Underground Competition

Human nature is to compete. Especially among motivated and high-performing people competition is always “on”. Its tempting to value collaboration over competition, but I think that misses the point. One is a consequence and the other is a cause of being successful.

Brad-Pitt-Fight-club-WorkoutHuman’s compete. Compete for resources, dates, money, power, influence, and notoriety. Without an outlet for competition it doesn’t mean that the competition goes away, it means it goes underground. It becomes political and potentially insidious; cancerous even.

I’ve worked at both very large public companies and very small start-up companies. Good ones and bad ones on both sides. Reflecting back on my time at the bad ones, there was this forced collaboration and “lets all get along” corporate culture exercise that, now in retrospect, I think caused a lot of the problems that made the company bad to begin with. The bad companies simply forgot how to win. Then they pushed the remaining employee “winners” out to door with a culture that tamped down competition.

Competition is healthy, and it doesn’t have to be overt or “in-your-face”. It does have to be open and honest, with the goal of winning individually aligned to the team goal of winning as an organization. A great team to me is full of highly competitive people. Their collaboration and “gelling” as a team comes from a sense of winning.

We, the audience

audience (1)Being at a company that derives its primary economic model through advertising, you hear the word “audience” incessantly.  Audience targeting.  Audience data.  Audience reach. My audience. Their audience.  Our audience. Audience Audience Audience.

It turns out WE are the audience.  We buy the toothpaste.  We take the vacations.  We check out the new ‘whatever’ it is we want to buy.  We are the people that get marketed to.  And we are the people that the entire advertising industry is based upon.  Basically, to sell us something.

Only thing is, we are an tricky to capture bunch.  And its only getting  trickier.

It used to be that media (and our attention) was controlled by the distribution channel.  The media told us when we could consume news, or entertainment.  We had to dictate our schedules (and give our attention) to the media bosses.  Our attention could then be packaged, sold, and monetized through relatively straightforward advertising means.

That control is changing.  We, the audience, now get to say how, when, and where we consume information and entertainment.  We get to choose and we’re never giving that control back.  Ever.

Fragmentation of websites, mobile access, twitter streams, facebook updates, smartphones, tablets, satellite radio, DVRs, iPods, netflix, all are causing YOU the media company big problems, but not us the audience.  We love it.  We own our “eyeballs” and we’re calling the shots now.

What we want? 

  • We want authentic voices that know what they’re talking about. 
  • We want quality of content as much in its information quality as in its entertainment quality. 
  • We want creative ways of consuming.
  • We want it whenever we decide.
  • Oh, and we want it from people we trust.

We don’t mind advertising. Just the opposite, we actually like advertising.  It helps us find things.  Things that are meaningful and relevant – maybe even important – to us.  Except when its none of those things.  Then advertising just sucks.

I’m excited to work in the market I’m in.  Its almost like its not work, but more of an interesting opportunity to solve for.  I love being the audience.

Startup America comes to Boulder

A few days ago I drove over to the CU campus and participated in the Obama administration’s Startup America roadshow. To be honest, I didn’t come with very high expectations, but I did keep an open mind.

What I saw and heard confirmed (2) things. I’m a skeptical optimist; and the government isn’t wired to be a business partner to anyone.

funding-business-startup-1.3-800x800The event started with a big “panel”, except it really wasn’t a panel per-se, it was a lot of talking about what they each did and not much of it meant anything to me or my business. The final panelist to speak (a high-profile VC) led off with a pretty simple question: “raise your hand in the audience if you are either a startup entrepreneur or an investor in startups.” – 150 hands out of 150 went up. Next question: “Did you learn anything that would help your business over the past hour of listening to what the panel had to say?” – maybe 3 hands went up.

The point isn’t that the information wasn’t interesting; it just wasn’t useful or valuable to the majority of the audience.

I learned a lot later that afternoon in the breakout session. Mostly what I learned is that there are a lot of smart and passionate people that are building interesting companies that employ lots of people. What I also learned is that in every case, they’ve been successful in spite of regulatory or procedural headwinds.

It strikes me that the strong and resourceful always seem to figure it out. They put their shoulder into raising capital, finding good people, and navigating competitive markets. There were some real, tangible, and near-term ideas that came out which ought to make these start-up companies progress smoother or perhaps a bit easier and less burdensome… but my hunch is the strong entrepreneurs were going to succeed anyway.

I’m generally skeptical, but optimistic. I don’t believe the government should be your business partner – ever. Nor do I believe that you can hang your hat on reduced governmental burdens or breaks. Reducing barriers would be great, but I’m not feeling any real market pain that I can attribute to the US government.

I’m sure that the folks driving Startup America mean well and I applaud them for it. It’s not a job I’d want to have. I’d prefer to keep doing what I do and figure out how to build a great company, regardless of the obstacles that might exist. I’m pretty sure the folks in the audience are going to do the same.

Like the pig

Like the pig = committed.  At breakfast the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

happy-pigLots of people take on challenges.  Losing weight, running a marathon, climbing a rock, starting and building a profitable business.  It all seems to get easier once you get past the point of no return and you’re committed to being committed. 

Its fine to have moments of self-doubt and concern.  That’s a normal human emotion and it happens to everyone.  Imagine investing a ton of other people’s money into a company and then not being involved in the day to day execution, but being accountable for the results.  Or maybe you took on responsibility for an important job at the office, but you don’t have absolute control over all the variables.  In either case, the difference comes down to commitment and conviction. Do you believe? and are you 100% engaged in attaining success – no matter what.

Start with who is on the bus.  Even if its just you, and the who is just your internal thoughts and emotions.  Make sure you have the right who (you) on-board.

Machete-wielding entrepreneurs

Great things happen when you’re on a roll. Coming up with a smart idea usually kicks off more smart ideas; more smart ideas lead to innovations. Being confident in what you know and what your doing has a positive reinforcement in making you feel more confident, more creative, more in control, more effective and more resourceful. It builds on itself. Speed bumps don’t get you down as much. Obstacles get tackled quickly and resolved creatively. You’re in a great mood, and life is good.

264_machete3The opposite can also be true if you’re not careful – and it can really go off the rails by well-meaning, but misdirected people around you.

I wrote a post some time ago called “smart people can ratfuck you”. What I wrote in that post was the idea that smart people feel compelled to “help” and sometimes their “help” is in advice, opinion, direction, or counsel that to them feels justified, but in reality has the effect of squashing your momentum or pointing you in the wrong direction. Smart people also tend to be powerful and this power  can create a vacuum that tamps down the creativity and momentum that’s necessary to overcome the real obstacles you’re facing.

Building a company is fraught with peril. You’re in a constant state of new challenges, new hurdles, and new dynamics. These challenges are different at every phase of the company’s evolution. You have to be on your game in order to win.  Positive momentum has to be shaped and focused, but never squashed.  Its far too easy to point out the stuff that’s wrong and way harder to constructively focus the momentum.

Entrepreneurs succeed by being bushwhackers. Resourceful, creative, machete-wielding, fearless bushwhackers. Ready to charge the hill without hesitation. Anything that constrains that drive, enthusiasm, and behavior detracts from the likelihood of success.

Fun start to the season

Couple weeks ago I rode in my first road cycling race.  I’ve raced mountain bikes and cyclocross for a number of years and it turns out road riding is just as hard + you have to pay mental attention the entire time.  People tell me the Mead Roubaix wasn’t really a road race; I guess because it has 33% dirt roads to break up the pavement stretches.  Seemed like a road race to me… 

I raced in the first wave.  2 laps of about 20 miles each for about 2 hours total.  The start line had 70+ riders in my group and the whole first lap was nervous and sketchy.  The shots below are from 303cycling in the Cat-3 race later that day. It shows what carnage can happen at 30mph on dirt roads when you’re riding in a pack!  I heard a couple of bikes got destroyed and a few riders were pretty banged-up.

mead crash

mead roubaix_2011

I made it through the first lap unscathed, although I did miss the break and learned a valuable lesson about being attentive to the mood of the group.  Next time I plan not to be caught off guard when the leading riders decide to hit the gas…

This is me coming through the start/finish.  You can tell I’m riding my old stand-by 7-cycles.  Nothing like titanium to smooth out the nasty dirt and washboard sections of the course.

 

 

Last week I checked out the Strava app for my iPhone.  It has to be one of the coolest apps I’ve used recently and its free.  Below are a couple of screen shots I pulled off my phone after I got back from a loop up and around Carter lake.

strava_1 strava_2 strava 3

Very fun start to the season here in Colorado.  Next tune-up event I have coming is the Front Range 60.  Which used to be the Front Range 50, but I guess they wanted to make the 5-lap race a 6-lap race.  Longer and more boring than before!  Regardless, it’s a great kickoff to my mountain bike riding for the year.

Pedal like hell

I like mountain biking analogies.  Like business there are different styles, types, and terrain.  Some people ride singlespeeds, some free-ride, and some ride on bike paths (dirt or no dirt).

I was forwarded recently an excellent article written by Ben Horowitz.  Ben and I've never met, but his candor and insights/opinions are awesomely raw and straight to the point.  Agree with him or not, it doesn't really matter.  You still come away with an interesting opinion and point of view worth considering.

In one of Ben's recent posts, he used the analogy similar to one I often think about – although mine comes from mountain biking.

IMG_0596

Anyone that's ever really ridden or raced off-road knows not to stare or fixate on an obstacle.  If you do, inevitably you'll run square into it.  Weird, but true.  The more you focus on the danger, the more likley it is you steer towards it.  Instead: look down the trail.  See the path you want to take.  Acknowledge the rock, root, or rut, but don't focus on it.  Focus on where you want to go and pedal like hell.

Color blind

color app shotMaybe that’s a little too cliché a title… whatever.

I downloaded Color for my iPhone this morning.  At first I didn’t “get it”.  Snap photos, first of myself, then of random things and people. If you’re the only one on Color it worse than sucks – it doesn’t actually make any sense.

After walking around the office for a few minutes, snapping more photos and announcing that I was on “color” a few others downloaded the app and started taking pictures.  BAM!  Its obvious now.  The automagical sharing, seeing, and participating begins.

Then the creepiness factor set in. 

You have little control over what connections are made, shared, and participated on.  Anyone can get the app; anyone can post photos – likely of anything; and you can interact or just lurk.

I put the app away and started the real work of the day.

At lunch I walked down Pearl St. Mall here in Boulder.  Nice, sunny and decently warm day.  Waiting in line at Salvaggios Deli I opened up Color again and immediately started seeing pictures that other Color users nearby were taking, posting, and sharing.  Oliver, Jim, Nicole – none of whom I know, or saw for that matter.  But there their photos were, for me and everyone else on Color to check out.

As I walked back to the office, it sort of struck me that no way would such a group of smart VCs and seasoned entrepreneurs create just a creepy, stalker-esque photo sharing app.  There was more too it.  They raised a pile of cash ($41M) in first round capital.  What occurred to me is that the app is really just a test, or a lure.  A hook to get people on the system – a data collection, mining, and segmentation system.

 ReadWriteWeb article:

When you take a picture or video, Color gathers a variety of information. It collects sound levels, Bluetooth readings, light readings, antenna strength, the time – even the direction you’re pointing your phone – and more and uses it all to determine your proximity to other users.

…. Color offers a way to determine location and proximity in such a non-battery draining, accurate manner that an impromptu and "elastic" social graph can be created from the data, without once ever having to purposefully check in.

In essence the app is an advanced data collection mechanism.  Beyond the app, the company seems to be driving at the notion of movement (socially, physically, and spatially) of people.  That’s pretty cool.  Still a bit creepy, but really freekin’ cool.  I’m not sure I’m completely OK with the idea of having a Orwellian tracking monitor voluntarily placed in my pocket by me.  But I do like the idea that Color is driving at and I think this may in fact lead to some really interesting innovations down the road.

Fighting above your weight class

What a great metaphor. 

I’ve been recently inspired by a couple of articles on similar subjects.  The first is the ever-entertaining Ben Horowitz in a recent column he wrote for Fortune.  The second a syndicated article in Techcrunch by Mark Suster.

scrawny

They got me to thinking about what it means to fight above your weight class.  I thought of a few examples of people, companies, and technology that have done this successfully.  It seems to me that if you want to succeed in building a new, innovative, and disruptive company you absolutely have to think, act and hire above your weight class.

1. Flipboard.

Start a new magazine.  Make it personalized.  Take complete advantage of the tablet interface.  Embrace curation like nobody’s business.  Leverage social sharing behavior.  Come out of nowhere and throw a freekin’ hay-maker.  Those guys shook up the world.

Ok maybe that’s a little over the top.. but the fact remains that from where I sit the folks at Flipboard took on the traditional publishing guys and won round 1 hands down.  Even the “fast” followers like The Daily s-u-c-k in comparison.  Great example of coming out and fighting above your weight class.

2. Linux.

Big iron, data-centers, enterprise systems all got kicked in the teeth by open source software.  A virtual army of developers in their basements, home offices, and on their lunch breaks built and the foundation stitched together a series of never-ending improvements to make computing faster, cheaper, and better.  From mainframes to departmental systems there is nowhere to hide if you’re AIX, HPUX, Solaris, Z-OS, or even Windows. 

Caveat: I’m not going there for typical desktop computing ‘cause I think that is still all about the UI and engineers are notoriously bad at the presentation layer.  That’s why we love Steve Jobs and the magic he develops.

3. Travis the Intern.

He’s a guy that is unencumbered by preconceived notions about how things work, and instead thinks about how things should work.  An undergrad with no prior experience in ad-tech, online publishing, or really anything we do here at Lijit.  Travis came to us from CU and immediately made an obvious and measurable impact mostly by not overthinking things and being smart about doing things.  I have mixed emotions because Travis was recently recruited away from Lijit to work in Zuckerland.  I’m sure he’ll kickass at Facebook just as he’s done by fighting above his weight class at Lijit.

Being in the “Happy” Business

 A few years ago Black & Decker was trying to market their drills. They hired an advertising agency to help them with their positioning. The agency team began working to understand what Black & Decker's target market was (home users) and what made the drill unique (lightweight, powerful, fast drill-bit speed, etc.).

Once the team at the agency heard the client's spiel, they went away.. thought about it.. and then came back with an idea. The idea was that people don't want to buy a drill, they want a hole. And they don't really want just a hole, they want to hang a picture. And they don't really want to just hang any picture, they want to hang a picture that makes them feel better by improving the room. What people really want is to be happy. Ergo: Black & Decker is in the "Happy" business. Clearly this has implications on how the company's drill should be marketed; it has implications on creative; on mediums; etc.

 

Aren't all companies in the "Happy" business?

BMW doesn't just sell affluent people a car – they sell you the "Ultimate Driving Machine".

Apple doesn't just sell you an iPhone – they sell you something that transcends technology and makes your life better "say you're out on the town and want to meet your friends for dinner… there's an app for that"

We bought a big ass Toyota Truck not because my wife wanted a vehicle to tow her horses, but because riding her horse makes her happy and the truck is simply a means to make that happen.

I spend a bunch of time thinking about our customers. In our case we have (2) customers: publishers of niche, professional, and interesting websites; and advertisers that want to reach the engaged audiences these websites attract. The trick we figured out is that behind all the websites and all the marketers are real people that want to be happy. They each have their own unique and important motivations: things they want to accomplish their job, desire to earn a good living and make a difference in what they're doing – to the extent we can help them be happy, then we're doing our job and they're more than happy (pun intended) to keep on working with us to make that happen.