Last year I began getting into mobile development. That in itself is a subject of many stories alone, but in the course of researching the mobile landscape, I came to a realization: the iPhone and in particular iOS are in many ways the AOL of mobile. These technologies are great on-ramps into mobile technology, but they provide such severe restrictions that it's easy to see the roots of their future demise written right into the sources of their early success.
Apple exposes the powerful functionality of having a robust location-aware computer in your hand in the simplest way possible - holding your hand while at the same time occupying it. Apple famously guards every last inch of the iPhone experience and curates an entirely 'closed' ecosystem. Only partners who meet Apple's guidelines and requirements can play Apple's game.
This is precisely the role that AOL served in introducing millions of folks to the internet in the mid to late nineties. AOL famously provided a chaperoned experience to the basics of the online experience -- internet and email.
Meanwhile, Google's Android has taken the open approach. Despite a relatively rocky start that really only served fairly savvy users, Android has rapidly matured to provide an overall user experience on par with that of iOS. But, because Google's system is open, innovation happens much more rapidly and is often driven as much by the community and by power users' as it is by Google itself.
As an example, consider he amazing Android app Tasker. Tasker essentially exposes many of your Android phone or tablet's core OS functions in a simple programmable environment. Google's OS exposes these functions directly to users and Tasker allows you to create little scripts without needing to know how to do mobile app development. A few examples from my phone...
I have various profiles that are triggered by the phone's state (e.g. headphones plugged in, in the car, at the office, near home, etc.). These profiles set my volumes, automatically activate bluetooth and gps, turn on wifi, etc. Tasker also provides access to Android's voice-to-speech engine, so when I'm in the car my phone will announce and read incomming text messages and allow me to dictate replies hands-free.
I also have a simple lost phone script. If my phone receives a txt message containing a specific pass phrase, it will lock itself requiring a password to access. Then it will turn on its gps antenna, and send a txt to my Google voice number containing its current gps coordinates.
Probably my most fun Tasker script is my own home-made Siri app. Since Android enables access to voice-to-speech as well as its excellent speech-to-text engine, I've written a few little scripts to take advantage. My favorite one allows me to ask my phone about the surf (e.g. "how's the surf today?"), and it will connect to three different online services and read back to me the latest swell height, direction, and period along with tide and water temperature.
Then of course, Tasker also allows you to quickly package and share you're scripts so that others can also easily use my surf-check app. So, sure Siri is great (sort of), but being able to tweak it to your heart's content (or benefit from slightly more savvy users tweaking) is amazingly cool and powerful. Somehow I don't see Apple ever allowing iPhone users to script their own Siri responses.
Especially in light of the recent iOS maps debacle and considering Android's exponential gains in user-experience (not to mention myriad threats from maybe Blackberry, Microsoft, and who-knows-who-else), it's very easy to imagine iOS being relegated to 'You've got mail' status in the near future. What do you think? Does open innovation ultimately trump closed curation?
About a year ago, a CrossFit Gym (CrossFit 2120) opened next door to my office. I got to know the owner, Dan a bit. He is a super-cool guy from Michigan (like me), a Red Wings fan (like me), a surfer (like me), and ripped (totally unlike me). I helped him a bit with his website when he opened and he gave me some fitness tips and offered to let me workout with them.
I thought about it, but seeing and hearing the workouts taking place outside my window was more than a little intimidating. He trained football players, and olympic athletes, and service men and women of all stripes. All that neighboring energy did inspire us to install a pull up bar and rings in the office, and I figured maybe one day I’d try get into shape a bit and diet a bit and do enough pull ups to actually take him up on the offer without embarrassing myself too much.
It never happened. But this week, I did commit to heading over there and I actually finally worked out with Dan’s CrossFit crew. Holy cow. I mean seriously, Wow.
I’ve done fitness before. I played football from 3rd grade till high-school. At one point in my life (after grad-school), I lost over 100 lbs. I’ve run, lifted weights, and had a personal trainer. I’ve had a gym in the office (at mp3.com), and a gym membership (at LA Fitness). I’ve even done P–90X (it does work). But even after only four workouts, I’ve never, never, ever experienced anything quite like CrossFit.
First, the workouts are basic and technical and high-intensity. You don’t need to be a PhD in kinestheology to know with certainty that these workouts will work (in fact, you can simply look around the room for clear evidence that they do). Yes, some of the moves are a bit intimidating (like olympic lifts), but they are completely scaled for beginners and you are under very close supervision. Given the structure and support of the classes, pulling off some of the more intimidating moves is incredibly gratifying and you really begin to understand how some of these basic exercises (e.g. deadlifts, squats, snatch, etc.) have stood the test of time as the bedrock of overall strength training.
What really separates the CrossFit experience from anything else I’ve ever tried is the culture. The whole thing is permeated by a culture of excellence. From the coach to the participants to ultimately, yourself. There is a constant expectation of excellence in every detail. From times, weights, rep counts, and other performance metrics, through form and warmup and flexibility.
Though I’ve lifted weights plenty and even had personal training, I’ve never understood form as well as I do even just one week into CrossFit. The over-riding emphasis is on ‘getting it right’ and on performance, not pure bulk or size. You’re hitting strength, flexibility, coordination, and cardio (often all in one workout).
Then, there is the “we’re all in it together” ethos. I’d heard this about CrossFit, but never experienced it. It is real. The entire class is an incredibly supportive group. You want to perform well for and with your classmates and you want to help them out and you want to keep coming back. I can see that this is potentially the most valuable part of the entire experience. Knowing how to exercising is fairly easy, actually doing it is hard. Having people around to support you and hold you accountable is perhaps the best way to give yourself a chance at success. So far so good (and so sore). I’ll keep everyone posted…
I've got a crazy story for you. I went to high school in San Antonio, Texas. As a senior, I had some scheduling conflicts and somehow ended up in a journalism (yearbook) class with one of the coolest teachers imaginable. His name was Mr Thomas, but as required of the coolest teacher imaginable™, he insisted on being referred to only as 'Rob'. This guy could have been a Simpsons character. He was in a rock and roll band. He joked. He teased. He brought a guitar to class and began the morning with some impromptu balladeering:
Oh what a beautiful morning,
oh what a beautiful day,
I've got a disturbing feeling,
everything's going Gk
In his class, we laughed, sang, mocked, and worked our asses off. Shockingly, we actually learned an insane amount along the way and somehow created an incredibly high-quality yearbook. Eventually we graduated and Rob quit teaching to rock out with his band. Fast-forward ten years and Rob is producing TV shows in Hollywood (e.g. Cupid ). Fast-forward another ten years or so and he's breaking KickStarter records left and right and 'disrupting' Hollywood.
Yes, he's *that* Rob Thomas. The Veronica Mars guy.
My point isn't to name-drop (honestly, it isn't - but it is a really cool story). What I've really been thinking about a lot lately is the whole Lean Movement™. I love it, but I'm also somewhat uncomfortable with it. I haven't been able to put my finger on it, but I think my issues largely just come down to language and terminology (starting with 'Lean' itself, but running throughout: ‘MVP’, ‘Problem’, ‘Product-Market-Fit’, ‘Doppleganger’, ‘Fail Fast’, etc. ).
Words, semantics, terms, they really matter. They especially matter when there are much better, clearer terms available that allow for more accurate and meaningful expression. The example that Rob's recent experience brings to mind is ‘Problem'.
As entrepreneurs, we are implored to look for problems to solve. We are supposed to identify pain and sell aspirin. That’s the way opportunity is defined: as a problem awaiting a solution. We are supposed to validate problems in the market. I actually agree with all that, but it leaves out huge swaths of incredibly worthwhile games that entrepreneurs could be playing.
My training in Philosophy has taught me that language matters. A lot. The way we frame questions, the terms we use and concepts we employ often pre-determine the answers we get. A the least, the concepts we begin with define the possibility-space from which our answers will ultimately come.
So, I like framing things at the highest possible meaningful level. I would rather use the term ‘Desire' in place of ‘Problem'. Desire includes problem, but also goes far beyond it. For instance, a problem is a problem when you have the desire to fix it. Sure, it's just semantics, but semantics matter. Problem may more precise in certain circumstances, but it leaves so many opportunities out in the cold.
Rob is not 'solving the problem of there being no Veronica Mars movie'. He is, rather, fulfilling many, many people's burning desire for there to be one. The difference is important - if he were focused on solving people's problems, there would likely never be a Veronica Mars movie. Rob's example is accurate, but complicated (he did after all have the 'platform' of a hollywood show to build on, and entertainment products are generally not the boot-strappy kinds of products that Lean advocates for). Still, $5.7 million is $5.7 million.
Look at the 10-year Hoodie KickStarter. No one has the ‘problem’ of foreign-made raggedy hoodies. But many, many people *want* a hand-crafted, American-made, hoodie from a non-multinational company that is guaranteed to last 10 years. Brand is vital here (another weakness in the lean literature). Fashion products, lifestyle products, entertainment products, games, etc. can all be viable businesses (gasp - even startups!), but lean misses them almost entirely.
There is a Better Way and it is incredibly simple: wherever Lean talks about ‘Problem’ simply substitute ‘Desire’.
Taking on this relatively subtle shift in terminology, the Lean approach, philosophy, and processes are generally right on. Yes, yes, yes, you should get out and talk to the market. Yes, you should validate the existence and intensity of desire in the market. Yes, you should craft a product that directly addresses this desire. Yes, you should create an offer for this product that frames it in terms of the desire (e.g. Benefits not Features). Etc., etc.
When it comes to business, ‘Desire’ is a far more effective concept than ‘Problem’. There are many examples: SEO services address the desire to rank higher in Google, not the problem of not ranking higher. Makeup addresses the desire to look more desirable. While it is possible to go through the mental gymnastics of re-framing a someone’s desire to look good into a 'problem', the exercise is generally not helpful. It also tends to delve into negativity rather than aspiration.
The Lean terminology is limiting in this sense. Businesses are hard-enough. Yes, it totally helps to have very specific, acute desires that you address, but imposing conceptual limitations on yourself at the outset is not always helpful.
I gotta little story for ya. Actually, Hemingway does. If you have never heard of or read it, you should check out The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (http://www.uta.fi/FAST/US1/REF/macomber.html). It’s a short story, a really quick read. Definitely make a note to read it you haven’t already.
Great stuff. I’ve been a fan of Hemingway since I first read one of his sentences, and of his short stories in particular. My buddy Parand (http://xpenser.com) and I were talking the other day, and he asked me why I cared so much about starting my own company. Why I cared so deeply and so passionately about ultimately creating my own products. I’ve thought about that before, and the answers always run deep. Steve Jobs says “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”, and I think that’s a wonderful way to put it. It is our way to live on, to live with impact, to leave a legacy. But, another way to explain it is the way Hemingway did in his short story.
My own Dad had a short happy life. He became a dentist, but never wanted to be one. He had many passions: golf, art, invention, drawing & sketching, crafting, but dentistry was never among them. He was essentially forced to become a dentist by his parents when he could not get into medical school. I’m sure he feared them. Feared rejection, feared being on the wrong side of convention. So he toiled for years. As a dentist. It did not go well.
Superficially, it seemed to… for a while, anyway. From the outside, anyway. But he was never happy. He probably never fully admitted even to himself just how unhappy he was, but it is painfully clear in retrospect. He was one of those people who can be happy in the eddies, the distractions, but not in the flow. The only happiness he found in dentistry was in doing his own lab work, where he could sculpt beautiful, realistic wax bicuspids and cast them in polished gold. He spent his free time chasing his dreams on golf courses and the driving range.
But the lab work that he loved to do himself had taken its toll (most dentists outsource all their lab work as they should; it’s cautionary to think of my dad sculpting away in his lab the same way I sometimes love to craft code). He developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. He had surgery.
After a decade or so of running a successful practice in Michigan, he decided to move to Texas to pursue a specialization in prosthodontics. He was fairly open about his real motivations for moving which had very little to do with dentistry and had everything do with being able to play golf year-round.
In the course of his training, my parents divorced. He remarried and tried to open a prosthodontics practice. It floundered and he tried to open a second office in Austin. There was much unpleasantness.
In time both practices failed. Bankruptcy was declared and a second divorce followed. He took his now arthritic cut-up wrists and made a Walter Mitty like run at the Senior PGA Tour. Eventually, he was living on disability and I saw first-hand how devastatingly soul-killing a handout can be. Much more unpleasantness followed. Ultimately, he was living with his parents and making minimum wage cutting meat in a grocery deli. He was 61. I kid not — these are dark places.
Like Macomber, I see that my dad spent most of his life in fear. But like Macomber, he did not stay afraid. Like Macomber he ultimately faced his demons…
He began consulting for a large dental clinic. He helped setup their labs, and trained their lab techs in all the procedures he had honed over the years. He took out old drawings and papers and began playing with ideas. He convinced some partners at the firm to back him in his own venture. He had some ingenious ideas for creating revolutionary tooth-whitening products.
Bang! He had a twinkle in his eye. He would talk for hours and hours and work far longer than that. He designed packaging and made calls and ran trials and wrote insert copy and flew all over the country and filed patents and appeared in an infomercial. He drove folks nuts with his mania. He created another company on the side. He was on fire. He was creating his legacy - his dent. He was actually alive.
The product became Luster Tooth Whitening. I was in Walgreens just last night, and his legacy is there. Luster Premium White System $39.99 - there is my dad winking from the shelves. He died exactly 7 years ago today. He was 64. He had his happy life. That’s why we create.
Most people overestimate limited human resources like creativity and intelligence. Creativity for example, is a beautiful thing, and people like to wax poetic about it: “You can imagine anything.” Not true. In fact, cognitive psychology tells us that our capacity for imagination is actually incredibly limited. Our ability to understand much less actually originate true novelty is almost nil. At best, we can recombine the known into previously-unexperienced combinations.
Take 1000 people and ask them to imagine any kind of novel alien or creature or alternate life-form. Nearly all will come back with something that falls into 4 to 6 basic categories that are variants on animals we encounter on Earth
We used to have this saying, back when we were all stuck with anarchic, unreliable Windows computers "When in Doubt, Reboot." It was really the only recourse available whenever you hit any kind of problem, hiccup, or snag with your computer. There was really no point in rationalizing, thinking, or deep analysis. Just hammer ctrl-alt-delete (or in worst cases hard-reset the power) and get on with things. In fact, due to inevitable memory leaks, lockups, and various design flaws, a good hard reset periodically was not only inevitable but healthy. Not a terrible approach, really. So it goes in life sometimes and so it goes here.
We (hopefully) now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
BackMyBook has outgrown its brand. Truth be told, we never really loved the BackMyBook brand to begin with. It was always kind of the last thing left on the whiteboard when we had to wrap up the branding process and just get something out. In retrospect, settling was probably a mistake, but it did the job in terms of getting us out there quickly. Folks have been asking me, 'What's so wrong with BackMyBook'? Well, two reasons, really. First, as a brand 'BackMyBook' is bland. It has no personality, no poetry, no aspiration. It just doesn't breathe. We tried to nuance it a bit with the friendly ascii-art logo, but there's only so much you can do with a literal phrase like 'BackMyBook'.
The freedom in failure is that nobody cares. Nobody cares about your project, book, business, art, or undertaking. If it fails, you've simply maintained the status quo. If it succeeds, you've accomplished the truly remarkable.
Not all addictions are bad -- in fact, an addiction to coffee can be a real asset. I never drank coffee through college (to my detriment) and upon entering the workforce was met with the near-ubiquity of the beverage. One morning, my boss and I got to talking about coffee as he was performing an elaborate grind-and-brew-ritual. He mentioned that I should start to drink it, and I claimed he should stop (interesting side-note.... I remember encountering in college a neo-Marxist critique of Western culture that asked "Why do capitalist workplaces universally provide free coffee to their workers?" Obviously, to keep them drugged for maximum productivity...). Ultimately, he convinced me to at least consider drinking coffee regularly. Now, I've never been one to take a drug without first fully understanding it and its potential effects, so I began to research coffee.
I had a great time this weekend mentoring at Lean Startup Machine San Diego where I met some terrific people and saw some great things happening in a very short amount of time. I'll hopefully share more thoughts on LSM and the Lean movement in general later. I just wanted to throw a quick tip out there for all the attendees who would like to pursue their ideas further or who would like to further apply the customer development techniques they learned this weekend.