Look elsewhere

Entrance to the theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Spring Green, WI.

Don’t stare at your industry. Look in the opposite direction.

Have you noticed that Instagram has been looking more and more like Snapchat lately (of course you have)? When companies compete, they tend to borrow from each other. It’s one big, paranoid loop.

In software, people often turn to Apple for design inspiration. It makes sense — the company is wildly successful, it defines trends, and it pushes envelopes. But copying Apple doesn’t make you a trendsetter or a rule breaker. It makes you a follower. When everyone mimics Apple, everything tends to look the same. Apple’s clean and simple aesthetic is Apple’s — it’s not yours.

So here’s my advice: Look outward. Turn away from your industry and venture beyond the business world for inspiration. If you’re about to make software, instead of checking out the Top 10 apps in the App Store, try looking through a book on architecture.

Better yet, find a building that moves you and walk through it. Spend time understanding it. How do people flow from one part of the building to another? Is there signage? How do you know where you are in the building? How do you feel when you look at it from across the street? How does that feeling change when you walk inside? How do you feel when you leave?

All those experiences and observations relate to designing software. It’s about thinking through an experience, not drawing exact parallels. For example, bronze elevator doors tell you there’s a heft and heaviness and seriousness to the building. They make you feel secure. Contrast that with flimsy elevator doors that shake when they close, which gives you a sense of unease. How does your software make someone feel?

When I’m designing software, I try to draw from a variety of influences, including:


Want to find colors and patterns and shapes that go well together? Stop looking at catalogs of print designs or stock photos — look at trees and flowers and insects and animals. Their designs have been perfected over millions of years. They have beauty and utility figured out by now.


At their most basic, they all do the same thing — tell time with just three components: a minute hand, an hour hand, and markers on the dial. It turns out there are thousands of variations to accomplish this simple task, so don’t tell me there are only a few ways to display photos in your app.


I love looking at well-designed dashboards, instrument clusters, door handles, switches, and buttons. There’s so much to learn about what feels right and what falls flat. Sounds are telling as well — the engine, the snick of a manual shift, the click of the turn signal, the confident thud of a door that closes snug and tight. Those are all design features.


A chair is such a basic device, but it can take thousands of forms. What does it feel like to sit in a chair that is nailed together, versus one that is glued or joined? What does a cotton-webbing seat feel like compared with wicker? Arms at different heights — or no arms at all?

The details may be different in software, but the feelings are the same. Other companies may prefer a serious museum look, and there are plenty of products that resemble museum pieces. But if you want something that’s comfortable and welcoming, Basecamp’s going to be more your speed. It has a “come on in and get cozy,” living room feel, not a cold, modern, “don’t touch it or you’ll mess stuff up” vibe.

So figure out what objects and places inspire you and immerse yourself in them. Pay attention to those details. Then, instead of imitating competitors, you just might find your voice.

This article also appeared in the June 2017 issue of Inc. Magazine.

Trade shows — Tips from our first effort

In 1844, Pabst Blue Ribbon was founded. They were a big player in the beer industry selling 18 million barrels of beer a year at peak in 1980. But then, things got bad. They went through two decades of losing sales. In 2001, they sold fewer than a million barrels of beer.

Something had to change.

And in 2001, something did. The company noticed an odd uptick of Pabst sales in Portland, Oregon. When they dug in, they saw their beer was popular amongst people who enjoyed PBR because it was outside the norm. PBR didn’t market themselves like Bud Light and Miller Lite. There weren’t fancy commercials or glossy ads.

Highrise isn’t in that much different of a spot. We’re an old brand. One of the first online CRM products out there. Given our age, there’s an insane amount of competition, especially from venture backed folks spending money unprofitably attempting to acquire market share.

I’d like to kick our growth into a new gear. Is there an analogy to what Pabst found? Maybe.

During our intense series of customer interviews that dug into the jobs people accomplish with Highrise, we noticed people kept mentioning: trade shows. Over and over again we’d see a user say something like “After the trade show I was stressed out because I didn’t know what to do with this spreadsheet of leads.”

Is that our Portland, Oregon?

It’s definitely worth exploring. So we’ve started digging into trade shows. Going to some. Running a booth at another. We want to find out what makes trade shows tick. Are there inefficiencies we can help more with? Or opportunities to meet more people exhibiting?

The first tradeshow we’ve exhibited at was here in Chicago — The Small Business Expo at UIC.

I’d say it turned out rather well for us. Talked with a ton of people about Highrise. And we learned a lot about how trade shows work.

Here are a handful of things we noticed that might help you with your own effort at doing a trade show:

Move the table

When we arrived to setup our booth, everyone’s booth space was setup the same. A table in front of your space, and about 10 by 10 of space behind the table for you to put your signs, etc. But there’s no reason to keep the table there.

Alison Groves here at Highrise had the great idea to simply move the table to the side.

That made our space much more inviting to come up to, and also gave us the opportunity to get closer to the aisle of people walking by and interact with them.

Too many vendors simply stood behind their tables and they weren’t getting conversation with attendees.

Stand out

A great book I’ve recently read is Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards. In a nutshell, one of her key lessons is do or say something unique, or people won’t remember or notice you in a context like a trade show. Everyone looks the same.

She mentioned she’d pass out Pop Rocks at trade shows since no one else would pass out such an odd kind of candy. Everyone’s got mints.

I blatantly copied her idea. We had Pop Rocks at our booth. As people walked by I’d ask, “Want some Pop Rocks?” (Definitely a more attention grabbing question than “Want a mint like everyone else has?”)

Another thing we did that stood out (almost inadvertently) was pass out Lip Balm. We put our name on these blue balls you would unscrew to get Lip Balm.

The blue ball looked like a mini stress ball. People would come over, we’d hand them a ball, and they’d start trying to squeeze it. When that didn’t feel right, a whole conversation would start. “What is this thing?”

Bingo. We’re talking.

Lip Balm also isn’t an easy thing to say or hear in a loud room. A ton of people thought I said, “Want a Lip Ball”. So I got a ton of “What’s a Lip Ball!?”

Again a conversation starter.

It’s funny how well this worked. And was almost an accident. But just adds more evidence to the fact that you need to figure out ways to get people to notice you at the show. Even if it isn’t completely related to your product, you need to get conversations started.

Once people were stopped to try and figure out why I handed them a hard stress ball, or a “Lip Ball”, they were now super curious what we did and wanted to hear more.

Better than networking for the introverted

I’m one of the most introverted people I know. There was a networking breakfast event just before the trade show started. And I ended up ditching it as soon as I saw the crowd.

I don’t like “networking”.

But the trade show was easy for me.

With some swag in my hand it was easy to simply reach out to people walking by asking if they wanted a gift of Pop Rocks or Lip Balm. I wasn’t selling anything. I was just passing out some free fun thing they might enjoy.

Once they stopped, conversations flowed naturally from there. It wasn’t the awkward banter that feels so unnatural when meeting a group of strangers.

Do fewer signs

You think you need three signs? You don’t. One will be plenty. We had 3 made. And I don’t exactly regret it, but it took a lot of time and I’m handy with design tools. If you aren’t, I’d just stick to the minimum that will get you by.

Use fewer words

People went through this trade show like they would rather be somewhere else. Very few people seemed to want to huddle around anything and read all the copy some clever people spent countless hours crafting for their signs. 🙂

Keep the signs simple. More words = worse. People are breezing by and won’t spend much time trying to figure out if you are interesting.

Plan for the future

One regret I have is about our signage. I made it a little too specific about the particular event we were at, mentioning: “Having too many leads”. That’s a job some of our customers have, but it’s a bit too specific in all trade show settings we might want to visit. I should have thought about how these signs can serve us at shows in the future just a little bit more.

Have plenty of material to hand out to attendees

Business cards aren’t enough. People really wanted some kind of thing they could take away about who we were and where they could get more info. I’m glad we also had Postcard sized flyers printed up with more about us to hand out. We got them all printed up at Moo.com. And we burned through a bunch of them.

Just Do One

I’ve been doing so much in the last few months discovering how to fit into people’s heads about what we do as a business. And I still got a ton out of attending this trade show and talking to strangers who wanted to know more about us.

The exercise forced us to figure out, on the spot, how to resonate with each person. It also opened up our minds to how people talk about their business and what they are out there looking for.

I’d recommend most businesses should exhibit at a trade show at least once. Even if it doesn’t have a positive ROI, it’s a valuable exercise that gets you out talking with real strangers learning what’s in their head and how to fit in.

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You should follow my YouTube channel, 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 no-hassle system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.