Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Inc. Magazine, February 2010

I subscribe to a lot of magazines... Reader's Digest, Inc., Fast Company, Consumer Reports. Lori tosses me the old Entertainment Weeklys when she's done so I can skim them (mostly for book suggestions and insider industry news). I really ought to also be reading Parents magazine. So, I have a giant stack next to my bed of unread magazines. Maybe when the kids are in college I'll be able to really attack the stack. Unless it falls over first and kills me. Actually, it's not that bad. But it is still a constant reminder to me of stuff to do.

Anyhow, I'm starting to really groove on Inc. I think I prefer it over Fast Company. More my style. As I read, I take notes. I thought I would share them here before I dispose of the magazine. If you work with me, you'll find it on the unofficial "free table." Apologies for the scribbles and notes and stuff.

Was a good issue and I thought I'd touch on a few things.

"A Little Less Conversation" by Joel Spolsky. I normally really agree with Joel and often go online to find the column to forward to people. However, not so much this month. Joel posits that we've lost the top-down-structure where the boss talks to those below him on the org but they don't talk to each other. His diagram (putting the boss at the center with the employees as spokes) suggests more of a command and control. His second diagram (a bunch of people around a circle, all of them interconnected representing everyone talking to everyone) is bad, he suggests. People shouldn't talk to other people. Well, Joel, you're wrong. Sort of.

First, they do. I don't know how many people I've seen get burned because they tell one person one thing and then they tell me something and both versions get back to me. People talk to people. Or at least nearly everyone talks to me. People who are plugging their ears, closing their eyes and singing "lalalala" are just asking for trouble.

On top of that, the collaborative model (think Facebook where anyone can be connected to anyone and there's no hierarchy) allows so much more rapid fire innovation and idea-spreading. We've even played with a model at work where there are no cubes - just big open workspaces where everyone ponies up to the table. I should bring in a picture. It's weird and not everyone likes it (and some aren't going to participate until dragged to the table) but it's also kind of amazing.

To a point. I had a chance to experience this Friday as we debriefed on an emergency project. There was a point where that broke down. A few people were inundated with requests, sometimes conflicting. And the process broke. What I think needs to be made is a distinction between the development phase and the work phase of a project.

At the beginning, the more people talk, the more ideas come flying out. But when it's time to settle and work -- the direction has already been determined -- then it's time to rever to the top-down command-and-control model. People need that stability, especially people who are producing, they need clear and consistent direction from the same person every time. Or at least a single designated person. And when conflicts arise, it needs to be very clear who they can turn to who will work on their behalf to resolve.

You've Been Yelped - a good look at how and why Yelp works, and how it got its start. Also, some stories of crazy business owners who didn't like being Yelped. Reading this (and then playing around with Yelp) leads me to believe that I could create a similar product for a niche that I guarantee Yelp will ignore and that I could make money at it. However, I have neither the time, the money or the programming chops, so I will continue to work for someone else. Good thing I really love that job. (I've always said that if I won the lottery it wouldn't change my employment status too much -- except that I wouldn't roll into the office until around 10 am daily.)

Lessons from a Blue-Collar Millionaire -- Nick Sarillo is awesome. The average restaurant has a 200% turnover in a year. This company's is closer to 20%. And profits are far greater. I love a story of a company that can do so right by its employees.

Some quotes: "Managers trained in command-and-control think it's their responsibility to tell people what to do. They like having that power. It gives them their sense of self-worth. But when you manage that way, people see it, and they start waiting for you to tell them what to do. You wind up with too much on your plate, and things fall through the cracks. It's not efficient or effective. We want all the team members to feel responsible for the company's success."

There are actually three forms of feedback at Nick's. The first is called a feedback loop and applies mainly to new employees. At the end of the shift, a trainer will ask, "What is one thing you did well, and -- if you could replay the tape -- what is one thing you would do to enhance your performance?"

Note to self: Need to get better at measuring and empowering people to make their own decisions. How do I slow down and make that happen? Need to share more of the "why"

Saul Griffith's House of Cool Ideas - Now, the not-wearing-shoes part doesn't groove with me at all, but otherwise, the idea of designing and prototyping stuff, in some cases, to simply shelve until the opportunity comes along... wow... that's not work, that's play.

Rounding Up Staff Ideas - How one company reinforces the idea that everyone's responsible for the future of the company and for being innovative and coming up with new ideas.

Using Viral Video to Boost Sales - Actually, there were some great lessons in here whether you wanted to use video or not. A company selling fulfillment robots made some great videos to help others show what they did to help potential customers better imagine how they could be helped. But the hidden gem of this article is that really engaged customers took it a step further and did some cool stuff themselves which helps show other potential customers what a great solution this company has because of how much they love the product (love being a customer). But, and this isn't part of the article, why, Kiva Systems, must you hide most of your videos behind a registration wall? Sigh. (There is at least one you can watch without turning over info to a salesperson.)

Using Crowdsourcing to Control Inventory - An online fashion company turns to its customers to vote for the next new products to sell. Keeps inventory down, gathers *amazing* feedback about exactly why people like or dislike things.

How to Get People to Change: Try a Little Hope and Optimism -- "[Look] for the bright spots. When you face a change situation, you're often demoralized and depressed. Instead of focusing on what isn't working, you need to shift people over to thinking, What have we done in the past that has been successful for us?"

The Way I Work: Paul English of Kayak -- "The engineers and I handle customer support. When I tell people that, they look at me like I'm smoking crack. They say, "Why would you pay an engineer $150,000 to answer phones when you could pay someone in Arizona $8 an hour?" If you make the engineers answer e-mails and phone calls from the customers, the second or third time they get the same question, they'll actually stop what they're doing and fix the code. Then we don't have those questions anymore. About a year ago, I bought a red telephone with a really loud ringer for the office. Whenever a customer calls the help number on our website, that phone rings. The engineers initially complained about it. They said, "That's so friggin' annoying!" And I'd say, "There's a really simple solution: Answer the friggin' phone and do whatever it takes to make that customer happy. Then hang up, unplug the phone, walk it down to the other end of the office, and plug it in down there."


"We have four monitors in the office where you can see real-time streaming information about the site -- how many visitors, how many click throughs. It also displays the last customer e-mail that came in and the photo of the employee who answered it."


A lot of companies have the "no assholes" rule. So if the greatest programmer ever is also a jerk, he's fired. Our rule is "no neutrals." So when the new guy walks down the hall, is my team drawn to him? Or do they divert their glance? If they divert their glance, we fire that person. I call it the hallway test, but it's more of a conceptual thing. The idea is when you put superstars together, you can ask, "What did you do today that excited the people around you and made them better at their jobs?" If you can't give examples, I don't want you here.

Other notes I jotted down while reading:

  • Check out Hootsuite (twitter client)
  • Check out
  • How do we get donors to talk about the joys of sponsorship? How do we move from Facebook to our main site? What (about our website or interacting with us electronically) would donors publicly criticize us for? Is that in any way shaping our future steps?
  • Need to get better at measuring and empowering the team to make their own decisions. How do I slow down and make that happen? Need to share more of the why.
  • Check out: "Mastery: The keys to success and...." George Leonard
  • Check out: "Fascinate: Seven triggers to...." Sally Hogshead