How to make zoom video meetings spectacularly successful

From Tomasz Tunguz’ The Secret to Productive Group Meetings over Video (with edits):

Say you want to brainstorm ideas for a new product you’re going to launch. Schedule a video meeting for the relevant people from sales, product, marketing, engineering, and customer support.

Create a Google document with ten pages, a page with each person’s name on top. Ask everyone in the meeting to find the page with their name on it and answer the question: “what are the top three features our new product needs?” in the first ten minutes.

Time’s up; hands-off keyboards. Coalesce the lists in front of everyone. By the time you’ve completed your work, the team has read the others’ contributions and is ready to discuss. The group steps through the bullet items in the remaining time.

I’ve participated in sessions like this for brainstorming, 360° reviews, project planning, pipeline evaluation, team standups, all kinds. Each session is remarkably more productive with video and Google Docs than in person.

(1) I love this advice. But the final step (“the group steps through the bullet items in the remaining time”) seems vague.
(2) One possibility: After the brainstorming, get the participants to name their top candidate from the combined list and explain why. I’ve found that asking participants to vote or to provide a rating (“How much do you like this, one to ten?”) helps get meetings to an actionable conclusion. See: How to end meetings.
(3) On deriving value from a meetings as fast as possible, see The antidote to bad meetings.

The most important thing to remember as a founder / CEO

From Redpoint’s profile of VC Tomasz Tunguz:

Best learning as a founder?
Things are never as good or bad as they seem. Throughout the rollercoaster ride, your have to keep your head, even if all those around you are losing theirs.

(1) Peter Fenton thinks the most important quality of a successful founder is “profound, deep, innate motivation”. Perhaps that is related to Tom Tunguz’ point. To succeed, your motivation must be independent of short term success or failure.
(2) Wondering about the relationship between Tom’s “Things are never as good or bad as they seem” and the ancient adage “This too shall pass”?

To reduce churn by more than 2 percentage points, you have to raise product value and usage

From Churn is the single metric that determines the success of your subscription service by David Packman:

“There is a laundry list of optimizations subscription services implement to improve retention, and collectively these have a positive effect—re-billing insufficient fund accounts on the 15th and 30th of the month, allowing members to pause their service, allowing members to reduce the frequency of delivered goods, winback campaigns to churned members, etc.

But a key observation about businesses which show high churn in their early stages is that the churn will not meaningfully reduce. That is, you can expect your optimization efforts to maybe move churn 1% — 2% (absolute points) or so, but they will never halve churn or reduce it dramatically beyond this. This is because churn is a statement from your customers about how habitually valuable your service is to them. In my experience, the only way to meaningfully reduce churn in high-churn businesses is to essentially redesign the service and the value proposition.

For clarity, I have looked at close to a hundred subscription services and have never seen churn improve from, say, 12% a month to 7% a month without fundamentally changing the service…but I have seen it move from 12% to 10% or thereabouts through optimization.”

(1) Re. “Churn is a statement from your customers about how habitually valuable your service is to them” — see The relationship between frequency of habit and customer retention.
(2) The optimizations which David Packman argues have limited ability to reduce churn do not address insufficient product usage. For an alternative approach, see How to reduce churn by identifying your “red flag metrics”.
(3) We’ve raised retention for Seeking Alpha Premium by (i) identifying our most valuable product features, and (2) redesigning the product UX to increase the usage of those features. For example, our ranking of the top stocks in each industry is valuable because it enables investors to discover stocks which subsequently outperform the market, so we’ve redesigned our product to increase usage of those rankings.

What happens when you talk about too many goals

From How Jeremy Corbyn Lost The Election – And Started The Race To Replace Him:

One big problem was the sheer size of the manifesto and the number of policies on offer. Candidates complained that they didn’t have a single five-point pledge card like the one Tony Blair made famous. While the Tories had a simple message of ‘Get Brexit Done’, Labour lacked a similarly easy ‘doorstep offer’. “We had so much in the manifesto we almost had too much,” one senior source said. “It felt like none of it was cutting through. You needed to boil it down.”

(1) This is a fundamental point about successful communication, and therefore applies to managers as well.
(2) See What’s your “simple scoreboard”?

The key to success? Do less.

Excerpt from How to Succeed in Business? Do Less by Morten T. Hansen:

Most top performers in business have one thing in common: They accept fewer tasks and then obsess over getting them right.

The common practice we found among the highest-ranked performers in our study wasn’t at all what we expected. It wasn’t a better ability to organize or delegate. Instead, top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel. We found that just a few key work practices related to such selectivity accounted for two-thirds of the variation in performance among our subjects. Talent, effort and luck undoubtedly mattered as well, but not nearly as much.

The research makes clear that we should change our individual work habits if we wish to perform better, but the implications are much more far-reaching. We also need to change how we manage and reward work, how we measure economic productivity and perhaps most important, how our culture recognizes hard work. We should no longer take it as an automatic compliment to hear that we’re “hard working.” Hard work isn’t always the best work. The key is to work smarter.

(1) This doesn’t mean that companies should adopt fewer goals. Companies may achieve more by having teams or individuals working on different goals. But individuals must focus.
(2) My golden management rule: in every interaction with people in your company, ensure you Focus, Empower, and Inspire. This excerpt provides one of the ways to help people become more focused — help them to accept fewer tasks.
(3) Cf. (i) The best work question to ask yourself every morning, (ii) If you want to get more done, stop doing these things, (iii) Saying “no” to good ideas.

How to manage legal, finance, IT, and HR to enable you to move fast

Edited excerpt from Lean Startup’s Eric Ries on How to Make ‘Gatekeepers’ a Source of Power and Speed:

Eric Ries calls functions like Legal, Finance, IT, and HR “gatekeepers”: Gatekeepers are the functional teams whose beneficiary is predominately the company itself, versus the end customer. They often impact the ability of the makers and sellers of the product — Product, Design, Engineering, Marketing and Sales — to reach customers.

The top tip for non-gatekeepers: Avoid the eleventh-hour ask. What they experience is someone calling them with no lead time, pitching a complex plan and asking for a thumbs up or down by end-of-day. From the gatekeeper’s point of view, that’s a lose-lose proposition. Either she has to say yes to something that has more liability than she’s comfortable with, or she has to say no and be the evil one. Instead, employ a cross-functional team from the start.

The top tip for gatekeepers: Revere how others build, be flexible in how you build. The best-performing gatekeepers have entrepreneurial virtues. They’ve got a tolerance — even comfort with — uncertainty and ambiguity and understand why entrepreneurship is challenging. This translates to empathy for what the product teams are going through. That flexibility brings a learning-first mentality. You want a gatekeeper who’s informed, but not always coming in with all the answers. She should be able to synthesize her expertise with what the company is doing.

The top tip for CEOs/founders: Foster an environment where gatekeepers can serve, not just respond. The statement you must be able to make is: The gatekeeping functions serve their customers rather than just respond to them. Keep gatekeeper functional heads accountable according to the cycle time of teams. Create metrics pertaining to how fast you want the team to turn things around.

(1) Thank you Andrew Fine, an outstanding “gatekeeper”, for the tip.
(2) Cf. In your startup, the goals and culture must become a mantra.

Five key takeaways from Peter Drucker’s “How To Be An Effective Executive”

In his book How To Be An Effective Executive, Peter Drucker identifies five key habits of effective executives:

1. Manage time. Use a three-step process: (i) Track your time use, and eliminate time wasters. (ii) Delegate by identifying tasks which can be done equally well by someone else. (iii) Don’t waste the time of those who work for you or with you. Ask: “What do I do which wastes your time?”.

2. Focus on contribution. Ask yourself what you can contribute that will significantly affect the performance of your company. If you don’t ask this, you’ll aim too low or at the wrong things. Look to contribute in three areas: (i) Direct results. (ii) Building and re-affirming values. (iii) Building and developing people for tomorrow.

3. Build on strengths. To “staff for strength”: (i) Make sure all jobs are designed well. Identify any job that has defeated two or three people in succession and get rid of it. (ii) Make each job demanding and big, as a challenge brings out strengths. (iii) Start with what a person can do, rather than what a job requires. Ask what a person has done well, and therefore what they are likely to do well in future. That includes yourself. (iv) Tolerate weaknesses.

4. Concentrate time, effort and resources. Do first things first, and only one thing at a time. Embrace the opposite of multi-tasking. Allow a fair margin of time over what you think you’ll need, and don’t race. Say “no” due to courage, not analysis, by picking the future over the past, focusing on opportunities not problems, choosing your own direction rather than the norm, and aiming high.

5. Make effective decisions. Decisions are made well when based on the clash of conflicting views. Encourage opinions rather than seeking out facts, as those who give you opinions should provide the facts. Know what you need to know to test the validity of a hypothesis. Organize disagreement, for example by identifying why people disagree.

(1) Here’s an excellent video review of the book which presents these points. And here’s another written summary.
(2) On time management, see: Do the most important stuff first thing in the morning.
(3) On “build on strengths”, see: The two factors which determine how successful and happy you will be at work.

Why revenue retention is the wrong operating metric to combat churn

Edited excerpt from Why Retention Is The Silent Killer by Brian Balfour:

When I ask someone from a SaaS business, or another subscription model business, about their retention, I almost always get an answer involving monthly or yearly revenue retention. This is a red flag for me. I’m far more interested in how retention is reflected in the breadth and depth of product usage.

Why, you ask? Revenue retention is the output of engaged users. The usage is the input, and looking only at revenue retention as a proxy for usage retention has two big problems:

1. Revenue can hide what is going on under the hood with product usage, and shield you from signals about your product’s health over the longer term. You may earn a month or a year’s worth of revenue from a paying subscriber, but if that person isn’t using the product, they will churn when that month or year is up.

2. If you are trying to improve retention but only tracking revenue retention, the game is over before you’ve even had the chance to play. Once a paying subscriber has churned, winning them back is almost impossible. If you want to improve retention you need to look at usage retention first.

(1) Contrast Brian’s emphasis on product usage with David Skok’s approach in How to reduce churn.
(2) Cf. The relationship between frequency of habit and customer retention.
(3) Cf. How to reduce churn by identifying your “red flag metrics”.
(4) …and the other posts in the Churn & Retention section of Best practices for startups — a list by topic.

Mobile vs. desktop usage habits

Edited excerpt from How Meredith built Allrecipes into a digital-to-print, multichannel success by Cobus Heyl:

When designing each experience, we look to the unique strength of each medium.

Web provides a high degree of interactivity and utility: A keyboard and mouse allow the consumer to actively share their experiences through text. The large screen allows them to engage and to interact with the content through drag and drop functionality, and allows many items to be present on the page at the same time.

Mobile is all about mobility and constant connectivity: We take advantage of the likelihood that the home cook is most likely on-the-go or in-store when using their phone, so we are very much focused on helping them quickly find and share dinner solutions. The phone’s geolocation technology pinpoints the cook’s location so we can deliver hyper-local grocery offers that match their location and preferred retail outlet. We also take advantage of touch, voice and motion to allow them to enhance the brand experience. Mobile devices are also more likely to be a personal vs. shared device, so we can pay attention to their past behaviours to deliver a more personalized experience uniquely tailored to their interests and needs.

Print is an experience where cooks are most likely interested in having us curate the experience for them: The team pays close attention to the trends and behaviours we are seeing play out on the web to inform the editorial framework and focus of each issue. They are able to create features that marry our most popular recipes alongside hidden gems that might easily be missed through common search or browse behaviours.

(1) Thank you Eli Hoffmann for the tip, and his summary: “tl;dr: success in mobile may not be about porting desktop functionality carte blanche, but rather about groking the needs of the mobile consumer”.
(2) Cf. “Mobile today does not mean ‘when you’re mobile’. It means ubiquity — universal access to the internet for anyone at any time” –Benedict Evans, in How to think about mobile.
(3) See also: The surprise about how people use their phones and The key success metric for mobile apps.

Improving retention helps growth in 4 ways

Excerpt from The One Growth Metric that Moves Acquisition, Monetization, and Virality by Brian Balfour:

Most people think retention is so crucial simply because it means you lose fewer users than you otherwise would. Though this is true, it misses the critical point. Retention is the core of your growth model and influences every other input to your model. This is important because if you improve retention, you’ll also improve the rest of your funnel:

1. Retention drives acquisition. For many products, especially those that grow through virality or user generated content (UGC), retention has a double effect. As you retain more users, those additional users take more of the key actions that accelerate acquisition, either through sharing, inviting, word-of-mouth, or creating content. As more of those new users retain, more are acquired – improving retention sets off a self-reinforcing cycle that drives acquisition.

2. Retention improves monetization. When it comes to monetization, two important things happen with improved retention – you can retain a larger proportion of a cohort, and in doing so, make more money from that cohort within a given period of time, and you can increase the length of time that a cohort retains, increasing LTV.

3. Retention builds an acquisition competitive edge. As you increase retention, monetization, and LTV, you can pay more to acquire a customer. In doing so, you can push competitors out of acquisition channels, open up new channels that were previously too expensive, and grow faster.

4. Retention accelerates payback period. Payback period is the time it takes to break even on the cost to acquire a customer. It also determines how fast you can start reinvesting in acquisition to fuel growth. Improving retention can help shorten your payback period to grow faster.

(1) Cf. A radical approach to marketing
(2) Cf. Sustainable growth vs. growth hacking
(3) Cf. Why retention is the key to growth

Four ways to show you care about your team’s careers

Excerpt from The Front of the Jersey by Doug Weaver:

Call out the elephant in the room. “We both know that you won’t necessarily always work here…” can be the phrase that really opens up your dialogue with your employees and shows that you’re treating them as adults, not assets.

How does today’s action create long term value? Want your team members to get better at something? Frame the discussion around their long term value in the marketplace. Every rep has a stock price and that stock price is either going up or down.

Commit to them. Tell them that you want this to be the best place they’ll ever work, and that you’d like to be remembered as the boss who made them better at their craft. Then do what you say.

Put the relationships in long term context. Will there be a network of people out there who speak well of them in the future, or a network that’s felt slighted, overlooked or abused?

(1) Thank you Brad Westbrook and Alon Zieve for the tip.
(2) Cf. Laszlo Bock’s eight steps to being a good manager
(3) Cf. Build self-confidence — but not your own

The most important job of a product leader

Excerpt from How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting: A Board Meeting for Product by former VP/CPO at Netflix and Chegg, Gibon Biddle:

I think the most important job of a product leader is to outline a cohesive product strategy, along with metrics and tactics against these strategies. The way I define the product leader’s job is to delight customers, in margin-enhancing, hard-to-copy ways.

Your product strategy should define your key hypotheses about how you plan to deliver on these three dimensions. The metrics are how you measure your progress, and the tactics are simply projects or experiments against each of your key strategies.

(i) Thank you Alon Zieve for the article recommendation.
(ii) Cf. First principles for startup founders (and product managers).
(iii) Cf. The heart of any growth strategy is core product value.

When freemium makes sense

Excerpt from Subscription Business Models Are Great for Some Businesses and Terrible for Others by Robbie Kellman Baxter:

I love freemium, the idea of combining a premium paid membership with a free membership that provides value forever. But freemium needs to work in service to a larger business strategy. Freemium works best in three scenarios:

– As a means of trial. Many people who have a free subscription to Dropbox get all of the online storage they need. But for others, as they make Dropbox part of their daily routine, they find they need more storage and greater functionality. As a result, they upgrade to the premium service.

– To create a networked effect. Each new member that joins LinkedIn for free creates additional value for the recruiters, salespeople and jobseekers paying for LinkedIn subscriptions. And if no one used the free version of LinkedIn, there’d be little reason for those people to pay at all.

– To serve as a marketing channel. Some people never pay for a SurveyMonkey subscription, because they only need small surveys sent to a few people, with limited analytics. But when those people send out their surveys, they are advertising for SurveyMonkey to everyone who receives the survey. If one of those survey recipients subscribes to the premium offering, the sender (who’s a free member) becomes a marketing channel for attracting and converting new members.

(1) Thank you Daniel Shvartsman for the article recommendation.
(2) Note the similarities with Tom Tunguz’ The 3 strategies of freemium companies.
(3) Cf. The 3 conditions of a great freemium business.

Managers’ biggest HR mistake, and how to fix it

I was chatting with someone who ran HR for a Fortune 500 company and is now an HR consultant. “What are managers’ biggest mistakes in HR?”, I asked him. “And what’s your best advice for them?” His answer:

Most companies succeed because of a small number of outstanding employees — the stars. But managers frequently make the mistake of devoting the majority of their time to under-performers. Instead, they should be devoting their time to these stars who truly drive their company’s performance.

So the most impactful advice I give managers is: identify your stars; let them know they are stars; and spend time thinking about how to empower them — how to give them responsibility, how to ensure they’re on challenging and impactful projects, and how to coach them for promotion.

(1) Cf. The best thing you can do for your team.
(2) Cf. Should you hire superstars?

Chris Fralic’s 7 rules for making memorable connections

Edited excerpt from How to Become Insanely Well-Connected by Chris Fralic:

1. Convey genuine appreciation — think about what they know that you don’t.
2. Listen with intent — demonstrate you’ve heard exactly what was said by the other person, and encourage them to continue.
3. Use humility markers — acknowledge your own fallibility and imperfection so you’re relatable; act in a way that implies your time is no more important than theirs.
4. Offer unvarnished honesty — in what will actually have utility for the other party.
5. Blue-sky brainstorm — with them, not for them.
6. End every meeting or conversation with the feeling and optimism you’d like to have at the start of your next conversation with the person.
7. Don’t fake it — know exactly why you care about that person or their company, based on diligent preparation.

(1) According to Chris, the over-arching principle is: Imparting energy is more important than sharing new information.
(2) Perhaps this advice applies to all relationships, not just business connections.
(3) Note Chris’ advice about how to listen with intent — “demonstrate you’ve heard exactly what was said by the other person, and encourage them to continue”. Cf. How to be a better listener.

If you have any paying customers, don’t quit

Edited excerpt from The Right Sales Metrics For Your SaaS Startup, an interview with Jason Lemkin:

Q: You share a lot of advice about business growth on your blog,, taken from your own experiences. What was the most important lesson you took away from growing EchoSign or NanoGram?

A: The most important lesson, especially for earlier-stage entrepreneurs, is don’t quit. What I’ve learned from both my startups is if you have anything at all, build on it. Every SaaS company has a different story of how they got to initial traction, that $1 million to $1.5 million run rate. Some got there in 2 months, others took 4 years to get to a million in revenue. It may seem bleak if you’re doing just $10,000 or $5,000 a month, but it’s almost impossible to get anyone to buy anything. They don’t need any more business web services. So if you have something, even if it that doesn’t pay everyone’s salaries, don’t quit.

(1) Cf. Why SaaS and subscription businesses often take longer than B2C.
(2) Cf. For SaaS startups — how to avoid increasing costs inefficiently and prematurely.

“Job To Be Done” for seed stage startups (#JTBD)

Yesterday I ran a workshop for seed stage startups about how to use the Job To Be Done framework to raise their chances of achieving product-market fit. The surprise: many seed stage startups are unclear about who their target customer is. A simple Job To Be Done exercise exposes the lack of clarity and helps resolve it.

Here’s the presentation and exercise:
“Job To Be Done” for seed stage startups

A better format for brainstorming

Maoz is a not for profit which helps leaders in the Israeli public sector make better decisions by inviting input from a network of smart volunteers. This is how they conduct their brainstorming sessions:

  • The “owner” presents the problem / issue.
  • Participants ask questions for 15 minutes.
  • Participants discuss possible answers and approaches; the owner observes the discussion but doesn’t participate in it.

(1) Brilliant. Dedicated question time forces participants to ask questions before expressing opinions. And excluding the owner from the subsequent discussion removes the risk that the owner will get defensive, anchor the conversation in their current approach to the issue, or not listen because they’re thinking what to say next.
(2) Cf. Group brainstorming doesn’t lead to creativity; this does. Perhaps Maoz’s brainstorming is different because it involves external players, not the members of a team responsible for achieving a goal.
(3) Cf. When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind.

How to find out in an interview if someone is a giver or a taker

Edited excerpt from 1 Interview Question That Cuts Through the BS to Reveal Someone’s True Character by Betsy Mikel:

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says that the more often people help each other, the better the organization does. To create a culture of helping, you need to hire the givers, not the takers. However, just because someone is agreeable doesn’t mean they’re a giver — there are plenty of agreeable takers and disagreeable givers in this world. To find out whether someone is a giver or taker, irrespective of how agreeable they are, ask:

Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?

The takers will give you the names of four people who have more influence than they do. They care more about influence than they do about helping. The givers will give you the names of four people you’ve likely never heard of, who are equal to them or below them in power. That’s because givers aren’t in the business of helping to help themselves succeed.

(1) Thank you Hana Abduljaami for the tip.
(2) This is very different from most other recommended interview questions, such as Sonya Meloff’s, Peter Thiel’s, Spencer Rascoff’s and Lou Adler’s.

Don’t let self-criticism become self-flagellation

From The School of Life, via The Difficult Art of Self-Compassion by Maria Popova:

To survive in this high-pressured, crazy world, most of us have to become highly adept at self-criticism. We learn how to tell ourselves off for our failures, and for not working hard or smart enough. But so good are we at this that we’re sometimes in danger of falling prey to an excessive version of self-criticism — what we might call self-flagellation: a rather dangerous state, which just ushers in depression and underperformance. We might simply lose the will to get out of bed.

For those moments, we need a corrective — we need to carve out time for an emotional state of which many of us are profoundly suspicious: self-compassion. We’re suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity. But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.

(1) “Treating yourself with the understanding, mindfulness and kindness with which you would treat a friend – leads to far greater resilience, productivity and well-being.” From Stop beating yourself up.
(2) At the management level: (i) Build self-confidence — but not your own, and (ii) A simple litmus test for great managers.
(3) At the company level: Why celebrating wins is so hard, but so important.

VCs make two common errors, the data shows

Excerpt from the Startup Genome Report — A new framework for understanding why startups succeed:

1. Many investors invest 2-3x more capital than necessary in startups that haven’t reached problem solution fit yet. They also over-invest in solo founders and founding teams without technical cofounders despite indicators that show that these teams have a much lower probability of success.

2. Investors who provide hands-on help have little or no effect on the company’s operational performance. But the right mentors significantly influence a company’s performance and ability to raise money. (However, this does not mean that investors don’t have a significant effect on valuations and M&A.)

(1) Re. “Many investors invest 2-3x more capital than necessary in startups that haven’t reached problem solution fit yet.” Cf. (i) The real difference between funding rounds and (ii) Why you should bootstrap your startup before raising money.
(2) Re. “Investors who provide hands-on help have little or no effect on the company’s operational performance.” Cf. VC pitfalls to watch for: trying to fix companies.

How money can mess up your startup

Edited excerpt from MailChimp and the Un-Silicon Valley Way to Make It as a Start-Up by Farhad Manjoo:

Start-ups fueled by venture capital often need to figure out how to run like ordinary businesses; they embark on unsustainable growth, they forget about earning money, they don’t learn how to weather tough times. The tech economy is littered with companies that raised too much money — and suffered for it.

“One of the problems with raising money is it teaches you bad habits from the start,” said Jason Fried, the co-founder of the software company Basecamp. “If you’re an entrepreneur and you have a bunch of money in the bank, you get good at spending money.”

But if companies are forced to generate revenue from the beginning, “what you get really good at is making money,” Mr. Fried said. “And that’s a much better habit for a business to work on early on, to survive on their own rather than be dependent on money people.”

(1) Thank you Russell Rothstein, Founder CEO of IT Central Station, and Zach Abramowitz, Founder CEO of ReplyAll, for recommending the article.
(2) For startups that have already taken VC funding, see (i) Give your startup time and options — burn less (ii) Get to profitability — here’s how, and (iii) “We simply can’t cut costs without hurting our growth”.
(3) Cf. Why startups shouldn’t scale prematurely.

Can digital products leave space for silence?

Edited excerpt from I Used to Be a Human Being by Andrew Sullivan:

Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.

Our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.”

There is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

A sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.

(1) The entire article is remarkable. Thank you, Andrew.
(2) Cf. How to stop your phone from distracting you and wasting your life.
(3) Cf. How tech products misframe our choices, and product managers should do better.

Does your company description resonate with potential customers?

Here are three company descriptions. In which is the value proposition for customers clearest, and why? How would you improve them?

CliClap helps you generate sales leads by sharing articles of interest to your target customers with an added call-to-action for your company or product. This gives you the benefits of content marketing without the costs of content production. CliClap’s solution doesn’t require any technical integration and allows you to get started in minutes.

Honeybook is on a mission to connect the different parts of the events industry by reimagining the way creative professionals work with their colleagues and clients.

OptimalQ helps companies increase sales. It does this by identifying, in real time, the best time to contact potential customers when they are physically and mentally available. Companies that use OptimalQ have realized an increase of over 70% in answer rate and over 18% in average duration of answered calls.

(1) “The key here is to keep it really short and use plain English” — from Clarifying your strategy using a simple template.
(2) Cf. How to ensure your company is customer-centric, and the challenge for ad-supported services.
(3) Cf. How to name your product and create its tag line.

If you want to be a better listener, here’s a simple tip

Edited excerpt from Startup founders’ most common mistake in meetings — and how to avoid it:

Before you talk with someone, set a target for what % of the conversation you want them to be talking. Remind yourself of that target during the conversation.

(1) Cf. How to have more valuable and rewarding conversations with people.
(2) Cf. How to listen when you disagree.
(3) Cf. How to be a better listener.

How your mood at the start of the day impacts your productivity

Edited excerpt from Eurekalert:

Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods, and had a clear impact on performance, including both how much work employees did and how well they did it.

“We saw that employees could get into these negative spirals where they started the day in a bad mood and just got worse over the course of the day,” said Steffanie Wilk, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “That’s why it is so important for companies to find ways to help their workers start off the day on the right foot.”

(1) How can individuals ensure they start their day happy? Eric Barker suggests: (i) ensure you have something to look forward to from the night before, (ii) ensure the first thing you do gives you a feeling of control, (iii) eat breakfast, (iv) send a “thank you” email to someone, (v) kiss someone you love, (vi) plan how you’ll deal with changes, and (vii) do something you dread.
(2) Any ideas for how companies can “find ways to help their workers start off the day on the right foot”?

Metrics that measure consumption vs metrics that measure the satisfaction of real needs

Edited excerpt from Is anything worth maximizing? by Joe Edelman:

Metrics have allowed us to scale up the size of our organizations. But they’ve also created a kind of tug-of-war. On the one hand, we have the nuanced values of individuals. On the one hand, we have the simplifying assumptions of economies and organizations. These two are in constant tension throughout the economy.

Overconsumption comes from tweaking products and channels so as to maximize sales, views, and clicks. That has trade-offs for long-term satisfaction, and for wellbeing. If we keep focusing on sales, views, and clicks, we’ll wind up fat, depressed (or on Prozac), socially isolated, diabetic, bloodshot staring at screens or jacked into VR, and surrounded by piles of junk we regret buying.

When governments or big businesses focus on consumer spending, on consumption, they’re missing all the reasons that people buy and focusing on the buying behavior itself.

Same with overconsumption of media. There are reasons that we want to read and learn. Reasons we want to know about our friends’ lives, or just to see a photo of someone we love who’s far away. But when a business like Facebook tries to maximize engagement, it loses track of those reasons; it treats us as engagement machines. We go over-consumed, but under-fulfilled.

When people discover that a new organization has metrics that hew closer to our real values, users will fly to this new provider. Engagement maximizers won’t see it coming. And the new metrics of the new organization will become the new standard throughout the relevant markets. I call this the flight to higher ground. It’s happened many times in the last hundred years, but I believe we can go much further.

(1) Cf. How tech products misframe our choices, and product managers should do better.
(2) Cf. Provide what your users really want.

How to have more valuable and rewarding conversations with people

Edited excerpt from 10 ways to have a better conversation by Celeste Headlee:

I’d like to teach you how to talk and how to listen. A lot of advice on this, like “look, nod and smile to show that you’re paying attention”, “repeat back what you just heard or summarize it”, is crap. There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention. I have 10 basic rules:

1. Don’t multitask. And I don’t just mean set down your cell phone or your tablet. I mean, be present.
2. Don’t pontificate. Enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn. The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself.
3. Use open-ended questions. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how.
4. Go with the flow. Thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind.
5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you.
7. Try not to repeat yourself. It’s condescending, really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids.
8. Stay out of the weeds. Frankly, people don’t care about all those details. What they care about is you, what you’re like, what you have in common.
9. Listen. Listening is perhaps the number one most important skill that you could develop. Buddha said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” And Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened his way out of a job.”
10. Be brief. My sister says “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”

All of this boils down to the same basic concept: Be interested in other people.

(1) Thank you Karen Jackson for the tip.
(2) Re. “Use open-ended questions” – see How to ask great questions.
(3) Re. “Listening is perhaps the number one most important skill that you could develop” – see How to be a better listener.

What to expect after your product goes live

Edited excerpt from What Happens at Y Combinator:

If a company is launched and has users (about a quarter are before they come to YC), then the conversations at office hours tend to be about the various things that happen to actually launched companies. The most common problem is that users don’t like the product enough.

This is normal; it’s to learn where your initial hypothesis is wrong that you launch. Now at least you have some evidence to analyze. So for companies at this stage, the conversations at office hours tend to be about how to figure out from available evidence what users want, how to get more data about what they want, and how to reach more of them.

(1) “Some companies achieve primary product market fit in one big bang. Most don’t, instead getting there through partial fits, a few false alarms, and a big dollop of perseverance.” From Four myths about product-market fit.
(2) As well as analyzing the usage data you have, try also Sean Ellis’ approach in How to identify your product’s “must have” experience.
(3) More from Y Combinator on this topic: Six simple questions to test product-market fit and competitive advantage.

Should you enforce a non-compete clause for an employee you fired?

The CEO of a startup asks: “We just learned that our former VP Sales, who was terminated a few months ago, recently started working for our direct competitor. It is a violation of the 12 month non-compete clause in his employment contract. What would you recommend?”

My answer:

Whether or not you should enforce a non-compete depends on the circumstances under which the employee left and how strong the employee is. If he’s great and chose to leave your company voluntarily, demand that the non-compete be honored. If you fired him, don’t enforce the non-compete. It’s not worth the bad karma.

If you let him go, you don’t want to stand in the way of him getting another job. His best opportunities will always be in something closely related to his last job. For this reason, non-competes are often morally questionable, and in some jurisdictions they’re unenforceable.  Even if he has info about your company, the info will rapidly become dated and valueless.

Many companies play tougher than this, but I’ve personally found that helping ex-employees to be successful is a better way to be. People will leave your company for many reasons; you want them to feel positively about it whenever possible. You want people to be proud that they are alumni of your company, and to view their time with you as an enabler for their subsequent career success.

So consider sending him an email congratulating him on the new job, letting him know you are not planning to enforce the non-compete clause, and wishing him luck. Maybe even send him a small gift.

How would you answer?

(1) Cf. “help them transition out of the role by providing a reference, reaching out to your network” in Four principles for how to fire someone correctly.
(2) Remember that If you fired a senior executive, you should identify from this list what went wrong.

An hour a day for deliberate learning?

Edited excerpt from Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey All Use the 5-Hour Rule by Michael Simmons:

In the article Malcolm Gladwell Got Us Wrong, the researchers behind the 10,000-Hour Rule set the record straight: Different fields require different amounts of deliberate practice in order for someone to become world-class. If 10,000 hours isn’t an absolute rule that applies across fields, what does it really take to become world class in the world of work?

Many leaders, despite being extremely busy, have set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) over their entire career for activities that could be classified as deliberate practice or learning. I call this phenomenon the five-hour rule. For the leaders I tracked, the five-hour rule often fell into three buckets: reading, reflection, and experimentation.

We need to move beyond the cliché, “Lifelong learning is good,” and think more deeply about the minimum amount of learning the average person should do per day to have a sustainable and successful career.

Just as we have minimum recommended dosages of vitamins and steps per day and of aerobic exercise for leading a healthy life physically, we should be more rigorous about how we as an information society think about the minimum doses of deliberate learning for leading a healthy life economically.

(1) Thank you Karen Miller Jackson for the tip.
(2) On experimentation as a learning tool: We often don’t experiment enough because we gravitate to things we are familiar with and which we believe have a high probability of success. If we view new tasks, jobs and experiences as experiments, we can drop our requirement that they should be familiar, and worry less that they’ll be unsuccessful.
(3) In the full article, Michael Simmons shows that many famously successful people are voracious readers of books. What is it about reading books that is more valuable than reading articles online (including this blog 🙂 )?
(4) Cf. (i) How truly great entrepreneurs manage their time and (ii) How to clear time for deep thinking.

How to listen when you disagree

Edited excerpt from How To Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson From The Republican National Convention by Benjamin Mathes:

If there’s one question I get asked more than any other, it’s this: How do I listen to someone when I disagree with them?

It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these, but let’s start with the one thing that makes them possible: We must work to hear the person, not just the opinion. My friend Agape says it like this: “Hear the biography, not the ideology.”

When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question:

“Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

(1) This is another case where trying to “listen with intent to agree” won’t work. Rather, listen for its own sake.
(2) Cf. (i) How to listen without judging — a guide for managers and (ii) When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind.

Surprise, surprise — commuting by car makes you heavier

Edited excerpt from One hour of driving a day = 2.3kg more weight and 1.5cm wider waist, study reveals:

People who drive an hour or more a day are 2.3kg heavier and 1.5cm wider around the waist compared to people who spend 15 minutes or less in their cars, according to a research paper. In “Adverse associations of car time with markers of cardio-metabolic risk”, published in the Preventive Medicine journal, Professor Takemi Sugiyama from the Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Health and Ageing also found that men are more likely than women to put on weight due to time spent behind the wheel.

Professor Sugiyama, an expert on the nexus between health and urban design, concluded “prolonged time spent sitting in cars, in particular over 1 h/day, was associated with higher total and central adiposity and a more-adverse cardio-metabolic risk profile.”

(1) How to extract some redeeming value from your car commute: Think about your goals each day on the way to work.
(2) Possible antidote to excessive sitting time: Take a walk at 3pm each day.
(3) Another health tip, less obvious: Stop venting and complaining.

Ask positive questions

Edited excerpt from What’s the recipe for effective communication? by Emma Chilvers:

Start a meeting by asking people positive questions. This encourages people to share, contribute and focus.

The questions could be simple such as: What has gone well for you the last week? Can you name someone who has helped you achieve things? What are you looking forward to most this week?

Too often, when we review projects and performance we discuss how we could improve things next time, without pausing for a moment to say what went well and well done.

Starting off on a positive note primes the brain to adopt a more open attitude towards the forthcoming discussion – and it gets all of the voices in the room ready to contribute at the same time.

What’s more, recognising and celebrating good work makes people feed valued, that they matter; it boosts their energy levels, reconnects them to their purpose in the company and can increase their well-being and productivity.

(1) This advice is widely applicable, not just to meetings. For example, you can ask individuals “What are you most excited about?”, “What’s working best in your area right now?”, or “Who are you most enjoying working with?”. And you can help people to feel happier and more motivated about their work by asking them this question.
(2) Cf. (i) Ideas spread inside a company due to positive energy; 8 ways to increase it, (ii) Smile.
(3) “Recognising and celebrating good work makes people feed valued”. See: (i) Why celebrating wins is so hard, but so important, and (ii) Is this the way to celebrate wins?

Provide what your users really want

Edited excerpt from How Will Tech Platforms Compete in the 21st Century? by Joe Edelman:

In the next decade, platforms will compete over alignment with their users’ human values. At present, all the platforms are terrible at this. Facebook, Apple, and Google — from their notification screens to their feeds — ignore their users’ will and intent, ignore their users’ values, and abuse users by directing their attention towards advertising or towards greater platform engagement.

The values revolution will be as big as the design revolution. There will be an Apple of values. And there will also be new players, new interface concepts, new types of careers in tech. The values revolution will begin when users start to see the possibility of values-aligned tech, and to discover that their lives are warped by tech with values contrary to their own.

(1) Cf. How tech products misframe our choices, and product managers should do better.
(2) Cf. What happens when you mistake user engagement for customer success.

Why you shouldn’t begin your conference presentation by talking about yourself

Excerpt from An Open Letter To Speakers by Scott Berkun:

Drop your bio introduction. If you are on a stage the organizers have granted you more credibility than nearly anyone else at the event. And 95% of the time your bio is on the website or in the program. The audience can get it if they want it, right there, on their phone, at any time. If you must, 30 seconds is enough time to say your name, profession, and why you care about the topic. Anything more is likely wasting their time.

(1) Scott writes elsewhere in the article “Most speakers forget they’re providing a service to the audience, not to themselves.” This is why providing a detailed bio at the beginning of your talk is a mistake.
(2) For two other things to remember when starting a presentation, see How NOT to start a presentation and A talk or presentation is an opportunity to be generous.

Hire a Director of Research for your product team

Edited excerpt from How We Accidentally Invented Job Stories by Paul Adams, VP Product at Intercom:

We place a huge emphasis on research. We hire people with direct research experience, and everyone on the product team talks directly to customers. We also hired a Director of Research much earlier than most other startups.

While it’s obvious you should be talking to customers frequently to try and understand their needs, it’s not obvious what the best tool to do that is. So we created our own process, Job Stories, based on the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) framework. This ensures the team is research driven, that team members understand their problem so well that they can capture it in a concise format, and that the summary of the problem is actionable for all the design and engineering team.

(1) Since the goal of research is to improve your product, the Director of Research should report to the VP Product.
(2) One of the key insights here is that the entire product team should be talking to customers, but often they don’t know how to, or they don’t have clear enough goals for their conversations. The Director of Research can set goals and a format for these calls.
(3) For more on Job Stories, see Paul’s full article, and also Why product managers should frame every product task as a Job To Be Done.

Three approaches to pricing

Edited excerpt from There Are Only 3 Pricing Strategies For Your Startup by Tomasz Tunguz:

Maximization (Revenue Growth) – maximize revenue growth in the short term. Startups should pursue maximization when there are no clear differences in customer segments’ willingness to pay, and when the optimal short term and long term prices are equal.

Penetration (Market Share) – price the product at a low price to win dominant market share. Then move up-market after developing broad adoption.

Skimming (Profit Maximization) – start with a high price and systematically broaden the product offering to address more of the customer base at lower prices. Skimming is widespread in consumer hardware. Apple sells the latest iPhones at the highest prices, and repackages older models at lower prices to address different customer segments.

(1) Tomasz adds: “Startup should be explicit. Decide which strategy to pursue, and align sales, marketing, product and engineering efforts along those lines.”
(2) Cf. How to price your product based on quality versus the competition and How to set the price for your product.

Skift’s approach to work-life balance

Edited excerpt from How We Got off the Addiction to Venture Capital and Created Our Own Way to Profits by Rafat Ali:

We dedicated ourselves to making the lives of our team better. That may sound simple, but with so many constituencies pulling at you as a founder, especially if large amounts of venture capital is part of the equation, it is the first thing to fall off in the list of priorities. It meant evaluating every next step and opportunity on how it would affect the professional and personal lives of our people. We have fully embraced the idea of building a humane company.

We chart our own path, we define our own scale, we define our own intensity of work. We work hard during the hours of 8 am to 6 pm on weekdays, and that’s it. We don’t want people in office after 6 pm, we don’t want people working weekends, and I am proud to say in our 3.5 years of existence, we have *never* had to, as a team, come to the office on a weekend.

We are building a humane company that wants the best out of people in the hours they give to the company, and build a more balanced life outside of it.

(1) See also: (i) How many hours per week should you work to maximize your impact? and (ii) Is this the key to work-life balance?
(2) An opposing viewpoint: Does Amazon prove that greatness and work-life balance are incompatible?
(3) Which do you find more convincing?

Slashing your Facebook usage may reduce your anxiety about work

Edited excerpt from The reason millennials aren’t happy at work by Keith Breene:

Much of the stress and anxiety reported by twenty-somethings is caused by ruthless comparison with peers. Emerson Csorba, director of the consultancy Gen Y, reported one millennial describing the challenge like this: “If we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.”

Where is the pressure coming from? With millennials more connected than any previous generation, opportunities to compare levels of success are ubiquitous, creating anxiety and insecurity. The accomplishments of peers, shown on social media, are a constant prompt to examine millennials’ own successes or failures. The problem is made much worse by the fact that only positive achievements are posted – you only ever see the good stuff.

Even though everyone knows that social media is a kind of PR feed of people’s lives, when you spend so much time online, these messages can easily become overpowering.

(1) Cf. When you want a break from work, should you log into Facebook?
(2) Cf. Can you achieve great things if you’re a regular Facebook or Twitter user?

How to combat Powerpoint fatigue

Edited excerpt from Seven Secrets for Public Speaking Success by Dr. Nick Morgan:

Try turning off the slideware. You are probably preparing slides as a primary way to get ready for your presentation. Here’s a thought: don’t use slides as wallpaper, visible all the time. Try using them sparingly, only when you have a compelling image, only when it really helps your speech. What to do the rest of the time? Put in a black slide, so that the audience can focus on you, and not split its attention between screen and speaker.

(1) Has anyone tried this? Does it work?
(2) Cf. If you must use Powerpoint…
(3) One of the advantages of walking meetings is that neither party can use slides. See: (i) Walking meetings and (ii) Two benefits of walking meetings.

Show up on time every day at 8:30am

Edited excerpt from eShares 101 by Henry Ward:

There are many similarities between eShares and a professional sports team. For starters, our entire company meets everyday at 8:30am to begin the day together. Everyone — engineering, sales, services, office management. Nobody is exempt. In sports, even the goalie, who may have a completely different practice schedule from the rest of the team, still meets at the same time to warm up.

Teams meet to solve problems, brainstorm ideas, share work, or just catch up. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the whole company meets for an hour-long Show & Tell. This is an opportunity for everyone to share, debate, and participate in the bleeding edge of eShares’s progress and decision making.

Most people think it’s crazy that we make everyone be in the office at 8:30am every morning. We think it is crazy not to. The New England Patriots would never tell players, “Show up for practice when it is convenient.” If you want to be the best in the world at what you do, start every day together.

(1) I have mixed feelings about this, perhaps because I’m an introvert. I started every day alone thinking about Seeking Alpha’s goals and the most important tasks for the day, and only after that went to the office. The last thing I wanted to do was start every day with a group meeting — uugh! (I later read about the importance of clearing time for deep thinking, and that starting your day alone, quietly thinking about your goals, leads to greater clarity, motivation, success and happiness.)
(2) But I suspect my absence first thing in the morning had an impact on team discipline and the atmosphere in the Seeking Alpha office. Should I have scheduled my “alone time” early enough to arrive at 8.30am every morning? Should I have swallowed my aversion to group meetings, and done one every Tuesday and Thursday morning, as Henry Ward advocates?
(3) To what extent is how you want to start your day a function of personality, and to what extent are there objective best practices?

Build for your best customers

Edited excerpt from My 8 Rules Of Great Products by Mitchell Harper:

Build for your best customers. Simply put, this means you give a higher weighting to product feedback from your best customers — the ones who spend the most money with you over time.

This leads you to build additional products (and improve existing ones) for your best customers, who are much more likely to pay more for those new and improved products, thus helping grow your revenue faster with fewer customers and less customer support.

Not all customer feedback should be treated equally. If one customer pays you $2,000 a month and another pays you $20 a month, the feedback from the $2,000 a month customer is actually more valuable if you use it in your marketing and product strategy to attract more customers like them and/or if it gets them to spend more money with you via upgrades or additional products.

It doesn’t take 10x the effort to get a $2,000/month customer as it does to get a $20/month customer. It probably takes 2–3x the effort but gives you 10x the revenue.

(1) Cf. Best practices in getting user feedback on your product.
(2) Cf. The contrarian view: With freemium, it’s easier to start with the paid product.

Stop beating yourself up

Edited excerpt from What’s the secret to success? Be nicer to yourself by Keith Breene:

Stanford researcher Emma Seppälä says that when she looked at the research she found the evidence overwhelmingly showed that if you look after your well-being first, you will do better in your job.

The key, Seppälä says, is being kinder to yourself. “Research shows that self-criticism is basically self-sabotage, whereas self-compassion – treating yourself with the understanding, mindfulness and kindness with which you would treat a friend – leads to far greater resilience, productivity and well-being.”

In times of failure or challenge, noticing your self-talk can help you replace it with self-compassion. Instead of saying things like, “I’m such an idiot!” you might say, “I had a moment of absentmindedness and that’s okay.”

(1) From my personal experience, I think there are two distinct elements to debilitating self-criticism: first, a tendency to devote too much thought and attention to negative outcomes or events; and second, what Emma Seppälä calls your “self-talk” about those items.
(2) On “a tendency to devote too much thought and attention to negative outcomes or events”, see (i) Don’t try to learn from failure and (ii) You can train yourself to think positively.
(3) On “what Emma Seppälä calls your “self-talk” about those items”, cf. How to view rejection.

To make meetings more effective, learn to listen

Edited excerpt from What’s the recipe for effective communication? by Emma Chilvers:

In her work Time to Think, Nancy Kline advocates that everyone must have the chance to think and speak uninterrupted. This works wonders in terms of eliciting the best thinking from the whole group. Giving everyone equal voice, thinking time and the chance to contribute can transform the effectiveness of communication in a meeting.

Nancy Kline also found that rather than listening in meetings, people spend the majority of their time either working out what they are going to say or defending what they are saying and that a verbal interruption has the similar impact on thinking as a physical fight. It is no surprise that without strong agreements on giving equal voice and listening, the quality of the thinking goes down in teams.

(1) I’m not a fan of meetings, particularly if the goal is to elicit creative thinking. See Group brainstorming doesn’t lead to creativity; this does and The optimal number of people in a meeting is…
(2) So for me, the valuable insight here is that listening transforms communication and makes people feel more secure. Cf. (i) How to be a better listener, (ii) When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind, and (iii) How to listen without judging — a guide for managers.

Why early stage startups should start narrow

Excerpt from Building Products by Julie Zhou:

If you are a start-up founder, your path will be easier if you go after a problem for a narrowly-defined audience, and then expand to broader audiences after you have some initial traction.

From an email I sent to a startup founder:

To maximize your chances of success, focus on a single vertical, and go deep into it.  There are two reasons for this:

1. If you focus on a single vertical, it’s much easier to understand the customers’ Job To Be Done, the solutions they currently use, how you can help them the most, and then to build a product that addresses their needs.

2. As a small startup, you don’t have the resources to compete with broader platforms; but you can win by specialized domain customization, and expand from there.

Choosing a vertical is a question of research, and should not involve any product development. Sit with customers in each vertical you’re considering. By asking them questions about their Job To Be Done you’ll be able to reach a conclusion about which vertical you can add most value in. Then focus all your effort on that vertical.

First principles for startup founders (and product managers)

Edited excerpt from Building Products by Julie Zhou:

1. A product succeeds because it solves a problem for people. This sounds very basic, but it is the single most important thing to understand about building good products.

2. The first step in building something new is understanding what problem you want to solve, and for whom. This should be crystal clear before you start thinking about any solutions.

3. The second question you should ask yourself is “why is this particular problem worth solving?”

4. If the audience you are building for is narrowly defined (and one that you are a part of), then you may be able to rely on your intuition to guide your product decision-making. If not, then you should rely on research and data to inform your decisions.

5. The problem you’re trying to solve should be easy to communicate in a sentence or two and resonate with someone from your target audience. If not, consider that a big red flag.

(1) The most common error I’ve seen among seed-stage startups is that they devote insufficient time to understanding the user’s problem before thinking about their proposed solution to it. The Job To Be Done framework prevents that error, because it forces you to research and define the user’s “Job To Be Done” in isolation from your proposed solution.
(2) “If the audience you are building for is narrowly defined (and one that you are a part of), then you may be able to rely on your intuition to guide your product decision-making.” See: The benefits and risks of founding a startup to satisfy a personal need.
(3) Cf. (i) What problem are you solving?, (ii) Four simple questions to help you get product-market fit, (iii) Documenting your product-market fit hypotheses.

Why startups should forget vitamins and painkillers, and focus on the Job To Be Done

Edited excerpt from Does your startup solve a problem? Vitamin or painkiller? by Don Dodge:

One of the questions I ask entrepreneurs when evaluating start-ups is “Is your product a vitamin (nice to have) or a painkiller (got to have it)? Of course everyone wants to think their product is a “must have” painkiller, but very few are.

Many products fall into the vitamin category. Things like productivity tools, content aggregators, mashups, utilities, collaboration applications, measurement and monitoring tools, in fact anything that is a tool, development or otherwise, is by definition a vitamin.

Painkiller products are products that solve for a specific pain point. Sometimes the pain is measurable in terms of ROI, winning sales that could not be won before, or satisfying a regulatory requirement.

There is another set of products that are vitamins (nice to have) until you feel the pain. Then they become painkillers (got to have it). There are actually lots of products that fall into this category.

(1) On vitamins versus painkillers, see also Building a valuable product — a checklist of questions to answer and How to sell your product if it’s a “nice to have”, not a “must have”.
(2) My personal viewpoint: the categorization of products into vitamins and painkillers is flawed and unhelpful. Note that (i) great businesses have been built from “vitamins” (think media and entertainment), (ii) helping a company to increase its revenues is, absurdly, a vitamin, and (iii) the categories are unstable — products can transition from vitamin to painkiller depending on the context and user.
(3) For me, the Job To Be Done framework is far more helpful. The right questions to ask are: What “job” is the user / customer looking to get done (user need)? How valuable is getting that job done for the person (willingness to pay)? How many people have that job (market size)? How well does your product help the person get the job done relative to the alternatives (competitive advantage)?
(4) See: A brief summary of Job To Be Done, with 3 takeaways for product managers.

Don’t fire people on a Friday

Edited excerpt from Firing Someone for the First Time: Top Entrepreneurs Share Their Wisdom by Jessica Stillman:

Ethan Appleby, founder and CEO of Vango, recommends that you keep the conversation really short. Don’t talk too much, just get right to the point. Let them ask questions, but keep emotions out of it. And don’t do it on Friday, so you can see if the morale of the team is OK, and people can get their questions answered.

(1) Cf. Four principles for how to fire someone correctly.
(2) See also: Exit interviews.

Why you should think about your goals each day on the way to work

Edited excerpt from Can’t Stand Your Commute? It’s All in Your Head by Chana R. Schoenberger:

People who make a conscious effort while commuting to think about what they need to do that day and how it fits into their longer-term plans feel more satisfied at work and less exhausted emotionally, according to a new Harvard Business School working paper.

They also have happier commutes.

The researchers call this way of thinking “goal-directed prospection,” and in their paper they detail how it can offset the strain of commuting.

(1) Cf. What’s your “simple scoreboard”?
(2) Cf. How to choose the one metric that matters.