The holiday shopping season has started so I wanted to share some advice to fellow buyers. This applies whether you’re buying a $5 toy or a $50k cars.
Good Reviews Are Bad for You
Beware of reviews like “great product” and “would totally buy again”. Most startups you work for will ask their employees give good ratings for their own products whether it’s electronics or iPad apps. That’s just common sense. Why wouldn’t you ask employees, friends, family, and the homeless guy on the street corner to give you a good rating? Every bit helps right? People tend to quietly accept this type of ethical transgression and not the other kind: writing a bad review for a competitor. You can get sued for libel right? Good reviews tend to be shorter as well because the marketing material already covered the bases so it’s hard to come up with something nuanced to rave about. For example, when looking for a “nose sucker” to remove boogers from my baby’s nose (true story), I found this useless 5-star review. The subject is “it works” and the user “HappyDays” admits that “we never tried other more traditional aspirators so I can’t compare it to those”. It’s reviews like this that helped create helpfulness ratings.
Bad Reviews Are Good for you
On the other hand, I love bad reviews. When I’m on Amazon, I look at reviews starting with the most scathing first. The longer and nastier the review the better. That’s because bad reviews tend to get to the heart of the problem. The customer likely ran into a shortcoming of the product and like stepping on dog poo, wanted to warn the rest of the us of the stinking pile. In many cases, I can quickly decide whether the negative review is warranted and whether it affects my decision. For the same product, I came across this 1-star review. Her complaint was that using this made her ill because you are basically sucking the germs into your mouth. I thought about this for a second and decided that I’d be fine with this outside risk since my germs are probably more dangerous to the baby than hers to me. Other times, the reasons are legitimate but it doesn’t apply to you. For example, another customer may not like the heating system of a car but you live in Las Vegas so you only care about the air conditioning.
What to Look For
Start by asking whether the problem is a legitimate concern to you. If the “defect” doesn’t apply to you, move on. If it does, be extra sensitive to it. For example, if a customer suggests that a baby crib’s construction is shoddy, take it as a red flag and look for similar reports in other reviews. You don’t want to take any chances. Next, try to determine whether the review was influenced by emotion. If someone is screaming in all caps, “OMG, THIS IS THE WORST PRODUCT IN THE WORLD”, it’s probably less credible than someone writing “this product doesn’t feel safe because pieces came off after daily use of 1-2 hours”. At the end of the day, bad reviews are harder to come by because you’re counting on people to do a solid for the community and it’s easiest to be lazy. There are also cases like Yelp’s where companies take bribes to remove or hide bad reviews (rumored). Just remember that all reviews are biased and that bad reviews are more likely to be helpful.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift”
The quickening march of technology has made work more efficient but most of the time we’re just getting better at doing because doing is easier and more satisfying than thinking. Engineers tend to jump straight into writing code. We love the earlier part of the creative process where we are programming and tinkering. We’re less found of testing and scaling. That’s why there are so many Hackathons and Facebook is portrayed as Hacker Heaven. Entrepreneurs tend to jump straight into building a company. We love putting together an all-star team and picking out the perfect Palo Alto office. We’re less fond of raising capital and finding a product-market fit. That’s why there are so many startups working on yet another photo-sharing app.
Everyone should spend more time thinking and researching. We need to resist the temptation to jump in too early. Engineers should think things through before starting to write code, perhaps with TDD/BDD. Entrepreneurs should think things through before printing those business cards, perhaps by vetting your idea through at least 7 people and a good night’s sleep. In a time where there are inexpensive tools for software startups (AWS, web frameworks, SDKs, SaaS services, etc.), it’s more tempting than ever to short-change the intuitive mind in favor of the rational one. Recently, even the tools for hardware startups are becoming affordable: MakerBot has made 3D scanning and printing cheap enough for prototyping and Kickstarter has lowered the high hurdle of the initial manufacturing run.
Given that many barriers are going away and new tools are cheaper and more accessible, what will companies compete on in the future? Design. Strategy. Ideas. All different words to describe the realm of the intuitive mind. It’s already happening: Why Snapchat is Screwed. Snapchat is a successful mobile social network that is rumored to have passed on a $3Billion acquisition offer from Facebook (and possibly a bigger one from Google). The technology is easy to replicate, their users will likely leave if they introduce ads, and there is no compelling reason like personal data keeping users from moving to a competing product. Time to innovate?
It’s becoming more and more difficult to assess candidates. People can easily google “interview questions” and get 833 Million results. Websites offer “smart answers to tough interview questions“. They can tell you exactly what questions were asked last week at Google. Sites go as far as coaching you on what emotions to show and what corny jokes to tell. It’s an interviewing arms race that has interviewers searching for more and more inane questions like “Why is a manhole round?” and interviewees feeling like they’re studying for a standardized test.
In Star Trek lore, there’s a test at starfleet academy called the Kobayashi Maru. It’s a no-win situation where either you let a Federation ship get destroyed or get yourself destroyed by attacking the Klingon fleet. The simulation is designed to see how cadets react to an impossible situation. I use this same strategy in my interviews. I present them with a scenario that is relevant to the particular job but let them explore and struggle through the simulation. I even play the evil computer program and change the assumptions as I go. No two interviews are the same. For example, for web developers the scenario is that having just programmed your app, you check it out in a browser and see a blank page. What do you do?
The nature of work is changing. The interview methods of the past don’t meet the needs of today’s jobs, which require more creative problem-solving and less memorization and assembly line widget-building. What you really want is to see how candidates think and handle new situations. It’s quite easy to tailor this test for your needs. Hiring a systems engineer? Put them in an outage situation and ask them what to do. You’ll find out within 5 minutes or less whether you want that person handling your servers. If you’re looking to get hired, impress me with your knowledge of the system. Bonus points for cheating.
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.