Alistair Croll – Author, Entrepreneur and Startup Accelerant

[quote style=”boxed”]Lately, that’s been how I’ve approached things: build something small, let it grow organically, and see if it catches on. If it doesn’t achieve an “escape velocity” and take on a life of its own, then you’re going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting to make it happen. I’d rather know that’s the case early on.[/quote]

Alistair Croll is an author, entrepreneur, and technology analyst. He works on content for a variety of conferences, including Cloud Connect, O’Reilly Strata, the International Startup Festival, the Decibel music festival, and Bitnorth. A sought-after speaker, he’s the author of three books on technology and business.

Alistair was the co-founder of Coradiant, a Montreal startup that measured user experience on websites, as well as startup accelerator Year One Labs. Alistair is an advisor to a number of startups and venture capital organizations, and is an executive at CloudOps. He lives in Montreal with his wife and daughter, travels too much, and writes at

What are you working on right now?

Too many things. I’m helping some tech companies find their groove—which usually translates into figuring out their product and market before the money runs out. I’m working with CloudOps, a company that helps businesses embrace cloud computing. I’m continuing to work with some of the companies we launched at Year One Labs, as well as with Montreal’s Founderfuel accelerator. And I’m planning a number of conferences and events, including Startupfest, Bitnorth, Strata, the Decibel festival, and Cloud Connect.

Where did the idea for those come from?

Most of my ideas come from talking with people who are smarter than I am, usually over wine or beer. But I’ll pick two for the purpose of this question: TrueSight and Bitnorth.

My biggest entrepreneurial experience so far was Coradiant, a company I founded with friends in 1997 that was acquired by BMC software last year. Coradiant made a piece of hardware called TrueSight that plugged into your network and figured out where visitors were having problems using your website. Before that, you had web analytics (which showed you what people were doing), but nothing that showed you why they were doing it.

The idea for TrueSight came from talking to companies that had no idea whether their site was working; but it only really took off when we learned how to connect geeky, technical things like errors back to the things people cared about—users, customers, contracts, or geographic regions.

The other thing I get really excited about is Bitnorth. It’s a conference, now in its fifth year, which we run north of Montreal. In many ways it was a reaction to the more formal events I’m involved with. At Bitnorth, everyone who comes has to present. We’ve seen presentations on root cellars, how to perform surgery, the carbon footprint of beer, how to slackline, and more.

Most conferences set up the schedule, then solicit content from speakers. Reversing that—where everyone’s a speaker, and the schedule falls naturally from that fact—is really satisfying. We do it off the grid, and we can only accommodate around 60 people per year.

What does your typical day look like?

Unfortunately, it’s a constant series of interruptions. I need to disconnect from the world more and spend chunks of time creating things, but when you’re juggling a number of projects that’s hard to do. I spend about four hours doing email, another two hours on phone calls, and the rest of the time writing, reading, and coming up with content for presentations.

If I’m home, then it starts with breakfast with my wife and 22-month-old daughter—who is the center of my universe. One of the benefits of working from home is that I can spend time with her while cooking and hanging out.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’m delusional enough to believe they should happen, and sometimes that blunt-headedness is all it takes. But if you want an idea to succeed, it can’t just be on the force of your own will.

In today’s world, the cost of launching something is practically zero. You can start up a blog, create a conference ticketing system, accept global payments—all for no money down. You can record a video, and in ten minutes the whole world can watch it. That’s unprecedented. It’s transformative. It makes it easy to put an idea out there and see if others are as excited about it as you are.

Lately, that’s been how I’ve approached things: build something small, let it grow organically, and see if it catches on. If it doesn’t achieve an “escape velocity” and take on a life of its own, then you’re going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting to make it happen. I’d rather know that’s the case early on.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I think we’re massively underestimating the importance of home 3D printing. 3D printers are where the homebrew computer club was decades ago—curiosities that geeks play with. But the color copier went from the printing shop to your home office in only a few years. So imagine what happens when everyone can print at home.

If you think that MP3s disrupted the music industry, or that streaming video killed video stores, then just wait. How will Toys-R-Us deal with us downloading and printing out children’s toys? What happens to Fedex and UPS when, instead of ordering things, we order raw materials for our printers? What happens to an auto parts store when every garage has a lathe? We’re turning supply chains into data and pushing the factory out to the edge, and that’s going to be absolutely huge.

What’s the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I bagged groceries for two days when I was a teenager. I didn’t make any money, because all of my salary went to pay union dues that didn’t benefit me—I had no choice in the matter. On the second day, a shopper asked me about a computer problem, and I told him how to fix it. The next day I went to his house for an hour and earned $100.

I learned that I don’t like unions much. Early on, they gave us the weekend, ended child labor and so on, but today those functions have been replaced by legislation and they seem like self-perpetuating bureaucracies in many cases, designed to keep salaries high while the industries they penetrate become gradually uncompetitive. I also learned that it’s much more lucrative to work on technology and fix problems than to bag groceries.

But most of all, I learned not to take things for granted. That was a lot of hard work for not a lot of money, and that helps me keep perspective on things.

If you had to start again, what would you do differently?

Not much—I’ve had an amazingly varied set of experiences in my life, and I’m sure they all contribute somehow to who I am today. I might change what Coradiant did, because we started as a company that ran websites for people (competing with LoudCloud, Sitesmith, and others) and when we switched to making a product, we had to lay a lot of people off and find more financing. Had I known then that TrueSight was the thing we were going to be successful with, I could have saved a lot of time and heartache.

As an entrepreneur, what’s the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Try to solve for interesting.

Herbert Simon observed that we live in a world of too much information, and what information consumes is attention, so we’re faced with a huge shortage of attention. The way we decide what to pay attention to is simple: we look for what’s interesting.

Marketers who write yet another press release, or create yet another spec sheet, are just adding to the information; instead, they should be hacking the attention. That means constantly trying to find the interesting story within your product or service, and worrying less about how you’ll make money from it.

I’m always looking for patterns and analogies, because it’s usually in the intersections of two ideas that interesting stuff happens. Once you start to look at the world in this way, all kinds of new ideas emerge.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

There are three kinds of founders. A product CEO believes that if you can just build the perfect mousetrap, the world will beat a path to its door. The sales CEO believes that if you can just get customers, the product and revenue will work itself out. And the finance CEO believes that if the business model works in a spreadsheet, that’s how it’ll happen in the real world.

All three are wrong. I was a product CEO, and probably still am, but I can mitigate that by surrounding myself with others who complement that focus. I wrote a more detailed explanation of the three-kinds-of-CEO pitfalls, and what to do about them, on Solve For Interesting.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I can’t think of a specific one right now, or I’d probably be doing it. But I suspect that if you consider all the members of today’s supply chains, and think about how they’ll be affected by 3D printing, there are a lot of opportunities there. Could you be the local 3D printer supply store and corner the market for tomorrow’s “ink”? Should you be recycling and melting down old toys to somehow turn them into raw materials? Can you launch a business to scan objects or make custom models? All of those are going to become a reality if we move manufacturing to the edge.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? How would you go about it?

I think Internet access should be a human right. A connected society can live, learn, work, play, and govern better and more transparently. Unfortunately, in many countries, it’s treated as a profitable commodity, and that’s bad.

We live our lives offline and on. Nobody can charge us to live our offline lives, but right now we have an oligarchy of big, entrenched carriers who can tax us to access our online lives, and those who can’t afford it are going to be hugely disadvantaged.

There are three big ways to structure an industry:

  1. When you have a huge undertaking that’s going to be hard to reclaim profits from, but will be very good for society, we grant a monopoly. That’s because while there’s demand, there’s no supply, so we need to encourage a supplier by giving them a reasonable expectation of profit. That’s why drug companies get to patent their research; it’s why AT&T and the rail companies had monopolies when they started.
  2. When you have a free market good, like sugar, then supply and demand balance one another out. The market is efficient and regulates itself relatively well.
  3. And when you have something you can charge practically anything for—that doesn’t easily conform to supply and demand—you regulate it, or make it a public service. Healthcare is a classic example. We all want health. We’re willing to pay almost anything for it. When you let profit-motivated free markets deliver health services, prices go up as a result. That’s why the U.S. has the most expensive healthcare in the world, and why more than 50% of bankruptcies in the U.S. happen because of medical costs (and 75% of those people have insurance, too!)

For me, Internet access falls into the third category. We should have a personal, basic tier of access for everyone. That’s a pretty controversial notion, particular in countries that haven’t done it yet for even more vital things like healthcare or environmental regulation, but it’s something I think we should aspire to.

Tell us a secret.

I don’t have any filters. Which also means not many things stay secret.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Reddit, not just because it’s the pulse of the Internet, but because it’s a perfect blend of humans and machines sorting the wheat from the chaff, and it’s a great community.

Dropbox, because it separates my content from any physical constraints effortlessly.

Flickr’s creative commons image search is a great resource for presenters and also embodies much of what’s great about the Internet—an amateur photographer’s one great shot can climb to the top and be used by everyone.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’m currently reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, after having seen one of his TED presentations a while ago. It’s brilliant, and scary. He’s a moral psychologist, and he clearly demonstrates that most of the time, when we think we’re being “rational” we’re actually just finding ways to justify the deep-seated moral beliefs we have.

Basically, Haidt says we’re wired with morals around specific things—freedom from harm, fairness, authority, purity, tribal affiliation, and so on—but each of us has a different emphasis on them, like sliders on an audio equalizer. Most of that time, we make decisions about the world based on those moral guidelines. It’s how we deal with the world, and it’s very effective most of the time, because it allows us to survive without having to debate every little decision. But it also means we aren’t very good at solving our own problems or at reaching a consensus with others.

It’s explained a lot about politics to me. It also makes me worry for the human condition, since despite good evidence on things like climate change, we act on our beliefs, and this gets in the way of progress.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

Avinash Kaushik is one of the smartest, most genuine people I know. He’s able to drill to the middle of a subject with disarming charm, and if you’re in marketing or analytics, you need to hang on his every word.

Simon Wardley is part of CSC’s Leading Edge Forum. He sees big pictures where nobody else does, and understands the tectonic shifts in industries. He’s also funny as hell.

Alex Howard is O’Reilly Media’s Washington correspondent. If you want a fair, inside look at the beltway, with a particular focus on how technology and open access are changing government, you can’t do better than Alex.

When was the last time you laughed out loud and why? What caused it?

It was almost certainly something my daughter said. I laugh a lot; I think laughter and learning are intrinsically related, and that the surprise twist in a punchline rewires our brains the same way learning a new fact does.

More concretely: My wife and I were watching a BBC show, Russell Howard’s Good News, recently. It’s like Tosh.o without the bodily harm, or the Daily Show with a happy ending. Every time we watch it we lose it; I think Russell’s the kind of guy who would be great to have dinner with. I wish it was easily available in the U.S.

Who is your hero?

My father. He died at 39, having written more than 20 books. He revolutionized the field of parasitology, and probably saved millions from horrible deaths as a result. At 35 he went to medical school, adding an MD to his long list of post-graduate degrees. He was teaching, running a foundation, practicing medicine, and more, when he keeled over playing racquetball.

And by association, my mother, who raised my 2-year-old sister and me by herself from then on. Hers was a more personal, but no less daunting, task, and she pulled it off with poise, aplomb, and a smile on her face.

What should startups worry about most?

Every great startup I know began with an exploit. The key to building a successful business is to figure out the system in which you operate, and to then figure out how to get that system to do something it wasn’t intended to do.

Hackers do this when they’re trying to break into a computer system. But for some reason, most marketers don’t think like this, and they need to. Consider Farmville, which spread by posting requests for items on your friends’ walls. They exploited the wall model, and thrived until Facebook plugged the hole. Or consider Getsatisfaction, which convinced customers to complain about a company, and then sold the company the right to respond. They used the asymmetry of the Internet and their ability to coalesce all customers’ feedback in one place to build a feedback business.

Every time I see marketers worrying about a tagline, or the color of their website, I want to tell them to stop wasting time and start looking for the exploit that will be key to their success.

What one skill do you wish you had?

I wish I could play music. I DJ, and I’m hoping to learn keyboards alongside my daughter. But I suspect she’ll outstrip me very quickly.


Alistair Croll on Twitter: @acroll
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