When Data Is Wrong

September 2, 2011

I love data. When I was a business analyst at Microsoft, I enjoyed unearthing insights that moved the business forward. But data worries me too – it can be misunderstood, and it can be misused.

Sometimes data points to an obvious direction that may be incorrect. For example, I believe the quality of movies has deteriorated since studios started making changes to movies from audience surveys. The data is used to convince directors and writers their instinct is wrong. But what people say is the best ending may actually leave less of an impression – the result is less memorable movies, and ultimately people not wanting to go to the theater any more. Meanwhile, the studios look at data showing a decline in theater attendance and attribute it to home theater systems. And so, they turn to surveys even more.

While data is key to the success of any startup, it can also lead you astray. When we launched the alpha of LazyMeter, reviews were mixed – while 50% loved it the other 50% couldn’t figure out how to use it. The data told us that an analogy to a music player we were using didn’t make sense for a to-do list. The clear suggestion was to change from iconography to text; for example, to change our play button to the text “Today”. We resisted because the iconography is the point of the product – it’s what enables us to make task management faster than pen and paper. Switching to text also would have made us appear like the many other task managers we sought to replace. We followed our gut, not the obvious action suggested by the data, and went about finding another way to improve the experience for new users.

We added documentation. We played with tooltips. We tweaked the active and inactive states for the navigation buttons. All efforts improved our adoption rates, but they still left much to be desired.

And then we realized something. The problem was not that people didn’t understand how to use our product. The problem was they didn’t understand what the product was doing for them. We weren’t explaining our product on our homepage. ‘Play means today’ makes a lot more sense if you know LazyMeter is your to-do list, one day at a time. We did a simple redesign with a wordpress template, focusing primarily on messaging. And we haven’t heard from a confused user since. Responses immediately went from “I don’t get it” to “this is simple and intuitive”. Registration and adoption rates went through the roof – without any major changes to the usability of the product.

While it was critical to have data showing us where users were getting stuck, the obvious suggestion to change the usability would have been a mistake. It’s important to realize data can paint the wrong picture. If it feels wrong, dig deeper.

The Power of One

June 14, 2011

Most meetings are non-eventful. You say you’ll keep in touch, and maybe you’re introduced to others. While the entrepreneur may fantasize about someone jumping out of their seat with excitement, it’s more likely they’ll see someone that just wants to get through the day.

It’s natural to feel like the goal of meetings is to make everyone excited about your product. But I’ve recently learned the goal at the beginning should be to find one more person truly passionate about your topic. Someone as excited about the problem you’re solving as you were when you took the plunge. Someone so excited that they want to jump in with you. This is true whether you’re talking to a potential advisor, investor or user.

Move forward. As you share your vision more openly, don’t be disenchanted by meetings that go nowhere. It only takes a single meeting to change things. A single person can change everything for your startup. Suddenly, the less productive meetings make sense, and don’t matter. Remember that even the best pitches will often be ignored.

Make your goals achievable, and keep moving. Start with 1, and then seek 1 more. If you can get 1 advisor, you can get 1 more. If you can get 1 fanatical user, you can get 1 more. If you can get 1 customer, you can get 1 more. Forget the dreams of overnight success. You’re doing a startup, and that means you’re building from the ground up.

One Life

May 3, 2011

On Saturday, I proposed on a sailboat on Bainbridge Island. When I started searching for a boat, the task seemed daunting, but a quick search on airbnb didn’t just locate a boat – it yielded a sailboat bed & breakfast. How romantic is that? I found the perfect restaurant for the night using yelp, and emailed with the chef to arrange a special desert. A simple update to my Facebook relationship status saved me hours of phone calls, allowing me to turn off my phone and enjoy quality time with my new fiancé. The internet didn’t just help me with my proposal: I met my fiancé on match.com.

The experience made me think about who I’d be without the internet. In college, almost all of my plans were made by instant message – I’ve never liked using the phone, and I was lucky enough to live in the first generation that could get away without it. I found my first job out of college, at a startup in New York City, through craigslist (along with a sublet, an apartment, furniture and a mover).   I even found my job at Microsoft through craigslist. The job was in internet advertising.

The internet has shaped my life as far back as I remember. As a shy teenager trying to figure out life, I realized I probably wasn’t the only one, so I started a website called Teen World where I gave others advice. Over time, it grew into an interactive community for young adults called CheekFreak. Around 1,000 users visited each week to escape the real world and be themselves, and it was a huge part of my identity. I only made a few hundred dollars before I went to college and shut it down, but I don’t regret all the work. I still smile when I read emails from visitors, including several who said they were considering suicide before visiting.

When you get knee deep in your startup, you get lost in topics like fundraising, usability and dashboards. But let’s not forget why we’re really here: to shape lives. While many think task management is a boring subject, I’m excited by how it directly ties to people’s quality of life. What if I can increase your free time? What if I can help you feel better at the end of the day? The spark that gives birth to most startups is a selfless realization that you can help others. Making it sustainable is secondary, and it’s only here that most fail.

When you read that 90% of startups fail, remember that the definition is strictly financial. Don’t forget that you originally set out to help people. You’re only a true failure if you don’t improve 1 user’s life. Of the 90% of “failed” startups, I wonder how many founders consider themselves failures. I wonder how many have a letter from a user that still makes them smile. I wonder how many are proud of the lives they shaped. And I wonder how many wouldn’t say their startup shaped them.

Did You Grow Last Year?

January 10, 2011

I left Microsoft to embark on a one year experiment. 12 months later, much is still up in the air. I thought we could launch a product within a few months, and either gain traction or fail by the end of the year. While LazyMeter is almost in beta, it’s clearly taken longer than planned. This week, a few friends naturally asked how I feel about the first year of my experiment, and whether I have any regrets.

Life is good. I’m thrilled with the product we’re building, our LLC had significant revenue from consulting, and for the first time in recent memory, I can say I’ve grown. I’ve left my comfort zone, networking and returning to code, and I’ve rediscovered things I love to do like writing. This was very different than the years I spent distracted by things like salary, levels and promotions that now feel meaningless. While I couldn’t figure out the source of my dissatisfaction at Microsoft, I now realize I had to leave because I was waiting instead of growing. Looking back on the past year, I’m not upset with the opportunity cost, or things taking longer than planned. I’m thrilled that I no longer feel stuck and have made steps in the right direction. When I look to the future, I have countless options. I’ve never been closer to where I want to be, and I’m figuring out where I want to be at the same time. Leaving Microsoft to found a startup has been nothing short of a successful journey, no matter where I end up.

A critical component of happiness is continual growth. We should always try to make progress towards our goals. You don’t need to achieve your goal, but you do need to move towards it, even if just turning in its direction. While it’s easy to dream big for the future, these dreams are often intimidating, so it’s no surprise that so many New Year’s resolutions are abandoned. Each New Year’s, we look to the future, but we should start with the past. Specifically, we should ask ourselves whether we grew. Meaningful New Year’s resolutions are in response to this question.
This New Years, I suggest you resolve to grow. It’s fine if our New Year’s resolutions are lofty and unrealistic.  Dream big.  What really matters is whether we make positive progress towards our goals. If you’re not proud of your progress – if you feel stuck – then this is the year to make a change. I really enjoyed Marcello’s Open Letter to the Seattle Startup Community because it both sets goals for 2011, and appreciates the progress made so far towards the vision – have you made the same analysis for your life this year?

Don’t Shield Engineers from Customers

December 13, 2010

My first role at Microsoft involved supporting the top Search Engine Marketing advertisers on Microsoft adCenter, which was just being launched to compete with Google adWords. The first version of adCenter lacked a ton of basic functionality required for SEM, and I took on the responsibility of collecting customer feedback from the frontline and presenting it to the product’s engineers. I couldn’t understand how the architecture didn’t support such basic and critical features and functionality, and why subsequent releases still didn’t include the updates customers needed.  As I dug deeper, it became apparent the engineers were being shielded from customers. Working directly with customers, I saw the value of customer feedback, and the importance of engineers meeting with customers firsthand. So you can imagine how disappointed I was in myself last week when I realized my startup had the same problem.

As a product manager for LazyMeter, I meet regularly with prospective users and report back to the team with feedback and features. During team meetings, I usually push for launch dates to be moved forward. While the team probably thinks I’m being an annoying business guy, I am pushing on behalf of a growing audience begging to use our product. I didn’t realize the rest of the team wasn’t getting to meet with this audience.  They’re located in Boston, so we have even more distance than usual between business and engineering.

During a phone call last week, a potential consulting client went into a rant about why he needs LazyMeter. “I have ADD,” he said, “and I need your product bad.” As he continued to beg us to launch, I heard the energy in my co-founder’s voice go through the roof. A few hours later, I got news that we hit a major milestone – early, for the first time.

The role of product manager is typically described as being the “voice of the customer”. Some product managers will go as far as to say they protect engineers from customers, who could easily take up all their time. While this is true, it doesn’t mean engineers should be denied access to customers completely. I cannot convey the need for a feature as well as a user, because I will miss their subject matter expertise and, more importantly, their passion. And the customer will always have the best insight into the solution, ensuring the feature is built correctly the first time. Too often, product managers ask for features without enough context, so the resulting feature isn’t what the customer asked for. Too often, product managers only take work items and negative feedback to engineers. It turns out part of the product management role is motivating the engineering team. Engineers need to see the difference they’re making in people’s lives. They need to feel the passion for the product they work on. Give an engineer features and you’re like a boss giving them more work.  Give an engineer a meeting with a customer and you’ll inspire and motivate them.  Direct meetings between engineers and customers improve the quality of the product, the speed of development, and the morale of the team.

When I left my first role at Microsoft, the sales team was setting up meetings with customers and engineers directly. The customers loved it – even if the results weren’t immediate, they liked that they were being heard and became ambassadors of the product. The engineers loved it – they stopped seeing feature requests as disruptive and understood how they impacted customers firsthand. And the salespeople loved it too – the customers spent more money.

Entrepreneur? Just Make Something

November 21, 2010

My weekly post from Seattle 2.0 (overwhelmed by the response so far!).

A startup begins with uncertainty. From idea to launch you will have breakthroughs and setbacks, and you will often question yourself. You will put a lot on the line, and the process will take longer than you expect. But there’s a moment when the fears subside, when you can see the light on the other end of the tunnel – it’s when you use your product for the first time.

Nothing beats the feeling of using your own product – experiencing your idea turned into reality. Think of the first time you used the products that you use on a daily basis. We all try and reject a lot of betas, but sometimes you get to use products like Facebook or Google for the first time. These products immediately scream “This is the future.  You need this. Use it.” It’s truly exciting to find a new product you will use every day. Now imagine that feeling for something you’ve created.

The most fulfilling day since I left Microsoft was when I used LazyMeter, my startup’s product, for the first time. I immediately lost all doubts about the effort and risks.  There’s a unique satisfaction that comes from making something; I have seen a vision come to life, and even if no one uses it I have solved a pain point in my own life. No matter what happens from here on, I am happy to have built something.

Since leaving Microsoft, I’ve realized how important creativity is in my life. This doesn’t just apply to startups. If I have to go back to a full-time job, I will make sure that I continue to create. No longer void of energy after a day’s work, I’ve written code, made homemade wine and countless meals, learned guitar, and written posts like this one. In this culture of consumption, I find it fascinating how much satisfaction I get from something as simple as preparing a meal.

The tie that binds entrepreneurs is an innate need to create something instead of just consume. When denied this need, we feel empty. This is why we’ll put so much on the line, why we’ll get right back up again when we fail, and it’s also why the startup community is so supportive. The good news is that anyone can make something, whatever situation they’re in.

Whether or not you are doing a startup, I ask you: What have you made lately? And what will you make next?


Niche Passion: How to Find Work You Love

October 25, 2010

My weekly post on Seattle 2.0.

Most of us are not lucky enough to know what we want to do with our lives.  Everyone knows someone fortunate enough to have discovered work they enjoy (the few who don’t complain about their job). More often than not, these satisfied workers have careers like doctors and engineers. They find their passion because it is highly discoverable and socially acceptable.

The rest of us are left to find our niche passion. If we don’t encounter what we want to do, how will we ever do it? Imagine someone whose destiny is to play the violin, but never takes a lesson. Many are forced to choose their career before they are ready (the second year of college). And so it’s no surprise that so many people give up on finding what they love for a career that pays well, and then drink and watch television to pass the time.

What many people fail to realize is while we don’t know what we want to do, we do know what we don’t want to do. We know when something feels wrong. Unfortunately, we usually ignore this instinct. If you don’t like your job, society tells you to toughen up and get used to it. In actuality, this desire for change is your one and only guide to happiness.

I worked at Microsoft for 4.5 years. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I knew that one day I wanted to pursue an internet startup. I thought Microsoft would be a perfect place to explore various roles and areas. And so I joined the ranks of Microsoft, and waited for my passion to present itself. After the excitement wore off, I ignored my dissatisfaction with my job, and I completely lost sight of what I really wanted to do.

When I was young, I wrote “don’t forget you’re alive” all over the front of my journals. I thought a lot about how teenagers were so passionate, and adults were so boring. I wanted to figure out the moment where passionate teenagers became adult drones. If I could remain conscious, it wouldn’t happen to me. And then I started working, put my journals in a box, and stopped listening to the voice inside me that wanted more.  When I started at Microsoft, it was a great experience for me and I learned and grew. But years later I found myself a business analyst, far from the creator of an innovative product that I wanted to be. Leaving was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, but I haven’t had a moment of regret and now it seems completely rational.

I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs and start a company. What I’m saying is that everyone should pay very close attention to the feeling that something is not right in your life. If you’re ever going to find work you love, it’s this voice that will be your guide.

My favorite blog post from Chris Dixon is titled Climbing the Wrong Hill. In it, he asks “How can smart, ambitious people stay working in an area where they have no long term ambitions?” He provides an analogy using a computer science problem where you are placed in hilly terrain, and need to climb to the top of the highest hill. The solution is not to simply go upward, because that would just take you to the top of the hill you’re on, which isn’t necessarily the tallest. Yet even those who know they’re on the wrong hill often feel the need the keep climbing upward. His conclusion: “People early in their career should learn from computer science:  meander some in your walk (especially early on), randomly drop yourself into new parts of the terrain, and when you find the highest hill, don’t waste any more time on the current hill no matter how much better the next step up might appear.”

There are two points here. First, if you haven’t found your thing, you should keep trying new things. It’s never too late to learn something new and make a change. Second, if you know that what you’re doing is not right, stop doing it. You don’t have to know what you want to do – you just need to do something different. Rinse, and repeat.

Looking back on my life, what makes me happy is seeing that I grew and progressed. My life has continuously improved over time, and when it didn’t I made a correction. Each day gets better. My problem at Microsoft was that I didn’t make a change when I stopped growing. Even after you succeed, you should continue to grow and take on new challenges. Anyone just focused on “success” or “winning” will not know what to do with the rest of their life if they achieve it. So focus on climbing your own hill, not anyone else’s, and keep checking your altitude – especially when you think you’ve reached the top.