When an ecosystem can’t or won’t reject bad actors

How much of what we see online is real?

It’s a question we’re all facing - made worse by the fact that people often fail to look closely at the information they consume, and sometimes quickly fire it back into the world without looking at all.

In the case of millions of fake accounts and bots described by the New York Times over the weekend, the problem has reached such massive levels that if social media giants gave the same treatment to showing the impacts of bots and fake audiences as they are to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, it’s doubtful it would show that anyone has gone without at least one fake retweet or favorite.

In nature, a healthy ecosystem by definition rejects or minimizes bad actors to ensure variation and longevity. But in the case of social media platforms this problem can be deceptive, because most tech startups are optimized for growth and growth alone.

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How pattern matching builds over time

It's been a while since I wrote about choosing your work in the midst of turmoil.

Some of that is because of the normal hustle of building a new thing from scratch (I'm currently working on ABQ Creates), and some of it is because I'm feeling the same political / structural extremes we're all being subjected to right now, and trying to figure out what type of value I need to deliver to help with the situation. 

One of the things that entrepreneurs of any sort struggle with (the good ones anyway), is not just the value of their own work and/or company, but what it means in a broader ecosystem.

If you're designing a matching platform, for example, you may be able to make money and grow a company, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a good job. Uber's continued struggle with both their business model and (lack of) ethical structure internally illustrates how good things can look while simultaneously being a trash fire that threatens to overwhelm any value provided. 

The best founders that I've met care a lot about pattern matching - that is, making sure that the company's value is clear in both directions to audiences, customers, and employees.

If your value is aligned correctly, you can easily say "Cool idea! But we are working on something else" or "Let's run a test for the next 6 months growing this product area that our customers are consistently asking for." 

If your value is not aligned correctly, if someone gets to your landing page, product, event, etc. and it turns out you were telling them one thing but delivering another, there's almost nothing you can do to fix the situation. Even if you quickly pivot to provide what they expected, you've already created a pattern mismatch.

Mostly, pattern matching is about knowing what you are testing vs. what already works, and making sure that what you say or present matches what you actually do. Over time, pattern matching correctly builds audiences, customers, fans, and helps you grow individually and as an organization/company.

It's also a hedge against bad ethics, one-hit wonders, and non-sustainable business practices. 

Where creative projects go wrong

Over the years I’ve worked with creatives on projects that include graphic and website design, physical product design, and UX / UI for apps and online platforms.

There are a few ways for a project to go to hell and leave everyone hating the process. The most common is when the ideation doesn’t match the expectation of the client (can be internal or external), even though they might already have approved it. 

Anyone who’s managed a project with a design component will recognize the cycle… 

  1. The ideation is approved, but is slightly broad / general
  2. Creative realizes they have room to stretch and gets excited, or conversely, plays it safe — leading to a 1st draft that is either specific but not what client had in mind, or overly generic
  3. Client provides extremely detailed feedback on a piece of work they don’t really like, which confuses the process
  4. Creative gets frustrated trying to fix something client doesn’t like, or creates entirely new draft which may or may not please the client (who by this time isn’t always sure what they want)

The critical moment usually happens between #2 and 3. At this point it’s still fixable but deadlines are tight and depending on how many people are involved there may be some serious frustration. 

What has to happen but often doesn’t, is a very timely, concise revisiting of ideation with the end client. You can’t fix wrong or misaligned ideation with more design, no matter how good the concept is to begin with. 

One other note: the phrase “end client” is an important one. A good project or product manager can sometimes alleviate confusion between the different people who are involved (brand, legal, marketing, PR, etc.) but whoever will actually own the end result needs to approve the ideation. That doesn’t always happen, and it’s also why big agencies rarely run a tight enough design communication cycle to avoid cost overruns. But that’s a topic for another time. 

How to tell if a startup actually has traction

Entrepreneurs have a lot of ideas. It’s easy to tell when you’re talking to one because they’ll come up with at least 2–3 business ideas in a half hour conversation on nearly anything. 

But an idea is not the same thing as a business. In a startup the most important people are those who execute, who get shit done when others simply talk about it. 

Something I’ve learned from both investors and experienced entrepreneurs is not to worry about keeping secrets in the early stages of a business. 

There are exceptions — like security software or the first idea in a niche market— but for the most part ideas are worthless because everyone has them, and reaching 400,000 customers has a whole different set of concerns than reaching 40 (or 40,000, for that matter). It’s mostly the execution, and team, that matters. 

So how do you know if the walk matches the talk? It’s a critical question if you’re investing, partnering, or considering working in a startup. 

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about companies that are experiencing significant traction… 

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