Posts Tagged ‘dad’

Don't sacrifice your blog in the name of productivity

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

I have been working more than ever lately, but my blog posts have been scarce. This is no accident. But it is a mistake.

A couple of weeks back I wrote this post about productivity on Tuesdays. That realy got me thinking about my own productivity and what days of the week I am able to get work done. The initial inspiration for the post was this one by Penelope Trunk, which suggested, among other things, that if Tuesdays are the most productive day of the week, we should focus more on Wednesdays and Thursdays to try to make those days equally productive.

So I’ve been trying to consciously think about my productivity. And I have hit upon a great way to make myself productive. The past two weeks I have been picking one major (or difficult) item on my to-do list, and working on it the entire day until it’s done. That way, at the end of the week I will be able to cross five major items off my list. Any time that I have left in a given day, I work on the odds-and-ends that are left. Including my blog.

This strategy has worked great for getting those major projects done. (I finished four last week, one was so big that it took two days.) But the problem is, the other stuff – the everyday work – isn’t getting done. As evidenced by the sparse posts to this blog.

GrowingSo this week I am going to try a new tactic. I’m going to schedule only 3 major things to get done this week and see if I can get caught up on the rest of my stuff. Because sacrificing my blog in the name of productivity is a bad idea.

This blog may be fairly insignificant in the scheme of things, but as far as my business goes, it has been essential in ways that I couldn’t imagine.

1. I have gotten consulting jobs because of my blog. Multiple jobs. When I hand out my business card, it has my company Website and my blog URL. People usually go to both. When they read the Pure Incubation site, the first question is usually “What do you do?” Followed by the statement “I don’t get it.” This is understandable because what I’m trying to do is uncommon and unusual, and I am trying to be vague on my site until I launch some products. But people get my blog. And my blog gets me jobs.

2. I am more engaged with the business community because of my blog. I don’t live in Silicon Valley, arguably the heart of the Internet Web 2.0 world that I’m trying to play in. But by blogging, and commenting on other people’s blogs (and have them commenting on mine), I am able to get involved in the conversation in a way that I wouldn’t be able to be involved if I wasn’t saying something. This recent post about women technology start-up founders sparked conversation from lots of interesting folks, including two who I really admire: Sarah Lacy, who released her first book last week: Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0; and Penelope Trunk, who I mention all the time in this blog and who is really my blogging idol, if there is such a thing.

3. My family and friends read my blog. Not everyone I know reads my blog, but the people who do have a better understanding of what I’m doing. I talked to my dad last night, and he told me that he follows what I’m up to with my business through the blog. And my Aunt Mary told me that she feels like she is more connected to me because she reads what I’m up to and thinking about at work. I’m glad that my dad and aunt are reading. When I go home to visit this weekend, they won’t look at me with blank stares when I talk about my business and how things are going. I like that.

4. Blogging helps me be more creative. I love writing, I always have, so the process of coming up with a topic and writing about it helps to get all of my creativity churning. I find that the process of writing a blog post often helps me think of new things to work on for my business, and often helps me discover new business models and stuff that’s out there that I wouldn’t otherwise have found – like Gary Vaynerchuk and Wine Library TV. If you’re not watching, you should be.

5. When I write a blog post, things happen. I’ve noticed this past week that my email from random people has slowed down, my traffic stats are a bit stagnant and I feel generally down about my business. This is a normal feeling for entrepreneurs to have on occassion, but I realize now that posting to my blog helps to lessen this. Because when I blog, I reconnect with my community, get support from the other entrepreneurs out there, and things happen. And it’s that thrill of activity that keeps me going when things get hard with the business, which happens all the time.

It turns out that I learned a bigger lesson this week than just the one on productivity – I realized just how important my blog is to my business. So if you have a blog, keep writing! If you don’t have a blog, go get one today. And then check back in three months to let me know how it changed your business (or life). I know it will.

Photo by Editor B

Four hurdles to jump after starting a business

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Making the decision to start a business is just the beginning. Along with all the actual work you have to do (which I’ll write about later this week), there are other early hurdles, some of them mental, to jump. Here are four:

1) Telling other people. For me, this one was tough. I had worked with the people at my company for almost 8 years, and many of them were like a second family. But telling them was nothing compared to telling my real family. Breaking the news to my parents that I was thinking of quitting my job was difficult, but they were supportive. Both of my parents were elementary school teachers, my dad taught at the same school, the same classroom and grade, for more than 30 years before he retired. He told me that doing something that I loved was incredibly important because I will spend too much of my life working to not love what I’m doing. Good advice, I thought.

But telling them that I was starting a company – and an Internet company that starts other companies – was a whole different story. My mom’s response: “Thank God Chris has a job.” The real issue, though, was that they didn’t (and probably still don’t really) understand what it is that I do. This is not surprising because very few people understand what I do. But I knew for sure that they were both on my side when I went home for a visit at Thanksgiving, and my mom had print-outs of my Web sites (she actually printed copies of the sites on her color printer) propped up on her hutch in the dining room. Adorable.

“My mother and father thought I had lost my mind, because I had this great job at Xerox, a nice big office overlooking the whole Bay Area. They said, ‘What are you doing?'” – Charles Geschke, cofounder, Adobe Systems

“[I had to tell my parents that I wasn’t finishing school], but what was actually harder was having to go to the president of the university and ask for a leave of absence. I had never met him before. It was quite interesting because he apologized for having to try to disuade me from it. After he finished his speech, he wished me the best of luck and shook my hand with a big smile. I rememberd that, and ironically, 20 years later he’s one of RIM’s board members.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion

“My parents thought I was pretty much over the top because I had this very prestigious job at the Federal Reserve Bank and went to work every day from my apartment to this beautiful bank and got promoted and made a bunch of money for my age. Why would I quit? It was very hard to communicate to people who weren’t in the very small software industry what you were doing. People didn’t question you; they couldn’t even converse with you. At Thanksgiving: ‘What do you do again?…OK, thanks, that sounds really interesting.’ …People didn’t quit their jobs and start these companies. Although once you become an entrepreneur, it’s sort of like becoming an alien. You notice there are other aliens!” – Ann Winblad, cofounder, Open Systems

Hurdles
Photo by iowa_spirit_walker

2) Having faith that it’s going to work. You have to believe that your idea is going to work before you decide to start the company, but continuing to have faith in your vision is something that you have to choose to do every day. For me, it’s hard when I read articles about how many small businesses fail because I tend to make decisions based on probability and best-case scenerios. So the probability is (based on the stats) that my business will fail. But I have to have faith, I have to decide every day that I will beat the odds, that my company will not become a statistic. That I will succeed. The good thing for me is that my business model has failure built in, which is fantastic, because I’m already planning to fail. I’m starting a number of things at the same time with the full knowledge that some will not succeed. But the trick is to hold onto the faith that some of them will succeed.

“It took a lot of faith. You call it vision, but it’s a combination of vision and faith that 1) it’s going to happen someday, and 2) it has value, and 3) you can actually accomplish it in an economic way and promote it so that you can fund the development and growth of the business. That’s pretty tricky stuff.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion

3) Embracing the uncertainty. When you start a business, you may be trying to hold onto faith that it will be a success, but you don’t really know that it will be. Along with that, you don’t always know where you’re next client will come from. Or employee. Or dollar. So you have to come to a point of accepting the not knowing, embracing the uncertainty. For me, it’s kind of a thrill to be working this all out as I go because I have come to believe that no matter what I face, I’ll figure it out. It might not be today or tomorrow, but eventually, I’ll either determine a way to get around the issue, find someone to help me with it, or overcome it in some way.

“Part of the excitement was just seeing how the world would respond. I kind of like uncertainty to some extent, because it’s a little bit of suspense and excitement and adventure, almost, right? And you can learn a lot even if things don’t work out. But not everyone likes adventure. A lot of people seem to be against uncertainty, actually. In all areas of life.” – Paul Buchheit, creator, Gmail

4) Remembering that there are pros and cons. I got married fairly recently (May 2006) and for at least a year following that event, almost everytime I saw someone I hadn’t seen in awhile, they would ask, “How’s married life treating you?” That exact question. Since starting a business, the question has morphed to, “How’s the business coming along?” I love that people ask about both my marriage and my business, but the truth of the matter is that with both, there are pros and cons. The trick is making sure that there are more pros than cons.

For the first few months after starting the business, I had a really hard time with the isolation of working at home, alone, with no one else around to talk to all day or who fully understood what I was doing. I tried a lot of things to overcome this, and the thing that ended up working the best was going to Panera Bread and using their free wi-fi. At least there I was around people, and the din from the conversations helped me feel not-quite-so-alone. Lately, that con has turned into more of a positive. I love being able to set my own schedule and to work at my own pace, and I’m able to get things done faster than ever. The good can become bad and the bad can become good in the blink of an eye – the key is remembering that, and working constantly to turn the negatives positive.

“Startups are just so amazingly fun; they are so amazingly stressful. Whether you are an engineer or whether you are a founder, at least for me, it takes every emotion you’ve got and multiplies it 100-fold. Higher highs, lower lows than any other work experience. A startup is all-encompassing, so do it when you are young and when you don’t have a family because you’ll lose it all.” – Mark Fletcher, founder, Bloglines

“It’s a combination of sudden freedom to run things as you please and crushing responsibility in which you know you have to do certain things in a certain way at a certain time. That eradicates all of that freedom.” – Joshua Schachter, founder, del.icio.us

Tomorrow, I’ll continue this series with a discussion of the financial issues that go into a start-up.

All of the quotes in this article are from the wonderful book Founders at Work: Stories of Startup’s Early Days, by Jessica Livingston.

What SkyMall can teach you about user testing

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I’m on the plane right now, on the way to Jamaica with Chris, who is going to a conference (I’m tagging along), and we just spent about half an hour looking through SkyMall, the catalog of often-quirky products that they have in the seat-backs on the plane. I love looking through SkyMall, mostly because it makes me laugh the things that people come up with and actually sell. Some of our favorites from this issue:

  • Gravity Defyer shoes (page 13) – Really Alexander the Innovation Wizard that is the best part of these shoes. Chris’ title is “Chief Innovation Officer” so I was trying to get him to change it to “Chief Innovation Wizard” after seeing this picture of Alexander.
    Alexander the Innovation Wizard
  • Spring Flex UX (page 66) – This ad features a man wearing nothing but white – shorts? underpants? – working out at his desk. Ummm…
    SpringFlex UX
  • CD case(page 79) – This case holds 2,262 CDs – they better sell these fast before people stop buying CDs (does anyone own 2,262?) and the music industry implodes!
    2262 CD rack
  • Caddie Cooler (page 80) – “Cleverly disguised as a 3-wood,” I sincerely doubt that my dad or brother will be bringing this out on the course anytime soon.
    Caddie Cooler
  • The Neckpro Traction Device (page 108) – The picture speaks for itself, but there must be a very limited market for this device.
    Neckpro traction device
  • Big Foot the Garden Yeti Sculpture (Page 161) – Definitely not something to welcome the neighbors
    Big foot the garden yeti
  • Basho the Sumo Wrestler table(page 160) – Will go well with any decor, unless you’re sitting behind it…
    Basho sumo wrestler table

And these were just the products that made us laugh the most. Every page of the catalog we were pointing at things and commenting and talking about the good ideas, the bad ideas and how to improve some of the products that had a nugget of a good idea, but executed it poorly.

This made me wonder if the SkyMall people do user testing. Do they have consumers come to the SkyMall offices, give them the most recent copies of the catalog, and watch them interact with it? It is impossible to watch every person read and use their product, but how much testing do they do, and how much do they use the data they collect to make changes and to help them pick what will be included in the catalog in the future?

There is a really good correlation to the Web here. Any business that has a Web site (and every business should have a Web site) should also have some kind of analytics tool running on their site. I use Google Analytics on my Web sites, but I have used Omnitureand others in the past as well – any of them work (but I whole-heartedly recommend Google Analytics – it is free and very easy to set up).

Once you have analytics set up on your site, you should be able to do some user testing – you will be able to check out, among many other things, what pages people visit on your Web site, their navigation path, what pages they linger on, what are the most and least popular sections of the site. And if you sell things on your Web site, you can easily evaluate how appealing various products are to your market.

Along with this day-to-day evaluation, it is also a good idea to occasionally do user experience testing. It is incredibly illuminating to be able to watch your users interact with your Web site. When we ran such tests at Ziff Davis Media, we used software called Morae, which worked well. When we ran the tests, we had two computers set up; one in the user testing area, the other in a viewing area where everyone else could watch the users go through a set of tasks. (Our stations were actually set up in two different states.) The users are taken through a series of tasks by a tester (a guide of sorts) who asks questions and gives the users various tasks to complete. The users are instructed to talk out loud about what they’re thinking when they are navigating the site, and the software on the testing computer records all the various motions that the user makes, their facial expressions and their voices. The viewing computer has a split screen, which allows the observers to watch both the users’ faces (which are recorded via a Webcam) and the users’ desktop displays at the same time. It’s amazing the things that you can learn in just a few short viewing sessions.

Do you do any user testing on your Web site? If not, start somewhere. Make sure that you have an analytics system installed, and begin checking it and learning what all the numbers mean. It won’t be long until you can make simple changes that will lead to vast improvements to your site.

Holidays and family history

Friday, December 28th, 2007

I’ve spent much of the last week traveling to Binghamton, spending time with my friends and family celebrating Christmas. It was a really nice break and I enjoyed all of it – the food, the parties, the presents – with the exception of missing my brother and Michele (who spent Christmas in Switzerland this year) and my cousin Jeff and his fiance (who were in Ohio).

Each year, it seems like there are a few truly memorable gifts that are given or received. Last year, Chris and I made “Fix-it-Club” hats for my dad, Carol & DJ, as part of the “club” that was founded based around DJ’s propensity to break things, and my dad’s skill at fixing them. And last year, Michele gave all the women in my family bracelets in support of Breast Cancer Research, in memory of my grandma – it was our first Christmas without her, and the first Christmas Eve that we celebrated in my lifetime that wasn’t at her house.

Vintage Christmas Postcard

This year, three gifts top my list. Chris gave me two of them – a flute, which I mentioned to him in passing that I would like to start playing again; and tickets to see the Nutcracker in Boston. We went to the show last night, and it was fun and magical, just like it is every time I see it. If you live in Boston, go next year! It is worth it.

The other gift was something that I got from my Aunt Mary, and is incredibly special. The back story is that when my grandma was alive, she used to have a collection of about 50-100 old postcards that she would pull out from time to time to show people. My grandma had a ton of information bits like this – she would clip articles from the newspaper or find old photos and she would keep them in a drawer in her living room and would show us various things when we came to visit. She also would write all over these pieces of paper in her cursive scrawl, I think to try to make sure that she remembered the names of the people in the photos for when she was telling the stories about them.

Vintage Thanksgiving Postcard

So for Christmas, my Aunt Mary framed this collection of holiday postcards and gave a bunch to all the people in my family. SO COOL! I love these things. She knew that I would love them so she gave me six – I’m still trying to decide how best to display them. My favorite three are pictured in this post.

Vintage Valentine's Day Postcard

The coolest thing about the postcards, though, is that you can still read the backs of them. All of these were sent to someone (an ancestor of mine, possibly?) named Miss Frances Jennings from Candor, N.Y. That’s all that can be found in the address line – I guess you didn’t need too much information to get the postcards to the right house back in 1909, when sending a postcard cost only 1 cent.

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to do a bit of research on the people who sent and received the postcards. This is all speculative, because I can’t be sure that any of the people in the postcards are 100% definitely the people who I found on the Internet, but it’s interesting either way!

Back of Christmas postcard

The back of the first postcard (pictured above) provides a huge hint – which is that J. Herbert Jennings, Jr. was somehow associated with Miss Frances Jennings (likely her father). And I managed to find out some information about a J.H. Jennings Sr., namely that he was the local druggist at Candor Corners in 189? (random fact: at some point, the store burned down). It appears that he may have also been the town supervisor, the chief office in town, from 1894-1896. He married Matie Wells on December 21, 1871, in Oneonta, N.Y. I think that this is the father of J.H. Jennings, Jr. and the grandfather of Frances Jennings.

Some sad news for the Jennings family on September 29, 1904, when Mary Augusta Wells (the proper name of Matie?), wife of J.H. Jennings, passed away. In 1933, it appears that the Jennings were still in business and that both J.H. Jennings Sr. and Jr. were still living in Candor, based on the information in this old phone book.

Thanksgiving postcard back

The postcards were all sent by different people, but at least two of them seem to be from family members in Seattle, Washington – one from Auntie Ric (pictured above) and the other from Cousin Mable. They are postmarked with a stamp from the World’s Fair Seattle 1909, which appears to be the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a fair that was put on to publicize the development of the Pacific Northwest. I have no idea if the relatives were involved in that World’s Fair, but it’s wild to think that they were in Seattle in the early 1900’s when Seattle still looked like this and there were no airliners to take you there from New York:

World's Fair Seattle

One of the most interesting people in the Jennings family line is Eleanor Jennings, whose obituary says that she was born on May 1, 1924, to J.H. Jennings Jr. and Daisy Wales Hunt Jennings. Eleanor graduated from Candor High School in 1941 and in 1944 magna cum laude from William Smith College. She wrote a book about her family and their role in Candor called Echoes from Yesterday. (I am trying to get a copy.) She also taught and travelled extensively, and published both prose and poetry. She had a half sister named Frances Mary Jennings, who I believe is the Frances from the postcards.

There was also an Eleanor Jennings from Candor, N.Y., who served as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1928, but this must have been a different Eleanor – maybe another family member? This is still amazing to me, however, as the first woman didn’t get elected to the Senate until 1932. (The first woman went to the Republican National Convention as a delegate in 1900.)

I realize that this is just a lot of rambling about the possible history of some people that may or may not be my ancestors, but it’s very cool how much of the past the Internet has opened to us now that many old documents have been scanned and indexed. I hope that one day all of the books and documents that we have stored in warehouses and libraries are archived digitally.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Walking in honor of my Grandma

Monday, October 1st, 2007


I just joined a team of 28 family and friends in an American Cancer Society Walk for the Cure in Binghamton, N.Y.  The idea came about as a way to honor the memory of my Grandma Reyen, who had breast cancer and passed away in 2006 (she was 90-years-old, by the way, and had a wonderful, beautiful life and a huge family who loved her, as you can see from the picture…it wasn’t a sad honoring!) Happily, we were also able to celebrate two survivors on our team. Crew Cadden raised more than $5,000 for the cause (thank you to all our supporters!!) and had a great time doing it.

Crew Cadden