Think of life as a prototype. We can conduct experiments, make discoveries, and change our perspectives. We can look for opportunities to turn processes into projects that have tangible outcomes. We can learn how to take joy in the things we create whether they take the form of a fleeting experience or an heirloom that will last for generations. We can learn that reward comes in creation and re-creation, not just in the consumption of the world around us. Active participation in the process of creation is our right and our privilege. We can learn to measure the success of our ideas not by our bank accounts but by their impact on the world.
Brown, Tim (2009-09-16). Change by Design (p. 241). HarperBusiness. Kindle Edition.
“1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.”
Recently, I have found myself scaling down consuming and scaling up on creating. The mobile era has brought to us unparamounted convenience in accessing information. We can read, share, and save content on the go, always connecting, self-documenting. Since moving to San Francisco, due to the costly iPhone plan, I switched to an Android phone and an AT&T phone plan, which consistently ran out of credit amongst other frustrations. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise; I have massively scaled down my mobile data usage. Using the newly-gained free time for reflection, I am happy that the habit of creating over consuming has begun to bear fruits.
Start with a small step
In the beginning, be it a line of code each morning, or a short blog post a week, start with the smallest step possible. Every new habit faces resistance to build up in the beginning. Like flossing, a new habit can be formed with one tooth at a time. When the step is so small that failure is practically impossible, the brain feels rewarded by the accomplishment and that feeds into the virtuous cycle.
The constant availability of information can lead to overdose. I find myself filling my waiting time with scrolling of Twitter, Instagram feeds, while absorbing very little portion of the data I received. Since I got into the habit of writing, every time I read an article, I jot down ideas for a next blog post. The same can be applied to ideas for new web app, mobile app ideas. Often, daily frustrations can be turned into good ideas of creation. It is powerful to link consumption with creation; by noting down and actively engaging the information that comes through, consumption becomes much more conscious, which leads me to the next point.
Schedule offline time
From commuting to a suboptimal cell phone carrier, I was lucky to have a natural limit of my information diet these days. That, together with being more conscious with what I consume, has done magic to my creative pursuits. Limiting “online time” by going to a cafe that has no wifi, and schedule that offline time for uninterrupted creation. At first, the lack of access to onlineresources can be daunting. Soon, you will experience the exhilarating freedom that comes with not checking email every other half hour.
In Hong Kong, where I am from, a fun group activity is art jamming, where a group of friends would go and paint, each with an empty canvas and paint with acrylic paint whatever they want. Each time after I go, I find myself noticing different things on the street that would make an awesome painting. Not long after starting on a creative habit, I start to experience that itch. I would notice ideas and experience urges to make an output. It is a tremendous relief every time I get to sit down and write something. It takes experimentation of different medium, some in music, some on the canvas, some in words, or code etc. Regardless of the medium, the reward and satisfaction from creating and shipping to the world trumps any form of consumption.
Discuss and socialize
Lastly, reach out to people that are doing similar things. While the first few pieces of creation are not going to be of the best quality, you will be surprised how frequently inspiration arrives. Creation begets inspiration. Get together with other creators, discuss topics and experiences and most importantly, enjoy the process of creating.
What is your creative habit? What are some unexpected learning that surfaces while cultivating your creative habit?
Recently I came across this old Canto-pop song. It first came out in early 2008, when I graduated from college. It was one of my favorites, and a great timing as I was looking forward to beginning my life after college. Fast forward five years, as a midpoint check, the decisions I have made so far have mostly fared positively to the questions this song posed.
Dear new graduates, I wanted to share with you this song. I translated the lyrics here; they say it all.
Enjoy the journey. Stay true to your beliefs. Bias toward action. Keep your edges. Most importantly, strive to make the you in ten years proud.
To the Me in Ten Years
The things that you have done in the past ten years Did they leave you without regrets, and make you proud? Your beliefs back then Are they still intact?
Have you found your life partner and true love? Have your accomplishments been satisfactory? Over the journey, you accumulated experiences and as a result, did you let go of your edges?
Are you feeling weak? Did you mature but lose your style? Are you still as dedicated as you were in the beginning? The edges in your character, did they become blunt?
Are you feeling weathered? Do you rather become wise but without impulse? Will you be tired of taking deliberate steps?
Are you happy? Do you still remember your promises to not be numbed by the handful of successes or failures?
Are you happy? Did you forget about your ideals and get caught up with life? Don’t wait another ten years and then ask if you are happy
Last week I had coffee with a serial entrepreneur, who started and sold two companies and currently on his third venture. His journey was very inspiring to me. Amidst a good conversation, he asked, “What is your dream company?” For a moment, I could not articulate an answer.
Later that night, I reflected upon his question and realized the fundamental disconnect between my belief and his question. I realize my mindset has shifted from building a dream product, to solving a problem.
Focus on solving a painful problem. One key learning I had at my previous startup, was that, if the customer would not pay for the product, the problem is usually not painful enough. While there are many things that could have been done more, such as better sales, in hindsight, the product was too ingrained into the team’s mindset that we failed to recognize the fundamental issue - the problem was not painful enough.
Products are usually a specific solution to a problem. However, given a painful problem, there are countless approaches to solve that. Focusing too much on the solution reduces resilience of the team to pivot later. By focusing on the problem - becoming passionate about solving an unmet need - each product is viewed as an experiment to solve that problem. If one experiment fails, move on to another one.
Maximize learning early on. The problem-focused mindset calls for designing small experiments to solve problems; build fast, fail fast. Instagram started as Burbn, a location-based service. If your product is consumer facing, use the “bar test”. Founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger validated their idea in social settings; figure out how to pitch an app to a stranger in 20 seconds, in a noisy bar. In the case of Burbn, the lack of intuitive understanding and interest from the early testers prompted the founders to re-work the idea. Groupon started as ThePoint, which allows users start a campaign asking people to give money or do something as a group. The learnings from the earlier products laid foundation to the successes of the ones that followed.
Be creative in getting the problem solved. Many great startups survived not because of the quick reception from their target market. Instead it was because of the conviction that there is an unmet need, they were able to be creative and use different methods to get through to their users. To generate seed capital for their startup, the founders of Airbnb bought bulk supply of generic cheerios and created presidential election themed boxes to sell at the Democratic Convention in Denver. Their founder Joe Gebbia described:
We made 500 of each (Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains). They were a numbered edition on the top of each box, and sold for $40 each. The Obama O’s sold out, netting the funds we needed to keep Airbnb alive. The Cap’n McCains… they didn’t sell quite as well, and we ended up eating them to save money on food.
The problem-focused mindset allows for more flexibility in developing a solution. Dane Maxwell said it well in his podcast, entrepreneurs should go from “me-focused” - from going after passion, skills - and shift to “what the pain of the customer and become passionate about improving their life”.
When asked the same question again, I will say, “to solve a painful problem well”.
Recently I have joined the club of waking up early. Starting from 6:30am, I shifted my schedule to more recently 5:30am. Following the structure suggested by The Power of Habit, there needs to be a cue, action and reward. My cue has been simple, putting the alarm clock far away from my bed, so that I have to get out of bed to turn the alarm off. In fact, it is placed on my yoga mat which naturally transitions my morning routine of a 30 minute self-directed yoga practice.
The first few days, or even week, in waking up at 6:30 was not easy. I would lay in Child’s Pose for a good 10 minutes at times, “meditating”, aka, falling back to sleep. Then in the new year, I switched to 5:30am, and surprisingly, it felt so normal and much easier than I started at 6:30am.
That led me wondering, is habit creating an exercise of a diminishing difficulty? Is it because our willpower gets stronger as we build up more constructive habits? Can habit creation become, like a habit?
In the past 18 months, I left the comfort and predictable of finance industry and launched myself into the unknown realm of startups. Moving from Beijing, to starting my own company, to Hacker bootcamp, to working at a ycombinator startup. Each time, I encounter empathetic friends who tell me, “I don’t know how you do it”. It meaning the uncertainty, constant change.
Like everyone, I yearn for security, and stability. However, I have realized first hand, that no matter what situation we are in, life is constant changing. Specifically in entrepreneurship, an awesome startup trajectory can be wiped out in market changes, founders can turn against each other and take away your baby, or the lowest low may actually turn into the darkest moment before dawn.
From this series of change, I have somehow developed a sensitivity against inertia, and a heightened willingness to seek out change. I used to strive for “solving” the big question, “arriving”. These days, I just want to make change a habit.
He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
New year is a great time for reflecting past year’s learning. In 2012, I brought a product from ideation to market, acquired customers for it and implemented features from customer development of Lean Startup model. I realize, there are a few common pitfalls that first time entrepreneurs, including myself, are prone to fall prey to, and how I would do differently in the next product.
Training the empathy muscle
Building a product that people need requires a thorough understanding of customers’ values, priorities, perception, tolerances and experiences.
Common pitfall: assume the same technological proficiency from ‘regular people’ as ourselves. I find it helpful to speak with friends and family in different industries, such as my sister in the healthcare industry who owns one page of apps on her iPhone 4S and my high school friend who works in airline marketing who only recently opened a Gmail account.
You may argue, the best products are those that solve the creator’s own problem. It is true that solving our own problems helps us see the users’ (ourselves) need more clearly. However, to make the user interface accessible, we still need to step out and think about the product from a beginner’s eyes, respect and cater to users’ technical understanding.
Making software products is a two-stage exercise, figuring out what to build and building it. During the product discovery process, the team flushes out ideas, tests out new technologies, thinks about long term, short term product direction. Once the team is done crafting a winning product, the focus shifts to execution.
Common pitfall: product discovery is often treated as a scheduled task like building out a feature. That is because engineering talent is often the most expensive asset in a startup and once received funding, startups are pressed to build as quickly as they can. That can often be a blessing in disguise; most startups should place emphasis on product discovery and maximize learning, instead of building.
- Are there real users out there who want this product?
- Have we identified a market and how can we verify the opportunity with potential customers?
- What is a valuable, usable and feasible product solution to this problem?
- What technologies can I apply solve this problem in a better way?
- What should the user experience be?
While there is no shortage of hard problems out there, the challenge is in discovering a valuable, usable solution to that problem. That involves talking to a lot of customers. To me, the biggest part was to learn how to ask good, open ended questions. The goal is to learn as much about the potential customers as possible, how they perceive the problem and what are the constraints in finding a solution.
Case study: Dropbox
After talking to venture capitalists who said they don’t use any of the cloud storage servers, despite the plethora of them in the market, Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox came up with 3 minute screen cast and received feedback from Hacker News. The next step involved posting on Digg, to get more ‘general mass’ users. By posting links on politics and humorous content, it attracts significant interest from the non-tech community. All these were performed before shipping code. His first demo video is posted below.
After discovering a potential solution to the problem, what follows is to find evidence that the product will be successful without building out and deploying it.
Common pitfall: to be over confident in a product spec, or an idea, and think they will adjust the product with the feedback they get when the beta version is out. The beta version is often too late for major changes, and the time and emotional investment by the team while developing the beta product often make it costly, economically but also in terms of team morale, to pivot at that point.
There are three types of validation:
Feasibility: Is the product going to be buildable, given time and funds available?
Usability: Can users figure out how to use it? Present the prototype test in front of real people.
Value: What really matters is whether or not the product is something users will fund valuable and want to buy?
Often, the road is windy with lots of false starts and resets. In all, it is better to learn about the market early on than after consuming months of engineering resources. For example, my previous startup Spotick went after the mobile loyalty space, which is a validated, large market with lots of sizable players. However, the geographical market we went after, Hong Kong, was culturally less ready for a consumer product. While the merchants were willing to try it out, we did not sense a willingness to pay. In light of that, we switched to explore enterprise sales with retail and food & beverage chains, which we saw more demand and validated the value through securing marketing budgets with a handful of companies.
Case study: Buffer
Buffer’s landing page serves as one of the best examples that I came across regarding product validation. Founder Joel Gascoigne put up a landing page and showcased a “product’, and by checking the clicks on the potential pricing plans, he validated customer needs and willingness to pay - all before even building the product! The details can be found here.
Improve existing products.
This is an area that I feel especially strongly about. Once the product is out in the market, the excitement of having real users also brings in lots of opinions, sometimes contradictory, but equally passionate. Which ones should we listen to, and when should we respond to feature requests?
Common pitfall: to gather subjecting feedback, elicit customer requirements and chase features. In my past experience of selling to enterprise customers, I remember clearly the allure of ‘adding just another feature’ to close the sales. It requires a lot of discipline and determination to say no to the feature requests. While it could feel devastating to turn away potential customers in such early stage, it is wise to avoid the slippery slope of becoming what Marty Cagan calls “feature factory”.
A more fruitful pursuit is to focus relentlessly on the most important metrics and perform A/B testing to drive the metrics to the right direction.
Case study: Skype
Skype was a prime victim of feature creep. It grew from a basic communication tool to many unused, complicated features like Public Chat, Send Money. A key sign that the product became too heavy and have too many superfluous features - releasing Skype Pro and Lite versions. These features and products are now discontinued, as the company strives to return the product focus to core functionality.
Yesterday I came across two scenarios, both related to asking questions and reacting to them. While both situations involved lots of questions, the responses to the questions were divergent.
One with one of the co-founders of my company. I brought up a few product and market related questions. We had a great discussion regarding the product direction, and the main problems the team is trying to solve. He told me honestly some of the questions he does not have answers to yet, offered up some of his conjectures, and emphasized repeatedly that everyone, including myself, in the company should raise up ideas openly.
Later that evening after yoga class, I was sitting next to a mother and a son on the Caltrain on the way home. The boy, around 5 years old, was asking questions on why he has to finish the homework before going to play. He was a energetic and persistent kid, certainly irritated the mother who probably had a long day. ”What are you asking all these questions? What is the point you are trying to make here?”, she finally growled, “are you telling me that you don’t want the homework?” The son shut his month immediately, and turned away from the mother to look outside the windows.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.” -Albert Einstein
In addition to never stop questioning, great leaders are quick to acknowledge they don’t have the answers. They take advantage of the situation, and here are a few things I have noticed that they do:
Think about why people ask the questions. What does it tell you about their thinking? What brought them to ask these questions? Often, the questions come from some observations or insights into a deeper issue. By digging deeper, it can lead to meaningful discussion and exploration to related topics.
Find out the answers and follow up. I once had a conversation with a friend who is an excellent salesperson at a private bank. At the age of 27, he built a portfolio of high net worth clients on his own, while most of his peers start off by inheriting some small accounts from their managers. He shared a tip on how to engage with a new contact, “take mental note during the conversation, about things that the other person is looking for or a problem he’s trying to solve. Then I go home and find something useful/relevant, send an email to follow up.” The little extra effort, rather than just dismissing the topic with “I don’t know”s, goes a long way.
Encourage a culture of asking questions. One thing I really loved about the conversation with the founder was his repeated emphasis of open suggestions. As a company grows, and as a founder’s responsibility mounts, the culture takes more time to enforce. Steve Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, says it succinctly, “Chance favors the connected mind.”
Think of being questioned not as a challenge to authority, but as an opportunity to conversation, accountability.
“I want to start a company with all my best friends as employees.” - David Kelley, founder of IDEO
Indeed, creative work can only be done in an environment where conversation is freely flowing, where team members are free to play. Only by being in an environment where taking risk is encouraged, can innovation have a chance to flourish. Asking questions is risking to be thought of as being ignorant. But at the same time, the questioner must care enough about the topic to take the risk. So treasure that, and start a conversation.
Meanwhile, I can only hope that the mother, when cooled off from her anger later that evening, will muster her patience and talk sensibly to her son.
In 2012, I brought a product from ideation to market, acquired customers for it and implemented features from customer development of Lean Startup model. Second half of the year, I delved into programming, gaining a deeper understanding in the technical possibility in products.
In 2013, my goal is to learn more about how products are designed for usability and growth. While technology continues to radically reduce the cost and time from ideation to market of software products, the increased ‘noise’ makes it challenging for quality products to attract, grow, retain and monetize users.
I plan to share thoughts on my journey in this blog and would love to hear from you. Look forward to a fruitful year ahead!
2012 has been a huge year in terms of personal and professional growth. On the professional front, I progressed significantly in pursuing my passion in products, from defining and building a product from scratch and selling it to real customers, to getting hands on with code. On the personal front, I moved from my hometown Hong Kong to the Bay Area in Jun and have been meeting many amazing people.
As the year draws to a close, I can’t be more thankful for a fruitful year that was made possible only by amazing people that surround me, in all parts of my life and in different parts of the world.
Spotick was a company that I cofounded with two other partners. It uses receipts as a platform to promote marketing messages of merchants. Due to lack of funding and full time commitment from more than one founder, I left the company after spending a year of work on the project. It was an extremely fun and enriching experience wearing many hats especially customer development, sales, lean product development and front end coding. Everything from dealing with customers, learning both software and hardware development technologies, to managing team expectations, exposed me to a myriad of situations that resulted in great personal growth.
One thing I learned from my first entrepreneurial experience, would be to spend more time cultivating relationships. While I was actively making sales contacts for the project, I would place more emphasis in connecting with the startup community. One of the best takeaways from my startup experience was the people I’ve met, including the inspiring Buffer team.
It was not easy to leave my own baby, but out goes the old, in comes the new. Hackbright was a pivotal episode of my professional life that happened in the least expected moment; when I was checking my Twitter stream one morning in late May, a tweet by Women2 came up about a program that teaches women to code. It just clicked.
I have always been passionate about building products, and having been in a startup and built my own, I have always felt half-blind when it comes to the technical side. I became even more curious when Spotick’s product touches upon hardware development as well. During my time at Spotick which I had been doing some front-end coding, I picked up Ruby on Rails on the weekends, by reading Michael Hartl’s Rails Tutorial and Peter Cooper’s Beginning Ruby. After getting my first Twitter clone working, I was hooked.
Aside from learning loads, I also appreciated the founders Christian and David, my fellow Hackbright classmates, who are amazing and smart individuals that made the summer a fun, challenging one. From pair programming, to hackathons, to coding challenges, the 11 ladies and the founders have created the best environment to learn and explore. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the inaugural class of this amazing program.
Since graduating from Hackbright, I have been working on data at Bump Technologies. With over 100million downloads, it is an ideal playground for a data enthusiast. I spend most of the work days using Python, and libraries like numpy, pandas come in handy everyday. There are also wonderful tools like d3, Gephi that makes data visualization delightfully easy and elegant.
Having worked with data my whole career so far, it is an amazing feeling to use data to learn more about a product that I care about. That is definitely a combination of passion and skills, and I feel very blessed to be able to do so.
As I spend more time on exploring data, I also became more interested and involved in the user experience and strategy aspect of a product. A big part of data mining / data science relies on asking the right questions, and asking the right questions requires understanding the core values of the product. For example, when looking at retention, the value proposition of the product plays a significant role in deciding a goal to pursue. A social product may focus more on retention, as the network effect is sustained not only by user acquisition but also by active users, a utility application (like a Flash light app) may focus more on acquiring new users.
Goals for 2013
Blog: In the new year, I look forward to sharing more often on this blog. In particular, I focus on growth and product strategy.
Coding: I’d like to pick up a functional language, to stretch my programming muscles after an intense year of ramping up with python and ruby on rails.
I also want to invest more time on data visualization and user interface design.
Startups: A few friends have approached me to advise on their startups, and given my transition from Spotick to Hackbright and moving to California, I have put those on hold. I want to get involved in a project or two in the coming year.
Project: I plan to create a software product in the new year that produces an income stream.
A personal note
One really special gift to myself this year as I turned 25 is to find the time to get certified as a yoga instructor. The 200-hour, 4-week teacher training was an intensive challenge and worthwhile pursuit. While I do not intend to teach professionally full time in the near future, the training has launched my fitness level, and my awareness of such, to a new high. That has definitely had a positive spillover effect on other aspects of my life.
Yoga has allowed me to fill my days with energy and mindfulness. I hope to take every opportunity in the new year to deepen my practice, on and off the mat.
What did you learn in 2012? What are your goals in 2013? I’d love to hear about you in the comments.