Buried treasure

“They should use the latest version.”

“The engineers should read the spec.”

“The designers should look at the numbers.”

“Our clients should embrace Agile.”

“The execs should invest in branding.”

“He should read his emails.”

“People should speak up in this meeting.”

“Everyone should put down their phones for a sec.”

“Someone should tell him.”

“You should already know this.”

“We should do this more often.”

“She should ignore it.”

“They should be grateful.”


Should. Should. Should.

When we’re all running fast, it’s easy to miss the big red X that marks the buried treasure. 

It’s even harder to dig.

Product management articles

Most articles about product management and startup strategy just rehash content that originated elsewhere or are about winning the lottery.

Here’s some that I go back to often:

Startup Metrics for Pirates by Dave McClure of 500 Startups is a classic because it quantifies successful product design (Another, medium format; a longer format.

The One Cost Engineers and Product Managers Don’t Consider, derived from a talk by Kris Gale, VP Engineering at Yammer. Probably the most level-headed argument for saying “no” more often, where most people simply assume it must be true because Steve Jobs said so.

How Design Thinking Transformed Airbnb from a Failing Startup to a Billion Dollar Business, derived from a talk by Joe Gebbia. Most people are familiar with the “do things that don’t scale” myth of AirBnB, but the “Let people be pirates” part is arguably more valuable.

We don’t sell saddles here by Stewart Butterfield, founder of Slack.

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs by Andrew Chen articulates why first-mover advantage applies to marketing, not product. Read alongside Marc Andreessen’s statements on product-market fit and this breakdown of how product-market fit is distributed across competitors.

And read all of Paul Graham’s essays. Some aren’t great, but most are worth it.

Getting things done isn’t enough

People who Get Things Done but are not Smart will do stupid things, seemingly without thinking about them, and somebody else will have to come clean up their mess later. This makes them net liabilities to the company because not only do they fail to contribute, but they soak up good people’s time. They are the kind of people who decide to refactor your core algorithms to use the Visitor Pattern, which they just read about the night before, and completely misunderstood, and instead of simple loops adding up items in an array you’ve got an AdderVistior class (yes, it’s spelled wrong) and a VisitationArrangingOfficer singleton and none of your code works any more.

Valuable temperance to the incessant Cult of Move Fast and Break Things, courtesy of Joel Spolsky.

The startup ecosystem is structured along the lines evolutionary biology: it fosters random mutations and rewards the winners with growth.

In an evolutionary system, Getting Things Done (creating mutations) isn’t a winning formula, it just table stakes. To win you need luck and / or smarts.

Naked love, fearless words – remembering Mom

Mom passed away a year ago, on June 18, 2013. While no testament to her life and heart ever seems adequate, I gave my best effort with this eulogy. Mom would’ve been proud; she was unconditional in that regard.



Mom, talkingThank you all for joining us today, to celebrate the life of Mary Beth Keane, my mom.

Thanks also for your support and concern during every step of Mom’s journey.

The other night I asked my brother Justin “how could I possibly deliver a proper testament to Mom’s life?”

He reminded me that the best testament for anyone is the living testament: the people around her, the family and friends who shared her days, her work, and her dreams.

And this is particularly appropriate for Mom, because she loved people. She loved to get together, to talk and to share.

She loved to catch up with her sisters, Kathleen, Laurie, and  Elaine. She loved to hear from you, and to try to solve all of your problems, even if that’s what you weren’t asking for.

She loved to play the card game Hand & Foot with her Aunt Doy and Uncle George — the perfect excuse to sit and talk for hours. It was even more fun if you could talk and count cards at the same time, one of Mom’s many talents.

She loved her daughters-in-law: Wendy and Shannon. She waited so long for daughters, and she had a lot of mother-daughter talk to catch up on.

And she loved her 4 grandsons: Tristan, who she is with now; Harper the miracle baby; and Winnie and Duncan Lancelot. She loved to talk to them and to talk about them.

She loved being a speaker with the Studer Group, traveling and meeting people all over the country. She loved sharing that work with every one of you.

And I think Mom’s favorite time to share was dinnertime. She liked big, warm, loud dinners — preferably with guests but even with Dad, Justin, Wil, Benjamin, and myself we had plenty to talk about.

And most dinners started with The Call, which my brothers can all recite too:

Christian, it’s your mother. I’m on my way home.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Get 6 potatoes and scrub them, then cut little X’s in them.

One of your brothers needs to make the salad.

And another one can set the table.

The Call was like our family litany, a kind of starting bell for the big dinner. There were small variations day-to-day, but it was pretty much the same, year after year.

And then Mom and Dad would come home from whatever errand or soccer pick-up, and we’d light the candles and she’d give Dad a kiss.

We’d say grace and pass the plates, and then we’d just talk and talk.

That was Mom’s 1st lesson: love is being together and sharing.

Love is the source of all good things.


Love & Fear

Mom’s 2nd lesson was about conflict.

Conflict resolution was a frequent topic of Mom’s presentations for Studer Group, so she spent a lot of time talking about conflict and trying to understand it.

About a year ago, she told me that she believed that all conflict — and bad behavior in general — was caused by fear. If you want to understand and resolve a conflict, you have to dig down and find and face the fear.

In Genesis chapter 3, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, God returns to the garden and calls out to them.

And Adam says

“I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

And God says some pretty angry things to Adam and Eve.

But when God casts them out of the garden, Adam and Eve cling to each other, and they begin a family that becomes the Tribes.

That admission, “I am naked and afraid,” was the first, distant, step towards redemption.

Clinging together was the second.



beth-keaneFrom a distance, Mom could seem fearless.

Last night Mom’s manager from Studer Group, Craig, reminded me that for Mom, a score of 97 out of 100 meant she had 3 points of fixing to do. And that attitude goes way back.

Her mother, Mary Louise, gave Mom the gifts of grace and faith. Her father, Wilson, gave her his wit and ambition.

And she just ran through life with those.

It seemed like there was just nothing she couldn’t do without turning it up to 11.

It was like the zucchini she planted in her garden in Oregon, which grew so abundant there was only one thing left to do: bake zucchini cookies and brainwash the kids into believing they were the tastiest treat on the planet.

She was supermom. Smart, talented, articulate. She threw a killer dinner party.



Until one day, Mom came to us and said, “I feel fat.”

And we paused. And looked at each other, and then we said “No, Mom! No you look great!”

Of course we denied it, because she was our mom. We loved her.

But we also denied it because it was scary.

But Mom didn’t let it go. She joined Weight Watchers and our dinners were still full of talk but the menu changed (still those 6 potatoes at 350, scrub ‘em and get ‘em in the oven!). Eventually, Mom hit her goal weight.

And then she became a Weight Watchers group leader, carrying her “Before” picture under her arm to each meeting.

At dinner she’d tell us about women who would strip down naked before stepping onto the scale — did you know a pair of blue jeans weighs 2 pounds? — and they’d hit their goal weight and cry, and the room would erupt with cheers.

And that unlikely beginning was Mom’s 1st step. It led to mom becoming a corporate trainer in Savannah, Georgia, which took her to Pensacola, and finally to her career at Studer Group.

And then Mom said to us, “I’m an alcoholic.”

And we paused. And looked at each other, and then we said “No mom! No, you’re not an alcoholic, you never even get drunk!”

Because we were scared and so was she.

But Mom joined AA and even NA and she was naked on a different kind of scale. It meant letting go of some of her old habits, some her dinner parties, some of her very good friends.

We had to learn how to have dinner yet again, but she kept at it: preheat the oven, scrub the potatoes, and gather together.

She was fortunate to have Dad on that journey with her.

41 years ago, after 4 months of dating, my Protestant mother convinced a Catholic priest to marry her and Dad.

Before he relented, the priest said “well, I think you two just have hot pants for each other, but the church needs more Catholic babies so I’ll do it.”

Turns out he was right on both counts.

But being a man of God, he underestimated just how far hot pants can take a couple. They clung together through all kinds of nakedness, better and worse.


The Secret

mom-and-wilThat was Mom’s final lesson, which she applied to her family, her work, and her life: loving in the face of fear.

Mom had the perfect disguise: she was on top of the world.

And then she said, “Here I am. Here I really am. I’m naked and fat and drunk and afraid.”

It was terrifying and uneven, and an imperfect process.

It was often scary and uncomfortable for us. But it was also her greatest strength.

Acknowledging her nakedness — embracing it — freed her, to listen clearly, to speak earnestly, and to love fully.

It was that first, distant step to redemption.


Mom’s voice

So here we are, in the deafening silence after Mom.

We’re naked and afraid, with hearts full of love.

If we take a moment listen, we just might hear her Call:

I’m on my way home.

Prepare the meal.

Gather your brothers and sisters.


Thank you all so much.




A/A/B/B split tests for improved certainty

When split testing with a web tool like Optimizely or MixPanel, you may sometimes see inconsistent results, even with relatively large result sets. At OpenSky, we sometimes see test cases’ performance converge and then swap places over time.

This is arguably the most likely outcome of a test: inconclusive results. (See Evan Miller’s “How not to run an A/B test” for a more detailed explanation of false positives in split testing.)

If your volume supports it, a quick solution is to do an A/A/B/B test (4 simultaneous tests, duplicating each option) instead of a simple A/B test. This way if either the A’s or B’s are inconsistent with their matching test case then you know the test is wonky. (It’s a somewhat easier alternative to running a test twice, at least from an implementation perspective.)

Ecommerce photography – 15 ways to take photos that sell

I just revived this old article for OpenSky merchants learning to take better product photography. Cross-posting here in all its glory.

Great photos are your best attention grabber, whether in shoppers’ feeds, in emails, or on your product pages. You don’t need a fancy camera to take product photos that convey your brand and your products’ quality. Instead, simply focus on making your images:

  • Bright
  • Detailed
  • Clear

Here’s 15 steps to improve your product photographs. Keep them in mind to get more glam for your goods!

Lighting your product photographs

You’ll get better photos with some unconventional thinking about lighting:

  1. Don’t use your camera’s flash. Using a camera’s flash might create harsh shadows and bright highlights, obscuring details and washing out textures. This is more true as you move your camera closer to your subject.
  2. Indirect lighting is best. Unlike a flash, indirect lighting softens shadows and highlights. You can diffuse your lights by pointing them away from your product – consider them reflecting off a white surface like a flat bed sheet. The soft reflection will allow the light to reach every part of your product.
  3. Natural light is best. On cloudy days and in the early morning, when the sun’s light is diffused by the atmosphere, natural light is the ultimate indirect light source. You can complement it with a few additional diffuse lights if you see any harsh shadows forming.

Keep the backgrounds simple

Don’t make your background the unintentional subject of your photographs. Patterns and textures compete with your products for a viewer’s attention.

  1. Keep backgrounds simple. Use solid surfaces, such as flat, painted walls and tables. Be careful with backgrounds that demonstrate 3-dimensional space in your pictures, such as plants and landscapes.
  2. Choose a solid background color. Avoid patterns. Remember that even simple patterns like grass, wood grain, and upholstery can distract viewers from your products.
  3. Use neutral colors. Let your products, not the setting, create the drama. Think white, tan, grey, and muted hues. Placing your object on or near a white or light-colored background will also create some diffuse reflections (see the indirect lighting tip above).

Framing your shots

Maximize your images’ impact with strong visual compositions that keep the product at the center of attention.

  1. Keep it close. This isn’t a formal family portrait! Viewers want to get up close and personal with your product. Get as close as you can and let the product fill the frame. A tight focus will often show details of your product while blurring the background.
  2. Look at your corners. When framing your shot, take a moment to look at all 4 corners of your camera’s viewfinder. Those edges build your shot in subtle ways, so choose a different angle if they don’t look great.

Take multiple shots

Digital photography makes it cheap and easy to experiment. Take lots of different shots during your photo shoot, then step back and compare the results to select your best option (and consider sharing the results with some people you trust, so you can learn more about what works).

  1. Get details. Many products have lots of interesting details that surprise and delight shoppers. Take a moment to explore your product and look for interesting details, from buttons to fixtures to accessories, and include them in your photos.
  2. Try every angle. Once you have a good “normal” angle, take some time to explore alternative options – you might discover a dramatic new way of looking at your product.
  3. Remember the packaging! If your product has interesting packaging or labels, include them in your photographs. Help viewers understand that the product is a great experience from start to finish.

Create a unique voice

Once you’re confident that you can clearly showcase your product, explore options for adding a unique or dramatic twist to your photos to help them stand out from the crowd.

  1. Use styling to communicate your brand. Think about what different kinds of backgrounds or product angles “say” about your brand. Consider adding simple items (as props) to your photos to communicate a specific scene.
  2. Highlight the product in use. Build a narrative and show how people actually use your product. Open packages. Put clothes on people. Fill cups and bowls with attractive food. Help viewers’ imagine how they would use the product themselves.
  3. Choose interesting mannequins. If you need to hang or prop up your products, give some thought to what you use as a “mannequin.” Natural elements can make great mannequins: try wood, coral, large seashells, and other interesting forms.

Steady Freddy

And don’t forget to steady your shots. Use a tripod or place your camera on a flat, steady surface to avoid any blurring in your photos. This is particularly important if you’re shooting without bright lights and flashes.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you look through an online shopping site like OpenSky your favorite catalogs. Notice when the photographs seem to “follow the rules” and when they break them. As you become more confident, try breaking some rules too, to create a voice that’s unique to you.

Not selling with OpenSky yet?

Do you sell great products? Learn more about becoming an OpenSky merchant and connecting with your friends and fans.

Thanks Tasra!

This article originated as some ecommerce photo tips from Tasra Mar, who used to be active on OpenSky as a photography expert. Though I don’t think she’s active on OpenSky any more, her blog is still a great read.

Developer team structures, and growth

Working with a dev team? Check out Scott Porad’s The Best Developer Team Structure blog post.

Notes that I’ve also found to be true:

  • Let people work on their passion
  • WIP is deadly (I’ve begun to recognize it as a likely indicator of problems with the goals, design, or passion)
  • 1 PM to 3-5 devs
  • Teams, not groups of people
  • Teams need time to gel
  • Teams have leads
  • Teams share dirty work
  • Coordinating designs is a hard role and requires lots of back n forth
  • Force people to share work

Money quote:

Okay, saving the most important things for last. As your organization grows, the most important things will be “soft management”. Things like documented organizational values. Documented, as in, written down somewhere on paper (by which, I mean, a wiki). Having your company’s mission, values and vision statement written down. Having your product strategy written down. Having your technical design written down.

Nobody, especially, pointy-haired bosses, wants to spend time on this stuff. Those people are fools. That’s why comic strips are written about them.

The fact is, these are the most valuable tools in helping coordinate teams of people to get a job done. People don’t think of these things as tools… they think of them as management fluff. But, that’s exactly what they are: tools. Devices which help get a job done.

These are the tools that allows large groups of developers to have a shared understanding about the job they are working on, and the expectations for how they are to complete it.

The 3×3 Rules

From one of my heroes, @umairh. For the past year I’ve been grappling with some version of his #7 rule, which I phrase as “epitaph, not resume.”

  1. Time will go by (a lot) faster than you think, want, or need.
  2. Most of the stuff you think will make you happy won’t.
  3. You’re capable not just of a tiny bit more than you believe. But of a huge amount more.
  4. The more yourself you are, the less timid you’ll be. The more haters will hate you. It’s a sign you’re living it right.
  5. Never waste a second working with people who don’t support you, or loving people who don’t love you.
  6. Any idiot can be cynical. Most are. You must always believe in love, life, and truth.
  7. The question you must answer isn’t how to get ahead. It’s how to go somewhere that matters. And have fun on the way.
  8. (Bonus rule: ) Learn to compromise. Learn never to settle.
  9. If your life doesn’t surprise you, it’s going to bore you. If your life never satisfies you, it’s going to stress you out. Balance.

I also enjoy that he opened this list with “Three Rules.” Overdeliver!

How to compose link text

When linking part of a sentence, what words belong inside the link? This seems to be a lesson that every new UI designer stumbles on.


Click here to see the next page.

Because readers scan text, the link is read as standalone (“here”) text and is unintelligible.

Still bad

Click here to see the next page.

Link includes the verb – at least the reader knows what action is expected.


Click here to see the next page.

When this link includes the whole sentences as context, it can be scanned and interpreted.


Click here to learn how to compose link text.

Now the link includes an indication of what to expect after clicking. Also note that the destination page’s main heading mirrors the link.

Going overboard

Click here to learn how to compose link text.

Because the destination is the primary goal of the link, you can emphasize it to help the reader focus on the meat of the interaction — the destiation.

Cleaning it up

Learn how to compose link text.

At this point in the life of the Internet, users know that links are clickable. No need for “click here” if the link is styled to look like a link.

Models for defining a social network user experiences

As we’re making OpenSky more social I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at social networks and recently realized that social interactions on social networking sites can be reduced to verb-noun-verb definitions that:

  • Outline a share-object-consume chain
  • Have simple, well-defined verbs

Here are some examples of those definitions:

Tweet links to click
Share photos to comment on
Post resumes to recruit
Post art to fave
Announce meetups to attend
Review restaurants to visit

Facebook sort of breaks the definition with their shared focus on both loves and comments, but their feedback loop focuses on notifying sharers (and other commenters) of comments, so I think it’s the more central user experience.

The best share-object-consume chains are designed so the consumption gives the sharer direct positive feedback. In cases like Yelp where attending a restaurant doesn’t feed back to a reviewer, a scaffolding of alternative feedback becomes necessary. This is where Yelp beat Citysearch: their review tags and compliments are likely precursors to the reader visiting a restaurant. It’s a stretch to scaffold the feedback in this manner; Yelp nailed it with solid product design while Citysearch never seems to have recognized the problem.

Another goal for a successful network is making consumption easy, so positive feedback happens often, thereby encouraging additional subsequent shares. This is typically solved by going one step upstream from the consuming action to the indicator of intent: Meetup talks about members more than attendees (and Twitter focuses on followers more than clickers).

Abstracted in this way, social networks are marketplaces where sharers play the role of vendors and consumers are buyers. So social network design needs to solve many of the same user experience problems as marketplaces:

  • Is there a large population of interested consumers?
  • Is it easy for them to find good vendors (where “good” is a function of quality and relevance)?
  • Are consumables cheap to generate?
  • Is it easy to put consumables into the marketplace?
  • Is it easy to consume them?
  • Is it clear to what makes a consumable valuable?

All of this points to designing networks where there’s a clear way to share a specific object via a consistent, easy process, so that it can be consumed in a specific manner (and making sure that people want to consume that thing).