All posts filed under “Analysis

comment 1

The Checklist Manifesto – A hugely important book

Back in 2007 I read a fascinating article called “The Checklist” written by Dr. Atul Gawande in the New Yorker. Atul Gawande is a practicing surgeon, MacArthur Fellow, Rhodes Scholar and professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. The article described how a doctor convinced a group of hospitals in Michigan to do a wide-spread trial of a simple experiment: a checklist. The checklist aimed simply at making sure staff completed five key steps to limit central line infections, an unfortunately common source of infections in hospitals.

The result?

In one hospital:

  • 10-day infection rate went from 11% to ZERO
  • Prevented 8 deaths
  • Saved $2million in costs

Across ICU’s in Michigan:

  • In three months cut infections by 66%!
  • Typical ICU cut infection rate to ZERO
  • In 18 months, prevented 1500+ deaths
  • In 18 months, saved $175,000,000

These are amazing results, and his book on checklists, “The Checklist Manifesto,” was recently published. Click below to order it from Amazon.

This book is inspiring, educational, engaging, riveting and fascinating. It’s extremely well-written, and is a fairly easy read. I’ve never written a blog post immediately after finishing a book, but I am now because not only is it GOOD, but this book is IMPORTANT.

Dr. Gawande led a huge study of a “safe surgery” checklist, a simple set of steps to be checked in each surgery. It was used and studied in eight hospitals: four in the developed world (US, UK, etc.) and four in the developing world (Tanzania, New Delhi, Jordan, Manila). Thousands of patients were studied for months before and after checklists were implemented. The results?

  • Rate of complications fell by 36%
  • Deaths fell by 47%
  • Infections fell by nearly half
  • Even in advanced hospitals in developed world, complications were decreased by one-third

I mean…. WOW! Cutting infection rates and death rates in surgery by half (with marginal differences between developed and developing countries) is simply incredible.

But here’s a choice quote from the book:

Take the safe surgery checklist. If someone discovered a new drug that could cut down surgical complications with anything remotely like the effectiveness of the checklist, we would have television ads with minor celebrities extolling its virtues. Detail men would offer free lunches to doctors to make it part of their practice. Government programs would research it. Competitors would jump in to make newer and better versions. If the checklist were a medical device, we would have surgeons clamoring for it, lining up at display booths at surgical conferences to give it a try, hounding their hospital administrators to get one for them – because, damn it, doesn’t providing good care matter to those pencil pushers?

Checklists are powerful, and not just for surgery. Gawande writes about data from investment managers and venture capitalists that shows that those that use checklists are much more successful than those that don’t. They’ve been used in aviation for 70+ years, ever since airplanes became so complicated as to be dangerous without checklists. The modern construction industry uses checklists to ensure their projects are safe and properly constructed.

I’m very familiar with checklists; operating a nuclear reactor in a US Navy submarine means you live with checklists in everything you do. But I accepted it without too much thought since we had no idea there was any other way of running such a complicated machine. It’s amazing to me that other complex professions don’t also use the same procedures.

Checklists are threatening to many people and professions. Using them implies that professionals don’t know what they’re doing, that they don’t have the ability to do their jobs. Even with the results described in surgery above, many surgeons still don’t use them. (Despite the fact that they continually prove to save patients’ lives, everywhere.) As Dr. Gawande describes above, if the same results were achieved through a pill or machine, doctors and hospitals would be racing to adopt them!

Dr. Gawande goes into real detail not only in what makes a good checklist and how to develop them, but also why they work. They work by simply making sure that key simple steps are accomplished, and by freeing your brain from concerning itself about the easy stuff (since the checklist will catch anything you miss). This frees the brain to think about the hard stuff, and able to deal with complications more directly. Good checklists also make communications easier, so that when things do go wrong, the experts involved can address them more directly.

Fundamentally, time after time, in study after study… checklists WORK.

Summary

This is a hugely important book, and I honestly can’t recommend it more highly, It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, if you deal with or manage complexity, you NEED to read it.

If you want to efficiently improve your performance or your teams’ performance quickly and substantially, a checklist is your way to do it.

comments 4

Location-based apps: Flook, Gowalla, Foursquare

A lot of people have been talking about and playing with location-based applications these days. I wanted to put my two cents into the debate, specifically on Flook, Gowalla, and Foursquare.

Flook

Flook is the least-known of these three apps, but potentially the most interesting. Users take photos (which are automatically geo-tagged) and then add captions and information about the photo. What’s cool is that if you go somewhere new, you can quickly pull up the interesting places nearest to you. That might be a pub, a cool shop, or virtually anything else. And of course there’s a comments section around each card, too.

For me, the current downfall of Flook is that it’s iPhone-only, and I’ve recently moved to an Android phone. It’s also difficult to find and follow people you know, unless they’re in the same area and you see their cards normally.

Fundamentally, Flook is a hugely rich source of interesting information, with a *fantastic* user interface. I highly recommend that you download it for your iPhone and try it out. (Disclosure: I know the founders/investors of Flook, and think highly of them.)

PS- They’re currently running a competition to win a MacBook Air by just making cool Flook cards… check it out by clicking here.

Gowalla

Gowalla competes directly with Foursquare, and I have to definitely give the edge to Gowalla. It’s a beautifully made application, and what I love about it is the metaphor that Gowalla uses: a passport. Users are encouraged to get “stamps” in their “passport” for visiting new places. You earn and collect cool items from commissioning/founding new places, and can drop them off and pick up other cool items anywhere you visit. It’s definitely helped me think about new and interesting pubs, restaurants, etc. near me. (And of course see where your friends are checking in, too.)

While Gowalla has an iPhone app, their Android interface is through a web application. (http://m.gowalla.com) It has 80% of the functionality; the only major thing it’s missing is the ability to see and drop off your “items”.

[UPDATE]: I forgot this in my original post, but Gowalla lets you add locations anywhere in the world, and not just in particular cities like Foursquare. For example, I was at a conference at a huge convention center in southwest Ireland recently and added that to Gowalla, no problem. (Unlike Foursquare.) Foursquare may be rolling out to new cities all the time, but Gowalla can be used anywhere in the world right now.

Foursquare

Foursquare is bigger (in number of users) than Gowalla and has top-flight investors (Union Square Ventures), but I just don’t care for it. Its design is good, but not beautiful like Gowalla’s. But the biggest thing is the metaphor of points & mayorships that Foursquare uses. Each week a user’s points gets reset, and you have to keep checking into places to get and keep your “mayorship.”

To me, the metaphor of “mayorship” is a recipe for stagnation. It encourages users to go back to the same places over and over, and the mayorship will likely only rotate amongst a small number of regulars. For me, I quickly became the mayor of places where few other people checked in, and was out of the running for mayor-ships where I went regularly but where others checked in far more frequently. In both cases, my incentives were to stop using it.

Now, Foursquare does have a native application for both iPhone and Android, and it has excellent advisors. The founders previously started Dodgeball, a similar application which was bought by Google (where it stagnated) a couple years ago. It will need some better execution to get over its current problems. While Foursquare might be popular now with early adopters, I think it will have serious problems if/when it goes mainstream.

Summary

So I’m a Flook user when I have my iPhone handy, and I’m definitely a Gowalla user. Gowalla is great to track cool places I’ve been and where my friends go, and Flook is great to find interesting stuff that I might otherwise miss. Definitely give both a try.

comments 5

A tale of two (entrepreneurial) cities

800px-MichiganUnion.jpg

I got my bachelor’s degree (Aerospace Engineering) from the University of Michigan, which is located in the lovely town of Ann Arbor, Michigan (about a 45 minute drive from Detroit). As one of the top research universities in the US, the greater Ann Arbor area is home to major R&D facilities and company headquarters from the pharmaceutical, automotive, and engineering industries. There are interesting, fun things to do all the time in Ann Arbor.

KingsCollegeChapelWest.jpg

I got/am getting my MBA degree from Cambridge University, in the ancient town of Cambridge, UK (about a 45 minute train from London). As one of the top research universities in the world, Cambridge is home to major R&D facilities and company headquarters from the semiconductor, software, and general technology industries. There are interesting, amazing things to do all the time in Cambridge.


Theory on resources

I believe strongly in the notion that prosperity leads directly from two things: natural resources and population size. (It’s a big reason why the US economy has been so dominant: amazingly large & diverse land mass with a large enough population to exploit it.) As an example, there is an extraordinary correlation between the Olympic medal table and just five factors:

  • GDP
  • Population size
  • political structure
  • climate
  • home nation bias

The same elements apply to cities and their business cultures. As most of the western world generally has the same political structure, and home nation bias is irrelevant in this argument, the only things that matter are GDP, Population size and climate. It’s here that Ann Arbor and Cambridge are strangely similar.

According to Wikipedia, Ann Arbor boasts a population of 114,000 with students making up 32% of that. Greater Cambridge boasts a population of 130,000 with students making up 17% of that. As I mentioned above, both are home to major tech employers. (Strangely, both have engineering centers that are both well away from the main University centers… in Cambridge: the West Cambridge site, and in Ann Arbor: North Campus.) Even the climates are fairly comparable, though Cambridge doesn’t get quite as warm, or quite as cold, as Ann Arbor.

But what I want to address are the differences. As I am now tied more strongly to Cambridge, I’d like to show how those differences can provide lessons to the Cambridge community.


Advantages of each

Cambridge’s advantages over Ann Arbor

A huge advantage that Cambridge has over Ann Arbor is its next largest neighbor. Ann Arbor is closest to Detroit, which is slowly coming to grips with the fact that it will never come close to being the legendary Motown again. Detroit (and the entire state) is suffering from severe economic hardship, and unfortunately it’s not going to end anytime soon.

Cambridge is lucky in that the closest city is London. London has weathered the recent economic hardships well, and is still a leading center for the financial and media industries throughout Europe. Being an easy 45 minute commute away truly puts the world at Cambridge’s doorstep. (Key airports also put most of Europe less than half a day of travel away.)

Another advantage Cambridge has over Ann Arbor is Cambridge University. Where the University of Michigan is one of the best US universities, Cambridge is world-class. Literally, Cambridge University been ranked as one of the top 3 universities in the world. The number of incredibly smart people around the city is vast.

Finally, Cambridge has a huge funding advantage. Because of Cambridge’s history in the last 50 years in the tech world, there are a lot of accomplished investors between the angels and VC’s in the city. The city is still seen as a strong source of leading-edge technology; for example, Xen Source (since acquired by Citrix) was one of the few international investments from Kleiner Perkins.

Ann Arbor’s advantages over Cambridge

Ann Arbor has its own advantages over Cambridge. For one, the standard of living is cheaper. (Partly because of the general malaise in Michigan, partly because it’s a student town, and partly because exchange rates favor the dollar.) This makes it generally easier to start a business since your cash lasts longer.

Ann Arbor has some great facilities. I highly encourage people in Cambridge to check out this site: Tech Brewery.

TechBrewery.jpg

The Tech Brewery is an old brewery that’s been converted to offices for entrepreneurs & startups for just $50-$250 a month. It’s pretty close to both central Ann Arbor and the College of Engineering campus. Looking at the site, twelve companies are located there, including Hab.la/Olark, a Y Combinator company. That’s a space that will attract interesting, vibrant startups.

(On this note, there is a bit of a shining beacon in Cambridge. Red Gate Software, through its co-CEO Neil Davidson, has built something a bit similar at their headquarters in Cambridge. In addition to hosting the new Springboard program, they’re also home to a group of startups that work from the Red Gate offices and get to share in the free food there.)

But Ann Arbor also has the Workantile Exchange, located in the center of town. It’s essentially a cool (and again, attractive) co-working space attached to a coffee shop.

thespace.jpg

Additionally, Ann Arbor has the Center for Entrepreneurship. It has a pretty focused goal: it’s a “Michigan Engineering venture that empowers students, faculty and staff to pursue entrepreneurial achievements that improve people’s lives, drives the economy and helps innovators bridge the gap between inventors and venture capitalists.”

(Compare that to the Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. It’s goal is more educational: “to ‘Spread the Spirit of Enterprise’ by providing educational activities to inspire and build skills in the practice of entrepreneurship.” In other words, while Cambridge focuses on learning, Ann Arbor focuses on doing.)

Finally, there is simply a bit of a culture gap. I’ve simply been told too many times, “Of course; it takes an American to start Cambridge Tech Meetup / Cambridge OpenCoffee.” It’s honestly a little depressing that that was the case.


What can Cambridge take from this comparison?

Entrepreneurs will naturally cluster… help them

I would LOVE it if Cambridge had a space similar to Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery. A cool, convenient, cheap place to work with fellow geeks. While there are hopeful signs between Red Gate and the Hauser Forum, I think there simply needs to be a space near the center of Cambridge that can accommodate 10-20 startups, or around 60 people.

I don’t think this can or should happen at St. John’s Innovation Center or at the Cambridge Science Park… they’re too far out from the city center. (Red Gate’s office works because they’ve got amenities like proper food on site.) Young startups need to be in a vibrant atmosphere, which generally doesn’t exist right now.

There is the CityLife Social Enterprise Centre, which has very cheap office space and is home to a number of small companies. (Some who were there last year have since moved to Red Gate’s offices, though new ones have also moved in.) This is absolutely the right idea. Unfortunately, I understand that the owner of the building is looking to tear it down & redevelop it; CityLife is in there for the next year or two until that happens.

Unfortunately, finding/creating an attractive space takes effort, resources (both time and money), and a decent business plan. I know the economics can work, though it might require a bit of “barn-raising” to make it happen. Just take a look at the space that Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery has to offer above… surely Cambridge can do something similar!

A focus on Doing, not Learning

The Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning is a good institution. My criticism is its focus on Learning… not Doing. Business plan competitions are fine, Enterprise Tuesday is interesting the first year or two (until you’re tired of hearing the same sessions/advice every year), and teaching students the elements of building a business is great. But it never extends to actively supporting the startups that are trying to get off the ground. A simple example… where is the list of student startups from Cambridge? Here’s the one from Ann Arbor.

Cambridge Enterprise should be in a position to help, but its focus is on commercializing university IP… not helping generic startups get off the ground. (Where a startup is leveraging university IP is clearly a different story, and they do offer free 40-minute business “surgeries” to anyone.)

This is one of the main reasons why I started the Cambridge Tech Meetupto celebrate Doers. To help promote the entrepreneurs and businesses that aren’t just learning about taking a new technology to market, but those that are actually doing it. (There were many others, but this was a big one.)

Now, this isn’t to say that people in Cambridge just talk about new technologies and products, and don’t develop them. There are plenty of companies around that are “doing”. But the University and the organizations in orbit around the University, those that have the biggest effect on potential student entrepreneurs, need to switch their focus from learning to doing.

There are amazing lectures in Cambridge all the time; it’s all part of the 800-year-old Cambridge tradition of learning. To help breed more and better startups, the culture needs to believe in building and making things just as strongly. Which leads me to the next point below…

More smaller, dynamic groups

Here is a sampling of Ann Arbor groups: Ann Arbor New Tech Meetup, a2geeks, a2buildbunker, CoffeehouseCoders, Ignite Ann Arbor, A2 Mini Maker Faire.

Whereas in Cambridge, I know about Cambridge Tech Meetup, Cambridge OpenCoffee (which has been a bit anemic lately), SuperHappyDevClub, Refresh Cambridge, Cambridge Geek Nights and Cambridge Geek Day. (There are also paid events, like FOWA Tour Cambridge and StackOverflow Dev Day).

Oh, but wait… there are over 50 more groups for Ann Arbor listed here.

Cambridge needs to have people just plant a flag in the ground and start a group that focuses on cool stuff. This seems to be far more of a cultural issue than a capability issue. Individuals with some talent just need to get a small group together, do cool stuff, and make sure people talk about it. Of course some aggregation will be necessary to help people find the right groups… I’d be happy to advertise any and all of these at Cambridge Tech Meetups to help spread the word.


Summary

This started as a tale of two cities, but ended in lessons for the city of Cambridge. I’m just one person, these are just my opinions, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people that will disagree with me. But being in the midst of the startup scene in Cambridge has left me with an overarching feeling: poorly-tapped potential.

Cambridge is a fantastic city. There’s amazing talent, reaching from university labs to local startups to the R&D centers that are scattered around the city. There’s money ready to invest in cool new technologies and products. There’s mentors all over that have lived their startup experience and can help others’ with theirs.

What Cambridge needs is a cultural tune-up. (aka, a collective swift kick in the ass to go out there and MAKE something.) Some of the important things I think should happen:

  • A place for startups to cluster
  • A new focus on doing
  • A whole mess of small, dynamic groups that do different cool things

Going to see speakers and hear talks is fine. (There are millions in Cambridge.) But lets start taking that knowledge and turn it into action, products, and companies.


What are your thoughts?

comment 0

Recap of feedback on “Copying Y Combinator”

[UPDATE]– I’ve written an update 1.5 years later on the original post: “Looking back – 1.5 years since ‘Copying Y Combinator'”

Last week I finally posted my Cambridge MBA dissertation/individual project on the web. I was amazed at the traffic it brought! But I also wanted to address some of the things that people brought up in the discussions.

Traffic

According to Google Analytics, that post alone received over 2600 pageviews. Over 1200 of those came from Hacker News alone. Though the link was tweeted and re-tweeted all over (just check out the comments section to see the list), I got less than 200 page views from Twitter. It also got bookmarked 45 times on Delicious.

I’m honestly just really happy that people found it interesting! I post the stats above because I think it’s useful to have some data points about where traffic does & can come from.

Strategic Level vs. Tactical Level

In hindsight, I didn’t distinguish as much as I could have between the strategic choices in starting a new seed accelerator program and the tactical choices. This is where perhaps some of the comments/criticism/mis-understanding came from.

The Strategic choice has to do with the most basic analysis of what resources you have available, and how you can structure the program to take advantage of them. Your goal should be a program that is strong enough to be essentially independent of location; it should instead be dependent on the people and resources (connections to appropriate investors, customers, advisors) available. Startups working in your defined niche should want to come to your program above all others, no matter where it’s located.

Now while I’m not saying that a pure Y Combinator clone in Wyoming will never work, just that it will never be competitive with the real Y Combinator unless the resources provided to entrepreneurs are better than they could get through Y Combinator. Now the goal may not be financial success, but building an ecosystem. But even if that’s the goal, local startups have an incentive to go where they have the greatest chance of success. If that’s not your program, then you’ll only be helping a lesser quality company.

The Tactical choices are pretty much everything else. Once a seed accelerator founders have identified a focus where they have a true competitive advantage, then they can decide elements such as program length, investment and equity size, office space, etc. It’s important to recognize these as tactical decisions, versus the strategic focus decisions.

Thanks to everyone that read, linked to and commented on my paper and post. I really appreciate it!