I’ve spoken passionately about the value and power of internships for many years. If you know my background, I’m obviously a bit biased, but there are few more important tasks for undergraduates looking to gain a competitive advantage than participating in internship experiences.

So I was intrigued when a colleague of mine approached me to ask about organizing an “externship” experience for a local LA-based college freshman interested in learning more about the marketing function at a startup. “What the hell is an externship?” I asked. Turns out it’s part internship, part informational interview, part take an adult to work day. Essentially, a training program or “day in the life,” to give students a glimpse of what an industry / job / career track is all about without formally making a commitment.

So this proactive college freshman showed up this past week during her winter break, and learned the ins and outs (or basics, at least) of marketing at a B2B SaaS startup. She also received a free lunch at Poquito Mas. Decent externship, this. She was green but asked brilliant questions.

And she forced us, as marketers, to do what we’re supposed to do: be succinct and clear. Explain what we do. How we do it. Why we do it. You’d be surprised by how much you can gain in describing what you do to an outsider. It helps you clarify your messaging, forces you to communicate outside of modern business bullshit jargon. A great exercise for any executive, entrepreneur, or group leader.

Two birds with one stone, then, as not only was our visiting student impacted (she confirmed her pre-externship hunch that working in marketing, and at a startup, is something she hopes to achieve in the future) but we benefited as a host company too.

Sometimes it’s the little things in life, a day spent mentoring an aspiring young marketer in this case, that make you realize you truly can make a difference in the community, in someone’s life. This was one of those moments. So I was frustrated when I took a look at Google Trends expecting to find “externship” searches on the rise over the past decade. Instead I found this flatline:

Externship_Google_Trends

It’s early January and many college students in the US are in this weird “in between” time – after the holidays but before the second semester begins. So if you’ve got a friend or family member in college tell them about this unique, under the radar concept, this “externship,” thing. They’ll thank you.

And if you’re in school yourself, consider using this winter break, or an upcoming short school break to schedule one of these experiences too- explore your desired career track, develop networking skills, and experience workplace culture.

The benefits are clear, for both the host employer and the visiting student. And that’s not always the case in business. When one wins, the other often loses. In this case, both can emerge winners.

I was on the phone this week with someone – a leader, a doer, a thinker, whose opinion I respect dearly, who told me, “I can’t focus on the big picture anymore, I’m only focusing on the little picture.”

What she meant, I think, was that the world around us, the big picture, is becoming more and more difficult to comprehend, surreal and sad- in the context of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and wild political discourse. She’s not giving up, she’s just choosing to prioritize the “little picture,” her family, her friends, her life. Fair enough.

And then I was walking my dog this morning, on a surprisingly cold 48 degree LA morning, when I thought of my little picture. You see, a few months ago on one of my 6:30am walks, I was approach by a stranger, a neighbor I guess, who asked, “Do you always walk your dog this early in the morning?” “Yes,” I replied.

And this woman told me that a 101-year-old man lives on my street and he has difficulty making it to the end of his driveway in the mornings to pick up his copy of The Los Angeles Times. Would I mind taking it and leaning it against his front door to save him the time and energy since I’m in the area so early in the morning? Seemed like a pretty simple ask, and it’s been part of my morning routine ever since.

And then I heard this week from a friend about his morning routine. He frequents the same LA coffee shop every morning- his little picture. And at that coffee shop, he often sees the same Muslim woman, wearing a headscarf. And last week, just a week after the Inland Regional Center attack in San Bernardino, only 60 miles east from this coffee shop, he saw this woman, this stranger, this neighbor once again.

And he approached her in line, and he told her his family story. He told her that his father, a Japanese American, was removed from his home in California in the 1940s and placed in an internment camp. For no other reason than being Japanese. He empathizes with her. With her community. He understands prejudice. She started to cry.

Last week, my team and I volunteered in downtown LA at a homeless shelter.

I organized the trip to the shelter as part of a larger team offsite –  working together prioritizing our 2016 goals in the morning, and helping our community in the afternoon. Selfishly, going into the day, it was about the little picture for me – our team bonding, and our product and marketing team collaborating. The volunteering was a side benefit to the team building exercise.

It became instantly clear after just a few minutes in the heart of downtown LA that the day wasn’t about our startup team anymore – the little picture. The shelter is a place that not only provides meals, but provides health and dental care, a drug and alcohol recovery program, and transitional housing for those in LA’s rising street population.

It was the big picture after all. And that gave me a bit of hope in a world where it’s often difficult to wake up and read the next startling news headline. Sometimes you can affect the big picture, even if you didn’t intend to, just through focusing on the little things.

Staring at cellphones

I recently heard a story from a partner at Charles River Ventures who talked a bit about what it was like for entrepreneurs to pitch the early-stage VC firm. At CRV’s partner meetings no one (no matter how uninspiring the startup’s pitch) is allowed to look at their cellphones. The team keeps each other accountable with a monetary fine measured in the thousands of dollars – no joke. If you’re caught on your phone during a meeting, dinner (and a likely expensive wine pairing) for the entire team is on your dime.

CRV’s policy is in place out of respect for the entrepreneur. I like the quirky policy, even if most CRV partners can afford the hefty fine without losing any sleep (the firm has invested in Twitter, Yammer, and Zendesk after all). It says something about who these people are, or at least the image and brand they hope to convey.

While the information on our iPhones may sometimes be more important, or urgent, or interesting than the meeting we’re attending, there’s very little in the modern business world more annoying, disrespectful even, than someone who is checked out on their phone while you’re speaking during a meeting. And I am absolutely guilty myself. The defense mechanism / rationalization is “I’m multi-tasking, I’m doing more, getting more done,” but are we really?

It’s not just the lack of respect, it’s the lack of efficiency as well. My active listening takes a big hit when I’m all thumbs, replying to an email on my mobile device, while trying to pay attention to those in the room around me. And the email response I’ve hastily crafted is worse as well, because it doesn’t have my full attention either. We’ve all missed the punchline to an (allegedly) hilarious joke told in real life, while straining our necks staring into the phones on our laps.

I live much of my life with the goal of being proactive, not reactive, so responding to that urgent email (even from your boss) or text (even from your spouse) can surely wait an additional 15, 30 or 45 minutes until the meeting is over.

So I’m going to do my best and take a page out of CRV’s playbook. Check the phone at the door when it comes to meetings (and maybe family dinners too). I’ll still incessantly doodle away on my notepad and get some funny looks in the process during meetings, but I’ll be eating my turkey without a side of Candy Crush or Twitter this Thanksgiving.

Sharing economy startup Instacart working on their Net Promoter Score.

Sharing economy startup Instacart working on their Net Promoter Score.

I used Instacart for the first time last week. I had just returned home from a grueling travel schedule that included six flights in one week- a trip that ended with me suffering from your typical flight-induced common cold. Despite a precautionary purchase of two overpriced bottles of Dasani Water at the Hudson News store at each airport I visited, as well as constant hand sanitizer application, I couldn’t escape the wrath of that dry, recycled, Airbus air.

So instead of making the trek to my local grocer for the requisite cold remedies, I downloaded Instacart.

Instacart, as you are probably well aware, is the leading grocery delivery service in the U.S., valued at around $2 billion. A darling in the sexy on-demand economy.

Using the Instacart app for the first time was phenomenal – a great mobile onboarding experience, sleek design, and smooth UI. Within ten minutes, I had ordered a grocery load of overpriced fruits and vegetables from my local Ralph’s grocery store. An avocado at Ralph’s usually costs me about $0.79, but I gladly paid the $1.19 on Instacart while hydrating with some herbal tea and spooning a box of tissues on my couch. The groceries were at my front door within an hour. The next day, Instacart emailed me and asked me to rate my order. I gave the experience 5-stars.

I don’t know if my 5-star review triggered a follow-up email from Instacart, or if this is part of their normal email marketing cadence after someone completes their first order, but within hours of receiving the first request for feedback, I received a second email: “How likely are you to recommend Instacart to a friend?”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that second email this past week – that Instacart knew they were in a strong position (I had rated the service 5-for-5) so they sent an additional customer loyalty email, and got me, at my most excitable (and vulnerable) moment to contribute to their quest for a high net promoter score (NPS).

Companies, specifically consumer tech startups, are enamored with achieving a high NPS. And they should be. In business due diligence, it is one of the sexiest metrics around.  A strong NPS score, and the customer loyalty that comes with it, is a big-time value driver for VC firms, PE firms, or potential acquirers.

Don’t expect to raise a massive round of funding at a favorable valuation or be acquired for top dollar (or anything at all) with a poor NPS score. If your customers proactively go out and scream about your business from the mountain tops, then surely you must have a good product, a good service, and what is perceived to be a good business – in the eyes of the diligent.

Instacart asked me to contribute to their NPS research while they felt strong – their app was still a shiny new object in my life. Smart. When are people taught to ask for a raise? When they’re strong. Right after a huge milestone they’ve achieved. Right after the company crushed it’s quarterly revenue projections and their bosses aren’t stressed. Not after three straight missed quarters with the stock in the gutter. Instacart got the basics just right.

And while I don’t expect to use their service any time soon (strangely enough I enjoy grocery shopping at my local Ralph’s: the music reminds me of middle school, I get a kick from handpicking a perfectly ripe tomato, and as a creature of habit, its become part of my weekend morning routine) I would recommend Instacart to a friend.

It’s a nice reminder that you can create customer loyalty moments, close the loop, receive feedback, and get what you want (like NPS feedback), if your timing is right and you’re in a position of strength.

A positive customer experience and an inherently strong product or service can be the difference between a brand advocate for life or a missed opportunity. And with fourteen mentions of their company name in this post alone, looks like Instacart did more than just land one new user and NPS survey respondent. Who knew grocery shopping could be so magical.

When my wife was a little kid, she would frequently exclaim, “I’m enough!” at the dinner table. Her parents never insisted that she ‘clean’ her plate. They’d say, “Stop eating when you’ve had enough,” and she heeded that advice. It’s a pretty straightforward concept, not eating when you’re full, but a difficult one to adhere to when you’re an adult.

I was thinking a lot about the concept this week – that we know we should stop eating, we know we’re full, but we still order the bread pudding regardless. I’m not as interested in why we do it (obviously, we derive pleasure from eating bread pudding), as I am in just how frequently we set ourselves up for failure in business and in life by not stopping when we’re enough.

Take poker or blackjack, for example. We rarely get up and leave the table when we’re ahead. We just sit there like a bunch of fryerim, or ‘suckers’ in Modern Hebrew, and eventually lose it all back to our opponents / the casino. Entrepreneurs are hard-wired as optimists, but we should still know better. If you have that mindset that screams “I’m in command of my situation,” and you’ve planned for this moment; if you know your strengths and weaknesses, and are honest with yourself, you’re much more likely to be able to walk away while you’re ahead. To win the cash. That’s discipline.

And we have to resist the same pull towards indiscipline to be successful in business as well, specifically in sales. After you close the deal, stop talking. If a prospect is turning into a customer right before your eyes, it’s time to yell “I’m enough!” internally, just as my wife did as a four year-old when she could only finish half of her corn on the cob. When your work is done, it’s done – have the discipline to know when you’ve accomplished what you set out to achieve.

If you’re already a great poker player, I can guarantee that you’re disciplined – you know your strengths, and your weaknesses. If you’re already a great negotiator or sales professional, your close rates are superb in part because you know when to exercise verbal self-discipline.

But for most of us, those still on the path to greatness, we can’t always rely on our incessant optimism (“my stomach won’t hurt this time, surely it will be OK,”). Most of the time, we’re better off being honest with ourselves, knowing our limitations, and exercising a bit of self-discipline. For me, that means passing on the bread pudding more often than not.

YogaMy wife convinced me to attend a yoga class with her recently. I hadn’t practiced yoga in a few years, and right from the off I knew I’d have to pay close attention to my Lululemon-clad classmates, and mimic their movements, just to keep up.

A few minutes into the session, I felt OK doing the basic bridge pose to stretch out my back – until I sensed that some around me were executing a much more demanding wheel pose. And just as I’m thinking, maybe what I’m doing isn’t good enough, the teacher dropped some serious life knowledge on us. She said, “More isn’t better. More is just more.” 

The financial lens, of course, is the traditional one by which many may approach my yoga instructor’s advice. “More (money) isn’t always better. More (money) is just more (money).” Certainly not a novel concept, and one that has been covered extensively with data from Stanford’s GSB, Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona on The Price of Abundance and others. Besides, the Notorious B.I.G. already taught us all that we need to know on the concept of money and happiness 20 years ago.

But I think the point can be applied elsewhere – specifically when it comes to personal bandwidth.

We’re doing “more” at work than ever before – more projects, more tasks, more meetings, more ‘initiatives.’ The same is going on outside of work: I see peers joining Toastmasters Clubs, “advising” or “mentoring” startups as alumni of their universities, attending networking events. Not core, but more. It’s amazing we can squeeze in an episode or two of Narcos each night with these overflowing plates.

Everyone has their strengths, priorities, and KPIs to aim for: the core DNA that will make them (and their companies) a success. Sometimes we can achieve those core priorities with an overflowing plate, but I don’t think we can if it becomes the steady state: over-stimulated, complex, too much, too fast. Why deviate from our strengths? If your success is measured in client retention rate, then be extremely strong when it comes to customer success, client feedback, product usage, or any of the other factors that will drive retention for your product. De-prioritize other ancillary initiatives. Do less and be great.

Prioritization is crucial for success in business. Bandwidth is limited. Focus is key. It’s difficult but it almost always doesn’t include doing “more.” The startup founder who mentions during his first VC pitch meeting that he’s still working as a contract programmer on the side, is rarely given a serious look. Savvy investors aren’t impressed. “He’s not all in,” they’ll say afterwards at their partner meeting. “Just trying to do too much,” another will judge correctly.

We all know that our personal bandwidth is extremely limited, but if we’re honest and stick to our core DNA – we may just end up getting more from less. It’s worth a thought. And that certainly makes me feel much better about sticking to, and perfecting, that basic bridge pose.

I was thinking a lot about first impressions this past week. School is back in session, and hundreds of students walked past my home with their parents to the local elementary school less than half a mile away. The scooters to students ratio on my street was through the roof. Every other kid came with some sort of wheeled accessory – bicycle, skateboard or otherwise. The kids all wear helmets now, which is certainly an improvement over the 1980s when I first started elementary school.

But regardless of the updated transportation methods, back-to-school is still all about what’s new. A new school. A new grade. A new teacher. A new set of friends. Schedule of classes. Type of math. Slang on the playground. It’s a lot to take in. I don’t have much experience with Frozen backpacks or Razor scooters, but I do know a lot about new schools. And first impressions. I switched schools in first, second, third, fifth, and sixth grade.

The first day of school is one giant onboarding experience for little human beings. The best schools I attended were the ones that had some sort of a “buddy program,” in place to help new students get oriented. As a new kid, you have to learn on the fly, make judgments quickly, take it all in, and find your way. When you have someone around to show you the ropes- how to open up the lockers, where the cafeteria is, where the buses come to pick you up, it makes a big difference. The school might be the best around, but without that well-thought out buddy program, a kid may never appreciate it’s true value.

First impressions are everywhere, not just around the corner at your local elementary school. I’ve been using a new iOS news app recently called Wildcard. The company’s slogan is “Know the Day,” and my first impression, noted in the tweet above, was a very good one. Wildcard is beautifully designed, lightning quick, and is fast becoming my go-to app for news. The onboarding experience was great – the app has landed on my iPhone home screen.

There are plenty of other solid mobile app and web onboarding experiences, of course. Samuel Hulick’s User Onboarding site, for example, reviews, step by step, how popular web apps handle their signup experiences while UX Archive showcases some of the best iOS flows.

But this post isn’t only about that kind of onboarding. It’s not even just about the traditional definition of onboarding in the business sense – getting an employee up to speed quickly in a new role at a company.

Life is filled with onboarding experiences. With first impressions.

I probably wouldn’t have given Wildcard a second look if my initial onboarding experience was poor. And that’s a shame for Wildcard, because the app is excellent.

Our digital diets are fuller than ever, our attention spans are shorter than ever, and we are so over-stimulated that online, we may not get that second chance to make a first impression – for our new products, for our businesses, for ourselves.

It’s not just enough knowing that first impressions are important, you have to be thoughtful. Plan a little. Think it through. Take it seriously. If you’re the school down the street: choose the right kid (friendly, patient, experienced, outgoing) to lead the buddy program. If you’re the tech company CEO: Choose the right designer to hit a user experience home run with your new mobile app.

So be the school with the well-thought out buddy program, not just the magnet program or AP/IB curriculum. Be the company with the detailed training/orientation program for new hires, not just the one that solves difficult programming challenges once you’re in the hacker’s seat. Those first impressions are valuable, and will make all the difference.

Allen IversonI recently watched the Showtime documentary, “Iverson,” and it got me thinking a bit about greatness. I think we sometimes forget that greatness, true greatness, is for everyone. It’s for all of us to enjoy. We don’t have to be alumni of Bethel High in Hampton, Virginia or Georgetown University or have lived in Philadelphia in the late ’90s to appreciate Allen Iverson’s on-the-court greatness. That type of greatness doesn’t come around often.

Serena Williams’ quest for the calendar year Grand Slam in a few weeks, LeBron James’ two weeks of greatness- willing an overmatched and undermanned Cavaliers team to a competitive series against the Golden State Warriors this past spring, or the ecstasy of watching Ronaldinho on a soccer field (circa 2004-2006) are for all of us. Not just tennis fans, Cavs fans, or Barcelona fans. For all of us.

So in the startup world it’s a bit disconcerting to see some of the jealousy or resentment that frequently courses through the veins of entrepreneurs, hustling themselves, but scoffing at or discounting the greatness of others who have made it before them. Sure, there is an element of luck to a unicorn company, just as athletic success requires being part of a lucky gene pool, but friend or foe, competitor or not, there is something to be said for enjoying the greatness around you.

Amazon’s workplace / culture issues aside, there is still greatness in the product, in the service. Iverson’s off the court issues aside, there is greatness in what he did with the basketball in his hands. Let’s not forget that. Neither Amazon nor Iverson are perfect, in fact, they both may be flawed, but they are both still great. No one is perfect, and cutthroat tech bloggers gleefully remind us of that fact on a regular basis- this past week it was “Snapchat’s leaked financials,” causing a mild tech press frenzy…

Snapchat wasn’t generating enough revenue last year to justify it’s lofty valuation, the armchair pundits said. Fair enough. But so what? Does that take away from the company’s greatness? Not in my opinion. Snapchat may never grow into it’s latest valuation, just as Iverson never won a championship, but it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the former’s effect on communication or millennial behavior or the latter’s influence on the sport of basketball. It’s plain to see for anyone with an appreciation of greatness that both have had a resounding effect on their ecosystems.

My brother-in-law summed it up quite nicely. “If I’m looking at an athlete, I look at the performance on the court. I don’t go to see a famous chef and pass on the dinner to see how bad they are at geography. Maybe later. But primarily I want to eat the dinner.”

We all have ancillary stories, imperfections, and flaws. Often times, those elements become the story, and we get riveted by it or distracted by it. And that’s OK. But the world only provides us with so much greatness, and it’s for everyone to enjoy.

A few months before my 16th birthday, my mom wrote the below letter to Rick Reilly. I found it in my parents’ basement this past weekend alongside a One Headlight CD single from The Wallflowers. It’s a quick read:

If you don't ask, you don't get. Thoughtful.

Before Deadspin, before Grantland, there was the back page of Sports Illustrated. Rick Reilly wrote that back page in the late ’90s. In high school and college, my friends and I would rip those Reilly articles out, tape them to our walls, and get our sports commentary fix. Our brains were still forming, we appreciated puns, quick wit, and pop culture references- Reilly had a flair for the aforementioned trio.

Fast forward twenty years, we’ve got our Chrome bookmarks and Twitter favorites, and don’t much need scissors and Scotch tape to preserve our favorite articles. Now, HBO’s Bill Simmons is the sports journalist du jour, combining pop culture references with commentary on the games that to many of us, are embarrassingly more than just a game. But before Simmons, it was Reilly. He ruled the sportswriting scene.

My mom secretly wrote to Reilly, asking him to send me a few words of advice. I was interested at the time in becoming a sports journalist or a sports agent. How thoughtful of her:

“Yeah, he’d be happy with tickets to see the Metrostars, or a gift certificate to the Gap, but I just kept thinking how much your words on the back page of Sports Illustrated meant to him. And it hit me. What if I could get Rick Reilly to email him some words of advice about looking ahead, pursuing his dream?”

A few months later, Reilly wrote back. Well, he didn’t write back to her. He wrote to me. In the meantime, I probably did get that gift card to the Gap, but you can imagine the surprise when I received the letter below:

Rick_Reilly

To me, that’s Reilly’s best ever work.

It’s not Mother’s Day today but why wait for Mother’s Day to expose such a hidden gem from my parents’ basement.

I’m really glad I found those two letters this weekend. My mom’s – a reminder of such a thoughtful move, and Reilly’s, a positive reaction to said thoughtfulness. It’s something that makes sense. If you’re thoughtful, and sincere, you can often make others happy, and use that thoughtfulness and sincerity for good.

Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back, take a deep breath, and realize that these are the types of people you want to surround yourself with. In business and in life.

Be patient, opportunities will come

Gmail screenshot circa 2005

My apartment search in 2005 in Tel Aviv was conducted primarily on the aptly named homeless.co.il- Israel’s top destination site at the time to find housing. Craigslist Tel Aviv was available, but the user adoption just didn’t exist. I eventually found a great place, but not before my patience was tested after a series of potential roommate interviews and apartment visits. Patience and perspective, at the age of 22, weren’t my strongest suits, even if perseverance was. My dad sent me the note above after another prospective living situation fell by the wayside.

“Remember the old saying about the bus, the house and the girlfriend? Never run after the one you see now, there’s always another one around the corner…”

It’s advice that’s just as valuable a decade later. I’ve improved a little bit when it comes to patience over the past few years. As much as we believe the first option is the best option, or as much as we look forward to willing our way to that next opportunity, there are often many paths towards happiness and success. The best poker players don’t play every hand that comes their way, they fold 75%+ of the time pre-flop. There’s always another pocket pair around the corner. And it’s not just poker, or a house or apartment search, the advice is ever-so-applicable to the fledgling startup too.

LA’s colorful seed stage investor Paige Craig wrote about his missed bus ride just this past week – missing out on investing in Airbnb back in 2008. It was an honest, open look at a missed bus ride. But these missed opportunities often lead to a tremendous amount of learning. Craig said, “After getting the cold shoulder, I realized I needed to go out and build some valuable knowledge, needed a more robust network, and needed to craft my own brand as an investor.” He’s since gone on to invest in Lyft, Plated, Zenpayroll, and other growing businesses. An internal recalibration can emerge from missing the bus.

A missed opportunity, a missed bus, allows you to refine your approach and be honest with yourself – what caused you to be late? How did that one get away? It’s worth asking for feedback, when applicable, in these situations. Missed buying the house? Ask your realtor what components of your offer (down payment percentage, appraisal contingencies, time to close, etc.) you must improve.

Lost out on renewing one of your largest SaaS subscription customers? Put in place an exit survey – a mechanism for you to gather feedback and better understand why your former client is canceling and moving on. You’ll be able to take that data, look within yourself, and make adjustments, as Craig did, to catch that next bus just around the corner.