Spoil Your Meetings

You just got a calendar invite your boss. 

What’s going on? Are you getting fired? Your last performance review was fine! 

You walk to your boss’s office. HR is sitting there with her.

Kermit being nervous

Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.

HR walks out as you walk in. You sit down, and your boss says, “Hey I just wanted to bounce an idea off of you.

Breathe.

Meetings shouldn’t have surprises. Spoil them.

Tell everyone what you’re going to say before you go. Give away the ending. Put all the good parts in trailer. And the bad parts. And the song that’s going to play in the montage while your team builds the A-Team-esque vehicle that is needed to do the job. 

If your meeting doesn’t have spoilers, then it’s probably not worth having.

10 Things I’m Doing After Reading The Principles of Product Development Flow

A few weeks ago I showed this slide during a talk I gave to clients of RJMetrics.

Books on Flow and Throughput
Books on Flow and Throughput

The Goal is legendary in my family as a guide for unlocking throughput in manufacturing. Garvey Corp’s entire business model is helping companies exploit constraints and increase profits. It got me off to a great start in manufacturing, but the reality of workflow always seemed a little more complicated than Goldratt’s stories lead you to believe.

Later I devoured Jeffery Liker’s The Toyota Way, which describes the infamous Toyota Production System. It seemed to me that if you carried Goldratt’s constraint theory logically throughout your production system, you’d probably end up with TPS or something like it. As good as it is, the Toyota Way’s strategies always seemed better suited for a different type of manufacturing. One where you were producing roughly the same thing, slightly customized. My manufacturing reality had tremendous customization and variability.

The Principles of Product Development Flow by Don Reinertsen was what I was looking for. Here are ten things I’m incorporating into my workflow. (Manufacturing bits now instead of machines, of course)

1. Smaller projects – We’ve been shrinking our projects at RJMetrics for a while now, but initially I resisted it. “Some projects just take a long time, but are still worthwhile,” I thought. In 2015, however, the equations making projects worthwhile change fast. It’s better to hit a 2 week checkpoint and say “let’s keep going” than go for 6 months and say, “maybe we shouldn’t have done this.” I’ve even been making a conscious effort to make my pull requests smaller (under 50 lines) and more frequent.

2. No more backlogs – Keep TODO issues in a short list, but kill off the long collection of items that linger forever. This is super hard for a GTD’er like me, where you’re supposed to get everything out of your head and into a system. That system breaks when you get multiple people adding items to a backlog that will never get touched. The real backlog is in your brain. If it’s important enough, it will stay there bugging you to be completed and eventually you’ll add it to your short todo list. The key reason why backlogs are bad is this: Your team is smarter today than it was in in the past. Your issue backlog was created by an inferior version of your team.

3. Late assignment of issues – No one gets assigned anything until they can work on it. Have you ever been stuck in a grocery line behind someone who is super slow? You’ve already committed to that line! You’re stuck there because the physical constraints of a grocery store force assignment of a few customers to a register. When matching devs with issues, wait until the last possible second to make the assignment so that it doesn’t get stuck behind another slower than expected issue.

4. Fast feedback is critical – In 2015, everyone says we need to ship an MVP and iterate, but we still don’t always do it. There are many excuses: “The design isn’t ready”, “It’s not valuable without feature X,” etc. Not only is fast feedback worth overriding these concerns, it’s the best plan for fixing them.

5. Start teams smaller, then bring in reserves – “Make early and meaningful contact with the problem.” Planning is good, but plans get shattered once work starts. Things always turn out to be harder than we thought and the best way to find out where we are is to have someone start working on the project. A single developer will have a better picture in one week than a plan ever will. This is one reason why hackathons pay off so well for RJMetrics. Bring in other team members in week 2 and their start will be better focused. Plans should set goals, but be light on implementation details until work beginds

6. Use Little’s Formula – to provide more accurate response times for issues.

7. Make queues visible – Luckily we have a great BI tool to use for this called RJMetrics. Reinertsen recommends Post It Notes to track queues, but the book was written BT (Before Trello).

8. Queue = Todo + In Progress – Don’t just count items that are waiting. The item you’re currently working on is still in queue. The team’s issue queue should be judged on the sum of Todo and In Progress, not just one.

9. Have a framework for when to escalate team communicationPrinciples says to use regular meetings over irregular meetings, in person vs email, etc. I’m hesitant to escalate the communication due to the transacational costs associated with context switching, but when do you decide to stop emailing and start chatting? When do you stop chatting and start speaking? I’m going to start using the following framework for communication and adjust it:
– Email goes to chat after 3 emails
– Chat goes to in person after 10 messages

There’s no 10th item. Don’t feel like you have to fill every meeting/PR/project with content to fit the allotted time.

37signals Sent Me a Gift for Pwning their Leaderboards

This year I took an AK to the Answers leaderboard at 37signals, mostly answering Highrise questions. The Answers board is the best place to learn how to use Highrise because if you have a question there’s a good chance someone else has already asked it. I scoured it during our implementation in April, 2010 and continued to read it in case anything new came up. In that time I started helping people out and answering questions myself and this week I cracked #3 on their leaderboard.

I cracked the #3 spot this week
I cracked the #3 spot this week

On Wednesday a packaged was delivered to my office. I wasn’t expecting anything, but it’s not unusual for me to get random samples for us to test run from customers. I opened it up to find 6 beer glasses from 37signals.

6 premium beer glasses
6 premium beer glasses

The genius move of this is not the free gift for a good customer who gives back the company he’s already paying $150/month for business software. Any company can write a algorithmic trigger for x number of questions answered gets a t-shirt, if then else, etc. and come out a winner. The best part was the note that let me know they researched enough about me to know that I brew beer and would appreciate good beer glasses.

note from 37signals
Ben - Thank you for all your hard work on 37signals' Answers page! You've been a huge help to our customers. We hope you can use these glasses for your next home brew. Thanks again from the crew at 37signals.

I love great customer appreciation stories and for once I got to be in one. Thanks!

My low cost e-commerce stack

Dungeon Adventure
Dungeon Adventure

Since I launched Dungeon Adventure, an RPG for kids, a few weeks ago a lot of people have asked me how exactly I’m selling it. It’s for sale as a digital download and print out board game, or “floor top RPG” as Phil Nelson called it. Here’s how it works:

I have a hosting account with iPower that I have had for about 9 years. It hosts this site, Dungeon Adventure, and almost any other domain I’ve ever had like markgarvey.net. My cost is $99/year, but I don’t count that against Dungeon Adventure because I’d be paying that anyway to host bengarvey.com.

I registered the domain name through iPower: $12.95/year

I looked for a while at different e-commerce / checkout software sites like scribd, PayLoadz, DigitalGoodsDelivery.com, and e-junkie. I decided on e-junkie for the following reasons:
1. Seemed reputable based on reviews and testamonials.
2. Ultra low cost. $5/month flat fee for 50MB storage and no transaction fees.

So far I have been extremely happy with my choice and in hindsight I am so glad I chose a service with no transaction fees. Spread over the cost of all my sales, that $5 is just a few pennies in transaction fees. E-junkie allows people to download the file with a unique link up to 5 times, provides email alerts to me, sends customizable confirmation emails to customers, and allow me to email customers (for a small additional fee). I was setup in about 10 minutes and it has worked flawlessly since day 1.

For payment I use paypal. I’ve used it for a long time and never had any issues with them. I’ve heard the horror stories of account freezes and such, but everything has been great. Paypal’s cut is 3% + $0.30, so on my $5.99 game the cost is $0.48. e-junkie integrated with paypal very easily and it had all the setup info I needed to accept payments through them.

Cost breakdown:
Hosting account: $8.25/month (I was already paying for this, but I’ll include it anyway)
Domain name: $1.08/month (if you’re buying hosting, you’ll get this included with the $8.25)
Checkout software: $5/month
Transaction fees: $0.48 per transaction
Total: $13.25 per month ($6.08 if you already have hosting and just need a domain)
Throughput per transaction is $5.51, so I need to sell 2.4 games per month (or 1.1) to break even.

With a cost structure this low I’ve already covered them for years.

I love the Internet.

They Sold You Out: Screw You Orbitz, Shutterfly, Fandango, and more…

I only called out Orbitz, Shutterlfy, and Fandango because I’m a big customer of theirs. Fandango not so much since I hardly ever go to the movies anymore, but I use it almost every time I go. Each company built great technology and delivered a great product until they got greedy and decided to break an ethical line I never would have thought possible in 2009.

Watch out for Post Transaction Marketing Scams
Watch out for Post Transaction Marketing Scams

It’s called Post Transaction Marketing and Tech Crunch broke this story last week. The way it works is that you make a legitimate online purchase and afterwards they say something like, “Enter your email address for a 20% coupon on your next purchase.” I’ve seen this many times and I assumed that this was a way to sign you up for spam lists. Not great, but definitely not anything to get terribly upset over. Any time you hand over your email address you should expect to spammed unless they explicitly say they won’t.

It turns out the fine print said that entering your email address gave them the ok to enter you into a useless “Web Loyalty” program that charged your credit card up to $10/month. The online retailer you just did business with happily handed over your credit card information without your explicit consent. Sure it was in the fine print, but by asking for your email address they broke a well established social norm that said you were ok as long as you did business with reputable companies who followed standard checkout procedures and never entered your credit card number.

Tech Crunch has the full list of companies who made a million dollars or more for this and it’s despicable. I wasn’t personally ripped off by this scam, but I can’t believe their management allowed it to happen. If they want to make amends they should refund every dollar they made off of it today.

I’m going to do everything I can to move my money away from these companies immediately.

mars-red Closing!

I was extremely disappointed to see this in my inbox today. mars-red is a great store and Scott put a lot of effort into it. The two gigs I played there were a lot of fun and it’s a shame to see they couldn’t make it work. Also, I have a $25 gift card I haven’t spent yet!

Hello,

To get right to the point, after four years we have decided to close our doors. Saturday, March 15th will be marsREDmusic’s last day of business. I bring you this news with much regret and I must admit, a little bit of relief. It has really been tough this past year to keep things going as business has been on the decline. The world of music retail has become quite cutthroat, which makes it extremely tough for a store our size who relies solely on record sales, to compete. I could rant for hours about the music industry, CD prices, file sharing, so on & so forth, but I’m sure you’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going on out there so I won’t bore you with the details. To quickly summarize: after doing this for close to 15 years, I’m ready to move on.

I want to thank each & every one of you for helping us make it this far. We had a good run, it’s been a pleasure serving you and I hope you all appreciated that we tried to do.

Once again, our last day is March 15th so I hope you’ll stop in to say farewell, and whatever inventory is left will be upwards of 75% off.

In the meantime, our clearance sale will be starting on Monday, February 11th with 10% off everything in stock. We will still be offering special orders on a limited basis thru February so if there’s anything you need to grab before we take off, just let us know.

Our new store hours as of Febuary 11th will be M-F: 11- 6, Sat:10-6 and Sun: 12-5.

Thanks again & take care.
Scott Wellborn, Owner Mars Red LLC