#Reset

It’s widely acknowledged our health is a combination of genetics, diet/exercise and the exposure to toxins. This post focuses on the proliferation of the latter and identifies a number of simple steps to help reduce exposure.

Air

A 2014 study by IHS Automotive concluded there are 253 million cars on the road in the United States with an average age of 11.4 years (1). This is a whopping 532% increase on the 40 million cars in 1950. Perhaps more alarmingly the emissions from this increase has brought a similar increase in what the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has classified as known human carcinogens such as Benzene, in addition to probable human carcinogens formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene (2). The EPA goes as far as to estimate that mobile (car, truck, and bus) sources of air toxics account for as much as half of all cancers attributed to outdoor sources of air toxics.

Food

On October 26th 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat as a carcinogen (3) putting it in the same category as plutonium, arsenic and… exhaust emissions. Hopefully a hot dog is not as dangerous as plutonium 😉 but it is in the same category nonetheless. To put this in perspective, the WHO uses the International Agency for Research for Cancer (IARC) classification system which has 4 categories:

  • Group 1 – Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2a – Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2b – Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3 – Unclassifiable as to the carcinogenicity in humans
  • Group 4 – Probably not carcinogenic to humans

Most agents, ~88% to date of those tested, are listed in Group 2 and 3 namely – possible, probable or unknown risk. It is therefore a very BIG DEAL processed (and red) meat was classified as a known carcinogen given how hard it is to determine the impact on humans.

Disease

We literally cannot escape toxins as we go about our daily lives. In addition to the toxins in air from cars and industrial pollution, when you add all the processed foods we consume, the beauty products we apply, the OTC medicine we ingest (linked to dementia – 4) and the products made from plastics or harmful materials we come into contact with – it makes you wonder about the correlation with chronic diseases such as Alzheimers, Autism, Cardiovascular, Cancer, Diabetes, MS, Parkinson’s and Auto Immune Diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis that are at or reaching epidemic states.

Number (in Millions) of Civilian, Noninstitutionalized Persons with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980–2011

A report published in the British Journal of Cancer by Cancer Research in the UK concluded the lifetime risk of cancer for people born after 1960 is >50% and stated that over half of people who are currently adults under the age of 65 years will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime (5). That’s incredibly shocking… 1 in 2 people in the UK will experience cancer in their lifetime.

Cancer is not the only epidemic. The first chart shows the number of people (in millions) diagnosed with diabetes in the US between 1980 and 2011. The number of has more than tripled (from 5.6 million to 20.9 million).

The second chart shows the number of Alzheimer disease patients in the United States is expected to more than triple over the next 50 years.

It should be apparent by now we’ve made a series of bad choices in our history which are having downstream effects on our health. News of them hit the headlines on almost daily basis – Heineken announced they are removing a coloring which has been linked to cancer in mice and rats (6). This same coloring is on the state of California list of known carcinogens. Fit Bit acknowledged its latest wrist band can cause a rash (7). Trips to the doctor and dentist can lead to direct injection of known toxins such as ethylmercury contained in thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines (8), and elemental mercury which forms >50% of dental amalgam. Both these statements are surrounded by controversy and the fact the human body “should” be capable of eliminating these toxins – however it is overlooked that these substances are capable of causing both DNA alterations and epigenetic effects. While some people can detoxify these substances, others cannot – the important part to remember – we are all different.

Toxins are so ubiquitous they have become a part of our daily routine. As ridiculous as it sounds we literally start applying them to ourselves within minutes of waking up – do you take a shower in the morning? Check your shower gel and shampoo to see if they include parabens. Do you then apply antiperspirant? The active ingredient is typically aluminum. A pubmed article looked into the correlation between aluminium, antiperspirants and breast cancer based on the disproportionately high incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast found in clinical studies (9). Given aluminium is known to have a genotoxic profile it concluded,

“aluminium in the form of aluminium chloride or aluminium chlorhydrate can interfere with the function of oestrogen receptors of MCF7 human breast cancer cells both in terms of ligand binding and in terms of oestrogen-regulated reporter gene expression.”

A 2015 study from the University of Arizona (10), which analyzed sludge from treatment centers in Arizona and samples from across the country stored at the U.S. National Biosolids Repository, found significant metal accumulation in biosolids. Further evidence of the accumulation of toxins in the environment.

Low hanging fruit

Toxins are all around us and are seemingly unavoidable. Here are a few ideas to avoid some of the toxins around the home:

  1. Reduce sugar intake – In his book, “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease“, Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco, makes the case that sugar is almost single-handedly responsible for Americans’ excess weight and the illnesses that go with it. “Sugar is the biggest perpetrator of our current health crisis” he says, blaming it for not just obesity and diabetes but also for insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, stroke, even cancer. He has a point, it’s well documented that sugar causes inflammation and inflammation is the start of all disease. Here’s a tip – consider purveyors of candy/sweets the same as tobacco companies, if you classify them this way in as you go about your daily routine it’ll certainly make you think twice before picking up a bag of gummy bears.
  2. Drink pure water. We are 60% made of water and continually loose water through sweat and urine. Depending on who you talk to it is recommended to drink between 0.5 and 1 ounce per pound of body weight per day. It’s not just quantity however, it’s important to consider the quality of the water.  Tap water has been treated with over 300 chemicals, and the Environmental Working Group recommends anyone drinking tap water should use some form of carbon filtration to reduced exposures to trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids and other water treatment contaminants (11). Tip – consider a good, better, best strategy to give you options. Good – get a Brita filter – these use charcoal to bind toxins removing them from your water. Better – drink spring water. Best drink spring water from glass bottles.
  3. Caution with tattoos. The term tattoo itself means to puncture the skin. While some red tattoo inks are known for containing mercury, most inks include heavy metals (lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic.) A lawsuit filed by the American Environmental Safety Institute against two manufacturers of tattoo ink was settled in 2005 resulting in the manufacturers including warning labels on their products in addition to requiring a poster be placed in a prominent position at all tattoo stores using the ink (12).
  4. Seek out products without BPA. BPA stands for bisphenol A. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are often used in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles. Epoxy resins are used to coat the inside of metal products, such as food cans, bottle tops and water supply lines. Some research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers that are made with BPA. Exposure to BPA is a concern because of possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children (13).
  5. Deodorant. Aluminum is the active ingredient in most anti-perspirants. It is also linked to breast cancer. Consider natural alternatives such as the Crystal Body Deodorant stick made from 100% mineral salts which eliminate odor, or Tom’s of Maine natural lemongrass deodorant. But let’s be honest, we all know these don’t work very well. Fortunately a reader recommended making your own deodorant which works surprisingly well!
  6. Read. The. Labels. This counts not only for products you ingest but also the ones you come into close contact with – for example creams and gels you rub into your skin. Your skin absorbs these creams and it’s not long before they are circulating in your blood stream. Look out for natural ingredients and avoid anything with parabens – a widely used preservative.
  7. Household cleaners. A quick look under your sink and you’ll likely find numerous household cleaners that release toxic fumes hazardous to our health. Find safer alternatives – vinegar is just as effective as bleach or try natural products such as Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Wipes.
  8. Reduce fish consumption. The average amount of mercury we get from breathing is 1 mcg/day. The typical American diet provides another 15-20 mcg/day. If one eats tuna or other large ocean fish daily…. an intake of 60-80 mcg/day is possible. For persons with normal metal metabolism (metallothionein, glutathione, etc), only 5% of ingested mercury gets into the bloodstream and less than 1% into the brain (14).

The following steps can help with the removal of toxins from the body:

  • Sauna. Skin is the largest organ on the body. 40 minutes sweating in a sauna is the equivalent of 24 hours of detoxification by the liver. Tip – head for the dry sauna as the steam room often contains chlorine from city water. Avoid throwing tap or pool water on the coals and keep plastics out the room to avoid them leaching toxins into the air.
  • Exercise. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden discovered that physical activity purges the blood of a substance which accumulates during stress and can be harmful to the brain. Gregory Brewer proposed a theory which integrates the free radical theory of aging with the insulin signaling effects in aging. Brewer’s theory suggests “sedentary behavior associated with age triggers an oxidized redox shift and impaired mitochondrial function”. This mitochondrial impairment leads to more sedentary behaviour and accelerated aging (15).
  • Sleep. Get enough rest. A study in Norway reported in the British Medical Journal shows screen time before bed harms sleep in teenagers (16). Another study found the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety (17). If you must use screens before bed try blue blocking glasses.

Your health is in your hands and it’s easier than ever to take control of it with products such as baseline from WellnessFX that provide a visual display of your blood markers, and over time an important historical view of your health. I suspect the next generation with their new mindset will look on with horror at how we made ourselves toxic in a similar way to how we now consider practices such as smoking on planes as ridiculous.

References:
(1) IHS Automotive, 2014 Study
(2) Air Toxics from Motor Vehicles – Environmental Protection Agency
(3) IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat
(4) Dementia ‘linked’ to common over-the-counter drugs – BBC News
(5) Trends in the lifetime risk of developing cancer in Great Britain – British Journal of Cancer
(6) Newcastle Brown Ale – Recipe change amid US coloring concerns – BBC News
(7) Fitbit Acknowledges Latest Devices Are Causing Rashes – Tech Crunch
(8) Thimerosal in Flu Vaccine – CDC
(9) Aluminum, antiperspirants and breast cancer – J Inorg Biochem, Pubmed
(10) Characterization, Recovery Opportunities, and Valuation of Metals in Municipal Sludges from U.S. Wastewater Treatment Plants Nationwide – University of Arizona
(11) Water Treatment Contaminants: Forgotten toxins in American Water – Environmental Working Group
(12) AESI v. Huck Spaulding – LA-BC319440 – PDF
(13) What is BPA and what are the concerns about BPA? – Mayo Clinic
(14) Willam Walsh, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Walsh Research Institute
(15) Epigenetic oxidative redox shift (EORS) theory of aging unifies the free radical and insulin signaling theories – Gregory Brewer
(16) Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence, British Medical Journal
(17) Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness
(*) Photo credit bastyr.edu

Dear British Airways, Your Rewards Program Is Rotten

Dear British Airways,

For the past 12 years I have been an expatriate of the UK. Flying home to see family and friends is an annual event. The trip is the great source of fond memories which include meeting my nieces for the first time, a walk on the beach with my mum, a game of golf with my dad and a day out in London with friends.

My airline of choice for this travel for many years has been British Airways. I heart BA and know when the plane door closes, I can literally sit back relax and enjoy a safe ride home pampered with all the quintessentially English trimmings – friendly, attentive and well spoken cabin crew, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, British tabloid newspapers and bacon sandwiches for breakfast!

Given I’m not currently traveling internationally in my role I also enjoy being able to accrue miles with the BA credit card from Chase and agree with the marketing on BA.com,

“Avios are so easy to collect your next reward could be just around the corner.”

Well I agree with the first part – Avios are easy to collect. Rewards being just around the corner… not so much. Redeeming travel on the day, week or even month one wants to travel is difficult if not impossible. I’m not saying it can’t be done but difficult is a good way to describe the experience. I must commend your marketing team for their creativity given what they’re working with:

“Reward flights are paid for using your Avios, plus a cash amount for taxes, fees and carrier charges. You can book them with British Airways and our oneworld partners wherever there is availability.”

This sounds great! The reality of this suitably ambiguous statement is quite different.  Taxes, fees and carrier charges aside, “Reward flights are paid” implies a similar standing to paid travel and the caveat, “wherever there is availability” is grossly misleading. My assumption is “availability” means a seat is available on the flight. However in practice it appears to mean something very different. In fact I’ve come to learn that rewards travel on British Airways is not equal to paid travel at time of reservation.

Take the example below. There is “availability” in every travel class on flights from SFO to LHR from 28th September – 04th October:

Outbound-paid

However the same search when booking with Avios points reveals a very different picture. On the same day of travel (Thu 2nd Oct 2014) there are “no flights available”. On the days surrounding the selected travel day a friendly ‘check availability’ label is used. Click on any of these days and it seems this label is synonymous with no availability. In fact, at the time of writing, the entire month of August, September and October have no flights available to book travel with Avios points:

Outbound-availability

Let’s assume however I strike it lucky and find a seat to fly out, the odds of finding an inbound seat within the duration of a typical vacation 5-14 days appear to be worse than being hit by an astroid – my experience often shows a return seat 4-5 weeks out… But this is not news to you. I’m pretty confident you’ve heard all this before as there are 2 handy tools promoted alongside the day selector (shown above) suggests. The first one is labelled, “View calendar of BA availability” and shows no availability during the period:

view-availability-tool

The second is promoted with the teaser, “To see up to a years availability on British Airways flights and find out where in the world you could travel to  with your Avios, try our Explorer Map.”  Click on this link and voila a comprehensive list of seats available… or maybe not, not today or yesterday, maybe tomorrow…

Explorer tool fail

So there you have it, a wonderfully orchestrated example of how to fail your customers and insert frustration into the start of a trip filled with lasting memories. If you remember one thing from this note please let it be that booking a trip is of equal if not more important than the trip itself. Your relationship with me starts at the time I am thinking about booking, which is long before I arrive at the airport and get on one of your pristine planes. My experience of British Airways is based on every single interaction I have with you and when it comes to booking with rewards you really dropped the ball.

I realize running an airline is an expensive business – 30MM GBP per day in operational costs according to your annual report – and acknowledge comparing your travel rewards program to that of a hotel maybe grossly unfair – however I can’t help but point you at the SPG program from Starwood as the gold standard of travel rewards offering:

  • zero blackout dates – if a room is available you can book with rewards
  • upgrades on arrive if rooms are available

The fundamental difference is reward bookings are treated the same as cash bookings. SPG members don’t have to jump through hoops to book with points – in fact quiet the opposite. Rewards bookings are easy and often celebrated with upgrades and bonus gifts such as points or free wifi. Incentivizing customers to reach a certain level and gifting rewards that are literally impossible to use in everyday life is a rotten way to run a rewards program.

Yours sincerely,

 

Tarquin

Chromebook Pixel Review

Faced with replacing a 15″ Retina display Macbook Pro a third time in 9 months – daily GPU panics being the latest issue – I couldn’t but help think of the Albert Einstein insanity quote, “…doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” With this top of mind I ordered a Chromebook Pixel.

I’ve been using the Pixel for 3 weeks. Its been as eye opening as driving an electric car for the first time (which if you haven’t done yet I thoroughly recommend) and as impactful as cutting the cord from ones cable provider (in terms of helping breaking old habits and helping with productivity!)

Why the review? People are inquisitive about the Pixel. Infact I’ve never had a laptop that has initiated so many conversations and not surprisingly – it is a seriously sleek high end piece of hardware. What do you like most about it? Do you use the touchscreen? What do you do when you need an app? Perhaps the most popular question of all, how long does the battery last? Keep reading for answers to all these questions.

Findings

  • Setup is amazingly simple – sign into Chrome and you’re pretty much good to go. The packaging is super zen too
  • Weight – at 3.35 lbs (1.52 kg) it’s 40% lighter than the Macbook Pro. My point here is not to compare the two very different machines but the fact I have never considered laptops to be heavy – until now! The weight of the Pixel is perhaps one of my top 3 benefits. It’s like carrying around a tablet
  • Keyboard  – fantastically comfortable offering the perfect amount of give before returning confidently to position ready for the next keystroke however fast you may type – it’s unquestionably responsive in addition to being backlit. The dedicated search button, which is standard on any Chromebook, has to be one of my favourite features
  • Touchpad – the texture is best described as silk. Pinch-to-zoom and a number of other gestures had to be configured as experiements in chrome://flags
  • Screen – The 12.85″ screen has the highest pixel density of any laptop. Each of the 4.3 million pixels work together to bring crisp text and colors. It truly is a beautiful screen – so clear you almost don’t want to touch it!! In addition the 3:2 aspect ratio gives 18% more vertical height making it ideal for browsing
  • Living in the cloud – the Drive Synch is awesome, and I’m happy with an environment that discourages me from keeping too much data locally
  • Stand alone apps. – Outside of MS Office I haven’t been a big stand alone programs user for a long time. Google Drive has made significant steps forward. Google Spreadsheets for example have a list of functions able to address my needs. Looking forward to seeing further evolutions but I have no reason to use MS Office anymore. However you may need an app and so it’s worth noting you can run other operating systems such as Ubuntu, Android and Linux. Once installed you can simply switch between Chrome OS and lets say Linux – using ctrl + alt + backarrow. Here are the instructions by Googler David Schneider on how to install another operating system – it takes about 15 mins to set up
  • File Manager – integrates local and cloud storage very well, it’s surprised me a number of time how it just works
  • Battery – I’m getting 4.5 hours of use from a charge however have been caught out a couple of times on days with back-to-back meetings. Given we’re totally spoilt with chargers hardwired in every meeting room I’m looking forward to Pixel chargers being widely available. I need to remember not to short change the charge cycle, plug in when I get back to my desk and also experiment running the screen around 70% brightness which is entirely doable. I’m interested to see how the less power hungry Intel Haswell chips will perform, wrt battery, in the new Acer C720 released this week
  • Close to instant power on and power off – given the number of times you do this during the day it creates a much nicer experience in not having to wait for an OS to spin up a bunch of processes
  • Body – unblemished anodized aluminum – check!
  • Help  – the  “ctrl + alt + /” keyboard overlay is super handy
  • Processor – Intel Core i5
  • Ports – 2x USB 2.0, SD reader, headphones out and SIM slot

The asthetics of the device are great – there are no visible screws, air vents or speaker grills – the speakers are mounted under the keyboard and provide a rich and full sound.

Switching from the Apple Eco-system may not work for some – it was surprisingly easy for me however in fairness I was not heavily vested.

The verdict – I’m on Chrome OS and have no plans to look back with the web now as my primary interface. This feels more in line with the future as opposed to trying to work with the past. Chrome OS is entirely usable for everyday business especially if you’re company is running on Google apps. The Pixel has given me back time (the days of waiting on spinning rainbow wheels and sign in prompts have passed), and simplified a computing experience that I now realize was becoming unnecessarily heavy (literally) and complex.

The WellnessFX Experience – Customer Review

biohumanWhat happens when you mix a San Francisco based technology company (a.k.a a company which is organized around the consumer) and the world of healthcare (which arguably has lost sight of the consumer / patient over the years focusing on the what – the symptom/disease, as opposed to the why – the underlying cause)? The answer is functional medicine and WellnessFX is at the forefront of this paradigm shift. If you love data, technology and are interested in a personalized and systems based approach to your health; you’ll enjoy this review which shares some initial thoughts on WellnessFX and the customer experience.

Having decided to baseline my biomarkers with a full range of lab testing earlier this year, I was delighted to receive an email from WellnessFX on August 14th regarding the further expansion of their service to include Arizona, Colorado and Texas. For those not familiar with WellnessFX, the company offers biomarker testing and until recently this was only available in California. [Update 8th April 2013: WellnessFx is available in the following states – Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.]

The Process
After signing up at WellnessFX.com/packages, [update May 13th 2014: use this affiliate link for a coupon discount and free account set up], the next step is to select a package and schedule a blood draw. For Arizona (and perhaps the other non CA states – unverified) WellnessFX Baseline is the only package available at this time. After identifying a nearby draw site, you are redirected to the Lab partners domain to schedule the appointment – LabCorp is the draw partner in AZ and scheduling can all be done online with ease. After the blood draw, which requires a 12 hr fasting period and no exercise or alcohol for 24 hours prior, you’ll be notified by WellnessFX when your labs are ready.

With the lab results in, it’s time to select a doctor and schedule your consult. During the consultation your doctor runs through your labs and provides a number of recommendations which are also posted on your profile. Subsequent testing, recommended every 90 days, allows you to monitor progress and see trends over time.

10 Good Reasons To Like WellnessFX

  1. Lab partner. WellnessFX has partnered with LabCorp to expand service to more than 300 LabCorp locations in the states mentioned above. From booking the appointment online to walking out of the facility with a piece of cotton wool taped to my arm – the entire experience was flawless. LabCorp gets a 10/10 for the cleanliness of the facility, brightness of the waiting room, honoring of the appointment – literally zero wait time, friendliness of the staff and professionalism – didn’t even feel the needle. Overall an excellent experience and while this is one data point it appears WellnessFX chose well. In contrast, I was recently at another draw site for a different program and waited over 40 minutes despite having an appointment. The waiting room was dingy and the staff all seemed to hate their jobs. Worse still the phlebotomist forgot to draw 3 of the requested tubes and I was called back in.
  2. End-to-end service. Have you ever been on the phone with a call center and one of the customer service rep. stays on the line with you to make sure your reason for calling is addressed as you are bounced from dept. to department. It’s a good feeling to know someone cares about resolution rather than simply bumping you out the queue and onto someone else. This handholding / work to resolution approach is how my experience with WellnessFX went. While I didn’t talk with anyone from WellnessFX, they have successfully integrated the core parts of the process enabling you to go from online to offline (armed with lab request paperwork which you print out) and then to a phone with your doctor of choice. The integration is classy – the consultation call for example is integrated with your profile where a countdown clock informs you of time remaining.
  3. Speed. I had my blood drawn on a Friday morning and received notification of the results having been reviewed by a practitioner and being published online at noon on Monday. Obviously as the service grows in popularity we’ll be able to see if this level of service is scalable however that’s impressive and faster than any labs I’ve had back before.
  4. User interface. The data visualization is fantastic. Lab results are complex and often confusing without supporting information. The team have found a way to present the results in a simple format (either summary or table) with descriptions allowing you to understand both the ranges and the marker itself. This is a significant change from the typical, “yes everything is fine.” Now you can actually see for yourself. Having this information available 24x7x365 and instantly on your iPhone is of great value. You can share the results with your trainer, family, other doctors or nutritionist for example. I must have lab results in multiple doctors offices in several countries. While I do have some copies they are certainly not all in one place and often one has to ask the doctor for the information. Not anymore.
  5. Price. Baseline is sold at $199 and this includes cardiovascular health, inflammation, metabolic and hormone, liver & kidney health, nutrition & electrolytes. This is on average twice the predictive biomarker diagnostics a doctor will order for an annual physical, includes a consultation with a doctor in the program of your choice, and action plan and the hosting of your results. See below for a limited time promo code.
  6. Content in the mobile app. The iPhone app is a gateway to a wealth of information on supplements and conditions. It offers a new way to research and stay upto date with the latest on supplements and allows you to build out your own plan. It is a classic version 1.x app so don’t expect the world and assume for now there is a backlog of new functionality written up and pending prioritization.
  7. Variety in choice of practitioners. I was pleased to be able to select from a choice of practitioners when scheduling the consult. I had 4 options available complete with bio’s offering a range of specialization including homeopathic, cardiovascular and general practitioners.
  8. Notifications. These work well and are thought through for example: after scheduling blood draws, posting of lab results, confirmation of consultation, reminder prior to consultation etc. Each of these arrived via email and were informative. In addition to email notifications a banner is also appended to your home screen which notifies you of your consultation and includes the date, time, doctors name and dial in details are conveniently display on your profile screen. This attention to detail really helps the experience and prevents you from having to change apps or click around to find the required information.
  9. Dedicated conferencing line. A conferencing line is assigned for your consultation which both you and your doctor dial into. This line is also integrated with WellnessFX platform providing notifications of the event and also a timer enabling you to see how long you have left for the consultation.
  10. Systematic approach to medicine. I was happy to see recommendations for food sources to address any deficiencies over supplements for example – eat 2 brazil nuts per day to increase selenium. WellnessFX is part of a new wave of medicine which is focussed on optimizing wellness systematically as opposed to treating sickness and symptoms.

Some points to watch for:

  • Check your email! After my lab results were posted it was time to schedule the consultation. I spent several minutes trying to find a link to schedule the consultation. While I could review the doctors bio’s I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to schedule the appointment. Eventually I managed to do this by clicking on a link in the notification email (https://wwws.wellnessfx.com/consults/new). Including this prominently on the site would be useful.
  • Enter your demographic information with care, as once you have entered it there is no way to edit or add to this information. Demographic information includes basics such as age, gender, weight and height, vitals, ethnicity, conditions, family history and lifestyle / diet.
  • Prepare for the consultation. What issues are you having if any, what would you like to focus on? 15 minutes for the consultation seemed a bit rushed especially for the initial discussion where you need to establish a relationship and discuss history with your doctor. Scheduling the initial appointment for 25 minutes with a 5 min close and follow-up appointments at 20 minutes (15 minutes with 5 minutes for close) seems more appropriate.

My experience to date has been positive and this is a credit to the WellnessFX team. It’s exciting to think what the future holds for this service. Imagine if WellnessFX builds out it’s offering allowing customers to email in any lab report, which can be parsed and presented in the UI. For example, as a user I could collect all my historical or recent lab reports by trawling the file cabinet or contacting any doctor with whom I’ve had blood work done, scan and email them to labs@wellnessfx.com. The labs@ inbox would then match the message to my account (based on my email address), parse the data and add the results to my profile. This would provide me with a more complete profile of my health rather than starting it at the day I had my first lab work with WellnessFX. Obviously this type of decision will come down to strategic direction and priorities – in its favor, this idea positions the service as a goto resource for ones health profile and enables the company to grow the capture more of the market with an entry level read-only type service in markets while the grunt work of building the core service of doctors and labs is executed in the background.

In conclusion it’s amazing to think this is a business founded April 2010 and a platform launched in late 2011, especially given the multiple providers and touch points. In the end it all boils down to trust and simplicity:

  • Trust. The focus on quality in partner selection be it doctors or labs is clear and well executed. There are some areas to address for example the mandatory opt-in to a recorded consultation for quality purposes should really be optional. Assuming this is solely for quality control purposes, participants can be incentivized to opt-in with a promo code offering a discount off future service, while the doctors can be kept in the dark as to whether the conversation is recorded or not. In addition given the sensitivity of the information collected, the company could do more to help users feel their data is protected from external as well as internal eyes and ears.
  • Simplicity. The time WellnessFX has invested to deliver an end-to-end service oriented around the consumer is clear. You can feel this in the experience – it’s integrated and buttoned down allowing it to execute with clinical precision. There is some work to do on the site in terms of the user experience and some discussions to have in terms of optimizing functionality that is used and killing that which is not – see examples at the end of this post.

If you are interested in trying WellnessFX for yourself and found this review helpful do take advantage of this referral link for a discount currently running – you’ll receive a $20 discount and I receive a small credit for the referral.

Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this post please take a minute and hammer away on the social share buttons or feel free to comment – both are great ways for me to obtain feedback. As a customer I’m obviously keen to help advance the service. Below are a number of product opportunities identified when using the service which can hopefully be considered:

  1. Product information. The only product information I could find was on the baseline package. I knew others were available – there is even an option to upgrade under settings > account information however there is no information on what the upgrade includes or is for that matter. It was only after receiving the survey post consultation did I find the list of packages. Being interested in fitness I’d like to include an Amino Acid profile, for example, to better understand overall nutritional status. I assume the package types are location specific however it would still be good to know what’s available / potentially coming downstream.
  2. Consistency in the overall experience. The rich level of information available in the mobile app for researching supplements and conditions is not available via the desktop experience. The mobile app has some form of gaming system where you can score points for doing certain things, however it is not explained or available on the full site and quite frankly doesn’t make any sense to me. The mobile app doesn’t have any notifications – it would be handy to know for example when the doctor submits the recommendations post consultation. The mobile app occasionally logs out, not sure if this is time based or a bug – it would be good practice to include a forgot password link on the sign in page of the app. The mobile app didn’t know about my scheduled consultation and was therefore unable to provide any notifications.
  3. When signed in, clicking on the WellnessFX logo in the top left bounces you out of the secure area and onto the public homepage. This is annoying if you want to get back to your profile home screen.
  4. Doctor / patient confidentiality? I didn’t like the following message which was in the consultation confirmation email: “We would like to remind you that this call may be recorded for purposes of our user study.” I understand the reasoning behind it but as mentioned this should be my choice. In its current form it creates an unnecessary trust issue.
  5. In the same consultation confirmation email the following statement didn’t make any sense, “Please note that you will not be able to view your lab results until your consult has started.”
  6. Basic iCal integration would be helpful for example the ability to add a scheduled appointment to your calendar or set reminders for 30, 60 or 90 day reminders for follow up labs.

Browse all WellnessFX diagnostic packages.

The Evolution of Task Management

When we start a new job / project, or adopt a new technology to help us go about our business we often do so with passion and determination. “This time round will be better than the last time” we tell ourselves. We know this because we’re constantly improving – learning lessons from past experiences and applying them as appropriate. It’s what we do. The irony, when it comes to Task Management however, is we’ve actually been going backwards, creating additional ‘busy’ work for ourselves and others as we look to manage a project.

Corporate ‘Do List’ Timeline
Some of you will recall fondly what follows, for others it’s more of a history lesson as we listen in on the thoughts of an executive from the early 1980s to the present day.

1980: “This is my new embossed leather folio. My company gave me at the annual leadership retreat. I’m going to carry it to every meeting I goto so I can keep on top of my to do’s.”

1985: “This is my Filofax. My wife gave it to me for Christmas. Everyone at the office has one. Mine is the latest! I’m going to keep all my notes in it which will be great – especially when I leave it in the magazine holder attached to the seat in front of me on the plane.”

1990: “This is my new laptop – I’m going to write all my to do’s in an excel spreadsheet and because it’s on my laptop it’ll always be with me.”

1992: “This is my new Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) – it has a monochrome screen and I can take notes on it. Because my suit jacket has extra large pockets I’ll be able to take it everywhere along with my wallet, keys, phone, laptop, camera and walkman.”

1993: “This is my new pad of paper – I’ve gone back to paper as my PDA wiped itself and I lost all my data.”

1996: “This is my new Nokia 9000 Communicator. I paid extra for the shoulder holster. I use it to take notes, surf the worldwide web, call people and make waffles (but not at the same time….)”

1997: “This is my new Palm Pilot/Psion Revo. It synchronizes with my desktop and has this awesome monochrome touch screen.”

2000: “This is my Pocket PC. It’s made by Acer/Dell/Compaq/HP/Gateway/Casio and runs Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system. It has a four-bit grayscale display and it’s bigger than my phone. It also crashes a lot, but I keep a backup so all is not lost.”

2004: “This is my HP (formerly Compaq) iPAQ 4700. It runs the Phone Edition of Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003. I can make calls from my PDA! The calls often drop, but that’s ok because I can always call you back… from my PDA!”

2007/8: “This is my new iPhone, someone developed a really cool app for it which lets me take notes. It’s cloud based too meaning I can access my notes from any device at any time, and it’s backed up by someone else so I don’t need to worry about that.”

Notice a common thread with personal organizers, personal digital assistants and what we call phones today? Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The fact is, we’ve been doing this for years. Yes we became more mobile, secure etc. etc. but we didn’t really become more efficient. We changed the medium of our to do lists and how we capture and store each task but never evolved the process. With all of the coordination, always on and expectations around that, we actually have become increasingly inefficient.

The Future is Bright
As luck would have it some rather smart people figured this out and came up with a world changing solution. All those years of notepads, Filofaxes, Post Its, PDAs, lost data, Finnish waffle irons, Excel spreadsheets, SharePoint, Google Docs, email, email, email, email, you get the picture – a lot of useless email can now be a distant memory thanks to the team at Asana.

Start on your journey to efficiency by visiting asana.com, sign in with your Google ID and build a task list. It takes seconds and I bet you have some to do’s! Founded in 2011 by former Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and engineer Justin Rosenstein, Asana aims to take us beyond email, identifying itself as, “The shared task list for your team. The place to plan, organize and stay in sync on your efforts.”

Having used Asana for several months its proven to be extremely versatile and limited only by ones imagination. Asana demos a number of use cases which include Project Management, Lightweight CRM, Bug Tracking, Applicant Tracking and Individual Task Management. It’s as robust in the workplace as it is in the home environment, use it as a means to capture to dos for the week or personal projects such as painting the spare room, or amp it up and add family members. Assign tasks, create or read notes linked to tasks. Add comments and links, due dates and mark as complete when done.

There is one word to describe the desktop version of Asana – beautiful. The app is written using an in-house framework called LunaScript. The user-interface (UI) is non-blocking meaning the user is never waiting on the server. Any action you perform is immediately updated in the UI because the queries are compiled in both JavaScript and SQL. You can work offline with changes being synchronized when you connect resolving any conflicts as appropriate.

In layman’s terms this makes it extremely fast and responsive in addition to enabling you to work offline. The app majestically flows around you in the most unintrusive way. It feels like silk. Did I mention it’s fast too? It works with you enabling you to perform what you want to do sometimes before you realize you want to do it. It’s simply brilliant. Quotes from Twitter tend to agree:

@PeteMatthew I flippin’ love Asana. It’s so, so fast it’s mind blowing. GTD implementation in its purest form?
@AbeMcCallum @asana – Really enjoying your product, has made team collaboration much better. Keep up the great work!
@twentworth12 Words can’t express my love for @asana. I get all teary-eyed thinking about how gorgeous and usable it is. Best web app, ever.

With Asana being built around the task, it is incredibly adaptable. I especially like being able to:

  • add tasks or comments to a task as I go about my day. Perhaps some downtime waiting in line allows me to research an item on my list and append any URL to the task for consultation later. It’s simple and that’s the brilliance of Asana.
  • assign tasks to people.
  • review all information regarding the task that is appended to it, without having to trawl through my inbox or ping someone for the latest slide deck.

I’m sure there is a contingent of folk in Seattle claiming this can all be done with SharePoint which has been around forever so this is nothing new. Here’s the difference – you actually want to use Asana because it is so intuitive as opposed to SharePoint which leaves you feeling so dense light actually starts to bend around you.

Mobile
With such a powerful desktop UI the mobile app has a lot to live up too. Sadly reviews in the Apple App. Store show it’s yet to live up to Asana reputation receiving some criticism with its 2/5 stars. The mobile experience may annoy you or you may find the heart to overlook its short comings with a forgiving eye based on the brilliance of the overall product.

Personally I have found it able to support me for the large part and use the desktop when it runs into issues. For example if you create a Project in the mobile app you’ll need to go online to either rename it or edit the title.

Over the past few months the Asana team have delivered several new features including Inbox and a REST API. Armed with a recent capital injection of $28m from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and existing investors (Benchmark, Andreessen-Horowitz and Mitch Kapor), there shouldn’t be any issues addressing mobile. In fact a tweet dated 27th Jul 2012 from Asana suggests it’s in the works, “We are hard at work on iOS, and should have an update soonish.”

In Summary
Asana is great, at work and at home. It offers the perfect balance of versatility and simplicity while delivering a structured environment. It’s really whatever you want it to be. Perhaps you replaced lists and post-its at home long ago with Evernote, Astrid, Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, Clear or any one of the others. Irregardless, give Asana a shot to run your household – create a shopping list for the week, your other half or room mates may check it at the store and pick up the milk which you just added.

If you own or run a small business or manage a team in a large company – try Asana. The ability to create, delegate and view updates on tasks will help you tremendously. There are other options out there such as whiteboards and notepaper… Joking aside you should also consider do.com from Salesforce. It’s awesome too and with the upcoming integration into the overall Salesforce workflow it has obvious benefits if your business runs Salesforce.

Asana means less busy work and more real work. It’s available FREE for teams up to 30 members.

Facebook Chemistry

If you have ever maintained a swimming pool you’ll know pool water chemistry is very much a balancing act. Companies who offer free products and services, such as Facebook and Google, have a similar balance to maintain between their customers and their members (or users). Favorable adjustments on one side of the relationship can have negative impacts on the other. Finding the right balance is paramount to establishing the correct environment (for engagement and activity in Facebook’s case) and yielding returns.

A symbiotic relationship forms in these business models – the customers pay the bills providing users with free access to the products and services. In other words without customers there are no users and without users there are no customers. Simple?

Short-term gains or long-term vision
The management of this symbiotic relationship is a skill often overlooked or misjudged. It is a skill which I’m willing to bet consumes a large proportion of management time in companies employing this model. It is a skill that when developed, becomes a significant strength to the organization. The environment or model forces the hand, and the skill allows these companies to address issues and complex problems. The net result – balanced chemistry. Facebook has made mistakes, some arguably as recently as this week such as the email switcheroo, however overall the company has proven themselves here where many companies fail.

Upsetting the balance is easy and can be done in seconds, for example:

Customer: “What we really want is more impactful ads.”
Sales rep: “OK, how about an ad which takes over the screen for 15 seconds.”

And so the infamous interstitial ad is born – loved by marketers and the sales team who sells them, hated by users (interesting post by Michael Arrington). In fact we heard a similar case earlier this year as General Motors famously announced, just days before the IPO, that it would no longer advertise on Facebook. Turning down a million dollar customer is not a decision made lightly. These decisions undoubtedly come from the top and sacrifice short-term gains for long-term vision.

Chemical balance
When a balanced solution is achieved both constituents win. You may remember at some point last year Facebook introduced narrative text in user profiles. Something along the lines of,

“I work at __________, and went to school at _________. I was born on, ____________ and live in __________ , __________.”

To the user this is a no-brainer for update, it’s useful information to share and requested in a non-intrusive way. To the customer, its valuable demographic information which no doubt sizably improved Facebook’s targeting segments. A perfect balance – customers are able to target more users, while the user experience is improved through better targeted services and ads while not being interrupted with 5 new fields added into the registration process for example.

Applying the chemistry to mobile
It’s been well documented Facebook needs a solution to monetize mobile – they cited it themselves in their SEC filing. We should congratulate Facebook and honor their skill in ‘maintaining the balance’ to this point as the very reason you do not see banner ads in their mobile app.

As a leading player in the web, Facebook is at the bleeding edge of technology and user experience. With over 900m active users (as of March 2012) Facebook has significant influence – meaning when Facebook makes a move many other web properties and sites follow. We have seen this as news feeds, messaging, navigation, simplified registration, like / vote up, buttons and styles etc. all take steps towards becoming standards.

The advertising industry has established standards – from billboards to newspapers and magazines, to websites and now mobile (both governed by the IAB). The agencies have great fun and deliver some wonderfully creative campaigns within these guidelines – note the McDonalds sundial billboard below which points out the appropriate sandwich based on the time of day… The difference here is that Facebook is rejecting these advertising standards as they don’t take into account the symbiotic relationship – they upset the chemistry and therefore threaten the business model.

Facebook never bought into the traditional banner advertising units for the desktop UI. In 2006, Zuckerberg famously turned down $1m from Sprites ad agency to make the entire homepage green for one day. In addition when ironing out the Microsoft deal to use its ad sales network to represent Facebook’s ad inventory; according to one Microsoft negotiator,

“Mark was adamant about preserving the user experience and the layout. It drove our ad people crazy because it made it very hard to deliver standard Internet ad units.”

The BBC News iPhone App (shown above right) is a great example where the user experience is distracted by a banner ad running across the screen – worse still the advertisement is untargeted adding little-to-no value.

The fact Facebook makes these decisions every day, positions it well to deliver a solution to monetize mobile in a balanced and non-intrusive way. They have the ‘skill’, the resources, the experience, the motive and the influence to find and establish alternatives. What they need is to find the balance – ongoing success depends on it.


Image credits: Facebook office: flickr/pshab. McDonalds billboard: dsgnwrld. IAB display unit sizes: Wikipedia.

Failures Don’t Plan To Fail, They Fail To Plan

Consumer focussed social media mega stars Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare, YouTube, Facebook and Google have smashed open doors for small businesses over the past 4 years. Arguably two of the most important breakthroughs are:

  1. A leveling of the playing fields – the recent viral success of the Dollar Shave Club launch video is a great example of how a small business, with some creativity and a great product/service, can reach millions in a matter of days and stand alongside an established brand with a significantly larger marketing budget.
  2. A feedback loop – feedback from customers is a great way to improve your products and services. Yelp reviews, for example, give restaurateurs immediate free feedback and provide a previously lost opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one.

With these new possibilities more readily available, it’s important for businesses to skill up and understand how to take advantage of them. Successful social campaigns are great to see, however many small businesses I run into locally appear to be either focusing on the wrong measurement of success, such as total followers/likes, or not setting one in the first place.

It’s hard not to bump into a ‘Like’ sign as you go about your day. Now synonymous with Facebook, ‘Like’ bridges the digital divide by establishing a bi-directional throughway between the online and the offline. In doing so, Facebook has successfully branded an everyday verb in an interesting twist on the marketing nirvana of yesteryear which was ironically the exact opposite – to turn a brand into a verb. Notable wins went to FedEx (where FedEx-ing became a substitute for shipping in the US), Google (synonymous with search) and Hoover (where hoovering became a substitute for vacuuming in Europe).
Whether it’s a shopping mall, a restaurant, a clothes shop, you name it – we’re asked to ‘Like’, ‘Follow’, ‘Plus 1’, or ‘Check-in’. Even the lettuce in a grocery store wants to be friends according to the message printed on its cellophane wrapping.

Yet as with any other marketing campaign, a successful social campaign has a goal. It also requires an investment of time and resources and needs to be scalable. Any small business owner will tell you time is precious and ruthless prioritization is paramount to success.

So how do you go about running a successful social campaign? Personally I find it beneficial to look at some examples of best practices – the how to’s, and their opposites – the how not to’s. With this in mind below is a tale of the good, the bad and the not so pretty which looks at 3 businesses and their use of social media.

The Good

If you happened to be in a Sprinkles bakery on Monday and whispered, “Happy birthday Shakespeare” to one of their cupcake associates, chances are you would have received a delicious free vanilla cupcake with sprinkles. If you didn’t know about this you are probably not one of their 346K followers on Facebook or 83K followers on Twitter – both of these social channels are used to propagate a secret phrase every day to the cupcake following. The first 50 people to go into their nearest store that day and mutter the phrase receive the free cup cake offered. It’s a win/win. If I ‘Like’ or ‘Follow’ Sprinkles on Facebook or Twitter, they provide me with free cupcakes – assuming I make it to the store in time. There is a purpose clearly established.

As the cupcakes are handed over to their new owners, the cupcake associates adds a count to their clipboard. The tally, no doubt reported back to corporate along with any sales and basic demographic information, allows cupcake HQ to measure the effectiveness of the social campaign. The secret pass phrase provides a degree of exclusivity and is more of a tactic in the overall campaign objective to drive more foot traffic into stores and ultimately sell more products. Overall the campaign is genius – once you are in the store not only do you feel compelled to buy something – a cupcake for the other half, kids, friend, colleague or yourself, you also get to try a cupcake you might not have typically tried – most of us after all are creatures of habit.

Sprinkles social campaign was proven so successful it continues to be used even after the campaign was scheduled to end. Having established a following, Sprinkles also invites feedback asking connections to vote on their favorite cupcake. The end result, an engaged following, increased social conversation, and revenue funding growth in the form of Cupcake ATMs and 10 stores in North America.

The Bad

The other day I stopped by a local breakfast place for brunch. On the table was a nicely designed flyer asking patrons to, “Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.”

As I read this sign the age-old CRM adage, “What’s in it for me?” sprung to mind. There was no reason cited as to why I should ‘follow’ them. There was a QR code taking you to their Facebook page. Perhaps to see nutritional information – that could be a good reason, to access a secret menu or a word of the day for a discount. Yet there was nothing. So why would I pull out my phone and go to their Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare page when I’m in the restaurant having a bite with some friends? Perhaps curiosity was the tactic but it’s a stretch.

What is concerning is the tremendous waste especially given the other demands on a small business owner’s time. Think of the effort to have the promotion sitting their on the table and the lost opportunity cost of perhaps using the space to market patrons a new smoothie, menu item or special which I could buy right there and then. Instead this flyer encouraged me to disconnect from my physical presence for a minute and ‘follow’ the restaurant. Out of curiosity I went to their Facebook and their Twitter pages later in the day and found a daily post demonstrating some effort being put into a social campaign yet also missing the mark. Their .com site on the other hand is packed with great information including nutritional information and sign up to their club, which provides a number of two-for-one style benefits.

What is the cost of printing the flyer, maintaining the social sites, placing the card at each table? What is the opportunity cost? What is the distraction value of taking someone somewhere else when they are in front of you and ready to spend? This company is clearly going through the motions and checking the boxes yet are failing to go the last mile at this time. They have all the costs and none of the return.  I fear this company is measuring success by total followers as opposed to new customers or increased sales, which is all to often the mistake.

And the… (not so pretty)

Picture a local pizza joint. There is a sign on the shop frontage and by the register asking patrons to, “Like us on Facebook.” If you go to their Facebook page and scroll back to the date of joining in 2010 it all started with what appears to be a picture a day. The pictures were a good tactic – a packed restaurant, a heart shaped pizza marking Valentines Day but the cadence of these posts dropped after a few months. Over the last 6 months they average less than 3 per month. It’s a local store, posting a picture of the fresh pizza just out the oven at lunch time is not a bad idea. Certainly worth a try.

Establishing a competitive advantage

The shift in how we both find and consume information yields many opportunities for small businesses to leverage social campaigns and platforms for increased revenue. However with so much choice (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Google+ etc.) not to mention maintaining a website, establishing and building a presence on each of these social sites must feel like the equivilant of carrying 5 or 6 different cell phones at the same time. As an industry we should be able to address this issue and we’re seeing it happen – consolidation through acquisition, the creation of standards, the advancement in tools such as HootsuiteatomkeepSeesmicping.fmtwitterfeed, which allow the management of multiple social profiles or at least the ability to post to multiple profiles, and further innovation. In the mean time, there are some creative examples out there which justify the investment and demonstrate that social is able to provide a distinct competitive advantage.

The key take away – have a plan and work towards a clear goal. As businessman and columist Harvey Mackay once said, “Failures don’t plan to fail, the fail to plan.” Research and discuss techniques and tactics with others including your customers. Adjust your tactics based on your wins. Create a new social experience – something which is unique to your business and resonates with your customers – make the connection. Recognize the advantage over your competitors and know that many will give up. Don’t give up. Solicit feedback from your customers and act on the information accordingly. Data is your friend – remember how Sprinkles is collecting data and sending back to head office. On the tool side both Facebook Insights and Google Social Analytics provide some great dashboards – understanding this data will help you measure engagement along with your own sales information. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Image credit: flickr/55His.com

Outbound Product Management

Wearing multiple hats is common practice in the modern organization, and no more so than in small companies. In the marketing domain this can mean outbound product management is either merged with inbound or occasionally lost all together. This post looks at a number of reason why outbound product management should be of equal if not more importance than inbound; especially when you consider the success of your product or service often depends on its penetration, adoption, and usage.

Consider these quotes from some of the leading experts in our domain:

  1. Executive Chairman of the Board at Google, Eric Schmidt (Ph.D) stated at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce 2011 (see 0.33.47), “Apple proves if you organize around the consumer the rest will follow. And that’s something I did not understand until Google. Google runs in a similar way. Try to figure out how to solve the consumer problem and the revenue will show up.”
  2. In a July 2011 Ted Talk economics writer Tim Hartford shares the surprising link among successful complex systems – that they were built through trial and error.
  3. David Heath, Vice President of Global Sales at Nike inc. (ret.) stated in 2011, “the days of relationship selling frankly are over, and the days of bringing in the solution to the buyer and doing the buyers work for them are going to separate the winners from the losers.” See Developing Challenger Sellers – a new book from Corporate Executive Board.
  4. Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com starts all his keynotes at customer events such as Dreamforce by thanking the attendees – the customers for making Salesforce.com what it is today.
  5. Caroline Michiels, of custom software business ThoughtWorks stated, “60% of functionality in packaged solutions is never used.”
  6. Mike Heilman, a former colleague and veteran sales leader, responded to the HBR article, “Are top salespeople born or made?” I reposted on LinkedIn stating, “I have seen people of many, many different personality types succeed in sales. I believe that the only absolutely required characteristic is empathy. You simply must be interested in other people or they will reject you. Humor and intelligence are really good as well.”

While each of these quotes are recent, they are also pulled together for this post from different sources. The context is different, yet they all have a consistent theme – listen to your customer.

What can we take away from this when bringing new products to market? Here are a few questions worth considering:

  1. Does your product or service address a customer need and also the need/s of prospective customers – i.e. market needs? Which well known need/problem is it addressing? Have you defined the opportunity upfront? Think how Google took on Microsoft Office with Google docs – significantly less functionality yet with an unmatched collaboration capability addressing a well known market need. What are the 2 key points you use to market your new product? Forget features – can you frame the issue in the mind of the customer?
  2. Have you built a business model including market share? What are the objectives? What does success look like?
  3. Are you able to synthesize what you have heard in the market, communicate this in the user stories, and ultimately simplify your product offering tailoring it to resonate with your customers?
  4. Are you confident you have provided your salesforce with the right material to enable them to target the right buyer and subsequently empathize with the buyer? Think buyer scenarios (like user scenarios but focused on the buyer – profile and pain points) and customer success stories (or testimonials) which enable the sales team to identify the right buyers, teach the customer something new about their business and take control of the sales process. This is such a critical step. If sales are unable to penetrate accounts, you risk the team dropping the new product and falling back onto others which have historically delivered (won business) for them.
  5. Have you set your new product or service up for success? Recognizing adoption is key and iterations will evolve – think Google Docs, Google Mail and more recently Google + which all launched with feedback mechanisms, and a dedicated team behind the product enabled to release iterations based on the feedback. Eric Schmidt also said at Dreamforce 11, “…you are much better off if you organize around a continuous iteration model”.
  6. How will you react to a competitive play?

Does goto market planning start before or after development in your company? Does your company separate many of the outbound product management functions into a Product Marketing function? What questions do you ask when developing your goto market strategy? Use the comment box below to share your experiences.

Agile and Product Management

The purpose of this post is to provide an insight into working with Agile from a Product Management perspective. Given Agile recognizes Product Owners not Product Managers (more on this follows) the prevailing challenge we’ve faced in Product Management is time.

Below are 6 recommendations for a Product team to ensure true product management continues.

1. Change approach and find the right balance

First and foremost when your development team switches to Agile, the product team also needs to make changes (or risk drowning). Assuming the Product Managers perform the tasks of a Product Owner, its important to remember these responsibilities are a subset of the overall responsibilities of a Product Manager. With tight deadlines being an inherent characteristic of Agile, planning next months sprint along with performing tasks in the current sprint can quickly absorb all the hours in a day leaving little time for the other functions in Product Management.

Finding the right balance between being available to perform the responsibilities of the Product Owner such as:

  • creating and maintaining the backlog
  • prioritization according to business value or ROI
  • conveying the vision
  • representing the customer
  • participating in daily scrums / retrospectives and sprint planning
  • inspecting the progress and subsequently accepting or rejecting the deliverable
  • communicating externally to all stakeholders etc.

and executing other inbound and outbound Product Management responsibilities such as:

  • understanding market problems and your companies unique ability to address them
  • creating an integrated product strategy
  • formalizing plans to deliver profitable solutions
  • translating plans to user stories for technical implementation
  • creating go-to market plans aligned with the buying process
  • ensuring organizational readiness to sell and support deliverables
  • supporting the sales channel with market and product expertise
  • not forgetting bugs, meetings, webinars and of course powerpoints

means creating an environment where Product Mangers are not involved in every single tactical decision. This is an important step towards a successful implementation of Agile within your company.

2. Build to scale 
One of the greatest aspects of product management is the cross functional interaction. Throughout my career I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with customers in addition to every single function in an organization – from Legal to Finance, Sustainability to Operations, Marketing to Sales, HR to Client / Customer Services in addition to Research and Development and Executive roles. Product literally touches them all. This however can also be one of the greatest challenges as each of these groups has a different view of what a Product team does for example:

  • Sales require support for RFPs (often with tight deadlines), pitches and ad hoc meetings.
  • Marketing require product insight for positioning and pricing.
  • Executive team require a product portfolio which meets the overall company goals, in addition to justification in the form of detailed market analysis and a well thought through roadmap defining the path to get there.
  • Development/engineering require the PM to be Product Owners (this can easily become a full time role given monthly sprints and releases).

As the Product Manager goes about their day skillfully switching conversations, between customers, executives, engineering, sales, marketing and client / customer services to name a few, it’s possible to see how the responsibilities of Product Managers are not insignificant. As an example conversations may range from:

  • competitive landscape and analysis to build, buy or partner decisions and goto market strategies,
  • business cases and driving ROI to portfolios and roadmaps,
  • star wars, black holes and unicorns to personas and user stories
  • value based selling and understanding market problems to pricing and positioning,
  • thought leadership and support to training and collateral.

Each of these responsibilities demands time and more importantly a detailed understanding. Ironically with all the meetings, coordination and communication these responsibilities bring, being available to each stakeholder group and department often places challenges on the product managers time given the accelerated timeframe and demands of the sprint.

Depending on the size of your team, think about supporting roles such as Product Marketing Managers, and Product Specialists who can support Product Managers and provide the appropriate coverage to ensure a well delivered and adopted product. Helping everyone understand the domain so you don’t need to be involved in every decision is also of value.

3. Don’t short change market research
Research (competitive, market and end user) is a source of credibility for Product Managers. As mentioned, an Agile environment will create new demands on time which may well eat into research time which was previously accounted for in the creation of the large business requirements specifications/documents.

Work to find solutions to avoid this, for example – share your research and create many voices for it. This will help free up time as good product management begins before a user story is written. It always starts with solid research – understanding the market problems, assessing the competitive landscape and identifying opportunities to differentiate. Support qualitative research with quantitate.

When conducting research, a Product Manager is looking to answer a number of questions:

  • How does this product become part of the everyday workflow of its user base?
  • What are the needs of the untapped or potential market?
  • How can we differentiate?

This level of understanding takes time, do not short change your research time which ultimately is paid off in the clarity and robustness of user stories. Some of the best and most successful sprints at Toolbox.com have been ones following several months of research by the team.

4. Be prepared to validate 
Armed with this research and analysis, the Product Manager arrives at the table with a wealth of information valuable to each of the groups mentioned earlier. For the executive group it includes direction and insight into the roadmap and definition of the market, for sales and marketing this includes critical research for positioning and placement. For development/engineering this includes the very validation that is demanded often so vigorously in an Agile world – and rightly so. It is neither fun nor efficient to change direction based on a miscalculation once troops are mobilized.

It’s very healthy to work in an environment where teams challenge each other. If this isn’t the case, look to foster this type of environment certainly within the Product and Development groups. Developers bring strong product and environment knowledge to the table and will either help shape a solution to be more robust, or recommend alternatives which may better meet business goals.

This type of validation is paramount to the process – with finite resources, time bound velocity, competitive pressures and business goals – focussing on functionality which does not drive the business forward is not an option. This type of validation provides a valuable check and balance.

5. Avoid feature bloat 
In an Agile environment it is very easy to bloat products with features as there is a tendency, and organizational, desire to keep development busy. If you are not ready – try handing a sprint over to the dev. team to focus on bugs, infrastructure or technical debt.

In the case of a launch, being ready means understanding:

  • the goto market strategy
  • how products drive returns to the business
  • and how a product fit into the business model

Defining a model to score requirements will help you understand and rank what delivers the highest return for the least effort. We’ve invested velocity recently removing features resulting in significant improvements to user experience.

6. Over communicate
Agile provides quick iterations – it moves fast. Supporting functions such as Marketing and Design, require insight and runway to ensure plans are executed. Sales often need training and collateral – getting the latest information to the front line will likely help close deals. A Product team has the luxury of knowing most if not everything which is taking place within the sprint and is responsible for external communications. The accelerated pace significantly increases the need to keep stakeholders regularly informed. It is easy to assume everyone else is on page when this might not be the case. Other teams may not be able to support a release – this information upfront will help with planning.

Share planning, go to market strategies and roadmaps frequently. Articulate the market problems to all stakeholders (Sales, Marketing, Executive and Development). Get everyone aligned and work to enable these groups have sufficient information to answer their own questions.

Product Managers need to be scalable. Providing the context of market problems along with evidence of this problem in user personas and scenarios enables a development team to go above and beyond producing great products.

Hopefully this posts provides some valuable pointers for any product team looking to transition to Agile alongside their development team. I’ve certainly enjoyed the transition from waterfall to Agile and learnt some of these lessons along the way. Please share your thoughts using the comment box below.

Google+ Hits The Social Sweet Spot

Google+ lit up last week as comments and jokes bounced back and forth regarding the new user interface and the ‘mysterious’ white space to the right of the screen.

Perhaps more poignant in the battle for most Monthly Active Users (MAU) – a key measure of engagement used by social networks – is how Google positioned its social offering. Often tagged as ‘late-to-market’ Google+ has received both positive and negative reviews. Few, if any however, have taken into account Google’s positioning in the heavily desirable and untapped white space that exists between Social networks and Communities. It is this positioning along with the insatiable interest in all things social, which might just provide the key Google needs to unlock the powerful network effects of Facebook.

To explain this better, take a pen and draw a line on a piece of paper. Label one end, ‘Social network’ and the other ‘Community.’ Now start listing various social networks and communities next to the corresponding label. If we’re on the same page you should end up with something like this:

Social Networks are fundamentally different from Communities

Grouping these sites based on their core allows us to quickly visualize and separate the two models. The primary difference is best described as the glue that holds them together.

In a social network for example – a past, present or future relationship is what connects the members. In a community it’s a shared interest that brings people together. Think of a tennis club as an example of an offline community.

Today, with social media being one giant melting pot term, the two models are commonly interchanged and the fact that they are two models (and very different ones at that) is often lost or overlooked.

The large social networks and communities we use today are at the extreme ends of the scale creating an untapped space in the middle – essentially a foothold in both camps. These sites continue to invest considerable time and resources to nudge themselves more towards the center of the line suggesting a level of desirability held by the space – however given the difference in the models expecting this to happen overnight is akin to stopping an oil tanker on a dime.

While it is true that community can form within a social network and visa versa it’s very difficult for a social network to force or facilitate community and for a community to force or facilitate a social network. The reasons for this are based on both internal and external factors. Externally, the primary reason people join each are different, and internally the skills required to be successful are different. For example, community development is often counter-intuitive or at odds with the social networking business model. This could explain why Google allowed YouTube to be a standalone business and Mark Zuckerburg announced last week on his newsfeed, “We’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently.”

To date neither LinkedIn nor Facebook has seen runaway success in their community building efforts:

  • LinkedIn Groups are an attempt to build community however they continue to lack any community feel
  • Facebook Subscribe allows users to ‘follow’ another user based on an interest however they may have no relationship with.
  • Facebook Groups for Schools launched this month attempt to generate community within Facebook’s social network. To soon to tell but definitely worth watching.

Think of social network operators as brokers

The reason for the investment can be found in the words used by the fictional detective Lieutenant Columbo as he looks to solve a homicide, “follow the money.”

Social networks are interested in community as community tends to generate significant amounts of content (All Things Digital reported Instagram users upload more than 5 million photos a day and generate 81 comments per second, as of today the niche programming community site stackoverflow.com has generated 2,947,135 questions or almost 10m pieces of content based on an average of 2.35 answers per question.) As the age old adage goes, ‘content is king.’

The reason content is king is because when combined with demographic and behavioral information it provides unmatched opportunities for targeting based on a users digital body language. Social network and community operators are essentially the brokers between advertisers and consumers. It is at the point these two parties meet that revenue opportunities exist. It is no surprise therefore that the 2 of the largest players in social networking – Google and Facebook obtain the majority of their revenues from advertising and arguably you could include LinkedIn as it obtains 30% from advertising and 45% from recruiting tools – which is essentially doing the same thing – matching users with interested parties (recruiters as opposed to marketers).

Given social networks need communities for continued growth, adoption and engagement they essentially have 3 options to obtain them. We’ve seen all of these in action:

  1. Build – Google+, Facebook Groups for Schools, LinkedIn Groups
  2. Buy – Facebook and Instagram, Google and YouTube
  3. Partner – LinkedIn and Twitter.

Building takes time, buying requires care and diligence not to upset the foundation of community (see Instagram backlash) and partnering has its own risks given the intense competition in the space. Motorola employees may think back to the partnership with Apple after which Apple entered the phone business and almost destroyed Motorola’s handset division.

Google+ a foot in both camps

Google+ is interesting because in being late to the game, Google had the opportunity to assess the market and position itself in the center. Given both LinkedIn and Facebook have been heading in this direction – could this be the sweet spot for social?

Google+ blends both community and social networking together. As a member you can participate based on interest, a relationship or both. This capability is build from the ground up and is the very fabric of the experience – it is a first and certainly not an after thought requiring a re-architecture akin to changing the engine while traveling at 100mph. The intuitive ‘circles’ enables users to manage the relationships and control their overall experience.

Whilst this social sweet spot or ‘networked community’ for want of a better term is unchartered waters, it does provide a myriad of new opportunities and benefits to Google. Combine these with Google’s other well-adopted product lines such as Search, Gmail not forgetting the YouTube community and the possibilities begin to multiply.

As users look for consolidation of their social presence in addition to increased value/return, and advertisers look to increasingly segment and target the pro-sumers, Google+ becomes a very attractive offering.

Will focusing on the upcoming IPO distract Facebook? Will Facebook be able to address concerns regarding the large numbers of its user base switching to a yet to be monetized mobile experience? Will Google and Facebook be able to walk the line between keeping their member base happy and offering value/return to marketers? Will Google be able to exploit its positioning of Google+ as a ‘networked community’ and clarify their offering as a new social experience? Will Google be able to leverage the developer community to bolster its offering? Will Google win over businesses and consumers to help drive a potential network shift? Will Facebook double down and wow us with something insainly brilliant? Will Google’s diversified product portfolio provide the leverage it needs to break the intensely strong network effects of Facebook?

As these two titans battle out for most active users, perhaps LinkedIn will consider bolstering its community offerings with potential acquisition targets such as focus.com or Quora? We’ll find out the answers to these questions in the coming months – it’s going to be an interesting couple of years ahead.

This article was originally published exclusively on socialmediatoday.com and gained ~300 shares in the first 48 hours helping it become the top post on the site that week.