Cell Phone Addiction – a post in a series about “Low Tech Life”

Cell Phone Addiction – a post in a series about “Low Tech Life”

I can’t remember the day or year even off the cuff, but I think I got my first pager when I was 12. That was cool, getting messages from any location, and creating ad-hoc ways to spell out words without the use of letters enabled us to send short messages to each other, to communicate a meeting place, or news about something that had happened, before even picking up the phone to return the page and see what was up. It really instilled a sense of independence in me and my friends. I was someone with a pager. You could get ahold of me anywhere, communicate.

Around the time I turned 16 I got my first cell phone. The marketing campaign to get the world onto cell phones was a big push by Sprint PCS, up to that time the only cell phones people had were luncky, the size of a blow dryer. You rarely saw anyone using them except rich guys in their Porsche or Zack Morris on Saved By The Bell. A cell phone was a luxury item, Sprint was changing that.

Since that first Sprint PCS up until now, I have had a mobile phone. They got smaller, they started to use the internet, eventually even being able to check email, and then with iPhones the whole idea of a phone changed. Smart Phones allowed people to leave their computer behind and do just about anything they could on their computers, on their phones. With stiff competition from phone companies, the access to mobile networks improved, no more dropped calls (at least less common) while driving down Olympic Boulevard, as my boss in LA used to say when calling Verizon to complain about his crappy cell service.

No one has pagers anymore. Maybe some Doctors, or something but, I couldn’t even tell you where to buy one. The service must be dirt cheap though. In the US nearly everyone has an iPhone or Android smart phone. When I moved to Europe I saw that still many people were not on smart phones, but even that was changing. But the one thing that I’ve seen all over the world while traveling was that everyone has phones and they use them all the time.

On a trip to Paris last week, while dining in a great tapas restaurant in the Operá district, a well dressed couple was eating together, enjoying champagne and small extravagant dishes, couples like this, who speak french to each other, and look like models are fascinating to me. Collectively I’ve spent a good chunk of time learning that while beautiful people tend to be the icon of perfection, not everyone looks like them, they didn’t choose to look that way, their lives have problems too, and we’re all capable of being beautiful people. Still, when you’re sitting one table over from them, it’s hard not to be aware of their presence, after all many parts of popular culture is driven by making us feel inadequate, and selling us things with the belief we can be closer to them.

Anyways, I was studying the couple, looking at their shoes, hearing their elegant french accents, thinking about their choice of champagne before white wine. It all was perfect, but one thing was off. One thing that without speaking to them, I already felt tipped their whole ensemble in the wrong not so beautiful direction. They had their phones out on the table, and both of them –especially the gentleman– were frequently checking their phones. At two separate occasions, the man took phone calls, and talked for 4, 5, maybe up to 10 minutes, while his date sat patiently – not using her phone probably on purpose to make a point – waiting for him to get off the line. And that’s when the truth of the matter came out, this couple did have their problems. But people have this kind of phone addiction all over the world. And to say this couple was an exception would be a gross mis-statement. The truth is, whether you’re on an airplane, at a cafe, riding the subway, or sitting in a waiting room, in just about any situation where strangers are together for a period of time, one thing stands out, they are all using their phones.

I think it’s not sustainable. I think there will be a cultural whiplash of sorts. At some point the popularity of using our phones, will be come unpopular. It’s the nature of things. It has to be. The thought of anything otherwise makes me sad. It’s not the world I want to live in.

Just a brain dump for now, definitely more to say.

Identify and remove time sucks

In our apartment we have a big comfortable couch, a large coffee table and an iMac. The room is long and wide with a dining table, white walls with frame pictures hanging and a huge Ikea photograph of the Flatiron building in Manhattan. On one end of the room are wide windows that look out onto Zionskirch Straße and the other apartment buildings across the street. This room, with that couch, is my sanctuary. And aside from exercise, and dinners, we use it to relax on many evenings of the week and watch TV shows or movies.

After watching an entire season of one show last week I found my thoughts swirling around the characters, themes, and issues in the episodes I had watched. Days passed, where in my pauses, as I woke, or as I was cooking, my mind kept drifting back to the television shows I had been watching.

I never believed that TV rots your brain, or that one hour of TV watched equals seven less minutes of life, but if someone said it was a waste of time, I would agree. I’m fairly active physically, and I like to read books in my free time, and we like to cook healthy wonderful food made from sustainable ingredients. So an hour or two of TV – three or four nights a week doesn’t feel like a huge dent in my quality of life. But when I realized how often I had been thinking back and synthesizing all sorts of ridiculous ideas in my head after watching the shows, I realized the hours of watching time were not nearly as big of a time suck as the hours of thought that came afterward.

Generally speaking, anything that takes up all of your free thought should be helping you to solve problems or enjoy life. Perhaps some would say the free thought coming out of the stories in your average television series contributes to life’s enjoyment. Ok, that could be true, but personally I’d still rather be thinking about the story lines of real people in my life, than fictional ones.

With the realization that my free thought was at stake I decided to stop watching TV regularly, and save up all episodes to watch just once in a while. Hopefully doing one binge day every couple of months to catch up on our favorite series will take less of free time and thought capacity away than a long slow drip of many one hour episodes does.

What could we do to change the world?

We do a lot of different last minute and/or short term tasks. Somethings have a long view in mind, but nothing so far has really been aimed at completely –I have to say it– revolutionizing existing business models, processes or tools in the world. We weren’t blessed off the cut as a company with 8 digits in the bank to sit back, hire expensive developers, and just wait for an class A VC to believe in us. So we always look for ways to improve margins, growth customer base, increase lifetime value etc., stuff that makes investors happy and improves the overall value of the business in an immediately tangible way.

Perhaps it’s not too late to change that. If we were to change everything, how would we do it? Paul Graham wrote a post about frighteningly ambitious ideas that I often think back to. Biggest and scary ideas are fun to think about; taking all of humankind into your protective arms and making something better in their lives is just a cool way to act if you can. At least it feels cooler than only thinking about the small niche market ones. From our lens, if we were to change the world I would seek out ideas that would help a lot of people and businesses, and improve the experience for all players in a market, instead of just helping a small slide of the pie, in a segment.

Some areas almost frighteningly ambitious ideas of interest to me at the moment are:

  • Simple calendars for businesses: a huge problem for businesses and companies like us who want to integrate to those calendars is that everyone is on different calendar software, it’s hard to integrate to them, there is not much consistency in how people set up their calendars. What if we created a universal calendar application with flexible GUI and easy-as-pie markup? Something everyone used, that implemented the best in class for supportability, security, integration, and product enhancements?
  • Universal API and protocol for appointments: Similar to the last idea, except more focused on having a central application for parsing, passing, and receiving data; instead of a baseline application for calendars. A Universal API would work something like the Airline Reservation System enabling all medical appointments to use one system for posting availability. Let’s ignore all the problems that would come with getting existing Electronic Health Record applications to support and run on the same API. If someone got behind this single idea and the major players bought in, it would solve many problems, for doctors, EHRs, Health Clinics, and more. When you look at the size of the medical industry, the value of the market. While the ARS works for airlines and was needed to get an international network of airports and airlines to coexist, the pain of daily lost patient data, is just a death by 1,000 cuts. A universal API would normalize the system and solve many of those problems.
  • Patient focused medical provider evaluation system: Ever since we launched our doctor reviews enhancements and tried to get doctors to put a review widget on their website, we realized something – the other companies that provide patient reviews in their provider directory/listings are cheating. They take down bad reviews and only leave the ones the doctors approve of. As you can guess this made it hard for us to provide a new review system based product to doctors, simply because we don’t want to participate in this type of activity. The subject of online reviews has always been a shaky ground to stand on. It’s not fair that consumers can’t trust product and restaurant reviews, but when it comes to finding a doctor who has your health in their hands, it seems beyond the level of arguably unethical to hide the testimony of others bad experiences from the public when presenting medical providers information online in a way that leads people to believe they can trust what they see and make a well informed judgement about which doctor or clinic they choose to visit. So with that front load in mind, this idea takes the non-for-profit model in mind of giving 100% aggregate, accuracy of provider information to patients. Perhaps not as ground breaking or across the board helpful to all, but it would be nice if for a change there was one place to find that kind of information and safely know some kind of bias doesn’t skew the results in someone’s favor.

There’s more ideas I’m sure, these are just ones that have come back around every so often. If well executed, any of them could really make the word a better place. Just need the right pocket of money to support these not so profitable businesses.

Learnings

Somehow I’m posting again about human resources.

I just finished a long overdue one on one with an important employee of ours. When he started with us he was full of energy and willing to do just about anything – roll with the punches etc. He started nearly at the level of a work student, which is something just above an intern in the German career timeline. But it was obvious this person could handle more, so I learned what his dreams and motivations were and gave him an official title to work towards, with more responsibility. That was a really positive move, he started to apply the same hard working, proactive methods on more things that were more important to us. Unfortunately after a while some things started to go wrong, and by the end of the year a great success story on the team became a dark shadow on the rise.

At the time the little slips first happened, they were not issues I or anyone else recognized as huge deviations, but surely a snowball effect can happen in these cases. Things got bad for this person, for a while it looked like we’d have to let him go, but we did what we could to fix the situation.

Now months later, I had a one on one with him which was a really nice, resolving conversation about his job and his future, what he will do next, and our varying ideas about how to do all things better at the company. I also finally discovered the original source of the string of problems that made for a long uncomfortable period for him and anyone working with him. Essentially the drive for all that motivation and the ready to execute attitude was weaned away in a series of events, starting with the very first – when a new policy was put into place over his head. Since he wasn’t included, it was not discovered that he didn’t agree with the new policy. But being such a go getter and one who was pleasing all, he let that instance go. However soon other disagreements with decisions came along, and more policy changes were made over his head. Eventually he decided – because we wasn’t being included – he just wouldn’t worry about a whole list of things that should be included in his ongoing duties and responsibilities. And because of that he just stopped caring. And stopped trying.

While I admitted this was clearly a misstep from his managers, it was still something to learn from. Sometimes you need to manage up, tell those who normally give you marching orders, that they aren’t doing their jobs right or they are wasting valuable time by doing your job for you.

There are more lessons than that in this tale, like don’t underestimate the small things, and even if something small happens, if it conflicts with some key issues for you, it’s worth it to discuss that. Also for me, do one on ones more often, and don’t assume someone else is doing it. Or even if someone else is doing it, get your own feedback time, you might learn something the others didn’t.

 

The emotional and motivational cycle and state of mind of an employee

Employees come and go. But the general principals at work from the company perspective are, the longer you can keep an employee around and being productive, the more value he can create in your company. Hiring, and training someone to be effective in their job is a big investment, and if we just allowed workers to leave when they started to lose interest, it would be a huge waste. So therein lies the topic of this post, how to keep an employee motivated and working to push your company forward, and make the most of the value they can create over the long run.

Background:

My first company, was a dog walking business. I quickly grew the company from only walking a few dogs each day to having over fifty clients who had one or more dogs to walk at least once daily. From the early days, when I my client list grew, I hired people to support all the walks that had to be provided each day. Once I had created a route of 3-8 dogs for a dog walker to take over, he could earn somewhere between $800-$1,500 per month, which isn’t much considering the daily responsibility they had to my company. That being said they were all excited for the work, and at first very motivated by the job. I attribute this to the thrill of getting to see New York City in a new way while earning cash. And at least for some, the idea of going from apartment to apartment, seeing how other New Yorkers live, and taking out the furry clientele for an afternoon break while their owners were busy at work doesn’t seem half bad. I know I enjoyed it when I was the only dog walker for my company.

Nearly all of my new hires loved the job, but as time went on, I could tell they would get bored and tired of it. I guess all the early exciting parts of the job lost their glamour and the less attractive ones weighed on the walkers. For me, having never dealt with managing employees before, I wasn’t expecting their performance to go down hill. But as I accumulated experience I started to recognize the signs of an employee’s waning dedication. The pattern began to emerge and I adapted.  I came to expect it, and look out for it. Most importantly, I started to imagine ways to prevent the effect or at least delay it, and hoped to be able to stop it in its tracks.

My initial attempts in solving the issue were to be ready to give extra support to an employee before their interest started to fade. And when I saw that a worker’s motivation had peaked, I reacted and started paying much more attention to him and his clients. Despite my communication and support, some of my dog walkers quit or had to be fired, and others thankfully were still with the company when I sold it and moved onto my next startup.

Going into my next projects developing websites for my startups or for other peoples’ companies, I often hired freelancers, and noticed that like the dog walkers, they also started with a period of working well, then they fell from grace, and required a more hands on approach. Fast forward to present day, since the dog walking company I’ve managed resources who worked across the room, and I’ve managed huge teams who were across the globe. I’ve been an employee for other companies and saw the strategy of others to manage me. Now as co-founder at a company with 40+ employees, freelancers, and other third parties, I have the greatest challenge yet. With so many roles, levels of responsibility, and perspectives – one on one communication is no longer my best tool in the shed. Keeping individuals and teams working together and performing well requires various philosophies of management, projects, activities, and programs to keep them happy, and motivated.

Breaking It Down:

To help understand and address what the underlying issues are, I’ve tried to simplify a worker’s emotional and motivational state of mind into phases:

Phase 1) New, learning, excited, and scared:

In this phase the worker is discovering all facets of the company at once, the work he is expected to do, with little knowledge of how others work, and the level of expertise expected of him. Most people try their hardest during this period, however their skills combined with company specific knowledge during this time makes it their least valuable time working at the company.

Phase 2) Understands the job, confident, and at ease if not excited to kick ass:

In this phase the employee has taken off his training wheels regardless of how much he really knows about his job. He has a feeling for the quality of work that is expected, and if all is good, he is making contributions and feeling respected for the value he adds. This typically sets in somewhere around two to six weeks all the way to several months or a couple years.

Phase 3) Expert, getting bored, getting by, or growing:

This is the long haul phase. For most companies that aren’t growing through the roof, or for some other reason are not able to move top performers quickly up the ranks, this is where things can go wrong. In the state of mind that he is an expert, the worker usually (unless very self-confident) decides he should be compensated more for his work. He no longer cares for tolerating whatever irritations there are, which were easy to pass off in the past. He might just need something new and stimulating. When these distractions kick in depends on how long it takes to get comfortable, if the employee is flipping burgers I bet it can happen pretty fast like as little as two or three weeks, but in a large team of very intelligent engineers working on extremely complicated projects it could take several months to more then one year.

What’s Really Going On:

From the employer’s perspective, as an employee passes into phase 3, the ROI for that resource has just turned positive. Now, keeping him around is where the dividends can kick in. If the employee stays, he can do any number of things to add value, by creating new services or products and improving existing ones, by passing on knowledge to other team members, by giving external entities an positive appearance in continuity by being a name and face of the company.

In many ways this can be a very fruitful time for the company. The catch is, the danger that can come sneaking along once the employee spends too much time feeling comfortable. For the employee, being good at something is a nice feeling, but with a mind no longer concerned with fitting in and getting the job done properly, there is room left for thought, the ambitious will seek out new challenges internally or at other companies, and the less motivated will just start to kill free time by searching the web and looking for ways to spend their time and money.

What You Can Do:

As the employer:

New Challenges: The single most important piece of the puzzle is cycling the employee back into phase 1, where things are new again, with different challenges, and there is some risk of failing. Don’t let their job become boring, and don’t limit their opportunity to improve their skills while working for you.

Rewards: You can and should reward the employee for good behavior, but rewards don’t solve the problem. Rewards – unless absurdly handsome – just encourage the employee to wonder if he was rewarded well enough.

Make It Fun: Introduce some activities and events that aren’t related to work, like a happy hour, team event, or outdoor activity. Provide games to play during slow times in the work place or when people have burned out and need to relax their mind with something different. Having a work environment where non-work related activities are allowed show employees you respect them and want them to enjoy their time on the job.

Wellness Programs: Provide a wellness program. This not only improves productivity, but reinforces the feeling for employees that you want them to see their job as a long term – sustainable path.

Growth Development Program: Also known as a “GDP” a Growth Development Program is a framework for employees to see how their role fits into the overall structure of the company. It helps them to learn what skills they need to develop to move up to a higher job title, by setting  goals their can aim for and having regular meetings with supervisor to discuss the methods they can use to achieve those goals, a GDP demystifies the path to getting promoted and gives them constructive measurable steps they can take to get there.

Flexible Time Off: Giving your employees the ability to work from home if they need to, or take a random day off “just because” really lifts the ceiling on their sense of freedom. We’ve all had days when going to work was the last thing we wanted to do. Maybe your employee just need to catch up on sleep. Maybe they are re-doing their kitchen and need some extra time in their home. Giving them the ability to manage their time is a huge perk.

As the employee:

Communicate: Let your superiors know you feel like you’ve championed your current role and you want new challenges.

As For A Promotion: Nothing get’s a raise like asking for one. Maybe you’ll have to meet some objectives, or maybe you’ll find out there is no money to give out a raise. Don’t just expect it to happen.

Before You Look For A New Company: Tell your employer if you are getting bored, if you feel like you should be earning more, if you don’t like the people you’re working with. Whatever the problem is, unless your employer wants to get rid of you, giving them a big warning sign before you take a job from someone else should let them know they need to act if they want to keep you around.

 

Onward

I still feel like a young grasshopper learning from failures and pleased with signs that the different methods we employ are working. And I have doubts about my own actions to keep employees happy and motivated when I hear from friends about how their company’s benefits package. But we’ve done some things right, and look forward to continuing to find new ways to keep the balance.

If you found the post interesting, and want to read on, I provided a couple resources below. I hope you enjoyed the post.

Resources:

  • The following study is a good place to get more information: Motivation and Productivity in the Workplace
  • I highly recommend reading Top Dog aside from the GDR workers study I mentioned, from the perspective of competition, it uncovers the science behind motivation.

 

Don’t under estimate the results of your actions

I’m not one to talk. So consider this a note to self that I think is helpful to others.

It was late on a Tuesday night that I got a ping from one of our angels. A very important member of our staff was spotted at a “Speed Dating” style recruiting event. Given the dedication and great performance of this person it came as a surprise.

Why would that person be looking around at their options right now? I thought to myself.

“I wouldn’t worry about it”, was the advice of my source. “We see this from time to time. Some people like to hedge their bets.”

Again taking a dose of my own medicine here, I too entertained the calls and emails from recruiters in my day. I liked to hear what others were offering. But, the key point of that for me was,  I didn’t look at what my options were until I felt I wasn’t being rewarded for my achievements. So to me the action of this employee was an expression of disinterest. Of recoupment for lost rewards by finding another company that might offer what was deserved.

After several follow on discussions, I’ve decided to keep it to myself. My gut reaction was to have a 1 on 1 discussion with the person involved and find out if there was anything we needed to do to improve the situation. But in the end, we felt it was too invasive to respond, to have discovered this, weighed our options and react on what this person probably thought was a harmless secret exploration in their own personal time. It wasn’t our place to step in at this time.

The take away for others, and point of this post is, that that person has cost us hours of thought, internal debate, and doubt. All are emotions and drain on energy at a time when it’s really not wanted. I doubt this person considered that would be a consequence, and may never know it was. But when your actions have potential affect on others, it’s worth thinking carefully about those costs.

In a world that seems to try and return balance to chaos, this was a little bit of chaos that will probably fall to an angle of repose eventually, but I don’t know how, it could hurt more then one person directly or indirectly, for years to come.

Appreciation

14 months ago I had just accepted an offer to join the founders team of a startup company in Berlin as a Product Manager. The company had 9 employees, a business model that actually generated cash with each conversion, and the team was clearly able to produce results and take the risks needed to trail blaze a small angel funded company into a massive industry dominator.

Since then we’ve closed two more rounds of founding, tripled our number of customers, achieved an important milestone of contribution from our marketing, discovered new and exciting levers of to increase our traffic volume, and survived a number of critical tests needed to find new ways to grow. It’s been a great ride, I’ve loved just about every second of it despite any of the drawbacks that come with being a founder.

Today I’m thankful.

I’m appreciative for the people who took a chance on me, for my friends and family who supported me through a period of my life where it’s probably not always been easy to keep a relationship with me, for the employees and partners who trusted us and gave us everything they could to help realize our dream, for the customers who were willing to try a new customer acquisition model with us, and for the people who found our product useful and allowed us to wow them.