the work and personal site of Jared Alessandroni

Archive for April, 2012

Quora Question 2: What do I do if my interests don’t match with the people surrounding me?

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

One approach you might consider is to endeavor to parse out the essence of your dilemma. Why is it, if it is truly the case, that you do not share the interests of the people around you? Once you’ve gotten to the heart of the situation, there are a few things you can do to handle it.
First, the question. It seems kind of ridiculous for the enlightened among us to ask, hey, why don’t you like what they like, why don’t they like what you like? We are at a place in history that even in it its more primitive sectors believes that we should embrace our originality, our creativity – our individualism. Nothing against this, but as a thought experiment address the problem anyway. Why is there a disconnect between your interests and those around you? Think about it like this – unless you were transported to this school and situation very recently, much of your social development has happened in parallel to theirs. While your family might be very different and very unique, there is no reason to believe that this one factor would make all of your tastes different. This is because, in fact, our cultural and social intelligence – especially at a younger age – is very elastic. It is for this reason that immigrant children can adapt to the social normatives of their adopted culture, even against the strenuous objections of their parents. What about you – is there some cognitive or social intellectual aspect of your personality that eschews, say, popular film? Well, however we might like to believe it to be the case, it’s not very likely. This goes back to elasticity – by definition your social impulses on a genetic and developmental level were meant to help you succeed in a self-contained social setting or, further back, your tribe. That is, the cave-dwelling version of you from 10,000 years ago did not and could not have developed a particular distaste for movies which wouldn’t be invented for millennia. Frankly, it is not about you liking or disliking a particular thing. I propose that if you had been born in a culture and society that fawned over opera, you would have been uniquely drawn to dramatic theater. This is because going back to the caveman you, while there are survival advantages individually to being part of the group and on the team, there are also some group advantages to having a contrarian in the group. Very abstract, but stick with me here: if your small group was all into, say, saber-tooth tiger tag, and the ancient you was just not that into it, in some situations – and remember you had thousands of years to develop this trait – you might have been the survivor, and your somewhat contrarian genes might have snuck into the gene pool. What I’m positing here is that you were born to be contrarian in this sense – even if just at your age – you would have been talking about movies right now if you’d been born into a more bookish context. You have that little spark of fight whenever you see the crowd embrace something – you question it, you find its flaws or simply fail to embrace its pleasures. It’s hard – so hard – but you have to consider the possibility that these people around you are actually enjoying a valid pleasure, and further that you are not enjoying it because you are deeply programmed not to. The essence, then, of your dilemma is not where you are or who’s around you – it’s you. And that’s okay, in fact it’s wonderful – but in order to solve this problem, you have to embrace the reality that you’re programmed to, at least in this stage of your life, be contrarian. Think of it as nature’s way of pushing you to a new pack, or forcing you to adapt in unique ways to this one.
If you accept this premise, you are free of some really heavy baggage. Here’s why: If you understand that it’s not about the movies or the books or the kids or any of that, you won’t waste your time concerning yourself with them, and you won’t waste your energy being upset by them. If you can truly embrace the fact that if you were at Hogwarts (don’t mock my references, I’m tired!), you’d be the one annoyed about all the fuss about quiddich – if you can accept that, then you can ask yourself what your choices are. And here, finally, are some suggestions from a person who also had a bit of a contrary streak – though I am sure not quite as large as yours!
a. Find Another Valley: Let’s get this out of the way. It’s a terrible idea to run away (if you’re not old enough to leave on your own!), and it won’t solve your problem even if you did. That’s because this kind of push-back stuff is an adolescent evolutionary trait designed to get you to spread the genetic line outward – if you’re still an adolescent, your move will likely make you itchy to just move again. But, unlike your cave ancestry, you have a few hundred million people who speak your language and with whom you can safely interact online. Rather than doing the quick and dirty join-the-circus trick, spend your free time now testing out the fairgrounds. Think of this as the time Steve Jobs spent in Asia, or Siddhartha spent wandering the towns – just look around the world and see where you might want to go to college or post-college or whoever you aren’t – so that when the time comes and the plane is ready for takeoff, you’re on it. If you’re an adult, then I just doubt you’d have asked this question – but if you did, then maybe now is the time to try a move. Don’t head out to India just yet – if it’s just change you long for, you can get that one town over. Try that first – you can always spend your seven years in Tibet later.
b. Find Another Tribe: As you are clearly an intelligent and interesting person, you might be screaming, wait, no, I know that if I got off the tarmac in Mumbai or Cambridge, everything would just be better. And in a sense you’re right. That’s because of something called confirmation bias – if you move to India or Indiana, because your brain wants to have loved that place, wants to write home about how much better off everything is, your brain will stealthily trick you into noticing that amazing bookstore or that great girl/boy in the coffee shop. A survival tip that I can offer – even if I can assure you it’s far easier said than done – is to try that trick at home. Make a non-geographic change – embrace a new personality or style or activity – one that takes a reasonable investment, and your brain will see you all giddied up and say, Hey, check out that hottie at that bookstore you never noticed down the street! This sounds almost laughably easy, but think about the goth kids or the math team-ers – and then track backwards. They weren’t any of those things in fifth grade, or sometimes as late as eighth. However, because of a skill-set or more often a drive like your own, they wanted to make a change. When they did buy the outfit and change the hair and get the piercing – their brain was shooting all kind of, come on, this had better work signals their way, and so the few other people or sound tracks or whatever that seemed to fit in with their style suddenly seemed just great. The other kids who had gone to the same lengths seemed like kindred spirits. You might find your own kindred spirits by trying to jazz up your life.
The thing is, social constructs are just constructs – you identify with them because your brain needs to agree with you. You could have been a fundamentalist Christian singing at church or a die-hard liberal activist holding a sign if only you’d been born somewhere else. The thing is, had you been born as either of these things, it’s possible you wouldn’t have clicked, and you would have had to find another. That’s cool. Thanks to the internet and this crazy modern world we live in, you can do just that. Just keep it safe and remember, someday you can make it to India, so do your best to stay intact until you do.

Every So

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Every so often I forget
That our son is perfect.

Because nothing is perfect,
Nothing is absolute,
Not even the rule
That nothing is absolute.

I can’t see perfection,
Because I was born at the
Time, when cartoons
Became a witty statement statement,
And every single word we said
Was chilled with context,
Like we were forever shaking off
From a winter walk,
A frigid soaking layer
Of everything we should have
Just openly loved.
Sometimes, I fear I’ll choke
On all the irony.

Every so often I forget
That our daughter is perfect.

I think it’s all based in
A kind of self-loathing
Would I want to be in a club,
That would have me as a member?

I can’t love deeply
Because for me love
Love me back,
Or might not love me forever,
And so approach with caution,
Look for subtle clues
Like we are children,
Alone in the house for the first time
Loving the freedom
Listening for sounds,
We lock the door.
Sometimes I peek out,
Fearing I love the monster.

Every so often, I forget
That you are perfect.

Because I think too much.
But however flawed my perception may be,
I never forget,
How lucky I am.

Quora Question: How can a hyper-local online classified startup gain initial traction for getting listings from customers (C2C)?

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

I’ve been having a bit of fun on Quora, and I thought this a particularly compelling question and, my answer particularly thorough…

I have worked with several startups and small companies who want to build that initial momentum in market contexts that might be similar to yours. They have built a product that they feel has a place in the market, but it is a recursive success product – like Craigslist – one where success depends on a critical mass… of success. Let me indulge in a kind of long answer – but if you don’t get through it the takeaway is this: We’re beyond Craigslist, you need to know your place in the market space and play it up.

A lot of entrepreneurs find a kind of comfort in the belief that they would have been Newmark or Zuckerberg had they been first-to-market, especially with customer-push content. This is a logical fallacy, because neither of these or most great (or even lucky) leaders were first to market. It is correct, however, to understand that they both started off in ways that you simply cannot hope to. Understand that Newmark was first and foremost a user, a guy new to the city who sent out an increasingly interesting email list to friends that grew based on its usefulness and the particular chemistry of his friend-group. He wanted to share events and opportunities because he wanted to share in them himself. Zuckerberg, in contrast, saw a gaping market-space that was reflected in his somewhat insular private college in a way that wasn’t being served and did a decent job doing so. Jim Collins would (I presume) look at both of these examples as similar insofar as the company (or leader) took their strengths and core mission to heart and the market was open to it.

I said above that we’re beyond Craigslist, and what I mean is that the way he started relied on technology and normatives that are no longer relevant. To how many mailing lists do you subscribe? What is the likelihood that you can dig up content that isn’t currently online already and send it out to people in a way that would add value to their lives? In fact, the question that underlies this discussion is the ultimate you question – which is, what do you bring to the market space that is unique and valuable? Imagine Newmark’s extended friend group getting news they’d never gotten in their inbox about local SF happenings – the list being so intriguing and fresh that they read through it every time a new one came. What does your company offer that is so compelling? What is the core competency that you bring to the table that makes your data or your postings so important?

I have had this very conversation – down to the Newmark biographical references – with many clients, some of whom have already invested in or sold the idea we were discussing. My client looks at me, a little crestfallen, a lot frustrated, and says, okay, so what, then? And while part of me thinks, well, I’ll be glad to bring your shiny new business cards to the recycling center, the rest of me says, okay, well the market can support fifty brands of yogurt, let’s give this guy a plan. And the plan is very simple. We get a laser focus on what makes you unique and we go to non-conventional and sometimes dramatic lengths to capitalize on that. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Jansen’s post (especially as it might pose IP – intellectual property – issues) – if your site has a raison d’ĂȘtre, it certainly is not to feed other people’s content. Rather, I recommend the following:

1. Discover your Focus: The words I latched onto in your post were, Hyper Local. I hear hyper-local and I think of my apartment building’s classifieds (so local, everything you get or give there is just an elevator ride away!). Hyper local might not be a new idea, but it’s not a bad one. Hyper-local classified might be done and over done, but is there something about the location in question? Something about the population that is unique? Something about the climate? Or, is it something about your model that might be uniquely functional for many specific localities (a special kind of delivery enabler, a unique revolving credit system, etc.). Once you have discovered your focus, you can move forward. And, professional advice for free here, if at the end of the day you want to move forward without a real differentiator, you can bully you way into a market, but you will have accomplished nothing of real value.

2. Get Boots on the Ground: One of the biggest fallacies of internet commerce is that people can be successful from their living rooms. Newmark built his base from information he got on the street. Zuckerberg built a database akin to a physical book that was common at his and many other colleges, and he went out and sold a very simple idea – hey, it’s like the book we have, only online and you can talk to each other. Whatever your focus is, it must have a real-world component that you can track to. Is your focus music? Get into local shows, venues, etc. Is your community particularly old? Visit the Denny’s. Be a user and you will see what your users want. Then, get those boots on the ground and give it to them. Free drink at the venue for posting, weekly gathering at the Denny’s for your customers. Get your boots on the ground in your hyper-local community or communities, laptops in hand, and you’ll get people in spurts of ten and twenty a day. And that’s something over a month – if your sauce is as tasty as you think it is, they’ll keep coming and you’ll have a critical mass.

3. Seed Judiciously: I had a client who wanted to start a social network for users of their product. They were launching it at a trade show (that’s steps 1 and 2 – their focus was the product, their boots on the ground was the booth) and they had a solid following so they got around 500 signups. A few weeks later it didn’t crack 700, and the activity was stagnant. Then, one day I look at their stats and see that they’ve made it to just under 4,000 signups. When the dust had settled, we realized that an influential blogger (in their area) had posted. From then on, I started the conversation with, Okay, I want a list of the thought leaders in your field. The bloggers, the actual journalists, the super-stars. Seed with them – give them a fancy spot or a check or a burger – but they can take you from zero to being chased by the troopers in no time.

Your case isn’t hopeless, and you might have but not have shared a very compelling differentiator. If you do, the rest is just easy. If you don’t, take some time, talk to some people, and wait by the side of the road for at least a little while for a big idea to come by. Just don’t be lulled into the idea that this is easy, or that you somehow will just build it and they will come. Even if in history this has happened, it would be silly to wait for it. Get out there and sell until your throat is sore.