Who are you paying with your attention?

man-in-toilet

image from http://knowtechie.com/smartphone-toilet-use/

In business, it’s been a foregone truth that companies want your money. Multiple competitors fighting over each other in order to win your purchase of their slightly different product has been the standard since the time of the robber barons. Whether it’s Microsoft vs Apple, Smirnoff vs Captain Morgan, or Tide vs Clorox, consumers look to fulfill a specific need and companies fight to win that dollar from their competitors.

These may still be true in certain industries, but on your smartphone today, it is no longer the case. Rather, all the successful app companies are now competing for an even more valuable resource – your attention. Instead of identifying consumers with a buy order and fighting to win it, apps identify anyone with a smartphone as user and fight to win a slice of their day, knowing thats their best bet towards monetization later on. “Paying attention” has become a literal phrase.

It began in earnest with Angry Birds, that harmless time wasting juggernaut which has since partnered with behemoths like Lucasfilm and Hasbro and expanded into every corner of the entertainment business. Rovio may not have had such domination mapped out at the beginning, but they knew that if they could consistently draw eyeballs to their app on a regular basis, things would happen. People would become addicted, and possibly willing to spend another 99 cents on in app purchases, an expansion pack, or a Red Bird plushie. All they had to do was make sure that Angry Birds was the app you would tap first when you found yourself with a few extra minutes at the bus stop.

It is these times that are now the bread and butter of any app company. When you’re waiting in line, bored in class, stuck in a vehicle, or just need a quick break from work. It’s the bits and piece of our day where we have nothing to do, but not so much time that we can start a whole new activity.

Out comes the smartphone, as we reach for something interesting, but not so interesting that we can’t put it down once the bus arrives. You could play a game like Angry Birds or Clash of Clans; check up on Facebook or Instagram; mindlessly swipe some dates in Tinder or OkCupid, or send a Snapchat to let others know how bored you are. (I spoke with an associate recently who proudly defended his impressive number of hours logged on Clash of Clans as harmless “I only play it on the toilet”)

That’s what the next big app will be – not the one that is the best at monetizing or providing the wow factor, but the one that you reach for first when you sit down in the bathroom.

Then comes the backlash about how these mindless moments have been rewiring our brains for instant gratification, leaving us unable to focus or hold a conversation anymore. They’re absolutely right, and we should make sure that we still find time for ourselves to enjoy non digital past times. But that point has already been made – instead here I wish to illuminate the connection between toilet time and the bottom line. Mindfulness rather than abstention.

Think about which apps you reflexively reach for first when you’re bored. Now think about who is on the other side of the screen, reaping the benefits of you attention. Today it is your time that is prized, rather than your dollar, and thus you should be aware of where your most valuable resource is going. Is it a business or value that you’d like to see flourish? Vote with your taps.

With this in mind, I have scaled back my use of Tinder in favor of Okcupid’s mobile app, because it does a better job of delivering the desired end result. I have moved from Spotify to Soundcloud, in order to receive the same commodity but for free. And I have phased out all games from my phone, preferring to spend my down time moments logging my daily thoughts and actions in the Notes app.

Most importantly, I have disabled all push notifications except the actionable ones like texts or Maps instructions. Otherwise my days turn into never ending requests from faceless companies pleading for me to open them again, with sticky sweet temptations like “New match found”, “New friend added”, or the worst – time sensitive deadlines urging me to “check now or miss out on today’s deal”!

These decisions all favor the service which does a better job of delivering what I want, so I cannot say that I evaluated the companies’ mission statement or recent campaign donations to determine the winner. But I did take a step back and notice which mindless app would distract me best at that moment, and purposefully chose to give my attention towards the contender leading to a more worthy outcome.

I suggest for you to do the same, and be mindful of who you are supporting with your moments of downtime. Be as stringent with your attention as you are with your dollars. You are paying somebody with it, after all.

Also posted on Linkedin

Weekly Review #44: Stranger gatherings, NewCo festival, and LA ostentation

I went to a lot of socializing with strangers events this week (I suppose you could call it networking, but it wasn’t specifically job related). First was the Stanford Salon, a casual and intimate affair on Stanford campus every Monday facilitated by a few CS graduates who have taken it upon themselves to present their lifehacking knowledge to others. Accordingly, we played some theatre improv games and listened to a management consultant talk about influence.

Next up was a Tea With Strangers Open House, that service started by a Penn grad who just wanted to meet more  interesting people. Both this event and the Salon were very effective at curating exclusively high achieving intellectual clientele while being technically open to the public, which is no easy feat. I theorize it is because both are based around the social networks on one key person, who started the event, told their friends, who then told their friends. Thus while everyone is indeed strangers, they are only a few connections away from one another, which means they’re all similar open minded, tech savvy, and curious. Plus anyone who is interested in meeting strangers is going to like others interested in meeting strangers.

Last up was the SF NewCo Conference, where the city’s startups open their office doors to attendees and talk about what they’ve done, their strategy, and roadblocks surmounted. I learned about how mountain lion sighting drive user engagement at Nextdoor (and how they would mail expensive postcards at the behest of neighbors in order to get non tech savvy households on the site), how Betabrand uses patently ridiculous marketing schemes to drive virality (like only using women PhDs as models), and saw both Pinterest and Soundcloud’s sweet SF digs (Pinterest has big TVs displaying Pins in real time with themed days like Mondays are men, Tuesdays as UK pinners, etc). Great opportunity to see the faces behind the product.

Then it was off to LA for the weekend to visit high school friends. I learned that the visible horizon is only 3 miles away on flat land, (I know, right?) built sand castles on Manhattan Beach with a diverse array of toddlers, and visited the preposterously ornate USC student apartments known as The Lorenzo. They’ve got 3 rooftop pools, a colorful fountain, arcade, and sand volleyball courts, all styled like Caeser’s Palace in a rather sketchy neighborhood near Downtown. Really highlights the disparity between white privileged USC kids and the surrounding denizens.

Not much on the online front, except for Bootstrappers.io, a nascent site along the lines of Hacker News, Growthhackers.com, and Product Hunt. Then there’s Gawker theorizing that Aspergers is an essential part of Silicon Valley, and some solid learning resources, namely:

Tim Ferriss’s NOBNOM Challenge – One Month Later

I recently partook in Tim Ferriss’s NOBNOM challenge for the month of August – no booze or masturbation allowed.  The challenge intrigued me because these are two activities done reflexively without thinking, yet can become powerful negative addictions if indulged wantonly. Just like true alcoholics, everyone says “I can stop whenever, but I don’t want to.” Thus NOBNOM was a perfect chance for me to test exactly that over the course of a month.

And so I signed up to track my progress with Lift, a habit tracking app. I quickly found that while I could successfully avoid both proclivities every day, I was not as good as logging that fact with Lift every  day, despite it’s incessant (and annoying) push remainders to do so. (Indeed the whole challenge was a clever onboarding hack for Lift, which Tim advises. See the Tim Ferriss effect.)

Even though checking in was one big easy button, and even though you’d get ‘Props’ from other users on your accomplishments – I just couldn’t fit the act into my daily routine.  I didn’t care what strangers thought about my achievement, I just wanted to do it for myself. This need to unobtrusively track offline activities is the problem all lifelogging apps face –  since not all of us are meticulous personal historians like Nicholas Feltron.

Anyway, Lift aside, I found that the simple knowledge of the challenge was enough to quell most urges. Normally I have no reason not to indulge, and thus do so without much thought, but for this month there was a secondary ‘No, you can’t, it’s NOBNOM’. And that was that. The simple presence of the challenge and my public participation in it was enough to hold me off, even though nobody would know if I snuck in one or two breaches. Here’s some thoughts on each aspect:

Masturbation

There were a few close calls here, mostly within that half hour before bed when you can’t fall asleep and have nothing to distract yourself with. Usually I would try to channel it to nonfiction reading for personal growth and to make me more tired. But it was very tempting to give up in order to get short term payoff (fleeting pleasure and sleep) at the cost of long term betterment (self discipline and time).

I won’t detail the effects on my libido here since this is a professional blog, (the web claims there’s all sort of health benefits like higher testosterone, higher ambition, and so forth) but I did feel like there were upwards effects in stamina and confidence. It could have been the placebo effect, though.

Booze

The drinking aspect was surprisingly  easy. I had been thinking about quitting alcohol after reading stories like that of James Swanwick and Sam Parr, who cite many positive changes, but again, there was no external reason for me to do so. Now there was NOBNOM, and the presence of a scapegoat I could blame as an excuse to my friends proved to be enough. I only drink socially anyway, and so the whole month boiled down to only a few social moments in bars with friends where I’d have to stand strong again the social pressure. My friends respected it, I was still out with them, and it really wasn’t as big of a deal as past me had made it out to be. As long as you have a drink in your hand, you can fit in with the buds – and a nonalcoholic drink is almost preferable, what with the positive effects on the wallet, your mindset, and the morning after.

In the weeks since August ended I’ve only drank twice; with two beers to fit in with friends each time. And it felt horrible the next morning. It was incredible how low my tolerance had become after the abstinent month – and I find that now the results don’t justify the means. I’ve never truly enjoyed the taste of alcohol to be honest; I just binge drank in college to get drunk.

So from now on I’m going to try avoiding unnecessary beers whenever possible, barring sips from new flavors here and there. The confidence is all in your head, and NOBNOM taught me that if you can stick to your promise, the real confidence is much preferable to the liquid kind. You just have to excommunicate the option of drinking entirely.

Summary

So why was NOBNOM a legitimate reason? I hazard that is was my conviction to stay true to something larger than myself. This may be the same conviction that grips nationalists and religious fanatics, who place the needs of a ‘greater power’ above their own needs for life or personal liberty (or a cold beer). Add in fellow adherents for group strength and repercussions for failure and you’ve got yourself the same recipe. Though in this case the only repercussion was letting yourself down – Tim’s money prize wasn’t even enough to keep my checking in on Lift. What do you think are the minimum requirements towards getting someone to stick to something?

The lack of NOBNOM going forward means I’ll have to find another greater power to keep me going – assuming I decide to continue. I don’t regard masturbation or social drinking in moderation as truly harmful, but they are insidious distractions from other, better uses of my time. And it is another great way to build self discipline (which is strengthened like a muscle), which is important to me.

So we’ll see how it goes in the future. But at least this NOBNOM has taught me that yes, I really can stop if I want to. That fact alone, and the accompanying self respect upon success, has made it worthwhile for me. I encourage all to try cutting out something you think is needed from your life and see what happens (although you don’t need to be as serious as Leo Babuta, who experiments with going without big things like sitting, computers, or cell phones.)

Weekly Review #43: Clever startups, Harry Potter Rationality, and liberal housing flaws

Lots of clever startups this week: ShareSomeStyle contracts stylists by the hour, StoryWorth emails relatives weekly questions and aggregates a family history, MineMyMail extracts everyone you’ve ever emailed into a contact list, QuitBit is a lifelogging cigarette lighter/app that tracks your quit attempts, Detour guides you on immersive walks using location aware tech, Shake auto populates legally binding agreements, Knowtify auto populates digest emails for you, and PaperLater turns the web into a physical newspaper. I’m also intrigued by Bop.fm, which lets you listen, share, and discover music from any service with any other. In a world where I discover on Soundcloud, share with Spotify, download from Youtube, and store on iTunes, this is becoming increasingly important.

I’m completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which is an unlikely HP fanfiction written by one of the geniuses trying to puzzle out Artificial Intelligence at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. In this version Harry is raised by an Oxford biochemist to become the ultimate rational scientist, and goes on to demystifiy magic, get sorted into Ravenclaw, and un-break the game of Quidditch. It’s incredibly well written (I’ve never given fanfics the time of day before), is a fun primer to rationalist thought, and does a fantastic job of playing by Rowling’s rules while still making drastic changes. I can’t recommend it enough!

This Vox article was interesting, claiming that American liberalism has a mortal flaw in the form of housing laws, which make blue cities so expensive as to be unlivable, prompting a mass exodus to cheaper red (conservative) cities. There’s just not enough semi dense mid rise housing in the cities where everyone wants to live. “Whatever else Blue America has going for it, it’s done a terrible job of generating enough housing supply.” Food for thought.

Another Medium ‘X things I learned at X age’ article has popped up, and despite the vanilla title there’s still great learnings here. She stresses the importance of gratitude, exercise, freedom from fear, openness, curiosity, spontaneity, reading, presence of now, travel, lack of TV, and self improvement – all things I can get behind.

Sam Parr put the principles behind the 4 Hour Workweek’s side business plan to work for him with a clever anti-itch cream that nets him 2k a month. Check out how he did it.

Mark Manson’s 5 things learned from 5 years on the road was great. I especially like the idea that the best things about countries are also the worst (American consumerism, Brazilian devil may care attitude, German efficiency), and that the fact that nobody cares about you in the world is empowering.

Jason Evanish is another avid reader who writes down what he’s learned from all his books, in a huge list way more comprehensive than my own. Lots of new To-Dos found here, as well as overlapping interests.

Marketing Job Hunt

I’ve been neck deep in the online job search for the past week, and yet it feels just wrong. My personal experience and every business blog I’ve ever read dictate that the best roles are found through personal networks, not on a classified listings site. So I’m reaching out to you, dear readers and peers, to see if you know somebody who could make use of me.

Ideally, I’m looking for a marketing role at a small to medium sized company near San Francisco, with a consumer/B2B product. I want to work for a company I believe in, which (probably, not necessarily) fits within those specifications. Everything below this is just details.

You can read more on my qualifications on LinkedIn, but in short, I’m a creative marketer who thinks like a hacker, writes solid digital content, and has a proclivity for perpetual learning and efficacy. I have product managed a successful Kickstarted self published book and helped grow a two sided marketplace startup (Onmyblock) to 11 employees and regular weekly transactions. Hopefully my website and Twitter speak for themselves as well.

Location – Like the rest of the young technorati flocking to the city, San Francisco is preferable to the peninsula, due to the current balance of Silicon Valley power and the fact that I grew up in Palo Alto.

Role – Almost all of my career experience has been marketing related, which makes it the obvious choice for me, although entry level job pickings are slim in that department. I’m intrigued by Product Manager positions, but doubt that my current experience would let employers consider me. I’m trying to avoid straight sales and customer service if possible.

Company size- The size of the startup is important because it it’s too small, then it’s unlikely for there to be a need for nontechnical me (as was the case at my last job), and if it’s too big, things get bureaucratic and you become a cog in the machine. The perfect place would probably have recently closed funding, but is not yet so big that they don’t know your name.

Company type – Some phrases that keep popping up in the listings I’m looking at are ‘growth hacking’, ‘data driven’, ‘analytical’, ‘optimization’, ‘content marketing’, ‘product’, and ‘project manager’. Some words that describe the companies include ‘software as a service (SaaS)’, ‘B2B or consumer’ (not enterprise), ‘mobile app’, ‘lean practices’, and ‘agile methodology’. An ideal employer is one that would be featured on Y Combinator’s Hacker News, Growthhackers.com, or Product Hunt.

Options I’ve looked at so far have been companies like Mattermark, Patreon, Pinterest, Gumroad, Vayable, Zoomforth, Hellosign, Quirky, Detour, Fixed, Humin, IFTTT, and Good.co.

For my entrepreneurially minded friends who know me and ask why I don’t just start my own company, well, it is tempting. Yet I believe that right now I’d be better off learning tons at a role in the heart of Silicon Valley, leaving me even better equipped to do my own thing in a few years. Then again, that’s the same argument that keeps people locked into their job, afraid to take the jump. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

If you know of a role, company, or person that comes to mind with the above framework, please let me know at ‘corey at breiers dot com’. Much appreciated!