Birthday candles

Hi, tomorrow is your sister’s birthday. You forgot mom’s.

Fuck.

My mother’s birthday was two days ago and I completely forgot. My sister’s birthday is tomorrow. Chances are, I might have forgotten her birthday too if my father didn’t text me a few hours ago.

How did this happen? With our fancy calendar apps and all their incessant push notifications, how could I possibly forget the birthdays of the most important people in my life? 1

Here’s my lame excuse: I’ve been so busy preparing for finals, writing papers, and working on my projects that I literally wasn’t thinking about anything else. The notebook that I carry around in my back pocket hasn’t had a new entry scribbled in it in over a week. I’ve been living from day to day, from class to class, from assignment to assignment. And I’ve basically lost track of the concept of time.

I didn’t even know the date.

This is me running on single threaded processing — moving from one task to another and being so absorbed in it that I forget everything else important to me. It’s just too easy to lose track of things when you’re working on hard problems or when you’re working through a lot of stress. Naturally, you start to lose mental cycles.

But that’s just so dangerous, even if it only happens rarely: being so insular and so single-threaded makes you lose perspective on the world. The people I love are so much more important to me than schoolwork, my health is so much more important to me than my pride, and solving big, meaningful problems is so much more important to me than solving the problem of picking where to go for lunch.

I hope I’m never so single-threaded, so single-minded, and so insular in my thoughts that I forget about the bigger picture and everything else that’s important to me. I need to force myself out of these self-imposed bubbles and take in all the little details around me.

Because frankly, I’m ashamed.

  1. Here’s the real kicker: I actually don’t have their birthdays in my calendar because I thought that it was impossible for me to ever forget them. It also just feels too impersonal and inappropriate for people so close to me.


Mountains

What makes a product like Instagram so much more such successful than other, similar photography apps? What makes Apple computers so much more popular in the public eye? What makes Moleskine the de facto notebook for creative types?

These questions have been discussed ad nauseum and many convincing answers have already been suggested: these products had superior branding, were well designed, launched at the right times with the right set of features, and were technologically better (okay, maybe not the Moleskine). They executed relentlessly, found the right initial set of users, and then expanded quickly to capture the rest of the general public. All of these answers are satisfactory, but I think there’s another deeper explanation for why these products are so successful.

Good products must be useful. But to be great, they must also be aspirational. 1 Fundamentally, good products need to solve a problem; for the people that need them, they are utilities. If they’re better designed, better marketed, easier to use, and better timed than other products on the market, then the gears will be more greased for the product to succeed. But without achieving utility, even the best designed, best marketed products may not become massively successful.

To go from good to great, products have to connect with people who don’t necessarily need them. This means that they are aspirational products to those who don’t have the problem (yet!), but want to be a part of the group that does. Let’s look at some examples.

Instagram

  • Utility product: a mobile editor for photos (with a social network built on top)
  • Aspirational product: attracts everyday people with phones who want to have more interesting lives and cooler photos to share

Apple MacBook

  • Utility product: a laptop
  • Aspirational product: attracts creative types who want to use what their heroes use — for example, many musicians use Logic Pro, many directors and filmmakers use Final Cut Pro, and many programmers use Macs for its Unix-based OS

Moleskine

  • Utility product: a notebook to write in
  • Aspirational product: attracts people who want to write more, become more thoughtful, and seem more intelligent

Stripe

  • Utility product: a payment gateway that scales upwards
  • Aspirational product: attracts entrepreneurs who are currently building or are planning on building a SaaS startup or other online business

GoPro

  • Utility product: lightweight, mountable camera
  • Aspirational product: attracts people who want to live an extreme lifestyle

Product Hunt

  • Utility product: a place to launch your product and receive community feedback
  • Aspirational product: attracts a community of people who want to become creators and makers

So the product is 1) instantly useful to the people who need it and is 2) able to attract people who want to need it. Over time, many of these aspirational users may become utility users, allowing the product to continue to grow and expand its active user base. Aspirational Stripe users will build businesses that process so many transactions that they need the API to operate. By using their Moleskines more, non-writers will become writers (or at the very least, will consume more Moleskines as they attempt to write).

One could perhaps argue that superb branding creates this utilitarian-aspiration split, but I disagree. Building a product that has this sort of behavior will naturally lead to better branding, not the other way around, although I’m sure there are exceptions where better branding leads to aspirational desires.

  1. Note that by “aspirational,” I don’t necessarily mean that they are so expensive that they are out of the reach of the general public. I mean products that people yearn to use and desire to become part of the ingroup of.


A honey bee landing on a flower

Muhammad Ali’s “…sting like a bee” strategy is metaphorically flawed. It certainly worked well for Ali, but the real world isn’t a boxing ring. Here, it rarely makes sense to sting like a bee.

Yes, bee stings are painful, but unless you’re allergic to them, a bee sting is nothing more than a brief annoyance. But it’s much worse for the bee. Let’s assume that we’re talking about a honey bee: these bees have barbed stingers that tear off and become lodged in the victim’s skin, causing the bee to die. 1

If stinging someone kills you, why would you ever do it? For a bee, stinging is a natural instinct: a bee stings when it feels threatened, releasing pheromones that will alert other bees to the impending danger. I think humans unconsciously behave much in the same way, but instead of dying when we “sting back,” we face unwanted consequences that could have been avoided with clearer thinking. We’re almost always better off not being too reactive when provoked. It’s better to take time to calm down, think things through, and then make the next decision instead of instinctively lashing out and striking back.

We often run into moments that test us mentally and physically, but the best thing to do is to persevere and to push through. Human nature is surprisingly flexible and adaptable: when presented with a barrier, we tend to find an ingenious way around it. Doing anything other than trying to make forward progress would be counterintuitive and counterproductive. Rather than instinctively blowing up, be it at ourselves, at someone else, or at a particular situation, we’re better when we transcend, when we accept what we’re given, and take things in stride.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama described this sentiment well:

My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.

I propose this same framework for managing a business: when provoked, don’t sting back. In a free market, one of the only guarantees is that there will be competition. If a new competitor enters your market or if an existing player unveils something that looks remarkably like something on your roadmap or something from your existing feature set, it doesn’t make sense to freak out and panic. It also doesn’t make sense to reactively change your game plan and become extremely defensive or aggressive. Don’t let someone else dictate your strategy!

Instead, it’s better to take a moment to sit back, evaluate the situation clearly and level-headedly, and then decide what to do. If a change in your product roadmap makes sense, then by all means make that change. But don’t change everything just because you feel threatened. Don’t sting like a bee. Be smarter, play by your own playbook, and keep going. That’s how you’ll eventually win, by being better, not by being the fastest to respond to conflict. 2

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be spontaneous, it just means that you shouldn’t be rash. There’s a minor distinction between the two. Be spontaneous on a day-to-day basis by experimenting with and trying new ideas. Surprise and delight your customers when they aren’t expecting it. This is all fine. But when it comes to dealing with conflict and competition, don’t be too rash in your decision making.

This also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be confrontational, it just means that you should pick your fights wisely. There’s a time and place for “wartime” and “gathering the troops” in the “war room.” Most of the time, I’d argue that it’s not your battle to fight. 3

So sure, float like a butterfly, but don’t sting like a bee.

  1. The stinger only falls off when the victim’s skin is thick enough. So bees can actually sting other things (like non-mammals) without dying.

  2. Paul Graham writes, “Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win is to race ahead, not to stop and fight.”

  3. For the most part, I agree with this tweet from Joel Spolsky where he writes, “can we stop with the ‘war’ metaphor? It’s a job. programming computers. That’s not what wars are.”


"Two roads diverge in a yellow wood..."

"Two roads diverge in a yellow wood..."

What you do is important and can define who you are and what you stand for, but what you don’t do is perhaps even more important.

When the norm is to do something a certain way, choosing not to do it becomes glaringly obvious. And often times, not doing something that everyone else does can be one of the best things that you can do.

When everyone is raising huge rounds and making headlines, the companies that succeed quietly like WhatsApp earn our respect. When the popular Silicon Valley motif is “college kid drops out to start an internet company,” the ones who don’t command our attention. When other websites are focused on increasing time spent on their sites, the search engine that decides to decrease it becomes the most viewed website in the world.

Not doing something that everyone else does can also be one of the worst things that you can do.

Perhaps one of the best examples is how the majority of VCs tweet and blog actively. Not tweeting makes a VC seem inaccessible or untrustworthy. In a field based on trust, communication, and positive relationships, not tweeting can be detrimental to a VC’s ability to source great investments. And that’s without considering how many potential deals they might not be hearing about by not being active on Twitter.

It’s necessary then to think hard about what you do, what you don’t do, and why. Sometimes, you’re forced to do things not because you want to do them, but because you fear the consequences of not doing them. But there are things that you can consciously choose not to do that will become a key, positive part of who you are or what your company represents.

If you’re willing to take that risk and bear the consequences, you might find a huge opportunity to differentiate yourself from the pack.

Let’s consider taxis. Taxi drivers are generally pretty serious and professional about what they do: after all, it’s their job. Uber prides itself on a similar sense of seriousness and professionalism, but promises a much better user experience. Now consider Lyft, a company that actively chooses not to be serious with quirky, pink mustaches and drivers that are forced to fistbump you and engage in conversation. It’s ultimately subjective, but a lot of people love Lyft! And it’s all because they choose not to be serious: that’s their competitive advantage.

Yo is also a great example. It’s unclear how successful (or unsuccessful) it will ultimately become, but Yo has carved itself a niche with contextless push notifications, something so radically different (or useless, depending on who you ask) that it has everyone buzzing.

We’re always in search of outliers, but it’s not about being nonconformist for the sake of being nonconformist. It’s about thinking hard about the defaults and questioning them. Certain things you can’t choose not to do, like customer service or making something your customers actually want. But other things, like not being serious in a serious industry, can make all the difference.

At Aflume, we’re trying to shape the future of music by changing how artists and fans interact, but we aren’t trying to be the next website that everyone goes to for music. Everyone these days says, check out my videos on Youtube, stream my music on SoundCloud, buy my stuff on iTunes, support me on Bandcamp, fund my Kickstarter, follow me on Twitter and Facebook. And on each site, musicians are forced to build a new profile, rediscover their fans, and then find a way to integrate that into their artistic identity.

You’ve probably never heard of us, and that’s not because we work with a lot of independent artists. It’s because we’re not trying to build a platform where you find artists to support. We’re consumer facing, but we’re letting artists take full creative and artistic control of our product: we power artists’ websites and want to be the backend of the music industry. And for the first time online, artists can promote themselves instead of yet another platform that they have a profile on.

Hopefully, we’re not doing the right thing.

If you’re a musician and think what we’re doing sounds interesting, please reach out. We’d love to help you succeed.


Oculus Rift

Yesterday, I watched my friend flip out over Dreadhalls, a horror dungeon game for the Oculus Rift where the goal is to sneak out of a dimly lit dungeon. Despite the technical limitations of the Rift (640×800 per eye in the developer kit) and the fact that Dreadhalls is still under development, Dreadhalls manages to be an intensely terrifying experience. 1

This brings up a serious question about the implications of VR innovation. As VR software and hardware improve, the experience inevitably will too. So whereas Titans of Space will become an even more awe-inspiring trip through space, a higher-quality version of Dreadhalls would only become more intense and more scary.

What, then, does this mean about a first-person shooter like Call of Duty? With high quality graphics and sound, a VR game like Call of Duty would put you right into the middle of the battlefield, complete with guns, bullets, grenades, and, most importantly, death. With guns aimed at your head and bullets whizzing by, do you panic? When you’re looking down a sniper scope, with your target in sight, do you pull the trigger? When you see the body in front of you fall from the blast of your shotgun, do things get, perhaps, a bit too intense for comfort?

My hunch is that this sort of experience won’t be universally enjoyed. The brutality of World War I led to shell shock, a physical and emotional reaction to the intensity of the war that has since become ingrained in our memory of the war. Nowadays, we talk a lot about PTSD, particularly in the context of war veterans after returning home from war. It seems plausible that we’ll see some resemblance of PTSD or shell shock appear due to increased intensity and immersion in VR games. At the very least, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about panic or heart attacks induced by VR, particular through something like Dreadhalls or a FPS.

So here’s my question: where and how do we draw the line on what experiences are appropriate for VR? Or will something like the uncanny valley appear and solve this problem naturally? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  1. This Reddit thread and this Youtube video can give you an idea of exactly how people react to the game. Warning: strong language.