What’s the best way to learn about new products?

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/globevisions/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/globevisions/

The last time you needed to buy a vacuum, a car, or a coffeemaker, what did you do? If you’re like me you probably asked your family, friends, and neighbors for a recommendation. Maybe you even asked your friends on Facebook. And what was the response? Probably a mishmash of “this is the best COFFEEMAKER evah!” and some technical writing on merits of the perfect boiling temperature at which to make pour-over coffee in the best Blue Bottle coffee style. What was missing from this result? Some great feedback from people like you who are interested in finding great products. So how do you find great products?

Finding Great Products is Hard

There are a lot of options for almost any product and product category. The folks at Yabbly are trying to solve this problem. Yabbly – which I’ve been beta testing for the past few months – helps people find good advice on what products to buy. Yabbly bridges the world of very exact people (you’ll know them as avid readers of Ars Technica and specific answers of detailed questions on Quora threads) and the friends you have on Facebook who are well-meaning and will recommend whatever brand of coffeemaker they bought last.

Advice is Cheap

Why is this problem hard? It’s hard to get advice from people like you who are considering making similar purchases. It’s easy to get any advice, and Yabbly helps you get better advice. Yabbly does this by adding the concept of Karma to posts (if it works for StackOverflow, it should work here, right?) and giving answer recipients the opportunity to reward great answers. Yet Yabbly does this without feeling stuffy, without feeling exclusive, and while helping guide you to the right answer as measured by the people who are reading and answering your question.

Why does Yabbly Work to Find Products?

Yabbly works because it’s friendly, offering both mobile and web access and hiding the details of the game mechanics and offering instead a seemingly simple question and answer format. Yabbly is more interesting for me than other services because it’s focused on the soft aspects of why people buy, instead of only comparing the features offered by each product. “How does the TV display the darkest darks of a movie in a sunny room” is a subjective question – you can study the manufacturer’s suggested specs for as long as you like, and you usually need to go see the TV in the showroom to get a better look. Yabbly helps shortcut that process by helping you to get real answers from real people about real products. Check it out!

9 Rules for Being an Effective Mentor

"Do, or do not. There is no try."
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/xtyler/

In my experience, having effective, talented, and knowledgeable mentors has been the most powerful startup accelerator that I know. The best mentors I’ve worked with do a lot of the things on this list. You can call these the 9 rules of being a mentor – they will help you provide feedback to entrepreneurs you know and respect. These are not meant to be a definitive list (you should make your own list of things that work) and will get you started toward the process of sharing your expertise with a startup team.

Rule #1: Use your Superpower (and know what it is)

Maybe you are amazing at Operations. Perhaps you understand Finance better than anyone you know. Or you can design an email marketing campaign to ensure the highest percentage of opened emails. You know your superpower (or you should) – and you can be a really effective mentor if you can leverage your experience in a way that doesn’t say “do this, or else” to the entrepreneur you’re advising.

Rule #2: Be Mindful of Limited Time

You are busy; the entrepreneurs are busy too. So show up on time, whether it’s an in person meeting or a phone call. Give people information to review before the meeting. And answer any questions promptly so that you can give the best impression possible to a budding entrepreneur about how you can do things the right way. (Bonus points awarded if you thank them for emailing you and demonstrate a great customer service affect.)

Rule #3: Give to Get

This mentoring relationship is not about you: it’s about what you can provide to a person trying to do a very difficult thing. If you do nothing else with your mentoring relationship, you should be focusing on what the other person says that they need (and listening for the unspoken, unmet needs as well.) You can also use the power of your networks to spread the word and really amplify the efforts of a fledgling business.

Rule #4: Make Introductions and Provide Context

I’m sure you’ve received more than a few emails or requests in your time where you read the email and are not sure why the person is contacting you and how they would like you to help. Providing context makes things better for you, the entrepreneurs, and anyone else they are working with. For example, “This is ____, he/she is solving this problem ____ for this customer ___ . It would be great if you could (clearly defined ask) by (clearly defined date.) If this doesn’t work for you, please suggest another resource who might be able to help.” is a short, focused way to request assistance. You may also need to do a “pre-ask” and make sure the resource is willing and able to help.

Rule #5: Build a Community of Mentors

A community is only as effective as its members, and the totality of the network provides the relationships and ideas that make the network really thrive and grow in value. Please meet the other Mentors, the other startups, and be open to the idea that you are always learning. You never know what a day will bring when you’re open to new opportunities.

Rule #6: Only Offer What You can Deliver

The relationship with your startup company will be better if you set ground rules for how you can be contacted, what you can offer, and what you’re expecting to give. (You might ask the same questions of them.) Setting these expectations up front will avoid disappointment and will make it clear what sort of communication cadence you need to build.

Rule #7: Make “Checking In” into a Habit

Set up a regular meeting with your team – either in person or on Skype – and encourage the entrepreneurs to drive the meeting using a well-defined agenda. A great start to an agenda (use your own best one) is “what I did, what I’m doing, and where I need help.” Sending answers to the same set of questions is also a great way for teams to inform their mentors – a tool like iDoneThis or 15Five or a shared Google Doc can do the trick here.

Rule #8: It’s Not Your Startup

Building a relationship with a set of entrepreneurs is exciting, and sometimes develops into a lifelong relationship. And remember that you are there to provide advice, to help frame decisions, and to be correct when someone asks you a specific question. But it’s not your startup. Remembering that fact makes it easier for you to deliver difficult and important advice, and it also frees the entrepreneurs to ignore your advice when they need to make their own way.

Rule #9: Ask the Right Questions

In best Steve Blank form, encourage your teams to “Get Out of the Building” and validate their assumptions with real customers as soon as possible. You can help them build their hypotheses by asking incisive questions, but ensure they make key decisions based on the customer insights they uncover during customer validation.

Are these the same rules I would have written when I first joined a startup? Nope. So remind yourself that your own personal rules for serving as a mentor (and for being mentored) will change over time. Your job as a mentor should be to focus on creating, communicating, and delivering unique value for the startup you’re mentoring, and to help them do the same for their customers.

You should learn to code today

stretch your brain by coding
Even if the code is simple, there’s lots to learn.

What can you get done in a day, or a weekend?

Today, I learned how to call my phone automatically today with a REST API and to play background music when the caller picked up. Yeah, you say, that’s easy if you know how to use Twilio (which is what I used) but the interesting thing was how I learned it. I used Codecademy – a web site that helps you to learn how to code – and it was completely free.

While some folks might think that learning how to code is a waste of time, I’d like to politely rebut that statement and say that it’s absolutely necessary for you to learn how to code and that it’s a vital use of your time. There are a few reasons you should learn to code today, even if you have no intention of ever completing a program or shipping code in a production environment:

Ask and Answer Better Technical Questions

The first reason you should learn to code today is to begin the process of translating geek to english. If you can ask programmers and techies types better questions you will annoy them less, get better at getting answers to the questions you want to answer, and build a better rapport with your technical team. In my experience, the practice of asking better technical questions helps you to understand the basics of a technology as an engineer does (what actually happens when you post an HTML form, rather than thinking of it as a black box, can help you grok the limitations of submitting and validating a post to a web page.) You won’t be able to deliver production code by working on a Codecademy course, and you will start to understand the scope of the problem and get closer to the actual doing of the work.

Make Your Brain Better

The second reason you should try coding is that identifying, trying (and sometimes failing), and succeeding at a new skill will stretch your brain. Among other things, learning new skills provides dopamine to your noggin and gives you a feeling of accomplishment. Even if you’re lousy at coding, there’s something cool when you type puts “hello, world” and the computer echoes back what you wrote. No, you’re not ready to ship code, but it’s the smallest big thing that you know how to do and gives you a framework for learning additional tasks should you get interested in learning additional new skiils. You’ve got to crawl before you walk, and learning new things may even make your brain grow.

You might have fun

Much like the lean startup idea popularized by Steve Blank when he tells entrepreneurs to “get out of the building”, learning a new skill like coding is constant practice in getting out of your comfort zone. It feels uncomfortable to learn new syntax, be specific enough so that an interpreter running inside of a web page understands what you’re trying to do, and to speak computerese. You might have fun and learn a new skill, or you might just stretch your brain. The effort is worth the effort, and “learn to code” isn’t the only skill you want to build, it’s your brain’s plasticity and resilience. Learn one thing, and you can learn more things effectively.

We carry instant memories with us

Sleepy Cat

If you’re like me, you’ve gotten into the habit of carrying your phone most everywhere you go. You use it to make notes, to answer emails, to view Facebook (too often), and to take photos. I used to wonder how we would be able to have multiple devices with us when we went places, and now I’ve realized that the compromise for an “almost-good-enough” camera is a good trade for being able to take pictures and video from almost anywhere.

I don’t remember faces all that well – I’m much better with matching names to concepts – and you might have seen a slightly blank look on my face when I’ve met you again after a while. And my phone really helps. By getting into the habit of taking these instant memories, I’ve been much more successful at stitching together the fragments of memories and better matching people to experiences.

In the last 5 years I’ve gone from taking the occasional photo to taking as many as several dozen in a day that I want to keep (and lots more that I discard.) Photos are a window into our present (and our past) in a way that words don’t describe for me. It could be that I’m just visual by nature, and I can’t stop taking pictures.

A perfect solution for cataloging and managing these instant memories might include geo-location, context, and other sorts of automatic tagging, along with the “nearby public photos” that other people are taking. So why can’t I mine Facebook for this information? Sure, I can look at the Timeline, and I can (sort of) search Twitter, and I can see the Instagram profile now (cool.) What I’m missing is the ability to identify, categorize, and manage the kind of Lifestreams that Gordon Bell has pioneered, without the massive storage and processing power that this would require in today’s world. Yes, it’s possible – and not quite feasible for the average person.

Yet there are signs that an aggregator that would allow us to manage lifestreams is (sort of) already happening. All of the big services would like to provide this utility, from Facebook’s timeline to Twitter’s profile and other similar photo album and status accumulators. And they are all not quite like what you’d imagine when you think of Vannevar Bush’s idea of a memex.

Why is this ability so fragmented? We could examine the usual suspects like: “corporations want us to have one source for knowledge,” “data hasn’t been coordinated to work together,” or perhaps “it’s hasn’t been important enough to us yet to develop.” I believe a memex will be developed in my lifetime, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to take pictures every day to fill in the gaps.

The API of Me

photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

What is the “API of Me”?

When you think about browsing the web on your computer, tablet, or mobile device, you undoubtedly think about the ads presented to you, the information stored by companies whose websites you visit, and the other information they might know about you. If you are are particularly privacy-conscious, you make take additional measures to mitigate the tracking and categorizing of your online activity, or “digital exhaust” in addition to the explicit places you visit.

This tracking presents opportunities and disadvantages for all consumers, and particular benefit or detriment depending upon the consumer involved. If you are a frequent visitor to an outdoor products site that sells skiing equipment and you also visit a ski resort web site, you might not mind seeing an advertisement or a special offer to purchase sporting equipment. If you research a mental health issue that you didn’t wish to share with others, you might be shocked to see relevant content to your search show up in your search results on Facebook. Yet both of those scenarios are technologically possible and increasingly in use as you peruse the Internet from many sources. Add to that data the ability to provide additional context from when and where you view these sites, and retailers and others alike already have deep information stores with which to present us with information.

Is there a way to shape the ads you see and protect your data?

So how can you – the “typical” consumer who would like to get more relevant information while maintaining the privacy and security of your information appropriate to your comfort level – regulate what these companies know about you? Some of this information is regulated (the degree to which your wireless provider can track your movements and share data with advertisers) and a lot of this information – especially that which can be correlated and presented using the techniques of “big data” – is much fuzzier.

I believe that we as consumers have a right to control the data we share about and between the services and products we use, and that the economic benefit of using and sharing that information by companies should be more transparent. “The API of Me” is the name I’d like to propose for a system of capturing, sharing, and limiting information about consumers that presupposes the following ideas:

  1. The current online identity system is hopelessly fragmented and controlled by companies, not consumers.
  2. Customers and browsers (people who consume media and do not purchase) have a right to know how their information is being used.
  3. Companies have a right to make money off of this consumption and have a moral obligation to share with customers how their data is being used to make money.
  4. A system should exist to allow customers to make their preferences known that allows the customer to maintain the repository of choices and information and to provide some, all, or none of that information to companies who ask; the system should also respond similarly whether there is an account or not.
  5. We all need a service that can expand our existing electronic identity to other future uses and to allow those future uses to learn more about us and to provide better service, more utility, and societal good while minimizing the possibility of “bad actors” to make inappropriate use of that information.
  6. This idea needs to support an elegant, multi-factor authentication solution that’s as simple as possible, and no simpler.

And why would anyone use this idea?

Why would customers use The API of Me? There are more and more identity services in use today, and as they cross-reference the items we search, our movements, and the items we consume/read/watch, it’s more important than ever to have the ability to selectively publish information without being overwhelmed by a complicated array of privacy controls (have you looked at your Facebook privacy settings recently?)

Some would say that we shouldn’t have such a comprehensive source for individual information because of the danger of having it compromised when the inevitable lousy passwords are used by people who can’t be bothered to secure their personal data locker. Yet the increasing ubiquity of Facebook, Google, and Twitter-based identity systems make it more and more likely that this is a danger anyway. I’m proposing that some smart people determine a well-designed way for the 80% of us who care and want to solve this problem to be able to do so and gain more control over our data.

And why would businesses care about the API of Me? Consumers are social beings who want to have relationships with the businesses they use. They may not actually want to be contacted by those businesses, but they do want to know how and why their information is being used, and some of them even want to have the option of being paid for the use of this information. Businesses can use this knowledge to open up whole new personalized markets that don’t exist today, and better avoid alienating customers who really want to opt out.

The Future: Personal Data and Micro-segmentation

Right, you say, what if everyone opts out? But they won’t. Businesses built more like the Apple App Store, the Zappos shoe-buying experience, the Amazon online store, and the Nordstrom clothing business will thrive with better, more data-driven relationships with customers. And lower-end, logistics-savvy companies like Wal*Mart are already using Big Data in the aggregate to deliver diapers, beer, and other necessities to communities in advance of a forecasted weather event.

The future of micro-segmentation depends upon the consumer being able to self-segment. And whether that desire is to provide as much information as possible in exchange for payment or to opt-out completely, The API of Me gives consumers the ability to specify what data they will share and how they will share it, and companies a reliable near-infinite segmentation that they can use to better serve customers and open new markets.

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