Monthly Archives: May 2016

Innovations usually come from the low end

The other day, I saw a segment of How It’s Made (great show … it’s like Baby Einstein for grownups). It showed the dozens of steps that go into making a dental crown. No wonder they’re so expensive!

I doubt crowns will be made this way 20 years from now … but I don’t think they’ll be made better. I predict that some enterprising dental entrepreneur will figure out how to scan the tooth gap without making a mold. Then they’ll figure out how to 3D print a “good enough” crown, perhaps right in the office.

Such a crown wouldn’t last as long as current tech (at least at first), but it would cost 10 times less. If your dentist gave you the option of a $1,000 lifetime replacement or a $100 replacement that lasted a year or two … a lot of people are going to settle for the dodgy replacement, because it’s so much cheaper right now.

In his groundbreaking book Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen points out that most disruptive innovations don’t come from improvements on the state of the art – instead, true innovations usually look like toys to the incumbent players.

The makers of high-quality table radios didn’t see the threat from crappy little transistor radios. Mainframe computer makers scoffed at minicomputers, just as minicomputer makers scoffed at PCs, and PC makers scoffed at tablets. Time and time again, innovation comes from the low end, not from the high end.

I could very well be wrong with my prediction about crowns. Medical stuff is highly regulated, which complicates things, and a big part of the cost of a crown is time spent with a dentist’s hand in your mouth – so maybe it’s not worth it to make cheaper crowns … but I bet it is, and I bet someone figures it out.

Regardless, it’s worth remembering that disruptions usually happen at the low end of a market. One of my favorite examples is Dr Chrono, a medical software company that started out as a simple app (must have looked like a toy to the big players) and is now hugely successful, gobbling up more market share every day. Bob and I talk more about the success of Dr Chrono on our podcast this week.

The Joy of Music

Last week, Gus had his 7th grade spring band concert. He plays percussion and seems to enjoy it. Here are the 4 songs they played:

Just as I developed a good musical foundation from violin lessons (thanks, Linda!) Gus developed a good musical foundation from piano lessons (thanks, Eileen!). Playing one instrument makes it easier to learn another, so he picked up percussion pretty quickly.

At home, we have a set of practice bells (like xylophone but metal). Gus will frequently walk over and play a song or two. I love hearing the sounds, but for the most part, Paula and I stay out of it. While it was important to us that he gain a foundation, now his relationship with music is all his. If he wants to play, that’s great, but I can’t make him want to.

Quieting our reactions (and reducing our encouragement) was a conscious decision we made after reading something my mom wrote. It’s a chapter about me and my difficult relationship with music from her slowly evolving book, Walden Three (here’s the same story from my perspective). In that chapter, my mom talks about my musical successes and comes to this conclusion (bold mine):

“Knowing oneself” includes being able to distinguish between … what one does because of human encouragement and what one does because of effective interaction with the environment. Unless one can make such a distinction, it is very difficult to make life choices based on ones skills and preferences. With respect to Patrick, I believe that the very consistent positive reinforcement he received for playing the violin prevented him from learning his own reactions and relationship with it.

I couldn’t agree more – hearing how great I was from others actually got in the way of my own musical explorations. The only reason to be a musician is because you love it … if other people like the way you sound, that’s just a bonus. When you start getting more nourishment from their praise than your own love of music, that’s a problem – one that I still haven’t resolved for myself.

Since reading my mom’s words, we’ve tried to dial back our praise for anything Gus does. Obviously, we’re proud of his successes and we support him through his struggles, but we want them to be fundamentally his, not ours.

Why Facebook Rocks for Small Businesses

Facebook is an amazing creation. As a Facebook user, you can post pictures or thoughts, and all your friends get the opportunity to see them, partially on their own terms. Some of your friends will unfollow you, but that’s cool, actually – Facebook makes it easy to choose what you don’t want to see and it learns what you want to see over time.

If you post something that you want even more people to see, you can pay about $5 to have 500 or so additional people see it (Facebook calls this “boosting” your post). It doesn’t go to 500 random people, though – it shows up on more of your friend’s feeds as well as their friends’ feeds (there are more options, but this is the most compelling). More money => even more people.

Think about that … if you have a message you want to spread, the friends of your friends are probably the perfect people to reach. Facebook lets you reach them for as little as $5. Amazing.

That’s vaguely interesting for a person, but it’s genuinely useful for businesses. That’s where Facebook Pages come in. A Page is the organizational equivalent of a person. When you Like someone’s Facebook Page, it’s a lot like becoming their friend. Some of their posts will show up in your feed, but more importantly, the owner of the Page can pay to reach you and your friends.

For example, friends of mine own Grand Rapids Popcorn Company, and I like their Page. If they had a special event or sale they wanted to promote, they could post about it, and I might see it. But then they could pay to boost that post, and not only would I probably see it, but many of my friends would see it, too (they have 3,000+ likes, so they could probably reach 30,000 people or so with about $100). They could even restrict the boosted post to people living in Grand Rapids if they wanted to. Where else can they get targeted advertising like that for such a low price? Nowhere.

Facebook even makes it easy to embed a Like button in another page – click Like below to show my friends at grpopcorn some love!

My company, Moraware, has a Page as well, but unless you work for a countertop fabricator (our target market), I don’t want you to Like it. When you ask people to Like your page who aren’t in your target market, you just made it more expensive to reach your target market! More isn’t always better … if you want people to Like your Page, give them a reason, and then be patient. There’s an art to growing a Page, but that’s a topic for another day.

My point for of all this today is that you probably are the target market for Foley Racing, the Page I made for our family’s go-karting adventures. We’re going to be posting updates for the next 15 weeks or so, but I don’t want to bombard my personal friends with that each week. By posting to a Page, we’re letting you choose whether you want to hear about it each week or just once in a while (hey, we’ll still post the big milestones like our first win to our personal timelines!). It also makes it really easy for Paula and me to post pictures to the same place and always know where to find them, which is quite handy. So if you want to follow our race team’s progress this year, just click Like below or visit our Page once in a while.

Start your engines!

Go-kart season starts tomorrow, and I can’t wait to see everybody in our karting club. Karting is remarkably supportive, and it’s a family activity – so our competitors have become our good friends. You should see for yourself – come check out the track in Ravenna on a raceday sometime this summer (tomorrow is “rookie day” and practice – the first time we can get on the track).

I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done on Gus’s kart to get it ready. Check out these knuckles:


That’s not a scrape, it’s a burn – I was using a cutting wheel to fabricate a bracket, and the sparks burned through my gloves! The bracket’s awesome, though.

I can’t thank my friend Chuck enough for all his help in getting the kart simplified. With his help, I’ve learned how to use a chop saw, grinder (soft and hard pad), cutting wheel, sanding belt … he thinks I’m even ready to weld now.

The main benefit of all this work is that the kart won’t require so much work on race days. When I do need to work on it, everything is easy to remove and put back. I’ll take pictures showing the difference over the summer.

Now all I need is a bit more grease under those fingernails, and I’ll be a real gear-head.

Self-driving cars

In case you haven’t heard, self-driving cars are coming – it’s a matter of when, not if. When our kids grow up and look back at today, they’ll laugh about how quickly the technology was adopted, the same way we shake our heads today, remembering life without smartphones.

The transition will be fascinating. This technology will evolve, and while it seems likely that we’ll have more non-human drivers than human drivers at some point in the not-so-distant future, it’s unclear how we’ll get from here to there. It’s complicated, because autonomous cars can kill you, just as regular ones can. 

If we could magically replace all human drivers with non-human drivers in a day, tens of thousands of lives would actually be saved … even with today’s technology, computers are statistically way better drivers than humans. However, humans are irrational, and the first time a self-driving car is involved in a fatal accident, we will freak out.

I think we need to get humans used to the idea of self-driving cars in stages. Currently, Tesla is leading the way with real-world results – if you’re on the highway, you can let your Tesla take over the steering, but you’re supposed to be vigilant and ready to take over again if needed. That’s super impressive, but I worry about the first failure. Again, it’s the humans who have to get used to the behavior of computers, not the other way around.

What I’d like to see soon is a self-driving car with no human driver at all – but one that’s limited to 25mph. I think it should have a flashing light on the top to warn other drivers that something is different about it. Use it in cities as an automated taxi. Avoiding the highway would be an acceptable limitation, since the trade-off would be lower prices over time. That’s exactly the market Uber is going after. Once our society gets used to that early-adopter technology, THEN people will realistically start asking: “Why do I ever drive at all?”

That was embarrassing

Like many people, I can be frozen by embarrassment – or even worse, frozen simply by the fear of embarrassment.

For example, recently I made an embarrassing goof during a podcast interview (one that insulted my guests), even though I’ve been working pretty hard to get better at interviewing. This goof affected my sleep for a couple of days – I’d wake up breathing slightly heavily and beating myself up: “How could I be so stupid?”

Whenever I experience something like that, I have an impulse to run away. For example, in this case, I had minor thoughts about quitting podcasting or dialing it back: “I guess I’m just not cut out for this.” However, I also knew that I had been working hard and improving, so I didn’t take that impulse too seriously. I observed my typical embarrassment reaction, but I knew instinctively that this was simply a bump in the road, and I’d eventually get over it.

This time, I took one additional step … I said, “I’m embarrassed” out loud. I was recording a test episode, and as I was pitching the next show, I mentioned my mistake. Instantly, I felt quite a bit better. At that point, I realized that it was simply a fact of my life: I did this, and it was embarrassing. I didn’t lose any more sleep. I’m still a bit embarrassed by it, but it’s not debilitating. 

I’ll probably take one more step and simply apologize directly to my guests when I announce the show. They clearly noticed my gaff, and if I were in their shoes, I’d be insulted – I might as well not shy away from it.

This seems like a repeatable approach to me, although I hope I don’t have to use it too often. If you want to know the specifics of this particular faux pas, you’ll have to listen to my podcast.

Habits and Projects

A (positive) habit is something you commit to doing on a regular basis – often indefinitely. A project is something you want to accomplish that has a distinct end point.

Developing habits is a strength of mine. For example, today is the 1,633rd consecutive day that I’ve run at least a mile. About 14 months ago, I started lifting weights 3 days per week, and I’ve been very consistent with it. I’m sure I haven’t missed 3 days of flossing in the last 25 years.

Finishing projects has not historically been a strength of mine, and I tend to beat myself up about that. A friend complimented me on my discipline a few months ago, and I was flustered by his praise: Me? Disciplined? … but look at all these things I haven’t done!” Of course, he was referring to the running and lifting and dieting and similar accomplishments. I, on the other hand, conflated habits and projects and only saw what I hadn’t accomplished.

Only recently have I noticed this distinction between habits and projects – and how they relate to each other. Now I’m trying to leverage my strengths with habit-forming to fix my weaknesses with project-completing. This began when I scheduled an hour each Friday after lunch (literally a recurring appointment in my work calendar) to work on my podcasts. After a month, it’s now become a habit. Slowly but surely, I’m completing a bunch of little podcast-related projects.

My boss, Harry, is not a project manager (far from it), but he’s really good at focusing on “one thing” … and that attitude permeates our entire company. We don’t have project plans – instead, each person just needs to know the one thing they’re working on outside of everyday support and sales. When you’re done with that little project, then you think of the next one thing and do it. It sounds simple, but I’ve often struggled with it. Now that I’m developing habits to support this approach – namely, setting aside time for my one thing (as well as additional time for recurring commitments like podcasting) – it’s finally starting to sink in for me.

At home, I have a ton of household projects that haven’t been getting done, which has been a source of stress for both Paula and me. About a week ago, we started talking about habits and projects and one thing. Ultimately, each of us can only work on one thing at a time at home, too – but I hadn’t been scheduling time to work on anything! (I’ve spent a lot of non-work time lately preparing Gus’s go-kart for the upcoming season, but c’mon … ya gotta have priorities.) We started scheduling some “project time” – for starters, just 30 minutes immediately after I’m done with work – and during each block of time, we work on the most important project in our household – whatever’s causing us the most stress. After just a few days, it’s making a difference. I’m very optimistic.

That’s it – I’m done with work for the day … time to spend 30 minutes on a home project.

Two good movies

Yesterday, Paula and I celebrated our 25th (!) anniversary with a great luxury – we watched not one but TWO movies. I enjoyed both immensely (but I enjoyed the time with my sweetie even more).

First we watched City of God. Not what you’d think of us as a romantic movie, but it’s extremely thought provoking and remarkably well made. It’s pretty violent, so if you don’t like violence, you might not want to see it. If you don’t mind the occasional gangster flick, see it. It’s subtitled, but we didn’t find that distracting at all. After you watch it, read about how it was made.

Later we watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This didn’t get great reviews, but we loved it. I hate spoilers, so I’m not going to give it away, but if you haven’t seen it, check it out. This movie even qualifies as romantic, though it’s not what you’d think of as a chick flick.

I think it’s fun to relate seemingly unrelated things. These movies had one notable thing in common – in both movies, a character’s photography played a key role (this is clear in the opening scenes of both, so no spoilers there). Both even used film instead of digital. I guess that was the theme of our one-day film festival.

Any day seeing a good movie is a good day … a day seeing two good movies? With the love of my life? That was a great day.

We never even kissed

Twenty five years ago today, Paula made me the happiest man in the world.

Our wedding was a bit different. Our first “date” was attending Catholic mass at the chapel on SMU’s campus, and we wanted to get married there. We also didn’t want our families to spend a lot of money on travel. We wanted to keep things simple.

Father Tom suggested we get married during normal Sunday mass … this is such a great option – I don’t know why more people don’t do it. We had 200-300 people attend our wedding, and all but 15 or 20 didn’t know they were going to witness a wedding that day!

We walked down the aisle together, while wonderful musician friends of mine played and sang. My friend Leslie’s husband took some great pictures, like this one, which still sits on my desk today:


One of our favorite memories is that we were waiting for Fr Tom to tell us it was time to kiss, and he never did. When he announced us as a wedded couple to applause, we just butted heads instead. To this day, we often lovingly butt heads.

Thank you, sweet Paula, for all our adventures. I look forward to many more together.

Stacking Bricks

Ash inspired me, but I wasn’t willing to commit to a “real” startup … there’s something I really want to learn, but any effort has to fit into the constraint that it can’t eat up time that I’d rather spend with Gus and Paula. I’m also not willing to sacrifice our financial lifestyle to go all-in – no ramen-noodle startups for me.

After talking about the subject with my boss, he sent me a link to an article by Amy Hoy. I heard Amy give a talk at MicroConf a few years ago – I remember being very impressed with her no-bullshit approach to business, but I hadn’t thought about it in a while.

Along with her own successful SaaS business, Amy runs courses to teach people like me how to build no-bullshit businesses. Like most people, my challenge isn’t knowledge – it’s action and experience. I simply don’t have the experience of selling something I’ve made for money. If I ever want to build a sustainable business, I need that basic experience. I don’t know if I ever will build a “big” business, but I still want that basic experience!

Amy implores her readers to start small … build something absolutely tiny so that you can gain experience with all the other parts of the business – the parts that aren’t building the actual product. Building the product is the fun part – most creative types like me need to work on all the other parts (finding customers, exchanging value for money, supporting people, etc.).

Consistency is the name of the game here. Amy calls it “stacking bricks” – if I commit to consistent work on a tiny business, then before long, I’ll build on that success to make a slightly less tiny business. Eventually, I’ll build something substantial … but even if I never reach that point, I’ll be learning things I want to learn (it’s another form of practice).

After reading a bunch of Amy’s writing, I spent a few evenings making a site to help people choose a camera and paid about a buck a day to send some AdWords traffic to the “best for sports page” (yes! go there!) . When anyone clicks on the Amazon links and buys a camera, I make a few bucks (I got the idea for that kind of project from Noah Kagan, who also preaches small progress toward business-building … I also really like cameras). I ended up spending about $80 and have brought in $20 so far. Not a huge success, obviously, but I’ve already learned a ton – and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than business school. Most importantly, it’s not too big of a commitment – I’m just pulling from a tiny bit of my relaxation time that I’d otherwise probably spend reading Gizmodo or ESPN.

Just this week, Amy came out with a new approach that she’s promoting – her year of hustle. It’s even more prescriptive about the steps to build a tiny business. I trust her, so I’m going to do what she says. I’ll keep you posted.