aaron swartz

Aaron Swartz left us today. I didn’t know him, but it’s been affecting all the same. I can’t think of the last time a stranger’s passing filled me with such loss.

When I think about Aaron, I think about that first year of Y Combinator. Paul Graham and those powerful essays. I was still in school at Wisconsin then, but I knew what I had to do. I didn’t have the courage or the passion to drop out of school like Aaron did. This was back in the formative years of what would be branded Web 2.0. Back when Tim O’Reilly talked about creating more value than you capture and you really felt like you could be part of something special.

The life Aaron lived was, I think, in many ways a life I aspire to live. He cared deeply and wrote persuasively about things that really matter and distinguished himself by actually working on them. I remember reading his blog post just after reddit was acquired. He woke up to find more money in his bank account than he’d ever seen before. Yet money didn’t drive or excite him. He had a larger purpose.

Here’s a motivating thought: in twenty-six years of life, Aaron may have done more good for this world than I will do in my lifetime. He will be missed.

on jan 12, 2013

it will all be better tomorrow

Every once in awhile I’ll wake up and decide it’s time to clean. Wash my desk. Clean the computer screen. Do laundry. Organize my papers. It’s a mad rush of exertion and by the time it’s over I’m often literally sweating. But it’s done and I can sit down at my nice clean desk and finally start to think about getting some work done. Boy was that worth it.

Work is like this too. For an engineer who’s obsessed with product, operations tasks are the worst. It’s just like cleaning your apartment, except you’re moving stuff around on the servers instead. This is necessary of course, so you do it, just like you take a day off to pay taxes and to settle accounting. It sucks, but you slog through it because that’s the only thing to do. Once you’re done you can finally sit down at your desk and think about all those fun and challenging projects you’ve been brainstorming all the while.

No matter how satisfying and complete you feel after finishing these tasks, you’re never really done. It may be tomorrow or it may be next week, but you’ll eventually have to do them again. That’s life, lots of repetitive tasks. If you’re always waiting for the next thing, you’re missing the only thing that matters.

Like these tasks, this piece of advice needs repeating from time to time as well. And now that I’ve remembered it, it will all be better tomorrow.

on feb 15, 2012

on screwing up and startups

The latest privacy outcry involves some of the more beloved tech companies. Path, Instagram, Hipster, and others have been called out for accessing the personal information of contacts from the address book on your phone. I’m sure many more will be uncovered by the end of the night.

Users seem to have a few different concerns with what’s going on, all of which are legitimate. First, there’s the question of storing this data and then having it potentially exposed by hackers. Along with this is the issue of using the actual data rather than hashing it or sending it plaintext over http. Maybe what people are most upset about is that they somehow feel this was done unknowingly and without their permission. Lastly are the people who just don’t trust that it will be used appropriately, which likely it won’t since that’s relative and it’s impossible to act within everyone’s definition.

It’s clear there are lots of people doing these things. In Dave Morin’s response, he even says “This is currently the industry best practice.” The people doing this are people that I know, people who aren’t malicious. They’re people who are concerned with the experience you have with their app and these decisions are made with the intent of improving it.

So if the criticisms are legitimate, there were plenty of good suggestions to fix it, and the people at fault aren’t malicious and entirely self-serving, why does this sort of thing happen? I would argue these problems are endemic to startups and the result of how they must operate. In the general case, they are unavoidable.

Startups have one option: move incredibly fast. That necessarily means not getting a chance to think everything through. This is true for product, communication, and — probably most often sacrificed — legal and accounting. It’s not possible. You either get comfortable with the idea that most things you’ll do at a startup will never be done as well as you’d like them to be or you move on. Focus like crazy on the things that matter and cut corners with the rest. Apologize when you screw up. Make stuff happen while there’s still money in the bank or you’re going home.

Startups are filled with good people who are working incredibly hard to improve things. On the consumer web, we succeed only when you do. That may sound cheesy, but it’s absolutely true. Everyone feels bad when they screw up. Mistakes are never intentional, but mistakes and failing are the natural result of the way we must operate in order to succeed.

on feb 7, 2012

even great products depend on customer service

Jess bought the machine to make cappucinos. It was an easy decision. Do you know how much people pay for those delicious specialty drinks at the coffeeshop? When you’re drinking one of those every day of the week and a few during the weekends, making the numbers add up for ownership is easy, with plenty of padding for those times you just need an excuse to get out of the office.

The Pixie arrived in a modern, sexy package. We opened the box like little kids, taking the parts out one by one. Jess was delighted to be the newest member of the Nespresso Club. I pictured myself lounging on an Eames chair sipping espresso.

There was a set of beautifully designed materials enclosed. A sampling of their espressos was inside too – the lifeblood of the machine, bundled like an electronics product with the batteries it needs to turn on. This was the first time I’d seen those shiny capsules of espresso, as colorful and varied as the tastes they contained. We followed the guide, which was more like a presentation, to making our first espresso. It tasted great. The machine looked great in the apartment. They had put a lot of thought into the first time experience of their product. I was excited and feeling validated in the purchase.

That’s when we hit a snag. The Nespresso milk frother she’d purchased with the espresso maker, the fruit of which would deepen the sensory experience of the espresso (and of course allow her to mimic those intricate designs atop the drink that the barista prepares), was D.O.A. Dead on arrival. A bummer for sure, but this was a company that had put a lot of care into their product and its presentation and they had earned a break.

I dialed support. The woman on the other end asked for our member number then asked a few questions as I explained what was wrong. They would send a replacement. Before I hung up, she reminded me that the product would need to be returned within 30 days or there would be an invoice for the replacement they were sending. After that, I googled around and realized there were lots of other people who had problems with their frothers. Their product, despite its outward appearance and all of their well thought out marketing, was flawed.

Fuck that. No apology. No admitting that they sometimes had issues and were working hard to fix them. No offer to try some of their new flavors for free to make up for the inconvenience. Instead, the call had ended with a reminder that there may be an additional charge. Talk about a long fall. Everything they’d done so far, all the money and time they’d spent, to get me excited to tell my friends had backfired. Now I just had a bad taste in my mouth.

In our new technology-enabled culture, no amount of advertising can make up for poor customer service. Customers now have a powerful voice. Just ask Netflix in their Qwikster debacle or Susan G. Komen for the Cure after they were forced to reverse their decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Luckily, the consumer web has largely realized the power of customer service as marketing. There’s even a company, Zappos (and a book), built on this idea who went on to become a massive success story.

Your product is only as good as your customer service. That’s why your great product – the one that’s of course beautifully crafted, saves people time and money, with a wonderful personality and a compelling story – will all fall apart without it.

on feb 5, 2012