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?

Helping People Save is a Job Worth Doing

“Every day stuff happens to us. Jobs arise in our lives that we need to get done. Some are little jobs, some are big ones. Some jobs surface unpredictably. Other times we know they’re coming. When we realize we have a job to do, we reach out and pull something into our lives to get the job done.” — Clay Christensen

In the summer of 1993, after declaring computer science as my major, I got my first high paying software development internship. Over that summer Hewlett-Packard paid me over $5,000, which seemed like an unbelievable amount at the time.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, I was so excited by receiving this windfall that I promptly spent it. By Thanksgiving, I was shocked to find that my bank account was nearly empty. All that money, gone. It literally sickened me.

That was the moment when I decided to learn as much as I could about personal finance and I got religious about saving.

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done

For a lot of people, there is a moment they can recall when they consciously decided that they wanted to start saving.

When I attended Harvard Business School at the end of the dot-com era, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with Clay Christensen, who at the time had just recently published the now famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In his class, we studied his new theory of disruption, and how industrial giants filled with smart people would make seemingly smart decisions that would lead to their downfall.

One aspect of his theory, which later went into his book, Competing Against Luck, is the Theory of Jobs to Be Done. Quite simply, Clay believes that companies can go astray by focusing too much on the data about their customers and the features of their product. Instead, he argues they should focus on the end-to-end experience of the job that their product is being hired to do.

In the past few years, I’ve come to believe that saving is a job that a huge number of people want a product to help them do and help them do it well.

Saving Itself is a Goal

Our lives are filled with a large number of small financial decisions and problems, but there are only a few very large financial moments that warrant the creation of an entire companies to support. Spending, borrowing, investing and financial advice all certainly fit that description. I believe that saving belongs on that list as well.

Americans are in a terrible state when it comes to saving. 6 in 10 Americans don’t have $500 in savings. An estimated 66% of households have zero dollars saved. If you are cynical about small, one-off surveys, The Federal Reserve itself estimated in 2015 that 47% of households didn’t have the means to cover a $400 emergency expense.

Saving is a huge problem, so it isn’t really surprising that tens of millions of Americans seem to be looking for something to help them save. Enter Acorns.

Hiring Acorns

Over the past two years, it has been astounding to watch Acorns grow. An elegantly simple product, designed from the ground up for a mobile generation, Acorns has grown to over 2 million accounts in less than three years. In the first half of 2017 alone, Acorns added over 600,000 new customers. Their overall mission is to look after the financial best interest of the up-and-coming, something I personally care deeply about.

It isn’t really surprising to see why so many Americans have decided to use Acorns to help them save. 75% of Americans have a household income under $100K. Acorns simple features like Round Ups automate the process of making sure that as you spend, you save. Acorns has now performed over 637 million round-up transactions for their customers – each one an action designed to help people save more. I believe that on any given day, thousands of people decide to hire a product to help them save, and increasingly they are hiring Acorns.

When I met the founders of Acorns two years ago, we immediately connected over the common ground between their culture and Wealthfront’s (the company I was running at the time.) They are very different services, focused on different problems and audiences, but with a shared belief in the power of automation. This is a company worth supporting, and I feel fortunate to serve on their Board of Directors.

At a time when people continue to grow more and more frustrated with the solutions offered by incumbent banks and brokerages, I continue to be excited about the opportunities for new products that are built around automation and world-class software design.  As an industry, we can and should radically improve the financial solutions that are available to everyone. Acorns is proving that saving is a job worth doing.

Silicon Valley Home Prices, Stock Prices & Bitcoin

I’m writing this post with a bit of trepidation, because talking about Silicon Valley home prices these days is a bit dicey. The surge of the last five years has been shocking, and almost no one I know feels good about how difficult it is for people to buy a new home in Silicon Valley in 2017. Some houses are pretty bad but others arae actually at a reasonable price, because they come with furniture and some even come with shutters from plantation shutters installation Sydney. They are actually really good quality.

So if you need a trigger warning, this is it. Stop reading now.

The truth is, as shocking as the rise in Silicon Valley home prices has been, there has also been an asset boom in other dimensions as well. Total compensation for engineers is up considerably and stock prices at the big tech companies continue to rise.

To visualize this, I thought I’d put together a few charts based on real market data. As a proxy for Silicon Valley, I pulled the last 5 years of home prices from Zillow, and monthly stock price data from Yahoo.

Palo Alto Home Prices

Two days ago, the Mercury News reported that a home in Palo Alto sold for $30 million.  A quick check on Zillow seems to confirm this.

I chose Palo Alto as a proxy for Silicon Valley home prices because it is historically “ground zero” for Silicon Valley tech companies, and it has relatively close proximity to all of the massive tech giants (Apple, Google, Facebook).

I picked June 2012 – June 2017, not only because it is roughly five years, but also it also happens to mirror the time that Facebook has spent as a public company. For many in the local real estate market or online sites as SafeguardProperty.com, correctly or incorrectly, the Facebook IPO still looms as a transformational event.

As you can see, in June 2012 the average Palo Alto home cost $1.38 million. Five years later, the estimate for June 2017 is up 84.6% to $2.55 million.

Apple (AAPL)

Apple is the most valuable company in the world, as measured either by market capitalization ($810B as of 6/7/2017) or by profitability ($45.7B in 2016).  Thanks in part to this exception financial performance, Apple stock (AAPL) has risen 84.5% in the last five years, from $83.43 per share to $153.93 per share.

84.5%? Where have I heard that number before?

That’s right, the increase in Apple stock over the last five years is almost exactly the same increase as the average home price in Palo Alto over the same time period.

In June 2012, it took 16,555 shares of Apple stock to purchase the average Palo Alto home. In June 2017, it took 16,566 shares. (Of course, with dividends, you’re actually doing a little better if you are a shareholder.)

If you look at the chart, the pink line shows clearly the large rise in price for the average Palo Alto home. The blue line is the number of AAPL shares it would take to by the average Palo Alto home in that month. As you can see, AAPL stock is volatile, but five years later, that ratio has ended up in almost the exact same place.

Alphabet / Google (GOOG)

Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google, may not be as large as Apple in market capitalization ($686B), but it has seen far more share appreciation in the past five years. Since June 2012, Alphabet has seen its stock price rise 240.4%, from $288.95 in June 2012 to $983.66 per share.

What does this mean? Well, it means that if you have been fortunate enough to hold Google equity, the rise in Palo Alto home prices doesn’t look as ominous. It took 4,780 shares of Google to purchase the average Palo Alto home in June 2012, but it only took 2,592 to purchase the average Palo Alto home in June 2017.

Facebook (FB)

Facebook, the youngest of the massive tech giants, already has one of the largest market capitalizations in the world. As of today, Facebook is valued at $443B. Facebook stock has risen 394% in the past five years, from $31.10 in June 2012 to $153.63 in June 2017.

To state the obvious, it has been a good five years for owners of Facebook stock. Not many assets could make owning Palo Alto real estate look slow, but 394% growth in five years is unbelievable. In June 2012, you would have needed 44,412 shares to buy the average Palo Alto home. In June 2017, that number had dropped significantly to just 16,598 shares.

Bitcoin (BTC)

While I realize that Bitcoin is not a stock, the original idea for this post came from a joke I made on Twitter recently given all of the buzz about Bitcoin, Ethereum and ICOs over the past few weeks.

I couldn’t resist running the numbers.

For the small number of readers of this blog that haven’t been following the price of Bitcoin, the increase in value over the past five years has been unbelievable.The total value of all Bitcoin outstanding is currently about $44.5B. Since June 2012, Bitcoin has risen approximately 4,257%, from $6.70 per Bitcoin to a current value of $2,858.90.

You can see why there has been so much buzz.

In June of 2012, it would have taken 260,149 Bitcoin to buy the average home in Palo Alto. In June of 2017, that number is now down to 892.

Needless to say, anyone who sold Bitcoin to buy a house in 2012 is likely not loving these numbers. But to people who have held Bitcoin for the past five years, Palo Alto is looking cheaper by the day.

Silicon Valley Is Seeing Significant Asset Inflation

To be clear, I’m not attempting to attribute causality to these charts. I believe the real driver of home prices in Silicon Valley is the lack of sufficient building of new supply at pace with the economy, combined with a significant increase in compensation for technology employees and historically low interest rates.

But the fact is, if you are fortunate enough to have equity in one of the tech giants (or in Bitcoin), houses might actually be looking cheaper now relatively than they did five years ago.

I always find it enlightening to look at real data and compare it to intuition. Hope you find this data and these charts as interesting as I did.

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.

 

Forget the Turing Test. The Key to Conversational Engagement Might Be Trampoline Moments

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In 2016, voice-based interfaces exploded into the imagination of the startup community as a potential new consumer platform. Amazon deserves much of the credit for this radical shift, as the Amazon Echo seemed to jump the chasm from early adopters to a more mainstream market. Of course, voice has been a hot topic now for years, as Apple & Google both leveraged their ubiquitous mobile platforms to launch Siri & Google Now, and Microsoft & Amazon have demonstrated incredible technical progress with Cortana & Alexa.

Unfortunately, as the excitement around voice shifts into practical execution, there is an uncomfortable consensus growing that there is something amiss with these new conversational platforms. The issue? The engagement numbers just aren’t as strong as expected, or even as strong as engagement numbers for traditional web or app-based interactions. One of the biggest issues? Retention.

I believe the issue is real, and will be a persistent problem for developers and designers looking to create the next generation of conversational interfaces. But if I had to give one piece of advice to those creative professionals, it would be this:

Deliver trampoline moments.

Lessons from PullString

Over the past four years, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be an investor and board member at PullString, headed by Oren Jacob, the former CTO of Pixar. This company set out with the audacious goal of reimagining conversational interfaces designed for entertainment, rather than for utility. With a bit of that unique Pixar magic, this incredible team believed in two things that even to this day seem quite at odds with the conventional wisdom of Silicon Valley:

  1. Conversation is a fundamentally new medium for creative content, and would expand beyond the pure utility of a search engine interface to a platform for engagement & entertainment.
  2. A platform to deliver truly engaging entertainment through conversation would require the combination of both technical and creative contributors to the content creation process.

Over the past few years, Pullstring has delivered a wide range of industry-firsts for voice-based engagement for a wide variety of audiences, ranging from young children to adults. Large brands, like Activision’s Call of Duty, Disney’s Marvel and Mattel’s Barbie trust Pullstring’s platform because of its unparalleled scalability and its unique ability to integrate content from creative professionals with expertise in sound, voice, character and dialogue. Even Amazon counts on Pullstring when they want to deliver high quality conversational content.

However, one of the key insights about conversational engagement came early on, during one of their rigorous rounds of user testing & prototyping. After session after session with children, who would use, but not deeply engage with a conversational application, they found it. A trampoline moment.  

Child: Hey
Pullstring: Quick! Name three things you like that are outside.
Child: I think please I’m Chris taxes and jumping on trampolines
Pullstring: W-w-w-w-w-w-wait…you mean like, a real trampoline?
Child: Yeah
Pullstring: Do you think I could go on it sometime? I’ve been using your bed up until now and I think the springs are worn out…
Child: Are you really able to
Pullstring: My oh my, what a day I’ve had…It was so strenuous I can barely remember what I did…Ellington? What have we got in the log?
Pullstring: Right. We sat on the bed. Ellington needed a little rest time from our usual forays.

A couple things you’ll note here:

  1. Speech recognition for children’s speech was very imprecise at the time. The text is not actually what the child said, but the text fed back from the best speech recognition engine of that time.
  2. The child’s willingness to “believe” in Winston (the virtual character, with his friend Ellington) changes dramatically when he demonstrates active listening around one of her favorite things, the trampoline.

This session went on not just for a minute, not just ten minutes, but over 30 minutes. The child had clearly decided to engage, and continued to engage, despite a huge number of imperfections in the interaction.

Why? The trampoline moment.

Turing Test or Trampoline Moment?

For decades, the high bar in artificial intelligence has been the Turing Test, invented by Alan Turing in 1950. The test was fairly simple: an evaluator (human) would have a conversation with two entities, one human and one artificial. If the evaluator could not reliably tell the human from the computer, the machine would “pass” the test.

While there are a number of criticisms of the Turing Test, there is no question that it has profoundly affected the way many evaluate machine-generated conversation.

The insight from the trampoline moment was different, and takes more of its heritage from the world of fiction. The question can be reframed not whether or not the consumer believes the character is human, but instead are they willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to immerse themselves in the experience.

Most people don’t believe that Iron Man is real, or that they are witnessing an accurate portrayal of Alexander Hamilton. They know that the actors in their favorite romantic comedy aren’t really in love, and they forgive plot holes and shallow character development. Even highly critical audiences of science fiction often can and will forgive obvious scientific flaws in the technology presented. (Well, not all of them)

The magic is really in the suspension of disbeliefthe willingness to suspend your own critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; the willingness to sacrifice logic for the sake of enjoyment.

Is it really surprising that a critical insight to human engagement might stem from the arts, where creative geniuses have spent thousands of years attempting to engage and entertain notoriously fickle humans?

Focus on Trampoline Moments, not Intelligence

The progress in artificial intelligence, voice recognition and conversational interfaces has been astounding in the past few years. There is no question that these technologies will reshape almost every facet of our economy and daily lives in the coming decade.

That being said, in Silicon Valley, it is sometimes too easy to focus on the hardest technical problem, rather than the one that will bring the consumer the most delight.

The reason Pullstring spends time talking about finding “trampoline moments” is likely the same reason talented product leaders talk about finding “magic moments” in their product experience. If you can connect with your customer emotionally, you will inevitably find that engagement and retention increase.

Trigger their suspension of disbelief. Find your trampoline moments.

The Decade of Gen X Wish Fulfillment

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At 9:54am this morning in California, a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX blasted off the launchpad to deliver 10 new Iridium satellites into orbit. 9 minutes later, the jettisoned first stage of that rocket ship self-navigated back down, landing perfectly and without damage. The dream of self-landing, reusable rockets, abandoned 50 years ago, has become a reality.

If you are a science & technology enthusiast, it is an unbelievable time to be alive.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that all of the science-fiction dreams of the 20th century are rapidly coming to life. Boom Aero is ready to bring economically viable supersonic jets (Mach 2.2) to commercial air travel, and several competitors are now racing to bring their own to market. In just a few years years, Tesla has reshaped the global automative industry by executing on their audacious plan to accelerate the transition to clean energy by proving the market-viability of electric cars. Google has not only brought self-driving cars to the tipping point of commercial viability, but it is sparked a global race to bring them to market by the end of this decade , and even though they are self-driving, having an insurance like lorry insurance is still important.

Uber is talking about flying cars. Amazon is patenting airship warehouses for drone for commercial delivery, and has delivered ambient voice control to our homes. Facebook is bringing us true virtual reality. Apple is delivering the equivalent of a crystal-in-our-ears to connect to the cloud. Moon Express will land on the moon in 2017.

 

What has changed so dramatically? Why are so many of our collective dreams, many of which predicted over 50 years ago, suddenly tumbling to market in an avalanche of advancement?

I have a simple hypothesis. We are living in a decade of Gen X wish fulfillment.

The Ascendent Economic Power of Gen X

ft_16_04-25_generations2050Poor Gen X. You can’t go ten minutes without seeing some political or economic framing around the political and economic tensions between the Baby Boom generation, the 70 million Americans born between 1946-1965, and the 90 million Millennials, born between 1981-2000. Sure, Gen X got a few TV sitcoms & movies in the 90s, but it was a brief time in the sun before the cultural handoff.

As of 2017, most members of Gen X now range from their late 30s to their early 50s. They have found careers, started families. More importantly, they have hit the economic sweet spot of the US economy. Wealth accumulation is highly correlated with age, and career success is as well. You can see it clearly in the numbers: Gen X is wealth is accelerating rapidly, faster than the Millennial generation, and over a smaller base of people, while Baby Boomers begin their inevitable asset decline as their retire.

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The Influence of Gen X Leadership

Like every generation, Gen X has produced a set of exceptional leaders, and many of them are now concentrated in technology, where the industry rewards founders and executives at a younger age than other industries. Larry Page & Sergey Brin at Google. Elon Musk at Tesla & SpaceX. Travis Kalanick at Uber. Jeff Bezos misses the cut off by a matter of months, but clearly fits the profile as well.

Demographers have always projected the window for Gen X would be hard: Baby Boomers are determined to hold on to power as long as possible, and Millennials have the political strength to force transition more quickly on their terms.

Still, we are clearly in a window of time where a fairly large number of Gen X leaders have accumulated significant economic power.

So what are they doing with that power?

Gen X Wish Fulfillment

Five years ago, Peter Thiel lamented that we were promised spaceships and flying cars, but all we got were 140 characters. The sentiment, in various forms, became common place. Why wasn’t Silicon Valley investing in hard problems?

Not surprisingly, it seems as if the peak of that disenchantment actually coincided with an incredible resurgence in investment in deep technology.

Gen X is, in the aggregate, almost canonically described as cynical and disenchanted. But with the ascendence of science fiction into Hollywood in the 1970s, they grew up seeing the future through the lens of technology. The boom in personal computing, followed by the internet, filled their formative years. True, huge initiatives of the 1970s around space and clean energy faltered and almost expired. But while there were disappointments, like the Space Shuttle, they also saw the end of the Cold War, and the phenomenal growth in the technology industry.

Is it really so surprising that a subset of this generation, in this brief window, has decided to invest its economic power into tackling the problems the previous generations failed to deliver?

Electric cars. Clean Energy. Gene Editing. Space Travel. Drones. Artificial Intelligence. Man-made diamonds. Robots.

Even our comic book movies have become phenomenal, mostly thanks to Jon Favreau.

Dreams transformed into reality.

Can Gen X Inspire?

Make no mistake, Gen X stands on the shoulders of giants. The previous generation gave us the economic and technology platforms to make these dreams become reality. Gen X deserves credit for not giving up on those dreams, and finding innovative ways to push through old barriers and find new solutions.

After winning World War II, the Greatest Generation inspired a whole new generation of scientists and engineers with their audacious efforts in technology in the 1950s & 60s. We may be witnessing a similar era, a decade where the technological achievements of this generation ripple through the children of today, and play out in second half of this century.

So many of the technical dreams I discussed eagerly with friends in high school and college are now actively being delivered to market, just twenty years later. It is an incredibly exciting time to be in technology.

Personally, I hope this generation will not only hand off and even better set of opportunities to the next, but we’ll use this brief window of time to inspire an even younger generation to reach for the stars.

 

When Is It OK for a CEO to Take a Stand?

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“A great business has to have a conscience. You have to know who you are and who you are not.” 

— Howard Schultz, Starbucks

History has shown that conventional wisdom in corporate communications has been to keep company statements high-level, formal, and uncontroversial. In the past decade, however, we have seen a secular shift from leaders of large companies like Apple, Costco and Starbucks, who are now more inclined to take a risk and speak up on issues that can be polarizing to different audiences.

In the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to take a public stand for Wealthfrontthree times, and we’ve been fortunate enough to see those efforts rewarded in our growth. But speaking out as a CEO is never easy and it is never comfortable, so many are now asking the question:

When is it OK for a CEO to take a public stand?

Three Things to Think About

Leaders reflect strongly on their organizations, and CEOs cannot escape explicit and implicit comparisons with a company’s brand. So when a CEO makes the decision to take a stand, it has to be evaluated in the context of what’s best for the company. There is no real way for a CEO to divorce their position from that of their business, and a public position can trigger a reaction from all stakeholders.

Because of this, there are three core questions CEOs needs to ask themselves before taking a public stand:

  1. Do you have a mission-driven culture?
  2. Who is your customer base?
  3. Who are your suppliers, partners and investors?


Do You Have a Mission-Driven Culture?

“I think the currency of leadership is transparency. You’ve got to be truthful. I don’t think you should be vulnerable every day, but there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.” 
— Howard Schultz, Starbucks

One of the most difficult, and yet valuable aspects of building a successful company is building its culture. If your company is mission-driven and values transparency, you’ll find that taking a public stand is often rewarded with increased passion, engagement and pride from your employees. It can also help amplify the appeal of your organization to talent seeking purpose in their professional endeavors.

For example, the leadership at Tesla has made a conscious effort to ensure their mission to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation drives (pun intended) the company culture, so when Elon Musk takes an aggressive stand, people, whether they agree or not, listen carefully. It is much harder for the leader of General Motors to take an aggressive public position.

There is no way to take a strong position on a controversial issue and not produce waves, both inside and outside the company. But mission-driven cultures are not only more tolerant of that debate, but also often deepen and strengthens because of it.

Who are your customers?

“Great companies that build an enduring brand have an emotional relationship with customers that has no barrier. And that emotional relationship is on the most important characteristic, which is trust.” 
— Howard Schultz, Starbucks

There is a saying in design that if you try to design for everyone, you end up designing for no one. Great consumer brands are like great designs – they resonate emotionally with a specific audience.

It is naive to think that taking a stand on ethical issues will result in universal support. That’s why it is incredibly important to not only know who your customers are, but also have a deep understanding of how they will react to a public position and specifically the one you are taking. While the specific position taken matters, too often leaders ignore the more subtle, but powerful issue, or whether or not their brand supports the idea of taking a strong, public position on the issue.

There is a reason why it’s easier for Costco to take a public position on some issues than Wal-Mart. It’s customers are primarily urban, mass affluent and well-educated. Their revenue per employee is much higher, and that allows them to pay their average worker more. As a result, it’s easier for Craig Jelinek to take strong public positions on issues like employee compensation and benefits that align with their brand and their customer base.

So if your position aligns with your brand and your customers, you’ll find a natural platform to amplify your message. But if it conflicts with what your customers expect from your company, it will not only detract from your message, it can also harm your company.

Who are your suppliers, partners and investors?

Companies have a wide variety of stakeholders, but one of the largest limiting factors in CEOs taking public stands on controversial issues are the often invisible dependencies they have on suppliers, partners and investors.

In the 1990s, Microsoft was infamous for exerting a strong level of silent influence over software and hardware partners who were dependent on their platform. Investors also can wield influence, sometimes directly through the Board of Directors, and sometimes less obviously through financing and other relationships. This is why it is incredibly important to be picky about your partners and chose those who align with your audience.

A CEO who takes a public stand at odds with critical suppliers, partners and investors can quickly find themselves and their companies in a difficult position. This is probably the most common reason that, historically, most CEOs have been forced to avoid controversial issues.

Leadership Beyond Metrics

By definition, opinionated positions will be polarizing. As a result, I’ve worked tirelessly at Wealthfront to build a company with purpose and mission, and build a brand supportive of taking on industry change directly. As a result, we’ve been incredibly vocal on issues that reflect the priorities and beliefs our our employees, our customers and our investors.

This past June, it was gratifying to see that our efforts around the fiduciary standard had an impact. In his four-page opening statement to Congress, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez cited Wealthfront as an example of a company serving the small investor and keeping their best interest front and center.

In July, it was heartening to see Acorns, another company in our space, respond positively to my call to fintech CEOs to drop monthly fees on small accounts. Their founder and CEO, Jeff Cruttenden decided to remove their monthly fee for students and investors under 24. Acorns is a mission-driven company, and it’s no surprise that they have quickly built the automated investment service with the most clients.

In general, taking a stand on an ethical issues is rarely good marketing, or positive for the metrics. Fortunately, July was a record month for Wealthfront. Over 3x as many people signed up for the service in July as did in January 2015, just six months ago. As it turns out, there is a huge population of young investors out there who are tired of business as usual, tired of the traditional financial services industry, and tired of rationalizations and empty promises.

Change does not come without risk, both personal and professional. Companies have to decide what they stand for, and leaders have to decide when it’s appropriate to take a stand.

Note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on August 13, 2015. It has been replicated here for archival purposes.