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.