The Notification Economy: Mastering The 21st Century Design Tweak That’s Conditioning Our Addiction To Social

Remember when the first thing we did in the morning was get out of bed? Somewhere along the line this first step to starting our day was replaced by a little red popup icon with a number on it. Ever since these little white numbers infiltrated our lives, pronounced with their contrasting radiant red background, they’ve continued to rewire our brain circuitry into unconscious addiction. Through repetition, reinforcement and pleasure chemical feedback loops, we’ve been conditioned to both crave and obey these popup numbers to the point where they have gained a considerable hold on our daily lives. However, these notification numbers are not all created equal. Some hold much more control over our lives than others. The difference between them is context.
What makes these notification numbers more addictive than heroin?
“Dopamine is not about pleasure; it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”
-          Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Professor of biology and neurology at StanfordDopamine is infamous for being the brain’s pleasure chemical… for good and bad. It plays a crucial role in the development and maintenance of addiction. Traditionally, it was believed that dopamine levels spiked the moment a reward was presented after a task was completed. However, as Dr. Robert Sapolsky points out, it’s actually the anticipation of the reward that turns us on. Furthermore, the element of outcome uncertainty plays a crucial role in the addictiveness of something. In Sapolsky’s chart below, you’ll see that when the subject is 100% certain of the reward, there is still a spike in the dopamine levels, but it isn’t as drastic as when the subject is only 50% certain of the reward. We are essentially addicted to uncertainty.

In regard to social applications, notifications predominantly represent a trigger point for communication to occur between two or more parties. Unlike heroin, where the user has predetermined expectations of the outcome, notifications from social applications have a high unpredictability coefficient that makes them far more addictive. This is simply for the fact that human interaction is unpredictable… at least for the most part.

Maximize engagement by creating more trigger opportunities with meaningful context
Context is created through meaning. The level of meaning something has in your life is determined by the Four “I” Factors:
1.      Investment - How much you’ve invested into something. Whether it be a romantic relationship, financial investment, a co-founder relationship, a friendship, or simply time spent working on a project or using an app, it becomes more meaningful to you when you invest more time and/or resources into it.
2.      Interest - The level of interest and passion you have in something.
3.      Intrigue - How much you can’t help paying attention to something. Uncertainty creates intrigue
4.      Indispensability – How much anxiety is caused by not having something anymore.

The reason why notifications you receive on Facebook are some of the hardest to resist checking is because your Facebook network is almost certain to be comprised of the people you’ve invested the most time with over the course of your life. A notification on Facebook is likely to be one that holds meaning in your life because of the ‘Investment’ factor explained above. If you’ve payed attention to Facebook’s iterations over the years, you’ll notice that their most successful iterations have increased the frequency of notifications to the user without diluting the value of the notifications by sacrificing the meaning behind them. The best example of this was their introduction of the ‘Like’ feature. The ‘Like’ feature gave users the ability to acknowledge one another’s posts without having to fully engage in conversation. From Facebook’s standpoint, it reduced the effort required to trigger a meaningful notification for the user, thus increased engagement because each additional notification would get the user back to the site, where they’d get suckered in for another 15 minutes.

The thought process we used to design our new WingMan feature in order to maximize engagement opportunities through meaningful notifications
Since our site, Cliqie – The social utility for your real social life, is a social discovery application that helps you venture beyond your existing network of friends, we realized we were in a unique position to take advantage of the 3rd “I” in the Four “I” Factors listed above – Intrigue!

We recognized the addictiveness of the private two-way matching interface design and the opportunity it presents to drastically increase the number of meaningful notifications we could send to our users.

Here’s how it works… You’re shown a random group of friends (or professional groups if you’re using it for business) who you have a lot in common with and you’re asked if you’d hang out with them.

If you tap “Yes”, it will ask you select which of your groups of friends (Cliques) would hang out with them

This is private, so the other group won’t be notified that you liked them. However, if someone from their group of friends had previously tapped “Yes” on any of the groups of friends you selected to hang out with them, then it will create a match.

Whenever a match is made, all the members of both groups will be notified. They’ll have the option to create a new group to combine their groups so they can chat, recommend things to do and organize get-togethers.

It’s incredibly hard to stop once you start because you quickly develop this “just one more” mentality as you swipe through. This is because it effectively utilizes the third “I” – Intrigue… the endless pursuit of discovering something new and promising. There are some important details to point out about this design that led to our decision to implement this new feature:
-          Boost Frequency of Meaningful Triggers: It will allow us to send out meaningful notifications to the users whenever any of their OR their fellow group members create a match for them (they’re a successful wingman/wingma’am). So, it’s an opportunity for us to engage with passive users regularly in a meaningful way.
-          Boost Engagement: The private two-way matching interface is a powerful one psychologically because it’s driven by the first and third “I’s” – Investment and Intrigue. The Intrigue comes from the fact that each group you see is someone new, so there’s a high uncertainty factor involved. The Investment comes from the fact that each group you swipe through is a potential match later on, so the more work (time) you put in, the higher your chances will be of finding what you’re looking for… a match!
-          Exposure: The one by one format of the two-way matching interface is effective in getting the user to do more by breaking down what you want them to do into bite-sized decisions. This will help them discover and interact with groups they probably would have never interacted with in the regular feed type interface. It seems counter intuitive, but people will explore more if you make it look like they’re doing less.
Earlier I discussed the role that uncertainty plays in dopamine levels while the brain is anticipating something. Because Cliqie itself and the WingMan feature are helping you explore the unknown, the uncertainty factor is very high, since the next notification you get could be anything from a close friend sending you a message to an alert notifying you of a matched group in which your potential husband/wife could be a member.

This all sounds reasonable in theory, but how did adding this feature pan out in terms of real world results? Let’s look at the data:
The month prior to adding WingMan (this was consistent for previous months also):

The month after adding WingMan:

Since launching the WingMan feature, we’ve seen over a 3x jump in average time spent on the site and 2x jump in average page views per visit. Additionally, we saw a 20+% drop in our bounce rate. This represents a clear and significant improvement in our user engagement. No other functionality of the application was changed… the only thing that changed was the format in which we presented our data to the user.

Other examples of successful iterations that increased engagement through more meaningful notifications
Notifications come in different forms. While we’re used to obeying them in their white number with contrasting red background form, they can really be defined as anything produced by the company whose purpose is to trigger the user to use their application. Examples of this are Facebook’s News Feed and Ticker Feed. They are great examples of iterations that increased engagement substantially. They essentially provide a stream of meaningful notifications.

Another great example of increasing engagement is a tweak found on several dating sites. They started to notify their users when other users visited their profile. This meant that now the users would be triggering notifications for other users by simply using the site as they had been. Again, this small tweak boosted engagement significantly because it substantially increased the number of triggers to get the user back to the application, but did so without sacrificing user experience. Users love getting notified when someone is interested in them, because well… we love to be validated.

The goal is to maximize frequency without diluting the value of your notifications
The goal when optimizing your engagement should be to maximize not just the frequency of notifications, but the frequency of meaningful notifications. Maximizing the frequency is crucial, but you don’t want to dilute the value of those notifications by bombarding your users with notifications they don’t really care about… otherwise they’ll become numb to them and categorize you as spammy in their head. Be mindful of the context of your notifications and how best to maximize engagement by creating inescapable anticipation for them.

How To Manufacture Desire: An Intro To The Desire Engine

This guest post was authored by Nir Eyal. Nir writes for TechCrunchForbesPsychology Today, and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and Fortune 500 companies. He’s the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and has Lectured at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School. He has sold two technology companies since 2003. His blog, Nir and Far, shares insights and advice about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business and encompasses user experience design, behavioral economics, and a dash of neuroscience.

Here’s the gist:

  • The degree to which a company can utilize habit-forming technologies will increasingly decide which products and services succeed or fail.
  • Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.
  • Consumers must understand how addictive technology works to prevent being manipulated while still enjoying the benefits of these innovations.

Type the name of almost any successful consumer web company into your search bar and add the word “addict” after it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Try “Facebook addict” or “Zynga addict” or even “Pinterest addict” and you’ll soon get a slew of results from hooked users and observers deriding the narcotic-like properties of these web sites. How is it that these companies, producing little more than bits of code displayed on a screen, can seemingly control users’ minds? Why are these sites so addictive and what does their power mean for the future of the web?

We’re on the precipice of a new era of the web. As infinite distractions compete for our attention, companies are learning to master new tactics to stay relevant in users’ minds and lives. Today, just amassing millions of users is no longer good enough. Companies increasingly find that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create. But as some companies are just waking up to this new reality, others are already cashing in.

A company that forms strong user habits enjoys several benefits to its bottom line. For one, this type of company creates “internal triggers” in users. That is to say, users come to the site without any external prompting. Instead of relying on expensive marketing or worrying about differentiation, habit-forming companies get users to “self trigger” by attaching their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions. A cemented habit is when users subconsciously think, “I’m bored,” and instantly Facebook comes to mind. They think, “I wonder what’s going on in the world?” and before rationale thought occurs, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.

But how do companies create the internal triggers needed to form habits? The answer: they manufacture desire. While fans of Mad Men are familiar with how the ad industry once created consumer desire during Madison Avenue’s golden era, those days are long gone. A multi-screen world, with ad-wary consumers and a lack of ROI metrics, has rendered Don Draper’s big budget brainwashing useless to all but the biggest brands. Instead, startups manufacture desire by guiding users through a series of experiences designed to create habits. I call these experiences “desire engines,” and the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.

I created the desire engine in order to help others understand what is at the heart of habit-forming technology. It highlights common patterns I observed in my career in the video gaming and online advertising industries. While the desire engine is generic enough for a broad explanation of habit formation, I’ll focus on applications in consumer Internet for this post.

The trigger is the actuator of a behavior—the spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a link on a web site, or the app icon on a phone. By cycling continuously through successive desire engines, users begin to form internal triggers, which become attached to existing behaviors and emotions. Soon users are internally triggered every time they feel a certain way.  The internal trigger becomes part of their routine behavior and the habit is formed.

For example, suppose Barbra, a young lady in Pennsylvania, happens to see a photo in her Facebook newsfeed taken by a family member from a rural part of the State.  It’s a lovely photo and since she’s planning a trip there with her brother Johnny, the trigger intrigues her.

After the trigger comes the intended action. Here, companies leverage two pulleys of human behavior –motivation and ability. To increase the odds of a user taking the intended action, the behavior designer makes the action as easy as possible, while simultaneously boosting the user’s motivation. This phase of the desire engine draws upon the art and science of usability design to ensure that the user acts the way the designer intends.

Using the example of Barbra, with a click on the interesting picture in her newsfeed she’s taken to a website she’s never been to before called Pinterest.  Once she’s done the intended action (in this case, clicking on the photo), she’s dazzled by what she sees next.

What separates the desire engine from a plain vanilla feedback loop is the engine’s ability to create wanting in the user. Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the mix—say a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voila, desire is created. You’ll be opening that door like a lab rat in a Skinner box.

Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that companies use to hook users. Research shows that levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.

When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she intended to find, but she’s also served a multitude of other glittering objects. The images are associated with what she’s generally interested in – namely things to see during a trip to rural Pennsylvania – but there are some others that catch her eye also. The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on the site, hunting for the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent 45 minutes scrolling in search of her next hit.

The last phase of the desire engine is where the user is asked to do bit of work. This phase has two goals, as far as the behavior engineer is concerned. The first is to increase the odds that the user will make another pass through the desire engine when presented with the next trigger. Second, now that the user’s brain is swimming in dopamine from the anticipation of reward in the previous phase, it’s time to pay some bills. The commitment generally comes in the form of asking the user to give some combination of time, data, effort, social capital or money.

But unlike a sales funnel, which has a set endpoint, the commitment phase isn’t about consumers opening up their wallets and moving on with their day. The commitment implies an action that improves the service for the next go-around.  Inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, and learning to use new features are all commitments that improve the service for the user. These commitments can be leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the reward more exciting with every pass through the desire engine.

As Barbra enjoys endlessly scrolling the Pinterest cornucopia, she builds a desire to keep the things that delight her. By collecting items, she’ll be giving the site data about her preferences. Soon she will follow, pin, re-pin, and make other commitments, which serve to increase her ties to the site and prime her for future loops through the desire engine.

A reader recently wrote to me, “If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a super power.” He’s right. And under this definition, habit design is indeed a super power. If used for good, habit design can enhance people’s lives with entertaining and even healthful routines. If used for evil, habits can quickly turn into wasteful addictions.

But, like it or not, habit-forming technology is already here. The fact that we have greater access to the web through our various devices also gives companies greater access to us. As companies combine this greater access with the ability to collect and process our data at higher speeds than ever before, we’re faced with a future where everything becomes more addictive. This trinity of access, data, and speed creates new opportunities for habit-forming technologies to hook users. Companies need to know how to harness the power of the desire engine to improve peoples’ lives, while consumers need to understand the mechanics of behavior engineering to protect themselves from manipulation.

What do you think? Desire engines are all around us. Where do you see them manufacturing desire in your life?

Here’s a short video presentation Nir gave at WordCamp which outlines the Desire Engine in 15 minutes… it’s a MUST WATCH for anyone serious about building a great startup:
Video: The Desire Engine in 15 Minutes


Make sure to get a copy of Nir’s freshly released book… it goes much deeper into the topics discussed in this post and he provides plenty of case studies to prove his methodology works in real-world application: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian’s 5 Essentials For Being A Successful Entrepreneur And Biggest Lessons Learned Along The Way

Reddit Co-Founder and internet freedom activist, Alexis Ohanian, recently did an AMA (ask me anything) on Tim Ferriss’ popular 4 Hour Work Week blog, which you can find here. In the guest post, Alexis gives a candid account of his experience during the early days of Reddit and how him and his co-founder, Steve Huffman, maniacally drove it to success. He gracefully gave me permission to post one of his answers to a question asked about the 5 essentials for being a successful entrepreneur and the biggest lessons he learned along the way. Here they are…

5 essentials for being a successful entrepreneur

1. Determination, like, crazy relentlessness. you have to give LOTS of damns about everything.

2. Humility. because everyone has great ideas, but to turn them into something you have to accept that you’ll need to convince EVERYONE to use your new app, or show them your cat photos are worth their time, and generally accept that you’re going to be failing a lot along the way.

3. Failure-tolerance! speaking of which… I wish this were something being taught more in schools. From the day we enter school we’re taught to avoid failure, to pass tests, to advance to the next grade, etc. Most of us basically *don’t* fail until we get into the world and learn, oh, right, this is life. It’s especially important in founders, but useful for us all.

4. Be an animal – this touches on 1 & 2, but what I’m really thinking about here is willingness to do whatever it takes. Fixing bugs at 2am on a saturday night without hesitating, because entrepreneurial life is not what The Social Network may lead one to believe. Except for the Justin Timberlake, that dude is always around.

5. And the most important is probably the internet! The number of resources for a founder in ANY industry (especially tech) in 2005 (when we started) compared to now is VASTLY different. With an internet connection and a device, you can now watch talks from the world’s brightest minds, read advice from people who are in the game right this minute, push yourself by seeing innovation every time you refresh your browser. This is the world’s greatest library & stage and it’s getting larger and richer with content every day.

5 biggest lessons learned on the way to success

1. You know why everyone says some version of ‘success is loving what you’re doing’? That’s because it’s true. I really don’t feel like I’ve worked a day since graduating from college. I hope to live in a world where one day we can all feel that kind of success + pride in what we do for a living. But in the meantime, I know the shit my folks and relatives had to put up with to provide for me, so I’m not going to squander this.

2. You’re going to die. Sorry, I hope Kurzweil is right, but I’m not counting on it. So what the fuck are you waiting for?

3. Be kind. Vonnegut said it best: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

4. Take care of yourself. I’m working on this one myself. I’m 30 now and I know I do better work when I’m well-rested, well-fed, and well-exercised (is that a word?). But I’m always finding excuses to work some more instead. I’ve gotta dust off my 4 hr body.

5. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing (and that’s OK!) I actually gave a fun talk about this a couple weeks ago:…

You can find Alexis’ new book here:
Alexis Ohanian: Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed

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Who am I?

My name is Brenton Thornicroft. I cofounded, a social discovery site that helps you expand your social circle and find things to do with people who care about the things you do. I started to provide insights, advice and information I wish I knew before starting my 3.5 year journey into the startup world. Hopefully it’ll help you avoid many of the mistakes we made along the way!

5 Things I Learned About The World From One Of The Greatest Billionaire Businessmen Who Ever Lived

Yes… “One of the greatest billionaire businessman who ever lived” is a bold statement, so let me back it up with some context. To maintain his anonymity out of respect, I will refer to him as Mr. G. Let’s go through his resume that he probably hasn’t ever had to use…

Earlier in his life, Mr. G led a record breaking IPO, which raised over a billion dollars. In today’s money this would be worth several billion. He has successfully turned around numerous dying companies. For over two decades, he sat on the board of directors of two Fortune 500 companies and a handful of others. He has personally invested over $100 million of his own money and… well, you get the point. Here’s what I learned from spending 8+ hours a day with him for a few months…

1. Wealth is Measured in Value and Ownership. Riches are Measured in Money

My introduction to Mr. G’s family was first through his son. He was 18 at the time and I remember having a conversation with him about what he wanted to do after he graduated college. His exact answer is something I’ll never forget. “I want to buy every company in China”. I’m sure you had the same reaction I did when you read that. First, there’s a pause… then a, “WTF?” Naturally, I had to Google him later that day and quickly found out Mr. G and his sons were international investors who really were buying up handfuls of companies in China. Soon after, I met Mr. G and was exposed to an inside perspective of what life looks like inside a very small fraction of the 1%. The first day I met him, I got to take a walk through his world class car and antiques collection. With the exception of one modern supercar, it was primarily comprised of antique cars and signs that made you feel as though you were visiting a museum exhibit. I later looked online to try to grasp how much the collection was worth. To give you an idea, just one of the antique cars sold for about $400,000 and the room was full of them. However, what I found more remarkable was that just one of the probably hundreds of signs sold for almost $40,000. This was the moment the way I viewed the world changed… when I saw that this one sign could pay off the majority of my existing student loan debt. You could tell that to Mr. G this wasn’t just a collection built out of passion. It was another profitable business.

2. Don’t Expect to Become Extraordinarily Wealthy Without Doing an Extraordinary Amount of Work and Taking Calculated Risks

Mr. G was just reaching 80 years old at the time of this experience. While he was technically retired, he was still making deals at this age. It was obvious that business was just a passion of his. I remember one day he was excitedly talking about the growth numbers of a potential investment in China. This man was experienced. He knew a good deal when he saw one and you could sense that business to him was like basketball to Michael Jordan… it’s just a part of who he was. Mr. G talked about hard work often and would not accept bare minimum effort from those around him. This is often how people talk about Steve Jobs.

3. Accumulating Wealth is Half the Battle… Maintaining it Takes Work and Focus

When I first met Mr. G, it was at a small asset management firm that had a handful of employees. I soon figured out that this asset management firm existed solely to manage HIS assets. While I got to see him splurge $30k in a night out with the family, he was still relatively frugal and accounted for every dollar. I’m not a rocket scientist, but this is probably a big contributing factor in his success. During my experience with Mr. G, I was trading currencies at the time and one day I saw him holding the Gartman Letter, which was something I read religiously at the time. This was around the time the economic turmoil was peaking during the recent recession. I asked him what he was most afraid of about the potential impending collapse and he pointed to the piece in the Gartmen Letter that discussed the potential of a collapsing US dollar. It made sense… if his assets were primarily denominated in US currency, then he was susceptible to losing a fortune overnight if rapid hyperinflation were to take hold.

4. Business and Finance are Very Different Beasts

In another conversation where we discussed the Gartman Letter, we talked about trading stocks and currencies. ”I don’t have the stomach for that, Brent”, he admitted. This was a guy who had gambled $100 million of his own money on investments. Investments that too had no guarantee of being profitable. The difference is that he had enough experience and knowledge on what comprises a good deal that his risk was so calculated that it didn’t even seem like risk to him. It was just yet another way to use money to make more of it. I was so used to looking at the business world from the financial analyst/trader perspective rather than the insider management/long-term investor perspective. He saw deals and investments where I saw trades. Keep in mind, this was before I had ever dipped my feet into the startup world.

5. Family and Health Will Always Trump All

What was interesting about my experience with Mr. G was that because he was almost 80, he was at a time in his life where he’d seen it all and knew what really mattered. I remember the day he called his wife, in tears, to celebrate his 5 years in remission from cancer. There was something so humbling about seeing a man of this stature in such a vulnerable position. It was a reminder that at the end of the day we’re all just human, regardless of what pedestal we put one another on. He cared dearly for his family and made sure they all knew that.

My time spent with Mr. G changed the way I view the world. There are several things that keep me going through the startup battle and this experience is one of them. Not for the desire to be a billionaire; I personally don’t care for money. But, for the desire to live a life of fulfillment and freedom.

A Message About Heroes

“I want to be a famous athlete when I grow up”
“I want to be a famous rock star when I grow up”

As a blissful child, sheltered from the complexities and misfortunes of the world, we aspire to be blessed with unique abilities to entertain others and be recognized for it at scale. This desire is fed throughout our lives as we’re consistently bombarded with powerful imagery and stories that tap into a deep emotional core of our attention seeking, voyeuristic psyche. Whether we choose to admit it or not, the desire for fame and recognition is a human trait possessed by all of us to some extent. It’s this very phenomenon that makes us the social beings we are.

As we grow older, we’re exposed to the realities of the world and gain a clearer perspective over what those realities mean to us. For most, this means coming to terms with the fact that their dreams will only ever remain just that, dreams. However, we continue to glamorize and praise the few who have “made it” and were able to live their dreams of stardom. We’re so good at doing this that we don’t even let ourselves really acknowledge the loneliness, loss of privacy and other negatives that are so often accompanied with fame. These are our heroes… they’re perfect.

As someone who had loved ones within half a mile of Monday’s sheer terror, it was a real reality check on just how fragile we are. The idea that such a positive staple as Marathon Monday would now forever be plagued with anxiety and paranoia was disheartening to say the least. This anxiety quickly trickled into the thought of being in any type of crowd at any major event. Are we really ever safe? Then I saw the first bit of footage…

Something very powerful grabbed my attention. Although frightening, it wasn’t the blast. It wasn’t even the fact that people were helping the victims that really surprised me. It was the lack of a hesitationbetween the time of the blast and them going into help mode. This immediacy to risk one’s life to help a stranger who was so close to losing theirs bestowed a feeling of comfort in me that washed away the tensions of witnessing such horror. I always thought you had to be crazy to run into fire, mayhem and danger… but, these people weren’t crazy. They were just normal people that happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.

This was vivid proof of the inherit goodness in people. This fast reaction time was not just displayed by the police and other professionals, who were trained to react quickly. This inspiring humility was displayed by courageous bystanders. It was a reminder that in the face of evil, we are stripped of our egos and prejudices that we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe over time and what’s left is a naked compassionate equal. While it’s unfortunate that it often takes a catastrophic event for us to demonstrate and recognize this compassion, it bestows on us an important memory of a time when we once were stripped of our differences. A time we truly came to terms with the fact that we’re in this thing together. We’re all children of the same universe. We, in fact, are the universe comprehending its own actions.

Everyday heroes, such as these brave souls who risked their lives that day to help others in need, should be recognized by the masses. It’s in this recognition we are reminded of this moment when we were once equals. While this is an extreme and rare example of everyday heroism, the concept extends much further into the acts of compassion that regularly go unnoticed. Whether it’s a friend posting a link to a donation site on a social network that we often overlook as spam. Or someone who brings communities together in support for debilitating diseases. Or someone who partakes in passionate acts such as these regularly. These should be the icons plastered all over Times Square. These should be the household names that make for meaningful dinner conversations.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where supply is driven by demand. We (or at least the majority of us) are more likely to click on a story about Kim Kardashian’s baby than a link to a donation page for cancer research. We are more likely to seek out footage of the bomb blast than an autism awareness rally (something I’m just as guilty of). This action, at scale, creates this insatiable demand for sensationalist media, which is then met by more supply of it. In our new age of saturated digital media, where margins have been squeezed out of existence as subscription based revenue models become less viable, media outlets survive primarily via ad dollars… and advertisers go to where the eyeballs are.

I’m a realist as much as I am a dreamer, so I know this obsession with sensationalism is likely never to change. It’s too ingrained into our human nature. However, after witnessing the overwhelming outpour of support, love, compassion and appreciation over the last day or so, I’m confident that there is room for more stories of everyday heroes in our news feeds, media and personal lives. In a world where demand rules supply, we are at least fortunate enough to be in control of that demand as a people through our clicks, “likes”, comments, and our ability to share at scale in this new digital era.

As more exposure, attention and praise is given to these everyday heroes, maybe there’s a chance the demand curve will shift far enough in favor of their stories for our next generation to have more meaningful aspirations. With a new generation comes new hope for mankind.

5 Reasons Why Quora Is The Most Important Website For You To Be Using

I am not affiliated with Quora in any way other than being a user who finds a lot of value in their product. They’ve simply built something worth talking about.

Here are 5 reasons why Quora is the most important website for you to be using:

1. It is the single greatest networking tool mankind has ever had
Quora has a unique ability to connect like-minded people from around the world through quality content based around their passions and interests. Never before have I had such direct access to entrepreneurs who have sold companies, investors, executives, as well as talented developers and other employees who work for companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify, to name a few. Sure, these people are all on LinkedIn, but LinkedIn doesn’t possess an “at the bar” atmosphere type of community feel, since it is branded as strictly professional.

Unlike other Q&A sites that have come before, Quora forces real identity. This has been vital in their ability to create such a powerful networking tool with an authentic and respectful community. When you participate on Quora, your credentials are displayed next to your real name. This may seem like a very subtle difference from other Q&A sites, but you realize the value of it when you see a question about interstellar travel being answered by a NASA engineer, for example. The only other large scale community I’ve seen with this credential focused approach to answering questions is on Reddit (IAMAs), but due the site being almost 100% anonymous, it can never truly possess the same level of networking potential.

Quora’s invite feature is also groundbreaking in regard to its networking capabilities. The ability to ask Jimmy Wales a question about Wikipedia publicly, in such a highly respected community, and actually receive an extensive answer from him is an example of how empowering Quora can be for the average person.

2. It enables incomparable reach, exposure and engagement for the average joe with no preexisting fan base
Twenty years ago, if I wrote something and wanted it to be exposed to 1000 people, I’d have to try to get it published in a newspaper or magazine with a decent circulation. Even then it would be hard to tell if people even read it since there were no analytics to track such data.

Five years ago, if I wrote something and wanted it to be exposed to 1000 people, I’d have to post it on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit (Digg?), then pray that it breaks through the noise and spreads enough to be seen by the right crowd.

Today, if I write something and want it to be exposed to 1000 people, I have plenty of options, but most of these options are more saturated with noise than ever. So, while there are more opportunities to have your voice heard by a sizable number of people, it is much more difficult to have it break through using the traditional platforms. This is where Quora comes in… Yes, it is newer and less saturated than the traditional platforms, which gives the average user more of an advantage in reaching an audience. However, its unique value in regard to breaking through noise comes from the fact that it is interest based. Users follow topics, rather than specific people or organizations. This allows for a much more personal and meaningfully curated experience to the user and far less noise to sift through, since almost everything in your feed is of interest to you. Its relatively new blogging feature offers the closest thing to an even playing field I’ve seen when it comes to spreading your knowledge. This is because you don’t need a huge following and savvy marketing to get your content noticed by a large number of people. Your ability to add value to the platform by answering questions with quality insight is your marketing. Additionally, Quora has a very unique viral nature through its voting system, invite feature, and interests focused approach, which allows your content to be surfaced to the feed of anyone following the tags you give to your posts. This brings me to point number 3…

3. Its interest based approach to social networking gives your voice a chance to be heard and spread by those who actually care what you have to say
I finally set up my blog recently after years of foolishly hoarding my content in Evernote and Gmail. Currently, I’m posting the content onto the official domain for my blog at, as well as onQuora and Tumblr. To give you an idea of how much more valuable Quora was in this… I posted my second blog post ever on Saturday morning around 9am, ten days ago. Currently, only a handful of people have viewed it on the official domain site and Tumblr. However… over 1000 people had seen it within 3 days on Quora and it currently has over 7200 views after 10 daysThe most incredible part about this reach is the fact that I have less than 50 followers! Try reaching 7000 people on Facebook or Twitter with 50 friends/followers… good luck. This is why Quora is so important.

My experience is proof that it’s much easier to break through the noise on Quora because of its focus on interests and passions. This interest based approach to social networking allows the right message to find the right audience, rather than getting lost in a crowd of noise. Quora has undeniably proven the value of the interest graph from both the producer (posters) and consumer side (readers). It really helps those who have quality insights to provide to people.

4. It is where A players go to play
Quora is rendering resumes obsolete, thankfully. If I was sourcing candidates for a position, a resume could only tell me so much about a person. Quora conveniently gives you a level of insight on a person like nothing else has before. There’s a big difference between a person just looking for a job and a person who is truly excited to work for a company like yours. The latter is likely to have a passion around what your company is involved with. If you’re looking for A players, Quora is the place to find them. Thusly, participating and engaging on Quora is an essential step in branding yourself as an A player. It’s far more valuable than any resume that will most likely end up in a pile of better resumes somewhere.

5. It is the best way to build your reputation
As mentioned previously, the biggest advantage Quora has over competitors is that it has done a good job in getting their users to use their real identity. Users are actually incentivized to use their real identity because of the fact that it allows you to build a positive reputation for yourself. Since your credentials are displayed next to your name, your area of expertise is immediately identified by anyone who reads your answers or posts. Additionally, this enables you to promote your blog, website, or business throughout the site. Each time you participate in the community by either asking a question, answering a question or writing a blog post, you are essentially leaving breadcrumbs of contextual data. Therefore, the more people you have read your answers and posts, the better your reputation will become in your field (assuming you have real value to contribute). Over time, your profile will become an extensive version of your resume. It’s similar to how enables developers to build their reputation by helping their peers. This makes Quora a great tool for not only finding advice, but also landing a job or growing your business.

Quora is still a relatively new platform and will continue to grow as more people discover its value. In my opinion, your Quora profile will be the most important piece of your social media legacy within the next few years.

Something to Consider before You Complain about Facebook’s News Feed Update (A Lesson on Being a Visionary)

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – Henry Ford

It’s that wonderful time of year again when Facebook makes a big change and everyone complains about it for a few weeks before getting over it. Before you update your status to offer your two cents on how much the new News Feed sucks, here’s something to think about…

When Facebook’s engineering team first released News Feed in September of 2006, they were excited to announce the new feature that would revolutionize the way you kept up to date with your friends and family. It made so much sense… Why should you have to go through the effort of browsing profile to profile, when all you really wanted to see were your friends’ newest updates?

Old Facebook News Feed 2006

To their surprise, the new groundbreaking feature would be met with mass upheaval from Facebook’s user base, who felt betrayed as their privacy was forcefully invaded. At the time, Facebook had 9.4 million users. As the team watched the reactions come in promptly after releasing News Feed, the mood quickly changed from excitement to panic. The very first reaction read, “Turn this shit off!” and only one in 100 messages about News Feed was positive. It was Facebook’s biggest crisis to date and would turn out to become one of the most defining moments in the social network’s history.

Now, here’s where the story gets interesting…

Ben Parr, a junior at Northwestern University in Illinois, responded to Facebook’s newest change by creating an anti-News Feed group. He named the group, “Students Against Facebook News Feed”, to be clear of its purpose. “Very few of us want everyone automatically knowing what we update . . . news feed is just too creepy, too stalker-esque, and a feature that has to go.”, he wrote. In less than 24 hours, it had reached almost 300,000 members. 3 days later it had 700,000 angry members (it now boasts a whopping 642 members by the way… people don’t like to be wrong publically I guess). 500 other similar groups quickly popped up as roughly ten percent of Facebook’s user base actively protested the News Feed… this was a big deal and a clear resistance to the change. Here’s a TechCrunch article from September 9th, 2006 about users revolting against the initial News Feed release.

Ironically, this incident proved the effectiveness of the News Feed as a viral channel. These anti-News Feed groups were growing like a weed, thanks to their unprecedented exposure which was attributed to the very feature they were protesting! It was because of this that Zuck knew people did in fact like the News Feed, regardless of what they were saying. The data showed that with the News Feed, people were spending more time on Facebook and were engaging in much more activity on the site. In August, the site’s page views were around 12 billion and by October (after News Feed was introduced), they were up to 22 billion – almost doubling in two months!

Fast forward to today and think back… were you one of the hundreds of thousands of active News Feed protestors? Now, think about where you spend almost all your time on Facebook today — could you imagine it without the News Feed? It’s pretty incredible how drastically things change once adoption takes place, huh? To exemplify just how drastically things change and what I find most interesting about this whole story is how everyone initially said News Feed made them feel ‘stalkerish’… Ironically, now it’s considered more ‘stalkerish’ to venture beyond the News Feed and peruse peoples’ Timelines.

Facebook News Feed Design 2013

As someone who has spent more time staring at pixels than they would have ever hoped to, I love the new News Feed design from a UI and UX perspective.


What can you learn from this?

Pay attention to what the data is telling you, more so than what the users are

User feedback is crucial to your success. However, the best form of user feedback comes from what they show you through their actions, rather than what they tell you through their words. The easiest way to get someone to lie to you is by asking them how much they use Facebook. No one wants to admit that they use it every day, several times a day. I’ve had friends tell me they haven’t used it in a while, only to see it open in their browser or catch them checking for new Facebook notifications on their phone first thing in the morning. The scary part is that sometimes I think people don’t even realize they are doing it… it’s become a subconscious behavior! Just remember, numbers don’t lie, so trust them (assuming you’re not fudging them, of course).

Humans are reluctant to change

Habits are extremely difficult to break. I’m not sure why we evolved to resist change when it seems to have been so essential to the survival of our species. Whatever the reason, it makes you realize how truly difficult it is to be a visionary leader and stand your ground when the world is telling you that you’re wrong. But, hey… that’s why those bold enough to execute on their vision and see it through, no matter what, have been the most handsomely rewarded throughout history.

This Definitive List of Entrepreneurial Resources Will Save You 2 Years Worth of Trial and Error on Your Startup Pursuit

My journey down startup lane has been a three and a half year roller coaster ride that has tested my willpower, endurance, psychological stability and self-confidence. While the journey has been, by far, the most challenging experience of my life, it has been an incredibly humbling adventure that has helped me to develop a much more appreciative perspective of the world. Throughout the experience, I have immersed myself in a mountain of knowledge and information pertaining to entrepreneurship, startups, business and technology. This has been in parallel to gaining real-world experience from actually executing on ideas and bringing them into reality. The combination of being an obsessive lifelong learner, while executing on such learning (and making every mistake along the way) has helped me develop a sixth sense for spotting bullshit. It takes years of experience and adversity to be able to recognize quality advice from the mountain of hyperbolic garbage out there you find from the talkers who are yet to execute on one of their hundreds of ideas.

From the countless blogs, articles, books, podcasts, videos and lectures I’ve discovered over the years, I’ve compiled the definitive list of resources I wish someone had shown me on day one of my pursuit… Enjoy:

1. Nir and Far - Understanding the neuropsychology behind habit forming products. At the foundation of every great company is a great product or service. This will help you understand ‘why’ you should build products a certain way. Make sure to watch his presentation on what he calls the “Desire Engine”. It outlines the approach for creating habit forming products using examples such as Pinterest and Facebook.

2. Vinicius Vacanti - The blog of‘s candid co-founder and CEO. Vinny shares some of the most practical advice and a raw account of what it’s like to build a product and company using lean principles. My favorite post is this one, where he explains how it took them 2.5 years to make their first dollar. His no-BS advice and insights are a necessary reality check to any budding entrepreneur.

3. Both Sides of the Table – The blog of 2x entrepreneur turned VC, Mark Suster. Mark gives raw and highly practical advice from the business standpoint of doing a startup. He discusses everything from fund raising and equity share to analyzing markets and trends. He also hosts the popular YouTube show, This Week in Venture Capital, which is part of the ThisWeekIn series, where he interviews entrepreneurs with his very forward, VC style, approach.

4. Platform Thinking – Understand the ins and outs of what it takes to build a platform from case studies of successful companies as examples. One of the most definitive, if not the most definitive moment in the web’s history was when Facebook announced the Facebook Platform (Graph API). For the first time in history, a company of incredible scale would enable 3rd party developers to read from and write data into Facebook, for free. This has enabled Facebook to develop a sustainable ecosystem of 3rd party developers that is helping us build the semantic web. In the process, they separated themselves from all other social networks and have quickly become the social layer of the web.

5. Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Corner: Podcasts – Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Series Lectures. Each lecture is a 45min-1hour long talk and Q&A session given by founders or executives from all types of companies, some of whose products we all use and love, like Facebook, Spotify, Dropbox, Instagram, Pandora and MySql to name a few. They give a real account of what it took to find success, as well as how long it took and their failures along the way. I’ve listened to almost every one of these lectures (over 100 hours!) on my iPhone, usually before I go to bed… yes, we live in a day and age where you can get an Ivy League education for free from your damn cell phone, anytime, anywhere. Some of my favorites are Daniel Ek (Spotify), Zuckerberg, and Marten Mickos (MySql).

6. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries (Book) – Explains the methodological approach to building companies by starting out by just building the simplest version of your product first (MVP – Minimum Viable Product) and then continuously iterating on it based on user feedback. He uses case studies like Facebook and even Apple to show how this approach has worked well throughout history, but has never really been outlined clearly the way Eric did it. It really shows how startups are just as much science as they are art.

7. Website Usability and User Experience Training Course | Udemy - This course, by Dr. David Travis, breaks down the process of approaching at your design/development from a truly user-centered focus. Many entrepreneurs, especially first time ones, fall victim to ‘drinking their own Kool-Aid’. They lie to themselves about how their product/service is doing, validate themselves with vanity metrics and convince themselves that they know what their users want. Time and time again, you’ll read about the importance of early feedback and iterating on that feedback. This course will help you truly understand how to get the REALISTIC feedback you need and how to analyze it without bias so that you can iterate your way to success much faster. Amazon and Apple are famous for designing from the end-user backward… maybe that’s why they are so successful.

8. Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne (Book) – Discusses how the best and most sustainable businesses create new markets using innovative tactics and business models rather than trying to chip away at market share from existing markets. The best example of this I can think of is Spotify’s business model, where all the music is free for users, while Spotify pays royalties to the artists and give users the option to pay $5 or $10 a month to be able to remove ads and take their playlists with them on their mobile device. Spotify is one of my favorite disruptive business models in the past decade… they’re getting people to pay over $100 a year for music, when the last time they paid for music was most likely a decade ago — that is about as blue ocean as you can get.

Bonus Resources:

1. This Week in Startups  – YouTube show by Jason Calacanis. He interviews founders of different startups, both the success stories and the up and comers. Again, a very raw inside look into their real stories of the ups and downs.

2. Startup Digest – Sign up for their free weekly email that provides a list of entrepreneurship, business, and technology articles to read. It serves as a good break in the work week, as well as an undemanding way to keep up with the latest development resources available that you can take advantage of. This is my Sunday reading list.

3. TechCrunch – You probably know TC, but just in case, I decided to add it here. Make sure to limit yourself with TC though, since it’s easy to get carried away reading post after post… before you know it, you’ll find yourself in a timesink black hole. TC is just a great resource to learn about all different types of business models, products, and ideas. It’s important to know what technologies are available as well as to learn what others (potential competitors) are doing. Many of my ideas have actually come to me while reading a TC article… so there’s a big inspirational aspect to reading it also.

4. Quora – I definitely recommend becoming a pretty frequent user. It really is the best resource to get your questions answered about anything from people with credibility. Also, it’s an incredible opportunity to network and market your product/service, as well as to become an “expert” in your field.

5. How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis (Book) – This one’s more for motivation than practical/technical entrepreneurship learning. Media mogul, Felix Dennis, discusses how hard he worked to be the founder of some of the most successful publishing companies ever, including Maxim magazine as one of their titles. He’s a funny bastard too and doesn’t shy away from showing off his love for wine and poetry.

One thing you learn from pursuing a startup is that experience trumps all. While we would have avoided several pitfalls along the way by applying much of the knowledge these resources provide, there’s no amount of research or preparation that will guarantee your success. You are going to make plenty of mistakes. You will be tested and broken often. Entrepreneurship is a game of trial and error. A startup is just an experiment to prove a hypothesis right or wrong and the most important thing I’ve learned is that failure is a prerequisite for success. Fortunately, your success is not determined by your ability to avoid all mistakes, but by your ability to learn what you need to from them when they happen. On the positive side, though, the skills you’ll learn doing a startup are invaluable.

Good luck on your pursuit in claiming your dent in the universe, you lunatic!



Brenton co-founded Cliqie – The social utility for your real social life, a site that helps you expand your social circle and find things to do with people who care about the things you do. He provides information gathered through the years of trial and error in his entrepreneurial journey to help guide fellow entrepreneurs to avoid pitfalls and reach success faster.