Six months later

When I was in business school, private equity was all the rage. I’d never been an investment banker, and I didn’t even really understand what private equity was, but I did throw my hat into the ring for a few private equity jobs.

The notion of actually getting any of these jobs filled me with dread. I had no passion for that work, and I only managed to land interviews with lesser-known firms where the people I met seemed to truly dislike their jobs and the lives they’d signed up for for the next 5-10 years. I vividly remember the pit I’d get in my stomach waiting for these firms’ final decisions – fearing I might actually get one of the jobs I’d applied for.

When I did get a couple of those job offers, I remember discussing them with classmates who said I had no choice but to take them. Objectively I was not qualified, yet I’d managed to get my foot in the door. I should take the job to learn the ropes, as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and… My friends essentially rolled their eyes at me for even considering turning the jobs down.

One person, not a classmate, shared a different perspective. He said, “six months from now, all of these people who are telling you what to do, all of these people whose approval feels really important right now, they’ll all be gone. Six months from now it will just be you sitting at that desk at whatever hour of the day. Not them, you. Think of how you’ll feel six months from now when you’re the one doing the job. That will tell you what you should do.”

This isn’t a post about following our passions. Even the chance to follow a true passion only comes up once in a while – most of the time we don’t know what our passions are or we don’t have the skills, the perspective or the wisdom to really make the dent we dream of making in the universe.

But we do, each and every day, and especially when we are at real junctures in our lives, have the opportunity to understand the choices we make. They are our choices, and the minute we own them is the minute we understand who it is who is walking our path.

It is only us.

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The Garlic Mashed Potatoes

For a period of about five years, whenever we’d go out to a restaurant either my wife or I would order the dish with the garlic mashed potatoes. They were so yummy and creamy and decadent, with heaps more butter and garlic than we’d ever dare cook in at home. It pretty much didn’t matter what the main dish was.

Once garlic mashed potatoes began appearing on every menu, the allure went away. But the power of the surprise, the power of the side dish, hasn’t. As in, I just ate a take-out bowl of lentil chili, and at the bottom of the bag I discovered a completely unexpected corn muffin, which was really good. Not great enough, on its own, to make me go back next week nor (better still) so good that it’s really worth talking about, but still pretty darn good and worth remembering.

The thing about the garlic mashed potatoes or the corn bread is that they allow you, for once, to define the terms of the game. You rarely get to set expectations  – expectations mostly arrive in force when your customers show up – meaning you’re usually running as fast as you can to meet/not meet:surpass those expectations.  But with a side dish, with an unexpected surprise, you have the luxury of competing in a category that your customer didn’t even expect. It’s like applying for a job that hasn’t been posted yet: yes, you still have to be amazing, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to blow people away when they’re not busy systematically comparing you to the other 500 people whose names came in over the transom.

The garlic mashed potatoes is the best handwritten note your customer got all week (they haven’t received any), the phone call when everyone is busy filling their inbox. It’s showing up in person when everyone else is calling; giving a presentation with no slides when everyone who came before you bored them with a thousand bullet points; doing something wildly generous when you really, truly, have nothing to gain. It’s not being different for difference’s sake – garlic mashed potatoes are still dinner, after all – it’s doing something fabulous and unexpected that’s relevant to the core story you’re telling them.

Go ahead, why don’t you whip up a hot, piping batch of garlic mashed potatoes?

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When it works

The line at my local Chipotle looks like this each and every day at lunchtime, with 20+ people on line and more streaming through the door.  And each time I’m there, I’m in and out in 7 minutes or less.

chipotle

Conversely, there’s a lovely little bakery across the street from my office called Amy’s Bread. Most everything there is delicious (though wildly expensive), and I’d be there once a week if it weren’t for the fact that if Amy’s has anything more than four customers working their way through the line at the same time, their system grinds to a halt and it can take 10 minutes to get a salad and a piece of bread (let alone a hot pannini – 15 minutes or more!).

What’s going on here?  The fact is, it’s easy for us to spend our time time and energy focused on what went wrong: the customer that got away, the sale that didn’t close, the photo that we sent that didn’t pop as much as it should have, the pitch meeting that got off track and ended before it really started. What about the value we can create by making sure that everything goes just right when things go exactly the way they’re supposed to go?

What do we do when we come across a funder (customer) for whom our story completely aligns with their worldview, someone who jumps in quickly with both feet ready to help in a real way? Do we go above and beyond to make her experience more extraordinary, more remarkable, and more worth talking about than her wildest expectations?  Or, right after “closing the sale,” do we run around after the next potential customer or, worse, are we too busy breaking a sweat doing backflips for our loudest, most disgruntled customer – never mind that they might be the wrong customer for us – that we don’t pay enough attention to anybody else?

Step 1 is figuring out who, exactly, we are trying to serve, what their worldview is, the emotional change we expect to happen when they come in contact with our story, and what action we would like them to take when we’ve succeeded in making that change.

*phew* we say. Success. We did ALL of those hard things.

Yes, it’s success, and it’s just the start. The most important, value-added part we can do is to make sure that our perfect customer is beyond delighted after they become our customer.

Chipotle knows exactly what to do when 10 hungry people walk through the door on the hunt for a hot, fresh burrito.

Are you also ready to delight your best customers when they say “YES, I’m buying what you’re selling”?

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Word Economy

Most emails are too long. And most emails, long or short, are either emotional deserts or they transmit the wrong emotional content.

Short is the only solution to email overload, and radical email shorthand is employed by nearly all the successful busy people I know. But it only works if you pick words that transmit feeling too.

One word shorthand for…

Friendly: Hey, hi, please, help, okay, great

Informal: yeah, yup, nah, sure, yo, …,

Aggressive: just (“it’s just that”), never mind, forget it

Dismissive: whatever (…you want), fine, c’mon

Connection: thank you, truly, warmly, visit (with), sorry

Encouraging: go for it!, absolutely, fabulous, super, yes!

“Just the facts” is a nice idea. But like it or not we’re communicating emotions, even in six words or less.

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I love New York

Why do I like Citibike so much (when it works)? True, it helps me cut my long commute (a bit), and it’s a rare innovation in transportation in a country that, thanks to our love affair with cars, radically underinvests in transportation infrastructure. It’s got some geeky software and data tie ins too, which I like, and it also serves as commentary on modern “public services” that, due to the need to show financial sustainability, aren’t as public as they used to be – hence the concentration in Manhattan south of 59th street.

But there’s something bigger and much more personal going on.

As a native New Yorker, I’ve watched my city change a lot in the last 40 years. It used to be a grimy, dangerous place, where you never took the subway if you could avoid it, where most of Central Park was dirt and dust, not lush, fenced-in fields. When I was a kid I watched bodegas and locksmiths on the Upper West Side turn into ristorantes and, eventually, high end, bobo-fied chains. I saw Times Square morph from the underbelly of the city, where 3-card monte players would set up on cardboard boxes to fleece tourists and locals alike, to a place that you could almost drop into Disney Land.

And yet, through all the facelifts and gentrification, New York City is still New York City – even if it’s become a kinder, gentler, more upper class version of itself.

My new, daily, Citibike-powered, two-and-a-half mile ride through the heart of Manhattan is a chance to see all the things that haven’t changed about New York City. It’s a daily glimpse of the kaleidoscope that still is this city if you just scratch the surface. It’s a reminder that, despite all the changes, New York City is still a crush of people and cultures and races mixing together, mostly, without much trouble.

New York is my experience on each and every afternoon ride. It is Sikhs driving Lincoln Navigators, edging into the bike lane. It is smokers with white earbuds, scowling; Japanese tourists with H&M bags; tourists of all stripes looking up and not forward; businessmen in a rush, looking down at their BlackBerrys.

New York is, still, bleary-eyed med students in scrubs, blinking in the afternoon light; watch repairmen, falafel-makers, computer repair hideouts. It is Yankees fans in pinstripes, Rangers fans on an open bus, barreling towards Madison Square Garden, bike messengers with Beats headphones and giant canvas bags, drummers in Hawaiian surfer shirts spinning their sticks and dreaming of their next gig. New York is Bangladeshi kids in strollers talking to moms wearing shawls; it is tourists snapping pictures in front of minor landmarks and yellow mobs of taxis vying for a fare. It is throngs and throngs and throngs of jay-walkers in high heels and high hair, sweating on an early summer afternoon

I (still) Love New York.

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Lean for Social Impact – June 23rd

I’m thrilled to announce that on June 23rd I’ll be the lead instructor, together with Bob Dorf as Chief Mentor, for the new +Acumen course Lean for Social Change.  This is our first large-scale launch of this course, after a very successful pilot late last year.  Sabrina and Afzal wrote a great post sharing what they got out of the first course.

You can sign up for the course here.

Bob is a startup guru, and having the opportunity to partner with him is incredible.  In case you don’t now Bob, he’s the co-author, with Steve Blank, of The Startup Owner’s Manual: A Step–By–Step Guide to Building a Great Companyand he’s a serial entrepreneur who has started seven companies (he describes them as “two home runs, two base hits, and three great tax losses”) and coached or invested in dozens more. More than just an expert who travels the world helping startups, incubators, big companies and governments, Bob is exceptionally kind and humble, he’s an incredible coach who is quick with a smile. And, lucky for us, he’s bribable with Diet Cokes.

This is going to be a fun, rubber-hits-the-road course – highly practical and hands on, and intensive.  It will push you to take the steps you need to take to get out of the building, talk to customers, put your minimum viable product in their hands, and get the real feedback you need to make your social venture a success.

No expertise required!  But like everything you’ll get out what you put in.  If you have a social venture that you’re working on, or planning to work on, this course will kick you out of first gear.  It’s hands-on. You’ll take powerful frameworks and put them into practice.

Here’s the deal, so you know what to expect going in:

  • It’s an intensive, eight week course.  Best guess is that you’ll need to put in 10 hours per week.   (The time you put in for this course will be highly leveraged, so think of this in terms of time saved not time lost.)
  • You’ll be using the business model canvas to map out your business; you’ll build out a real prototype; and you’ll get of the building to get the feedback you need from customers, suppliers, partners, and competitors etc.
  • Work is done in teams.  You’ll be learning from and supporting each other, not sitting alone in front of a computer.
  • Course participants will have an idea for a social venture tackling an issue of poverty.  If you don’t have a fully formed idea yet that’s OK, the course will help you form and shape one.

This course is a chance for you to take a big leap forward.  It’s an opportunity to use tools that have revolutionized Silicon Valley and apply them to your social venture.  It’s kind of the start of a revolution.  Be part of it.

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What we already know

I spent a few hours this weekend with my 10-year-old son taking apart an old HP Photosmart A636 photo printer. It’s surprisingly difficult to do. All the screws have beveled heads so you can’t take them apart with a regular screwdriver, and the whole thing acts like a ball of sealed plastic you’re not supposed to break in to.

After a good deal of grunting, bending, hurting our hands and using the screwdriver as a lever, we got as much of the casing off as we were going to get off, and we were left with the motherboard and not much else. We were proud, and tired, with red ink stains on our hand. Beaming, my son asked me to explain how the motherboard worked. We talked for a bit, but outside of the absolute basics I didn’t feel like I had much to say, so I went online to search for a diagram or video that would explain how a printer motherboard worked better than I could. No luck. After a bit, we got pulled away to our next Sunday afternoon activity.

The next morning I woke up and he ran towards me, motherboard in hand, but now it was covered with a bunch of mini Post-It Notes diagramming the parts.

“Dad! I’m going to bring this into school to show it to everyone and explain how it works!”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s amazing. How did you learn all of that?”

“You taught me, when we were talking yesterday.”

I looked more closely and read the labels. They were things like “microprocessor,” “USB port” and “motor.” They didn’t actually explain how a motherboard controls a printer, but there was enough for him to teach his friends something about what this green metallic thing was made up of.

It’s so easy to diminish what we already know, to see it as not enough to answer the question we are being asked. Let’s not forget that what we already know is a lot, that in the act of sharing what we know we enlighten others, and that in so doing we start a conversations that will teach them, teach us. And that the most important part is our enthusiasm for what we know, our desire to learn more, and our willingness to share what we know with others.

 

Bonus: “how a motherboard controls a printer” diagrams would be welcomed in the comments.

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