Books on the beach

There something about a hammock outside a quiet house on an abandoned stretch of Tulum beach, Kindle and glass of Jura Poulsard in hand that drives me to read.

Much more so than in my normal frenetic pace of life where streaming a movie late at night is a more natural way to end the day.

I wrote this en route back to New York from vacation. Four of the six or so books that I read are worthwhile noting.

Heads up–none are light reading.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.06.15 AMI didn’t enjoy reading this book as well written as it was.

It grated, it bothered me, yet it was an essential exercise.

Eggers has challenged in fiction most of the core tenets of my online life—transparency, focused disclosure, crowd-sourced value, social proof and the power of communities online to impact how we live offline for the better.

The fictionalization of these traits was unnerving, uncomfortable and a bit of a lingering nightmare. Like painful squeaking of chalk on my mental blackboard.

Five days later, I’m still bothered.

This is exactly what I needed.

I thank Fred Wilson for challenging me to read this and my good friend David Semeria, for pushing me to download and try it.

Being confronted by a caricature of my beliefs is as cleansing, unsettling and useful as it gets.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the Aids Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.04.00 AMHow could I have lived through this Holocaust and not realized it?

How could areas in cities that I lived in–the West Village  in NY and the Castro in SF been decimated and I had only a cursory awareness of this happening?

How could I not know the economic and political stalls of the Regan and Koch administration? The painful suffering of people who basically were told to go home and die.  The massive head-in-the-sand perspective of the country, the government, the press, and a straight society ignoring this underclass.

I’m 20 years late (exactly) to this story in it’s excruciating chronology and detail.

A freaking amazing book–in depth, painful, eye opening journalistic recalling of the AIDs epidemic, from the 24 hour bicentennial celebration in New York that started it, the travels and exploits of Patient Zero, the ‘NO’ of the world to acknowledge and help till the horror of the virus literally bled out of the gay community to the broader population.

Not for the faint of heart or the closed minded. It’s thriller, a page turner only not fiction and not on most summer reading lists.

I internalized this story and think not how much better but how different this would have been if we had had the web, a culture of information exchange and transparency, and integration of the gay population as we do today.

I’m still reading this (very long book). It pounds home that then, and now, what we don’t see is the largest part of reality we live every day. .

Lianna Sugarman couldn’t have been more right that this would grab and shake me hard.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.08.33 AMI like reading business books by people who have been in the trenches, been in charge and won. There’s a combo of smarts, skill and made luck that is worth learning from people who have done it from the ground up and truly changed the world.

Ben is certainly one of those.

It was my pleasure to pay $14 to live through the sweat and anxiety of the really hard decisions that building a company is all about. Dollars running out, clients cancelling, firing your friends, sleepless quarters and unfathomable difficult decisions that we all make by locking ourselves in a room with trusted advisors, grabbing the data at hand and taking a shot.

Fred Wilson mentioned this book in a post. Aaron Klein’s comments encouraged me download it and give it a morning on the beach.

I know personally that the glamorization of building a business is just bullshit.

It was refreshing to hear it from someone else who loves his business successes but doesn’t mythologize them

Uncommon Stock Version 1.0 by Eliot Peper

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.09.13 AMEliot is a first time author, young , easy with words and a light touch with dialog.

He creates a fictionalization of startup lore and life. Almost a novelization of all the truisims about startup life as documented in a host of blogs.

A smart theme that holds together because  he is honestly inspired his main character Mara and Boulder as a place.  It lacks a bit of real life sweat and anxiety that is core to start up life, but notable nonetheless.

Eliot has lots of talent.  If he finds a way to imbue the passion that he puts into off road biking and road running, rock climbing and exercise into the realities of startup business, his stories will be long-term keepers.

Big congrats to Brad Feld and his new venture FG Press which published this.

Enjoy these books should you care to try them.

Light reading these are not. Important uses of  time? Absolutely!



Dreaming the future

I had a waking dream about a world where our identities were completely decentralized.

Where there was a coin, like Bitcoin, that held securely who we were as we traveled around the web and lived life. Where URLs were irrelevant. Where place online didn’t matter.

Where the web just served me whenever I needed it with a tap on my phone. Where everything was secure and the middlemen across a multitude of industries were burnt toast.

Where democratization of information was not a risk, but a necessity to kick start change.

And where transparency always seemed the right choice without the horrid compromises that certifications and standards demand.

I thank Albert Wenger’s excellent post yesterday for this fueled inspiration and now, Fred Wilson’s post today, for the whisperings of a new and different world. And some telling comments from Brandon Burns on both posts.

I’m listening and can’t stop thinking how this impacts just about everything, from how we live to how we market our companies.

Of course, this idea of a distributed identity, decentralized coined reality and transactions is not the real view from my window today. It’s not something that is really actionable.

Or is it?

Is it behaviorally already there in pieces? Has the market and culture already shifted with technology as the lag?

Usually big shifts like the Internet happen–then culture slowly intersects, verticalizes them to our behavioral needs in every imaginable form.

Bitcoin and transactional systems aside. A protocol of value aside. Even the absolute of decentralized identity aside as well—change in the market is already afoot.

The web and the big identity platforms are unbundling before our eyes. Even the marketplace itself is following suit with transactions part of where we discover what we want, not where we necessarily go to find it.

Do people really make a choice between using Facebook, What’s App, Twitter, Instagram and others? Not at all.

Are our identities really tied to just one of them today? I don’t think so.

All of the platforms are sub- and supersets of each other. How we sign on is not really who we are.

Everyone is on Facebook and Instagram though the communities in each are very distinct. The same picture posted in each will gather a mostly different set of people. This is true from platform to platform and app to app.

Bitcoin or something akin to it will certainly happen. A decentralized identity—maybe—but the change they represent to how we live, work and market is already in process and our common ways of doing things in flux.

I discovered Wollit this morning. A Bitcoin-based, cause-focused fundraising site. It’s scant and early, not well explained yet just felt very right. A Mcluhan-esque approach where indeed it makes sense as form and content become one, feels like a norm that has already become part of us.

Even from an everyday use case, pre the coin becoming tamed and ubiquitous, it’s already a behavioral layer in how we act without understanding a thing about the protocol.

It’s front and center in how groups and communities are formed today.

Most all group structures are horrific, yet we form groups and communities every day. We cut through different platforms forsaking the idea of a centralized place with a basic need in time. (Check out Vintage141 as an antidote.)

The market already understands decentralized realities all to0 well in how we act and connect with people on the web.

I started this rant with a jolt, fueled by a rush of Bitcoin intellectual stimulus with decentralized identity as the chaser.

Bitcoin is a wondrous mess and the most interesting thing happening on the web today. Most don’t understand it, most will ignore it till smart people build services that do something that matter. And just works.

That’s our birthright as consumers to demand this.

When that happens, it will spread like crazy, as people already live a semi-decentralized reality today.  Its inefficient,  but we are comfortable with it. Most of us simply embrace and incorporate the new when it does the job or sparks the imagination.

When Bitcoin is stable, my bet is we will use it without the need for education. We already understand the idea and act on it in human terms every day.

But the big realization—and the big upside to me—is that everything is yet again going to get turned on its head. A whole generation of new apps and solutions will flood in. A whole new way to market and connect new values with customers will be discovered.

The market will simply take it in stride, and adopt it as their own as it just makes sense.

They did it without fuss or bother when social became platformed because the behaviors were already present and the upside, enormous. They will do it again I think for very similar reasons.




“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

This quote from New York painter and printmaker Chuck Close has been pinned to my desktop for years.

I use it as a direct challenge to push myself forward every day, and, at times, to kick myself when I simply can’t get into gear.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 6.45.22 AMChuck is one of my personal heroes. His wall-sized, haunting self-portrait is front and center as you walk in my apartment.

The back-story about him is key to the intent behind the phrase.

He was a well-known abstract painter in SoHo who, 20 years ago, had a stroke, almost died, and became paralyzed. In the aftermath of recovery, he redefined artistic expression in a format that was not restricted by, but freed by his physical limitations. And elevated himself to the very top of critical and popular success in the art world.

I keep churning on this fact.

Most of us get a cold, grab our cat and go to bed, get better, then lament lost time.

Chuck was struck down in his late 40s, confined to a wheel chair with only limited hand movement on one side, and simply went to work, strapping a paintbrush to his hand and creating a new genre of art.

His quote is surprisingly polarizing to most everyone I’ve shared it with. And invariably misunderstood.

People decry and lash out at it as an attempt to demystify inspiration. I get that.

We all hold on tightly to our need to be struck by inspiration as the driver behind our labors. But even more so, I think we hold to our right to disclaim inactivity because we are not inspired or blocked.

There are many lists of how to get over creativity blocks and inactivity. Far fewer on how to spur it forward without stoppage.

Chuck believes that:

“things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].”

This is a truth to live life by for me.

It touches on the dynamics of discovery that I constantly search for, not in artistic expression as I’m not an artist, but in my work–ferreting out new markets, trying untested solutions for building communities and stumbling forward making products and brands on ever new ground with constantly evolving consumer behaviors.

In my own work, like the semi-blank canvas of an artist, the answers and grids of yesterday’s solutions provide guidance, direction and assurity, but in actuality, it’s a new world each and every time.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 6.53.38 AMChuck’s artistic pragmatism and impatience with whining maps to my long held belief that, in marketing and life, the best and truest strategy is a smart and flexible execution. Most everything is in the doing, not the plan. And doing itself is most often its own motivation and momentum.

Strangely, his quote is connected to another ongoing meme that I just can’t shrug off.

The rallying calls of ‘Do what you love’ and ‘Follow your passions’ are now acculturated from the tech entrepreneurial niche into our broader society. A transformative and positive behavioral trend of today’s world.

Recently though I’ve realized that for me, they are too pat an answer and not quite true.

I believe there’s a continuum in our lives and careers that evolves over time. It impacts how we view our work, how we continue to build our skills, how we maintain momentum over time and how inspiration is harnessed for productivity and invention on both personal and professional levels.

At one end, it certainly starts with embracing what we love and the passions we swim in that define ourselves. But it travels far to the right over time, across the timeline of our experience being driven even more so by what we just become great at doing. And that excellence at doing is who we really are.

I see this evolution a lot working with young, brilliant entrepreneurs that are red-eyed with talent and conviction, supercharged with passion towards their projects, but without the experience to be self cognizant of how they navigate decisions and their own strengths. They are natural talents, who have yet to learn how to replicate their successes in new environments and rechannel their developing instincts.

I’m no less clear on my passions than when I walked into Atari to build their enthusiasts community twenty five years ago. But I wake to work every day now, grab my toolbox of skills and expertise, and tackle new projects and ideas as a matter of intent and discovery, more than a push from burning uncertainty behind me. More a plunge into just figuring it out and doing it. It’s a process–muscle memory if you will, that can be called up to flex in new situations over and over again. And no less exciting, imaginative, or flexible, just different and more measured.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 5.23.23 PMI think that this is what Chuck is implying as well.

It’s not only about artistic creation. Few of us are visionaries, geniuses, or artists.

But we all discover genius in our work, just nail it in spite of odds, find focus and drive to do impossible unchartered and seemingly unconnected stuff at times.

Friends have told me that I’m simply rebranding the power of focus with this train of thought.

I don’t think so.

We are all bombarded by information, by limitless interesting mini-interruptions incessantly. Focus is a way of shutting things out.

To me, it is a matter of filtering the world to the purpose at hand. It’s less conscious than ingrained, more about sifting through what I need with intent rather than unplugging and drawing the blinds to avert distraction.

Chuck’s phrase is connected to who he is and his accomplishments obviously.

But I’ve adopted it to my own needs on my own continuum.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 6.53.05 AMMy interpretation is that inspiration is the abstraction, inspiring work is itself both the driver and the result. And the process of discovery is the real pace of work itself.

Most everything we do is an infinite map of little pieces that we tackle one at a time, on an ever developing grid of direction.

We have intent, a framework of experience and belief to guide us, but we are literally connecting the dots in real time as we push forward. Flexibility alongside determination and experience is the toolbox for creating something new and larger than the sum of all the parts.

This is true for a marketplace, a cross network application–true for an artistic creation possibly as well

Not unlike one of Chuck’s giant, super realistic, room-size canvases, made up of hundreds of one-two inch laboriously painted squares that are the limit of his physical mobility, each tackled separately on a giant matrix over a year’s time.

As a whole, it seems perfect and connected into one coherent, brilliant, and planned out forward looking image. In reality it was the intersection of maniacal planning, creativity, skill and pure creative happenstance.


Thanks to Gianfranco Gorgoni for his photo of Chuck.

Context more than content is why networks matter

A core anomaly of online engagement is that discussions that drive the most interesting conversations are invariably a collective answer to a common question.

Yet Q & A as a model works very poorly, if at all.

The idea that we gather around specific topics is actually less true than that we group ourselves first around people we know or want to know, communities that breed trust and the networks we inhabit. What we discuss is important, but less so than the people we discuss it with.

It’s a powerful distinction that engagement, at its core, is less topical than it is contextual.

Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Vintage141, linked me this piece from the New York Times comparing Jelly, the Biz Stone Q & A app, with Need, an under-the-radar competitor.

A perfect case-in-point of how context and content interplay.

I put the apps through their paces with four questions: need a contractor, help with a tech question, best mobile app for wine buying, and searching for a specific niche expert.

A simple test drive.

A few responses popped up, though nothing new and interesting. The respondents were mostly people I knew, and had answered similar questions when I posted on the open web.

I’m not denigrating the apps (although both are seriously impossible to find in the app store). They are inspired and very brand new with uncertain UXs. And besides their differences, neither has figured out what engagement means. Jelly is lighter, more ambitious, image focused, driving short gestures more often. Need felt more conversant, leaner, less arbitrary, with community managers weighing in to juice the search.

The gist of this though is less about the apps and which will win (if either does)–and more about the interplay of context and content.

These Q & A apps are, by design, parasitic to our personal networks.

They don’t build communities, they simply aggregate ours around their single function ask and receive. Their premise is that asking simple questions is a singular behavior and a driver cross new groups.

I’m not a believer.

If I loaded all of my networks with all of my good will and connections, and so did 100,000 others, these apps would certainly have some depth.

People would then friend me within the app, and the molecular magic of extended connections would become viral. This is the end game by design for these apps.

But why would I want to do this?

Does an encapsulated question add anything at all to simply tweeting or posting a need?

I don’t think so.

Life is all about questions and answers, sharing and bantering. The question may be the handshake, but the networks are the participants and the connections, by default, the gestures of approval. It’s not a separate need.

The experiment was interesting though.

We all live intra network and cross community. Across the big ones like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and our blog communities. Niche groupings. Offline clubs. Work and play.

Groups and flash communities are always forming and reforming, brought together by occasion or need. They are time–not location– based, topical in intent, and contextual as they cut across our networks and recombine in all new groupings.

These apps are premised on the question being the nexus of connection.

I think the key piece that creates structural gravity is never the question or the content, it is each of us as the center of our own gaggle of networks. In this case, it’s the singer more than the song that sets the rhythm.

When we need something, or simply want to share online, it bounces around our interconnected world, down handshakes of connections and into other ecosystems and other’s networks.

A few years ago, this post would have ended with a statement that there was a growing trend to create more niche communities of interest and an organic interconnection of communities connected by something like Disqus.

This feels less right now.

Especially as our attentions gets focused smaller on our mobile screens and more individualistic on what we, as individuals, need at the moment to make our offline lives better.

We all know that the more individual freedom there is within a community, the stronger it becomes as a whole.

My sense is that the more there are tools that let me exercise the same freedom and control, cross network and cross community, in an instant, the broader those connections themselves will become and the more empowered each of us will be as the center of them.



Citibike…urban product design at its best

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 10.19.05 PM

I really love Citibike.

It’s transportation that works almost perfectly as designed. It makes my life better.

A solution built for what myself, and hundreds of thousands of others, needed without knowing. Without ever really asking, lobbying or fighting for. A gift from the transportation gods.

The numbers at a glance show instant market alignment.

Since launch on May 27th of this year, 6.6 million miles in 45-minute hops have been logged by 6,000 bikes at 330 locations by 285,000 users, mostly in downtown Manhattan.

As a New Yorker and obsessive urbanite, every time I jump on a bike, which is often, I’m enthused by how much it has improved my life.

As a marketer, who connects products and markets for a living, it’s the epitome of a product launched into an impossible environment with hardly any public hiccups. One that changed the human landscape of this immensely complex metropolis in demonstrably positive ways.

And potentially may ever be a profitable model within an astoundingly short time.

As a user

Transportation in New York is serious business and now has a rock star new kid on the block with Citibike.

Alongside the subway, cabs, call-a-car solutions like Uber, and ZipCar. Not six months in, Citibike has earned a spot on the transportation line of apps on my iPhone. It’s part of my getting-around rooster of tools.

Why does Citibike really matter to me?

Here’s a common scenario.

I’m in TriBeca and need to go to Meat Packing District, wearing gym clothes or a suit, weather permitting. I hop on a bike (there are 5 racks within 10 minutes of my apt) and I’m there in 15 minutes and hop off.  To the East side? Same drill, 20-30 minutes for the ride. It takes about one-third as long as any other method with no fuss, no waiting for a train or sitting in traffic. It costs a whooping $.27 a day with a yearly pass.

In my downtown world,  anything south of Madison Park, from river to river, to dinner or to work, this is always a viable option to get from here to there..

Take a look at the humanity hopping on and off these bikes at any busy rack.

Every possible type of person, from tourist with tour book in hand in Swedish or Japanese, to bankers, to families, to people commuting to work,  to me.

It just works.

From late Spring when it started with 3.000 users on day one, through the Summer and now Fall, there are almost 300,000 users with some 90,000 annual passes. A home run.

Who knows what Winter and snow will do to the bikes and my excitement with them.

But for now, this is one giant step to making NYC—an impossibly busy, crowded and expensive city–just easier, approachable, more human, and of course, more environmentally sane.

 It ain’t perfect but do we really care?

When you are in a rush and the bike racks are full at the most convenient destination, it surely does suck.

When you were counting on a bike as transport and there are simply none there, this is bad. It happens, though way less than it did in the beginning.

There are nits as well. Bike adjustments that won’t tighten and gears that slip. And an app that while great at finding where the next location is, is useless at predetermining whether there are open slots to park or bikes to use.

This isn’t bike rental, it is transportation. And this is New York.

Every day subways during rush hour are too jammed to let you in. Or running late.  Or cancelled.

I’ve been biking in NY for years.

There were less bike lanes, and for what I use Citibike for today, I had to schlepp my bike out of storage and carry chains around to lock stuff up.  And worry generally about theft, safety and weather.

The value of Citibike as a community service is infinitely more important than all the annoyances and imperfections that come along with it.

There seems to be a real business here.

I believe Citibank put in $41M to get this started.

As of September 15th, Citibike had generated $10,067,819 in fees, excluding overtime charges. The goal of $36M per year over time in revenue seems like a slam dunk. I don’t have any insight into operating costs and details, but I’ll take these gross numbers as an indication that this is trending well.

So let me see:

New York is a town where getting a permit is a serious nightmare.  Getting stuff done is daunting for the most staunch and perspicacious, and the most wealthy and insulated alike.

Citibike had to change the very fabric of our streets. Build bike lanes, remove parking spots and meters, change the look and feel of old and affluent neighborhood streets. And add 6,000 people on two wheels, tooling around south of Madison Park during any given 45 minute period.

There was no real marketing or advertising that I noticed. No deaths that I know of, and rumored few accidents.

All this work and change so I could get to where I need to, easier and cheaper. Nice of them!

And as a tax payer, this seems to be net positive from the outset as taxes will be generated (I think) and paid into the city coffers.

Not too shabby.

Lessons that jump out from this.

This is a great analog for all of us who build products and companies, brands and customer service organizations.

It’s a case study in taking a real human problem and solving it by providing a service that does one thing really well. In using the web as an on ramp to add efficiency to activities on the street.

And proof that there are things that done simply and clearly can indeed change the world and how we live in it.

I took a ride this morning to the West Village to get some supplies. (A thirty minute round trip!)

Three core marketing lessons jumped out at me as I was riding along:

1. True user value makes the seemingly impossible an insignificant barrier

If my numbers are right that this was built for $41M, I’m in awe.

The software, the bike design, the permits, the approvals, the physical process of changing the streets. Then the infrastructure to make it work and keep it updated.

All that, so in 6 months, hundreds of thousands of  people like myself can blithely walk down the street, get somewhere with ease, with no instructions, no fuss or bother.

If you are touching on something that truly can matter to a sizable market, the end can really justify the severe pain of the means.

2. Consumer behavior is remarkably malleable

Marketers and business builders rightfully fear the idea of having to educate a new mass market. The idea of teaching consumers new behaviors is a costly and long nightmare. You always want to extend what consumers are doing, not add something potentially alien and disconnected. Possibly wrong.

Bike share is albeit not a new concept. I used Veleb in Paris 6 years ago and bike shares everywhere from Vienna to London. But this is New York!

People said it just wouldn’t work. That there would be consumer blood on the street every day from trucks wiping out tourists. That this is just not how we do things here.

They were wrong. The behavior was either there and very latent. Or the market had some weird vestigial drive to jump on a bike and that Citibike simply created a platform to exercise that need.

I don’t know.

I do know that bike share for New Yorkers is as much a part of life moving forward as well…those really recent digital signs on the subway platforms! How did we ever get from here to there without them.

Was this project a risk?

A huge one and Bloomberg’s legacy depended on it.  I think that his legacy will now be built on this as one of his (and the city’s) biggest wins.

We all create things that don’t work, more often than not.  This one did…and really well.

 3. A truly great product has marketing built in

Citibike’s marketing is built into the product itself. The ease of use and the clarity of why it is here and what it is best at.

They made tough decisions like where to deploy and I’m certain, made lots of enemies in the process. And important, little things, like that real people answer the phones when you call with a concern.

Citibike does one thing really well. It let’s you get from here to there without fuss. This is a really big deal. That is the positioning, the promise and what is delivered. Thousand of people signed up walking by and hopping on for a ride the day it started.

Not everything is perfect with this service. But it never made me crazy like a lost file on my laptop, a Zip Car with no way to get back to the garage, or going out of cell range on an important call.

Very few things of grand scale get done good enough the first time around.

Most products have to work amazingly hard to find an audience and most never do. The winners evolve and iterate to find their right pace and market connection. And in almost every case, what and how we think will work, invariably doesn’t.

Not this one.

Well done Citibike!

We all win as New Yorkers and tourists.  And the New Yorkers who ride their own bikes win with more paths and a more friendly bike culture.

As marketers, we get a living example of how things do at times, in spite of everything, just come together and feel like they belong from the very beginning.


Do share your own experiences with Citibike or bike shares wherever you use them.

Numbers for this post were taken from this Newsday article.