Letting it go

by Peter Rojas

One of the hardest things for me lately has been to actually publish things that I write. I probably have a few dozen unfinished blog posts I've written for my personal blog here that are just sitting in draft or in Google Drive. The reason is that I find it so hard now to let go and just post something. 

It's funny, because being able to let go was partly why I was so able to be so prolific as a blogger back when I was doing Gizmodo and then Engadget. While I certainly tried to avoid being sloppy, I was pretty good at not laboring over a post for too long in an attempt to make it just a little bit better. I figured out that given the opportunity I would probably work and re-work a post, but since I didn't have the luxury of time -- I was writing upwards of 30 posts a day at one point -- I had to make them just good enough to post and then move on to the next.

It's not that I have much more time these days -- I have even less free time now than I did then -- but since I'm not under any particular pressure to post to my personal blog I often find myself writing something and then becoming dissatisfied with my work and unable to hit publish. I'm going to try not to let that happen so much, it's really not the end of the world if I post something that's not perfect.

Generosity, empathy, and disruption

by Peter Rojas

I get asked by companies for my advice from time to time, and one that I was speaking with the other day asked me about the qualities a company would need to disrupt an entrenched incumbent in a large market (sorry to be so vague, but probably shouldn't get more specific than that). Besides the obvious stuff, like inventing some new technology or business method which undercuts whatever the other guys are doing, I told them that I think generosity and empathy are the keys to disruption.

What I meant by generosity was that too many companies now are obsessed with grabbing every bit of value for themselves, and only begrudgingly giving any up to customers, partners, etc. Google is -- or at least was -- a good example of this finding success by being generous. In the late Nineties all the big online players were focusing on building portals which offered everything visitors might want (like shopping, news, email, etc.) in an effort to keep them there as long as possible to show them as many ads as possible. Google came along and focused on showing users highly relevant results that took them away from Google, and the result was a product that more and more people found useful (and pretty much every site on the web discovered was driving an insane percentage of its traffic). Google didn't try to keep everyone at Google (though again, that might be changing!), and instead was generous in sending people away, a strategy which disrupted those big portal sites.

The other key disruptor is empathy. Probably every company would say they try to understand their customer -- and that they've done the market research to prove it! -- but what I'm talking about in this context is a bit more subtle, it's a combination of respect and emotional intelligence (i.e. the ability to recognize and relate to the feelings of another person) that enables you to create truly amazing user experiences. (Instagram is a good example of a company that soared ahead of its competition with a better designed, empathy-driven product.)

I just don't think it's possible to build an amazing product or app or whatever without being able to empathize with and understand the person who is supposed to be using it. On some fundamental level great design is able to get into the mindset of a user and anticipate, guide, and delight. None of that is possible without empathy.

Empathy can be hard to scale, and it's not something you can get from doing a bunch of focus groups. More and more it seems like one of those things you either have or you don't. That makes taste and sensibility key differentiators for people who are building stuff -- and it also can make it really tough to be stay successful when your market grows and you're making things for a growing number of people you don't understand very well.

This is why one of the most dangerous things for a company is to have a CEO who doesn't use their own products and who lives a rarefied life disconnected from the reality of the everyday. I follow the consumer electronics space pretty closely and you'd be surprised how rarely anyone asks "Are we making a great product that people are going to love?" There is just a total disconnect between the people making the stuff being sold and the people who are supposed to be buying it, and that gap is empathy.

Generosity and empathy are becoming the big blind spots not only for many big companies, but often for entire industries (like financial services) which have drifted so far from any human-centric principles that they feel ripe for real competition from companies that decide to play the game differently. You can see it in the basic lack of respect in the way customers are often treated, and you can see it in so many of the sub-par products that are being produced because no one cares enough about the end user to make them better.

Douglas and me

by Peter Rojas

After almost eleven years I finally got coffee with Douglas Rushkoff. Back in the summer of 2001 I was a broke, unemployed technology writer. I'd been recently laid-off from my job as an editor at Red Herring, a business of technology magazine, and with my life pretty much falling apart I'd decided to move to New York City from San Francisco, where I was living at the time. My best friend had moved there a few months earlier and a room had opened up in his apartment. I could barely afford the rent, but I figured I was better of being a broke writer in New York than in San Francisco.

Douglas was (and still is) one of my favorite writers about technology since I'd discovered one of his books when I was in college. I knew he lived in NYC,  and so after tracking down his email address I somehow guilted him into agreeing to meet with me the day after I got into town. He certainly didn't have any reason to agree to sit down with me, I was just a struggling kid who had basically zero prospects, and as I started to get ready for my move I was really excited about getting some time with him. I wasn't sure what we'd talk about, but I guess I just thought he'd think I was smart and maybe hire me as a research assistant or even help me get some freelance work. I honestly hadn't thought much beyond just getting to meet him.

I was all packed up and ready to go, but I never made it to our appointment, and that's because the day I was supposed to fly to New York and start my new life was September 11th, 2001. Obviously my flight was cancelled, and while I did finally get to New York a few weeks later, I never followed up with Douglas to try and reschedule our meeting. I guess I felt sort of sheepish at that point imposing on him after everything that had happened, and to be honest whatever it was I was going to talk with him about seemed trite in the aftermath of 9/11.

I remained a big fan of Douglas's work, but never reached out again until Rhizome (which I'm on the board of) invited him to keynote its recent Seven on Seven conference. Douglas expressed some interest in getting involved with the organization, and so we grabbed coffee so I could tell him more about it. Of course I was supergeeked to get to sit down with him, and he laughed after I told him this story about how we were originally supposed to meet almost eleven years ago.

Email and weekends

by Peter Rojas

Without really thinking about it I've developed a habit of not replying to emails on weekends (or at least not until Sunday night). It's not that I don't check email -- I do pretty much all the time via my phone -- or that I absolutely never respond to anything -- I will if it's of catastrophic importance or if I have five minutes I really need to kill -- just that I'm usually busy doing something with my family on the weekends and I find it much easier to let all of those messages pile up for a couple of days until I can deal with them all at once on Sunday night or Monday morning. There is rarely anything that requires an immediate response, especially on a Saturday or Sunday, so I don't feel any guilt about taking my time. So while this wasn't something I'd consciously decided to do, now that I'm aware of it I'm going to try and make it my new policy going forward.