Delivering Happiness: Section 1, Discovering Happiness
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Due to my schedule in May, I didn’t get a chance to starting reading the Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh’s new book, Delivering Happiness until just yesterday. The book is broken up into three sections, which Tony has labeled:

  1. Profits
  2. Profits and Passion
  3. Profits, Passion and Purpose

I completed the first section this morning and rather than wait until I finish the book later this week, I thought I’d begin today with my first impressions of this beginning section. The book is so full of things to talk about, that discussing them all in one blog post would be impossible anyway. So, I’m going to write a few posts throughout week to discuss more of the book and hopefully hear from you with your opinions on the subjects discussed here.

I’ve been a fan of Zappos since September of 2009, when I made my first order and had to exchange it. I wonder if I had become such a fan if I’d chosen the proper shoe size the first time through, because, though I was impressed with the mind-boggling shipping turn around it was really the customer service I received when exchanging the shoes that converted me to a life long member of the Zappos movement. I know it was only shoes I was buying, and yet the way I was taken care of, caused me to see the company as more than just a business. I won’t review that experience again, since I wrote about it here, but I will say that it was that experience and being contacted by Tony himself on Twitter due to my review, that my interest in Zappos and Tony himself began. I started paying attention to what Tony was saying on blogs, and at his speaking engagements. All that led to my interest in reading his book, and looking back, I’m so very happy that I ordered that first wrong size.

As I said above, Tony split the book into three sections. Having only read the first at this point, I can’t comment on the direction he takes in the other two sections, but for me, after reading the first, I have the impression that the title of the first section really should be, ‘Discovering Happiness’, because that is the focus of the first segment of his life’s experiences and it really builds toward his ability to ‘deliver happiness’ through his work at Zappos. Tony begins with his childhood entrepreneurial endeavors, which sounded so much like my life that I made an immediate connection with him. As he experiments with various jobs, including programming, and various opportunities, he discovers that his passion really lies in building things. Again, I could relate to this so well, as I’m sure many of you will, and often reading about a successful entrepreneur who goes through the same challenges and discoveries that you have, can really help you see your own life from a different perspective, and also helps you connect with his wisdom and experience better and apply that to your own situation.

Here are a few ideas and quotes that stood out to me from this first section. I’ll be giving away a free copy of the book at the end of the week to someone who has commented on one of my book related posts. So if any of these ideas and quotes stir your thinking, leave a thought in the comments below and you’ll be entered to win a free copy of the book.

  • As I said, Tony spends the first part of the book chronicling his entrepreneur adventures as a child, from worm farms, to selling greeting cards, to button making. It shows his entrepreneur leanings as a kid. I doubt there are too many real entrepreneurs that don’t have a similar story. Those that don’t may be more of a small business owner, and less of a serial entrepreneur. There is a difference, and it’s an important difference to understand and be able to identify in yourself.
  • In high school he tried to find creative ways around actually doing any hard work. He did the same while attending Harvard. (if that’s not an attribute of a true entrepreneur, I don’t know what is!)
  • He said, “School-related activities aside, my biggest focus during high school was trying to figure out how I could make more money.”
  • Discovered the power of crowdsourcing while attending Harvard and collecting and reselling study notes for college classes.
  • Held various programming jobs, including working for Microsoft before graduating and going to work for Oracle.
  • Tried doing freelance work for clients building web sites, but found out how unsatisfying that can be.
  • Created LinkExchange and sold it for $265 million to Microsoft
  • Burned out at LinkExchange because he still hadn’t identified what it was that truly made him happy
  • Finally realized it was, “building stuff and being creative and inventive” that made him happy, along with, “Connecting with a friend and talking through the entire night until the sun rose”. (This is so true in my own life, but love the way he states it and enjoyed watching him come to this realization, which is worth price of the book alone).
  • Started an investment firm
  • Discovered poker and realized the similarities between poker and business strategy. This part you can read online at the Delivering Happiness web site. Very interesting correlations, and once again, I could relate to it because I enjoy poker for the same reasons.
  • From what he learned from poker he said, “one of the most important decisions for an entrepreneur or a CEO to make is what business to be in.” He goes on to say that it doesn’t matter how great your product is (in other words how great a poker player you are), if you choose the wrong market (ie. the wrong poker table), you’ll lose anyway.
  • “Without conscious and deliberate effort, inertia always wins.”
  • Discusses how Zappos got started, what his involvement was initially and how it changed to what it is now.

In all, though this first part is technically not yet about how Zappos became successful, it’s easy to see how Tony’s view points developed and what led him to lead Zappos in the way that he has, which led to the environment that formed the basis for all the success we see coming from the company.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest and sharing my observations and reading yours.

AT & T New Data Plans: Listening, Ignoring and Observing Your Customers
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Earlier this week AT & T announced a controversial change to their data plan rates and usage limits. The net has been buzzing with complaints from users who feel they need higher caps on their data usage, not lower ones. But according to AT & T, “Currently, 98 percent of AT&T smartphone customers use less than 2 GB of data a month on average.

I have to wonder how many complaining customers are being impacted in any other way than saving $5 a month? I use my iPad a lot, probably way too much. While on a week’s vacation recently, I watched several TV shows (while working), over 3g. I was really impressed with how well it worked considering I was on 3g. I also surfed the web a bunch, kept up with my email and social networks. I downloaded apps, watched other video, and took a bunch of notes. The week before I did the same on a 3 day trip to Atlanta, and the week before that another 3 day trip to Sarasota, FL.

I keep my wifi turned OFF on the iPad, and use 3g even when wifi is available, because often the wifi my iPad picks up is actually worse (probably due to distance) than the 3g. In all, since I received my iPad over a month ago, I’ve used under 2 gigs of data. I also have no doubt that as time goes on, that monthly number will drop. I used it a ton when I first got it because it was new. I’ll never purchase as many apps in a month as I did this month. Usage will level off, and I certainly won’t always travel for half an entire month either. And if I did get close on data usage, I would start using wifi when available.

I think this is a perfect example of what I often tell clients and startups, that you must both listen to and ignore your customers all at the same time. The trick is knowing when to do each. And as always, observing your customers actual usage of your product provides far more info than asking them their opinion. There’s nothing wrong with asking of course. PeepNote is doing that right now with a survey (we are giving away a few Pro Plan year memberships in the process too), but you can’t assume that your customers are always right. I used to spend hours watching people use web sites in UI focus groups. Their behavior rarely ever matched up with what they thought their behavior was. We as humans simply aren’t always aware how inaccurate our perceptions can be when compared with reality, particularly when not in our area of expertise.

Customers can’t know where you are coming from, where you are going as a company/product/service, what your expenses are, what your limitations are, nor what you are actually seeing vs hearing. With AT & T, they saw the the majority of users didn’t need more than 2g a month, but that a tiny percentage where ruining it for everyone by using far more than the rest. So, instead of listening to your demands, they ignored you, and in the process, lowered your monthly bill, reduced strain on their network, and stopped forcing YOU to pay for someone else’s usage.

Consumers have to remember, that while a company needs to make its customers happy, it also has to make money. You can’t do one without the other. AT & T seems to have done the right thing here, and ignored the talk while observing the behavior. Hopefully for them, customers will see over the first few months, that there is no impact on them at all. Remember too, with this change came tethering, something consumers have been asking for, for years.

What do you think and how much data have you used on your iPad or iPhone over the last month?

Learn how Wufoo went from concept to launch
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I recently had a very detailed interview with Kevin Hale from Wufoo. We went over some helpful information for startups, as Kevin detailed how Wufoo went from original concept to eventual launch. We discuss his lessons learned and his recommendations to other startup teams. You can read the discussion at the Fuel Venture blog.

LessConf: Diversity and Discrimination. Where is Our Focus?
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I’ve been watching the “conversation” of outrage unfold on Twitter the last few days and finally decided it was time to say something. I know its a minority of people that are making a stir and on the one hand, it’s probably best not to respond and simply let it go away, but on the other, I’ve seen this happen now for so many other conferences too that I felt it was time to try and put things in perspective. It seems that every time a conference is announced and the speaker lineup listed, somebody pours over the list to determine if its racially and sexually diverse enough. It’s almost as if we should appoint an official committee to approve or disapprove every conference’s lineup. Enough is enough.

I find a number of things about this outcry to be contradictory and quite frankly, dishonest.

True Diversity and Representation

The center of this debate is whether or not conferences like LessConf are using an unbalanced and unfair, even racist and sexist representation of the industry demographic by lining up a bunch of Caucasian male’s for all the speaking. The demands have been for more women and more “people of color”.

But let’s use some facts to cut through the heated emotions. Considering that the largest portion of our population, 15%, are descendants of Germans, it would only be fair if 15% of all speakers at all US based conferences are also of German descent. Irish is next at almost 11%. Then we get to African American, English, American, Mexican, Italian, Polish, French, and the list goes on. As for White Americans as a group, regardless of ancestry, the ones who “unfairly” dominate the speaking roles, the percentage is 80. My question to you who want so desperately for every conference to be “diverse”, how do we pull that off without having 50 speakers? And we haven’t even discussed gender yet.

Next I went through Scobleizer’s Twitter list of founders; 500 in total. Want to guess what I found (at least judging by the avatar?) 36 of the 500 were women. That’s 1 in every 14. So to be fair, how about a new rule of thumb for conference lineups? For every 14 males you invite, you have to invite 1 woman? As for African American’s I saw 1. Yes, just 1. There were certainly many from other countries, but very few could easily be determined by their skin color. Maybe 20 – 40 or so who were identifiable by their avatars as non-caucasian male. So if being statistically representative of the demographic is the goal, its going to have to be all caucasian males at the conferences. Sorry folks.

What does it mean to discriminate?

Here’s the thing about racism and sexism, you can’t determine if someone, like a conference organizer, is a racist/sexist by the makeup of the speaker lineup. You are seeing the outcome of a lot of work, a lot of phone calls and emails; a whole lot of networking. The result cannot logically indicate what is in the heart of the organizer. Perhaps if the person in question were making racist or sexist comments, or mistreating people of the opposite gender and race, then you’d have some grounds to make a case.

As for discrimination, I think its time for a refresher on what discrimination actually is. So from dictionary.com, here’s the definition:

treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit

In other words, if you look at a group of speakers and think to yourself, I wish the makeup of race and gender where different in order to be fair, you are practicing discrimination. You see, the conference organizers who pick the best 9 speakers, from the circle of whom they know or are able to come in contact with, and who is willing, and who is available and who is popular enough to draw attendees willing to fly across country and pay almost $1000 after flight, hotel, and ticket, may not have been discriminating in any way. It may never have even crossed their minds as to what color, ethnicity or sex any of them were. If they selected based on merit and availability, then by definition they did not discriminate. However, if after they saw their lineup and thought, “uh oh, no women, African Americans, Germans, Indians, etc, we have to fix this,” they would then very much be guilty of discrimination.

Who has the right to determine the goal and message of a conference?

I’ve read some outlandish opinions on this one during the debate. Some believe the conference is there to give the audience what they want, but that is only half the story. In selecting speakers, a conference organizer generally has a message or a goal they feel is an important one to provide to the audience. While they certainly want the audience to connect and to be enticed by it, they also are doing it because they themselves feel its important to share. It’s not a shotgun of hopes and wishes for success. A lot of thought goes into who the speakers will be and what their message will be. If conference organizers have to be worried about the physical appearance of the speakers, I wonder how many conferences we will even have in coming years and certainly I wonder what the quality of them will be. Not because women and non-caucasian men aren’t wise and experienced (is there really anyone who feels this way anymore? I see no evidence of it), but simply because the focus will no longer be on who the person is and what their message is, but instead on what gender and race they are. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It seems that no matter how hard we try to move on from racism and sexism and have true equality, the very people who vocally champion such a cause, are the ones keeping racial and sexual differences at the forefront, making sure we never forget to see the color of a persons skin when we look at them.

You know what I want to focus on? Building kick-ass startups; creating awesome web sites, solving peoples problems by using our wonderful new technology, and meeting people like Steve Bristol, Allan Branch, Dan Martell, Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, etc. Just like last year I got to meet Gary Vaynerchuk in person and have lunch with him, and then meet David Hauser, who I’d never heard of, but now have great respect for and have learned a lot from, I fully expect to learn from and meet many great people at this year’s LessConf.

Where is our focus?

In the end, the good news is this: those who attend LessConf and other beneficial conferences, will gain new wisdom from the experiences of the speakers and will learn and grow from meeting other like minded folk, regardless of gender, sexual preference, age, or race. They will come away from LessConf enriched, refreshed, and wiser, with new friends, wider networks, and possibly a whole new outlook on their endeavors. Those that stay away because LessConf didn’t put enough effort into purposeful discrimination, will continue to feel bitter and miserable; will continue to shake their head that this world is still so focused on race and gender…even though they themselves are the only ones who still notice the color of a person’s skin, the origin of their birthplace, or the specific mix of X/Y chromosomes.

I hope the offended can one day bring themselves to see past the perceived discrimination to what is being offered here: the opportunity to hear from some truly successful and wise people, and attend one of the best organized conferences in the country, run by two people who really care about everyone who attends, and really care about sharing the wisdom of the speakers to the attendees. This conference puts you close to the speakers, it involves you, it brings you together, not separates. I recommend you attend and leave your discrimination concerns at home. There’s no room for it in this community, and there isn’t near as much of it, if any, as some would have us believe. What there is, is a whole lot of opportunity for us to learn from each other, put our differences aside and build some really great things.

Four Reasons Why You Should have a Side Project
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For a good portion of my IT career I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects outside my regular full time job. It’s been a great privilege and I attribute much of the success in my career to these side projects. I believe everyone working in any kind of tech industry can benefit from them as well.

I know the major objection will be that of time constraints, particularly for those of you with jobs that already make you work long hours. I hear it from developers and designers all the time. Though that may be the case, its important to look beyond the now, and look to your future. Your current employer may not always be there. Work situations in IT can change overnight and its up to you to be prepared. Working on a side project will not only help for your next job, but also better enable you to perform your current one. Here’s four reasons why you should start or get involved with a project on the side.

Creative Outlet
Whether you are a designer or a developer, an employee or a contractor, most of us have to answer to someone when working on a web related project. In most cases, unless you are the one funding the project, those you report to can override your ideas and your vision, limit your creative input and take the project in a very different direction. Often times in the corporate work place particularly, creativity can be stifled in the name of red tape, the bottom line, and ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.Though it’s important to find a way to balance our creative desires with the need to make our bosses, clients, founders and investors happy, it can be a difficult, and unrewarding effort. Working on a side project can provide another outlet for your creativity, even if its working for someone else on a side project, it won’t be under as much stress since its not your main source of income, and you have more freedom to express your opinions without fear of finding yourself in the unemployment line. But do be sure to select your side projects carefully. You don’t want to find yourself in another restrictive situation. Find one where you can be involved in the creative side, and have a voice at least in the part of the project where you are contributing.

Think Outside Your Daily Box
For me, this is the most important reason. Often times our day jobs revolve around a certain unchangeable set of problems we must solve, with a limited set of solutions we can choose from. Even if within the scope of the project we find ourselves wearing many different hats, we are still limited to the time constraints, chosen technologies, and the industry of our day jobs. We are also often limited by those managing us with the ways in which we can solve problems.

I find that time and time again, an issue arises at work that I just recently solved on a side project. It’s ironic, but at least in my experience, my side projects tend to solve more problems for my day job than the other way around. But, I think this is because on side projects we get to tackle new and unusual problems, again due to our ability to stretch ourselves creatively.

Over my 15+ years of IT experience, I have found that those I’ve worked with who work on side projects are generally more helpful than those who don’t, in terms of thinking outside the box and solving problems, from using new technologies, to improved process, helpful tools, etc. This is reason enough to step outside your daily full time job box and experience a new challenge. It will not only prepare you for the day you may lose your job, but will also strengthen you for your current job, in ways you have probably not yet imagined.

Note to employers, encourage your tech employees to pursue projects on the side. Ensure they have the time to do so by not working them 80 hrs a week. In the end, your employees will be happier, more experienced, and bring a deeper perspective to your projects. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Working with Different People
In the previous section I discussed the benefits of working with different technologies, different tools, different problems and thus different solutions. Working with different people brings the same benefits. Even if we find ourselves working with the best, brightest most experienced in our industry, working with various sorts of people from varied backgrounds and with varied skills can help us expand our experiences, our knowledge, and our methods of creative problem solving. It also helps us widen our network, and establish friendships with a deeper array of people in our field.

Eggs in One Basket
As obvious as this one is, its important nonetheless. Even if a side project isn’t bringing in money, its a far better starting point to have should we lose our day jobs and suddenly have no income, than if we were involved in nothing else when the situation occurs. It’s even better if the side project(s) can provide you with another source of income. Multiple streams of income are always better than relying on just one. As well, if you find yourself waiting to find a new job, you can continue to work on a project, expanding your skills, using your creativity, networking, and, using the side project to demonstrate your skills and experience to prospective employers.

I’m sure there are many more reasons why a side project is beneficial, but hopefully just these four have convinced you of the benefits. If you don’t have an idea for something you can do on your own, announce your availability online and in your local meetups, or consider joining work on an existing open source project. If you are in design, you could consider redesigning the site or marketing material for your favorite charity, or look for a local group of developers who might be working on a great project idea but are in need of some design talent. Whatever your situation, there are always opportunities to expand your horizons and practice your skill sets, and doing so can help improve your futures and the futures of those effected by the projects you participate in.

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