Entrepreneurship, Business, and Inspiration


The other day my friend Sam asked me where I turn to for business and entrepreneurship inspiration, which led to the following thought: “Yeah, good question – where the hell do I get my inspiration from?”.

So after a day of intermittent soul searching, here’s my incomplete list of what’s currently driving me.

What’s Not on This List – Business Books

I spent the better part of my twenties building a personal library containing scores of business books. Many I read, but even more just sat on a bookshelf looking pretty and making me feel smart.

I’ve given up on reading business books. They’re either recycled content learned by pioneers decades ago, or pseudoscientific case study bullshit claiming to show you the way to success courtesy of crafty cherry picking1.

And all of them need to lose the filler, drop to 50 pages, and just get to the damn point already.

Except Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen, genius, is the author of the only business book worth reading – The Innovator’s Dilemma2. The book explores the idea of disruptive innovations and how they come to displace established players in markets. This is the most important business book written in the last two decades.

Equally important is Christensen’s more recent work on the Jobs-to-be-Done Theory. In a nut, it says that customers “hire” a product to do a particular job, and this helps explain why they buy one product over another. For example, a Snickers bar is “hired” for a different reason than a Milky Way. You can get a great introduction to the topic in a podcast episode titled “The hiring and firing of milkshakes and candy bars3.

Merlin Mann and the Back to Work Podcast

Merlin Mann became internet famous for being a productivity guru and coming up with the idea of Inbox Zero. At some point, he became even more interesting when he abandoned the productivity porn racket and shifted into higher level thoughts on creating our best stuff.

Back to Work, Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin, hits all of the important topics – fear, inspiration, seriousness, failure, passion, saying no, drive, buddism, and much more.

The podcast is not specifically business related, which is a Good Thing, because what Dan and Merlin talk about is much more important than that.

Copyblogger and Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio

I find the art of copywriting fascinating, and few do it better than the people at Copyblogger. It’s old school marketing in the spirit of David Ogilvy applied through email, the web, social media, and other modern techniques.

Their podcast, Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio, gives a good introduction to many of the topics and features interviews with interesting and inspiring guests.

Paul Graham

Paul Graham is best known for founding Y Combinator, a venture fund/incubator for technology startups. Over the years, he has written a long list of essays on entrepreneurship and programming. Not always applicable to me, but always thought-provoking.

The Others

Who else inspires me? Several extremely hard working entertainers come to mind. Nothing highlights the role of practice and perseverance like these guys.

Louis C.K.

In my mind, Louis C.K. is the hardest working comedian in the business right now. Not only does the guy scrap his routine every year and completely rewrite it, he writes, directs, edits and stars in his own tv show.

Penn & Teller

Penn & Teller have spent decades refining their craft, and it shows. They’re the most entertaining magicians out there. The had complete focus on magic, vowing to each other that they would not take a job outside of show business to force them to take any and every gig offered to them. Anything to get up on stage and improve their act.

And then there’s the story of Teller and “The Red Ball” illusion, which he has spent over a decade practicing and refining. An hour a day, every day, year after year. Practicing and refining in order to make something beautiful.

That’s dedication.

  1. See also, Good to Great, by Jim Collins 

  2. Christensen’s follow-up book is also worth reading – The Innovator’s Solution 

  3. You can consider The Critical Path podcast a bonus recommendation. 

The Nest Learning Thermostat

I’m a sucker for well designed products and for energy efficiency technologies. Combine the two, and you’ve definitely got my attention.

Yesterday, former Apple employee and iPod designer Tony Fadell revealed what his start-up has been working on for the last couple of years. It is, of all things, a home thermostat. Called the Nest, this smart thermostat is unlike any you’ve seen before. Yes, its design would be at home with any of Apples current products, but its functionality is what’s impressive.

Nest Learning Thermostat

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Innovating Football With the A-11 Offense

I don’t watch much football at any level (NFL, college, high school) these days, but I heard a story on Saturday’s Weekend America program that I thought was interesting, more from an innovation point of view than anything.

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Brilliant: Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging

I don’t know if me being excited about this Amazon announcement is more a statement of me as a person, or this crazy world we live in, and I don’t care. Amazon’s new Frustration-Free Packaging program they just launched is 10 shades of awesome. Everyone – customer, manufacturer, deliverer, and Amazon – wins.

So anyway, the details. Amazon just launched a multi-year initiative with manufacturers that they’ve dubbed Frustration-Free Packaging. For a short, but growing, list of mainly toys and electronics, your purchase will ship in the same recyclable box it’s delivered in, minus the excess plastic shells, wire ties, bindings, etc. Not only does this make for a more pleasant experience for the customer, but it saves the manufacturer packaging costs and gives Amazon and its delivery partners a more uniform size for storage and shipping. Best of all, it’ll save tons of plastic and cardboard from having to be shipped to homes, only to them be transported again to a landfill.

Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging

Retail packaging is a relic of the traditional product distribution channels, and serves no purpose online, where you only see that packaging designed to sell you days after you’ve made the purchase. This has been a long time coming, and I applaud Amazon for taking the lead. Here’s hoping the others follow.

Is Innovation Inevitable?

Last week the New Yorker had an excellent article on the topic of innovation from author Malcom Gladwell, titled In the Air?. Gladwell argues that the conventional wisdom of the brilliant inventor and the flash of inspiration isn’t necessarily true. Instead, he demonstrates are actually very common:

The original expectation was that I.V. [Intellectual Ventures] would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

In fact, it turns out that some ideas even appear to be inevitable – a product of the cultural and intellectual climate:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

So if ideas are simply out there, waiting for someone to come along and find them, how do you best go about the process? A New York Times article from earlier this month titled “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?” provides some insight:

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.

That stretch zone is key. Introducing new, but small, changes will challenge your brain and create new neural pathways and connections. In essence, the more you learn and have new experiences, the smarter you become. The smarter you become, the more likely you are to want to learn and have new experiences. It’s a self-feeding loop.

The takeaway? Go out and try something new. Lots of things. Lots of very different things. Stretch yourself, and you might be surprised at how over time, you start seeing connections between things you never would have saw before.

The Freewatt: Distributed Power Generation

I heard about a very promising new(ish) product called the Climate Energy Freewatt system a couple of weeks ago while listening to an episode of IEEE Spectrum Radio on the IT Conversations podcast channel. The Freewatt is a high efficiency heating furnace combined with a Honda power generator and a solid-state inverter, that uses your natural gas (or propane) for two purposes: First to generate electricity, and then to generate heat.

The Freewatt isn’t designed for going “off the grid”. Instead, it uses net metering provisions (currently available in 35 states, including North Dakota) to feed power back to the utility provider. You draw your power from the grid, while feeding back when your generator is running, with the net effect of reducing (or eliminating) your electricity bill. It is also internet enabled, providing the owner with maintenance information and operating statistics while potentially allowing the power company to switch it on during periods of high demand (with your permission, of course).

Cogeneration systems like this have apparently been used in Japan for several years now. While its designed for cold weather climates where the heat is run for the majority of the year, the biggest thing currently holding back the Freewatt is the economics of it. An installed system costs in the neighborhood of $13,000. In order to payoff the cost difference between it and a regular furnace in a reasonable amount of time, you need to be paying quite a bit for a kilowatt hour of electricity. Right now, the company is targeting the northeast corner of the U.S., where rates are about double what they are here in North Dakota.

It might pay to keep an eye on the Freewatt and comparable products though, because one or more things will happen in the future to make these cogeneration plants economically feasible:
1. Electricity prices will go up
2. Product costs will go down
3. The government (state or federal) will provide incentives and rebates to increase adoption

I think the concept of net metering in general is potentially a game-changer. If everyone has the ability to generate electricity and feed it back into the grid, possibly via cogeneration, solar, wind, vehicle-to-grid, etc., the need for building massive new power stations practically vanishes.

MileMeter: Innovation in…Auto Insurance?

MileMeter Logo

Earlier today, the O’reilly Radar blog had an interesting post about an innovative new auto insurance company, of all things. They’re called MileMeter, and the thing that makes them different is that you buy your car insurance from them by the mile, not by the quarter, year, etc. This is obviously going to be a better deal for people who drive less, but it could also create some incentives to encourage high mileage drivers to scale back a bit.

Particularly interesting to me, is that it appears the founders of MileMeter are outsiders to the insurance industry. That’s how innovation seems to work – fresh brains who are unconstrained by tradition and how things are “supposed to work”. I wish them the best!

MileMeter was also a finalist in the Amazon Web Services Startup Challenge, which just wrapped up. You can see their contest video on Amazon’s website (I originally had it embedded below, but I didn’t think you’d appreciate the auto-play).

Amazon’s SimpleDB: Instantly Scalable Database Delivered as a Service

Amazon Web Services

You’ve been hearing about my love of Amazon for years now, including the awesome web services platforms they are making available to developers everywhere. They started off with a cheap and easy to use message queuing service (SQS), later added pay-as-you-go remote file storage (S3), then added on-demand computing capacity (EC2), and most recently, flexible payment services (FPS). These are all great, and together, let startups build web applications that start small and scale easily as demand increases. Until today though, there was one important piece missing from Amazon’s suite of web services.

Amazon’s new SimpleDB service, released in beta today, fills a very big gap in the company’s web services strategy. Their Elastic Computing Cloud allows you to run Linux apps and the Simple Storage Service gives you a place to reliably store files, but neither of these two provided a good way to do structured data storage. You can run MySQL and PostgreSQL within EC2 instances, but they weren’t meant to be used for long term storage. Instead, they are made to be setup and destroyed as demand for computing power fluxes. To work around this, it meant you either had to connect to a database hosted somewhere else on the Internet, or use a hack that lets MySQL store data in Amazon S3 instead of on a local file system. SimpleDB solves this problem by offering a simple database stored and replicated across Amazon’s various data centers.

There are some important things about SimpleDB to consider, however. This is not a drop-in replacement for relational database systems like MySQL, Oracle, SQL Server, etc. It is non-relational and schemaless, if that means anything to you. It boils down to a big mental shift for guys like me who have spent our careers thinking in relationships between database tables. This also means that developers are going to have a more difficult time programming and testing on local machines before deploying to production servers, as there aren’t any installable equivalents to SimpleDB (yet).

SimpleDB has some other big cons too. It is missing many of the “enterprise” features now common in relational databases, such as transactions, stored procedures, security policies, etc. Amazon also currently limits storage space for each domain (table in the relational database world) to 10 GB and query execution time to 5 seconds. Needless to say, this isn’t going to be the solution that everyone is looking for.

For its part, Amazon is making it clear that SimpleDB is for a particular use case:

Today, many developers correlate the word “database” with Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMS). While RDBMS offerings provide deep functionality, for many use cases, they introduce more complexity (and more cost) than is necessary. Many developers simply want to store, process, and query their data without worrying about managing schemas, maintaining indexes, tuning performance or scaling access to their data. Amazon SimpleDB removes the need to maintain a schema, while your attributes are automatically indexed to provide fast real-time lookup and querying capabilities. This flexibility minimizes the performance tuning required as the demands for your data increase.

For certain applications, I can see SimpleDB working quite well. There is still plenty of software that falls outside its scope though, so I don’t see any of the current database systems going away anytime soon. Plus, you have to factor in the people side of it. Programmers have been learning and using relational databases for decades now, and in many cases, you’ll have to pry them out of their cold dead fingers before they learn something new and different.

In any case, I believe SimpleDB is very important, and should not be ignored. Like most disruptive innovations, it will start out small in scope, but eventually lead to something game-changing. It will be fun to see where this technology goes in the near future…

Amazon’s Customer Culture

The Harvard Business Review has a fascinating interview with Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, who I’ve mentioned before is my favorite CEO. In the interview, Jeff discusses how the company’s culture is completely customer focused, and why it’s not easily reproduced by competitors.

Amazon.com Logo

Mr. Bezos offers a metric ton of insights and advice about running a customer centered company. One frequent technique they use when facing a tough decision about adding a new feature or making is framing it against the question, “Well, what’s better for the consumer?”. History backs-up their use of this strategy, as shown with their addition of 3rd party sellers on product pages, free shipping, and the Amazon Prime membership.

Internally, every employee – no matter how senior – spends a few days every two years working in one of Amazon’s call centers in an effort to stay close to their customers. They’ve also managed to bake testing and experimentation into their culture – two very powerful tools that speed innovation and remove all doubts about whether or not a new change is meeting expectations.

I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read the entire interview. It shows one of the best examples I’ve seen of a company that not only preaches customer service, but actually practices it.

The Business of Innovation on CNBC

Last night I was flipping through channels on the TiVo, and happened to come across a show on CNBC called The Business of Innovation. It turns out we caught the third episode in a series of five, each of which will also be available to watch online.

Watching this program, I was actually pretty impressed at the message that came across. The show is co-hosted by Roger Schank, who really does seem to understand the mechanics of innovation. Last night, it was namely “don’t ask your customers what they want – watch them.”

Overall, this show is worth checking out, even if you’ve heard it all before. We can always use a reminder!