Deception & Denial – Commercial Aviation's Two Worst Habits

I’m currently sitting in the transit area at Auckland airport, having missed a connecting flight that would have had me home by now. Instead, I’m left reflecting on how broken commercial aviation’s response to dealing with the natural problems that occur when you combine machines, weather and people with tight schedules and connections is.

TL;DR: commercial aviation consistently jumps immediately to deception and denial whenever something happens that causes a problems for their customers. They might have gotten away with it in an age where people had no choice but to be left in the dark without internet, email and social media, but increasingly their policies of outright lying to their customers are causing their brands a lot of damage. The only thing saving their lying arses at all right now are the difficulties of communicating due to unnecessary bans on using mobile technology in-flight and the prohibitive cost of international roaming when you’re on the ground. These will change, and then they’re going to be *really* screwed.

How many times have you had your travel plans screwed up by a “mechanical issue” or “operational issue”? It always seems there’s a mechanical issue that means your flight was cancelled or delayed or some other setback has occurred? Of course, when this is true, it is something you almost appreciate happening even though you’ve just missed your connections and will have to spend hours sleeping on the floor of an airport. “Well, at least they found out and cancelled the flight and didn’t wait to realize until we were airborne – we could have crashed!”. Unfortunately, though, this catch-all excuse is often a complete lie. Here’s a couple of examples I’ve had; my friends in the industry tell me this is very very common.

The “Mechanical Failure as an excuse for Overbooking” Deception

“Sorry sir, there is a mechanical problem with the aircraft – we’re going to need to move you over to X and your direct flight is now going to take twice as long”.

This happened to me a couple of years ago on a flight from Sydney to San Francisco with United. The truth went more like this:

  • We have a policy of over-booking aircraft because we put company before customers and need to squeeze money out every last seat mile.
  • Since we screwed up again, and you’re stupid enough to show up early to check in, we’re going to need to inconvenience you and send you via Auckland and LAX before you eventually get to SFO so we can save money on paying other passengers compensation or provide upgrades to business class.

Having been told a routinely full 747-400 is not making its daily flight, I said “Wow, lucky I got here early – can you book me through on the direct flight to LAX instead?”

Realizing that treating customers like cattle and lying wasn’t going to work first time like it usually does, and knowing that the LAX flight was also over-booked, I was told “Actually, there’s a mechanical problem with that aircraft too, and it has also been cancelled”.

It wasn’t until I was passing through the security checkpoint with my 3 boarding passes in hand and a staring at a much longer trip that I saw the United crew in uniform going through. They only have two flights out of Sydney each day, so I figured, oh, amazing, they fixed the plane. I started talking to the crew: “Oh, I thought that your aircraft went U/S” (which is aviation talk for unserviceable or “broken”), to which they replied “No, it hasn’t been U/S at all?”. When I got to the gate I confronted the check-in staff who lied to me, who then admitted, yes, they had lied to me, but bad luck your bags are already on that plane over there and we can’t move them”.

Lesson: if they tell you there’s something wrong with the plane, ask them what it is. When they say “I don’t know”, then assert that you think they’re lying to you again and that they’ve just overbooked it and you expect to be put on the flight you booked or upgraded to business on an alternative. Remember, they deliberately fucked you over to their policies of maximizing their return at your expense, so don’t be afraid to turn the tables.

The “Mechanical Failure as an excuse for Under-Filling and Combining” Deception

This is another favorite that happens quite a bit on busy routes (such as in the US). The airline sets their schedules months and months and months out. Then through some hard core math and financial engineering known as yield management they try and get a balance between filling the aircraft and getting the highest price, moving prices based on how far out the flight is and a lot more.

Of course, when the time comes for the plane to fly, the yield management guys might not have done a very good job, and the airline is looking at a half full flight scheduled to leave at 1pm. They know they’ve got another flight which is half full (or more) leaving at 5pm, and since it doesn’t cost them to keep you waiting in the airport for 4 hours, they tell you there’s a mechanical problem with the aircraft and the 1pm flight is cancelled.

So you spend 4 hours waiting in the terminal, missing connections, inconveniencing family members who are coming to pick you up, all so they can maximize their per seat mile revenue completely at your expense. Remember, that flight that didn’t leave didn’t have crew, didn’t burn jet fuel, and the engines weren’t spinning so they’ve been able to delay critical maintenance. Their win, completely your loss.

Lesson: if they tell you the flight is cancelled due to a problem with the plane, ask them what it is. When they say “I don’t know”, then assert that you think they’re lying to you again and that they’ve just cancelled the flight to combine it with the later flight to make more money and ruin your day. Of course, complaining isn’t going to uncancel a flight, so tell them you expect to be upgraded to business and hooked up with lounge access or get a cash travel voucher as compensation. Remember, they deliberately fucked you over due to their policies of maximizing their return at your expense, so don’t be afraid to turn the tables.

The “Due to operational requirements there’s a change of plans, but don’t worry, we’ll have things organized for your connections” deception

This was today’s doozie with AirNZ, who until today I’ve held in high esteem. The flight was from SFO to AKL, and then onto SYD, a flight I’ve taken at least half a dozen times. This time, though, there was a problem – “Operational Requirements” meant we had to go via Fiji.

What were the “Operational Requirements”? In this case, there wasn’t much the airline could do; there are limits on the amount of time air crew can spend on duty to help combat fatigue in what is already a pretty stressful (and potentially fatal) workplace environment. In this case, there was a delay the previous day (or two days ago?) on the flight leaving Auckland for SF, and the crew would have gone over their duty hours (a big legal deal) if they tried to fly all the way to Auckland. So, we diverted to Fiji, where AirNZ had flown another crew the day before to swap with our original crew and continue the flight to Auckland.

This means we got into Auckland 2.5 hours late, and probably 200 or so people needed to have their onward connecting flights rearranged. Never fun, but totally predictable – the airline knew more than 20 hours earlier that this was going to happen, and they knew exactly who they needed to rebook and move around.

As a result, they promised passenger after passenger in SF that things would be OK; the mum who’d just flown from NY with her three kids and still had to get to Melbourne was assured and told that they’d booked her through on a Qantas flight because the AirNZ flight would be missed. Ditto for the guy heading to Adelaide. For those of us flying through to Sydney in AirNZ, it should have been a simple matter of printing our boarding passes at some point in the intervening 20 hours.

Of course, this isn’t what happened. We all lined up for over an hour as a completely predictable workload was handled by too few staff who made up for their short number by being extra rude. Only after everyone is lining up do they realize – again, completely predictably – that the 1pm flight wasn’t going to be able to fit everyone, so they then work out what new plane they’re going to use instead. Chaos continues for a few more hours. The people at the lounge disqualify my lounge passes on a technicality, but they do offer $12.50 worth of Burger King to say sorry.

Lesson: when they say “operational requirements”, find out what the truth is (after all, weather and safety rules do routinely mess up the aviation business), and then when checking in try and get your booking changed right there and then and a forward boarding pass assigned.

Deception and Denial don’t work when we have a voice


The marketing and sponsorship teams of airlines spend hundreds of millions of dollars in every year promoting their brands. But in a world of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, decisions to deliberately inconvenience or visit chaos upon their customers in the service of saving them a bit of money has the ability to undermine their brand building, and fast.

Only by asking questions and challenging their standard operating procedure of deception and denial can we have a voice, and the more of us that speak, the more we’ll undermine the bullshit their brands are built upon. Some airlines already get it – Virgin America is the most honest airline I’ve ever dealt with, and their brand is reinforced every time my friends and I interact with them in person – but for those who don’t, ask questions, demand answers and do something cattle don’t do – say something.

WFT America?!?

How is it that the world’s most prominent democracy is so incredibly bad at being, well, a democracy?

8 years ago I looked on from Australia in shock with the rest of the world as America re-elected the least competent and most destructive person to sit in the Whitehouse, since, probably ever. After feeling a strong sense of empathy post 9/11, I joined with the rest of the world in thinking in 2004, “well, you voted for this moron again – you made your bed, so lie in it”.

4 years ago I looked on from Australia – this time having spent a bit of time living in the US – with a sense of pride and hope that the mistakes of 8 years earlier which clearly set American and the free world back almost a decade could be righted. And the American voting public delivered in spades, but as we all know, the damage had been done. Obama promised change, but in retrospect he should have promised harm minimization. The last 4 years hasn’t been pretty.

This year was different. I’ve been living in the US for a 15 months, paying taxes and being part of society here and while I’m a lot closer, I’m strangely more distant. This stuff now actually affects me on a daily basis, but I’m noticeably excluded as a non-citizen. The natural human response to rejection is to say “well, screw you too then electoral system that won’t have me – I’ll ignore you too”. I’ve been too busy to be a political junkie and anyway, this has to have been one of the least inspiring, un-visionary campaigns in memory. Better just to just tune out, especially when in our house we just stream TV (no political ads).

But the things you notice actually being here are really amazing. And disturbing. Seriously, America, what the fuck is going on with a nation that sees itself as the leading light of democracy and freedom?

Here’s a few real and jarring things I wouldn’t have appreciated if I hadn’t been here to see it for myself. These stand-out in a sea of things that wouldn’t be so hypocritical if this country hasn’t spent so much blood and treasure promoting democracy elsewhere in the world.

Touch-screen voting machines, but forget technology in voting.

So, there’s been a bit of a stir today about the voting machines that wouldn’t let you select Obama and instead defaulted to Romney. Amazing seeing life imitate art, but not super surprising.

Coming from little old Australia where we use paper and pencils to vote, I figured that America was just ahead of the curve, wrinkles, bugs and all.

Turns out: not so much.

One of my colleagues wanted to vote today; in a busy start-up, time is tight, but she was fine to head off and make sure her opinion counted any time she wanted to go.

With more than 2 hours until polls closed, I asked her if she needed to take off and she mentioned she’d already given up. “I’d have to head back to Berkeley where I’m registered from when I was in college last election if I want to vote, and there isn’t time now”.

Now, remember, this is a first world country. One that insists that citizens and even non-citizens get a unique Federal ID number so we can all be tracked and identified (the Social Security Number). What do you mean you can’t just go down to ANY POLLING PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, give your details and a photo ID, and vote? WFT America? Sarah was in the same state, but a different county, and unless she’d planned her time out more than a week in advance to ask for and return a postal absentee vote, she was locked out.

Even if you are prepared, voting can cost you $50 or more. Another friend who grew up in Boston wanted to vote. She asked for the absentee voting papers to be posted to her new place in California. The authorities got it here last Thursday. She filled them in and realized that she would have to pay $50 to make sure they would get back to Boston in time to count before the cut-off. WTF America? If people can vote on faulty machines, why can’t they vote online? Even if that is too hard, why the hell does a piece of paper need to be mailed overnight express to the other side of the country in a FEDERAL ELECTION?!?

4 hour waits to vote? It isn’t like today was unexpected!?!

So, the systems suck unless you never move and make sure your registered home address is a stones throw from where you actually live. OK, fine. But why are there 4+ hour lines to actually vote on a day they’ve known is coming for 4 years!?!

In Australia, I’ve waited no more than 20 minutes to vote in an election – ever. You rock up at the nearest school/library, you run the gauntlet of people trying to give you propaganda, you cross your name off the list (or go over to the out of town queue and cross it off a national database), and you vote. Done. Easy. Fast.

Instead here it seems the parties get to play special games. If you’re in a county/state controlled by the blue/red guys but you live in an area controlled by the opposite color, good luck.

Long queues, few booths, few election officials. Making it hard to vote and reduce turnout for the other guy is seen as a legitimate tactic. WFT America? I’m all for electoral and campaigning tactics, focus groups and marketing your message to give your team an advantage, but deliberately starving certain populations of resources to deny them the right to vote without standing in the sun/snow for 4 hours is bullshit. This isn’t about promoting/spinning a message. This is about taking away the rights of fellow citizens to vote in a democracy. In the memory every fallen American who died trying to bring democracy to Iraq/Afghanistan/Eastern Europe/South Korea/Vietnam, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Branch stacking is nothing. Try population stacking.

From the outside, you might be wondering why there are so many elected nut-jobs in America. The short answer is because the way they carve up electorates / seats / districts encourages it.

In Australia, there’s a concept known as branch-stacking. Primaries (known as pre-selections down-under) are where a party chooses their person to stand as their candidate in the election.

In seats / districts that are tight (known as “swing” here), candidates are selected by their party because they’re the best – they’re respected, they have broad appeal and can work to represent all of their constituents.

In seats are safe (known as their color, red=republican, blue=democrat here), the battle isn’t for the public ballot – that is pretty much a sure thing. Instead, the battle is for the party base, which encourages nut jobs on the fringe. This happens in all representative democracies, but in the US it is a LOT worse.

Instead of having an independent umpire draw the lines on the map to say who is in what Seat / District, here they’re drawn (predominantly) by the party in power at the State level. They’re political in nature, and the result is frightening. If you’re a Democrat and you’re in power, and you know a particular part of your district votes Republican, you can change the boundaries so that those people are included in a different district, one that is more Republican. That way, you don’t need to keep them happy, and your seat / district is safer. Funnily enough, the other guys don’t usually mind – they also get to focus on preaching to the choir, rather than coming up with policies that make the county/state/country better.

This is how the Tea Party went from being a bunch of angry flat-earth types and became a political force. Ignorant, simplistic, selfish and deluded, instead of being marginalized as fringe outliers these crazy buggers rose to prominence by eating their own – incumbent Republicans – because they knew they just had to energize their own team by being more extreme than their Republican brothers. The Democrats have their own fair share of nutters too of course – the Tea Party have just done a better job of showing us how mad they are.

Growing up in Wollongong – the equivalent of a super blue safe seat for the Democrats – I got to see up close just how much of a cancer this one-sided electorate could be. Words like corrupt, incompetent and out of touch come to mind. Populated exclusively by candidates who are former union officials – the 2nd least trusted “profession” in Australia it was reported recently – the “safe” status of the Wollongong region has led to all sorts of dodgy back-room deals where the decisions about who gets to keep power have nothing to do with the people. This in turn has fostered a strong sense of neglect and mistrust in the electors – why be engaged when you know a corrupt and incompetent candidate is going to get re-elected to “represent” you anyway?

I’ve always felt this was the rotten heart of the city where I grew up and wish it wasn’t like that, but almost all of this country works this way – and not because of demography, but because of a false construction of elector districts.

Fucked up, rotten priorities

Sergey Brin was right. This system has forgotten what democracy is – it is just about the parties fighting each other and the public are just ways of tallying who’s winning and losing, while all of us lose.

If this system spent a fraction of the money they spend on lawyers on things like polling booths in independent redistricting commissions that they spend on TV commercials and lawyers to try and exclude the ability of others to vote, America would be in a much more legitimate position to take its place as a leading light of democracy.

Unfortunately, today, the electoral and representative landscape here place better represents something that rhymes with that: hypocrisy. WFT America?

How to save $100/month on your cell bill (go prepaid)

Brian Chen writes today in the NY Times about much cheaper it is to be on prepaid here in the US than go onto a post-paid plan. He lays out the numbers starkly:

The iPhone with a two-year contract on AT&T, for example, costs $200 for the handset and then upward of $90 a month for the plan; over two years, including the cost of the phone, customers pay at least $2,360. With a prepaid plan on Virgin Mobile, which is owned by Sprint, the iPhone costs $650 for the handset, and then $30 a month, including unlimited data (the type of data plan that people are happier with, according to J.D. Power). Over two years, that would cost about $1,370.

As my friend MG says over on his blog, “it’s still pretty jarring to see it laid out in such simple terms: if you’re willing to pay $450 more upfront, you’ll save about $1,000 over the next couple years”.

Moving to the US from Australia a year ago, I initially didn’t have the option for a post-paid plan: no social security number, no credit rating, no fixed address. Until recently, I didn’t realize that post-paid plans in the US were so expensive. Thinking that post-paid would have to be better value (as it is everywhere else in the world), I asked a bunch of friends what they pay per month.

And each time I asked, I was shocked, and so were they – they’re paying about twice as much for the same product, and they’re locked in for two years. 

For example, my housemate pays $155/month for his iPhone plan on AT&T, and another friend pays north of $200/month for he and his wife to have a family plan – but with his oldest daughter only 2 years old, there’s only two phones on the plan.

If you want to make the switch when you’re out of contract seriously save more than $1000, here’s a few tips and lessons learned.

T-Mobile’s $50 Unlimited plan

T-Mobile have a range of pre-paid plans, and the best bet for most people is the $50/month plan. It includes unlimited calls, text and data. They do something kinda sneaky with their marketing though – while the data is unlimited for $50/month, they market the 100MB cap/limit of 4G data and try and get you to spend an additional $10 or $20 to get more 4G data included.

The problem with 4G on GSM is that it is a mess. Different places, different handsets, different “standards”. My Galaxy Nexus isn’t compatible with T-Mobile’s idea of 4G, and if you’re planning on buying your handset online when you go pre-paid, be careful and read up on the different frequencies and standards.

If want to play it safe, I can strongly recommend the Galaxy Nexus, which you can buy unlocked and directly from Google for only $349 in HSPA+ mode (which is what T-Mobile call 4G). Also, you don’t need to buy the $15/month mobile hotspot part of the plan – tethering works just fine (since it is just data and data is unlimited).

Aside from their more limited coverage than AT&T, there’s just one drawback with T-Mobile. In another case of the “why won’t you just be a dumb fucking pipe, carrier”, T-Mobile have “forbidden” Google Wallet from working on their network. Yep, my phone, which I’ve bought outright, and they won’t let me install Google Wallet. WTF? This was the only reason I (temporarily) moved to AT&T, so hopefully they get out of the way soon.

AT&T’s Bullshit $50 Unlimited Go-Phone

While they don’t have the best network (Verizon is widely regarded to be the best), AT&T are at least GSM so if you’re travelling you’ll actually be able to use your phone outside the US of A.

Unfortunately though, AT&T screwed me last month with a “bait and switch”, where they advertised an unlimited calls, sms and data plan for $50/month, only to then turn off my data half way through the month. 

When I called customer support to see what was going on, they told me that the unlimited data is only supported on “Feature Phones”. I then asked what my options were with my Galaxy Nexus, and they told me I don’t get any data included at all – zero – and I’d have to buy data bundles – $5 for 50MB, or $25 for 1GB. While $25 for 1GB should be enough for most folks, I really resented the bait and switch, and a really really really resent carriers not just being a dumb fucking pipe. I almost feel like getting an old Nokia, buying the AT&T plan, and then hooking it up to a spare machine and streaming YouTube all day every day just to fuck them.

So, needless to say, I went straight into T-Mobile and got back on their stuff.

Note for iPhone 4 users: if you try and get a Go Phone plan from AT&T for your iPhone, they’ll tell you it won’t work. It used to work – and they just lied to you to try and up-sell you – but with iPhone 4 it really doesn’t work. In a deplorable move, Apple have made it really hard to change the APN settings (which define how your phone connects to data on a cell network) in their latest handsets – another case of fuck the customer in cahoot with the carriers. Android, on the other hand works out of the box, but as I discovered they’ll eventually cut you off if they guess you’re using a smartphone.

Virgin Doesn’t Travel

As pointed out by Brian in his times piece, Virgin have a very compelling deal at $30/month for unlimited data and pretty generous minutes (who talks actually on phones now, anyway?)

Unfortunately, though, this deal uses Sprint’s CDMA network. This network technology is actually a lot better for speeds and getting signal than GSM, but unfortunately CDMA is hardly used anywhere outside the US. So, unless you’re likely to stay completely US based, I’d steer away from it.

Why Freemium Fails for Business Sales

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon with the 2012 class of StartMate companies in our Sydney incubator. As someone who’s spent their career working in business to business technology, I was excited to see 3 of the 8 companies focusing very strongly on solving real pain points for businesses. Smart teams, real problems, solid technology – full of win.

While their target markets – property, film and IT management – were all very different, the common challenge faced by all enterprised focused startups who want to get big was the same – distribution. I know this only too well, as this is the thing we spend more time thinking about withAffinityLive right now than anything else.

One of the tempting ways to try and ramp up distribution is freemium. The theory goes, if I make my product free, I’ll remove a big barrier to adoption, word of mouth will have a stronger effect in driving user volume, and we’ll be able to show VCs a nice hockey stick graph that goes up and to the right.

My concern is that for almost all of the SaaS companies that target businesses, those who try freemium realize it was a mistake, hopefully before they kill their business. Freemium is almost always a very very bad strategy for selling to businesses.

In planning our AffinityLive sales and marketing model, I spent a lot of time talking to people who’ve been there and done that. Most of the conversations were very off the record, but one source I always point entrepreneurs to is the experience of the guys from Chargify. They originally had a freemium model, and the reasons they abandoned it – and the backlash they sustained in the process – were blogged about extensively and very honestly by founder David HauserIt should be compulsory reading for any entrepreneur targeting the business market.

There’s a lot that has been written by people with a lot more experience in the matter, but just telling you not to do something as trendy as freemium isn’t going to cut it. We all want to see our products used, and most engineers start solving a problem for ulturistic reasons, which explains why freemium has so much appeal.

So, rather than just saying don’t do it, I’ve listed the four attributes that can make freemium a successful strategy for your business focused online service. You don’t need all 4, but you’ll want to have most of them baked into your product and business model to have any hope of making freemium work.

As I see it, here are the criteria to required to make freemium work for business (ie, non-consumer) facing product:

  1. You need to have a land and expand distribution model. This means you use freemium as the thin end of the wedge and use the early adopter as your sales team, evangelising it to colleagues to eventually get the business to buy in financially for features like security, administrative control. Box does this very well, as does Yammer. Note though that these two business put a lot of money into their enterprise sales teams doing traditional enterprise sales things – small and medium guys are crumbs comparatively from what I understand.
  2. You need the ability to deliver benefit independently of core business processes. If you can solve a problem that doesn’t require any connection to the rest of the business – ie, no need to access any customer, accounting, HR, production or other data – then this can work a treat. This is why tools like Balsamiq or Prezzi for individuals that are used primarily in a workplace context work as a freemium product if you have the other attributes. However, being an occassionally used tool that isn’t tied into the core business processes comes with its own risks around poor revenue and high churn. Higher revenues generally require a stronger connection in the core business processes (otherwise you risk becoming a feature and see high churn), which is difficult to get if you’re delivering benefits to the individual without touching the business.
  3. Natural increased use model that pushes users inextricably to paid. Freemium is a marketing strategy, so you want to make sure whatever your product does, you have a conversion lever that “just happens” as users use the product normally. Dropbox have this nailed – you use it, you keep using it, and one day they say “you need to pay now” – it is a cumulative use lever. Remember the Milk have a different lever focused around urgency, which itself is tied to the utility you get from the product – their mobile apps only sync once a day unless you pay, at which point it will sync in real time – which means when you care about the app, you’ll pay for it. Find your driver, but make sure that users who actually use the app will be compelled to pay.
  4. Volume is more important than revenue. This only works for some business focused companies (see Wave Accounting and Spiceworksfor two examples of firms betting everyting on this model), and means you’re making money in an indirect way, either through advertising or transactional revenue. Assistly implemented it too, but only to drive their acquisition price to SalesForce higher when they already knew they would either get acquired or raise a big round (their decision wasn’t based on revenue). While venture backed companies have the luxury of not needing revenue to survive today, they need to be able to show how they’re going to see big revenue later to justify the investment risk, and pursuing this strategy to make yourself appealing to investors is pretty damn risky. The key is to make sure you’re sureof your revenue model; the number of ideas I’ve seen where folks say “and we’ll have all this data and that has to be valuable to someone” is about as much of a strategy as the Underpants Gnomes.
There’s a lot of attention and excitement around freemium today, even as the pioneers of freemium have actively moved away from it. Don’t be another engineer or entrepreneur who just wants to be popular – if you’re selling to businesses, avoid freemium unless you’re that small percentage of products where it actually works.

Easier to be the Drill Instructor

When I was 14, I joined the Junior Air Force in Australia, known as the Air Cadets. The first night I went along, I saw them marching around and calling orders and having their uniforms inspected. As as teenager, I thought it was the stupidest thing ever.

I vowed not to go back.

Fortunately, when I wasn’t looking, my mother paid the $60 annual membership fee, and to give you a sense of how tight finances were at home, I knew that wasting $60 was a hanging offence. So, I went back to Air Cadets and after making it through the first couple of confusing months, it was one of the most formative things I’ve ever done.

I learned a lot from my experience, as I rose up from the rank of “Cadet” (a mirror of “Private” or “Sailor” or “Airman”) to become the equivalent of Staff Sergeant. But there’s only one of those experiences that came to mind tonight as I mentored one of the latest batch of StartMate companies – it is always easier to be the Drill Instructor than to be the guy marching.

While folks with some appreciation of the military will think this is because seniority bestows privileges (it does), what I’m talking about is the benefit that some distance and perspective provide. From a short distance away, you can see the whole squad/company. You can see how they’re moving, what they’re doing wrong, who is out of time. You get a perspective that the people in the parade, who can only see the person beside them out the corner of their eye, can’t possibly see.  They’re focused on what they’re in the thick of, but you, as the Drill Instructor, or DI, you get the benefit of distance and the space of relection.

I believe the same thing is true of many fields. My personal experience, beyond being a DI, is of being an adviser and mentor to startups. It is common to have someone, completely focused on the challenge in front of them, engrossed and committed to it 110%, come to you with a very very long and crappy description of what they’re doing.

This is where the Drill Instructor comes in. One of our companies recently sent a 220 word “quick blurb”, and unfortunately it didn’t really say much. My tips on a format (along with making it shorter) were:

  • [ Problem ] – have folks in the industry nodding their heads & identifying with the pain you describe. Two sentences at most.
  • [ Solution ] – very very skinny description. you’re not trying to get laid here – just get a first date.
  • [ WIIFT ] – why they should give you their time.
  • [ Close ] – how to give you their time

The example for these guys, who are in the film production sector, was edited to be:

Managing the cast and crew has always been one of the most frustrating parts of any production. Modern mobile technology promises the ability to marshal, organize and coordinate dozens of people, but there’s a problem.
While the tools of email, SMS, smartphones are now commonplace, producers still lack the tools to make using it easy. This is where we come in. Whether you’re producing a big budget movie or TV show, or a micro-budget indie, we provide the tools to get everyone coordinated and organized, quickly and easily from your computer, tablet or mobile phone.
Our team is looking to connect with leaders and innovators in the industry to learn more about the challenges in the industry and any insights we can at the intersection of technology and film production.
If you’ve got time for a chat over a coffee or a beer, we’d love to learn and share in the hope of making your life easier.

The irony in all of this is that as quickly as I was able to dispense this advice – probably 15 mins, and just re-reading it I can see lots of room for improvement – I’ve struggled mightly over weeks and weeks to get our own messaging for AffinityLive right. Why? Because with the story above, I’m the drill instructor, but with my main focus, I’m living, breathing and all too close to the subject.

So, if you’re an entrepreneur and you’re having trouble getting is tight, short, sweet, relevant and focused, don’t feel inadequate. We all struggle with it.

Of course, the key in all of this is that its the people marching, the people focusing, driving, continuously improving who live and breathe this stuff that actually star. The Drill Instructors never change the world, they never stand in the arena, take the credit or take the fall, which is appropriate – because it is always easier being the Drill Instructor.

Stop puffing out your chest

Eric Ries, the author of “The Lean Startup”, defines a startup as “a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Implicitly, a startup entrepreneur is someone who chooses, willingly, to embrace extreme uncertainty.

Most people think uncertainty=high risk, but it doesn’t have to. Malcolm Gladwell, in his New Yorker piece “The Sure Thing“, wrote about the ability of successful entrepreneurs not to be extreme risk takers at all. Risk and uncertainty aren’t equivalent.

Entrepreneurs get up every day not knowing if they will, but believing that they can. And where this lack of certainty would paralyze most other people, entrepreneurs are instead attracted to it, energized by it.

The problem is, no one succeeds in anything worthy on their own. In business, you need to have strong support from family, friends, clients, staff, investors and more. Odds are, these folks are likely to have a much lower appetite for uncertainty than the entrepreneur. They want to know if something will work before they buy in. To build support, raise funds, win clients entrepreneurs need to make these people believe in their vision and their ability. And while they believe they can, entrepreneurs don’t know – after all, they’re operating with extreme uncertainty, remember?

This sets up the biggest moral conflict in entrepreneurship – it is all about uncertainty, and yet to succeed you need to convince key people all around you that the future is bright and successful!

How do we as entrepreneurs reconcile this? We often don’t. We are torn – and if we’re not careful, our whole lives can feel like a big charade.

To succeed, we need to exude the confidence of someone who knows they’re going to change the world. We read about & admire those who have – the Zucks, the Pages and Brins, the Jobs and the Gates and so many more. But the thing you’re not told is that they weren’t confident & always self assured.

Joe Kraus

Joe Kraus, the founder of Excite and later Jotspot, and now Google Ventures partner (and incidentally a really really nice guy with great family and a wicked collection of cool cars like this one) spoke really candidly in the book Founders at Work about how this conflict feels from the entrepreneurs perspective:

No, it was never clear we were onto something huge. You never know anything. The hardest part in a startup is that you wake up one morning, and you feel great about the day, and you think, “we’re kicking ass.” And then you wake up the next morning, and you think “We’re dead.” And literally nothing has changed… I really wanted to get to the point where I’d  say, “OK, I know we’re onto something huge.”

Remember, Joe and his 5 college buddies built one of the world’s first search engines. Two years after he experienced the feelings described above, they’d gone public. He goes onto say:

On some level it feels like you’re fooling people – like, are we really doing this? It’s the whole sausage and sausage factory problem: when you’re outside and you only see the sausage coming out you think, “That’s pretty tasty.” When you’re on the inside, and you know how its made, it’s terrifying.

This is a guy who grew his business from number 17 out of 17 to number one or two in a 1996, just one year. He’s the guy who big $3M to win the prized position in Netscape’s toolbar when they only had $1M in the bank. Clearly, there is a lot of belief here, but there’s even more uncertainty.

Mark Suster

One of my favourite bloggers and VCs and general commentators in our sector is Mark Suster. While most of the talent at TechCruch Disrupt in San Francisco this year would come and go via the VIP entrance, Mark waded out the front and mingled for at least an hour with hordes of entrepreneurs, taking questions, meeting people and being super humble. He also happens to be a cracking writer. One of Mark’s best posts was his “Start-ups are all Naked in the Mirror” article about growing his company, a B2B ecommerce play, in the tough times post the dot com crash.

These were stressful times.  My staff kept asking me about these competitor moves and I didn’t have answers.  I could tell some of my best people were losing confidence.  One of my closest friends (our CFO) left the company.

And then it dawned on him. They were seeing their competitors through the perspective of their press releases. Their confident, puffed-out-chests, spruiking everything good while hiding their flaws. And yet they saw themselves naked in the mirror, with no nice clothes and makeup to mask the blemishes.

But one comment Mark made in his blog post stood out to me more than the others. It wasn’t that it was a lie, or hypocritical, but it highlights the very real challenge that we face as entrepreneurs. His advice was stark:

Be careful about not over expressing your deepest concerns to your team.  You need to be open but not instill panic.  It’s OK to talk about fund raising challenges or customer losses.  You should.  But most people aren’t wired to deal with the nerve racking daily grind of life as a CEO.  If you shared every deep seated fear (that I know you have) and over hyped every victory (that never pays off as much as you had hoped) you’ll have people on your roller coaster ride.  Remember that most people aren’t wired this way.

I agree with Mark – and it is handling this conflict between the need to show confidence and belief when the smart, analytical, honest self is dealing with extreme uncertainty is really, really hard.

Why we should let the air out

Is the solution then to just get better at faking it? We need to convince our friends, our team, our investors that they’re on a good thing. We need to create belief. When someone asks as how we’re going, we say “great, things are awesome”. If you practice it a lot, you might even get good at it. Why should we quit puffing out our chests – perhaps we should just be better actors? What’s wrong with that?

The answer is simple really. The only way to successfully fake it in this world is to believe you’re not faking it. To drink your own Kool Aid. To get sucked into your own PR. And that is when you will fail. Because you won’t be improving, you won’t be learning, and you won’t be continually testing your beliefs, sharpening them and making them even better.

A personal perspective

At the moment we’re transitioning AffinityLive from a development focused company in beta to commercially focused company with revenue targets.

To stay sharp, I’m reading a lot, and at the moment I’m reading a book on business models, the excellent and attractive Business Model Generation.

The content is great, and it is challenging. But to make any use of it at all, I need to  admit I don’t have the answers.

To learn, we need to let the air out, be humble, and not be confident about our opinions. Our beliefs should stand up to challenge of open, rigorous intellectual challenge, and not be held with the confidence of a fundamentalist who blocks their ears lest the real world threaten the imaginary fantasy.

Learning requires humility

You can’t climb a mountain with a puffed out chest. You can’t learn and infuse new ideas if you pretend to know all the answers. And yet, the more I interact with entrepreneurs, the more I see it – they’ve become so dependent on projecting success and certainty to make sure everyone believes in what they’re doing that they’ve lost that ability to be real with themselves – and this is a real worry for them and their businesses.

Like going out on a date, you don’t show up at your worst. You put your best foot forward. So when you’re courting – investment, key hires, press – by all means puff your chest out.

But don’t fall for the trap of trying to learn, grow and sleep with your chest puffed out. Cause there’s only so long you can hold your stomach in.