Top 4 radical transformations of customer service

It used to be the case that ‘customer service’ was merely a euphemism for a way to deal with the people you didn’t want to deal with. Back when people had to drive all the way to the store or place a phone call into an anonymous hole, that was enough.

Today, however, everyone is connected. You can read all the reviews of all the tweets of all the people who had a terrible experience with the brand or product you’re about to buy -OR- get all the good stuff. When you have a million friends, its much more likely that some of them have relevant experiences to share with you.

As a result, the nature and the opportunity of customer service has changed. Zappos and others have proven that it can be a market differentiator. So how do we think about this transformation?

I sat down with my friend Kaihan, author of several books on competitive dynamics and blog/columnist at Fast Company what his thoughts on this topic were.

Enter: Kaihan Krippendorff

I spent the last three months researching breakthroughs in customer service to prepare for a workshop I recently delivered for a global technology firm. I interviewed Harvard professors, read books, and spoke to forward-thinking CEOs. What I found is that innovators are hard at work on the fringes, and as their innovations come into the center, they will transform what customer service means for your business and your life as a consumer.

Customer service stepping onto the stage
Since capitalism latched on to mass production, customer service has been a necessary evil: banks of phones draining costs; disgruntled managers complaining that their disgruntled call center workers keep quitting. But that is changing. As traditional sources of sustainable advantage like economies of scale and customer captivity erode, as change accelerates, products commoditize, and providing better customer service becomes one of your only sources of advantage. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos put it, “When people ask me if our customers are loyal, I say, ‘Absolutely, right up to the second that somebody else offers them a better service.'”

1. Listening 3 million ways

Phone keypads may go the way of rotary dials when we no longer have to experience the excruciating “touch 2 for what you don’t need” exercise. SpeechCycle ( is one firm helping companies recognize what you want just from your confused utterances. “We know 3 million ways customers might complain about slow internet service,” says Zor Gorelov, CEO of SpeechCycle. By listening to lots of customer service calls, SpeechCycle’s technology gets smarter every day and pushing toward a future in which the customer service message that greets you says “Hi, how can I help you?” rather than “Press 1 …”, you can explain your issue in plain language, and the technology will simply solve your problem without human interference. This means empty call centers, happy customers, and profitable companies.

2. Self-adapting systems

Today when a business manager wants to change a customer service process, they have to write a request to their development team who then interviews them, designs a process, and has the business side review it. Then the development team codes it, sends it to a user interface expert who makes it look pretty, then the tool is piloted and revised. The process can take weeks, even months. Pegasystems (Ticker: PEGA) ( can shrink that process into a few minutes. It puts into the hands of business managers a design tool that helps them visually lay out a new process, link it to databases, then automatically generate the coding, so that within minutes they have a new program.

Let’s say you work for a student loan agency and you realize how to improve the process of accepting a new loan application. Over lunch you draw out a flow chart on your computer, enter the questions someone should ask (“What year will you graduate?”), specify where the program should launch some automatic processes (e.g., conduct a credit check) or access outside data (e.g., the student’s past loan payment history), and then generate automatic communications (e.g., send an email confirmation). By the end of the lunch hour you have a new fully integrated program. You competitors, meanwhile, will take a month or more to adopt your innovation. This is part of a broader trend of self-service and customization: sushi shops in Japan with ordering panels at tables to communicate directly with the kitchen, airport self-service kiosks that sell you travel insurance and upgrades, etc.

3. Customer service as cost reduction

The idea that customer service costs money is being turned on its head. Instead, customer service is reducing costs. Consider iGate (, whose unique engagement model enables it to dramatically reduce the process costs of its clients … and keep a piece of cost savings for itself. Consider Progressive Insurance, whose blue and white trucks race to the site of your accident, often even before the police arrive. Keeping this fleet afoot is costly. But this customer service offering is actually a cost saving in disguise. You see, on average, $15 out of every $100 in insurance claims are from fraud. By being there first, Progressive can ensure their claims are clean and create a significant cost advantage over its competition.

4. Customer service as revenue generator

You bring your new Xbox home but you can’t connect it to your WiFi service. Who do you call? Often customers first call their cable company thinking it’s an internet problem. But your cable company tells you the internet is working and that you should call the retailer, Best Buy. But Best Buy says it’s a hardware problem and you should call the Xbox manufacturer, Microsoft. RadialPoint ( is changing the too common scenario. Now your cable company will say, “The internet connection seems to be working and we didn’t sell you the Xbox, but we can help you solve your problem.” For an extra fee, they will pull up a program that puts into your customer service advisor’s hands all the knowledge they need to navigate your internet, Xbox, Best Buy mess. Customer service is becoming a revenue generator. One expert I interviewed told me Best Buy’s service business (GeekSquad) generates 10% of the company’s revenue but 25% of its profit. RadialPoint is now helping leading retailers and internet service providers around the world go into the business of providing customer service, even for goods they do not sell, for a profit.

Add all of these shifts together and we start to see a radically different picture. Machines that can listen and understand you, connecting to business processes that adapt immediately to better practices, providing better customer service that saves money and even creates profits. Customer service becomes a central source of competitive advantage. Step into this new world or risk being left behind.

My thanks to Kaihan for sharing his thoughts here. Feel free to check out his blog, or tweet him @Kaihan

Building effective habits: Triggers and Purpose

Habits are a powerful thing. When you’ve got a behavior nailed into a habit, you can get it done without thinking about it, saving precious mental room for the stuff you need to be thinking about — like that next vacation or taking over the world.

If you’re like me, you struggle sometimes to build good habits. After all, there’s a difference between a habit of doing pushups every morning or a habit of eating gravy fries with cheese for every meal.

So I got my friend Victor Mathieux, the founder of Everest, and habit-designing maestro to sit down and share some thoughts.
Enter Victor Mathieux
Habits help to lower the amount of friction we feel towards taking action. They help us take the things we do and make them part of how we define ourselves.

Let’s take the example of brushing your teeth. It’s quite likely that you’ve developed a habit of brushing your teeth and no longer need to consciously decide every morning whether you should brush your teeth or not. The decision is already made for you and since decisions require brain power, every morning you end up saving a little mental energy and walking out of your bathroom with clean teeth thanks to a habit.

You weren’t born with a particular interest in keeping your teeth clean, but there are several factors that have contributed to your daily scrubbing. Let’s take a quick look at two of them:

1. Trigger:
In simple terms, a trigger is a signal or event that kicks off an automatic urge or mental reminder to do something. For example, waking-up might be a trigger to initiate a hygienic routine in which your brush your teeth; or perhaps you’re reminded to brush your teeth every time after you eat a meal. The stronger the bond between the trigger and the action, the less conscious decision making it requires, and as a result, the stronger the habit.

2. Purpose:
Purpose can be seen as the reason(s) for which something is done. You may brush your teeth because you want to keep yourself healthy, dislike having bad breath, care about a social standard, or simply want to make your mom proud. Without knowing why you want to truly do something, it can be challenging to build a habit. Notice how it’s much harder to tell (or smell for that matter) at a glance if someone flosses every day as opposed to brushes their teeth. There’s less accountability and as a result it seems that more people have trouble building a habit of flossing. I know that I personally didn’t start flossing regularly until I heard about a study which claimed that flossing could dramatically reduce chances of cardiovascular disease. I didn’t even get the real statistics but as someone who values health this was enough of a reason for me to build the habit. It’s also important to acknowledge that knowing the purpose behind our actions helps us to remember the good reasons why we’re working hard, especially when things get challenging.

Without a trigger and purpose, habits can be challenging to build. Here are two personal examples of approaches at building similar habits, one which lasted for about a week and the other which was successfully formed into a lasting habit:

Daily push-ups — Approach #1
Trigger: Completing a task on the computer
Purpose: Consciously remembering to use the computer as a tool instead of a place (I often wish that working on the computer felt more like carving wood, but that’s a topic for another time).

Daily push-ups with team — Approach #2
Trigger: Ending our daily team meeting in the morning
Purpose: Increasing energy first thing in the morning amongst self and team. Strengthening a culture that’s aligned with Everest, the product we are building, which is built around the belief that there is separation between creating a better self and a better world.

Approach #1 ultimately failed because it would have required me to first build a habit of consciously acknowledging when a task was completed on the computer. In other words, the trigger I chose depended on a the existence of another habit I hadn’t built yet. The habit was also not particularly well suited for the purpose it was trying to serve. If all I wanted to do was  to consciously remember to use the computer as a tool instead of a place, perhaps it would have been more effective to change my desktop background to a phrase saying “this computer is a tool, not a place”.

Approach #2 on the other hand succeeded quite nicely. The trigger was something which occurred consistently with little dependency (as long as I went to work, the meeting was a regular occurrence in my daily life) and the purpose was well aligned with the action. Pushups gave us energy and helped us to build a culture where we push (no pun intended) each other to be the best we can.

In short, spending some energy to identify effective triggers can save us energy in the long term and better understanding what drives the purpose behind our actions to make sure they are aligned can allow us to build more effective habits.

My thanks to Victor for sharing his thoughts here. Check out his company, Everest. and feel free to tweet him @victormathieux

How to save a life. Or a million.

Photo by Clever Cupcakes

Each year, more than 1,000,000 people in the US alone need lifesaving and life-improving tissues.
Last Year, 22,104 organs were transplanted last year, each one saved a life.
This means that ~980,000 people were left waiting, flush with hope that they might get access to that kidney, or liver or heart that would get them back to being happy and healthy members of our society. Not all of them would make it.

The silver lining: The life-saving items they need aren’t expensive. In fact, they are completely free. We can save a million lives for free.

How’s that for a perfect storm of supply/demand and cost/benefit?

There are a variety of solutions out there. One is to change our system in the US to being opt-out rather than opt-in. Assuming only a small number of people actually object to being an organ donor (after all, you can’t take it with you), changing the default would at least capture the organs of all the lazy people. Another would be to force people to make a choice – this way, at least we wouldn’t lose access to all the life-saving potential from people who would donate but simply haven’t yet registered.

As you might guess, I’m not the first person to think about this. This meta-study from the UK looked over a ton of studies in individual countries to draw some interesting conclusions. (Full report available here, fair warning, its 134 pages)

Key conclusions?

  • Presumed consent (the standard name for my change-the-default idea above) can increase donorship rates by 20-30%
  • Austria and Germany create an interesting comparison as they have similar geography and culture. (as noted in this piece from the NY Times) Germany is opt-in, Austria is opt-out. Germany gets 12% of their people as donors, Austria gets 99%.

So why am I writing about this? People who know me might find this unexpected, as I don’t typically rally behind charities. However, the practical benefits of an action so simple leave me feeling compelled. As charities go, It doesn’t have the splash value of controlling malaria by tracking mosquitos by laser, but it does have a real impact.

So what can I do? I’m running the New York City Triathlon with Team Donate Life – raising awareness and money for this really simple fix. Every donor can save 3+ lives. Get into it. No, I’ve never run a Tri before, if that’s not enough reason for you to become an organ donor and kick a few bucks toward a great cause, I don’t know what is.

Plus – its tax deductible. So not only is saving lives via organ donation free, so is donating to the cause. (kind of)

So next time you’re out at a cocktail party, impress people with some of this:

  • A new name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list every 10 min. Most of them won’t make it.
  • 18 people die every day waiting for an organ donor
  • 100,000 people in the NY area are waiting for an organ that would save their lives.

It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t cost your family anything. Its not against your religion. So today, do something. Make a difference. Become an organ donor. While you’re at it, put some donation money to a good cause — it will help me represent this great cause as I run the tri, can be written off on your taxes, and will save multiple lives.

Put money here –> I want to donate.

Every cent goes to the NY Organ Donor network. They’re going to use it to get people to become donors, to get people to change the rules, and to save as many lives as humanly possible.

Build your own launch : 5 steps to your own PR

So you want to launch your new site/app/product?

We recently launched our site, and while I’m not a PR person by any means, I think there are a few straightforward things people typically do wrong. Given that the site we launched was not itself our product – i think its fair to assume that anyone could get the same result.

One day, we had no website. The next day, we were at the top of Google. We had 15+ articles, 40+ pickups, and surfed 80k pageviews.  Lots of signups, emails, phone calls, etc. It was a good launch by most metrics.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions on how we got the word out, so thought I’d write it up here. I didn’t do anything extraordinary, just tried to connect with people on a human level and kept a tight pitch.

1. Stay press-quiet before launch – There’s a lot of talk out there about ‘stealth mode’ and  what you should or should not tell people about your company in early days. My opinion is that stealth mode is dumb. However, news needs to be new in the press, to create more temporal contrast before and after launch. If you’ve been posting your product on the blogs, facebook, and everywhere else, your launch will be less interesting. However, even if all your friends know about what you’re doing, but there hasn’t been an article — you might still be news.

2. Build real relationships – The journalists who write the news are real people! I find so many who think of getting mentioned in the press as if it were some machination of the ethers. Different publications tend to have different angles, and individual writers have their interest areas just like you do. Asking an electronics publication to cover your food review app will be just as odd and unsuccessful as asking a writer who likes to cover pop culture to write about your obscure documentary. Then again, if you take the time to understand publication and writer, and share your launch like a secret handshake — you will have more success and might even make some friends in the process.

3. Pitch a compelling story – The same launch event could be written as an interesting story, and as something boring as all hell. While it helps of course, to be working on something legitimately important, and something that has a real impact on the lives of people, and materially different from what’s already out there — we all know that isn’t always the case these days. So craft your stories using these simple rules, and then publish it as a press release. You can see an example of ours here. There’s a lot already out there about writing a press release, so I wont rehash.

I lied, I’ll rehash real quick.
1. Headline – hands down the most important for readability and SEO purposes. Keep it simple: New <Product Category>, <Company Name> Launches today, <Top Key Benefit>
2. Timing – Embargo until <launch date>. If you don’t know what that means, its a polite request not to write anything until that date. This way, you can take a week or two sharing your message, and ask everyone to write about it the same day. This isn’t rude – everyone likes knowing tomorrow’s news.
3. Problem – As simply as possible, what’s the consumer’s problem
4. Solution – As simply and to-the point (no jargon allowed) how do you solve it.
5. Testimonial – What do your customers have to say about it? (Hint: it needs to rock their socks)
6. Competition, other details or some other commentary. No one will read this deep into your release.

Try to keep the whole thing to 300 words or so.

4. Collect – On the day the article is supposed to come out, and perhaps a couple days earlier, check back in with your friends in the press. See if there are any unanswered questions, any missing visuals they want like screenshots or photographs. The easier you make your story to write, and the harder you make it to forget, the more likely that it will see ink. No apologies and no begging. There’s no news without people to make it.

5. Publicity goes both ways – Once your article comes out, why would anyone read it? If no one is going to read it, why should anyone write about you again? Getting the article is only half the job. Once it’s out, mobilize your network. Post on facebook, tweet and retweet, put it on LinkedIn, email it out. Get everyone you can to do the same. Literally. I probably made some people upset. Every time an article hit, I made sure to do my part. Journalists like the attention as much as you do. Be invested in your coverage – its the least you could do to thank them.

Launch coverage only happens once. Make the best of it.


Neither our launch nor this post would be possible without the insight and patience of Liz Bacelar, my PR coach. You would have to be under a rock not to have heard of Decoded Fashion, so check that out and sign up.

5 things Fashion Week can teach any business about capturing the customer

Yes, this week is fashion week.

Most people have no reason to notice it — after all, nearly none of us are fashion designers, retail buyers, or other ‘industry’ types — but somehow there’s no escaping it.

At its core, its merely a trade show. Vendors show up with their wares, buyers see if they like them. But the mythology makes it larger than life.

How different would your life/business be if your customers whipped themselves into a frenzy just because you were showing off your latest stuff?

Here, in no particular order, are the 5 things I’ve learned from FW this year.

1. Float audacious rumors – Weeks before the event, people and the press are buzzing with excitement over leaks, rumors and predictions. Why? The leaks are usually of powerful people or beautiful products. The rumors are about things that impact the lives of normal people (even in a somewhat indirect way), and the press is so closely aligned with the buyers or the producers that they may as well be colluding.

Chances are, you don’t spend time crafting your product into sex. Into colluding with the press (or even your competitors). Into crafting a drama that’s larger than life.

Then you wonder why no one cares about your product.

2. Deliver spectacular oversell – Fashion Week events are among the most mysterious I’ve ever seen. You can only go into a show with an invitation – and getting an invitation from someone you don’t know personally can be challenging. The rooms are dark and sensuous, the products are displayed to all the senses — with music, lights, aromas, celebrities all interacting like a symphony of rainbow sprinkles. The best part is — runway items nearly never make it to the shelf. Just like concept cars, they are an artistic view into what could be. They capture the imagination and attention of the customer in a way that the current, boring product never could.

Betsey Johnson threw a show that involved acrobatics, gigantic flowers, bold colors and more. Was your last product demo just you and your powerpoint? How long did you spend thinking about the experience of your product? How often do you dare to make your customer work to win you over?

3. Involve the press and the consumer – On its own, Fashion Week would be a cool event, but the propaganda makes it surreal. The major trade pub, WWD livecasts photos and tweets non-stop. Bloggers and magazines vie for VIP spots, party passes, interviews and peeks. Even consumer media is in a state of constant uproar.

Chances are, you haven’t orchestrated such a reaction to your business. Sure you’ve written a press release for your big huzzah. You might have even paid a PR person/agent/massivecompany to help you get the word out. But have you truly partnered with

4. Be a character – Have you ever seen Karl Lagerfeld or Diane Von Furstenberg talk about their product? They are spectacular. Every bit the embodiment of their brand, brilliant, devoted, and so intricately interesting that we simply must buy their product.

Think about the last time you spoke to a client. Were you focused on standing out or fitting in? On surprising and delighting or in meeting expectations?

Get into it.

5. Surf a trendwave – The things that most people talk about aren’t the esoteric details of the products on display — but rather the human connection, the aspiration, and the interesting connections drawn by skilled designers to our lives.

A ton of the chatter is about who’s in the ‘front row’. Often, the coveted front row is given not just to the customer, but to celebrities, artists, friends of the designer, socialites and VIPs. This is interesting! Who are these people? While the bees buzz about the gossip, the product looms large in the background.

Lots of the products also had tie ins to pop culture. There was some social and political commentary, but perhaps no cross-promotion as memorable as Helmut Lang’s claim that this collection was inspired by the TV show ‘Game of Thrones’. I’m sure that garnered them twice as many views than other people with similar quality product.


Get out there and get it done.

Best practices in creating thrilling and engaging video content ON A DIME

We all know that video content is the current/next big thing. Its really part of the natural evolution from painting, to photography, to video as a way for people to connect, be entertained, sell products and build internet-celebrity-feifdoms.

The issue is: you could paint with a peice of paper, and take pictures with a camera — but making a good video involves lots of tech and moving parts. By the time you figure out how to hold a camera steady, edit footage, and overlay music, you could be hundreds of hours (or dollars) in the hole.

How do you make sure that your time, effort (and perhaps capital) are well spent? Lets meet my friend Josh Bernhard, the creator and producer of the hit independent show – Pioneer One. (if you have been under a rock and have not yet seen this award-winning peice, you are in for a treat.

We’re also going to meet my friend Nick Buzzell – the founder and head of NBTV Studios ( and a veteran producer of shows, music videos, web series, features, interactive content and more.

First, the design step. Who is going to watch this? How long should it be? What all should you think about before picking up the camera?

Josh is the consummate artist. Driven by passion to tell stories, move people, and to defy the establishment while he’s at it.

Josh says:

I’ve always wanted to make a TV show. Before packing up and moving to LA to work as a barista for 5 years, I decided to see if I could actually do the work I wanted to do independently. Internet distribution isn’t a new idea and everyone knows how much more accessible digital filmmaking tools are today. There’s such a thing as super-low-budget indie film, but there hasn’t really been a truly independent drama series, in the mold of a regular series for television. Having distributed my first feature The Lionshare through and their network of BitTorrent sites, and seeing how it caught on, I thought it would be the perfect way to put out a series.


The idea for the show itself probably came from a mix of Josh’s interest in Cold War tensions and the similarities it held with things as modern as the healthcare debate in the US. He found it interesting that when people have a strong ideological worldview, they could completely disregard facts when they don’t fit with it. If people will flip out about health insurance, how would they react when a Cold-war era cosmonaut appears from space (or Mars!) Spoiler alert: They flip out.

Nick Buzzell, has often been on the other side of the table – taking pitches from would-be storytellers to see if he wants to take the raw idea and create the kinds of videos that win award and acclaim all over the country.

The people involved with a project are just as important to him as the pitch itself. Open-minded, flexible, non-traditional people who are just willing to get it DONE. Sound familiar? Great content creators are entrepreneurs.

Then, you have to write. Yes, even if it is “reality” content.

Josh knew he was going to create an epic, six-part season for Pioneer One – which also means that he knew what was going to happen in each episode, how the characters would arc, where it ended, what was revealed, and a lot of what was said, before filming a minute. Partially because this helps keep all the story points in mind, but more realistically because once you start shooting (especially if trying to minimize costs) you will be pulled into editing and production, and will not have the time or energy to play with the words.

While you might always discover things over the course of production or conversations with sponsors/advertisers, remarkably little changed for Josh and Pioneer One.

As once put (paraphrased) by the writer J. Michael Straczynski (The ChangelingBabylon 5): Imagine a mountain range from afar. Imagine getting closer and closer to it. Certain details begin to appear that you didn’t see before. What appeared to be one giant peak from a distance is actually one peak behind another. It’s the same mountain range that you saw at the beginning but your perception of it changes as you go through it. You discover a short cut that wasn’t apparent at the beginning.

Nick Buzzell often finds people trying to fit their story to a format, rather than the other way around. Today, you don’t need TV to create viewership or advertising revenue — content is king. Why make TV content that has to be in fixed half hour blocks when the web has no rules? If you saw AMAZING content that was five minutes long, will you remember that it was hilarious and entertaining? Or will you be upset that it wasn’t in a 30 min format?

People often think that celebrity personalities are the answer when a show concept isnt taking off. While its true that they can bring some “mainstream” viewership, there’s only real value if their character works. For example, compare the difference in show quality between ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians‘ (real characters and drama have led to multiple seasons and spinoffs.) vs ‘The World According to Paris’ (poor viewership, and general lack of entertainment)

Josh adds that famous people generally don’t come for free. When working quickly and on a tiny budget like Pioneer One, they worked outside of the SAG and wouldn’t really have been able to afford the minimum day-rate. Its the difference between operating a union-run factory and an independent one.

Finally, you have to shoot/edit/produce it

Once you have your idea, your general story, and the people pulled together that are needed to make your content, you have to make it do.

Josh and his team were prepped to do all the production themselves, and got to it. They shot all the scenes, and dealt with all the moving parts. There’s people, locations and schedules, lots of money is spent to for food/travel/equipment/props, etc. It’s also the part of the process, for Josh, where you have to make the most compromises. Things that you wrote down or that you planned for can all of a sudden fall apart in a single day.

The weather can change, you can lose a venue, the cops can arrest your star. But you plan as much as you can and hope for the best.

The whole show really comes together in post-production. Editing can completely make or break the show, no matter how good the script was or how good the footage is. A single frame too long or too short can affect your perception of a moment. And we agonize over these details.

Once it’s edited together, every shot is manipulated. The color is corrected and graded (for shots to match one another, and then the overall look adjusted to create a mood or a look) and there are usually a good number of visual effects shots. But most of them are invisible—things like erasing an actor’s taped marks on the floor that were never meant to be in the shot, or digitally compositing what’s supposed to appear on a computer of television monitor. It’s a lot of work.

For Nick Buzzell, this is where heroes are made. There is a visceral and often ineffable difference between amateur-stacked-Youtube videos and the masterful works of art that create a sublime emotional response. For most people who are not already pro-level videographers like Josh, this means turning to an expert like Nick for production. While you could, ostensibly, assemble your own crew of camera, editing, effects, and more — the end-to-end perspective and alignment of working with a pro shop results in better results, and often a lower cost to the producer (that’s you).

Where is this going? What’s the future of video content?

Josh has started work on the second season of Pioneer One (again, if you haven’t seen it, you should. (

Nick and folks at NBTV are doing some interesting things are are likely to really change the way we as consumers will interact with the world around us. Much of it is too top secret to mention, but I’ll put it this way. If you had to guess what kinds of projects a major content creator was into, what would you guess? Full length feature films? Prime-time sitcoms? commercials?

Think about this: new distribution systems have gained real traction recently (Hulu, Netflix, Youtube, Vodo and more) and will lean less and less on the legacy for content. Exhibit 1: Justin Beiber. The old system is rife with kings and their rules, whereas the web is unregulated and ripe for some wild-west action. As more content creators see digital as plan A rather than plan B, lots of interesting things will happen. As brands discover that they don’t need to merely be advertisers in this brave new world, even more interesting things will happen.

New-school creatives like Josh can harness (rather than fear) the power of BitTorrent to reach an estimated audience of over 8.75 MM people. Not bad for a show that cost less than $100K, entirely raised from its audience. Much better on costs and viewership than the TV production The World According to Paris.

Closing thoughts:

Like many hit-driven industries publishing, music labels, and even venture capital – tv and movie studios tend to take lots of guesses on products that they then hope for the best on. In a given year, $5B is spent on producing TV pilots with a 1% success rate.

What would happen to the industry if it was full of people like Josh, with the entrepreneurial spirit to do the testing step with $100K and their own initiative. Would we change the game? Would we still need the industry?

Many thanks to these guys for sharing their time and insight to help me pull this together.

Josh Bernhard is the creator and writer of dramatic series ‘Pioneer One’.
Nick Buzzell is the President of NBTV Studios.

This year, refuse to give up.

I’m not much of a runner. I used to run sprints, but any distance over 400m or so, and I would get blackout-intensity shinsplints. It was embarrassing. On occasion, I like to think of my self as an athlete, but the truth is that I spent much of life unable to run very far, tied down by paralyzing shinsplints.

I felt like Peter in this episode of Family guy

Two options really: give up, and stick to the segway, or else do some learning and figure out how to beat this thing. The body is a machine like any other, after all.

Faster than a speeding rent-a-cop

So I did some research. Shin splints are the result of shear strain, typically on the periosteum of your tibia (shin bone). If your calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) are much stronger than your “shin” muscles (Anterior tibialis) the contractions forced onto it each time your foot pronates can be very painful. Add to this a high-impact running style that encourages this movement and you’ve got a recipe for (painful) disaster.

The common solution to this is to get orthotics. Fancy pieces of plastic that you can stick into your shoe and medically adjust your walking style. Human beings evolved to run — the medical solution felt like I was somehow cheating myself.

Bear with me for a second. This post is not about running.

It seemed there were two paths to a solution: Strengthen the weak muscles in my leg, and change the way I run.

The new exercises added about 5 minutes to my workouts, and changing the way I run took about a month of really trying. (details at the end of this post)

The result: Now, I stop running only when I get bored. No shinsplints. All it took was an attempt at calfsplints.

This is my advice to people when they tell me they’re stuck — whether that means writer’s block, or a sticking point in a sale, or a creative conundrum in their product. Break down your problem into its simplest parts, and try the exact opposite of what you’re doing.

I’ve seen too many people give up on easier obstacles than this one.

This year, refuse to give up.



— Sidebar: details on my cure to shinsplints

This part is about running. I’m not a doctor or a runner — just a guy who isn’t afraid to try something.

Issue 1: Bone periosteum shear due to strength mismatch between my calf and my tibialis muscle strength.

Solution: Strengthen the muscle. I did mainly two exercises for this — which I found to be most accessible.

Standing Toe Flexion: Pretty simple. Stand at the edge of a stair (or any edge) and move yourself from having your heel below the stair to standing on your tippy-toes.

Do this:

Toe Flexion

Seated Dorsiflexion: If your gym has a place to do weighted calf raises, use it. Instead of the typical calf raise motion, where you would raise the weight with your toes, point your heel and lift the weight by pointing your toes all the way back.

Do this:


Issue 2: Heavy impact running style that encouraged a high shear movement.

Solution: Run smarter. Human beings evolved devices perfectly suited to the run – our feet.

If you look at the way barefoot runners run and the way your typical recreational jogger runs, you will immediately notice two differences. Barefoot runners land each step on the ball of the foot, usually softly cushioned at the knee. “Modern” runners, coddled through life on sneakers with thick and cushiony soles land hard on the heels, with very little cushioning from the outstretched knee.

So I ditched my super comfy running shoes for much more basic ‘barefoot’ shoes. I was among the first people I know to wear the now super-popular Vibram 5-fingers everywhere. And I learned to run in them.

— Sidebar’s Sidebar:

My good friend Laura (somewhat famous for being the youngest woman to run a marathon in every United State) knows a thing or two about running. Her advice for life or running, barefoot or not is similar: take issues and break them down, tackle them one at a time.

“I wanted to keep running 10 miles a week, which was a super easy goal if I thought of it as 1-2 miles a day. Now, when I wake up late, I can ALWAYS get in one mile. and it’s changed my mentality from “I will only go out to run if it’s going to be a long intense workout to every 1/2 mile gets me closer to my goal”

Her post on this gets right to the point: When 10 miles (or 10 sales, or 10 pictures, or 10 lines of code) seem like too many — just run them two at a time.

Wild Idea Wednesdays: JetBoatCycle

What does the perfect vehicle look like to you?

To me, it dodges traffic like a motorcycle, soars in the sky, and skips waves like Diddy in a tux.

A Jet-boat-cycle. If that’s not crazy enough — how about this: I think it’s possible. AND – possible to make commercially available for < $100K.

Amphibious seaplanes have been around for a while, so lets assume that making them reasonably functional as boats is as simple as tweaking the skids/hull and adding an engine.

The remaining question is: Can we make a vehicle that is within US FAA light-sport classification (no two-year pilot school necessary) and compactly runs on the road?

Some stanford folks think so.

I think I know what I want for my birthday this year.

Getting meta on business model: MODELCRAFT

Business Plan: Collect underpants...profits!

There are a lot of startups out there that don’t make a lot of sense as businesses. That’s not what this post is about — after all, a great product and clean execution can often trump less-than-ideal models. However, when we’re talking about a small team with limited time, chasing wild geese in different directions can have a precious cost.

I’ve been asked a lot recently to put my apparently legend(wait for it)dary whiteboard skill to help people focus their efforts, and came up with the slide below in the process.

I’ve used this to help guide friends away from the ledge, and to inspire new ideas for projects that I may bring to life one day. The thought is that a successful business must do at least one of these things well, and great businesses often do well a full path from discovery to transaction.

The basic theory is that across categories and customer groups, a customer must discover a product, do some analysis (even if for a split second), decide that they want it, and then pay for it. A business can facilitate just one or all of the above. In each specific case, there are strategic tradeoffs to how these things come together — and that, my friends, is Modelcraft.

I’ll put down a few of my favorites:

Apple App Store:

Apple sells a bunch of cool products, obviously. But the App Store platform is interesting in ways that the phone/pad/mac businesses are not. They get people involved, and turn out some really interesting nuggets of software. The Apps themselves are curated – you have to apply to get in – and nearly half of their big advertisements are for apps or the app store. Reviews are encouraged, and many are available for free or in light versions. At an impulse price point, you can easily go overboard without noticing it, and even though lots of people write apps, Apple collects all the money.

Netflix Streaming:

Netflix has two main products: the discs and instant streaming. This is about the streaming. I’ll treat the iphone/ipad and other ways of delivering the streaming as the same thing for a moment.

They’re an aggregator — and do a lot of work getting content from studios and other content owners. The movies are reviewed by millions of users — and instant playback means you can try watching something for a bit before really deciding if you choose to. Besides, movies are movies — no surprises in what you’re getting. Since picking a new movie is very easy, and doesn’t cost anything when you’re already signed up, you can do it on impulse — you’re already paying (or can now choose to) for a subscription.

Don’t even get me started on the Qwikster fiasco.

New York Times Web:

The Times is a well known brand, but for a while, struggled with their web edition. Every single article is something of an advertisement for the service, and you can read a bunch for free. To many people, the news is objectively useful, especially as it relates to the world and its opportunities. There’s real FOMO here too, as not receiving the right news in a timely fashion is as much a liability. Once you’re signed up, no need to pay again, you’re on the subscription.

Is this perfect? Of course not. Business are nuanced and tender things. However putting down what you’re trying to do and really looking at it rationally might spark new ideas or save you from expensive mistakes.

Do with it what you will. I’m out!

How to read this chart: This section has more detail on each of the components of the Modelcraft chart.

Step 1: Discovery — if people don’t know about your product, they can’t buy it.

  • Advertising – The product is seen in ads and discovered the old-school way
  • Press – people learn through mentions in the press or stories about the benefits of the product
  • Live/Events – A human interaction delivers an introduction to the product. This includes parties and other fun stuff.
  • Social – Customers share the product with their friends, typically through a social network and typically incentivized or otherwise designed by the company.
  • Curated – Part of the value being offered includes a creative cut on a subset of products available in the category.
  • Aggregated – Part of the value being offered includes an expanded selection of products in and around the category, typically with searching or filtering to help discover a particular product.

Step 2: Analysis — Why is the product great? There are many ways to find out.

  • Reviews – People consider the product by reading the thoughts of people that have bought or tried it already.
  • Trial – The product is available for free (usually in some limited way) to get people to see that they want it
  • Social – People can ask their friends what they think of the product (like ‘reviews’ but from people they know)
  • Experts – Thought leaders in the category or in the customer group offer their endorsement or expert critical review.
  • Value – When products create tangible or objective benefits, the cost/benefit leads to a value-driven analysis
  • Utility – When a product is itself useful for some kind or work or activity, its usefulness is considered
  • Coolness Factor – Sometimes, stuff is just hot. Great design, trend, pop-culture and more can lend a product coolness

Step 3: Decision Components — with all the facts in place, how does the customer decide?

  • Impulse/Gut – Usually reserved for small/inexpensive items, the right placement and positioning can create fast purchase decisions
  • Fear of Missing Out – Limited availability or exploding deals can create urgency to buy
  • Unique/Standard – Depending on the customer, having a product that is so different can be a decision factor; for others, having something very normal can do the same.
  • Need – When a product solves a known and current issue, legitimate need is a factor
  • Price – When something’s a good deal — it’s a good deal.

Step 4: Point of Transaction — Once you have the yes, where does the cash go?

  • Brand – The brand that produces the product takes the money.
  • Multi-brand – A retailer who is not the brand is reselling it
  • Affiliate – A third party is neither the brand nor a reseller – but are affiliate to the product
  • Peer – People can buy from each other
  • Subscription – People choose to buy once, but future transactions happen automatically

How does your model look? Feel free to download and use this. I know it isn’t perfect, but I’ve found it useful. Would happily take any feedback on ways to make it better.Modelcraft (PowerPoint)


Top 5 Lessons Learned from Boardwalk Empire

I just got through Boardwalk Empire. It was all the things that the critics and fans say about it: entertaining, gratuitous, spectacular, and perhaps a little dark. However, I also found it instructive. I don’t mean literally of course (right guys?) but rather metaphorically when applied to my life as an entrepreneur, a thinker, and a friend to my friends. Perhaps you’ll agree with me, but if not, see #5 below.

Before you write off this whole exercise as ‘just a TV show’, keep in mind that there are some genuinely great teachers involved: Martin Scorcese, Terrence Winter, and much of the actual history that inspired the story.

Without further ado, the top 5 lessons learned from Boardwalk Empire:

5. Chumps come and go, but bosses are forever

One of the most basic surface-level observations is that there’s a big difference between the town plebes (who live in modest houses, wear modest clothes, and eat modest food) to the contenders that rub elbows with bosses and are trying to climb up in the world. Thats all good stuff: when in doubt, aspire to greatness. However, of those who are trying to play he big boys’ game, many are chumps. Total chumps. Chumps lose sight of the big picture, of the people that are important, and of the consequences to their actions. On the boardwalk, that will get you shot or screwed. Even while Hague is on the opposite side of the table to Nucky, he offers his perspective: “Guys like Edge come and go. Bosses like us are here to stay.” The real life takeaway: great people operate with great perspective.

4. Always take good advice (but only good advice)

Everytime someone recommends killing someone on the boardwalk, the recommendation is acted upon. (see: Nucky, Horowitz, Jimmy, The Commodore, Chaulky, etc). It doesn’t always work due to #1, below — but that’s a different story. The takeaway is to surround yourself with people you can trust see # 2, below, and if you do that right, you should also respect the perspective provided by your advisers. The converse is also true, as finally proven by Jimmy. The takeaway: creating a poorly selected roundtable can create advisors who are not really looking out for you, resulting in downfall.

3. Always offer more than you take (but remember to take)

As we observe Nucky in action. We see again and again that even though he’s a gangster, classically corrupt politician, and racketeer — he never turns down a favor, and gives away money like candy. But he’ll take too, when the opportunity strikes. The $1MM price tag of bailing out AR may have flown by the modern viewer — but before the gold standard fell off and with sharply lower general costs of living, that’s more than $25MM in purchasing power today. Well played, Nucky. Interesting that he is later lectured by AR to be patient and opportunistic. The takeaway: be as generous as you can, and wait for the opportune moment to take what’s yours.

2. Value trust above all else

One of the main differentiators between chumps and bosses is that bosses are true to their word (whether what they’ve promised is good or bad is a different question) while chumps are caught scheming and backstabbing blatantly. The people that bosses allow themselves to rely on – Chaulky White, Daugherty the AG, Capone, Luciano and even Jimmy (until he starts over reaching) have relationships built on trust and cemented through mutual favor debts. Or, if you’re AR, take our life insurance policies against your staff. Total boss. The takeaway: you’re only worth your word. Protect it’s value and expect the same of others.

1. You cannot take down a boss (but the boss can take down anyone)

Each time one of the major bosses faces a major adversity (Rothstein and his World Series indictment, Nucky and his mutiny, Horowitz vs Jimmy, Hague with Senator Edge, Torio vs the Greeks, Chaulky vs the Klan), they are given the chance to show why they are indeed a true boss. They show persistence, resourcefulness, creativity, and shrewd understanding of what the people around them want. In fact, in each of the major challenges above, the boss not only comes out on top, but creates one or more strong allies in the process. The takeaway: stay strong when things look their darkest. If you’re a true boss, you’ll come out stronger on the other side. 

And if not, at least you made room for the rest of us.

My thanks to my Clothes Horse cofounder Dave Whittemore who inspired a discussion that inspired this post.