Measure Behavior. Stop Asking for Feedback

“Hey Twitterverse! Check out our new awesome app concept. Enter your email address to be included in our arbitrarily limited beta. We’ll nag you for feedback after you’ve barely used our hastily assembled product. It’s going to be epic! We’ll make billions and you’ll get this rad t-shirt.”

Does this sound familiar? There’s a good chance you’ve heard of some new concept before, making big claims about what they are eventually going to do for the world. Often, the people who build these concepts have no experience doing so. The lucky ones have guidance from mentors, folks who have founded, built, and sold companies before. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that some mentors are lucky enough to work with startup founders who listen. In nearly every case of entrepreneurial failure I’ve witnessed, the founders were reluctant to hear any advice that put them outside their plans and expectations about their business. Some died a quick painless death. Others managed to collect revenue, only to wallow in the pit of customer retention despair.

What was their primary mistake? Asking for feedback.

Many first-time entrepreneurs build immediately, based on their intuitions and (hopefully) years of experience dealing with some pain in a specific industry. They do not take time to survey potential customers. They are often blinded by the belief that they must be first to market. It never hurts to be first to market, unless you’ve rushed to get there. Typical bootstrappers have no budget, which means they choose to skip important steps, such as persona development and user research. Instead, they go straight to visual design so they can have pretty pictures to show investors. From there, they hire code monkeys to make software that looks like the pictures. This is exhausting for everyone involved, as no high level awareness of the core product exists without sketches and storyboards, which were skipped to keep costs low. Eventually, they send out those beta invites to the few hundred people who have expressed interest.

“Tell us what you think!” might as well be “share your deepest concerns about your edge case, so we can focus our time building things only one user requested instead of the one thing we set out to do in the first place.”

Publishing a product and allowing it to grow organically is a great way to gauge customer interest. It’s also an excellent path to information that will serve far greater purpose than customer feedback. By reviewing analytics of actual user behavior, we see a pure unfiltered stream of high quality information. Communication is hard. People lie. They don’t ask for what they really want. They are inarticulate. Behavior data never lies. Ask for feedback, and you’ll hear many suggestions for features. You’ll need to interpret the feedback, collect similar ideas, prioritize the resulting feature requests, and make difficult choices about which features to add and in what order. Look at behavior analytics, and you’ll see precisely the point in your workflow where users give up. If 75% of your users click cancel at the end of an interaction, there’s a good chance the interface is hard to use.

Focus on what you know, not what you think you know, nor what you hope to be true. Hope is not a business model. Feedback is at best a distraction. User research and behavior analytics are your salvation.


The Best Pitch Sells Nothing

“I haven’t really thought this out, and to be honest, I’m desperate for a lifeline and terrified you’ll reject me.”

How many people do you know who would react to this with open arms and enthusiasm? What investor is going to throw down fat stacks of cash for this kind of presentation? And if someone did, is that even the kind of trait you’d want in a partner, someone who will provide the crucial foundation for your new business? No.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the years I’ve spent in the startup game, it’s the value of revenue. An interesting idea is just that – a whimsical notion. There is no shortage of interesting ideas. The trouble is finding a real problem that impacts people at a large enough scale to be worth the initial sweat equity investment. Until you find a problem that more than a few thousand people have, you’re going to have a hard time selling a business to any investor.

Frankly, if you can’t find any problems to solve, find a stable job at some corporation somewhere. Despite what you may have heard in the movies, pitching isn’t a long con. You’re not scheming money out of dumb rich people, funding your own personal fairytale. You’re searching for a strategic partner who can help your existing business expand. Unless you’re in a student pitching competition with prizes and ribbons and all that, you can’t start with nothing.

Show your prospective investors that you’ve built something worth talking about. That means hundreds of hours of unpaid labor and thousands of hours of prior experience. Until you can do that, you might want to practice misdirection tactics and work on hiding those pesky little dishonest microexpressions. When you have nothing, you give yourself away. In the immortal words of my good friend, Justin Davis,

“You can’t just ‘meeting’ your way out of this. You have to sit down and do the hard work.”

Build something worth buying, find a few hundred buyers, and start making money. Only then will you be prepared for the next phase, where the right combination of shared passion and financial support will launch your business beyond your limited means. In the end, the market will survive without you. If you don’t serve it, someone else will. If you can’t make a sale, your market doesn’t exist. Learn that early, and you’ll save yourself a world of pain.

Dawn of the Parallel Entrepreneur

We’ve heard a lot over the years about entrepreneurs. They change the world, one product at a time. They deliver huge value to vast communities of consumers. Their crazy ideas seem like a passing cultural whim until seemingly all at once, they’ve accumulated 10mil followers and Wall Street is starting to notice.

Beyond that, we’ve heard about this idea of a serial entrepreneur. This is a person who starts with a dream, builds a company, sells it to another company, and re-invests the gains in a subsequent venture. This person is always working on one goal, building one product or making that one product better in some way. There is much innovation, but the path is linear.

I propose an alternative. Instead of slow-burn long-form projects that take 15+ iterations to see the public eye, I say we focus on lots of sprints, all at once, all in parallel. Work on only one project at a time, but carry several parallel ventures. As one venture’s needs grow, hire new employees to match. One skilled engineering VP can address the needs of many ventures by overseeing the efforts of whatever resources are allocated to the various ventures.

A wise professor of mine once said, “the ideal number of projects an engineer should carry concurrently is five.” At times in my life, I’ve thought him a fool, both for under- and over-estimating the ideal. Now, I think he’s spot-on. It’s no surprise that I’m juggling five projects at the moment and loving every minute of it.

I don’t want to downplay the significance of the efforts of those who choose to focus on a single project at a time. What I propose is not meant for everyone, and I have great respect for those who seek the serial path. However, for the select few who choose to seek to work in short bursts on a diverse set of projects, all concurrently, as project needs dictate, I present to you the path of the parallel entrepreneur.

I have previously written about the perils of what at the time seemed like biting off more than I could chew, being everything to everyone, and what an impossible task that is to undertake. I have since come to understand I was simply ill-prepared for the stresses of managing multiple fledgling businesses at the same time. It’s not like they teach that in high school or college. My mother did many things for me, but none of them was even close to sufficient to prepare me for the herculean task that is overseeing the operations of one startup company. I’m running five such companies right now, so I’d say she did a pretty good job.

The best part about parallelism, if you can keep yourself sane in the process, is that everything you do contributes to growth, positive change, and significant social impact. One need not rely solely on one Facebook-sized hail mary play for salvation. One need only invest in discrete efforts, each of which pushes the ball down the field for its associated project, and retain some equity in the process. Eventually, that ball reaches the endzone, and the project experiences a liquidity event. If you only have one ball in play at any given time, you limit your successes to a max of 100%. With five balls running down five fields, we have a max of 500% chance of success. The only thing we have to do is five times more work.

Sometimes, we fail. I might go so far as to say that failure is the goal.¬†In a parallel system, though, each project can benefit, not only from its own failure, but also from the perspective gained through the failure of other parallel efforts. This effect is especially pronounced in projects with common infrastructure requirements. As architectural obstacles are encountered, and solutions engineered, those solutions can be applied across multiple ventures suffering similar effects. This is all made possible through collective vision at the top management level. Without a cohesive perspective, parallel efforts fail to leverage each other’s strengths, to meet in the middle, as it were, and everyone is left high and dry.

Professional Dart Thrower

That’s what it should say on my business card. It’s the most common analogy you’ll hear around my office. It’s perfect symbolism for my core professional service. I help companies take nebulous concepts and turn them into viable businesses. Sometimes, the companies don’t even exist when their founders walk through my door. The one thing I tell every single one of them is “Throw the dart.”

Startup founders often don’t realize that what they’re doing is taking a few healthy steps backward from the throwing line, blindfolding themselves, and throwing a dart at the board. While other companies do everything in their power to find loopholes allowing them to step closer to the board, first-time entrepreneurs underestimate the difficulty of hitting the target. Then, they compound that problem by doing simultaneously the best and worst thing they will ever do – making business decisions based on gut feelings. They draw the line wherever they want, stand proudly at that line, and then…

Then, they start to actually think about the problem. “Ok, so I know there’s a target, where the target is, and the basic dynamics of dart trajectory. I got this.” they might think. “What about wind? How can I account for that? I don’t know the first thing about wind.”

This is usually where I come in. (Again, this is a metaphor. While I do actually know quite a lot about aircraft flight dynamics, this isn’t about an actual dart.) I tell them to throw the dart. I explain that what I mean is to take a measured action toward their goal. Their goal is to launch a product. I remind them they’ll never hit the target if they never throw the dart. (This is a proverb. Go with it.) I explain that what I mean is one can not succeed if one does not attempt. (Sorry. Another proverb. Bear with me.) If the goal is to sell something to a customer, it’s a good idea to know who the customer is, what they want to buy, and how they’d prefer to buy it. There are two ways to know what customers want. First, ask them. They’ll probably give a different answer for each customer, and you’ll spend more time organizing the results than deriving meaning. Second, observe them. Learn as much as you can from their actual behavior. This implies having something to measure, which itself implies customers actively using a system.

Throwing the first dart is the hardest. There’s so much on the line. What if it’s wrong? (It is.) What if there’s no market? (There isn’t.) What if I miss the target? (You will.) I’m like a lawyer, in that it’s my job to make emotionless decisions based on specialized training and awareness of current trends. I stop you from complicating the process with doubt and uncertainty, in your search for perfection. I tell you “perfect is the enemy of good enough,” put the dart in your hand, turn you to face the board, and I ask you to do one thing. I say “do the one thing that’s simultaneously the best and worst thing you will ever do – go with your gut.” And you do the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You throw the dart. You miss. And you learn to try again.

The Rock Star Curse

The last two years have been a struggle, but just when I thought I was finally starting to see the rain subside and the clouds part to reveal the sun, I now find myself with too much opportunity. The light is blinding, so much so that I find myself at a crossroads. After the company I worked for made $1B on work I produced (not alone, but on a team of less than ten people), I found myself feeling the inequity of corporate slavery. I gave up a low six figure income for the chance to get a much bigger piece of each of many smaller pies. So I started my own company and began offering consulting services to start-up companies with big ideas and shallow pockets. One of the projects I accepted was Tour Wrist (, which has seen incredible success, due in large part to my contribution. I can’t divulge any details here, but let’s just say they are well on their way to spectacular life-changing good fortune, and I’m really proud of what we’ve built together and what they’ve done with our baby since my departure.

I feel kinda like an asshole to single out Tour Wrist, as that seems to downplay the significance of the other ventures I’ve invested my sweat equity in over the last 2yrs. That’s mainly because the others have yet to start along the path of fully realizing their potential. I can tell you from personal experience that anyone who tells you they’re certain to convert a dream into an 18mo acquisition is a con artist (except maybe the folks at Instagram). Companies take time to build, nurture, and take flight. I should know. In addition to my entrepreneurial ambitions, I’m also a rocket scientist, so I know a thing or two about what’s involved with actual flight. Despite Douglas Adams’ brilliant notion that flying is all about throwing yourself at the ground and missing, it ain’t that easy.

It’s equally difficult to build a company, doubly so in a short time. And yet, I’ve managed to sow the seeds of greatness in no fewer than five ventures over the past few years. This, naturally, has made me extremely valuable to my venture partners. At the same time, though, I’ve found myself stretched hopelessly thin, making commitments I can’t honor and generally being a dick about it. For that, I am truly sorry. It was never my intention to leave anyone high and dry. So far, I’ve been lucky that the ventures I’ve taken on have required a finite initial effort and small-to-medium maintenance effort. The beauty of a 1.0 product is that as long as you focus on the minimum viable features, the task is surprisingly well bounded and in some cases can be achieved in a few weeks of focused effort. The curse of a 1.0 product is the inevitable follow-on effort required once the product gains traction and begins to demand new features. This is a natural evolution of any successful product, and I was a fool to believe I could incubate the eggs and then let the hens take over the actual raising of the chicks. That path is wrought with disappointment.

To make matters worse, other companies have begun to notice my capabilities and are beating down my door with opportunities. I’m forced to make a choice between honoring my commitments to my existing ventures and breaking new ground with other clients. I have been operating under the single premise that I can deliver minor miracles, one at a time and usually in a week or two, for a while now. While that’s true, I’m leaving a trail of disappointed clients in my wake. At the risk of sounding immodest, there is no way these companies can replace me without crippling their budgets. I’ve done such herculean deeds for them that their disappointment lies not in my failing to meet expectations, but rather my dazzling them with talent they can’t retain. In short, I’ve set the bar so high, they can’t even hope to hire three people to do what I can do alone.

Walter: “Am I wrong, Dude?! AM I WRONG?!”

The Dude: “No, you’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.”

This is my life. I am the VP of Engineering of at least two companies. I can’t define my job on a resume/CV because it’s so fucking nebulous. On top of that, I keep accepting new gigs because the companies I’m running are still in the fledgling pre-funded state, and I have mouths to feed. Murphy’s Law dictates that while last year was an exercise in six-pack abs resulting from abject poverty, I made more money this quarter than I made last year, and the rest of the year looks like it’ll be even better still. The problem is that all the ventures I’ve poured my heart and soul into are blowing up at the same time, but not in a way that would allow me to hire three people to deal with their collective day-to-day requirements. That means they’re all suffering from a talent vacuum, but haven’t enough resources to hire the talent they need to grow.

I feel like someone is holding out a fan of cards, asking me to choose one, and I know all of them are winners, but I will disappoint all but one. I want to be the old bull in the parable, but I’m beginning to feel like the heifer.

Life Lessons Learned Through Gaming

I’m a gamer. I’ve always loved games. There’s something about the natural exhilaration of competition, whatever the stakes, that motivates the soul. It’s also great for the ego. Games give us the ability to tell our loves ones “I am your superior” in a harmless and well-bounded context. When the game is over, everyone goes back to the real world, where we’re all equals. All the hateful, spiteful, vengeful energy is checked at the door on the way off the battlefield. All that negative energy is easily switched off because the context of the game as a distinctly different universe with different rules gives our brains clear boundaries for the factual and emotional memories we develop in-game. This allows us to be civil, even friendly, with our fellow gamers, despite the intensely negative trash talking that happens frequently in social gaming.

This boundary, though, represents a rule that itself can be broken. Sometimes, folks take offense to things said in-game, thus breaking the boundary by allowing their personal identity to be assaulted. Social gaming is every bit as cruel as elementary and middle school. Ad hominem reigns supreme in the world of results-based ego identity. For those without a healthy respect for the identity boundary and a thick skin in general, it can be challenging to remember it’s just a game. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many benefits we can derive from gaming. We can learn valuable skills, anything from time management to logistics planning to resource allocation and beyond. In fact, many of the skills required to be a successful entrepreneur have direct analogs in the gaming world. Here are some highlights.

Tactic: Misdirection

Analog: Corporate Espionage

In a poker game, misleading your opponents to believe you have cards you don’t have is a central focus of most winning strategies. The same applies to public relations with rival companies. When two companies compete for share of a polarized market, it’s often important for each company to know what the other is planning before the public knows about it. This can be done through social engineering – calling the company posing as a news representative, asking about upcoming technology, or posing as a candidate for an interview in order to gain access to sensitive information. Counter offensive strategies might include advertising open positions that indicate shift in corporate culture or development focus, but never actually filling the positions.

Tactic: Bottleneck

Analog: Simulated Demand

Spies call this a choke point. It’s a physical barrier that prevents or dramatically reduces freedom of movement and/or clear line of sight of the disadvantaged party (them) without affecting that of the advantaged party (you). A good example of this is a hallway. Hallways are defensive disasters in a gunfight. All the shooter needs to do is stand at the end of the hallway, and they can pretty much guarantee a clear shot of anyone who enters the other end. Hallways are also bad for escape from a gunfight, for similar reasons. Once you enter the hallway, you must reach the end before your pursuer reaches the beginning, or you get shot in the back. Savvy business owners use this effect to profit from the desperate. For example, the cost of plywood tends to spike when the news warns of an imminent hurricane, just as the per-night cost of a hotel spikes during an annual conference. Business leaders go one step further, by manipulating the market to create the bottleneck, thus driving customers into the net. Apple, by asserting through advertising that people wanted mobile digital music players, created the demand for a product that otherwise had no existing market, and the iPod was born.

Tactic: Resource Balance

Analog: Hiring Policy

Many games use a system of economy, promoting certain key items as standard currency. In various combinations, much like atoms joining together in specific ratios to form molecules, these resources can be traded for other valuable things. The winner of the game is often the player who acquires and spends resources most effectively. In the card game, Gin, the object is to take turns drawing a card and discarding one. The winner is the player who accumulates a valid complete set of cards, plus one card to discard. By thinking ahead, weighing the possibilities of certain combinations, and discarding a card that contributes least to a winning hand, a player can gain advantage. In real-time strategy games, like Starcraft, players must have harvested resources ready before buildings and units can be made. Those buildings and units provide offensive and defensive capabilities, such as point defense, unit creation, or upgrades. The winner is the player who harvests and spends resources most effectively, allowing them to attack the enemy base before they have adequate defenses. The analog in the business world is hiring policy. Sometimes, when you know the situation calls for lots of unskilled labor, it’s better to hire the cheapest available workers. Other times, a small group of experts can run circles around an army of beginners.

Tactic: Fluidity

Analog: Market Pivoting

Often, competition brings out a “fight to the last man” mentality. We can use that to our advantage. Any martial artist will tell you that pulling when your enemy is pushing is an easy way to gain advantage. A well-trained judoku can convert an incoming punch into an opportunity for a devastating hip throw, leaving their attacker on their back with a knee on their throat. Revisiting the Starcraft analogy, when your opponent’s army is at your doorstep, attacking your base, it is sometimes best to counter by attacking their base. This forces them to make a choice – either stay and attempt to destroy your base at the risk of the loss of theirs or retreat to protect their base. Staying means a damage race, where both sides hope to destroy all enemy buildings first. Retreating means they lose the time it takes to move their army back to their base, but they stand a better chance of keeping their base. In cases where the attacker has superior forces, defense is a poor choice, and it’s better to counter. The analog here is the decision to pivot and adjust product development strategy to target a different market. When an aggressive challenger enters a market, it is sometimes better for the existing vendors in that market to pivot toward a less crowded market, rather than ramping up production in hopes of fending off the challenger. The number one lesson I’ve learned through gaming was acknowledging when you’ve lost long before the game is actually over.

Games can teach us a lot about real world dynamics, giving us advantages in project management, contract negotiation, strategic planning, and more. It’s important that we remember that the skills we learn in games can apply to real situations, but that we must be careful to decouple our in-game identity from our real identity. I’ll leave you with two quotes:

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” -Sun Tsu

“Lose your first fifty games quickly.” -Unknown, an old proverb describing the game of Go

Solving Local & Regional Transportation

We can all agree. Traffic sucks. There’s nothing like an unexpected accident to take the wind out of your sails. If it’s not an accident, it’s someone ahead of you driving erratically, causing folks behind them to brake, which propagates back three miles to a point where traffic grinds to a halt.¬†Plus, these days over 75% of cars on the road have one occupant (the driver). The roads are full of nearly empty vehicles.

According to NHTSA, 95% of all crashes are due to human error. That’s an astonishing number. Imagine if all or most of the drivers on the roads were commercially certified, meaning they all passed a more rigorous rules and skills test than the average state driving test. We certainly can’t add more bus routes and hope folks decide to take the bus. We need a radical shift in the public perception of transportation. Instead of a fixed-route, schedule-based system with a relatively small number of high capacity vehicles, we need a larger number of medium capacity vehicles running on-demand passenger pickup and drop-off. More vehicles means more jobs. Plus, we’re taking barely skilled drivers off the road and replacing them with highly skilled drivers.

So, how do we achieve this? What are the key problems, and how might we solve them?

1. Matching Vehicles with Passengers (Technical)

If you visualize the road system as a giant sea of intersections (vertices) with roads between them (directed edges), then a passenger travel request (“take me from here to there”) is simply a polyline (series of vertices and connected edges) through the vertex space. This represents the path, from intersection to intersection on the roadway, this passenger must travel to reach their destination. In the same way, a vehicle has a set of passengers whose collective paths combine to form the vehicle’s path.

When a new request is created, its path segment is matched against those of nearby vehicles. The goal is to successfully transport every passenger from their current location to a given destination, ideally using the least amount of time and fuel. The system can not simply assign the nearest vehicle, as that may not be the best choice. Conversely, the system can not be required to find the best choice every time, as that is computationally unrealistic. Reasonable matches also take other factors into consideration, such as vehicle vacancy, groups of passengers traveling together, and facility requirements, like wheelchair lifts.

With a central system performing all the matching, this problem could easily get out of hand as total number of vehicles and passengers increases. Instead, the proposed system takes advantage of distributed processing to reduce the computational burden on the central dispatcher. Passengers submit requests to a dispatcher, which finds any vehicle within 10mins of the passenger’s current location. Each of these vehicles is then asked to submit a bid to add the passenger to their manifest. The dispatcher chooses a bid (not necessarily the lowest one), assigns the passenger to the winning vehicle, and notifies both by SMS or push notification. Once notified, the vehicle and passenger devices can communicate directly, without any interaction with the dispatcher.

2. Inspiring Passengers to Ride (Social)

This solution is doomed to fail unless there is enough passenger demand in any given region. If folks don’t know about the service, they won’t be able to use it. Building awareness is difficult and expensive. Additionally, if they don’t have smart phones, they won’t have access to the app to tell the system they need a ride. They can not convey their current location or select a destination, nor will they receive notification when their vehicle is nearby. There must be a plan to support people who do not have smart phones.

The best approach to building awareness seems to be targeting event coordinators. These are people already organizing a bunch of attendees in one place, managing caterers, and overseeing venue logistics. If they could hand off the transportation responsibility to an on-demand driving service, that’s a huge value add to their attendees, especially if there is alcohol served at the event. This also has the added benefit of eliminating the parking requirements for the event. After a few successful events in a region, people will begin to naturally advertise the service through social networks. At that point, we approach the taxi and airport shuttle companies to adopt our standards.

3. Convincing Existing Transportation Providers to Join (Political)

The big companies currently serving the bus and taxi transportation sector are going to be quick to dismiss this as a fad or an impossible goal. The politicians’ spending decisions are heavily swayed by influential players, like the companies providing municipal bus service for the area. In fact, most of those companies operate on a subsidized basis, with some of their annual revenue coming directly from local and regional government.

By partnering with existing research initiatives at private and state universities, we gain additional influence that will hopefully lead to buy-in at the government level. That ultimately leads to grant funding and improved liquidity to cover operational expenses, the bulk of which will be driver payroll and new vehicle acquisition.

4. Balancing Service Offering and Price (Financial)

The primary purpose of this system is to improve people’s lives. That means they must achieve their current goals with reduced price or increased convenience, or both. Also, folks who already have made an investment in a car will be apprehensive to spend even more money to use a different system. This could be a cost-per-mile fee or a monthly or annual subscription. It could also be a co-op, where participants offer their vehicles as part of their buy-in, in exchange for a discounted membership fee. Maybe vehicle owners can even go one step further and get paid to drive other passengers around, and/or have those miles count as credits, so the next time they need to go somewhere, they’ve prepaid for that trip.

In the end, there are two primary factors in the operational budget – cost-per-mile and cost-per-hour. Some costs are on a per-mile basis, like vehicle maintenance and fuel. Other costs are on a per-hour basis, like driver salary. With just a little information about operational expenses for existing transportation companies, it should be possible to determine a rough range for per-customer costs. These costs then become a lower bound for the consumer price.