Creating Useful Filters Rather Than Useless Speed Bumps

As long as we live in a resource-constrained world (time, money, etc), we will create filters to separate the top-notch from the tolerable, the Thinkpad’s from the Acer’s, the Nunatak‘s from the Campmor‘s.

Most of these filters are intuitive, unconsciously acted upon.

I remember hearing a basketball referee, a seasoned college-level veteran, recount how crowds went from respectful to jeering when he let his hair grow long. (An amatuer thespian, the long hair was necessary for a community play.) No fan consciously thought, “an extra three inches of hair causes bad officiating”–they just knew the good refs kept their hair short.  Long hair signalled bad ref.

In The Dip, Seth Godin writes about living within a filtered world. It’s a fascinating book about “when to quit and when to stick.” One way to separate a dead-end from success-just-around-the-corner: look for “measurable progress.” Maybe you can’t see the end of the tunnel, but can you identify progress?

(There is a danger here. Gen Y grew up accustomed to accurate and constant feedback. In video games, I knew how much farther until the end of the level, and how many more hits until I died. As a result, we’re addicted to measuring progress.)

But what about when you’re the one creating the filters for other people?

You face this question whenever someone asks for lunch. Every time you hire someone. Every time you create a sales funnel. How do you decide the best use of your time?

My friend Ramit faced this question recently. He wanted to enable someone’s dream to make the world a better place. Someone with the capacity to dream big, and the tenacity to make it happen. Ultimately, he created a scholarship for a twenty-something. (Hurry, today’s the deadline to apply.)

Many people create useless speed bumps–obstacles, especially to test tenacity.

“Thanks for reaching out–really busy–ping me in two weeks.”

But what if you created a useful, self-selecting filter?
“Thanks for reaching out–so I don’t waste your time, can you e-mail me three questions you want to discuss?”

Something that requires thoughtful effort. But the effort actually creates value for the rest of the world.

A guy applying to Seth’s latest internship reached out to me for advice. I looked at what he’d created, gave him some advice, and noticed how consistently he created value.

So I offered him a chance to come on board with another project I’ve got.

Just last night he sent me another e-mail saying thanks. And all because Seth used a filter that created value BEYOND Seth.

My super-abstract rule for filtering people: Constrain the outcome, not the process. And make the outcome value-added even if they get turned down.

I’ll spare you the rant. But you must create useful filters, rather than useless speed bumps. Otherwise, you’ll get less than the best. Because the best are filtering you. If you waste their time now, how do they know you won’t waste their time later?

Copy the master: http://www.squidoo.com/Alternative-MBA and http://www.squidoo.com/summerintern08

Create a filter, not a hurdle.

(Hat tip to Chuck Westbrook, who prompted me to think more about filters.)

For my friends & family–here’s what I’m up to…

Two days ago, my sister and I were talking over the phone:

“Jeff, I’m going to these parties with our highschool friends, and they all ask about you. I try to explain, only I’m not really sure… What is TechStars and what are you doing there?”

Well Michelle, here’s the answer.

 

(Thanks to our director, the incredible Andrew Hyde–only one hour and two takes!)

Connecting…

Today begins a month and a half of traveling adventures…
My upcoming itinerary:

    -August: Boulder, CO. http://www.TechStars.org/
    -August 25: Road trip home. Boulder–>Seattle.
    -Sept 2-5: Boston, MA. http://www.businessofsoftware.org/
    -Sept 5-12: Washington, DC. Visiting a friend/backpacking.
    -Sept 12-17: Kansas City, MO. http://www.apics.org/education/conference/

Then back to Redmond for a few weeks…

 

I enjoy blogging.
I enjoy meeting people.

 

If you want to connect, drop me a line: jeff@jeffwidman.com

Lying

Some marketers lie on purpose. You know who I’m talking about.

 

The rest of us are tempted.
By definition, a good marketer is an expert in creating WOW experiences.
We understand the importance of a great story. But sometimes…
…it’s impossible to surpass customer expectations…
…the competition has a better product…
…the deadline won’t be met…
the XBox has a flaw

That’s when stretching the truth seems the path of least resistance.

Ever heard a fisherman tell a whopper?
The audience wouldn’t call it a lie. Fact is, they like the adventure–it’s fun. But they won’t trust his next story. So combine the best of both worlds. Craft a fantastically exciting story around an honest product description.

The North Face is known for over-rating their sleeping bags. Their Wasatch is rated at 40 degrees, but I wouldn’t trust it below 50 degrees–with additional warm clothing! Contrast that with Western Mountaineering, a company known for under-rating their bags. Funny thing–I’ve never slept in a sleeping bag from either manufacturer. Word gets around. One over-rated product affects the entire brand.

Being honest isn’t morally wrong. Lying is. If you don’t have a game-changing story, don’t exaggerate. Hope isn’t reality. Reporting bad news isn’t bad.

Be the first to tell the client bad news (e.g., slipped delivery); his intelligence sources will tell him fast—. you want to be there first with your story and to enhance your rep as truthteller! – Tom Peters

It may not be your fault, but it is now your problem. Transform the obstacle into an opportunity.

 

Soon, you will be tempted.
Not to lie, but to stretch the truth.
Unfortunately, that’s the same thing.
Don’t!

Your story: Does it provoke answers or state them?

In January, I spent a week with Genie Industries participating in a kaizen event. This week was special–Genie paid a lean manufacturing Sensei upwards of $30k to supervise.
(Shingijitsu’s website looks like crap… Yet my Genie contact told me, “We’re working hard to wine/dine them–otherwise they’ll fire us.” That’s abnormal.)

I’ll never forget asking the Sensei a question; he grabbed my arm, moved to the middle of the process, planted me there, and said “Watch. What do you see?” The more questions I asked, the more questions he asked me. I learned a lot that afternoon.

I was reminded of this quote:

After Seth’s keynote this morning, I reviewed the notes that I was taking… The notes had nothing to do with what he was saying and everything to do with a fistful of creative sparks that were inspired by what he was saying. – Mitch Joel

 

My non-traditional resume: Seth Godin’s Internship Application

Back in March, best-selling author and thought-leader Seth Godin announced a summer internship:

Send your application (you decide what’s on it, that’s part of the application) as a pdf of no longer than four pages…

So I created this PDF.

 

Unfortunately, the text is only readable in full screen.

 

There are no shortcuts to wall-able content: creating this took over fifty hours. During the brainstorming process, I filled an entire notebook. Occasionally, I became bored… even frustrated with my lack of direction.

 

I’ve received nothing but rave reviews.
It’s rewarding to have others say they were inspired to be exceptional.

 

How can your resume or sales brochure inspire consumer belief?

 

The (impending) death of XM Radio

Doing dishes in the kitchen listening to Pandora.

High-speed inexpensive internet access is here. Right now. (My parents pay $40 a month for Sprint EVDO service.)

With a laptop, an EVDO modem, and a cassette adapter, I can listen to whatever I want. Legally. I can search by author, genre, song title–you name it.

Why XM??

Definition: "Wall-able"–the goal of all creative content

Earlier this spring, I created an application for a super-exclusive internship. There was one catch–the application requirements consisted solely of the following: “Send in a 4-page PDF–you decide what’s on it, that’s part of the application process.”

After spending many hours thinking about the intersection of the internship and my goals, I decided to create a resume that anyone would find interesting to read, whether or not they hired me.

I want my creative content to be “wall-able.” Something you post on your fridge, e-mail your friend, and print for your son. Content worth the world’s time.

While I didn’t get the internship, I do have a 4-page PDF that many, many people have enjoyed. (It also landed me some internship opportunities that were even better than the original internship!)

 

Is your creative content wall-able?

Ask her!

My buddy Brian recently shared a story of clever marketing with me.

 

Brian goes to college at Washington State University in Pullman–there’s a saying on the western side of the state that “All dirt roads lead to Pullman.” As he got within sixty miles of WSU, he began to notice yellow signs by the side of the road that said “Ask her!

Apparently, these signs were posted on all the highways, and it was all the buzz when he arrived at the dorms. Over the next week, more yellow signs randomly appeared in halls, on buildings, and throughout campus.

No one knew what it meant.

 

The week after, there was a group of girls wearing yellow shirts that read “Ask me.” It turned out that a fraternity was trying to recruit members.

What a clever way to stimulate buzz, brand your frat as creative (and connected to pretty girls), and attract new members!

 

Perhaps the most powerful part of this marketing ploy comes getting the new members wanting to believe.

Warren Buffett, Benjamin Graham, Charlie Munger–Shareholder letters 1957-1970

Two years ago, Dan Grossman posted about the Warren Buffett shareholder letters on his (now defunct) blog.

Finally, I have copies of all of Buffett’s annual reports from 1957-1970. They’re spectacular; if you’d like a copy, let me know and I’ll send them to you. Unfortunately, I was asked not to post them publicly, though I’m told that emailing is OK.

He’d received the letters from Brad Feld.

I commented on the post and Dan graciously shared the letters. I also checked the box to receive e-mail notifications of new comments on the thread. Today, two years later, I continue to receive notifications and direct e-mails from people looking for the letters. (Perfect example of the Long Tail at work.)

The letters clearly say it’s not okay to post them, but, like Dan, my understanding is it’s okay to e-mail them. Leave a comment on this post if you want a copy and I’ll email them to you… and thank-you comments are always appreciated. (If I’m in error posting them, just let me know.)

(Note: You can find PDF’s of the more recent letters (post 1977) here: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/letters.html, and the text of the 1969-1976 letters here: http://stableboyselections.com/2008/08/25/the-missing-berkshire-hathaway-letters-1969-1976/.)

I also have a copy of Charlie Munger’s speech entitled “Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary Needs” presented to the University of California, Santa Barbara Economics Department on October 3, 2003.

Update: These are the Warren Buffett partnership letters–not the Berkshire Hathaway letters form 1970 to 1979, or the Bluechip Stamps letters. I don’t have the Bluechip Stamps letters, and I’m not sure where to get them.