Pen Y Fan

This one time I screwed up leadership and communication

When I was 18, I lead a team of young people into a 12 hour sailing race.
I was relying on the support of a bunch of their parents, but because we’d all done it before the previous year without a hitch, I assumed I didn’t need to communicate directly with these key team members. Primarily as a result of lack of communication, they pulled their support at last minute, leaving 50% of the team at the venue, with no boat or support team.
There’s a happy ending in a sense – that the remaining 50% of the team and I, were able to join with another struggling team, and gain the best race position in the club’s history [which was intensely pleasing].
However, it’s soured with the realisation that I failed to take any responsibility for the communication and organisational failures that lead to the key team members withdrawal.
I should have made sure to have conversations with them, to make sure it was still on their agenda and then, when it went pear-shaped, accepted more readily that [whilst I felt frustrated with the people] there was more I could and should have done.
Has there ever been times you’ve messed up and learnt from it? Let me know in the comments below.
Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete

My thoughts on Scotland

  • I support self determination of the people of Scotland.
  • I think it’s great that we can have an open and democratic conversation about it, in a civilised and peaceful manner.
  • I’m delighted by the level of engagement and thoughts people have on it, north and south of the border
  • If Scotland does become independence, I’m fearful about relations between the UK and Scotland. I hope these fears are unfounded, and I hope that, were it to happen, it would not become a source of conflict. I’m fearful because:
    • It’s really hard to separate without bad feeling:
      • was this deal negotiated in favour of one side or the other? (both will likely say the other)
      • did someone not play fair? (both sides will likely say the other)
      • it’s a very easy political manoeuvre to blame tough times, on another country – both sides may face those in the future
    • Very few countries have separated without violence, especially with a smaller unit devolving from a larger entity. Arguable the best example in recent history would be the Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia. I hope in the event of independence we can outdo them in peacefulness
    • I’m only afraid of bad feeling, aggressive posturing and violence. I’m hopeful that we enough shared respect and understanding for each other that this is not such an issue.
  • I’m excited by the referendum, because no matter what the result, it will have shaken up politics and engaged people in issues they care about.
    • I hope the interest and political engagement can continue to shake things up
    • I hope that each political group focus on positive ways to engage the people who are apathetic to the political system
    • I hope the quality of life in the whole of the British Isles continues to improve as fast as it has since the mid 20th century.

Really the referendum isn’t about you or me, it’s about how our children play together. I hope they’re free to play and enjoy a better life than the one we have.

Understanding Julian Huppert MP’s support of Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill

Of all the things I might say about Julian Huppert MP, stupid is not one of them – he’s consistently informed, reasoned and principled. Pretty good qualities of an MP, as I think you’d agree.

This makes his support of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill… surprising.

It seems to be a broadly unpopular stance, which (appears) inconsistent with what one might expect from him. I’m pretty sure we won’t change his mind, but I’m interested to try and understand it from his point of view.

My feeling is that he’s making this decision based on data that is privileged to him which he can’t share with us.

His major contribution to the bill, which legalises wholescale spying (including you Facebook, Gmail) in the UK and expands it to include non-UK citizens, is to make it expire in 2016, after the next General Election.

I think this article in the Guardian goes some way to explaining his point of view, and yet skirts the big questions like “but clause 5 and 6 massively change the scope of the bill” to target people outside the UK.

I feel like I’m going /r/conspiracy, and suggesting that lizards in the rotary club control the world, but one hypothesis for the bill seems less outlandish given the backdrop of Edward Snowden’s revelations about GCHQ and our knowledge that multiple foreign ISPs are suing GCHQ in a UK jurisdiction for spying on them.

My suspicion would be that:

  • Julian has been told this bill will be pushed through whether he opposes it or not
  • He’s been given an opportunity to insert some clauses into it, so long as they don’t alter the ones about interception
  • He may or may not have been told semi-directly by a bunch of security types about how GCHQ is in a precarious legal position which the establishment want to shore up

If we took those things as given, then if you look at his approach from his point of view, it kind of makes sense. I don’t support it. But it makes sense.

I guess we might find out after the next General Election when he can talk freely.

Value offerings of Generic Festival Food Retailers vs "The Carrot Soup Company"

A Blue Ocean business plan for you: The Carrot Soup Company

I’ve been reading Blue Ocean Strategy over the past week. I’ll write up my thoughts on the book in due course – I’ve not quite finished it yet.

Clara & I were throwing around the main premise of the book – about how to create Blue Ocean markets – and break away from the existing competition by compete in a market devoid of major competitors.

Festival Food Problems

Clara was explaining how Festival Food Retailers at major music festivals like Glastonbury work and how they’re characterised by:

  • largely high quality
  • low portion sizes
  • high price (most dishes more than £5 )
  • lots of choice per stall
  • slow delivery / long queues

This is partly because the stalls must deal with some festival-specific considerations:

  • limited onsite refrigeration space
  • limited ability to resupply during the day
  • large peaks in demand (eg rush for food when a band finishes)
  • constantly ready / readily available food

A Blue Ocean?

This creates an environment that could be shaken up – just by not benchmarking oneself against the competition, and creating something that attracts people who might give a festival food stand a miss (and maybe just skip a meal!).

If one was thinking of shaking things up, you’d have to have a quality product. I’m not qualified to talk about this, but I suspect the problems in catering are not whether it’s possible to create mouthwatering food, but whether you can sell it for a profit.

An Orange Ocean!

I suggest an ultra-cutback, ultra-simple, no-frills, offering nothing but::

  • A polystyrene cup of delicious Carrot (and Curried Apple/and Roast Parsnip/etc) Soup
  • An “Artisan” Bread Roll in a paper napkin
  • For £3
  • Served as fast as possible
  • With a Smile

In Blue Ocean Strategy’s [questionable] value diagrams style, you’d compare “The Carrot Soup Company”‘s offering with the Generic Festival Food Retailers like this:

Value offerings of Generic Festival Food Retailers vs "The Carrot Soup Company"
Value offerings of Generic Festival Food Retailers vs “The Carrot Soup Company”

Cost savings

In addition to the obvious changes in value to the customer – reducing price, increasing(?) portion sizes and increasing speed of deliver, you’re also able to cut backend costs:

  • Your inventory is much narrower (Soup, Bread, Polystyrene Cups, Paper Napkins)
  • You can make rolls & soup offsite (or purchase them from a third party!)
  • You can store the soup in large ‘tea’ urns/vats, allowing for constantly ready, quickly dispensable food (and no other equipment)

Customer Service

One way that Generic Festival Food Retailers cut staffing costs is making use of part time workers who will work several shifts, and get to spend some spare time seeing the festival. My suspicion is that one might be able to provide a better experience to customers by seeking out the superstars of the fast food industry who are extremely adept at rapidly making personal connections with a smile for long shifts, and seeing whether they’re interested in moonlighting for significantly above average wages. This point is moot, as I suspect that great customer service isn’t necessary to make it a success, but in my mind, great customer service is one part of a great customer experience – no matter how simple the experience.

You’d want to be able to cope with peaks in demand where the team could serve 100 customers in 10 minutes – that’s a customer every 6 seconds, and so you’d want to be able to work with your team to be able to specialise roles (collect £3, give orange ticket/collect orange ticket, give soup/give roll & shoe them away from the stall to avoid traffic jams) but them adapt if someone needed to step away to refill the soup urn, etc. My feeling is that you’re more likely to get this level of reliability from a close-knit paid team with experience and the right mindset.


A neat marketing thing you could do is make all your polystyrene cups very distinctive – maybe a distinctive bright orange (carrot!) colour? When your customers are walking around the festival, people may wonder – “what’s in those orange cups?” and then if/when they link them to your Carrot Soup Company stand, every time they see one, it’ll be a trigger for your brand.

A more traditional marketing thing you could do, if you proved the previous idea worked as intended, would be to do a twitter giveaway just as a major act was finishing – so the mass of people walk into the food area, to see a preseeded diminishing queue of people, and nearby people with orange cups.

It’s also worth pointing out that your product could probably be Vegan, Vegetarian, Halal, Kosher, nut-free etc with relative ease. Advertising this clearly would reduce questions (time-consuming) and objections (costs you a customer).

The finances

You’d have to sell a lot of soup. But not an unrealistic amount.

Glastonbury festival has 135,000 attendees, and a small, off-the-mainstream patch might cost ~£2-3k (and a better location, many times that – maybe ~£32k!)

But let’s suggest you start small, and after a successful MVP at a country fair or car boot sale, you try a small festival of ~10,000 attendees where I’d guess a catering pitch might be got for ~£750.

Your breakeven point on materials would probably be around 300 units? Not unachievable I’d say, with the right product fit.

Why is this online? Why don’t you do this?

  • I don’t know anything about catering
  • I don’t want to know anything about catering
  • Crowds are not my natural environment
  • Maybe someone I know, likes the idea of this
  • I reckon the net returns over 3 years are only something like £50k-75k
  • I reckon returns will drop off in the 3rd year as other traders emulate you
  • Opportunity cost – if Clara & I thought this up in 10 minutes, imagine what an hour would bring!
  • It’s fun to throw ideas around – sharing is caring!
Thoughts from the sky...

What purpose do religions serve in society? (A pragmatic view)

I sometimes feel it’s unfair to criticise early religions within the context of the highly developed, 21st century, welfare state that I live in.

Given a rural village in the 1500s Britain, religions were probably quite an effective way of keeping people motivated and providing a basic community support network and structure. If you take the approach that quality of life is the most important thing in a society, it doesn’t actually matter whether their teachings are “true” or not. In an undeveloped infrastructure, with poor communication and social welfare networks, it’s very fair to say that most mainstream religions can provide the structure needed to keep society in check.

Is it ideal? Hell no.

Do bad things happen in $SomeRelgion’s name? Yep.

Do people take things too far and cause upset? Of course.

Should you RageQuit now, or continue reading? Probably, read on – the clarifications are still to come.

If you have no police force, no education system, no social welfare system, no healthcare system and nothing to inspire people, most major religions go a long way in unifying communities and helping them improve their quality of life by implementing rudimentary support for these things.

Remember how most of the world couldn’t understand why, during the Olympics opening ceremony, lots of Brits started crying with pride during a segment on “their frickin’ health service”?

Imagine if the government funded NHS had never existed and instead religiously led institutions filled the function of free healthcare – can you imagine people might still feel the same of loyalty towards religious organisation that help their family and friends at a time of need? That’s how it used to be in our country, so it shouldn’t be too surprising it continues elsewhere.

And of course, in those cases, sometimes religious agendas override obvious, modern scientific and medical agendas, which sometimes means thing happen that we do not like at all (and are justifiably upset about). If we look pragmatically at whether the existence of those basic services to those without access to any services at all,  provide greater benefit or greater suffering then the balance is often in favour of a greater quality of life.

Often it would be great if something else could unify and inspire people to create an advanced community support network, and a society with lots of specialised functions (police officers, firemen, teachers, doctors) – though bear in mind that often when it’s not religion uniting people, it’s strong nationalistic views. But again, a poor communication network often means that isolated rural societies rarely are able to sustain mainly specialised functions at all, and so “the police” might also the local militia/military and are located several towns away, and most issues are fixed at village community level by whatever social structures exist to resolve it,.

To me, it seems likely that (as a rough rule of thumb) the less well connected, and the less access to social welfare a society has, the more religion is likely to find an obvious and comfortable place within that society.

(Scandinavia is one of those places which is widely regarded as being very developed, and whilst it is sparsely populated, the population is quite centralised in cities, with really good communication links and has one of the most fruitful welfare states in the world, and also, is one of the most godless places in the world. That’s not to say their society doesn’t celebrate religious holidays, they just don’t believe in god that much.)

Of course, it is absolutely fair to criticise religions for not adapting to the 21st century highly developed, welfare state society in which I live, but you can see why they’re in an uncomfortable position in the UK and similar countries; many of the clear and pragmatic benefits of religious institutions (basic law & order, basic hierarchies, basic healthcare, basic education, basic social welfare) have been eaten away by our developments in society – usually by governments or businesses, seeing the outreach functions of a religion, and reimplementing those benefits outside of the religious context.

Generally, I think that separating these services from religious movements is a good thing, (and you’d be hard pressed to find many religious people in this country to disagree), but given the role religion used to play here and continues to do so in other countries, it’s easy to understand why communities feel drawn together by its purpose.

Ultimately, I feel religion exists to improve a quality of life, of less developed societies – and its continued existence in those places (and decline elsewhere), for me, is a sign of that.

And what about you, you ask?

You’re free to try to change the societies of this world for the better in whatever way you choose.

You can choose what’s important to you, you can gain greater understanding of why it is, and you can help develop that vision into action.

And precisely how you do that, is entirely up to you. Good luck! :)

You may wish to also read “If I were a religious man” and “If I was an atheist, man“.

Just Look Up

If I was an atheist, man.

Every so often, I see atheists having a bonfire party, religious people getting upset, or religious people having a bonfire party and atheists getting upset. Given my beliefs and thoughts on religion, I find this quite saddening.

A degree of understanding and respect, even for people you deeply disagree with, can be very beneficial to you. Firstly, you’ll find other views less confusing, but mainly this is a great tool for helping the people you disagree with, change themselves.

When you take the time to sit down with people who hold different views and opinions, when you seek the common values that you all agree with, and then take your time to understand the other side’s point of view, you can really make an impact.

For me, the Atheism vs Theism arguments look a bit like this:

From F7U12
From F7U12

So when I find fundamentalist/evangelical atheists getting their knickers in a twist, or  fundamentalist/evangelical religious people doing the same, I just sort of tune out…

XKCD 774: "Atheists"
XKCD 774: “Atheists”

In my mind, evangelical Atheists and fundamentalist Christians have a lot more in common than they think they do.

You may also enjoy “If I were a religious man“.

Notes on a book: Remote: Office Not Required by 37signals

I first heard about Remote: Office Not Required when my friend, John Leach, mentioned on social media he’d been interviewed for it.

Remote: Office not Required
Remote: Office Not Required

Interested enough to see what it was he was interviewed about, I ordered a copy, and finally finished reading it yesterday.

In short, the book is a persuasive set of mini-essays about why teleworking works well for 37signals, and various of their friends.

Written by Jason Fried (co-founder of 37signals) and David Heinemeier Hansson (author of Ruby on Rails & 37signals person), the book basically assumes that you aren’t already remote working, and perhaps, are seeking to convince your boss/management or your workforce, it then goes on to explain various different advantages of remote working, and techniques 37signals (and friends) have used to work effectively.

Personally, I already work from home… (at the very least, one morning a week), and many of the people I work with are geographically dispersed, so online collaboration and chat is something I’m used to.

Even in my personal life, as I write this, I’m watching my girlfriend makes silly faces in a different city on my second monitor, through the power of web:rtc video chat.

Reading the book, I had various thoughts:

  • There’s a chapter called “The New Luxury” which contrasts the luxury perks of “old” companies in days gone by with the perks of “new” large tech companies:
      • Old:  “a nice company car, an office on the top floor of a high rise and a secretary”
      • New “fancy chef & free meals, rooms of arcade machines, free laundry, massages”
    • The chapter goes on to say they’re both ways to make you trade hours at home/doing your hobbies/with your family, for time at work.
    • I think there’s a lot to be said for this – whatever you think of free food etc (I think it’d jolly nice – I <3 free food!) if you have hobbies you can’t take part in, because of work, or family, friends, you rarely see or you’re prevented from living the lifestyle you dream of living because you’re forced to live within commuting distance of a specific office building, then remote work may work for you.
  • When they talk about talent not being bound to hubs, I’m reminded that one of the strong drawing points (after friends/family) that means I remain in Manchester – rather than say, London – is the proximity to mountains of an interesting nature.
  • I was intrigued to read about their 6 monthly retreats – it seems like a sensible way to get their whole organisation in one place for some time, and intensely do all the face to face collaboration, team building and strategy setting, and then dissipate back to their different parts of the world refreshed with enthusiasm and socialisation
  • Thinking about their hiring process, clearly, they have a problem with having to sift through a great deal of talent to find the person they want, but I feel their approach of giving people 1-2 week paid breakable projects to demonstrate themselves on, is a good way to let a candidate’s personality show through.
  • Their idea of a check-in – speaking to every employee every 1-2 weeks (outside the pattern of any project-based communication) and this seems very wise – in their words: “These quick calls prevent issues and concerns from piling up wiithout being addressed…. Waiting six months or a year for the next formal review is too long”.
  • They talk a great deal about tools – Basecamp their self-written workflow product, email, IM, etc. but the most important tool they talk about is the ability to communicate clearly through written language – the largest proportion of their debate and conversation is text based, so it makes sense that this is actually the most important skill for any of their employees to have, and to develop.
  • It’s somewhat unfair to mention, but I was struck (as I often am) by the cultural differences between UK & US companies. 37signals is a very progressive US based company, no question, but even their ‘unlimited’ vacation policy would probably make me feel self-conscious about taking the minimum statutory UK holiday time.
  • I like their idea of semi-digital nomads – and I raised my eyebrows hearing how many of their employees had relocated around their countries or the world, whilst working for 37signals – that seemed very appealing. (Other people are also doing this)
  • For an occasional remote worker like myself, I found their suggestions of external co-working spaces, coffee shops, and libraries as a way of sustaining motivation and getting a change of scenario, provoked various thoughts – I should probably give it a try.
  • One of the really cool things they did, was that every week, they created a thread on the company forum/mailing list and wrote a few sentences about what they’d been up to that week – so everyone knew what their colleagues (remotely distributed) were up to, even if they were in different parts of company, and the world!

I didn’t find the book groundbreaking. Lots of it, like their evangelism of 40 hour work weeks, giving a shit about staff, online collaboration and in essence remote working, is stuff I already agree with and (to some degree) know about.

I think, if you’re considering trialing remote working in your organisation, or you want to start a globally distributed company, or you’re interested in how remote working might practically work, then this is the book for you.

If you already remote work, or allow teleworking, you may like to read it to understand how 37signals do things, and how 37signals deal with problems you’re familiar with – it seems like the book speaks lots of common sense – yet no knowledge is common until is shared – so grab a copy and familiarise yourself with their approach.

So if that appeals, grab yourself a copy!

Founders at Work

Notes on a book: Founders at Work

Yesterday, I finally completed Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

Founders at Work
Founders at Work

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Jessica Livingston of YCombinator with cofounders and key people of a great deal of well known (and in some cases, less well known, but notable) companies.

Because each chapter is a different interview with a different person, about a different product, company or service, it’s very easy to read small amounts at a time.

There’s quite big variety of products and services that are discussed, but the chapters I particuarly enjoyed were:

  • Max Levchin/PayPal: I hadn’t realised PayPal had originally been a PDA based crypto-system.
  • Craigslist is always somewhat fascinating, and Craig Newark as always seems like a sensible and straightforward sort of person you’d like to work with.
    • Their “softly, softly, BAN, reconcile” approach with rogue apartment real estate agents in New York seems to work well for them.
    • In the long term, I’m concerned that Ebay’s influence on them, will mean they’re unable to compete in new markets because of Gumtree.
  • Charles Geschke/Adobe – I hadn’t realised Adobe developed PostScript for Apple to solve the problem of printer/computer communication.
    • Apple’s present day support for CUPS makes more sense.
  • James Hong/HOT or NOT and Joshua Schachter/ – I found these chapters interesting as they were essentially developing “somewhat trivial” web services, that no-one would have said they would have needed.
    • HOT or NOT had the interesting ‘luck’ of being an instant, unexpected hit, with scaling problems associated with that, whilst was able to grow relatively smoothly and organically whilst its founder was still a programmer for an investment bank.
    • I found James Hong’s description of getting his uptight asian  parents to do the initial moderation for HOT or NOT (and when he decided it was time to get someone else to do it), exceptionally amusing.
  • In contrast, James Currier‘s (which I hated i 2007!) set out with a serious aim in mind (and arguably sold itself to Monster on its original ‘serious’ premise) but quickly realised it had to lighten up to make themselves appeal much more.
    • I’d say that HOT or NOT and probably had a much easier and less stressful growing experience, because they solved their growth problems and got their users first, and worried about everything else after that.
  • Most interestingly, none of them (and you can include Caterina Fake/Flickr in this), said “we going to set out to do a startup to dothis relatively trivial thing” – they all built things as a joke/side project/personal project – that only became the product of a startup, once they had lots of users.
  • Probably controversially, I didn’t actually find the Steve Wozniak/Apple Computers chapter very interesting, accessible or useful. I don’t doubt his mastery of his field (using as few chips as possible, to do as much as possible), but the detail just lost me.
  • Having said that, it was very interesting to contrast him with the Ron Gruner and what he had to say of his time at Alliant Computer Systems.
    • I think I’d definitely prefer to work with Wozniak than someone whose hiring process involves refusing to tell candidates what the process is, telling them they’re working every other Saturday and fostering what came across as an exceptionally competitive working environment (based on his background).
  • It was interesting read David Heinemeier Hansson‘s experiences at 37signals of writing the MVP of Basecamp – I’ve heard of agencies trying to build products on various occasions, but some of the reasons Basecamp succeeded.
    • (37signals already were well known, and widely looked up to by the people who [initially] were likely to find it most useful, and be most likely to consider adopting something new.)
  • In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to Joel Spolsky‘s Fog Creek Software – Joel was widely regarded via his blog, and then put out a product (FogBugz) that appealed directly to the people who were his blog’s audience.
    • On a sort of note, I’d be interested to know how much GitHub was slaughtering FogBugz’s market. I can see Fog Creek Software have git/hg products now, but when I was reading the interview – I sort of felt that the debates mentioned in the book about whether integrated wiki’s were what consumers wanted missed the point.
    • I suspect they’ll have legacy renewals, but I worry for the product’s future growth prospects – I’d suggest that perhaps that that product is now yesterday’s posterchild.
    • Today I learned he went on to create Stack Overflow… so I guess FogBugz worries may not be a personal concern so much.
  • I really liked the three interviews with Dan Bricklin/Software Arts, Michell Kapor/Lotus Development and Ray Ozzie/Iris Associates.
    • Being a child of the 00s, Lotus Notes wasn’t really a thing when I started playing with computers. I knew it existed from the Save As dialog that let you save in a format that it might accept, but I never understood anything about the background to the concept of spreadsheets (Visicalc) or the unusual development setup that Lotus Notes was produced under.
  • It’s quite hilarious to read (in 2014) about WebTV and how they managed to cause so much of a stir (to the point that Microsoft bought them) when that category of device was still (somewhat) trying to break through in 2014.
    • (Set top boxes are really the conceptual children, and whilst it’s easy to understand why Microsoft were probably being visionary in realising their significance, it’s most interesting that Microsoft didn’t succeed in the smartTV, setop box, PVR sector, even when the original XBOX was released)
  • Compared to the story of TiVo a few years later, it seems to me, that WebTV open people’s minds, but TiVO actually produced an MVP (and later real-life-actual-product) that people really wanted, once they realised it was possible – Mike Ramsay‘s description of demo’ing ‘pausing’ live TV – to people for the first time is a great example of how consumers should react when they’re presented with a feature that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they needed in their life.
  • Given the majority of people were at least somewhat technical, it was interesting to read about Lycos which was effectively founded by non-techies (the technology was sold to them by a university, and Bob Davis – previously a salesman – was positioned as CEO, which is somewhat unusual).
    • Financially, Lycos looks like a success in hindsight – it was sold to Telefonica -, but I struggle to associate it was much to sing about. I simply can’t help feeling that Telefonica was just getting a bad deal buying it (and indeed, they were!).
  • I particularly liked the chapter about ArsDigita from Philip Greenspun‘s perspective.
    • There’s a lot about how he ran ArsDigita that seemed to make sense from my point of view – for example, recruitment, working quality of life, technology stacks, small self-managed groups with responsibility for their own P/L and where everyone had some common responsibilities for key things.
    • His adventures with Venture Capital sound like a farcical nightmare, almost worthy of a sitcom. However, it does re-enforce – “if it ain’t totally broke” – don’t take someone else’s money in exchange for arguing with their people about how to do things – the distraction is never going to work out for you.
  • Firefox’s non-profit ‘intrapreneur’ development within Mozilla is quite interesting.
    • We forget the days when Firefox was the edgy browser that was up and coming, but Blake Ross did a good job in his interview of explaining how he took the Mozilla browser project as it stood, focused on things that users would want, simplified things, then managed to develop the community of raving users who (for example) took out a full page advert in the New York Times to shout about how awesome Firefox was.
  • Similarly, we forget that less than 10 years ago, Google was just a search company, and their first branch out, was Gmail.
    • Created by Paul Buchheit, at the time, Gmail radically changed the way people looked at email, and radically changed the way people looked at Google. He encountered quite a lot of organisational hurdles and technical hurdles (fun fact: an early [internal prototype] version of Gmail was stored on a single harddisk with no backups, Paul transplanted the hard disk platter into another housing and was able to recover all the data)

There’s many more interesting stories – the story of Hotmail, the story of all the blogging platforms – Moveable Type, Blogger, the story of WAIS, Alexa rankings, toolbars, the Internet Archive, etc but honestly, if you want to read about them, you may as well grab a copy of the book and read through them yourself.

I also feel it worth noting that there were a few moments in the book where I felt people were talking out of their arse/commenting on things they didn’t seem to know about. It’s fact of life when taking advice from anyone, and I’m happy they weren’t edited out – you need to consider things people say, and decide for yourself whether it’s actually what you should do, or whether it simply was what once worked well for the person suggesting it.

The book feels slightly dated – as a 7 year old book of startup stories is likely to feel. In 2007, the recent memories were of the dotcom crash, and the post dotcom successes – the boom in consumer social or mobile startups isn’t really addressed at all (the iPhone was barely released when the book came out).

Jessica has said that she’d like to write another volume, if/when she gets time, and I certainly think, there’s scope for it. There are many new stories from the past 7 years, and many existing stories with new chapters to be told, as well as many other stories from times gone by that deserve page space.

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.

Notes on a book: Pitch Anything

I’ve recently read Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff.

Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff
Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

It’s an interesting book, on the back someone’s written “move over Neil Strauss – Pitch Anything is the new the Game”. I think I can see why – they both inhabit an area of applied game theory or applied NLP, which when put into words, is likely to be quite polarising.

Pitch Anything explains an approach, or rather a toolbox of techniques, which one can use when trying to negotiate some kind of deal/pitch something to somebody.

A few months ago I read Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (a very good book I need to reread and write about here) which quite early on explained the difference between co-operative and competitive negotiation strategies. Co-operative negotiators try to find out if there’s other concessions that can be made that might make a deal possible – for example in terms of a salary negotiation – the worker might explain that he’d like more money, explaining his young child needing childcare – his boss might offer instead that perhaps he could work more flexibly and together they could work out something that’d work for both parties – and the could review it in a few months time to see whether it was working. This is a classic example of where competitive bargaining techniques aren’t likely to get the best results.

A competitive bargaining situation might be where you’re buying a used car, you see the car listed for a bit more than you’ve seen other similar cars listed for, and you think it doesn’t look like it’s in such good condition as was promised. In addition, you’re unlikely to see the seller again (NB: a different approach should be taken when buying from a friend) so if you don’t competitively bargain, you won’t get the best deal. You might say you’d see similar cars listed for a lower amount, and you think it’ll need a bit of work doing, so you’re only willing to offer 70%. Then you might stick to that, and gradually move to say ~75%, but only when the seller has moved to ~80-85%.

(If this sounds scary and interesting – Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People is amazing.)

Most people have a native default to either co=operative negotiation styles, or competitive negotiation styles, which they prefer to apply to things.

The thing is, a co-operative negotiator and a co-operative negotiator will find a good result and a competitive negotiator and a competitive negotiator will find a good result (though they may not find as good a solution), but co-operative negotiator put against a competitive negotiator will lose out, big style.

Pitch Anything doesn’t cover any of this, nor does it say that in co-operative negotiating situations, you should probably avoid anything written in this book. The author’s background is investment banking, which clearly has a much more competitive atmosphere to negotiating deals.

I think this book is excellent at providing advice on how to teach yourself to approach a specific type of negotiation with a competitive mindset.

Various parts of it might seem like “being a dick” – and I think it’s worth being aware of that. Ignoring someones receptionist, and storming through a building, opening every door asking to speak the managing director *is* rude. In the context of someone who’s effectively stolen $600k your money into a ponzi scheme? Perhaps that what you need to do to show that you mean business.

In fairness, the book makes it very clear about keeping it fun, and like any tools, you can apply them to situations as you see fit.

The book is heavy on detail, and Oren is a master at starting stories and leaving you waiting for the ending (in itself a pretty fun trick), but I think it will be two or three reads through before I’m funny able to grasp his approach from start to finish.

It’s a fun book, and if you’re generally quite a co-operative negotiator, then I recommend it – it’ll improve your confidence in those slightly more competitive situations, (which you don’t like, because you feel people walk all over you).

I’d probably recommend reading the negotiation strategy book mentioned above, first, but feel free to just dive in.

If you’re a traditional sales person, you too, might find it interesting. Basically it’ll throw out everything you’ve ever learnt. It’s polarising, and I suspect many traditional sales people won’t like, specifically because it walks all over them.

Anyway, that was fun. I’ve various other books on the go, and hopefully I’ll write them up when I get to the end of the next one.

Happy smiley face

The problem with April Fools day…

The problem with April Fools day is a problem also associated with Christmas, and other days.

I love a good joke, but lots of corporate April fools jokes miss the point.

In the same way that Christmas shouldn’t be the only time you’re generous to your family, April 1st shouldn’t be the only day of the year companies should have fun with their communications.

I mean, a funny joke-prank is just as good a bit of content to share with the public on April Fools day, as almost any other day of the year.

And the advantage, from a marketing perspective: you have much less media competition, and people won’t be expecting it – so they’ll probably find a well executed idea, a lot funnier.

So tomorrow, when the April Fools day jokes have worn old – why not think about how you can help your potential customers have a bit of a giggle, and introduce them to you…