Ironman Tahoe and the Power of BHAGs

This fall I completed my third full Ironman distance event. Ironman Tahoe (IMT) stands out as one of the hardest goals I have ever set for myself and achieved. If I have one takeaway it is that if you set goals that are far outside your perceived limits, you are surprisingly likely to achieve them.

Ironman Tahoe Bike Course (photo courtesy Mike Stimmler)

Reports have it that a record-setting 25% of participants did not finish (DNF’d). That has given IMT the reputation of being the hardest Ironman out there. And for good reason.

Ironman Tahoe took place at an elevation of 6000 feet. The elevation alone made it difficult. But the freezing cold weather—there was literally ice on our bicycle seats when we started the ride portion of the race—was what put things over the top.

For days after the event I felt like I was looking at the world through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Everything seemed far away and appeared to be moving in slow motion.

I never considered myself an athlete. In high school I was that kid that always lagged at the back of the cross country running team. In grade school my Mom would call in on hot days to remind them that I needed to stay hydrated because I tended to sweat a lot. And as my friends from spin class can attest, my Mom was probably right!

One summer I was out of camp for two full weeks because I had leg pains from flat feet. The doctors took all kinds of X-rays and gave me a pair of crutches. It turned out that some simple shoe inserts cured the problem.

But all of that disruptive activity—the mental activity associated with going to the doctor, the implied limitations about my physical ability—had convinced me that I wasn’t an athlete. So it was news to me that I could complete an Ironman distance event, let alone three of them.

Personal BHAGs

BHAG is short for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It is not a term people often talk about when setting their own personal goals. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras introduced the concept in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They were talking about organizations:

“A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”

Before my first Ironman, a friend of mine from the SF Triathlon Club told me two things I will never forget. First, that nutrition was the fourth and perhaps most important sport of triathlon. It wouldn’t matter how much training I did if I didn’t hydrate properly and take in enough calories to get me through the day. But he also said that people had been able to come back and finish races after bonking—a term for running out of energy mid-race.

Secondly, he told me if I could finish an Ironman, I could do anything. He was right. There is a certain confidence that comes from completing a physically challenging goal you have set out for yourself.

What I really learned was that your limits are in very large part determined by the size of the goals you set. Each time you accomplish a bigger goal, you realize you can accomplish an even bigger goal. Suddenly, “I could never do that” becomes “I could some day do that” and ultimately “I will do that.” That is the power of truly big BHAGs.

When it comes to setting goals, I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out and train for an Ironman. It is time consuming and requires many tradeoffs in other areas of your life. And yet I have found that such training also causes me to become more disciplined, more focused and more willing to set bigger goals.

The biggest lesson of Ironman training is that if you set goals within your limits, you will only achieve goals within your limits. If you set goals that are far outside your perceived limits, you are surprisingly likely to achieve them.


Oct 20, 2013

Is Getaround Lost?

Getaround is a great idea. That’s what makes it so painful that the current experience leaves so much to be desired. I expect a lot more from Getaround, especially considering they just raised $13.9M in funding last year.

Recently, I referred a friend of mine to Getaround. She has a relatively new model car she drives only occasionally and it‘s at a great location in San Francisco. It’s nearly perfect for Getaround.

Unfortunately, Getaround has not been perfect for her.

To participate in Getaround Instant, which lets a renter access a car without having to meet the owner for a key exchange, some specially installed electronics are required. Unfortunately these electronics don’t work well inside my friend’s parking garage, which Getaround discovered only after trying to install them.

To work around this, the company proposed attaching a lockbox to her car. They asked my friend to measure the size of her car key “down to the millimeter!” Instead they should have offered to have someone go meet her to measure the key.

Once she did send them the measurements, they found out their lockbox wasn’t big enough. They had to call a meeting to discuss options. Over the course of this process (which has lasted more than a month), there has been at least one time where the company has not gotten back to her for a week. So add poor communication to an already bad experience.

My friend did have one successful rental. Someone rented her car for a weekend and it worked out great. But to cap things off, while she was out for an hour and a half, more recently someone else tried to rent her car. There was no advance notice, and because the Getaround Instant still isn’t in place, there’s no way for the person to rent the car. That’s an entire weekend rental lost. My friend wants to rent her car out but can’t.

I love the concept of Getaround and I’m excited that big name investors like Marissa Mayer and Menlo Ventures have the vision and foresight to invest in a company with such incredible potential to disrupt the future of transportation. I just hope the company can get its act together when it comes to turning that vision into reality.

Oct 18, 2013

The Quantified Self: Big Data Isn’t A Substitute for Self-Motivation

I read Danny Sullivan’s post on the Quantified Self and Big Data with great interest. His terrific article is entitled How my body rejected activity trackers and the ‘quantified self’.

As someone fascinated by the intersection of Big Data in our business and personal lives, I am fascinated by others’ experiences with the application of Big Data in their own lives. I especially liked Danny’s comment about the importance of “little data,” data that can come from wrist-based tools for tracking daily activities.

For me, motivation does not come from data. Motivation comes from personal desire. Back in my grade school days I was that kid whose mom always asked the school to put at the front of the water-fountain line so I wouldn’t be dehydrated. I lagged at the back of the pack during cross-country runs. Never did I imagine I would be able to run marathons or complete an Ironman, both of which I have been fortunate to do.

Motivation comes from the support of friends, from competition, from interest, from need, or from the desire to please or help others.

Motivation comes from many areas but most importantly it comes from you.

When it comes to finishing an Ironman or for finishing anything for that matter–a college degree, a blog post, or the incorporation documents to start your own company–the most important factor in motivating is you.

No device, however savvy, whether it be a stand-alone mobile device or the latest app for your iPhone, can motivate you. These devices and applications can supply you with the data you need to gauge your progress, to measure yourself, or to see how you compare with others, as in the case of services like Strava.

All that data can be input into your personal motivation toolkit. Amidst all the numbers, the calorie counts, the heart rate measurements and the other numeric fanciness, it is easy to lose track of what really drives motivation.

When it comes to motivating, the only mobile device we really need to worry about is that ancient, often fickle, and frequently self-doubt inducing yet remarkably effective one we already have–our own brain.

David Feinleib is the author of Big Data Demystified and producer of The Big Data Landscape.

Sep 15, 2013

Attracting More Web Site Visitors With New Approaches

Mashable predicted that Responsive Web Design would be 2013’s trend for many websites. On the other hand, community-based approaches, or shall we say “social networking”, has become the main focus of many sites, business or otherwise, to attract viewers into their online pages. Facebook is on the verge of re-designing their main user page, their News Feeds, to be exact, to be more adept when being accessed via smartphones or tablets. So what’s your move for your own online presence?

Online Communities
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even social blogs like Tumblr have made it all too clear that making audiences involved and appreciated will attract others via referral or curiosity. Social networking has become an essential when one is considering to be prominently known in the World Wide Web, whether you’re just tweeting, posting an Instagram photo of your food, looking for online opponents or team-ups for a round of poker or WoW, or wanting to know why someone blogged about flying kites. Even if you’re into popular activities like online gaming, fashion or sports, the mere fact that the trend is overpopulated with “expert” websites means having followers involved interactively in your website may just give you an edge above the competition. Take online gaming leader partypoker for example. Their website has adapted a community-centric approach, relying on their users’ trust towards them, providing them with secure playing environments as well as up-to-date information about poker competitions, poker players and other related information. The poker site not only makes itself available through social media channels, it also makes sure that it provides easy access client support online, making it more approachable and interactive, thus attracting more users.

Responsive Web Design
Going back to social media giant Facebook, the new upcoming change has been headlined as “Goodbye Clutter. Hello bright, beautiful stories.” While still maintaining its community-based social networking forte, it has been under development to make the interface uniform in any type of viewing platform, whether you’re using a laptop, your iPhone or iPad, or any of your chosen Android gadget. Other than focusing on a uniform, streamlined look, it is also re-emphasizing the design to focus on the user’s actions, and not just what they did on Facebook. As defined by Ethan Marcotte in his article in, “Responsive web design (RWD) is a web design approach aimed at crafting sites to provide an optimal viewing experience—easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling—across a wide range of devices (from desktop computer monitors to mobile phones).”

It may sound overwhelming but mind you, despite Facebook being a trendsetter in the internet game, it was not the first one to transition to RWD despite being forerunners of community-based approaches. Time, Harvard University, Mashable and even quaint small business like Tattly have already transitioned to RWD making access smoother whatever gadget you’re using. Then again, such mentioned approaches are still up to you and will depend on factors that you consider important in getting attention from internet users. Research more and then decide. It’s your call.

Apr 28, 2013

Being Ousted As Founding CEO Is A Rite Of Passage

I’m introducing a new feature of my blog called “Dear VCDave.” I advise many entrepreneurs and each week I receive a number of practical, real-world questions. These are day to day operating issues, from “The investors are replacing me as CEO, what’s your advice?” to “My co-founder is moving to another city to be with his fiancee, what’s the best way to handle?”

While I’ve traditionally shared the answers to these questions with those asking them directly in emails and phone calls, a number of entrepreneurs have asked that I share these questions and answers in a format others can learn from — here they are.

DEAR VCDAVE: My investors are replacing me as CEO. What’s your input on that?
– Ousted CEO

Congratulations! Consider it a rite of passage. If it makes you feel better, many great entrepreneurs have been ousted as CEO–Steve Jobs, for one. Getting fired sucks. It’s even more painful when it’s your baby, a company you created from nothing.

It’s natural to question yourself and wonder what the investors thought was missing, regardless of what they say. Maybe they thought you couldn’t raise money. Or that you weren’t scaling with the company’s growth. Perhaps they want to bring in someone of their own. Or they just have bad judgment.

You could, of course, fight your investors on the decision (see: Yahoo). You might win, but you’d better have some other investors lined up. More likely, you and they will destroy the company and they’ll end up keeping what’s left.

You’ll have time for soul-searching later. It’s probably a mix of many factors, some having to do with you, some having to do with the investors, others having to do with the situation. Don’t let it get to you. Stay focused. Focus on keeping the business running. Sort out your equity and near-term compensation. Figure out your go-forward relationship with the company. Be helpful with the new CEO on-boarding process.

May 15, 2012

What You Can Learn From Apple’s Insanely Great Customer Service

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been on a customer service tear lately. That’s because we’ve been scaling up customers at Speechpad at a record rate and interacting with a lot of them in the process. I’d read Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, but our recent growth rate has given me a new found appreciation — and involvement in — delivering great customer service.

This weekend I did the unthinkable and dunked my iPhone in water. Not a few drops of water but a full on bath. In other words, I needed a new phone. My first stop was I know — what was I thinking? I reached a customer service rep on the web site who duly had me log into the web site to figure out that my next upgrade date was January of 2013. I inquired about other options and the rep suggested I buy one of their cheapest feature phones. A no-go.


I had heard and read good things about Apple store service so I headed over to the downtown San Francisco store to see what they could do. From the greeting at the door, to the service check-in, to my new phone, my total in-store time was under 40 minutes.

Most memorable for me was the Genius Bar. What a great concept – turning the idea of service into a bar with stools, a long counter, and service techs taking the place of bartenders. But first I was walked up the stairs to an Apple rep who checked me in for an appointment that would take place 10 minutes later. There’s something awesome about finding out you have to make an appointment and then having that appointment be 10 minutes later.

I browsed the web and time flew by — about 15 minutes later a tech arrived to take a look at my phone. He returned a few minutes later and told me the replacement cost: $149. I was overjoyed. No shipping, no return process, no paperwork, just a few checkboxes and a signature on an iPad and voila: a new iPhone.

The toughest part was getting it registered on the Verizon network. Even the Apple Genius couldn’t get that part to work until he consulted with someone else who showed a way to work around the Verizon registration system! Go figure.

And of course there was the wireless credit card swipe that let me pay right at the Genius table.

Some key takeaways:
- Personalized service, using my name
- A great environment that turned something usually dreaded (customer service) on its ear by converting it into a luxury experience — going to a bar
- Immediate exchange
- Low friction – no paperwork (just some electronic forms)
- An apology that things were “taking so long” (e.g. a whopping five minutes) when dealing with the Verizon registration issue

All in all, an insanely great customer service experience.

May 14, 2012

The Magic Of Immediate Customer Service

When it comes to customer service, there’s nothing quite like delivering an immediate response.

Google optimizes the delivery of search results down to the last millisecond. That’s because fast web sites delight people. They like it when web pages appear quickly, when sites are snappy and responsive. People love it when they order something on Amazon and they get the package on-time, as promised, two days later. The same holds true for customer service in every business.

When it comes to Speechpad, nothing makes me happier than a happy customer. Companies spend a lot of time putting CRM systems in place and hiring and training customer support people. Yet there remains nothing quite so magical as getting back to a customer immediately.

Not the next day; not in a few hours; right away. Granted, we can’t always respond to customers immediately, but we try to get back to them immediately as often as possible. At Speechpad, customers have questions about uploading very large files, about pricing, about 24 hour turnaround. We try to address many of these questions through our web site and our FAQ.

Yet there’s nothing customers like quite so much as knowing there’s someone on the other end of their email or phone call who cares about getting their transcription done on time. As self-serve as our web site is, customers like to know, especially when they first start working with us, that we’re dedicated to delivering great transcriptions.

And nothing makes me happier when it comes to customer service than responding to their inquiries immediately. There is something magical about immediate customer service. That means when an inquiry comes in, we respond right away.

Even in a hyper-connected world where dozens of new tweets appear every minute, getting back to people right away–truly right away–remains magical. There’s simply no substitute for that level of immediacy and responsiveness, whether it’s during the business day or on a night or weekend.

Highly responsive customer service not only shows you’re responsive, it gives customers a positive feeling about your company. It differentiates you from the competition.

So when it comes to customer service, think about response times. Don’t let emails sit in the queue until you have the perfect answer. Don’t send an automated message. Send a personal reply and do it right away. Immediacy matters.

May 14, 2012

How Bad Customer Service Can Kill Your Business And What To Do About It

I was speaking with a Speechpad customer yesterday–let’s call him John–who said, “I was just so happy to get a response. Some of the companies I contact I don’t even hear back from.” This customer does two to three weekly webcasts. He wanted to get them transcribed so they would be searchable and indexable in Google.

John told me that he’s tried a number of different transcription services. Sometimes he’ll submit a transcription and never hear back! Imagine it–a customer ready and willing to buy, a customer with a budget who never gets a response.

Our goal is to respond to customers within minutes after they contact us. Sometimes it takes us a few hours. But we make it a goal to respond very quickly. Responsiveness differentiates Speechpad from other companies in the industry.

In contrast, this morning I was on the phone with Garmin customer service. A few weeks ago my Garmin 500 bike GPS stopped working. I called Garmin and they set me up for a replacement. The Garmin rep on the phone told me that they would ship out a new unit to me right after they received the one I was sending in.

Sometimes customer service people just want to give you good news since they know you’re having a bad experience. Any good news. The problem with this approach is that it sets a high expectation. And in this case, Garmin failed to deliver on that expectation. I had to call today because I still hadn’t received the replacement unit even though Garmin received my GPS on April 23 — over two and a half weeks ago.

When it comes to customer service, the best approach is to tell people the truth. Can’t give them a discount? Tell them that. Don’t come up with excuses, just tell them the truth. Don’t set expectations you can’t deliver on–set expectations you can beat.

Bad customer service can kill an otherwise great product. Great customer service is part of the Whole Product Experience: everything that encompasses your product, from the product itself, to how that product is marketed and sold, and the service that goes with it.

Delivering great customer service increases customer loyalty, which in turn generates new business through referrals as those happy customers tell their friends and colleagues what a great experience they had with your company.

Great customer service can also help overcome early issues with a product. If a file upload fails or a web site doesn’t work with a particular browser version, customer service can go a long way toward addressing those issues. And customers love getting fast replies. It shows that you’re on it, you’re with it, and that your company takes their business seriously. Plus, they’re used to getting such slow replies from other companies that fast responses really wow them.

Customer service impacts how people perceive your product and company, and ultimately has a huge impact on whether they recommend your company to other people. Don’t just think about the product — think about how you’ll deliver it as part of the Whole Product Experience.

May 10, 2012

Should You Ever Fire A Customer?

Sometimes, you have to fire a customer. When you’re in the business of making customers happy, it’s a very difficult realization to come to. It’s painful, but there is a certain satisfaction in bracing yourself for the decision and being able to say “no.”

At Speechpad, demand for our transcription services is growing faster than during any previous quarter in the company’s history. We’re scaling our workforce as fast as possible, while keeping quality high and prices low. We have a choice about which work to take, and which not to.

Transcription for video is by far the fastest growing segment of our business. It’s what has put Speechpad into hyper-growth mode. People get videos transcribed so that that video can be searchable, indexable, and discoverable. High-speed Internet and the ability to upload hundreds of megs of files, or to share them with us via Dropbox, Google Drive, and other file sharing services has made dealing with large video files a non-issue.

And people love video. It’s one of the most compelling ways to engage  – just look at the excitement around services like Socialcam and Viddy. But to make that video relevant and accessible, it needs to be available in text form. That’s where Speechpad comes in.

In working with one particular customer, we realized we were doing a ton of extra work for the customer and that ultimately we weren’t profitable. We were losing money on the work we were doing for this customer. Although we’re highly focused on revenue growth, as a boot-strapped company, we take profitability very seriously. It’s OK to lose money on a large customer if we’re in the “startup” phase of a new vertical or new service, but at steady state, we should be profitable. We realized that simply wasn’t the case. And the time we were investing in that customer was causing us to spend less time on areas that are bigger and can scale faster.

It was tough deciding to stop working with this customer especially because we could see that other companies were able to meet this customer’s needs. They could do it and we couldn’t. It is a tough, tough reality to face, but an incredibly valuable one. When put in the context of our other opportunities, not doing the unprofitable work and instead focusing on scaling our profitable work made a ton of sense. It was agonizing making the decision. But it was a relief once we made it.

It’s painful, frustrating, and disappointing to fire a customer. But sometimes you’ve got to do it. Ultimately, the customer will be more successful and so will you.

Apr 26, 2012

Why Repinning Makes People Happy

If you go on Pinterest, you’ll discover that people love repinning. According to one study, some 80% of pins are repins. Pinterest makes some very subtle and smart use of gaming dynamics, the same kind of dynamics that have made games from Zynga and sites like Facebook addictive and popular. Here are some key lessons to apply to your own products:

1. Repinning is easy. Repinning is incredibly low friction. You click, choose a category, and you’re done. When you’re dealing with a lazy user whose alternative is spending time watching TV – which requires no action other than clicking a remote from time to time, repinning is about as easy as it gets. Humans are lazy. Make things easy for them.

2. Repinning provides a dopamine kick. Dopamine, as I’ve written about previously, drives a lot of human action. It’s core to the reward system of the brain. When people repin, they get a little hit of dopamine, a little rush from the feeling of accomplishment. It’s the same feeling they get when they click on coins to collect them in Zynga games. Build the click  click-reward dynamic into your own products. It’s simple but highly effective.

3. Repinning makes something yours. Once you repin something, it’s no longer a repin – it becomes your pin. It’s yours. Your pin gets repinned. People like having things of their own.

4. Repinning is self-reenforcing. You get an email saying who and how many people have repinned your (re-)pin, causing a dopamine rush. There’s a certain, subtle fulfillment in getting larger number of repins. When other people repin your pin, it provides validation. To make your own product self re-enforcing, give people validation and let them know when they’ve been validated.

5. By collecting pins, people share their aspirations. Pinning and repinning provide a form of self-identification and a way to share things that are aspirational: places you want to visit, homes you’d like to live in, styles you’d like to emulate, and so on. The Facebook timeline shows people who we were and are. Pinterest shows people who we aspire to be.

Apr 26, 2012