Outlier Economy

In Malcolm Gladwell’s novel “Outliers”, several examples are given for individuals who significantly outperformed their peers. Detailing all of the aligned elements in their lives from social economic factors, well in place before before their birth, to extremely well timed technological innovations, which all together gave the individuals an advantage for success which would only become apparent years later when every little margin of advantage added together turned into one extremely valuable constellation which would in turn enable them to achieve feats, and take advantage opportunities that are only available once in history.

The concept of outliers is not just a phenomenon of successful individuals. It applies to success in general in a society, and in the present labor economy which is more competitive than any other time in history.

As the factory model falls apart to a new technology of efficiency, we can’t just learn a skill to prosper. It is not enough to simply learn something valuable. It is just too easy to learn new skills. Anyone can learn the expertise of another from some Youtube videos in just a few lessons totaling less than a couple hours of learning and experimenting. The technology is not difficult to acquire, as technology becomes increasingly affordable, anyone can own the tools necessary to do the work of the pros.

In order to get the top 10% margin of benefits in this economy, you have to be your own outlier. Standing out beyond your peers in all ways possible. This includes all forms of minutiae in presentation, social etiquette, timing, experience, and specialty. You can’t just be good at learning, and motivated. You need to be sharper than the competition, have as much or more experience than the competition. Follow up better than the competition, keep a cooler head and speak with the vocabulary, make every moment perfect, and still somehow appear to be a killer deal as far as monetary commitment is concerned.

Communication Hacking

Was it always difficult to stay in touch? Or is this a new thing?

Perhaps it’a byproduct of the Internet. Email, texting, chat, video messages. It’s moving ahead so rapidly, the protocols are evolving faster than we can memorize the terms.

If you value keeping your relationships fresh, as I do. Then it can be a bit troubling to feel like it has become harder to just write a note to a friend or colleague and trust they’ll respond.

Lots of testing and analysis on this subject has concluded that people are too distracted. You can’t send an email with more than 5 sentences and expect a response. Chances are it was too long to read, so the recipient set it aside for later, and then 80% of the time the recipient forgets to reply. Probably because they got another 30 emails since they first opened yours, and there are already new emails to read later which will mostly be forgotten as well.

What a wonderful world.

This being the case, the best way to get a response to an email if a response isn’t received within 48 hours of sending, is to send a follow up. And if the follow up doesn’t get a response, or perhaps it does, but the response is just a “yes I plan to get back to you today” kind of message, then after 48 hours another follow up message can do the trick. And so it goes. After the 4th or 5th follow up an “ok I’ll assume you’re not interested or are in some serious trouble, should I call for help?” is probably an acceptable bow out.

See, the way people process the messages they receive is fragmented. If they get a message that requires more than a basic response like “[Message] ‘do you like ice cream?’ [Response] yes I like ice cream”.  The recipient will need to take more time to think about it. They will look at the email many times, even up to 20 or more if question in the email contains conditional issues.  And the more time that is needed [the more that is asked in a message] the greater the chance the message will never be responded to.

An email like “Do you want to meet for drinks in a couple weeks?” Is simple. This can be responded to almost immediately, spare maybe a glance at the calendar. It might take the recipient 3-5 views of the email to reply. Once to see it, once more after checking the calendar, but not yet ready to respond. And then finally a third time (we’d hope) to say yes “I am free, what day works for you?”.  If the recipient has multiple calendars, and possibly pending engagements with other people, the amount of views before being able to response increases, as does the likelihood they will ever reply.

Add more layers on complications, and the number of views increases, to the point where, unless the recipient is highly motivated to make the plan, you may have just overwhelmed them, and you won’t hear back unless they are worried about offending you, which generally might just create a “sorry I’m way to busy right now, let me get back to you”. This cop out, is really just a way of saying “It is too difficult for me to analyze your request and provide a respectable response back”. Sadly many people are too busy these days too, but they’ve just defaulted to not replying if it isn’t super easy to do so. Apparently, not responding to emails just doesn’t count as a diss in the modern world. It’s not a diss to ignore someone if we like their photos on Facebook right? (sarcasm)

In work settings: when dealing with these situations, there may be motivation to respond and work through complicated requests via email, from colleagues and potential partners out of the sheer desire to keep their jobs/business positive. But this context doesn’t automatically generate immunity to failure, and if the recipient has nothing obvious to lose by ignoring your message–even if they have nothing agains’t you–then you may also be out of luck, simply because they will have more time for other pressing issues by ignoring you.

This last topic, communicating with people who don’t have a strong motivation to respond, in fact we can say, they are the recipients who stand to lose time by responding to a pitch email, is the most difficult and a really big focus for me. A fool proof solution does not exist, however repetition, simplicity, and a positive manner can go a long way.

How do we keep the 2 way messages flowing? If single sentence emails are the most response friendly, yet least able to carry the information needed to get the next step.  How do we pitch and not scare?

I’ve taken to experimenting with automatic reminders. The idea is basic, I track all emails I’ve sent in the last two days. If I haven’t gotten a response on day #2, I write a reminder, or continuation of the last email, but always maximum 1 sentence in length, and the reminder shouldn’t somehow add information, this would add complexity, adding additional time for the recipient to process or decide not to at all. Then I schedule the reminder email to be sent in 2 days or less depending on the urgency of the communication, only if the recipient doesn’t respond to the original message first. 

This works. It probably wont work forever, in an ever evolving world of communication, we adapt to stimuli by decreasing our tolerance for interruption. And if too many people use the same method, the results will have diminishing returns. So then what?

What ever it takes.


The Conflict of Online Social Networks

With this new year rolling out, I find myself coming back to a topic of personal improvement that has been on my mind for a while: Social Networks. How they appropriately can support relationships and communication, and how they detract from relationships and communication.

It’s been said a number of times that people actually find themselves isolated from a physical social life when using online social networks, in some cases, even doing so in place of interacting with people in the physical realm. While there is a bump of excitement when friends like or comment on an update we posted to our Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Youtube, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Flickr, etc. (and in some cases strangers or exclusively virtual acquaintances), the long term value really doesn’t work out to much more than this little emotional bump. And then it’s gone, with nothing left, not memories, no stories to pass along. Quite an empty social interaction really.

Personally, I haven’t read about any studies on the effects of using social networks versus spending time with people face to face, but recently I began to look back through all the time I’ve invested into social networks, the people I have connected with there, what I get out of it, and then I looked back at my face to face world; similar to the social network parts: the time I invest, the people I connect with, and what I get out of them. Turns out, from the online social networks, the biggest value has been that people know what I’m up to, and I know some of the things going on in their life too. That’s about it. Aggravating this, turns out, with all the algorithms managing the things we get in our social network “feeds”, we’re not even getting all of the updates from our friends, just those programmed to meet our ‘expectations’ for things we would like to see, based on some programmers work. In the face to face realm, the people that I spend time with is far fewer compared to the online group, but those that I do see and speak to, provide more important moments for me. Turns out, there’s a lot of people who will take time to connect and communicate with me online, but have never once made the effort to do anything with me in person. No coffee chats. No parties. No help with work or personal life issues. That’s something I seek to change.

I just finished a year off from work and when I got back I pursued finding work aggressively, online and offline. The online efforts got me one small job, but the offline efforts, even those like walking up and down the street talking with businesses, got me multiple jobs, which have been worth easily 8-10 times more value than the one job I found online. That’s right, the return on investment in face to face time got me more work than the efforts I made online. And believe me I spent a lot of time generating some opportunities online. I guess the people who I could meet in person had a stronger impression and really focused on my needs. Those online, might have been too distracted, or I wasn’t communicating properly through the text and updates, etc. Who knows. The results are still obvious.

This wasn’t a scientific experiment, surely there are many opportunities for people to explore online alone, with no need to leave their computer. But there are just as many people baffled by the dependance of others to online networking and communication dependance. And those people trust a face they met in person, and would rather discuss important topics than spell it all out in an email, or schedule a video chat.

I know I’m not alone, many folks feel the pain of the rush to be online, some are just over whelmed with all the things that can be done online now. Many get by still just fine with brick and mortal style, it’s nice to see. But then there are all the others who I know I will not stay in touch with unless I stay online. And that’s the thing that’s on my mind the most now. How offline can I be and not fall out of touch? Should I just go 95% offline, saving the few moments I do login, to reply to email and respond to a Facebook message or some other online only activity? I would like to stay offline. In my own experiment, I will focus in doing more offline. We’ll see how it goes. I hope I can offer some more insights on that.

I’ll keep you posted.


The Greatest Change to Communication and Relationships in History

As far as changes to the way people interact, how friends are made, how privacy is thought of; nothing over the entire course of the human species has made as significant of a change to human communication and relationships as social networks.

Looking through history at each of the technological advances to communication: the telephone, fax, email, post, word of mouth, and written language. None has enabled the human species to communicate to the world and receive information back passively, with such great efficiency, as online social networks. Consider a photo from a family vacation. Before online social networks, an email could be sent with an attachment to intended recipients. Before that this photo would have to be sent by fax or post. If recipients liked the photo, they couldn’t click a ‘like’ button, or leave a thumbs-up icon on your door. Some would send back a thank you note, or return a similar photo of their own loved ones in kind.

It is now possible to have a presence in the lives of hundreds of people without ever having to directly communicate with them. As my brother put it while describing the very early stages of the publicly accessible Facebook: “it allows you to create the illusion of staying in contact with people, without actually having to do so”. And so it is, those peers from high school, who we mostly wouldn’t have stayed out of touch with, now occasionally grace our feeds with a baby photo, opinion, or shared news clipping. The family members who before the Internet only crossed our desks with holiday cards, family dinners, and reunions, suddenly can keep track of our whereabouts, and tell us what they think of our lifestyles, without having to gossip with other family members.

The title “social network” is both very accurate, and a paradox. For while those networked by their social connections can now keep tabs on each other with almost no effort, each person is less connected to their friends and family than ever before. As it is no longer necessary to invest time to maintain individual relationships, the lack of having to stay in touch leaves every person with fewer personal moments shared with the people they care the most about.

On the one hand it’s great, we can all stay better informed, not lose touch, and are more likely to be able to recall a face to a name if we bump into each other by accident. We’re more likely to follow up and make plans, or wish each other happy birthday. The main net result is we have a certain amount of surface knowledge about each other, that we wouldn’t have had without our virtual ‘what I’m doing these days bulletin board’. Where in the past an update on what we are doing, where we are working, etc., would have required talking to a mutual connection, or directly communicating – now a short search on the internet, LinkedIn or Facebook will do.

The negative argument is this diminishes social expectations of relationships. As we – people existing and getting information from social networks – become more used to tracking our peers on Facebook and sharing moments in our lives on Facebook, we’re taking away the natural inclination to do so in the conventional way, the one where we choose who receives the update, and we send it out showing intention. Sharing news about your life on the internet certainly makes it possible to share your news with the world, but it doesn’t have a personal touch like a phone call, postcard, or even, yes, email might have. Perhaps the latter for many is also too impersonal, but at least a specific recipient had to be chosen in that case, which is not the same when it comes to Facebook.

Additionally reducing the quality of a communication on Facebook, the software logic which decides what appears in our so called ‘personalized’ news feed, dictates what we actually see in our feed. Multiple factors up-vote and down-vote the likelihood of a friends shared moment even appearing in our own feed.

So what can we do about this?

There is no going back, I’m afraid. No social revolution will take away this new way of staying connected. Though some dilution is inevitable; certainly as the number of Facebook registered users continues to climb, other social networks pop-up taking away entire generations, and still other camps find the Internet medium for sharing life events isn’t the right one for them – they deactivate or delete their account. Those people condemn themselves to a world where the only information others know about them, is that which others shared albeit the old fashioned way. But at least there is a more genuine nature and quality to the old fashioned way, one can know who they’ve kept in touch with, and one can focus on building relationships without the Internet, where things may be slower, harder, less informed, but at least you know who is making effort. Somehow this is even a strengthener, for while sharing, tagging, and ‘liking’ each others content online is some lightweight method of indicating interest, a physical or 1-to-1 gesture of direct communication now has more weight than ever before.




Who Invented the 30 Day Trial Anyhow?

This morning after posting a tweet, I noticed I had some new followers on Twitter. In this event I normally look at the new followers, decide if I want to follow them or directly message, or ignore completely.

But today the new followers notification sparked a curiosity about my stats in general as a Twitter user.

Ever since reading this post about tools for Social Media Managers I’ve created accounts with those social media account tools, and had a bunch of fun dashboards to look at and gain new insights from on my social media accounts with Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and more.

So, today, instead of looking at the new followers I’d gotten I wanted to head over to Sprout Social, one of several social monitoring tools recommended in that post.

What I discovered when getting over to Sprout was, my 30 day free trial with them was over.

Trial is over

It was curious that the trial was already over, because I have probably looked at my Sprout Dashboard 3 times since I started the trial.

After opening the account I got some emails from them with customer success managers offering to help me and nudging me to learn more about their tool.

Your New Sprout Social Trial Getting Started tomhillard gmail.com Gmail

I declined the help, maybe after finding some useful stuff on my own, I might want a more thorough introduction was my thinking. Also, when I started the account it took 2–3 days for my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts that I connected to be analyzed. This waiting step is a big obstacle in gaining new users. I believe people have an expectation to be excited about a product when they start it. At least, in the generalist pool that’s the case. Specialists know better and probably already have much more information about what to expect when they get started with a new product. But for a guy like me who has had no recommendations to use this Sprout dashboard except from a blog post, I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I really want to wait three days to start using it. But I did anyways.

After three days, there really wasn’t much data to look at. I know I’m not the biggest tweeter out there, I only post a photo on Instagram ever week or so, and my facebook is really not a business tool, just friends family, and a photography page, so I don’t have many people liking, commenting, or sharing/retweeting my posts, but really, the data was little or not useful at all. There was a good reason for that though, Sprout like a lot of these social monitoring tools are useful for tracking events in time, and changes over time, there isn’t much you can do except get an overview of your follower count, and some demographic data on those followers like the gender breakdown. Honestly I’d explain more about what data they do give you, but I can’t access my account at the moment. (play sad trombone here)

This whole shut out at 30 day trial ending thing really got me thinking. It created a reaction in me.

In the past, this moment of 30-day-trial-ending-before-proper-analysis-is-achieved has just been a turn off. In that case, I walk away, unless one of the many “come back to us” emails I would get down the road was really convincing, I just didn’t bother to look again, I wasn’t terribly informed about the product, but if someone asked I probably say I didn’t find it useful.

If after the ending of a 30 day trial I really believe I might learn something but wasn’t ready to spend money yet, I could use a new email address to make a new trial account. The whole pressure to sign up now or stop, just doesn’t leave a good feeling.

It forces my opinion of the product to be captured at that pay now moment, and asks me to decide.

So naturally since I hadn’t really gotten attached, my decision and forced analysis was, “this product must not be for me because I don’t feel motivated to open my wallet so I can keep using it” when they expect me to.

This paradigm of the free trial customer acquisition is very common in SaaS (software as a service) products. Sampling before buying, goes back to the beginning of time as a business strategy. Think of merchants at a market offering a sample of their food before you go in on a real purchase. But in the modern software online world, somehow, a lot of companies think that 30 days is the typical duration necessary to evaluate a process.

I’ve signed up for so many of those online services with a free trial, I just assume it’s a 30 day trial, I would be really blown away to be told I got anything else at this point. But as SaaS Marketing Strategist Peter Cohen rightfully points out in his article here, there is no magic number, the duration largely depends on the complexity and economics of the product. So why is everybody going the 30 day route? Who invented this? I’ve read dozens of marketing strategy books, and several historical non-fiction novels about the origins of modern salesmanship, I haven’t seen the initial starting point of this concept told. To be safe, I did a Google search, and also posted a question on Quora. Since those are the two lazy ways of researching such a topic and I don’t have a publishers advance to write about about it, that’s probably as far as my search will go for now.

But if there is any return on writing investment I hope to gain from this post, it’s not to discover who the creator of the 30 day product trial, it’s that companies think more carefully about what is required to fully try out and evaluate a product, and offer customers time to reach whatever metric / milestone that is, instead of this totally dumb and non-sensical 30 day period business, it just makes no sense.

In my case with Sprout, I wrote to their sales department, told them I hadn’t had enough time to evaluate the product, and if they would extend my trial I would continue using it and would be more likely to pay for the subscription after having more time.

When “No” Really Means, “Maybe Later”

Have you ever tried to contact someone, for a job, to make plans etc., and gotten a cold response? Perhaps no response at all? And so you figured that meant no? Like “no, we don’t have a job for you”. Me too. But with many years of experience I’ve learned these cold responses, even the outright “sorry we can’t encourage you, we are not interested in exploring future employment opportunities with you” (paraphrasing a response I got from William Morris Agency in 2003), may in fact just mean “sorry not right now, but check back with us later”.

It’s funny, and maybe doesn’t even seem so strange. But that’s true. And “maybe later” doesn’t mean 6 months from now. Try 6 weeks.


Once upon a time I had an internship at a record label in New York. Martha Stewart’s Omni Media offices were just a couple floors above mine (pre-insider trading conviction). It was an exciting [unpaid] job for me. Naomi Campbell came into the office occasionally to visit the owner of the label. I was still in college and this was something I’d never experienced before.

My position was in the marketing department. I spent a lot of time preparing shipments, photocopying press kits, and organizing the CD closet. My big break came when I was asked to organize promotion of a Japanese metal band who was coming to the USA for a short tour. One of my first jobs was to contact the venues where the bands would be playing and ask the venue managers if we could organize a ticket giveaway to help promote the show.

As the email responses from the venue managers came in, I reported back to my marketing director. Some of the venues hadn’t replied. When I asked my boss what that meant, he said “it means ‘No’”.

Unfortunately for me, he was just not into the band and suspected most of the venues weren’t either. But I took his comment as a lesson and took it to heart. For a while afterwards, whenever I was pitching to someone, or trying to start a dialogue with a person not close to me, if I didn’t hear back I thought it was a sign to give up.

Fortunately, not too long afterwards I learned that repetition actually could be very effective. I gained this wisdom while watching Sex and the City. In the 6th season, while Charlotte York pursues a rabbi to learn the ways of her fiancées religion, she learns, that displaying dedication and temperament with repetitive attempts, despite outright rejection, eventually proved her devotion to the faith and won her the attention and ultimate support of the rabbi.

Pretty convoluted learning experience, I know, but it made sense to me, and so I let go of the words from my marketing director. Going forward when situations came up where I couldn’t succeed without getting the attention of someone too busy or important to talk with me, I just politely continued to poke them for a little bit of their time. It doesn’t always work, but more often than you expect, you can turn a “no” into a “maybe”, and once you have “maybe”, it’s much easier to get to “yes”.

Me with Alexander the Great. Thessaloniki, Greece
Me with Alexander the Great. Thessaloniki, Greece

Present Day

This all ties back to a methodology I’ve had lately. Persistence. Seriously. Persistence. Reach for the moon. Find the CEO of a company. The Senior PR Director for a global brand. Whoever it is. Whatever you want. Approach, carefully, and thoughtfully. At first you might not succeed. But with patience, displayed thoughtfulness and planning, you can make contact, and even get what you’re after.

If you’re in sales this is a pitch meeting. If you’re looking for a coveted job, this is a meeting with someone who can get you an “in”. If you want to get a sponsorship or propose a new product idea it could be any number of people.

There are two things to keep in mind about this:

1. You might be reaching out to the wrong person

2. Follow up is key

Point Number 1 : Reaching Out to the Wrong Person

People scare easily. We don’t want to piss anyone off, or have a room full of people hating us. So naturally when we are trying to get in touch with a person, who more likely than not, is one of several people at a group, or company who could be the entry point of that organization, and we have no success, there is this fear that our one and only person to reach out to has nixed the request, and therefor no one else at the company is reachable either.

In reality what it probably means if one person doesn’t respond, or gives a really cold “go away” sort of email, is that that person just wasn’t the right person to reach out to.

What to do?

Why not reach out to someone else? Most companies are big, people talk, sure, but not that much, certainly not about you. Unless you did something really creepy or amazing, you were 4 seconds of someones day and they will not remember you from 20 other Joe Schmoe’s who also tried contacting the wrong person that week.

Other people aren’t always the same as the first person. You have to get creative and look around, try to learn who is who, and use your smarts. If someone says no, find someone more important, or closer to the department head of the team you’re trying to reach out to. If you’re trying to get a job and HR tell’s you there aren’t any positions available. Go directly to someone on the team you could potentially work for and see what they say. Hint: aim high. Team leaders are part of or responsible for hiring. Team members — not so much.

When no one replies or do, but say they aren’t interested… move on to point #2 — Follow up.

Me posing as a tourist in Belgrade, Serbia
Me posing as a tourist in Belgrade, Serbia

Follow Up

No one speaks better to follow up than Jason Sadler. Jason famously started the company “I Wear Your T-Shirt” which got sponsors to pay him to wear a t-shirt branded with their logo, and many other promotional opportunities around that idea. Since shutting down IWYS (after plenty of success), Jason has moved on to teaching others, which at one point included a email based course in getting sponsors. I was able to dig up one of his posts from the course here which embodies Lesson 5 of his Sponsorship Course “The Secret Art Of The Follow Up Email”.

Summarizing his points, follow up is huge for getting sponsorships. Which by the way is asking for money. If you think whatever you want is super in demand, and no one want’s to give it to you, try switching the subject of your pursuit to money. Now go out and ask people to give you money… you get the idea (I hope). If Jason could do it, then he probably has a thing or two to teach us all about asking people for stuff when they are used to saying “no” all day long.

Jason claims 75% of the sponsorships he got came after following up. Read: he did not get people to give him money after sending one email. Sometimes it took two, sometimes it took 4–6, but most of the time the 2nd or 3rd email was actually enough to get an in.

Why Does it Work?

Because most people don’t do it. Yep. So simple. Most truths in life are aren’t they? Most people just give up after the first email or more likely they forget. So by following up, you’re taking advantage of the fact that you will stand out by the amazing feat of sending not one, but two emails. Another great benefit of the 2nd and subsequent emails is the gift of memory. Since your name has already passed by your target’s inbox once before, you are no longer a complete stranger. Oddly enough, though you’re still a stranger to the person you’re contacting, just by having some existence and continuity in another person’s life, you’re creating familiarity. If you wait long enough, your name may have appeared more to that person than their best friend who never posts on Facebook anymore and disappeared after he had some kids.

How To Follow Up?

This is probably part of the secret sauce. I mean. If you just resend your email, the recipient will see that, and this action says you’re lazy. You didn’t take the time to give the recipient fresh info, you just hit the send button again. Which sort of says you don’t think that person is valuable. So don’t expect huge results from this.

Your recipient is thinking “great, I already ignored this person (told them to buzz off), now they’re sending the same email again, when will it stop…”


Your follow up email should be a development. It should show that you know you’re following up, and that you’re re-requesting time from that person. But this time, it’s just a reminder of the first message you sent. A “refresh” or “bump back to the top of the inbox” if you will. And that’s all you really need to say. I wouldn’t load your second email with new stuff. Hopefully the first was clear, concise, and included your main value proposition. The followup is a reminder, to look at the first email, that’s it.

And in this follow up method, time is on your side. Just wait a little while and any number of things can change to benefit your cause. See, while the person you are reaching out to may seem impenetrable, the forces around them are anything but. Stuff changes constantly, an important project launches, or doesn’t. A position that was about to be filled falls through at the last minute. A new marketing strategy totally bombs and new talent is needed fast! Don’t under estimate the trillions of variables which can in lots of cases improve your chances of suddenly becoming the important solution to somebody’s problems.

And that’s about it, at least for now. If you have gotten this far and I haven’t convinced you to send a reminder to someone, or just start tracking the people you reach out to and occasionally send a “refresh” to the ones you never heard back from, or seek another gate keeper to try contacting, then I’ve failed. But hopefully that’s not the case. Hopefully, you have a huge head of optimism now, and you’re going to try to do that one thing you always felt was impossible, because now you realize, help isn’t so far away, it might even be just a few emails to the right group of people.

So do it. Go!

Turn a “no” into a “yes” today.

Photos of the Names

Today, we discovered this little popup photo memorial for the residents of Choriner Straße 82 who are remember with Stolpersteine.

A Stolperstein is a cobblestone sized memorial to commemorate victims of Nazi oppression, including the Holocaust. They are installed outside the home where once lived the victim they name.

If you’ve visited Berlin, Hamburg, or any of the 1,000 cities in Europe where one of the 48,000 Stolperstein are installed in the sidewalks, you’ve probably seen them or took fascination in them. Thinking about those people, or just letting their name bounce around in your thoughts. What you don’t see everyday are photographs of the people named.

This was really nice. I hope to someday meet the person who put it together.

Chorinerstr_82_Door Chorinerstr_82_photos_4 Chorinerstr_82_photos_3 Chorinerstr_82_photos_2 Chorinerstr_82_photos_1 Stolperstein_Chorinerstr_82

Solo Founders Should Focus on Building a Great Team, Then Figure Out the Idea

A frequently repeated mantra around the tech startup ecosystem is “it’s all about the team”. Perhaps that gives the wrong message though. Too many entrepreneurs believe they should first find a good idea and then build the team. Entrepreneurs should be motivated to find their partners first so they can hash out the idea together.

Dropbox founders Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi

We live in a society where it’s easier to make one founder the center of attention. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. They all had partners from the very beginning. Don’t expect a person on the street to know the names of their partners or that they existed. But, if you read their biographies you can easily see the importance their partners played, and it’s hard to imagine things going well for any of these entrepreneurs if they didn’t have help from day one.

Solo = No Go

The truth is, without a co-founder most solo founders are dead in the water. Sure some build a prototype, and then get co-founders on board once they have proof of concept. But this, more often then not, is a waste of resources. Think about the consequences of building before you have the appropriate team to build the company from the ground up.

  • Sales focused founders who pay a freelancer or offshore company to build a prototype can sign up customers early on, but when a would be technical founder sees what they technically have to work with, they will want to rebuild it from scratch. That’s a huge turn off, the potential CTO will hardly be enthusiastic to pick up where someone with no passion for the product has left off.
  • Technical founders who lack the sales & marketing qualities necessary to evangelize their apps early on may overlook important features for the customer|market fits and build a product potential marketing & sales parters aren’t eager to sell. “Nice to meet you, I can’t sell your product!”
  • Investors will wonder why a solo founder didn’t have the foresight to find at least one partner. Is no one willing to work with this person? Does no one believe in his idea? Maybe the founder’s network is too small to find a partner. Maybe he doesn’t know how to leverage his network.

To all solo founders out there, take my word for it, do not contact investors until you have at least one co-founder on your team.

Birchbox founders Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp

Network Magnification and Credibility: As a solo founder you can only gain the support of your network. With a network of 300 people you can potentially reach hundreds of thousands of people to promote your startup. But through the power of 2nd and 3rd degree connections, just one additional partner can increase your network by many magnitudes reaching not a few hundred thousand, but probably over one million people, and you will need every last one when it’s time to start promoting and finding early adopters.

A co-founder adds vital creditability. Just like the investors who ponder the credibility of your one man show, people in your network who have to decide if they will shamelessly promote you, and will subconsciously wonder if they are telling their own trusted network about a new and great company a personal contact of theirs is building. Being able to talk about what “we’re” doing reassures them you’re officially a team, you can float up your partner’s credentials for bragging rights, this sounds better than just talking about yourself. Coming off as a team full of skills and past experience combined to take on the challenge drastically increases the chances of convincing others your company is an exciting adventure and they will feel important when you give them the chance to tell the world about it.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Collaboration: Having a partner protects against pursuing bad ideas. A solo entrepreneur has nobody around to agree to call it a day. Or to try harder when it feels like it’s time to give up. Larry Page and Sergey Brin openly joke about how they didn’t get along when they first met, they had strong opinions and disagreed. Would Google exist today if they hadn’t challenged each other ideas ideas back in 1995?

When people of more than one specialty and background work together, their synergy produces the creativity startups need to think through problems in new ways. It’s important to have devils advocate who isn’t afraid to second guess the logic behind an assumption.

Uber co-founder Garret Camp
Uber co-founder Garret Camp
Uber CEO & co-founder Travis Kalanick
Uber CEO & co-founder Travis Kalanick

Complementary Skills: The number of companies started by one person are extremely rare. In the few cases it has happened, the technology and opportunity was so huge, and the company was growing so fast, it didn’t take long to have the traction necessary to recruit other team members with necessary skills to scale the company. For the other 99.999% this wont be the case. From the very first days important skills will be needed to divide and conquer the onslaught of challenges that will come from every direction.

Steve Blank wrote a piece about what it takes to build great founding teams.

The goal of a founding team “is to take the original idea and search for a repeatable and scalable business model– first by finding product/market fit, then by testing all the parts of the business model (pricing, channel, acquisition/activation, partners, costs, etc.)” — Steve Blank

A solo founder is going to have a tough time doing all of that. Building, searching for scalable business model, finding product|market fit and iterating through various tests on assumptions for the business, it’s too much to do alone. Few people are so talented to understand all of these areas completely, and again. The expertise should be divided to achieve greater focus, which in turns leads to greater success.

Airbnb founders Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia

How to build your team: The take away of all this is solo entrepreneurs can explore ideas, and launch prototypes. But they should prioritize the activity of finding people who are interested in building a company. Founder dating, and networking events despite lots of suggestions on this subject are probably not the best place to start looking for co-founders. A better approach is reaching out into one’s network, being open with others about searching for a co-founder, and asking for introductions.

What your team should look like: Unfortunately most people won’t get to be picky when looking for the right co-founders, and yet finding a co-founder fit with complementary skills and the readiness to tackle very hard problems during periods of serious doubt, is critical. If the team cannot get through the worst times, many costly issues will stand in the way and waste valuable time. If differences arise far enough along, a founder will have to be bought out, or sit on the founders shares of the cap table, which could cause irreversible financial pains for the company.

Entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster has written specifically about this subject and gives a good punch list of qualities to look for while creating a team. He makes several good points worth keeping in mind in a team as well as an investors perspective on what matters in the team. Being well rounded in skills, having consultative sales people versus relationship management style sellers, structuring tech teams with strengths of “people process & technology”.

I’m a solo founder. What now?

  • Start contacting friends and telling them you’re interested in building a company, and would love an introduction to anyone that might make a good co-founder in your company.
  • Do your own recruiting, identify the skills you lack to build a company, and search through Linkedin, Twitter, and tech blogs for people who have those qualities, and are in an appropriate place to start something new. Hint: an employee at a startup that is about to go into the dead pool maybe looking for new opportunities. Consulting firms, business schools, and agencies are full of people who may be planning to leave and start their own business, but don’t know a partner to do it with. Find a way to get an introduction to them.
  • Use the web to tell the world about your interests. Tweet and blog about subjects that you find interesting and see opportunities. People who are also interested in these subjects will find you, some may be your potential partner or know someone else who is.
  • Don’t sweat the critics, there are many thought leaders who claim a co-founder can’t just be picked out, that there should be a deep history between team members. While the reasons for this are obvious, there are lots of founders who met from different circles and went on to form great companies. Don’t let the nay sayers talk you out of pursuing your dreams.

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So who were the solo founders? While writing this I started to wonder who some of the solo founders of tech companies have been. This is just off the top of my head, there are certainly more. Feel free to share with me off line or in the comments.

  • Ebay: Pierre Omidyar
  • Dell: Michael Dell
  • Amazon: Jeff Bezos
  • GoPro: Nick Woodman

The Good Old Days, and the Crazy Crazy Future

The year was 2003, and with the help of some dialup (in the United States) one could post an ad on Criaglist.org, for well, anything. This was useful because if one suddenly decided he wants to start a new company, it was an easy way to test the interest in the product or service he had to offer. After posting the ad, in the next 24-72 hours you could sit back and to see who would bite. For me this was a regular pastime, exploring possible business ideas. The ad’s ranged from web site development, landscaping and moving companies, to drives on request (hello Uber yes I had the idea first).


Compared to today, it was too easy. Back then, Craigslist was where people went for everything, buying and selling stuff, renting apartments, buying houses, hiring dog walkers, ride shares, dating, events, and job openings. But it wasn’t to last for long.

It didn’t happen overnight, but around 2008 the Craigslist user base had changed, the people became less reliable, more weird. Creepy even. It was on both sides too. As a user looking through ads some were WEIRD, I remember apartment listings that just had a picture of a cartoon dog, and a couple details about the apartment. And when receiving replies to ads I’d posted some people were normal, and others were obviously whack jobs.

Also by the end of the last decade, it wasn’t just the people on Craigslist (CL) that had changed, there were other places to go and spend time on the internet. Ebay had totally taken over the sell/buy space. Sites like Match.com started to peel away users of the personals section.

This also meant things were more difficult too. I remember a NYTimes post about one accountant who stopped paying for advertising because he got all his clients through CL. I doubt that guy still has the same story now. Services like accountants, web developers, painters, and repairmen, who used to get their new clients from the Services section on CL, lost traffic to paid advertising and highly competitive search engine ranking in Google search results. It didn’t happen overnight, but by 2010 Craigslist was only good for long shot job opportunities and sublets, it’s been a while since I checked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those are not useful anymore either.

Fast forward. It’s 2015.

The world changed so much in the last ten years. Getting peoples’ attention requires multi-tiered approach of social network engagement, Google page ranks, paid results in search, email campaigns, paid Facebook ads, quality scores, and so much more. There is no classifieds listings where you can post your capabilities and wait for interested people to connect, it would be a bad test.

Ideas aren’t so easy to test anymore.

Unbounce.com’s landing page “rehab” program


An old screenshoot of a Google Adwords Campaign

A recommended method to test an idea now, is to make a landing page, choose a set of keywords, and then create a Google Adwords campaign to send traffic to the page (since the page doesn’t have built in traffic like Craigslist did).

With some traffic going to the page, you can see how your keywords convert in Google’s Adwords dashboard, watch how many bounces the landing page gets, and most importantly how many conversions you can create. But that process is more complex than the Craigslist post I described above from 10 years ago. Your keywords can be wrong, you location & demographic settings may not be optimized for your target market. Perhaps you’re not bidding enough on the campaign. Your landing page content may be all wrong. And if the landing page isn’t convincing, say, maybe it looks a bit fake, like dummy landing page, people can tell, and if they smell a fake, they close the page as soon as it opens, and then your whole test is a waste. A waste that, let’s not forget, needed to be paid for. Again, unlike the Craigslist test.

More so, there is a feeling that without a website you aren’t legitimate. Without a Facebook page, it’s just a personal side project. Without a good chunk of followers on your instagram or twitter account or “page likes” on your Facebook page your business isn’t legitimate or too young to be trusted.

Imagine how it would feel for an Law Practice with 25 years of experience that cannot get more then 36 likes on their Facebook page. A popularity vote on a platform that has barely existed for 5 years, with a company that barely existed 10 years ago. That’s got to be hard to swallow. All the rules are changing, and it’s making a fool out of everyone. Don’t worry, we’re all in the same boat.

What a lot of people think they need to do when they start a company, or put their business on the internet, is that they should buy a domain name. Unfortunately, the days of just getting a “.com” or “.net” (also known as TLDs) are long gone folks. There are now over 1,000 different TLDs to choose from, with .travel, .book, .biker, .ninja (I puke a little at that one) domain extensions (TLD), there is a universe of possibilities, meanwhile most of the people in the world are still just figuring out the difference between email and the internet. Some still don’t really get setting up their smart phones.

If many people are still just trying to get the hang of a smart phone, will the average person even know that “http://johndoe.restaurant” can be a real website URL now? Think twice before buying that domain name folks, I think the verdict is out on that one. Let’s wait for CNN to do a special on it first to be safe 😉

I digress.

The increase of complexity grows at a rate near Moore’s law with no end in sight.

As a 33 year old, I feel lucky to have both witnessed a time before Microsoft Windows (MS-DOS), when there was only a telephone to communicate, and getting to experience first hand the wave of people using Friendster, then Myspace, then Facebook, and now lots of niche networks to boot. But I meet teenagers and see how they use technology, and think about how much things will change in the next ten years, and nothing seems more overwhelming than this, except perhaps an echo chamber with a never ending loud speaker going off, creating nth degree echoes upon echoes.

In the next 20 years, a time frame anyone reading this can probably expect to live (I’m rooting for you!), the complexity will grow way more than it has in the last 10 years. So basically, a likely startup in the year 2026, could be offering a service with a promo like:

“Internet Simplified”

“Our service takes over your communications, searches, blog reading and all so you don’t have a brain aneurysm. We will call you at the end of the day with a simple summary for you!”

her-movie-still-17Perhaps such a service will be an add on to our personal OS – à la “Her”. Perhaps by then, shopping will be in it’s own division, a “sub-net” of the internet. News/Content/Blogs will be in a subnet. Social & communication will have it’s own subnet. Things will have gotten so complex, the new innovators will just be making ways to compartmentalize.

Until then we’re all the guinea pigs. And those who want to continue to compete for the next big innovation have keep an eye on the changes, while the others sit back and continue to be dumbfounded by all the rapid changes.


Turn Off Your Autofocus

Photographers, I challenge you to turn off your autofocus.

So much of our lives are now dictated by software, don’t let the focus algorithm take control of your photography style too.

Focus is perspective. The detail in your photos is a choice to make. When you submit to autofocus, you give up one of your liberties as a photographer. You are in fact letting the camera take your picture, instead of you.

You don’t let the camera select the aperture, ISO, or shutter speed. So why are you giving away the right to choose the focus?

The ability to decide how your image should look, what should be in focus and what should not, isn’t a function with a simple problem to solve. And yet, that is all the autofocus software is doing. Hundreds of software engineers together with product managers, photography designers, and consumer focus group experts created that feature. They have made a collaborative decision what it means to focus the image, and they pass that choice onto your picture taking experience, it is hardcoded into the camera autofocus. So when you take a picture and use autofocus, your focus is not perfect, you are simply outsourcing the style and detail in your photo to a long line of programmers, and photography experts, allowing them to choose how your photo should look.

Certainly if you have bad vision, no patience for finding a focus you like, a cell phone camera, a point and shoot without the ability to focus, or any of these other cases, then the feature is useful if not mandatory. But at least know why it is there and what you lose when you use it.