October 11, 2011

Our little pumpkins

Each year, like most American families, we carve pumpkins in the month of October. In order to be a better steward, I started a compost pile about a year ago. That being said, I dumped the pumpkins into the compost after the holiday.

This summer, I noticed some interesting vines start to emerge from the compost pile. I then realized that they were in fact pumpkins!

Keep in mind, I didn't actively plant these pumpkin seeds. In fact, I thought I was through with the pumpkins. However, life finds a way. Even when through what we discard, life persists.

I found this interesting.

Just because a dream may appear to have died, it may sprout to life again at some point. Sometimes, it just takes us stepping back for a moment and letting the natural progression of things take root.

September 27, 2011

Solving your own problem

Looking for ways to alleviate the problems and pressure in your own life is critical to developing remarkable products. It helps you to understand the real problems that people are faced with, because you have lived them too. Not only does it help you to understand the problems, it helps you to see opportunities that you would not have seen otherwise.

For instance, my friend Shawn at Torqued Racing plans and coordinates track day events where everyday people can come together and get a little bit of frustration out on the track. (They have an event coming up October 2, 2011 at BeaveRUN if you're interested in driving really fast and experiencing the thrill of racing!)

One of the challenges that Shawn experienced with his track days was checking in all of the drivers. Prior to the event, he needed to print all of the registrations so he could check in all of the drivers at the gate. Needless to say, it's an extra step that gets in the way of him being able to do what he loves, which is hitting the track and having a good time with fellow driving enthusiasts.

Rather than complaining that there wasn't an easier way to manage this process, Shawn decided that he would solve his problem on his own by building a mobile solution that allows him to check drivers in at the event. And, because he knew the problem that he was trying to solve, he built the application so it would still work in areas with limited to no internet access.

It is better to solve the problem that you have, and then share your solution with others, instead of looking at the problems that others are experiencing and then trying to figure out how to solve them. By addressing the area where you are experiencing the most pain, you end up creating products that are remarkable. And even if no one else uses your product or solution, at least the problem that you had is taken care of.

Doing work this way helps you to better understand the problem, builds common ground between you and your customers, and provides you the opportunity to test the solution, adjust, and retest.

Ultimately, this makes you products better, which of course, makes your customers more happy.

September 20, 2011

This is broken

In a humorous talk by Seth Godin at the Gel Conference in 2006, he pointed out there are things that are just plain broken and explained what makes things broken.

Some of the biggest takeaways I got from his talk include the following:

  • You don't get to decide if something is broken, the people who use it do.
  • You need to decide ahead of time how much brokenness you are willing to tolerate before you get to the ship date. Keep in mind, you don't really get to decide if it's broken or not, your customers do. It's probably best to get it in front of them to let them decide, unless it is clearly broken and simply needs to be fixed.
  • There might be times when stuff is broken by design. The masses may not understand why you have a giant green button on a screen with 30 point font, but the tribe you are leading might understand completely. To 80% of the population, your application looks broken but the other 20% love what you have done. You have tailored it to them because you understand them. It's all about knowing your customer.
  • Each of us has the opportunity every day to push back on the stuff we think is broken. If we see something that isn't quite right, we should question it. We should ask if there is a way to fix it. Maybe we even need to fix it. And if we can't really fix the root problem, we can at least create a better experience for our customers by providing them an alternate path and making it easier for them.
  • Finally, if you know something is broken, fix it, or else you risk losing your customers. This doesn't necessarily mean you need to drop everything right this second to fix what is broken. It simply means you take responsibility for it being broken, acknowledge what is broken, and let your customer know you will fix it. As a side note, you should keep the dialog with your customer open to make sure they know you haven't forgotten about them, and provide a few alternate ways they might be able to move forward until the issue is resolved. Don't underestimate the importance of communication. 
Here's the video. Enjoy!

September 13, 2011

Building the band

When musicians build a band, how do they find great talent? How do they find a group of people who resonate with the work they do? How do they find others who also share in their love for great music?

Probably by hanging out with other musicians and listening to a lot of great music. And truth be told, probably listening to a lot of crappy music as well.

Sure, there may be some bands that have been formed because some friends were hanging out and decided to bang on some drums and pick up some guitars, but I have a feeling most of the best bands have been formed by talented people coming together to achieve a common mission.

Of course, the mission may not always be a noble one. It might be just coming together to become big time rock stars. Regardless, they are coming together to push through as a team, doing the hard work necessary to achieve a common objective.

Finding the right people to join your team and to help you achieve the mission is hard work.

Here are some fundamentally important tips for building a great band:
  1. Know what it is you want to achieve and communicate the message clearly. In other words, know your mission. This is critically important.
  2. Hang out where others who share your passion hang out.
  3. Find others who inherently want to achieve the same objective as you. Achieving the mission is less difficult if you are able to find people who want to achieve the same objectives, while it is more difficult if you have to spend a lot of time convincing people who don't share your mission that it is one worth pursuing.
  4. Find others who are willing to work as hard as you to see this thing through. This might mean staying up all night to practice your art together (even when the neighbors call the police), and then getting up early to hit the pavement to reach the world.
  5. Find people who will help you to be the best you that you can be. When you feel like sleeping, they will push you through. When you feel like giving up in the last 20%, they will lift you up and carry you across the line. Of course, you need to be there to push them too. It works both ways.
  6. Find people who fill in the gaps. Each of us have unique gifts, talents, and strengths, so it is best to play to your strengths, manage to your weaknesses, and allow others to do the same. 
  7. Find teachers. These people will inspire others to want to learn to play better and to become better professionals. The best part is they teach for the love of the art, and because they love seeing other people grow. They realize they have been given a gift, and understand it is not theirs to horde away like a miser, but instead, something to be shared with the world.
  8. Find real learners. No one has all of the answers, and to become a true artist, you need to listen, watch, and learn from others. It should be noted, a lot of learning comes from practicing your art. A real musician knows she or he is responsible for developing their own sound, and because of this, practices even when the band is not formally practicing together. 
If you have a mission you need to accomplish, consider building a band. Going it alone is hard work, and it is more fun to have a group of friends who share in your mission and are willing to put in the hard work to make it happen.

September 06, 2011

Outside of the box

There is a lot of discussion in the world today about getting outside of the box. About thinking a different way, seeing things from a different perspective, and understanding a broader picture. Truly some of the greatest solutions to your most difficult and challenging problems are discovered when you look outside of the box.

However, once you have spent some time discovering the world outside of your box, it is equally important to remember to get back into the box. It is when you return to the box that you are really able to create a great solution to your problem.

Going outside of the box to get ideas and inspiration from others, to learn from their failures and successes, and to see things as they see them is a great practice to get into. There is so much wonderful beauty and creativity and inspiration to be found outside of the box. Brilliant minds, crazy ideas that have been discounted, failed attempts to revolutionize an industry or even the world. All of this is found outside of the box.

Yet, if all you do is hang around outside the box learning and discovering but never creating, you are missing the point of the exercise completely. And worse, if you stay outside the box and attempt to create, not including a piece of yourself in the algorithm, you aren't really doing anything new or remarkable at all. You are merely copying what you found.

The real value that you hope to achieve by climbing outside of the box is gained from soaking up all of the experiences, ideas, and influences found at the edges of the world outside of the box. The best ideas, and the worst ideas. The most creative and the most common. The safest and the riskiest. Once the gathering is complete though, it is time to return to the box. Your box.

Getting back into your box allows you take the experiences and observations that you encounter while outside of the box and mash them up with your own personal insights and ideas and experiences. Your own vision and mission. Your own pain and failures. Getting back into the box, allows you to create something that no one else in this world can, because no one else is like you.

Getting back into the box is necessary to produce the art that you are responsible for creating. The art and work that we are desperately waiting for.

Don't stop looking for inspiration, but likewise, don't stop creating from your own perspective. Your voice is needed in the conversation, so bring it.

August 30, 2011

For the love of what game?

I was talking with a friend a while ago about a funeral he recently attended. He was struck by how much the family and friends of the deceased commented on the man's love for the game of golf. At the funeral, his clubs surrounded him, his favorite golf visor was placed in his casket to be with him for eternity, and all of the conversations in the room were centered around golf.

He wasn't a professional golfer, just a regular guy who had a passion for the game. He lived and breathed golf. This is what his entire life story had become. The pursuit of the game of golf.

My friend made the observation that each of us must ask ourselves and those around us who we most love and care about what our own life story is all about. What would be the summary of our story? What would be the plot and central theme? Would it be a comedy, a tragedy, or simply boring? What stories would be shared?

If we are okay with the answers we hear, then we push forward and keep living life as we are. However, if the answer to the question is not one we are proud of, we should start making changes today to write the story of our life we want people to remember.

This is not about changing the perception of what we do. We can't fake it. In the end, all that will remain to speak for us will be the actions we took while we were alive. We can't spin the conversation once our time here is over, so why should we spin it now?

Live the story today as you want it to be told.

August 23, 2011

An interview with the Resistance

I recently had the opportunity to interview the Resistance. It shared some interesting things about getting great work done and gave its thoughts on who you can blame the next time you feel you are unable to succeed.
"You cannot make it. Every force on heaven and earth is working against you.

That being said, you can blame anyone or anything.

Here are a few examples to help you get started.

Blame the president. (It doesn't matter which one.)
Blame the government. Any of them will do.
Blame your parents.
Blame the church.
Blame the neighbor's dog for keeping you up all night.
Blame society.
Blame your boss.
Blame the economy.
Blame your customers.
Blame your competition.
Blame your family.
Blame your friends.
Blame the cable company.
Blame your banker.
Blame your teachers.
Blame good.
Blame evil.
Blame the city you live in.
Blame the traffic.
Blame the haters.
Blame your fans.

Blame any external source you want.

You can even blame me.

But please, whatever you do, don't blame yourself. Blaming yourself might only lead you down the crooked path of thinking you can make remarkable things happen, and that you can actually make a difference. Action only leads to pain, but I can provide you with comforting words and lull you to sleep, if you will listen and blame others.

Trust me, once you start blaming, finding somewhere else to place the blame will become much easier. For now, don't worry, just blame. Don't work. Blame.

You can't make it anyway, so why even try? Just start putting the blame where it belongs."

So, who are you going to blame today?

August 16, 2011

The last 20%

The Pareto Principle has been discussed, written about, blogged about, and lectured about in meetings and MBA courses. The reason this might be the case is because it is often fairly accurate. The rule claims that "80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes".

There are countless interpretations of this rule, and here is another.

I venture to say that 80% of the value that you seek to gain from pursuing a remarkable vision is found in the last 20% of the work. The last 20% is the attainment of the why behind what you do. It chisels you, it makes you stronger, and it makes the victory that much sweeter.

How many times have you given up when you were 81% of the way into something? How many times have you been within a days row of the shores that your ships were sailing for, only to call it quits when it comes time to row? And yet, if you were to push forward the remaining 19%, you would realize the impact that you seek.

The reason that people fail to continue, is because the last 20% is the hardest, most expensive, most challenging, most demanding part of the journey. You're tired. You're nearly broke. People call you crazy. It hurts.

Steven Pressfield introduced us to the resistance in War of Art. The resistance dwells in the last 20%. Make no mistake, when you cross the 80% mark, you are taking enemy ground. And the enemy will react with violent opposition. You are the unwelcome one.

The last 20% may take everything that you have, with no guarantee of success. The last 20% is where you begin to ask yourself if all the pain and discomfort you are facing is worth it? This is the time when most ordinary people will compromise on the original vision. At some point, you will be tempted to simply quit because the results you have achieved to that point are good enough.

The truth is, the results found at the 80% mark are not good enough. Not for you. You are not an average, ordinary person. You can get it done, if the cost is worth it to you. Even though by all other measures your pursuit would be considered a success, in the back of your mind, you will always wonder what would have been had you kicked it in that last 20%.

Decide before you begin what you are willing to accept as victory, and then make it happen. Don't sell yourself short once the journey gets difficult. I favor what Seth Godin has to say about quitting. He illustrates the importance of deciding what the conditions must be in order for you to quit before you even start.

If you have not decided ahead of time how much pain or cost you are willing to endure, then you will be at greater risk of being influenced to give in simply because the pain you are experiencing in that moment appears to be greater than the value you hope to achieve.

While it may be extremely painful in the here and now, the pain is temporal, and the last little bit is what it takes to realize the full value of your most meaningful work.

August 11, 2011

The other side of the coin of empowerment

The other day, I talked a bit about your responsibility as the empowered person. Essentially, if you have been given permission, you must make the difference that you feel is necessary to make, because it is yours to own.

On the other side of the coin, if you are the one giving permission, you must be cautious when decisions are made that you don't totally agree with. Losing your cool for even a second tears apart the confidence of your team, and will ensure there are long lines of people waiting to get your approval on every action except the most common and safest courses of action.

Fear is what prevents people from making the difference and doing what is right. Big change cannot be made in the absence of risk. You need people willing to push as hard as they can to the edges, working to see the vision you have cast reach fruition.

This isn't to say that the person who has been empowered should not be coached, taught, and mentored. In fact, this is also a responsibility of the person giving the power. If someone makes a mistake, explain to them what happened, forgive them, and move on. And, even though a mistake was made, end the conversation celebrating the fact that they made the decision and moved forward because they felt the course of action they took was the right thing to do.

If you don't do this, if you react out of anger or frustration, people will become afraid of making the important decisions, and you will completely hamper your potential and theirs.

If you are the one relinquishing power, trust your team, focus on the hard work you have to complete, and take advantage of the teachable moments.

August 09, 2011

One side of the coin of empowerment

If you are the person that has been empowered, that has been given the permission to make the decision and ask forgiveness, then there is no reason to not make the difference you want to make. If you are working on something you care about, you feel the action you want to take is the right thing to do, and you have the freedom to make the decision, just do it.

Something you think requires permission is really something no one would have ever thought to question before. Often, the person that empowered you has enough of their own critically important work to complete. In other words, they don't really have the time to make all of the minute decisions, which is why you were hired in the first place.

Incidentally, when you ask permission, you send up red flags. Committees are formed, meetings are scheduled, and people who have little to no stake in the project become involved. Sadly, this causes the important work to either get so diluted that it becomes powerless, or worse, it never gets done at all.

There is no excuse for not doing things the way you feel they should be done. Own it.

Please note, there is a difference between doing the right thing and just throwing stuff together out of a lack of care or respect. As the empowered, do not for even a second think that you have been given the freedom to be lazy and push something out the door to get it off your plate. The difference is obvious, and this attitude not only hurts you, but it hurts the entire team as well. This attitude diminishes trust.

If you are empowered, change the game, take ownership, and make remarkable things happen.

August 03, 2011

A few drops at a time

The summer months on the west coast of Michigan are breathtaking. The tides that roll onto the shores of Lake Michigan are captivating and invite hours of play, relaxation, and serenity. The whole world could be falling apart, but on the beach shore, nothing else matters. Time holds little meaning as you scan the outer reaches of the water searching for the end of the world, but it is not found. These moments will change you.

While making our pilgrimage to the shores of Michigan this year, my two-year old was playing happily on the beach, creating castles in the sand and then destroying them in the fashion of an overgrown lizard that falls upon on a coastal city. However, after a while, he noticed something missing. Water. Of course, what sand castle is complete without a bit of water?

Eyeing the lake before him, he knew exactly what he must do. He grabbed his pail and swaggered down to the rolling waves of the lake shore. Clearly, he was a man on a mission. He dipped his bucket into the cool water that surrounded his ankles and hoped to emerge with a bucket full of the precious lake.

What he caught instead, at least from his perspective, was a tidal wave that crashed upon him like a tsunami! I quickly grabbed him from the waters and placed him on the sandy beaches, safe from the treacherous and mighty waters. He had learned an important lesson that day. That is, to respect the waters and to respect the power that they harness.

I needed that lesson too. It is important to respect the power that can destroy you, for the foolish and prideful that ignore this power will perish.

It was interesting, however, to watch him the rest of the afternoon. He clearly wanted to fill his bucket with the pure and crystal clear water of the lake. He eyed the lake, and would contemplate what was necessary to achieve his objective. The first few times, he would hold out his bucket to me and ask that I assume the risk for him.

Certainly, this is what parents do. We are, at least in the eyes of our young and sometimes naive children, wiser, stronger, braver, and better equipped to handle these challenges and obstacles. Dutifully, I scooped up the water and returned it to his place of waiting.

After a few buckets though, he realized that he must make another attempt at this on his own. To make another go. To chance it. Surely he could not be defeated by mere water, he must have been thinking to himself. Armed with greater respect and a dose of fear, he grabbed his bucket and cautiously made his way to the water. He bent over, and upon seeing a wave rolling in with speed and determination, he dropped his bucket and ran for the shore screaming in terror!

Another lesson learned, once we are struck by fear, it becomes more difficult for us to finish the mission that is ours to complete. Even when we are surrounded by those that will not let us fall, when the conditions are in our favor, we will constantly recall that fear, and will lose those precious moments when we can make our move.

Finally, he devised a strategy for filling his bucket. I thought this was creative, although not terribly efficient or effective. However, I know adults that are less creative and will give up more easily than he will! His strategy was to get just close enough to the shores where the water would rest for a few fractions of a second just after the waves crashed on them. There he would wait in anticipation. When the water arrived, he would grab his shovel, scoop up the water, run to his bucket, and dump the water in.

Of course, by the time that he got back to the bucket, there was nothing left in the shovel but a few drops of water, but this did not stop him. He has determination like a busy ant moving against all constraints. He has his mission, and he knows he must finish it, even if it is but a drop at a time.

If you know what you must do, it is your responsibility to find a way to conquer your fear, even if at the beginning it is only a drop at a time. Perhaps, the war may not be won by a grand victory, but over time with perseverance and patience. Eventually, through small victories, we will learn how to respectfully navigate the waters, and gain greater efficiency.

Be respectful of the power that can lead to your demise, learn from your past failures, be creative, overcome fear, and complete the mission that is yours to complete.

July 26, 2011

Forecasting the future

Based on historical evidence and current trends, economists can predict future economic conditions. Using models based on historic measurements and vast amounts of real-time data, meteorologists tell us it is probably a better choice to find activities indoors.

So we hear the prognosis for what might happen and we change our plans.

We don't buy the home we have been saving for because future economic conditions don't look favorable. We postpone starting the business we have always dreamed of owning because it's just too scary right now and analysts indicate the outlook is not so good. We fail to go on vacation or take a hike with the family because it is going to rain.

Ultimately, these forecasts are at best scientific guesses and hunches about future events. Yet, we treat them as though they are guaranteed to occur. We consider these assumptions to be fact, when even the fine print on some investments indicate that "past performance is not indicative of future results."

Ironically, due to public reaction to the latest analyst news from Wall Street, people often make these predictions a reality.

The truth is, all of the models and forecasts, all of the number crunching and spin that goes into these stories and predictions fail to account for one incredibly dangerous and powerful variable. You.

You have the choice to retreat, back off and play it safe, and live with regret. At the same time, you have the choice to press forward despite the challenges, creatively overcoming obstacles as they are presented and make something happen.

You have the influence to change the models. You have the power to make a difference, and to leave the analysts dumbfounded.

The conditions will never be perfect, so it's best to keep moving forward and take grasp of the opportunities that are available to you today. It's not raining yet, and there is still plenty of time to get out there and play.

Passion, persistence, perseverance, and heart will change everything. And because of this truth, I forecast that you will change everything, if you are willing.

July 21, 2011

What you take out is most important

When I remove entire blocks of prose after reading something that I have drafted, I find the point I am trying to make is better articulated. When designing new functionality for a web application, I find the best solutions are those where all but the most necessary features are removed.

The practice of trimming back to only what is essential is vastly important for getting remarkable work done.

If you truly want to create a major work, it is going to cost you something. It may mean getting up an hour earlier or an hour later, but focusing on you mission for an hour a day will pay dividends in the long run.

However, if you are already getting up an hour early and staying up an hour late, and still find you need more time, there is a different issue that must be dealt with.

You simply have too much going on. Look at where you are spending your time, and then trim back all but the essential. Chances are, as you start reviewing where you time is spent, you will find there are a lot of activities that are simply wasting time.

If you are going to get up an hour early every day with the goal to publish a book by the end of the year, then spend an hour writing, not reading blogs and checking email. If you want to run a 5k in less than 20 minutes, then spend an hour every day training and working toward the goal.

There is nothing impressive about someone that gets up early and goes to bed late and still can't get important work done. If you are trying to wear the fact that you rise early and stay up late as a badge of honor, claiming that you have more work to do than you have time for, but still aren't shipping anything, the truth is you are simply a poor manager of time.

Being busy is not synonymous with being productive, and a little bit of thought, planning, and focusing on the essential will lead to success.

July 19, 2011

Shipping costs

In the book Linchpin, Seth Godin recommends in order to ship a major project every year, you should set aside one hour every day to complete three tasks aligned with completing the project. Leo Babauta, the author of Zen Habits, calls these tasks your Most Important Tasks (MITs).

It may not seem like much, but you can create remarkable art that is most important to you with only one hour of focused energy every day.

The question then becomes, is it worth it to you? What are you willing to give in order to achieve your dreams and to ship something that changes everything?

If shipping meant getting up an hour earlier every day, would you do it? Would you stay up an hour later? Are you willing to spend the time focused on completing (not just doing) tasks that move you closer to achieving what you set out to accomplish?

This might mean shutting off the television, putting down the novel, and avoiding the temptation to browse the internet. It could also include not doing the things which at first glance appear to be related to shipping something remarkable, like checking email, analyzing the usage of your site, or invoicing customers.

The extra hour is all about completing tasks directly aligned with shipping great art every year, not about the things you are already doing every day. They are small steps in the right direction.

If you aren't willing to give up an hour a day to create your art, then find something worthy of giving an hour a day to. Or, perhaps you are afraid if you give an hour a day to completing something monumental, you might actually succeed?

Be conscious about what it is you want to achieve, be focused, and be selective about how you spend your time.

July 13, 2011

Make your own

A recent post on the Signal vs. Noise blog talked about how when Batist Leman was dissatissfied with the options available to him when it came to buying a notebook, he used a bit of creativity to solve his problem.

Instead of complaining that there were not any notebooks available that met his specifications, he simply thought about what he wanted in a notebook, and then made it himself.

Some of the most successful and interesting companies today were born from someone scratching an itch they had. Instead of complaining that there was not a product that met their need, they built something remarkable, realizing there was a niche in the marketplace that was not being served.

The next time you are buying a product to meet a need you have, take a few extra seconds to think through why you need the product in the first place, and ask yourself if the item you are about to buy is really going to help you achieve the goals you need to accomplish. If it isn't, what would it take to make it yourself?

You may find that you discover something the rest of us have been looking for as well.

As a side note, if you do build something of your own and decide to put it into the marketplace for others, you will be faced with the temptation to make it appeal to the masses. However, I think you will find by just keeping the product simple and easy to use, focused on meeting the needs you originally sought to address, you will attract more customers than if you try to appeal to the masses.

More features don't always equate to greater revenue, and rough edges make a product remarkable too.

July 06, 2011

Nothing less than all of you

Think for a moment of the most powerful speeches that have ever been delivered. Think about the art that has changed conversations, or of the music that has evoked some call to action deep within. Think for a second about the poetry that stirred your soul, or about the words etched into existence that will never leave you feeling quite the same again.

Chances are there is a common theme in all of these. An artist physically throwing themselves fully into the work they are doing. Not out of obligation, but in response to a call from deep within. They have to, because it is where they feel most alive and full of life.

Powerful, game changing art requires everything. This kind of work requires heart, soul, and passion. It requires physically throwing yourself behind the work, because it is that important.

Real art requires everything you have to give.

Nothing less.

June 30, 2011

A watered down Americano

One of my favorite drinks is a café Americano. This is basically one or two shots of espresso combined with boiling water.

When I went to the coffee shop down the street from my office, I ordered the drink. The guy behind the counter was new (this was his second day) and obviously nervous. And, he was left alone with no additional support!

He prepared the drink, handed it over, and mentioned that he tried to make the drink the best that he could, but wasn’t sure if he got it right. He assured me that if the drink wasn’t to my satisfaction, he would give it another try.

I sipped the hot beverage, and immediately knew that it was no good. There was clearly too much water and not enough espresso. However, instead of taking the opportunity of a teachable moment, of giving him the opportunity to learn, I politely and kindly stated that it was just fine and wished him the best.

Now, I may have thought that I was simply being a nice guy. I didn’t want to stress him out or leave him feeling like he messed up.

In reality, I hurt him, the product, and the brand. From this point forward, he is going to believe that this is how an Americano is made. Instead of being a little bit uncomfortable and providing honest and open feedback with understanding, feedback that could make the product better for everyone and could have helped him to grow and learn, I backed off.

When you are given the opportunity to voice your opinion on a product or service, it is your responsibility to speak up. If you don’t, you may come to find that the product that you have come to enjoy the most has lost its flavor, that it is boring, and simply watered down.

June 28, 2011

Messy life and messy notes

A friend and I were talking some time ago about how valuable handwritten notes truly are. There is something special about creating a handwritten note, and there is something even more special in receiving one.

If you think about it, a handwritten note is a lot like life.

Handwritten notes are sometimes messy. That's absolutely okay, because life gets messy sometimes too.

Handwritten notes are full of character, just as our lives should be.

There is no delete key in life, there is not a spell check option, and you certainly cannot change the entire story by simply highlighting some text on a screen and changing what was there.

Sometimes depending on the person writing the note, the handwriting can be hard to read and the message difficult to understand. That's a lot like life too.

When creating a handwritten note, a lot of thought can go into finding the perfect combination of words to express exactly what you are trying to say. When the writing is done, we look back and see scratched out words, places where we have tried to squeeze in another word, or even arrows that fly off onto some other tangent. Life also contains places we have tried to scratch out and start again, tweaking and noodling and iterating, as we work to find our way.

Sometimes, in a handwritten note, you can see when the ink begins to run dry, or when tears have been shed by the writer. You can sense the emotion of the writer as she or he commits his or her heart to paper. Passion is transformed from heart to hand, and energy flows to the medium that the writer is working in.

Sometimes, notes are happy, sometimes they are sad, but they are always unique. You are unique too. There is not another soul or life that has been created that is just like you.

You have to live life passionately without fear of being too messy, be true to the story that you are writing, and hope that the ending is one that you, the writer, can be proud of, no matter how misunderstood it might be.

March 06, 2011

Dancing hamsters are important...

Back when the internet was just getting off the ground, Deidre LaCarte created a page that contained a screen full of animated hamsters that danced to a really annoying song when the page was opened. The dancing would continue endlessly until you either left the page, or in a moment of insanity, threw your computer out of a window.

While dancing hamsters seem trivial, dated, and of little value, creating dancing hamsters is extremely important for any artist. In order to become great at anything, you have to be willing to create stuff that is sometimes trivial and fun for the sake of learning.

Creating all of those animated gifs was something relatively cutting edge at the time. Figuring out how to loop something endlessly probably required some learning too. Registering domain names, playing a song on a browser, dealing with server load due to unexpected growth; All of these things were lessons that had to be learned, but could only be learned in creating something, even if it was just a bunch of hamsters on a single web page.

Sculptors grab huge handfuls of clay and form beautiful works of art, but I am sure at some point they just created something that seemed silly in order to learn. Programmers write "Hello World" programs when learning a new language and create goofy little applications that may seem trivial, but actually teach a great deal about the technology that they are using. Each of these lessons that are learned are seeds to greatness.

If you are going to be an artist, you have to understand the tools, and the feel of the materials in your hands. You have to be willing to create stuff that others may looks at as being trivial. You become okay by reading and working through small controlled examples, but you become great by building stuff and playing.

That being said, learn to play, play to learn, and make some hamsters dance!

February 27, 2011

What I learned from the founder of Jenni's Ice Cream

I love to hear stories about how someone has taken a risk to pursue what they are most passionate about, and how their perseverance and focus on creating remarkable art leads to success.

This past week, Jenni Bauer of Jenni's Splendid Ice Cream fame came into our office and shared her story about how Jenni's became what it is today and also gave us an idea why the business has experienced such remarkable growth over the past 4 years, despite what some might call the worst economy since the Great Depression.

The following are some lessons that I learned that seem to be consistent in the stories of many successful entrepreneurs.

Consistency matters.

To promote a customer base or a following around what you are doing, you have to give people a "craveable" reason to return.

What Jenni found was that while many people were fascinated by the unique flavors that she created, many repeat customers came back for their own personal favorite. But, she couldn't always guarantee that she would have that flavor, since her flavors were created based on what was available in the market and on her inspiration of the day.

She soon realized that she could increase her customer base without releasing control of her creative freedom by creating some of the more common flavors consistently. This grew her customer base, which also provided her the cash flow so she would have the freedom to be daring and creative with her art at the same time.

Think like a person with pink hair.

Passion is fundamental in creating something that is just a little bit different from the rest. While consistency is important, placing your entire focus on creating a product that only appeals to the masses waters down your brand, stifles innovation, and leaves you feeling like there is nothing left of yourself in the business you built.

Jenni remains true to her artistry in frozen confections by having two dipping stations in her stores. One station is all about consistency, selling the signature flavors that her customers have come to recognize and love, such as Salty Carmel. Another station is all about art, creating masterpieces with unique and seasonal ingredients, to include flavors like Olive Oil with Sea-Salted Pepitas.

Alone is not sustainable or scalable.

Accounting, training, hiring, legalities, real estate, sales, marketing, purchasing, logistics, and the list goes on and on. At the end of the day, you still just need to make ice cream. Otherwise, none of that other stuff matters.

There are a ton of activities that need to happen in the course of running a business, and while your business is still in the startup phase you may be able to work on some of these things yourself and still deliver a great product. Keep in mind, when you're just getting started, many of these things are not important. However, as your business expands, you have to find people that you trust that are passionate about your mission and vision, and are passionate about doing the business stuff.

For instance, while Jenni still spends time in the business, she has a team of people that want to see the company grow and are able to handle the details so she can focus on the product. This allows her to continue to innovate and create, which ultimate leads to a product that people return for.

Cultivate "symbiotic relationships" with your partners and vendors.

Jenni has found a lot of success in making sure that her vendors and partners are successful. By creating win-win relationships, you know exactly what you are putting into your products, and you can better ensure the quality of your products is consistently where it should be.

Jenni buys all of the cream that she uses in her ice from a single Ohio dairy, Snowville Creamery. Jenni's uses the cream from this single dairy, and by helping Snowville to be successful, has helped to ensure that the cream that she depends on to make her product stand out from others will continue to be around for years to come.

It was encouraging to hear Jenni speak about her experiences in getting started, as well where the business is going. When you love what you do, and play with your art (and sometimes your food), you will make a difference and have more fun doing so!

February 20, 2011

Income from your art!

I read an article in Fast Company this morning where Rico Frances makes the observation that "gold has lost its prestige," and "When gold was the only store of value, it was sacred. In medieval art, gold was everywhere. Viewed by candlelight, it created a dazzling, spiritual effect. Today's world doesn't want to be dazzled by gold. We just want to know how much money it can be converted into."

Unfortunately, this is how many of us tend to view what we do with our art and our time. How can we sell a great idea to make a ton of money? How can we make our art appeal to the masses so we can make a living doing what we love? In other words, we water down our passion and put a price tag on it in the hopes that someone will be willing to pay for it.

Maybe, through our pursuit of profit and appealing to the masses we have lost the joy, beauty, and magic in creating? Perhaps, if we simply returned to drinking in the beauty of the world around us, and started again to create for the joy of creating, we would find that our art appeals to more people than we could have possibly imagined?

January 23, 2011

Innovation That Really Works

Some of the most remarkable and memorable products, services, and movements have started with a common strand. Accidental innovation.

When the 37Signals team started BaseCamp, they weren't working on building a project management software product that would change the way that people think about web based project management. They were starting their own design business and needed a way to manage the projects that they were working on. The problem was, the project management software that existed did way too much. So they built their own. Now, they have a company that offers many products based on the platform that was born out of their own need.

Algae Venture Systems wanted to find a new way to grow and process algae because it was too expensive. Along the way, they found out some interesting things about what they were working on and how it could solve energy problems too.

Putting a ton of effort into planning the next great product is rarely useful. It is better instead to build something that scratches an itch that you have. Maybe someone else will have a need for what you have built too. Even if they don't, at least you will have something that meets your need.

Start building something. Maybe along the way, you will discover something that changes the scope and perceived limitations of today.