Comedian Louis CK had the bad luck to book a New York comedy show on the same night that a hurricane is bearing down on the east coast.
I like this guy a lot – his gutsy, $5 DRM-free download of his show at Beacon Theatre was a textbook example of how to build and grow a long-term relationship with a 21st-century fanbase while still getting paid. So I’m not surprised by how he’s handling this situation (all bold emphasis mine).
Dear New York ticket holding folks….
Okay. I thought about this very carefully and I really started to worry about making 4300 people come into midtown manhattan on Sunday night, which is just when the stormatron 5000 is supposed to crush our empire. new york state has ordered the sutdown of all mass transit (subways, buses and commuter trains) as of 7pm Sunday night.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of his announcement, CK takes a moment to get everyone on the same page. There’s an important reason he’s asking for your attention. There’s a reason he’s about to give you some bad news. Good communication makes no assumptions about the audience’s facts.
Deliver the Bad News
I know that a lot of people are excited to come and they are fine with taking the chance but I really don’t want a pole to smash your face in because you saw some comedy.
So i asked the City Center (where the shows are supposed to happen) if we could find another date for Sunday’s shows and they gave me March 2nd. The City Center, being really cool, has agreed to let us do the shows on that night and your tickets that you now hold will be honored on that night. the same seat, same everything. If you can’t come on that night, we will either do another show soon after that, or find another show for you in the area in the future. Or you still have the option to get a full refund for your ticket. If you already asked for a refund, we can reinstate your ticket if you want to go to one of those shows.
Accept Responsibility, Acknowledge Frustration
Listen. I know that probably it’s going to be a starry clear night and the trains are going to be just gliding up and down the traks and a baby zebra is going to whinny as he trots by the City Center on a night that is going to break records for being placid and perfect for a night of comedy. And I’m going to feel like an asshole. And I know that some people had their plans set and are going to be pissed off at me. I know. but I also know that some of you are struggling with whether to come in or miss the show and this is the closest I can get to a solution. You don’t have to take a chance and you don’t have to miss the show. Just come see me in a few months.
CK spends this paragraph acknowledging all the frustration his fans might feel as a result of his decision. He also owns that it’s his call to err on the side of caution. His starry clear night imagery leaves him naked here – he hasn’t chosen to pretend that his hand has been forced by terrible circumstances beyond his control. If he’s wrong, he knows he’s the asshole – no one else.
With this openness, it’s very easy to continue trusting and liking the guy. It sucks you can’t have the night you were planning on, but it’s hard to begrudge Louis for trying his best to do the right thing.
Invite Further Discussion
If it’s any consolation, I’m eating a pretty staggering fee for cancelling the show. But I can take it. What I can’t take is the thought that there’s a CHANCE 4300 people will be in danger trying to get home from my stupid show.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what you want to do, and ask any question you have.
So that’s that. Cancelled. Rescheduled. Please forgive me. Please be safe.
Your dumb friend
Louis acknowledges the personal hardship that this situation creates for him but crucially does not seek pity for it. He “can take it.” Mentioning the cancel fee isn’t whining or group therapy – it’s Louis pointing out that this isn’t fun for him, either. Knowing his inconvenience is even greater than your own further builds trust, but only because it isn’t a pity party.
One of the most frustrating customer service situations is feeling like your voice isn’t being heard. Too many corporate bureaucracies congeal their worlds in “policy,” ignoring customers with unique cases. Louis CK wants you to feel comfortable talking back. The invitation to ask any questions seals this as a great moment in customer service. The sincerity and humility of his letter would ring hollow if he was indifferent to pushback from the fans affected by the decision.
It’s interesting to live in a world where a comedian is schooling other businesses on how to deliver great customer service. People with better understandings of the psychology of Louis’s profession can probably explain what mental muscles he’s built that make this style of authentic communication come so naturally. But whatever the source, Louis CK believes – rightly – that his success is tied to how much his fans like, trust and respect him. Even though it’s expensive in the short-term, he knows that the cancellation fee for the show is a tiny pittance for the long-term health of his fan relationships.
A few weeks ago I got an email from an Intel rep, trying to convince me that I should port my apps to MeeGo, their in-progress mobile platform. I chuckled at this – the thing hasn’t even shipped on anything. In what universe would it be worthwhile to invest development time in an unproven platform I’ve never even used? I didn’t give it much more thought, figuring it was email blasted and my lack of response wouldn’t be noticed.
I was wrong. I got another, more personal email a week later.
And another – right after Nokia announced they were dropping MeeGo for Windows Phone 7. This was more than I could take. With that vote of no confidence, who would be crazy enough to invest in Intel’s non-existent platform? I responded:
I know you’re doing your job, but it’s not going to happen. Intel lost in mobile. Sorry. Putting my money behind horses who have a real chance. Thanks and good luck.
I put it out of my mind. Later that day, though, my persistent friend gave me one last push:
…If history repeats itself, it will be open architecture systems and industries that will eventually dominate. It’s only a question of when. ( I think soon.) Think of where the PC market was in the early days when there was still multiple proprietary solutions competing for the market space of the home computer user. The IBM standard eventually dominated the larger market.
Even if I bought into this (I don’t), wouldn’t Android be the horse to bet on? It’s open. It’s actually in shipping products. It actually has users, right now, today.
I believe that history will repeat itself.
So, this guy, and by extension, Intel, believes that fate will grant Intel perpetual reign over all things computing, despite the fact that they can’t produce a mobile processor anyone wants to use in best-selling products? Despite the fact that they’re late to the party with their self-serving OS? Despite the fact that MeeGo, by all accounts, kind of sucks?
This is a ground floor opportunity akin to purchasing a stock just before it goes up in value.
As if my bullshit detector weren’t already burying the needle.
Keep idly watching this space (open architecture mobile computing) and you will miss the train. Intel is leveraging all it’s 30 years of OEM relationships. The number of distribution channels contained in this network is going to be staggering. It’s not one store or one manufacturer. This is the democratization of mobile computing.
I think the only one who has missed the train here is Intel. They’ve been idly watching mobile while ARM quietly cleans their clock.
Moreover, even Google has struggled to nail down successful, paid distribution. Intel thinks it can succeed by encouraging the creation of several channels? It’s like they don’t even bother studying what works and why. Apple is ruling the day by getting 100 million accounts all in one database and giving the keys for one-click buying to anyone who wants to come over. Several fragmented channels is not the way to match their power.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Translated: Intel is delusional and they’re paying me to repeat their fever dreams.
The mobile computer market is nearing a similar democratizing event horizon as the PC market did 25 years ago. Throughout 2011 Intel chips will turn up in 35 tablets from 15 brands!
How many units are going to be sold of all these many tablets? 15 brands and 35 tablets? Really? Why not just two, really, really good ones? Sounds like a recipe for an instantly fragmented market from a hardware perspective, too.
He ended by encouraging me to hop on the phone with a program manager to learn more. I haven’t taken him up on it.
Now, many of us have been in an room listening to marketing spin a tale of bullshit (“narrative”) to share with outsiders. Maybe Intel knows it’s full of it, right? I’m not so sure. I think decades of being the Processor King has genuinely convinced them that their success is inevitable.
I think they’re wrong. The game has changed. They haven’t.
Today I read a great job posting on Hacker News:
We’re profitable, and we’re looking to hire a smart all-around programmer as our first hire. It’s a cliche, but we want people who like tackling complicated problems.
…we like people who don’t put themselves in a box. You should be comfortable thinking about the product as a whole, and how changes are going to impact the hundreds of thousands of people who use it regularly.
We’re profitable, make the lives of hundreds of thousands of people better every month, have a rapidly expanding user base, and napping is an encouraged part of our corporate culture.
Basically, you’ll get to be the first employee of a small successful startup, while getting a paycheck and equity, and feeling good about the impact you’re having on the world.
It’s so clear. I know what kind of person they’re looking for, I know what’s special about their company, I can start to picture what it would be like to work there. Without having to say much about their people or product, I can tell one thing right away: these are not bozos.
There are no buzzwords, no vague claims about the company, nothing unclear about the kind of person they’re looking for. These are the kind of people you would feel comfortable working with because they’re direct and human.
And hey, did you notice they’re profitable?
It’s a good pitch because within the confines of their stealth approach, it tells you everything you’d want to know without handwaving or hyperbole. For respecting your intelligence, it stands out. It builds confidence.
This is a rarity in tech companies. Other job postings are not so clear. Try this one:
The Front-End Architect will be a senior and leading member of the [Product name] development team and will be responsible for driving innovative consumer applications. The FE Architect will help make technology decisions, lead, design/architect, implement and mentor.
I just picked this one at random off of craigslist. It was the first one I clicked. How can you be both senior and leading? What does it mean to drive an innovative consumer app? What makes it innovative? What will they lead, what will they architect? Of course, it wouldn’t be a bullshit job posting without some poor bastard having to “implement” something.
These people have no idea what problem their hiring is supposed to solve.
Job postings are a great window into a company. They show you just how much clear thinking is demanded along with how well people communicate. Those are two important factors for working with other people. What about more consciously public communications?
Let’s turn to the granddaddy of software development:
Windows Phone 7: A Fresh Start for the Smartphone
The Phone Delivers a New User Experience by Integrating the Things Users Really Want to Do, Creating a Balance Between Getting Work Done and Having Fun
What the hell does any of it mean? What do users really want to do? Absent Robbie Bach and J. Allard, I don’t trust the word “fun” anywhere in a new product announcement from Microsoft, either. They probably mean an optional Comic Sans UI.
Maybe they’re going to clarify in the first paragraph. I’m just being a dick with their opener, I’m sure.
The goal for Microsoft’s latest smartphone is an ambitious one: to deliver a phone that truly integrates the things people really want to do, puts those things right in front of them, and either lets them get finished quickly or immerses them in the experience they were seeking.
I’m missing the ambition here. It sounds like their goal is to create a hierarchical mobile user experience optimized for short bursts of interaction.
Which is what everyone else does.
They haven’t described anything that sounds even remotely like a “fresh start for the smartphone.” What they’ve got is a fresh start for Windows Mobile that brings it up to par with the last three years of mobile OS evolution. By all accounts, they’ve succeeded.
Also, what the hell have they actually built?
The much more interesting story here would be owning the fact that they fell behind, then dug in deep, then, wonder of wonders, finally met a ship date. I’m sure it wasn’t a small undertaking. But they want to convince me they, unique among all companies, have rebooted the smartphone concept.
Contrast that with Google, who, the other day, genuinely unveiled a chunk of the future:
We have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves.
Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead.
Nothing vague about that. It sounds like something out of science fiction. You could call your mom, read that to her, and she’d understand exactly what’s going on, maybe even share your excitement.
Who inspires more confidence: the bullshitters or the straight-talkers? The problem with bullshitters is that they start convincing themselves that this is genuinely how people talk. They bullshit themselves. They lose the ability to communicate with any sort of clarity, making up for it in volume of words.
The best people respond to authentic communication. The best conversations form around genuine excitement from concrete performance. Clarity inspires confidence.
The big, suit-choked, sales-oriented, PR spinmonkey companies are a lost cause. There’s no reaching them. But you and me, we have a shot. Resist the siren song of saying words that mean nothing.
Look how much more powerful it is to be a real person.
Idealism gets a raw deal. At least, it gets me a raw deal. Years ago, I was sitting around a table with a bunch of people at least ten years my senior. Social media, that old chestnut, was giving our company trouble. People kept using it to complain. It hit me like a bolt of lightning:
“What if we committed to overhauling our culture so that the customer always, always, always came first in our processes and our perceptions? Then people would stop falling through the cracks and getting pissed off on the internet. And word of mouth would get even bigger for us!”
Everyone looked at me like I was an alien.
Sometimes it’s delivered with a sneer, other times exhaustion, and occasionally, there’s even contempt:
Ideals, it seems, are academic contrivances that hinder How Real Business Gets Done.
I can’t escape my idealism. Sure, I’ve launched v1 before it was perfect, accepted a minor bug or two in a release, fine. But at no point have I ever sacrificed the core of the user experience to any other cause. User experience is the compass by which I judge every decision.
I configure my values this way because I’ve seen first hand how powerful it can be. Not just in software, in web applications, in innovative, industry-changing businesses…
But also: in dog grooming.
I got my idealism from my mom. Whatever town she’s in, she’s the best dog groomer there is. After years of working for stupid, short-sighted shops, she set her sights on a business of her own. With nothing more than a GED and her ideals, she renovated a space and got to work.
The biggest challenge to scaling her wildly successful business? Finding people who were skilled enough to match her quality of work or genuine love of animals. It was impossible.
My mom had two options: hire on people she knew weren’t up to her standards or stay the size she was. She wanted growth – who doesn’t? But she knew she couldn’t just hire crappy people. Her shop’s growing reputation was built entirely on her quality of work. People loved the idealism that inspired outrageous standards of hygiene for the facility. People whose dogs usually couldn’t stand going to the groomers suddenly lost their fear, because for the first time grooming meant being treated humanely.
Ideals had created differentiation. Bad people would destroy that progress. In the short term, yes, her bandwidth would increase and more dogs could come through the shop. In the long term? She’d be just another grooming shop with tepid business – or no business. The worst part of all, I know now: she wouldn’t be proud of her shop anymore.
So she chose secret option C: Open a grooming school.
In hindsight, of course, this is obvious. It wasn’t then. It was risky. It cost a lot of time and effort to get licensing to train. Putting together course materials and a curriculum is a very different skill set than grooming dogs. Shifting from spending all your time grooming to most of your time teaching? Very difficult.
But it worked.
The revenue from a steady stream of students smoothed out an otherwise highly cyclical business. The option to have dogs groomed by students opened the shop up to new clients who had been unable to afford the previous up-market rates. Constant oversight meant even inexperienced groomers were sweating the details and doing things right. Daily bandwidth increased dramatically with only a marginal impact on quality. Best of all, when a star pupil came through the program, they could be immediately recruited after they finished training.
There were hiccups – students could definitely botch their work at times, but the risk was baked into the price, so it didn’t harm reputation. Picky clients could opt out of the student work at the old rates, and many did. Overall, everyone was happy, including the many animal lovers who discovered how to make dogs part of their professional lives through grooming.
True to form, my mom found a way to have her cake and eat it, too: way more money without sacrificing the quality of her work.
None of this would have been possible had ideals not played a huge role in making decisions. Absent ideals, I’m not even sure she would have gone to work for herself.
I can’t escape my idealism. And I don’t want to. My ideals are a map to build trust, solve problems and, in some small way, make the world a better place. The only article of faith I have is that, with a bit of work, that map leads to success. And in the end, without my ideals, I couldn’t build software, or anything, and enjoy it.
There are limits. You can’t pay for a sandwich with a song. Idealism is not a business model. Idealism is a tool. It’s a fulcrum for making difficult decisions and your flashlight in the darkness of ambiguity. It helps you understand the success conditions for every move you make.
I won’t stop putting the user first and neither should you. Next time someone dismisses your idealism, look very hard: an opportunity could be lurking across the bridge they won’t cross.