Monday, November 11, 2013

The Power of Surprise

Humans love to be surprised (as long as the surprise isn't a nasty shock). As thinking creatures, our ability to develop an accurate working model of the world depends on our ability to spot the unexpected. Surprise is a great mechanism for rewarding that ability.

Wharton conducted a study of viral videos.  They had research subjects watch videos that either generated about 1 million views, or 100 million views.  The key difference between the two groups was that the 100 million view videos involved something surprising.

I see the same thing in startup pitches.  The most effective pitches involve saying something like, "You probably don't know this, but...." The surprise is key.  Every investor hopes that a company has discovered a rich market that seems obvious in hindsight, but which others have overlooked.  Being surprised by a pitch is one of the key indicators of such an opportunity.

So as you prepare your pitch, ask yourself what's surprising about you and your business.  It should probably be one of your key selling points.

Before fixing a mistake, ask yourself if it matters:

If nature abhors a vacuum, startup people abhor mistakes. Most of us got to where we are via a long chain of good grades and aggressive action, which means our instinctive reaction is to attack mistakes like a hungry piranha.

And that itself is a mistake.

It feels good to jump into action, to examine the options, to make a decision, and to execute.  But that doesn't make it effective.

Stephen Covey warned against our innate tendency to focus on the urgent, to the potential detriment of what's important.  He wrote about the neglect of Quadrant 2 activities (important, but not urgent).

Every startup is rife with mistakes; your team could spend all its time fixing them without actually getting anything important accomplished.

As the entrepreneur and leader, you need to resist your own instincts and avoid giving in to the natural and comfortable urge to jump into problem solving.  It might feel uncomfortable, but it will also help you succeed.

The Secret to Facebook is Content

I have never been an avid Facebook user.  Quick posts and personal notes have never been my metier; my Twitter feed essentially acts as an RSS feed of my posts and a commenting system.  But recently, I've come to realize that the secret to Facebook is content.

Specifically, Facebook is the first medium that provides constant, personalized, interactive content. Any time day or night, I can visit Facebook and find new stuff to read.

Consider the evolution of content:

Print: Periodic, broadcast, passive. While I remember the excitement of waiting for the latest issue of The Atlantic, it was an excitement that came once a month, not all of the articles interested me, and I had no one to talk with about it.

Website: Sporadic, broadcast, passive. Remember having to check a website for new content? It's not far-fetched. I still check this way (though websites have since added commenting).

Blog: Push, narrowcast, interactive. Blogs succeeded because they were so much more focused and interactive than the MSM. But the crushing weight of an RSS backlog makes this a love/hate relationship.

Facebook is a fiendishly addictive content engine. It's so ubiquitous that my friends generate a constant stream of content. And because it uses a symmetrical follow system (unlike Twitter's 1-way system) all the content is at least somewhat relevant, in that it comes from a personal friend. Finally, the universal commenting system both makes that content interactive *and* viral, as I get drawn into comments on content from friends-of-friends.

I always check Facebook because I don't want to commit to the time and intellectual effort of reading blogs and articles, yet I find myself still reading 20 minutes later (which, by the way, is plenty of time to read a thought-provoking piece).

I admire the machine, and I love how it helps me stay in touch with friends, but I can't help wishing that the crack had more nutrients.