Week 3: Macro-level Shifts and the State of the World
In Week 3, we turn our focus to the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture.
As a maker, it’s generally good advice to be heads down and intently focused on what you’re building. That said, it is important to have an understanding, however imperfect or incomplete it may be, of what’s happening more broadly in the world. Unexpected challenges (or opportunities) can arise if we put ourselves in a position to notice them.
Thanks to the Internet, it’s now easier than ever to stay abreast of the macro-level shifts that are shaping our world.
In our readings this week, we’ve included the perspectives of such notable folks as Mark Andreessen, Venkatash Rao, Chris Poole, and Carlota Perez.
And in class, we were joined by Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger who gave a redux of his recent Creative Mornings talk on Disruption.
Here’s Albert’s talk to the class:
Here’s a video of Albert’s Creative Mornings talk from last November:
In the comments below, tell us about the macro-level shifts that you see happening in your world.
Week 2: Customer Development
Week two focused on the customer development process and running experiments.
The Customer Development process, developed by Steve Blank, offers a framework for product development that can feel familiar to designers trained in empathetic human-centered design. (Though Blank uses Customer Development to bring the rigor of the scientific method to the art of starting a company, a scientist’s hypothesize-research-test-iterate process can be similar to a designer’s process.)
Before class, we asked students to watch Blank talk through customer development and entrepreneur Eric Ries discuss lean startup methodology, which offers an engineer’s take on the customer development process.
Blank’s perspective comes from the business side of startups, and Ries’ from the engineering world. Our in-class lecture, given by Giff Constable, gave a product designer’s take on iterative development.
Giff began by re-introducing the process and practice of customer development, using slightly different language. He moved on to an overview of why customer development matters before walking through the types of experiments one could run. His talk was full of anecdotes from what he’s seen and done in Startupland. His slides are online.
And the audio file:
Giff’s talk kicked off a discussion on the tension between testing and inspiration: can A/B testing lead to “the right answer”? Or is “inspiration” – gut, instinct, hunch, whatever you prefer to call it – necessary?
We spent time debating an idea similar to this one from Giff’s blog:
Here’s a truth with startups and new products: understanding test results and root-causes is often really hard. Yet it rarely makes sense to spend the time and money to get statistical significance or perfect clarity. We need to exercise judgement and intuition to interpret results, but that does not invalidate the usefulness of getting outside of our own heads. Sticking one’s head in the sand is not a valid approach.
When I discussed this challenge with my project-teammate Jon Berger, he said, “We test to uncover clues, not facts.”
Overlaid on our conversation was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs; Jobs pretty famously didn’t subscribe to notions of A/B tests, and it seems to have served him well. Yet Jobs is only one anecdote, and we all know the plural of anecdote is not data ..
In any case: it’s important stuff, relevant to technical and semi-technical designers figuring out their places in the product development process, and it doesn’t lend itself to clean answers.
Week 1: Perspectives
When Christina and I began the process of designing the course, we came up with a few principles to help us think about the content, structure, and goals of the class:
1. Networks are a foundational concept.
As a society, we are undergoing one of the most significant macro-level shifts in our lifetimes: the shift from centralized hierarchies to decentralized networks. We’re just starting to see how this affects governments, cultures, industries, and individuals. Whether you are building a tech startup or whether you are opening a coffee shop, it’s imperative that you understand not just the Internet, but the mechanics and implications of networks. They will inform just about anything you create.
2. Writing is a powerful tool.
The ability to effectively communicate an opinion in written form may arguably be one of the most important skills you can have. At a tactical level, it will help you raise money, recruit teammates, and market your product or service. It might even help you establish an online identity and build an audience for yourself.
Most importantly, if you can make it a regular habit, it can improve the quality of your thinking. There’s something about the practice of writing that helps you (subconsciously or otherwise) think through problems and connect the dots.
3. Working with others is encouraged.
Collaboration on the coursework and recruiting outside help is not only allowed but encouraged. In the real world, there’s no rule that says that an entrepreneur has to do everything by herself, and so it goes for this class.
4. There are no answers, just opinions.
The course is designed to provoke thought and discussion, and many of the questions we’ll ask have no clear, definitive answers. Over the course of the semester, we’ll bring in different speakers so that you can hear from a range of perspectives. But ultimately, you’ll be challenged to form your own opinions and to express them.
Over all, we think this approach will help you in the process of developing a meaningful perspective—one that is based on what you value, what you believe, and what you hope to see in the future.
Having a perspective (and learning to effectively articulate and cultivate it) is beneficial for both tactical and strategic reasons:
- It can inform the way you evaluate and hire your team members.
- It can also serve as an initial filter for considering potential investors and business partners.
- As you begin to build your product or service, having an established perspective will make it easier to figure out what parts of the user experience to focus on and what to ignore.
- And, as an entrepreneur, when the going gets rough, it will help you determine whether you should keep going, whether you should stop, or whether you should step aside.
At Union Square Ventures, we each cultivate our own perspectives as individuals, but we also have a shared perspective as a firm, which is expressed as our investment thesis. Because of the nature of the space that we’re in we spend a fair amount of time revisiting our thesis and articulating it. It benefits entrepreneurs for us to be as clear (and current) as possible about what we like to invest in. And, it benefits us as a firm because it helps us focus our attention.
To talk about this in more detail, we invited Union Square Ventures partner Brad Burnham to speak about our investment thesis in the context of what’s been happening with Occupy Wall Street and the previously proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation.
Here’s a video of a nearly identical talk Brad gave recently at the University of Chicago:
and here are the slides:
Add your thoughts and questions in the comments below!