Collective Brain Trust
Collective Brain Trust
As part of a self-guided learning experiment the past few weeks, I spent many late night hours as a maker going through several challenging thought experiments.
The two questions I have on the forefront of my mind.
1. What is “product sense" and how does it manifest itself?
2. How can a non-technical person develop product sense AND (maybe most importantly) demonstrate that to the best of their ability?
I think it’s quite easy to say, “I’ve got good product sense” or “I know a great experience when I see one”…I used to think those things myself. Sure, you may consistently download the most recent apps and have high level opinions on each but is that truly impactful? It’s a much different story to start with a blank wireframe and try to build an effortless user experience from scratch. Or thoughtfully break down and analyze why your favorite calendar app is what it is.
In the spirit of making, I’d like to share an idea that I’ve given much thought to in the past week.
Volunteering needs to be re-defined. Think what charity: water did for the perception and application of charity, especially amongst the millennial generation.
With a tech enabled experience and bold, authentic brand - Oblige could change how teams, groups and individuals give back.
Oblige. Do good locally.
Learn more: Deck + Mockups
2% —> reasonably fleshed out novel idea. I understand execution, execution and more execution over the longterm is 98% of the venture and the only way to bring something to life.
Hope someone can run with this, no NDA needed. :)
Coincidental timing with LinkedIn launching the volunteer marketplace.
Presentation created with Deckset, go check it out.
An example of product feedback sent to a member of the Memoir team below. Much of the feedback happened to align with how they were thinking and approaching the next version. A nice back and forth discussion followed afterward.
Few personal (read: subjective) notes on approaching product feedback.
- Lead in with a note, include link to your digital presence. Demonstrate some rapport through commonality. long time user/interested in the space/mutual friend/etc
- Be humble and upfront that you understand your perspective is one data point. Expert or not, the team is living and breathing the product..they’ve probably thought of many points/ideas/opportunities.
- Already telling them what they may have considered is helpful though. It can validate a hunch or similar feedback they are gathering to take action on. Dropping new insights is possible but rare.
- Try to understand who their user and audience is. Delicate balance between elaborating on your own experience (most likely coming from tech bubble) and who they think is most apt to use the product.
- Include photos. Makes it much clearer what you are referencing and it engages them. Shows another level of thoughtfulness and care.
Sending candid and thorough feedback regarding a product experience to a early stage team can be incredibly valuable for both parties. Three reasons why I’ve consistently taken an hour a week to send tech founders a note.
1. Solid way to gradually hone your own product sense. Constructively think about sign ups, flows, layout and overall experience. Find weak spots and propose potential solutions.
2. Start to build a relationship with a VP or co-founder. Come bearing gifts through a thoughtful investment of time and energy, leverage digital rapport for meeting next time you’re in their city.
3. Realize the full potential of the product for your own use case. Discover best ways to streamline your workflow and use the tool/app more effectively.
An example of product feedback and the best practices to follow.
Knowing which veteran and successful individuals you’d like to receive help from in the tech community is rarely a challenge for people genuinely involved. There are numerous ways to identify them, connect and tastefully stay on their radar. From my personal experience and observation of peers, the tricky part is establishing a reliable cadence in your outreach as their time is extremely limited and you maybe unsure if you’ve “earned it” consistently.
After having a loosely held personal board of advisors for the past two years I decided to try and formally establish three mentor - mentee relationships in Boston. Six months later I can successfully report back that all have gone smoothly and the personal relationship with each has continued to grow stronger.
I’ve included a few notes and a framework below to potentially help those in a similar position. I’d be interested in hearing how others have approached this topic.
Would you be interested in serving as an informal advisor/mentor? Happy to chat more about this and actually would love your perspective if this is the best approach to a bit more structured (but flexible) and consistent long term relationship.
The gist is: I’m focused on making larger, more tactical personal and professional advances as the [current job] opportunity becomes larger and more challenging.
1. Be able to hire and recruit top talent in cities across the country.
2. Continue to execute and maintain valuable brand partnerships
3. Learn the foundational management skills necessary to manage multiple teams
Long term goal (2-4 years):
1. Start my own venture as a business co-founder who has demonstrated he can sell (build a big sustainable biz), has the network to raise money and skill to recruit a great team.
Format and Why You:
95% of this is learning by doing and learning outside the day to day by reading, interviewing and researching. The three individuals I would like to have serve as informal advisors are people I respect and know personally that have relevant skill sets. Simply there to be share insights, perspective and help with hurdles faced at that moment in time. I’ve seen you raise money, develop strategic longterm plans and build ABC co into a real business with a heavy sales component.
The Ask: A scheduled 30 minutes of time every 3 months to chat via phone. Brief catchup —> questions —> recommendations. This is a private connection, not for personal/public gain.
The Value: Help a young guy rise to the next level. Be able to tap into younger network for junior marketing, biz dev and engineering hires. Have fun sharing.
This is Ryan (@ryandawidjan), I hope you don’t mind me reaching out. [Insert reason and/or commonality]
For the vast majority of personal cold and warm-reference emails that I send, I lead off with this “technique”. The inclusion of the twitter handle is significant for several reasons.
First, it can help immediately trigger past moments of connection between the two of us. favorites/discussions/occasionally seeing the handle in the stream. Second and most importantly, it serves as a fast direct link to what I am doing, what I am thinking about and who I am interacting with. All important signals at a quick glance when someone is deciding to potentially invest their energy and time with you. Third, it shows I’m “a real” person to someone who may have never heard of me. By real, I mean, there are clear signals I’m not a bot or scammer.
I think one’s online presence is hugely impactful in trying to foster and maintain offline relationships. I have the perspective that my twitter identity is by far the most important tool. I expect and even welcome a potential employer, date or company partner to explore @ryandawidjan. I have nothing to hide there. You can see the content I find fascinating, the types of individuals I follow and talk with. It isn’t a perfectly polished about.me or private Facebook page. It doesn’t serve as a purely promotional locked box. It serves as a consistent window into my mind and actions, things that I believe are substantive opportunities to relate to.
Don’t underestimate your handle as a well of personal commonality, first impression maker and identity tool. It’s quite hard to fake 16,000 tweets over the course of 1000 days. Your next boss or date may just get excited about the opportunity to meet you.
What online presences truly serve as an identity for you and when do you reference them?
I used to frequently sneak over to the neighboring Olin engineering school for their student “SLAC” (stay late and code) nights. The first few times were incredibly nerve racking as there have always been (and for the most, largely deserved) reservations of inbound visits from non-technical business minded folks.
Olin students are a special breed and they will be the first to admit it. Often compared to MIT students a few minutes down the road, Olin kids are incredibly smart hackers and engineers with a bit more of a renegade personality. They can’t be pigeon holed as they move effortlessly from on-campus 3D printing machines to user orientated design projects.
The countless late nights and early mornings I spent with friends like @juliananazare @tcr @wcdolphin and @mchang were incredibly stimulating. The most I could possibly do was to ask foundational questions, provide introductions to navigate the Boston tech scene and crack a few self-deprecating jokes. It was invigorating to be in a culture of creation…”wouldn’t it be interesting to build a script to create thousands of new mobile twitter accounts in a night…and win $3000 from Dharmesh Shah?” Novel/old/crappy/fun idea..it didn’t matter - within hours there would be something up and running to play with.
In those moments of building I would look on amused, intimidated and curious. To be honest, I never ended up really grasping things like how GIT worked or why people often preferred Rails to Python. I did however learn two important things that have stuck with me along the way.
The first being that folks like myself can provide meaningful value of varying levels to complement their abilities and that honing these skill sets (product vision, fundraising, BD/growth, etc) is crucial for being a future founder. Second and more importantly, I came away with a deep empathy and appreciation for the work that engineers do. The respect I have for the challenges of bringing something to life humble me and serve as a daily reminder that there are hard working people and teams behind each of the products we use everyday.
The notion of being a maker and doer has been re-invigorated in me this week as I “develop” a new responsive personal website (go Webflow), witness @hijonathan launch his new venture and release a simple app with @zmh.
We can only be excited by the thought of future tools and services to come that will allow both talented engineers and creative laymen the freedom to bring ideas to life.
It’s fun to get in the game.
As cliche as it is to say, the roller coaster of emotions is quite real. One day you may be all smiles pumping landing a new partner dreaming big and the next week your decision maker at the brand happens to leave. Start the weeks of selling, evangelism and rapport making all over again..
The thing I’ve found best to combat the daily grind is to try and control what I directly impact..that being my mental, physical and “social” health. I consistently have long (and hopefully impactful) days with work being the core focus of my day..it’s what I derive most enjoyment (and pressure) from.
Going to the gym at least once a day, checking in with a friend, following a particular diet and clearing my mind with some light reading are all strict habits now. Each obviously has a great list of benefits associated with it but the most important common theme is that it gives you a sense as well as actual control of your day. Whether things are going well or downhill for a variety of reasons with BL that may be even outside my actions, I know I can influence my fitness routine, mindfulness and happiness to a large extent.
Too many young folks in this industry believe they need to strap every aspect of their life onto a high turbulent ride. Sacrifice is key, just invest in the right areas.
Get fit, get fitted.
Happy to discuss and learn more - @ryandawidjan
[Originally composed May 28th, 2013…guess I’ve been busy]
Now in Chicago launching our offline presence, hiring a team, and ensuring more gents can receive a remarkable menswear experience.
"But there is also something to finishing something you started." - Fred Wilson, sharing his personal perspective on his daughter’s well earned college graduation.
I adamantly believe this statement to be largely true and that’s why a few months ago I mentioned that I had firmly attached myself to the focus on true impact. "Intense Focus on Results"
The long story short though: I won’t be finishing school.
April was a month of considerable change. Within a few weeks, I had been in a car accident, gotten out of a relationship, ended my college lacrosse career, moved to a new spot in Cambridge, help execute Blank Label’s largest BD deal to date and take a leave of absence from school.
A mentor of mine gave me this bit of perspective as I was considering leaving school to work full time at BL. “It’s not what you’re leaving, it’s what you’re leaving for.” While at the time it seemed like general high level advice, it actually was quite important in helping me frame the trade off I’ve decided to make. Regardless of the structure/path, you should opt for the one with greater personal and professional upside.
Personally, I had felt for a longtime that the “check boxes” of college had been marked off. learn to live independently, find an area of interest, learn how to network, experience the social life, connect with professors, find about your drive/wants/needs in life, be exposed to a lot of interesting people and places, etc.
Having largely done all that within high school and the first year of college, I was open to exploring non-traditional paths to satisfy my professional interests. The “problem” was, I didn’t have an opportunity that was meaningful enough at the time to pursue. The summer before school I had done a lot of thinking about taking a gap year, even sounding it out with Seth Godin and Ben Casnocha. Then, the summer of my freshmen year I had considered taking time off to learn under Brent Grinna and the small crew at EverTrue who are now on a roll.
All in all though, these weren’t the right opportunities that were right for a significant (2-4yrs) time commitment. It was a bit early to making that call and I didn’t think I could find a high impact role for the organization. I’ve now found one and I’m more than excited to execute on it.
I will be continuing to lead up our national partnership and offline showroom efforts as we raise money and grow as a team in different cities across the country trying to make custom the new standard for the urban professional.
My friendship with Fan goes back at least three years now. I first tweeted with him when I was in high school in January of 2010 with an idea for the then just launched Blank Label. That summer when he was in Shanghai setting up manufacturing we had a skype call about a community manager position.
Fast forward three years and we’ve been good friends that bond over basketball, menswear and trying to learn from the best in business. For the past year I’ve been working part time at BL while trying to balance four classes, lacrosse and Rough Draft involvement. Let’s just say between physical/mental drain from context switching, it’s incredibly frustrating not to be able to focus 100% when that one thing you really want is in from of you.
I will join now a few close friends that have stopped their traditional path to higher education to try and become meaningfully different. There a few common themes from all our decisions but here are mine personally.
- Optimize for the rate of learning. Yes, in almost any context you will be learning something (classroom, apprenticeship, internship, etc) but you should focus on finding that path that excites you the most because you’re being challenged, potentially failing and accelerating your rate of development. For the most part, doing entrepreneurial things > studying entrepreneurship.
- Surround yourself with smart and driven people…whether it’s roommates or colleagues.
- Work intensely on the things that you enjoy and couldn’t care less if you didn’t get paid or public recognition for.
- Be confident that your story you can tell in two years after failure or four years after a success will be much more interesting, rich and relevant to where you want to go.
- Acknowledge the fact that the individuals I want to mentor/be mentored by or hire/be hired by will not be ones putting much weight into the fact that I didn’t jump through small hoops for four consecutive years to get a high cost ($$, opportunity cost) piece of paper.
- Be in a city with a peer group that will allow you to fully enjoy life, explore new activities and be an interesting person.
Finishing is certainly a hard thing to do and I do think for the vast majority of folks, it’s still the right decision. I just know that for an ever increasing number of young intelligent and driven people who want to have an impact, it’s a harder but necessary decision to find and continue down the unique path that allows them to level up with their own ambitions.
Summer and life has begun. Get fit and get fitted,
I had a craving to buy something. A tie, pair of socks, new leather belt…something. A menswear piece that I truly liked and would wear this fall.
After a long few weeks of grinding here in Chicago, I thought it would a nice personal treat.
I never did end up fulfilling that craving which came earlier this week. It was only as a result of not finding something that stuck - a piece that would have to be interesting enough to rationalize an impulse buy.
In a stupid and irrational kind of way, I sort of felt frustrated…my mind and wallet were ready to pull the trigger but I couldn’t satisfy it. Well, this feeling of consumerism didn’t last long and rightfully shouldn’t have.
This morning after an early morning workout I headed to the local coffee shop to read. And there I found a man who also a had a craving but his craving was much different from mine.
It was for spare change..a snack..a drink. A homeless gentleman sitting on a black milk crate holding a sign leaning against a light post. His craving just few feet from me but a whole world away.
There in that moment our two bubbles collided, forcing me to mentally slap myself in the face.
I hope the man enjoyed his grande blonde with two squeezes of hazelnut and vanilla that I grabbed for him as much as I enjoyed forgetting about my previous 1st world problem.
Finding excellent new team members is a hard task and it’s one Fan and I are currently focused on for our city expansions. We can find these folks online and have really started to learn what to look for. The more challenging part is having the opportunity to meaningfully engage with them and then at that point when you do get coffee, selling them on the mission and future of BL.
These latter parts can’t be learned in a blog post nor by listening to a successful serial entrepreneur. Sure, you can read material to try and reduce the stuff you don’t know you don’t know. Ultimately though, you’ve got to hone in on it yourself and do it with dozens if not hundreds of times with real candidates. You may slip up even with a really qualified applicant sitting across from you. The problem for us is that our first 100 times comes in our first venture…we’re learning on our own dime.
A large part of self improvement is taking the time, energy and money to better your health, quality of life, confidence, etc.
The journey towards being fit, well dressed, funny, well spoken, (insert positive skill) is almost always a long one. It requires hard work and sacrifice for results that usually aren’t apparent in the immediate future.
I think the area most people could improve on in respect to beginning and following that interest is really gauging if they truly do want what they’re going after. Ie Am I working out for purely vanity, will I show up to workout even if I can’t attend a group class, does everyone have to know I’ve been hitting the gym (check ins..), do I push myself when I’m there?
I believe once you 100% know in your own mind that you will go and do this thing whether no one knew or even it was a challenge, then you’ve earned the right to double down and invest in yourself. #thisiswhywecanhavenicethings
Committed to exercising 5x/week no matter the family, work, or personal challenges? Great. Go to a nicer gym that has more relevant classes or nicer amenities.
Taken and edited hundreds of iPhone photos, read a few books, gotten feedback from folks more talented? Cool. Now you may be ready for a DSLR and a nice minimalist tumblr page.
Read about brands and product reviews, took hours to finding “your look” and planning your wardrobe. Nice. Treat yourself and invest in some quality (maybe more expensive) casual and work wear.
I now spend $130/mo on a gym in Chicago. I have absolutely no second thoughts about it despite the fact most people at first glance would gasp at that. It’s convenient to work, has a lot of great networking and most importantly, I’m there 8x/week for basketball, lifting and classes.
I happen to bike there every morning. I ride on a 15yr old road bike from a yard sale. I know in my heart I don’t deserve nor enjoy biking enough to actually ride something with smooth gears and good brakes.
Determine the things that will bring you the greatest ongoing daily joy. Gauge your commitment. Double down when you’ve internalized the path ahead. Have fun.
Living in a new city is an incredibly fun challenge both personally and professionally. I’m only two weeks into Chicago but I’ve got a lot of thoughts brewing on actionable steps one can take for a more seamless integration. It’s been a necessary but worthwhile endeavor on how to be close to friends from back home without proximity and at the same time try to start having a social presence starting from scratch. It’s also been really fun to use foursquare every single day to explore the areas around work and home.
This will continue to be top of mind everyday for the next 3-4 months until I ship out to the next city. Hopefully I’ll have a few tried and true tactical tips for folks entering into a similar position.
Workout at 7:30am / coffee shop work till 6pm / chipotle - marianos dinner / 7pm [crickets]