Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Brian Greene: One of the nice things about this talk was the imagery, in particular the point about the degree to which we may not be able to see or study some phenomenon because the evidence no longer exists.  Imagine, he suggests, a future in which all the stars and galaxies have moved so far away from Earth that the night sky is no longer full.

Some TEDsters were saddened by the idea, but I’m rather drawn to the prospect of change.  After all, imagine the beauty of a night sky with just a moon, full and pregnant, hanging alone.  Might that not have its own unique kind of beauty?  Different isn’t always worse and the undercurrent conversation about moving into the future versus holding onto the past I think became a theme this year.

Sarah Parcak: My takeaway here was basic – science is fucking awesome and Parcak is fucking glad to be a scientist.  Which I entirely agree with; having just complete another round of psych studies (and yes, I’ll talk about them when I’m ready), science is awesome.  She talked about how 90% of Egyptian ruins remain uncovered and I know that at least that much of what is interesting about human behavior remains just as buried.  Which is daunting, inspiring, and generally awesome, on both counts.

Peter Weyland: First of all, I loved that they were willing to do something “fictional” as a way of looking at what the future could be.  I’m not sure I felt the character really said that much, in that I don’t think humanity actually is anywhere near the kind of hubris that makes us challenge “the gods”.  Individuals may have pride, but if there is anything I take from human history, it is that competition and cooperation force even the most strident individual voice back into alignment.  Villains always manage to find heroes.

About two weeks ago, I got a generous invite from Stefan Weitz over at Bing to be the product guy for their first ever TEDActive Hackathon.  The format was up in the air for awhile, and eventually settled on the format I prefer (which could only loosely be called a Hackathon): a single team (me, James Cox from Smokeclouds, Drew Volpe from LocatelyAlan Cannistraro from Apple, student Rafael Cosman,  and Zach Szukala from Seso) solving the singular problem of helping kids with asthma, as proposed by TED Fellow Sandeep Sood from Monsoon Company.

So, kids with asthma.  Huge problem (25% of all ER visits, tons of deaths, and sucky quality of life for lots of people).  The team hit a little hiccup to begin with as people all wanted to collaborate on the ideation phase.  Which is great, as long as we don’t hold that all ideas are created equal: the whole reason Product with a capital P exists is because some people have spent a long time figuring out how to do this right.  That said, it was a volunteer hackathon, so making everyone feel included was as much a part of the goal as saving kids with asthma.

The largest effect of that was the core app had to be built around SMS.  Which is tough: if the goal is to get kids to use something, you want something with the strongest possible promoting pressure, which generally means access to as much rich content as you can get.  That said, SMS means that it is cheap to deploy around the world and widens the audience, so even if it lowers engagement within a particular population, hopefully the increase in population overall makes up for it.

Which lead me to defining the problem.  The first place people went was about preventing asthma attacks by avoiding triggers, which I think is a logical first step.  Problem is, there are already apps that do journaling and after consulting with some epidemiologists (special thanks to Kate Weinberger from Columbia), it turns out that the causes of asthma are so manifold that trying to determine the exact cause of different kids asthma was difficult.  And moreover, even if we knew the triggers, we had no way of using big data to warn them about them: pollen could be literally one tree, five city blocks away, that only stirred things up when the wind was blowing the right direction.

So I pushed for a product that ignored the actual triggering sources and aimed to do three things for all kids:
a) prevent attacks (which when you are targeting kids in general means breathing and body exercises that increase lung capacity and core muscle groups)
b) reduce severity of attacks before they happen (with similar exercises as preventing attacks, but focusing more on the forcing of air in and out of the lungs when constricted)
c) reduce severity of attacks while they are happening (which means staying calm, using the inhaler and breathing together, and knowing when to call for help)

Trouble is, apparently pulmonologists and scientists like to squabble about exactly how you do those three things.  Given the severity of the problem and the number of people studying the problem, I was a little surprised that so little had been done in this area.  They couldn’t even tell me if it was better to rest or exercise after you’ve had an attack and recovered!

Like every problem, however, there is some opportunity in there.  Assuming we could get widespread usage of our apps, we’d actually generate the data that would answer those questions, which makes for an unofficial d) prevent attacks through research.

So having figured out a long list of stretches and breathing exercises we needed to get people to do, I now had to figure out a way to get people to do them via text.  Enter the tamagotchi.  We ended up giving every kid a “village” and then creating tasks that helped them grow it – essentially, a caretaker game, just like the tamagotchi.  The tasks, however, sneakily get people to do the exercises I wanted.

Here’s an example.  Your village is on fire…blow it out.  So do it, right now: blow out a fire.  99% of people purse there lips and blow, which is actually a form of resistive breathing that, low and behold, helps strengthen core lung function.  And a simple command gets most people to do it, without going into long details about the right motion.

Turns out, we could figure out a whole pattern of these that resulted in different stretches and exercises (my favorite, suggested by Sandeep, was “hug a really fat panda”).  And there is a side benefit to the village tasks: they get kids familiar with taking instructions via text, which comes in handy for “attack” part of the app.

Having figured out preventive exercises, we needed to create something for when kids were actually having an attack, which led me to create the largest flowchart of my life.  Basically, when a kid has an attack, they text in to a specific number and presto, we start asking them simple questions to help triage them.  They find an adult, use the inhaler and breathe appropriately, and if they’re enrolled in the larger game, get some cheering on from their villagers.

And yes, it is still really just a bunch of text and we don’t know yet if that’s enough to get kids motivated.  But I think even if the village metaphor doesn’t catch on, even just a free program that helps deal with an actual attack is valuable.  And because we lucked out and had an Apple developer in Alan, we also go to produce a simple iPhone app based on the same principles: blow into your mic in a particular pattern in order to play the game and build your resistive breathing.

The results are out at breatheapps.org and Sandeep’s company has promised to continue the work.  For my part, I’ll be staying involved, particularly in order to keep up with the data itself.  Can a simple text intervention get kids to do this?  Will it prevent attacks?  Will fewer kids go to the hospital?  We won’t know for awhile (assuming this catches on at all) but even if we get a few kids to breathe better, it was certainly worth a few sleeplessness nights at TEDActive.

Challenge.gov recently announced the Equal Pay challenge, to create an app that helps publicize and correct the pay gap between men and women.

1) Good.  Though some people will dispute that the gap exists, the science is pretty clear and most of the academics I know won’t dispute that this is a serious problem.
2) Aggravating.  We created GetRaised.com more than two years ago to help correct for pay gaps, particularly ones that affect women, by encouraging people to ask for raises and making it easier to do so (removing inhibiting pressures).

Women don’t ask for raises as often as men and they are less likely to get them, in part because they tend to make emotional appeals rather than business-oriented cases for why they deserve a raise.  We spent months designing and building a product that does more than just connects the data points: it is custom-designed to get women to ask, successfully, with follow-through.

And it works.  More than 70% of the time, if women hand in a GetRaised letter, they get a raise.  And the average raise is over $6,500.

We’ve had great press coverage, which I’m truly grateful for, and we’ve helped thousands of women.  But considering the site is free, I always wish that more people were using it.  Here we have an already built, highly effective solution waiting, which we could barely get the Department of Labor to talk to us about, and meanwhile they feel the need to create a challenge to produce exactly that.

I’m in favor of more apps, if they are effective and can help women get raises, and any light that is shined on this issue is good.  But I’m having an attack of frustration that I think many entrepreneurs who are more product than marketing focused often feel.  The frustrating moment where people say “I wish there was a product that…” and you want to scream “THERE IS!!!”

Side point: why the heck isn’t someone in the government looking around for free solutions to the problems they want to solve, and throwing their weight behind them?

A few fun numbers, as a followup to the recent post about the unlikely coincidence of Leslie Bradshaw and I both graduating from the same high school in the same year.

Approximately 3.5 million kids graduated from high school in the US in the year 2000. Of those, using stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 21,000 are management-level.  Assuming that only 1 in 100 managers is a founder, that’s 210 founders. That means the hit rate for founders in that particular year is about 1 in about 17,000.

If we accept those postulates, the chances of Leslie and I coming from the same 150-person high school graduating class (assuming that JCHS/Oregon/other shared environments had no unique effect) is 1 in about 13,000.

For reference, that’s about half as likely as the average American (AKA you) getting shot to death (thank you, National Security Council, for that cheery thought).

So the very next day after posting about Zipcar sending us the most bizarre customer service email ever, a very nice customer service manager named Brian gave me a call and mentioned he had read the blog post.  After listening to the CSR tapes and such, he noted that they “could have done better” and after a lengthy conversation, we arrived at a couple of specific things that were or would happen (he had already initiated some):

1) He offered to merge our Zipcar accounts for free, which normally costs $50 online (I passed, given that it should be free and we’re fine independently for now).
2) He sent a Manhattan rep to check out the garage and get the correct address for their system.
3) He waived the late fee.
4) He was going to use this as a “teachable moment” with his staff about addressing customer requests separately from customer “reminders” (which are really warnings).

Obviously, its great customer service to reach out when someone has a complaint and Zipcar deserves applause for doing so.  The only thing that beats good followup service is doing it right the first time, and I’m reminded of my father’s constant lesson as a kid: “saying your sorry isn’t as important as not doing it again”.  So hopefully that’s the end of the “oh by the way, we think you’re a fraudster” emails.

Kudos to Brian, and also the first CSR that talked to us while we were stuck in traffic trying to get to the alternate garage; he was patient and awesome and I unfortunately don’t remember his name.  So kudos nameless guy.

Also, in retrospect, I should have suggested that Zipcar equip all cars with bluetooth handsfree devices so that people can call in without causing accidents (which would probably get them a break on their insurance).  But since Zipcar apparently is reading my posts, I guess I just did.

Here’s the thing: if a customer didn’t share your deal on Twitter or Facebook, there is probably a reason.  Maybe you made it too hard (strong inhibiting pressures) by not having a simple share button.  Or maybe they just didn’t think your deal was worthwhile enough (weak promoting pressure) to waste social capital annoying their friends with (strong inhibiting pressure).  Either way, it isn’t an accident.

If it was just strong inhibiting pressures, you can easily address it: add the share button and be done.  And if the promoting pressure was too weak, you can give a gentle nudge in that they may just need to be reminded that it is an option.  What you don’t want to do is pay them.

And that’s what PowerVoice does.  You send messages about offered you liked to your friends, they pay you money – not a unique idea (as pointed out by TechCrunch) and ultimately, not a good one.

In psych terms, what you’re doing is raising the promoting pressure: you’ve paying people to get over the inhibiting pressure of actually sharing something and annoying their friends with it, which has the obvious drawback.  But more importantly, you’re also paying people for something that they are hypothetically motivated to do anyway, which brings in the overjustification effect.

Basically, when you are paying people to tell others about your brand, you are replacing any intrinsic motivation they might have (actually liking your brand) with an extrinsic motivator (money).  So you’re actually shifting the “why” of their actions and how they justify things internally.  This isn’t problematic…until you stop paying them.  Because you wiped out any intrinsic motivation with your payment, the moment you stop handing them money to talk about you, they’ll both stop doing and stop having positive feelings about your brand.

So this is a short-term gain play.  Sure, you can grab some new followers by spreading the word and spending cash.  But ultimately, you undermine the very thing you were trying to build: brand awareness and loyalty.  What you want is authentic motivation, and you can’t buy that with straight money (though you can spend money on programs that encourage it).  Which is what more brands should do, instead of pumping money into things like PowerVoice.

UPDATED: Zipcar gave me a call; see the followup post.

This post brought you courtesy of the letter Z(ipcar).

So here’s the setup: traffic is bad on the bridge, so we call to say we might be a minute or two late with the Zipcar return.  Incidentally, this is because they moved our garage twenty blocks downtown the morning of our rental, to the Trump buildings where every street goes only one way and getting to the actual garage involves a labyrinthine series of turns.

Stef is driving, so I handle the phone calling; they ask to talk to her to verify the account and then I deal with the rest.  Nice polite guy, says there may be a late fee but given the garage change, it should be easy to waive – just wait for it to post and send them a note with the situation.

We hangup and make our way to the garage, when Zipcar calls back, asking where we are.  Apparently, the next person called Zipcar, who didn’t check the notes on the record and just called us instead.  Fine, fine, we’re a block away and presto, we return the Zipcar a total of six minutes late.  Incidentally, the guy waiting wasn’t mad at all and also had his garage moved.

Late fee posts.  Stef writes in and recieves a lengthy reply with only one sentence that address the reason we wrote in: “We’re unable to refund the late return fee as it really impacted another member and we gave you a break once before.”

OK, fine.  Nevermind that the earlier late fee was a similar situation and such; that isn’t the part of the email that got me going.  Even after they then write us a longer paragraphing telling us to call when we’re late (oh wait, Ms. CSR, we already did).
Instead, this is the paragraph that offended the heck out of me.

“We also wanted to take this opportunity to reach out to you about nonmembers calling in or driving on your account. According to the Zipcar Member Contract, only Zipcar members are allowed to drive Zipcars. Anyone driving a Zipcar, other than you or another Zipcar member, won’t be covered by the insurance associated with membership. So please don’t let a non-member drive and don’t hand out your Zipcard to anyone.

We notice that another individual has been calling on your account frequently. Going forward, please be aware that unless he is added to your account, we will not be able to speak to him regarding your account. Should he call in regarding a reservation you have and you are not there to verify that it is OK to speak with him, your account will be suspended.

Thank you for understanding and cooperating with this important rule.

Are you insane?  Who writes that?

First, of course I call in: Stef is driving!  And I’d rather have her keep us on the road while I chat with Zipcar and make my way through their phone menus than cause a six car pileup.   Don’t berate me – congratulate me for preventing the totaling of your car!

Second, I’ve called in exactly twice and both times with Stef voice verifying.  How did you get from there to implying that she is sharing her Zipcar account?  Because someone else is in the car with her?  We’re not renting a mountain bike here; it probably shouldn’t shock them that more than one person may possibly be occupying the vehicle.

Third, even if you do think we’re sharing an account (we’re not) and you want to talk to her about it, don’t use an inbound customer service request to do it.  “Hey, we’re not going to help you…and by the way, we think you’re a crook!”  Classy, really classy.  If me calling is an actual problem, address it separately and in a sensitive way.

Are we cancelling Zipcar?  No, because why would we…we have memberships paid until next summer and I have some driving credit left from the Groupon deal.  But since we did just get our own car, we certainly will relegate them to emergency backup.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to find an exec at Zipcar to talk to about retraining their CSRs.  Their poor reputation for customer service has improved but clearly, they have a ways to go.

I was sitting down with the folks from The Puppet Kitchen the other day to talk about business best practices and it came up that they basically always feel like they’re at 100% capacity, yet don’t have any time for things like new business development or shop improvement.

Welcome to small business ownership.

But as I talked about with the puppeteers, there are things you can do to help with that problem (though I doubt they’ll cure it; frankly, always having something else to do tells you that you’re a growing business, so it isn’t a negative).  And top of the list is additive hour tracking.

The tendency for most folks is to try to make room for new things, rather than schedule their existing things and see what is left.  That shouldn’t really be that surprising if you’re ever seen the average American do budgeting: it is usually more about “finding more money to do X” then it is about “here is the money we have left to do X”.  In business, this often occurs between partners, who view themselves at 100% and then only schedule priorities from other parts of the business when absolutely necessary.  This can cause a lot of interpersonal strife, because it puts the requester in the position of having to justify why each request is more important than the other demands on a person’s time, which involves then going through everything someone has on their plate.

So additive hour tracking is a relatively simple concept.  Rather than starting with 100% effort and looking for nooks that can still be filled, start by assuming that you are doing nothing.  Then schedule things (in advance!) for what needs to be done.  For the puppeteers, that means both rigid things (like the classes they teach) and the flexible things (like bookkeeping and shop maintenance).

Once those are on the calendar, you can actually see the gaps where additional projects can be put and those can be scheduled (in advance!) by people who need help.  Want to make a pilot episode to pitch to a client?  Look at the calendar!  You know exactly how much effort your team can put into it, and can then prioritize it against a shorter project (like making a 5 minute improv short) or longer projects (writing a full length show).

The key point?  Say it with me now: “in advance”.  There is no way for a leader to lead if they don’t know what folks are actually doing and how much bandwidth they have left for new production orders.  Doubly important if you aren’t working regular hours where everyone is in the same room at the same time.
Also, if you’re in NYC, buy the Puppet Kitchen Google Offer.  Entirely worth it.  Love those guys.

I am one half of an unlikely “coincidence”.

Leslie Bradshaw runs JESS3, a rising star in digital agencies that specializes in graphical representations of complex ideas.  She’s recognized by many as an up-and-comer, does press and wins awards, and is generally a tech badass.  We also graduated Junction City High School in the same year and had most of our classes together.  And until about five years ago, we had never had a serious conversation about the internet.

Our graduating class was around 150 kids and JCHS is a typical school: good football team, average test scores, a few more people living under the poverty line than elsewhere, but your basic country high school, pulling kids from a 15 mile or so radius of forest and farmland. When I went there, the only computer class offered was a typing class.

This is important. I graduated from high school in the year 2000, when we still didn’t understand what the internet was going to be, and schools hadn’t yet caught up in terms of technology education. I recently saw a TED talk by a 12-year-old who started his own app development shop; he lives in the heartland of computer tech (CA) and attends a school that has teachers and students using iPads.

So how is it that two kids from a tiny rural high school in Oregon, with no real technology program and no family members in tech, end up running successful internet agencies and being quoted about the future of technology?

On the surface, Leslie and I have plenty of differences. The work we do isn’t terribly similar: she is mostly concerned with business, I’m mostly about product. JESS3 tends toward the creative demonstrations, Churnless tended towards the behavior change tools. Even our client list is very different: her brands and events, to our non-profits and products.

And there are the personal differences as well. Leslie is an attractive, stylish blonde who can get rough when she needs to but tends towards the “professional”; I mostly wear second-hand jeans and cowboy boots and am certainly less smooth in a meeting. She went to a university in a major city; I went to a small liberal arts college. She’s the older child of a pair of Californians; I’m the younger child of a pair of Oregonians. Leslie moved to the Junction City school district in sixth grade; I was there from first on.

There are plenty of similarities as well. At JCHS, Leslie and I were both involved in publications (yearbook for her, newspaper for me). We were both in student government, played on sports teams, and did any number of things that most high-achieving students do. While we never dated, it wouldn’t have been surprising if we had.

But there were plenty of other kids with the same interests; why are we different?  Why did we end up running internet companies and the rest of our class didn’t?

For one, I think both Leslie and I had distinctive parental pairs who were closely involved in our lives. We were encouraged more than pushed, allowed to behave as adults from a fairly young age, and both of us remain close with both parents and siblings. We have intensely practical fathers, and empathetic, socially-oriented mothers. Our siblings were both two years apart from us in school, and so we both had intensive period of differentiation as we tried to separate ourselves in a school often pushed siblings uncomfortably close together.

Our personalities are also similar. We’re both highly verbal; we enjoy talking our way through problems, rather than going off into a dark room to find a solution on our own. We both are opinionated in a distinctive way, convinced of our rightness not for ego (OK, maybe some ego) but because we think doing it “right” actually matters. We tend not to half-ass things. People either love or hate working with us. We are our own worst enemies (what worthier enemy is there?). We both pursued other careers (crisis communications for Leslie, academia for me) before coming to the web.

And we had parents who were risers. Leslie’s dad never went to college but started doing night shifts as a CAT driver at a ski resort and worked his way up through the ranks to be GM. My father started as a delivery boy for the company where is now territory manager and is also without a college degree. Our mothers both had vocational degrees (though mine has gone on to continue school after both my brother and I graduated college) and are in related compassionate care careers (social work, nursing).

Somewhere in all of these similarities and differences, the fact remains that two kids from a tiny school in the middle of nowhere have independently created successful internet companies. I tend to believe that it is mostly a coincidence, that the internet employs a great many intelligent young people today, and any small sample of internet folks will find some odd crossed paths. Certainly Leslie and I are the same “type” in many ways, but many of that type don’t go on to run internet companies; it is that particular draw of entrepreneurism that I still have trouble explaining.

Maybe there really is a government conspiracy, exposure to mutating agents, or something in the Oregon air to blame. It would certainly make for a better story, particularly if we both simultaneously gain the ability to fly.

(An appreciative nod to Leslie for giving this a read through to confirm the facts. And for being awesome.)

Generally speaking, I don’t consult.  Not that consulting is bad, persay; I have plenty of consultant friends and they haven’t spontaneously combusted yet, so I’m going to assume the gods are alright with it as an occupation.  But every time someone offers me a fat check to give them the answer to a question, I want to laugh.  Or hit them.  Or both.

Yes, I do want that check – money is nice and it does plenty of interesting things.  But most consultants are paid to parachute in with answers, instead of actually building solutions.  And though I’m not naturally a builder (I don’t particular revel in the feeling of creation), I do care about outcomes.  Which means that I either need to hand them off to a builder who understands why we’re building what we’re building or I need to build them myself.

Inevitably, consulting gigs feel to me something like the same repetitive story.  A client has a problem.  They invite me over to give a talk, or have lunch, or draw up some wireframes that solve that problem.  I give them the solution.  Twelve months later, I loop back and one of two things has happened:
1) They lost the political will because whoever was in charge of executing it didn’t actually own the process and it never got built.
2)  It got built, but whoever was in charge of the building missed out on the details because they weren’t involved in the ideation, and so it is bolted together wrong and now helps nobody.

These would potentially not be problematic outcomes, except that I don’t take gigs unless I actually care about the project itself.  Which means I want to fix the problem that the client presented.  Which means that finding out that they didn’t fix the problem, despite having the right solution handed to them, invokes that feeling you get just after you slam your head against a wall.  Do that enough times and you’ll stop trying to solve things, and I LIKE solving things.  I WANT to be motivated.

Things get done when people are responsible for them and care enough to make them cross the finish line (often dragging them kicking and screaming through the details, because that’s the only way things get done).  Rather than endlessly hiring consultants to opine, it seems vastly more worthwhile to hire builders or to empower your internal builders to work directly with outside ideation resources (who yes, may be consultants, but only of the long-term variety) until the project is actually launched at scale.