Interview with Dr. Chris Bingham about Fostering Innovation

Dr. Chris Bingham is an award-winning professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flager Business School at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Bingham received his undergraduate accounting degree and MBA from Brigham Young University, and received his PhD in strategy, organizations and entrepreneurship from Stanford University. Currently Dr. Bingham’s focus is the process of accelerated learning in the context of seed accelerators. Dr. Bingham’s complete biography can be found here.

1) You have presented how one can use the Nadler and Tushman’s Congruence Model to foster and/or improve innovation within an organization. Is this more a function of a healthy organization being more innovative, or are there certain aspects specific to the Congruence Model that lend itself to creating an innovative environment within an organization?

There are different components of the Congruence Model, right? You’ve got task, you’ve got structure, you have got people, and you have got culture. And, sometimes, people will tweak this model a little bit, but those are basically the four parts. The whole point is, if one of them is off-kilter, then you can have some problems.

So, I believe in the model. I believe in the congruence. If I were to look at one of the elements that I find the most intriguing, it’s probably structure and here is why: Because I believe the counter-intuitive insight when you’re trying to innovate is that when markets become more dynamic, more ambiguous, often the best strategies are the most simple. And that’s an insight that a lot of people don’t get because what happens over time in organizations is you build up more and more structure – that is, more policies, more rules, more manuals, more routines… what that ultimately does is create inertia. It creates bureaucracy. It makes it difficult to change. Organizations are trying to become more efficient and that’s what the structure does, organizations become efficient but at the expense of flexibility.

So, if you think about a spectrum, you’ve got efficiency on one end and you have got flexibility on the other. There is a natural force pushing firm imperceptibly towards efficiency at the expense of flexibility. And so I think, as leaders, what you have to do – if innovation is key for you – is you’ve got to deliberately pare back structure. I’ve been looking at innovative companies across many different industries, and what you see is they will provide a little bit of structure, but within that structure, there’s a lot of room to adapt. For example, Yahoo, in its early years had a few simple rules shaping their partnerships: (1) don’t do deals if it jeopardizes the user experience, (2) no exclusive deals, and (3) the product or service must be free.  Those rules provide some structure and guidance (securing some efficiency), but within those rules there was a lot of room to adapt.

2) You have also stated that there is evidence to suggest a diverse team dynamic promotes an innovative culture (highlighting Under Armour’s Board as an example of this). In addition to simply gaining expertise outside of an organization’s industry, are there other considerations or strategies one can use in building an effective team through diversity?

You can think about diversity from lots of different angles, right? Functional diversity, gender diversity, age diversity. But, I believe the key point here is trying to find people who disagree with you. And that’s a little non-obvious. You want to create task conflict (i.e. when people disagree with you) without creating affective or personal conflict. Task conflict often is helpful because an organization can avoid premature convergence on what might be a suboptimal plan. It keeps you from jumping into things too quickly. Also, studies show task conflict leads to improvement in team decision making effectiveness. And when this works, team decision making effectiveness improves not only satisfaction with the team, but also team performance.

The other question is, how can you find these sort of disagreements naturally occurring within organizations and what do you want to do about it? I think what you want to start looking for is internal disagreements that might come up when you are trying to develop a new service or a new product. Marketing and finance almost always are going to support the status quo because their incentives generally come from knowing the existing product. New innovation presents a risk to their livelihood.

Engineers and R&D folks are often the ones who will be pushing new and disruptive ideas. They are looking for what’s going to be best from a customer perspective and/or from a product perspective. This natural tension is good. Look for those natural disagreements to find balance.

Diversity is also key for brainstorming. A dictum at IDEO is, “Go for quantity” in its brainstorming sessions. So, it’s not untypical in an hour-long brainstorming session at IDEO for them to come up with ~100 different ideas for something. Without this practice guideline what will often happen is the power players in the room are going to get out their ideas first. And, then other players in the organization start conforming. They are going to start saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea.” Any idea they might have had gets stifled and factions start to form around the power people’s suggestions and you don’t get much further than that. And, then, it becomes just sort of a power game. In contrast, if you can just start saying, “Hey, look. Let’s get out 30 ideas in the next 30 minutes and let’s get 100 ideas in the next hour,” what happens is it quickly becomes more objective. So, you actually depersonalize it by getting high numbers of ideas out there from a diverse group maximizing the organization’s available choices.

3) One way an organization can successfully tap their market for ways to innovate is to ask themselves, “what job is our customers hiring us for?” What are some other key strategies an organization can use to tap their external market for ways to innovate, rather than simply continuing to iterate and improve?

There is an innovator’s series of books: Innovator’s Dilemma, Innovator’s Solution, Innovator’s DNA. There is now a new one out, Innovator’s Method. What I believe these books are missing is an understanding about the social innovator. Not social in the sense of social causes, but in the sense of innovators that tap community. Crowdsourcing is a great example. For example, Monopoly fans voted on Hasbro’s Facebook page to get rid of the old flat iron playing piece and adopt a new cat playing piece instead. Scrabble players vote on which new word to add to the Scrabble dictionary. It is a really powerful channel when an organization taps into its external constituents.

The other thing you’re starting to see, from a social perception, is innovation tournaments. Netflix did this a couple years ago to improve one of their predictive algorithms. My understanding is it was a very diverse team of academics and industry experts that came together for this. You are starting to see more of these innovation tournaments produce some really amazing ideas. Customers prove to be really helpful for insights. They can help you identify problems and solutions in ways that prove difficult for internal resources (for a variety of reasons).

4) It appears that health-related wearables are in the process of “crossing the chasm” and are here to stay. In your opinion, what is important to get right as we move on from early adopters, to catering to the early majority regarding these products?

So I think your question, simply put is, “how can you help the early majority?” In other words, how can you help cross the chasm, right? What do you need to do to help this new market? If you look at innovation diffusion theory, it’s actually a pretty old, well-established theory. We know early adopters are a fairly small group, where the early majority is a bigger category (more than double that of the early adopter group). If you look at differences between early adopters and the early majority, what you will see is the early majority is more pragmatic, a little more cautious, and want some proof of benefit. What they really want is the understanding that this is going to become a social norm, not just a benefit. They want refined technology to improve ease and convenience. They want a lot of stories of the innovation’s effectiveness. An interesting thing that builds on this diffusion model is actually looking at how adoptions occur. And what you’ll find – and this is actually pretty interesting – is in the early years adoption is generally based on mass media, but when you start hitting the early majority, what becomes really critical is adoptions occur more due to interpersonal communication. The social component therefore becomes really critical to get the early majority onboard.

5) The way people consume fitness is changing, especially with regards to modality, delivery, and provider. Michael Porter says a disruptive technology is, “one that would invalidate important competitive advantages.” Now that you have examined the health and wellness landscape, what are some of your predictions about how people will consumer fitness and wellness over the next five to ten years, and what does that mean for traditional health clubs?

I wish I could look into my crystal ball and get a more precise answer for you. There are broad trends that are affecting lots of different industries we can discuss. One key trend is mobility. If you look at the time spent in mobile apps in 2014, it’s gone up 50% from 2013. And that’s crazy, 50% in one year, and most of this is coming from just mobile apps. How does that exactly work for the fitness industry? I’m not quite sure. But, I think ignoring it or assuming that you don’t need to address it is not the right approach. So, I think that’s one very big influence that’s going to affect how people consume fitness and wellness over the next five to ten years.

Another trend is the idea of accessibility and simplicity. Some think of innovation as additive. I’m adding new features, new services, or whatever. Yet some companies like Google are innovating by subtracting things, and pulling things out, and making their product simpler, and more accessible. With Google Docs you don’t get all the features of Word, but you get the most essential ones. I think if you think about these three big trends of mobility, simplicity and accessibility; I think that’s going to really influence the way that people consume fitness and wellness over the coming years.

Interview with Nir Eyal about the Hook Model and Product Development

Nir Eyal is an educator, entrepreneur, author, and blogger who maintains the website In addition to his blog, Nir has written articles for TechCrunch, Psychology Today, and Forbes. Nir’s new book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” debuted on the Wall Street Journal business best seller list this year.

1) What is a creative “growth hacking” method you have seen bolted onto the Hook Model that can positively influence the viral coefficient (or alternative variable) and amplify the effect of your model? Clickbait is one potential example (adding a trigger to a hijacked audience); are there any better ones?

Clickbait is an okay example. I tend to think of engagement and growth as two things that can be connected, but that do not necessarily have to be. So when I look for opportunities to invest in or consult with companies, the three criteria I always look for are: growth, engagement, and monetization. A startup must possess two of these at the onset, with a strategy to obtain the third, or I’m likely not going to be interested.

Most viral strategies have nothing to do with engagement. This is important to note; most viral growth strategies lack engagement. These strategies are usually just a way to get people in the door. Sometimes you see innovators get so hung up on virality that they stop there, and unfortunately stop short of incorporating engagement into their product. For me that is what is interesting: how can you make engagement part of the product itself, part of the growth strategy? It is pretty rare to see engagement as part of the overall growth strategy. It’s pretty hard to do well unless you are a social network. Most others are doing it as a bribe: “Here is ten dollars; invite your friend.”

2) In your teachings, you speak about the power of negative valence and how feelings such as boredom, fear, and depression can be effective mechanisms to get someone to act. In your opinion, why have emotions with positive valence (such as a joy) proven to be less effective action triggers?

When we feel happy, we don’t have a problem. Every solution is used to address a problem. Negative valence states are painful. They create pain points and we seek to correct those pain points. One could also argue this is teleosemantic… two sides of the same coin. For instance, is someone lonely or do they simply desire connection? I like to focus product makers on the negative so they understand that they should be solving a problem. Unfortunately opportunities are generally not found when people are hunky-dory; opportunities are found when people are suffering from something.

3) In the process of your research, what are one or two of the most effective reoccurring external triggers you’ve seen that do not use the computer or mobile phone as the conduit? Is there anything on the horizon that might match or come close to the utility of smartphones with regard to effective trigger conduits?

Mobile devices are fairly new, but visual triggers obviously are not… advertising, storefronts, etc. Smartphones simply let us interact more effectively with these triggers. As far as something on the horizon, I think the smartwatch is going to be huge. Whenever there is a broad base interface change, it opens a world of opportunities to build innovative products. And as simple as this sounds, some of the most powerful triggers are often hidden in your pocket. You cannot see that you have an incoming email if you have put your phone on silent. A watch is ever-present; however, the downside is there is a lot less real estate to grab your attention (than a phone). This is going to make creating habits more important because with less real estate there will be less opportunity to grab your attention. It creates a more competitive environment for app makers.

4) In a previous conversation, you and I discussed that fitness is hard to position as a reward because fundamentally it’s punishment, making it inherently difficult to inspire this action. Are there strategies to help bolster the perceived intrinsic value of a difficult action in an attempt to strengthen the perceived reward?

It is not my position that fitness is “fundamentally” punishment. I don’t think it creates pain for everyone; some people are clearly passionate about fitness and get a lot out of it. They get pleasure from exercise. It is rewarding and they love it. It is what they like to do in their spare time.

What I do suggest is that those who do not enjoy exercise feel that way because it is potentially perceived as punishment and not viewed as rewarding. I believe that these people view exercise as not fun; simply put if they thought it was fun they would be doing it. The problem is people who don’t already enjoy it make up a majority of the general market, right? People making fitness products, or at least most of them, are trying to create behavior change in the hope of making inactive people become active. It is the proverbial brass ring that people in the fitness industry are reaching for.

From what I have seen to date, it just doesn’t work; it is just punishing users. Look at the phenomenon of “moral licensing”: when we do something that we feel punishes us, when we feel we are suffering in one area of our lives, we tend to go overboard in other areas. That’s been shown with charity giving, and it’s been shown with recycling: sacrificing in one area of life leads to indulgence is other areas of life.

If someone gets into this spiral — for instance they workout each day and burn 300 calories but then reward themselves with a 400-calorie Jamba Juice — what happens over time when they do not see results? They ask, “why am I gaining weight? I guess I am just a fat person.” In the end they come to a conclusion, “well, I’m just fat; it’s who I am.” And that’s the saddest part of this story, because “being fat” has become a part of their identity, and identity is much harder to change than behavior.

At a global level, a person’s environment is going to play a major factor in the obesity crisis. People make poor choices about what they eat because unhealthy food is easy to get. If we had better access to healthy choices, I believe that would go a long way. In that regard I love what the company Pantry Labs is doing. Pantry Labs makes it easy for companies to offer fresh foods to their employees through vending machine innovation. If you enable people to make healthy choices, I think this is an easier intervention to implement than expecting everyone to pick up exercise.

5) Continuing the theme of influencing healthy behavior change, in your TechCrunch article Why Behavior Change Apps Fail to Change Behavior you state, “When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing the new behavior.” I believe this to be true as well. However, I also believe Barry Schwartz’s contention that choice can often be paralyzing. Personally I struggle with the coexistence of these concepts when it comes to prescribing varying fitness modalities to a population (especially in light of data that suggests you get higher participations rates when you limit choice). Where do you believe the balance exists, if there is a way to find balance? 

I believe you are talking about two different things here, I don’t think it is apples to apples. When we talk about the “paradox of choice,” we address things we desire, like picking between 24 flavors of jelly. We want the jelly, but we cannot decide which one we want. When we are talking about issues of autonomy and choice, we’re addressing things that we do not want to do. “I do not want any jelly; I hate jelly,” is different than the statement, “I want jelly, but which one do I get? It’s just too difficult to decide.”

There is some crossover — there is the concern that making choices, even simple choices, may tax one’s willpower — and there is this other issue of behavior, high willpower versus low willpower. The “behavior change matrix” can be helpful in explaining the difference and how it relates to forming positive habits.

Automatic behaviors — in other words, our habits — fall into one of four modes: amateur, expert, habitué and addict. I categorize them by how much self-control is required (high willpower vs. low willpower) and whether motivation can be classified as pleasure seeking or pain alleviating. Amateur and Expert are both pleasure-seeking modes, but amateur requires little willpower while expert requires a high degree of willpower. Both modes tend to result in beneficial behaviors that people want to increase.

Habitué behaviors are pain alleviating but require little willpower. They may be beneficial or destructive. Addictive behaviors are primarily negative and people seek to rid themselves of them. If you want to change someone’s behaviors, or help them develop new ones, you need to understand the matrix and use techniques in line with these four behavior modes. In other words, we do not need to frame this as “finding balance” rather understand that various desired behavior change types call for different strategies depending on the situation.

Interview with Ben Rubin about New Product Development

Ben Rubin is the cofounder of Change Collective, a new innovative platform to assist users in changing their behavior. Prior to Change Collective Ben cofounded Zeo, a sleep management company that helped users track their sleep. Ben also blogs about life hacking and other topics at

1) The MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) market has almost reached saturation; what is (or will be) the secret sauce that makes Change Collective different than other online educational platforms?

When you think about different types of learning, you can think of different types of learning and how they might benefit from different course networks: the type of learning like you might find in history classes or second-grade math, maybe knitting or even graphic design and Photoshop. Platforms like Coursea, Khan Academy and Udemy… each of these takes a slightly different approach in terms of the type of learning and the way the content is created.

This type of learning is split into two axes: one axis is user-generated content versus professional content. What we see is that within the didactic learning section, most of the market is well covered. In behavior change however, there’s a bit of a different game going on; it’s no longer just learning a skill and having knowledge. It’s about changing a behavior and learning things is actually just a very small part of the process.

Where we see the next technological shift — in terms of being able to serve this market — has been the pervasiveness of smartphones, the pervasiveness of availability of health data through wearables. The enablement of technology allows us to build a course platform that’s geared towards behavior change. Since traditional educational platforms are not specifically or necessarily native to mobile they cannot be with you, can’t remind you, or can’t stay there with you. Individual change fundamentally has to be accomplished in your everyday life, as you are walking around the world.

We see ourselves differentiated in three ways. The first is content type: we are specifically geared toward behavior change. Second, our delivery mechanism is mobile. The third way is in the product experience and design. We are firmly grounded in change science: from psychology, to behavioral economics, to community, and how all of these interact.

2) With regards to change you have said that, “when change matters, identity must shift.” What does that mean and how will you use technology to support this idea?

When you go back to our primal understanding of behavior change, we believe change generally occurred because someone you looked up to did that thing: If you were training to be a hunter, farmer, or woodworker there were role models, village elders, who would show you the way. Their behavior was passed down and modeled. In modern times, the idea of “role model” has shifted into the idea of world-class experts. Instead of mentors being chosen from a small group of people around us, these experts now have a global reach. We can match an individual to a mentor or an expert that has “been there – done that” for a specific aspect of what a person wants to change and/or improve.

When we were interviewing consumers about change and asking them what worked, again and again they would mention community and the community’s respective leader. It became very clear that one of the key aspects of behavior change is actually shifting your identity to become associated with the view within the group. This concept/idea is supported by academic research, too.

Vegetarianism is a great example of this. Someone who has a moral objection to eating meat is very unlikely to choose an expedient and tasty the hamburger, because their identity and their morals are tied up in that position.

Our realization was we could use technology to bring great expert content and actual change facilitation to a wide audience. The experts can now better tell their stories, create communities in a scalable way and enable user identities to shift (which will help effect change).

3) You have spent significant time on product development since announcing your new project at the 2013 QS Conference. What have you learned about your customer segment and product during the process?

We have been talking a lot with experts, and talking with consumers. The process really boiled down who our target customer is. We describe them as one of two personas: The first is the Healthy Achiever. This person tends to be 20 to 55, female, interested in holistic life change, interested in sustainable change across a broad range of avenues from physical life, to raising kids, to household products, to her spiritual life.

The second persona is the Performance Optimizer. This person tends to be male, in a similar age range as the Healthy Achiever, and interested in optimizing risk. He prioritizes career over the rest of his life, but is interested in hacks across the board, and really wants to apply the minimum amount of effort in order to get the maximum amount of the gain. He is less worried about sustainability and a holistic approach.

So we really had a chance to dive in deep, understand those personas, understand who we are going to cater to and then talked to the experts who have already served those market segments somewhat and are well-respected by those consumers. So we have learned a ton about both the consumers in this market and the experts who serve them.

4) Given you are an avid life hacker yourself, what are three “hacks” you have successfully implemented in your own life that have yielded significant desirable results?

I will give you four because I know them well.

1) Sleep: Get 8 to 9 hours in a dark cool room, with black out curtains. You need the appropriate amount of REM and deep sleep. If you sleep right, the rest of your life will follow.

2) Nutrition: For me, the hack is Paleo, but there’s good reason to believe that lots of different approaches work for different people, so you need to discover what works for you.

3) Physical activity: Specifically, for me, it’s a combination of CrossFit and Olympic lifting that works. That will not work for everyone. However, I do tend to suggest some form of resistance training or other type of weighted work.

4) Meditation

5) What is the most valuable takeaway from your experience building and winding down Zeo?

I will give you two:

1) Listen to your customers. We always knew they didn’t love wearing headbands. We also knew Zeo was a great product — the device gave amazing data quality — and we projected that consumers would get over their objections (to headbands) because the product was so amazing. That never happened. Had we listened to our customers more, gathering stronger intelligence earlier in the product lifecycle, we would have more quickly shifted to non-contact sensor products.

2) The importance of building a corporate culture based around shared values. We started Zeo when we were 20 years old, just a couple of college kids who got together and started building something, perhaps without a truly defined shared purpose. When I look at the thing that has really worked for us at Change Collective, it is unity and shared values and really being mindful of building those shared values into the organization and company culture.

Interview with Brad Bowery about Coworking Space

Brad Bowery is the former Chief Executive Officer of SRECTrade, a company that provides software to solar energy traders. He has recently become a partner of Founders Den, which is an innovative shared coworking office space helping other entrepreneurs take their companies to the next level.

1) Considering the economics of bootstrapping a startup, when does it make sense for a budding entrepreneur to consider moving their idea from their home (and/or coffee shop) and incurring the additional cost of a “coworking” space? More directly, how can an entrepreneur rationalize the return on investment?

I need to clarify that Founders Den is primarily composed of entrepreneurs who are introduced to the space through personal networks. They usually already have some sort of funding and money for office space. In my experience, they tend to be in a little bit different position than other founders who might be on the fence about taking office space. So companies that come through us are funded and have office space in their budget.

So to answer your question, let me take a step back and talk a little bit about my own personal experience. This type of decision is really going to depend on your respective circumstance. I bootstrapped my first company for the first two years, but I did this because I had the luxury of having a dedicated room in my apartment. I had a roommate who was never there and I had a lot of space. My environment was ideal. However, there came a point where more space made sense. I was also fortunate that my company had early cash flow. My decisions about what to invest in would have been different if we were burning cash.

In short, the return on investment in the context of your question is subjective. There are many things to consider: Is your living environment such that it can adequately support your entrepreneurial endeavor? Is using precious cash on renting working space the best investment, or could you get a better multiplier by investing in technology or more head count? Lastly, does the new workspace make sense for your company? Does the culture of the space match yours? There are a lot of choices regarding space, especially here in the Bay Area, will the environment help support your mission, culture, and values in ways that working somewhere else would not?

2) When an entrepreneur is considering picking a coworking environment vendor, what should she/he consider when making a decision about which space is the right “fit”?

This is an interesting question, because there is definitely a growing focus on the importance of one’s work environment. You have places like Facebook and Google that have made their campuses fun, and places that in a lot of respects are inviting. You are seeing people new to the workforce shy away from traditional work environments and levitate towards more dynamic ones.

At the Founders Den, we are really trying to create a curated experience for founders that come into our network. Our goal is to provide a lot of resources and a curated work environment for our entrepreneurs during a very crucial time of building their company. These entrepreneurs are able to cohort with a lot of other companies, all coming together, who are all going through similar challenges and feeding off of each other’s energy and skill sets. They also benefit from our network of advisers that include some of the top entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. For Founders Den, it is really about a community. There are benefits that go beyond a standard coworking space.

There is a fairly large spectrum of choices for startups. Like most decisions, you will make the best choice by shopping your options and weighing costs against the value you will get. Cost is not just money, there is opportunity cost if the “fit” isn’t right, if there is dissidence between the culture of the company you are creating and the culture of the space in which you are doing it, you could be wasting energy. A bad decision is not without consequence, this new space is likely where you are building your company’s foundation (i.e. new hires, social norms, etc.).

3) There are possible pros and cons to a “coworking” space. For instance – potentially on the negative side – there are the inherent risks of distraction in a collaborative work environment. On the positive side, these type of arrangements are meant to be temporary so this type of engagement might provide motivation for a desired amount of growth by a certain period of time. What strategies can you recommend for someone to make the most out of their experience using a “coworking” space?

Let my start by clarifying that this comes from my own experience, but I believe there is certainly this idea that all the founders in Silicon Valley are networking all the time, and partying, and that’s all they’re doing. The reality is the people who are successfully building companies are going through a completely smothering experience. When you are building a company, you are living and breathing it. As a startup, it’s so easy to just put your head down, put the blinders on, and wait for months before coming up for air. That is something I experienced with my business. In my opinion, some healthy distraction is probably a good thing. In my experience, if I can get out of the weeds and sit and talk with someone smart it starts to trigger things in my mind that relate back to my business. It’s a great time to step back and look at the bigger picture. Since we are selective about the entrepreneurs invited to the Founders Den, I’m not worried that our entrepreneurs will have a problem putting their head down and getting work done. I worry they might not take full advantage of the opportunities to interact with other people, to sit in on talks, and take advantage of other resources that they can get in a well-designed coworking space. There are easy ways out there to get a desk, computer, and phone. In that sense, I guess one of the negative aspects would be that you could over pay for simple amenities by overpaying at a sophisticated work space (if you are not going to take advantage of all they offer when all you wanted was a phone).

So continuing along with the same theme, the upside is you are probably surrounded by a bunch of high performing entrepreneurs. I believe the great entrepreneurs will never have trouble focusing on their businesses, getting them to come up for air and refreshing the perspective from which they are thinking about their business is what we are challenging them to do. That is where a coworking environment can really be a benefit. You have the opportunity to cohort with other really smart people sharing the same journey but with different skill sets. You are surrounded by people that potentially see the world differently than you, as well as access to unique resources only available to the collective. Our entrepreneurs generally are accommodated for six months because we want them to get in, take advantage of the resources at a unique time in their growth and then graduate on to bigger things. It also helps us create an environment that is dynamic and constantly being updated with new faces and perspectives.

4) Moving to you personally: regarding Dunbar’s number, in my experience you are the exception that proves the rule. Your innate ability to stay connected to a large and diverse body of friends and associates, while still maintaining a high degree of authenticity is extraordinary. Given there are only so many hours in the day, what strategies do you use to maintain meaningful relationships with so many people?

I am a firm believer that you get what you give, and that is what has worked really well for me. I try to take the lead by being authentic and vulnerable when getting to know people… even if I’ve just met them. I lay my cards on the table early and often and, in turn, I have found it gets easier for others to reciprocate. I don’t create a high bar for getting to know me personally and it has helped me feel connected to people in a short period of time. Personal disclosure and trust is important to deeper relationships, and I suppose the way I communicate speeds up this process. This inherent style is not without its drawbacks. Put me in a networking event with a bunch of strangers and I’ll struggle not because of social anxiety, but because everyone there has been socially conditioned for small talk. It’s tough to really connect with someone in that environment. I like situations where you can have deeper conversations with people and move very quick past small talk and get into substance quickly.

I really do enjoy making connections and staying connected, and there are few things I do that probably help me feel connected to friends who I may not get to see as often anymore. For instance, I love taking photos. I’ve had a blessed life and I’m constantly documenting it so that I never forget it! I love going through old photos and will often come across a gem that I just can’t help but send to someone. It’s quite spontaneous and it always leads to some good back and forth. Those shared experiences will never go away, even if the new ones are fewer and farther in between.

Lastly, I love bringing people together. I’ve thrown some fun parties in the city, co-hosted a few charity formals, organized a few kitesurfing trips and co-hosted a couple huge Rose Bowl tailgates in Pasadena. People tell me I should be an event planner, but I could never do that for a living. It just wouldn’t be fun anymore if I were doing it for money. I love creating great situations that bring all the wonderful people I know, and the ones they know, together in meaningful ways. And there is nothing better than seeing people who are good friends, colleagues or even married because they met at something I put together. I have been to at least three weddings where I played a role in making the connection. How cool is that? Aside from being fun and rewarding, creating events is simply a great way to scale keeping in touch. There are no expectations and there is no hidden reason to why I like doing it, but there is no denying that it is a scalable way to stay connected to old friends and meet new people (within your network).

5) Men’s Fitness had an article earlier this year titled Silicon Valley’s New Social Network and the first line goes, “It’s an open secret in the technology industry: If you want to score a deal, learn to kiteboard.” The overarching theme was that deal-making is moving out of the country club and traditional office spaces and has become more adventurous and accessible. Knowing you are an avid kite-boarder, and in line with the theme of this interview, do you see the way entrepreneurs succeed at building businesses changing? Similar to the way open technology is being touted as creating a “Cambrian moment”, do you think the way we are accessing each other is a trend, or alternatively a paradigm shift that is forever changing the way startups will be built moving forward?

I think few would argue it’s a little easier to get an idea off the ground and get a company started than it has been in the past. I am not sure I would make the same assertion about later stage funding/financing, but I don’t believe that addresses the spirit of your question anyway. Also, I have heard things like, “kitesurfing is the new golf.” I’m not sure that is true. Are there more avenues to make connections and get things done through crowd-sourcing, coworking environments, meet-ups, events, etc.? Yes.

Focusing on kiteboarding is a red herring. Yes, it has some visibility right now in the Bay Area. However, for an entrepreneur looking to make connections, just getting to know new people through common interests is more important than getting involved in the latest fad. I got my business school internship through my involvement with pole vaulting. It was an awesome internship. I traveled around the world and got to do some really cool stuff working for an investment fund. I successfully partnered with someone to start my first company through a softball league. My Founders Den involvement did come through kiteboarding where I met Michael Levit during a summer kiteboarding trip I organize each year. Are the ways startups are being built changing? Yes. Are the ways we are accessing each other changing? Maybe. However, putting yourself out there and developing relationships through common interests is timeless, the popularity of certain activities just changes from time to time.

Interview with Neville Medhora about Wantrepreneurs

Neville Medhora (AKA Nev) is an established copywriter and the trusted sidekick of Noah Kagan, as a partner of the entrepreneurial marketplace AppSumo. Nev made his mark creating one of the first successful drop-shipping businesses on the Web,, and has since sold that company to work on creating successful digital and packaged products as well as consult fellow entrepreneurs on how to launch successful start-ups. He is known for his quirky attitude and ability to connect with his audience through unique marketing copy, which he passes down to other marketers through his Kopywriting Kourse [sic].

1) Your copywriting style is reminiscent, in my opinion, of some of the techniques Dan Kennedy teaches. Who has helped and/or influenced your sales copy style and how have you refined your voice over time to make it uniquely your own?

I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve always had a weird way of writing. I do not care for grammar all that much. I’ve just feel that if it gets to the point, what’s the difference. You know how some people complain, “kids nowadays use the letter U instead of ‘you’,” those kids are actually being more efficient with their words. The point of language is not to write it in a certain way, it’s to get information from the page to your brain, right? So if it does it, who cares? So I always wrote like that a bit, in my unique way, and then I started reading Gary Halbert. He was definitely a huge influence. His style would just get you to keep turning the page and turning the page, until you were done with the whole letter and you were captivated the whole time. And I was just like… why was I more captivated by his stuff than anyone else’s? And it’s because he laid it out in a unique way. I realized later he actually put effort into this… like okay, by the end of the page, they should want to turn the page, so I’m going to leave them a cliffhanger, and this format will help them along.

So Gary Halbert was definitely a huge influence. Joseph Sugarman, I liked his stuff because he was always a marketer, but he was never a scummy marketer. A lot of the copy guys in the past would use all these tramped up language – “the most exciting thing…” and then the product was actually crappy. That’s called a LIE. At least where I come from, that’s called a lie. When you say one thing, but you deliver another, that is a scam or a lie and I am not into that. And Joseph Sugarman would actually deliver what he said he would. I liked his stuff cause he was definitely not a scammer. I tell the truth and write like I speak. It makes sense to me. Why would I change my language just because I change the medium? So that’s how I developed my writing style… my own recipe influenced by Halbert and Sugarman.

2) Given you put a high value on copy, what’s your opinion on budding entrepreneurs extensively using multivariate testing? In other words, is it worth spending resources seeing if it’s the right product, just the wrong message? And, do you have any testing hacks you can share to make A/B testing easier?

It really depends on the use case but basically there are two different kinds of people. There’s the person that already has his product running and another type of person who doesn’t know their product yet. The latter is the kind of person that needs to go out and put out tests before any serious investment, right?

Let me give you an example… it’s called positioning, right? So I had this company called House of Rave back in the day. It was a drop-shipping business that did well enough that it paid my way through college. I spent a lot of time on it. Everyone kept asking me, “How did you make that drop-shipping business work?” They assumed I did very little and I would constantly have to answer questions about operations. So I made a six-part series on my blog where I just answered every single question people had. Yet, people kept asking me more and more and more questions so I decided to make a digital product about how House of Raves works to cater to this demand. And sure enough, a lot of people bought it off my blog and then created their own drop-shipping businesses. 

The need for testing also depends on how you get your traffic. I had been putting content out there for a long time  so I had warm prospects… no need to test if people are asking me directly to give them product. My value proposition was already familiar. Now if you have cold traffic coming from Google AdWords, and the visitors don’t know anything about you, and you have to convert them right away then you really should be testing.

3) What advice do you have for people trying to find their voice, as well as an audience, in the sea of Internet clutter? It seems like there are some many people trying to emulate the style of Gary V. or Frank Kern on the assumption you have to drop the F bomb to get attention. What advice do you have for good people that are not necessarily suited for “peacocking”?

I am an extrovert. I like going out and being in crowds. I get my strength from other people. If there’s someone else working in my apartment with me, I work harder. When I’m alone I tend to slack off because I generate a lot of my energy from other people. I know that about myself. And therefore  whenever people meet me in real life, it’s pretty congruent to what they thought they were going to get. There are some people who try to emulate a loud style, but they are very quiet in real life. And it usually doesn’t translate very well… like they’ll curse to get attention, but cursing doesn’t get attention, it just offends people. If I keep saying Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! You’re just kind of like, “Why are you saying that, what’s the point?” Okay. But if I’m getting really, really into something and I need to make a strong point, and that curse word happens to be fuck, in the heat of that moment, that curse word does add some emphasis to my point. Whereas if I just say fuck for no reason, it’s just kind of inappropriate and for written copy you know spam-filters are going to catch it sometimes so your at risk of not reaching your audience as well. Do you need to add in stuff like that? If you are boring and technical, you can be boring and technical… be yourself… because you know what, there is other boring and technical people out there that will read your stuff.

I know some people that don’t like going out, they don’t like being in crowds, they prefer not to talk to other people, they like just being in their own head. They don’t need your validation for really anything, they’re very secure. In my experience these folks are not good at writing stuff that entertains but that is okay because copy doesn’t always need to be that entertaining. Sometimes it just needs to be informative and useful. If you’re a boring, calculated kind of person, write in a boring calculated way. Also it is important to note nowadays it is easy to take cheap classes and improve on almost anything even if you do not have inherent talent. For instance a lot of people that are good on camera are actually very shy. Marilyn Manson is actually a really shy guy, but does crazy things on stage. His inner persona and his on-stage persona are very different. Some of this can be taught and improved upon, so just because you’re not good at it now doesn’t mean you won’t be good at it later. Andrew Warner, when he started Mixergy, he wanted to be the best interviewer in the world, so he was like – I’m just going to interview someone every single day until I get good, and now he is.

4) What are three relatively unknown and/or obscure productivity tools that you use to make your entrepreneurial life easier, that are not contained within your Problem Solving Checklist product?

I think simple shortcuts are underrated and can save people a lot of time, so the first is the Alfred App and shortcut keys like Chrome’s keyboard shortcuts. The second is there’s a thing called SelfControl. For this app you type in a list of websites you don’t want to go to and press start, and in a certain amount of time, it will just nuke those websites. The third productivity tool that I use is my old-fashioned handwritten To Do List. Have your readers take a look at the following video.

What I don’t mention in the video is I write my tasks the day before. That’s the main thing, I make my to do list the day before, and I don’t add anything to my list the same day (generally). If you pile stuff on in the same day you do not get the satisfaction of ever being done. What’s the fun in that?

Another nugget not in the video is I try to stack the most important things first, but if I’m being lazy I’ll just pick the easiest thing to do. Not a good method but it is what I do. Good advice is doing the hardest thing first, so you just get it done. But sometimes if I wake up really early in the morning, my brain is just not working and so I’ll just do the easiest thing, just to knock a few out of the way and get momentum. If it is something timely like going to the DMV to get my registration fixed and the DMV doesn’t open until nine or something I might mess with the order too, but ideally you stack the most important items in order first so they get done first.

5) Given your experience with the AppSumo Wantrepreneur course, what’s a consistent folly you see with budding entrepreneurs that you know from your own experience they might not overcome by mere mentorship and instruction?  In other words, a common weakness that is usually only overcome through the school of hard knocks?

First time entrepreneurs notoriously like to complicate things so they don’t have to take action. I see this especially with engineers. Here are extremely smart people. They can create a product over a weekend (think hackathons), faster than I ever could. Yet, they consistently get in their own way with questions like: What happens if it grows too big? What happens if we get 10,000 customers the first day? It’s like, don’t flatter yourself. If you start getting 10,000 customers a day, then worry about how you are going to spend your money. And the biggest thing I see is the fear of putting it out there right away. Here’s an example, someone came to me wanting to be a photographer. They said, “I’ve been wanting to be a photographer, but you know, I’m in school for most of the day, etc., etc.” So many excuses! I give these people advice like just try testing your service to people you know and I hear responses like, “I’ll think about it and I’ll do it next week.” No you won’t.  Back to the photographer example, we go and we start typing out content for a website, take a couple of their best sample pictures and put them out there and it is so nerve-racking for this person because they’ve never really done that before. There has always been comfort in the excuse. I ask them to post their site on their Facebook page and they’re reluctant. I’m like, “Well, you want to be a photographer, right?” They say, “Yeah, I really want to try that.” And I say, “Well, have you told a single potential customer about it?” And they say, “Well, my portfolio isn’t fully…” Dude, you want to be a photographer, but you don’t want to tell anyone about it? If you want to be a photographer start being a photographer, and then keep doing it and you’ll start becoming a better photographer. This is just one example but it applies to most entrepreneurs. My advice: put something out there really quick and see if anyone wants it; if they do, congratulations you are an entrepreneur! Now start working on being a better one.

Interview with Pat Fellows about Entrepreneurship Reality

Pat Fellows is a serial entrepreneur who currently runs the restaurant Fresh Junkie in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In addition to his various entrepreneurial accomplishments Pat is a health enthusiast, devoted triathlete, and a representative of Mizuno Running. As if that weren’t enough, Pat is also a proud husband and father of two, as well as an avid philanthropist. He is the founder of Rocketkidz Foundation (RKF) which provides activity based programs for kids to help fight childhood obesity as well as supports programs with a similar purpose such as Girls on the Run and Wheels to Succeed.

1)  You had an entrepreneurial endeavor, Rocket Burrito, that was a personal passion but ultimately you had to pivot from it and shut it down. What were the key elements that made you realize it was time to pivot and what did you learn from the experience?

My 2 biggest takeaways from this were:

  1. Sometimes it is just the wrong timing.  You have the right locale, but things don’t fall how they should.
  2. The biggest takeaway was that a business failure is not a personal failure.  

I “was” Rocket.  People still call me Rocketboy.  I was devastated and for awhile wondered how I could be such a failure.  It’s tough.  I didn’t do everything right, but I didn’t do enough to fail as badly as I did other than it simply being bad timing.  There is a thriving Chipotle now right next to where I had my burrito joint…  albeit 7 years later.

2) Inc. ran a recent article, The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship. In the piece the author (Jessica Bruder) highlights the soft underbelly of entrepreneurship which is often avoided in print to protect the popular heralding of entrepreneurial accomplishment. It seems few writers are willing to tarnish the lure of owning your own business by highlighting the tales of failed endeavors. I know some of the common challenges of entrepreneurship have affected you in the past as we just discussed. Based on your own experience what can you add to the advice that was passed on in Bruder’s article?

The reality is that some people are just wired for entrepreneurship AND running a starting business is rough.  Hell running a 7 year old business is tough.  I have gone deep into depression and to this day, I leave my wife out of some things as it is just too much.  She runs the house.  I don’t keep her stressed with what is going on. She feels it, but I don’t kill her with the “my bank account is over-drafted” stories.  I have been in every pit of despair there is.  Yet, I am driven to push my ideas.  I have a great job, love the guys I work with, but when I am doing my best, it’s when I am intellectually and “idea” engaged.  I am wired to see my ideas win and be fulfilled.  Bad days are just a part of the process.

3) Giving back to people and the community seems to be a significant part of your ethos. You are the unofficial cheerleader of your friends, as well as people in general – I myself have benefited from this. Other efforts include your 32 Mile swim for charity (see Pat’s TEDx talk) and the RocketKidz Foundation which has been established to help fight childhood obesity. Given the time and resources it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, what are the driving forces that motivate you to want to give back in big ways?

My number one goal has always been  to make people better. Period.  It’s the right thing to do. Just as I can’t not be an entrepreneur, I can’t not give back. Even when I was broke and had to sell a house to get out from under a loan, I was still better off than a ton of people.  I don’t lose light of that.

From a health and nutrition point of view, the reality is our country eats so poorly, that it’s shameful.  I walked through a “grocery store” the other day and I challenged myself to find a row that was completely nutritious.  There wasn’t one.  PERIOD.  Obesity, to me, is currently the number one problem in our society.  Period, end of story.  It drives our economy (downward), and is the battle of our lifetime.  How can you not give back and fight that?

4) You are a proud father, a successful entrepreneur, an Ironman athlete, a representative of Mizuno shoes, a philanthropist and a TEDx speaker. Given your incredible ability to hold it all together, what are your three most successful productivity advantages, methods and/or tools that you can share?

  1. Realize that your 70% is probably better than most peoples’ 100%. If what you do is truly passion based, then on most days, you have to accept that ‘finished’ is good enough.  Kind of the progress vs. perfection idea, if you’re passionate about something you can get in your own way.
  2. Say no.  This is hard, but there is only so much time in the day.  You have to say no to okay, to have time to say yes to awesome.
  3. Exercise every day.  This should probably be #1.

5) Given all your various life lessons to date, what is one piece of advice you wish you could give the young Pat Fellows as he stepped into his first day as a serial entrepreneur back in 2000 (not about that first business per se but about the journey you were about to embark upon in general)?

Really, I don’t think there’s much.  Think and talk less, execute more.  Be more financially strong and responsible. Finally, I’d tell myself, “You are doing this right. If you believe it will work out, it will.” It always has so far.

Interview with Gary Vaynerchuk about Passion

Gary Vaynerchuk is a multi-faceted entrepreneur, New York Times best-selling author, and sought after public speaker. In 2009, he was crowned the “Innovator of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine, and became a part of Decanter magazine’s “Power List” of the most influential figures in the wine industry. Gary has become famous in part for his effectiveness in reaching people through social media, so much so that he once hit the Facebook friend limit and is about to reach the million follower mark on Twitter. Gary’s content is available through two websites Wine Library TV and Gary’s newest book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy, Social World about social media marketing strategies is available for pre-order and will ship by the end of the year.

1) Other popular thought leaders such as Tim Ferriss and Chet Holmes make reference to really working hard on establishing a base of advocates (1000 True Fans, The Dream 100, etc.)… and I get the sense that you recommend acquiring this type of loyalty more organically through authenticity rather than methodology… would you say that’s a fair statement? And if so, why do you choose authenticity over methodology?

I don’t really know Chet, but I think Tim really likes people and interacting with them a lot so I believe he would tell you, as I’m telling you, no one advocates one of these over the other. I’m well known for how much I like engaging with people. I think Tim is a brilliant operator and thinks more about the strategy of this stuff. I think about strategy as well, but I think it’s fair to say I’m a little bit less concerned with my time than other people are. I believe in the serendipity of it all, I believe personally that making myself accessible has a lot more value for me than others. I think the real answer to your question is there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. There are a lot of different ways to build brand advocacy and both methods can work. I think what Tim and I have done extremely well is become really self-aware. People who know what they are good at and then execute against what they do well… they are the ones that win. Tim is more organized than I am, and that works for him and he gets a lot of upside out of his organization. I can’t even begin to sit down and get organized… but on the flip side I have the capacity to go 24-7, 365 days a year… I mean, here we are 9pm for me and I’m doing our interview. This is what I’m good at… everybody is different. I would never want to outsource my engagement, my interactions, or all the things that I know that I might be able to make more efficient, because frankly I get a lot of happiness out of them.

2) One of the reasons your teachings resonate with me so much is I too believe in the tenets of hustle and family. I’m a self-tracker so I was going to send you my sleep data but elected to spare you the minutia. We put my child to bed at 9:00pm, the wife goes to bed at 10:30pm, and then I crank until about 1:00am. I then get up at 6:30am and do it all over again (this usually includes weekends too). It doesn’t bother me because I love what I do, but I also love my family and as I get older I can tell that sometimes the fatigue catches up with me (regardless of passion). This means despite my best intentions I’m not fully engaged with my family during certain levels of fatigue. In your experience what successful strategies have you seen to help mitigate this risk and maintain balance despite the “hustle”?

I’m still very comfortable with the entirety of the message in Crush It! And here is why, if you read it you know what I am advocating is that if you are not happy with your life the only way to change it is to put in an effort that creates something else for yourself. I mean some people are going to need to spend that energy with their families… to truly crush it they need to spend more time with their families. In other words, what they need to do is spend less time at work. Here is the spirit of the message: I think that if you were not happy with what you were doing in 1977 you did not have a lot of alternatives. You had to pay the rent; you had to pay your bills, right? You got home from your job in the evening, and the best you could do is maybe moonlight at some other terrible job. Today if you come home in the evening and you are unhappy you have the ability to start a business online at night and work to create a scenario that could change your life. I still believe that to be a hundred percent true. Just like if you are unhappy with how much you work – well, then – go get a job that is less demanding and spend that extra time with your family.

So here’s my point, I’m speaking to the 90% of people that complain about their situation. And my point is if you are complaining about something, change it.

3) In The Thank You Economy you mention that companies that believe “caring” cannot be scaled do so at their own peril, but for solo entrepreneurs and SMB figureheads’ bandwidth will eventually cap. You’ve also mentioned before in jest that you’re great at building communication models that don’t scale. You now have an auto-responder for fans that email you because you simply cannot response to everything coming at you. As you begin to reach the limits of what is humanly possible what do you need to make sure – bar none – doesn’t get lost regarding the customer/fan experience? And, have you developed any tricks and/or can you recommend any technology that can help a person (like yourself) optimize the connection and rapport needed to maintain their respective fan base (regardless of size)?

I have an intimate knowledge about what I’m about to say which is one’s capacity for effort is usually grossly underestimated. So, yes I have already reached critical mass, but I am actually engaging more now than I use to believe it or not. I mean now I do an obnoxious amount of engaging. I think my one interview a day series is a good example of that. It is not scalable, but using our interaction now as an example I have to assume, unless I’m naïve, that you and I now have a deeper intimate relationship after this phone call than we did before. I was happy to strengthen that bond because I can tell you consume my content and you clearly know it. I think this is what it comes down to – I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too – is that I honestly, genuinely, completely and utterly believe in what I talk about. I think the authenticity of that really resonates with people. I believe, actually I know, that when you are trying the world notes it. Some people are more efficient, more guarded, with their time. There are people much more strategic than I am… the only optimization I have now that I did not have before is more people to help me. That is still human though, I’m not automated. I’m serendipitous. I’m careless, but it’s my carelessness that has created my strength.

4) What is your take on the new crop of companies focused on optimizing against Net Promoter Score (NPS) and developing campaigns to exploit this type of success metric? Are there any new and/or established companies that, in your opinion, succeed at helping companies streamline and optimize their ability to foster advocacy aside from traditional social media channels?

I never signed up for a Klout account for that reason. Note not because I don’t like Klout, it is just for the fact I am very scared of a world where people try to con and/or figure out how algorithmically to build brand equity. I believe you need to give to receive. I understand why these types of things exist. There is some value to it to some I’m sure… but you know, I live at the crossroads of analytics and feeling. I would like to believe I have a high emotional intelligence.

There are so many ways to build your fan base and – again – the people I see win the most are those that are self-aware. I envy people that are more efficient than me, and in theory “achieved” what I have achieved in shorter periods of time. These are the folks that squeeze the most out of every minute. I envy it. On the same token, I think they should envy how deep and authentic my relationships are, and I believe that matters. For me the way I got there, and what I advocate, is putting in the work. So to try to answer your question… I believe in scaling the un-scalable, I believe there’s enormous magic in it. Especially as the world becomes much more efficient, and people buy more into the analytics and the “quant” it is a competitive advantage to be real. Authentic, consistent effort and going the extra mile are becoming less and less and less of the norm, these things are becoming more and more scarce. I think real, less automated, approaches will soon outweigh the methodologies that game advocacy because of the inherent value of authenticity.

5) I’m fired up for your new book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy, Social World… it alludes in the summary that the idea of just curating great content is not enough anymore. Responsive design and optimizing for mobile is now clearly more important than ever; without the luxury of intimate knowledge of your new book I ask: Have you been persuaded at all by the budding Lean Startup Movement – the entrepreneurial idea that passion alone is not enough anymore in today’s marketplace – that passion should be paired with a consumer-centric approach? Or, are you still a believer that passion and tenacity are the primary ingredients for success (i.e. creating and adapting to your market vs. finding and instructing your market)?

Go look at what I did with Wine Library TV and I think most would agree I lived “Lean Startup” long before it was written about by Eric Ries. I love Eric’s work. The spirit of it is don’t waste time, energy and money on things that do not move you forward. Be efficient. But here is where I think some people get it wrong. If success was easily quantifiable, if everything could follow a perfect blueprint… efficiencies were easily learned… everyone would be rich. It should be obvious to anyone however that if this was really true the game would be over by now.

In other words, if everything was about efficiencies and math and Lean Startups… success was all mathematically driven… the whole world would be over by now. Every single nerd would have all the biggest companies in the world. In my new book I make the case that there is a balance between creativity and analytics. I also believe social networks are required engagement platforms… they are necessary to understand and will be important tools with which to interact with your people and will be relevant for at least the next 36 months… simple as that. They’re state of the union on how to get your story across on the platforms that I actually think people are paying attention to right now. These platforms still cost little to no money to tell stories people will consume and resonate with, opposed to producing professional prefab content at a significant cost.

Can I tell you something funny before we finish? I would tell you I think a lot of my success comes from the fact that I’m undereducated. I think that me not knowing all the rules has made me guided by my own internal light thus making me unique enough in some way, some shape, some form, that it has made me fresh and interesting to other people. It’s my naiveté and lack of academic education that has made me in some ways break out because I wasn’t educated in the same way that a lot of my contemporaries are. Truth be told, the “Lean Startup” is called running a successful small business. The truth is hustlers don’t have any choice but to be lean. Too much funding and what’s your carrot? My family… we lived paycheck to paycheck. Anybody who follows me knows my story, what they don’t know is we were probably making a 10% gross margin at the store. We grossed three million which left $300,000 before expenses. We didn’t really make any money.

This is not something I have ever really talked about. This is one of the first times I have mentioned it in an interview actually, but it gets to the spirit of your question. It is kind of why I did this interview series, to say things I have never really said in the past. Look, true self-funded entrepreneurs are lean; for us there is no other option.

Interview with Ned Dwyer about Building an Online Marketplace

Ned Dwyer is the CEO and Founder of – a start-up that facilitates “small modifications” on people’s websites. The “tweaks” are purchased online where clients initially create a brief description of the modification required, followed by Tweaky’s team dissecting the situation and eventually offering a solution. Ned formally headed up NativeDigital which now primarily focuses on Facebook applications. The inspiration for Tweaky came through Ned’s agency experience where he saw how hard it was for small players to get their websites done the way they wanted. He is also a mentor for StartupSmart and runs his own blog When he’s not working on his projects, he enjoys activities such as running and hiking.

Here are my 5 questions with Ned and his answers:

1) Your company has seen amazing growth in a short period of time and you were able to reach profitability in less than two years. Along this journey did you identify anything that you believe is repeatable regarding your business blueprint that you would recommend to fledgling entrepreneurs?

Definitely, one, recognize a genuine problem. In our case the problem was/is that small to mid-size businesses need help with their online presence, and most of the time Agencies are simply not a viable solution for them, especially if all they need is a little assistance. We identified this problem and came up with the concept of a “tweak”.

Two, packaging works. We have bundled some of our best services based on our ability to deliver on the identified needs of our customers and it’s helped with some of our growth.

Lastly, never underestimate the value of your email list. I know this one is a bit cliché now but sometimes it is the simple stuff that you forget about. We had a solid list of about 1500 customers but we weren’t doing much with it at the beginning of Tweaky. We would send offers and see revenue spikes but there was not an initial methodology. When we began to test and measure campaigns through this channel it became a significant engine for our growth. Early entrepreneurs can benefit from working on a qualified list early, and then see to what extent they can work their list without fatiguing their core base.

2) I really enjoyed your post How to Build an Influencer Outreach Campaign that Converts, it complements the often sited post 1000 True Fans. Did you employ this strategy to foster Tweaky’s early growth?

I’ve used this strategy more as a music marketer than I have building Tweaky. To be honest, currently we aren’t using these concepts enough. This strategy is labor intensive but it works, especially if you are authentic. Using this type of strategy I was able to secure an early win with James Farmer from WPMU. He introduced Tweaky to his entire list asking only that we provide them (WPMU’s customers) with an exclusive offer. He wasn’t looking for any sort of compensation; he just wanted to make sure that the end result was a win/win. He benefited by providing value to his list, and we benefited from reaching an untapped market. The key to this strategy is you cannot take shortcuts. It truly requires authenticity to work. If you try to automate processes you’ll burn bridges and likely have to ultimately abandon the strategy for something else. However, if you work on building genuine connections, think about the other party first before thinking about yourself, and focus on reciprocity, it is an extremely effective strategy.

3) You have successfully created an online market. Along with Tweaky there are other major players in the online market space that have had some success creating marketplaces as well, a popular example is airbnb. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge to ensuring an online market place becomes profitable?

I call it “the grind”. There is no secret formula, or if there is it is this: keep your head down for 6 months and create a great product… that’s the challenge. This requires a particular mindset, one of focus and vision. If you believe you have a great product or service and you are able to turn out great content you’re half way there. You just have to keep pushing. I share the opinion with many others that in the SaaS business there are never “big” wins. A great post on this subject I recommend is How to Negotiate the Long, Slow, SaaS Ramp of Death by Gail Goodman.

You must have confidence and have the tenacity to go a significant amount of time with little revenue. Architect your “10X” goal and then get to work. I’m not suggesting you do not build in “kill switches”, i.e. indicators that you’ve miscalculated and you should pivot. You should never run yourself, others, and/or your business into the ground. However, you also have to have the guts to know that even though things look bleak, and are uncomfortable, you will persevere to reach your goal, 10X or otherwise.

4) From my vantage point it appears that you’re consistently testing things on Tweaky such as layout, pricing, and content. What are your favorite tools and methodology for refining your approach for the betterment of your business, as well as site usability?

Ha. I’m glad it looks that way. I would say it is a combination of mixing data with fineness. When we initially tested our pricing, in a sense we were using data because we were gauging how people reacted to the price changes, but the pricing numbers were our call based on institutional knowledge and instinct. Regarding the way we formulate our products… it is a bit more fineness. Something like, “I believe my customers will want this so let’s build against this presumed desire.” However, we will still make product choices by asking questions such as, “where is the data on that?” We have definitely done a lot of testing regarding our email list. As I alluded in your previous question, the adage “the money is in the list” is true for a reason. We have done a lot of segmentation and experimentation with our list through special offers to particular segments, as well as testing offer elements before a mass mailing. For instance, we wanted to get advocate exposure by asking our clients to provide a link to our website in their website’s footer. We tested four different offers to see which one would garner the most desired response. When we identified the offer that received the most positive response we went wide with that particular offer and got favorable results.

5) As a successful digital entrepreneur what are some of your favorite tools and/or products that might not be widely known yet?

For CRM I’m currently a big fan of Intercom. It’s a robust integrated solution that does a good job of tracking user activity. It allows me to do some really cool segmentation based on a wide variety of attributes. Using the features of Intercom I can quickly identify customers and prospects through specific behaviors and traits.

Another service I’m currently fond of is Full Contact. I use it to get social attributes on incoming leads. This affords me the ability to quickly know the social influence of anyone interested in Tweaky.  Knowing this information means I can segment prospects that might be influencers and potentially target them with specific offers.

Interview with Sunil Saha about Customer Loyalty Programs

Sunil Saha is a founder of Perkville, a service which allows businesses to offer card-less customer loyalty and reward programs. Sunil has previously held leadership roles at LinkedIn, Yahoo! Small Business and Neoforma. Perkville is free for anyone to join while businesses pay for monthly subscriptions to offer their consumer’s rewards.

Here are 5 questions with Sunil and his answers:

1) In the book DRiVE by Daniel Pink, the author warns about the potential risks of using extrinsic rewards to influence behavior. With that in mind, what should business owners consider before creating a loyalty program that offers extrinsic motivators?

So number one, it’s important to not extinguish that intrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is so important. A good example from the book in Sweden they tested the desire to donate blood, and they assumed that if you reward people monetarily for donating blood they’re going to give even more. However, paradoxically they found the reverse happened because they negated the intrinsic value of people feeling good about giving blood. So when I think about that for customer loyalty, I’ll use fitness for an example, I don’t think you’d ever want to reward something that has intrinsic value. You want to focus rewards on things that are repetitive, with low intrinsic value to the customer. So for example, checking into the gym, very repetitive, doesn’t take very much creativity or thought, but it does actually drive health benefit, and it also drives loyalty to a business, so you want to reward that. However, one might want to avoid using rewards as the main mechanism for a weight loss program. You’re going to lose all creativity, all flexibility, and all consumer autonomy from the process of reaching that goal. I don’t think you’d want to reward that piece of it, just take the parts that are repetitive – where autonomy is not really important – but that still drive your business and improve loyalty, and focus the rewards on those aspects. You do not want to extinguish creativity by directing somebody towards a very specific goal. Furthermore, whenever you take away consumer autonomy you risk eliminating some of their intrinsic reward system. So any compromises in these two very important areas should be well-thought out. For instance, if you are a retailer you may want to allow the customer to still choose the outfit that they think they’re going to look great in. Have that experience. But the process of actually spending money, which is obviously very routine, repetitive… there’s really not that much creativity in that action. That’s what you want to reward.

2) In your opinion, how important are game mechanics to reward programs? There are varying levels of sophistication when it comes to gamification. Do you believe there is a correlation between reward program gaming elements and an increase in successful business outcomes?

Game mechanics are an important component of customer loyalty programs. I think there’s a lot of variation on what’s going to work depending on the type of business. I’ll give you one example, for smaller businesses ranking customer loyalty with some sort of leader board in the same vein as Foursquare works. For instance, in a coffee shop environment, if you are low on the list you likely will not go away feeling bad. In a fitness environment I think it’s very different, where you have to be very careful, because a leader board in a fitness environment could potentially make somebody mindful that they are not doing enough (at the risk of perceived value) or create discontent by creating a goal they can never achieve …because of personal bandwidth or whatever the case may be. So I think game mechanics are important, but you have to really vary them depending on the type of business you’re working with. My bias is that one of the strongest game mechanics for customer loyalty is taking advantage of the hoarding mentality that many of us have. We like to collect. I think that’s why you see point based systems used so widely across many different verticals. Credit cards use it, airlines use it, and hotels use it. Almost any kind of loyalty program uses some sort of “hoarding” system, they take advantage of that human element. In my opinion badges have not proven to be terribly effective and I haven’t seen any strong data showing that they really drive significant customer loyalty. There are all sorts of other game mechanics, challenges, contests, levels, which I think are very powerful and will make somebody feel special. You can argue that you add intrinsic value to a loyalty program through these means because when you give somebody that special feeling that they’ve achieved a new level, and reinforce it with special perks to make them feel good about themselves there are potential aspects of this that will extend beyond being simple extrinsic mechanisms. However, it’s hard for me to say that these game mechanics are what’s going to succeed across the board. I think you have to look at it case by case, business by business.

3) When a business sets up a loyalty program is there a formulaic foundation, general rules of thumb, and/or benchmarks that can be generally assumed regarding return on investment and increased retention? Are there any non-proprietary formulas and/or models that are useful when considering if a loyalty program is right for your business?

There are so many variables in this equation, every business is so different, and a key part of this is the business itself. A customer loyalty program is not going to turn around a bad business, so I think it’s very difficult to say that if you plug-in a specific customer loyalty you should expect a benchmarked ROI. The key variables are the business itself, how the program is implemented, you might have a lot of opportunity sitting in a reward program, but if you don’t actually implement it well, and promote it well, you’re not going to get the results that you want. Visibility I think is key, engagement is very important. It is difficult right now to just kind of have a plug and play system. That is one of the things I’m excited about for the future, because now that we have platforms like Perkville, we’re gathering anonymous data from the thousand businesses on our platform today – note: we will never share data across businesses – but we can start to see what the best practices are. We can start to see what works in various verticals, and what doesn’t work. Currently, we can provide strong tailored recommendations for success, but I think we’re still a little ways away from a ‘plug in x output y’ type formula. However, using the fitness industry for example we can say something like forty actions of the customer should spit out some sort of reward. If you’re less than that, then you’re probably spending too much on your loyalty program (relative to the return), if you’re more than that customers start to feel like it’s too hard to reach the reward you could potentially reduce your return as well. So we’re learning now what is working by industry. Another example is retail, typically we see five percent redemptions, so say if somebody spends one hundred dollars they can get five dollars in value back. In this vertical ten percent you’re spending too much, less than five percent too little, and from there we can begin to optimize to maximize investment.

How can you determine if a loyalty program is right for your business? So I believe there are three key things:

1) How important are repeat customers for your business? Most businesses are going to want repeat business, but say you are a plastic surgeon or luxury car dealership the transactional volume probably wouldn’t make sense. However, most businesses will have enough transactional volume where it should at least be considered.
2) What is the likelihood that your customer considers the competition on a regular basis? For example, if you’re an airline, if you’re in retail, if you’re a health club you need to inspire loyalty. If you have a monopoly on your business then it might be harder to justify the investment.
3) Is your business somewhat commoditized? For example, if you’re a credit card, if you are a rental car service, there’s some differentiation there but these are largely homogeneous offerings where loyalty can help with retention.

If you answer yes to all three of these questions I think you need a loyalty program. If you answered yes to two of three, I believe it’s something for you to consider. So it’s one framework you can use.

4) What on the horizon excites you about innovation in the customer loyalty and reward programs space? For instance, one could assume that the convergence of Big Data, geolocation protocols, and augmented reality might increase the ability to personalize loyalty campaigns for the end use in fascinating ways.

Let me answer this a little differently then what you’ve asked directly. I’ve got four things that really excite me. Number one, I think engagement is really going to skyrocket, because now with mobile phones, and everything connected on the backend, the level of effort to engage in a loyalty program is dramatically decreasing. I mean, look at what we’re doing, the customer literally has to do nothing different to participate. We’re going to have much more natural engagement, better engagement than we’ve had in the past, and I think that’s one of the biggest variables for the success of a loyalty program, how engaged are your users. Two, I think people are getting busier, and busier, so it’s harder to get them to do extra work, and now things can be automated. If you want to reward checking-in this which will soon be frictionless through your phone, you will not have to do anything different as a consumer. I think that’s also very exciting. Three, I think the personalization capabilities are going to be very exciting as well. So the days of sending mass blasts to all your customers are very quickly going to be over. I think one of the most important factors in the success of a reward program is the personalization of the communiqué. For example, in our case, we don’t send any mass email blasts, any email that a customer gets is specific to them. Whether it’s how many points they have, how close they are to the reward, that their friend has joined the gym, and they are rewarded for that activity, it’s all for them, and I mean that’s really important if you want to keep engagement. Last concept, I think keeping it fresh is another key element. You want to keep customers excited, you want to always offer them something new and exciting within the rewards program.

So for me the sort of things I think are very exciting are engagement, frictionless mechanics, personalization, fresh communication, and I think at the end maybe here I might add data, where we are now having this platform that can aggregate data across thousands and thousands of businesses, eventually hundreds of thousands of businesses, and optimize the experience automatically for the participating businesses, where you take the human error out of it, you can AB test, and do all sorts of incredible things that were just not possible before. Large companies have been spending lots of money on these programs, small businesses haven’t been able to. It wouldn’t surprise me if in ten years small businesses have more effective programs than larger companies, because they’re leveraging our aggregated platform.

5) Back to the concept of eliciting behavior change, what do you believe are the most important elements to get right to accomplish this goal (either through loyalty program design or more broadly through general strategy)?

You don’t want to diminish intrinsic value or you’re going to have unintended consequences as a result, but I think if you can – in a frictionless way – incentivize the boring, repetitive pieces of the tasks that need to be done to eventually reach your end goal, then that is what’s going to drive your success. Take what we have done, as an example, checking into the gym is a near frictionless task for most members and it’s also very repetitive, but we know if we can reward people for that, and get them into the gym, then let them have creativity for what they do in the gym (run on the treadmill, lift weights, etc.) do not remove that autonomy from their experience, because now they’re at least more likely to get there and to enjoy the fruits of that creative experience at the gym …I mean that’s how you can drive it. Focus on making the boring parts more exciting and rewarding… these are the variants to success. Also, show them their progress. That’s one of the things we do, users don’t have to open an app to check how they’re doing. Instead they can just get a very short email that tells them, or it could be a push notification on their phone.  We offer various frictionless ways (of the user’s choosing) to show them they’re making progress towards their goal. Lastly, be careful not to foster short term thinking. When thinking about your rewards program make sure it’s going to be valuable to your customers, not just for the new customer but that the program is still going to be interesting for the loyal customer down the road. Otherwise its usefulness is going to lose value very quickly at the risk of your investment.

Interview with Tim Ferriss about Entrepreneurial Hacking

At this point Timothy Ferriss needs little introduction. Most know Tim for his New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek. He followed up The 4-Hour Workweek with The 4-Hour Body, again making the New York Times bestseller list. Tim’s latest book, The 4-Hour Chef, is marketed as a “choose your own adventure guide” not only informing readers about improving their culinary skills but also peppered with tips about improving general learning as well. Along with being a prolific author Tim is an advisor and investor in several huge entrepreneurial endeavors including Facebook, Uber (an on-demand private driver service) and Evernote.

Here are 5 questions with Tim and a summary of his answers:

1) In your mind, what makes for a sexy business or idea?

I favor original ideas over Frankenstein ideas. What I mean by this is when an entrepreneur says, “I have this idea to combine Twitter and Kickstarter…” So what? An idea is not just a list of features. It should need little explanation, because if it’s not simple you will not be able to sell it. Ask yourself, “Is this an idea people will actually use?” Actually, the litmus test I like to use… is this something my mother would get? My mother sent me a Humble Bundle gift certificate because it is a great idea and easy to understand. Stephen Key has some great thoughts regarding finding and developing good ideas too. I recommend checking out some of his stuff on this topic.

2) You are an early investor in Basis (the company that just launched the new Basis watch); knowing that you have an affinity for the budding but increasingly expanding market of biometric entrepreneurship what excites you about this space?

What excites me about this space is continual noninvasive self-tracking. I’m not necessary talking about advances in infrared and pulse oximetry devices like the Basis watch… I’m referring to a disposable wearable patch that continually tracks and collects all of the common human biometric marker readings, markers similar to what you would find statically in an ordinary blood panel. However, this data is only valuable if we find ways to make it digestible, understandable and actionable to the end user through innovative user interfaces.

Usability is what I believe is necessary for the biometric device market to see wide spread adoption. Wide spread adoption is important for market growth. The market needs to have the necessary statistical information pool, and meaningful sample sizes, large enough to perform distributed clinical studies and/or accurate correlative studies. Keep an eye on some of the start-ups I’m involved with (for which I will release more information about shortly) but for now Basis is a really cool product and a company to keep your eye on.

3) What are your personal recommendations for better networking?

Don’t amass connections on LinkedIn like a collector and think you are a great networker. Knowing 10 to 50 people really well, influencers in your niche, is far more important than the total amount of contacts you have. In fact, handling contacts like a collector is handicapping. You reach a point of saturation that makes it impossible to maintain any meaningful relationships.

Approach people you would like to meet with a “just-in-time” strategy, not a “just-in-case” strategy. I would really like to meet Jay-Z but if I did I would probably be forgettable to him because I don’t really have anything to say to him in particular. Make sure that if you meet someone you would like to connect with you have something to say!

Lastly, regarding professional conferences the adage you get what you pay for really holds true. Do your research first, but after you have a list of creditable conferences go to the most expensive one you can afford. Influencers rarely go to free and low cost events as attendees, and if they do their bandwidth will be at a premium because you and everyone else will want to talk with them.

4) What are your personal recommendations for self branding?

Similar to networking, first determine who your customer is. Who are you trying to attract? Second, make sure you do not go at it ad hoc, develop a sound strategy. Are you going to deploy a public relations strategy? Are you going to set up a website and try for paid acquisition? These are important questions to answer before you start. Using The 4-Hour Workweek as an example I knew my target market was tech-savvy males, 20 to 35 years of age. I researched this target market, actually I am this target market, and learned we all read the same stuff. The influencers in this market all play in the same playgrounds and quote and cite each other.  Armed with a strategic approach I set off to become the Jay-Z of this niche. To do this right authenticity is paramount, your audience needs to trust the messenger before the message. To remain durable always soft sell, never hard sell. Rather than walk through the entire process here, I suggest you read the following:

5) Now that you have completed The 4-Hour Chef, what’s next?

What’s next? I don’t know. How about The 4-Hour Nap? Right now I think I have written my last book for awhile. This time around, especially with the publishing controversy, it has been exhausting (for context read: An Author Cooks Up a Tiff with Bookstores). The idea of these books was always wealthy, healthy, and wise. I’ve completely the trilogy so it’s time to focus on other things.