Communicating with Complex Personality

For almost all of us, there come times when we feel like we just can’t quite get through to someone, like there’s something in the way, and no one really knows exactly what it is. When we face those situations, it’s important to maintain some perspective about who the other person is and how they react to their environment. Simply considering some basic fundamental things about the experience can make a huge impact on the actions and reactions we take during the exchange.

Take, for example, a scenario involving a dipolar couple. (Not to be confused with bipolar. That’s another story for another author.) One half of the couple is an extravert posture. The other is in an introvert posture.

Sidebar: I use the term posture here as a means of highlighting the moody nature of the extravert/introvert spectrum. In many complex ways, our behavior follows one path or another depending on mood and social relationships. There are some aspects of our behavior that are governed by deeper forces – the unyielding forces of our moral and spiritual cores. In this context, we’re focused on the transient behavior as a posture.

If one half of the dipolar couple encounters some obstacle to their happiness, he or she may seek comfort and support from the partner. This is a natural and healthy response we all experience, seeking guidance from our community. Let’s consider two cases, really the same case from different perspectives.

If the troubled half is the extravert, he or she will naturally seek to discuss the issue with the partner (external processing). This can be very effective, up to the point when the introvert feels overwhelmed. Beyond that threshold, the partner will withdraw in order to take time for introspection before offering support. If the extravert is unable to acknowledge this for what it is, he or she may react as if the partner has given up on them or abandoned them. This causes an exhausting cycle of overwhelm-and-withdraw.

If instead the troubled half is an introvert, he or she will naturally seek to withdraw and allow the experience to flow to its natural conclusion before taking any outward action (internal processing). This is a delicate time for the introvert, as he or she needs to feel the supportive love of community, but feels unable to reach out for help. If the introvert’s patience threshold is passed, he or she will reject the partner’s actions as unsupportive. If the extravert is unable to acknowledge this before reaching the threshold, he or she may react as if the partner has shunned or ignored their support. This causes a divergence where the extravert stops offering support.

We all shift in and out of introvert and extravert postures as we interact with the objects and people in the world. If we can navigate this landscape effectively, we can avoid overwhelming the introvert energy without ignoring the extravert energy. Next time you feel like you’re doing all the talking, ask if your partner needs a break. Similarly, next time you feel taxed, ask your partner for a break. This need not be considered a rift in the core of your spiritual relationship. It may simply be one half’s inability to communicate effectively with the other in the current moment. Give it time, communicate your feelings as you process, and come back to your partner to honor your original intent, which is to love and be loved.

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You Must Be At Least This Stinky To Get A Free Shower

Picture yourself cycling to work. That part’s easy. It even seems nice in your head. You can take your time, enjoy the breeze, and get a little cardio workout. Sounds nice and healthy. It is actually a very healthy and sustainable solution to a problem we all face. We all need to go places, whether to work or to school or to the park or to the mall or (sometimes) to the airport or (hopefully very rarely) the hospital. But we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. We all collectively believe cars are the best choice because “freedom.” (rock and roll quotes added for effect)

Lots of people drive to work because they believe they need to drive to work. Many people don’t work or live near enough to public transportation for it to be convenient enough to suffer the extra time required to wait for buses and trains. The folks who live or work in rural areas are basically fucked. They have little choice but to buy a car, even if it sits in the driveway or a parking space 95% of the time.

Hopefully by now, some part of you is starting to think about the things you need to change in your life to transition from a car to a bicycle. For me, it was the sudden loss of my car. Loss is a common motivator. Whatever your situation, the choice may be challenging. Much of the challenge comes from within. You will start to find reasons why it wouldn’t work. You may begin making excuses for 5% situations (things you do only ever couple weeks) as if they are the 95% (things you do every day). If you’re able to survive through that, you will eventually come to one rather real conclusion – cycling is sweaty business.

This is where I segue the homeless into the mix, in an attempt to confuse and intrigue the reader. See how I did that? 😉

We’ve all encountered a smelly homeless person in our lives. I have no problem with the homeless. Some folks just prefer the freedom of the open world. That’s a brave lifestyle choice. It’s not for me, but who am I to judge? That sentiment ends where my nose begins. If I can smell you from 3m away (that’s 10ft for you heathens), that’s a problem. (and maybe a public health risk)

This is where I tie it all together. Thanks for your patience.

What if we could provide a way for the cycling commuters to rinse off after biking to work, while simultaneously helping the homeless, and save everyone’s collective noses in the process? Here’s how we do it:

Provide pay showers in common commuter destinations. Give them enough space and privacy to be comfortable, but not so much that someone could sleep there. Then, add some kind of odor sensor on the pay box. If you trigger the sensor, you get a free 5min shower. Otherwise, it’s $2. Use solar energy for heating the water wherever possible to reduce energy requirements. Problem solved.

Now, go sell your car. Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Well, if we had some public shower infrastructure, maybe it would be an easier choice. If nothing else, the world would smell a little better. That’s something we can all appreciate. 🙂

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.

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.

The Essence of Minimum Viable Product

“Perfect is the enemy of good enough.” -unknown

I wish I knew the person who coined that expression. I have lived that philosophy for the last several years, and I am very pleased with where that path has led me. I have learned to walk away from partners and/or clients who demand perfection before they will publish a product, favoring instead those who see, as I do, the arrogant futility of believing you can solve everyone’s problems.

I’m proud to be a part of Gazelle Lab (http://gazellelab.com), which has given my team an incredible opportunity to make a significant impact on a largely untapped, unhappy market. Having access to seed funding allowed us to focus all our attention on building a solid product and making sure the market was ready. This gave us time to refine the business model, find the market that was most in need, and narrow our goal to solving one key problem that affects a lot of people. This is the essence of a minimum viable product (MVP).

Once we found that, we built all the pieces we needed to support the MVP. Then, we shifted our attention to customer acquisition, where we’ve been wildly successful, so far attracting three dedicated content producers, one of whom is using our platform to build a channel, launching at CES 2012 (http://www.cesweb.org) in January with at least ten shows. In fact, as a result of our overwhelming initial success, we’re backlogged through February. We are asking for $500k at Demo Day tomorrow to expand the team, so we can aggressively seek new channel partners and bring their apps to market. We can survive without this seed capital, and we are on target to be sustainable by the end of Q2 2012. With extra sales and support resources, though, we believe we can reach the break-even point even sooner.

What all this illustrates is that technology is only a piece of the puzzle. Laptop computers, while incredibly powerful and influential in the modern world, are completely nerfed without access to wireless network and, eventually, electricity. Without the support infrastructure, even the most magnificent of technical marvels fails to find its full audience. Without an introduction to our tools, content producers will continue to be frustrated with ad-based publishing systems. The sales and support resources need to be a major focus on the MVP effort.

In many cases, it is possible to produce a feature-limited beta in a few weeks. Sales and marketing staff can hit the streets with this beta product to get customers excited, while development staff are busy collecting and organizing beta feedback. If, instead, the focus is on making a “perfect” 1.0 product, the project loses precious early stage time. More importantly, this results in a critical delay in user feedback. Iteration is the single most important quality of a successful early stage company.

What you’re building is exactly what it sounds like. You’re building a product to sell to customers who want to buy it, but may not know about it yet. You’re sensitive to the viability of this product, and you want to be sure the market is ready to buy what you’re selling. Finally, you’re not building a Cadillac with fifty luxury features. Your MVP must be as simple as a hammer. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to add features once you’re selling enough units to keep the lights on. Just remember to ask your customers what they think about your proposed features, so you can focus on what they actually need and be first to market with relevant innovation, not get bogged down in a morass of “what if”.

Maximum Wage – A Thought Experiment

I had a crazy idea this morning. With all the talk about deficit spending and growing national debt, I thought maybe we should simply introduce an upper bound on the annual income any individual is allowed to be paid. Instead of a law forbidding any employer from paying above a certain amount, I think it makes more sense to say employers can pay anything they want to their employees, but every dollar above a threshold is taxed at 100%. Here’s a thought experiment.

According to Mother Jones, the top 0.01% of household income is about $27.3M. If there are roughly 140M tax payers, that means there are about 14k people earning over $25M/yr. If all of those people paid 100% tax on every dollar above $5M, that works out to $280B annually. That’s a staggering number.

Let’s compare that to the amount of tax revenue we would gain by eliminating the cap on income that is taxed for social security. For 2011, the cap is $106,800, which is less than the average income for the top 1-10%. If we eliminate the cap, we would collect an additional $39B from the top 0.01% alone, $157B from the top 1%, and $210B from the top 10%. That’s $406B in total.

Combining both figures, it stands to reason we would have an additional $686B in the annual budget with two very simple changes to the tax code.

Sure, folks are going to complain that they’re being treated unfairly and that such a policy would stifle growth by eliminating the natural incentive to acquire more wealth. The way I see it, those people are greedy, selfish assholes. No one person could hope to spend $425k/mo on living expenses. Instead, they buy solid gold toilets, million-dollar cars to gather dust in a garage, and myriad other frivolous things. Meanwhile, 90% of the population is struggling to pay the mortgage on their modest house, feed their families, and live sustainably. I know this is America, land of the fat and greedy, but at some point, even the super rich must feel bad about wasting money on luxury while others starve to death.