The Case for Cautious Optimism

captain awesome

Some people are blood-draining pessimists, choosing to scowl and snivel at the world. Others are nauseating optimists foaming with perk and cheer. Pessimists tend to miss opportunities because they gave up too early or didn’t even try. Optimists tend to downplay problems and hold on to lost causes. The fact that it’s bad to be at either extreme is common sense. However, where should you try to be by default? If you’re cautiously optimistic, it’s past the neutral point as far towards pure optimism as you can while still feeling comfortable with the risk that the edge brings. Most likely you’ll try new things and fail occasionally but you won’t be have crushing defeats and you’re definitely continuing to make attempts. Oh, by the way, it’s also good for your health.

Keep Throwing Punches

Advanced believers of cautious optimism know that the secret is to always be accelerating towards optimism. Like a boxing match, you get right up in the face of your opponent. Every punch is you trying a new idea. You may land a few punches and be more aggressive by moving closer. You throw more, faster combos building up to a potential knockout punch. But then he breaks through and lands a solid one on your cheek. You take a step or two back, collect yourself, and then start your attack again. It’s not about going into a bezerker rage, arms flailing out of control. It’s not about closing your eyes and letting yourself fall. It’s about getting back into it as quickly as possible after taking a hard punch. It’s about sticking to what you learned from training and experience. It’s about staying in the fight and knowing you will eventually win. It’s the relentless drive towards certain victory.

A Strategy for Life

Cautious optimism like other strategies can apply to many different aspects of life. If you’re playing pickup basketball with your friends and your first two shots don’t go in, keep shooting. You shouldn’t take every shot, but don’t give up open shots just because you missed the first two. If you ask two girls out and they both say no, keep asking. You shouldn’t try to ask every girl out but don’t stop asking because the first two refused you. If you bomb the SAT the first time, take it again and again until you get a full score (like my friend Nina). If you fail to row across the Atlantic solo the first time (and survive), you may do it the second time. Day-to-day, some things work out and some don’t. Try cautious optimism–you’ll be healthier and happier for it.

Why the Internet is Broken

http://www.flickr.com/photos/theredproject/3686402702/

Let’s face it: the Internets are a mess. In switching from Google Reader to Flipboard (since Larry’s pulling the plug soon), I’ve been forced to take stock of my online identity and content consumption habits. We can do better than this, tech people!

I am a thousand different special snowflakes

I’ve recently changed jobs. Naturally, I updated my LinkedIn profile in 30 minutes. But then my Twitter profile also needed to have my title and company changed. And then I noticed my blog is wrong as well. And finally I’m left feeling like the Internets are broken because I don’t know what else needs to be changed. These are the variations of my identity floating out there. This is easy compared to usernames and passwords. Some companies are trying to solve this problem in different ways like Gravatar with profile images and OnePassword for logins. Hoever, there’s a common stupid notion that a big player like Google or Facebook should own all of it. They fight to segregate and own versions of our online identities. I’m tired of these winner-take-all wars that hinder progress. The Gravatar model is the way to go. Profile information in one service that’s simple to use. Someone’s probably already built this for profile info but people have to jump onboard this free one-stop shop concept bandwagon for this to be the norm.

Digital Gluttony

Information is now cheaper than dogfood with horsemeat. There’s a lot of it and no one’s peddling the equivalent of Atkins or South Beach Diets…yet. There are primary sources like Techrunch and then secondary sources like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. There are curated feeds like those provided by the likes of Flipboard or even feeds of feeds like Alltop. I can get the same article from many different channels and pictures or videos to entice me to keep consuming. Very quickly I get a headache. And I haven’t even turned Push notifications on. Facebook used to impress me with their filtering but now it’s just an exercise in branded **** avoidance. Twitter’s branded **** isn’t as bad yet but they just point the firehose at you with no regard for human life. Startups like Flipboard look like they’re trying to do some filtering but so far it seems like they’re more obsessed about how to make everything look like a magazine (suggestion: not everything should be in magazine format).

Forward

Both are tough problems whose best solutions require innovations that companies and markets don’t excel at: standardizing services, sharing data freely, and working together towards a larger goal. Take Amazon as a microcosm of the tech world. Jeff Bezos sends out a memo. He decrees that all departments must now define APIs, share data with ease through these APIs, and use this infrastructure to create AWS. This is a pretty loose interpretation but bear with me. Now imagine if Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. were merely departments of one large company that wants to help people manage their online identities and curate their 2000 daily calories of content. LinkedIn handles the initial update. My friend sees that I changed my job via Facebook a few seconds later only because he’s a close friend. Moo asks me if I want new business cards. Google switches my work email over to the new domain. Granted some of this would be creepy by today’s standards but it illustrates reasons why it’s all a mess. Wouldn’t it be nice for companies and markets to share a purpose or two?

Liars Fear Data

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There was a fierce battle of words this week between the New York Times and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla. As the story goes, the NYT published a review of the Tesla S that trashed the battery performance and charging system. Elon thought this was suspicious since most other reviewers found it awesome, and Motor Trend says it’s the 2013 Car of the Year. He did a thorough analysis of the log data (whoops, reviewer probably didn’t think of that) and fired back some accusations in a blog post on the Tesla web site. The NYT reviewer fired back with some excuses and by that time the issue exploded. The back story is that Elon had been burned before by the media. A few years ago, Top Gear did a show on the Tesla Roadster and scripted up a dramatic episode where the Roadster’s battery died after 55 miles (it didn’t). Elon sued and lost, since it’s an entertainment show. This time, the usually measured CEO and Tony Stark character model went above and beyond the call of duty for his pride and joy.

Reactions among people vary. Some say Elon should have let the data speak for itself. Some say he should have put it behind him quietly. I think he did the right thing for himself and by his company. If it were a less well-known media source, I’d recommend playing it cool. If it were a less obvious twisting of facts, I’d tell him to let others fight the battle. However, this was the New York Times and this was after many other reputable news sources had given very positive reviews and this was a “fool me once shame on me…” situation. As a leader, Elon knew when to play it cool and when to pull out the big guns. If he had let this go, there would be Doubt in the market. NYT’s word vs Tesla–obvious NYT has more sway today. If he had let this go, he would have invited many other challengers and haters to take shots at him. Maybe this type of sleazy review happened before but this is the first he’s rebutted? If he had this go, he would have let not only his investors down but himself, and more importantly, his employees. If you’ve seen “Revenge of the Electric Car“, you’ll understand that it’s been a long and tough road for his company. Elon’s been fighting all the way to get here and just when the company is about to be mainstream, this liar at the NYT decides to get some page views at Tesla’s expense. I bet Elon must have said:

I

don’t

think

so

*******.

What Startups Can Learn From Planetside 2

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If you haven’t heard of Planetside 2, it’s about time you got acquainted. It’s a new kind of game described as MMOFPS (massively multiplayer online first person shooter). It’s currently in beta with a launch date next month but most everyone would agree that there’s no way in hell it will be ready by then. Me, I’m confident they’ll be fine because they’ve got elements startups need to emulate. 

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

During the beta, their servers are up from 6am until midnight during the week and 2am until midnight on the weekends. What happens during those few magical hours? They’re looking at data (e.g. how many sniper shots were fired in grid location L5 against main battle tanks) They’re reading the thousands of posts on their forum to distill wisdom. They’re coding away like mad. Welcome to 1-day release cycles. Mind you, they’re not just making minor tweaks. One day, after players had complained about a primary game resource, they just removed it. They iterate on their product really quickly and aren’t afraid to make big changes.

Build a Relationship With Your Customers

If you heard “Sony Online Entertainment (SOE)”, you would probably think about stodgy old men sitting around, smoking cigars. I’m impressed by their tenacity when dealing with clients. Sure, they have a website and a forum and the social media accounts. But then they go beserk with weekly live streaming events called Friday Night Ops. The President of SOE, John “Smed” Smedley, routinely posts on the forums and at first I thought he was a dev. They have a youtube show where they talk about Planetside news and show off fan-produced content. They have personalities like Matt Higby and Margaret Krohn who really know the game and community and are everywhere. 

Go BIG or Go Home

Battlefield, Call of Duty, Halo–they all have limits for the number of players on a single player. Typically, it’s 32 or 64. On planetside, it’s 2000. That’s two orders of magnitude, folks. Website where you can see every player’s configurations and analytics? Check, and it’s free. Mobile and tablet apps? Check. Every game mechanic you’ll find in the other top FPS’s? Check. Graphics that will make players broke and computer makers ecstatic? Check. Usually, startups should focus on doing one thing really really well. But sometimes, you just need to go BIG.

Conflict is Natural and Good in a Startup

A recent HBR video spurred me to think about conflict. Society teaches us to avoid conflict, which is a decent general survival strategy; however, it benefits us to understand why it’s natural and good–especially in a startup.

It’s Natural

Conflict is borne from differences. As a people, we’re differentiated by gender, race, ethnicity, education, religion, politics, etc. It’s why we have such a rich variety of cultures and individuals. It’s how we get Picassos and Einsteins. But it’s also how we get serial killers. Each of us has a unique point of view and a rich history of experience that shapes how we think. In a startup, you’ll have a group of people who try to use the sum of this knowledge and experience to make decisions that will ultimately decide whether or not the company survives. The personalities of this group is self-selected from the passionate and risk-taking part of society. Furthermore, startups are usually starved for resources, which inevitably leads to hard prioritization decisions. If you don’t fight for your part, who will?

It’s Good

Without conflict, a startup team is missing voices. If people don’t fight for their thoughts and beliefs, the best solution to a problem may never have been presented at all. People are typically poor at making complex decisions individually. If you have an frontend engineer, a backend engineer, and a platform engineer all discuss a problem, they’ll attack it from different angles and bring a broader set of solutions. If everyone’s a backend engineer–well, it’s really about covering all the bases. 

Moving Forward

Granted, this is the optimal case. If you have conflict that focuses on personal grudges that taint every discussion, that’s not gonna help. If you have people who enjoy conflict for the sake of conflict, then watch out. If you a wide range of talents (A vs B vs C players), this can make it more challenging. They key is to realize *why* there’s conflict. If you know that the guy across the table doesn’t agree with you because your goals aren’t aligned–that could be an easy road block to remove. If you recognize that everyone’s fighting for the same finite resources–that could be opportunity to reach common ground. Whatever it is…understanding the other parties in the discussion is the key to making good come out of conflict.

 

What companies are Facebookers leaving for?

Now that Facebook has “quietly” IPO’d, it’s time for Suck to train his army of engineers on more meaningful pursuits. @elonmusk is a good role model. After Paypal, he’s been working on Tesla and SpaceX. Tesla has made electric cars sexy again and SpaceX just launched a Dragon. Granted, the movie “Social Network” was pretty good and it used to be fun thinking of Facebook as David fighting the Goliath, Google. But now, the rebels have become the Evil Empire. What companies are Facebookers leaving for?

Balance of Power in #startups

Startups are like small countries–if the balance of power is not maintained, bad things like death and destruction happen. The following is a set of scenarios you want to avoid.

All Hail Engineers

The technical half of a two co-founder startup dominates all decisions. He starts out as the CTO but muscles his way into the CEO spot, leaving the business co-founder with a VP of Sales position. The company plans to hire 50 new engineers and a minimal sales staff because the CEO believes the product will “sell itself”. Support is dying for more resources, marketing is dying for more resources, but engineers are paid way over market. This is reminiscent of Facebook in its early days and you’ll find many stories of talented people leaving the company because they were unhappy with the fact that the culture was too engineering-centric. Remember the movie “Social Network” by Aaron Sorkin? Avoid that.

Rowing the Boat

The business half of a two co-founder startup dominates all decisions. He is CEO and there is no CTO, just a bunch of engineers. The company is very sales-focused and eschews things like R&D. Engineering is viewed not as a source of innovation but a team of slaves “rowing the boat”. This makes me think of today’s Yahoo. The talented research team was fired, many of the engineers have jumped ship, and one of its multiple personalities thinks of itself as a content company. Yahoo isn’t a startup anymore, but there’s a strong tendency to forget–especially as startups grow up–that in the tech world you innovate or someone will innovate you out of existence. Without a strong engineering voice, you might as well be walking the plank.

Microcosms

The first two scenarios are the most glaringly obvious ones that are easy to spot–others take a trained eye. When a startup hires a stable of VPs and each one is off to the races on Day 1, it’s hard to have them all run at the same pace. Some departments may not even have a horse in the race! It’s subtle, but you will be able the see the effects of unbalanced power. Instead of quick and decisive course corrections, you’ll get reactionary jerks. For example, when Netflix announced that they were raising prices and killing off their DVD service in a cold email, I suspect something was awry in the top leadership because up ’til then, Netflix was known for its customer relations. They refunded customers when service outages happened, CEO Reed Hastings routinely wrote candid emails to customers explaining decisions, employees broadcasted their uber-flexible vacation policy, etc. Certainly, a balanced leadership would not have supported such an uncharacteristic move?

Maintaining Balance

This is damn hard for a startup. You start with 1+1–that’s easy. That’s a simple handshake. You add a VP or two after you get your Series A–not too bad. That’s a basketball team huddle. You add a few more to grow your other departments after you get your Series B–hm… That’s a football team huddle. You add SVPs and let’s not forget the ever-growing Board of Directors after your Series C–shiznit. That’s a village. It’s a challenge, but the company has to listen and weigh equally, every single voice all along the way, even if some are quieter than others and especially to those voices that are missing.