Archive for February, 2012

Lazy User Interfaces on the Web.
February 28, 2012

User interface has a lot more to do with how something looks. It isn’t just about gradients and colors and text choices and how the photo-feed is laid out. THose things are actually unimportant compared to how the site or product actually WORKS, that is to say how the user interacts with the product.

Is the interaction smooth? Is it intuitive? Does it make sense? Does it waste time? Is everything included essential or is some of it wasteful?

I buy a lot of things online in the course of running my business. I typically place 5-10 online orders a day. Some vendors get more of our business simply because they make ordering online easier. And some vendors lose our business because they seem to pull out all the stops in making ordering online a major league pain in the ass.

One of our vendors has a checkout form that requires the user to select the country where the product is being shipped. Fair enough. But the dropdown menu has no default selection and is in Alphabetical order. So the first choice is Afghanistan followed by every other country out there. You have to scroll all the way down to “U” for “United States of America.” I’m not going out on limb to say that there is a zero percent chance they have ever shipped something to Afghanistan. In fact, I’d bet that this company (Avnet Electronics) has not ever shipped to 90% of the countries on the list. So why does the country drop-down menu at checkout include all of these choices?

BECAUSE THE WEBMASTER IS LAZY.

He took a plugin from someone else’s library (or simply plugged in a pre-built checkout solution) and never thought of it again. Is it a big deal? Not really. But fixing the default to be USA or putting USA at the top of the list like Future Electronics does would be a significant improvement. And it would be easy to do if the person cared at all.

Don’t be lazy when you design something. Whether you are designing a piece of software, a piece of sheet metal, a company presentation, or a child’s birthday cake, being lazy is the worst thing you can do because it tells people around you, “Hey look at me… I don’t care enough to do a good job!”

Don’t be that guy.

Managers.
February 27, 2012

Most people have no idea what makes a good manager. This is why so many people complain about their managers and why so many managers do a poor job.

I used to work for a big company that had a TON of middle managers. They sat around all day making excel reports of revenue projections from our team of 10. Then they “rolled up” those reports to their manager who rolled them up to his, etc. etc. until 50 people had been involved in making a spreadsheet that was outdated and inaccurate the moment it was complete. Not long after i left that job I heard they had laid off a lot of middle managers. Predictably, absolutely nothing changed for the worse at the company without all of those people “managing” things.

The most popular misconception is that managers are good at managing if they are good at delegating activities and tasks. The next most popular misconception is that a manager is good at managing if they are good at “rallying the troops” or “inspiring” others or getting their team “fired up.”

The truth is that good managers are neither of these things. In fact, both “head delegator” (sp?) and “head cheerleader” sound like ridiculous wastes of time.

A good manager is a person that MANAGES to create an environment where those he/she manages can best do their job.

The literal misconception is that a “manager” manages people.
The literal reality is that a “manager” should manage the work environment and process on behalf of the people.

What does this mean? It means that a good manager removes distractions and general bullshit that keep Brilliant Engineer Ted from focusing all his energy on being a brilliant engineer. It means that a good manager deflects the needle-prick distractions that reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of his workers. So when Larry the HR Guy has to fill out another expense report instead of finishing the new comp plan, his manager has failed him.

“Wait, WHAT?” you say. You think I’ve just described the perfect manager as being – essentially – an administrative assistant. BINGO. The BEST manager is the one who handles all the crap that the worker would rather not do so that they can focus on what they are good at. The BEST manager is the one who uses their best skills and abilities to create a place where everyone else can use their best skills and abilities.

This misunderstaing is why there are so many bad managers. Most managers think that the people reporting to them work FOR them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The BEST managers work for the people reporting to them. They work to make sure the people “under” them can focus on their jobs. They make sure the coffee stays hot so the designer can keep working on the new presentation. They listen to angry customers complain on the phone for an hour so the salesperson can call the next customer and the next and the next. They make it so that the worker they are managing goes home and says, “I had a great day at work…I got a lot done and really applied myself” without ever realizing that the manager did 15 pain-in-the-ass tasks during the day on behalf of the worker.

The BEST managers are like a left tackle in football – they offer protection to their quarterback and make his life easier. They make it so the quarterback doesn’t even realize the right defensive end spent all afternoon trying to take his head off. The BEST managers are like the guy running the sound-board at a concert…no one really sees him back there but he makes the band sound better by twisting the dials and creating an environment for the music to be great. (*As a note, music is one of the places where “managers” are actually doing “management” work. Tour managers and road managers handle details and distractions so that the band can focus on putting on a great performance. They don’t boss the band around and delegate tasks to others; they do the grunt work and no one ever knows they are there*)

If you want to be a good manager, you need to recognize that you work FOR the workers and not the other way around. You need to be focused on making your workers jobs easier even if it means making your own more difficult. You have to understand that your most successful days will be when you feel like you have been dropped in a meat-grinder…but all your employees are getting a lot of good work done.

ANd if you want to be a crummy manager, well that isn’t that hard at all. Just do what you’ve seen other managers do and you’ll probably be on the right track.

Rock and Roll and Startups – “We’re getting signed!”
February 17, 2012

I’ve written three posts about how being a musician and being in a band is a lot like being a programmer and being part of a startup. Scroll down to read them. Now, part 4…”We’re getting signed!”

*****

Long before there was MySpace and YouTube, bands worked hard to “get signed”. This means a record label signs you to a contract and presumably fronts some money so you can make a record, go on tour, make music videos, etc. While I am keenly aware that the rules have changed in the music business, the model used to be fairly simple: getting signed to a record label meant that you might not be perpetually broke, playing shows for 5 of your friends on a Tuesday night.

In short, getting signed meant that someone else saw the potential in your band that you saw yourself. It was support from someone with a megaphone bigger than your own. It was a partner in your endeavor who provided – if only a little – some stability so you could focus on making music.

This is of course exactly like how raising venture capital is now in the startup world. You build a prototype of your product and go shopping for money. You are trying to find a partner who will open doors and write checks so you can focus on doing your best work. Without VC money it feels like you are in a band that plays the midnight slot on Tuesday night at a cafe in Waco in exchange for free chicken fried steak. With VC money, you’re bumped up to be the headliner on Saturday night at Antone’s.

At least that is how it seems.

*****

I was only once in a band that ever had any prayer of signing a record deal. Urban Pet Collective (junior year in college) went in to the studio once and recorded a three song demo. By some fate, a guy named Ed Levy fronted us about two grand to pay for studio time and finish the recordings. I didn’t have any part in that negotiation. I only knew that Ed had done the same for a band called “Honeybrowne” and they were starting to get some attention around Texas. So Ed gave us money, we recorded a three song demo, and then basically never saw Ed again until 8 months later when we needed money to record three more songs. I didn’t realize it at the time, but without Ed’s money, there would have never been any recordings of the band and we would have never been able to book shows all over the country and a handful of radio appearances. Having Ed’s support opened doors we couldn’t open ourselves. (This was all before Pro Tools and Garage Band made it possible to record studio level stuff in your bedroom).

After using the demo Ed financed to get shows in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, we applied for the North By Northwest festival in Toronto in the summer of 1998. We were given a slot at 11pm at an upstairs club. The stage was about 10 square feet but our five piece band played great. After the show, a guy from Fish Head Records gave our singer his card and told us to call him for breakfast in the morning. The next morning, we loaded our gear and left town for our show in New York. We weren’t interested in a small label out of Cleveland.

We didn’t realize that just like Ed had helped us get to that point, Fish Head could help us maybe get to the next point.

That was the closest I ever came to being signed to a record label.

****

So much of that experience mirrors the startup world. You try and find partners to open doors and finance things. You try to “get signed” by some big, experienced firm that can help you navigate through the muck and mire of starting a business. But most successful bands actually are successful because they build followings one fan at a time, never sign record deals, and self-publish their music. Same with startups – most will never sign a term sheet with a VC. Those that are successful are likely to be self-financed, building their businesses one customer at a time.

There are no hit singles for most of us. There are no sold out shows at the LA Forum. There are no grammy appearances. For most of us, there is one club show after another. THere is a lot of hard work between shows getting every nuance and beat just right. There are tough times when it doesn’t seem worth it. But if you stay at it long enough you might look up one day and be able to say, “you know, there are a lot of people in the audience tonight.”

Need a component kit, ready to go?
February 15, 2012

Check us out at Signature-Electronics.com….

If your supply chain is slow or unorganized, Signature Electronics can help you get back on track. We provide complete kits of Board-Level Components within 3-5 days to your dock. One box, one invoice, ready to build.

Visit http://www.signature-electronics.com for more information!

Ok, so now what?
February 14, 2012

Two of my friends have started “something” in the last six months. One invested a lot of his own time and a little money making a website that engages people to see how their behaviors, likes, habits, etc. compare to the behaviors, likes, and habits of other people in the community. The other invested a lot of money and time in a brick and mortar business.

The first person’s venture relies on a huge audience regularly engaging the site. His business model presumably is to sell advertising and (hopefully) build up enough of a data set to sell that data to corporations. This is the business model you see on Facebook, for example.

The second person’s product is in high demand and has a high price point. Landing customers can be a challenge, but simply having one customer pays the bills and two starts to put money in his pocket. If he were to “sell out” of his capacity at about 12 customers, he would be bringing in a nice chunk of change.

Unfortunately, both people’s ventures opened for business and did not experience an early “pop” of interest. So now both are in the unenviable “now what?” position.

Some people might encourage them to “pivot” or seek “social proof” or “product market fit.” My experience has been that these phrases are most often uttered by people whose business vocabulary far outstrips their business ability. Neither of my friends needs a wholesale change in what they are doing. Why? Because neither of them has had enough interest and audience to know whether what they are doing is good or bad, right or wrong.

I’m all for changing direction when something isn’t working, but you can’t change simply based on a hunch. Having 200 people visit a website and only 10% of them return within a week is not a failure – that’s actually a fairly solid rate of return. ANd having 5 potential customers visit a business and not buy isn’t a failure either – it might simply mean you need more volume. The 6th visitor could be a “yes”…or the 7th or 8th or 50th.

Changing directions for a business or an idea or a product is often important. Even a subtle change can be the difference between massive success and quick failure. But make sure your motivations are based in fact. Don’t give up on the initial direction just because great things didn’t happen as quickly as you wanted. OVernight success usually takes years.

The Rule of Awesome
February 10, 2012

It is so easy to overthink everything. Overthinking features, offerings, pricing, bullet points on a presentation….think and tweak and pivot and change and tweak some more. Just to make it awesome.

Quit overthinking everything. Nothing you do is going to take your product or service or idea from “pretty good” to “awesome.”

The Rule of Awesome is simple: Things that are awesome are always awesome. Things that are not awesome suck. Either now, or eventually, they will head in the wrong direction. THere is no crossing-over. Little tweaks and turns of the screw won’t make a piece of shit awesome. THe idea, the overarching concept, was either awesome or it wasn’t long before you came along to manage it.

In music it is easy to see that Awesome is always Awesome. THink Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” studio recording contrasted with the live version. It’s barely the same song, but it’s awesome both ways.

Same goes for “Patience” by GNR, which is soft and acoustic on record and loud and gritty live. Still Awesome. Dylan and Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower”, Marley and Clapton doing “I Shot the Sheriff.” Awesome is awesome.

The same goes for your business, your startup, your product. You can not fake awesome.

(As a caveat: People who buy things that aren’t awesome are AWARE that their purchase isn’t awesome but they are doing it anyway. Maybe its peer pressure or cost or availability or the fact that they like the Dell sales guy more then the IBM sales guy. But don’t let a person buying something somehow convince you that it is awesome, just as a lack of sales is hardly confirmation that something isn’t awesome.)

Its hard to operate in business for long and make money without having to respond to competitors with price cuts and discounts. It’s hard to create anything – a physical good, a website, a service offering – that stands up and stands out.

The way to grow margins and make money, however, is easy: have something that is Awesome. Have something to sell where – if your customer had an unlimited budget – they would choose your Awesome offering over the competition’s not-awesome offering every time. You would actually be surprised how much more people will pay for Awesome if they are given the opportunity.

ANd for an A/B test showing you that Awesome is always Awesome, check out Biffy Clyro’s “Mountains”, which is awesome no matter how the band plays it:

Live at Wembley:

Acoustic:

Yup, still Awesome.

Startups and Rock and Roll – Part 3 – Guitar tone
February 9, 2012

Look at earlier posts for the first two parts of this “series”. I wrote one about how naming your band and naming your business are basically the same thing. And I wrote another about learning to play guitar and starting a band as it relates to learning to code and starting a business. They are two of my favorite posts. Anyway, on to part three…..

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Guitar players obsess about their “tone.” The sound created by mixing various Amps, effects pedals, processors, speakers, and (of course) guitars makes up the tone. And guitar players are ridiculous about getting “their” sound. Ty Tabor (King’s X guitarist) used to famously build boxes to hide his amps in on stage so no one could see what gear he was using. I spent hundreds of hours (literally) in high school tweaking every knob just right and trying different strings in an effort to get the exact sound I wanted. Truly, if you are a guitar player then you know that the importance of “tone” can not be overstated.

Which is why I find it so funny that even though most guitar players know the following two things, they still obsess about their tone.

Thing #1 – No one cares about your guitar tone. In the event someone else cares about your tone, then they are also a guitar player and they probably think your tone sucks.

I am 100% sure that no one ever heard Jimi Hendrix play “Fire” in person and said, “That would have been so much better if he’d been using a Les Paul instead of a Strat.” And no one ever saw Guns N Roses and said, “Why is Slash using a Fender Twin for “Estranged” instead of a Marshall stack? THIS SUCKS!”

99.99% of people that listen to music neither know nor care that you are using a ’65 strat reissue with a maple fingerboard through a Fender twin rocking two 12″ speakers with a Boss DS1 distortion pedal. THEY DO NOT CARE. And as I said, the few people you meet that do care are also guitar players and they either (1) think your tone sucks or (2) are spying your gear to see how they can copy you. Most of the people listening just hope the music sounds good. The rest is unimportant.

This is exactly the same as coding. 99.99% of your users don’t care if you are using PHP or Ruby or Javascript or Perl or whatever. They don’t know what MySql is or what NoSql is or what a “stack” is or who named their kid Linux. They only care that the site, program, or app they are using works correctly. The remaining .01%? Well, those are the other programmers/hackers and they either (1) think your code sucks or (2) are looking at it and thinking of ways to steal the cool features you came up with.

Thing #2 – YOu will never sound like anyone else. When I was in high school I spent a ton of time at Texas Music Emporium. It was a music store run by some older rock-n-roll dudes (both named Jim) that were really helpful to other musicians. I probably spent $200 there EVER but likely played the guitars on their walls for thousands of hours. I was not a high-yield customer.

One summer night, they rolled out a flatbed trailer and put gear on it. A local drummer and bass player came and played Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath songs with Zack Wylde. At the time, Wylde was Ozzy Osbourne’s guitar player and his guitar tone inspired a LOT of discussion. The rumor was that for the “No More Tears” album he had recorded every guitar track 4 times using Les Pauls, Marshall amps, and a single Boss SD1 overdrive pedal. The result was a blisteringly thick wall of sound that amazed almost all guitar players. We tried to recreate his setup and never came close to sounding like that tone. It was never as heavy, as thick, or as biting in our bedroom as it was on his records. So my friends and I concluded that something else was going on because that guitar, amp, and pedal combo sounded NOTHING like Wylde’s tone.

Anyway, he gets on the flatbed trailer to start playing. He had pulled a Les Paul off the wall at TME, a Marshall amp from their amp room, and an SD1 guitar pedal from behind the counter. Everything was brand new and hadn’t ever been played by Zack Wylde before, and everything matched the setup he professed to use on the “No More Tears” record. He launched in to “Purple Haze” using the exact same rig that he claimed to use. The resulting sound is best described as being like standing in the middle of an artillery range with munitions exploding around you. He was a hurricane of sonic force that evening in a way that makes a young musician go home and quit playing for a week. He was that good, that “big” with a guitar off the wall and two guys he’d never met. And the tone? It sounded EXACTLY like the No More Tears recordings.

What’s the point? Zack Wylde could walk in to a guitar store and pull a guitar off the wall and sound like Zack Wylde. Eddie Van Halen could borrow my guitar and still sound like Eddie Van Halen. Dave Mustain could make “Sweating Bullets” sound right on a Pawn Shop guitar and Peavy Amp. Tone is in the player, not the gear.

This is the same as programming and staring a business – even if you could see under the hood and read all the code of facebook or Quora or Twitter, you wouldn’t be able to recreate facebook or QUora or Twitter. If you could look at the design process that went in to Basecamp, you wouldn’t be able to recreate how Basecamp looks. Even with the exact same tools and exact same music in front of you, you will NEVER be able to “sound” like someone else when your code is finished. You will always sound like “you.” The best guitar players – like the best programmers – realize this and embrace it.

Great Customer Service from Mouser.com
February 3, 2012

The folks at Mouser’s online team have really gone above and beyond in recent days and I thought I’d share: a few days ago we had a package that shipped to the wrong location. UPS will only let the shipper modify a shipping request. I sent an email to the general mailbox of the Mouser.com online team asking that it be rerouted. I was not holding my breath that it would be resolved anytime soon which meant I would have to tell my customer that their delivery would be delayed.

That would not be good.

Much to my surprise, Kayla with Mouser emailed me in about 10 minutes apologizing for the error and saying that the package had been rerouted to my location and would be delivered on time.

So, thanks for that…