April 7, 2014 Insights, News & Events

(Below is the final installment of an interview featured in our last blog post, between “Disrupted Revultion”‘s author, David Passiak, and SocialFlow Co-Founder, Frank Speiser).

DP: The promise of the Internet is that it helps to bring people together. At the same time, communities tend to form around likeminded ideas that can often become polarized differences. How do we find a balance between these common aspirations versus being an echo-chamber for self-centered opinions?

FS: I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. I was just having a casual conversation with some of our partner managers over at Facebook, and I was making the observation that the Hegelian dialectic doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve never really seen where a group of people that believes very strongly in something is exposed to a competing ideal and then synthesizes that to some sort of common ground.

Instead, what seems to happen is people’s ideals become more entrenched and re-trenched, and what they start doing is finding ways to differentiate what they are talking about, and maybe strip away the things they don’t believe as strongly. But that core actually gets harder, not softer.

I think it’s not a matter of the ideals you currently hold, but it’s never going to get softer until people can visibly see their lives getting better by the process in which they engage in discourse. It has to be one of those things where it has to be cool to discuss things the right way, instead of slapping fives and scoring points for telling someone off.

There has to be almost a societal revolution that values respect in discourse. People need to get better at knowing that they do not know and then get better at filling the gaps. It can happen because now, everybody can see it happen. On social, you can reorient the rules by choosing who you associate with, who will allow that discourse to happen. This goes back to what we talked about in the beginning of the interview and the reasons behind why we started SocialFlow—social media and community engagement has the possibility to create discourse and dialogue.

DP: Related to that, with a lot of platforms like Facebook and Twitter now at mass adoption, how do you see the way we’re sharing information evolving in the future? What does the next 5-10 years of the Internet look like to you?

FS: I think the sharing problem is on its way to being solved and in terms of destroying the boundaries of how information flows, it’s going to keep crumbling from now onward. I think a lot of people have answered this question—it’s about curation and discovery and things like that. That ship is already sailing.

Connecting the usefulness of those things to applied outcomes in the real world is still very much foreign—we could still mess that one up. I think since so many things are flowing around information-wise, and the permutations of what you can do are increasing exponentially, we’re going to need easy, frictionless ways to take what we know and apply it to the things in our lives. And that stuff is not even close to being built yet—that’s the future of the Internet in the next 5-10 years. With so many uses for things, in so many different contexts, the concept of pricing itself needs to change more quickly. That has a ways to go before it is done right.

DP: Kids today are like the first generation growing up with technology from day one. You’re a father of two boys with a passion for teaching and philosophy. Is there a good way to teach kids to use technology?

FS: Yes, there is. The first rule is: don’t mess them up. A lot of what we grew up with was our ability to memorize and repeat, and people who knew facts and had good recall were considered smart. What I’ve done with my kids is put a conscious effort into valuing pattern-recognition and the application of things, as quickly as they can. For example, if I teach them something, I try to teach them how to apply it. So if I show them math: 2+2=4, I’ll say to them, “There are two people in this room and there are two people in that room. How many people are there in this house? There are four.”

This way they can start to see how one thing bridges into another. If you get them to do that, humans retain their rightful place, I think, in terms of the process-chain where we’re valued for our ability to derive novel outcomes. Humans are not going to win the game of discreet computations. Subject evaluations and applying those things keeps us within the domain of what we should be doing.

When you can know an outcome and there is a pre-established way of getting to that outcome, why rebuild the pathway it took to get there? You should constantly question that and not always take things as fact. When you know you’re going towards an outcome, one of the most valuable lessons is to not rebuild things that get you the pieces that you’re building with. So you can teach kids how to use what they’re learning quickly. Language is good for that, so teaching them multiple languages is good, as is showing them how the thing that they’re learning is working. They need to see you doing it too.

DP: The last time we met, you made some comments around your management style that I found interesting. You said that you expect two hours a day of brilliant code from your developers. The idea of expecting two hours of productivity from full-time employees might seem a little strange to a general audience. How do these coordinated moments of brilliance make SocialFlow stand out, and how did you develop this management style?

FS: SocialFlow is not solving pre-established problems. It’s not a manufacturing-pipeline way of thinking. We are paying people to come up with novel solutions to problems that a lot of people didn’t even know existed. We are trying to get people oriented toward overcoming problems that you can’t turn to someone else and ask for help.

In that regard, if you take chess as an analogy, you and I could probably play 50 games of five-minute, speed chess, but none of them are really going to be our best game. We may have flashes of brilliance in those games, but if we’re just going for volume, at some point, it becomes a law of diminishing returns.

Here, we have deadlines and things that we are aiming for, but within the confines of the circadian rhythms of life. We want to let people think about the really important stuff as long as they can, need or want. When you want to solve a problem in a finite amount of time, the only thing you have is each person’s mind at that time. So if you don’t foster the conditions to let them do that, then what you get is a bunch of average code that does average things that yields, at best, slightly-differentiated results.

At SocialFlow our stuff works in orders of magnitude, or at least we try for standards of deviation above what you put it up against. We’ve sat down and thought about what it needs to do, why that works the way it does, how to apply that in a way that makes sense to the users and that does not take a whole lot of effort to do it with. Taking those problems and making them elegantly usable is an art form. At some point, the way you deploy technology becomes an aesthetic choice.

You don’t get the results that we need by rushing things through a pipeline. I don’t want eight hours of common results; I want two hours of brilliant results. It’s up to you what you want to do with the rest of your time. To be honest, most people have a couple of days where they exceed that window; some people never get there inside of a day.

DP: Related to management style, you told me once that every company is three things: it’s one thing for its customers, one thing for its investors and another thing for its employees. Can you elaborate on how that applies, especially for an aspiring entrepreneur?

FS: If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, you have to remember first and foremost that in order to succeed commercially, you need to make the experience awesome for the users—to be better, more helpful, and create lots of value. Next, the valuation of your company improves to the people who may invest in you—that’s your second customer of business, your investors—in relationship to how much better you are at making the usefulness of your products awesome.

The third and most important thing is that you really have to think about how you make the time that your employees spend at the company irreplaceable. When they get to be 80 years old and look back on their life, you want to make it so they don’t think, “Oh, I wish I had done something else.” You owe it to them to make the work something they wouldn’t want to trade in. The time you and the people spend against your company is the most important “product” you’ll ever build, and you only get one shot at building that piece.

So the three aspects of any business are the experience for the users, the value for the investors and the time for the people. If you do it right, then as the entrepreneur you are always all three of those things.

DP: Technology entrepreneurs pioneered a lot of best practices such as the lean startup method, customer-centric selling and growth hacking. What best practices have you seen come out of the startup world that could impact a lot of big businesses?

FS: Obviously, a focus on the customer and customer-centric development is the way to go. Once you have a platform out there, it’s the concept of minimal viable product. What is the minimum thing I can offer you that is going to differentiate us?

Get users based upon what differentiates and then pay attention to the people using it because they have a real opportunity cost. If they don’t use it, what could they have used? The people paying attention are also the best people to solicit feedback from. Customer development is about getting feedback and building the things they want. It is also about knowing what’s a one-off request vs. what’s a scalable request, because you can only build a business based upon what scales.

That being said, I think the lean startup method can be a mistake. We did it and I wouldn’t do it the same way again. I think once you know the right thing to do—once you know what is the right thing to scale—you should get there as fast as you can. The lean startup method penalized us a bit because once we knew what was going to provide the value and we had verification, we should have ramped up right away, rather than going slowly.

In the beginning, when there are two or three folks doing things, that method makes sense. I think the concept of going slow is to get feedback, build on it, and iterate fast until you demonstrate traction and need. But you reach a point where it is off to the races and you need to stop being lean. That is also why you raise money—to invest in talent and infrastructure to scale as fast as you can. So the best practice is to pay attention to the customer and once you know the right thing to do, just go.

DP: Any final words for the aspiring entrepreneur?

FS: If you don’t do it, it’s likely no one is going to do it. Even worse, if you don’t do it, some schmuck is going to do it and fuck it up. So when you’re sitting around thinking, “Should I do this or shouldn’t I?” be sure that’s what you want to do, and then don’t complain if someone comes along and does a much-worse version of it. That’s the reality of the situation. You can say, “Oh, I had that idea five years ago!” Guess what: you didn’t do it, or you didn’t do it well enough.

Once you want to go do something, the only time you’re ever going to be in a position to act on it is right then. If you don’t act on it within a reasonable time frame, somebody else is out there working on the same idea and they’re probably not doing it as well as you would like it done. In this world, the downside of not doing things you believe are better, or leaving them as-is, should be obvious.

Written by Frank Speiser