DIY Recommendation Engine

Reccomendation EngineI was recently talking with a young entrepreneur that is working on an exciting project in the men’s fashion space. One of the important characteristics of the project is creating a detailed profile of a user’s preferences.

I don’t know the first thing about fashion, so I wouldn’t really know where to start if I were trying to create the framework of the user profile. The concept of using data collected during interactions on a website to personalize recommendations is not new, but it is very challenging. Netflix is famous for its recommendation engine, especially the million-dollar contest it ran to crowdsource a more accurate version.

As we talked about issues specific to his new company, my mind started to wander a bit. I started thinking about the process of learning a user’s preferences. It can be a lot of work to assume preferences based on clicks and hovers.

Maybe the value of the recommendation is strong enough to ask the user to tell us what she likes and doesn’t like. What if the process of describing her preferences was part of the fun? For items that can be visually represented, why not use a simple gamification approach like the old Hot or Not website, where a user selects photo A or photo B as their favorite?

We all know the addictive nature of looking at pictures online. It’s the core of almost every popular consumer website. If I were presented with a sequence of images and asked to pick my favorite, I would almost certainly participate. This is doubly true if I were interested in seeing what was recommended for me. Sure I’m doing the work of data mining for the website, but it doesn’t feel like work, so why not.

There are thousands of businesses that could benefit from understanding their potential or existing customers’ preferences. This would allow them to focus their marketing efforts to deliver the best reward to the ideal customer every time. One of the biggest obstacles to doing this kind of targeted marketing is finding out what current and potential customers actually want. Perhaps using an entertaining methodology of gathering those preferences would streamline the collection of this information.

If Facebook has taught us anything, it is that we are willing to publicly announce who and what we like. From friends to brands to articles, there is no limit to our desire to express our opinion about the things we are presented with. Product developers and business owners that want to make personalized recommendations can get started by making the process of expressing ourselves as fun as liking photos on Facebook.

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Public Speaking – Forget the Notes

Public SpeakingIt is frequently referenced that the number one fear of most people is public speaking. I am not one of those people. I enjoy getting in front of a group of people and delivering a passionate speech – it’s quite fulfilling.

I am a member of a local Toastmasters group here in Louisville, which gives me a great opportunity to speak about a variety of topics, almost none of which are about work. The best part about this group is the detailed feedback that is given. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in traditional speaking environments. No one cares enough to tell you that your hand gestures were distracting, or your eye contact was lacking, or your vocal variety could use work. This kind of feedback can dramatically improve your skills and confidence.

Recently I tried an experiment with a couple of speeches that I had to give over the course of consecutive weekly meetings. I discovered something about the preparation process that had a big affect on my confidence and delivery.

I should add a small disclaimer. I never bring notes of any kind with me when speaking. I find that written notes are a distracting crutch that inevitably leads to an awkward moment of trying to find your place in your notes to remember your next line. Secondly, I am notoriously bad at preparing speeches for my Toastmaster group. I frequently write my speech at 10pm the night before, and then usually finish it up very early in the morning. This being said, I don’t spend a lot of time rehearsing.

The first week I tried the classic preparation process of writing out my speech, every word that I wanted to say. I then worked diligently to commit to memory the six minute speech, focusing on specific lines and transitions. I truly wanted to recite the speech as I had written it. As I awaited my time to speak I scrolled through the speech on my phone, desperately trying to recall the lines. My stomach was turning and I was more apprehensive then I have been about speaking in quite some time.

When I stood in front of the podium and started my speech I could tell what was about to happen. About four lines in I completely blanked out on a sentence. It was at this point that I decided my plan to recite the speech verbatim was never going to happen. In order to get through this speech without letting the audience know what was happening, I reverted to my standby method of freestyle speaking. I made my way through the speech, making a number of the points I had planned to make, though with less colorful language and twists of words.

The final result was a success based on the feedback from my evaluator and the audience notes. Inside, however, I was a mess. I was so disappointed that I was not able to recite a speech that I had written when actively trying to do so. It was frustrating and I didn’t want to feel this way again.

The next week I decided to take a different approach. Knowing that I am far more comfortable delivering a speech where the exact words I use are not completely preordained from the written version, I would adapt my preparation accordingly. True to form, I started working on the speech at about 10pm the night before. However, this time I did not write the speech out word-for-word. Instead I created a detailed outline of the speech, including a few key phrases I wanted to be sure to recite.

The writing process took significantly less time. The rehearsal process was also different. I practiced the speech a couple of times out loud in my car before the meeting (which is at 6:45am). Of course, each time I went through it, the content was a bit different. I was creating transitions and statements on the fly, not simply reading what I had written. It felt quite a bit different to only commit the outline to memory instead of the entire text of the speech.

During the delivery of the speech I found the format to be liberating. I felt confident that I could go through the outline without getting bogged down with specific wording that would clutter my thinking. The freedom could be felt by the audience through my increased use of vocal variety, dramatic pauses, and direct eye contact. The entire experience was so much easier and less stressful.

I walked away from the second speech with definitive proof that the best way to write a speech is with an outline, not in long form. It takes less time to write, less time to remember, and allows for more creativity during delivery. Giving a speech may still be frightening to some, but the preparation doesn’t have to be.

Posted in Thoughts

Pitch the Customer First

Pitch the CustomerThe concept of the Lean Startup has been spreading like wildfire throughout the entrepreneurial community. More than anything the idea is to develop the customer before you develop the product. This is the opposite of “build it and they will come” (sorry Kevin Costner).

Companies of all sizes can learn from this theory when developing a new product, business unit, or updating existing products. Part of the challenge of developing the customer before developing the product is that you must actually pitch an idea to a real life potential customer, then refine the idea until they are willing to commit to purchase – all done before you have anything “real” to show.

Of course there are ways to augment this pitch to build confidence in the mind of your customer that your idea can become real. You can do this most readily with good visuals. Visuals may entail blueprints, work flow maps, screenshots (Photoshop only), or other multimedia presentations. The less relationship you have with the potential customer the more you will have to prove yourself with visuals. If you are simply trying to sell a new widget to an existing customer who already trusts your company, then simply discussing the product idea can suffice.

The key is to get the value propositions figured out based on what the customer actually wants to buy, not what you want to build or sell. This means that initial ideas may have to be scrapped or dramatically changed based on what is learned while pitching the customer. For entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs this can be emotionally challenging, as we frequently invest a lot of thought and passion into our product ideas.

I recently had an opportunity to ask a few (very) early-stage entrepreneurs to pitch their products to “customers” to see if they could verbalize the value proposition and really answer the questions posed by the customers. Of course this exercise didn’t include real customers, but the experience was helpful for everyone, especially the entrepreneurs who had to get their messaging down to the details instead of generalizations used when pitching to potential investors and mentors.

You can read a bit more about the Open Coffee event on Insider Louisville here.

Posted in Thoughts

Don’t Isolate Innovation

Can innovation be isolated to a business unit and expect to succeed? I suppose that depends on your definition of successful innovation. If your goal is to re-engineer a process or a department, than you can justify setting up an innovation department.

I would argue that innovation is a bigger commitment and cannot be setup in isolation. Innovation is a part of corporate culture that needs to be initiated and sustained from the top and cultivated throughout the organization.

Like any cultural initiative within an organization, the key is to get everyone to buy into the goals. Oftentimes management will set corporate goals and get department heads and line managers to nod their heads in agreement. However, when it comes to the employees who are dealing with customers, oftentimes the desired cultural change is not applied.

Most innovation within the company has to do with putting technology to use to streamline processes, increase collaboration, work smarter with strategic vendors, and connect with customers in a more effective manner. In these cases, the front line workers are the most important stakeholders in cementing an innovation into the foundation of the organization. If the front line workers do not view the new technology or process as a benefit making their jobs easier or more rewarding, they will fight the change and the innovation won’t take hold.

When I work on a project inside an organization or developing a product for a customer, the most valuable time I spend is with the front line workers who will be using the technology on a daily basis. Understanding their frustrations and the nuances of the current work flow is critical to designing and implementing a new process that will be appreciated.

In organizations that try to isolate the Innovation Department from the rest of the organization, the front line workers are not fully engaged in the conceptualization or creation of the innovation. Instead they are only called up on at the end of the process when it is time to implement. In some cases the innovation makes an obvious improvement and doesn’t require a major behavior change. In many cases there are key behavior changes that must take place on a consistent and timely basis or the entire innovation falls apart.

Giving the innovation team the ability to work throughout the organization and getting consistent support and reinforcement from topĀ  management will always yield better results. This kind of support from top management and the freedom it engenders will help any organization innovate more rapidly and with less effort. Starting the innovation engine is the hard part. Keeping it going after it is humming along is much easier.

Posted in Thoughts