Getting Down to Business

Just had a stellar meeting with PearBudget’s tax advisor, Ryan Ellis. He maintains a great tax info blog, called … wait for it … The Tax Info Blog. He is sharp, sharp, sharp. I’m really glad we found him.

Then, I got our EIN from the IRS (pretty easy, really), and set up a meeting to open a business checking account with our favorite local bank.

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Working the Story

Preamble: Alright. So I can’t imagine that this idea is wholly original, but I don’t have time to look it up right now.

I’m in Arlington, visiting my parents and getting ready to celebrate my dad’s birthday. In his retirement, he’s taken up (or re-taken up) painting — specifically, oil painting. At dinner (kebabs), I asked him about some of his recent assignments (he’s in a few classes). Last week, his assignment was this: Take a household object (he used a metal duck … what? you don’t have metal ducks in your house?), and spend one hour painting it. Then, paint the same object, in only 20 minutes. Then, paint the object one more time, in only 5 minutes.

The goal is to see what the essential components of the object are, to reduce the object down to its essence, its core.

This week, his assignment is to do the exact same thing, but in reverse. In five minutes, get the core of the object (this time, it’s fruit). Then, over twenty minutes, redo it, adding nuance. Then, do it a third time, going for as much detail as you can get into it in the hour.

Interestingly, this parallels my PearBudget development from the last week. Because I’m a fiddler, I know that I need to set constraints on my time. So I wrote out the story of a user’s interaction with PearBudget. Everything from the initial glance at the homepage, to the creation of an account, to the first login, to the budget creation wizard, to the logging out, yadda yadda yadda, to the forgotten password at re-log-in time, etc.

Then, I’m step through it, one piece at a time. Each piece gets an hour of time, and then it’s on to the next piece. After I’ve gone through the whole story (I think there are, like 15 steps? 20?), I go back through, adding in nuance, detail, clarification, etc. But the idea is to get the essence, as quickly as possible. Also, it gives Sarah time to step through behind me and to see the areas that don’t make any sense. That feedback then becomes important for my next pass through.

That’s the theory, at least, behind “working the story.” In practice, I’m finding it really really hard to drop something just as I’ve begun to get my head around it. So I might have to change my approach as time goes on. It’s early enough in the game that I’m going to have a couple of false starts. That’s another benefit of the agile approach — you haven’t invested crazy amounts of time when you figure out something isn’t working.

Okay. Enough with the talky. Back to it.

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The Pies Have It (Bad)

Something I referenced earlier today in a conversation, which I’m sure I’ll be referencing many, many times in the future:

Tables are clearly the best way to show exact numerical values, although the entries can also be arranged in semi-graphical form. Tables are preferable to graphics for many small data sets. A table is nearly always better than a dumb pie chart. … Given their low data-density and failure to order numbers along a visual dimension, pie charts should never be used.”

— Edward R. Tufte,
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,
Graphics Press, 1983, p.178.

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Starting Up (For Real)

Big changes are underway.

I’ve been working on PearBudget for the last several years. It’s been awesome, but I haven’t been able to commit as much time to it as I’d like. As a result, the program hasn’t evolved much past the initial Excel spreadsheet in that time.

As you know, I’ve been working on a web-based version, but it’s languished a bit, what with me having a day job, and a wife to be a husband to, and three little girls to be a father to. That’s changing now. [Note: The husband-and-father bit isn’t changing. Don’t worry.]

On Friday, after four and a half years at a great independent publishing house (I was a typesetter and project manager), I left, to commit myself full-time (or more) to PearBudget’s development. I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re going to do this, and I hope that we’re able to make it work before we run out of money. All of you who’ve been thinking “I should send them something because I love PearBudget so much”? Here’s your chance to make a difference. My PayPal account is my first name, at Thank you, in advance.

Anyway, since I want to keep all of you posted on what’s going on, I’m going to be setting a goal of writing daily to the blog, including 5 minute, 55 second posts. This will hopefully combat my perfectionism, which is something I really need to get past if PearBudget (web) will ever get to see itself reflected in your twinkling eyes. Did I lose you on that one? Too bad. My time’s up, and I need to get back to work.

Stay tuned.

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Kids’ Radio, and the Ideal Lineup

I’m actually in Montana right now. Missoula. It’s a pleasant town, although I haven’t gotten out much (I’m on baby duty, for the most part).

As we flew out here (the trip was a lot smoother than I feared it would be), I listened to United’s on-board recording of XM Radio’s kids’ programming. I realized something disconcerting: I really like kids radio. It wasn’t Radio Disney, which I imagine would be a little too treacly for my tastes. But the DJ (Robbie Schaeffer of the great folk group Eddie From Ohio) was really good, and the music was fun and upbeat. Plus, he inserted a couple of fun songs from non-kid-oriented groups, like The Be Good Tanyas and The Nields. Here’s the BGT song that was on the show … one that Sarah and I have enjoyed for a little bit … The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs.

Anyway, the point of all of this isn’t The Be Good Tanyas, although they’re great. The point of all of this is that I’ve decided that the best instrumental lineup for a kids music band would be as follows:

  • baritone saxophone
  • violin
  • congas

The playlist would be heavy on They Might Be Giants.

That’s all for now.

I’m Calling It Now.

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Cool? Cool.

My call on Apple’s next big launch? An iPhone/iMac cross-breed tablet computer. A full-size touchscreen keyboard. Accelerometers, EDGE/EVDO units built in, GPS system. Partnerships with Adobe and Wacom, yielding pressure-sensitive write-on capabilities. Roughly 8.5″ × 11″. $2,500.

Come on, Steve. Make it happen.

Pitstop Soundtracks, and the Call of the Open Road

So this is a very twitterish post. Forgive me.

I’ve been in two gas stations today. Both had great music. One had some Relient K song that I haven’t heard in a while, but that’s apparently becoming a radio song(?). The other had “Pulling Mussels From a Shell,” by Squeeze, followed by The Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed.” It’s really nice to take a break from driving and have great upbeat music playing.

Thank you, Mr. Fuel and Wawa!

In related news, driving through Waldorf, MD, is terrible. You’re on an eight-lane highway (four each direction), with a speed limit of 55 MPH, but with stoplights every mile. And at every stoplight, you have to stop (it just works out that way). Lame, Maryland. Another perk to living in the countryside: no trafffic.

Getting Sauced

Seth Godin’s post Punishing the Outliers recommends that McDonald’s charge customers for extra sauce packs in the store, as a means of reducing customer exploitation of free ancillaries, and to give front-line employees some leeway in their interaction with customers. (The scenario: customer takes 20 sauce packets, then uses them at home on his eggs or whatever. There’s more to the post, but that’s all I’m commenting on here.)

An alternate take would be to follow Taco Bell’s lead, and to create truly revenue-generating product lines that spread your brand into new territories. Taco Bell’s Hot Sauce, available at Amazon already has two reviews. From one of them: “I bought several and gave them as gifts.” Compare that with the painfully awkward idea of giving (or receiving) a handful of McDonald’s sauce packs as a gift.

This way, giving away extra sauce packs in-store acts almost as a promotional piece for the branded bottles of sauce available elsewhere. That’s even more true if the packets mentioned the bottles available for sale in grocery stores and online.

Breaking Users Out of Mental Models; Breaking Out of Your Own

From Dick Costolo’s very good Ask the Wizard:

We all have mental models that we’ve built up over the years and we use these models to judge new ideas and services that we see, and this is the reason people came up with terms like “horseless carriage” when cars were invented. … we try to make things fit into our existing models, and we all have slightly to very different mental models. Make sure you provide explicit examples of the powerful use or implementation of your service and don’t just expect people to ‘find’ it on their own. Similarly, pay careful attention to the things that people do with your technology/service/product, because some of them may have discovered a powerful use for it that has completely evaded you.

Brian Oberkirch then riffs off that to note the power of APIs, at The Internet is Smarter Than You Are, where he references his own earlier post, Designing for Hackability. We really need to get an API figured out for PearBudget. Actually, we need to get a lot figured out for PearBudget.

The original post that quote came from is Lessons Learned: Obviously, it’s not Obvious.

Stories Over Bullets

The good Edward Tufte led us to an article in the Harvard Business Review (05/98), regarding storytelling as a tool in business strategy development.

A good strategic plan must be written in a narrative form that tells an exciting, detailed, nuanced story. Virtually all business plans are written as a list of bullet points. Despite the skill or knowledge of their authors, these plans usually aren’t anything more than lists of “good things to do.” Rarely do these lists reflect deep thought or inspire commitment. Worse, they don’t specify critical relationships between the points, and they can’t demonstrate how the goals will be achieved. 3M executive Gordon Shaw began looking for a more coherent and compelling way to present business plans. He found it in the form of strategic stories. Telling stories was already a habit of mind at 3M. Stories about the advent of Post-it Notes and the invention of masking tape help define 3M’s identity. They’re part of the way people at 3M explain themselves to their customers and to one another. Shaw and his coauthors examine how business plans can be transformed into strategic narratives. By painting a picture of the market, the competition, and the strategy needed to beat the competition, these narratives can fill in the spaces around the bullet points for those who will approve and those who will implement the strategy. When people can locate themselves in the story, their sense of commitment and involvement is enhanced. By conveying a powerful impression of the process of winning, narrative plans can mobilize an entire organization.

And, from the executive summary …

Stories are a habit of mind at 3M, and it’s through them—through the way they make us see ourselves and our business operations in complex, multidimensional forms—that we’re able to discover opportunities for strategic change.

That was one of the biggest strengths that I saw at Play: a true appreciation for the power of stories. If the power of stories were truly understood in b-schools, storytelling would be a part of the core business curriculum. At the least, they’d have a good literature class, taught by someone who knows the craft of writing and storytelling.

It looks like a few schools are beginning to do just that. This spring, NYU launched a joint MBA/MFA program. The problem with it, though, is that the students enrolled in it will already be interested in both business and filmmaking — they already get it. What we need are programs that integrate storytelling into the actual curriculum of a normal MBA.

A few weeks ago, Business Week featured an article on storytelling in business, Storytelling and the Art of Persuasion, where they interview the authors of The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster & Win More Business. The exact ingredients of a successful story have been deconstructed before, but this list they provide is handy:

Essential components of a story …

  1. The passion with which it is told.
  2. A hero that leads us through the story and allows us to see it through his eyes.
  3. An antagonist or obstacle that needs to be overcome.
  4. A moment of awareness that allows the hero, and us, to prevail.
  5. And the transformation that naturally results.

So the trick, then, as PearBudget and other schemes I have begin to congeal, is to remember the story. Go back to the story of why we exist. Gather the stories of the people impacted by it. Remember the heroes, the antagonists, the struggles, the victories, the transformation, and the passion.

Note to self: See if Swem carries HBR. Surely they do. One article to find: Deep Smarts (09/04).

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