Dollar per use and spending principles

There’s a few simple principles I’ve come to appreciate when it comes to spending money. The latest edition to that list is the idea of Dollar per use.

Here’s what my list roughly looks like –

  1. Frugal and proud. :)
  2. Spend on experiences (e.g. a wonderful vacation) versus things. Thus, money spent to treat friends and family is generally money well spent.
  3. Don’t overthink spending on learning or fitness. These are the most important investments you will make.
  4. For items that can be given away (such as clothes), make sure you give an item away for every item you buy.
  5. Consider dollar per use. If you are going to use a shoe every day, for example, it is worth investing in a good one. 

I’ve pushed frugality too far in the past and skimped on everyday items. But, no more. The dollar per use idea will hopefully set that right.

Biodiversity, periodic disturbances and our creativity

In the 1950s, Biologist Joseph Connell ventured from California to Australia to understand what causes the biodiversity in coral reefs and rainforests. In particular, he wanted to understand why some landscapes exhibited vast biodiversity, with hundreds of species living side by side, while other landscapes only a few miles away exhibited homogeneity, with a few species dominating.

It seemed as if nature’s creative capacities depended on some kind of periodic disturbance  –  like a tree fall or an occasional storm  – that temporarily upset the natural environment. But, the disturbance couldn’t be too small or too big. It had to be just the right size. ‘Intermediate disturbances are critical,’ said Connell to Charles Duhigg when he interviewed him for his book “Smarter, Faster, Better.”

Within biology, this has become known as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which holds that ‘local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent.’”

This has lots of interesting parallels. For example, during the ideation process at Disney/Pixar, they make sure they create small disturbances within the team (e.g. changing the team leader) when there’s a feeling that everyone is stuck. Similarly, brainstorming sessions work well when you change things up a bit – move to a different location, use a different format, etc.

There’s a wonderful life lesson in here as well – a little bit of disruption every once a while keeps us fresh and creative. So, if you’re not looking forward to an upcoming disruption of your usual weekly or weekend routine, just remember that it is likely better in the long run.

Jobs-to-be-done and Munchkin spoons – Thinking Product

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics –

1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about
2. Delight to use: They are well designed
3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

I thought I’d start by digging into the idea of nailing job-to-be-done. And, to do that, I decided to start with a physical product that I think does a great job of this.

This is what Munchkin Inc.’s (what a great name) spoons look like when all is normal.

At this stage, it is like every other spoon for infants in the market. It is light, easy to use and colorful.

Here’s what the spoon looks like when it touches hot food.

The spoon turns white and gradually becomes colorful again as it cools. It is designed to help parents avoid ever burning their kids’ tongue and has become very popular with first time parents.

Understanding jobs-to-be-done: The jobs-to-be-done idea is that customers don’t buy specific products or services. Instead, they hire various solutions at various times to get a wide variety of jobs done.  A job-to-be-done, thus, is about the higher purpose (or “the why”) that causes a customer to buy.

So, how do you test if you really understand jobs-to-be-done? There are 2 tests –
1. Do you understand why the customer buys this product?
2. Do you know what the customer fires to hire this product?

Both these questions are important. So, let’s dig into them.

1. Do you understand why the customer buys this product?
This is a classic example of a seemingly simple question that is hard to answer. One way to illustrate this is by asking – what are Netflix’s competitors?

The obvious answers are Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube. But, the answer would be different from from a jobs-to-be-done point of view.

Why do people watch/hire Netflix? A hypothesis could be that they likely hire Netflix to escape from the day-to-day at the end of a day or to help them avoid boredom. And, if that’s the case, then Netflix’s competitors would actually be the following: television, books, listening to music, watching TV with the family, conversations with friends or family, sleep, cooking / putting together a meal kit, and exercise. And, this is us just getting started. Of course, some of this is more important than others. But, the list is a lot broader than you think.

2. Do you know what the customer fires to hire this product?
When you understand why customers hire you, it is easier to understand what people fire. Working with our hypothesis around Netflix, people often likely “fire” reading books, watching television with the family, exercising, among others.

This leads to all sorts of product insights for Netflix. For example,

  • Make sure you have interesting documentary content for people interested to learn (instead of books)
  • Make as many original TV shows as possible so people tune in to you just like they’d tune into television (television)
  • Allow for these TV shows to be binge watched (sleep)
  • Have an endless collection of great recommendations so people are always happy they hired you to avoid boredom (overall)
  • Allow other members of the family have separate accounts so you can all watch Netflix separately if need be and so you nail the right recommendations for the right person (replace family watching TV)

Back to Munckin spoons: Understanding JTBD helps us understand what Munckin Inc’s spoons do really well. They understand that parents hire almost anything to do with their infant to do 2 things – i) Do the job and ii) Ensure safety.

Most other infant spoons did half the job well. But, Munchkin Inc. understand that new parents would pay a premium for safety and nailed the use case. Every other spoon got fired.

Jobs-to-be-done is a process of discovery and it isn’t something you necessarily get right when you build your product the first time. This process of understanding it and nailing it is called “product-market fit.” And, it is a process every great product gets right.

Your environment versus your willpower

If you live in a room full of unhealthy food and five large televisions, it is only a matter of time before you begin consuming both.

In a battle between your willpower and the environment, the environment always wins in the long run.

So, if you are trying to change behavior, you are always better off altering the environment over testing your willpower. If you are trying to stop playing games on your phone, delete the gaming apps. If you are trying to eat healthy, surround yourself with healthy food. If you are trying to read more, make sure you have books easily accessible.

Don’t waste your willpower on battles with the environment. Use your limited willpower to create better environments and better habits instead.

News and essential newsletters

I am not a big fan of the news as it nearly always leaves me feeling worse at the end of engaging with it. Avoiding the news isn’t the solution, however. So, my approach has been to rely on newsletters.

I love newsletters. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as I send a daily newsletter (this blog) and a bi-weekly newsletter (The Notes by Ada Project) myself. I wouldn’t do it to others if I didn’t love it myself. :)

So, here are a few of the newsletters I make sure I read. Some of these are about the news. But, mostly, they’re just great pieces of content.

Every morning
1. The Quartz Daily Brief: Love the news and the collection of interesting content from the internet that they share between Monday-Saturday.
2. The Economist Espresso: More news focused. High quality. Delivered Monday-Saturday. Thanks Federico (a reader who since begins most emails introducing himself as the guy who suggested The Economist Espresso :-)), for recommending this. [Update as of 2019: I’ve stopped reading this and have opted for simplicity with Quartz.]
3. Stratechery by Ben Thompson: Excellent tech newsletter. I pay for the subscription and receive 4 articles per week. It is well worth it.
4. Seth Godin’s blog: The best blog there is. Delivers every day.

Weekend reads
1. Benedict Evans’ Newsletter: A few links that summarize interesting/big movements in tech from the week.
2. The Exponential View by Azeem Azhar: A collection of interesting links on a varied set of topics. I’ve just begun subscribing to this over the past month and have found the collection fascinating.

There are many other blogs I read of course (I’ll share the list another time) but these are my essentials. I feel the day/week is incomplete if I haven’t read these.

I hope you find the list useful.

Rewarding humane-ness

For centuries, we rewarded prowess of the human physique. Our notion of “work” involved hard physical labor. Then, we began rewarding the sort of intelligence that we came to represent as “IQ.” This was left brained and logical and focused on memory and processing power. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve begun rewarding the right brain — creativity is seen as a powerful asset in today’s information based economy.

What happens in a world where artificial intelligence takes over our most valuable jobs? Aeon has an interesting essay on how the future could reward emotional jobs that are currently grossly underpaid — think teachers and geriatric care workers. It is a compelling read and here are the last three paragraphs —

“There’s an enormous opportunity before us, as robots and algorithms push humans out of cognitive work. As a society, we could choose to put more resources into providing better staffing, higher pay and more time off for care workers who perform the most emotionally demanding work for the smallest wages. At the same time, we could transform other parts of the economy, helping police officers, post-office workers and the rest of us learn to really engage with the people in front of us.

This isn’t something our economic system, which judges the quality of jobs by their contribution to GDP, is set up to do. In fact, some economists worry that we haven’t done enough to improve the ‘productivity’ of service jobs such as caring for the elderly the way that we have in sectors such as car manufacturing. Emotional work will probably never be a good way to make money more efficiently. The real question is whether our society is willing to direct more resources toward it regardless.

Technology-driven efficiency has achieved wonderful things. It has brought people in developed countries an astonishingly rich standard of living, and freed most of us from the work of growing the food we eat or making the products we use. But applying the metric of efficiency to the expanding field of emotional labour misses a key promise offered by technological progress — that, with routine physical and cognitive work out of the way, the jobs of the future could be opportunities for people to genuinely care for each other.”

Being humane is defined as having or showing compassion or benevolence. Previous technology waves have never managed to align wealth and success with being humane. In fact, you could argue that being humane actually worked against you — as a warrior, a property owner, a businessman in the nineteenth and the twentieth century, or a stock market investor.

By having machines do the many things we considered uniquely human, it is possible that the AI wave will force us to reward being “humane.”

It is an outcome I’m rooting for.

(This is an excerpt from a longer post on artificial intelligence on the Notes by Ada project. I’m going to switching the cadence of the Notes by Ada posts from weekly to bi-weekly. More on that later.)

Working hard at life

When speaking about their ongoing fight with cancer, a friend said this to me the other day – “We all are afflicted by a terminal disease. We just don’t know the end date.”

I’ve been pondering that comment and the big accompanying question – “how will I measure my life when that happens?”

“Working hard at life” is the response that inevitably comes back to me. I love going to bed knowing I’ve done my best in every aspect of life that I deem important.

There’s a lot of talk about working smart and how some people manage to do it all with minimal effort. I’ve just never seen any evidence of that in my life.

Everything worth having has taken effort. Everything worth having has also involved trade offs. Sure, I’ve gotten better at doing some of these things, making some of these decisions and weighing the trade offs. In some cases, I do work a lot smarter than I used to. But, even that came after putting in the hard work first, reflecting on the process and intentionally getting better. And, all of this while having access to unique privilege – being born out of poverty – and being blessed with adequate mental capacity.

Maybe there are a select few who can manage to work smart and do it all. But, for the rest of us, we have a limited amount of time and a reservoir of energy (that can, thankfully, be replenished with activity, food and rest) to work hard on whatever we choose to work hard at.

We have an opportunity to recognize that we have the power to choose, to choose and to work hard at whatever we choose. This opportunity is a privilege. It is on us to choose. And, in time, learn to choose well.

I choose to work hard at life.

I hope you choose what matters to you too.

Together, I hope we make this privilege count.

Thought-action gap

At some point 2 years or so ago, I wrote about wanting to spend more time writing about technology on this blog. So, I tried finding ways to do it. Initially, it was a weekly post reviewing products combined with the occasional technology musing. Then, it was trying to get a post out once a week on a technology topic. At some point along the way, I gave up.

But, I didn’t stop thinking about writing about technology.

I reflected on this after I shared my first post on thinking about technology products two days ago. I’m beginning to get into a cadence where my Sunday (via the “Notes by Ada” project) and Wednesday posts (“Thinking Product”) are about technology. For the “Notes by Ada” project, I’ve gotten into the cadence of primarily posting them on LinkedIn and Medium as I was keen to experiment on those platforms and post a summary here. I toyed with keeping it completely separate. But, I realized it was too much cognitive load to expect myself to write an extra non-tech post on Sundays for this blog. For the “Thinking Product” series, I intend to start here and cross-post to both those platforms. I’ve come to think of this blog as the hub for all my learning projects and it is thus inevitable that what I write about changes with what I’m learning.

The interesting question here is – why did it take 2 years for me to move from thought to action on writing about technology? Here are 3 lessons I’ve taken away from this –

  1. Ability gap. I’ve learnt that learning comes from the process of synthesis. Synthesis is different from summarizing things in that a summary involves notes about what I’ve read or heard. A synthesis, on the other hand, requires me to add a frame to it and bring in my point-of-view post reflecting on a topic. It has taken me a while to develop that point of view.

    I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the ability gap. Things get done quickly if you are both willing and able. If not, you need to spend time building up your abilities.

  2. Patience. That, in turn, means being patient with yourself. This combination of a lack of ability and a lack of patience is why new year’s resolutions fail. When we commit to a new habit on new year’s day, we forget that we don’t yet have the ability to form that new exercise habit. It takes patience and a requirement that you are kind to yourself along the way.
  3. Structure. Finally, the best way to help the learning process is to create structure around it. In this case, it helps me to think of Sunday as the day I write broadly about what is going in technology and Wednesday, for example, where I write about products. Of course, I don’t do all my thinking and writing on the same day (at least, not always). But, the structure greatly simplifies things and helps create a habit in the long run.

There’s a school of thought which says that you’ll find a way to do anything that you really want to do. I definitely subscribe to that as that desire helps you commit to improving your abilities. But, the caveat I’d add is that it requires a lot of thought about structure and a ton of patience around the way.

Finally, if you’re thinking of adding new habits into your life, account for the thought-action gap. Sometimes, it takes longer than 2 years to get the process working…

When you have that 2 minute break today

You’re likely to have a 2 minute break today when you are waiting for someone or something.

When that happens, consider not pulling out your phone and checking your messages or email.

You probably don’t have a new message since you checked it a few minutes back. And, even if you do, it is likely not important.

We need to allow ourselves the space to get bored, muse and reflect. That’s when we have the space to learn and to be creative.

Technology exists to simplify our lives. It is on us to ensure that it serves us and not the other way around.

Thinking Product | A stake in the ground

I am a sucker for great technology product experiences. I also love writing – there is no other practice that teaches me to synthesize what I learn as effectively.

But, I’ve not spent enough time on the intersection of the two.

I’ve written about great product experiences every once a while here That’s part and parcel of working on side projects for over a decade. But, I’d like to do a lot more. So, my hope is to write about building technology product experiences once a week – my stake in the ground.

I thought I’d call this series “Thinking Product” as so much of building products is about the thought process – both of the user and the builder. As a result, I’m going to also write about both aspects of technology product experience – products (i.e. User focused) and product leadership (i.e. Builder focused).

And, in scientific method style, I’m going to start with a hypothesis for frameworks around both of these. I expect them to evolve as I write and learn.

What makes great products?

My hypothesis is that great products have 3 characteristics –
1. Nail job-to-be-done: They are a great solution to a problem users care about
2. Delight to use: They are well designed
3. Sticky: Makes the customer/user want to come back

These characteristics, in turn, helps them grow. There are many ways to think about this cycle of growth. Acquire -> Activate -> Retain -> Monetize -> Refer is one way to do it, for example. But, I’ll aim to simplify again and just focus on the following cycle of 1) Growth (the act of bringing new users into a product) -> 2) Onboarding (the act of converting new users to power users) -> 3) Usage (the act of retaining power users)

As you can see, there’s a strong connection between the two.

What makes great product leaders?

There’s a distinction to be made here between product management and product leadership. So, working through this takes us through the first principles of how products are built. Product management, for instance, requires product builders to sit at the intersection of engineering, design and business needs. And, product leadership, on the other hand, requires thought leadership (an in-depth understanding of what customers need and what the market is ready for) and people leadership.

I’ve intentionally separated the two as great product leaders don’t always have to great product managers. That’s a longer discussion for a later time.

All of this means there’s plenty to write about. I expect to spend time on products that nail one or more of these characteristics and aspects of great product management and leadership. I will always try to bring things back into 3 key aspects – e.g. 3 aspects of building great products or 3 parts of the growth cycle – as I rarely remember more than 3 things. And, additionally, a list of the 3 most important aspects gets us 90% of the way there.

I look forward to the learning and the discussion that follows. This should be fun.