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Big Ideas

99U Conference 2012: Key Takeaways On Making Ideas Happen (Pt. II)

A call for a new start-up paradigm, lessons on vulnerability, and why you can't iterate yourself into a business model from this year's 99U Conference.

More insights on making ideas happen from the 2012 edition of the 99U Conference
Alexis Madrigal onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

ALEXIS MADRIGAL /// Senior Editor, The Atlantic 
Tech journalist Alexis Madrigal opened Day 2 of the conference by declaring, “the jig is up” with start-ups. On the upside: the culture of start-ups has gone national; you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to start an incredible business anymore. On the downside: That start-up culture, built primarily by 20-something white males, has major limitations.

  • Diversity isn’t just nice – it’s necessary. How are we going to solve the big problems that matter – obesity, education, world hunger – if tech’s most powerful leaders are all “young white guys” who are trying to make apps their friends will use? Madrigal argued that teams (not to mention founders) need a deep, personal understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve. Thus, diversity will be required if we truly want to tackle big, global problems.
  • Don’t found “the next big thing,” found “the next big culture.” The social network and mobile app market is saturated. Rather than iterate on what already exists, Madrigal called for the audience to innovate from the ground up, starting with the start-up infrastructure itself. He believes we’re in store for a shake-up, and why shouldn’t it start with us?
  • Don’t just pay lip service to hiring those who are “different” from you, really do it. Madrigal challenged us to kickstart a culture change by doing what we can within our own teams. Diversity – in race, age, sexuality, experience, perspective – will stack the deck in our favor and push us toward a fresh paradigm for startups.
Piya Sorcar onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

Piya Sorcar is the founder of TeachAIDS, a nonprofit that has creates breakthrough software to teach HIV prevention and education worldwide. As Sorcar noted, AIDS education is an extremely complicated task with a number of inherent challenges, including social taboos, language barriers, and access to technology in the developing world. But, according to Sorcar, any complex project can succeed if you’re willing to invest in quality and rigorous research.

  • Perfection is not overrated – quality matters. With all the buzz about “shipping” and “iterating,” it’s easy to think that you can take it easy with the first version of your product – or at least convince yourself it doesn’t have to be perfect. An imperfect photo app isn’t going to have dire consequences, but an imperfect representation of how you can or cannot contract AIDS does have serious consequences. Sometimes, getting as close to perfection as possible isn’t just nice, it’s required.
  • Trust the data, even if it surprises you. In teaching AIDS education, Sorcar and her colleagues tested a number of different visual teaching tools, and found that the type of illustration students responded to the most was a rather outdated type of 2-D, Disney-style animation. It wasn’t the most sophisticated or modern solution, but it was the one that served the purpose most effectively.
  • Forge ahead: invent your own research process. Sorcar’s field is new, full of uncharted territory. In taking on such a big challenge as teaching AIDS worldwide, she uses data when she can, but sometimes she hits roadblocks. Rather than relying on conjecture or skipping ahead, she innovates, inventing a business process to do the required research.
Jonathan Adler onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

JONATHAN ADLER // Founder, Jonathan Adler 
Today Jonathan Adler leads a rapidly growing international design company and interior design business, but he was once a no-name potter struggling to find work. Though Adler claims he did everything “ass-backwards” to get where he is today, one thing was steadfast throughout: He never strayed from his passion.

  • F*ck it. You don’t have to listen to anyone. Adler’s unlikely rise to design fame started off shakily: After getting negative feedback for years – from his art school professors and professional employers (he was fired several times) – he developed a “nothing to lose, nothing to gain” attitude that liberated him to follow his own path.
  • Find your work’s message. Adler challenges us to find the spirit that drives our work and run with it. Once Adler discovered his own creative message – “happy chic” – he was freed up to pursue his art in a variety of directions beyond just making pottery. Identifying your own ethos will help you find your direction and stay true to your creative goals even as you grow.
  • Forget about strategy occasionally; missteps are okay. We’re trained to focus on a goal and make “strategic decisions” to reach it, but a rigid plan can stifle creativity. Give yourself the freedom to “make whatever is in your head” and do something risky from time to time. You never know how it might turn out.
Neil Blumenthal & Jenn Hyman onstage with Scott Belsky at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

Warby Parker and Rent the Runway are two outstanding start-ups that have something important in common: A serious investment in creating a killer customer experience. The duo sat down with Behance CEO Scott Belsky to talk about building a business from the ground up, respecting your community, and creating experiences that are “memorable” rather than “transactional.”

  • Transparency and vulnerability always wins. Nothing will make your customers and your community bristle like taking a defensive, didactic attitude when something goes wrong. Taking the opposite approach – being vulnerable, admitting faults, and being open to change – will build trust and create even stronger bonds with your customers.
  • It’s not the first impression that counts. It’s the second, third, fourth, and fifth impression. The first visit to a community piques interest, but it’s a series of successive and consistent interactions that build true loyalty. Rather than cutting corners, think about what makes a meaningful customer experience over the long term, not just a flashy first impression.
  • Listen to your customers to transform your business. It doesn’t matter what you think of your business, it’s your customers’ opinion that matters. Hyman hires Ivy league graduates to answer the phones, because there is no feedback more valuable than that of the customer as Rent the Runway works to grow and transform its business. Similarly, at Warby Parker, all employees – whether or not they are going to answer phones – go through a full day of customer service training.
  • Hire slow, fire fast. (“It’s better to have a hole, than an a-hole.”)
  • Nothing is more important that hiring the right people for your team. According to Blumenthal, culture fit is everything. To uphold and carry out your business’ core mission, your team has to be a living, breathing representation of your values. If they don’t fit, let them go.
Jason Goldberg onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

One year ago, didn’t exist. Today, it has 4 million members. With CEO Jason Goldberg at the helm, Fab’s design marketplace has exploded, bringing unique, conversation-starter pieces to people around the world. A serial entrepreneur, Goldberg discussed how his earlier challenges helped him develop the deceptively simple strategy that underpins’s success.

  • It all comes down to: “Does it make people smile?” Goldberg has plenty of data to back up Fab’s choices, but key decisions often come from a more instinctive place: Merely asking, “Will it make our members happy?” Develop your own “smile test” to check decisions against.
  • You can’t iterate yourself to a business model. As Goldberg put it: You can iterate yourself to a better feature, a better version, or a better UX. But if you don’t have a solid business model in place from the beginning, you’ll be facing a steep uphill battle.
  • You should know pretty quickly if you’re onto something. Though we all know the importance of grit, there’s something to be said for realism as well. Before came into being, its original incarnation was “Fabulis,” a gay social network. When Goldberg realized the network wasn’t growing (despite it being a good idea), he pulled the plug on it. Listen to your users – if your product isn’t catching on, learn from it, and relaunch.
  • Do your “One Thing” better than anyone else. Respect the industry leaders, and find your own niche. Goldberg says, “Go to Amazon if you know what you’re looking for. If you want to experiment and have fun with design, go to Fab.” Find your “One Thing” and run with it.

–> KEEP READING for more insights from 99U 2012

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