Much ink has been spilt on the concept of work / life balance. I think most people just figure it out as they go… and I think I’ve finally got that figured out.1
So now, I have a new balance problem. I’m not sure what to call it, but let’s start by calling it balancing worry with excitement.
You see, startups are a fickle beast. They’re very up and very down, often times within the same week, if not day.
Founders get on top of the world when people externally validate their existence. Jessica said it best last year at startup school.
What you don’t realize until you start a startup is how much external validation you’ve gotten for the conservative choices you’ve made in the past. You go to college and everyone says, “Great!” Then you graduate get a job at Google and everyone says, “Great!”
What do you think people say when you quit your job to start a company to rent out airbeds?
When you get any flicker of external validation, you feel on top of the world.
External validation events, however, are completely temporary phenomena, and typically sparse. They give way to two different downers: The temporary, and the ever present.
The temporary ones are sort of the anti-dopamine… they aren’t too bad, but if you’re already feeling poorly, they’re a further drag on an already burdened soul.
The bad guys? The ever presents. These guys are there and never leave… gnawing on your soul, tearing at your startup will power.
The ever presents, for an early stage company:
Temporary dopamine injections don’t help with these worry sources. These guys seem to have one common cure: Empathy.
There seems to be something to knowing you’re not the only person going through these issues. Hearing other people’s stories that feel analogous to your own are extremely cathartic and encourage a return to the center, from the extremes.
I think the best way to cure them might be a program like YC. With 20-50 other companies going through similar problems, you’re bound to get a dollop of empathy every Tuesday during dinner.
For the majority of us who aren’t in SV’s most prestigious program, there are other options. Tonight, I had a good time balancing it out. As I was down, I had a phone call with one of my cofounders… something I hadn’t done since moving to Portland. It went really well, mainly because we just kinda talked about random crap. Yeah, I need that. This working from home isolation thing is kinda killing me.3
Next, I started watching these videos from a PandoMonthly event which I think just happened. They were about Drew from Dropbox, and his experiences with YC and startups. He had a hard time finding a cofounder. PG told him he had to find a cofounder. All experiences I felt like I could empathize with.
Hm. Empathy is the antidote. Go figure.
My first boss told me I had no work/life balance because I worked 80 hour weeks doing 3 different jobs at a TV station. But when you’re 21 with no interest in dating, that was actually a balance. - A few years later, my sister, with whom I was living, gave me crap because I worked my regular job, then came home and worked my new startup job, and didn’t hang out with any friends. So what? I ended up getting married by the end of that year after meeting the love of my life, on accident. Trying hard to date is over rated. (For me, anyway.) ↩
The plan is weekly google hangouts now. [^3}: Surprisingly, a LOT of the YC companies I had the fortune of meeting split up because of cofounder drama. Was shocked. I guess if you’re not a good fit, it’s not really temporary. ↩
Fred Wilson launched fredwilson.tv, a cool new experiment by the guys over at shelby.tv. It’s an experiment in lengthening the duration of video view sessions. I’m pretty excited by the promise it holds, and the kinds of data they’re gathering with the experiment, so this isn’t trashing on them, to be clear. However, I feel like their service, and services like theirs, fundamentally ignore a really difficult fact:
Every video producer creates their content as if it were being consumed in a vacuum.1
The typical structure for an online video follows a few different producing patterns. One is the amateur, where basically there are no edits, and the video is excessively long. Someone, typically the distributor / reblogger / tweeter of the content, will say “watch at 0:37!” This convinces all future viewers to try, using a ridiculously hard to hit measure, to go to 0:37.
The second is the TV pro. The TV pro knows what it’s like to create content for traditional broadcast, so they follow normal broadcast norms like a heavy handed introduction, or a :30 intro.2 :30 intros are dying on broadcast for the same reason they’re dying online: THEY’RE LARGELY UNNECESSARY. In an age of program guides, the little square already tells you what the program is called before you click on it. And sometimes, they’ll even tell you specifically what episode you’re going to watch before you click. Online, you’re being introduced to content in text before you ever get to the video. That means when you click play, thanks to some text somewhere, people should already know what your video is about.
The third is being invented, mostly by YouTube-rs, and I’d call it the YouTube Pro. Fire Wallet is my current favorite example. They start with some sort of quick, real content tease, which draws you in. Then, the rest of it is (presumably) inverted pyramid clips which draw the viewer along and keep them watching.
The key feature, I think, between TV Pros and YouTube pros is the lack of pretense. There’s not a ‘this is how TV is made’ feeling with pro YouTube folk.
One of my fav places to check out a linear version of web video is this little experiment called upl8.tv. If you hit spacebar, it takes you to the next video. It, however, is kind of the opposite of the metadata trend I outlined above. It’s more of a blind ‘punch you in the face with awesome videos’ approach.
I’m happy the Shelby folks are trying new things. Experiments are fun, the result isn’t perfection yet, but hopefully they’ll get there.
And every video site, for that matter. Yesterday, when trying to watch Project Runway on Lifetime.com, I probably watched the same commercial at least 7x when I flipped between segments a couple times. It’s a problem that’s not just our problem as producers. Prerolls on every video exacerbate this problem. YouTube is solving it most elegantly, by their sheer volume, and sometimes allowing users to not click through a video. I’m sure they have some metric that’s like rev/user/session which they try to optimize. ↩
“Hi, I’m Randall Bennett and you’re watching this show that someone already probably introduced to you in text somewhere else. And who I am is important enough that it’s the first thing I tell you.” ↩
I played with the phone during December and I actually said to myself, “I can’t believe this is a BlackBerry!” I was very impressed. Their initial goal is to just beat Windows Phone, which seems like an ok ‘shoot for 3rd place’ goal. And given Apple didn’t just release a phone out of nowhere… (it’s unlikely they’d be given any credence without the iPod) all BlackBerry shareholders can hope for is a long runway, something Palm already failed at.
[I originally commented on David Chartier’s Facebook post, but then realized this was long enough to essentially be a post.]
Vidpresso is a bunch of experiments wrapped together. Primarily, we’re an experiment in video production, trying to see if TV stations both want to get social media on-air, and if they’re willing to do more with less money. (Hint: they really like spending less money.)
To get started, our company had two real options: Raise money and take on investors to help the founders focus full-time while feeding their families, or bootstrap. We’ve selected the unsexy and under-covered method of bootstrapping.
We have a bunch of other potentially experimental avenues to go down, but it’s unclear which path leads us to world-changing-huge-growth-money-making-ville. And while we could totally take a sweet seed round with $500k - $1mm and start the process in earnest, I actually think we’ll have less (different?) pressure by instead bootstrapping the company.
The downsides: That means we only get to be cashflow positive. Our investment is either cutting personal expenses, or forgoing salary. There are no other options.
The upsides: We’re moving forward slowly, building something interesting that it seems like a lot of stations want, however at a pace that varies from ‘glacial’ to ‘too fast to handle’.
In my mind, an optimal scenario would be a team of people working on one part of the product, all in tandem, which means they can throw ideas around, code review, rearchitect, and you get this golden unit of work.1
Our scenario is a vast departure from that dream. I’m the one who’s been able, through total dumb luck, to work on the product more than my cofounders in terms of total time.2 This luck has enabled me to build different things, but it also burdens me into being the one to handle the majority of the accounting, incorporation, taxes, marketing, sales, etc. etc. etc. And these are things I don’t like to do.
So, in my despair, I thought of begging my cofounders for sales support. I wasn’t totally sure what they could do to help, but maybe they could even do lead gen / write emails to people / identify potential targets / write blog posts, or something.
The problem? They have a maximum of 1-3 hours a night, with 5-10 hours on weekends.
That means they get to focus on basically one thing per week. Period.
So that support I desperately crave? It’s pretty much impossible, because it would halt progress on everything else we need to get done.
The short list of things that need to get done: Marketing outreach, trade show preparation, documentation for onboarding of new clients, designing default looks for said onboarding. Etc. Etc. Etc.
I think a lot of people go into bootstrapping thinking it’s the best way to build a business (tm) since it forces you to focus on revenue first, and I don’t actually dispute that. We’ve never had to spend a penny of our personal money on the business, we’re in complete control of its destiny, and we still have all the equity.3
But what we didn’t realize in choosing this path was you’re choosing to learn patience. You’ll want to move quicker, inevitably, and you just can’t. You get to keep spinning a bunch of plates in the air, and hope you can fix all of them without them falling. You have no choice but to be patient because you can’t ease the pain by applying the ointment of cash.
So it’s hard, but if it gets too hard, you can just raise money, right? I’m not so sure. There are two ways to raise money: Raise on the dream, or raise on performance. Raising on the dream requires either connections, some insane domain knowledge / insight everyone else is missing, or a track record. More often than not, it’s a combination of all three.4
With bootstrapping, here’s the reality: You have money coming in, You have some idea of your sales cycle, and theoretically you know your target market’s total size, and now everyone will judge you based on that. You’re no longer a bundle of variables to plot in a magic formula; your equation is filling in letter by letter, month by month.
And even if you raised money on the dream, investors aren’t in the business of funding irrational risk. Those black swans make all the returns for investors who understand the game. And, so the story goes, those black swans show impressive growth, and show it relatively quickly.5 With investment, you’ve got 18 - 24 months to show rapid growth… but probably even less.
If you’re hitting the milestones and the stars are aligned, you’ll be fine. If you’re not growing dramatically, and especially if you’re not profitable, you end up getting HR acquired / your startup explodes / you get [series A crunched].
Most of the YC startups I was able to get to know are run by highly capable people who I highly respect. And YC’s philosophy is to get highly talented people in a room, have them build cool things, and see what happens. But now, a lot of those startups are dead. A shockingly high number of them are gone after one or two years.
For me, with my vision, I feel like I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that. I want to go to YC / Silicon Valley-style investors after I have a real business with actual growth, paying our salaries, growing naturally. I want to hedge my bets, because in my mind, a stable salary / happy wife / reasonable time commitment at work are the priorities now… not growth at all costs.6
I was talking to my buddy Ray, who runs the awesome seo software company Ginzametrics (see what I did there?). He said that not everyone invests the way YC / the black swan farmer / hunters do. Rationally or not, there are some investors out there who really want to just find something that’s interesting and works, and could spin off a $10mm / yr business that gets sold for 5x - 6x rev. I guess what Dave McClure is doing with 500 Startups aligns better with that model. They’re looking for the ‘grand slam / home run’ too, but are willing to make lots of ‘singles / doubles’ off of companies like ours on the way through.
So I guess I’m not really sure what to do at this point. My time horizon for my larger vision is probably about 20 years to accomplish everything I want out of video. So I’m not in a hurry to get there as quickly as I can.
I guess we’ll just have to keep making sales and see what happens later.
Substitute marketing / sales for product with appropriate sales activities, and it’s the same thing. ↩
The long and short: I haven’t risked anything more than they have, but have somehow managed to piece together an amazing amount of time to devote to the project. They’ve been just as committed as me, but just not as lucky. Basically I’ve been able to devote probably an average of > 1 full day a week on Vidpresso projects for the last year, and now the number is going up to > 2-3. ↩
OK, maybe like $500, max, on heroku bills before we had real clients. But we basically got our first client two days after we launched, and they paid for a year up front, so we haven’t really had any time where we were totally broke. ↩
That is why Y Combinator is so insane. For companies who have a huge potential for growth in a relatively short amount of time, YC helps companies shortcut so much red tape. They instantly get credible connections to the worlds’ best investors. They help solidify a founding team’s story. They help plot the growth graph to go for. ↩
Facebook’s main resource constraint in the early days was how many servers they could afford. That artificial constraint, which doesn’t exist today in the same way with services like EC2, artificially kept their growth rate down. ↩
This is a relatively recent occurrence. Happened in July when I realized I cared about my wife / kid more than my company / career. (A new occurrence for me.) ↩
Why hasn’t publishing entered the digital age?
When I say that, I don’t mean it in some esoteric, pejorative way, but in a more literal sense. Why is it that when I visit The Verge, my current favorite tech destination, that the stories are all the same with every refresh?
Despite that site, and many other new sites, being just absolutely gorgeous, they’re still plauged with this notion that a human editor should decide the most important stories for everyone, and that their discretion is the most important factor in deciding homepage order.
What if, instead, news sites took a page from Facebook. When I go to Facebook, it’s trying to find the most relevant stories to me. What if an editor had to take their gut instinct and quantify it into a proper score?
The score could be based on:
And I’m certain the folks who program the sites already could determine a litany of other related important scores that’d help affect the placement of the story.
The idea being: A user could, logged-in-or-not, get exposed to a plethora of headlines / pictures that could entice them to click. When they come to the page, a feed is generated1 which takes into account a story’s score. The highest scored items get a more prominent placement than lower-scored items.
The administrative burden that this scoring process would take on should definitely be accounted for. It’d mean that each story would need a trustworthy score, solid picture for the homepage, etc. I don’t think this is something that could be taken on lightly, but once implemented, it’d make for more meaningful stories anyway.
Editors should be able to preview what the site looks like for users who’ve never visited before, or perhaps have cookies disabled, but that should be simplistic.
If the advertisers spending cash on their site can target their ads properly, why can’t the publishers use similar technology to better serve their audience?
I realize this is a huge scaling issue, but I think the cost is definitely offset by user retention / satisfaction. Things like Node.JS help, because you could have a job queue run by Node which handles building Redis lists for each user. Not to mention you could build Redis rules to help with the score thing. You could update timeliness scores every 10 minutes in bulk, or when a new item is published, and the retention / frequency scores could be updated after a page is rendered in a fire-and-forget queue. ↩
TL;DR: Go clone this and set up the configuration variables and get up and going with your own ghetto CI in about 5 minutes.
I saw Zach Holman’s talk on continuous deployment / automating everything, and it inspired me to do something I had been itching to do for a while… specifically eliminate one step of the deploy process.
For most developers, their source control is different from the servers running the code. Normally, a developer will check code in to a place like github, then push the code to her/his server through rsync scripts, or perhaps through git itself when pushing to Heroku or DotCloud, for instance.
Why have two steps? And why not have automated things happen to said code once its ready? Maybe checking for errors through tests, for instance?
Good idea, continuous integrator. We’re using Hubot to pull this off. We have a persistent Google Talk chatroom called partychat which we use to talk as a team. We added Hubot a while ago for general hilarity, and so we could know when critical things happen on the site.1
I won’t go over how to set up Hubot because there are better places to go for that. I will say it’s really easy if you’ve ever set up a Node.JS app. Get Hubot so it’s talking to the web, and if you have a persistent chat client, get it working with that so you can talk to Hubot directly in chat, and more importantly, it can tell you what it’s doing.
Hubot scripts live in the gasp
scripts directory. Throw one in there
github.coffee or whatever you want to call it. Make sure you’re
writing it in CoffeeScript. You could also
use our example script too, if you’re so inclined.
Our example script does a few things. First, it sets up a route
for the external world to hit. We chose
/github but you could pick
whatever you wanted. We’ll take this webhook URL, and enter it in Github
as a post-commit webhook.
Then, once you’ve got that going, you can test your webhook, and it’ll
send a payload of your last commit to
master. You can use the tool
Github recommends to easily inspect the result of the webhook
You’ll notice that Github sends a
payload variable with a JSON string
inside of it. So in order to use that JSON string, we parse it into a
Then, we check for which branch the commit applies by checking the
section of the payload. People who know more about
git than me can
explain why that would be different than
for our purposes that’s what we expect.
So then we check for the
master branch, we’ll notify the room that
we’re ready to start processing, and we’ll start a shell script which
checks out code and sends it to production.2 The same thing happens
develop sending to staging, but the script for doing that is a
Generate a key with
ssh-keygen. No passphrase. Nuff said.
Now you need to store the key somewhere. Since we’re on Heroku, I’m storing the key as an environment variable. I figure if it’s secure enough for DB strings, it’s secure enough for my SSH key.
heroku config:add PRIV="[paste your key here]"
Note that the double quotes will keep your linebreaks intact, which is crucial.
To actually use the key, I went through a plethora of different options,
but since we’re deploying to Heroku and essentially our servers are
ephemeral, I decided to echo the environment variable to the main
~/.ssh/id_rsa file. If you have other keys and want to specify an
identity file, you might try
GIT_SSH, which has some helpful [stack
overflow questions]  to get you on the right track. You also might
be able to use
As for our actual bash script, it’s really simple.
echo "$PRIV"instead of just
echo $PRIV. That’ll keep your line break formatting intact. Also, you probably want to turn off
StrictHostKeyCheckingfor github and heroku, which you could add to ssh config, etc.
Now you’re set. You could probably add testing into the mix, and if you’re needing ruby or something you could add a custom buildpack which would be able to perform the tests for you.
For instance… we actually know whenever a credit card gets charged. We use [Stripe][http://stripe.com] for our credit card processing, and then hook up their webhook interface to Hubot. So we know whenever money is coming in. We also plan to make a financial dashboard, and have Hubot be our central point of integration with [Xero][http://xero.com], our accounting software. We also integrated Twilio, so we know whenever someone calls our interest number. ↩
I realize you could probably write all of the scripty things in
Node / CoffeeScript, which would be a really good idea. I’m lazy so I
did a bash script for the first pass. It has some limitations, like by
exec I only get a dump of stdout when the process exits, which
is totally lame. ↩
So my wife and son have been visiting their family for two weeks. No, there’s no potentially heartbreaking story behind that, but my wife likes to travel, and sometimes my schedule can’t accommodate her wishes, so she travels by herself.
I’m basically alone for two weeks, which is incredibly frustrating.
At first, you think, “Oh snap! I’ll finally have time for all those things I’ve been dying to do!” And for workaholics, you might think, “Oh snap! It’s totally time to finish comprehensive project x!”
Here’s the thing I actually realized: For the first time in my entire life, I actually have a life. And I don’t want to work all the time.
This realization is kind of a surprise. See I’ve always been a pretty motivated guy. (flashback!) When I was 15 I realized my family didn’t have a ton of money, so I started going to college when I was in high school because it was cheaper / free sometimes. I actually went to high school during the day, and college at night. I went during the summer. And I still had a part-time job. I got my associate’s degree when I was 17, which got me scholarships which meant I didn’t have to pay for college. Ever.1
After college, I started working in broadcast and technology media. I changed jobs roughly every year or more, and worked with a bunch of different people2. I was always the youngest, and always learning new things. I worked a lot, and started some failing companies where I was working likely 12+ hours a day in a lot of cases.
Now, I’m not the youngest anymore. That’s kind of weird. I haven’t accomplished anything earth-shattering or world changing (yet). So I’ve gotta work even harder / longer hours, right?
Wrong! Now I finally get why people don’t work all the time.
With wifey and son gone, I actually didn’t work all the time. I worked maybe like 10ish hours, but that’s how much I normally work when you include commute time. Even though I absolutely love my job, the last thing I wanted to do was work when I got home. I basically just wanted to be with my family, and couldn’t… which was incredibly depressing.
I did, however, (re)start playing tennis. It’s really fun, and a good distraction from when I don’t want to work, but don’t want to do nothing.
Here’s the moneyshot of all this self discovery: I want to have a business where I don’t have to run it all the time, but when I do run it, it benefits handsomely. I want to travel with my wife. I want to play with my son. I want to be able to play tennis every freaking day.
I want my business to be awesome, but I want it to be completely self sustaining. I thought I wanted to do a VC-backed business, but I think I was wrong. I still want to change the world, but I want to do it on my terms. Not someone else’s terms.
Maybe one day when we’re huge, we’ll take some A16Z money3, but it seems unlikely we’ll do it early on. If it’s possible to take seed / vc money and keep the lifestyle I want, then maybe I’d do it. But being really really close to the biggest startups, I don’t think it’s possible to serve all masters at once.
I pick my life over my work.
In fact, I was net positive. I actually took some of my college scholarship money and bought video games with it. Thanks college donors! :) ↩
I’m incredibly proud to have worked with smart people like Peter and Ryan from Engadget, The 404 guys at CNET, Brian at CrowdFusion, and countless others in the broadcast production freelancing world. They gave me a shot to get a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time. ↩
In some ways, I’m noticing that investors / seed fund guys are picking the same thing I’m picking, but they only get to do that after a big exit which allows them to be fiscally in a place where it’s not a total huge deal if they don’t want to work. Is it possible to have those life priorities before hitting it big? That’s the real question that I’m raising. I’m uncertain that it’s possible, but we’ll find out soon, wont we? ↩
I wrote this in 45 minutes because I have a life. I’m not going to spend as long writing essays now. Cult of done: http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/3/3/the-cult-of-done-manifesto.html ↩
A lot of people saw our press, and asked us, “Are you going to raise funding?” While we’ve seen a lot of startups around us in Utah get funding from great folks like Tony Hsieh and others, my cofounders and I decided pretty early on it was easier for us to just sell the product rather than raise money right now.
Our product is a b2b product, and it costs about $400 / month typically, though some of our customers have built deals with us that include market exclusivity and accordingly are charged more.
So far, we have enough customers to pay our bills and we’re throwing the rest of the money in the bank. We’ve decided that we want our sales process to build our growth.
We’ve hit a stopping point though, we need to start selling our product to our users and we don’t really know how. Our next steps? Throw up some adwords to harness demand there, perhaps do some targeted FB ads, and good ol’ fashioned cold calling.
The thing we’d really like? To find a white whale: A non douchey sales person to help us with the process. We’ve got a product people love, but now we’d like to show it to more people. Do you know anyone who’s interested? Hit us up.
ZenHabits inspired this
“What happened to you?”
Rustin called me on it. I was lamenting about all the decisions I had to make in short order, and how I had to have everything all planned out.
“Chill out man. You don’t have to have it all figured out.”
Late last year I realized I was going to be transitioning from one job to another. Yet again. And as part of that transition, I started to make plans about what the future held for me. I wanted to figure out who I was, and I wanted to plan the path that would lead me to success. I was sweating over every detail, meticulously planning my metoric rise from November 2011 to today, which included stints in a prestigous program to accellerate my company’s future growth, and a big investment in a trade show booth.
Seriously, what happened to me? Within the last 5 years I’ve moved about 10 times, and had countless gigs, contracts, jobs and offices. Why the need now for a rigid inflexible roadmap?
I think three letters are to blame. Eli. My 14 month old son.
See I love this guy. A lot. And really, what I want for him is to have an awesome life, which means I need to be there for him emotionally, be physically present in his life, and make the money to make his life livable.
The feeling of a need for certainty stem from that.
So rather than go with the flow, something inside of me enticed me to start overplanning. I think I’ve since combatted it.
Thanks to Bryce, who was curtious enough to have a phone chat with me, and Rustin, I finally realized I didn’t need to plan. I needed to do everything that had worked for me before: Just go with it.
Now I’m in the middle of a phase, where I’m working really hard on a product that people are already sniffing around. It feels good to just be able to say “whatever happens happens, I’m building something awesome that will resonate with someone.”
As a bonus, I’ve picked up a cofounder, and things are moving briskly along. I’m uncertain of the future, but I am certain I’m going the right direction. For now.
Right now I’m in a weird state of my career development. I’m not riding a rocket of momentum as I have in past ventures, but instead am finding myself evaluating opportunities and work with a more measured approach. I’ve got an idea of what I’d like to do for my next startup, specifically dealing with video production, but I don’t think the ecosystem is ready. That means I’m taking some time off to be an artist, rather than a producer. The art / product distinction is one which I’ve been thinking about at length as of late. Artist and Producer are two terms I’ve thought of in my head to describe a spectrum of motivation. Artists create because they have to— meaning they have some idea in their soul which they have to get out and show the world. Producers (product people), on the other hand, create something they think the world will enjoy. Both can have a similar result, i.e. people enjoying the end work, but the motivations are the difference and set the stage for deeper thoughts about the work’s future.
Let’s look at artists for a second. When I say artists, I’m talking about a specific type of person, or group of people whose motivation for creativity is simple: Because they can. Artists, traditionally, create their vision single-handedly without regard for who will consume the work. They don’t ask for help, they don’t take direction from anyone else, and their only motive is to have the work exist in the real world. That leads to some typical “artist” results: they don’t often take critiques well, they don’t produce something that can be considered a wide “hit”, and yes, they tend to fiscally starve. Artistic integrity means the pure execution of an artistic message free of an external motive. Obviously artists take into account other inspirational works, but the actual artistic work, theoretically, will be free of any bias or motivation. Works with artistic integrity can have a big societal impact, but the lion’s share of “true artists” (think Brooklyn-esque modern artists) are relegated to obscurity. Also, don’t forget, art history’s favorite artists didn’t tend to be fully appreciated until society caught up to their vision. I used to walk through New York’s Union Square on Sunday to get to my church near 15th and 7th-ish. As I walked through the square, there would often be artists set up, hocking their wares. I’d talk to a lot of pretender artists, who’d be selling kitschy glass-wares, but occasionally I’d meet someone who just wanted to show off their work. For them, a $45 print purchase wasn’t validation as much as a means to continue exploring their artistic style. They could care less if people understood their point of view, they just needed some way to pay the rent. To put it succinctly: Artists create for themselves and nobody else. Their work is an execution of their internal message, mixed with time, medium, education and place.
At the other side, producers create works for the consumer. A product should serve the customer’s need, and not the producer’s view of the world. A true producer isn’t attached to any idea, and should be willing to change every aspect of the final product to make the customer happy. True product people exist, in their worst form, in traditional corporate America. For me, the starkest personal example of product people comes in the form of TV news. There, the product people use research consultants to come up with conclusions about what people want. Ever wonder why there’s 10 minutes of weather in a newscast? That’s because since the 80s, people have mentioned weather in focus groups, which leads the TV stations to continue to put more weather in the newscast. Typically, news directors don’t have a true point of view, but instead chase this homogenized version of TV News which has permeated to most markets in the U.S. In addition, TV News is notorious for using its validation strategy, i.e. ratings, as the only metric for success. That’s why every February, May, and November you’ll see stories trotting out the scare tactics and trying to get you to watch. Their goal is exclusively to get the most viewers in any way possible, and that goal ends up hurting the product’s integrity and societal worth. The only way I can put it: True product people are essentially whores. Whores who are completely devoid of ethics, and so concerned with the validation (typically in terms of dollars) that they’ll do anything to get it.
Who should you be? I think the smartest people, and the most useful people for society at large, lie somewhere in the middle of the road. For instance, a person running a startup company should start with an artistic vision for a company which inspires employees, investors and others. They should be able to see what they think the end work looks like from the get go. However, unlike an artist, they should be willing to research every part of the product, and tear down any part which doesn’t serve their customer’s true needs. They should be building their work for a specific audience and person. Unlike a true product person (whore) they shouldn’t turn design over to the customer, nor should they assume the customer knows exactly what they want. They should, however, use usage patterns, research, a/b split testing and other ways of determining what works with a given customer, and scientifically test their product vision and assumptions. Falling too heavily to one side of the spectrum creates issues. An extreme product person might solely design a product based on customer feedback, which leads to design by committee issues. On the art side, an artist would create something exclusively for his/herself, and wouldn’t see the broader picture. Sure, a group of art aficionados (aka early-adopting TechCrunch readers) might find value in the art, and truly appreciate it, but the art as a consumer item won’t have true impact on a mass scale until consumers decide they need it / take the time to understand it. A company like Apple, for instance, has a huge societal and business impact because it treads toward the middle. Steve Jobs and company start out with an artistic vision for a product, but tend to observe behavior patterns in users by referring to data. For instance, Apple uses repair data from its genius bar to refine product designs. Facebook, another example of a societal and business winner, applies a similar tact by using analytics tools to understand how its users actually interact with its product. (I’d add that Apple tends to lie more on the Art side of the equation, while Facebook and Google lie more on the product side.)
It’s not a bad thing to be a pure artist, or a pure product person at some point in your career / life, but realize what you’re doing, and the underlying effects. Right now, for instance, I’m focusing more on “personal art projects” instead of creating products. I’m taking my time to learn how to code, and the output is for nobody but myself. That means I’m learning, and understanding things only for myself. I have friends who work in companies that I’d tend to term “product whores.” They’re making lots of short-term money, in the hopes of a more balanced art / product life-cycle in the future. My ultimate goal is to have that middle-ground. I want to change society / the world. However, by realizing I’m currently an artist, I can put my goals in perspective. Product people can do the same thing. People who are shooting for the moon now, however, need to strive for immediate balance. Otherwise, they’ll fall short of their ultimate goals.