Why I backed the Ubuntu Edge

by Peter Rojas

A journalist emailed me earlier today asking why I'd backed Canonical's crowdfunded Ubuntu Edge smartphone, and thought I'd post here what I'd sent: 

It was for a variety of reasons. One is just that I've been an Ubuntu user since 2005 and so am partial to it (and open source stuff in general). Another is that I really like geeking out on new platforms, and the Ubuntu mobile OS looks like it has some interesting UX elements to it, plus having a single device which can be used as both a PC and a phone is intriguing (even if I'm not sure I'd use it for that all that much). 
I definitely didn't buy it for the specs. They're nice, but by May of 2014 they will probably not be all that extraordinary given how rapidly smartphones are improving.

For what it's worth, I don't think they're going to hit their target, though obviously I hope they do. 

A few things I might have done differently with gdgt

by Peter Rojas

Obviously I'm very pleased that gdgt turned out to be a success, but that doesn't mean that looking back there aren't things I wish we'd done differently. Here are a few things I would go back and tell the Peter Rojas of 2009:

Be less secretive

We weren't exactly in stealth mode before we launched gdgt, but we did try and keep what we were doing a secret, mainly because we worried about being ripped off. When you're a tiny startup with very limited resources, it's easy to imagine someone bigger coming along and knocking you off, but in retrospect this was the wrong thing to be worried about.

Instead of having our ideas copied, we should have worried a lot more about how good our ideas were in the first place. The gdgt we envisioned when we started isn't all that far off from what it's become. Even though the execution evolved, our goal of helping people make better buying decisions has been consistent from the start. But no matter how strong your concepts are, there's no substitute for getting people to use your product and so they can let you know what works and what doesn't. By keeping the site under wraps until launch (apart from a private beta just before launch), we missed out on the opportunity to find out what parts of what we were doing connected with users and what parts didn't. If I were starting over, I'd just be out in the open about what we were doing and would try and get as much feedback as possible along every step of the way. That would probably have meant doing an open beta with a limited feature set and not worrying so much about there being a big gap between what the site is and what it should be.

(And the funny thing is that we were copied by plenty of other sites anyway after we launched and it didn't make much of a difference.)

Don't sell a big launch sponsorship

This one was tough. We managed to sell a sweet six-figure sponsorship to coincide with the launch of the site, which was great in that it meant we had money come in from day one (I guess technically we were cash flow positive during those months). Making money like that was a big deal for us, especially since we had only raised a few hundred thousand dollars by that point. I'm all for making money, the problem is that when you sell a sponsorship like that you get locked into launching on a specific day, and we probably could have used a little bit of flexibility there (though arguably having a fixed launch date can also give you much-needed focus). The bigger issue was that it more or less prevented us from doing an open beta, since part of what we sold to the sponsor was that they'd be part of a big splashy debut, a debut which was predicated in large part on no one knowing ahead of time what we were up to.

Don't worry about getting press or even on having a big launch

Similar to selling the launch sponsorship, we gave the New York Times the exclusive on our launch. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time -- who doesn't want coverage in a big newspaper? --and it did help drive a ton of traffic to us on our launch day, but we ended up getting a lot of drive-by users who checked us out and never came back. We'd have been better off launching quietly and letting word of mouth drive more engaged users (which is what ultimately ended up driving a lot of our traffic anyway). Could Ryan and I, who were getting press we hadn't wanted just on rumors about what we were doing, have had a quiet launch to the site? Maybe not, but by arranging to have a spotlight pointed right at us we certainly didn't do ourselves any favors.

Be less agreeable

This one is a little counterintuitive, so let me explain. Ryan and I have worked together for almost ten years now, and while we definitely don't agree on everything, we've gotten really good at figuring out how to compromise. Normally this is a good thing, but it actually had a negative effect when it came to the site itself. Rather than one person's vision prevailing, we tended to meet in the middle, and the result was something that often didn't satisfy either of us and was usually a worse product than if we had just let one person's vision prevail. It wasn't fun for either of us when we didn't get our way, but gdgt improved as both a product and a business when we made it OK for decisions to be made this way.

Bring design in-house as soon as possible

Hiring Michael Cosentino as our director of design was one the smartest moves we made (and I give Ryan 100% of the credit for finding him). Before this we had worked with a couple of very talented agencies (first Ideacodesand then Hard Candy Shell), both of which did great work for us, but given how important design is to creating a great web product I just don't think there is any way you can outsource it. The site's look-and-feel, as well as user experience, improved dramatically under Michael's stewardship, and I'm proud of how often people comment on it.

Don't be on different coasts

This is perhaps the least critical of the things I'd have done differently, but Ryan and I probably shouldn't have been in different time zones. We'd worked very well together this way when we were doing Engadget, but being in opposite coasts was more of an advantage when we were doing a news site. Working on a something like gdgt we needed to collaborate in a different way, and while it didn't necessarily mean we needed to be in the same room, me being in New York and him in San Francisco did result in us having fewer overlapping hours to work (especially since I have kids and was getting up and going to bed even earlier than I used to).

It's okay for the product to not be perfect

One of the hardest things about doing a startup is that there is almost always this big gap between your vision for what you're doing and the reality of what is currently out there. When we launched we were missing tons of features, and this drove me crazy, since I felt like we weren't putting our best foot forward and I wanted people to see the site we were going to be, not the one we were. It didn't help that our users were not shy about letting us know when there was something we lacked. Obviously it's important to listen to users and their feedback and complaints about missing features, but you also can't let it make you afraid to put something out there because the reality is that you'll never have perfection or a product that satisfies everyone anyway, even if you do take that extra time.

We managed to make things work in the end, and that's because despite all of our mistakes we did do a few things right, like hiring an amazing, dedicated team (we had very little turnover, which I think says something) and a very supportive board that took the time to help us when we got stuck. I won't say something trite here about how the important lesson from all this is that you have to learn from your mistakes -- everyone already knows that. What I will say is that you just have to accept that when you're doing a startup you're going to make tons of them and that a lot of them won't even seem like mistakes until years later when you've had some time to reflect.

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.