I wrote and deleted this post several times before continuing to write. It’s not easy to think of yourself as a writer and not have the words to say what’s in your head. It is easy to delete the draft, go back to what you were doing, and go another day without writing.
The empty page is a metaphor for a lot of things. When the page is empty, you have a hard time beating yourself up for what you wrote. When the page is empty, there are no commitments for what you will do next. And when the page is empty, you haven’t taken a stand or offended anyone.
That’s exactly the right time to start writing. I guarantee it won’t be exactly the thing that’s in your head. But once you get going the writing will start to take shape and you’ll realize what was rattling around in your head in the first place.
For me, writing blocks almost always indicate that I am not facing something in my life or that I haven’t yet worked through a challenge I am thinking about. And writing about it almost always helps me face the challenge. Maybe not always head-on, but at least better than ignoring it.
Today I am thinking of the challenge of being a parent of a teenager. Yup, it’s not always easy. Or maybe it’s almost never easy. Maybe being a teenager is a bit like looking at the blank page. When you’ve tried few things in your life you don’t know which ones are going to be the ones that make people happy and which ones you might regret.
Either way you have to start by starting. In this case, it’s probably not the best writing I have ever done. Or will do. However, it’s now out of my head and forces me to commit to doing it again the next time I feel blocked.
(Photo courtesy of https://unsplash.com/photos/3IVOgGIBsM0)
I recently had a (great) idea for a product. In my head it made perfect sense – a way to make it easier for people building presentations to get instant help from a trusted freelancer. Surely many people would be excited to try it out.
The idea went from sketched-out prototype to tech exploration to see if it was possible to execute the thing I was thinking about, and two things happened. First, two very smart people asked whether this is a problem that anyone has, and whether I had any data to prove the size of the market. Second, I realized I hadn’t done enough work to move from idea to execution.
“Of course,” I said, sharing market validation stats and thinking about channel partners. But then it hit me – I hadn’t yet taken the fundamental step to validating the market need by hand with no tech investment and no real effort spent. Ideas are a dime a dozen until they have some traction.
And it made me consider the optimal way of moving from idea to idea++, or taking the first next step toward validation. “Paper prototyping,” – the effort to simulate the experience of building product without actually building that product – is useful when combined with tests to establish demand.
In this case, what was needed was a plan to ask people (ideally those I don’t know) to state that 1) they needed help with presentations and 2) that they are willing to pay other people to solve that problem.
One way to test that would be to use an existing site where people request freelance assistance (let’s say Fivvr, Upwork, or similar) and put up an ad for services. The responses to this ad would give one set of signals for demand. Then, the type of work that resulted might help me determine whether the initial hypothesis is worth more thinking. And third, the initial revenue would give clues to the potential profitability of the idea.
Do I know whether I have a great product idea? Not yet. The next step is to validate whether presentations made “good enough” are sufficient for most people, most of the time. If that’s the case, on to the next idea, until there’s a bit more signal that this one is more than a momentary aha!
Imagine you are selling a new drink (perhaps in a new category) and you’re competing against Coca-cola. You’ve invented a nootropic brain drink that helps you stay calm and alert while coding, and it has a pleasant natural fizz to it. It might even be an unusual color like purple. Taste tests from prospective customers have been successful and the effects bear out from your claim – coders love it! Continue reading →
I mean the kind of team that people and alumni talk about years later. I’m talking about a team that produces results, leads the market, and is the kind of team that spawns other great teams. It’s hard to produce these kinds of results once, so it’s all the more remarkable when the same team produces another high-performing team (and highly correlated to success in the new venture)
In my career, I have been on great teams, and also participated in not-so-great teams.
Here are a few things that great teams do that mediocre teams do not do:
Great Teams Focus Their Efforts
In a startup (or really inside any company) there is always too much to do and almost always not enough time and resources to do it. Great teams build a culture where people focus on the next best thing they can do to improve the company, and make it easy for people to work together to gain results. For example, when you cut a lightly used feature and take the time to improve an existing feature, you are lowering the surface area of your product and helping the whole team to feel better about the quality of your software.
Mediocre teams work on many projects at once and never ship. On these teams, someone always claims credit for doing the work instead of giving kudos to another team member to congratulate them on a job well done. Mediocre teams endlessly add features without taking the time to ask customers whether the existing features meet their needs.
Great Teams Identify and Amplify Team Strengths
On a great team, it’s easy to find specialists. They are busy doing what they do best – not struggling at tasks they do the worst – and producing strong results. Some of the specialists have a specialty of getting other people to make decisions, push themselves to do new things, or to reduce the overall quantity of work to produce higher quality work. Great teams form around individuals who have strengths the whole team can use. These teams ask “how can I help?” to each other rather than saying “I’m too busy – can you ask someone else?”
On a mediocre team, it’s hard to determine what anyone does well, because everyone is meeting with each other in the same meetings. There is no time for work during the work day, because no one comes prepared to discuss items at meetings, and people spend the meeting time multitasking and doing the work they could not complete in their previous meetings. Mediocre teams leach away the strength of their individual specialists by creating an environment where no one knows how to make a decision and where no one feels empowered to ask for that decision.
Great Teams Are Resilient
Having a great team does not isolate you from conflict. Great teams are effective at meeting conflict head-on, discussing the problem, finding a solution, and then moving forward either by “disagreeing and committing” or by genuine consensus. These teams are resilient because during times of trouble team members lean on each other’s strengths and find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
Mediocre teams fall apart or descend into chaos during stressful situations. There are few things more disappointing than thinking you’re on a great team, encountering a stressful situation, and then realizing your team is rather mediocre. Instead of the support you get from a great team, on a mediocre team it ends up being every person for themselves.
Great teams are hard to find.
I recently joined the team at Kustomer because this is a great team solving a hard problem in an important market – CRM for support customers – and I wanted to be part of that effort. So far, working at Kustomer feels similar to the atmosphere I shared with some of the team members when we worked together at Assistly. We work hard, we play hard, and we are building a business centered on our customers. But what makes a team great?
Great teams sometimes form by themselves and sometimes are made. People know a great team when they experience it. Great teams do not last forever, because culture is hard. When you get the band back together, it doesn’t always work. But when it does, it’s amazing.
Kustomer is a great team. We are crushing it. That doesn’t mean we’re always right – it means we are going after a great market with proven technology expertise, deep domain expertise, and a kick-ass attitude.
If there’s nothing else you remember from this post, spend 15 minutes writing down your goals for your next project so that you explain them better to the people who matter. The simple act of writing down your goals is a powerful organizer for you, the people you are interacting with in your project, and the people you want to benefit.
Build the Big Picture
When you paint the picture of a problem, a high-level reason why that problem needs to be solved, and a proposed end state that is a great start. That statement doesn’t explain the How, or the resources and tactics you use to get from “project not done” to “project done” within a known amount of time and effort.
So spend a few minutes writing down the ideal state and how you want to get there. Your way will probably be different than mine, which follows a template of prompts. STOP and go do that, then come back.
It seems silly to focus on such a small goal, because knowing what you’re going to do for your project, feature, or idea is obvious.
Test that theory the next time you feel you have alignment on “what is my project” or “what is my feature” by asking someone else to tell you what they think your project is, what benefits it will deliver, and to state the goal you’re both working to achieve.
When the goal of the project, the definition for that project, and the benefits of that project are clear(er), it’s a lot easier to know where to start.
What does this look like in practice?
Consider this example: “Build a new web site Widget.”
If you know: “we have never introduced a thing like this before onto one of our pages,” you might want to test that results differently to make sure there is no required dependency in your environment.
If you know: “we use these things all of the time, and this is a new instance of a thing we do already,” your comfort level will be increased.
And if you know: “we have already described the ‘look and feel’ of this widget in the fonts, colors, and information architecture of our website, for example page xyz,” you will have made it much easier to know what the thing is that you are building.
Stating the benefits for your project helps you to understand the measurement you’ll need to quantify these benefits. Then, find the measurement as it stands today. Yes, it does seem elementary to find a baseline, and you need one to prove that something change. If there is no baseline, state your assumptions and move on.
Getting Started …
In the spirit of a brief solution, I’ll keep this post short too. When you’re ready to make your next project better, set a timer for 15 minutes and write the overall goal, 3 things you want to do toward that goal, a statement for how you will measure your progress, and any questions you have about the project. This simple exercise makes it easier to share what you’re doing, how you’re thinking about it, and how to make progress.
Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.
Most Messaging is not Like This
And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.
The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun
The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.
But Blocking Email is Not A Solution
What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?
Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.
A Modest Proposal
Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.
Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”
The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams
This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.
Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:
“Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
“Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
“Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
“Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”
Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions
Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.
We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:
Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)
What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.
What about Ads?
Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.