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.

Engineering Through Empathy

I’ve spent the last several hours stretching the capabilities of apps like Garage Band and Audacity to achieve a task they weren’t really meant to handle. They do very well with their intended tasks, but they leave quite a bit to be desired when used in the way I need. I can cut audio and shift it to another track with a different gain and effects and all that. I can shift clips relative to each other in time. But, the one thing I need that neither tool does at all is to organize discrete clips with tagging and/or annotations on each clip. This way, instead of starting with 2-3hrs of contiguous recorded time and removing irrelevant segments to distill down to an hour for production, we might consider cutting the whole into a number of clips and constructing a narrative by arranging clips to convey a cohesive theme.

For those who haven’t ever needed to edit audio for a podcast, what I’m really talking about here is the process of designing interactivity features based on experiencing first hand the frustration of an unfulfilled need. There is no clearer perspective on the possible solutions than that of a dissatisfied user who is also an experienced design professional. This is the closest we can ever hope to get to the feedback source. One of the most challenging aspects of product development is connecting with the users in a way that bridges the divide in communication between user and developer. Inevitably, users lack an understanding of the basic language, the terminology we use to describe behavior we see.

I have been accused of many things, far too many and risque to describe here. One thing I have never been called is cold and indifferent. I care. Anyone who sees the fruits of my labor or talks to me for 2mins can see this to be true. I might let some hacky shit find its way into a production app for all to see, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice it, nor that I expect it will survive more than a week at it is. Product development is at its core adaptive. We build what is needed. There is no ego. We react to the customer. Delivering core behavior is the first and last goal of any engineer’s effort. We may not always immediately understand your core problem, but as we interact with you, we learn more about your needs, that we might better serve them. Product engineering is 75% empathy, 25% gravitas. If we don’t understand and relate to the core pain point, we could never hope to solve the underlying problem effectively.

A Letter To Mitt Romney

Dear Mr Romney,

I heard about your remarks to a group of wealthy folks, about how half of Americans are dependent upon government but pay no taxes. Call it cognitive dissonance, but I simply don’t understand what country you’re describing. Sure, there are some folks living below the poverty line whose income is so low there is no point to collecting tax from them, but it can’t be half the country. I really can’t imagine the IRS would allow half the citizens of the country to pay nothing in tax while continuing to derive benefits from government programs. I know you’re not big on fact checkers (or facts), but the rest of us need something to rally behind, and your word as former governor just isn’t enough.

Facts are helpful, especially when they’re true. You see, facts are what small business owners collect in order to make smart decisions about how to improve their business. I know you mostly worked with large companies who had long forgotten how to make smart decisions by the time you met them, but it’s true. You’re welcome to take my word for it, but I imagine you have a similar attitude about my word as I do about yours. So, to help with that little problem, I happen to have some facts right here. Let’s take a look, shall we? I think we’ll all learn something.

When I was in high school, my step-mother gave me $2 each week to buy as much ground beef as I could from our local market. It was enough to make burgers for me and my step-brother. The rest of the week, we mostly ate lentil soup and corn flakes. Some nights, I was lucky enough to have dinner at a friend’s house. I had great friends that treated me well. I walked to the bus to get to school, a science and math magnet school that my parents fought hard to get me into. After all, I was just a punk-ass redheaded kid from some backwoods county in Maryland. In Baltimore, the city schools use the city bus system, which is subsidized by tax money. I worked hard, got good grades, and secured admission into several engineering schools. I didn’t have a seemingly unlimited supply of money to spend, so I was forced to go to a state school, supported by state programs largely funded by tax revenue. I had to take out loans to cover my tuition, and I’m still paying them off more than ten years later. I don’t mind; the interest is really low. My loans were subsidized by the federal government, so the interest was paid while I was in school. I really do appreciate that.

Once I graduated, I did what any self-respecting capitalist does. I set out to make as much money as I could. Turns out, I’m pretty good at that. I tripled my salary within 5yrs, reaching a respectable low six figures within 8yrs of graduating college. Most of what I did during that time was contract work for the government, with my salary paid in full by grant money, funneled through the Navy and special forces. While I’m decently good at making money for myself, I seem to be really good at making money for others. In 2008, I contributed significantly to a project for IHG that has since made them $1B. Now, we’re speaking your language. I can see your ears perked up. We must be talking about numbers in the scale you’re accustomed to working with. After that, I did a little work for Veterans Affairs, helping put to rest a doomed project that wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer money. Saving money is like making money, right?

Well, after all that waste and bureaucracy, I started my own company. Why should they make all that money and I make such a small fraction of it? So, I set out to find small companies who needed my services. I would partner with them for some cash and some ownership in the final product. The first one was a bust. I had to sue them. They went bankrupt, and I never saw more than 25% of the reward for my labor. The next one, though, went on to publish one of the most popular and successful iPhone apps on the market. In fact, they were so successful they won $1M prize earlier this year at an influential conference. They’ve also never taken a single dollar in investment capital, but they did receive some grant funding from a state university to bootstrap their initial product development. After that, I built another company that is growing faster than we can keep up with it. Then another. Then another. Now, I’m working on something that might be worth $5B in 10yrs. Or maybe it’ll fall on its face and go nowhere. (Hopefully the former)

I am not financially wealthy, at least not yet. I will likely never see as many commas in my bank account as you do. And it isn’t a contest, at least not to me. I see problems in the world, and I feel compelled to solve them, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. I do not sacrifice my nights and weekends because I believe I may be able to make money for myself or someone else, but because I couldn’t live with myself if I saw people in need and did nothing to help them. I am not a capitalist. I am just a man, a citizen of this great nation who believes that no one builds anything of lasting value alone, without any help from others. Often, it comes in the form of a government assistance program, such as a Pell grant or a small business innovation grant. I spent most of my life benefiting from government programs, and almost all of my first million has come, in one form or another, from a government grant initiative.

So, to you, Mr. Romney, I say congratulations on being born into wealth, but you’re sorely mistaken if you think all that wealth came from your family’s blood, sweat, and tears. Somewhere along the line, and probably often, your money came from a federal grant or a state program. You’re no better than anyone, just because your daddy paid for your education and healthcare. From where I’m sitting, you’re just a chump who thinks he’s entitled to the presidency. It’s ironic, really, given the emphasis on your use of the word “entitlement” in describing those of us who truly deserve government benefits. Please, for the sake of all the decent, hard-working folks who have graciously accepted government funding to build something for themselves and their communities, just give up now. You can’t save face, and you can’t lie your way out of this. It’s over.

Fuck you very much,


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.

You Only Get One Chance, OK Maybe One Million

“You only get one chance to shine.” – seemingly everyone

Apparently, the people who tell you that are all like Dr Manhattan – omnipotent beings who exist at all points in space and time. To those people, everything exists in the now. I don’t mean it the way the Buddhists mean it. I mean it in the “what have you done for me lately” sense. There is no planning. There is no consideration for possible factors and influences. There is only how effective you are right now. The very essence of the expression conveys the wholly flawed American ideal of a one-shot deal, as if to say that you must invest all of your soul into one singular contribution to the world and hope you’re not a mosquito on the windshield of destiny. I’m all in favor of poker metaphors, but the “all in” metaphor is tired and inappropriate.

It may be true that we have finite opportunities to impress upon our prospective customers the core value of our products. Retail is a fickle bitch. At its core, though, we must acknowledge the simple reality that we have one first impression on each customer we meet. The other half of that coin is that we are not limited to one customer. The resulting philosophy is closer to Google’s “don’t be evil” sentiment than to the all-or-nothing approach conveyed above. Give your customers a reason to pay you, and they will. Give them enough reasons, and they’ll start advertising on your behalf. Nobody’s going to sign over their first-born and you should back away slowly (and then run in the opposite direction) if you ever encounter this level of adoration. The happy place is in the middle, where customers get what they want, continue to derive meaningful value, and tell all their friends how awesome you are.

The moral of the story, ultimately, is that it’s ok to piss off some customers. Sure, it’s not the ideal scenario, and I recommend attempting to prevent or mitigate it, but don’t move heaven and earth to appease the needs of the few. Accept the reality that you’re going to leave some of your target audience unsatisfied. You can choose to focus on the few complainers or you can focus on introducing your product to the millions of people who don’t know who you are yet. And if you are fielding tons of customer service requests from complainers who are also not paying you, you clearly missed something in startup school. I know it sounds oversimplified, but one way to make money is to charge for your goods & services, and be good to your customers. They’ll thank you by selling your product to everyone they know. If they don’t, there are millions just like them who might.

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

Walking in the Valley of Giants

If I were to sum up my experience of the last six months, it would be walking in the valley of giants. I have spent all of that time surrounded by the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever met. These are the people few of us have occasion to meet, people who talk to you as a real person, as an equal, yet they’re so ridiculously smart that you walk away from any given conversation with them feeling like you earned a master’s degree by osmosis. These are the people who, when they interrupt you, it feels right because you somehow know they know what you’re about to say, they’ve thought of that, and it won’t work because of things they proceed to explain kindly in ways you never thought about. In the end, they take what could easily have escalated into an ego explosion and dissipate it, leaving everyone in the room feeling smarter.

The giants are only a part of the landscape, though. They walk amongst the trees. I see the trees as giants who have evolved into a higher form of life, taken root to invest in the local ecosystem and build a community. These are the mentors. They’ve lived the highs and lows of the fast paced life, grown to be giants, pillars of their community, and now they’re taking that metaphor more literally. They guide the giants along their path, carrying on the legacy they once followed. They have no interest in suffering all-nighters and last-minute travel to pitch hopes and dreams campaigns to out-of-touch rich white guys. They’re ready to let the giants carry the torch.

And then there’s a layer of fog between the giants and everyone else in the valley, the folks whose inner fire is long snuffed out – the naysayers. Many people live their entire lives without knowing the warmth of this inner fire, this drive to do more, to be better, stronger, faster. The competitive spirit of the entrepreneur is known only to a select few, those who prefer bold action over armchair quarterbacking. Those without it often fear those who display it proudly. Sometimes, the townspeople take up arms in protest against the actions of the giants, who always seem to weather the storm with quiet patience. They know the transient nature of the frantic mob mind. They understand that this, too, shall pass and give way to something new. I never met Steve Jobs. He died before our paths had opportunity to cross, but his wisdom is appropriate here. He said that consumers need to be told what they want.

Consumers are assholes. They want the impossible for free. They don’t understand the herculean effort required of the architects and designers of the apps they love. They are bitchy teenage girls who expect Prince Charming to waltz through the door, offering a magic new way to do whatever their current fancy commands. They want machine interfaces to understand them without their ever interacting with the machine, as if it has some kind of digital empathy. As technology advances and recommendation engines get better and better at predicting the song you want to hear or rearranging your calendar, consumer expectations continue to rise. Now, Siri can determine your mood and reschedule your lunch meeting with that abrasive tool from marketing, so you don’t have to hear his pedestrian stories about the crazy escapades he allegedly witnessed this weekend and all the hot sex he allegedly had with that allegedly cute blonde. Siri knows you’d prefer a quiet escape from the chaos with some nice dim sum at your favorite Chinese place, sans your annoying colleague.

Ok, Siri isn’t that great. Yet. But, the point is the same. There are a lot of people in this world who tell you your ideas are terrible, you’ll never make money, and you’re a fool for trying. Those people are dead inside. Ignore them, and take your rightful place among the giants. The people you need to pay attention to are the ones who are excited about the product you’re selling, can afford to buy it, and are happy someone has taken the time to fix something they thought was broken. These people are your best friend. Find them, make friends, and get connected. They will help you build the forrest, feed the giants and the trees alike. They are the fundamental fuel of the ecosystem. Without them, all is lost. It’s your job to inspire them, to captivate them, to compel them to choose your product offering over all others. Because that’s that giants do. They lead the townspeople to greener pastures, lay the foundation for sustainable progress for the entire community, and do it all with a smile. Sometimes, they take a pitchfork in the ass, but they do it willingly. Like caring parents, they understand that you need help making your way through this world, and they only want the best for you, even if you crucify them for it.