Hackomotive is Not Your Daddy’s Hackathon

After running internal hackathons at Edmunds.com for the past four years, I got to run my very first public hackathon at the company last week: Hackomotive: Reinventing the Car Shopping Experience. Our goal was to reinvent the car shopping process to make consumers love buying cars the way they do an iPhone or an item off of Amazon: simple, pleasurable and easy.

Hackomotive wasn’t going to be your typical hackathon where the participants needed to build a software prototype in order to win. This was going to be a business focused hackathon where prototypes of any kind, software or otherwise, were permissible as long as they told the story behind the proposed solution.

It was also going to be an Edmunds-sponsored hackathon. Translation: it’s going to be first class. This wasn’t going to be your daddy’s typical hackathon. This was going to be an event.

And it was 🙂

The idea for Hackomotive was born on June 11, 2012, after I got back from frog’s Reinvent Business Hackathon in San Francisco. I was so inspired by that event that I suggested to the Chairman of Edmunds.com, Peter Steinlauf, that we hold a similar event at Edmunds but narrow the scope to the car shopping experience and open it up to the public.

He loved the idea. Six months later, Hackomotive happened:

Thursday, Dec 20th – Hackomotive Announced!
Tuesday, Feb 26th – Evening Reception
Wednesday, Feb 27th – Day1
Thursday, Feb 28th – Day2

The event was a big success with folks already asking about when the next one will take place. I was humbled by the passion, commitment and positive spirit everyone brought to the event. There was a buzz in the air, and on the last day, the event crescendoed into a very high note when two teams, Tegrity and MyMotive, were crowned top winners and walking away with $10K each.

Needless to say, the event didn’t just happen.

It was the result of months of long and thorough planning by the following core team members that have grown to be my family at work during the past six months:

And Phillip Potloff, the senior executive who made sure we got what we needed to make it all happen.

The event literally wouldn’t have turned out the way it did had it not been for the dedication and thoughtfulness of the aforementioned talents. There was never any drama or unhealthy stress going on throughout both the planning and execution phases of the event. I learned so much about event planning from each and every one of them. I can’t wait for us to work together on something else very soon because I know it will be, dare I say, perfect.

Lesson learned: Want to put on a stellar event? Start with the core team. (thank you, Phil.)

Car shopping is an experience that affects us all and solving it is in our collective best interest. Everyone was welcome, as long as they were excited to join us and passionate about re-imagining the car shopping experience. As a result, we ended up with an incredibly diverse group of people for whom many this was their very first hackathon. Ever.

I’m not even going to cover the details of Hackomotive in this post because someone has already done that better than I ever could.

Matthew May, Hackomotive’s master of ceremonies, wrote a three-part article on the event starting with the evening reception and going into the first day where teams were formed and problem statements declared, and finally ending with coverage of the last day where judges deliberated and the winners were announced.

To stay abreast of everything that happens next, follow us on Twitter: @Hackomotive

Hackomotive for me was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my professional career. My hope is that it inspires other hackathons the way frog’s inspired it. Finding solutions that work for issues that matter is best done when a diverse group of creative minds physically converge on a single location to innovate for a very short, but intense, amount of time. I would love to see the same event happen in industries that haven’t been disrupted yet, like Travel, Housing, Government, and Finance. If you run one, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

Here’s to the next hackathon that inspires us all!

Seven Practical Themes From The Lean Startup Conference

Earlier this week, I attended my very first Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. I was invited to sit on a panel discussion of the lean startup practices in the enterprise by the good folks at Neo (thanks, Josh.) I spoke about my my experience at Edmunds.com and both the blessings and challenges that go with applying the lean startup principles in the context of a mature business.

Throughout the conference, many inspiring speakers told stories of successes and failures; dos and don’ts. There was a lot to take in (kudos to the event organizers for packing an impressive lineup! Seriously, my brain is still swollen from the data intake!)

After a few days of processing everything I heard, the seemingly disparate concepts started coalescing in my head into themes of lessons learned or best practices or whatever you want to call it. These are beacons derived from real-life experiences to help guide us maximize our chances for success and avoid unnecessary failures.

I distilled them down to seven main themes that every entrepreneur or change agent should live by. Here they are in no particular order:

Just Do It

Lean innovation and disruption is based in action. If you don’t do, then what the hell are you doing? We live in an incredible time where creating high fidelity software is easier than ever. With tools like Heroku, Twitter Bootstrap, Django or Ruby on Rails, Google Analytics, and Facebook Canvas, validating a product by building a minimally viable version of it, or an MVP, and putting it in front of real customers is relatively a no-brainer kind of affair, yet not many people do it.  In his talk, Steve Blank stressed the importance of “doing it” as opposed to reading or talking about how it’s done. If you work at a large company, use the tools aforementioned to “do it.”  If you can’t code, try to onboard a developer to help you out. If you can’t, then maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

It All Starts at The CEO Level

Senior executives to companies are the VCs to startups, for better or for worse. If your CEO doesn’t truly believe in validated learning and experimentation, the spirit of the lean startup is dead in the water in that organization. Many senior executives give good lip and rarely follow up with action. Beth Comstock from GE spoke about the protected class of ideas at GEThese are innovation teams believed in and protected by the CEO and are set up for success (i.e. they are funded, removed from the day-to-day chaos, …etc.)

It’s Not About You; It’s About The Team

Eric Ries stressed this point several times as did other speakers: in order for you to be successful, you need others to believe and embrace the lean startup principles as well. It was almost a call to action: how to inculcate these principles in our peers and organizations? How do we create an ecosystem in which validated learning is a core value? It was almost a call for evangelism. I believe the best way to show others the way is to lead by example. By “just doing it,” others will follow, especially after seeing the value of the ideas in practice.

Talk to Your Customers

We’ve all heard the “get out of the building” cry for action, but it all comes down to engaging with your customers and learning what their needs are. That’s accomplished by talking to customers in person or virtually through usability testings or even through collecting behavioral data through Google Analytics. As long as you’re “listening” to what customers are telling you and adjusting your product accordingly, you should be fine.

Cut The Crap!

My personal favorite learning from the conference. This encompasses cutting unnecessary features out of your MVP to speaking to people in the language they understand without the jargon. I find myself struggling with this a lot. Just because you understand what an “MVP” or “validated learnings” mean, it doesn’t mean that the person you’re talking to understands them as well as you do if at all. Taking the time to adjust your language to the audience before you is a crucial tool that ensures proper onboarding, understanding of, and ultimately the success of your project.

Use Android to Validate Mobile Products

I really liked Matt Brezina’s talk on Rapid Mobile Development and his contention that all products, including mobile, can be validated fast. This gets really important in mobile development since iOS development doesn’t lend itself to rapid development, given Apple’s tedious approval process. Matt’s suggestion to use a different platform for rapid testing mobile products is really interesting. Doing whatever it takes to find out if there’s a market for your product before building it out will in the end save you money and time. No one wants to work on an app or product for several months and have no one use it in the end. Now that would be heartbreaking.

Having Daily Outcomes

This was one of the learnings I spoke about from my experience. Validating a hypothesis or releasing a feature/test/fix every single day is important for success…and morale. Having 3-week iterations promotes procrastination and lots of wasted time. If you break down your product properly and “cut the crap” brutally, you will end up with very small tasks that can be tackled on daily basis. The team needs to leave for the day with a sense of accomplishment. This practice isn’t common in big companies and one that the lean startup spirit could help bring to the table.

These are the main themes that jumped at me. What do you think? Did I miss something?

I left the conference inspired to continue embracing the “just do it” mantra but also doing a better job in reaching out to different people across the company to help institutionalize the practice of validated learning and rapid experimentation. What will you do differently with these learnings in mind?

Edmunds.com API: Driving Innovation and Partnership with Open Data

I gave a talk at Mashery’s BAPI NY conference last week on the success of the open data initiative at Edmunds.com.  I gave a webinar a few months back on the same subject.  You can find the Edmunds API here. This is only the beginning 🙂

Five Lessons Learned at The Reinvent Business Hackathon

Last weekend, two of my colleagues and I participated in the Reinvent Business hackathon in San Francisco. I’ve participated in Hackathons in the past where code with its sophistication and originality was the main focus. It was different this time around; the Reinvent Business hackathon was primarily a non-technical event focused on innovative business solutions as opposed to purely innovative technical solutions.

The experience was extremely fulfilling with many learnings to be shared. Here’s a list of the top 5 learnings we gleaned from the event:

    1. Frame the Problem: Hats off to the organizers of this hackathon! frog and LRN did a bang-up job with the logistics and the flow of the event. I liked the fact that spaces in which opportunities for business reinvention and innovation where clearly called out.  The 160 participants were then asked to state issues that need to be addressed under each space. The frogs (i.e. employees at frog) then took all those participant-generated statements and coalesced them into clearly articulated problem statements. The participants then organically gravitated toward the problem statements they wanted to solve, and in turn, meeting other likeminded individuals, which made it easy to form teams.  State the problem and let people come up with the solution.
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon

      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
    2. Inspire Don’t Direct: Dov Seidman, CEO at LRN, delivered the keynote speech.  He was absolutely inspirational. He challenged us to “innovate in humanity” by making business personal. He’s a master storyteller and got everyone stoked and ready to hack away!  To get people to care and do their best, you have to inspire them, not direct them.

      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
    3. Less is More: I noticed that the teams that did well had not more than 5 members.  This reaffirmed my belief that the less people you have in a team (ideally between 3-5,) the better the product, the team and everyone involved for it. I believe this goes to the fact that smaller teams don’t suffer much from the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrom and will also likely to focus better. Obviously, there are many large teams that do very well, but those are the exception to the rule.
    4. Team Roles = Accountability: I know this firsthand since our team failed to assign clear roles like Team Captain, tech lead, …etc. Our team, on the human level, was awesome! But the fact that we didn’t have assigned roles meant that we did everything by committee. Design by Committee and Decision by Committee, both of which proved detrimental to our success. Assigned roles it clear what each member’s responsibilities are. With responsibility comes accountability and in turn focus to deliver and eventually success.
    5. Storytelling is Everything: No one cares about how awesome your code is or how complex your software architecture is. People care about the human story your product creates. Why is your product good for people? Why do they want to use it? How will it impact their lives? Our team built a mobile web app that illustrated our idea, but when it came time to sell the idea (i.e. pitch it) we focused more on the product than the people that would benefit from it. Ironically, the winning team had an identical idea to ours and no prototype. Yet they won and they won because they told a compelling, very engaging story about why their product is good for people and for business.  We didn’t win because we couldn’t agree on how to pitch our product and tried to accommodate every opinion.

      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
The learnings are still sinking in and I’ll probably update this post with more learnings in the coming weeks. My colleagues and I left the event inspired and committed to making business personal and authentic through technology. Most importantly, we were inspired to tell better stories.
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I

Highlights from Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored Event in San Francisco

Great conferences don’t need to span two or three days. In fact, they can be done in one day as Fast Company fabulously demonstrated earlier this week.

The Innovation Uncensored Conference was an impressive feat. It featured great speakers like Scott Case of Startup America, Padmaress Warrior of Cisco and Seth Priebatsch of SCNGR, who discussed pressing topics like customer-centric development, social in the enterprise and game mechanics in business. The mix of speakers and topics was intense without being overwhelming. I was able to walk away with many great learnings.

Oh and the catering … amazing!

Here are some of the learnings I gleaned from the conference:

#1 Successful Businesses are Flexible and Persistent

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn gave general good advice to startups. He singled out perseverance and focus as the two main objectives of any business. He emphasized the importance of listening to the “smartest people that will talk to you” and heed their advice. He also recommended getting an introduction to VCs you don’t know instead of sending them unsolicited emails (they hate it.)

Scott Case of Startup America echoed Hoffman’s sentiments with his “10 Steps Toward Success:”

  1. Ecosystem: Be part of the environment in which you partake. Give your time to fledgling startups that seek your help.
  2. Pick Your Team Carefully: Founding team members can make or break your business.
  3. Embrace the Pivot: Know how to pivot. Read Eric Reis’s book (my review.)
  4. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  5. Build Your Network: The smartest people in the world can’t get anything done without help. Build your support system and mingle with people that are smarter than you.
  6. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  7. Customer Development: Know your customers. Read Steven Blank’s book.
  8. Capital: Are you going to raise money? Self-fund? Where is your capital coming from?
  9. Get The Boring Stuff Right: Business, legal, accounting, …etc. Most founders waste their time figuring this out instead of focusing on their product.
  10. FOCUS: Do I really need to say it?
Pretty much everyone that spoke mentioned “focus.” They made a compelling case for the power of saying “NO” and how crucial that is for success. It’s only when you’re “focused” you can be flexible and have the energy to persist.

#2 Your Customers are Your No. 1 Asset

This was another common takeaway and one we take to heart at Edmunds.com.

David Cush of Virgin America stressed the paramount importance of managing customer expectations when rolling out a new system. Virgin America just recently implemented a new reservation system (still buggy as of this writing) and they have worked closely with the marketing department to manage customer expectations and reactions.

Padmaress Warrior of Cisco said the same thing. She implemented BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy at work after her customers (i.e. Cisco engineers) continued using their “unsupported devices” (i.e. Macs.) The new policy has been great not only for her consumers but for business as well.

Customer is the No.1 asset. Also, if your employees are happy and satisfied, that normally translates to customer satisfaction as well.

#3 Focus

I know I mentioned it above, but it was such a focal (no pun intended) point at the event. Focus is success.

Gary White of Water.org and Doug Ulman of Livestrong talked about passion, social responsibility and the role of focus in their success. If you come up with ten projects, prioritize them and then cut the last two and focus all your resources on the first eight. Personally, I’d go further and say cut eight and focus on the top two, but I guess it all depends on the amount of resources you have. Full Article

The Inspire Conference: Themes, Takeaways and Why I Care

I was lucky enough to be at the inaugural Inspire Conference that took place in London earlier this week. Over two days, some of the most influential and inspiring experts in technology, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity (many of whom spoke at TED many times,) took to the stage and attempted to inspire the audience.

And inspire they did.

In this post, I'll cover my experience in three parts: Main Themes, Takeaways and Why Do I Care.

MAIN THEMES

There were four main themes that stood out for me at this conference: Social Entrepreneurship, Innovation in Emerging Markets, Simplicity, and Gamification.

Social Entrepreneurship

The vast majority of the speakers advocated the use of innovation and tech talent to promote a better world. "Social Entrepreneurship" was definitely a strong theme here.

There was a dedicated panel on "the next generation of change in society," in which Shakil Khan of Spotify relayed a story of a little boy in Africa that when asked what can Khan do for or give him answered:

I want your empty water bottle so I can pick up runoff water from the street on my long walk to school. All the boys have bottles, but I don't.

The story's profound impact was palpable in the room. It succeeded in putting things into perspective and in giving the audience a sense of what social entrepreneurship could do.

Iris Lapinski of Apps for Good. There was also the great work done by Iris Lapinski of Apps for Good. The work her company does is absolutely inspiring. She made a plea to all the innovators in the audience to think about what their efforts bring to society and how they could do better.

Then there was Ushahihi. The African startup co-founded by Erik Hersman is truly "changing the world, one map at a time." The idea came out of a need to give voice to Kenyans during their elections and ended up getting used during the Haiti Relief effort, BP Oil Spil, the Arab Spring and the Libyan crisis.

Ushahidi's simplicity is astounding. It's a mashup: text messages + geolocation + Google Maps = Ushahidi. It's a platform that could be and has been used for anything. Someone in the audience tweeted that Ushahidi is perfect for neighborhood watches. I tweeted back, "great idea!" The power of the simple platform was undeniable.

My favorite talk on "social entrepreneurship" was by Ann Cotton of CamFed International. She talked about "building a governance model around values." She's not only a great storyteller, but her passion and conviction about giving an opportunity to those that are excluded from it by way of gender, race, nationality, color or socioeconomic status shone bright on stage.

She relayed a story about a Zimbabwean girl whose precocity, self-confidence and intellect were noted during a meeting with a CamFed board member, who asked the girl after being impressed by her wits, "what do you want to do when you grow up?" She answered back with humble confidence, "I want to be a lawyer." He assured her, "you will make an exceptional lawyer."

That girl would have been pregnant at 12 and fighting to survive had she not been in the care of CamFed.

Jolitics, a political networking site, is another example of smart people getting together to try to disrupt the world for the good of the world.

These are just some of the highlights that stressed the importance of use our talents to make the world a better place.

Innovation in Emerging Markets

Maybe the reason this stood out for me as a theme was the fact that we don't see much of it in the States. As I mentioned earlier, Ushahidi is an African innovation that has and continues to play a critical role in empowering people all over the world, including some in the Western world. Such innovation is another testament to the "increasing flatness of our world," a US Government spokeswoman said in a clip played on stage.

There was also talk about impressive Indian innovation in Cricket, Consumer Products and Space (yes, Space!) Putting the consumer first, Indian entrepreneurs are innovating ways to deliver products to people in ways that fit their lifestyles and needs. Selling cheap, just-in-time consumable goods was one of those ways to penetrate a market that traditionally wasn't consuming much.

Simplicity

Alex Ljung Simple is intuitive. Simple is easy, and Simple is the key to lasting innovation. This message was evident in Alex Ljung talk about SoundCloud and the power of the "REC" button. Also, Ushahidi was all about simplicity.

Jolitics' Michael Birch talked a bit about limiting users to 140 character to express their proposals on the site. That proven simplicity has worked well for Twitter and Birch is betting on it working for Jolitics.

Gamification

Using game theory in business is something that's been talked about often lately. Gabe Zichermann is a major advocate of Gamification and the man behind the Gamification Submit. He wasnt at the conference but you should check out one of his talks when you get a chance; he's a very effective speaker.

Back to the conference 🙂

Tom Chatfield, a TED veteran, spoke at the conference about "predicting the next innovation cycle via play and leisure." He made an excellent point that was later indirectly corroborated by Aza Raskin: people spend most of their time "playing" because an essential part of playing is having a feedback loop that in turn releases dopamine in their bodies and make them feel good about themselves.

The reason games are engaging is because of that feedback loop. People spend thousands of hours on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare because these experiences offer them a feedback loop that's satisfying. It's the unexpected "like" or "comment" you get on your status updates on Facebook. It's also the chance of someone mentioning you on Twitter or retweeting one of your tweets. It's the chance to unlock an unknown badge on foursquare and see your name on a leaderboard.

All these are examples of a reward system that effectively releases dopamine in the consumer's body. That effect makes people come back in search for that hit of dopamine again and again and again.

Raskin is attempting to find that feedback loop in the healthcare vertical in order to disrupt it.

TAKEAWAYS

There were countless takeaways at this conference, but a few stayed with me:

  • Transparency is key to all successful business ventures: this point has been talked about in Open Leadership by Charlene Li and Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. Transparency isn't only good for business and shows integrity. It's now expected by the consumer.
  • If you need to explain to the user how to use your product, you have done someone wrong: Simplicity is what made Twitter take off: 140 characters. That's it. A lasting innovation is a simple innovation.
  •  Value is subjective, relative and contextual: Rory Sutherland's talk about Behavioral Economics was a great eye opener for me. Every business should ask themselves this question: what's the value of my offering and why should anyone care.
  • We make up our attitudes to explain our actions: Another one of Rory's insights. You want to change someone's attitude toward your brand? Change the actions they make in the context of your brand.
  • Feedback Loop can make or break your business: keeping page load times low makes consumers happy. Increase page load times and no one visits your site in time. China has artificially slowed down certain sites like Facebook to make people hate to be on them and eventually abandon them. It's more effective than blocking the site all together in which case the consumer will want it even more and will find ways to get access to it.
  • Don't think outside the box. Find the right box and think within it: a great insight from Raskin about identifying the "right" problem before jumping into solving a problem that's in your head. When I asked him about his thoughts on Design Thinking, he said, "Design Thinking is stepping back and trying to identify the right problem." Once that problem is identified, figure out the constraints you need to operate within to resolve that problem. That's your box.
  • If you're not disrupting, you are iterating. If you're iterating, you will be disrupted: a profound takeaway that made me think hard about what we do everyday. Apple's first iPhone disrupted the mobile industry. All the iPhones that followed iterated on top of that first disruption. Will Apple be disrupted in the phone space? How many site redesigns, mobile apps, Facebook apps, and so on do we need to create to realize that we are only iterating and not disrupting. It's also important to remember that disruption doesn't have to be something so complicated. Ushahidi is a mashup service and it's very disruptive. Twitter is the same thing.
  • We need to fit technology into our lives, not the other way around: Oblong's g-speak disruptive innovation that was featured in Minority Report is a perfect example of that. We are tactile beings, therefore, pixels should be virtually tactile as well.
  • Empathy leads to Success: Rory Sutherland's observation that most of Al-Qaeda's masterminds hold an engineering degree was mind-blowing. Most engineers aren't empathetic, he reasons, which means that most engineers aren't capable of understanding how to release dopamine in the consumer. Behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists or just a smart empathetic people in your company can do that with ease and a smile.
  • Persistence is more important than passion: That's why most startups have at least two co-founders: the crazy idea guy/gal who's fired up about ideas all the time and the man/woman that keeps them focused, engaged and persistent. I know first hand how to be both. I get it.
  • The Future is in Disruption: Future business models are based on transparency, P2P, offline to online. The future isn't about iterating. It's about disrupting.
  • Data needs to be computable: Conrad Woldram's talk was by far one of the most impressive at the conference. He unveiled CDF (Computable Data Format) which I think will change information sharing and research.
  • Angry Bird and The Adjacent Possible: Peter Vesterbacka, founder of Angry Birds, developed games in Java for years but it wasn't until the iPhone came out that he got his break. Steven Johnson talks about that concept in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From." He calls it the Adjacent Possible. He uses YouTube as an example: if YouTube was created in 1999, it would have failed miserably. The reason it was a huge success in 2005 was because broadband connections were common, consumers expected to consume videos on the Internet and the fact that consumers had the ability to shoot and upload their own videos. All these factors are called, the "adjacent possible."

WHY DO I CARE

I have started to develop a passion for Open Government after hearing Tim O'Reilly's keynote at the Velocity Conference in 2009. Empowering the electorate is a field ripe for disruption. Jolitics and Ushahidi are admirable efforts, but more needs to be done. The taxpayer, the voter is in desperate need for some dopamine love! 

Social entrepreneurship doesn't have to be at odds with commercial entrepreneurship. I believe they can compliment each other, which in the end will only increase the dopamine levels for everyone involved.

Also the distinction between disruption and iteration, which Tim Wu talks about in his Master Switch book, made me think deeply about what I do everyday. Most companies don't articulate a grand goal or unwilling to take meaningful risks to achieve it. Therefore we end up iterating instead of really disrupting. How do you break out of that?

I was watching Jack Welch last night on CNN talking about the importance of a "grand vision." I think a grand vision that's well articulated and communicated passionately to everyone in the company can only be a disruptive vision.

Disruption isn't going to come from engineering or product people. Disruption will be brought on by thought leaders that are 1) empathetic and 2) are able to inspire others. Those thought leaders may happen to be engineers or product managers, but they could also be anyone in the company.

It's not about the technology. It's about the vision. And vision is what I care about. If you can't dream it, it won't happen.

Thank you all for inspiring me. I'll see you next year!

Velocity 2010 Talk: Mitigating Advertising Impact on Page Performance

I had the pleasure to speak at Velocity 2010 about the approach we used at edmunds.com to lessen the impact of 3rd-party code on the performance of our pages. The response has been overwhelming and it was heartening to see folks from Google talk about reaching similar conclusions on their own 🙂