How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Jobs To Be Done (#JTBD) is getting a lot of attention lately as a valuable, new method for product and marketing teams (if you’re not familiar check out the podcast and the Milkshake video that started it all).

For the product team, they can better understand the motivations and needs of their users. As a marketer, you can understand the journey a future customer goes through to go from considering finding a solution to their problems to actually choosing your product. This is priceless for your marketing site and copywriting as well.

There’s a lot of great posts coming out on why Jobs To Be Done matters, but I haven’t seen much on how to actually do the interviews. Since I’ve done them a bunch myself, taught a number of my friends, and written previously about how to do customer development interviews, I wanted to share the process I’ve learned and evolved:

How to do a Jobs To Be Done Interview

Getting in the right mindset

These interviews are very different than a traditional customer development interview, usability testing, and other common customer interview practices. It’s a lot more free form than other processes that usually just want to uncover a few problems or learn some basic customer demographics.

For JTBD, you need to think of yourself like a detective interviewing a witness at a crime scene, or a documentary filmmaker trying to tell a story. Believe it or not, there’s a significant process a user goes through to become a customer and it’s often measured in weeks or months. Once you finish this process you’ll be able to fill in a timeline that looks like this:

jtbd-timelineThe key is to get users thinking about their purchasing process and filling in the gaps while they remember the various events along the way. Your users won’t think of them with the words of that timeline, but you’ll see where those things happen.  Fortunately, the questions I’ll show you will help your interviewee remember the various steps.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the terms on the timeline with an example of a friend who bought a new car.  Skip down if you already understand the timeline.

1) First Thought: What caused the first thought to think about making the purchase? When was it?

- My friend owned a Prius and it was a few years old. One night when he was driving home from work, he hit a neighbor’s trash can that had rolled onto the road. He looked at the front of the car and saw it was kind of scuffed up, but not enough to take it to the shop. This made him think, “Maybe it’s time I got a new car.”

2) Passively Looking: What did they do while they were passively looking? For how long?

- My friend started thinking about what kind of car he would get next. He knew he wanted a fast car and was focused on luxury brands. He started browsing Audi, BMW and Lexus sites to look at their cars.

3) Event #1: What happened that switched them from passively to actively looking?

- My friend’s wife would need some convincing to agree to a new car. As it turns out, about a month after the trash can incident, her brother mentioned he needed a car. My friend could give his car to his brother in law and kill two birds with one stone.  With permission from his wife, he could now actively look for the car.

4) Actively Looking: What did they do while they were actively looking?

- My friend started looking up reviews of the various cars he was interested in and asked friends that owned the cars for their opinions. He has a long time mentor that he in particular appreciates their taste, and so he asked their opinion.  My friend is an Apple fanboy, so craftsmanship is really important to him as well. Both his mentor and his own research pointed to Audi being the brand best committed to those ideals.

5) Event #2: What was the event that made him decide to make a purchase at a specific day/time?

- My friend had two events that combined to push him to finally make the purchase. He was scheduled to have surgery soon and he wouldn’t be able to drive for awhile after surgery. Christmas was coming soon too.  He wanted to get the car before his surgery so he could enjoy it a bit first and not put off the purchase that much longer and knew he could claim it as a Christmas present to justify the purchase then. (Now those luxury ads about buying cars as gifts make more sense, right?)

6) Deciding: What helped him make the purchase?

- Now that my friend was ready to buy, he went to the dealerships and test drove the cars that were finalists (a BMW and an Audi). He had a great time speeding down the highway in the Audi, so combined with his friends recommendations and his own research, he was finally ready to buy the car.

Unfortunately, the answers don’t come out that cleanly. You will get bits and pieces of the various steps during the discussion, which is why these interviews have to be more exploratory. You should be able to assemble the timeline afterwards though and start to see how you can market to future customers like your interviewee and alter your product to better fit them (like helping them see the most important value sooner).

The Jobs To Be Done Interview Script

Ok. We’re finally here to the script. Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help the person you’re interviewing remember the steps and key moments in the process that led to the switch.

A few rules for the interviews:
  1. Find people who recently purchased. Most people won’t remember well anything more than 60 days ago. The more recently the event happened, the more likely they are to remember all the details you’ll hope to capture in the interview.
  2. Don’t interrogate. You want your conversation to feel like they’re just talking to a friend.
  3. Pauses are ok. The interviewee is likely going to have to think hard to remember details. Give them time and they’ll often remember things so don’t be afraid of 10-20 seconds or more of silence.
  4. Bounce around the topics. Being non-linear in your questions often leads to new discoveries. Circle back to different things you talked about throughout the interview.
  5. The best stuff comes around 20-25 minutes in. Keep digging and listen carefully. You’ll have a real *woah* moment right around then.  For above timeline example, my friend didn’t initially realize the trash cans started his car buying process.
  6. Take notes & record the interviews. There’s lots of gold in these interviews. You don’t want to forget anything, and be able to review and share them with others later.
  7. Work in teams. A pair often can do better at examining all areas of the moments you’re trying to understand and help with taking good notes. While one person is writing a key point, the other can be asking a question.
  8. Talk to more users until they all sound the same. It generally takes 7-10 interviews to get the patterns of everyone. I found out the root cause of churn for a company by interviewing a bunch of their recently canceled customers and it was very different than what people said it was in an exit survey.
  9. Organize your findings with the Timeline and Four Forces. That’s what they’re there for. You can learn about the Four Forces here.
  10. Don’t lead the interviewee. Try very hard not to ask Yes/No questions. Instead leave room for explanation and listen. Ask lots of “why” and “tell me more” questions.
  11. Timing Matters. Try to find out the day/week/month/hour something happened. There’s often patterns to be found in that timing and it can also help them recall other details as they concentrate to remember.
Jobs To Be Done Questions to Ask:

Unlike other kinds of interviews, you don’t need to always ask every question in the exact same order. These are all just ways to explore the process of their purchase and help them remember their story.

  • When did you first start thinking about your purchase?
    • Was it in the morning or evening? What time was it?
  • Where were you when you made that decision?
  • Was anyone else involved in the purchasing decision?
    • Why?
  • Visualize the environment you were in when you made the decision to purchase…where were you? What was around you?
  • Tell me more about that…(When you hear something interesting/intriguing)
  • Did you consider any competitors? Which ones? Why?
    • Why didn’t you choose them?
  • How did you decide between what you bought and the other options?
  • Why specifically did you buy that day versus any other? Why then? What was unique about that day?
    • What else were you doing that day?
    • Did anyone contribute to sparking the decision that day? Why?
  • What were you using before you had X?
    • Why did you use that? What did you like about it?
    • When did you start using that?
    • What were its shortcomings?
    • What does the new product do that your old solution couldn’t?
  • How do you normally approach choosing a new product?
    • What was your process for this product?
      • Why was it the same/different this time?
  • How do you use the product you’ve purchased?
    • Are there features you use all the time? How?
    • Are there features you never use? Why not?
  • If in doubt, ask them to tell you more about whatever tangential thing they bring up in the discussion.

You’ll notice as you do the interview, certain moments on the timeline will fit what they’re describing. I wouldn’t try to fill in the timeline perfectly until after the interview, but while you’re interviewing you can mark in your notes when it seems like it fits with some part. If a certain area isn’t seeming to be filled in, probe more around that part in their process.

But will this work in my situation? It’s special/hard/unique.

If you can get the interviewee on the phone or to meet in person, then this will work in your situation. I have seen this work for all of the following cases:

  • Buying a car
  • Buying a scanner
  • Buying steaks online
  • Upgrading to Evernote Premium
  • Buying analytics for their business
  • Getting a gym membership for the first time in their life
  • Understanding why customers churned a SaaS product
  • Buying a 2nd iPad for a family with children
  • Buying a milkshake from a fast food chain

Even if multiple people are involved in the decision making process, any one person in the process is likely able to recall most of the key moments.

What have you used Jobs To Be Done for? What are your favorite JTBD interview questions?

A Guide to Finding Your Meaning of Life

The last six months have been a challenging journey for me. I’ve been searching. I’ve been trying to find my unique path in life. I’ve questioned what my calling really is.

Call it being a little lost. Call it a quarter life crisis (a couple years late). Call it whatever you’d like, but for me it has been an incredibly important, personal journey to determine what I should do with my life and finding the next steps to make me truly happy & fulfilled.

This wasn’t something I wanted to talk about (much less write about). However, after yet another conversation with a friend going through the same thing, I realized I really need to share some of the things that helped me get to where I am.

Here’s a few things that really helped me.

1) Read These Books

Everything you’re thinking about has been a challenge for others before. There are experts who have devoted their lives to these subjects and books are a great way to learn from them at your own pace. I read a lot and all of these came highly recommended by friends and mentors, so trust me, they’re helpful.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Growth means knowing you’re always learning and that even the best were a novice at some point. Never say, “I can’t do that.”  This attitude is an important one to adopt as you find your path: Just because it’s your path, doesn’t mean it will be easy. Mindset will help you understand how to approach the big, scary dreams you have with the right attitude.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport 

“Find your passion” is the message of Generation Y and I think it’s led many of us astray. There are many things we each are passionate about, but not all of them should be more than a hobby. So Good They Can’t Ignore You will help you figure out what you’re great at and how to do more of it while building a fulfilling life.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl 

Only 1 in 12 men sent to a concentration camp survived the Holocaust. The author was one of them. From that experience and a lifetime as psychologist, Frankl has some powerful views on life and the importance of having a personal Why. He also reminds us that suffering is a part of life; as much as the American media makes us think we’re all supposed to be happy 24/7, there’s value and growth in struggling with the right things.

2) Find Your Must

I was fortunate to catch Elle Luna’s amazing talk on Finding Your Must when she originally gave her talk in October and am so glad the talk is recorded for all to see. I’ve shared the video with countless friends since. Watch it here: http://vimeo.com/77436516

As you go through those books, it’s important to listen for that voice inside you for what it really wants. In the case of Elle, she was a successful designer at Mailbox (bought by Dropbox), but was having dreams pulling her in another direction.

Just as important is Elle’s awesome article on First Round Capital’s amazing blog called, “What to do at the Crossroads of Should and Must.” This came at the perfect time for me as I was interviewing for jobs I thought I *should* take while working on a startup I felt I *must* work on. I am coincidentally no longer doing the should and focused on the things I feel I must do.

There is a lot of material in the article different than her talk so I encourage you to check out both.

3) Buy a Notebook

This doesn’t have to be anything special. Just get one of those old school spiral-bound notebooks with lots of pages and your favorite writing form (pen, pencil, sharpie, etc).

Start Writing.

Once you have the notebook, sit down alone and start writing anything that comes to mind. Just get everything swimming in your head out and write until you’ve filled a few pages. Do this every day.

What you write about will change. I’ve written about everything from passions to frustrations, forgiveness to regrets, startup ideas to objective views of the past. Every bit of it helped in different ways and brought my mind out of places I was previously stuck.

After awhile you will find you may have less of an urge to write. That’s okay. Know that the notebook is there to release things when they’re stuck inside. It needs an outlet. Don’t bother reading what you’ve written either; some of it won’t be nice things, but there’s a good chance getting it out will help you move on. At least for me, this journey was as much about finding what’s next as it was letting go of things holding me back.

Now, I don’t write in the notebook every day, but when I have something I need to get out of me, I stop what I’m doing and grab the notebook to start writing. I also use it when I’m stuck on something and need to explore an idea. It is this exploration that helped me arrive at what I’m excited to be working on today.

You can learn more about this process here: http://www.dr-jane-bolton.com/support-files/the-artists-way.pdf

4) Read The 12 Week Year

Another book? Yes. The ideas that you’ll be piecing together from the above books, the great stuff from Elle Luna, and writing will make you ready for this book. This is the book that will help you put it all together and figure out how you can really execute on that scary, ambitious *must* that’s dying to get out of you.

The 12 Week Year by Moran & Lennington

On the surface it looks like another pop-self-help book, but it has an important process that will help you clearly define who you want to become and how you can get there.

They ask you who you want to be in 10-20 years, then what you want to be in 3 years to put you on a path to get there, and finally how to find the actionable steps you can take in the next 12 weeks to begin. Following their exercises and examples helped me sew together all the ideas that I had generated from the rest of my journey.

5) Don’t Fear Failure

The first thing you try probably won’t work. Taking the first step to get out the door though is very important. Every thing you try will add new skills, new perspectives, and new people to your life. All of those will combine to bring you closer to your end goal, even if that’s not entirely clear. Don’t be afraid to quit and try something else.

I was an Electrical Engineer in college who realized he didn’t want to be one.  I tried to start a hardware company with some friends (it failed). Then I started Greenhorn Connect, a modest success that gave me a platform for developing skills in marketing, hiring, managing, product and sales. This helped me get jobs first at oneforty (the now-defunct app store for Twitter) and then to move to SF to join KISSmetrics. In both jobs, I learned a ton. Between those two jobs, I tried consulting (the only thing I liked was the money) and a bunch of startup ideas that went nowhere (hint: the moving industry is not a great place to build software).

Most recently, I spent last fall diving into the world of 3D Printing and just never found the right team and idea in the nascent industry. This led me to job hunt again, which is when a lot of the above journey of discovery began.  It was only then that I realized what I really want to do now.

Every step in the journey has been important in helping me get here.  I’ve embraced the fact that this could be another failed step, or the one that puts it all together.

Conclusion

If you really work at it, if you really think about the ideas in the books above and challenge yourself to write what’s in your heart, then I believe you’ll have some things to go on to find the next steps in your uniquely fulfilling life.

I have realized both the good and the bad in my life has taught me important lessons and prepared me for what’s next. In my case, that’s writing a book about How to Build Customer Driven Products based on what I’ve learned from the jobs I’ve had, the consulting I’ve done, and the great mentors I’ve met along the way.  It also means patching up a few relationships I made mistakes with and have much better perspective on now. Most importantly to me, it’s realizing that I’m a founder at heart and that I’m now working on an idea I’m driven to work on every day: helping people be better managers.

I can’t guarantee these tactics will work for you, but working through all of the above and with the help of some great friends I’ve gotten to a satisfying place.  If you’ve asked these questions of yourself before, I’d love to hear what helped you in the comments. This post is for all those coming after us that could use help on figuring out their journey.

The 5 Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

Being a manager is hard. It’s an entirely different set of skills than what you learned as an individual contributor and good resources are few and far between.  Most companies, especially if they’re startups, have no leadership training, so you’re often on your own. Making matters worse, you often have more bad examples of management around you than good ones.

So what’s an aspiring great manager to do? It starts with understanding the harsh truths of the role and then getting the right help.

The Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

1) Leadership is service to your team.

When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you. You are judged based on how your team performs, not how you produce. The most important thing you can do is motivate your team and focus them on their most important tasks.

This is a hard mentality to set when you are used to only having to worry about yourself. However, if you shift your mindset to that of serving your team, you’ll find it a lot easier.

Service to your team means . . .

  • . . . removing blockers for your team so they can get things done.
  • . . . listening to problems and helping address them quickly.
  • . . . shielding your team from distractions.
  • . . . accepting responsibility if something goes wrong.
  • . . . showering credit and praise on your team when something goes right.

There’s a special kind of satisfaction that you get when you see your team excited after conquering a major challenge that you rallied them to complete.

2) Your best people are easiest to take for granted and most devastating if they leave.

You don’t have to work for long to recognize A players. They’re hard working, always learning and produce great results in their field. As a manager it’s easy to take these stars for granted while you’re fire fighting and dealing with struggling team members. Unfortunately, taking them for granted means that you may not realize they’re unhappy until they have another job offer and it’s too late.

To retain your team, you should never take anyone for granted or go too long without talking with them. One on ones are the most powerful tool in a manager’s arsenal to avoid this grave misstep, so start them today if you haven’t already. You can also use the Management by Walking Around approach to also accomplish some of this, although the privacy of a one on one will give deeper insights.

You need to challenge your best people regularly, create opportunities for them to grow, praise them, and give them work that excites them. These things will change over time, which is why you need to regularly talk with them and not wait for them to come to you. You also need to listen carefully as they are often your front line for detecting problems early; fixing problems while they’re small helps you avoid constantly triaging major problems that consume all your time.

3) Your team members are more than just cogs in your machine.

Even at a big company, 9-to-5 job your team members are still giving you one third of their current life by working for you. If you’re part of a startup, it’s often significantly more time. Appreciate this as well as the fact that there are things that happen outside their work hours that are important to them.

Members of your team are complete human beings. They have a family, hopes, dreams, hobbies and passions.  When you show you care about them as a complete person, it makes them more engaged with their work and more trusting in you. It will vary from person to person, but there is usually something personal that can lead to work “resentment” as Marissa Mayer calls it. And on the positive side, giving a small thoughtful gift based on their interests will be remembered long after an Amazon gift card or cash bonus.

When someone is extra excited, they often want to share it. When they’re upset, they may need someone to confide in or understand what they’re dealing with. We’re all human and sometimes things outside work (cancer, death in the family, bad breakups, etc) affect us no matter how hard we try.  Being there for your team members and recognizing when they need some help (time off, extension on a project or just someone to listen) will pay massive dividends in retaining and motivating your team.

4) Your example sets the tone for your team.

One of the most fascinating things I have observed in my career is how a company takes on the personality of their founders and leaders. For better and worse, you’ll see nuances in how people communicate, deal with good and bad news, and react to customers, clients and team members based on the example set by leaders.

Are you excited about your mission? Are you motivated each day? Do you show patience or are you quick to judge? Are you the first one in the office each day or the first to leave? When you are a manager or leader, the spotlight is on you and everyone is watching. If you watch carefully, you will notice people picking up on your behaviors and often mirroring many of them. You will also see how even something as simple as a sigh or negative body language by you can take the wind out of the sails of an excited team member.

Self-awareness is one of the hardest, but most important, skills you can develop as a manager. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to how your actions impact those around you. The more your team is picking up good behaviors from you, the higher they will perform.

5) A lack of consistency and follow through kills your credibility.

When a leader says one thing and does another or is perceived as playing favorites, they lose credibility quickly. Without credibility, a team will not be inspired to follow them nor perform at a high level.

So on top of all the above challenges, you have the need to be consistent in everything you do so as not to be perceived as a hypocrite. Of course, the challenge is that with all you have going on as a manager, it’s very easy to not be consistent. You may not mean to, but when things get busy and stressful, it’s easy to be forgetful.

This is the harsh truth I struggle with the most. Even knowing so well the above lessons, reading regularly and seeking the advice of mentors, it is still very hard not to slip up and fail to follow through or be consistent. Even the best leaders I’ve spoken to have to constantly work on this one.

How are you supposed to avoid all these harsh truths without any help?

There are apps to help you ship code, track projects, analyze your customers and manage your sales process. And yet, there’s nothing to specifically help managers like you motivate, engage and support your team.

Bloated HR tools like Success Factors are not the answer and were not built with a manager in mind.

I’ve developed a system that has helped me motivate and retain team members for my startup, Greenhorn Connect, and as product manager at KISSmetrics. I’ve learned these techniques from talking to great leaders at startups and publicly traded companies, as well as reading many books on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, sign up below:


 

Special thanks to Justin Jackson, Alex McClafferty, Rich Rines and Thomas Schranz for helping with this post.

The 2 Most Important Skills to Start Your Career

There is nothing harder than starting out or starting over. When you are new, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door and make a good impression. It can be hard to tell the difference between incompetence and a simple lack of experience.

Therefore, if you’re just starting out, there are two skills that are essential and will carry you farther than any others:

1) A Fierce Attention to Detail.

Any manager with a new hire has in the back of their mind the questions of, “Can they handle this?” and “How much do I need to keep an eye on their work?” If your manager knows you have an excellent eye for the details, they will be much more trusting in your abilities, knowing that you’ve taken good notes of their instructions, will triple check your work for careless mistakes and won’t do anything to make them look bad.  Building this trust can be the difference between a fast accelerating career with new responsibilities and languishing as an entry-level hire for years.

The longer I’ve been a manager and worked on product teams, the more I appreciate this trait. Over and over again we see the evidence of how the little details are what people notice and love (A great example is how Crashlytics built for Tweets which led to their viral growth). This is at the heart of great craftsmanship.

2) A Hunger to Learn.

Unfortunately, minding the details is not enough to succeed. You must also be eager to learn new skills. The faster you level up, the more likely you are to advance in your career whether always at the same company or at new ones. You need to learn from others and seek out sources of information on your own, which are skills in and of themselves to develop.

Many people in other careers have asked me how to get into product management, which isn’t always easy. However, one of the easiest ways to change your role is to work at a growing company and show how fast you can learn and grow.  This gives a company the confidence to give you more and new responsibilities.

The Combination is the Key.

When you combine an attention to detail with a hunger to learn, you will be unstoppable. Watching for the little details will make you more inquisitive and help you find the hidden gems and little secrets others gloss over. The little details are where life’s curiosities and greatest lessons lie.

As you grow the confidence of others and use curiosity to drive your learning, you will open new doors and build great relationships with others in your field. You are likely to attract great mentors who enjoy watching your development and love sharing stories and lessons to further your learning. They will also become your strongest advocates, either as great references, or the kinds of people that hire you again and again.

What do you think are the most important skills for those starting out?

Why are there so many bad managers?

Nobody sets out to be a bad manager and yet so many fall into traps and become one; it’s counter-intuitive to realize that humans are not straight forward machines. What worked as an individual contributor will not help you as a manager.

It’s easy to focus on the mechanical elements of management like company outcomes, hours logged, and project results, but that’s only a small part of what makes a great leader.

It’s so easy to stay professional instead of getting to know your team and what matters to them, especially if you’re remote or don’t interact with them every day. When this happens, is it any surprise they not only get frustrated or burn out but they don’t come to you with problems? Is it any surprise many bottle it up until they quit or find another job, which can lead to company-wide retention problems?

What do you do? Why do so many managers frustrate their teams?

The human element is missing.

If you help people achieve their goals, they’ll work hard for you to achieve the company’s goals as well. If you can align what you need them to do with what they want to do, the results can be great. If you make them feel important and recognize what they care about, they’ll work hard for you.

But all of this takes effort and time. Something that you don’t have unless you make time for it, which isn’t easy with all the emails, meetings and other responsibilities that come with a management role.

And rarely do such efforts get rewarded like specific company results do. So how do you make sure you’re not forgetting these things that pay off in the long term? And are you sure you are doing everything you could be?

I believe there is a way for today’s technology to help us all be better managers and caring leaders. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up below:

Why you should read 100 books

When I was fresh out of college with a internship at E Ink (maker’s of the display screen for the Amazon Kindle) I emailed the founder and then CEO, Russ Wilcox, to see if he would meet with me to give me some advice on entrepreneurship. Lucky for me, he was willing to schedule a meeting before my internship ended. You can read the full story here, but one of the best pieces of advice he gave me during our meeting was simple, yet powerful: Read 100 Books.

At the time it almost didn’t make sense and led to more questions than answers. What books? Why that many? How fast? By when?

I remember frantically writing down a bunch of book titles he started mentioning and then he stopped me and said the important thing was that they were on a diverse set of topics with different viewpoints instead of any specific books. He suggested trying to read 5-10 on categories like sales, marketing, leadership, negotiation, etc.

Mission Accomplished.

5 Years and 4 months after that conversation, I’ve finally hit the number and now looking back, I realize it’s one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t read as much as I have. Reading 100 books has done all the following for me:

  • Helped me better understand the responsibilities of coworkers (especially important as a product manager and startup founder).
  • Being comfortable in a conversation on just about any subject due to what I’ve read.
  • Rapidly improved my skills in key work responsibilities helping me accelerate my career and avoid costly mistakes.
  • Met other great people who also read regularly.
  • Given me the confidence and framework to help me learn anything.

If you’re reading this, I encourage you to also read 100 books. But realize it’s not about the number, but a routine of reading regularly that will serve you well throughout life.

Here’s my quick advice on how to make it happen and make the most of it:

1) Read what you can apply immediately.

I’ve managed to read a wide variety of books that have helped in my career and I’ve always chosen books based on what my current challenges and interests are. This has helped me apply concepts I pick up as I read a book, usually over the span of 2-4 weeks, depending on the length.

When I was moving to SF to run product at KISSmetrics, I started out with a great book on Product Management, then dove into a few books on design, before finding myself diving into sales, marketing, leadership and strategy books depending on what was happening at work and my personal life. Every time, I found great ways to build on what I read in my life around me which has helped tremendously with retention and understanding.

2) Get good recommendations.

Not all books are created equal. In fact, most books are pretty terrible, especially business books. There are gems out there though, so it really pays off to ask others who read what the *best* books are they’ve read on a subject. This has saved me tons of time on books that aren’t worth my time. This is why I made a list reviewing of all the books I’ve read  and some of my all time favorite books for entrepreneurs here. You’ll also occasionally find posts about books that CEOs like Jeff Bezos has his leaders read, which are usually great.

3) Build a routine of reading.

I read on public transportation. First it was riding the T in Boston and now MUNI around SF. I love this for so many reasons:

  • It gives you something to look forward to even when a bus commute might be lengthy.
  • A book won’t get stolen like your cell phone might be when you have it out as you play Angry Birds/check Facebook, etc.
  • It gives you bite size chunks of reading as most rides are 10-30 minutes…just enough for a chapter or two.
  • A book is a great way to get just a little bit more personal space on a crowded bus.
  • It’s a great warm up and cool down to your work day if you read during your commute.

If that’s not an option for you, build a routine around it in some other way. Maybe it’s 20 minutes before you go to bed, while you eat breakfast or perhaps audio books while you drive to work. It is the routine of always reading something that will carry you through that many books over the years.

4) Carry your book around with you.

Nothing sparks a conversation like someone noticing what you’re reading. Often those that notice read a lot too, which is a great way to make friends and you can get more recommendations for books from them. This also means that if a friend is running late, you always have a productive way to fill the time.  I brought Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” with me to Bootstrap Live and ended up talking with Andrew Warner and the guy next to me about how much we all loved it.

5) Write all over your books.

Despite working in technology, I still prefer physical books in my hand. I underline, I highlight and dog ear all my books. Something about it helps me with retention of what I read. Even if you prefer to read on a tablet or Kindle, be sure to take notes and challenge yourself to think about how to apply what you’re reading. It helps a lot to review books you’ve read before when you have that subject come up. It’s amazing to me how often past events line up as examples (or counter-examples) of something I’m reading. I’m always sure to take a moment to consider it and write it down in the book.

6) Always make progress.

Life doesn’t always go as hoped or planned. There are times of frustration and stagnancy both personally and professionally in all our lives.  I’ve found one of the best things for me is knowing that no matter what is happening in my life I’m always learning because of what I’m reading. I can always look back and see progress there.

It has also helped that when I’ve had down times, if I read something related to it like a book on happiness or successfully navigating your 20s, I’m actually being proactive about the problem and getting advice from someone great who took the time to research and write a book about the subject.

Remember, this is not a race. The point of reading all these books is to absorb all the ideas and skills shared in the books, not race to the end.

I’ve heard some people like to skim books and think that doing things like reading the opening and closing paragraphs of a chapter and reading headlines in the chapter is enough. They’re either reading the wrong books or missing out on some deep lessons.

As a wise man once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” It is the journey to 100 books that I both enjoyed and grew tremendously from…not the milestone of specifically 100 that matters to me; I haven’t stopped reading and won’t anytime soon. My Amazon Wishlist is longer than ever (please suggest the best books you’ve read in the comments!) and I can’t wait to learn through more great books for the rest of my life.

What the Stratasys patent suit of Afinia means for the 3D Printing Industry

Q: What is Stratasys thankful for this Thanksgiving?

A: Patents and a large corporate legal department. 

That may be a little harsh, but after the press release and filed suit against Afinia made public this week you can see that Stratasys is going to start flexing their IP muscles in this increasingly competitive market. Given that Stratasys is asking for an injunction to stop all sales of the Afinia H Series, this is a lot more than a shot across the bow. Stratasys is aggressively staking their claim to the 3D printing market.

Why Now?

The Afinia has been on the market since August 2012 and has done quite well during that time. They’ve won multiple awards from Make Magazine including “Best overall experience” and have been a mainstay at virtually every Maker Faire around the country. They also have signed distribution deals to start selling their printers at BestBuy.com and Staples Canada‘s online sites. They’re an increasingly strong competitor that is flexing their retail muscles thanks to their parent company’s experience in retail.

Q3 numbers for Makerbot was not as strong as some would expect in a growing market like consumer 3D Printers. Selling likely less than 5,000 printers had to raise some flags internally, which has led to a number of actions by Makerbot to try to grow their bottom line:

  1. A new partnership with Donor’s Choose to sell more Makerbots to schools.
  2. A change to the website to make Makercare opt-out (a $300+ cost) to try to increase LTV per customer.
  3. Opening of stores in New York City, Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut.
  4. This lawsuit against a major competitor.

Big partnerships and storefront bets are the kinds of big plays you can make to throw your weight around when you’re the biggest company in an industry. Lawsuits leveraging your patent portfolio also happen to be a powerful weapon, which when you aren’t capturing as much of the market as you like, become more appealing to use against stiff competition.

Given Stratasys has been a sleeping giant for a number of years, it appears they’re making it very clear they are awake and are ready for a fight.

The Stratasys Attitude

This quote from the press release really stood out to me:

“IP infringement discourages companies from investing in innovation”     - Stratasys CEO David Ries.

This claim is absurd. If anything, having additional competition that you can’t shut down due to patents means you have to innovate faster; in an open market, new innovations are more prevalent as companies have to push hard to stay ahead. Brand loyalty, customer service and marketing become more important as well.

Everyone is at Risk

There’s an awesome discussion of the infringement, the patent claims and possible work arounds on the RepRap form worth checking out. From the forum, these are the patents mentioned:

  • August 5, 1997, U.S. Patent No 5,653,925 (the 925 patent) METHOD FOR CONTROLLED POROSITY THREE DIMENSIONAL MODELING
  • February 2, 1999, U.S. Patent No. 5,866,058 (the 058 patent) METHOD FOR RAPID PROTOTYPING OF SOLID MODELS
  • December 21, 1999, U.S. Patent No. 6,004,124 (the 124 patent) THIN WALL TUBE LIQUIFIER
  • January 8, 2013, U.S. Patent No. 8,349,239 (the 239 patent) SEAM CONCEALMENT FOR THREE DIMENSIONAL MODELS

Most of these patents could apply to any consumer FDM 3D printing company selling a fully assembled printer and do not expire for at least 4-6 years. Stratasys went after the biggest threat that just so happened to be getting competitive distribution deals. If Afinia loses the lawsuit, it puts every other startup 3D printing company at risk of a similar suit.

The Big Picture

This is just the beginning. As CNBC has reported, over 6,800 3D printing related patents have been filed in the last decade and the rate of filing is increasing. It’s clear that Stratasys intends to enforce their patents aggressively as the CEO states:

“The entry barrier for infringers is modest, especially as technology improves and prices fall… As a result, we should anticipate that this will be a growing challenge for right holders and law enforcement.”                     – Stratasys CEO David Ries.

While Stratasys and 3D Systems aggressively try to capture a consumer market that doesn’t yet know why they need to get a 3D printer, I expect other low cost printers to start to capture value at the low end of the industrial market. Whether by helping make molds for sand casting or just being a low cost alternative to the more expensive printers, textbook disruption is happening. This disruption will take decades and given our current trajectory, will include quite the blood bath for both big and small companies on their balance sheets and in the court room. Yesterday’s patent suit announcement is a key point in history and another of the many likely battles in the court room between challengers and incumbents in the 3D printing market.

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The Rise of the 3rd Party Manufacturer in 3D Printing

There’s a lot to be learned about the present and future of 3D Printing by studying the rise of the Personal Computer. Today we have hundreds of companies building supply chains from scratch to sell 3D Printers out of garages, co-working spaces and tech shops, not unlike Steve Jobs’s garage and the motel in Albuquerque that spawned Microsoft. However, this part of the journey did not last forever.

As the market and individual companies matured, 3rd parties began supplying various components to the PC makers as they built more sophisticated manufacturing processes. The PC makers welcomed this so that each one of them did not have to reinvent the wheel for each component as well as get better prices from suppliers who could gain volume advantages by selling to many of those PC makers.

Today, we’re seeing the very beginning of such opportunities emerging with a handful of really interesting companies becoming the first 3rd Party Manufacturers (also known as OEMs). Here’s a few I’ve been tracking:

The Rise of the OEM

Extruders:

1) DGlass3D: You may remember these brothers from previous blog posts and the 2nd edition of my newsletter, when they were on Kickstarter. While they did not fund successfully, they were able to connect with companies interested in their technology. Given the challenges of dual extrusion caused by the decreased build area, added weight for the stepper motors and quality of prints when switching back and forth between heated materials in each extruder, I expect more than a few companies may be interested in the technology to shortcut adding this pivotal feature.

Why this matters: Many use cases open up when you add the second extruder including printing your support structures in a water soluble material, multi-colored printing and printing in multiple materials with complimentary properties (like part hard, part soft or part conductive, part insulated).

2) The Prusa Nozzle: Josef Prusa is one of the most prolific contributors to the RepRap movement, which includes the Prusa Mendel, one of the most popular RepRap printers. Recently, he unveiled the Prusa Nozzle, which allows you to print at up to 300 C and is a much easier to use, single piece. See more about the Prusa nozzle in edition #4 of my newsletter.

Why this matters: Printing at temperatures as high as 300 C allows additional materials to be printed like polycarbonite (bullet-proof glass) and food-safe stainless steel materials are better than the past use of brass.

Materials:

1) Proto Pasta: Another new Kickstarter entrant, these guys are working on reliable, high quality filament for your FDM printers. On their Kickstarter, you’ll find a carbon fiber reinforced PLA, high-temperature PLA and an experimental polycarbonate material. They’re testing and certifying their materials, which is rare in the current materials market.

Why this matters: Stronger, more reliable materials allows users to print for more applications. Combine this with dual extrusion (ie- multiple materials in one print) and it really gets exciting.

2) MadeSolid: This Oakland-based materials manufacturer recently completed a successful Indiegogo campaign which expands the color options for FormLabs printers from gray and yellow to the full rainbow. They’re working to make quality resins and filaments to make higher quality prints. They have some very cool technology in their pipeline I’ve seen some parts (hint: the days of PLA and ABS may be numbered).

Why this matters: Component makers have not fared as well as many 3D Printer companies on crowdfunding campaigns. It’s good validation that people are hungry for new, better materials that MadeSolid hit their goal. It also means that they do not need the distribution channel of any printer manufacturer to be successful, which provides huge negotiating leverage should they talk distribution with one.

Build Plates:

1) BuildTak: If you spend much time printing, you quickly run into issues with your printed material sticking well to your build plate and also being easy to remove after the print finishes without damaging the print. BuildTak works with both ABS and PLA and is more durable than kapton tape, which has a habit of tearing as you remove objects. This company is just starting out but is already being evaluated by some 3D printing companies.

Why this matters: Reliability is one of the most important aspects still needing dramatic improvement in the 3D Printing space especially for novice users. If this works as promised, it could address one of the major causes of failed prints: poor adhesion to the print surface.

2) Automated Build Plates: Unfortunately, this technology doesn’t exist…yet. Makerbot tried and failed in the past to create this system for automatically removing parts. For those looking to print items in a queue, they currently have to manually remove every object upon completion. That’s why Hack a day put a call out for work on such a project recently.

Why this matters: The development of a process for removing prints would be very valuable for any organization sharing a printer with multiple users and wanting to leave prints unattended and still have multiple items printed. Of course, the printers need to be used enough for that to be a key pain, which is only an issue for a small percentage of users right now.

Even a company with a large engineering team and an unlimited budget would struggle to keep all this innovation in house. It is only a question of when, not if, 3D Printer manufacturing companies at the low end of the industry move from an integrated solution to a more modular approach*.  This opens up many opportunities for individual OEMs to emerge to produce key components that supply many of those companies. (* Note: Patent-heavy, unique processes will keep the industrial printers closed for the foreseeable future).

What other great OEMs have you seen emerging? Leave a note in the comments.

[Ed Note: A version of this post originally appeared in my bi-monthly Observations in 3D Newsletter. Sign up now to get more in depth analysis like this at http://bit.ly/Observe3D]

Why the Mayday button is another genius move by Bezos and Amazon

Amazon recently launched the Mayday feature with a television ad campaign showing a one button press for help from a live person who can control and guide you through the use of your Kindle Fire HDX. If you haven’t seen the ads, here are a few of them:

At first my techie self said “why would anyone want that?!?” Then I realized Bezos’s genius.

Mayday isn’t for you.

If you’re reading this, you probably work in startups or technology. Since we are already well served by the iPad and various full-Android tablets, Bezos is targeting the technology laggards of the tablet adoption curve. These are people that want a proven product and only buy once the market is commoditized and discounted. They don’t care about the millions of apps that Apple has as they will only use it for a handful of key applications. They also don’t see the need to pay the Apple premium price either, so a sub-$300 Kindle Fire fits well.

Instead, these users are more like some of my older relatives who use their tablets for email, Facebook, browsing the web and watching videos, often as a second screen. These users sometimes struggle learning new technology and can be sensitive to asking for help as they are worried about feeling dumb.

Mayday is the perfect name.

Do you know what “Mayday” means? If you’re under 25 I wouldn’t expect you to. Anyone in the Baby Boomer or older generation will distinctly recognize it and understand its meaning as a universal call for help. It’s also way catchier than just another “Help” button and probably even trademark-able. Given the target of helping those less tech savvy who have likely not adopted a technology yet, it should immediately click with them.

Amazon isn’t in the tablet business.

I wondered: how could Amazon afford to do this on such a commoditized device where their margins must be slim? Then I remember this is Amazon. They’re not in the tablet business; they’re in the e-commerce business.

We know that e-reader Kindle owners dramatically increase their purchasing with Amazon (50-100%). I bet by now they know the LTV of Fire owners and realized they could afford the support because of all the ancillary spending they would get from those owners and opportunities to redirect users to Amazon solutions when they ask questions. Add to this the data they get on Fire owners knowing all of their activity and the optional ads special offers people can accept, and there’s a lot of value in getting a new Fire owner.

Amazon had to shake things up.

Amazon’s tablet market share is reportedly down significantly (21% in July 2012 vs 10% in July 2013). They needed to use a Blue Ocean Strategy to differentiate and find a unique part of the market they could win. Combining the Mayday button (to attract the hard to attract laggards) with some very obvious use cases (the family accounts with ability to limit access and a child’s time spent on the device) very specifically tries to carve out a strong niche for Amazon. If it works, the difference in cost structure for Amazon, the e-commerce company, versus other tablet makers will make it hard for others to duplicate the Mayday button.

Bezos continues to show he is one of the best strategist CEOs on the planet. Mayday is just one more move to capture value from an under served group and move them into the world of Amazon purchases.

Why Consumer 3D Printing Companies Should Think Twice About Fundraising

As I’ve spoken to many in the Consumer 3D Printing industry, I’ve heard an increasing amount of talk about raising money from professional investors. While an angel round could bring stability and some financial certainty, raising institutional money is very big risk in such an early market. Venture Capital can bring validation, a comfortable bank account and open a few doors thanks to partner networks, but at this point, I believe the risks far outweigh the gains for Consumer 3D Printing. Here’s why:

Why consumer 3D Printing companies should not raise Venture Capital now

1) We haven’t crossed the chasm yet.

If we had crossed the chasm, people wouldn’t still be asking why you would ever want a 3D Printer. Zeepro would have already well exceeded their Kickstarter funding given how nice looking and feature-rich their printer is (instead, they have sold 300 printers and barely exceeded their funding goal). We would also have a robust set of applications to leverage 3D printers, which excluding design tools (the 3D Printing era’s BASIC imho), is fledgling or non-existent today.

Spreadsheets and word processing programs were largely responsible for early majority users buying computers in the early 1980s. Specifically, VisiCalc has been credited with catapulting sales of the Apple II when it came out in 1979 (2 years after the first edition of the computer). Of course, those programs weren’t even possible until early computers advanced their hardware in key areas like memory, hard drive space, and displays as well as overall product reliability.

Today, we have many hardware improvements still needed for 3D printers to enable new use cases. Breakthroughs in multi-extrusion, print speed, materials and huge improvements to the kluge software experience are all needed to create a “Whole Product” as described in the classic, Crossing the ChasmUntil then, sales will continue to be measured in the hundreds or thousands, which does not align with the mass market growth investors crave.

2) Fundraising is an accelerant for your business.

If you raise venture funding, you may be able to relax a bit from the stress of bootstrapping (i.e.- making payroll), but it comes at a high cost. Venture Capitalists invest with the expectation of the funds being spent aggressively and creating significant growth. If you haven’t had explosive growth, the next set of dollars will be even more expensive, if they’ll fund you at all.

Once you hire people ahead of revenue, it’s hard to stop and even more painful to do layoffs. But don’t take my word for it. Ben Horowitz put it best last week:

“We should first decide how much we like laying people off, because if we love it then lets stay cash flow negative, because when we don’t generate cash, the capital markets decide when we have to lay people off. In fact, we will have to listen very carefully to investors on everything because as soon as they stop liking us, we will start dying. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live my life that way. I do not want to have to tell all of our employees that we will do what we think is right until investors tell us we have to do otherwise. I want to control my destiny.”

If you absolutely need to raise money, sticking to Angel investment is the only way to go; prudent angels will understand the need for financial stability without aggressively outspending your revenue. You could sell them on plans to turtle up and survive the chasm crossing while placing a few intelligent bets.

Larger investors will neither understand this strategy nor support it as they have funds to return over a time frame that may be shorter than the path to massive growth for your business. You should expect a volatile, painful 2 to 3 year chasm crossing period before we really hit the early majority years. If you raise capital during this time, you will require multiple, highly-dilutive rounds of capital before you can really return value as investors usually expect a round of funding to last just 12-18 months when deployed properly.

3) VCs don’t just talk to you because they want to give you money.

So you’re getting repeat meetings with a VC. They seem friendly and interested in the data you’re sharing and the plans for your business. While it’s true it could be that they’re serious about investing, it’s also quite common for meetings to be free research for them on up and coming industries (Note: I’ve specifically heard from some 3D printing companies they “wasted a lot of time” doing this). Walking in their shoes, a few pitches from different 3D Printing companies would give a great view of the market to gauge when they may be ready to invest years down the road.  

Of course, most VCs are also great at the “soft no”; they’re happy to continue to have you or one of your cofounders make more pitches and exchange more information without actually committing to funding or outright saying no to you. And as a worst case scenario, they can use your information to fund a competitor or steal your idea. I’m not advocating for you to completely ignore VCs, but choose wisely who you invest time in speaking with. Ask yourself if you could better spend that time growing your business.

4) The early PC industry succeeded without it.

In the early days of the PC industry, Venture Capital was just emerging and largely was not involved in funding companies. Microsoft only raised $1 Million in its history and at a time when it really did not need it. While Apple did raise money, the majority of the funds came in the 1980s, long after the market was established and Apple was selling millions of computers. The rapid growth of the market as it hit the mainstream allowed profits to easily fund additional growth and made many founders and their employees very rich thanks to their non-diluted stock options.

Early markets require new marketing channels and use cases. By Clayton Christensen’s definition in the Innovator’s Dilemma, truly disruptive innovations have to find their own way beyond what the existing industry does with a technology.  As PCs were before, consumer 3D Printers are just that kind of disruption, which means there is going to be a lot of experimentation and exploring to find the best opportunities and develop new ones. There are very few venture investors that have the patience and interest in letting companies do this kind of exploring, since their capital and experience is better leveraged for scaling.

5) Your best investors are your customers.

No one said it would be easy. To really meet where the market is going (because honestly, we don’t know), finding the first few people who will pay for something you’re doing is huge. They’ll help you build the product others will need, find others like them and keep your business afloat financially in the meantime. There’s a reason these businesses started in garages, motel rooms in Albuquerque, and the like; they couldn’t afford anything else.

To survive the chasm means finding a beachhead and expanding. The focus and controlled desperation of bootstrapping can be a powerful tool to develop such a market. If you’re sitting comfortably with venture capital, the hunger to find this will be less and you may even find yourself building a bunch of features that no real customer wants until it’s too late.

We’re in an exciting, but challenging time in the 3D Printing industry. There are many more players currently than there will be winners, which is the tragic, harsh truth of entrepreneurship. Raising money may seem like the obvious way to get a leg up, but it could also be a major waste of time or drive you and your business right off a cliff.

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