“Build an audience? Bah. I’m a nobody.”

Photo by NeONBRAND

“We all know we need to build an audience. Out-teach the competition. Collect those fans and emails before I even have something to sell, so when I do have something to sell, the money will come rolling in. Enough already. I haven’t accomplished anything. No one cares what I have to say. I can’t build an audience with this track record. And I’m a terrible teacher.”

I was a broke college student. I didn’t spend much besides getting the essentials, but money made during the summer, even working as much overtime as my boss would allow, evaporated quickly. The quintessential example of how broke I was — I rolled up to a gas station on my way to an interview for an internship, pumped the car full of gas, and went inside the station to get cash from the ATM.

Except there was no cash. My bank account was empty.

I was ashamed and embarrassed going back to my car asking to borrow money from my passenger. Thankfully she was already planning on giving me gas money for driving her to her own job interview.

I was eager for any job I could find that would alleviate my situation.

So when I realized I could become a teaching assistant (TA) even as an undergrad during my senior year, I jumped on it immediately. Free education. And a small monetary stipend.

Now, traditional TAs at a place like a huge University are mostly there to help augment a professor’s lectures and curriculum. Students usually go to a lecture 2–3 times a week and meet with a TA to get some homework help and take quizzes.

Imagine my fear then when they asked me to be a TA in this experimental program where I’d be these kids only teacher. There wouldn’t be a professor or lecture. They’d come to me 4 days a week and I’d be their only source of teaching chemistry.

I wasn’t a bad chemistry student. I was after all a chemical engineering major. But I was by no means the best chemistry student I knew. And I had zero experience teaching anyone anything. And these weren’t kids. They were freshmen and sophomores. They were me just a few years ago.

How was I possibly going to teach them anything?

There’s really not some long conflict here. I just started.

I picked up their assigned chemistry book, which was similar to the one I had when I took the course, and went through the chapters just like they would. I’d work out the problems on the weekends and see how well I understood the concepts myself, and then 4 days a week I’d get up to the blackboard and try to show them what I had just learned.

I wasn’t great. But I wasn’t awful. I helped some kids through the course who themselves didn’t think they could get through it. Received some decent reviews from the students. Was even invited back to teach the same course again the next semester.

But what this whole thing impressed on me was how valuable being a teacher is, even one who isn’t all that experienced and is struggling to teach at the same time. Of course, I’m not belittling how awesome the teachers are who have insane amounts of experience. My life has been incredibly touched by them. But we shouldn’t be intimidated by them so that we don’t even bother to start teaching ourselves.

We might not be the successes we have pictured in our heads, but that doesn’t matter to the person who’s trying to get past an obstacle we just recently got through. It doesn’t matter how young you are, there’s always someone younger who wishes they were exactly where you are with something, or someone older who’s just going through their learnings in a different order.

Building an audience and teaching your potential customers something isn’t the only path to running a business, but it sure is a good one. And, it isn’t as out of reach as you probably think.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

Make Better Content

Have you seen the latest Jake Paul Christmas music videos?

You probably know of Jake Paul. He’s the ridiculously popular YouTuber with 12 million subscribers. Not to mention the Twitter and Instagram fans and his previous run with the Disney Channel.

He got his start on Vine with funny videos and stunts. And though that genre of video is still very much what he’s known for, he also sprinkles in his help for others — the wishes he makes come true for his young fans or getting people out of their homes during the Houston floods.

Of course, it has to be noted that he’s controversial and polarizing. His neighbors were considering filing a class action suit because of the trouble he caused which included giant bonfires of his furniture burning in his empty pool.

This December, Jake released an entire holiday album with his original take on the 12 days of Christmas or Litmas.

They’re terrible.

But I’ll get back to that…

A week ago, another YouTuber blew up in attention. If you didn’t catch it in one of the many dozens of business magazines which covered this, you might have even seen it mentioned on SNL’s weekend update.

That YouTuber is Ryan. He’s 6. And he pulled in $11 million last year doing toy reviews on YouTube.

Ryan, like many of us on YouTube, started out with very little traction. Until he created a video of playing with 100+ toys he took out of a giant homemade egg shaped box. That video now has almost 1 billion views.

With the success of that and more videos, he has over 10 million subscribers, even above top YouTubers like Casey Neistat and iJustine.

Now, what lesson can you possibly draw from Ryan the 6 year old toy reviewer and Jake the “neighborhood hoodlum”?

I think if you pay very close attention to their content, you’ll see a trend.

It’s all aspirational.

Ryan’s whole channel is content for kids who’d love to be in the same position to open up 100 presents.

And though you might cringe watching Jake’s humor, who wouldn’t want to live in a mansion with a bunch of their friends enjoying life. Who wouldn’t want a dose of that carefree attitude he has. Who wouldn’t want the close relationship he’s had with his brother over the years (the current, and possibly fake, feud notwithstanding). All, while we watch escaping from some of the drudgery of our own lives.

Take that lens and find some of the other successful content on YouTube. You’ll see so much of it linked — the unboxing videos, the product reviews, the tips on doing your makeup and hair — “Here is something or some skill I have that you aspire to. Let me show you what it’s like. Let me show you how to get it yourself.”


a hope or ambition of achieving something

Of course there’s a darkside to this. They’re are plenty of people flashing their lifestyles and fancy cars for little benefit to the viewer just to rack up views and ad dollars. Jake Paul can sometimes be found guilty of this. Shoot, I know I can be guilty of this, showing people how much fun I had today and cherry picking the good stuff.

But I spend quite a bit of effort making sure the work I produce on my YouTube channel isn’t just some thin veneer or shill for a product. It isn’t some brag fest of how awesome my life is. I try to open up about the real challenges I go through everyday raising a toddler and growing a business.

Then I try to show the things that have helped me get past those obstacles. The patience, technology, or decisions. And it just so happens there’s a new problem everyday. You should have seen last night’s toddler fit. Maybe I’ll include it in a vlog episode soon 🙂

I think if you lead from a place of creating more aspirational content, helping others obtain or achieve something, you’ll see that content reach much further than the work that focuses on outrage, opinions, or humour alone.

What skill or quality do you have that people aspire to have? I don’t care if you feel like the most unsuccessful person in the world, there’s something you can do or recently learned, that someone else wishes they could get too. Even if you just learned to get the most basic Ruby on Rails application running, someone out there wishes to learn. Even if you just learned how valuable white space is in a design, someone out there can’t wait to get even that far. Even if you’re a three year old, you just learned something the two year olds who come after you wish they knew.

Go help people who aspire to be better versions of themselves and they’ll help you get better too.

Merry Christ(Lit)mas and Happy Holidays everyone. I hope you have the chance to spend the time with family and friends. If there’s anything I can ever be helpful with, please don’t hesitate to ask. Email me anytime (nate@highrisehq.com). Or Twitter.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.


How do you know when it’s time to quit?

We all know people all over the spectrum. Someone who’s been working on something forever that’s never going to work out. And someone who quits every project they start before giving it a fair chance. Then we have those friends who seem to have the magical instinct to know when to quit and when to stick with it until it takes off.

So how do you know when to quit? 3 months? A year? Is there some signal to look for?

Here’s something that’s been nagging the crap out of me. I can’t get an article published in Entrepreneur. I’ve tried. Three times. More than that actually since I’ve re-pitched articles working from the editor’s feedback.

The editor just doesn’t like my stuff. No amount of traction from previous work moves his opinion.

But I’d love to continue growing my audience and Entrepreneur seems like such a great fit.

Do I give up?

Most of us have a lot of goals inside our head.

For me I want that article in Entrepreneur. I want more subscribers on my YouTube channel. I want to grow Highrise. I want to be my own boss. I want to spend as much time as humanly possibly with my family.

All these goals are a jumble inside our own heads. But the goals aren’t all of equal importance. And that’s the first problem we have before deciding to quit something.

Angela Duckworth offers a framework to help sort through your goals, in her book Grit, that’s deceptively simple and incredibly useful.

It’s a bit like a ladder. On the bottom are the smaller goals of less importance. Bigger ones above them. One or more of the goals below often support the ones above.

The Entrepreneur article is probably way down here.

While ensuring more time with family is at the top.

Here’s the magic of the ladder. As you go up, the goals should be things that you consider harder and harder to quit.

I should make sure I spend every last drop of energy and willpower I have to ensure I have the ability to spend more time with my family.

And Highrise, is, of course, of insane importance to me. But I should consider it easier to quit than say maximizing time with family.

As you go down the ladder, you realize getting an article in Entrepreneur is one of things I should probably consider the easiest to give up.

And here’s more magic with the ladder. Not only are the lower things on the ladder easier to quit, they’re easier to replace.

There are tons of small goals to replace that damn article in Entrepreneur. I could change my focus to getting published in Inc. Or spend more time on YouTube videos.

The middle goals are harder and harder to replace but they’re still replaceable. There’s nothing to replace more time with my family.

So when you start asking about when it’s time to quit something, hopefully you’ve done this exercise and at least figured out that jumble of goals in your head. This thing you’re trying to quit, is it of low importance serving the needs of the actual higher goal? Is it then easy to replace to move focus to higher rungs in the ladder?

It’s not a magic formula for which projects to quit after trying hard for 6 months, etc.

But it sure is the right place to start.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

Getting Attention

I had a vague inkling of an idea for a company in 2005. A friend of mine mentioned this new program called Y Combinator that was investing in teams willing to move to Silicon Valley and build out their ideas.

We were older (by a bunch) than the college/new grads they seemed to be targeting. We didn’t have any traction yet. Even the thing I wanted to build was based on algorithms in academic papers I hadn’t yet been able to make any sense of.

All we had was the idea and a rough prototype.

But we got invited to an interview to meet the partners in Boston.

I didn’t like our chances…

I’ve always loved magic. I still remember my first magic set. We lost the scarf immediately. It took us days to realize the scarf had vanished in the secret compartment it was supposed to vanish in.

Over the years I kept dabbling in magic as a hobby.

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my father came up with the idea that I should ask my old kindergarten teacher if I could perform my magic act in front of her classroom.

I remember seeing the teacher on the playground during a recess we shared with her class.

I wussed out.

I was too embarrassed. But, telling my father I didn’t have the courage was worse than the embarrassment, so when the opportunity presented itself again, I walked up to her, and nervously asked.

She agreed. I performed a magic act in front of her class and it went over pretty well.

Fast forward to High School. I love playing basketball, but didn’t get picked for the Freshman team. So my dad told me to ask the coach if I could practice with the team in case they needed extra bodies.

I thought I was going to die walking into that coach’s office with my heart pounding this fast. The coach was nice, but said “No” to my offer. It wasn’t the answer I wanted of course.

But I didn’t die from the embarrassment.

Both examples were practice at putting myself out there and ignoring all the possible embarrassment I could be putting myself in.

When I got out of college I was a glorified secretary at Accenture (Andersen Consulting back then). They didn’t hire me to be a software engineer like I wanted because I had zero training in software engineering. I was a chemical engineer. My job was to record meeting minutes and make sure people signed documents. I hated it.

So besides the countless late nights learning to make things with software, I also started a habit of emailing random partners ideas I had. Like how convenience stores could start shipping things from store to door or that we shouldn’t have to wait in line at amusement parks or how to try on clothes online with just a camera. Just vague, naive ideas (though to my credit they do all exist today in some form).

I’d use the global email directory to find partners at the firm who might be interested. The guy who had the relationship with 7–11. The one who was in charge of the Disney account. The one who was doing projects with Gap.

What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe they’d ignore me. Maybe they’d reply that the ideas were terrible. Maybe they’d even fire me. Unlikely, but sure. The most likely result was that I’d be embarrassed.

But I’ve been embarrassing myself for years thanks to my Dad. 🙂

One of my emails was forwarded to someone already doing some R&D for retail clients like Gap and he invited me into his office. He gave me a job doing software development in his R&D group at Accenture.

How’d I get into Y Combinator? Well, I passed the interview process just like anyone else that gets into Y Combinator. They might have liked the prototype we built. They might have liked our design aesthetic.

But there’s one thing that I think helped a lot.

The night before our interview, my partner and I went to get dinner at an Indian restaurant near Harvard Square. As we were finishing up dinner, all the partners of Y Combinator walked in.

I was sweating right through my shirt when I walked up to their table as we were leaving. I introduced us and mentioned we’d be meeting them in the morning.

It was just a tiny thing. It took seconds. Didn’t measurably do anything for us. But it added a bit of attention to the partners’ minds the next day. And when those Y Combinator interviews are only 10 minutes long, you can use anything you can to help get their attention.

Want to get attention? Embarrass yourself. Ship a product people might hate or criticize you for. Introduce yourself to someone who could by all probability just ignore you. Publish something no one might read. Yes, your pride takes a hit after the rejections, but you’ll still be walking this earth. You do enough of these and those rejections start to roll off.

Do even more of them and they get people’s attention.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

How to make my company big

How do we get bigger? Get more money? Grow the team? Get bigger office space? More clients?

My three year old daughter has been literally dreaming of going to a magic show. So we went to the first one that crossed our path and seemed relatively kid-appropriate.

I regretted going immediately.

The tickets were general admission. We got there early just to wait in long line. The heat was cranked up. I had to lug around our winter gear while trying to entertain my kid as her boredom progressed.

Sitting in the theater made the regret stronger.

A larger ballroom had some of those temporary moveable walls inside to make smaller rooms. We were in a smaller room.

I’ve been doing and watching magic my whole life. I’ve seen the David Copperfield and Penn & Tellers. This wasn’t any of those.

It felt claustrophobic.

And then there was the stage. There weren’t many rows of people. We were in row 8. But there’s no way we were going to see this magician with the heads in front of me.

A woman in the next row had already pulled out binoculars.

Here’s hoping my three year old would cooperate because getting out of our seats was going to be a very public ordeal.

I had dreams of my first startup getting huge. I had created Inkling with Y Combinator back in 2006 and my vision was that everyone would want to use us to help make decisions.

It didn’t turn out that way.

It turned out that gathering the wisdom of the crowd is most valuable to people who have really big crowds. Banks. Conglomerates. One of our best customers was the US Government.

So we didn’t get the crazy amount of customers I imagined. But I knew our customers extremely well. We’d travel to visit their offices. We’d have a meetup where we’d hang out for a couple days and have intimate meals together. One customer came over to my partner’s house and we brainstormed all day together. And if I remember right, that customer slept on my partner’s couch that night.

We don’t have those same relationships with customers at Highrise. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I try. I converse at length with many customers who email me, or comment about something we’re doing on Twitter or YouTube. I’ve had talks with customers not just about work but about their families and struggles. And I’d like to have a meetup soon.

But because of the scale of people, it’s hard to concentrate the attention like we did at Inkling.

At one point early in the magic show the doors to the room opened up again for some late comers. It distracted everyone. The late comers were stuck standing near the door instead of trying to find seats worried they’d cause even more interruption.

But here’s an example of how different his show was.

The magician, Ivan Amodei, paused and asked his staff to make sure the standing room crowd got seated in empty seats he spotted on the other side of the room.

This isn’t something you’d see most magicians, or any performer really, handle gracefully in larger shows with these types of distractions.

My fear about the magic show was replaced with, “Woah, this guy is doing something different.”

He bounded through the center aisle talking with people. It didn’t matter you couldn’t see the stage great because he was constantly on a chair or in the aisle showing off things. He had all of us standing up as part of various tricks.

Then my worst fear about my daughter started. 3 year olds don’t have the same social graces as we do. She began to squirm and talk about leaving.

But she snapped out of that when Ivan came through the crowd asking everyone for loose change.

When Ivan saw my daughter holding out her fist with coins, he stopped and conversed with her about her age. She was shy and not talking and I thought he’d leave quick.

But he kept at it. Getting her to finally tell him her age. Then he started giving her some of the coins he’d already collected making sure her tiny fists were as full as he could make them.

He then mentioned her multiple times later in the show.

Even the stories behind the magic had a personal touch that included stories of his kids.

It finally dawned on me why the name of his show was “Intimate Illusions”.

Ivan wasn’t in this small room because he was still hoping to be this bigger magician. Ivan was small on purpose.

He used that small room as a tool.

I look at the fun my daughter has at three.

The freedom she has to explore and experience that she won’t have when she’s 30. And I remember the strengths we had with just a handful of customers at Inkling that are much more difficult to recreate at Highrise.

Also note, Ivan isn’t just getting started. He’s been winning awards for his performances in 1995. His current show alone has been going on for over 8 years.

He could easily sell out larger crowds. But he’d lose the feel of this show.

Ivan isn’t small because he can’t be big. He’s small because Ivan uses small and intimate as a strength.

If your business is small or just starting out, don’t let these days of small pass through your hands in your desire to get big. Just remember how much you’ll lose too.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

How Domino’s Pizza Stands Out In A World Awash In Pizza

Domino’s Pizza was in the spotlight of the Wall Street Journal the other day. It was a front page story on the success of the Domino’s mobile app allowing you to track your order from start to delivery.

Over 480,000 people have left reviews on the Apple app store giving it 4.8 stars out of 5.

In the modern world, we continue to have more and more options for things like coffee, rides to the airport, clothes, and pizza. And as we get more and more options, they just become noise.

Domino’s though has been successful at breaking through with a signal. Why?

There are two very big lessons to take from the pizza chain and one potential pitfall.

Open Up

Giselle Auger, an assistant professor at Rhode Island College, involved 290 participants in a study on the effect of transparent organizations. It probably doesn’t shock you that the more transparent these organizations were to the outside world, the more people were willing to do business with them.

One reason the Domino’s app works so well is it opens up a process of their business that used to be closed. Before you’d wait at home hungry, wondering when food might arrive. Now you might at least have some satisfaction knowing it’s being made or on the way. It’s transparent. We know what’s going on. It establishes trust. And we tell others how great it is.

I’ve taken this lesson about opening up very seriously. I now host a YouTube Channel where I share a video every single day. Sometimes it’s just answering questions on how we run our business, design software, write articles, or make decisions. And other days it’s more about how hard it is for me to balance life and work. You’re likely to find us nursing a sick toddler (who might be throwing up in the background), so we can all get back to sleep.

Make Connections

Speaking of tired parents, Domino’s just launched a baby registry so that friends and family of new parents can get them something they so very much need — easy, convenient food. It’s tough cooking while exhausted from keeping a newborn alive.

Crazy experiment? Not really. Domino’s launched a wedding registry earlier this year that went very well.

Where most companies are out trying to automate offers and emails to the largest number of buyers they can find, Domino’s is trying to connect with customers during the most important events in their lives. Their wedding. Their kid’s birth.

This is another lesson we strive to mimic at Highrise. Instead of sending bulk robo template emails to new customers welcoming them to our product, I personalize the email every single day. Even if there’s just a little something in there about my weekend or current day when my kid is home sick, it results in tons of replies back with well wishes or consolations about another terrible Chicago Bears loss. 🙂 And best of all, sometimes it results in a customer opening up right back.

We also lookup new customers and record an individual welcome video through a tool called Bonjoro. It obviously doesn’t scale well to do this with thousands of new customers. But we do as many as we can because the connection we make can’t be beat.

As I write this, however, I’m inspired to do so much more at Highrise to address these same things Domino’s has. Internally here at Highrise, the team has used our own product (a simple CRM) to organize weddings and baby showers. Celebrating these events better with our customers would be a fun connection.

Great Responsibility…

The WSJ coverage of Domino’s this week though hasn’t all been roses. The title after all was “Domino’s Tracking App Tells You Who Made Your Pizza — Or Does It?”

It included a story of a guy tracking his pizza order with Domino’s. The app displayed that Melinda was delivering his pizza. When he answered the door to receive his pizza from Melinda, the delivery driver definitely wasn’t Melinda.

So what? Maybe there was a bug in the app. Maybe the drivers switched orders. Maybe Melinda is just some clever little ruse of the app that was finally uncovered. Does it really matter?

In that same article, another Domino’s customer, Alecia Smith from North Carolina describes a time the Domino’s tracking app told her the pizza was on its way. Knowing where the pizza was coming from it should have taken 20 minutes to arrive. It took over 50.

But it wasn’t that the pizza took an extra 30 minutes. She was concerned because the pizza was still piping hot as if it really hadn’t been made over 50 minutes ago. Had the app lied? Alecia described this experience as “traumatic”.

Once you starting developing this trust with your customers and creating these more human connections, the result of breaking them is well… more human.

It’s one thing when an app crashes on you on your phone. It’s another when people feel betrayed and manipulated.

Trust and connection still occur too seldomly between organizations and customers. When established, the results are incredible and they feel good on both sides. But if you fake these elements, it’ll bite you when it’s uncovered. And given the internet’s world wide web of amateur sleuthing and sharing, you should assume: it’s always uncovered.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

Before You Launch A Startup, Learn This

Photo by Lisa Brewster

My 2011 startup with Y Combinator imploded, largely because we couldn’t get enough traction. What was I going to do next? And more importantly, how was I going to avoid repeating my mistakes?

A couple weeks ago my wife was out of town, so my three year old daughter and I had our weekend together. We went to see My Little Pony.

I enjoyed it. Lots of great voice actors. Including Sia! She pretty much plays herself as a pony. Similar hair/wig style, and she sings in it.

My daughter was traumatized.

Well that’s a bit strong. Let’s just say she was in my lap the whole time worried about what was going to happen to those damn ponies. But she’d stop covering her eyes and be right back in the movie. Only to again fear for the ponies lives.

There’s something interesting there. How did this movie succeed at capturing her attention so well? So much so that she’d be afraid but go right back to being engrossed?

Robert McKee is a popular teacher of screenwriting. A well read book of his is “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone pursuing writing of any kind.

But there’s one bit in there that will instantly improve your ability to tell stories, write, vlog — make anything, really.

A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and ACHIEVED THROUGH CONFLICT.

That’s it. That’s the nugget that all good stories revolve around. An entire film, according to McKee, is 40–60 of these story events. And what is that “value”?

Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.

Human experience. Love/hate. Anger/peace. Fear/calm. Alive/dead. And so many more.

Telling people a story is all about showing how someone goes through conflict and changes the “charge” of those human conditions. They start out in love and end up in hate. They start out broke and end up wealthy through a bunch of difficult terrain.

That’s what keeps us in our seat.

Toy Story does this so well. Go watch Pixar’s work. Every minute there’s a value change. They’re happy, now their sad. They’re safe, now they’re not. Now they are. Now they aren’t again.

My kid was glued to her seat at My Little Pony because their writers also know this basic tenet of interesting writing and storytelling.

The ponies were in a wonderful stupor setting up for a party. Now terrible danger and monstrous creatures ruin their lives. Now they’re running. Now they’re safe. Now they’re at death’s door again.

And when you think about the boring drivel you read or hear all too often — maybe it’s your friend talking about work, or someone going on about their day — I bet it’s because there’s simply no conflict, and even more so, there’s no value change. They went from doing well at work to still doing well at work. They went from depressed to still depressed.

Of course there’s a ton more to practice and learn about the craft of telling good stories — things like the Hero’s journey or three act structures — but just get this little part right from McKee and you’ll already 10x the stuff you write and tell people about.

It’s happened for me. I went from that miserable failure of a startup to realizing I needed to get better at audience building before my next venture. And so I practiced my craft of writing and storytelling on my blog. One article a week. Tell a good story. Me or someone else figuring out some problem through some conflict. My audience grew.

And that audience grew to support my next project, Draft, which turned out rather successful in a crowded market of writing software. And then someone in that audience picked me to take over the business they were spinning off, Highrise. Mostly, all because I finally learned to capture people’s attention better through storytelling.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Marketing Jobs?

Oh the promise of sophisticated analytics and artificial intelligence to automatically send current and potential customers the exact right email at the exact right time to get them to buy more things.

I just perused a food delivery service this week and started the signup process before abandoning. The robots dutifully sent me follow-ups with coupons and welcome messages to convince me to become a customer.

It’s no doubt effective when it’s done right. But I think it blinds most people trying to market their business to something even more important.

Do you drink coffee? I bet you do. Afterall, 83% of the adult population does.

It’s no wonder we do. Apart from being addictive it’s also convenient and it’s customized. Coffee historians call these the waves of coffee.

Before 1850 people were grinding and roasting coffee themselves. The first wave was Folgers in a can; the second wave was Starbucks. You could now get coffee anyway you wanted and it was in itself a destination.

So what’s the third wave of coffee? You go to a third wave coffee house like Stumptown or Intelligentsia, and there’s a good chance you can meet a coffee farmer walking around sampling their latest harvest. You can sign up for classes with your favorite barista. Come in once a week, and they’ll name your favorite drink after you.

The third wave is all about making a deep and personal connection with your customers.

The funny thing about these three waves is that once you understand them, you see them everywhere. Beer. Baking. Even carpentry. Watch any reality shows about a family building houses?

One example that caught my eye recently was a young girl who had an early talent for music. Her family wanted to give her every chance to further her career, so they moved from Philadelphia to Nashville in 2003. Things didn’t take off immediately. But after a couple years, someone discovered our musician singing in a cafe and soon signed her up for her first record deal.

She took off. She can sell out crowds instantly now.

But the thing I’m most impressed about is her understanding of how music has evolved. Just like coffee. Music used to be hard to listen to. You’d have to expensively and inconveniently attend an event somewhere.

Until the phonograph was invented. That was music’s first wave. Music became convenient. You could buy something and listen to it in your home.

Radio was the second wave. Now you could have music everywhere and pick and choose the stations you wanted. Complete customization.

But where’s the third wave?

If you go to our young musicians YouTube channel, you can find a video of her celebrating Christmas. But it’s not with her family, it’s with her fans. She painstakingly wraps present after present. Her apartment is a complete mess of boxes, wrapping paper, and bubble wrap. And then she proceeds to not only ship these packages to her fans, but she delivers them herself, surprising people who thought they were waiting for some random UPS driver.

Her fans are ecstatic. Everyone’s screaming and crying. You don’t have to be one of these young fans to have the heartwarming feelings roll over you too.

This young musician epitomizes the third wave of music. We’ve evolved from convenience and customization to now wanting personal connections with the artists who matter to us. It’s not just about getting a signature. We want to talk to them on social media. Watch the behind the scenes of their lives. Get them to read our Tweets or comment on our Instas.

My daughter was extra special the other day coming home from school and I wanted to surprise her with a treat. There’s a bakery we go by that has macarons, her favorite. But we passed the place up. Why?

Because there’s another bakery a bit further away, whose owners, a mom and her talented baker of a daughter, have become friends of ours. They tell us about their lives and struggles, and we share ours.

They didn’t have to blast me with email or laser targeted artificial intelligence campaigns. They just needed to be human. And it won our loyalty and repeat business.

Our young musician hasn’t lost her touch with this even a few years after that Christmas video. Even just this past week, she had 500 fans over to her home in Rhode Island for private listening parties of her newest album. And this past week as I write this, Taylor Swift released her latest, Reputation.

And truth be told, I still haven’t become a customer of that food delivery service despite the robo emails. But I own all of Taylor Swift’s work.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

(This article originally appeared on Quora)

Simple trend?

Photo by Priwo

It’s getting to be that season of 2018 trend spotting. Someone recently asked me if I saw a trend in software becoming simpler…

I was a kid and my father oddly started coming home late at night from work. Worried, I asked my mom what he was up to. She told me he was working “overtime”.

My dad, a commercial real estate agent, was putting in extra hours to close some deals so he could afford to buy our first VCR and microwave.

And when he did, they were glorious. I couldn’t wait to go to the video store with my dad. My family would sit in front of the TV each with our own bowl of popcorn. Everything was right with the world.

Except, one thing.

The clock was always blinking. If the VCR ever lost power, and I wasn’t around to set the clock, my parents couldn’t ever figure out how to set the thing. Which was far from uncommon.

In 1990, almost one-third of VCR owners reported that they had never set the clock on the machine. –Robert Proctor, professor of psychology at Purdue University

It only gets worse.

In most surveys, the majority of people have never time-shifted just because they don’t know how to program their [VCRs]. –Tom Adams, television analyst

Most people who owned these innovative devices couldn’t benefit from one of the main features of the product — recording a show for later.

It’s no wonder TiVos and their kind took off. TiVos could connect to the internet and program themselves. Sure pausing live TV was huge, but even better — people didn’t have to learn how to set the damn clock.

Do I see a trend of software becoming simpler? Yes and no.

Let’s look at cars. Many people think Ford’s Model T was the “first car”. It wasn’t. Or they think it was the first mass produced car. It wasn’t that either.

One of the big reasons for its success however was because it was simple to fix. Owners could often fix it themselves and buy parts at hardware stores. Handy, especially when the concept of car mechanics wasn’t widespread yet.

You’re not fixing your car today. They’ve become exponentially more complex. But, now there’s a push back to simpler cars. Tesla simplified the dashboard by removing most of it. And if your Tesla needs improvements, many things can now just happen automatically with software updates. Like “Chill” mode that was released yesterday which provides a smoother, gentler ride.

Or look at CRMs. We have plenty of people who come to Highrise because they need something simple for their small business. They don’t need to learn another thing on top of the billion other things they’re juggling to run their business. But a couple years go by and Salesforce catches their eye. It’s got a ton of reports that might improve their business. Artificial intelligence!? Who doesn’t need that we’re told.

But then we see many of these Salesforce jumpers, come right on back to Highrise. “We realized we didn’t need all that stuff. The new things just got in the way.”

So, if you’re trying to strategize on what’s going to be trendy in business and software next year, I wouldn’t worry about “simple”. It might not be as buzzy today as it was yesterday, but it’s always in.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

Rules of Business

Photo by Daniela Rey

Someone asked me if I had any rules of business I follow. I have quite a few, but I shared a handful with them.

Learn to tell a story

I have a three year old daughter. At night she pleads for a story I make up before she goes to bed. After food and shelter were taken care of, it’s wild how important stories became. When you make something, no matter what you create, success often depends on your ability to tell a good story.

Don’t wait to build an audience

Who are you going to tell that story to? Too many start their businesses backwards. They wait years for THE idea. Make it. Now, have the stress of finding people who care. Reverse it. Start finding people who care now. Build an audience while you’re still flailing around. You’ll be glad you didn’t waste the time upfront.

Play it long

Many of us fear we’ve peaked. We’ve reached the pinnacle of our creative endeavors. However, a study of musical composers showed the creative quality of their work didn’t decline over time. Quantity did. If you feel you’re past your best, nonsense. The most creative amongst us keep producing long after the rest of us have given up.

Do your worst

Beethoven’s most popular work today is not the work Beethoven thought was his best. Trey Parker, the creator of South Park, feels every episode they complete is, “the worst episode we’ve ever done.” As creators we are terrible predictors and judges of our own work. Just put it out there, even if it’s your worst.

Make business personal

One day my daughter made an extra special effort and I wanted to treat her. Instead of the very capable bakery nearby, we went out of our way to a bakery whose owners made the effort to get to know us. They say business isn’t personal, but business is all people. Don’t be afraid to share yourself with your customers and employees.

Hire designated survivors

The US government has a succession plan when leaders gather: a designated survivor in a remote location. Most businesses are too reliant on a single founder. Something goes wrong, the business can’t continue. It’s also stress. If you’re the only one keeping the most important balls in the air, it weighs on you. Hire people who can be the boss.

And remember, no one knows anything

I’ve been running my own businesses for 12 years. Been in Y Combinator twice. Met the top VC firms. Befriended insanely successful founders. And I’ve never met someone who knows what they’re doing. Instead, they know how to make decisions when the rest of us stall in debate. And when they make a wrong one, they make more decisions.

Those are just a few. If you’d like more you should definitely follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.