words on the internet

i'm will dennis. these are my movie reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof

Tag: internet

Building What You Design

I’m teaching myself iOS. Before that I was primarily focused on mobile design. I’ve found interesting the new transparency with which I can see through the “design stack.”

Before learning iOS, I would design with the user in mind — in pursuit of that perfect user experience. Now I design with both the user and the engineer (me) in mind.

If a design is marginally better for the user, but much more difficult to build, is it in fact the best design?

It’s a new question I’ve been wrestling with. We’re in the business of building things that look great, work great, and also ship quickly.

Having insight into each part of the process is forcing me to make engineering related design decisions at the UI level — sometimes consciously sometimes not.

It makes me realize how costly some “design-y” decisions can be to the actual building process.

My main perspective shift is that “design then build” may be a fundamentally flawed workflow. Engineers should be alongside designers when scoping projects.

The best design may be the one that minimizes the time-to-build/user-benefit tradeoffs.

This brings me to the next question I’m wrestling with: Is pure user-centric design bullshit?

The tradeoff between time and polish is not an engineering problem, but should be a framework for software design itself.

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Edit Your Product into a Corner

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When building out a product, there are so many potential features to include, it’s hard to decide which features need to be included in the first version.

What we’ve found helpful building Hollerback, is actually editing back features until the experience, well, breaks.

By taking away the very features that make your product useable, you quickly get a deep understanding of why each feature has to be there. You also get the added benefit of cutting out fluff in the process.

A good rule of thumb is that if you cut something and don’t miss it after a week, leave it out.

With aggressive feature editing, you arrive at the experience that truly matters — the set of features that accomplishes your “one thing” in the simplest way possible.

Well designed products aren’t sets of features, they’re systems that accomplish a task with little to no friction.

By editing your product into a corner, you start to consider each new feature as necessary to solve a specific friction point. Eliminate features until your experience breaks, then only add the features that eliminate friction.

The result is a product that feels both whole and simple.

If you’d like to check out our execution of a whole-yet-simple product check out Hollerback.

Let me know if I can be helpful will@hollerback.co

How to Talk About Design

I watched a talk yesterday by Ryan Singer, design guru of 37 Signals. The talk has a bunch of great points, but one struck me in particular – his description of how to qualify effective design.

Effective design is a lack of friction.

I love this definition because it fully captures the iterative process of design and the trade offs that come with iteration. The best part is that it doesn’t rely on “designery” language.

It’s not just a great definition, but it’s a great way to tackle design problems and opportunities.

Designs can always be better if there is friction in the system. That’s why iteration is necessary. Finding the best design is often a process of designing then using then designing then using. Using your product allows you to find friction. Design allows you to eliminate it. It’s tricky because eliminating friction in one area can introduce it in another. That is what makes design so fun and challenging.

If you’re able to kill friction without introducing it elsewhere in the system then you’re on your way to a great design.

“Friction” is just so much more tangible and human than terms like simplicity, aesthetic, design, feel, or ux. Simplicity and aesthetic result from an absence of friction – I don’t think they drive effective design in and of themselves.

Our understanding of friction as a word and a feeling is basic, it’s human. Your mom can feel friction just like a designer can feel friction.

We have frequent field tests at Hollerback where the entire team goes out and uses the app for a few hours. When we come back, we discuss bugs and potential UX improvements. The UX part of the discussion was good, but hard to nail down exactly what UX was.

From now on we’ll be using points of friction as the focus of our discussion. I look forward to seeing if it pushes our design and product in a more effective, delightful direction.

Don’t Forget to Talk

When working on a technology start up, much of your day is comprised in silence, clicking away at a computer. Whether you’re an engineer writing code, a designer working in Photoshop, or a marketer firing off emails, it’s easy to go hours, or even an entire day, without having a business-focused conversation with your peers.

Especially with the “meetings are a waste of time” stigma floating around, it’s easy for start ups to become companies that only consist of two actions: deciding and implementing.

Decide. Execute. Repeat.

A crucial component to the creative process of product creation can be overlooked. Talking about the problem you’re solving in a free-flowing, organic discourse is often strewn by the wayside. It’s discarded as inefficient.

In our experience building Hollerback, some of the best ideas have come out of impromptu discussions. These discussions weren’t spawned out of a need for a decision. They were  one person electing to talk to another about a problem or idea. Whether it was pertaining to code, branding, distribution, or design,  speaking out loud to someone often brings new ideas into the mix.

Some of our best product decisions, and perhaps those that truly matter, have come out of healthy spoken discourse.

I’m now conscious of the power of spontaneous conversations and careful not to dismiss them as inefficient.

Embrace the unguided train of thought – sometimes it can lead to a creative opportunity or solution that can’t be found in silence.

The Problem with Today’s Social Networks

Traditionally, if someone at a party spent all their time talking about themselves, they would be considered an asshole.

But with current social networks,that’s exactly the state of affairs. Everyone is broadcasting what they’re doing or thinking. Everyone is the asshole at the party.

And it makes for a shitty party.

We’ve all become guilty of sending out our own mini press releases to our friends. But it’s not our fault. It’s the way social networks are structured.

They’re flawed and I think we can do better.

Where did social go wrong?

The whole reason social networks are powerful and exist is because humans are naturally social. It’s our evolutionary disposition.

So social networks seem like a great thing. They should be satisfying our itch, our need for socializing. While entertaining and well-intentioned products, they are far from replicating the feeling you get after catching up with friends over coffee.

They lack the social exchange necessary to maintain actual relationships. Real life relationships are based on a somewhat equitable, 2-sided trade.

Let’s look at a relationship:

Bob and Susan meet for coffee.

Susan: “Hey Bob. How are you? What’s the latest?”

Bob discusses the new fondu maker he refurbished. Susan mentions she loves fondu. Bob invites her over for dinner next week.

Bob: “So that’s what’s up with me. How are you? Are you still seeing that guy Greg?”

She says Greg was allergic to her cat and it didn’t work out. She loves her new apartment though.

There you have it. A social interaction. A conversation. An exchange. An activity, though while simple, preserves relationships.

As products, current social networks are only offering one part of the necessary social interaction — the part where you say “I’m good, thanks.”

They fill the other half with a text box.

Facebook is the ultimate example.

Facebook, exemplified by the ever-present update box, has made us all the asshole at the party. The hope of course, is that our friends will interact with our post so we don’t feel like the asshole at the party.

The problem is that we’re terrified no one is listening. Or maybe worse, that no one cares.

So we’ve all become broadcasters.

When staring at the status box, the very lifeblood of services like twitter and facebook, the question is:

Is my life worthy of sharing? Will my post get a response? Do people give a shit about me and what I have to say? Am I wasting my friends’ time?

It’s a somewhat unfortunate realization when you realize nobody other than the Facebook status box is actually asking you how you are. Accordingly, you have to self-define the moments in your life you think others want to know about. The way you hedge this risk is to make your post as goddamn-interesting as possible.

Vacation pics? Fuck yeah.

Selfie with a celebrity? Jackpot.

Beautiful view with a cappuccino in the foreground? Facebook gold!

The content we post to social networks can’t be humble. It can’t be truly honest or vulnerable. It sure as hell better not be boring. The entertainment of our friends — and our validation — depends on it.

Facebook has become that moment on the first day of class when everyone has to stand up, say where they’re from and say one interesting thing about themselves. It’s fine if you don’t know the people in your class, but you know your friends better than that. It’s a watering down, rosy-colored glasses version.

That’s great for getting life updates. That sucks for maintaing true relationships.

For my good friends, I want to know how their girlfriend is, how their shitty job is still shitty, how their family is doing, and what they think of Breaking Bad. I’m not particularly interested in seeing them smiling on vacation — it’s simply not part of what defines our relationship. It’s social noise.

I want to interact with my friends, not consume their “content.”

We’re all broadcasting. But who’s listening?

What social can be.

Current social networks are built around the broadcast model. They’re built to have users say “Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s what I think.”

That’s only half of a human relationship. It’s not truly social. It sure doesn’t advance relationships. At best, it puts them in cruise control.

A huge opportunity lies in products built around a more equitable social interaction. Imagine a social network where you as a user can ask the question: “What are you doing?” to a specific friend or group of friends.

That interaction — the exchange itself — is what drives relationships.

The next big social network will be built on an idea more fundamental and natural than broadcast. An idea more central to human relationships. It will embrace a social mechanic above and beyond the follower/following model.

It’s time we built a better party.

If you’re interested in trying a fun, exciting new way to interact with friends, sign up for our private beta of Hollerback. I don’t think you’re going to have seen anything like it.

Let me know if I can be helpful: will@hollerback.co

An Homage to Stupid Weather Apps

I’ve often heard a gripe among early adopters whenever they see buzz about a utility app coming out. “Who needs another alarm clock, weather app, or todo list?” they say. Hell, I’ve been guilty of it myself.

Upon closer inspection, however, these utility apps are in fact the trojan horses of app innovation. They’re the unsung heroes. They’re the badass vigilantes that fight for the common man even though the common man doesn’t know they’re name or really give much of a shit.

This is an homage to the weather apps.

You can’t innovate on everything at once.

There are new social networks, services, and business models launched into the app store daily. They correctly set out to innovate on one thing: the shiny new service they provide to the user. It’s novel, it’s unique, it fills a user need. They do one thing and they try their darnest to do it well.

Praise innovation!

Unfortunately, these services rarely, if ever, innovate on the UI and interaction model of the app experience itself. Save for a few signature moments, apps stick to things users have seen before and know how to interact with. It makes sense. When you’re trying to get a user to order their groceries via smartphone the last thing you want is for them to be confused about how to drag and drop groceries into their shopping cart (though that would be cool).

There is simply no opportunity for experimental UI in apps that are already busy teaching a new consumer behavior in the service they’re providing.

However unfortunate it may be, it’s difficult if not impossible to educate a user on a new service and a new interaction model simultaneously. You’re either sacrificing user experience, threatening business goals, or both. Most often it takes much less time to use standard UI than teach a user something new.

There are exceptions in consumer/social applications where the app is the product itself. For example, the “hold-to-record” video affordance in Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat is now bordering on convention. It’s a great example of how challenging it is to teach users new things. It has taken 3 of the app store behemoths to even suggest a possible new norm for mobile video recording.

And despite this consumer video trifecta, we’re still beholden to operating systems’ reinforcement of traditional camera interactions for the foreseeable future. Until Apple and Android decide to embrace a new interaction model, like Apple finally has with drawers in iOS7, it’s tough going on the UI innovation front.

So where does this leave us? Are we trapped in our current UI paradigm of nested list views and ever-present settings buttons?

Nay.

Enter the innovation trojan horse

This is where apps that give you the weather, wake you up, or organize your tasks can shine and impress.

By focusing on a user problem so familiar, so singular, and so ubiquitous, utilities can paint a clean canvas colorful with new interaction models. These conceptually-simple apps don’t burden users with the cognitive load that comes along with a new service. Developers of utilities can explore how users might interact with apps in ways that are faster, simpler, less traditional, and potential way better.

By focusing on a simple, borderline-trivial user problem, developers and designers can create apps that are designed for the sake of design. They’re designed for the sole purpose of answering the question: “What if it worked like this?”

Utility apps that use unconventional UI in general are borderline pieces of art. I’d equate them to a modern day self portrait: The concept has been done to death but you never know exactly how it will be executed.

Therein lies the fun. Therein lies the opportunity to stumble upon new interactions, new gestures, and new workflows. Therein lies the opportunity and the freedom to innovate.

So keep the alarm clocks coming

Without simple utility apps that take risks with interaction and UI design, we’d be constrained to using apps that are so focused on accomplishing a business task that they necessarily limit the UI.

While games push the boundaries of UI and interaction design, games are a different beast entirely. The UIs are fragmented on an almost game-by-game basis. They’re far from ever establishing a new UI convention, let alone one that works well in general consumer apps. We need interaction innovation from consumer apps themselves.

In time, it’s the apps that take UI risks that truly push user experience in the right direction (even if they occasionally fail). As users become more and more challenged over time, they’ll be more comfortable going button-less and fully gestural. (<- unintended sexual innuendo!).

And so I plead.

Weather apps, keep coming hard with the animated snow.

Alarm apps, keep giving me new ways to set the time.

Todo list apps, fuck yeah lets rearrange some lists in clever ways.

I know that for every super trivial knock-off that is submitted to that app store, it’s this genre of apps that can unlock the future of app experience on a fundamental level.

While a lot of the hype goes to innovative business models and shiny new services, lets not forget to give it up for the unsung heroes. The developers and designers who are pushing the limits of how an app on your phone can actually work.

Hopefully they keep busting their asses to create better interactions that slowly bleed into the mainstream. The end result is a better user experience for all.

I’ll keep downloading your alarm clocks. No matter how many times I wake up late because I didn’t quite get how your app worked, I know your intentions are righteous.

Introducing: Google Water

Google scares me. Here’s why.

A Perfect Storm

There are five factors that have come together in a perfect storm to make Google one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Their power is largely unchecked, growing, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Here are the five circumstances that are allowing it to happen.

1. Larry and Sergey Have Absolute Authority

Larry and Sergey, Google’s cofounders, have absolute authority of the company. Despite only owning 15% of outstanding stock, the pair controls 56% of the company’s voting stock. The cofounders introduced a new “B” class of stock, each share worth 10 votes, to ensure they remain in control. The new stock structure even brought forth a lawsuit questioning the move — it failed.

Simply put, Larry and Sergey are Google. They make the calls. Despite being a public company,Google is controlled by only two people.

2. Google Owns 67% of Search’s Market Share

Google controls the modern day flow of information.They own 67% of search traffic and their consumer reputation for search is impeccable. As the breadth of their products continues to expand, their mind and market share is only increasing.

From Android (79% mobile OS market share) to Gmail (450+ million users) to Chrome (18% of browsers )— Google is making significant progress in becoming the owner of not just search, but you’re time on the web (which of course leads to more search).

3. Google is Becoming an Internet Service Provider

Google is building infrastructure to control and provide access to the internet. The wifi balloons of project Loon and the high speed internet delivered by Fiber are making their way, slowly but surely, around the world. Google is turning itself into a gatekeeper of the internet.

Users of Google’s internet infrastructure will be encouraged, if not forced, to use Google’s search. It’s only fair given that the internet will be free, subsidized, or even the only option available. By building internet infrastructure they control, not only will the absolute number of internet users rise, but Google will increase their percent share of the market.

4. Google Has Reversed it’s Stance on Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that all internet service providers and governments should treat all data the same. Most importantly, the principle states that ISPs shouldn’t discriminate on particular types of data or charge users differently.

Google publicly supported net neutrality as they ascended to their role as internet powerhouse, but as soon as they became an ISP themselves, their tone changed. In their Fiber terms of service they broadly prohibit servers being attached to the ultra-fast connection.

An excerpt from this Wired article defines the issue:

The problem is that a server, by definition, doesn’t have to be a dedicated expensive computer. Any PC or Mac can be a server, as can all sorts of computing devices.

The ban also applies to peer to peer software. Under Google’s policy, you couldn’t host your own WordPress blog or use a Nest thermostat.

And here Wired sums it up:

When it was just a set of online services, Google happened to fall on the side of citizens and used to advocate against broadband companies controlling the pipes. Now that it’s an ISP itself, Google is becoming a net neutrality hypocrite.

5. Governments Act Slowly. Google Knows This.

Google has never been a poster child of regulatory compliance. They can afford to pay any infractions. The company paid off a $500 million fine when accused of shady advertising practices. Half a billion dollars takes 140 hours for Google to make back, or just shy of a week.In other words, they don’t care.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s current Executive Chairman, has publicly statedthat government shouldn’t regulate technology. Technology moves too quickly and will be able to fix itself.

Like a celebrity speeding in the car pool lane, they’re probably aware they’re going too fast and are ok with the price of the ticket.

Why It’s Scary

If Larry and Sergey want certain information to be less “findable,” then let it be so. Their personal or corporate agenda could require a slight shift of search traffic or slight depression of certain search results. Reasons include politics, policy, ad spend, etc. Most actions could be justifiable through a short term guise of fiduciary duty.

One argument against this possibility is that it’s in Google’s best interest to keep providing honest search results. If they don’t, then users would switch to another search engine that doesn’t have such a bias.

In an open market this is true. But, as described, Google is in the process of making internet infrastructure itself. (For Loon, internet access is dependent on Google-issued antennae). Google Fiber and Google Loon are going to supply the internet to more and more people every year.

Once they control the internet access itself, where are consumers supposed to go for truly unbiased information on the internet?

Furthermore, if the NSA leak is any indication, the public is generally apathetic towards breaches of privacy or lack of control of their own data.

As long as Google’s service remains free (it obviously will), there will be little incentive for users to switch. If Google can provide infrastructure for the internet and control search, that’s an extremely powerful position to be in. The concern is that it’s perhaps too powerful.

Google won’t necessarily reach the size or level of control necessary to be a true threat to unbiased access to information. Even if they did reach that size, they won’t necessarily act unethically. It is, however, important to acknowledge and consider their current position.

Much like currency, we’re at a point where our use of Google and support of the company is based entirely on trust (whether we realize it or not). We impart trust on their technology, their business practices, their search results, and now the infrastructure they’re creating.

Google is on its way to controlling the modern-day water supply — information. And I’m worried we’re all too thirsty to realize when the water starts to taste a little funny.

Hyper Social is Dying

hyper social is dying

We’re in an era on the web I think of as “hyper social.”

In their current form, social networks extend our ability to “maintain” relationships. A social network is essentially a digital filing cabinet that you fill with your relationships.

In theory, the cabinet should help you stay thoughtfully organized and get the most out of your relationships. In practice, however, the cabinet really becomes a messy destination for social news that you only visit when looking for distraction.

These hyper social networks have peaked and are on their way out. Here are a few reasons why.

Who Are These People?

Networks like Twitter and Facebook are built with the intention of extending our natural social networks to literally superhuman capacity. 900 friends? I mean c’mon. Not to be morbid, but some of my Facebook friends could literally die and I wouldn’t hear about it (let alone be invited to the funeral).

Right now we’re in an age of social networks where numbers win. Your follower and friend count are the numbers by which you’re measured and evaluated on social media. The more people you have in your network, the better you’re doing.

We’ve been trying the relationship volume out on these social networks and we’ve been turning it up to 11. These networks are simply too large to extend meaningful human interaction or maintain interpersonal relevance (especially on a one to one basis).

Feeds Get Noisy

The central mechanic and experience of these networks, the feed, becomes worse as the network connections increase. This is a huge problem. As more friends enter your new feed the strength and relevance of relationships decreases. The experience should be getting better the more you use it.

If you want to maintain a relevant and useful feed on current social networks you have to manually edit your relationships. I have to go through my 900 Facebook friends and decide who’s relevant to me. Not only is this against the point of the service (to extend your network) but it’s simply no fun. I won’t take the time to do it.

Relationships Get Stale

As your relationships age so does the network in which you’re storing them. Every connection is from a given time in your life but weighted equally*. As you fall out of touch with some of your college friends, you accordingly fall out of interest with your newsfeed because it’s a representation of them.

*I’m sure Facebook incorporates a relationship’s age in their newsfeed algorithm, but with a finite amount of content it’s still limited in its flexibility.

The whole point of Facebook is to provide a way to keep track of people who you feel are socially relevant in your life. Unfortunately, when time passes and isn’t properly accounted for, the model starts breaking.

Core vs Circumstantial Relationships

Think about the last 20 friends you’ve text messaged. Think about the last 20 friends you’ve grabbed a coffee or beer with. Think of the people you’ve skyped or called (non-professionally) in the last 6 months. I’d say this is your current social network.

Would this group be the same if I asked you the same question a year ago? How about 4 years ago?

In all likelihood the group would be different. I would bet by around 20% per year. It’s an estimate but if even close to true, then your true social network changes significantly every five years.

I’d argue that your true social network is made up of two groups: the core and the circumstantial. The core is in your life in perpetuity (family, true close friends) while the circumstantial changes throughout your life (work friends, school friends, location-based friends, hobby-based friends).

Facebook is almost 10 years old now. They’ve consistently mixed the core relationships with the circumstantial and it’s starting to hurt the experience.

The Next Social Framework Will Be Dynamic

The next great social network will provide its users with an experience that values friendships and relationships dynamically.

In fact, I’d contend that the friend and follower models can be elegantly replaced by a frequency and engagement model. Based on current smartphone technology, social networks can and should leverage location, time, frequency of interaction, and behavioral similarities.

Fundamentally, the power of social networks lies in that they unlock or extend profoundly human social behaviors. If we had social networks in the time of the first humans, Pinterest would be the cave where you keep things, Twitter would be gossip, and Facebook would be your village.

What none of these networks capture is the human nature of personal growth and movement. A fundamental characteristic of humans is our ability to change. Relationships are not exempt from our ability to change. In fact, they may be the first casualties of a changed lifestyle. The next great social network will have an ability to change with us and not lose a step.

Newspapers are being put out of business partially due to the speed with which news travels on the web — notably on Twitter and Facebook. Newspapers forgot that they’re in the news business and not the paper business.

Similarly, I don’t think Facebook and Twitter in their current form can keep up with the speed of our changing relationships and interests. The question is whether they’ll remember that they’re in the relationships business before it’s too late.

Looks like a discussion popped up on Hacker News.


If you want to check out our take on the next era of social, request early access to our app Hollerback.

Let me know if I can be helpful.

will@hollerback.co // @willydennis

Don’t Ask Users to Bring the Beer

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Your app is a party. It’s great. You know that. Unfortunately, users don’t.

Accordingly, your app’s first-time user experience needs to act like an invite to the party. You want to drum up excitement, give guests a taste of what to expect, and provide key details so they can prepare to have as much fun as possible.

A succesful party invite gets people interested enough to commit their time to your party. An app’s onboarding experience is no different.

Imagine getting this party invite:

Dear Guest,

Please bring beer. We have a lot of awesome things planned, but to be honest this party is going to be super lame without beer.

Once you’ve bought the beer, you’ll see what I mean.

Thanks!

-Shitty Host

So many apps start their onboarding process with “Invite Your Friends!” – the new-user equivalent of “Please bring beer.”

This is an awful approach to product onboarding, not to mention user growth. You’re putting a lot of the responsibility on a user who can’t properly be an advocate for your service. In addition, many services aren’t significantly improved with friends. “Invite your friends” comes off as a thinly veiled effort to fuel an app’s user numbers.

If you’re looking to build your user base, don’t focus on invites from first time users. Instead, show users the core value of what you’ve built. Give them a taste of the experience. Ideally, boil down your app to the “Ah-Ha” moment. Get the user to that point as soon as possible.(Even before signup if possible).

Product walkthroughs and tutorials, though common, aren’t successful onboarding strategies. They’re boring and have no “Ah-Ha” moments.

Aside: An “Ah-Ha” moment is a single occurence of your app’s core value. It solves the user’s problem. Often it is dependant on a user taking some action. Ah-Ha moments release dopamine and should be the main cornerstone of your product’s user experience. When looking to improve product, think about increasing the speed to and frequency of Ah-Ha moments.

If your app relies heavily on network effects (and the corresponding “empty room” problem), craft a unique onboarding experience that hacks the Ah-Ha moment. Create fake users, manually generate content, make a “single-player mode.” If the onboarding process doesn’t mimic the full in-app experience 100%, that’s OK. It probably shouldn’t.

Any good app gets users to the Ah-Ha moment during onboarding just like any good party has a well crafted invite. Focus on getting users to have an Ah-Ha moment and RSVP to your party. If they’re a good guest, they’ll show up with friends and a six pack of cold ones.


If you want to see how we handle the onboarding process, sign up for early access to our app Hollerback.

Let me know if I can be helpful.

will@hollerback.co // @willydennis

Go With Your Gut

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Start ups are full of hard questions. Fundraising, hiring, product design, launch strategy, etc. They all require decisions that are critical to the success of your business.

But why are these decisions hard?

You can read thoughtful case studies from Harvard and an endless waterfalls of blog posts from entrepreneurs sharing start up notes.

You can make other successful founders and influential VCs your advisors. They did what you’re doing and won.

You can look at other companies as strategic or cultural role models. They’re succeeding and have “it figured out.”

All this advice is right. It’s correct. Hell, it’s proven.

But that doesn’t matter.

No matter how similar the business or how experienced an entrepreneur, no advice is 100% right for your business. Times change, markets shift, information is missing.

For every piece of strategic advice there is an equally legitimate example of a successful company that did the opposite. Fab pivoted to success while Pinterest stuck to their guns. The list goes on.

You’re only left with one option — and it’s beautiful and freeing. Do some research, talk to your cofounder, look that decision in its ugly face, say “Hey bud, let’s party,

And go with your gut.