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Entrepreneurs: Ajo at The Lean Startup Conference

November 27th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

Ajo Fod

As you all know, or will learn the hard way, you need be sure there is a market, before you build your product or service.

That is a basic premise of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, so I was very excited to be able to attend the Lean Startup Conference this week. It was a great opportunity to learn new ideas and refresh old ones.

I got to the conference early to hear Ryan Hoover from Product Hunt who had a great idea for community-oriented scalable startups
-  “Go where you are loved. Give it away. Build a community around it.”

Startups within companies are apparently catching on as well. Bennet Blank from Intuit suggests that for internal startups, the idea is to show people how to do it rather than tell them what to do, i.e lead by example.

Specifically for internal starups, the idea is to use the company culture but to do things slightly differently. The key idea is to avoid scaring anyone that something might break.

Startups within government have got to be a breath of fresh air. There are 2 parallel efforts in the US government to create better software and openness: USDS and 18F.
Leah Bannon spoke of how the FEC.gov is trying out open git repositories for collaboration at

A startup is a way to solve new problems. The best way to learn of problems is to talk to people.
– Unfortunately, people are nice.
– They will make up problems to make you go away.
– What people do on the other hand is interesting.
– They create inefficient work-arounds.
– This is where a product may fit in.
-There is a difference between Needs vs wants.
– Needs are well defined by behavior.
– Wants on the other hand are what people say they need. It changes.

So, how to find people ?
– Post on groups that have a concentration of users.
– Use surveys that take a maximum of 1 minute to answer.
– This can create fast learning.

So, what to build?
- Make it small and useful.
– It should take as little work as possible.
– And be easy on first time users.
– Give them something easy to do.

Amir Shevat spoke of how he initially built a meditation app.
It was initially hard to find the button on the app.
It’s also hard for first-timers to meditate for 45 minutes!
I reduced the meditation time for much better results.
Here is the meditation app.

At lunch I met Eric Leppo from the Silicon Valley Software Group, who told me about an MVP calculator he built, which estimates the cost of creating an MVP based on various features of the app.

There is a focus on marketing people these day. Amanda Richardson from Hotelstonight.com may have a point redirecting focus to problems instead. It seems more relevant since you can only solve problems. In other words, you need talent to solve problems and market the solutions to people.

They built an app that solves the problem of the last minute booker.
Its an easy to use interface to be used on mobile.
If they just worried about hiring stars, they’d not get anywhere!

But I keep feeling people-light in my startup. Lots of skills are involved in building things.
So I’m not really clear about the importance of finding the best people and getting a massive cast of characters.
Also, I learned that I should reward small failures because they enable learning.

One of the ideas from the closing conversation with Eric Reis and Chris Dixon from Andreessen Horowitz was that too much money is a major problem.
Money gets spent in the same 18 months no matter how much.
If you don’t have product/market fit, it’s a waste and can lead to big losses.
Startup movement is about building things.
The important change in this generation is that entrepreneurship is a viable career path.
Business has become more democratic.

Lyft was initially Zimride for a long time. They had a carpooling app for long distances.
What they learned from that car-share experiment was that it had to be:
-On demand.
-Dramatically increased supply.
-Community: there is the idea that taxis were disgusting.

General startup algorithm is to find the best problem to solve.
- Develop the technology to solve it.
– A lean startup keeps risk low with fast iterations.
– Accurate bad news is better than inaccurate good news.
– Valuation is not a KPI.

Find the thing needed to be successful.
– Brady Nagel had a great talk on using LinkedIn (the free part)
– Google is not bounded by LinkedIn’s rules that restricts search size.
- When you want to find problems you’ve to talk to strangers.
- LinkedIn is a database of strangers. It’s free!
- The goal should be to define the problem.
- So, don’t talk about the solution.
- Take out details about past positions in LinkedIn profile.
– to avoid biasing peoples answers.
– Find a group on LinkedIn.
– Promote events.
– Talk about problems.
– Look for relevant groups.
– Say that we are doing research if the group is moderated.
– Create a group on LinkedIn
– Invite people to participate.
-Other useful sites for meeting strangers:
– Find alumni networks

Here is an idea on how to start a conversation with a stranger:
Send an opening email saying:
– I’m involved in a program or am a researcher on X.
– You are knowledgeable about topic Y
– Can I have few minutes of your time or someone you know.
– How about such time on Tuesday?
– Follow up 3 times. That is persistence, more than that and you’re a pest :)

Andrea Hill from ReadyTalk on spoke about internal startups:
The key here is to find early customers who are stakeholders, then measure the importance of stakeholders in terms of:
– Contribution. Legitimacy. Willingness. Influence.
– Contribution: have valuable info.
– Legitimacy: are they affected?
– Willingness to engage.
– Necessity of involvement.
– Understand their needs.
– What does success look like to them? For example with the CFO, the idea is “Don’t break existing cash flow!”
– Find a sponsor to support and be the face of the project to the rest of the organization. This makes it easier to work on the product rather than explain all the time.
– Create a clear 2 way communication channel with management; in exchange, be honest when something is wrong.
The tradeoff with internal startups is that you take less risk and get less reward.

I went to this interesting talk about an experiment in a kitchen. The talk was called: Caution Live Subjects: by Lauren Braun
It was about an experiment to test if a sub-menu of possible substitutions on a menu added value.
They created real “looking” experiments for data and measured real behavior.
The conclusion from the test was that the list of substitutions added too much friction to add value.

In conclusion, the Lean Startup Conference was an interesting place to me as an entrepreneur. I met a lot of great people and heard many new and interesting ideas.

I’m a quant, so when I started Quantprice I tested the market, because it seemed the logical thing to do.

Since attending the Lean Conference, I look forward to using more lean methodologies as I build Quantprice.

And in case you are wondering, Quantprice improves Shopify’s e-commerce store margins over 30% in the same way that larger retailers and airlines do by enabling them to manage their offers in real-time based on factors that are automatically learned from past consumer behavior using big data and AI techniques.

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Brain Research: Be Grateful — Feel Happy

November 25th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

While people consciously think about being grateful on Thanksgiving, they would be wise to be grateful all year long.

studies suggest that practicing gratitude is important for your health, happiness, relationships, and self-control.

Happify, the company that uses information from studies in positive psychology to make you feel happier, provides an infographic to guide you.

Have a wonderful, happy Thanksgiving being grateful for what you have.

And join us Friday to share Ajo Fod’s learning experience at the Lean Conference earlier this week for which he is very grateful.

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Ducks in a Row: CSR Goes Straight to the Bottom Line

November 24th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Richard Branson started talking about “doing good by doing well” years ago and multinationals across the globe are finally getting on board.

Not because they suddenly grew a social conscience, but because it pays.

CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility has gone global, with companies across the spectrum.

But increasingly, it is what investors, customers, employees and other stakeholders have come to expect and demand. Millennials — industry’s new and future customers — cast a particularly keen eye on companies’ commitment to social impact.

Microsoft, Disney, Gap, JP Morgan Chase, Mattel, Coke, Pepsi, India’s Tata Group and Suzlon Energy, Chinese battery maker BYD, Brazil’s Natura Cosmeticos.

“The better CSR programs, either in emerging multinationals or developed-country multinationals … are not just philanthropy, they’re strategic.”

Internally CSR attracts customers and investors, can be used as a recruiting tool and beefs up retention.

And keep in mind that corporate social responsibility isn’t just for big, wealthy companies. SMB and even solopreneurs are in a position to make a difference, especially in their own local community.

Read the article for ideas.

Look around for a project that excites you and all your stakeholders.

Then do it.

Talk and planning don’t count.

Flickr image credit: JustyCinMD

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Golden Oldies: The Tao of Life

November 23rd, 2015 by Miki Saxon


It’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time. Read other Golden Oldies here

The Tao of Life

We learn through words and can often learn more by deconstructing them.

Just as one of the most critical managerial (human) actions is found in its own anagram the Tao of another is found within the word itself.

The word is LIFE.

The Tao of life is IF.

IF you think/say/do this instead of that the Tao changes.

The IF isn’t always conscious or obvious.

But it is there.

It’s up to you to choose consciously.

Flickr image credit: gfpeck

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If the Shoe Fits: Invest in Yourself

November 20th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mSince 1996 founder/CEO Kevin Plank built Under Armour into a real billion dollar company that went in 2005.

Real because that billion dollars is revenue, i.e., money paid to the company in return for its products.

In other words, sales, as opposed to a great story told to investors so they will fund yet another round raising valuation, but not value.

During his talk at the iConic conference, Plank cited two serious misconceptions rampant among today’s founders.

1. Raising money at high valuations is equivalent to a successful business

2. Going public is a way for founders to cash out and ease up on intensity

His thoughts echo what Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said at the Fortune Global Forum.

“They are being drawn in by these venture capitalists and private equity to take these huge amounts of money at these huge valuations. They cash out early, they buy these penthouses in the sky and then all of a sudden they’re trapped. They can’t go public because their last valuation would be higher than their public valuation.”

And Benihof sees value in an IPO that has nothing to do with losing intensity.

“Public markets are great for CEOs. You have to answer to the public market. You have to listen. You have to pay attention.”

Plank also offers a solution for cheap capital to fund growth.

“I think that the cheapest capital in the world is probably sitting in your inventory racks or the product you are trying to sell because, No. 1, it doesn’t require a board seat and doesn’t have an opinion to weigh in on what you are trying to do with your business. So use that as your capital. Go sell what you have, and go raise money.”

Granted, it’s a mundane solution, with no glitz and is unlikely to garner headlines in techland, but it works.

Kind of like getting your medical or law degree without student loans.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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Entrepreneurs: Informed Choice

November 19th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Wally Bock recently compared high flying CEOs to Icarus and provided three classic examples.

In case you’ve forgotten, Icarus’ wings melted when he flew too near the sun.

Icarus’s father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them.

Unfortunately, both traits often find a home in founder MAP.

Hubris: extreme pride or self-confidence… Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Sound like anyone you know or have read about lately?

Complacency seems more unlikely in a hard charging founder.

While Wikipedia considers it synonymous with contentment, Merriam-Webster provides a more accurate and commonly accepted definition.

Complacency: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction

That probably brings a number of people to mind.

The synonyms listed will surely clarify any questions you have, but what’s most interesting are the antonyms: humbleness, humility, modesty.

But here’s the real kicker. A new study finds that the most effective leaders by several different measures are those exhibiting the antonyms.

As you might expect, leaders who overestimated their own competence were the least effective. But the surprising finding was that leaders who underestimated their own competence were the most effective. Likewise, leaders who underestimated themselves had the most engaged employees.

Now you not only have a choice, you have enough information for it to be an informed choice.

Flickr image credit: Dan Moyle

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Miki’s Rules to Live by: About Rough Times and Relationships

November 18th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Rough times is not a function of what happens, but to whom it happens.

Relationships are measured by caring; caring about you as you are, instead of as they think you should be.

Flickr image credit: Ivy Dawned

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Ducks in a Row: Losing One’s Humanity

November 17th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


I’ve been writing a lot about Silicon Valley culture and, since I don’t live there any more, I usually cite/link to articles from those deep in the tech world who do or who write me directly.

Yesterday a question came in on my Quora feed that asked about the differences working in SV vs. the rest of the country.

If you ever wondered if media descriptions and commentary were hype, propaganda, sour grapes, ignorance or a combination thereof, then you really should take time to read the responses, especially Ken Miyamoto’s.

Miyamoto is a non-tech guy who, at the decrepit age of 39, moved to SV and ended up working for “one of the the most badass and innovative tech startups.”

We have this culture of brilliant kids that have a power that they can implement from a numbers perspective, but often (not always) fail miserably at implementing from personality perspective, yes, but even more so from a social perspective within the workplace and anything involved with that. (…)

There’s a clear disconnect, socially. I don’t know if it’s the generation. I don’t know if it’s the inability to balance responsibility of  power and position or ego or what have you. But there’s clearly a disconnect. (…)

The SV is an environment that is overly self-serving, self-rewarding, with little to no practiced responsibility of the social aspect of “the game.”

Beyond that, the SV proved too often be an overly analytical and knee jerk reactionary culture. Here you have young kids thrust into powerful (big or small) positions and, well, they act like young kids.

So to me, the Silicon Valley is a perfect storm of brilliance, power, new culture, money, money, money, and utter lack of social responsibility at times. (…)

That’s the major difference. Going from student to “rock star” so quickly. It leads to ego, blindness, paralysis of analysis, etc. And that culture is ever-spreading with Venture Capitalists young and old ready and willing to profit from it. 

Too many of the tech crowd have lost touch with the rest of society, don’t possess the skills to re-enter it and don’t see this as a problem, but the long-term result of losing touch with humanity is to eventually lose one’s own humanity.

(Funny how one’s mind works. I’m not sure why, but writing this reminded me of Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation series. In short, the series tells the story of mathematician Hari Seldon, who spends his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology. It is disrupted by an outsider known as the Mule, who was not foreseen in Seldon’s plan, so there is no predicted way of defeating him. Although I can’t connect it directly to the current love of data analytics, I’m sure it does and highly recommend it to you.)

Flickr image credit: kristy

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Golden Oldies: Compromise Means Listening

November 16th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

2293239853_ddd6bc4ef4_mIt’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress and with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

Compromise Means Listening (2008)

Jim Stroup at Managing Leadership wrote a fascinating post on the effects of principles and political compromise on our Constitution.

For the political slant click the link, but I think that these ideas are just as true in the business world.

“If you rule out compromising your principles, then you become an ideologue.”

Can business people be ideologues? Of course.

Managers adopt approaches and then rigidly try to implement (inflict?) them on every organization in which they work with no consideration as to their appropriateness.

Robert Nardelli did that when he tried to impose stringent metrics a la GE on Home Depot, ignoring cultural differences and the realities of running a successful consumer business.

“…maybe they see a higher, joint goal of sufficient value… This sometimes takes a kind of discipline, stamina, and focus that can be stunning, and much more productive, powerful, and enduring…”

When senior managers open themselves up to input from all levels of their organization—instead of forcing the dogmatic use a certain methodology—the results include stronger engagement, higher productivity and more innovation.

In business, this means a focus beyond today’s stock price—a focus on the long-term, which is rarely appreciated by Wall Street.

Compromise isn’t synonymous with ethical lapse, either; it’s not an excuse to lie, cheat, steal or fudge the information or the numbers.

It is about listening to others; listening to those whose ideas are revolutionary; ideas that are atypical; ideas that buck the norm and go in a new direction and that takes a lot of guts.

In business, as in politics, compromise often means being willing to put your job on the line—but refusing carries the same potential cost.

Flickr image credit: Scott Maxwell

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If the Shoe Fits: Do You Assume?

November 13th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mWhy is it that we assume the people in our own little bit of world see/do/think as we do.

Think about it.

Do you assume that when faced with choices they will choose as you would?

Do you assume the visions presented by your leaders are honest, true and in your best interest?

Do you assume your religious leaders practice what they preach?

Do you assume your spouse/partner/friend will like the movie/book/people that you like?

Do you assume your team will tackle work/projects in the same way you do?

Think about it.

For any of these assumptions to be true, the people involved would have to have exactly the same MAP and life experience that you have—which is impossible.

So the next time you find yourself assuming stop and remind yourself that they are not you.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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