Thursday, October 08, 2020

Obviously Awesome Book Review


I typically read 6-12 books a year but tend to add 12-24 books to my reading list a year.

As a result, my reading list contains 172 books... And another list of 34 books that are "no longer on my reading list, but I don't want to forget about permanently." To make it worse, almost 100% of my list is non-fiction, making listening to audiobooks difficult because I like to highlight and take notes, and then reference what I read later.

As you could imagine, it can be a little overwhelming to chose ONE book to read when there are so many great options. That's why I'm grateful for recommendations from others, like this one on Twitter:



Today the Kindle version of "Obviously Awesome" by April Dunford is $7 and still a massive bargain if you have any interest in product positioning.

It's similar to Sprint in that it focuses on practical, applicable, immediate action steps. It's probably closer to a playbook than a traditional book. For example, Dunford doesn't touch on the research or psychology of why this process works. Instead, she focuses on her 10-step plan to create a product's positioning statement.


What Is Positioning?

"Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about." (p. 4) It's a way of setting the context for your product so people can quickly figure out what you're talking about. The trick is to do it from your customer's perspective.

As the creators of the product, we know a lot more about competing options and become proud of our hard work ("adding this feature took significant work! We need to feature it!"), but customers may not know or care about either of those.

Another common problem is that inventors started with an initial idea, but over time changed the product based on customer feedback. That's a good thing! But, the inventor still views and talks about the product through the initial lens, not the new product it's become.

This creates at least two problems:

  1. It confuses new customers because there's a disconnect between what they see and how you're describing it. And if it's not clear, they'll walk away.
  2. Or worse: "Customers who misunderstood your value chose you for the wrong reasons, and now they're trying to recover sunk costs by turning your product into what they thought they were getting. In a worst-case scenario, your development team may spend time building features for these disappointed customers, trying to appease a group that is likely to quit eventually, while overlooking your happiest customers." (p. 12)


The book goes into two more signs of poor positioning: slogging through long sales cycles and customers complaining that prices are too high.

But if you shift your positioning with your customer's perception, all sorts of great things can happen. Here's my favorite story from the book:

"There are lots of examples of products that have historically been sold for one purpose, but as markets shifted, they became better known in a completely different market. Take, for example, Arm & Hammer baking soda. Invented in 1846, baking soda, as the name suggests, was used for baking. The inventors created it in their kitchen and sold it in paper bags. It was wildly popular and the creators slowly grew the business, selling more and more baking soda until Arm & Hammer was truly a household name.

Then, in the 1970s, markets began to shift. As packaged food was on the rise and baking on the decline, sales of baking soda began to flatline. The inventors knew that another feature of baking soda was its ability to absorb odors; indeed, some consumers were already putting open boxes of Arm & Hammer in the fridge to help control bad smells. The company could have decided that odor control was not a market they wanted to be in. After all, would anyone really want to bake with a deodorant? But Arm & Hammer decided to let go of the past and focus on markets where they could be successful in the future. They started advertising their current product as a deodorizer for refrigerators and later launched packaging specifically designed for use in a fridge. Converted consumers were now buying a new box every thirty days. The repositioning drove product sales from $16 million in 1969 to over $318 million by 1987.

The repositioning led to other innovations as well—as Arm & Hammer became known as a deodorizer, the brand naturally extended to products for deodorizing everything from cat litter to underarms.

The starting point of this growth was Arm & Hammer's willingness to let go of their old way of thinking about the product.

Freeing your mind from patterns of the past isn't always easy. Thoughts about the evolution of a product, from its conception to launch, are often baked into the initial positioning. Customers don't have the same baggage—they know nothing about the history of the product when they first encounter it.

Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it." (pp. 85-86)


Apple's iOS Positioning Problem

In current events, this is the problem Apple is having with developers and iOS. Apple views the iPhone as a closed ecosystem, much like game consoles: the maker (Apple) gets to approve all apps/games, use their market place (the App Store) to sell and distribute apps, and set all the rules for what can and can't be done.

However, developers are starting to view iOS as an open ecosystem, much like traditional computers: there is no approval process, and users can download apps from anywhere on the web, the app maker gets to determine the pricing model (free, 1-time, subscription, donation) and how payments are accepted (credit card, ACH, bitcoin, check in the mail, etc.).

Developers still view game consoles as closed systems (that's not to say they're perfectly happy with the setup). It's only with iOS that the backlash has started.

The issue is that the iPhone and iOS have slowly shifted over time - based on customer feedback - to allow for more customization, more options, and more features. That makes it feel more and more like an open ecosystem. Yet, Apple talks about and sets rules for a closed ecosystem. And because of the openness attributes the iPhone and iOS are adopting, the App Store rules themselves are becoming increasingly muddy as Apple tries to have it both ways. It also doesn't help that Android - a very similar alternative - has positioned itself as an open ecosystem. This is causing confusion, frustration, and at least one lawsuit from developers.

Apple should clarify their position in the market (closed or open) and then create features, App Store rules, and marketing materials that align with that position.

""You cannot be everything to everyone. If you decide to go north, you cannot go south at the same time." - Jeroen De Flander" (p. 47)


What Position Do You Choose?

That's the rest of the book.

She first starts with the five (plus one) components of effective positioning:

  1. Competitive alternatives
  2. Unique attributes
  3. Value (and proof)
  4. Target market characteristics
  5. Market category
  6. (Bonus) Relevant trends


The book does a great job of describing each component and how they all fit together. At this point, anyone who's taken a marketing class is nodding their head in agreement. Of course, these are the components.

But, how do you identify the right ones? How do you not get lost in the weeds? How do you see it from your customer's perspective? What if, like Apple, you have two distinct sets of customers (iPhone buyers and developers)? Actually creating a persuasive position statement is difficult! Remember, a company worth over 1 trillion dollars, making the most successful product of all time, is struggling with this right now.

To help, Dunford details the ten steps to create a position statement. Here are the steps:

  1. Understand the customers who love your product
  2. Forming a position team
  3. Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage
  4. List your true competitive alternatives (this chapter was great!)
  5. Isolate your unique attributes or features
  6. Map the attributes to value "themes" (also super helpful!)
  7. Determine who cares a lot
  8. Find a market frame of reference that puts your strength in the center and determine how to position it
  9. Layer on a trend (but be careful)
  10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared


It's a relatively short book, so I won't summarize each step. You should read it. I'm working through these steps for Majordomo and am already seeing fruit from using this framework.

As the tweet suggested, if you're creating products or work in marketing, this is a fantastic book to read. I highly recommend it.


Friday, October 02, 2020

Superman Minimalist Mobile and Desktop Wallpapers

I was on the hunt for a new Superman desktop wallpaper. There's are lots of good choices and many great elements, but nothing was exactly what I was looking for. I'm a fan of a semi-subtle, minimalist wallpaper. You know, the kind where you instantly know what it's a picture of because it's a recognizable shape or silhouette. The image captures the essence; it's not a recreation.

And on a functional level, it reduces clutter on the screen. It's like background music: I want it there, but I want to be able to easily filter it out to hear the conversation.

Finally, I want the images to be LARGE so there are no visible pixels.

So, I borrowed elements from a handful of other Superman wallpapers and made my own. I created three color variants for mobile and desktop - six total.

They're below for your downloading and wallpapering pleasure. Click the image to see the full-resolution version.


Desktop Superman Minimalist Wallpaper

Midnight



Blue Sky



Red Sun




Mobile Superman Minimalist Wallpaper

Midnight



Blue Sky



Red Sun



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Craigslist's Help Forum Fails To Help


I had a disappointing experience with Craigslist this week.

When a rental is vacant, I post it on Craigslist because it's the best way to find qualified tenants in this area. I've been doing that almost exclusively for the past 12 years. I'm a happy landlord evangelist for Craigslist.


For the first time, my rental post was flagged and removed.


I didn't do anything different, so it must have been a change on CL's side. Either they changed their terms of use (TOU), or I've unknowingly been breaking the rules, and now they have a way to detect it.


That's fine. I have no issue with that. I want to follow the rules and am happy to bring my posts into compliance.


But that's when things started coming off the rails.


First, I noticed I wasn't getting any calls. So I logged in and saw it was flagged. I suppose I understand why CL wouldn't alert a spammer that they've been flagged, but I get the feeling that it only hurts someone like myself who's trying to do it correctly and not someone who's trying to game the system.


At this point, all I know is that my post was flagged and removed. I don't know why beyond a general reason that "the post doesn't comply with the TOU."



Fine. I read the TOU and posting guidelines. The closest thing I could see was that I included a link for people to apply online, which could be seen as "the primary purpose is to drive traffic to a website" (the yellow highlight is mine).



I removed the website link, but it was flagged and removed again. Great.


Next, I checked out the scam warnings and saw this (the yellow highlighted block below is mine):



I'm not asking for any financial or background/credit information through CL. I stated in the post that I will be asking for it later, but that's after a tour. In the context of the post, I should be fine, right?


I decided to deep into the bowls of craigslist.


It turns out, the "help" page isn't very helpful. There are some general FAQs (including one, btw, that gives instructions on adding HTML and links to a post. How does that align with their prohibited section? That must be for a different category?)


In fact, there is no way to get help from someone who works at Craigslist. On the help page is an option to "contact us" choosing that takes you to a list of issues, including "scams, spam, flagging." That gives an option called "My post was flagged off incorrectly"



But the only help is from the "flag help forum."


That's right. When you have an issue, the only solution is to ask the help forum.


So I did.


I shared my post's details asked what I needed to fix so I wouldn't be flagged and removed anymore. I felt like it was a genuine ask for help.


What happened next was a strange combination of guessing and belittling.


First, how is it that the only way of getting help is from a non-official set of people? All they did was start guessing things that maybe, might look wrong. And each post did it with a thick coat of "you should know better." Here's one of my early favorites:



Yeah, I am clueless, which is why I came to the forums for help. Apparently, I used the wrong word, I should have said "removed" not "flagged." I guess? I don't know. That's why I'm asking for help.


Or what about this one that's not even relevant to my question:



Not helpful, and kind of sad if that's been wrigleywannabe3rd's experience.


I clarified that including a link was an issue, and I was told there's also information I'm not entitled to.



I wrote back - because I couldn't help myself - that I am allowed to ask for this information in Oregon. And I clarified that I'm not asking for anyone to send me their information through CL, but instead by going through a standard application process. To which the reply was:



I know... which is why I'm on the forum asking for help.


The Epiphany

The next morning I got an idea of what I should do.


I found someone else's successful recent rental post and copied the format (using my info, obviously). I posted it, and it stayed up! I'm still unsure why my original post was flagged, other than there's a lot less information now.


I tried to be a nice guy and left one more note in the forum thanking everyone for chiming in. I shared the changes I made and thought we'd all leave on a happy note.


Or not.


Much to my surprise, the group looked up my post and decided to keep giving me further feedback.



Since the post was still up, I didn't feel the need to re-engage, but in all honesty, I felt like I made the changes they requested, and based it off a recently successful post. Why does my_generic_handle feel like it will be flagged again? That's a serious question since I never officially found out the problem. 


And my favorite comes from Jack80218:



Not only is this off-topic...


Not only does his suggestion not work for this 200 square foot box with ONLY outside walls, which he would know from looking at the pictures...


But he took the time to look up my wall heater's reference and quote the installation best practice...


While at the same time heavily implying that I did it knowing that the resident was the one paying for electricity.


*Sigh*


I must say, I am not impressed by Craiglist's help forums. Perhaps it's me and the reasons ARE obvious and I'm blind to it because I want to keep doing things the way I used to. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive and the truth hurts. But maybe it's just sour grapes because the members did take the time to downvote all of my replies (why is that even a feature?).


The Revenge of The Facebook

In related news, I decided to try Facebook's Marketplace. Using the same post that was flagged on CL - I got many great responses within hours, and two applicants, both of whom were highly qualified within 10 hours (overnight, no less). So, thanks to Craigslist's opaque flagging and help systems, I found a viable alternative.


I wouldn't say Craigslist lost me as an evangelist, but my enthusiasm has been tempered.


To be clear, I'm fine with flagging and erring on the side of removing suspected spam. Keep the marketplace safe! But if you're going to remove my posts, I want to be able to figure out why (beyond "read the TOU"), and ideally without belittingly. Especially since I'm not participating for the fun of it, but using it as a business tool.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Landlord's Book Review of Evicted by Matthew Desmond


I run a local real estate investment club, and this month I did something a little different and created a pre-recorded video. I did it for a couple of reasons, but the biggest reason was that I listened to an impactful book about poverty and discrimination in the rental business.

It's called "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" by Matthew Desmond.

My review is an hour-long video (there's a podcast audio version too), and if you're a landlord I recommend watching the video and reading the book.



Monday, May 18, 2020

Sacrifice, Patience, and Nuance During the Coronavirus


I read a fantastic article this weekend called, "Church, Don't Let Coronavirus Divide You." Even if you're not a church leader (or a Christian), I think this article does a great job of articulating how people ought to respond to the pandemic, especially as things start to open up. This is great advice for everyone. Below are a few parts that resonated with me.

The main problem is different convictions:
"Some will be eager to meet in person and impatient to wait much longer to get back to normal. Others will insist it’s unwise to meet at all until there’s a vaccine. Plenty will fall somewhere in between."
And compounding that is the question:
"Have you noticed how remarkably confident so many of us are in our views right now? Unfounded certainty ... is a contagion at least as viral as COVID-19 itself."
This stuck me in the heart. I definitely fell into this camp. Even at times being certain that nobody really knows anything! It makes it difficult to act civilly when there are vastly different opinions that are held as facts.

This actually sounds very familiar to politics. Though, at least for me, politics often feels like a distant discussion without much influence on my day-to-day life. The pandemic is different. So even folks like myself, who generally don't pay much attention to politics, have entered the conversation with a firm - albeit non-expert - opinion on how things should be handled.


Sacrifice

Instead, the call is to place other's interests above ourselves, to hold the posture of a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1):
"someone might find it personally difficult—even maddening—to have to wear a mask during church and stay six feet away from everyone at all times. You might think these precautions are a needless overreaction. But here’s the thing: even if it turns out you’re right, can you not sacrifice your ideal for a season, out of love for others who believe the precautions are necessary?"
and
"Likewise, those who think the lockdowns should continue should not pass judgment on those who question the wisdom of the government’s ongoing restrictions. Churches should strive to honor people on both sides of the spectrum."

Patience

What a good article! And it continues to talk about patience.
"To be sure, it is good and right to be eager to gather again... But we should be careful to not rush it. We should be careful to not go faster than governments allow, or faster than those in our community can understand. We should be patient with a timeline that might be slower than we’d prefer; patient with a reopening process that will doubtless be clunky; patient with leaders feeling the pressure of this complex situation; and patient with one another as we figure out the new normal. Those who are not comfortable with physical gatherings should be patient with those who are, and vice versa."
I'll be honest, I actually enjoyed the break, so I'm totally OK with a slow transition. Not out of health concerns, but because I enjoyed having an open calendar. I also understand I'm blessed to keep my standard of living, which is not true for everyone.

Jessi and I have talked about doing mini-quarantines going forward. It's a stay-cation: where you stop all normal activities, but you don't travel either. We do take breaks from activities, but it's usually not all at once and we have a tendance to fill that time with other activities. I'd like to institute some sort of regular family retreat/stay-cation/mini-quarantine.

Now having said that, I already know I'll struggle with being patient with "a reopening process that will doubtless be clunky." This is where I will need to regularly remind myself that they're human too and this is new to everyone.


Nuance

I appreciate the final thoughts on nuance. The idea of both seemingly opposite ideas can be true at the same time. We're encouraged to take
"the path that prizes both courage and prudence, and avoids both pollyannaish and doomsday responses. It means we can be skeptical of some aspects of the lockdown without resorting to outrageous conspiracy theories, and we can honor governing authorities (Rom. 13) while engaging them in civil pushback when necessary."

The whole article is great and articulates my sentiments well. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

How’s It Going As a Landlord During the Pandemic?

My mobile office

Perhaps the most common question I get during the COVID pandemic has been, "How's it going as a landlord?"

It makes sense I'd get asked this given that I left my job at the end of last year... just enough time to almost get settled into a new normal before everything came down.

For starters, Jessi got sick right away. It seemed like pneumonia at the time, but in retrospect, it shared very similar symptoms to COVID. However, she was never tested. When we called our doctor, he said the advice would be the same no matter which illness it was - stay home and rest - so there was no need to get tested. All that to say, our family's life ground to a halt for a couple of weeks.

And I LOVED it!

(Jessi was miserable, but I never showed any symptoms of anything.)

It was like a staycation where nobody had any real expectations for me. I got to focus on my startup and playing with the kids. I pushed back all maintenance projects and canceled all scheduled lunches, meetings, and trips. I even stopped tracking my schedule, todo list, and turn off my morning alarm for two whole weeks!

Not too bad, right?

Elinor & Vinnie, a lot of sleep happened around the house


At the end of those two weeks, Jessi was feeling better, we were all working/playing in the garden, and I was figuring out how to get back into doing some rental work... It hit that those two weeks would have looked entirely different at my old day job.

You see, my job was already 100% remote, so sheltering in place wouldn't have impacted me. However, since I was on the forecasting team, it would have been all-hands-on-deck to try and quantify the impact of COVID on the business. How bad would it be? For how long? What do the different recovering scenarios look like? Which drivers would be impacted? What happens when millions of kids are suddenly at home with school worksheets to complete? What about millions of employees not going into an office, or not working?

Those are some immense unknowns! I'm sure every medium-to-large company has a cadre of people trying to come up with plausible scenarios. They're combing through all available data, no matter how sketchy, to find some sort of useful insight. That's the job, and it can be enjoyable. But, it can also be stressful when senior managers are clamoring for answers now.

As a small landlord, I didn't need to do any of that. Either people would pay their rent, or they wouldn't. I sent out an email asking folks to let me know if they were going to have any issues so I could work with them. That was all there was to do, and by God's generous blessing, I didn't have any extra-ordinary non-payments (just the usual issues). We'll see what happens next month, but I'm choosing to trust that God will take care of us again. It also helps that each of our residents are awesome, responsible people!

I suppose, if I was actively growing my business, I'd be a lot more interested in figuring out the potential impact on the real estate market. But since I'm not looking to buy or sell any time soon, I'm not stressed out over it. I do think about it a little for Majordomo, but it's such a new company that it's really only a question of growth rates. And, the product fits well with social distancing: instead of asking contractors to go through a house to tell you how much repairs will cost, upload your home inspection to Majordomo's website and wait 24 hours for estimates.

Samson, hanging out in my garage office


So, how's it going as a landlord?

Really well. I dare say, possibly better than if I wasn't. By having a diversified income (~80 checks vs. 1), it takes a lot of the risk away, and I'm able to take time off as needed instead of doubling down on the workload during uncertain times. It's not perfect, and the monthly budget is much tighter, but that was by choice, and I'm genuinely grateful for all of the Lord's blessings in our life.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Jumping Up In Age


As it turns out, I'm getting older.

Shocker. I know.

I think we all know it intellectually, but sometimes we have a moment when it smacks us in the face. For me, it happened this week.

Jessi and I have been talking about getting a trampoline for the kids. I had a 16' one (from Costco!) growing up, and I jumped on it all the time.

[Fun fact: my parents originally purchased it so my brother could learn how to fall. You see, he had broken his arms three times in 18 months, and they determined it was because he would close his eyes while falling, and not catch himself. The trampoline seemed to help!]

For a while, our kids seemed too young. Then we visited some friends who had a trampoline, and the kids played on it for a super long time! And they loved it! And they slept exceptionally well that night. Double bonus!

Well... with shelter-in-place in effect because of COVID, we started looking. This time, Walmart came through with a sale on a 14' trampoline and the ability to pick it up without having to go into the store.

We set it up - in the rain, we do live in Oregon after all - but the next day was perfect, and we all bounced. The kids loved it. I loved it! They enjoyed it when I bounced them high. We took turns doing tricks, like jumping on your bottom and then on your feet again.

I got back into my high school days and started doing flips, twists, and combinations. I got winded, like in a real workout!

Then we got off...

And my back was killing me with what felt like a muscle knot.

My shoulders and neck were sore.

My knees felt wobbly.

...Oh yeah... I'm not in high school anymore. In fact, I'm twice as old as when I was in high school!

And my body feels like it. I usually don't think about it too much, but I suppose that's because I don't try to do the things I used to do in high school.

Man, what's it going to be like when my kids are playing sports? At what level will I be able to participate?

For me, this was a good warning since my kids will soon start participating in sports, and my role isn't to be a fellow player - to chase hard after a ball and go 100%. Instead, it makes sense to trend closer to a coach (that still runs around!) Kind of like in Cars 3.

I love being a player, and it'll be hard not to be on the field with them, but like I've found joy in being a parent, and I'm confident I'll find joy as a coach too.

Oh, and don't worry: I recovered enough to get back on the trampoline the next day.