I recently started a company called Limitless Industries, and these are the attributes I think will help make it a success. I put them here because a friend asked me if I had a list, and because I thought they might be useful to you, the reader.

Have performance reviews not only for employees, but also for managers, and have these affect whether you keep your job. This is important because many companies have an asymmetry between employees and their managers when it comes to reviewing performance. Traditionally, information and advice come from managers in the form of a performance review, but they don’t usually go from employee to boss. Performance reviews in each direction, with the weight of reward and firing are essential for effective information flow. People should be able to fire their bosses, as well as be fired by their bosses because that creates an impetus for each of them to take feedback seriously. It also eliminates the moral hit that comes with tyrannical bosses because employees have a mechanism to curb tyranny and incompetence.

Another trick is all decisions should come with their reasons. The reason for this is context allows a worker to adapt to changing conditions and to widen the domain space for making decisions. Here is a military example I took from this excellent video series by Paul Van Riper (audio does not match video), his interesting work appeared in the Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink.

The story he illustrates later in this series is that of giving a command for a group of soldiers to take a hill. The group may take the hill, but totally avoid stopping military forces that have changed their mind and gone around the hill. Devoid of context, the soldiers remain on the hill and don’t stop the enemy, but if they are given the command: take that hill because you need to stop enemy forces from moving through the valley, now they have reason to get off the hill and attack the enemy. Their wider context increased their adaptability. Meaning removes simple mechanistic behavior and replaces it with dynamic and hopefully effective autonomy.

Another is a democratic work environment. Peter Drucker constantly said that modern workers are the best judges of their needs, and managers who now are often less informed then their teams, have to become facilitators. Autocracy is prone to myopia. Democracy better suits peoples needs because employees are central factors in the definition and administration of their needs and solutions. Better-matched resources and needs result in better company health (financial and social).

Another great trick is arbitration by experiment. This is where hard and debated paths, are solved by creating an experiment between conflicting parties. The experiment clarifies the argument-space and opens up new possibilities for the company, and better understanding for all parties. I have done this unconsciously in the past, but now that it is an explicit thing in my mind, I want it to be something that I institutionalize (that is, if this particular experiment in experimenting works.)

A trick that takes advantage of new viewpoints is to interview already hired new employees to find flaws and good things about the company. New employees have an objective eye when they arrive. They aren’t yet bogged down by working. When they get to work, find out what they observe. Do they notice the company has a fear of marketing itself? Do they think the CEO shouts too much? Is something about the team’s engineering methods weak? New eyes can offer new viewpoints if interviewed within a context of safety and trust.

Having a workplace filled with virtue is something important to me. I have experienced workplaces bogged down in day-to-day operations. It’s hard to get your head above the water because swimming looks so important. Still, I find this all so absolutely necessary to start thinking about from day one. If you are not taking steps to control the long term health of your company, you may still be successful, but you won’t be the roaring success you could have been. I will make my company a success. To me that means happy employees, profit, and a positive social impact.

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So much stuff has happened this past month.

  • We got a customer for the RingWing
  • We found a manufacturer
  • We shipped a bunch of RingWings to HIMSS in Chicago
  • We got the RingWing website to a useful state

It has been amazing organizing all of this. Sometimes I totally thought I wasn’t going to make it in time. The process of discovery, of challenging my own ignorance, has been so worth it. The feeling of positive stimulation I get by doing what seemed improbable is so cool.

All the while I have been trying to exercise, see my girlfriend, and socialize. I want my life to stay balanced. The days where I am handling things best are where I am keeping everything in play. If I don’t exercise on the Wii Fit or avoid talking to friends, I get a crappier day.

Visit my website: http://www.theringwing.com/ I am so glad it’s done! Check out the video we did showing off a few of the things you can do with the RingWing:

I’ve quit my job as a programmer and started a company making RC airplanes. We’re making discoid VTOL aircraft. And by discoid VTOLs I mean airplanes that look like UFOs and takeoff vertically. Our first vehicle is called the RingWing.

This is so mega exciting. I love writing software, but software can sometimes be dissatisfying because it’s hard to know if you’re really making progress. Since software has no touch, smell, or spacial embodiment, you can’t feel it with your whole body. And it only feels like it’s coming together when it starts to produce the final results that the user will need. On the other hand, hardware development is viscerally satisfying even when you’ve messed up because you’ve still created a tangible artifact. There’s something to touch and feel the weight of.

A long time ago, while I was still in college, I did an internship at a rocket and space vehicle company called Xcor Aerospace. This was really a life changing experience because I got to work on things that would lead to space technologies that would bring the cost of going to space way down. Down to the level where you and I could travel to space. And it was thrilling because I got to work on very tangible devices. Rocket launches on television only give a small portion of the sensory experience. When you’re standing next to a rocket and it starts up, it emits this incredible shockwave that passes through your body rocking you backward. The experience is entirely unique.

I think heavier sensory participation is one of the reasons the only company I founded and got to a revenue stream was a company making leather holsters for the Gameboy SP, called Padholsters. More of your body is telling you if you’re making progress. I’ve started software companies, but they never got to the making money part (very important in business I hear).

I’m also super excited about the people I’m working with. My cofounder, Ryan Fowler, is an aerospace engineer. We’ve been friends since I met him during college. And his wife, Jen Fowler, does a good job of yelling at us to go make money, whenever we get distracted.

We’ve gone through a lot a different prototypes so far. Most of them can be charted on an ever increasing line of development and a few of them have been entirely off the mark. We’re getting there. The craft is slowly looking cooler and more efficient. You can see our development blog for the RingWing at www.fp-aero.com.

I never had heroes when I was a kid. I was proud of it. It frustrated the teachers tremendously when I refused to name heroes. After much pressuring, I would give in and say my default, that my parents were my heroes. Now I have many heroes, but developing them was a long and difficult path.

Part of my resistance to heroes was my view of history as partially flawed. The details and errors of man are often washed away by sychophantic historians. I’ve had a few history teachers who you could see the sex oozing in their description of long dead historical figures. (Never the less, I think that History is one of the most important subjects to learn, and it is one of my personal favorites.)

The other part of my hero-resistance was from reading the novel Dune when I was in third grade. Dune is in part a parable against saviors. This book always cautioned me against subduing my own talents and judgments in service to a leader.

These two viewpoints caused me to live for the longest time without heroes. Eventually, I realized my apprehension was unfounded. And I can benefit from admiring heroes by using them as models for ideal behavior. Seeing this, I have developed a pantheon of historical figures who I have chosen as important to me, and representative of my personality. I now have a collection of portraits above my desk of these heroes.

The first is Nikola Tesla, one of the fathers of the modern electrical world. Genius is the fortune of aligning knowledge and passion. Tesla was a perfect alignment. I have the pleasure of owning a book of his patents, and whenever I wish to be humbled, I go and look at the quantity and quality of his body of work. He was not without flaw however, and he had a terrible business sense that left him in destitution at the end of his life. I want my passion and knowledge to be so synchronous.

The second is Charles Lindbergh. He was the Neil Armstrong of his time. So famous that they named dances after him. I want to be famous like Lindy.

The third is Alexander Graham Bell. My admiration for him is not actually for his invention of the telephone, but for his work on the problem of flight. He was a contemporary of the Wright brothers, and he took a different development path to making airplanes. He ended up building huge tetrahedral kites to experiment with the dynamics of lift and control. You can see some pictures of these gigantic kites here. I love his affinity for experimentation.

The fourth is Amelia Earhart. Like Lindbergh, she was a daring pioneer of the most cutting edge transportation of the time. She pushed the envelope and was famous the world over. That, and she defied the sexism of the time. I would like that bravery.

The fifth is Peter Drucker. Drucker invented modern management theory. Many people still try and run companies like they’re factories or farms, with autocratic styles and rigid structures. Drucker pointed out we are now in the age of the Knowledge Worker. Making our transition from knowledge, not resources being wealth, is so mind-blowingly huge, we haven’t figured it out yet. I would like to be able to describe our world as eloquently as he does.

The sixth is Buckminster Fuller. Bucky taught me how to think again. There was a time when I was severely depressed, and one effect of that depression was a curtailing of my mental capacity. I could only recall events from a week ago, and any challenging thinking eluded me. At some point, after my recovery, I began reading Synergetics, which was a geometric system that he developed over the course of his career. It is extremely thick, but I finally understood it. As a result, I can visualize complex geometry in my head, and it effects all of my thinking. Fuller, was the first of my recovered heroes. He was so optimistic for the world, he could see our potential and did what he could do to foster it. I would like to do the same.

The Ultimate Corporation

April 29, 2008

The Ultimate Corporation is one that reinforces my excitement and happiness. I want to wake up in the morning turned on. No snooze button or other foot-dragging. What are the characteristics of a corporation that is not simply good, but great to work at?

Characteristic 1 (Foster community, avoid faction and alienation):

This is achieved through limited population. Many companies confuse growth with development. This results in bloat that eventually murders a company. I’ve thought over different optimal maximums for limiting growth which I’ve written about here and here. I think the number is somewhere below 150. And my current attitude is to let employees decide where that number lies under that maximum. Growth beyond this number necessitates a new business division to be physically isolated and separately run from the original seed company.

Characteristic 2 (Structure for creativity):

Have 20/80 splits of time on the hourly, weekly, and yearly scales. This means 20% of a person’s time every day is allotted to their own initiative. One day of their work week is exclusively for their own projects. Two months out of the year, they leave and are payed double their salary. Half of that goes to them, and the other is invested in a company idea of their choice. Those two months aren’t enough time to start a company, but they are enough to get the ball rolling, and to see if the project fails or succeeds. If it fails, they return. If it succeeds, we either spin them off into a new company or if it makes sense, absorb the project into the main body.

Characteristic 3 (Create trust through transparency):

Everyone’s wages are transparent to everyone else in the company. If someone isn’t pulling their weight and getting payed a lot, then it becomes obvious they should decrease their pay, or be fired. If the CEO is getting payed one thousand times what the janitor earns, then it is obvious that something is wrong (Or maybe the CEO is generating a billion dollars in revenue single-handedly, and is justified, however unlikely, in such pay).

Characteristic 4 (Acknowledge dynamic rhythms)

Let people get to work when they want and leave when they want, as constrained by the necessity of synchronous times for socialization and laboring. Employees decide this for themselves. Moderated by an appreciation for safety, this incentivizes speedy work, thus reducing costs.

Characteristic 5 (Profit is health, so make sure everyone knows it)

Employees get 33% of the profit the company makes. It’s harder to hire someone useless if you can see them eating your bonus.

Characteristic 6 (People work best under leaders they choose)

Employees elect their own bosses. Either from peers, or from outside the company. If the boss isn’t doing a good job, the employees oust him.

This article was inspired by many companies, including Gore Associates, Semco, Google, and HP.

On a tangential note, I recently read the HP Way, and though the book’s forward has the occasional vacuous corporate speak, the rest of the book is quite good. I did not know that HP essentially started off boot-strapping, rather they started off with a general idea of how they wanted the corporation to be. What their values were. Of course they knew they would be heading in the electronics direction since they had both been students of radio technology, but it’s not like they had a specific product in mind. That approach, more than anything, is what inspired this post. After all, as a self-interested party, it is about what a company does for me, and a product is only part of that.

A New Type of Music Shop

January 19, 2008

After reading an article about music piracy I got to imagining what a really fantastic music store would be like.

I imagine a store with lots of low level couches that encourage people to face each other. In the middle of these couch clusters will be a station connected to a central server of music. You’ll be able to come with your own headset or use one of the store’s. Once plugged into the terminal you can set up your own list of music you want to listen to. You’ll be able to listen to this list in any of the stores. If you bring a friend, you can synchronize to the same music. The headsets will have mics, so that you can talk while listening to the music without worrying about disrupting people listening to other music, or necessitating a room.

The store makes money by selling USB sticks, drinks, maybe a tiny cover charge, and music. The music pricing will be based on how often the music is listened to in the stores. They’ll offer high quality non-drm mp3s that you can download to your usb stick. You get to pick the composition and format of the playlist that you buy.

When I was in gradeschool and highschool, I remember being so despondent about the lack of nice places to hang out. There were parties, but I didn’t drink. So a lot of the time in highschool, after I had eaten with my friends, we would just drive up and down El Camino in Mountain View. We had our hack to keep us sane, which was to the go to this LAN party/internet cafe. We’d play games there, but it had set-backs, like no girls and infrequent conversation.

I don’t know if I was the type of person who would have taken advantage of a music-house, like the one I’m imagining. Maybe there were a lot of hangouts that I ignored. But it still feels like there are a lack of enjoyable places that I should have been able to bike or be driven to. And I do think that the availability would have changed the way I socialized.

Maybe a music shop like this will never exist, but I think humanity could pull it off. Starbucks and Apple should team up to do this. Starbucks would manage the stores, and Apple would design them and make the technology for interacting with the music. However, the only way they would get music companies to buy in would be to set up an entirely mocked up store, and then get executives to come there. At this point, the polarization between the music industry and its customers has taken on too many of the blinding characteristics of warfare. The only way to convince people would be to show them.

All this prognosticating got me thinking about a lot of other store structures. For the most part, Starbucks is a hang-out like the one I’m thinking of. But they don’t encourage socialization with strangers, and everyone is listening to the same canned music. But they ARE a hang out. People will sit there for hours, and I see grade/high school kids come and chill for long periods of time.

So in any hang-out there is a medium along which socialization occurs. In a bar, the medium is alcohol. In the internet cafe, it was computer games. In community centers, it’s study areas and air-hockey. Each of them facilitate different atmospheres with less or more socialization, based on the medium adopted by the place. Recently there’s been a proliferation of Hooka lounges. Live music already has a venue, but I think recorded music has a place as a social stratum. And if managed properly, it can be the replacement for the currently waning cd store.

Of course, nothing is ever really destroyed. After all, people still buy and listen to vinyl records. But you have to be really blind and entrenched to believe you’ll never be displaced from the mainstream. It seems that one of the reasons there is so much contention about the use of music is due to a false polarity between people, generated by a myopia around specific issues. When we focus on people enjoying music, and the facilitators of that music getting payed, then there is no issue. The issue dissolves, rather than resolves.

It’s been a couple of days since our first launch of Foobity. It was lackluster, but that’s what I expected. We haven’t really done much with it yet. Regardless, I consider iteration one a success because of how much I learned.

The next iteration will have a comprehensive competition creation feature. Each competition will have subtasks. For each of these subtasks, a competition creator will be able to assign a point value and a refresh rate. The refresh rate controls how often a player can achieve that subtask. We will also have subgoals that work for subjective tasks as well. Points will be awarded by the competition creator after someone has typed in some effort in response to a subgoal. Overall, more power will be handed over to the competition creator, as this is the person willing to put in the most effort anyway.