succeed by doggedly pursuing your awesome vision until you realize it … then by all means, go for it. Just realize that for every Steve Jobs that succeeds, there must be thousands who fail (and it took Steve Jobs a few tries to work past some failures, too). In my opinion it is LIKELY you will fail if you try to copy the Steve Jobs approach to business.

I’ve got a list of more than twenty startup ideas – some of them completely suck, I’m sure, but there might be a couple of good ones in there. At the moment, I am favoring ideas that REQUIRE me to do Lean Startup/Customer Development, because I want the experience of doing that right now. I need the practice. But there might be a weekend pretty soon where I just want to code something, and then I might pause and work on a different idea that fits into one of the categories above.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Am I full of it?

Ah, but that first “yes” is glorious

Yesterday, I mentioned how hard Lean Startup can be in practice. It’s one thing to have the abstract knowledge of what to do – it’s quite another to do it. It sounds so simple to find ten people who will buy your product before building it. But that doesn’t say anything about the emotions you’ll experience when you talk to people who won’t buy you’re product. “It’s a great idea, but it’s not for me” is longhand for “no.”

Undeterred, I continued to make my pitch to potential customers. At lunch with some friends today, I got one of them to a maybe – he would have purchased it 3 months ago, but his situation doesn’t warrant it today. If his situation warrants it again next month, he would strongly consider it.

And then I found the right customer – one who said “YES! I want that!”

Oh … my … GOD!

If all those initial no’s had the familiar sting of rejection, that first yes was simply AWESOME. I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight because I’ll be digesting some of the specifics I learned from these conversations – and because now I have a specific customer to think about – what would it take to please Tom?

I still have only one person who said they would pay – I need TEN. I’m going to learn different things from all of them, but hopefully I will see patterns emerge that inform the next step in this journey.

One really important detail I learned today is the TYPE of customer who is perfect: account execs. My perfect customer (at least based upon the first one that I’ve found) has the title of Account Exec. That gives me a useful new focus for Customer Development. Before I was just talking to anyone in business. Now I know a specific type of businessperson to focus on – that should make finding nine more customers easier (we’ll see).

Sorry to be so abstract about my idea. It’s not because I’m secretive – I just don’t want encouragement (on the specific idea) from my non-customer friends at the moment. I need the discipline of finding ten real customers before I move on to the next stage. For me, that stage will be creating a 30-second marketing video, as VC Dave described. I COULD do that now, but again, I think I would get too much encouragement from friends who wouldn’t actually be willing to pay – I want some buzz, sure, but one negative of this particular product idea is that it’s expensive compared to alternatives (due to a higher cost structure). Once I get ten people willing to pull out their wallets for my product, then I’ll let you know what it is and get all that wonderful encouragement (and criticism).

Before you can get to ten, you have to get to one. That first one is glorious … Tom, you’ll always hold a special place in my heart. Smile with tongue out

The second installment of my Startup 101 column in Visual Studio Magazine came out today, and it’s on this very subject – talking to customers. Let me know what you think.

Have a question about your startup or want to practice your pitch? Register for the next Smart Bear Live with Jason Cohen!