Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, or an expert on any of this, nor am I privy to any kind of inside information. What follows is simply conjecture from a concerned citizen based on what I have read in news reports.
The government and media response to the revelation that the NSA is secretly monitoring phone records from millions of Americans has been generally consistent on a single point: The surveillance program may be outrageous, or immoral, but it is probably lawful.
I’m not so sure about this.
The Guardian reported that the metadata the NSA has been harvesting for years includes the phone numbers of caller and recipient, the timing and duration of calls, and the location of both parties.
Most reactions have been focused on phone numbers dialed as the biggest assault on privacy, but the collection of location data from each call may actually be the most alarming, and the most clearly illegal.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of pinpoint, continuous surveillance is authorized by law. The key legal precedent here would be US v Jones (2012) , where the Supreme Court held that the warrantless placement of a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car was illegal. The Court’s decision only applied to accurate GPS location data, not the less precise cell tower data, which has not, so far, been considered a search by the courts.
That said, it’s worth looking closely at the Supreme Court’s opinions in Jones to make a guess about how the court might rule on the inevitable lawsuits arising from this matter.
As described in the excellent analysis on SCOTUSblog, the opinion drew a clear distinction between short-term monitoring and long-term monitoring with regard to constitutionality and reasonable expectation of privacy. You should really read the entire article, but here are the highlights that stood out to me:
According to the concurrence, short-term monitoring does not violate a reasonable expectation of privacy. And that opinion is not limited to the attachment of physical devices. On that view, the government seemingly is perfectly free to, for example, use cell phone triangulation to track an individual’s movements for two or three days. (Presumably, it would need the cooperation of the cell phone company.)
That ruling is where the lasting significance of the decision lies, but even it has very significant limitations. Justice Alito’s reasoning is decoupled from the installation of any device; it relates to the government’s monitoring of individuals’ movements through any means. So it clearly applies to tracking cell-phone signals, for example. It establishes the very significant point that the government does not have a completely free hand collect information on individuals’ movements for long periods of time.
This seems pretty clear to me. The government has been tracking everyone’s movements for years. It’s hard to see the legal foundation for massive, long-term, warrantless surveillance in the context of the Jones opinion.
It’s somewhat jarring to consider that at the same time The Dark Knight imagined a futuristic technology that was able to track individuals in a city using their cell phones, our own government was already operating a more advanced system that covered the entire country.
I’ve written before about improving productivity by optimizing tasks for maximum leverage. Once the high-leverage tasks are identified, I do one more thing: group tasks by creative energy level required.
High energy tasks require higher-level thinking, analysis, and creativity. Writing (code and words), working on distribution strategies, negotiating with potential partners, are examples of high energy tasks.
Low energy tasks don’t tax the brain and are generally less creative and more mundane, such as doing errands, cleaning out spam emails, reading industry news, and so on.
The high energy and low energy categories correspond roughly to the act of producing and the act of consuming, respectively.
I alternate high energy and low energy tasks depending on the time of day. Early morning, when I still have a lot of creativity and a clear head is for high energy tasks. Right after lunch,late in the evening, or the middle of my commute are good times for low energy tasks.
I’ve found that this method, optionally matched with splitting up tasks into Pomodoro units, lets me work almost nonstop for fairly long periods of time.
The real reason we check the news or read blogs to take a break from work is to turn off our brain and switch from producing to consuming. It seems that taking a break by doing an important, but still low-energy task, is just as effective.
The biggest single increase to my productivity came from one simple change.
I’ve started prioritizing my tasks for the day based on how much leverage they give me. The highest leverage task gets done first thing in the morning, then the second highest leverage task, and so on.
I’m loosely defining leverage here as impact, ROI on time spent, or “bang for the buck”. Every day in the morning before work, I ask myself “Which task will have the most disproportionate impact on my personal goals?”, and I do that one first.
Not the task I’m dreading the most (Sorry Brian Tracy).
Not the task that seems the most urgent.
Not the task that most people are asking me to do.
Only the task that has the most leverage.
Writing a guest blog for a popular publication is higher leverage than writing for our own, smaller blog. Prospecting and recruiting another engineer is higher leverage than trying to write code myself. Sending a batch of targeted business development emails is higher leverage than meeting a potential partner for lunch.
It’s hard to measure actual productivity, but my perceived productivity has skyrocketed since I started doing this, because I start every day doing something that feels important and meaningful.
The low leverage tasks, the ones that have the wrong ratio of effort to reward, get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list, and eventually never get done. No time is wasted on low-impact tasks- they’re rarely as important as they seem.
I suspect that implementing this as a companywide policy may lead to large gains in employee morale and productivity.
One of the best ways to influence someone is to find some way to align their goals with yours. Figure exactly what they want and how it matches up with what you want, and focus on the intersection.
I’ve dramatically improved the success rate of my cold emails for partnerships, customers, and press with one simple question. Before sending an email, I ask myself one simple question:
What one thing keeps this person up at night?
This works for all emails I send, from personalized pitches to mass marketing emails.
Getting at that big “one thing” is not as straightforward as it may look. If you have a B2B product, saying that responding to your email will help your prospect make more money isn’t good enough.
Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
The goal your product helps customers reach should be as high on that pyramid as possible. A good way to move up the pyramid and get at someone’s deep goals and desires is to start at a basic benefit and keep asking “Why? Why is this important?”.
Students of NLP will recognize this exercise as value elicitation, and it can be incredibly powerful.
Let’s pretend you have a product that helps salespeople close more sales. We can start at that benefit and go deeper to move up the pyramid towards higher needs. Your hypothetical conversation with a salesperson who’s a good fit for your product might go something like this:
What keeps you up at night? What do you worry about?
I think about ways to close more sales.
What’s important to you about getting more sales?
More sales means more commissions, so I can make enough money to buy the things I want.The base of the pyramid. Physiological.
What’s important to you about making more commissions?
If I start bringing in more sales, I’ll be more likely to be identified by my boss as a high performer, and won’t be let go for underperforming.The second stage: Safety.
What’s important to you about being identified as a high performer?
I always see the top salespeople at my company going out to lunch together and sharing stories about the big clients they landed. It would really be great to be one of the “big dogs”.The third stage: Belonging.
What’s important to you about being one of the top salespeople?
If I was one of the top salespeople, it would really show everyone that I’m successful. I would get a lot more respect around the office.The fourth stage: Esteem.
What’s important to you about getting more respect from your coworkers?
I feel like people don’t give me enough credit sometimes. They assume I’m not good enough to be one of the top salesmen, but I know that I’m capable of being great at my job, if I just had a fair chance.The fifth stage: Self-actualization.
The salesman’s responses illuminate clearly his path to self-actualization. Now all you have to do is empathize with that path, and align your goals by showing in an unambiguous way how doing business with you (your goal) helps him reach his true goal.
If you received two equally credible emails, one that promises to help you make more money, and one promising a path towards unlocking your true potential, which one will you reply to first?
We’ve systematized this process by adding a field in our CRM called BENEFIT TO THEM. For every contact added to CRM, this field must be completed. If we can’t quickly describe the precise benefit that contact would get from responding to our email, they don’t get added to the database.
For one day, try this exercise: before every email, ask yourself about the biggest benefit the recipient will get from reading it. Really think about it. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.
There’s been an illness going around startup land, a crippling disease that is paralyzing startups everywhere.
This sickness is called fear of money, and thousands may be afflicted with this epidemic.
A lot of startups, especially SaaS startups, are extending their free beta for far too long. So many companies seem scared of pulling the trigger and asking their users to give them a dollar, and evolve from users to customers.
The concept of a “free beta” dates back to desktop software, where beta versions were distributed to enthusiasts and early adopters. Beta versions of paid software were buggy, broken, and not unlikely to crash your system or delete all your data. They came with no support or warranty, and were meant for a small subset of users who would test the product at their own risk.
Now, feature-complete, mature products-including many SaaS products aimed at businesses, targeting mainstream users are routinely released as “limited time free beta”. They’re just happy to get users, eyeballs, and “customer development”. These products work as well as commercial competitors. They come with full support. But they’re still free for a limited time, because these startups are so very scared of asking for money.
Their fear is justified, because the second you start charging for a product, all of the bubbly bullshit falls away. The market is cold, rational, and effective. It doesn’t care about your lean startup methods, your rockstar team, or your fawning tech press. All of your assumptions, vision, business plans and pitches are irrelevant.
You’ve either built something worth paying money for, or you haven’t.
The moment you get paid for your product, is the moment you emerge from the warm, caring Silicon Valley cocoon into the real world, where people are used to paying for things they want. The real world, where most of your future customers are. When you start actually selling something, your company grows up from a prototype into a real business.
It’s natural to want to delay growing up as long as possible, to bask in fuzzy glow of revenue projections and hockey stick growth estimates, in optimism for a sunny future where nothing can go wrong.
The realization that you’re selling something nobody wants is like a punch in the gut, an empty, sinking feeling that sucks all the oxygen out of the room and leads you to question your very existence.
Your unconscious recoils in horror at that possibility, and you try to rationalize delaying the moment of truth with escalating excuses.
“Just one more feature. Then we’ll be ready”.
“We need to do more customer development first”.
“We haven’t A/B tested our landing pages yet”.
But by refusing to charge for your product, you’re only delaying the inevitable. At some point, you’ll need to confront reality, and the more you delay it, the worse the outcome.
So rip off the band-aid. Get out of beta. Ask for money. Now.
This is why I think App.net is so important. App.net is the cure to fear of money.
It’s an early beta. It’s minimal and incomplete. And it has done over $500,000 in sales in just a few weeks, because the founder got the fear of money out of his system and had the guts to get a product out to market and sell.
People will pay for a beta product, if you make something people want. And the easiest way to see if you’re making something people want is to test if they’re willing to pay for it.
The greatest impact of App.net for the startup community might be as the harbinger of a new dawn of products that are designed to make money from day 1.
If people want something that solves a problem for them, they will always be willing to pay for it. Always remember that.
A lot of people like to criticize startups, particularly Silicon Valley companies, for their focus on short term thinking: hiring as fast as possible, launching lots of small projects, celebrating the funding round that will give them another 12 months of runway. Watching from the sidelines, commenters lambast entrepreneurs for going for the quick flip rather than focusing on creating a road map for building an enduring business.
Here’s why entrepreneurs are focused on the short term:
Nobody has a clue about the future.
It usually takes at least 5 years to build a company to exit or profitability. In technology, 5 years is a very, very, very long time.
I’m writing this post in the middle of 2012.
5 years ago, in the middle of 2007:
Digg was the future of communication and worth $200 million
Twitter was still a niche curiosity
Facebook had under 50 million users
Zynga was a tiny startup making poker apps, and virtual goods and in-app purchases were used primarily by a few obscure Asian MMOs.
Nobody believed mobile would be the fastest growing segment of tech
The economy was doing incredibly well and would keep growing forever
And so on. If, in 2007, you had to write a business plan for a startup and stick with it for 5 years, you would have been annihilated by changes in the way content is created, consumed, and distributed online. See the App Store, Facebook’s Social Graph, Twitter, etc.
In technology, long term thinking is impossible, because everything changes so fast, and the pace of change is quickening. The rules are changing too fast. Nobody knows when a sudden shift in technology will open up new markets and business models.
All we can do as entrepreneurs is take it step by step, and adapt quickly when we sense the market shifting.
The best companies are not built on a single, infallible grand vision. They’re built piece by piece, making one user or customer at a time, getting to the next milestone and waiting for the next major opportunity to reveal itself.
I remember the first time I learned about the true nature of reward in the real world. It was jarring and sudden, a feeling someone less cynical might call a paradigm shift.
From the time we’re first able to learn, society teaches us that reward is a function of effort. Work hard, and you’ll be rewarded. Study hard in school, and you’ll be able to go to a good college. Study hard in college and you’ll be able to land a job at a prestigious company. Work hard at your job, and you’ll get a promotion to a position that pays more. The world rewards hard work. The harder you work, the more money you make. The people that make the most money are the ones who work the hardest.
This, of course, is a monstrous lie.
Why do actors clowning for the camera a few hours a day make 1,000 times as much as teachers? They certainly don’t work 1,000 times harder.
This is generally considered a great injustice, a failure of free market capitalism.
But markets don’t have the capacity to be just or unjust. They just exist, indifferent to whatever the contemporary moral outrage may be.
People perceive stratospherically high salaries in feature films, professional sports and hedge funds as unfair because they’ve made the assumption, drilled into them by years of socialization, that reward is correlated by effort. .
But markets don’t reward hard work or effort. Let’s repeat that, for clarity:
The amount of money you make has nothing to do with how hard you work.
The market doesn’t care how much work you put into a product you’re selling.
What markets really reward is RISK.
Top film actors make millions because they undertook the incredibly risky decision to come to Hollywood and try to make it as an actor. The expected value of becoming an actor is actually quite low, and the chances of getting “discovered” and making it big are minute. In order to incentivize people considering becoming an actor, the rewards for making it big have to be incredibly high to compensate for the risk.
In any field where the people at the top make a lot of money, you’ll find thousands more striving for the top but making nothing.
More accurately, markets really reward perceived risk. The activities that people see as risky will always provide a proportionately high reward, even if the actual risk isn’t very high.
For example, wildcatting for oil (drilling oil wells outside known oil fields) is currently very risky. You could spend a lot of money drilling only to find nothing. Of course, if you do hit oil, you’re rich.
Now imagine you invent a process for finding out exactly where every untapped oil reserve is. Wildcatting is no longer risky for you, because you know exactly where to drill. But you can still make a lot of money looking for oil because the process remains risky for everyone else.
Therefore, if your goal in life is to make a lot of money, you should calibrate your efforts towards two strategies:
Finding ideas that are actually less risky than they seem.
Identifying methods for de-risking a currently lucrative idea or career.
Startups are a great example of combining (1) and (2) for maximum probability of success.
Starting a startup, especially if you’re lucky enough to do it with OPM(Other People’s Money) is, in reality, a very low risk endeavor. And you can further de-risk the project and increase your chances of success by following best practices (cf. the Lean Startup movement) and systematically optimizing traditionally risky areas of business like customer acquisition.
But the perceived risk of quitting your stable, reliable job to strike out on your own and try an unproven business model remains very high. Thus, startups remain lucrative for those willing to think critically about perceived vs. actual risk.
I have a simple rule for dealing with incoming email:
If you send me an email and I don’t know you, I need to know in about 15 seconds how reading this email is going to make me more money. If, after 15 seconds of reading, I don’t know that, I move on to the next email.
And that’s generous. I’m on the other side frequently, sending cold emails to busy people, demanding their attention over everything else they’ve been thinking about. I know I’m not going to get a lot of their time or attention, and everyone, consciously or unconsciously, filters the same way: Is this (email|blog post|product|person I meet) going to help me get more (money|power|fame|women)? If not, move on.
Studies show that the average short term attention span of an adult is about 8 seconds. Considering that the average adult reading speed is about 250 words per minute, or 4.167 words/second, that gives you about 33 words to convince your audience that devoting their attention to you will help them achieve their goals.
Cold emails work. But you only get one shot, and about 33 words.
I really don’t enjoy writing code. I think programming is rather dull. Spending hours hunting for an errant punctuation mark is infuriating.
I’m a marketer. I love writing copy, optimizing campaigns, scaling traffic sources. Building software isn’t really my thing.
I bootstrapped my first internet marketing company in the middle of Wisconsin, competing against much larger businesses in a ruthless market.
I was wasting enormous amounts of time manually doing tasks that could be automated. Everyone in the industry was.
My attempts at outsourcing failed miserably, and I couldn’t afford to hire locally. Maybe it was the distance from Silicon Valley, but the thought of looking for engineers who would work for free never occurred to me. I doubt I would have found anyone interested in equity over cash anyway.
But I desperately needed an alternative to my manual labor to exist. My competitors weren’t automating, but they had enough money to hire 20 people to manually complete the tasks I was struggling with. If I didn’t come up with an automated, scalable solution, my business would die.
I had no choice.
Slowly, piece by piece, I started reading tutorials to fill in the gaps.
HTML. PHP. MySQL. Jquery.
No time to learn fundamentals, or the right way to do things. Just enough to build something, anything that would help me move faster and get more done, because if I don’t move faster than the competition, I don’t eat.
I learned just enough to get by and somehow solve the problem I was facing at the moment, usually with a clunky, inefficient script that was barely working.
I multithreaded my PHP scripts by opening lots of terminal windows and pasting in the command to run the script in each one. That sort of thing.
I’m in a very different position now. I’m running a funded startup. I have a great technical cofounder and work with an incredible team of talented engineers.
But the lessons I’ve learned from actually building and launching products are invaluable.
I never ask for specific estimates or set hard deadlines for finishing a project. I know firsthand that the last 10% of a project can take 90% of the time.
I don’t say things like “This looks really easy to do, you can throw it together in a couple hours, right?” The most complex projects can look deceptively simple.
I can explain clearly what I’m looking for and visualize how all of the parts of the project come together. I won’t completely change my mind and force developers to start over because “I imagined it would look different.”
I know how effective you can be when you get in the “zone”, and how destructive meetings and other interruptions can be to an engineer’s productivity.
I don’t think I’ll ever be good at programming. I don’t need to be. But I’ve become pretty good at prototyping. I can read and understand API docs and write a quick Python script to pull in the data I need. I can set up a MySQL database and run simple CRUD queries on the data. I can use Bootstrap to design a simple UI for a quick demo. I think my ability to build a quick and dirty proof of concept helps everything I do as a startup founder.
And, most importantly, I have a deep appreciation for the work software engineers do and what it really takes to create a product.
Unless you’re passionate about making it your career, learning to code is not about becoming a great engineer. It’s about gaining insight and perspective. I think if your ambition is to found or work at a technology company, there’s no substitute to that perspective.
You have to learn to code.
This seems like a good opportunity to mention that my startup MixRank is hiring engineers. If you’re interested, please send an email to jobs at mixrank.com.
Don’t worry. I won’t be the one doing the technical interview.