Preparing for luck

The Boston Globe has a remarkable story with behind-the-scenes details that shed light on Mitt Romney’s loss. Throughout the story, one clear theme emerges: the more prepared party in any situation consistently has more luck thrown their way. Here are a couple examples that illustrate this point from the story.

Example 1: The First Debate

The Preparation

We learn that Mitt Romney put a lot of thought into preparing for the first debate–enough to give his preparation a code name(The Manhattan Project). Romney scheduled 16 aggressive rehearsals. Obama, meanwhile, skipped on several of his rehearsals.

The Luck

Shortly before the first debate, Romney’s 47% video leaked that many predicted would doom his campaign. Fortunately for Romney, Obama did not mention the 47% figure even once during the debate. More importantly, Obama appeared tired and annoyed while Romney came across as someone who was “articulate, thoughtful, and had a plan.” The end result? Romney walked away with a 9 point bump in ratings.

Example 2: Election Day Technology

The Preparation

We learn that the Obama 2008 campaign experienced near-catatrophic lapses with their technology on election day. So the Obama 2012 campaign made it a point to have multiple dry runs to reduce the chances of last-minute technical troubles:

Narwahl and Gordon would be tested repeatedly in exercises that Obama’s team called “game day.” Every imaginable failure would be thrown at the systems — hacker attacks, database meltdowns, Internet failures — and the team would be challenged to write up a manual for how to deal with each ­disaster. It was, they said, more fun than the fantasy war game Dungeons & Dragons.

The Luck

Obama’s technology operation seemed to have run smooth by most accounts. On the other hand, Romney’s election day volunteer application called the Orca was a well-known disaster. What is more interesting is that it was a disaster that folks inside the campaign saw coming:

Moffatt played catch-up from the start. He had 14 people working for him in the primaries and then, around May 1, he submitted a general election plan that required at least 110 people and would eventually have 160. Obama was far ahead. Moffatt recalled his assign­ment in daunting terms: “Can we do 80 percent of what the Obama campaign is doing, in 20 percent of the time, at 10 percent of the cost?”

Once again, the prepared party(in this case, the Obama Campaign) also was the lucky party. You should read the entire article by Michael Kranish.

My Mental Calendar – Part 1

We are trained to spend so much time managing our calendar. But I really envy people who can jump from meeting to meeting, every half-hour and to be able to do it effectively. I cannot manage that, at least at this stage of building a company. Why, you ask? The thing is, I do have the 30 minutes that you need for the meeting on my Physical Calendar. However, any meeting leaves significant residue in my mind before and after it, particularly if I were to do it correctly. This is the part most folks do not account for.

What do I mean “if I were to do it correctly”? Well, if all you need is my presence for 30 minutes, I can physically make it. However, I may not necessarily be present with you in my mind. And that will really suck for everyone because my insights would likely be garbage. I would have made it to the meeting physically but in my mind I would still be working on the technical challenge I left behind at my desk.

Some may argue “but you had time to browse facebook but not attend our meeting.” Absolutely. Here’s why: facebook does not require much mental focus; facebook doesn’t get frustrated when I become absent-minded and doze off in la-la land working through some problem. Facebook isn’t a human, nor does it require much mental effort to engage with. However, answering a phone call or replying to a text requires mental effort even if physically it only takes seconds.

This gives rise to the idea of maintaining a Mental Calendar versus a Physical Calendar. Much of our society seems to revolve around the Physical calendar. When we ask “do you have a few minutes?,” we are usually talking about the physical availability. But we are not taking into account if we can make it to the meeting and think clearly, add value and not walk out having made dumb decisions. All of those things are much more likely if I purely schedule meetings based on my Physical Calendar and not the Mental Calendar.

I am curious how common this is. Are some people able to much quickly switch threads in their mind? Are some problem more easier to switch between than others? I have some thoughts on it I’d like to think through and write more about.

Instinctively, I think this is much more common than we think. That people undertaking tasks that require long-term, in-dept focus have a Mental Calendar that is filled up by default by the task at hand. I think people like Charlie Munger function more with a Mental Calendar than the Physical:

Charlie and I first met at a mutual friend’s house while I was working on investments in LA after graduating from college. The first impression he gave me was “distant” — he often appeared to be absent-minded to the presence of his conversation partners and was, instead, very focused on his own topics. But this old man spoke succinctly; his words full of wisdom for you to mull over. [Source] (emphasis mine)

Reasoned Decision Making

A top complaint that I hear from non-founder friends about founders’ is their knack to constantly change their mind. Having been on both sides of the fence, I can relate to both the founders and employees. Ultimately, I realized that the problem is less so the constant change and more so with the style of communicating new decisions.

As a founder, priorities can change in a heartbeat, especially in early stages. This is further complicated if you have investors and partners because when you are still in the “lost” phase of a start-up, you tend to be much more receptive to drastic change in direction. But it is just as important to not only communicate your new decision effectively but also keep a pulse of how well your new decision is resonating with them.

The most damaging thing a founder can do is deny that he is revising a prior decision. I am not totally sure why founders do it. My hunch is that some do it because of our human tendency to appear correct and some do it simply because they are unaware of their prior decision. In either case, I think the founders are setting up the team and themselves for a huge failure.

Personally, I try to be very explicit when I change my mind about something. I may straight up say that “One week ago, I said I wanted to build blah, today, I am changing my decision and I will explain why.” Note that this may seem slightly dry but there are plenty of meetings that I have walked out of when simple and dry reasoning and clarity was what people wanted instead of a mixed, unclear message.

In addition to being clear about going back on a decision, I like to think of the top 3-5 variables that led to the decision. Then, if I need to go back on that decision, I will bring up those 3-5 variables based on which the earlier decision was made and point out what changed since. Often, a new variable could be introduced. Or our value for an existing variable proved to be inaccurate.

Let’s take a common example that plays out at start-ups across the world daily. You find yourself in a meeting with your team members to announce that you are dropping Product A to focus on Product B. You focus on how awesome the team is, how this new plan will be successful and how this is a great market. Meanwhile, the team is thinking “yeah–but I’ve heard this same speech last week” and “why can’t we make up our mind!!.”

A more methodical way to communicate a shift from Product A to Product B would be to begin by stating the assumption that led the team to work on Product A. Point out what the team has learned about Product A since. Next, point out the precise data points(conversations, stats, observed behavior etc.) that convinced you that Product A should be dropped. Now that you have laid the foundation, you can state your precise data points that lead you to believe that Product B is the way to go. I would also go out of my way to point out the potential risks to be aware of as we pursue Product B. This instills confidence in your team members that you have really thought through this decision. Finally, I encourage team members to poke holes in my reasoning. Let them rip it apart now and perhaps even compel you to make a few adjustments to your assumptions.

At the end of this process, everyone can walk away with a decision they understand, even if they disagree with parts of it. That’s much better than delivering an unreasoned or confusing decision wrapped in mushy words.

Square’s scary and impressive Identity Confirmation Screen

Once you give Square a few basic pieces of information such as your name, it seems to know a lot more about you–almost magically. In the screen below, at no point did I tell Square which state I lived in between 1997 and 1999. But it knows, likely from some public records database they have subscribed to. And that makes it scary and impressive.

This makes me very curious about how they calculate confidence levels before making the conclusion that the “Zaid Farooqui” who is signing up is the same “Zaid Farooqui” in databases they subscribe to. Almost certainly they must have edge cases when someone is misidentified and asked a question on the basis of another person’s information. I’d hate to be that guy, wouldn’t you?

Seemless really understands customer behavior

Since I settled on my role of being the Product guy at our start-up, I can feel my awareness rise for all–things-product. After a while, you begin seeing little things all around you that is a work of someone who is an excellent Product person or team. These are small things that say a lot about how well the people who built the product understand the users of the product. A few nights ago, I saw this little note sticking out of a fax machine at a historic pizza shop on the Upper West Side.

Upon googling, I found a great piece by Austin Carr on Seamless’ success:

Zabusky describes the infrastructure the company had to put in place to accept orders via fax machine still. “When you place your order online, it goes through our system, gets sent automatically to their fax server, and prints out,” he says. “About a minute later, an automated phone call comes to the restaurant saying, ‘You have a Seamless order. Can you please confirm?’ The order print-out provides a randomly generated two-digit code that the restaurant has to key back into the system, so we know when the order has been confirmed.” If the order is not confirmed, a Seamless rep will call the restaurant directly to make sure the order was indeed received. From there, the confirmation is pushed back to Seamless, which in turn pushes out an email confirmation to the customer, who sees none of this friction.

“We’re still communicating with a lot of fax machines–and believe me, that’s not because we want to,” Zabusky says. “Our restaurant sales team goes in, and tries to sell the most scaleable solution, which is point-of-sale (POS) integration or a computer terminal. And they’ll say, ‘No, we don’t want to pay for that. We don’t need that. Just get us up and running tomorrow.’ And we’ll say, ‘Oh, you have a dedicated fax line? We’ll have to pipe it through there.’

An umbrella that doesn’t kill

Walking on a rainy day on the streets of New York City, you find yourself dodging a barrage of umbrellas. I hesitate to call them by such an innocent word as an “umbrella”. That is too nice of a word for an object with multiple pointed edges sticking out, sometimes less than an inches away from bystanders.

Apparently I am not the only one who feels this way about the umbrella:

Mark Wilson writes:

In the middle of a windy Chicago thunderstorm, I often find myself trudging to the store like Captain America facing a barrage of bullets, perpetually fearful of losing my last line of defense against wetness.

Mark goes on to introduce us to an invention of a couple of Taiwanese students called the Rain Shield Umbrella. Beside feeling much more natural, it may also save a few bystanders from going blind.

Twitter’s @JOHN Problem

The Problem
I was lucky enough to get on Twitter soon after it launched. One of the rewards was my twitter handle matching my exact first name(@zaid).  While “zaid” isn’t the most common first name, there are enough people with my name and even more people who are friends with people named “Zaid”.  And that is where the problem begins.

Twitter continues to be flooded with new users. One of the first things you learn as a new user is the use of the “@” symbol to mention others in your tweets. Unfortunately, many users fail to mention their friends by their precise username, instead choosing to simply use their name. This results in people like me being flooded with mentions from twitter users’ with friends also named Zaid.  Here’s how this problem looks like in reality:


To be clear, this is problematic for more than just me. It fails for three different people. First, the original person sending the tweet thinks their friend Zaid will see their tweet, not realizing that they won’t because an incorrect username was used. Second, the Zaid for whom the tweet was intended won’t get to see the mention because his username was not used. Third, my own twitter mentions are full of noise…and tweets not intended for me.

Possible Fixes
The question is, how can Twitter ascertain with confidence that a “@WRONGJOHN” problem exists in a tweet? Here’s a proposal…

(1) At the time someone publishes a tweet, look up all the usernames mentioned

(2) Figure out if the user has any prior interaction with each username that is mentioned. Now, I will qualify what I mean by interaction…

(a) An interaction can be user A visiting user B’s profile. Even if user A has visited user B’s twitter profile, we can pretty confidently conclude that if user A mentions user B, that it is the intended user.
(b) An interaction can be user A seeing user B’s tweet appear in his feed. If user A’s twitter feed recently had someone else mention user B, then you can be pretty confident that when user A mentions user B, it is probably the right person.
(c) A non-interaction is if user A mentions user B without having any prior interaction with user B.  When the above users mention my username, I really doubt they have every seen my twitter feed OR seeing me appearing in their feed.

(3) Twitter should figure out if user A has had any interaction with user B and if they haven’t, to show a popup of some sort to make sure that user B is indeed the right “Zaid” that they wish to reach. Here’s a mockup of what this could look like:

Ceiling-mounted showerheads

After one experience with a ceiling-mounted shower, I am appalled that this has not become the standard.

The ceiling-mounted showers don’t seem to be something you can simply plug in as an afterthought. They need to be planned for from the beginning of the construction. There is an alternate hack known as the ceiling shower arm which I’d imagine gives a similar but not the same feel to the ceiling-mounted shower head. The difference lies in the point of the water fall. The ceiling-mounted shower head is literally raining water from the ceiling where as the wall-mounted ceiling shower arm is shooting water from a similar place as your typical shower head.

Noise per post on google+

I’m always intrigued by how the Big 3(fb, twitter and g+) display each user post within their product.

I rarely find myself on Google+. Personally, it is a scary product for me because it always seems to want information out of me for purely selfish reasons, without providing me a clear benefit.

Tonight, I did find myself on google+ from a link on Hacker News. At the end of it, I thought I’d click around. Before I knew it, I found myself staring at this point:

If you are a facebook addict like me, just a quick glance at this point makes a few things stand out, namely the presence of the plus symbols when referencing “Good Morning America” and the hashtag before “internet2012″.

It made me wonder what a similar post would look like on facebook. So I actually tried to make a similar post.  And it appears similar to this:

Notice the absence of “+” symbols and other noise present on posts on Google+ and Twitter. Twitter is even bigger failure than Google for the noise in their posts because of their refusal to translate usernames into names.

I have always felt that one of the keys to facebook’s success has been their willingness to not shove their own branding for the sake of it and willing to adjust when they screw up. For example, the facebook “poke” feature used to be a big deal during their early days. You could see facebook taking pride in that feature and mentioning it in their PR efforts early on.  The poke feature continues to live on facebook but it more so as a novelty than anything that is shoved in your face.

My advice to Google would be to do away with the “+” before the names. Sure it may take away from their branding efforts but if they feel the idea of “plussing” things is ever going to go mainstream, good luck to them. Instead, they should take a lesson from Facebook. Facebook could have easily chosen a term like “Poke” instead of “Like” to strengthen their branding but they didn’t. Why? Because facebook understands that when people see things they like, they are more likely to click on a link that says “Like” than “Poke”. Similarly, Google should understand that when people read names of people in a post, reading the “plus” symbol adds no additional value. Moreover, it adds negative value. It is distracting. And it makes me conscious of the fact that I am on a niche social network struggling to find its identity.

Google+ vs. Facebook Noise Per Post

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