Want a break from tech?
Take a journey with me as I learn to take insanely great pictures.
Are you a founder who likes to travel?
Check out FoundersCard to get airfare discounts on VirginAtlantic, JetBlue, British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas, Cathay & lots of other perks.
"Experience is what you get right after you need it." - James C. Wofford
Below are some of those startup lessons explained as a series of Matryoshka Russian stacking dolls, with the customer sitting at the center, encompassed by product, company and tribe.
Build The Product Around The Customer. This sounds obvious, and I thought I knew how to listen to customers, but I've never done it like this before, and now I see companies of all sizes missing opportunities to build value around their customers' needs.
At Armory, we've talked to over 150 prospective customers since starting the company just five months ago. We have learned from them and found consistent pain points across multiple customers that we are addressing as we build the product. Importantly, we didn't write a single line of code until we'd completed 100 customer conversations. And I don't just mean quick conversations -- I mean thirty to sixty minute deep dives with the target customers, where all the founders took copious notes, dissected the responses after the call, and looked for patterns across calls. We'd often ask if we could record the call and then re-listen to it to ensure we didn't miss anything the first time. It's an intense process, something I've never done before in any previous startups, and it's an approach championed by co-founder Ben Mappen, our Chief Product Officer.
For example, here's something we learned in our first month that surprised me:
The Armory team increased deployment frequency by over 300x at a previous company where we worked together and we experienced how incredibly valuable it was to deploy faster. Faster deployments led to happier engineers because they could actually see their code running in production, it led to us working on parts of the codebase that hadn't been touched in a long time because there was less friction to actually ship an update, and it enabled the executive team to focus on getting an entirely new line of business started. In short, when we started Armory, we were sure that velocity would matter to every company because we knew how transformational it had been for us, and we were excited about starting a company to bring deployment velocity to other enterprises.
But after talking to our first 100 prospective customers, we realized that what they are really looking for isn't velocity, it's safety. For much of the Global 2,000, software deployments are really scary. In some cases, prospective customers told us about how they still deploy software by taking their website down for planned maintenance, getting everyone in a room, pressing the "deploy" button, and literally crossing their fingers in the hopes that the new deployment didn't break anything. They do this on a Friday night so it affects as few customers as possible. But that means when something goes wrong, their team has to work over the weekend to resolve the issues. These companies are so scared of deploying software that they are literally turning their service off, ensuring the end user can't even access their service during an update, and then affecting employee morale by making them clean the mess up on the weekend!
So while as Armory founders, we were passionate about the velocity enabled by continuous software deployments, our prospective customers just wanted to be able to deploy with safety and reliability. If we hadn't teased that out at the beginning, we would have been solving the wrong problem -- one that did not yet resonate with our target customer. In fact, deploying faster is just about the last thing you want when you can't even deploy safely and with confidence today. And even though we know that once we can help our customers deploy more safely, they will then become interested in deploying with more velocity, our job is to listen to, and solve for, their urgent needs today.
It's hard to overstate the impact of this learning we teased out of our first 100 conversations. We are literally building a different company because of it. We thought we knew the problem we wanted to solve, but building the product around the customer taught us that we didn't.
If there's one opportunity I see large companies waste the most, it's usually this one. Established companies have a customer base they can learn from, but many of them have unhappy customers that feel unheard. It's the biggest irony because as a startup founder you desperately wish you could have actual customers to talk to, and yet large companies squander opportunities to innovate, often because they have existing revenue streams to protect, and innovating can mean disrupting their existing lines of business.
I've also seen large companies squander opportunities to learn from customers because they want to make their product (whether digital or physical) perfect before putting it in front of customers. Companies with established brands have a natural inclination to want to protect that brand and the consistency of that customer experience, and they have the luxury of time -- their existing revenue streams that remove the urgency of innovation.
The reality is more nuanced: A company's ability to segment customers into innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards will enable that company to put the right level of innovation and ideation in front of customers that will appreciate it the most, and keep it away from the customers that won't.
Building a product around the customer begins at startup stage with listening to the urgent needs of target customers, finding patterns of needs that span across multiple customers, ensuring the need is something the target customer will pay for, and choosing a large or growing market to do all of this in. When the startup matures, it's about segmenting the customer base so as not to loose that ability to listen and innovate. Regardless of stage, not doing this spells doom for a company of any size -- it just takes larger companies much longer to die than startups.
We're applying the same approach to our product roadmap. Every single item there has been validated through multiple customer conversations. It's easy to think you understand the customer after a few conversations, but my advice to founders after doing this is to talk to 100 prospective customers before you write a single line of code, because patterns emerge when you talk to that many customers that you won't see otherwise. If anyone wants to learn more about specifics surrounding this process, like figuring out who your target customer is, how to run these calls, what questions to ask, how to get them on the phone, etc., I'll be happy to ask Ben if he'll write a blog post about it. Just drop a comment in below.
Again, all this sounds obvious, but if you're a startup founder, here's the litmus test: How many prospective customers have you really talked to? How many customers have you understood urgent pain points from? Where's the document with your recorded conversations and copious notes of each conversation for you to refer back to and tease commonalities out of? How much code have you written (or prototyping have you done) before truly understanding your target customer's needs?
Build The Company Around The Product: Companies with great products that work well and solve real problems create lasting, durable and scalable value. Facebook's advertising revenue is skyrocketing because its core product, the news feed, is very good. The iPhone was a hit a decade ago because it was a better kind of phone; same thing with the iPod before that. Having a strong product at the core of our company makes all the other aspects of the business better. It's easier to recruit new hires. It's easier to market strong products because passionate customers enable very authentic marketing initiatives (like mixing current and prospective customers at events). As Marc Benioff says in his book, Behind the Cloud, his tactic when building Salesforce was to turn "Adopters into Addicts." I really like that phrase, and we're focused on doing the same thing at Armory. But this approach only works when the product works.
Building the company around the product also means we provide very high levels of support to our customers so we can make sure they are happy with the product. We even retrospect with our customers twice a month to dissect where we're doing well, and what we can be doing better.
It's also easier to sell a good product vs. a bad one -- such an obvious statement that it pains me to even have to write it, but I've seen up-close how companies that prioritize sales over product hit a wall and can't scale past a certain level. Chasing deals will drive some revenue, but long sales cycles and a churning customer base will keep you from achieving escape velocity.
One really good piece of advice I got on this topic was from a fellow tech CEO who told me his business started to scale when he realized that the word "interesting" in sales pitches is a very bad signal. "Interesting" really means "not urgent enough for me to dedicate a budget to it right now, but interesting, so come back later and see if you've solved my urgent problem then." He started to treat "interesting" as a bad word for closing deals and used it to dig deeper and find out how he could make the product better in a way that would solve a more urgent need for the prospective customer.
Build A Tribe Around The Company: Tod Sacerdoti, the founder of Brightoll, has a great post on the importance of creating a Tribe in a startup (in addition to other invaluable startup advice). His perspective greatly influenced our goal of building a Tribe around Armory. A startup is, by definition, doing something impossible (otherwise it wouldn't be a startup), and doing impossible work requires a lot of understanding and support, not just from the people working in the startup, but also from the support network -- the spouses, families, and friends. We specifically prioritize events that will foster the creation of a Tribe, and we offer family-friendly perks and benefits, including free companion airfare anytime we send someone on a business trip.
We've applied these Matryoshka Russian stacking doll principles at Armory via three maxims we live by. These are dedicated to optimizing the product around the customer, the company around the product, and the tribe around the company:
I can blog more about these Maxims and how we use them to guide our decision making if anyone wants to hear details on that or some of the other things I've learned over my past startups (like doing 10 year founder vesting); just drop a comment in below. You can also read my CEO Manifesto on Armory's blog to learn more about how I'm building Armory.
 This second maxim deserves a blog post of its own at some point. It's a saying from Andrew Backes, our first employee, who uses it to make sure he's building the right thing at the right time, but it also applies beyond code to all activities we spend time on. We've happily adopted it as an Armory Maxim -- thanks, Andrew!
When Isaac, Ben and I started Armory late last year, I found a lot has changed since starting my last startup, Socialize, in 2008. There's a suite of new tools available to instrument a startup that didn't exist eight years ago, including:
I haven't yet blogged much about Armory because we've been busy building. But if you'd like to learn more about the Software Revolution and how Armory is involved, head over to our Company Manifesto. I've also written a CEO Manifesto that describes the main jobs of a CEO in a startup (and the importance of creating a Tribe culture), and if you're interested in working at Armory, take a look at why life is awesome over here!
If you're generally interested in startups, head over to my "So You Want to Start A Company..." hackpad with my best tips on startups.
One of my best "get things done" tricks: is that I focus on the "last mile" of whatever I'm doing.
Here's a picture to illustrate what I mean:
Most of the work went into building I-40. But for the three houses in the circle above that live off of Lomaki Road, most of the value came from the last mile of service roads that were built to make the interstate accessible.
I see people spending a bulk of their time on the big parts of a project -- the equivalent of building I-40. But then they leave the service roads -- the details -- un-built, which means they never actually unlock that value.
It just blows my mind how little we know about our bodies and how to keep them healthy. Most people I talk to aren't happy with the state of their bodies. They either feel like they're too fat, or too skinny, or some other complex. And it's not just feelings -- many people, especially on the Western diet, are too fat. And in fact, are clinically obese but don't know it. That described me for a decade. I was literally on the verge of metabolic syndrome and didn't even know it. That's incredible: I was putting my self at double the risk of coronary disease, diabetes and a slew of other diseases and I didn't even realize it. I see that same benign neglect of the body in most people around me. There's a general dissatisfaction of their bodies, but very little action taken to improve it, and I think it's because most people are a combination of confused as to what the best path forward is, and reluctant to make big changes without being sure they're making the right ones.
So while I don't necessarily have answers, I can offer a plan to help you begin your journey to figure it out, and the good news is, it's a very simple plan and so easy to follow that I guarantee this will work for you like it has for me. (Or "Your money back!" so to speak) You just have to decide you want to try. Here it is, step by step.
Step 1 in DROdio's "Achieve Your Body Goals" Plan: Adjust Your Attitude (Seriously.)
The very first thing you have to do is decide to take control of your body's fate, and not to let yourself feel like a victim. You are not a passenger along for the ride. You are driving. You have to believe that you impact the outcome with your actions, because you can, and you will. I have. For over a decade I felt like a helpless passenger. As my metabolism slowed down, I'd continue to put on the pounds and couldn't figure out how to stop it. I started hating the scale; hating that I was becoming someone other than who I knew I really was. It wasn't until I took this first step that I was able to take control. You have to really want to do this.
When I turned 39 last year, I knew I was in trouble, and although I hadn't recognized quite how bad my health had gotten, I knew enough to realize I had to do something about it. On my 39th birthday I vowed that by 40, I would be back in the kind of shape I had been in a decade earlier, when I'd turned 30.
Today is my 40th birthday, and I've not only hit that goal, but surpassed it. I might be in the best shape I've ever been in. I'm in much better shape that I was when I turned 30. Possibly even better shape than I was when I turned 20, back in 1995. In this blog post I'm going to share how I did what I never thought I'd be able to do: Take control of my body and health for the first time in my life, which would require me to overcome my genetic predispositions and a tortured relationship with food.
The formula is equal parts motivation + relationship w/ food + relationship w/ exercise. So let's break it down in that way:
I'm about to take you down a deep rabbit hole, on a path that will challenge what you believe about nutrition and health. This is a journey of experimentation, and I encourage you to keep a very open mind, and in fact, I hope you decide to experiment with these themes yourself. I'm not a nutritionist or doctor, but I am very passionate about finding ways to optimize my body and health (especially as I age), which is why I've been doing intermittent fasting for the past five months -- and that experience has been life changing. I've gone from XL to medium sized shirts, from a 38 to 32 waist, and most importantly, from 34.7% body fat to 24.5% (and my goal is to get under 20%). Intermittent Fasting has put me in control of my body for the first time in my life.
And just when I felt that I was really starting to figure it all out, this rabbit hole opened up. And it's called ketosis.
In addition to intermittent fasting, I'm experimenting with ketosis through the end of 2015, which is triggered by eating a ketogenic diet comprised of 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs. Yes, that's right -- in order to lose fat and become healthier, I'm going to eat mostly fat. The mind blowing counter-intuitiveness of that statement is why I'm writing this blog.
But before we can talk about this ketogenic approach to nutrition and health, we have to understand how the body uses two energy sources -- glucose and ketones -- and why, with your diet, you are probably only ever tapping into glucose (and how that may be making you unhealthier, especially as you age).
I wrote this post in August 2014 comparing Betterment to Wealthfront, so it's been about 15 months, and I thought it'd be a good time to check in on relative performance, as a buddy of mine recently wrote:
"I saw your post on betterment. I'm thinking of moving everything over to a roboinvestor. What's your thinking on betterment vs wealthfront, and whether you'd just dump everything on there?"
As I wrote in my original post, I put $5k into both Betterment and Wealthfrontto test them against each other. To date, both have under-performed the S&P 500 by a considerable margin. S&P is up 10% since August 2014. Betterment is down by 2% and Wealthfront is down by 5.4%. So, should I just have invested in the S&P 500? And as per my other previous blog, Show Me The Money: Six Strategies to Put Your Cash to Work, how should I re-allocate based on this new data? And what would I recommend to my buddy? Let's dig into the data a bit to come to a conclusion:
When I wrote my orginal post Show Me The Money: Six Strategies to Put Your Cash to Work, one of the strategies I included was leveraging General Electric's high-yield money market account for the cash you want to keep readily available (i.e., cash you might need to access in the next 3 to 12 months). But GE has shut that program down as an overall strategy shift away from its GE Capital business, and so I was left searching for an alternative. In this post I'll detail what corporate money market accounts are, how they work, how they differ from other types of savings or income generating accounts, and which the best alternative is. I'll also tell you what I ultimately ended up deciding to do, which was different than I expected.
Why you should care about this at all:
One of the mistakes I made in my 20s was not being curious enough about financial instruments, and how I could leverage them to reach my personal goals faster. I was so focused on building startups that I didn't pay enough attention to how to optimize my investments. I set out to change that in my 30s, and I've been blogging about it in the hopes that anyone else who isn't yet leveraging these tools can learn about and use them.
As with anything in life, from optimizing your health to optimizing your finances, you have to start with a goal. My family's financial goal is currently optimized for asset growth, with a secondary focus of passive income generation. Since we're still (relatively) young, we're willing to take aggressive stances on both. Here's how this breaks down for us:
It’s been 13 weeks since I wrote the in-depth post on my fasting experiment (read that first if you haven't already), which I originally only expected to try for 8 weeks. But the results have been so life changing that I’ve decided to continue doing it through at least the end of the year, and possibly indefinitely. Here’s what I’ve learned and experienced over the past couple of months, along with the pro-tips I recommend for others interested in trying it themselves, and answers to the questions I get most often.
The main thing I’ve learned in the past couple of months is that fasting is deeply misunderstood by people, including the reasons for doing it, the science and nutrition behind it, the actual experience of fasting, how it makes you feel, and how best to be supportive of someone in your life who’s giving it a try. Fasting just isn’t mainstream enough to make sense to people, and they often immediately respond with “I could never do that” (which is how I used to also feel before really diving into it).
From my fasting experience I’ve also become convinced that the obesity epidemic in America can be solved by integrating fasting elements into our culture. I don’t know if fasting will ever reach that level of cultural prominance, but I do now know with certainty that there’s a solution out there that works, and although fasting is a very individual thing, I’m convinced that it could be codified into an approach that could work for anyone. This also means that if you are unhappy with your current level of health, fasting is something you can do to fix it. It may not be the only thing you can do, but from experience I can tell you that it is absolutely an approach that will work. If you’re serious about trying to become healthy, fasting will work.
Elon Musk did a fireside chat (why is the fire always missing from these fireside chats?) with Steve Jurvitson of DFJ at Stanford this morning to celebrate an event called FutureFest. In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly went 30 years into the future to October 2015. Now that we're 30 years into that future, how does it compare to how people thought it would look? Steve also grilled Elon on what he thought the world would look like 30 years from now (except he made it 20 years to account for the increasing speed of change).
Since there was a long queue of Stanford students waiting outside to hear Elon who weren't able to get in due to space restrictions, I captured the talk on my phone. The audio's pretty poor, but if you wear headphones you can make their conversation out reasonably well.
Here's the video. And below that are some of the things Elon covered, which include: