Ikigai: How to Find Professional Success

On December 25, 2017, I tweeted out a page from the World Economic Forum about Ikigai and was shocked at how broadly it spread. This post elaborates on the concept.

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Over the last twenty years, I’ve been asked by hundreds of students for advice on how to think about their careers post-graduation. Inevitably, I’ve always responded with a simple framework to help structure their thinking around picking a profession:

  1. What are you exceptional at?
  2. What do you love to do?
  3. What does the world value?

As it turns out, there is a Japanese concept for this framework. Ikigai.

The Reason You Get Up in the Morning

Dan Buettner gave a TED Talk called, “How to Live to Be 100+.” He focuses quite a bit of his lecture on the island of Okinawa and their extraordinary number of centenarians. He identifies several diet and lifestyle habits that seem to correlate with a long and healthy life. Ikigai is one of those concepts. He recently gave an interview in the Telegraph:

They all have an ikigai. “In the Okinawan language,” said Dan, “there is not even a word for retirement. Instead, there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is ‘ikigai’. And, roughly translated, it means ‘the reason for which you get up in the morning.’”

He talked of a 102-year-old karate master who still practised, a 100-year-old fisherman who loved to bring the catch to his family, and a 102-year-old who, asked what her ikigai was, said that holding her great-great-great-granddaughter, a century her junior, felt like “leaping into heaven.”
In Buettner’s framework, Ikigai is not just something you think about when you are picking majors. It’s a form of balance that you seek through your entire life.

What Are You Optimizing For?

When I was in college, my mother constantly reflected on the bad advice she felt students were given as they attempted to pick a career. “Everyone tells students to follow their passion. It’s not that simple. There is a big difference between a hobby and a career.”

My father tended to be more direct. “The world doesn’t owe you a living,” he would often say, “Find something that people value.”

Our popular culture has become saturated with the idea that if you just find your passion, something you love doing, then your career will magically present itself. If only success were so simple. Finding something you love to do is critical, and if you are fortunate, you’ll find several. As it turns out, that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The fact is, you may love something that the world doesn’t value highly. The world may value things that you aren’t very good at. And of course, you may be good at something that you don’t want to do.

The benefit of Ikigai is that it helps separate out the dimensions you can optimize your professional efforts around, in attempt to help you find a combination that will result in professional success and fulfillment.

Four simple questions.

  1. What do you love? Find something that you really enjoy doing. It’s simple to say that the journey is the reward, but when you love to do something, work can be something you look forward to.
  2. What are you good at? We all have different talents and aptitudes. With practice and determination, you can develop mastery in a wide variety of areas. However, if you have a natural (or hard-earned) talent in an area, that’s worth identifying.\
  3. What can you be paid for? Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that the other humans around you will value it. Looking for something that the market will reward financially is a critical piece of this puzzle if for no other reason than to set expectations realistically.
  4. What does the world need? Being the unabashed capitalist, I originally assumed that anything the world needed would also be something the world would pay for. Stepping away from the theoretical argument, there is significant value in transparency from separating out this requirement.

Imperfect Combinations of Three

One of the most insightful aspects of Ikigai is the imperfect combinations of three of the four dimensions that are represented in the chart by different colors.

If you find work that you are good at, that you can be paid for, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling comfortable but unfulfilled. In this case, you aren’t working on something you love, but likely being compensated for your work and seeing its valuable impact on others.

If you find work that you love, you are good at, and that you are being paid for, you may find yourself feeling satisfied but useless. In this case, you aren’t working on something the world needs, but likely being compensated for your work and enjoying what you do.

If you find work that you love, you are good at, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling delighted but uncompensated. In this case, you aren’t working on something that world pays for, but you enjoy what you do and do it well. Fulfillment without wealth.

If you find work that you love, you can be paid for, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling excited but uncertain. In this case, you aren’t good at what you do, but you are being paid for something useful, and you love it. Purpose without proficiency.

It is not difficult to think of situations and phases in your life where you might not need to optimize for every dimension. For example, after a financially successful career, it is fairly easy to imagine why a person might optimize around work that ignores the need to be paid. For a retiree, the space between passion and mission might look ideal.

Finding Balance

Ikigai might sound like the right way to talk to students or young professionals in your life about their professional focus. But I would argue that no matter where you are in your career, you should take the time to be intentional about your professional choices and ask yourself these four questions.

Ikigai. It might be the key to a long & healthy life.

Solve the Product Maze Backwards

As the father of young children, I can tell you that there is a special place in my heart for restaurants that provide puzzles and crayons for small children to pass the time.

On a recent trip out to The Counter in Mountain View, Jordan (who is 8)  was really struggling with a large maze puzzle on one of these activity sheets. It was a fairly large maze, and he was frustrated by his inability to see the dead ends ahead, forcing him to retrace his somewhat tortured crayon path.

I told him to try to solve the maze backwards.

As you can probably guess, he began at the end, and was able  to find a path back to the beginning in just a few seconds . He was delighted, and a bit surprised, to see how simple the puzzle looked like from a different perspective.

Surprisingly, I find that both entrepreneurs & product leaders miss this important lesson when evaluating ideas for either their company or their products.

Three Questions in Product Prioritization

In my experience, there are three common questions that often come up when product features are being debated:

  1. Should we build this?
  2. When should we build this?
  3. How should should we build this?

Unfortunately, even highly talented teams can become  get bogged down in debate and uncertainty when all of these questions become entangled. As engineers & designers are professionally trained to answer the question of “How,” the worst debates tend to happen around the questions of  “Should” and “When.”

Too often, when debating what feature to work on next, debates around timing quickly devolve into debates about whether the feature is needed at all.

Solving the maze backwards does a fantastic job of disentangling these two questions. Simply asking the question of “If we are successful, will we have this feature in 3 years?” tends to illuminate whether the debate is about “Should” or “When.”

If the answer is yes, you will have that feature, then the question is simple. You are just debating priority.

Avoid the Local Maximum

One of the well known issues with iterative processes for delivering product features is the “local maximum” problem.

The assumption is that where ever you start with your product, your team keeps working on improvements. Each improvement is measured to ensure it is “better” than the product before the change. However, you can reach a point where every change you make hurts the metrics that you measure. The fear is that there is a better version of your product (the absolute maximum), but it requires a change bigger than you can get to from the current design.

It’s called a local maximum problem because of the similarity to the concept in mathematics when you are traveling along the curve. From the local maximum, every move is down, even though the curve ends up higher eventually.

Solving the maze backwards can help.

By asking the simple question about whether or not your product in the far future has a given capability, it can unblock your thinking about what leaps and changes will be necessary. Whether the limitations are in technical architecture or product design, clarity on your long term vision can help your team visualize a future not trapped by their current constraints.

Too often, the real limitation is not related to either technical or design constraints, but rather a lack of clarity and imagination about what might be possible. Just like a maze, it is easy to get lost in the middle. Thinking backwards from the end goal can help the team escape a Zeno’s paradox of minor feature improvements.

Founders Can Solve the Maze Backwards, Too

It may seem hard to believe, but in early 2009 when I took over LinkedIn’s mobile efforts, there was still active debate within the company about whether to dedicate significant effort to mobile. Why? Well, back in 2009, the Blackberry was still hitting record sales, the  app store was a year old, and from a web metrics point of view, mobile views represented less than 1% of LinkedIn’s traffic. Like every hypergrowth startup, LinkedIn had a huge number of initiatives it wanted to pursue around growth, engagement & revenue, and it wasn’t obvious that mobile would move any of these needles for the company in the next few years.

Solving the maze backwards helped.

What was fairly obvious in 2009 was that the growth rate of mobile engagement was compounding at a phenomenal rate. LinkedIn, as a professional use case, might have been slightly behind social use cases for mobile adoption, but it was fairly clear that within 5 years (by 2014), mobile should represent a majority (over 50%) of all visits to LinkedIn.

Thinking backwards helped give us the confidence to invest in both talent and technology that had little short term payoff, but would become essential to engagement over the next five years as those predictions came true.

Fast forward to 2017. I was recently meeting with a founder who was debating whether they should hire a Vice President of Marketing. As he walked me through his thinking, the argument wandered, and became more focused on whether or not the company “needed” marketing.

I asked him if there was any way, if the company hit their numbers over the next three years, that the company would not need marketing, or an experienced marketing leader?

The CEO quickly responded that marketing would be essential to hit the numbers they were looking for in three years. All of a sudden, the conversation changed. The question wasn’t whether or not to invest in marketing, but more a question of when they need to.  Was this a 2017 or a 2018 problem? Is this something they would need to hit the milestones to raise their next round of funding, or something that they would invest in during the next cycle?

It was now a question of when.

Questions of “Should” vs. Questions of “When”

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” — Michael Porter

Being clear about what your product will and won’t do is a critical element of product strategy. However, because it is so important, even well-meaning teams can turn almost any feature into an existential debate.

Thinking backwards can help differentiate questions of “should” from questions of “when,” and that can be incredibly productive in moving the discussion to prioritization.

This is not intended to be dismissive of questions of prioritization. Phasing decisions are some of the most important decisions start ups make. Financing for startups is phased. Small teams can only work on a few projects at a time. Customers can only absorb so many new features at once. As a result, prioritization decisions are incredibly difficult to make.

Greedy algorithms are very good, but can be traps if you are working against competitors and an ecosystem that is willing to make bets that lie across the gap from your product’s current local maximum. Thinking backwards can help illuminate long term goals that are across the gap.

When you are building a product roadmap, and get stuck on debates about a short term feature that doesn’t move the numbers, I encourage founders to take a moment and try to solve the maze backwards.

It worked for Jordan, right?

Spend Time Thinking About The People Who Don’t Use Your Product

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This is an extension to my original three post series on user acquisition.

Today, AirBnB announced that it had reached a settlement with the city of San Francisco on how to effectively register and monitor legal listings in the city. I am a huge fan of the company, and it seems like a positive outcome for both San Francisco and AirBnB.

For many, the issues around many of the sharing economy companies, including AirBnB, are examples of regulators trying to find a way to both control and incorporate rapid, disruptive innovation.  There is, of course, some truth to this point of view.

However, as a product leader, there is another important takeaway that seems to be too often forgotten. Most of us spend too little time thinking carefully about the people who don’t use our products. 

The people who don’t use your product often won’t show up in your core metrics. But if you don’t spend time understanding them, you will eventually feel the negative effects in your growth and your brand.

It’s Natural for Companies to Obsess About Their Users

When a startup launches a new product, it is natural to obsess with every user it touches. Every click, every tap, every piece of data is precious feedback about your features. The data is one of the most objective sources of information about what your users are doing with your product and when they are doing it. In the early days, before finding product/market fit, a huge amount of time tends to be spent on the people you touch but who don’t convert. In fact, that may be where most people at the company spend their time.

As consumer products find product/market fit and hit escape velocity, more and more engineers and designers spend a disproportionate amount of time on users. The people who work on growth & marketing will still often continue to look at the data on leads, trying to find ways of converting those non-users to users. However, as a percentage of the company, fewer and fewer engineers, designers & product managers will be looking at data from non-users.

This makes sense, of course, because as your product grows, almost all feature development is focused on your users. In 2008, when we established the Growth team at LinkedIn, we discovered that of the hundreds of features on linkedin.com, only three features reliably touched non-users. (For those of you who are curious, those features were the guest invitation (email), the public homepage (linkedin.com), and the public profile (in search.))

Customer obsession, of course, is generally a good thing. But as we learned at LinkedIn, if you want to grow a viral product, you have to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about the non-user, where they touch your brand and your service, and find ways to both reach them and convert them to users.

You Have More Non-Users Than Users

Few brands and products could ever claim that their conversion rate for everyone they touch is over 50%. It is even possible that Facebook, with nearly 2 billion users, still has more people in the world who have heard of the company than who use it.

In 2011, I remember talking to the great founders at CardMunch about a new email they were proposing to add to their service. CardMunch was a wonderful app that made it effortless to scan a business card and then have it automatically entered into your address book, with almost no errors. The proposal was to add an email so that the person whose business card you scanned (non-user) received an email from the CardMunch user with their business card in electronic form.

The team was ready to whip something together quickly and test the idea, and the concept was good in principle. But given some of the experience of Plaxo a decade before, it was prudent to ask the simple question: “How many people will see this new email?” Within a few minutes, we figured out that the number of people who would receive this email within the first three months would be 30 to 50 times the total user base of the application.

Some of you are probably thinking, “sounds like a great growth feature!” Others are likely venting about why we have so many emails cluttering our inboxes. Both reactions are fair.

The guidance I gave the team, however, was to consider the fact that, once they launch this feature, most people who have ever heard of CardMunch will have only heard of it through this email. The product and the brand. I asked them to spend a bit more time on the design on the email, in that context, to ensure that all of their hard work on a wonderful product wouldn’t be drowned in an avalanche of poor experience.

In the end, Sid Viswanathan & team did a great job brainstorming ways that they could show the value of a connected addressbook in the email, including LinkedIn features like people you know in common. Once framed properly, it was simple to think about what they wanted non-users to think about their brand and their product.

Non-Users Matter

Marketers, of course, have known this for decades. It is a brand marketing staple that it takes at least three touches of a brand before it will stick with a potential customer.

Somewhere along the way, software companies lost touch with the basic idea that every piece of content that contains their brand is a potential touch. It is not just the users of the core product that matter for long term growth.

Market research and customer development are often essential for discovering and understanding new potential users for your product. The case can be made that viral systems can, in fact, spread to these new pockets automatically. However, truly viral products are few and far between, and in most cases these new markets will not be in the data sets that your product & engineering teams are focused on.

Brand will also impact your company well beyond new user acquisition. With AirBnB, we now know the many ways in which their service and brand touch non-users. Neighbors, for example, have natural questions and concerns when a house or a unit near by is available on the platform.

Software companies, especially successful ones, tend to have passionate and talented designers and product leaders who are eager to find clever solutions to real user problems. Given the right data and focus, there is no question that these teams can also design and build features that address non-user concerns.

Tesla spends time thinking both about the feeling a driver has in the car, as well as the experience of a non-Tesla owner who is watching that car drive by.

Spend more time thinking about all of the people who touch your product & your brand, not just your users.

 

The Millennial Definition of Success

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

It’s hard to believe in 2014, but when I first considered joining LinkedIn in 2007, most of my colleagues had trouble seeing the value in a platform built on top of what looked like an online résumé. At the time, when I was asked why I joined the company, I would tell them that it had always been true that success in business was based on what you know and who you know.  LinkedIn was just the modern incarnation of that powerful fact.

One of the most pleasant surprises in my current role at Wealthfront has been discovering how relevant career success is to millennial investors. As it turns out, every generation has grappled with the issue of how to find financial success, and millennials are no different.

What may surprise most people (including my compatriots in Gen X) is that more than any other generation, I believe that Millennials may have a lot to teach us. You see, it turns out that Millennials have figured out how to make that old adage actionable.

Who You Work With & What You Work On

Increasingly, as I talk to Millennials, some of whom who have found early success in their careers, and others who are just starting out, I hear the same things. This generation overwhelmingly associates success with control over who they work with, and what they work on.

There is an old refrain in management that people join companies, but they leave managers. There is a kernel of truth in that statement. However, in the modern workplace, relationships with colleagues, managers and leadership all have a role to play. Increasingly, valuable employees ask:

  • Am I learning from the people I work with?
  • Are we succeeding together as a team?
  • Do I share the same values as my colleagues?
  • Will I fight for them? Will they fight for me?

Driven by Passion, Seeking a Mission

There have been numerous surveys and studies indicating that Millennials are overwhelmingly focused on “their passions.” I think, in some regards, this has trivialized a more fundamental and important trend.

Is it really surprising that more and more people have realized that what you are working on matters?

The old duality of your work life and your personal life have been hopelessly intermingled. Instead of arguing about whether you live to work or work to live, in the 21st century people increasingly turning away from a purely mercenary view of their labor. They want to believe in the mission, believe their efforts are going towards something bigger than just financial reward. This is why you hear increasing anecdotes of young people choosing lower paying jobs, in some cases jobs that pay tens of thousands of dollars less, to focus on an organization that they draw more purpose from.

Success = Control

Not everyone has this luxury, and in some ways that is the point. What does success really mean, if it doesn’t mean that you get increasing control over who your work with, and what you work on?

Wealthfront now has over 12,000 clients, and most of them are under 35. What I find striking is that, overwhelmingly, with every success in their financial lives, these young people seem to immediately focus on using their success to gain control over their careers. They don’t seek to optimize for title, or  financial reward. Instead, they increasingly use their success to effectively fund the ability to work on a product they believe in, an organization they want to be part of, and a leader they want to follow.

As the CEO of a hypergrowth company, this leaves me with two pieces of actionable advice:

  • Financial reward is not enough. If you want to attract and retain the best and the brightest, financial reward is somewhat of a commodity, and an undervalued one at that. Instead, expect potential candidates to look at your company and ask, “Is this a problem I want to work on?” and “Are these people I want to work with?”
  • This is a networked economy. As Reid Hoffman has described, increasingly the value people build in their careers extends outside of your company. There is a material, and possibly essential difference, in a consumer business where your employees feel like they are punching a clock, versus a team that truly believes in what they are working on and the team they are working with. The influence of your employees, especially as your company grows, is under-measured, and as a result, under-appreciated. But in a huge networked economy, it may be the key to differentiated success.

The Future of Social Networking at Singularity U

Last week, I was asked to give a guest lecture at Singularity University on the topic “The Future of Social Networking

To frame the discussion, I chose to walk through the following structure:

  • Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0
  • Social Networking as a disruptive platform
  • LinkedIn as an example of a social platform
  • Mobile as a disruptive accelerator for social platforms
  • Thoughts on future disruptions

On a personal note, I hadn’t actually been back to visit NASA Ames Research Center since my internship during my senior year in high school (21 years ago).  Back then, I was helping develop simulation software for fluid dynamics simulations in Fortran.  Thankfully, no one asked me to code in Fortran during the Q&A.

The team at Singularity U was incredibly gracious, and I appreciated the opportunity to talk to the class.

User Acquisition: Viral Factor Basics

This is the second post in a three post series on user acquisition.

In the first post in this series, we covered the basics of the five sources of traffic to a web-based product.  This next post covers one of the most important, albeit trendy, aspects of user acquisition: virality.

Lot-of-Rabbits

It’s About Users Touching Non-Users

Look at your product and ask yourself a simple question: which features actually let a user of your product reach out and connect with a non-user?   The answer might surprise you.

At LinkedIn, we did this simple evaluation and discovered that out of thousands of features on the site, only about a half-dozen would actually let a user create content that would reach a non-user. (In fact, only a couple of these were used in high volume.)

I continue to be surprised at how many sites and applications are launched without having given careful thought to this exactproblem.  Virality cannot easily be grafted onto a service – outsized results tend to be reserved for products that design it into the core of the experience.

Useful questions to ask, from a product & design perspective:

  • How can a user create content that reaches another user?
  • How does a users experience get better the more people they are connected to on it?
  • How does a user benefit from reaching out to a non-user?

Understanding Viral Factors

One of the most useful types of metrics to come out of the last five years of social software is the viral factor.  Popularized by the boom of development on the Facebook platform in 2007, a viral factor is a number, typically between 0.0 and 1.0.  It describes a basic business problem that affects literally every business in the world:

“Given that I get a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next N days?”

“N” is a placeholder for a cycle time that makes sense for your business.  Some companies literally track this in hours, others 3 days, or even 30.  Let’s assume for now that 7 is a good number, since it tells you given a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next week.

Basic Viral Math

The good news is, once you identify the specific product flows that allow users to reach non-users, it’s fairly easy to instrument and calculate a viral factor for a feature or even a site.  But what does the number really mean?

Let’s assume a viral factor of 0.5, and an N of 7.  If I get a new user today, then my user acquisition will look like this over the next few weeks:

1 + 0.5 + 0.25 + 0.125 ….

It’s an infinite series that adds up to 2.  By getting a new user, the virality of this feature will generate a second user over time.

Two obvious epiphanies here:

  • A viral factor is a multiplier for existing sources of user acquisition.  0.5 is a 2x, 0.66 is a 3x, etc.
  • Anything below 0.5 looks like a percentage multiplier at best.

What about a viral factor of 1.1?

One of the memes that started to circulate broadly in 2008 was getting your viral factor to “1.1”.  This was just a proxy for saying that your product or service would explode.  If you do the math, you can easily see that any viral factor or 1.0 or higher will lead to exponential growth resulting in quickly having every human on the planet on your service.

I don’t want to get into a Warp 10 debate, but products can in fact have viral factors above 1.0 for short periods of time, particularly when coming off a small base.

Learning from Rabbits

The key to understanding viral math is to remember a basic truth about rabbits.  Rabbits don’t have a lot of rabbits  because they have big litters.  Rabbits have a lot of rabbits because they breed frequently.

When trying to “spread” to other users, most developers just focus on branching factor – how many people they can get invited into their new system.  However, cycle time can be much more important than branching factor.

Think of a basic exponential equation: X to the Y power.

  • X is the branching factor, in each cycle how many new people do you spread to.
  • Y is the number of cycles you can execute in a given time period.

If you have a cycle that spreads to 10 people, but takes 7 days to replicate, in 4 weeks you’ll have something that looks like 10^3.  However, if you have a cycle that takes a day to replicate, even with a branching factor of 3 you’ll have 3^27.  Which would you rather have?

In real life, there is decay of different viral messages.  Branching factors can drop below 1.  The path to success is typically the combination of a high branching factor combined with a fast cycle time.

As per the last blog post, different platforms and traffic channels have different engagement patterns and implicit cycle times.  The fact that people check email and social feeds multiple times per day makes them excellent vectors for viral messages.  Unfortunately, the channels with the fastest cycle times also tend to have the fastest decay rates.  Fast cycle times plus temporary viral factors above 1 are how sites and features explode out of no where.

Executing on Product Virality

To design virality into your product, there really is a three step process:

  1. Clearly articulate and design out the features where members can touch non-members.  Wireframes and flows are sufficient.  Personally, I also recommend producing a simple mathematical model with some assumptions at each conversion point to sanity check that your product will produce a strong viral factor, layered over other traffic sources (the multiplier).
  2. Instrument those flows with the detailed metrics necessary for each step of the viral cycle to match your model.
  3. Develop, release, measure, iterate.  You may hit success your first time, but it’s not unusual to have to iterate 6-8 times to really get a strong viral factor under the best of conditions.  This is the place where the length of your product cycles matter.  Release an iteration every 2 days, and you might have success in 2 weeks.  Take 3-4 weeks per iteration, and it could be half a year before you nail your cycle.  Speed matters.

You don’t need hundreds of viral features to succeed.  In fact, most great social products only have a few that matter.

What about mobile?

Now that we’ve covered the five scalable sources of web traffic and the basics of viral factors, we’ll conclude next week with an analysis of what this framework implies for driving distribution for mobile web sites vs. native applications.

User Acquisition: The Five Sources of Traffic

This is the first post in a three post series on user acquisition.

The topic of this blog post may seem simplistic to those of you who have been in the trenches, working hard to grow visits and visitors to your site or application.  As basic as it sounds, however, it’s always surprising to me how valuable it is to think critically about exactly how people will discover your product.

In fact, it’s really quite simple.  There are only really five ways that people will visit your site on the web.

The Five Sources of Traffic

With all due apologies to Michael Porter, knowing the five sources of traffic to your site will likely be more important to your survival than the traditional five forces.  They are:

  1. Organic
  2. Email
  3. Search (SEO)
  4. Ads / Partnerships (SEM)
  5. Social (Feeds)

That’s  it.  If someone found your site, you can bet it happened in those five ways.

The fact that there are so few ways for traffic to reach your site at scale is both terrifying and exhilarating.  It’s terrifying because it makes you realize how few bullets there really are in your gun.  It’s exhilarating, however, because it can focus a small team on exactly which battles they need to win the war.

Organic Traffic

Organic traffic is generally the most valuable type of traffic you can acquire.  It is defined as visits that come straight to your site, with full intent.  Literally, people have bookmarked you or type your domain into their browser.  That full intent comes through in almost every produto metric.  They do more, click more, buy more, visit more, etc.  This traffic has the fewest dependencies on other sites or services?

The problem with organic traffic is that no one really knows how to generate more of it.  Put a product manager in charge of “moving organic traffic up” and you’ll see the fear in their eyes.  The truth is, organic traffic is a mix of brand, exposure, repetition, and precious space in the very limited space called “top of mind”.  I love word of mouth, and it’s amazing when it happens, but Don Draper has been convincing people that he knows how to generate it for half a century.

(I will note that native mobile applications have changed this dynamic, but will leave the detail for the third post in this series.)

Email Traffic

Everyone complains about the flood of email, but unfortunately, it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.  Why?  Because it works.

One of the most scalable ways for traffic to find your site is through email.  Please note, I’m not talking about direct marketing emails.  I’m referring to product emails, email built into the interaction of a site.  A great example is the original “You’ve been outbid!” email that brought (and still brings) millions back to the eBay site every day.

Email scales, and it’s inherently personal in its best form.  It’s asynchronous, it can support rich content, and it can be rapidly A/B tested and optimized across an amazing number of dimensions.  The best product emails get excellent conversion rates, in fact, the social web has led to the discovery that person to person communication gets conversion person over 10x higher than traditional product emails.  The Year In Review email at LinkedIn actually received clickthroughs so high, it was better described as clicks-per-email!

The problem with email traffic generally is that it’s highly transactional, so converting that visit to something more than a one-action stop is significant. However, because you control the user experience of the origination the visit, you have a lot of opportunity to make it great.

Search Traffic

The realization that natural search can drive traffic to a website dates back to the 90s.  However, it really has been in the past decade in the shadow of Google that search engine optimization scaled to its massive current footprint.

Search clearly scales.  The problem really is that everyone figured this out a long time ago.  First, that means that you are competing with trillions of web pages across billions of queries.  You need to have unique, valuable content measured in the millions of pages to reach scale.  SEO has become a product and technical discipline all it’s own. Second, the platform you are optimizing for (Google, Microsoft) is unstable, as they constantly are in an arms race with the thousands of businesses trying to hijack that traffic. (I’m not even going to get into their own conflicts of interest.)

Search is big, and when you hit it, it will put an inflection point in your curve.  But there is rarely anysuch thing as “low hanging fruit” in this domain.

Advertising (SEM)

The fourth source of traffic is paid traffic, most commonly now ads purchased on Google or Facebook.  Companies spend billions every year on these ads, and those dollars drive billions of visits.  When I left eBay, they were spending nearly $250M a year on search advertising, so you can’t say it doesn’t scale.

The problem with advertising is really around two key economic negatives.  The first is cash flow.  In most cases, you’ll be forced to pay for your ads long before you realize the economic gains on your site.  Take something cash flow negative and scale it, and you will have problems.  Second, you have solid economics.  Most sites conjure a “lifetime value of a user” long before they have definitive proof of that value, let alone evidence that users acquired through advertising will behave the same way. It’s a hyper-competitive market, armed with weapons of mass destruction.  A dangerous cocktail, indeed.

While ads are generally the wrong way to source traffic for a modern social service, there are exceptions when the economics are solid and a certain volume of traffic is needed in a short time span to catalyze a network effect.  Zynga exemplified this thinking best when it used Facebook ads to turbocharge adoption and virality of their earlier games like FarmVille.

Social Traffic

The newest source of scalable traffic, social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be great way to reach users.  Each platform is different in content expectations, clickthrough and intent, but there is no question that social platforms are massively valuable as potential sources of traffic.

Social feeds have a number of elements in common with email, when done properly.  However, there are two key differences that make social still very difficult for most product teams to effectively use at scale.  The first is permission.  On social platforms, your application is always speaking through a user.  As a result, their intent, their voice, and their identity on the platform is incredibly important.  Unlike email, scaling social feed interactions means hitting a mixture of emotion and timing.  The second issue is one of conversion.  With email, you control an incredible number of variables: content, timing, frequency.  You also have a relatively high metrics around open rates, conversion, etc.  With social feeds, the dynamics around timing and graph density really matter, and in general it always feels harder to control.

The Power of Five

Eventually, at scale, your site will likely need to leverage all of the above traffic sources to hit its potential.  However, in the beginning, it’s often a thoughtful, deep success with just one of these that will represent your first inflection point.

The key to exponential, scalable distribution across these sources of traffic is often linked to virality, which is why that will be the topic of my next post.

Product Leaders: User Acquisition Series

I can be pedantic about user acquisition.  The truth is that consumer web and mobile applications are under increasing pressure to demonstrate explosive exponential traction.  Building a great product is no longer sufficient, lest you be left with the best product in the world that no one has discovered.

As an engineer and designer by training, I didn’t always put this level of focus on traffic acquisition.  It wasn’t until we tried to build an entirely new site under the eBay brand (eBay Express) that I was forced to focus our team’s efforts on one large fundamental challenge: traffic acquisition.

Those struggles, some successful (and some not) led me to appreciate how profoundly the social web changed the metrics of distribution.  When we founded the growth team at LinkedIn in 2008, we were able to structure our thinking around user acquisition, measure it, and bend the curve significantly for the site. 

A special thanks to both Reid Hoffman and Elliot Shmukler, who both contributed significantly to my thinking on the subject.

History is Written by the Victors

History is written by the victors, and on the consumer web, victory is often defined by market distribution.  Growth does not just happen, it has to be designed into your product and service.

The following posts attempt to capture some of the fundamentals that I’ve personally found useful to structure thinking around social user acquisition, and extend those concepts from the web to mobile applications:

Remember, Product Leaders win games.  Now let’s get started.

How to Make Great Green Beer for St. Patrick’s Day

You learn a lot of things at a hypergrowth startup, mostly by doing.  For some reason, I love St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day wasnt always a big event at LinkedIn, at least until we figured out how to make green beer.

It may sound trivial, but making a great green beer is surprisingly delightful.  Throw in a leprechaun hat, some Irish whiskey, and a warm afternoon, and you’ve got yourself a party.

Step 1: The Beer

We tried quite a few varieties, but what you are really looking for is a bright, vibrant yellow color to start with.   Most people were happiest with Corona, although Beck’s was also popular.  Wheat beers tend to be too cloudy, and anything darker tends to look swampy.

(Listen, I know Corona doesn’t scream Irish, but we’re going for effect here.)

Step 2: Supplies

Before you can have your event, you need to assemble the following:

  • Case(s) of beer.  Theoretically could get a keg, but our parties were never that big.
  • Bottle openers.
  • Clear, 16 ounce plastic cups.
  • Green food coloring, liquid.

Step 3: The Process

The workflow is simple, but this detail is important.

  1. Put two (not one, not three) drops of food coloring in the bottom of a cup
  2. Open the beer
  3. Pour liberally, to get good mixing and a bit of a head

That’s it.  The magic is that you get almost perfect color distribution pouring the beyou over the food coloring.  Adding the food coloring afterward, even with stirring, is a giant fail. You won’t get what you want.

The Results

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! 🍀

Pinterest & LinkedIn: Identity of Taste vs. Expertise

It’s hard to go three feet in Silicon Valley these days without someone commenting on the phenomenal engagement and growth being seen from Pinterest and other curation-based social platforms.  What’s a bit surprising to me, however, is how many people refer to this demand as a growing interest and search for “expertise”.

As I have a passion for finding a more human understanding for what drives engagement in real life and then mapping it to online behavior, I think the use of the term “expertise” here is misleading.  Instead, I believe what we are seeing is an explosion of activity around an incredibly powerful form of identity and reputation: the identity of taste.

Expertise is Empirical

If you go to LinkedIn, you see a site that is rich with the identity of expertise.  LinkedIn has rich structured data around sources of expertise: degrees, schools, companies, titles, patents, published content, skills.  They also have rich sources of unstructured content about job responsibilities, specialties, questions & answers, group participation, status updates and comments.  There are even implicit indications of expertise related to other online identities (like Twitter) and relationships to other people with expertise (connections).

This expertise can be tapped by using LinkedIn’s incredibly powerful search engine, either on site or via API, or by browsing the talent graph displayed in catalog form on LinkedIn Skills.  Github has created a powerful identity for developers based on their actual interests and contributions in code.  Blogs, Tumblr, Quora and Twitter have helped people create identities based on the content they create and share.

The power of identity based on expertise is that it is concretely demonstrated.  Education, experience, content and relationships are all very structured and concrete methods for measuring and assessing expertise.  However, in some ways, expertise is limited by it’s literal nature.  Factual. Demonstrable. Empirical.

Taste is Inspiring

Pinterest, however, has unlocked an incredibly powerful form of reputation and identity that exists in the offline world – an identity of taste.  People don’t care about the expertise of people who are assembling pinboards.  They care about how those combinations make them feel – the concept, the aggregation, the flow of additions.  The Pinboard graph begins for most people with their friends, but people quickly learn to hop based on sources to people they don’t know, finding beautiful, interesting, intriguing or inspiring collections of images.

This isn’t an identity based on expertise, really.  It’s not even clear how closely related it is to a graph of interests. Curation-based social platforms evoke a different phenomenon, and with it, some very powerful emotions and social behaviors.

Taste is different than expertise.  Taste does not imply that you are a good person or a deep well of expertise on the domain.  Taste is not universal, although there are certainly those with a predilection for influencing and/or predicting the changes in taste for many.  But when we as human beings find people whose taste inspires us, it’s a powerful relationship.  We map positive attributes to them, ranging from kindness to intelligence to even authority.  Fame & taste are often intertwined.

You Are What You Curate

Curation-based social platforms are based on the interaction of three key factors:

  1. A rich, visual identity and reputation based on curated content
  2. An asymmetric graph based on not only following people, but specific feeds of curated content
  3. A rich, visual activity stream of curation activity

It’s the first item that I seem to see most under-appreciated.  Vanity, as one of the most common deadly sins in social software, drives an incredible amount of engagement and activity.  As people are inspired by those who create beautiful identities of curated content, they also become keenly aware of how their curated identity looks.  When people signal an appreciation for their taste, it triggers power social impulses, likely built up at an early age.

This, more than anything else, reflects the major step function in engagement of this generation of curation over previous attempts (anyone remember Amazon Lists?)

How Does Taste Factor into Your Experience?

I always like to translate these insights into actionable questions for product designers.  In this case, these are some good starting points:

  • How does taste factor into your experience?
  • Is the identity in your product better served by reputation based on taste or expertise?
  • Are the relationships in your product between users based on taste or expertise?
  • Are you creating an identity visually and emotionally powerful enough to trigger curation activity?
  • Are you flowing curation activity through your experience in a way that stimulates discovery and the creation of an identity of taste?

Don’t underestimate the power of good taste.

LinkedIn in LEGO: Q&A

Ever since I began showing the LinkedIn in LEGO sculpture, I’ve been shocked with how many questions people have about it.  There is definitely something about seeing a LEGO sculpture of this size in person that makes people want to know more.

So while this blog post is the official description of how and why I built the LinkedIn in LEGO sculpture, I thought a 20 questions format would be fun and useful.

Let’s Play Twenty Questions

  1. What gave you the idea to build the LinkedIn in LEGO sculpture?
    I was driving to work in May, and as usual I drove by the Google building that houses the Android team.  They have a tradition of putting a sculpture of each of their releases out based on the codename (“honeycomb”, “ice cream”, etc).  I love these sculptures, but they always bothered me because Google is techie, and there is nothing techie about playground sculptures.I immediately thought how much cooler they would be if they were made of LEGO bricks, and thought that LinkedIn actually had nothing “cool” in its lobby.  So the idea was hatched to build a LinkedIn LEGO sculpture for our lobby on the next InDay.

  2. How big is the sculpture in real life?
    It’s four feet tall, four feet wide, and one foot deep (approximately). 4′ x 4′ x 1′.

  3. Why did you pick that size?
    I tried to pick a size that was big enough to be visually impressive, and a good size for people to stand next to for photographs.  There was also some cost sensitivity, as the number of bricks required effectively goes up as a cubic function.

  4. How big is a LEGO brick anyway?
    There is suprising complexity to this question, but the most interesting aspect of designing with LEGO bricks instead of pixels is that they are not perfectly cubic. A LEGO “stud” is 8.0mm wide and 8.0mm deep, but is 9.6mm tall, giving you an effective 6/5 ratio to work with in your model design.

  5. How many LEGO bricks are in it?
    Unfortunately, I don’t have an exact figure.  I ordered 8,000 bricks from LEGO.com, but also purchased a large number from local LEGO stores.  It’s definitely over 10,000 bricks, but likely less than 12,000.

  6. Are they real LEGO bricks?
    I don’t know why everyone asks that question, but yes, these are regular lego bricks, mostly 2×8.  They are not Duplo bricks or any other no-name brand.

  7. How much does it weigh?
    I don’t have the exact weight, but the shipping weight of the LEGO bricks alone was over 170 pounds, and I purchased at least another 50 pounds of bricks from the LEGO stores.  Including the heavy stand, the sculpture is well over 200 pounds.

  8. Where did you buy them?
    I purchased the bulk of the bricks directly from LEGO.  We had to call and fax the order in because the online form won’t let you order more than 999 of any one brick.  Due to changes in the design made during construction, I ended up buying another several thousand bricks from the LEGO stores in Valley Fair and Hillsborough.

  9. How much did it cost to make?
    Total cost was fairly close to $5,000.  That includes the cost of the bricks, the supplies to build the stand, and other related expenses.

  10. How did you build the stand for it?
    Home Depot to the rescue.  The base is custom cut 3/4 inch plywood, framed by 2×4 lumber, with 6 200-lb furniture moving locking wheels underneath.  Once assembled, I spray painted matte black and screwed the 32×32 blue lego base tiles in a grid on to it.

  11. How did you come up with the design for the [in]?
    This was a bit tricky given the non-square dimensions of the bricks.  Based on 8.0mm width, I quickly determined the logo would be 160 studs wide.  Using the 5/6 ratio, this meant 133 bricks tall.  I took the official LinkedIn logo and reduced it down to a 160×160 bitmap.  I then resided to 160×133, and manually fixed symmetry errors that were introduced by applying the ratio.

  12. How did you build the four rounded corners?
    This was one of the more complicated parts of the construction, as the corners actually support most of the weight of the side walls.  As a result, they are built more broadly internally to ensure significant cross-dimensional support.  The top corners were also particularly fragile at first because of the lack of internal support.  For both the top & the bottom, I had to rebuild them three times to find the strongest pattern of bricks.

  13. Is the white [in] actually inset by one brick?
    Yes.  One of the trickiest aspects of the [in] was insetting it by one brick for effect, and then ensure that there was ample strength between the blue and white bricks.  I ended up building a hidden “3rd layer” behind the seam where the white & blue bricks meet to join the two layers every 10 rows.  I also used 2×3 bricks in several locations to lock in support for the hidden third row.

  14. How did you make the curves smooth?
    The rendering of the curves follows the 160×133 logo exactly.  It’s not perfectly smooth, but I think that’s part of the charm of a LEGO sculpture.  In this industry, we all love pixels at some level.

  15. What’s holding it up?
    The internal substructure is one of the things I failed to model in advance, and had to improvise on during construction.  I ended up making the internal support structure from LEGO bricks as well, which added over 2,000 bricks to the design.  Approximately every 32 studs, there is a “T-shaped” 8 stud clumn that is perpendicular to the walls of the sculpture.  The bricks for the walls of the sculpture are interleaved with these columns every other row, to provide corner-like strength to the entire span.  Every 40 rows, a horizontal beam four bricks tall is added between the columns, to ensure that the large, square walls don’t bend in on each other.  Lastly, there are “joints” internally that bind together the white and blue sections of the design every ten rows.  (see my original blog post for pictures).

  16. What was the hardest part about the design?
    There were a number of difficult challenges, but the most difficult aspect of the design was balancing unexpected stability and design issues with the inventory of bricks that I had available.  Then again, constraints are part of what makes any problem fun to solve.

  17. How long did it take to build it?
    It took about 90 minutes to build ten rows, so the total sculpture took just about 20 hours of effort, typically 1-2 hours per weekend and an evening here and there.  Since I spent about 3-4 hours modelling the design ahead of time in Photoshop and Excel (I needed to learn some niche spreadsheet skills and this Excel article really did the trick), and another 10-12 hours making trips to local LEGO stores, the grand total time is probably 40 hours.

  18. When did you get it done?
    The modelling was all done in my favorite work time, between 11pm & 2am.  I built the base on Father’s Day.  Most assembly was done at LinkedIn on weekends and the odd evening.

  19. How did you learn to do this?
    There was a surprising amount of useful information on blogs from consultants who build LEGO sculptures for a living.  LEGO, as you might guess, is pretty well covered on the web.  I also asked a question on Quora which provided a few useful tips.

  20. Where can I see it?
    It’s not on public display yet, but later this fall it will debut in the new lobby of 2029 Stierlin Court, LinkedIn’s main building.

If you have additional questions, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Be forewarned – I have no qualms about deleting inappropriate comments / questions.

Building LinkedIn in LEGO

I’m pleased to announce that a fairly large side project that I’ve been working on for the past two months is now complete.  The “LinkedIn in LEGO” sculpture is now ready for display in the LinkedIn corporate lobby.  Made up of over 10,000 LEGO bricks, the sculpture stands over four feet tall, and is fairly close to a pixel perfect rendition of the official LinkedIn logo.

Since building a LEGO sculpture of this size was a fairly large undertaking, I thought I’d capture the details of the project on this blog.

Concept: LinkedIn in LEGO

The idea for the project, to be honest, likely has more to do with a lifelong affection for LEGO bricks.  But this particular idea came to me in May, as I was driving to work.  Every day, I tend to pass the Google building that houses the Android team.  They have a fun tradition, which is to build a sculpture of the code name of each release of Android out in front of their building to celebrate shipping.  (Examples: Gingerbread, Honeycomb, etc).  While I love the public celebration of big releases, I thought how out of place the “kiddie” sculptures looked.  After all, Google is a tech company, the statues should be made of something geeky like LEGO bricks.

At the same time, I thought about how LinkedIn didn’t have any sort of large sign or sculpture in its entrance.  The idea for doing the LinkedIn logo in LEGO bricks was born.  I thought I’d be able to get it done in a single InDay – the one day per month LinkedIn has set aside for innovative projects & efforts.  That proved to be a wildly optimistic assessment of the level of effort involved.

Modeling the Sculpture

After some research online, I discovered the basic measurements of LEGO bricks.  They turn out to not be the same in all dimensions: LEGO bricks are 8.0 mm wide “per stud” and 8.0 mm deep, but are actually 9.6 mm tall.  As a result, to build a square you need to model in a 5/6 ratio of height in rows to studs in width.

I decided on a 4′ x 4′ x 1′ rough size, based on evaluating the stable size of our lobby desk, and estimating a good size for people to take a photo next to.  After all, this was intended to be a fun showpiece for guests of LinkedIn.

Given the above, the rough sizing came to:

  • 160 studs wide (~4 feet)
  • 40 studs deep (~1 foot)
  • 133 rows high (~4 feet)

I wasted a couple of hours trying to use the LEGO provided modeling software which they offer on their website.  Let’s just say, not only was the user interface beyond frustrating, but it really wasn’t designed for a project of this scale.  I had to abandon it and find a different way to model the structure.

Adam Nash, the Human 3D Printer

Initially, I created the base design for the “in” logo by taking the standard logo, and rendering it to a 160×133 bitmap in Photoshop.  I then hand-corrected the image to adjust for symmetry errors introduced by the 5/6 ratio in the resizing.  I then had a clean plan for 133 rows in two colors, blue & white.

To create the plan for the actual model, I decided to emulate a 3D printer, laying down each of the 133 layers individually, in order, from bottom to top.  Initially, I did this by hand on paper to handle the tricky first 8 rows which form the bottom “curve” of the logo.  I then moved all the numbers to my favorite modeling tool, Microsoft Excel, where I completed the rest of my modeling.

Each layer is simply a rectangle, two studs thick.  To model the curve, I had to think carefully about how to support the larger rectangle above it, using larger bricks to provide full support.

Once I completed the first 10 rows, I realized that I had made my first error: ignoring interlocking.  I quickly revised my plans to ensure that I alternated the brick pattern at the corners to ensure that the bricks alternated to provide strength and avoid seams.  This actually proved relatively easy (for example, for the regular blue rings, an odd row would be two rows of 160 bridged by two rows of 36, the next ring would be two rows of 156 bridged by two rows of 40.

As a human 3D printer, I was able to model each layer as a row in the spreadsheet.  For each layer, I would model all four sides.  Three of the sides were trivial, since they are all blue.  It was a simple breakdown of the number of bricks into some “standard” pieces: 2×2, 2×3, 2×4, 2×6 and 2×8. Each brick type got it’s own column.

For the face that contained the “in”, the modeling was more in depth.  Like the GIF format, I just modeled “runs” of each color broken down in the standard bricks.  Each “run” was broken into columns for the brick type (example: 22 blue would become two 2×8 bricks and 1 2×6). I then introduced the “jitter” of 2 studs on each side from the alternating corners.

In the end, I had a giant spreadsheet where totaling every column gave me an inventory of bricks that I would need to order.  I then tallied up each brick and rounded up generously to cover the typical 10-15% materials overage that I’ve experience on home improvement projects.  The adjusted total came to almost exactly 8,000 bricks.

Ordering the Bricks

It turns out ordering 8,000 bricks (including over 5,500 2×8 blue bricks) is not a trivial exercise.  LEGO.com blocks you at 999 bricks per type, and chokes over a certain dollar amount.  Instead, after calling LEGO, it turns out that you can place an order via fax, which is what we did.  In case you are wondering, the Danish don’t seem to have a concept of a “volume discount” or “corporate discount”.  Either that, or they knew I’d pay for the bricks.

Unfortunately, fulfillment was ridiculously slow, with no way to accelerate.  They promised 10-15 days, but the reality was some bricks arrived in 2 weeks, some didn’t arrive for 6 weeks.  It was incredibly frustrating, and they didn’t seem to be set up to provide UPS tracking numbers, although we did get a couple through persistent calling.

Building the Base

On June 19th, I kicked off the project with a trip to Home Depot.  I knew that the final sculpture would be heavy, and that it would have to be movable.  So I got a custom cut piece of 3/4 plywood and 2×4 lumber to frame it.  I also got heavy-weight furniture dolly wheels (six).  Framing was fairly simple, and then I spray painted it matte black so it would be relatively invisible.

Once the base was dry, I carefully measured out ten 32×32 blue LEGO plates, and glued them down to the base.  Once the glue was dry, I screwed them down to the base to ensure no issues.  I used the first few rows of bricks to ensure that I had the plates properly spaced, since there is an interesting but necessary 0.2 mm spacing that you have to account for with LEGO bricks.

Assembly

Once LEGO shipped the first few boxes of bricks, I tried to get started with what I had.  I initially built the structure layer-by-layer, but quickly realized it was much quicker to build a small number of rows at the same time.  It made the “staggering” of the bricks much easier.

Unfortunately, despite all of my modeling, I quickly realized that I had to make some significant modifications.  As result, every layer became a realtime adjustment of the model to accomodate what became three crucial issues that I hadn’t accounted for.  They all revolved around the stability & structure of the sculpture as it grew upward.

Design Modifications: Interior Support

I knew that I had cut corners by making the sculpture only 2 studs thick.  Most sources I had found online recommended making the walls 4 studs thick, and even potentially building an interior structure out of wood or PVC pipe.  Unfortunately, I was trying to keep the budget for the sculpture down, and decided to risk a 2 stud approach.  Once I had the bricks, I quickly realized I needed to course correct.

My first modification was to add “columns”.  Every 32 studs or so, I added an 8-stud interior column to form a regular “T shape” with the wall.  The intention was for this to provide some direct support to the walls from falling inward.  While this modification was successful, 8 columns * 133 rows = 1064 additional bricks, and it introduced 8 new junction points that had to be interleaved between odd & even rows for strength.  This modification alone made my original LEGO order insufficient in terms of both size and quantity of bricks.

My second modification were “beams”.  The columns were workable until about 30 rows high, when I noticed that the walls were starting to bend inward a bit.  Knowing that I had over 100 rows left, I had to find a more robust way to square the walls on an ongoing basis.  As a result, I decided to build horizontal beams out of 2×8 LEGO bricks, four bricks deep.  These beams were introduced between the columns, and really reinforced the strength of the structure when pushed from the outside.  I decided to add beams across the columns every 40 layers for strength.

The third modification were “joints” between the blue and white bricks.  When I had modeled the structure, I didn’t consider the obvious fact that because the blue & white were by definition separate bricks, there would be a huge vertical seam, measuring 60+ rows in some cases, where the two colors met.  This was a major weakness, and would lead the letters to buckle inward.  As a result, I designed a “joint” that involved using a hidden “3rd stud” of depth to connect the blue & white bricks with 1×10 bricks, and locking them above & below with 2×3 blue bricks.  By placing these joints every 10 rows, in every location where white met blue, I was able to provide enormous strength to the integrity of the letters.  (I had several office mates “test” this strength, much to my chagrine.)

Inventory Issues: LEGO Stores

All of these modifications, however, led me to need a significant number of new bricks, and in some cases, different sizes than I had ordered.  Given the slow shipping from LEGO, I was worried about ever finishing when I discovered that two large LEGO stores (Valley Fair & Hillsborough) were near by.

There I discovered a few unfortunate facts:

  • They don’t stock most bricks by color and size
  • They don’t have any way to predict which bricks they get week to week (they get supplied on Mondays)
  • They only sell bricks by the cup ($15) or the box ($70)

Needless to say, I made a lot of trips to the stores, and modified my design to accommodate whatever sizes I could get.   Despite the churn, the truth is modifying the design to these new constraints was actually part of the fun.  In the process, I was fortunate enough to find appropriate tiles to smooth out some of the exposed studs, and I was able to figure out a good solution for the “roof” of the sculpture.

Company Event: Time Capsule

As the sculpture came together, I was a bit surprised at how many of my co-workers mentioned to me that it would make a great time capsule.  Because it’s hollow, people seemed to naturally want to put messages in it before it was sealed.

For fun, on August 26th we invited everyone in the company to fill in a card with their prediction for LinkedIn in 2021.  Over 400 cards were filled out and placed in the sculpture.

Final Touches: Dedication & Protection

Once the sculpture was completed, it felt natural to want to dedicate the sculpture in some way.  After circulating some ideas, we had a plaque made that made the sculpture a gift from the employees of 2011, which fit the original concept and theme of the project.  We also decided that it was just too tempting for people to lean on, or worse, climb on the sculpture.  Since that wouldn’t last long, we ordered a large plexiglass box for the sculpture, to keep it protected in the lobby.

Final Thoughts

The final sculpture measures pretty true to design: 4′ x 4′ x 1′.  More impressively, it does successfully move, even though it weighs well over 200 pounds.

I’d say I spent about 20 hours in assembly time (nights / weekends), and about the same in overhead (modeling / travel / overhead).  I’m including in the modeling time the periodic “refactoring” where I would tear down pieces and reassemble as I figured out better solutions for certain sections.

There’s something deceptive about looking at photos of it.  I think there is, deep within most techies, a fascination with objects that are made of a very large number of small objects.  Call it pixel-lust.  But there is clearly something really fascinating about seeing a sculpture like this in real life.  People run their fingers over it, watch the light play off the seams.

Over all, it came out better than expected for a first attempt, especially given that I hadn’t attempted anything like this before.  Of course, like any engineer, I’m convinced that now that I have the system, I could do a much better job the second time…

Step by Step Photos

These are some photos that were taken during construction.  They include:

  • Detailed photos of the base stand itself, and the attachment of the lego baseplates
  • Step-by-step photos of the construction, taken approximately every 10 rows
  • Interior shots of the sub-structure, including the columns, beams, and joints to attach the blue/white bricks internally
  • Some fun shots of people posing with the statue, or putting their “time capsule” predictions inside
  • The final sealed version from a few angles



Designers: Getting the Most Out of Your Product Manager

I gave a lighthearted talk yesterday at the LinkedIn User Experience team’s all hands meeting. I called it “Getting the Most Out of Your Product Manager”, and it was intended to talk from the perspective of someone who has lived in both of the HCI (Human Computer Interaction) & PM (Product Management) worlds.  The goal of the deck was simple – by explaining to designers and user experience professionals what makes a great product manager and how they are held accountable, it more obvious why occassionally PMs & Designers can clash.

There are some inside jokes so it might not be as funny to everyone, but it was popular enough that I thought I’d share it here.

As a side note, it was truly amazing to see such a large and amazingly talented group of designers and web developers arranged together.  Incredible validation of a simple truth – that if you want great user experience, you need to foster a culture and process that not only attracts the best talent, but also lets them do their best work.

It’s hard to believe that it was only in 2007 that we started down the path of having a formal UED team at LinkedIn.  When you see products like the recent LinkedIn mobile products, it’s worth remembering that great designs come from great teams.

 

LinkedIn as a Platform

From the first conversations that I had with Reid Hoffman about LinkedIn, what was striking was the amazing clarity about how value is created by social web properties.  Those conversations turned into one of my favorite talks, where I walk through the basic understanding of LinkedIn as a Platform business for students and new hires.

Since it’s a such a popular framework, I thought I’d capture an outline of it here so that others can benefit from it.  There is nothing here that won’t be familiar to industry insiders and folks who focus on social software.  However, I’ve found that most people, especially technologists who have not had first hand experience with social platforms, seem to find this useful & interesting.

LinkedIn as a Platform

I started my career as a software engineer, and as a result, I’ve always had a very technical view of what defines a platform.  Across multiple decades, platforms tended to be defined by technical constructs: entities and services that are exposed to software developers.

What’s most interesting about the social web is that, for the first time, technology is necessary but insufficient to deliver a successful platform.  So while LinkedIn is a technology company and great technology is a prerequisite for a great platform, it’s important to understand that in this generation great technology alone won’t ensure success.

Why the Social Web is Different

The reason why technology alone isn’t sufficient is due to the simple fact that on the social web, the true value of the platform extends from the users themselves.

First and foremost, users interact with each other.  At LinkedIn, the very first type of interaction was the simple act of connecting.  If you look at Web 1.0 companies, they spend an inordinate amount of money on user acquisition.  On social properties, user acquisition is effectively free because users generate activity, and that activity brings in other users.  This activity can be an invitation, a message, a comment, a like – any way that one person can reach out and contact another user.  More importantly, as a metrics-oriented product manager I can tell you, the likelihood that a person will respond to another person is easily an order of magnitude (10x+) higher than the response rates of a person to a company.  (Just think about your inbox and you’ll see it’s obviously true.)

What’s interesting about all of this user activity is that, in fact, activity itself is a form of content.  When someone responds in a group, comments on a status update, votes on a poll, or answers a question, they don’t just interact with other users – they also create content.  That content, as it turns out, becomes a catalyst for other people to engage and interact.

In fact, one of the primary aspects of a social platform is that users generate content.  Once again, looking back at the Web 1.0 generation of websites, content creation was one of the most challenging things to economically scale.  On social websites, users generate the bulk of the content.  What’s more, that content itself drives additional users to the site.  For example, the very first type of content that users created at LinkedIn was their professional profile.  Users discover this content via search engines, applications, and social distribution, and they join LinkedIn to engage with that content.

When developers want to connect with the LinkedIn platform, whether they are giant companies like Microsoft and SAP or tiny startups, the technology is just the means.  What they really want to connect to is this incredible engine of professionals, content, and activity.  It’s this vibrant, circulating, and growing engine of content that developers want to connect to.  This entire engine is really the LinkedIn platform.

Businesses Built Over the Platform

LinkedIn has had an open developer platform since late 2009, but it was in very early days that the company realized that it was fundamentally a platform business.

Despite it’s popular reputation as a site that has always made money, for the first few years LinkedIn did not focus on monetization at all.  There was always a high degree of confidence that if you could aggregate the world’s professionals and understand their reputations and relationships, it would be a new and incredibly valuable ecosystem.  However, around 2005 and into 2006, LinkedIn began experimenting with a few different theories on what the best way to build a sustainable business over this platform.

One theory was that, when you pull together a huge number of professionals, there would be an opportunity for hiring managers and companies to find great talent.  This was the precursor to the “Hiring Solutions” family of products.

Another theory was that, when you pull together a huge number of professionals, there would be an opportunity for companies to reach professionals with their products and services.  This was the precursor to the “Marketing Solutions” family of products.

Yet another theory was that there would be a small percentage of power users who would be willing to pay money for additional search and communications capabilities.  This was the precursor to the “Subscriptions” family of products.

Now, all of this pre-dates my joining the company, but what is truly amazing about this story is that, very quickly, all of these businesses worked.  And by worked, I mean they started immediately generating interesting and growing revenue.  This is also why LinkedIn slammed to positive cash flow so early in its history, and why the first party I got to attend when I joined the company was the “In the Black” party where the company celebrated that milestone.  (It was a good party.)

I can’t tell you how unique it is to have a technology startup that finds not one, but three potentially huge revenue streams early in its history.  In fact, most venture capitalists tend to prefer that companies find a single business model to execute against.

But the truth is, this was the catalyst for realizing an important fundamental truth: the LinkedIn platform is an incredibly powerful and valuable ecosystem, and that multiple great businesses can (and will continue) be built over it.

Where LinkedIn Spends Most of Its Time

One of the great things about LinkedIn as a company is that there is incredible alignment across the company about how our ecosystem creates value.  The value comes from the vibrancy of the professional network itself.

This is why, across the company, you’ll see that the vast majority of energy is spent on figuring out how to leverage this platform of professional identity and insights to make LinkedIn more useful, more often to professionals globally.  It turns out that the more professionals, the more activity, the more content created, the more value is created for all of LinkedIn’s businesses.

This is why LinkedIn puts their members first.  Our job is to connect the world’s professionals, and make them more productive and successful.  The rest follows.

Extending LinkedIn Across the Web

As LinkedIn extends itself as a true professional operating system for the web, the incredible volume and velocity of professional identity and insights will provide value to a whole new generate of web, desktop, mobile and enterprise applications.