On Design

Why design matters a lot, but not the way we think!

The notion of UX design has been thrown around a lot in the web for the last few years. User experience is important, that’s easy to understand. The last time you had a negative experience at a restaurant or hotel did you go back? On the web it is no different, especially in a space where millions of people are landing on new websites for the first time every single day. If they have a bad experience they will probably never return. But the kind of design that I want to talk about is for the user who is already actively interacting with your product. Have you ever wondered if you designed it the best way possible? Why does that even matter if users are actively using it every day?

There is a guy named Timothy Presterograduated from MIT, who set out to solve a really important problem. Over 4 million babies are dying every year around the world for completely preventable reasons. Turns out half of those kids would make it, if you could just keep them warm. When Timothy, along with his team, created a solution it got on the cover of TIME magazine. Pretty good start, right?

Timothy quickly discovered that while they had created a really beautiful product designed to inspire, it never got used. In short, Timothy learned a really good lesson. Design a product so that it will be used, not so that it will win design awards. To do that he needed to change the way he thinks about design.

there’s no such thing as a dumb user,.. there are only dumb products.

We most often think of design as it relates to beauty. However, we need to think of design in multiple ways, including function. One of the things that Timothy learned is that “there’s no such thing as a dumb user,.. there are only dumb products.” We need to start creating products that are easy to use correctly, and hard to use wrong.

Have you ever noticed how programmers tend to create incredibly efficient code that is incredibly hard to use? Or how graphic designers often create truly stunning pieces without much thought into the real world ramifications.

Design matters a lot, it matters to users. Could you imagine how different an application like Photoshop would be if they created a product that was easy to use correctly and hard to use wrong. I’ve heard numerous conversations about the frustrations of Photoshop over the years.

Later, this same Timothy had another opportunity, this time to create a product to cure children of Jaundice. Apparently it’s very easy to cure. All you need to do is shine a blue light on an infant for a couple weeks. However, it’s also easy to use current products wrong. Because of it, children are needlessly dying. Timothy and his team designed their product so that it was easy to use right. The bucket only fits one child so the light covers all of the child and the design looks trustworthy so that doctors will trust it and use it.

Often when we think of design we focus on how it looks or what experience it gives the user. We know it’s a good design when it wins awards. However, people like Timothy are discovering that awards are not always the best way to judge design. Instead, if our goal is to create designs that make the world better then we need to focus on designing them to be used, not just to be admired.

On Companies

Why I am glad Gizmodo got it wrong about Grooveshark

Last year, 11 months ago, Gizmodo posted an article claiming Grooveshark Will Soon Be Destroyed. Man, I am glad they got that one wrong. I love Grooveshark. I admit, I never used Grooveshark in the old days. In fact I only stumbled upon it in the last year. (After it was supposed to be dead). Since then I have fallen in love. How does that song go?

As an application developer I was initially intrigued with how they had developed their app. I thought it was really well designed. I love how it works. Then I started using it and I was hooked. It’s so unenvasive. I read a comment about Grooveshark that all its users were evil and didn’t attend any shows or pay for music. I thought, how can that be when my friend, a musician himself, uses Grooveshark to create playlists and share them with me. How I attended two awesome concerts this summer and purchased too much from iTunes. Thanks to Grooveshark I got into Bon Iver before rocking off to their show. Maybe I just haven’t met the evil ones yet.

I like the direction Grooveshark is going and I am glad that Gizmodo got it wrong.

On Leadership

10 traits of an amazing leader, you can have

So tonight I attended a brilliant talk on leadership by Dave Olson. When I wasn’t aggressively taking notes I found myself nodding in agreement. Here is a summary of the 10 traits of an amazing leader.

1. It’s where the buck stops

We are all leaders. Some seem to naturally attract people’s respect and ears, for others of us we are in the process of learning the same traits to become great leaders too. When looking for leaders in a room watch where the buck stops. It’s a simple expression, but it means a lot. A real leader finds problems and solves them, they don’t just highlight them for others and pass them on, no they take full responsibility and own them.

Increasing your ability to solve problems is how you grow. Do you want to solve $10,000 problems or $10,000,000 problems.

2. Be decisive

Leaders are clear and confident about their decisions. It’s hard for a team to follow an indecisive leader. As Dave said, “People don’t rally around unless they hear a clear trumpet call!”

3. Adaptability

Adaptability is about more than being flexible and able to change. It is about knowing the difference between things that you can control and things that you can’t. A leader knows how to let go of the things they can’t control and laugh about them.

4. Become a good judge of character

Burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice shame on me. As a leader we put people in places of leadership, we need to be able to trust the character of our teammates. Whereas skills can be taught, character is really hard to bring out of somebody. As Dave said, when you have a garden it’s better to uproot weeds early than to let them grow and uproot everything around them when you pull them out.

5. Develop self-awareness

Often times the person we see ourselves as is not the same as the person others see us as. This is a tough skill to develop and sometimes it requires honesty from others, which can hurt a little. Leaders are self-aware and develop inter-personal skills that help the people around them grow. We need to be honest with ourselves so that we can “preach what we practice, not practice what we preach.” When a leader does well he reflects it on his organization and team. When it goes badly he reflects it on himself.

When a leader does well he reflects the success on his team. When a leader does badly he reflects it on himself.

6. The ability to deal with criticism

Criticism is hard to receive. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it is not, often times it is a mix of both. Leaders know what to accept, what to throw away and what to learn from.

7. The ability to deal with flattery

Flattery can be much more dangerous than criticism. A leader knows to be careful of flattery as it can greatly mislead them about the character of the flatterer and lead to some bad decisions. As Dave stated, “If you believe criticism it will depress you, if you believe the flattery it will destroy you.”

8. Become great at communication

Leaders have the ability to rally people to a better future. They know how to communicate vision. A leader must be clear on outcome and focus, but not on all things. They need to give followers the latitude to select the strategies and tactics to accomplish the goals.

9. Be focused

The one difference between successful people and non-successful is focus. Focus needs to be simple and clear and people will be on board. It needs to be purposeful. “This is why I am doing it.” A leader eliminates distractions. They know how to kindly say no because they have a focus. They have something they are already doing. A leader does the things they are good at. And a leader delegates tasks to people if are good at them. They don’t delegate a task to people if they are not good at it. Leaders find what people are good at and they give them more of it. A leader also gives people the freedom to try things and lets them say, “this isn’t what I’m good at.”

10. Take care of yourself

The main reason that leaders don’t achieve their goals is because of burnout. Don’t let yourself become a rusty bucket on the side of a road because of burnout. Take care of yourself because no one else will. Great leaders make sure they don’t get tired. I actually wrote another post on overcoming burnout here.


Essays On Intelligence

How to overcome Burnout. 7 simple ways to overcome burnout learned from personal experience!

light bulb not burnt outBurnout is the worst. There is nothing quite like it. You go from performing at 100% to less than 50% and there is nothing you can do to boost your output. Not even caffeine helps. I remember the first time I experienced burnout. We had just attended a trade show in Toronto. The months prior to the show I worked very hard to get everything ready. I was designing the trade show booth, the signage and programming the new StreetText features. Then in the airport on the way to Toronto I got food poisoning. It wasn’t until after the trade show that I burnt out. I didn’t even understand what was happening.

Sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop open, I was writing some code. I think it was a Saturday afternoon. Suddenly my brain started to get foggy. It’s hard to explain. I stood up shook it off and sat down again to keep working. Again my mind became foggy. So this time I thought I must need a five minute break. So I took one, everything cleared up I felt normal again and went back to work. I wrote about 2 lines of code and again my mind became foggy. I kept doing this all afternoon wondering what was going on until I finally gave up and took the rest of the day off. The next 6 months were brutal. I went from foggy to exhausted, my productivity decreased substantially and I began depending on caffeine to power through the days. Soon my body became sick, I stopped caring about leading a company, setting direction or fighting to maintain the levels of excellence I believed in. I felt like giving up.

That was not quite 2 years ago and I am still recovering. On my journey to overcome burnout I allowed myself to repeat bad patterns of behaviour again and again before becoming sick enough that I knew I needed to re-look at how I was operating.

Have I learned anything?

Rule number 1: Stress kills.

This is really important to understand. It is hard enough when you need to work late to complete projects, but when you are under stress too, that’s when your body gets sick. I was working in a high-stress environment. I have two business partners, one of which naturally puts a lot of stress into the business. I’m very grateful for both of my business partners, they bring a lot of different skills to the table that I don’t. But a culture of stress is not worth much.

If you work under a culture of stress you need to stop. Either change your environment and work somewhere else or change the environment. For me to change the culture meant that I needed to lay down some ground rules. Project deadlines need to be realistic. Over expectations are not acceptable and additional “outside” pressure to complete jobs is not acceptable. High performers like you and I don’t need additional stress from others. It doesn’t help productivity. Ultimately it kills it. The challenge with rules is they need to be enforced. Our tendency as a company is to under-estimate project deadlines, become stressed when we cannot meet our own promises and project that stress onto each other. I am still working at changing that culture and it usually requires a battle every step of the way.

Rule number 2: Get active.

As my body became more sick it became harder for me to eat food. I would feel sick at work, at home, at meetings and when traveling. This summer I started biking to work regularly and I noticed that when I biked I felt better. Biking became an escape for me. It gave me time to feel normal and the space to process some of the problems we were trying to overcome at work. Overtime biking actually improved my health. Not a lot, but a little bit. But when I stopped biking for a short while I would get much sicker. I know that being active helps combat stress. For me cycling was my way out.

Rule number 3: Live caffeine free.

I no longer drink caffeinated drinks (for the most part). Caffeine is really dangerous. It gives you energy when you actually need to rest. I don’t drink coffee anymore. Like a lot of people I would drink coffee though out my day to keep me focused and charged. But caffeine also increases your blood pressure, increases your stress level, and in my case contributed to me becoming sick. Not having any coffee during the day is hard. It means I have to had to change my sleep routine to get through the day focused and energetic.

Rule number 4: Establish a regular sleep schedule.

I’m somewhat disciplined, but this has been the most difficult thing for me to implement. When I have a big deadline approaching my natural habit is to work late nights. Not only that, I love hanging out with people. Pulling the plug on a good evening with friends is like pulling teeth. Going to bed the same time every night however has proved to be extremely valuable for my health and my productivity. After just 2 weeks of maintaining a steady schedule I noticed drastic improvements in my work output.

Getting a good rest can be hard. I live on a noisy street, I know. But it is worth getting. If you have a hard time sleeping due to stress it is probably a good idea to talk to a doctor. For me I found keeping a fan running all night helps deaden some of the noise. On some nights I have resorted to earplugs.

Rule number 5: See a doctor.

Not everybody needs to see a doctor. However, for myself seeing a doctor was tremendously valuable. After various tests and failed diagnosis, my doctor put me on a short term medication that allowed my body the time to recover and heal itself. Honestly, this was a huge aid in recovering from stress induced sickness. Everyone is different and may develop different symptoms. Doctor’s are extremely educated on matters of stress and even just talking to one can greatly benefit you.

Rule number 6: Do what motivates you (work in your strengths and interests).

We are all good at doing some things. Some of those things are enjoyable for us to do and some of them are not enjoyable. I will give you an example. I enjoy programming code and I am good at it. However, even though I am good at fixing computers I really don’t enjoy doing that. Some of the things that we enjoy doing are going to pay the bills and some of them aren’t. I really love free skiing but that is not going to pay me anything. I also really love building cool applications. That does pay my bills. So do the things you are good at and that pay your bills. The rest are called hobbies.

If I had to fix computers and other peoples problems every day, it wouldn’t take long before I was burning out. Because I would be using energy to not only do the work but to motivate myself to keep doing the work I hated. Most of us have to do somethings that we don’t enjoy along with the things that we do enjoy. Just make sure that the majority of what you do is something that you enjoy being good at and that you enjoy doing.

Rule number 7: Celebrate large milestones with short holidays.

In our business we have numerous tasks that we work hard to achieve. However, we don’t celebrate when we hit our targets, we simply go to the next one. I was lucky enough to have a good conversation with another business owner who also has experienced burnout. In the conversation he asked if we set milestones in our company. I answered that yes we did. Then he asked me if I took time off after reaching them. I responded, “Why would we do that?”. He explained to me that when we reach our milestones we need to take time off to recharge and recover for our next one. No use starting the next milestone on anything less than a full tank of fuel. This is an important piece of wisdom that I am going to implement in my life. Had I taken a week off from work after our trade show in Toronto there is a chance that I would have recovered and not burned out at all.

Final thoughts

Burnout is not something that I need to experience again. I know that it is an unpleasant experience. For me these steps are now part of my life. I value my health and I believe that it is something worth fighting for. For some of you it may mean finding new employment and for others who are self-employeed like myself it may mean creating a new culture, developing new habits and changing the way you motivate yourself and your employees. I wish you the best in your effort to eliminate burnout.

2018 update: The truth about burnout

On Business

3 simple ways we could have built our startup faster and cheaper!

Growing a Startup

Here are three of the things I would have done differently when originally founding my startup had I started with the knowledge and experience that I have today.

Testing grounds.

Originally when we developed our products we never really tested them. Instead, we built our products to work the way we imagined they would and then expected that our target market would overwhelm us with demand. Kind of like what happened to Apple when they released the iPhone. It didn’t work out for us like that. Today I would test our ideas in our target markets prior to investing a huge amount of money developing them. I would want to know three questions. First, do I really understand the need of my market? Second, is my product solving that need in a way that our target market will find easy to use and adopt. And thirdly, is there existing demand for my product or for a similar product?

Growth strategy.

When we launched StreetText our growth strategy was simple. We would go to trade shows, hire a few sales people and customers would sign up. We soon discovered that is not a growth strategy. It’s not even close to one. Today I would want to know who are the early adopters that I can target right now. Is there a segment of my target industry or market that is emerging or growing. That is likely where my early adopters are and I would set a 6 month marketing plan to target that group. After those 6 months I would reassess our growth, adoption rate and turnover rate and plan our next 6 months accordingly.


We took investment early. That both helped and hindered us. It helped by offering a buffer until we became profitable and it allowed us some flexibility to learn as we went. However, looking back we spent money where we shouldn’t. We paid a sales staff before we had a product to sell, we over paid for product development that never saw the light of day, and we paid for our own mistakes. Depending on what stage of the startup I was in I would do things differently. If I were in the early stages I would raise money only after I was 100% certain that we knew we had an idea that would solve a current need in a growing market. Then I would carefully spend money on only the Minimal Viable Product (MVP). That means only the 1, 2 or 3 features that users must have to test the products adoption rate. If I had extra money at this point I would save it for some marketing and product tweaking as needed. I would not spend money on overhead such as sales staff or even pay salaries to founders that could work a second job (myself included). If I were in the later stages of startup I would only raise more money if I was either profitable and all the money would go into new customer acquisition or if I knew that the majority of my current customers would be extremely disappointed to lose the service and I had an exact number for the cost per customer acquisition.

Final thoughts.

Writing this now it seems like the steps I would have done differently are very logical. But at the time when we started it wasn’t. We read books about business and tried our best to make wise decisions but we still made some dumb mistakes along the way. Fortunately for us a lot of perseverance and a little luck have helped grow our company to profitability. But there were many times where we went through hardships, including no paycheques for a few months on end, when they could have been avoided. Business is dynamic, always changing, and we will most likely face new hardships along the way. But hopefully we will continue learning from them and I will continue writing about them so that others reading this might be able to learn from it. Hopefully these articles are helpful. If you have any requests or would like me to elaborate on a topic just ask in the comments below and I would be much obliged to do just that.

On Business

Crowd sourcing customers 101

I watched this fantastic video by the guys behind Flight of the Conchords, a hilarious duo folk band by Bret and Jemaine. I’m sure most of you are familiar with their TV show Flight of the Conchords, a self-defeatist comical satire, if you aren’t be sure to watch some of the episodes. These guys got involved with the New Zealand Children’s Hospital and created a song and video to help raise money for the sick kids. What made the video so great was the way that they did it. They interview a bunch of kids and ask them to co-write this song with them. It’s a great example of crowd sourcing you customers.

At our office we have been hard at work segmenting our customers and sending out email surveys to better understand our customer’s needs and gather valuable insight into our consumers. So the timing of the video by Bret and Jemaine couldn’t have been more perfect. The video itself isn’t pretending to be anything more than just a hilarious song created by asking kids questions and getting their humorous responses. But whether by accident or by purpose the video demonstrates perfectly the goal of crowd-sourcing information. Creating a better product because you talked to your customer first.

I don’t think I have ever understood the importance of that basic principle better than in the past week. When you ask your customers the right questions you know what your customer actually needs, what shifts to make in your marketing and how to improve your feature offering. It’s the difference between brainstorming and guessing the next pivot (shooting in the dark) and actual consumer data that clearly outlines what customer expectations and demands are.

Enough chatter, here’s the lighthearted video.

On Business

When luck meets learning is the outcome different?

When luck meets learning
Photo by Michellis

I’ve had a crazy week. Steve, Angela and I have been asking ourselves very important questions like, “What are the needs of our customers?” And we have struggled to come up with definitive answers. Last friday we sat around our boardroom with beers and taco chips hashing out the different layers of our customers needs. It was both fun and frustrating. After 2 hours our meeting had come right back to the beginning and our questions remained unanswered. The truth is we weren’t confident we had nailed it.

This week I attended the GrowTalks in Vancouver with Steve. It doesn’t take a genius to become successful, that’s something I’ve learned over the last three years running a startup. What it takes is the ability to remain focused and apply the good things we learn along the way (and a little bit of luck). Our 48 hours in Vancouver at Grow was a mix of learning and luck. The first speakers of the morning came out, they were fired up and told everyone in the audience that they were inspiring leaders, in fact they were visionaries.  *Cough, then they spit out what they really thought. “You are not visionaries!”

The crowd kind of laughed awkwardly, hoping they were kidding, but then fell silent after realizing they were not. I loved it, they caught my attention and I knew the day was going to be good. The next speaker spoke about UX/UI. Well she spoke about User Experience actually, and not very subtly drew a line in the sand arguing persuasively that User Experience was very different from User Interface and must not be confused as such. Right now there are UI/UX bloggers rolling over in their graves, I mean their beds, towards their keyboards to differ.

But quickly as the day progressed the talks began hitting closer and closer to home. They were discussing how they had solved the very questions we were struggling to answer. I had this uncomfortable feeling that either every speaker was secretly spying on us and planned everything they were going to talk about by watching what we were doing, or every single company in the room was struggling with the exact same problems we were. Neither conclusion seemed very reassuring. Either we were unique and naked or we were similar and uninteresting. In the end it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we lucked out. We were privileged to be in a room with people willing to talk about how they had solved the very problems we were facing.

There is something magical when luck and learning line up. Ultimately, though this magical week of learning would be useless if we did not apply it. Upon arriving back in the office today, Steve and I shared our new found insights with the team, drew up a simple strategy based on what we had learned from the conference and started executing. It’s true, I’m not lying. We have drawn up a two week discovery strategy and have already started implementing it. After many attempts at trying to implement status-quo shattering strategies we have discovered that habits form quickly, but significant shifts in behaviours and patterns only take place when we are intentional about executing the strategies we form. Learning is great, but it is useless unless we apply it. We, as a team, don’t want to be the hard ground that good words fell on and then died. For soil to grow good crops the seeds need to be planted and the work needs to be done.

On Business

The power of focus

The power of focus

About 3 weeks ago I wrote an article about remote teams. It’s a new experiment for us and so far it is working out well. But being only a short while into it, it’s really too soon to call it successful. However, there is a secret here that I believe will make it successful. Focus.

You may have noticed that I haven’t written any new articles in a few weeks. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, I have. I just have been really focused. Focused on creating streamlined systems for our team, focused on the current projects that we need to complete, and focused on training and team management.

I’ve been thinking about focus a lot lately. Having focus is really important. Without focus it would be very tempting as a company to run after every good idea we think of or hear. Especially because as a start up lab, that is what we do, we create ideas, and there is nothing more tempting than a good new idea.

That is where focus comes in. Success comes from being intentional with the things that will lead you to it. Now success means a lot of different things to different people, so I am not going to put it in a box, but rather talk about it as it applies in this instance. Success in this instance is about seeing the goals we have, realized.

So in short, I believe that it is important to have a direction where you want to go, then think about all the steps that will take you there, and then start with the step that will give you the most reward for effort. After that it might get hard to remain focused with working towards your goal (work feels hard sometimes). But with practice, focus and endurance gets easier, and I believe that success will happen more often.

On Business

Remote teams

Remote Teams World

As of yesterday, our company, Simple Engine [media], has embarked on a new journey, remote teams. We still have our main office, the HQ, with our core team working from there. We are just excited to add some new members to our team, who will be working remotely.

Remote teams brings with it some big challenges. We are passionate about building the best solutions, but building great products means we need great project management and great communication. Great remote project management may prove challenging with the different timezones. Also, we have a unique culture in our office, how will we be able to make people feel part of that culture when they are working from hundreds or thousands of kms away? Then there is the issue of trust and security.

This is a new journey for us and I will be posting some articles in the future. I might write about remote hiring, remote managing, remote source control etc. If this proves successful for us I will post some articles about what we did right, and if it proves to be disastrous, then I will post some article of things to avoid. Have you had any experience with remote teams? I would like to know your thoughts.

On Business

Crossing “the chasm” by telling your story

Crossing the chasm from early adopters to late adopters

Note: Building a startup myself, I have heard a lot about the “chasm” that exists between aquiring your first early adopters versus attracting the early majority of your market. But, I have heard almost nothing about how to cross it. I hope this will help inspire some people to tell their stories.

I read a great article entitled Your Story Is Your Marketing Strategy, and while I agreed with the concept that people often make a decision to choose a company when they know their story, I felt it was missing something essential. It offered some examples of people choosing a product after hearing the companies story, but didn’t explain why others would follow a similar pattern. Attending a local Ted “Brown Bag lunch” held at Accelerate Okanagan today may have highlighted the missing answer. The Ted lunch was anything but formal, a group of about 20 entrepreneurs sat around a large board room table while eating their packed lunch and watching a couple Ted videos. Ted videos are great, and meeting with like minded people is even better. Having previously watched the videos, I found myself relaxed, enjoying the lunch, looking forward to the coming jokes and preprocessing some of the points of the videos.

One of the videos is particularly good, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, by Simon Sinek. If you haven’t already seen it, I am including it here. If you have 20 minutes it’s worth pausing and watching it. It was in watching this video and from the conversation afterwords that it became clear why simply telling a potential customer your story is not enough to encourage them to buy.

When launching a startup product, it takes work getting those first early adopters, but it isn’t too difficult. Early adopters are generally people who want to be the first person to try something new anyways. So it makes sense that there were people who were willing to try your product before they knew much about it. As long as you raise enough awareness about your product, or share it with enough people, you will have some customers sign up (even if it is nothing to write home about). The challenge, however, is when the rush of early adopters slows down and sales calls start getting tougher. The challenge is in convincing the early majority, aka the pragmatists, to choose your product. Is telling them a simple background story enough?

I believe now that to move the early majority (the pragmatists) you need to tell more than a story. You need to answer the “why”. This is what the talk by Simon Sinek explained. Our brains are wired to be logical, but before logic, they were wired to be emotional and passionate. We are cognitively wired to behave positively towards the notion of “meaning”. Simon gives the example of Apple focusing on answering why they create products before answering what products they create or how they worked. They “are about changing the status quo”. Because it had meaning, because it was more than just a story, people resonated with their desire to break from mediocrity and they gave more of their time to listen about their products.

It’s true that a product still needs to solve a problem, if it is not solving anything, the early majority probably won’t use it even if they like why you created it. They are still pragmatists. But if you truly believe that your product is solving a problem, and you are passionate about what you are doing but are having a hard time attracting that early majority, maybe it’s time to start telling people why you created it. Not just what you have created or how it works. Maybe it’s time to start telling people what is at the heart of your company, tell them what motivates you to wake up in the morning, against all odds, just to provide them with your amazing tool that is going to revolutionize their lives. Simon Sinek argues this is the secret behind great leadership, I believe it is actually the secret to motivating the early majority to listen to you and it gives the early adopters something worth sharing about.

End note: I love that if someone’s sole motivation behind a product was to make lots of money, then their story sucks and this strategy won’t help them at all (sorry Kevin O’Leary).