If you could do anything right now, what would it be?

…so what’s stopping you? Why aren’t you pursuing your dream?

Here’s the thing.

No one is going to give you permission. No one is going to hand you a golden ticket to do the thing you love.

If you want something, go get it. The world is waiting for you. Go pursue your dream.

Because really, what are you waiting for?

When You Say, “I’m a Perfectionist,” I Hear, “I Don’t Think I’m Good Enough.”

My good friend Sean Johnson recently shared a piece of advice his dad used to give him. It goes something like this:

"In life, you’ll always be juggling multiple balls at once. And, at some point, it’s a guarantee that one or more of those balls will drop. Having a successful life is a matter of knowing which balls are made of rubber and which are made of glass. Drop accordingly." 

I can’t stop thinking about this advice lately. 

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying not to drop any balls, but continue to add more of them to my metaphorical plate. In other words, I have “I need to be perfect” syndrome. 

What the hell is that about, right? 

I think people wear “I’m a perfectionist” like it’s a badge of honor. It has somehow become synonymous with, “I’m an A player,” or, “I work really hard.” 

Truthfully, as a recovering perfectionist, I know it doesn’t mean either of those things. 

What it really means is, “I worry about not being good enough,” or, “I have a ton of fear about how people will judge my work, so I find mundane excuses to not ship stuff out and into the world.”

Perfectionism, for the most part, really sucks. 

When we try to force our imperfect selves to lead perfect lives, what happens is we start juggling more balls than we can handle. We juggle stuff that doesn’t mean much to us because we don’t know how to say “no” or simply don’t know what our priorities are. We forget that some balls are made of rubber and some are made of glass. And most tragically, we drop the glass balls because we don’t know any better. 

Rubber Ball Examples: 

  • Most business decisions and outcomes
  • Eating one unhealthy meal 
  • Not having the resources (financial, time, etc.) to do get something we really want the moment we want it
  • Sporadic disagreements with family, friends, lovers, and colleagues
  • Not getting all the way through our to-do lists

Glass Ball Examples:

  • Lacking integrity in business decisions and reactions to outcomes
  • Understanding your spirituality
  • Devoting time to being fully present with people you love
  • Not taking care of your body for prolonged periods of time
  • Spending (a lot) of money you don’t have on things you don’t really need for short-term satiation
  • Not being open to the greatest love of your life because you’re afraid of getting hurt

We’ll drop the glass balls. We’ll close ourselves off from love, stop getting adequate sleep, eat crappy food, not exercise, claim “agnosticism,” take shortcuts in business and relationships that might hurt or short change others because it’s easier, and allow ourselves to become easily distracted by shit that doesn’t really matter in the long run. 

And we do this all to preserve the rubber balls—working ourselves into the ground, caught in a cycle of making and spending more money on irrelevant stuff that we won’t remember when we’re 80-years-old, and spending so much time on “productivity” that we forget to actually accomplish worthwhile things. 

Success isn’t about forcing yourself to juggle more and more balls. It’s not about not dropping any of them, either. 

Success is simply this:

  1. Choosing the balls you want to juggle carefully
  2. Not letting the fear of dropping a ball disable you from doing noteworthy shit
  3. Knowing which balls are glass and which aren’t—what matters, and what honestly doesn’t—so that when you do have to let one go, you know which one(s) can drop and bounce back. 

Now, go juggle your heart out. 

Be Maniacally Focused on What You’re Building

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I’m hanging out at TechCrunch Disrupt today in NYC. I have to say, I’m so impressed by the quality of the event, and all of the speakers on the main stage so far today. 

I listen to startup founders talk a lot these days. The more I listen, the more general themes about startup success and failure become evident. 

A lot of people have a lot of different ideas about how best to build a startup. But one of the common threads I notice in every successful entrepreneur—including all of the ones I heard speak at Disrupt this morning—is this:

You have to be maniacally focused on building the best company you can possibly build.

It is very easy to get distracted as a founder and a startup team with shit that will not move the needle for your business: too much time on email, social media, “marketing” efforts, planning meetings, coffee meetings, etc. 

What you suspect is true: you’re wasting a ton of time. Like, more than you think. If you’re the average person, your productivity level probably hovers around 40-60%. That means you have  a lot more to give. Better ways to learn how to work. Better work to do. 

If you want to build something great, don’t worry so much about getting press, your Klout score, tech news, or “keeping up” with everyone else. It’s a fruitless and, honestly, impossible effort. 

I’m not saying you should be reckless about how you build your business. But, what I am suggesting is that you get maniacally focused on the most important thing, which is building a kick-ass business in the first place. 

Focus on your business model. Focus on shipping and iterating on an initial product quickly. Focus on understanding what problem you want to solve, and how real potential customers are thinking through that problem. 

When you focus maniacally on only the most important stuff, you’ll have plenty of time to get great work done. You will feel and be more productive than 85% of starters out there. 

If you want to lead the kind of business that others will want to invest in, report about, and use…then you have to build that kind of business first.

Be patient. Work your ass off. Prepare for a very hard journey ahead. 

If you do things the right way the first time around, it won’t be easy. 

But it’ll be worth it. 

Never Forget Where You Came From.

There’s a popular quote that goes something like this:

"It doesn’t matter where you came from; it matters where you’re going."

I’m calling bullshit.

This original quote was likely intended to empower people to take control of their future and not suffer from victim mentality about their past or personal circumstances. But it’s not great advice because it suppresses a very important reality: 

Where we came form is extremely important. 

It impacts who we are, how we think, what we believe, how we interact with others, what we think is possible for ourselves, whether we view the world as good or bad, what we strive for. Our history—our upbringing—impacts everything we think and believe and do. 

I’m not about getting stuck on the past. But I am about thoroughly understanding it. 

I decided to take a trip home to NYC this past week. After a very long several months with lots of change and busyness in countless corners of my life, it felt like exactly what I needed. I came home partially to take several business meetings and cover a conference, but largely to reconnect with old friends and spend quality time with my mom. 

The thing about the startup space—or any space, really—is that it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that whatever you’re working on is the most important thing in the world…that startup life matters more than relationship building or taking care of yourself—physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

I started to feel a little caught up—something that I think happens to almost all of us when we’re working on something we’re really, really passionate about and committed to. But it was time to step away for a moment. It was time to take a deep breath and recalibrate my personal goals and my vision for helping to grow and support the startup community at large. 

And coming home gave me the space to do that. 

Here’s the thing:

It’s hard to know where you’re going when you lose sight of where you came from. Your past gives your future wisdom-filled direction. 

When you know who you are and why you do what you do, you can better understand where you want to go, why you want to go there, and how you’re going to get there. 

"Going home," whatever that means for you, is so important. It reminds you of who you are, what motivates you, what your purpose is. It reminds you of that little kid you were—the one who dreamed big, feared little, and enjoyed the simple things in life. It reminds you of what really matters: family, building great friendships and relationships, taking care of yourself, being present. 

Often, when life starts to feel chaotic and you couldn’t imagine taking a few days off, that’s when you need to go home the most—to get back in touch with your roots, take a bunch of deep breaths,  chill the heck out, and recalibrate your sense of what truly matters. 

Entrepreneurship is a tough journey. You will have to do very hard and uncomfortable things in the process of building something spectacular. 

But it is impossible to build anything spectacular when you aren’t taking spectacular care of yourself. It’s unsustainable, and more than that, ineffective. 

Just trust me. I know because I’ve tried to cut every kind of corner with my own health and well-being. 

And that’s the craziest part about it all: when you lose sight of where you came from, you lose sight of where you’re going. 

So, go home. Reconnect. Remember who you are. Put it all in perspective. 

Maybe, like me, that’s exactly what you need.

Don’t Trust the First Solution You Come Up With

I’m out in SF this week, and went to a cocktail party with David Eagleman a few nights ago. He was talking about a lot of neuroscience stuff that went way over my head. 

But something he did say that really caught my attention was this (paraphrasing): 

"Our brains are really lazy. They will accept the easiest possible solution. You have a giant network of associations in your head. For instance, when I say "rabbit," you automatically think things like, "carrot, easter, cute, Jessica Rabbit, etc." Your brain doesn’t think about the thousands of other characteristics of a rabbit. 

The same is true of our brains in business and life. When we have a problem, we come up with a set of answers based on the information and associations we already have in our head based on our personal learning and experiences. You have to dig deeper to find the unique solutions.”

I thought that was profound. 

If you’ve taken any sort of biology, psychology or neuroscience class, you’re familiar with the basic premise of how our brains connect, process, and recall information. 

But, when you’re actually in the thick of problem solving, this knowledge totally goes out the window most of the time. 

We’ve also been trained from a young age to “trust the first answer we come up with.” How many times did you hear that from a teacher before a multiple choice test between elementary school and college? It’s engrained in our minds that our first answer is the right answer. 

That might be true when you’ve studied a ton of information and you have some vague recollection of which answer in a set of multiple choices “feels” the best. But, that’s totally different than solving highly complex, unique problems that have an unlimited set of possible answers. 

When it comes to creative problem solving, growth, innovation, etc. here’s what we need to remember: 

The first answer is almost never the best answer.

It’s just the answer that’s most readily available to your brain given how it’s neurally connected. 

If you want to come up with truly unique and innovative solutions:

  • Sit with the problem longer.
  • Spend 20 minutes “free journaling.” Write down whatever comes to mind for you—even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. 
  • Look outside of your industry or network to get advice from other people on how they’d approach solving the problem at hand.
  • Study how successful people think through problems (not their results, but their thought frameworks)
  • Chill out. Sometimes, giving yourself space provides all the clarity you need. 

If you’re beating your head up against a wall to solve a problem, it’s probably because you are thinking too small about it. 

THINK BIGGER. 

If you’re willing to move past the first and easiest answer, you’ll probably come up with some of your best and most innovative ones. 

There’s No Perfect Formula for Building a Successful Startup, So Stop Looking for One.

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There’s a lot of talk in the startup space these days about trying to find a “formula” for successfully launching a company. It started with the Lean Startup Movement (which is a fantastic book, not hatin’), but it’s turned into this crazy quest for some magic bullet.

It doesn’t work that way.

I haven’t launched multiple companies. I’ve never closed a round of funding by myself. I haven’t hired anyone and been personally responsible for making sure that person eats. 

But I do have the great fortune of meeting with successful, brilliant starters every single day, and soaking up their stories of success, failure, hardship, and triumph. 

I’m an editor, but what I’m really good at (and passionate about) is pattern identification. One of those patterns, though, isn’t a formula for building a successful company. No two entrepreneurs I’ve ever met have built their companies the exact same way. 

That makes us all really uncomfortable. We want an easy answer. We want to know that if we just follow these 10 steps, we’ll have a profitable startup. 

But as with anything truly amazing and worth doing in life (falling in love, traveling the world, etc.), there isn’t a formula. In fact, it often works out a lot better if you don’t try so damn hard to create one and just work/enjoy your ass off, and let serendipity handle the rest. 

You end up happier, and the world has the space to work its magic on you and whatever you’re building. 

If you’re out there building anything, please know that what will make it special is not something you’ll find in a manual or bestseller somewhere. It’s in you already. 

Yes, you should learn from others successes and failures. Yes, you should look outside of your industry for ideas you can innovate into your own space. Yes, its useful to read well-written books and articles on building companies. 

But don’t let all of those things stop you from the most important thing, which is that nothing beats your gut instinct about something you’re super passionate about and driven to make a reality for the rest of the world. 

Stop looking for a formula. 

Start listening to yourself more.

 

Seek Out Solutions Where Others See Problems

Just about everyone can spot a problem. But here’s the difference I’ve noticed between entrepreneurial thinkers and everybody else:

Everybody else will point at, talk about, and wallow in the problem. 

Entrepreneurs will look at a problem and say, “I’m going to build something to fix that.”

We’re so caught up in categorizing entrepreneurs as people who close crazy rounds of funding, build huge teams, and grow a multi-million-dollar business. But those are all results. They are the results entrepreneurs achieve from thinking and behaving like dedicated problem solvers. 

If you want to be an entrepreneurial thinker, it’s easy. It doesn’t require a ton of money or you building a formal company. All it requires is a willingness to actively seek out problems—and then come up with and build creative solutions for them. 

If you want to build something truly great, you almost never need to reinvent the wheel. Startups that do are extremely rare.

The majority of great startups in our country were born out of necessity. The only think you need to do is find what’s truly necessary. What do people really need? The world’s next great solution lives in midst of the problems you find. Most of the time, those problems are ones that you yourself are experiencing. 

So find a problem you have that you know other people have.

Then be the one who creates a solution for it.

The 8 Important Lessons I Learned About Building Relationships at SXSW

This past week, I took my first trip down to Austin for SXSW Interactive. I learned a lot of lessons while at the conference. After all, you can’t help but soak in a lot of learning when you’re with 30,000 of the leaders and peers in your industry.

I initially thought my SXSW event recap would be a first-timer’s guide to conquering SXSW. But, honestly, what I discovered is that it’s not about the panels or parties or celebrities or startups at all. It’s about human relationships—how people engage with one another, and why people do what they do. SXSW is basically one giant semi-professional, semi-revert-back-to-college-behavior social experiment.

My goal was to create an incredibly useful event recap for people. After meeting well over a hundred total strangers and several tech “celebrities” this past week, I realized the most useful thing I could write about is what I learned after 96 hours’ worth of careful observation about how people interact with one another. So, here they are—the eight lessons I learned about building relationships in the startup and tech community at SXSW:

1.) It takes quality time to really get to know someone

I learned this week that I don’t really love big events with tens of thousands of people. At all. The whole thing feels super overwhelming and the opposite of productive. SXSW is like spring break for nerds, and that’s about the extent of it. You might be able to create a totally useful experience where you soak up amazing learning, close business deals, and connect with incredible people over long meetings. But it would be pretty damn hard. That’s like finding a golden ticket in a sea of 30,000+ people. It could happen, but so can winning the lottery.

Almost everyone I talked to said the same thing: “It’s all about the parties.” But, you know what happens when you think it’s just about the parties? You get, on average, about 5-15 minutes at a loud event to get to know someone new. Sure, every now and again, you’ll get into an unforgettable conversation that lasts for hours. But, from what I observed, that kind of experience is the exception and not the norm during SXSW.

The problem is, you don’t really get to know much about a person in 5-15 minutes. Here’s the general order of conversation: (1) Exchange pleasantries about how crazy and exhausting SXSW is; (2) Ask where person you’re talking to lives; (3) Try to find something interesting and/or funny to say about the place that person lives and compare it to wherever you live; (4) Play the “what do you do?” game; (5) Size them up to see if a person is successful and/or could be a potentially valuable contact for you. If you deem the person important and/or really interesting, you give him or her a business card. If not, you politely exit the conversation as quickly as possible so you can find someone who is.

This is the worst way ever to develop authentic relationships.

I myself made the mistake of asking the “What do you do?” question too quickly in the conversation. Because that’s what’s expected. That’s what you’re supposed to ask. Looking back, I really wish I had asked a better question, like, “What makes you come alive?,” or, “If you could create any company other than the one you already started or work at, what would it be?” It’s a lot more random, but hell—it’s a much better way to get to know people more deeply if you’ve only got 5-15 minutes. And I’m willing to bet you’ll stumble into great conversations that last much longer than 5-15 minutes if you ask questions like these instead.

It takes more than 5-15 minutes to really get to know someone. There are far more interesting, incredible layers to who people are than where they live, what they do, and how many followers they have on Twitter. If you don’t have a lot more time than 5-15 minutes, don’t assume you know much about who someone is—unless, of course, they very blatantly shower you with rudeness, or arrogance, or total disinterest. If they do any of the above, it’s safe to say you can learn a lot about them in 5-15 minutes.

2.) You should bother making plans. 

The other thing people said over and over again was, “Don’t bother making any plans.” I think that’s just about the worst advice ever. What I think people really mean when they say that is, “leave room for serendipity.” But, I don’t think those two pieces of advice are synonymous. You can have some semblance of a plan and still have hundreds of opportunities for serendipity. In fact, I’d argue that if you go in with at least a rough plan, you’ll increase your opportunities for serendipity. Think about it: are you more likely to meet an incredible new contact at some random party you get swept up in with a random crowd of people? Or, at a small meetup with people who have very similar interests? Are you more likely to connect with someone at a loud rager at 3am? Or at an intimate lunch gathering curated by one of your acquaintances? Exactly.

I went in without a plan because that’s what people told me to do. Halfway through the trip, I realized that was not going to work for me. So, I sat down for an hour, wrote a daily list of some of the events, panels, and meet-ups I found most interesting, and I let that loose schedule be my guide. Of course, I wasn’t rigid about it. If I got caught up in a great conversation at one event, I didn’t rush off to the next party. If I found a place I really liked, I group texted a bunch of my friends to come join me instead of me going to chase after them in a dozen different locations. But, in the process of figuring out what I wanted to learn, who I wanted to meet, and the things I wanted to do, I was able to win back some control in the chaos that is SXSW. And create more opportunities for serendipity in the process. Almost every interesting person I met, I met during the second half of my trip.

3.) …But don’t bother with people who don’t ask you questions

Unless you’re a journalist and you’re interviewing someone, be weary of people who don’t ask you any questions. I had a few incredibly awkward conversations at SXSW that were heavily one-sided. I’d ask people questions to get to know them better, they’d respond with answers—usually brief ones, and that was about as far as the conversation ever went.

Of course, sometimes, it might just take a person a while to warm up to you and get in the groove of the conversation. Maybe he or she is shy, distracted, just woke up from a nap, whatever. Be kind and open. Give people a chance to warm up to you. Tell them about yourself first. If, after more than five minutes, they still aren’t budging, it might just be a lost cause with a random stranger at a big event. That’s okay. Politely dismiss yourself from the interaction, and move on to the next conversation.

The people I’m really referring to, though, are the ones who talk your ear off for 15+ minutes about themselves, like they’re trying to pitch you on themselves or their company, without making any real effort to get to know you. Every good relationship is reciprocal—even your newest ones. Don’t try to force conversation with people who only seem interested in running you over with their own agendas and aren’t really there to foster a connection or cultivate a great, two-way conversation. It’s not worth your time.

And if you’re reading this and you’re that person…don’t be that person. It’s super lame.

4.) “Successful person” does not equal “awesome person”

After listening to a ton of my friends and watching my Twitter feed for a while, I began to notice a common theme at SXSW: everyone wants to connect with super successful people. You know, the authors who write bestselling books, the startup founders who are now running multi-million-dollar companies, the c-suite executives at large corporations. Everyone chases after them. I’m really not sure why. What’s the value in that for most people? Maybe you’ll get a few minutes to pitch your idea or try to build a connection, but the chances of it being worth the time and effort are slim.

Just because someone is highly successful doesn’t mean he or she is an awesome person. We’re stuck in our thinking that these are the figures we should look up to and aspire to be like. If you, like the overwhelming majority of SXSW goers, aren’t part of the tech elite, it’s easy to catch the envy bug. The thing is, I’m really not convinced those are the people we should all be envious of. A level of respect for them? Absolutely. But, I observed and listened to stories about disappointing run-ins with tech celebrities who were rude, thoughtless, and even blatantly offensive. That kind of behavior is not cool—no matter how famous or accomplished you are.

Every now and again, you find a very successful person who goes out of his or her way to make a difference with others. Gary Vaynerchuk, for instance, held a 5-hour Q&A session to give random attendees personal, one-on-one advice. Ramit Sethi hosted a meetup for about 50-100 of his blog readers; I watched him make his way around the room and do the best he could to connect with as many of those people as possible. Super successful people like these guys are the ones worth looking up to. Maybe you don’t like how opinionated they are or how they sell whatever it is they sell, but you can’t say they don’t care about connecting and making a difference with people who likely don’t have a ton to offer them in return.

People who give a crap are amazing. Seek those super successful folks out.

5.) Dress in a way that accurately represents who you are

Look, the reality is, at a place like SXSW, you only have so much time to make a first impression. This is true pretty much always, but it’s especially true at an enormous conference. So, maximize the time you’ve got, and wear your personality on your sleeve.

Wear a hat with a bit of charm. Put on a pair of yellow jeans if you’ve got a really optimistic, happy personality. Throw on your favorite pieces of jewelry. Wear comfortable shoes that still express who you are; exchange plain sandals for neon sneakers if you’re loud and proud. Throw on a shirt with a funny expression, like this:

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And still, dress appropriately. SXSW might feel like spring break for adults, but it’s still at least partially work-related for most. The last thing you want to do is run into a client, old boss, or potential investor while running around in short shorts or a t-shirt with a funny-but-offensive slogan on it. Want to look relaxed, but still professional? Throw a blazer over your t-shirt. Or a leather jacket over a button down shirt. Or a pair of heels with your jeans.

If you want people to spot you in a crowd and learn something about you before you even say “hello,” use what you wear as an opportunity to make a statement. Dress like the person you are. Dress like the person you want to be.

6.) Don’t get caught in the VIP trap

No matter where you go, you’re probably going to wait in a line at some point during the week at SXSW. When you see a handful of people walk straight up and into a door at a party, it’s hard not to feel some twinge of jealousy and/or unworthiness. The minute that feeling starts to come on, talk some common sense into yourself. For some parties, I wasn’t on a list and had to wait in a line. For others, I was on a VVIP list (yup, apparently those exist), and I still had to wait in a line.

Make the best use of your time. Get to know the people around you if you’re waiting. Bring a bunch of friends along with you. Skip the parties with the hour-long lines and go on an adventure for another great spot instead. Plan dinners with a bunch of friends you haven’t caught up with in a while; tell them to bring a guest or two. Make use of those lazy afternoon hours, and meet interesting people for coffee or ice cream.

Whatever you do, don’t waste too much time vying for a VIP spot at a party. If you can connect your way into a place, fantastic. But, if you don’t get in or don’t want to wait in line, don’t fret—there are 29,000 people who aren’t going to that party, either. Personally, I’d take an intimate dinner over a really loud, crowded party any day of the week.

While everyone else is busy trying to be a “very important person,” just be one. Understand that pretty much everyone deserves to be considered a VIP—everyone matters. Most of the people at SXSW are doing something pretty cool, and anyone who doesn’t agree is probably not that much fun to hang out with, anyway. Be the person who curates a group of amazing people to have a fun brunch or night out on 6th street, instead.

Don’t worry so much about being considered a “VIP.”  Be the person who makes other people feel like VIPs, instead.

7.) You’ll connect with the most unexpected people, in the most unexpected ways

However you’re imaging the experience you think you’ll have, it will almost certainly not go down that way. If you’re an artist, you might meet your future front-end developer for that new art project you’re working on at a random web dev party you walked into—all because you were promised free beer and tacos. If you’re sitting in a lounge catching up on emails, you might just sit next to a fascinating blogger and get into a two-hour conversation. If you get stranded in the middle of downtown Austin at 4:30 am because there are no cabs in sight, you might meet a future really close friend while waiting on an enormous taxi line.

The point is, you can’t predict what you’ll get into. You can’t predict who you’ll meet or how much you’ll impact one another down the road. You can’t predict which acquaintances you’ll become closer to.

All you can really do is view every moment–every opportunity—as a chance to connect with someone as authentically as you possibly can. If you stick with only a group of people you know, you won’t leave much room for meeting new people. If you’re busy staring at your smart phone on a line, you won’t appear that welcoming to the people standing around you.

Don’t try to predict how you’re SXSW experience will go. But if you do expect anything, expect to foster some of your best connections with the most unexpected people, in the most unexpected ways. Life usually surprises us like that.

8.) It’s not your job to make people like you

When you’re part of a sea of almost 30,000 people, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of things. It’s also really easy to lose yourself in the midst of all the parties, panels, and people.

Don’t.

Stick to your guns. Do whatever excites you. If you don’t like a party, leave. If you don’t want to drink, don’t succumb to the weird pressure to drink just to fit in. If you want to go to bed before midnight, go to bed before midnight. If you want to go to a panel instead of a party, do it. If you find yourself in a group of people you’re not having fun with, remove yourself and find a group that suits you better. If people aren’t giving you the time of day, go find ones who genuinely care. If someone tells a joke that you don’t think is funny, don’t feel like you need to laugh.

Don’t lose yourself in the chaos of the event. Remain grounded. Remain exactly who you are, and proudly share who you are with others. Because, as with any other scenario in life, it’s not your job to act however you think you need to act to get people to like you. It’s your job to be unabashedly and respectfully yourself. 

And the people who love the person they meet when you’re just being you? Those are the people you should like.

SXSW can be an overwhelming experience. But remember, at the end of the day, it’s not about the amount of stuff you do, the panels you attend, or the parties you get into. It’s about the people you meet in the process of doing all of that. If this past week taught me anything, it’s that what matters most is maintaining your ability to be totally yourself, and asking the right questions to get to know other people for who they really are, too.

Finally, know that mastering SXSW is ultimately all about knowing how to do this one very simple thing with the awesome people you meet:

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UX Design: What Features Should You Include When Building Your Product?

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It’s Week #5 of the UX Design class I’m taking at The Starter LeagueLast week, we talked about tools you can use to build your best product. This week, we’re diving right into the nitty gritty of product usability analysis, site maps, and user flows. The objective is really to arm you with techniques that allow you to think through the creation of your product in a strategic, user-friendly way.

Let’s start with something called Kano Analysis.

Kano Analysis

Kano analysis is one particular product development theory that is useful when you’re figuring out exactly which features you want to build into your product. Under this model, you essentially categorize customer preferences into three different attribute categories: threshold, performance, and excitement.

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  1. Threshold (basic) attributes: The features customers expect to be built into your product.
  2. Performance attributes: These features aren’t necessary, but including them will increase the customer’s use and enjoyment of your product.
  3. Excitement attributes: The features that customers have no idea they want yet, but would be delighted to discover as part of your product. I call this the “Steve Jobs attributes” category—no one knew better how to delight customers in ways they didn’t even know they wanted to be delighted.

Some questions you need to ask users when performing Kano Analysis:

  • What do you think of the product if it includes feature X?
  • What do you think of the product if it does not include feature X?

There are three valid responses for either question: “I like it,” “It doesn’t matter to me,” or “I dislike it.” Be careful, though. As with any user test, users don’t always know what they want and/or can’t accurately identify their future behavior (or even past and current behavior). It is easier to determine threshold attributes, and perhaps even performance attributes, with this model. Coming up with excitement attributes, however, takes entrepreneurial creativity and guts. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition (and also, your common sense) when sifting through user feedback.

The next thing you can do once you’ve done feature research is diagram out your site. There are a bunch of different types of site diagrams. Here are some visual examples so you can see the different ways it can look:

Hierarchical Site Map

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The example above is very simple, but you get the gist. With a hierarchical site map, you organize the hierarchy of various different categories or relationships. It’s a great wat to provide mental clarity and organization for your team as you create wireframes for your site.

Site Map List

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This one should look familiar to you, Apple users. You don’t necessarily have to create a hierarchical map. You could make it as simple as a list, like this one. Often times, you’ll see these site maps live on a page; they serve as an ultimate “Table of Contents” for a site. If your users are ever looking for something, they should be able to find it via a site map.

Site Process Flow

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This is a basic example of a site process flow. For the two examples before this one, the diagrams are built based on categorization. Site process flow diagrams, on the other hand, are built more based on—surprise—process. Instead of thinking through the “spaces” under each major category on your site, you think about the flow of user experience on your site based on behavior (like completing a sign up form). This is useful if you want to think through site usability— how users are using it, number of steps to complete a process, amount of time it takes to acquire a user via sign up form, etc.

Card Sorting

One last tip we’ll talk about today: card sorting. Card sorting is a fascinating exercise we did in class this past week. The purpose of card sorting is to get feedback when you’re in the process of designing a navigation structure for your site for optimal functionality and utility. Here’s how it works:

  1. The person or team working on site navigation writes terms down on index card—one term per card.
  2. Then, you have a person or team that is ideally indicative of your current or future audience to put the terms inso logical groupings and finding a category name for each grouping.
  3. Observe and repeat testing.
  4. Analyze results to identify category grouping patterns.

This will give you a  sense of how your users might be thinking about and searching for content on your site. A few weeks ago, I talked about a UX team project we’re working on in class: building a site to give more people an opportunity to perform random acts of kindness for strangers easily. We did the card sorting exercise in class, creating categories and then asking one of our classmates to sort the cards for us. She organized them in the way she thought most logical, and created category names based on her categorization. Here’s what it looked like:

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The card sorting concept is visually and theoretically similar to the affinity modeling concept I wrote about several weeks ago. There are a number of different ways to do card sorting, but the main two ways are “open” and “closed.”

Open card sorting is when sorting participants create their own names for the categories—similar to what was done in the class example above. The main benefit of this method? It reveals how users will mentally classify the content on your site and can generate great category ideas for your team as you develop your product. However, the downside is that you’ll have a number of different categories across participants, so it may end up leaving you with scattered data points and a lack of category focus.

Closed card sorting is when you provide participants with a predetermined set of category names—each on an index card shuffled in with the sub categories. This takes away the issues you might face with open card sorting by helping you narrow the focus of your research. However, it requires that you have a keen and confident sense of what the categories should be already. If you use this method and participants are having a hard time organizing your cards with the categories you gave them, that may be an indication you need to revise your categories a bit.

No matter what method you choose, you should be able to see some common themes emerge as you engage in card sorting research.

Some basic rules of thumb to keep in mind as you’re card sorting:

  • 40-60 is often a good range for card sorting. You want enough cards to bear useful research results, but not so much that you overwhelm the participants with too many options.
  • Avoid term jargon. Make the terms as easy as possible for the users to understand.
  • Keep the cards simple—avoid adding more than one term to a card; that could change the reliability of the categorization results entirely.

I hope these examples and techniques are useful as you build out your product in the most user-friendly way possible.

I’m about halfway through my UX design class at The Starter League, and I’m blown away by how much I’m learning so far. It’s also more intense than I ever imagined it would be. I’m beginning to see UX failures and successes every time I visit a new site—which is a blessing and a curse. While the tips and techniques have been useful to learn, nothing can substitute for the experience of testing the principles out with a group of students who are eager to learn about the same thing. Those team-centered conversations about UX have been perhaps the most valuable part of the experience so far.

So, if you’re interested in learning more about UX design, I’d encourage you to take a class at the Starter League, or even join a meetup group if you don’t have the bandwidth or resources to take a formal class.

I promise you, the way you look at website design will never be the same again.

Until next week!

Note: This post was originally published yesterday on Technori.com.

If you just started following along now, you can catch up on what I’ve learned so far about UX design on Technori.com:

If You’re Waiting for a Sign to Pursue What You Love, This is It

After interviewing about 50 startups and tech companies at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas this week, several themes became apparent. 

One. Building and maintaining a company is really hard. If you’re starting something and you think you’re the only entrepreneur who’s struggling, you’re seriously wrong. I didn’t hear a single founder say, “Starting a company was easier than I thought.” You should be prepared for a long and challenging journey, but know you’re not alone. 

Two. Pitch better. About half of the people I interviewed confused me with their product/company pitches. It’s challenging to tell a good story about your brand in a way that not only helps others grasp the concept of what you’re working on, but also genuinely resonates with them. Sharpen your story. Ask people for feedback. Modify until it’s nearly perfect. Test it on others—pay attention to how different pitches land with different people differently. It makes all the difference down the road. 

Three. Perhaps one of the best lessons I learned is that there are people in the world who are actively working on some of the craziest stuff we can imagine. If you’ve thought about a grand new idea, someone is probably already working on it, or is damn close to making a decision to work on it. But that’s the thing: most people never do—at least not long enough to build something meaningful and long-lasting. Why? Because creating something takes a ton of energy and commitment. And that’s exactly why you should do whatever it is that lives at the intersection of passion and talent for you—because that’s the thing you’ll have the energy and commitment for. 

There are so many people out there building incredible things. As I walked around the trade room floors, I stumbled upon thousands of different iPhone cases, Hundreds of tablet devices, and a section dedicated just to fitness gadgets. Will all of these companies succeed? Almost certainly not. But I do have a sense of the factors that define which ones will and which ones won’t: passion, purpose, and product.

  • Passion: How much you believe in what you’re doing
  • Purpose: Having a clear sense of why you do what you do, and who you’re doing it for, and why it matters to them. 
  • Product: Your product (or service) is rockstar levels of awesome. You can have all the passion and purpose in the world, but if you’re not selling something fantastic, you’re screwed.

So if you’re thinking about starting something—whether a project, event, non-profit, or for-profit company—start now. Don’t sit there and think about it. Don’t bother feeling bad for yourself. Stop coming up with excuses. None of that is getting you anywhere. 

Don’t wait for the perfect time, because there will never be a “perfect time” to put yourself on the line and do something high risk. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Don’t worry if some people don’t like it.

Just figure out your passion, purpose, and product– and then go out and create.

If you’ve been waiting for a sign, this is it.

Start now—and don’t stop until you’re finished creating what you want the world to have.