How to Give Your Product Personality

There’s a really great post on Fred Wilson’s blog (AVC) about building a “Minimum Viable Personality“. Of course, this is a play on the concept “Minimum Viable Product” from the Lean Startup movement. Fittingly, the post is written by @FAKEGRIMLOCK, a Twitter handle with a lot of personality himself, in his signature tone: “resembling cliched caveman speech”.

(If haven’t read the post yet, you might want to go open it up in a new tab and read it before coming back here. If you’re short on time, the post can be summarized as:

MOST IMPORTANT STEP FOR BUILD PRODUCT IS BUILD PRODUCT.

SECOND MOST IMPORTANT IS BUILD PERSONALITY FOR PRODUCT.

NO HAVE PERSONALITY? PRODUCT BORING, NO ONE WANT.

I think it’s a great read on the importance of infusing personality into a product. But it’s not a particularly informative post – which is fine, because I think it was meant to inspire more than instruct. But there were probably some people who came away from the post with the same mindset as Hacker News user ghc:

I cannot begin to express how much this made me think. In preparation for my own launch coming up, I’m looking at it and wondering why I’ve spent so much time of Minimum Viable Product when the personality just won’t cut it. The guys at Hipmunk posted something to this affect a while ago, but it didn’t have the weight of this.

But how does one launch a product with a personality? As a developer, not a designer, I’m at a loss…

This is something I’m personally very interested in. How do you give a product personality? After some consideration, I think it boils down into at least four areas:

1) Theme / Brand

A product’s personality starts with it’s brand. What does this product represent? What does it stand for?

CODECADEMY

Codecademy believes that learning how to code should be interactive and engaging. When you hit the “get started” button, it literally pushes you into the console to start learning how to code.

This dedication to getting people to jump in & get comfortable with code is seen elsewhere – like it’s their blog and it’s about page. The entire site site has the personality of an enthusiastic and slightly “pushy” teacher who just knows you have so much potential and wants you to succeed. A great personality for a site that helps people learn how to code.

TURNTABLE.FM

In my mind, Turntable.fm‘s brand /  theme is around having an online dance party. You get to meet interesting people, certain parties / rooms are hard to get into because they’re so popular, and when you play a great song that the crowd likes, you get mad props in the form of DJ points. Also there always people dressed up like Gorillas.

Their product is jampacked with personality, but two things I want to point out:

Their Awesome / Lame meter:

Now this may seem like a straightforward thing, but think about what turntable.fm’s “song rating” feature would look like if it had no personality. Maybe an upvote/downvote thing. Or a 1-5 star rating. But that’d be pretty boring and crappy. Instead they have this fantastic meter, which looks like a piece of decible measuring audio equipment, which is more in line with their brand. And of course “Rock Out” and “Skip Song” are exactly the kinds of things you’d say at a real party.

Their Speakers

This is a minor point but I think this is so awesome – the speakers on Turntable.fm actually blur, the way a real speaker would shake at a party. That’s attention to detail and a product with personality.

2) Personal

Kind of obvious, but personality has to do with the people behind the product. There are many ways that a product can allow the interests and unique characteristics of its team permeate the product – here are just two examples.

isocket’s Dog Pricing

I gotta rep my former employer here. Most ad tech companies compete on price, number of features and/or how much money your account manager is willing to drop on “client entertainment”. isocket competes on innovation and a human touch.

One example of this is the pricing page. Me and Ryan Hupfer mocked this up as a joke using actual dogs from the office (at one point we had a Chiwawa, a Pug and a Corgie-Chow at the office). But our designer (Al Abut) ran with it and turned it into our page. How many pricing pages do you see that look like this? Customers, potential employees and investors LOVED it when we told them the page was based on the actual dogs in our office.

Personal Letters

This is definitely not a “scaleable” thing, but companies can really show off their personality by sending personal notes. Wufoo, the form (!) company did this (and lots of other personality-ish things) and inspired insane loyalty among its customers.

More recently, Fab.com‘s founder/ceo Jason Goldman has shown his willingness to put his personality out there and connect with their customers. This is almost certainly a positive sign for the company.

Writing letters not your thing? Check out AwesomenessReminders (which I’ve written about before). You could use their platform to delight your customers in an extremely personal way.

3) Surprise

One notable feature of personality is that it’s often unexpected in a good way. When you use some enterprise software to build widgets – you expect it to (mostly) work efficiently in building widgets, and nothing else. Products with personality surprise their users with something extra.

Mailchimp

I love you too, Mailchimp. I use it to power my email newsletters and I’m not alone in my love for that little monkey. Talk about spicing up a boring product/space – most people don’t wake up in the morning super pumped about sending emails. But using Mailchimp is a fun surprise everytime because when you login, you know the chimp is going to tell you something sweet.

Alternatively, Mailchimp will link to something interesting. Here’s an example of a link you might get from Mailchimp: a blowtorch made from bacon. Check out one of the top comments! People LOVE these links.

Blippy

404 pages show up when you click a broken link or non-existent page on a site. Hitting one of those is the worst. Most companies don’t put any effort into their 404 pages. Blippy saw it as an opportunity and has built what must be the most epically awesome 404 on the internet, with a 44 click sequence of events that you have to use to believe. Check it out.

4) Values

The final thought I want to leave you with is the idea that personality isn’t just something flippant or superficial. Your product’s personality can really demonstrate the value of your company – what your company believes in. Here are two examples:

Zappos

I see Zappos as fundamentally about empowerment. Empowering their customers to have a great shopping experience, and empowering their team to be the best they can be. They take core values seriously – so much so that they post values on the side of their shipping boxes. This is just one of a million ways that Zappos demonstrates it’s personality.

Google


The internet giant is surprisingly fun. Google does a lot of quirky interesting things but one thing that really shows off what they value and care about is their Google doodles. On certain days they will re-do the Google logo to commemorate something. Often it’s something science-y, nerdy or computer related – like the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man or the 25 anniversary of the Buckyball – it’s how Google recognizes the importance of innovation and engineering to their company.

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Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on how you can add personality to your product. What are yours? Please share them in the comments!

Why 300 (the movie) is F*cking Amazing

Have you seen the movie 300? It’s an epic “sword and sandals” action film based on a graphic by Frank Miller (also the guy behind Sin City). I recommended it in my Why Inspiration Matters post as an example of a movie that’s motivational and gets you pumped up. Our team at Stanford definitely watched it before several of our major competitions, including the NCAA championships. I started thinking about it and realized there are three reasons why this is an amazing film/story/phenomenon

1) The visuals are stunning, the soundtrack is explosive and the ending is highly charged

If you haven’t seen the movie, you really should. I’ve embedded the trailer here so you can get a sense of what the film is like. High contrast cinemetography, a visceral soundtrack by Tyler Bates, a lot of graphic violence and some sweet slo-mo shots. This movie is gripping from the first shot to the last. Oh and the guys in the movie are ripped! (More on this in the next section)


2) The actors behind the movie busted their asses

So in action movies today, you’ll a lot of guys dressed up in suits and stuff that allow them to get away with not the best body. Tobey Maguire in SpiderMan 3 comes to mind.

A lot of people were blown away by how cut these guys are. There is no faking a six-pack and while unrealistic (the real Spartans probably wore some kind of torso covering garment) the sight of 30+ guys on one screen who are all shredded is pretty impressive. You can see the dramatic 1-4-8 week progression of the then-40 year old Vincent Regan, who stars as the 2nd in Command for Leonidas:

So how did they do it? They worked with Mark Twight at Gym Jones. Mark discusses his experience working with these guys in two articles: “300″: The so-called program and Opinions on 300: Everyone Has One. [2] I’ve quoted some elements of it here with commentary:

We took the opposite route of calorie restriction to make them look like they lived off the land, in the wild, all sinewy and ripped. The diet was adequate to fuel effort and recovery, barely. And we prescribed random physical challenges to keep them off balance, to ensure they never knew what was coming, to cause a stress-reaction, to break them, to make them look bad in front of each other, which eventually led them to trust one another … Our goal, outlined by director Zack Snyder was to “turn them into a gang,” a unified force whose trust and belief in one another would be obvious on the screen.

Two points here: the first is that these guys are ripped but not bulky. It looks like they didn’t have these guys downing protein shakes every five minutes. And secondly, I love how they made training together not just a matter of “make these guys look good for the camera” but as a bonding mechanism. By forcing the group through this awful regiment, they simulated some battle experiences they would have shared as Spartans for real.

It appears everyone has an opinion about “300″ and how the actors and stunt crew achieved the level of fitness – and consequentially, appearance – for the movie. I have read that it was all CGI, make-up, steroids, etc. However, no one has come right out and said, “those guys worked really hard and had the self-discipline to control what they put into their mouths.”

Clearly, Mark is a little pissed by the guys who bitch and moan in the forums about how this “could only happen with ‘roids” etc.

Those who aren’t the real thing always find an excuse for their failings when confronted by the real thing. Or they cast the accomplishments of anyone further up the food chain as having been achieved by cheating. Even in the small world of mountain climbing a few guys were convinced that their betters were using EPO, “because there’s no way they could be that much faster than me.”

Mark was/is an elite mountain climber and sees the very normal human pattern of “well if I can’t win then the winners must be cheating”. I am also frustrated by this – people say things like how “lucky I am” to have my physique and that they’d “give up a lot to have a great body”.

Wrong and wrong. I don’t happen to have been born with a fit body, I developed it over 16 years of training. Of working out 20+ hours a week, 50 weeks a year for over a decade. And they obviously don’t want a great body badly enough or else they’d stop eating poorly and get in the gym way more than they do. The fact is, most people just don’t want things badly enough.

In one interview Gerry Butler summed up his experience with us when he said, “Pretty much anything Mark Twight offered up was so difficult in the kind of way where you wish you had never been born – and even more than that, wished he had never been born.” As for the training done on a regular basis there were no consistent, structured workouts. The point was to improve fitness and facility across a variety of movements and through the three-dimensional range-of-motion required by the fighting. We did this by constantly changing the challenges, and focusing on athleticism to build a balanced foundation of general physical capacity.Butler commented that my idea of a workout is to “go until you are actually in fear of your life and then go further. Then, you do more.”

Haha, awesome. I think one reason why gymnasts are considered some of the strongest / fittest athletes is that they have to be strong in so many different ways. There are 6 events and hundreds of different skills in each event, requiring totally different muscles and levels of explosiveness and endurance. To be fair, I don’t think this type of training is for everyone and you probably don’t need to do the kinds of workouts Mark was putting them through in order to look like the guys from 300. But they clearly went through some brutal training and you’ve got to give them respect for that.

Did it work? It worked for those who did the work, who paid attention, and who controlled what they put in their mouths. We reinforced those who started with their own self-discipline but we could not give discipline to anyone who didn’t already have it. In the end Vincent Regan shed 40 pounds in eight weeks, and took his deadlift from less than bodyweight (205) to more than double-bodyweight (355).

Self-discipline is the key. It doesn’t come overnight and it’s driven, I believe, by a deep-seated need to achieve/accomplish/perform. These guys were dedicated to their craft of being the best actors they could be, and they put that drive into their training. It paid off.

3) The main details of the film are closely based on historical fact

The issue with a lot of inspirational movies is that the story is twisted up so much that the film loses it’s meaning. But the main elements of 300 are rock solid [1] – backed by two different primary sources (Greek historian Herodotus and Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus) plus archaeological evidence. [2] I have taken the liberty of splicing together the relevant details from Wikipedia with commentary:

The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece in August or September 480 BC, at the pass of Thermopylae (‘The Hot Gates’).

So pretty straightforward – Xerxes sends in a huge army to conquer Greece after a failed attempt by Persia a decade prior. Leonidas and his team defends the pass for several days at the pass at Thermopylae.

Leonidas took with him the 300 men of the royal bodyguard, the Hippeis, and a larger number of support troops drawn from other parts of Lacedaemon. En route to Thermopylae, the Spartan force was reinforced by contingents from various cities (see below) and numbered more than 5,000 by the time it arrived at the pass.

Fine, the concept of just 300 guys is a bit off. Leonidas starts with 300 guys and picks up some followers along the way (which to be fair, is partially depicted in the film).

A Persian emissary was sent by Xerxes to negotiate with Leonidas; the Greeks were offered their freedom and the title “Friends of the Persian People,” moreover they would be re-settled on better land than they currently possessed. Leonidas’ famous response was for the Persians to “Come and get them” (Μολὼν λαβέ).

Love love love this line. Ok so it is still possible this line is not real, we can never really know, but historians in THAT ERA did record his statement as such. And I’m inclined to believe them because these Spartans certainly followed through on the sentiment behind these words

Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for seven days in total (including three of battle), before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history’s most famous last stands. After the second day of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Aware that his force was being outflanked, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the rear with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, the vast majority of whom were killed. Tearing down part of the wall, Xerxes ordered the hill surrounded, and the Persians rained down arrows until every last Greek was dead. The pass at Thermopylae was thus opened to the Persian army according to Herodotus, at the cost to the Persians of up to 20,000 fatalities.

Betrayed by a local resident (which is portrayed in the film in a really weird way) Leonidas buckles down with his small team, sacrificing himself so that the others can live to alert the rest of Greece about what was happening. Bad. Ass.

Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending native soil. The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.

‘Nuff said. This is clearly an epic tale. Go see 300.


FOOTNOTES [1] One point I do want to bring up is that a lot of people have complained about the movie’s portrayal of Persians (modern day Iran). That’s understandable. It’s unfortunate but in movies like this, one side is frequently portrayed as heartless, unfeeling and monstrous. That definitely happened in 300 and in no way represents what the ancestors of Iranians were like. [2] According to Wikipedia: In 1939, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, excavating at Thermopylae, found large numbers of Persian bronze arrowheads on Kolonos Hill

Results of the 2011 Readership Survey

The results are in! Thanks to the ~50 readers who took the survey! You guys rock! Here’s a break down of the things I’ve learned. I know this is not totally accurate because many people didn’t take the survey so it’s biased. But you know what, I’m going write more for the people who take the time to leave feedback vs “the silent majority”. So thanks again guys.

In addition to the two randomly selected winners, I’ve included some special gifts to everyone who took the survey and left me an email. If you didn’t leave an email but filled out the survey just contact me and I’ll shoot you the bonus stuff. Honor system.

Demographics

  • 80% Male
  • 59% 20-30 years old
  • I assumed that most of the audience here were twenty something males so I’m not too surprised here. 20% females nothing to sneeze at though – it’s 2.5x the number of females in the Stanford CS Department so I’m make sure to keep the ladies in mind. And more surprisingly, since only about 7% of survey respondents were under 20, this means that a whopping 34% of my readers are, gasp, over 30! Man, I figured older folks would just be sick of my juvenile perspective but apparently not.

  • 73% Most readers are aspiring entrepreneurs
  • 60% Most of the aspiring entrepreneurs are TECHNICAL
  • You Art of Ass-Kicking readers are an entrepreneurial bunch. Most of you are looking to start your own companies. That’s awesome! And more surprisingly for me, many of you are technical. Since I’m not technical, I figured that I’d attract a strongly less technical crowd. But apparently not. That’s awesome.

    Content

  • 80% Inspiration / Motivation / Getting Pumped up
  • 60% Following Jason’s crazy ideas / challenges
  • 56% Covers Topics I’m Interested in
  • Seems like most of you really jive with my point in Why Inspiration Matters. You come here to get pumped up so you can go back and kick some ass with your job or business or side project or fitness goals or social life. I love that. And apparently more than the “topics” I write about, it’s the crazy sh*t I do that keeps you interested. Message heard loud and clear guys. In fact, I’ve got a couple interesting things in the works that I’m looking forward to blogging about. =)

  • 86% Lessons/tips
  • 54% Detailed case studies
  • 50% Personal reflections
  • I like to mix it up with my content both topic-wise and post type. Most of you are satisfied with the number of quotes / videos and interviews I’m doing, but want to see more meaty stuff. Sounds good. Certainly these types of posts are more work for me to do but knowing that it’s what readers want helps motivate me to get them done. Look for a case study on the movie 300 in the near future.

    General Feedback

    I gave people some room to just write free-form about the things they want to see or feedback they have for me. It broke down into a couple categories which I’ve listed below along with some of specific things people were saying. I’ve linked to some of my blog posts that relate to their requests and added comments here and there.

    Fear / Challenges / Hardcore stuff

    • Continuing to do/talk about things that conquer fear.
    • Experiments, like taking cold showers, rejection therapy, etc.
    • I love your posts on getting stronger and discipline, such as taking cold showers and wouldn’t mind seeing more
    • Topics – Fear of failure and fear of success.
    • Taking risks and living to tell about it.

    Fitness / Running / Gymnastics

    • Anything fitness related along with your own fitness goals and when you meet them
    • If you do train for another race that’d be interesting (run tracker) and inspiring. (Jason: doing a race today so will have a report soon!)
    • Gymnastics have been my favorite.
    • Taking up a new sport (Jason: hmm, interesting thought)
    • Running (how you run, what you listen to :) )

    Randomness / Variety

    • Keep being interesting (Jason: haha, will try!)
    • Keep us guessing and do what you do, Jason. I like the variety…keep it fresh.
    • The unorthodox varieties – not the cookie-cutter ones that others share.
    • Mainly just whatever’s on your mind.

    Posting Frequently / Consistently

    • More frequent posting
    • Keep posting at the current rate. Be regular and reliable on the posts.
    • Yes. By making more of it. :D
    • Of course I’d love if you’d post more but as a failed “blogger” myself, I understand a set schedule =] (Jason: appreciate your understanding!)
    • Just keep writing! :)

    Startups

    • How you got involved in a startup (Jason: coming soon!)
    • How to succeed in the non-technical roles within a startup
    • Start-up life and the challenges you are facing with it. Also want to hear more about the start-up culture, specifically in your area in SF
    • Some start-up strategy would be interesting. I know it could be harmful to your own efforts, but little hints as to how you arrive at your roadmap would be great.
    • Startups. Bootstrapping. Specifically how to overcome initial inertia and launch.

    Motivation

    • I’d like to see more (yes, more) on motivation. I personally can achieve much more if I can remain motivated. The difficult part is finding that and keeping it in my daily routine
    • Finding the motivation to do things when you just don’t feel like doing them.
    • Anything to get me off my butt (Jason: sometimes that’s the hardest part right!)
    • I’d like to see ways to keep consistent effort under the weight of discouragement, be it from your own doubts or the doubts of others.

    Other / Uncategorizable

    • How to market yourself without being annoying about it (Jason: Can give this a shot, though some might disagree with the ‘not being annoying about it’ part)
    • I’m interested in moving to the SF bay area after college and would like to hear more about it (ie businesses, activities, etc…)
    • You need a kick ass logo (Jason: any designers out there who could offer help?)
    • I’d also like to see stuff on how real life is NOT like high school, or university; lessons or wisdom that was promulgated in the educational years but then proved to be wrong when reality hit the fan. I’m sure that there are plenty of these waiting to happen.
    • Mentoring (being mentored, finding mentors),
    • Strategies for not losing out on opportunities when you don’t have the academic creds on your resume, but you’re a rockstar anyway
    • Career-related. What works, what doesn’t.

    If that wasn’t enough data for you, you’re welcome to check out the survey in it’s entirety here. (no personal data revealed)

    Being Strategic vs Being Opportunistic

    When approaching a problem or a challenge there are two main approaches you can take: being strategic and being opportunistic.

    Being strategic means thinking through all sides of the problem. Looking at what people have tried, what’s worked, what hasn’t. Considering the context of the problem and how this context evolves over time. Mapping out a plan, executing on it and taking the time to measure your progress against metrics you’ve established. Strategic is Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s.

    Being opportunistic means taking things as they come. Looking at what makes sense right here, right now. Jumping right into the thick of things and figuring it out as you go along. Exploring interesting connections, poking your nose into strange places and smashing stuff together to see what happens, always angling toward a particular, but vaguely defined, direction. Opportunistic is the story of Todd, Ben Folds Five and Improv Everywhere.

    Each approach has it’s trade-offs:

    • Thoroughness vs Speed.
    • Protected downside vs Unlimited upside
    • Steady progress vs Rollercoaster ride.

    There’s no right or wrong approach. But you ought to recognize that there’s a difference and try to make the decision a deliberate one.

    How do YOU approach your problems? Are you strategic or opportunistic? Tell me in the comments!