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November 2005

A Few Notes on Work, Play and Suffering

I've encountered a number of interesting and inspiring thoughts about work and play and suffering in the past 24 hours.  As much as I am tempted to explore some of these further, I want even more to get to work [on other things] right now.  I'm simply going to post the links here, with a few notes, so that I (or perhaps others) can come back to these at some future time.

BoingBoing posted a link to "Thought Virus #4: Follow the Fun", an excerpt from Douglas Rushkoff's forthcoming book, "Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out":

In a renaissance society driven by the need to forge connections, play is the ultimate system for social currency. It's a way to try on new roles without committing to them for life. It's a way to test strategies of engagement without being defined by them forever. It’s a way to rise above the seemingly high stakes of almost any situation and see it as the game it probably is. It’s a way to make one’s enterprise a form of social currency from the beginning, and to guarantee a collaborative, playful, and altogether more productive path toward continual innovation.

And this play begins at work.

... producers in a renaissance era must come to think of their companies as collaborative minisocieties, whose underlying work ethic will ultimately be expressed in the culture they create for the world at large.

Many have argued that it’s immature and idealistic to believe that everyone,or even a majority of people,should be allowed to enjoy their jobs. In the words of one dark New York TimesOpEd piece, "We're still just means of production....Work is often more bearable when we don’t, in addition to money, expect it always to deliver happiness." The same might be said for life itself, particularly when our duty to perform an economic function extends from what we can produce to what we can consume. Both work and life should be much more than "bearable."

Luckily, renaissances celebrate immaturity and idealism.

This inspiring notion of playful work contrasts with a provocative segment I recently listened to from an audiobook version of Viktor Frankl's classic "Man's Search for Meaning":

An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.  But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.  A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him.  But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful.  If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.  Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death … Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

Kathy Sierra, as usual, has many gems in her recent post about "When bosses (or clients) go bad"; I'll include just one excerpt below, that focuses on work, play and suffering:

... the difference between being expected to put in the long hours and being worshipped for doing it cannot be overstated. If we want to make happy users, we have to be happy. Our employers/managers/clients need to accept that, and act accordingly. If you're making us work late all the time because of lousy management, that's inexcusable. If you're making us work late because you're greedy and just want as much business as you can (im)possibly handle, that's inexcusable. But if you need us to work late because things happened that nobody predicted, or because this demo means something drastically important to the company, for which we will also be rewarded... then sure, we'll be willing to pitch in. But spend the extra few bucks to treat us as well as your clients. You should be wining and dining us, not them, when you're asking so much from us.

Finally (for now), I followed Stowe Boyd's link to Evan Williams' Ten Rules for Web Startups (highly recommended in its own right, including some variations on the ten steps that Glenn Kelman recently shared at EU 2005 ... but I digress ...), which included a link to Merlin Mann's summary of David Allen's book "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" in his 43folders blog.  The part about honoring one's time and energy strikes a deep chord within me:

This is a really summarized version, but here it is, PowerPoint-style:

  1. identify all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place (close all open loops)
  2. get rid of the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now
  3. create a right place that you trust and that supports your working style and values
  4. put your stuff in the right place, consistently
  5. do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment
  6. iterate and refactor mercilessly

[BoingBoing just posted a link to a recent study on the value of selectivity.]

OK, enough blogging for now; time to devote some energy to getting [other] things done...


Third International Conference on Communities and Technologies

A rather early announcement on the conference website:

In an increasingly networked world, the concept of community has taken on new meanings and inspired the development of a wide range of technologies aimed at forging connections, improving communication, and enabling coordination among groups of people. Today, such terms as virtual community, blogging, podcasting, and smart mobs have become commonplace, yet each represents a complex system of hardware, software, and people, shaped by perceptions, norms, rules, and habits, and occurring within varied social and cultural settings.

The Communities and Technologies biennial international conference serves as a forum for stimulating and disseminating research on the complex connections between communities - both physical and virtual - and information and communication technologies. Researchers studying aspects of this interaction between communities and technologies, regardless of disciplinary background, are invited to submit original contributions to the Third International Conference on Communities and Technologies.

More details regarding the submission of papers can be found in the call for papers.

To be held June 28-30, 2007, at Michigan State University.


CineVend: An Innovation for Enabling Impulse Buying

Greg Kriegler, president of CineVend (mantra: "Take the experience home"), gave an impressive 5-Minute Forum presentation yesterday at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network Venture Breakfast.  He gave such a concise description of his business, I'll simply quote it here:

Cinevend develops, owns, operates and sells innovative vending machines with a focus on media vending.

The company's vending machines sell or rent DVDs or CDs, and their vending machine designs are pretty cool (the CinePod 4, which they brought to the breakfast, is shown below).

Cinepod4

What I find most compelling about their business model, though, is that they are situating these machines in places where they can maximize impulse buying opportunities, e.g., offering movie soundtrack CDs at a movie theater, offering exiting theatergoers the opportunity to take the soundtrack home with them.

The presentation was made all the more impressive by what I learned during a discussion with Greg, and his business partner, Phil, after the meeting.  Greg said he had never given a presentation before (correction: he had never given a presentation to an audience that large before [see Greg's comment]);  I believe this was one of the best presentations -- if not the best -- I've seen in the 5-Minute Forum (which routinely has great speakers).  Even more impressive is their gumption: they are young (20s), relatively inexperienced, but full of passion and the drive to make things happen.  Greg was clear about what CineVend needs: find hosts and partners, and develop a management team.  I think they are on to something big here, and I suspect they will have no trouble in attracting all of the above.


180solutions: Working on a 180 Degree Public Relations Turn

I was eager to hear what the founders of 180solutions had to say at this morning's Northwest Entrepreneur Network Venture Breakfast.  I haven't closely followed the controversy surrounding the company, with respect to their software being associated with botnets, worms and other elements of the "dark side" of the net.  Some have raised issues about the integrity of the company, while others have given them high ratings as a business and a great place to work.

Keith Smith, one of the co-founders of 180solutions, presented a picture that differed significantly from some of the negative press accounts, focusing on five aspects of the company.  He started off with the history of the company, a real rollercoaster of highs and lows (including two complete layoffs and one nearly complete layoff), noting that they succeeded in raising $40M soon after achieving profitability ... when they least needed the money (which he said, in hindsight, was exactly the right time to seek funding).

Keith said the goal of 180solutions was to create a new content economy, becoming the "NBC of the Internet", by offering free content in return for users agreeing to view occasional advertisements served up by a client-side application, Zango, that must be downloaded and installed on the user's computer.  He contrasted this with Google AdSense, which serves up advertisements in a browser, but claimed that this only supports commercially-relevant content.  180solutions wanted to create a new model for sponsoring non-commercially relevant content (e.g., interactive games) ... without interrupting the consumption of that content.  So they came up with what he described as a time-shifting model, wherein content creators (e.g., game developers) make their content available through a publisher who contracts with advertisers to show their promotional content to consumers while they are engaged in commercially relevant activities, e.g., using Internet search sites to find travel information. 

Interestingly, Keith said that their average consumer is served up at most one advertisement per day, and even heavy users typically see no more than two or three advertisements per day.  Furthermore, in the Q&A session, Dan Todd, 180solutions' other co-founder, claimed that their software does not maintain profiles of their consumers (email addresses, IP addresses or URLs visited), but simply looks for individual URLs containing search queries, and serves up an advertisement based solely on that individual query (advertisers buy keywords, just as in AdSense).

Problems arose (or worsened -- contextual advertising has always had its opponents) when botnets and worms started installing Zango on computers without proper (or any) notice and consent.  Unsuspecting users would be searching on the web and be unpleasantly surprised when Zango would pop-up an advertisement, or their spyware removal tools would discover the 180solutions application and delete it ... only to have it mysteriously re-installed again.  One aspect of the controversy surrounding 180solutions is whether it was complicit in this use of its software.  Some have claimed they turned a blind eye to this type of activity. 

Keith made some compelling arguments for how and why this abuse was harmful to 180solutions. Given that their software is now labeled spyware by many spyware removal tools, they estimate that approximately 65M of their legitimate users have unintentionally uninstalled their software (the irony of which was not lost on me), resulting in a loss of $7.5M in customer [re]acquisition costs, and an additional $40M in estimated lost revenue so far this year.  Keith also said that the company was slow to recognize and react to these problems ... and it's not clear whether their perspective changed.

He outlined a 5-prong approach they have taken to address the problems created by what he referred to as "inappropriate installs" of their software, focusing on technology, enforcement, education, standards and public relations.  One of the most ambitious undertakings was to completely dismantle their distribution network, cutting out the aggregator intermediaries, and rebuilding an entirely new network in which they created direct relationships with the content publishers ... enabling them to impose sanctions for any future abuses.

Toward the end, Keith shared some key factors in the success of 180solutions: their corporate "culture of metrics on a foundation of ethics", emphasizing innovation, a focus on the consumer and empowering employees, reflecting some of the wisdom that others (such as Scott Svenson, Glenn Kelman and Sunny Kobe Cook) shared at NWEN's Entrepreneur University last week.

During the Q&A period, it was clear that some members of the audience were still suspicious of 180solutions actions (and motives).  I admit that I found Keith's arguments compelling: it's hard to imagine that many victims of "inappropriate installs" would respond to unwanted advertisements by actually clicking through and making purchases -- especially in sufficient numbers to compensate for the costs Keith enumerated.  However, there are other controversies swirling around 180solutions (e.g., stealware), that were not addressed at today's meeting, and so I, too, have lingering doubts about some of their reported practices (I wish I'd done more research ahead of time).  I welcome further enlightenment from anyone willing to share their insights and understanding about the controversies.

[Aside: I want to thank Gayle' Morrison for the rather clever phrasing she offered about 180solutions navigating a 180 degree turn.  Also, the 5-Minute Forum presentation by CineVend was so fabulous -- and this post has gotten so long -- that I'm going to post a separate entry on that.]


Clean Bills of Health

Thanks to the gentle prodding by my cousin, Tricia, I realize I've been remiss in posting updates on Amy's health condition.  This is actually a good sign ("no news is good news") -- I was posting most frequently when her condition was worse, and have been tapering off as her health continues to improve.

We have had four doctor's visits in the past week or so, and all have been positive (er, that is, they have had only negative results to any tests for the continued presence of her anal cancer -- although none of the tests have been very extensive or conclusive).  We met with a naturopathic physician a week ago Friday, who is optimistic that the cancer is in remission, but who plans more extensive tests to chart out a holistic treatment plan to help boost Amy's energy level, immune system ... and life perspective.  She also predicted that Amy's menopausal symptoms (e.g., hot flashes) will diminish witin the next month, and encouraged Amy to think more deeply about what she wants to do with her life [now].

We met with Amy's chemical and radiation oncologists on Tuesday, who are also very optimistic about the cancer being in remission.  The development of some breast lumps over the preceding weekend had us all a bit concerned, but a mammogram and sonogram on Wednesday revealed that there was nothing to worry about there.  She also met with her colorectal surgeon yesterday, who confirmed that the fistula was healed, the tissue surrounding the surgery site(s) was looking and feeling very good, and she can have the "port-a-cath" removed.

She will have a biopsy in January, which will test whether there are other sites of carcinoma in the vicinity of the original site of detection (and resection), and my understanding is that if none is found, the probability of remission will be reset to 95% (it's currently somewhere between 90-95%).  If no sign of cancer is found for the following two years, it goes up to 98%; and if none is found in 5 years, the probability rises to nearly 100%.  If anyone wants to know more details, there is a flowchart on page 6 of the Anal Carcinoma treatment guidelines published by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network that summarizes the tests, possible results and recommended responses that we will prepare for during the next several years.

Some symptoms from the treatment continue to linger, though most at diminished levels; during one of the oncology followup visits last week, Amy reported her general energy level was at about 50% of "normal" (which is "normal" for this stage, post-treatment).  She continues to experiment with departures from the restricted fiber diet, and still looks forward to enjoying fresh fruit again.  As I've noted before, I am deliberately avoiding the setting of any expectations, and will continue to enjoy the signs of improvement whenever, and for however long, they appear, and accept the periodic setbacks when they appear.

I will probably continue the trend of posting less frequently [about Amy's condition], unless unusual situations arise.  We have another naturopathic physician appointment sheduled for early December, so I may post an update then.  Meanwhile, we remain grateful for all the expressions of care and concern that people have shared with us!


NWEN Entrepreneur University 2005: Passion, Endurance and Speed

Last year, Entrepreneur University 2004 provided my first glimpse into the world of entrepreneuria.  I wasn't sure I was going to attend again this year, since I know so much more about that world now [I note, somewhat sarcastically].  But I'm glad I went to EU 2005, as I learned many new things, relearned some old things (from my new, slightly more experienced perspective), and, as at every NWEN event, connected with some wonderful, interesting and helpful people.  The recurring themes that I noticed most often throughout the presentations and discussions was passion, endurance and speed.

Dan Brettler, founder and CEO of Car Toys (and, I discovered in Googling around, Chairman of the United Way "Out of the Rain" initiative to end homelessness), gave an opening keynote presentation on "As the Customer Turns", emphasizing the importance of being able to adapt to changes along four dimensions (which he called "the four C's"): climate, customer, competition and company, and highlighted the endurance of Car Toys as it adapted to each of these factors throughout its various stages of growth since 1987.  Dan also talked about Car Toys' aggressive marketing ("advertising by torture") and their success in ensuring that members of their target demographic group (young to middle-aged males) hear /see one of their commercials 4 times per week.  [I suspect I may have been one of the only members of the audience to not have ever heard the Car Toys jingle ... in fact, I didnt even know they had one.]

Scott Svenson, Managing Partner of The Sienna Group, gave what I found to be the most personally inspiring presentation.  Scott talked about the passion he and his wife had for good coffee and the cafe experience in Seattle, and how much they missed that when they moved to UK.  Despite having no experience in retail or the coffee trade, they decided to form Seattle Coffee Company and open up a cafe in London.  Everyone told them it would never work, and yet they grew from 1 to 65 stores in three years, and eventually sold the business to Starbucks.  Scott offered 5 recommendations for building a successful company:

  1. Build a business like you never plan to sell it.  This is in stark contrast to the focus on "exit strategies" I often hear and read about so often from most other businessfolk (e.g., The New Road to Riches), and much more congruent with my own view of entrepreneurship as akin to parenthood (it's our baby).  Interestingly, Scott's curent passion is helping build and grow emerging companies, and when The Sienna Group considers buying emerging companies, he is not interested in any companies that are looking for buyers, only those that the owners don't want to sell ... reminding me of the notion (myth?) that married people are more attractive to people seeking new relationships.
  2. Bring as much passion and commitment as you can.  Scott and Ally didn't start Seattle Coffee Company to make money, they started it to pursue their passion, and from the outset, they determined that failure is not an option.  He noted that passion and commitment is contagious and aligning for the team.
  3. Define a clear and inspiring purpose.  It's important for the whole team to feel they are part of something special, something bigger than themselves, that transcends any economic considerations.  For Seattle Coffee Company, their goal was to change the way people socialized (offering new places, cafe's) and to help people enjoy life's journey.
  4. It's all about the people.  Scott referred to Jim Collins, and his book "Good to Great", emphasizing that it is important to get the right people on the bus -- and get the wrong people off the bus -- early on, and highlighted Jack Welsh's claim that his biggest mistakes were all people mistakes, and usually having to do with a lack of speed (in promoting or firing employees).
  5. Cash is king.  [So, I guess it's not all about the people.]  Because Scott looks at companies as long term investments, he doesn't calculate valuations based on how much he thinks he can sell a company for (and when); he looks at the company's cash flow, for valuation and, ultimately, decisions on whether to buy.

In the Q&A period after his presentation, Scott talked about how he and his wife brought complementary skills and perspectives to the business (reminding me of Tom Eckmann's observation at an earlier NWEN event that "the biggest challenge faced by an entrepreneur is convincing your spouse that it's a good idea").  He also noted that one of their greatest strengths was what they didn't know (e.g., they didn't realize that opening 8 stores in 12 days was something that not even Starbucks would have attempted) ... and I found myself wondering whether NWEN and other organizations are [therefore] helping or hindering aspiring entrepreneurs ...

Glenn Kelman, Co-founder of Plumtree Software and currently leading operations at Redfin, presented a primer on "Building a Company in Ten Easy Steps"  -- he had the best slides, and most [contagiously] enthusiastic delivery, of all the presentations I saw at EU (if I can get a copy, and his permission, I'll post the slides online [Update: I've received Glenn's permission to post the slides here]). There were many gems in what Glenn shared; I'll just summarize a few of the highlights:

  • aim high (it's easier to recruit others with a big vision),
  • start early (there will always be more things to figure out)
  • recruit smart and passionate people (passion being more important than brains)
  • work hard and fast ("speed kills")
  • keep it simple
  • focus on the customer (don't worry about the competition)
  • be open and honest and respectful (shoot straight down the middle)
  • share the wealth (more satisfying than hording it)
  • get plenty of sleep

Mike O'Donnell, President of StartUpBiz.com, presented some of the most controversial and perhaps contrarian views of the day on "building an external team".  While nearly everyone else I heard was emphasizing the strategic value of recruiting passionate and committed employees, Mike emphasized the risks of what he calls a "W2 culture" (echoing some issues I've heard discussed regarding an "entitlement society") and made a case for using contractors wherever possible: "don't hire people, hire solutions."  Mike argued that contractors can be just as passionate and committed as W2 employees ... and if/when that passion or commitment fades, it is much easier to terminate their relationship with the company.  I admire the way that Mike has been so successful in applying this to his businesses (e.g., iCopyright), and yet I have reservations about the commitment issue, which I see as a two-way street.  It was good to have the opportunity to consider alternative perspectives, and Mike certainly provided food for thought (and, fittingly, right before lunch).

After lunch, Sunny Kobe Cook, founder of Sleep Country, USA, (another company with a well-known jingle that I also have never heard) gave a keynote in which she emphasized the importance of recognizing that every employee is a paid spokesperson for your company.  She referred to a recent Gallup poll that revealed a majority of employees being "disengaged" as a result of not receiving sufficient recognition, opportunities to make significant contributions, and/or not having a sense of belonging in their workplaces.  A story about an assistant driver for Sleep Country, USA, who described himself as "Sunny's Goodwill Ambassador" provided an example of how she had created a culture of engagement in the company she founded.

Michael Pickett, CEO of Onvia.com, and John Holt, President and CEO of Cobalt Group, gave a joint, closing keynote presentation, on their experiences in endurance, steering their companies through hard times, and rising to meet the challenges.  Interestingly, though hardly surprisingly, when each was asked whether, given all they've been through, they both responded affirmatively (and enthusiastically).  John said that entrepreneurship has taught him more about himself than anything he has ever done.  This enhanced (and sometimes painful) self-knowledge is one of the benefits I derive from parenthood ... and, I suppose, shows yet another dimension in which growing a company, and guiding it through challenging times, is closely aligned to nurturing the development of a child.  Fortunately, the mortality rate for children is nowhere near as high as for new companies.