[quote style=”boxed”]Ideas come easily. Realizing them is hard. Typically I start with a pain point I experience in my life. If I am not intimately connected with the problem on a regular basis, my solutions rarely hit the mark.[/quote]
Alden Gannon is an old school geek with a passion for how technology breaks down barriers and transforms human experience. He cut his teeth at SRI International in the late 80’s working on experimental computer networks, found himself on the Windows 95 development team years later and finally bit the entrepreneurial apple by Y2K. Never went back. Racked up a couple new media start-ups in the personal growth sector as CTO before launching his own consulting company Six Fish, LLC (named from the 6 koi in his fish pond) to make awesome web experiences for mostly non-profit clients.
What are you working on right now?
With clients and teams from all over the world, Six Fish naturally needs a way to keep track of projects on virtual teams, but we were disappointed by the options available. Having years of behavioral science behind us in the personal growth sector, we wanted more than a spreadsheet. We wanted to use technology to bring your team closer, get it in the zone and keep it there. We wanted something that helped the team, not just tracked it. So we developed propstoyou.com.
I divide my time between my consulting clients and PropsToYou. This has allowed us to self-fund development on PropsToYou. But since launch, PTY has experienced greater than geometric growth monthly, so more and more resources are moving to supporting it. Right now I’m working with our newer customers and learning how they intend to use PTY. We have had everything from garden clubs to educators trying it out for groups we never imagined, but why not? It’s all about helping a group of people get stuff done, support each other, learn new things and get recognized for contributions. And more and more, we’re seeing that any kind of group benefits from that.
Where did the idea for PropsToYou come from?
Gaming. One day I was playing Skyrim on my Xbox and noted that everything I did was tallied, saved and accounted for. When I reached certain skill thresholds, I leveled up. Any gamer is familiar with these concepts, and they mirror how people learn things in real life. You log hours doing stuff and you master skills. But who’s watching and giving you credit for all of it? Yeah, I had a transcript and earned a degree in college, but I’ve never stopped learning since then. Where’s my current vetted skill record? I’ve done all this great stuff, but how can I show it to you?
In short, why can’t I level up at work?
We took that question and ran with it. We started with tracking your skills, but brought to bear our extensive knowledge in behavioral science and team dynamics. It turns out that it takes a lot more than individual skill to make a team succeed. Your own success depends on everyone else on the team playing distinct roles effectively. Eleven quarterbacks make a terrible football team. We wanted to guide your team into optimum conditions to succeed that plays to everyone’s strengths, not just track what you do. Not only do we optimize your efficiency, but we also humanize your workplace by rewarding mutual support and sharing knowledge. The reward system follows the recommendations from behavior science for long-term job satisfaction of your staff.
What does your typical day look like?
Over they years, I have lost all boundaries between work and leisure time. They flow together in a daily stream, based on what is most needed in the moment. I tend to start work early around 7am, then my day proceeds with regular 2 hour sprints of focused time solving concrete problems interspersed with lots of breaks doing unfocused things like playing with my kids, exercising, having tea with a friend. I’ve found the best ideas spring from these off times, and that I need to follow where my current mind state is taking me. Sometimes it locks me in the office until I hit a milestone, sometimes it takes me for a walk.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Ideas come easily. Realizing them is hard. Typically I start with a pain point I experience in my life. If I am not intimately connected with the problem on a regular basis, my solutions rarely hit the mark.
If I find myself repeated frustrated by something and thinking “there has to be a better way,” I start thinking of solutions, and putting them through the wringer. An idea needs to be forged through a process of repeated tests and reshaping. I am completely ruthless with ideas, throwing every conceivable scenario at them to defeat them. Most don’t survive this crucible longer than an hour. They are judged too complicated, too difficult to explain or too dependent on factors outside our control. The few that emerge are elegant, simple and play to our strengths.
But I’m not yet done. As an entrepreneur, I know that an idea can only self-sustain with a business model. The idea then runs the gauntlet again, this time seeking a credible revenue stream. It has to find analogous businesses thriving in the present market, it has to be aligned with incentives we know from behavioral science. It has to address a widespread problem in a sizable market.
The end result of this process is an idea I can support with conviction and confidence. Faith in the vision is the fuel I need for the arduous journey ahead to realize the idea. But if I have gotten this far, realization is no longer in question. It will happen, and I will not lose focus until it does.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Gamification, which is the application of gaming principles to non-gaming tasks. As an avid gamer myself, I have long been fascinated by how games draw you into deeply creative and concentrated states of mind. If we could bring that sense of wonder and achievement into our work lives, we would be more engaged, productive, creative and self-satisfied. Imagine how your workplace would change if it was as addictive as gaming. Imagine not being able to tear yourself away to go home at night, instead of watching the clock. This is what it’s like when you’re truly engaged.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
This is a great question because my worst job was paradoxically also my best. I was working with the smartest people I have ever met on a project that was truly bleeding edge right in the bullseye of my interests. I have never learned more about creating technology products from any other team. However, I had a terrible relationship with my boss. It started off on the wrong foot and only got worse. A year later I received the worse performance review of my career which was ultimately the pivot point to leaving the company a year later to direct my career to startups.
I learned that your relationship with your immediate superior at work is the cornerstone of your experience. If it is not going well, it can poison even the greatest environment for you. Since then, everything we have done at Six Fish has been about turning that relationship into one of mutual trust and mentorship. The leader of a team can give it boundless energy if the relationship is healthy and harmonious.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Start again with what I know now? Well, I do that every day 🙂 I don’t need to go back in time for that. And that’s the lesson, here. Neither do you.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Take a yearly retreat. I spend a week in silence at a retreat center every year. A retreat only works if it is a radical departure from the flow of your life. No outside contact, no phones, no email, no speaking, no reading. A retreat is not about absorbing new information. It is about discovering what is remaining when all the normal concerns of life are removed. I have found that a yearly retreat sets my agenda for the rest of the year, and it is always surprising.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My previous venture hit the perfect storm of needing a sizable influx of capital right at the time the financial markets imploded in 2008, and didn’t survive. It is the only project I’ve worked on that is not alive today in some form. I had put a lot of energy into the project and it was very difficult to let it go. But eventually I incorporated the lessons it offered and added them to my arsenal of arguments to defeat new ideas 🙂
The most important takeaway from the experience for me was to think small. It is easy for founders to think in grand sweeping visions while what people really need is something small and elegant that is just one step away. If they have to hike a mile before seeing the benefit, they need to invest too much trust to last until that point. If each step has value, you can deliver a new solution at each step right at the point they are ready to take it.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Parking. There has got to be a better way. This one goes into the crucible every few months for me, but I’ve never found a solution that was credible. But the pain point is serious and has significant value. How much time could be spent if you didn’t have to cruise for parking? How much resources could we save? With electronic networked meters, we now have real-time parking data. We should also be able to make the supply/demand curve of parking spaces more elastic with real-time bidding. So I make a reservation at a restaurant and enter a maximum bid for parking. GPS knows when I am near and starts the bidding. I am messaged the location of my parking spot moments later, and turn-by-turn directions take me to it. This would benefit everyone by maximizing parking utilization, but it has always failed my test for too many moving parts. But if someone had the guts to unify this whole experience, it would change a lot of lives.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
In the face of the poverty that a billion people face every day, the pain of finding a parking space is trivialized to nothing. If I could change anything, it would be to remove the daily struggle for survival that countless people experience, not only to reduce their suffering but also to open up the potential for their creativity and contributions. Brilliant people are everywhere, but hungry ones are too busy surviving to be seen.
How would I go about it? No idea. Far greater minds that mine have the same aim.
Tell us a secret.
I learned to speak Spanish by chatting with people from six different Spanish-speaking countries via Skype. We spend half the time in English and half in Spanish, teaching each other’s native language. I can’t tell you how much it enriches your life to find someone living in a completely different world who speaks a completely different language and finding a way to connect. It reveals that the human experience is both universal and completely unique at the same time.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
PropsToYou, of course. It’s the only task manager out there that is about the people doing the tasks, and how to make them thrive. The rest are just about your endless to-do list.
Skype. My business could not exist without it. I form teams from all over the world and we use Skype daily.
Gmail. It just works. I used to spend forever hunting for old emails I needed. Now I just search and there it is, no matter what device is in front of me on in my hand.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Dan Pink’s Drive. It’s time we let go of the idea that human beings are only motivated by personal gain. Businesses that respect and foster autonomy, responsibility and creativity will attract the brightest minds and move faster then their competition. Drive surveys 20 years of behavioral science that shows what truly makes us engaged.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
@stuartdavis because everyone needs to have their world shaken now and again.
@danielpink because he wrote a great book.
@aldeng because I never tweet anything and you won’t need to unfollow me.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I was driving home from dinner with my family and we were talking about sports we like. I offered that my favorite is swimming, which I love to do outside in summer. My son, avid gamer that he is, announced that his favorite is “sitting,” the perfect posture for video games, whereupon my 7 year old daughter trumped that with “my favorite is lying down, especially on the couch.” This sent the whole car into guffaws. The thing is, both kids are quite active, which made the progressive homage to sloth even more hysterical.
Who is your hero?
Bill Gates, because he models what every successful entrepreneur should become — a benefactor to the people who need the most help.
What advice would you give to new founders?
Embrace limitation. The greatest art, design and businesses arise from seemingly impossible limitations. Consider twitter’s 140 characters, Matisse’s line drawings. Imagine the least amount of capital you need to launch your business. Then cut it in half. Imagine the least features your product can have to be useful. Then throw half of them out. Focus and execute within the tightest possible constrictions and ignore the chorus of “wouldn’t it be great if it did X.” It wouldn’t.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.