Business General Technology

Chasing waterfalls

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the launch of two highly anticipated consumer technology products, The Humane AI Pin and the Rabbit R1, and the response has been underwhelmingto say the least.

But these failures could have been predicted and avoided and weren’t. I believe their failures say a lot about what’s wrong with the tech industry today and demonstrate a concerning trend that has been creeping up for some time.

In the field of product development, there is a concept of an ‘MVP’ aka a ‘Minimum Viable Product.’ The idea — derived from the Agile software development practices and popularized by Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup’ — proposes that the correct way to bring a new product to market is to focus on creating and releasing the simplest version of the product you can that adds value quickly, and getting it into the hands of stakeholders early. This concept allows a company to minimize upfront risk while taking advantage of customer feedback to inform its roadmap, ostensibly leading to products that will be more likely to secure a foothold in a market.

On paper, and in practice generally, this is a sound methodology to operate within, and the folks at Humane and Rabbit would argue they are following this. So what went wrong?

Arguably, among other things, they’ve missed the most essential word in the ‘MVP’ initialism: Viable.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. 

When the iPhone was announced, the product was filling a noticeable gap in the market. Most consumers had clunky feature phones, and the ‘smart’ phones of the day were bulky and complex. Steve Jobs’ famous keynote presentation sold a vision of something better, and incredibly, the product that ultimately shipped to consumers met or exceeded the expectations of the product set by this demo.

While Humane and Rabbit both draw a lot of inspiration from Apple with marketing and design aesthetics, they seem to be missing the key promise that every product Steve pitched lived up to:

Under promise and over deliver.

Steve sweat the details because he knew they mattered. As boastful and braggadocious as he might have come off in that presentation, he knew he had a product that could back it up. One that would blow people away.

Both Rabbit and Humane have spent a lot of time and money marketing the idea of their products and their vision of how they will change consumers’ lives.

However, as many reviews have bluntly demonstrated, in many cases, the features the products ship with today barely work. Much of the visions these companies have sold depend on integrations, features, and experiences that do not currently exist. It seems that neither product, in its current state, does enough today to warrant its existence, especially compared to what a smartphone can already do.

They inevitably knew this. They knew the products would not fulfill those promises on day one, but they launched anyway. 

There is nothing agile about launching a product on the back of a roadmap.

Neither Humane nor Rabbit have set themselves up to succeed.

Agile development aims to prove viability through continuous discovery and iteration, and lean methodology seeks to reduce waste.

The benefit of an MVP is that it allows a company to quickly discover new opportunities and shortcomings, adapt, and change course as necessary. 

By promising functionality unavailable at launch, they’ve released products that cannot, and possibly will never, meet consumer expectations.

By launching to disappointing reviews, many would-be early adopters will likely choose to pass on these products. This essentially negates the value of their marketing efforts thereby squandering most of the value the company would get from an early launch. Had expectations been set lower, this might not be the case.

These companies now face some tough choices: 

  1. They can spend their resources fulfilling their promised roadmap, potentially ‘baking in’ their core mistakes and gaining nothing from the process.
  2. Or they can delay or dispense with their promised roadmaps, go back, challenge their initial assumptions, and rework their products to fix core mistakes identified by the early launch.

Either path is a recipe for disappointment. There is a reason Apple rarely discusses future products or features.

So why is this happening? And why now?

The truth is, we were living in a tech speculation bubble for the last decade or so.

With interest rates near zero percent, entrepreneurs had easy access to capital with few strings attached. This also meant that there was little pressure for a company to deliver a profit. Instead, the metric du jour was user growth. If a company could demonstrate massive user numbers by disrupting a pre-existing industry (like taxis with ridesharing, for example), the prospect of eventual profitability was enough to keep the funding coming in and the company valuation going up. With valuations continuing to skyrocket, early investors were able to cash out with an amazing return. As such, a frequent recipe for “success” was to spend a ton of money to disrupt an industry, get massive user adoption, create public hype, take the company public, cash out, and leave retail investors holding the bag. 

However, this formula came to a screeching halt in early 2022, when companies realized that the pandemic era ‘pivot to digital’ would not produce perpetually sustainable growth numbers (something else that should have been obvious), and inflation started to skyrocket. Investors turned to more conservative investments as the US Federal Reserve Bank raised interest rates to tamp down on inflation, shifting the focus back towards profitability.

So, the pressure is on for companies like Rabbit and Humane. They have grand, long-term visions of industry disruption and transformation, but their investors expect more immediate returns than they did of companies of the recent past.

Because making your own hardware device and accompanying software platform is expensive, the inclination to ship a product as soon as the hardware is ready with a barebones version of the platform is operational is understandable.

Consumers are not investors. They do not buy products based on pitch decks; they buy products based on what they do. If a company sets expectations high, and the product fails to meet these expectations, consumers will walk away, and the odds that they’ll come back are slim. 

In their current form these products are not viable, maybe the idea they laid out one day could be, but because they jumped the gun and launched too soon, they may never get the chance to discover their ‘MVP.’

Design General

Belong to Universe

Making new friends during a pandemic is a bizarre experience.

For me, the few I have are people I have connected with during unusually raw evening Zoom calls between friends. These are usually scenarios where we all sit, and drink, and muse about the world from our respective desks or kitchens.

There is an honesty and a vulnerability to these calls. When we’re spending so much time in isolation alone with our thoughts, there seems to be a lot less BS when talking with friends, and much deeper topics can be discussed.

This is how I met Maud.

In the little bit I’ve gotten to know Maud, she is a smart, quick-witted, and clever person who loves professional soccer, German culture, and ska music. It’s surprising we didn’t know each other sooner.

The other thing I know is that Maud lost her father suddenly to COVID-19 back in April.

As a way to honor her father, she has worked with JL Murtaugh of NO GRAND to create a mask and soccer scarf combo to raise money for causes important to her.

In her own words:

And so, I started a project. A way to channel my memories of my father, and my father’s memories, and my love and concern for those around me. A way to celebrate what my father loved about me and what I loved about my father. A way to celebrate the people who have been so kind to me, so kind to my family, and so kind to my father.

When my father was taken from his home, on the block he moved to nearly fifty years before, he went to the hospital and came back thirteen days later in a lacquered wood box. In the time in between, I spent hours on the phone with countless medical workers with such depths of empathy in their communication. I am so thankful to them. I hold an immense debt of gratitude to the overwrought funeral director who spoke to me with such honesty and ease. I have encountered immense humanity, and I have been alone, in my own home, for over six weeks now.

I asked JL Murtaugh to help me turn all this sentiment into something tangible. I told him stories of my father’s appreciation for and association with Buckminster Fuller. I told him about my father’s early career as a photographer, developing his own photographs of the Mies van der Rohe buildings on the IIT campus to be published in the Chicago Tribune. I told him how my father would sketch blueprints on scratch paper at the kitchen table and had a concrete mixer in our garage for experiments in Brutalism. Liam had previously created designs based on Betrand Goldberg and Frank Lloyd Wright. I knew he understood how I learned to understand Chicago from my father.

I am truly honored and astounded by what NO GRAND has created.

I can personally attest that the scarves look tremendous and the masks are some of the best we own. You can see some photos below (including one of my dog Marla modeling the scarf) and place your order via this Google form.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to get to know Maud (from a distance.) The artists and inventors that her father appreciated are ones that inspire me as well. I am honored that I was one of the first people to receive a set and, if you’re anything like me I believe it is one that you may appreciate as well.

There are only a few left so don’t sleep on it.

Business Chicago General Technology

Congratulations to ActiveCampaign on 100K Customers

Today ActiveCampaign announced they had surpassed 100,000 customers and over $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

When I joined the company in 2013, we were a team of 10 in a tiny office downtown. At that point, we were still transitioning from a downloadable software to a software-as-a-service model and had not yet launched the company’s flagship automation builder that would go on to spike our insane growth path.

Something that has set ActiveCampaign apart from its competitors is its dedication to customer care. Although the company has changed dramatically, and not EVERY practice has scaled (at one point, I would designate a half-hour at the end of every day to handwrite a personal thank you card to every customer who purchased an enterprise account) the team’s commitment to being customer-centric has never wavered. I believe if they can keep that as their guiding light, they will continue to find success.

I’m incredibly proud of the product I built at AC, but I’m even more proud of the fantastic customers and colleagues I helped in the process.

The company released this video this morning, which inspired me to write something. The video not only features a photo with me in it but a few that I shot while working there. It made me smile, and I’m proud to share it. Congrats to the whole ActiveCampaign team. Here’s to 100,000 more!



May Day Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

Since I was a child, I have loved baking. In particular, I’ve loved chocolate chip cookies. Ruth Wakefield‘s Toll House recipe is an inspiration. Since 2010 I have been playing with Ruth’s recipe to put my spin on it. Amusingly after starkly diverging from it at first, the final product has organically come full circle back to its roots with many similarities to that recipe.

It’s hard to beat the best, but after many test batches and tweaks, I’ve finally gotten it to a place that I feel is ready to share with the rest of the world. I’ll let you be the judge.

May Day Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies
by John Morrison

Yield: 48 cookies
Cook time: 10 minutes
Prep time: ~3 hours (including chilling)
Baking temperature: 375°

½ cup bacon fat
½ cup (1 stick) of unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup wildflower honey
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 shot bourbon (~3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 ¼ cups dark chocolate chips

  1. Combine butter and bacon fat in a large bowl and mix in an electric mixer on low until creamy and combined
  2. Add honey and brown sugar gradually. Beat until light and fluffy ~3 minutes. Make sure to scrape down the bowl as needed.
  3. Beat in vanilla, bourbon, and eggs one at a time and scrape down the bowl as needed. Add baking soda and beat into the mixture at low speed.
  4. Add ⅓ the flour and mix on low speed. Gradually add remaining flour until blended.
  5. Stir in chocolate chips.
  6. Cover bowl and chill for at least 1 hour in the fridge.
  7. Preheat oven to 375º
  8. Scoop generously rounded tablespoons 2 inches apart on silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
  9. Bake at 375° until golden brown around the edges. (Approximately 10 minutes on a baking sheet ~9 on parchment)
  10. Remove from the oven and place cookies on a cooling rack for 10 minutes.
  11. Enjoy!

Notes: I usually get my dark chocolate from Blommer. I prefer to buy the ‘Alpine Dark’ broken ends and break them up further to use as chocolate chunks, but chips work excellently as well.

As far as the bourbon is concerned, I usually use whatever we have on hand. I don’t usually use Four Roses Single Barrel, but I did for this batch because it’s my favorite bourbon, and this batch is special to me.

You’ll notice there is no salt in the recipe, that is because the bacon fat should supply more than enough salt by itself. If you’re looking for an excellent way to make perfect bacon while preserving the grease I recommend checking out Dan Benjamin’s Bacon Method.

I landed on the “May Day” name because May 1st (aka International Worker’s Day) was the day I finally ‘froze’ the recipe and because I prefer to it with all local ingredients when possible.

I’d like to give shout outs to Gorden Tebo, Weien Wang, Rocco Palladino, Sean Wolter, Kellen Terret, Doctor Susan Brown, and Will Goodwin of Spoken Cafe. Over the years, each of these folks gave me feedback, advice, or inspiration that helped make this into something I’m very proud of.

Finally, a special thank you to my mother, Susan Morrison, for fostering my love of baking and my love of cookies in particular. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Your share will be in the mail tomorrow.

Thank you all.

Chicago General Photography

Returning to the Impossible

An Polaroid-style instant photograph depicting the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood.
Lincoln Square, Chicago – 1 April 2020

From January 1, 2012 to January 1, 2014 I took a single instant photograph a day every day with a vintage Polaroid camera and ‘Impossible Project’ instant film. And then I stopped.

With all of this corona virus stuff going on, and us all trapped at home, and many of us unemployed, I figured it was time to start creating again.

To maintain my physical and mental health I’ve been cycling daily throughout Chicago (don’t worry, I’ve been wearing a mask and gloves, and keeping proper social distance from everyone else) so I decided to pull out some of my instant cameras and start sharing what I see with the world.

So, ‘The Impossible Year’ is back… for now. We’ll see how long I keep it up.

This content will be posted primarily to Tumblr via the original blog: but I’ll also be cross sharing it to Twitter and Facebook as well. I hope you’ll join me.