YNOT Combinator

I keep a list titled “Crazy Ideas” and a couple days after Twitter announced that they were going to shut down Vine, I wrote:

Y Not? Combinator – a second chance fund / biz plan competition for apps/companies being sunsetted e.g. Vine, Google Reader, etc. Companies could help fund via cost savings of early exit

I saw news this afternoon that Twitter COO Adam Bain was leaving the company, and I thought that maybe he could lead the process, but a quick news search shows Twitter is already in talks to sell Vine.

I still think this idea has legs, though. I miss Google Reader (and I thought I missed deli.cio.us but just found out it’s still around and my old login works – though it’s been sunsetted and sold several times).

I think that the businesss plan/pitch competition element could help keep core users excited and reinvigorate those hearing about its demise nostalgic enough to try it again, as well as creating a fundable vehicle to revive/resize a once-promising business.




Coursera Social Entrepreneurship course – week 1

This new course offered by some Wharton professors looked interesting, and I know that there have been a lot of changes in the field since I took classes with Greg Dees in 2001-2003 (recent Duke MBA grads I see at networking events are often talking about examples which are completely unfamiliar to me). Looking at the course overview, I see that there is an emphasis on design thinking that was definitely not part of my coursework. I’ve picked up a lot of that informally, and I think it’s a natural addition.

Reviewing the core concepts of social innovation and social entrepreneurship, their chosen definition of social innovation was not around in 2oo3:

“We contend that social innovation is the best construct for understanding and producing lasting social change. We redefine social innovation to mean: A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

Source: Phills, Deiglmeier, and Miller (2008)

This was familiar, and I think draws on some of the same sources Greg used for defining innovation (Shumpeter and/or Drucker, iirc?). The social entrepreneurship definition was very familiar, it’s Greg’s. Later on in this portion of the video there is a “who/what is a social entrepreneur” portion where Peter Frumkin gives his criteria as innovation, financial sustainability, impact and scale. I have some questions regarding the inclusion/emphasis of scale, as well as around whether financial sustainability might include some traditional philanthropic funding as part of the SE’s revenue stream.

The design process is given in overview as inspiration -> ideation -> iteration -> implementation. Showing an example of the songwriting process was very illustrative of using what sound like business processes in a clearly creative/artistic endeavor.

Inspiration is defined as listening and dreaming. Listening leads to brainstorming, and a mindmap is recommended as a tool to organize the results of that brainstorming.

Mentoring and mission

I really liked this anecdote posted on Sasha Dichter’s blog:

So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.

I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”

I may start using this structure with some of the people I coach at work, though 20 minutes would be too short for us. There are a lot of other great lessons in this blog post, including the importance of putting mission first.

Evaluating Complex Initiatives

Srik Gopal, who co-leads social sector consulting company FSG’s Strategic Learning and Evaluation practice, recently blogged at SSIR about evaluating complex social initiatives. He discusses two funders of large-scale, complex initiatives and their attempts to change the way they evaluate success, because as he says:

They are building on the recognition that a traditional approach to evaluation—assessing specific effects of a defined program according to a set of pre-determined outcomes, often in a way that connects those outcomes back to the initiative—is increasingly falling short.

He continues, stating that because complex systems are always changing, the evaluation tools used need to be “adaptive, flexible and iterative.” I’m a big fan of the idea that we need to get beyond simplistic “cause and effect” models of evaluation, which often ignore context. This is particularly true when dealing with complex initiatives and initiatives launched in unstable/changing or multiple environments – it’s important to go beyond whether something works in each location and get into why it does or doesn’t work.

The blog post gives a good feel for the flavor of the work that FSG has done to try to recognize this complexity and deploy tools that can capture the information needed to  create evaluations that can adapt to changing circumstances and capture not just outcomes but relationships and system dynamics, including a chart that shows 3 of their 9 propositions for evaluating complexity alongside what those propositions mean in the real world and some existing tools that can be used in order to capture the needed info.

However, this blog post doesn’t go beyond giving some flavor. It’s worth clicking the link they offer and going through the free signup process to see the full 30+ page report they offer. This includes all 9 propositions, both in snapshot form (page 5) and with full descriptions and case studies. There is also a chart similar to the one in the blog post on pp 31-32 that shows each proposition alongside a brief description of the proposition and some helpful evaluation tools/methods. Beyond the charts and descriptions, there are also 3 case studies.

This looks to be a great resource for those looking to design a thoughtful evaluation process for complex initiatives, as well as a way to re-think what organizations may be hoping to learn and capture for even more simple evaluation practices.

One-Two Punch: limited edition and helps a good cause

I grew up collecting things. As a teenager, I worked in a comic book and baseball card store. In college, I became a DJ at the radio station, and began seriously collecting records/music. The “limited edition” has always held a great allure for me. Not only does this increase the likelihood of an item increasing in value, there is also a feeling of being special – in a world of mass production, I’m one of only a limited number of people to own a specific artifact.

Of course, the value proposition does not always hold up. Many of the “limited edition” comic  books I bought in the early 90s have little to no value today, as the comics boom that happened during those years meant that many limited editions were produced in quantities much greater than any of the popular mainstream editions historically or since. And even when editions truly are limited, there needs to be some demand for the items for them to rise in value.

There is also the tricky notion of the collector mentality. When I was around age 12 or 13, I wanted a GI Joe plane because I had heard that toys that stayed in their packaging were a great collectible investment. Plus, this COBRA plane looked really cool. I was thrilled when I unwrapped it and effusively thanked my aunt. However, I was horrified when she suggested we open it and put it together, explaining how it had to stay in its original shrinkwrap to retain its value. That was my mom’s turn to be horrified, and she told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to open it up and play with it and stop acting so ungrateful, that toy cost a lot of money and it was bought to be played with.

I didn’t understand my mom’s point of view at the time, but by my college years, when I was collecting records, I started to get it. I tried to rid myself of the attitude and habits of “collector scum” – those who would buy up copies of pricey limited edition stuff and then never listen to it, just so they could sell it at a markup at a record fair. These people didn’t seem like real fans – music was made to be listened to, not stocked away as some sort of investment. Also, I had become somewhat disillusioned with the comics world and savvy enough to realize that many of these limited editions were simply cash grabs by megacorporations hoping to exploit fans by making them buy 5 copies of the same thing instead of one, due to “limited edition variant covers.” CD releases with bonus/hidden tracks struck that same chord with me, and I vowed not to be “collector scum” but rather a *real* fan.

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the whole collector mentality – things are never as black and white as they seem in high school and college. Over the last several years, I’ve made an effort to put my money where my values are, which has primarily meant spending money on new books and records rather than used, and supporting businesses that I would like to see thriving, but has also meant paying a little more attention (and sometimes paying a little more $$) for purchases that have some component of social good (or in some cases are the lesser of all evils).

I recently bought a couple things that I consider to be big-ticket splurges, and in each case I looked at the price, and decided that it wasn’t worth it – this was something that I didn’t *need*. But then I saw that there was a charitable component to the purchase, which along with each item being a limited edition pushed me over the edge and let me self-justify the purchase decision.

The first purchase was a pair of prescription sunglasses from Warby Parker. I’ve bought my glasses from Warby Parker for several years now. When I first needed glasses, I went with the cheapest, simplest pair at the mall (same place that I got my eye exam), but over the years I was convinced that glasses, like shoes, get daily wear and you can justify spending a little more to get something well-styled and somewhat unique. Initially I was a big fan of SEE eyewear, discovered on a trip to Nashville, but when it came time for a new pair of glasses it was difficult to order online and I wasn’t making a multi-state trip just for glasses. I looked at a couple other online options and could have saved more money with Zenni, but I liked the design aesthetic at Warby Parker better and knowing that my purchase would provide a free pair of glasses to people in need via VisionSpring pushed me over the top to become a loyal customer.

Still, I tend to wear glasses a little too long, letting my prescription expire at times. And the prescription sunglasses, while a necessity due to the need to wear them while driving (arguably the time when glasses are most important), are an extra $50 at Warby Parker. When they announced the limited edition Kidd sunglasses, which support 826 National / 826 Valencia (a literacy/writing nonprofit for children that I’ve long admired), I struggled with the purchase. The glasses were cool-looking, but I already had a pair of sunglasses that I liked even a little better. Though that pair had a scratch that might be causing headaches. In the end, the combination of knowing that I was helping a good cause and that there would only be 825 other people with this pair of sunglasses pushed me over the edge, and I bought a pair.

The other recent purchase was a limited edition copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader. David Foster Wallace has been one of my favorite authors since 1996ish, and when his archives were released and I saw how heavily he annotated his own books, it was freeing in a way I never imagined – I began underlining and dog-earing my own books realizing that to keep myself from doing so was keeping myself from fully enjoying them. My attempts to keep spines uncracked was a holdover from my collector days. And so when I first heard about the release of this book, I figured that it was a waste of money, I had copies of all the uncollected work anyway, I’d wait until it came out in paperback and then find a copy on sale. Hachette didn’t need my money – I’d spend it on other authors like Roxane Gay and Amelia Gray, who could use the boost in sales a bit more.

But then I heard about the limited edition. At $300, it was 10x as expensive as the version I considered way too pricey. But it’s limited to 0nly 250 copies. And the painting used for the cover of the book, by Karen Green, would be cut into 250 pieces with one piece each included in the limited edition copies. Then, to top it all off, $50 from each book would go to a youth poetry/literacy/creative writing nonprofit. Once I went to amazon and saw that it was being sold for $200 instead of $300, I barely hesitated before completing my purchase. Don’t get me wrong, the sale *definitely* helped, but the one-two punch of a limited edition and a significant portion of my purchase supporting a cause  that I believe in really led to my pulling the trigger.

I’m rarely any company’s target audience. I’m too cheap, and my tastes are a bit too particular in most cases. However, for those companies who are focusing on the long tail consumers, it is worth noting that the combination of a limited edition with a good cause can be really compelling. The limited edition appeals to the collector impulse, the desire to be unique and own something that very few others have. Combining it with a cause helps to ameliorate the guilt of spending on oneself, particularly for something that we clearly don’t *need*.

I’m sure there’s something more to say about the guilt collectors feel (at some point, the collection itself can become burdensome and akin to hoarding) and how charitable partnerships can help consumers overcome this guilt. For me, I’m just thrilled to have bought myself a present that brings me joy whenever I look at it, and to feel secure that I won’t ever have to take it out of the protective cellophane wrapper (and if I do, it will be my decision).


Gallons per One Hundred Thousand Miles

Gallons per One Hundred Thousand Miles

Back in 2008, I blogged about Fuqua professor Rick Larrick’s research on flipping the way we talk about fuel efficiency from the familiar “miles per gallon” to “gallons used per 100 miles driven” and later that year I followed up with a post on some of the traction that idea had gained and the GPM calculator they had posted online (still up and running now).

“Giving the gas cost over the lifetime of the vehicle seems to give people a better understanding of its fuel efficiency,” Larrick said. “The current metrics used don’t help people to understand the true value of a fuel-efficient vehicle.”  -from the latest research

Last week I got a Fuqua email update that featured Larrick’s latest work on GPM, including the info that in 2013 the EPA had added “gallons per 100 miles driven” to its fuel economy labels. Larrick’s latest work shows that this label may soon warrant an update – apparently consumers prefer a fuel-efficient vehicle when they are shown the statistic of gallons per 100,000 miles driven, even when the expected cost savings in fuel efficiency does not make up for the higher cost of the fuel efficient vehicle.

“Consumers place a lot more weight on fuel efficiency when this information is given to them in terms of gas cost over 100,000 miles,” Camilleri said. “The amazing thing is that this greater weight persists even when the efficient vehicle doesn’t necessarily pay for itself in savings, which makes sense for the consumer who also cares about the environment.” 

I always find it fascinating when a change in language is able to impact cultural values and individual behavior, and the idea that this is so powerful that environmentalism could trump cost in a purchase decision is remarkable. However, I’m also a bit skeptical, as survey answers are not always a reliable indicator of actual consumer behavior. Still, even if this only works for cases when fuel efficiency is also cost efficient, this is a great way to make an impact by simply changing the language we use.

Evidence +/vs Innovation

Paul Carttar has an interesting post up over at the Bridgespan Group’s blog entitled Evidence and Innovation – Friend or Foe?

Carttar frames the discussion with an anecdote:

…during a recent discussion about what makes a nonprofit organization “high-performance.” One participant nominated innovation as a critical factor. To my astonishment, this stirred an impassioned dissent from another participant, a recognized and vocal proponent of evidence and accountability, who argued that in the nonprofit world the word “innovation” typically implies the generation of exciting new ideas, apparently free of any bothersome, killjoy demands for validation of merit.

Carttar talks about how this is nothing new – that during his time running the white house Social Innovation Fund, he often heard complaints that evaluation stifles innovation. And I’ve certainly seen numerous innovative approaches shut down or left un(der)funded because they’re not “evidence based” – but Carttar makes two important distinctions: 1) Innovation is less about “something new” and more about “something better,” and 2) ” hard evidence of relative performance is the most legitimate, productive way to determine what actually is better.”

Carttar then goes on to discuss the varying types of “hard evidence,” clearly stating that not all types are appropriate for all efforts. He makes the crucial distinction between startup and mid-stage enterprises, and what type of evaluation and “evidence” makes sense for each.

At its best, evidence serves as innovation’s good friend by stimulating continued improvement and providing potential beneficiaries, funders and other stakeholders an objective basis for determining whom to turn to and to support. In this way, evidence can not only “cull the herd” but actually propel the growth and scaling of the best innovations, enabling them over time to become the prevailing practice. In fact, that’s the hopeful theory underlying the SIF.

To be sure, there are plenty of opportunities for conflict between evidence and innovation, which must be diligently managed. Potential funders may demand unrealistically rigorous standards of evidence to assess relatively immature, still-evolving programs—potentially stifling the development of promising solutions. Ill-timed, poorly executed, or inaccurately interpreted evaluation studies can also prematurely choke off development. Or backers of a program with a robust empirical basis may hesitate to invest in further improvements (that is, continued innovation) for fear of undermining the program’s evidentiary support and perceived competitive advantage.

The discussion continues in the comments, and is worth reading for its thoughtfulness and appreciation of nuance.