Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How I Became a Stand-Up Comedian in Five Easy Steps

Some people know, but most are not surprised to hear, that I've done stand-up comedy.

It's interesting when it comes up in conversation, because it turns out that many people know that they're funny. Some even kind of think that doing standup might be neat. But every time these people see a comedian on TV, they overlay a little mental picture of themselves over the comedian, and go...nahhh.

They're not that person. Intuitively, it doesn't make sense.

Well, I decided to discard my intuitive side and took a pretty analytical path towards being a stand-up comedian. Here's how I did it:

Step 1: Discovery

I was driving around with my sisters-in-law, complaining that the froyo shop near my house had gotten held up, and that the people in line were such placid sheep that they had done nothing to stop it. Let's set aside the crappy community aspect of this. I mean, you should be ashamed of yourself if your neighbor gets robbed in front of you and you don't act. 

But -- separate issue -- didn't these people care about froyo? This place had an hour-long line every time I walked by. If I had waited in that line for an hour, and the guy before me held up the place before I could get my froyo...dude--no. I will stab you to death with a taster spoon before I let you get in the way of my swirl cone. With sprinkles.

They laughed for about 5 minutes and they told me I should do stand-up. So I thought...okay. I've done a lot of Powerpoint presenting, and people tell me I'm good at that. Maybe I'd be good at standing up in front of people and talking in a different setting.

Step 2: Research

I had no idea what a stand-up set was supposed to look like. Obviously, I was not going to start with my own 60-minute HBO special.

So instead I did this:
  • looked up comedy clubs in my area with "amateur night"
  • found out how long my set needed to be (5 min)
  • figured out about how many jokes it would take to fill that time (3)

Step 3: "Writing"

Great, now I had to write 3 jokes. But, let me tell you, writing jokes by yourself is SUPER-boring. So, being a new person in a city where basically no one liked me except for my sisters-in-law, I decided to take some social risks.

I would get into conversations with strangers or recent acquaintances, and try to see if I could get them to laugh. If they laughed, I wrote the joke down for future testing.

The part I didn't expect was how much people HATED hanging out with me during this process. The outcome probability graph was non-linear:
  • Tell joke. Person gets it. Everyone laughs, I am a hero. (1%)
  • Tell joke. Person thinks it's amusing, but that it kind of sounds "stand-uppy" and weird. Social failure. (10%)
  • Tell joke. Person doesn't get it, thinks I'm an asshole. (89%)
Takeaway: Comedy is risky. 99% of the people I talked to during this period thought I was a weird asshole. Do not embark on a comedy career if you're a cool person who wants to be liked. There is nothing in it for you. This is art, man. There is no safe place for you to try out new stuff and get legitimate feedback. People are going to hate you. Deal.

Step 4: Validation

After about a month of going to parties, I had a repertoire of three jokes that would reliably get laughs. This was great, because it allowed me to recover a little socially from the writing period, and people started to hate me less. Not a lot less, but enough less.

I was ready.

Step 5: Performance

I signed up for amateur night at a local club, and showed up early with a copy of Anna Karenina -- in part because I was really trying to finish that book, and in part because I was hoping that it would deter people from talking to me. However, apparently, comedy is full of single dudes and not so many single ladies, so what ended up happening was that every guy who was there tried to hit on me by telling stories of their own comedy greatness:
  • "I was playing this room in Idaho, and they f*cking loved me..."
  • "Oh, yeah, I killed in Fairbanks..."
  • "Is this your first time? You know, I teach a class. You could come for free if you wanted; I wouldn't charge you."

After the flirting period ended, someone who looked official came along with a little sheet of "comedy tips:"
  • Don't remind the audience to tip their waitress
  • Don't go over your time
  • Don't say "you'll be here all week"

My friend Doro joined me and we waited for an hour-and-a-half while other people got up and told their 5 minutes worth of jokes. Then they called my name and I had to go on stage.


I killed! Everyone laughed, no one knew it was my first time, I stayed under the time limit, and Doro and I got faceplant-drunk right afterwards. Success.


If you want to do something big, weird, and totally out of your wheelhouse, it's okay. Just be prepared to accept the trade-offs (social estrangement, harassment), practice, and don't be a weenie about it. That thing that you've always wanted to do? It's probably not that hard. It just takes some planning.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Let's Give Lyft a Big Hand

Have you tried Lyft? It's basically a cab service run by normal people driving their own cars. The cars are clean, the drivers are nice people who don't drive like lunatics, and they come on time! It's also a lot cheaper than its main competitor, Uber, and a lot more reliable than cab service.

As an extra bonus, they have a great customer service department.

On June 5th, I took two Lyfts and managed to leave my keys in one of them. Have you ever left anything in a cab? Unless the person who takes the cab after you manages to contact you and pays for the driver to return  your stuff, you're SOL.

But I crossed my fingers that Lyft was different, and sent them an email (see the thread below). Even though I got the name of one of my drivers wrong, within a day, I had my keys back!

Just so you know, I tipped Meghan an extra $20 via PayPal. She drives for a living and returning my keys probably cost her some business in the short-term, so she deserved some extra love.

Fist-bumps to all the Lyfties out there. No surprise that you guys managed to raise a $60MM round. Way to go.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Should You Use TaskRabbit to Pick Out Your New Couch?

I tried to do it. Here's how that worked out...

The Use Case -- Professionals With Less Time Than Money (Although Not Enough Money to Hire a Personal Assistant)

My fiancee and I are both employed in the tech sector. We love our jobs and work long hours, which leaves little time and interest left to focus on things like home decor.

But we recently moved into a new place, and decided to get a new couch. The issue was that neither of us wanted to spend time shopping for it.

So I decided to use TaskRabbit. TaskRabbit is a friendly service that allows you to hire someone for a specific task, e.g., picking up your dry-cleaning, or to take up a task like this yourself and earn a little extra cash. I figured it would be the perfect solution if I could make the task spec detailed enough.

The Experience -- Missed Deadline, Poor Communication, Task Incomplete

I used the iPhone app, which has a cute chore-wheel style interface.
TaskRabbit iPhone app interface

I chose a virtual task, since I thought most of the work could be done online, and then filled out the TaskRabbit form, which requires details like the skills necessary to complete a task, time limit, and how much you'll pay (I went with $25, which TaskRabbit suggested as the "most popular price" for tasks).

Then I filled out the description with specific instructions:
Recommend 5 couches for me to go look at. Couches must:--be new (not pre-owned)--be $1200 or less, including tax and delivery/assembly--be available for delivery within the San Francisco area--be 8 feet or less in width when assembled--have a chaise that can go on either side--be available in gray--not be from IkeaThis task requires Research.This task should take Less than 1 hour.

I posted the task. I got a notification within a few hours, saying that my task had been accepted. The TaskRabbit who would be picking out my couch also sent me an email to let me know that she was on the case:

So far, so good, but then my TaskRabbit disappeared. After a day's wait on a job that should have taken an hour, I emailed her, and she sent back one link to a couch:

Okay, so 20% of the task was complete. Great! But then more waiting followed. When I pushed my TaskRabbit for updates, I didn't get much back:


I got one more link (40% of project complete):

And then she gave up:

She was clearly not going to help me any more. So I ended the task and paid her. I left honest feedback that reflected that my TaskRabbit had exceeded her time limit and left the task incomplete. She offered excuses and a refund:

But at that point, it was too late. I didn't really care about my $25. I cared about getting some ideas for a couch. And besides, it sounded like she needed the money more than I did.

The Moral of the Story

When I told a few friends my TaskRabbit story, all of them shrugged and said "You get what you pay for." Maybe a higher price would have netted me a better outcome, but I was new to the service and used the price that TaskRabbit recommended. 

If I were TaskRabbit, I would be worried that people were having these kinds of experiences, because it suggests that TaskRabbit's business thesis -- that you can hire people to do simple tasks piecemeal and at reasonable prices -- might be fundamentally flawed. The price task posters are willing to pay might be below the price TaskRabbits are willing to work for.

Maybe next time I'll try Mechanical Turk for jobs like this. Meanwhile, thanks, TaskRabbit, and good luck!!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Prove It Out, Then Move It Out

Andrew Chen posted a really interesting article today: http://andrewchen.co/2013/04/22/why-developers-are-leaving-the-facebook-platform/.

While I still think that Facebook is the best place to validate your business idea, as soon as you prove it out, you should consider if the Facebook platform will continue to work for you long-term.

If you're starting a software business, here are some of the potential downsides that Chen notes:
  • Ad rates are increasing
  • Virality is harder to achieve
  • Engagement is limited -- Most people only look at 10-20 items in their feed at a time
IMHO an additional note is that you're more likely to get funding for a mobile app than a FB-only app right now.

I still think that Facebook is the best place to see if an idea will fly. And if your business is outside the software industry, you should still maintain a Facebook Page. But when it comes to actually investing in development, iOS or Android is a better bet in terms of riding a platform-wide wave of growth and attractive the investment that can help your idea really scale.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What Company Should I Start? -- A Perspective from Your Friendly Neighborhood Marketer

I'm a quantitative marketer. I spend countless hours researching, refining, and testing the landing pages, email campaigns, sales, and other customer touch-points for the company I work for.

I spend even more time measuring the results, trying new methods, and thinking about how we could get the best results for the least risk.

I also live in Silicon Valley. I meet a new CEO every day. They're all geniuses. These are people that could be working at Google, or Disney, or someone else's more successful startup, where they'd be pulling down a fat paycheck as well as learning valuable skills. But instead, they're starting mobile social photo-sharing apps, or apps that helps you cook parsley, or cat-based social networks. Why are they giving up so much opportunity in the pursuit of so little? Especially when they don't have to?

Here's what I'll teach you that those smart guys don't know: If you're interested in starting your own business, step 1 of the process isn't getting funding or building a team or finding a freaking technical cofounder.


Step 1 is: gather some data! Call it Performance Marketing, Customer Development, Ghetto Testing -- whatever. But your business will need the following three things if it's going to survive:

  1. A cheap way to acquire customers (compared to what they spend with you)
  2. Content/Inventory
  3. A reason for customers to come back
The cheaper you can make all of these elements relative to what your customers spend, the bigger your profits, which means more funds available for reinvestment in the business...which means: a bigger business.

What's the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to test your ideas? Facebook.

Facebook gives you a free, credible web presence where you can post links for content, a free marketing channel with built-in social proof, ads with rock-bottom CPMs, and a daily use case you can piggyback on. 

So if an idea for a company pops into your head -- put up a Page, and see if you can get some traction. If your idea can't make it on Facebook, it's not worth pursuing, but then you might only be out $100 or so if you buy ads...not, say...$40 million and a few years of your life.

For more information on Customer Development and testing, check out these amazing books:

For more information on how to set up a Page and run ads on Facebook, look here:
...and if you don't believe me about Facebook's rock-bottom pricing? "Facebook’s average CPM is just 30 cents in five rich countries, including the U.S." You won't find a better deal!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The 2 types of tech blogs you need to read

I've worked at a variety of tech companies, but what I consider one of my best skills is one I acquired from writing news for a Miami TV station shortly after I graduated college: The ability to sniff out the germ of truth* in every news story.

It's a skill anyone can develop -- it's actually a pretty easy one to learn. All you need is a variety of sources:

  1. 3 or more news providers (i.e., CNN, CNBC, your local news station)
  2. 1 or more sources of analysis (NPR, Fox news [ew], even the Daily Show can provide supplementary analysis)
Use the information you get from the three news providers to zero in on the facts, and use analysis to set context for why a particular story matters and whether it matters to you.

In the tech world, I use the following for news:
  1. TechCrunch
  2. Hacker News
  3. Silicon Alley Insider
And the following for analysis:
  1. BetaBeat for broad analysis of news trends
  2. Quora for more targeted analysis or deeper dives on particular topics
The tech scene is a world of momentum, strong opinions and big egos. When you voice your opinion, it helps if you can site an external source to show that you're providing thoughtful, well-researched information. Doing a lot of research will also help you feel confident standing your ground when faced with aggressive questioning (this happens, even at parties). So get out there, and get reading!

*Well, "truth" in the sense that it's the parts of the story everyone agrees on.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seattle isn't weird...you're the one who's weird

Let me relate the narrative I've gotten from Seattle since I've lived here:

Obviously, lack of sunlight and nightlife options has driven the people of the Pacific Northwest insane. You would never see this kind of weirdness in New York because people there have better things to do than make their own sauerkraut.

I'm going to start throwing parties. We'll call it a social service. Ooh, maybe I can even get a grant for it for the city for propping up the local moonshine industry.