Category: Business

An Experimental Exercise In Managing Professional Bias

My dear friend Betsy Aoki shared a great article this afternoon that everyone in tech should read (and probably every other industry too, but I can’t speak as definitively there). The assumptive and presumptive behavior of the suitably-embarrassed and chastised folks in the article got me to thinking about how we fail as professionals on a constant basis in judging people too fast. There are logical arguments to be made as to why we insist on jumping to conclusions fast (too many meetings in a day, not enough bandwidth right now, etc.) but that doesn’t justify the behavior pattern – especially if it’s (all too often) wrong, discriminative, offensive, and worse.

For the avoidance of doubt, I have no problem with people judging each other. It’s part of human nature, and at a professional level we do have to prioritize, bucketize, and order other human beings, as cold as that may sound.

But you can judge people in two radically-different ways that I refer to as “top-down” and “assumptions-up”.

Most folks (and we all – each and every one of us – have been guilty of it at some time) work in the “assumptions-up” world – just like the unfortunate, embarrassed folks in the above article. Whether you want them or not, you DO have preconceived professional notions that you have learned about people based on irrelevant data like age, gender, race, religion, and even on things as random as height, weight, speech patterns, and hair color! If you think you’re exempt from these behaviors for some magical reason, YOU ARE WRONG. Do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Mazharin Banaji’s implicit-association research, book – or even take an IAT test yourself (warning: I was disturbed by my results).

Even though we have  learned these unfortunate biases, and they may be exceptionally difficult to unlearn, we can try to get around them in judging each other in professional* situations by working “top-down”.

Spend a week trying to work top-down. I guarantee it’ll have an impact on you. Whoever walks into your office, or into a conference room, or sits down in front of you at that cafe for a meeting, or walks up to you at some networking event – treat them identically: ASSUME THEY ARE A ROCK STAR! Yes this is counter-intuitive to how most folks manage their time and interactions – so what. Start at the top, assuming they are amazing, and figure out as you go along where they have deficits. Yes, you will be building someone ‘down’ in your mind instead of ‘up’, but you’ll find that you will be “building them down” with a ton more rationality than your preconceived, irrelevant assumptions may permit you to “build them up.”

Regardless of whether you come to the conclusion that someone is great, mediocre, or useless in the end; I guarantee your conclusion will not be majority-based on the color of their skin, the presence (or not) of a Y chromosome, whether they’ve got a skullcap on their head, or anything else generally irrelevant. As an added bonus, you’ll have a better interaction and fewer people will walk away thinking you’re an asshole 😉 .

Give it a try!

* I’m afraid I have no experimental prescription as to solving these biases outside of professional workspaces, where they are, sadly, probably 100x more destructive.

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Informed Stakeholders FTW

Keep your stakeholders informed! Many early-stage entrepreneurs lose sight of the importance of keeping their investors, shareholders, advisors, and even directors (really – I’ve seen it happen!) updated on the state of the business on a regular basis.

One of the companies I am a stakeholder in is Baydin, and Baydin’s CEO is the inimitable Alex Moore. I first met Alex when Baydin applied to the inaugural class of TechStars Boston in 2009. He was easy to be impressed with, and as he progressed through TechStars – and now years beyond – his mad-skillz have continued to shine brighter and brighter. Hopefully he’s blushing now 🙂 . Because Alex does such a great job of it, and with his permission, I used his updates as a guide to build a template and to share advice on what sharp entrepreneurs might want to do vis-a-vis keeping their stakeholders clued-in.

Why should you keep stakeholders informed? 

You want to share information with your stakeholders so they can help you. Help is good! You always can leverage help! If your stakeholders know what’s going on, they can help you steer the ship, maybe help it move faster, or maybe keep you from ramming an iceberg!

Which stakeholders should you keep informed?

Well, that is of course entirely up to you, dear CEO. Some of your investors may have “information rights”, so they would likely be recipients of regular updates. Certainly your Board of Directors are candidates as well. Your co-founders and large-shareholder employees may also be on the list. Perhaps any advisors to your company you feel could be helpful reacting to the information. Your attorneys and bankers may be part of the distribution. Really, it’s up to you to sort this out. Be careful to include people who deserve to know this info (legally or ethically) and be careful not to share too arbitrarily (“loose lips sink ships” and all that jazz).

Note that this article uses the word “stakeholder” rather than “shareholder” on purpose, as some stakeholders may not be shareholders, and some shareholders may not need the information we’re talking about.

How often should you update stakeholders?

In my experience, this is driven by (a) legal requirements and/or (b) company stage. If you have raised debt, you may have certain covenants on your note(s) that require sharing data regularly with your lender(s). As mentioned above, some or all of your investors may have varying legal “information rights” that require you to share data. For most folks though, your frequency of updates should be a function of your stage and/or stability. You probably don’t want to do full-bore updates every week, as it’s just too damn time consuming. Maybe you should share some automated daily or weekly reports about your KPIs, but nothing that you have to put together hyper-manually. If you measure your runway in years, updates every other month or quarterly should probably be adequate. If you measure your runway in months, every other month or monthly might be more proper. if you’re going through a big rough patch, err on the side of monthly. Like many things in business, there’s a potential win in under-promising and over-delivering. Whatever you do, don’t promise weekly updates and deliver quarterly updates, duh.

What should I share with my stakeholders?

Glad you asked! This was the proverbial piece of sand that incited this pearl of a missive. Here and below you can link to a Google Doc presentation that contains what I think is appropriate for a periodic update from an early stage company. There are NOTES on each slide that explain what is supposed to be in there and what things (hopefully) mean. I’ll leave you in the gdoc, as my work is done here (for now!).

Stakeholder Update Template

If you have any comments, questions, gripes, etc., please LMK! Happy to cycle on this thing in the interest of receiving and generating better updates!

Special thanks to Steve Kane and Chris Heidelberger who helped me through an uber-annoying brain fart I experienced while writing this, and to Leon Noel who provided feedback as I ‘genericized’ the template. Extra-special thanks, of course, to Alex Moore (roll tide!).

Kickstarter’s Dirty Shipping Secret?

In the past 96 hours I’ve heard two interesting reports from successful Kickstarter project creators about the hazards and dangers that shipping present to the profitability – and potentially even the viability – of their projects.

Amanda Fucking Palmer addressed a session at SXSW (a podcast will supposedly be up at some point). She raised $1,192,793. After Kickstarter’s fees, Amazon’s fees, and bad pledges, let’s assume she netted $1M. Amanda stated that their shipping costs ate up $250K of the funds they raised. 25%. WOW! I was astonished. She spoke specifically about the AU and NZ folks (though she clearly bears them no ill will!) where shipping generally well exceeded what they pledged – never mind the COGS.

The second interaction was a private conversation that I’ve summarized as follows:

Shipping is the dirty secret of Kickstarter that no one talks about partly because you come off as petty and trying to justify how much you’ve raised. They make no allowances for anything other than domestic shipping, so you have to come up with a flat rate for the rest of the world. Then because of the development time between the end of your Kickstarter and the product release, the postage rates go up. In our case, they nearly doubled, absolutely killing us on hundreds of international packages. Some countries came to $80-90 to ship – where we up-charged a flat $30.

The flat-rate international thing seems like a real problem that Kickstarter needs to address. Canadians presumably end up pissed off because they grossly over-pay, and folks in Kinshasa and Sydney get an amazing deal. Fascinating problem!

When Local Retail = Internet Retail…

Is it time to short every US retailer?

According to an article in Slate today, Amazon is gearing up to stop fighting about sales tax and to begin local – even hyper-local – distribution. If this is true, and it does come to pass, we will witness the near-complete creative destruction of the centuries-old retail industry (admittedly, a middle-man business) in a matter of a score of months or so. Amazon does now, or will soon, collect sales tax in twelve (12) states. That’s over 25% of the states that have sales taxes. Based on this report, we can only assume the other 35 states won’t be too far behind.

In theory, you will soon be able to order something on Amazon, and pick it up via their locker service as early as later that same day. Hell, it’s easy to imagine an army of daylight-idle pizza delivery peeps working with Amazon to provide same-day – or even same-hour – delivery. In this case though, it most certainly won’t be an E-Dream – it’ll be viable business, and serious as a fucking heart attack.

From the article:

Physical retailers have long argued that once Amazon plays fairly on taxes, the company wouldn’t look like such a great deal to most consumers. If prices were equal, you’d always go with the “instant gratification” of shopping in the real world. The trouble with that argument is that shopping offline isn’t really “instant”—it takes time to get in the car, go to the store, find what you want, stand in line, and drive back home.

This chart sure-as-shit won’t look so rosy:

By the way, those six retailers, combined, represent almost half a trillion dollars in market cap. What should be scaring folks is that if Amazon (et. al., presumably) can pull this off, what we will see will be a creative destruction of value – a negative sum gain – not a simple shifting of value. For sake of (bad) example, Amazon will double to $200B market cap and those six retailers will lose 80% of their market caps. That’d amount to $300B in market cap “up and vanish[ing] like a fart in the wind.”

I’m a huge Amazon fan. I’ve been so for a LONG time. I was a huge Kozmo fan (RIP). The vast majority of the things I purchase do not materially benefit by me having to go to an actual Home Depot or Target location. Bring it on, Amazon!

PS: You might also want to short mall owners. Though maybe they could turn all the malls into weird apartments and condos and dog grooming centers 🙂

PLEASE Help Xeko!

So I don’t often make unabashed pleas for help, but this is one of those times 🙂 .

I NEED A FAVOR! Please help bring Xeko back from the brink of extinction!

I am part of the Xeko project that JUST LAUNCHED (w00t!) on Kickstarter! Xeko is a paper-based collectible/tradable card game that was created a number of years ago, was launched, and, sadly, failed. We are bringing the game “back from the brink of extinction” by moving it ONLINE.

Our goals with this Kickstarter effort are to leverage the crowdfunding community to:

  • find and build a passionate pre-release user base for the game – from alpha testers to beta testers and beyond;
  • learn from our backer community what they want from THEIR game that we haven’t thought of yet; and finally
  • get the funding we need so we can get the game made and released!

Crowdfunding only works if, well, the ‘crowd’ ‘funds’ (Q.E.D.!). So I’m asking for your support. You can do any and/or all of the following things to be helpful:

  1. Tell your friends about the Kickstarter campaign! The more the merrier! The words ‘crowdfunding’ and ‘bashful’ don’t work together well :-).
  2. Support the Kickstarter campaign! You can back Xeko with as little as one single dollar to show your love!
  3. Tell your friends!!!! Yes, it’s in there twice – it’s THAT important!
  4. Follow Xeko on Facebook, Twitter, and beyond – details below.

Here’s where you can find Xeko online to help in your SHARING efforts (please help!):

THANK YOU!!!!!

Now Causing Trouble at …. Oomba!

The news is out that the company I co-founded in 2010 – play140 – has been acquired by Oomba!

I have to tell you that I’m exceptionally jazzed with this! It’s a great outcome for play140. Oomba is doing some amazing things. With this merger, I get to do what I love re: play140 and get back to some compelling, old roots of mine that I love just as much!

Unfortunately, Oomba is not quite yet ready for the public. You can visit the Oomba teaser site and play with the collectible Oomba spinning tops! But for now, that’s all that’s really out there about what we’re up to. Or at least, that’s all I can say without subsequently killing you.

play140’s technology and games are being merged into Oomba. Our beloved T.A.G. The Acronym Game keeps pushing forward happily and funly (yeah, I know that’s not a word, sue me). The extensive technology we’ve built around bridging text-based game platforms (Twitter, SMS, Facebook, etc.) is going to play some important roles in Oomba’s future. Oomba is attacking a > $10B market and we aim to kill it!

I have joined Oomba as President & COO via the acquisition. Of course my official title will remain “Chief Troublemaker”. How could it not?  I even have my own Oomba top collectible, as illustrated below – complete with bass guitar, pipe, nomex suit, and quite a bit more gray hair than seems reasonable 😉 😉 😉

Wish me, and us, luck!