Data Addict

Startups, Self Quantification, and Internet Culture


Archive for December, 2011

Increase Your Productivity by Getting Busier

At the beginning of 2011, my work schedule was light. I could stop work on the startup early without stressing out, I took longer lunch breaks, and I spent the evenings recreating. I watched a bunch of movies that had been on my list for years, I caught up on correspondences, and I thought about and wrote more blog posts. I went to sleep when I wanted, woke up when the sun rose and generally lived it up. From the outside, I was living the lifestyle business dream, if only temporarily, while other projects wrapped up.

I was, however, deeply unhappy. After the first week or two, I found that watching a lot of movies at once was kind of boring, that I could correspond with others much faster than they could reply, and that it didn’t take long to write all the blog posts I had been planning. But much worse, I discovered that for me, being productive had a large impact on my happiness and I simply wasn’t efficient when I wasn’t busy. Without hard deadlines and time limits, coworkers and customers, it was always acceptable to dally and watch an episode of Community. Or stay up late reading Reddit. Or hit the snooze button more than once.

Just to be clear, I didn’t have motivation problems at first. I found that the less I had to do, the less I had to worry about using my time efficiently, and this led to a rapid decline in productivity. The whole slowdown process took less than 2 weeks.

Starting in the summer, work started picking up again. Even though I was working more than full time, I realized I was accomplishing more on my personal projects than I had when a two hour lunch break was no problem and my days ended at 4PM.

In short, I’ve found that the right kind of productivity (as in, working on projects/work that matters to you personally) tends to increase as you get busier. There is a linear relationship between how much you have to get done in a day and how much work will get done on personal projects.

There’s an old saying that goes “if you want to get a job done, give it a busy person.” This isn’t a new or revolutionary thought, but the inverse is both: “if you want to get a job done yourself, get busier.” I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve definitely found this to be true.

Have others found this to be true? If so, have you found any hacks that increase productivity even more?

Now’s a Good Time to Build an Inferior Product

Every morning I read the news highlights in the Wallstreet Journal and for months the news has been nothing but grim. People are without work, families are struggling to feed themselves, and for many people these are dark time. Perhaps worst of all, leading economic indicators show no end in sight.

But for all the bad news, the economy does still exist, and people continue to spend money to solve problems. Last Saturday night my fiancée and I tried to go out for dinner only to find that most of the Yelp-recommended restaurants within 20 miles had a 1-2 hour wait to get in. Similarly, back in September, I got mired in Labor Day shopping traffic for almost an hour around a nearby mall. The economy is tough, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a viable business.

I would suggest, however, that the current economic climate should inform the sort of product you build. In economics there are two broad categories of goods: normal and inferior. Normal goods are the kind you are probably most familiar with; they are goods whose demand rises with consumer incomes. Cars, smart phones, tailored clothing, and most web services fall into this category. Then there are inferior goods whose demand falls with rising income. Public transportation, landlines, and Wal-Mart clothing might be examples. The idea is simple: every consumer faces a price/quality decision, and as income rises, people tend to favor quality.

During recessions, however, the winning strategy for new businesses turns to inferior products. Groupon is an excellent example of an inferior product which has experienced runaway success [1]. Think about it, if you had more money than you knew what to do with, would it be appealing to restrict your purchasing choices only to what Groupon offered? If you are like most people, you would say “no.”

Put another way, find a way to save people time, money, or both. There are so many people today who are strapped for cash that if you can find a way to save them even a little bit, you have an appealing value add.

This is not to say that normal goods can’t succeed in 2011, just that I look around and see a dearth of compelling inferior goods. [2] So, to those of you looking to start companies in the near future, take a step back and at least consider making something people can proudly call inferior.

[1] I know that the Groupon IPO has been problematic and the coupon giant isn’t what its investor might otherwise like, but a valuation in the billions is still what I would consider a runaway success for a company less than three years old.

[2] While writing this, I couldn’t help but think that younger people in particular have trouble creating inferior goods. I think that there’s a whole blog post in that topic though, so I’ll save that for another day.

It’s Insanely Hard to Make a Kick-Ass iPhone App

It would be hard to find a self-respecting geek and technologist who disagrees with the phrase “the future is mobile.” All the coolest new gadgets are tablets and smartphones, all the biggest plays in content are on those devices, and at least according to Fast Company, the market dominance of the biggest tech companies depends on how you use that device in your pocket or backpack.

So we get it. Mobile is hot. Mobile is irreplaceable. And most importantly, mobile is the future. But this mobile future takes software for granted.

We at Skritter are learning that because we’re building a version of our app for iOS. We have found that there are so many apps that the they have been devalued to the point of monetary irrelevance [1]. That’s sad because a good app is a piece of art. The buttons, the interface, the streamlined backend, all the pieces of a finely-tuned app take so much time and energy to perfect that I wanted to write a post to call attention to the level of software perfection that most people have acclimated to without even knowing it. Here are three reasons why it’s insanely hard to make a kick-ass iPhone app:

1) System Constraints

You could say that Objective C is the problem, or put another way, the lack of >insert language< or >insert framework<. But the reason why developers are shackled to Objective C is to make sure processes finish in human time, and this is fundamentally a performance bottleneck in mobile hardware.

Skritter’s iPhone app is going to be great, but at core it is just an app to learn Chinese characters. Skritter won’t perform facial recognition in real time or allow you to edit movies or do any other mind blowing complex task. But it won’t run on anything less than an iPhone 3GS. Why? Because older phones have limited memory, newer versions of iOS brick the older phones, and news features are only available to developers on newer versions of iOS.

To put this into context, our “graphics” amount to particle effects that make the writing look cool. This isn’t a Hollywood production.

For a generation of coders accustomed to limitless managed memory, high-level programming abstractions, and thousands of deeply functional opensource libraries, mobile is a step back to the Byzantine world of Commodore 64s.

If you have built an app that doesn’t choke on graphics and feels responsive, you have accomplished an incredible challenge and my hat is off to you.

2) No Features

It’s not just that there are fewer pixels on mobile devices. User-software interaction paradigms are changing and simplifying. Photoshop’s submenus, window management, and setting screens afford that software package a level of feature depth I don’t believe can be achieved in a mobile environment no matter how sophisticated and intuitive UI conventions become.

Put another way, there is a terminal threshold of feature depth to an app and this limits the scope and usefulness of any one app. That’s not an intractable problem and the solution that has been embraced to date is app fragmentation. There will be separate Skritter Chinese and Japanese apps for this exact reason. But consider the logical extreme of this design trend: if you were to make Photoshop work on a mobile device, you would end up with several hundred micro-apps to do one thing in a transparent way.

So, if you are attempting to make a kick-ass iPhone app, you must make a lot of decisions that ultimately come down to “how little will my customers allow me to integrate into this thing?” Err on the side of simplicity and you might end up with a fart app. Go the other direction and you have a pile of unusable menus and sliders.

3) Extreme Polish

The app market is cruel, even moreso for the need to do a Hollywood launch. Because nobody has solved the discoverability problem in the app store [2], you need to launch big and magically figure out exactly what users want ahead of time. That last point is especially troublesome for people used to iteratively designing for the web. The road to app store success is littered with the corpses of apps that launched big but hadn’t fine-tuned their interfaces, didn’t have time to include that key feature users wanted, or just failed to make the app novel in some primal way.

Even the basic business sense of not overbuilding is turned on its head for mobile development. If you somehow manage to land that sweet TechCrunch article or New York Times acknowledgment, the app has to be perfect not just from an implementation point of view, but from a feature and context perspective as well. A perfectly implemented, compelling, novel app isn’t enough; you have to know that your customers, in particular, will agree about your choices.

There’s always another app for whatever you are doing, and that makes customers more picky too. The pressure to get it right the first time can be crushing.

So Get Insane and Start Building

I write all this not to discourage, but to uplift all those developers struggling with their mobile projects. It’s tough to make something good, let alone make something good that also happens to make enough money to warrant the effort. For those out there building apps of consequence, I want this to read as a note of enouragement: stick to it and overcome the difficulties I’ve written about above. The mobile future is depending on you.

[1] Don’t believe me? Ask a serious iOS developer how their in-app purchases are doing and you’ll find that the Farmville model of monetization is thriving.

[2] I know you can pay for app circle promotion, but for a small shop, the promotion is either cost prohibitive or low quality. The ecosystem is broken for smaller players.

Is Twitter Irrelevant?

At Skritter we have been working on our iPhone app for many months. Recently, Scott had the brilliant idea of imitating Minecraft’s Notch and post status updates in real time to keep people psyched and provide a window into the development process. Nick and I thought that was a great idea and Nick setup publish sync to cross-post content from Google+ to both Facebook and Twitter. We had never worked very hard to cultivate followings on any of those platforms, so we started with around 150 followers on Twitter, 345 subscribers to our company’s Facebook page, and 22 Google+ friends. The way publish sync works is we post our content to Google+ first. It is shared with friends and the 22 Skritter users currently on the platform. Our message is then copied to the SkritterHQ Twitter feed and the Skritter Facebook feed. It’s worth noting here that we have spent considerable effort promoting our Twitter feed, but not much promoting our presence on either Google+ or Facebook.

When we first started, we guessed that Twitter would provide us with the most engagement, Facebook (and certainly Google+) were added to this plan primarily because it was easy to do so and we had a presence on those networks already.

After 8 weeks and 59 status updates [1], we have 12 user comments on Google+, 12 responses on Twitter, and 50 user comments on Facebook. Since we didn’t really expect to get any responses on Google+ [2] and we were expecting to receive feedback on Twitter, the results have really challenged our expectations.

Facebook users were not only responding to our posts with more fervor, they were responding to each other and creating lively comment threads that fed the growing buzz around the iPhone app. Even the paltry 12 comments on Google+ produced high value conversations with customers.

I have to check myself here because I’ve never been convinced of Twitter’s value-add and this could be a prime example of confirmation bias. That said, this reminds of a comment that patio11 made almost exactly one year ago. He was responding to the following quote taken from a techcrunch article bemoaning location-based checkin services: “if you’re competing with Facebook in social networking and your name isn’t Twitter or Google, I’m sorry, but I don’t like your chances. Patio11′s response: “Twitter has done some amazing Jedi mind tricks to convince the media that it has a place in that sentence.

Are we doing this wrong, or does the emperor have no clothes?

[1] The goal was to post every day that Nick worked on the app. It turned out that he updated slightly less often.

[2] With an addressable readership that was 1/6 the size of our Twitter following, and based on an experimental social network, we didn’t expect much out of Google’s offering. Additionally, the Google+ account wasn’t a company account, it was just Nick’s personal account, which to our knowledge is only connected to a few die-hard technophiles and Skritter fans.