Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Obligatory 2013 Reflections

My 2013 started off with a lot of emotional pain, reeling from a recent breakup.  Fast forward to today, and short of being homeless or a billionaire, my life couldn't be more different.  I have a "new" boyfriend, the relationship is 7 months strong so it's hardly new, but he's different than the selfish child of a man I was pining over at the end of 2012.  I have a new job (finally) that is fulfilling and makes me feel valuable, plus gives me lots of opportunities and perks.  I make good money, I've done cool things, and I have big plans for 2014.  In short, it's a good time to be me, and I am so thankful for where I am now.  I think it's a good time to indulge myself and reflect on the path that got me through those difficult times to being happier than ever before.  

After a few rough dates with total wackos, and a memorable night with an old friend, I recommitted myself to a few things like hiking and dancing and writing.  At one point, I wrote on Helium.com where I could make a little bit of money, but it required me to keep up with a rating system that took constant attention.  It eventually turned me off, and I practically stopped writing except for myself when I needed clarity.  But I always found benefit in writing for a forum where others could read it - nobody had to read it mind you, just that there was a possibility of others reading it.  So I started this long-overdue blog, and I've been so glad I did ever since.  I may not be making money off of it, but it gives me something I own that is entirely me, which is perhaps even more exciting than the value I got out of Helium, where my writing was limited to certain topics and restricted by their writing requirements.  

I saw a rocket launch into space.  Specifically, I was surprised by and then suspicious of an invitation from NASA to join their NASA Social event to see the SpaceX CR-2 launch of the Dragon to resupply the International Space Station.  While I've always been mildly interested in space, the breathtaking experience has made me more of a fanatic for space travel before.  It inspired me to apply to the MarsOne mission to colonize the Red Planet (which I recently found out I was turned down for).  

In diving back into swing dancing, I got to play out a relationship that had previously only existed in fantasy, with R.  It was in some ways better than I imagined it, and in some ways much worse, and I knew the relationship didn't stand a chance. R taught me, more than anything else, how to be a good follow in swing dancing, and I will always owe him that.  And he only would have spent so much time with me if we were in the relationship we were in.  But the relationship sucked, and I was relieved when it was over.  

Having nobody in my house at the time, I opened up my house to out-of-town guests for swing dance workshops, and found some new friends from San Diego who were excellent balboa dancers.  My house turned out to be a very convenient location for the various dances and workshops, and I wasn't using the room anyways.  While my relationship with them has not blossomed much, I think I will always have a special balboa partner, which is nice since balboa is a dance style new to me and very challenging.  

One of the most significant changes in my life came at a swing dance workshop.  I felt a special affinity for Jaiman before the workshop even started, before we even bothered to introduce ourselves.  Maybe it was that compelling feeling I have when someone likes me, because I now know he was checking me out.  Or maybe it's just one of those things that were just meant to be, and you know it when you see it.  Either way, Jaiman and I hit if off in the workshop, and we danced several times together at Kat's Korner's 50's Prom that night.  Our relationship escalated quickly and blossomed into a fulfilling relationship like I've never quite had before.  

I don't think Jaiman quite understands how or why he completes me, and I'm not quite sure I've completely nailed it either.  What I have discerned is that he is very knowledgeable and excited about some of the things I want to be involved with.  Football is perhaps the best example.  I've long wanted to have a boyfriend or even a close friend that loves sports, and especially football, so that it would keep me motivated to follow the sport, learn the names and characteristics of the players, and watch games with.  With all my various interests that I pursue on whims that come and go, it's hard to stay focused on football through the entire season without external forces.  Thus, this past season, I knew more about my ASU Sun Devils, went to more games, watched, listened or at least tracked the games I couldn't be at, and understood more about the rankings and the strategy involved.  In short, this was my favorite football season ever, and it was largely fueled by Jaiman's enthusiasm for the sport.  Prior to our relationship, he mostly watched NFL, and he still does, and I don't mind watching it with him, but he got really involved in the college football scene with me this year.  Some of my favorite pictures of us are at the games, decked out in ASU gear with eyeblack and all.  We have nicknames for our favorite quarterback, we know some of the defensive and offensive leaders, and get excited when those players make big plays.  I've never been this involved in a season before, and it's definitely been fulfilling.  

Jaiman and I have found that we love trying new and exotic foods together; we bring out a foodie characteristic that neither of us had or knew we had before.  Jaiman shares my enthusiasm for traveling and trying new things, so he indulged me by taking surfing lessons for my birthday and touring SpacePort in October.  A couple of his biggest passions are Disney and roller coasters, both of which I've been reminded that I enjoy.  Before we started dating, it had been years since I've visited an amusement park to go on rides, and I had so much fun when Jaiman and I went to Six Flags in California.  We also love watching and re-watching movies, new and old, and playing games, video games and board games, and pampering through pedicures and massages.  He is my best friend, I can do anything with him.  I don't need him to be a genius or a millionaire; he gives me pleasure by helping me enjoy entertainment, food, and life.  He appreciates the adventure and we persevere because we have each other, and that's all we really need.  

My life became markedly better once Jaiman entered it, but I still had a lot of struggles the second half of 2013, especially in my job.  My employer of 6 years had now held the carrot of a promotion out in front of me three too many times, my team's caliber was atrocious and deteriorating, and the colleagues I had to interface with were useless at best and more often than not, complete idiotic jerks.  It's hard for me to express the work conditions that drove me out, because everybody complains about their jobs and feels like they are being screwed.  But what I experienced there was far worse, much more ridiculous, very often illegal, and absolutely unnecessarily bad and wrong in so many ways.  But I was in a weird limbo in my career where most jobs I was qualified for paid much less than what I was making, and the jobs I wanted were mostly managerial jobs which were nearly impossible to attain because I had never managed people.  The obvious career moves would have involved being promoted to manager in the areas I was already familiar with, in the companies who already knew my worth, but those were denied to me.  I had a strong feeling the only "way out" would be to start a company and make it big, and I felt like I could do so safely in my time outside of work while still retaining my paycheck.  I had some good attempts at starting a couple companies, but nothing panned out.  It was looking like I'd be stuck in a miserable work place indefinitely, but at least I had a good boyfriend.
So I was completely blown away when I was offered a job at my new employer, with a salary much higher than I expected from the position, and much higher than I could expect to make waiting around at the same dumb company, matching my vacation allowance which had taken 5 years of loyalty to earn, and had bonus potential on top of it all.  I knew the commute would be a drawback, but honestly, after two full months of working there, the commute is STILL the only drawback I've really seen.  There are a lot of opportunities and challenges, all of which I know I can tackle.  I am confident I can become a leader within my group, which is what I was hired to do, and totally rock their world. And I am excited and motivated to do it because I feel understood and valued like never before in my professional career.  

Yeah, I'm in a good place now.  I am also renting a room out to one of my prior roommates, so that's some additional income, another friend around, and dogsitter for when Jaiman and I adventure out.  With my relationship with Jaiman, I've also found a new family within his family, and I always feel welcomed when celebrating holidays or birthdays with them.  Sadly, I still have the burden of being overweight literally weighing me down, but I don't know how I could have a better environment to work on my weight: a wonderful, supportive relationship, a great work environment (with a nice gym for free), and a happy, comfortable life.  

So 2014 will find us taking more trips, making more memories and going on more crazy adventures.  It will also hopefully find me improving my weight and health.  I intend to do some great things at work and for APICS, and continue blogging on important topics much bigger than myself.  I am excited to see TechShop get going in Chandler, and hope to be a part of their growth.  So many things are looking up for 2014, I can't wait to get started!!  

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Good, The Bad and The Kickass: Expectations of Microsoft Excel 2013

Since I pretty much live in Excel, I get excited by new features that I find useful, and disheartened by oversimplification (read, stupidification) of tools and analysis; it's a very personal thing for me because I work so closely with it.  Computers are very smart, and in a lot of ways smarter than humans, but there are some things that humans can see and do that computers are just not developed enough yet to get; it is for that reason that analysts like myself are empowered by Excel's tools, while people less skilled at Excel and data analysis cannot replicate our work by simply trying to make Excel "go". 

I will really only be able to evaluate Office 365 after it is forced upon me at work and have been working in it for a while, and really, a better evaluation could result from getting used to Office 365 and then having to go back to Office 2007.  I recently made a similar move when I changed companies; I've gotten so good and comfortable in Excel 2007 and my new company currently has Excel 2003, so I'm having to re-learn how to do things in that old format (the menus like File, Edit, Data, and Insert were replaced with ribbons in 2007).  Not only am I having to find where the functions are again, I have a feeling of being handicapped because I try to use the features of 2007 and then realize I can't (filter by color, filter by multiple values with checkboxes), so then I have to find workarounds. 

The good news is that I just discovered my company would be moving forward with Office 365 in the new year, and that means, at a minimum, I should (I hope) regain the functions I have become used to in Excel 2007.  But upon hearing the news, I decided to take a peek into what we can expect in the coming year that goes beyond what I'm familiar with in Excel 2007.  So, without further ado, based on what I've seen and read about Excel 2013, here's my analysis.  

The Good


The most immediately useful and intriguing function I noticed is called Flash Fill.  The way Microsoft explains it, it is "like a data assistant that finishes your work for you."  They use vague, colorful terminology to describe it, but what I see it as is like an automatic VLOOKUP, with a twist that the lookup table is inherent in the data and does not exist elsewhere.  That is impressive and exciting for a few reasons: (1) people who suck at or forget how to use VLOOKUP will get immediate benefit, (2) people who are good at VLOOKUP will save time, (3) files can be smaller and less complex by not requiring lookup tables to exist in the files, and (4) where files would have referenced tables on a specific user's computer, those files are less likely to get corrupted or have non-evaluating formulas because the lookup tables are not needed.  It is a bit scary that, from a programmer's perspective, we're no longer in control of or prescribing exactly what the values should be, but exciting if it actually works intelligently.  This does not mean that VLOOKUP is dead, it will definitely have a very important role, but perhaps needed a bit less with the advent of Flash Fill.  Only time will tell how helpful this feature really is.  

"One workbook, one window" shows great insight on Microsoft's part into how users actually deal with multiple workbooks, recognizing the need for ease across multiple monitors and comparing workbooks.  It will be a big time-saver and reduce frustrations with Excel.  This is low-hanging fruit that Microsoft went after and I applaud them for doing so. 

Animation in charts is probably more of a gimmicky thing than anything else, but I still like it a little.  It's very Apple-kind-of-sexy-feeling, and may help real analytics in a small subset of scenarios of which it is used. 

The idea of using multiple tables and relationships may be a good one, but my guess is that most users won't get that deep.  This sounds a little like they're directly attacking Access and integrating its database operations into Excel.  This is going to make Excel more of a monstrosity than it already is, and perhaps push Access towards obsolescence.  Personally, I like the separation of the tools.  Excel is very good at x, y and z, and Access is good when you need more than that.  By blurring the lines, we are looking at Excel becoming much more complex and difficult to follow, bigger less manageable files, and much more technical skills required to be an Excel guru.  And I could just see scenarios all over the place of where you suddenly find that you do actually need Access, and it will probably require a whole restart on relationships and logic and will cause people to miss deadlines.  Still, I'll reserve my judgment and suffice it to say that this could be a nice feature in a pinch, and used on a small scale, will be a helpful time-saver in lieu of a quick VLOOKUP here or there.

Thankfully, Microsoft heard our cry on number format.  In Excel 2007, the ribbon contained a quick way to format numbers as Accounting, but to get Currency you had to go the long way.  This annoyed the frick out of me, and I'm glad to see they have wisened up. 
Another good addition is better Conditional Formatting and "Sparklines".  In Excel 2007, Conditional Formatting was cumbersome at best, and wrong at worst.  Assuming this enhanced Conditional Formatting works, it will be a strong analytic tool as well as a nice visualization.  


The Bad

PivotTable recommendations make me shudder.  Who are these people who would go to create a PivotTable and not know what summary data they are after?  If I'm dealing with a sales spreadsheet, then I'm going to summarize sales by product grouping and time periods or a salesperson.  If I'm dealing with part counts, then my summary data is going to be a count of the number of parts.  My fear is that this will get in the way of doing real work on PivotTables, and at best it was a waste of development time and effort on Microsoft's part. 

A new file format?  Again?  I haven't encountered anyone saying that they wish their Excel files would save in an ISO8601 date format, yet Microsoft has introduced a new file format to do just that.  If I had been advising Microsoft, I would have told them to steer clear of new file formats, and instead offer, as they rightfully did, a function to convert the dates. 

Microsoft is using their updated save feature to push their cloud storage solutions.  I'm sure they are obligated by marketing to do so, but it's in poor taste in my opinion.  They are being a little Apple-licious and closed-minded.  Most companies already have shared drives or SharePoints and will default to continuing to use those.  It'll be one of those features that is always in the way and in your face but highly ignored. 

I have a few nested formulas that I use on a regular basis, and it would be great if Microsoft created single functions that did what my nested functions do.  So I had to take a peek at what new functions were coming out, and I was wholeheartedly disappointed.  Lots more niche math, trig, statistics and engineering functions have been added, which I feel are just going to convolute the function world.  We need more business stuff, and I'm not talking financial, I'm talking useful.  Nobody in business cares about the hyperbolic cosecant of a complex number.  I get spell check errors just writing the description down!  There are a few nuggets of goodness (with caveats) that I will credit them with:

  • IFNA function - this does replace my nested formula IF(ISNA(... and takes it to a new level of efficiency and simplification.  I initially thought this would be a direct replacement of what I was doing, but upon further examination, it is much better.  See, the downfall of my IF(ISNA(... nested formula was that it invariably contained a complex VLOOKUP as the argument for the ISNA function, and then I had to not only specify what to use if the VLOOKUP evaluated to #N/A, but then I had to repeat (usually by copying and pasting) the VLOOKUP for the "else" part of the IF function.  IFNA does away with that duplication.  Genius!  Just enter the argument to evaluate in as the value, and it will return the value of that argument unless it evaluates to #N/A, in which case it returns your value_if_na.  
  • FLOOR.MATH function - this rounds a number down to the nearest number of significance, which is interesting.  CEILING.MATH is the version that rounds up, and is also new to Excel. 
  • DAYS function - I thought this already existed, but upon further inspection, it was NETWORKDAYS that I was thinking of.  DAYS gives you the number of days between two dates, while NETWORKDAYS gives you the number of work days between two dates.  Regardless, the ability to calculate the number of days between two dates is already available; just subtract one from the other.  Microsoft's website did not define whether the DAYS function would treat the dates as integers or have a decimal element when working with dates that have time elements.  To make matters worse, NETWORKDAYS uses the syntax (start_date, end_date) while DAYS uses (end_date, start_date).  This is a jarring oversight.  The only redeeming feature of the DAYS function is that it converts date-like strings automatically, whereas without the function you'd have to use DATEVALUE to do so. 
  • ARABIC function - I just had to highlight this one because it makes me laugh that its new and that its opposite, ROMAN, has existed and been flying solo at least since 2003.  It makes me think of the Super Bowl, because that's the only time I ever see Roman numbers.  So for those of you who need to figure out what Super Bowl number we're on, you can now get it from Excel 2013.  In other words, =ARABIC(XLVIII) evaluates to 48, but only in the new version of Excel. 
  • BASE function - The best way I can explain this is with an example: how do you convert a number to binary?  Binary has a base of 2, so with this new function, you can type in =BASE(7,2) to convert 7 to binary, with the result of 111.  Base 16 would be hexadecimal, but only programmers to my knowledge use that.  That's probably true of binary, too, but at least more people know and understand it. 
  • SHEET and SHEETS functions - this is very telling that programming-minded people are demanding more of Excel.  These functions have existed for years in the less-traveled recesses of Excel's Visual Basic macro programming, but are finally being given the light of day in Excel 2013.  An obvious and well-founded move on Microsoft's part. 
Some functions I still have to use nested formulas for are things like what I would call CONTAINS.  You can filter on Contains and Does Not Contain, but you can't create a simple formula to do the same.  I'd like a =CONTAINS(target_cell,search_string) that is true or false, and an =IFCONTAINS(target_cell,search_string,value_if_true,value_if_false).  Today, I have to use a series of IF and FIND functions to do this.  STR or STRING to convert a number to a text format is another idea I see in the programming world that would be well-suited in Excel formulas.  Instead, I use =LEFT(target_cell,40) where 40 is some number of characters much larger than what I anticipate the number of characters actually being. A WEEKOF or STARTOFWEEK function would replace my slightly painful =date_cell-WEEKDAY(date_cell)+2 to get the Monday at the beginning of the week for a given date.  STARTOFMONTH would replace =DATE(YEAR(date_value),MONTH(date_value),1).  There is some possibility that Flash Fill will do some of these, but I'm not positive yet.  I would rather have hard-coded formulas that I know how to operate than have to trust a hokey, artificially intelligent algorithms which I don't understand or have any control over. 

As far as charting, there is one dire chart that still does not and cannot exist in Excel, even with workarounds, and that is one with side-by-side bars with internal stacked groupings.  That is, if I want a chart of all my inventory by category, and see what type of inventory it is (i.e. slow-moving, obsolete, high-runner), I need two or more separate charts, one for the total and one for each category or just type of inventory.  What I want is one chart with vertical bars side-by-side representing the primary grouping, each with the ability to show sub-groupings as stacked bars.  The stacked bars are like making a pie chart out of each major bar.  This type of chart would instantly be a big hit, if they only thought to create it.  Why, Microsoft, can you create intelligent things like Flash Fill but not give us a simple enhancement such as this?  

My rendering of what a bar chart with stacked subgroupings might look like.  In this example, within the "Vegetable" category there might be "Spinach" in dark green and "Carrots" in orange, and within the "Fruit" category there is "Apples" in red and "Bananas" in yellow.  You get both the total from each category as well as the breakdown within each category.

Histograms have been available for several iterations of Excel, and I presume will continue to exist, but hidden in the shadows of the Statistical Analysis feature.  I wish Microsoft would put Histograms as a predominant chart type, because they are so telling and powerful in business.  Until such time, the Histogram will continue to be my secret weapon.


The Kickass 


We have a new term called Slicers.  Not all users will understand this immediately, but I'm excited about it.  It is a way to "slice" the data, or filter it, probably in chunks rather than individual, painstaking filters.  It sounds like there is some setup to it, which is good news, because this is not something I would want the computers of today to try to guess at for me.  I suspect this will be one of my favorite new features.  Future enhancements will undoubtedly create automatic Slicers, just like we are now seeing automated guesswork done for charts and basic summary data, and I think it's wise to let the users create them first and then build the automation logic based on that. 

What Microsoft's page calls "Richer data labels" I call beautiful.  Having had to go back to Excel 2003 (temporarily, thankfully), I have been constantly reminded of how far we've come with our chart graphics, and this is absolutely the next step.  The look and feel of it is just so right.  It claims that they will stay in place when you switch to different types of charts, which is a relief if you've ever perfected a chart only to have to change one thing and have all your beautiful formatting get reset.  I am stoked to see more beautiful data labels. 

I'm going to return to Flash Fill for a moment, because there is a unique application that goes beyond VLOOKUP-type functionality, and this is perhaps the more ingenious aspect.  It can be used to "Split" a column of data.  Imagine you get an Excel sheet with names in one column, but they are first and last name all in one cell, and you need the first names in one column and the last names in another column.  What I've always done thus far is use some combination of string functions like =LEFT(cell_with_name,FIND(" ",cell_with_name)-1) for the first name and =MID(cell_with_name,FIND(" ",cell_with_name),40) for the last name (which assumed no middle names and thus was incorrect when more than two names were present).  I always thought they would create a formula which would find FIRSTNAME and LASTNAME, but instead, they made it even smarter.  Flash Fill will guess, based on the context of what you start typing in the column one over from the combined names, and if you accept its assistance, does the heavy lifting for you.  Now that is cool.

While Microsoft didn't readily spell it out for me, I'm seeing something called PowerView which is mega enhanced charting.  Finally a better pie chart (and not just the dumb old pie chart in 3D)!  However, this seems to be a premium feature, and does not come with standard Office 365. 

Quick Analysis is another feature I will definitely be playing with.  I don't know exactly all the ins and outs yet, but look for this to help summarize tables of data quickly and easily.  

All in all, I'm excited about what Office 365 brings to my Excel experience.  There is nothing devastatingly different like the transition from menus in Excel 2003 to ribbons in Excel 2007, but certainly a lot of goodness and some annoying things that we'll just have to look beyond. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

TechShop Comes to Chandler, Arizona!

The East Valley is already home to entrepreneurial powerhouse Gangplank and maker heaven HeatSync.  A couple weeks ago, one of the most fascinating companies I've watched over the last several years opened its newest location right here in the Phoenix area.  I had even gone to San Fran to see if it was as amazing as I thought it would be, and it was and so much more.  I wrote about my account here: http://easilythrilled.blogspot.com/2013/02/my-techshop-experience.html

Around the same time, I was so hyped up (and at the time there were no publicly announced plans to come to Arizona), that I started formulating a business case to present to the good people at TechShop in hopes of influencing them to set up shop here.  As part of my research, I issued a survey, but remember that this was long before I understood marketing or social media utilization, so my survey didn't get enough responses to be worthwhile.  However, I am still amazed and excited about the possibilities TechShop brings with it, so I thought I'd spill out some of the benefits I saw back then:

I believe TechShop appeals to several markets in the Phoenix area:
- student organizations can take classes and get hands-on experience with things like injection-molding and prototyping
- professional societies can hold events there to explore fields that the individuals may not otherwise have exposure to
- entrepreneurs and the organizations that support them can utilize the facility for prototyping and low-volume fabrication
- car and motorcycle enthusiasts can design and fabricate custom parts and work on their vehicles with the equipment available
- manufacturing companies can utilize the facility to turn a part quickly instead of having to send it back if something was wrong
- individuals can expand their knowledge base with classes and practice
- engineering courses can utilize the equipment for better fabrication of their projects
- crafters, sewers and quilters will love the quality of sewing and quilting machines available
- architecture courses can utilize the large workspaces to build their projects

The benefits to Phoenix would be:
- entrepreneurs are enabled to start companies and create jobs
- more dreamers can become entrepreneurs
- individuals can enhance their skills and be better prepared for their next job interview
- TechShop provides a unique venue to host company parties and organization events
Now that TechShop is here, I thought I'd add some tidbits and ideas to get you as excited as I am.  

Ideas to get you going
  • Getting married?  Consider using the laser cutter to etch a design into champagne glasses instead of paying for the same customization.
  • Expecting a grandchild or nephew or niece?  The CNC quilting and sewing machines make it easy to embroider beautiful designs.
  • Play board games?  You could actually design and print unique game pieces using the MakerBot II.  
  • Need to advertise something in a really BIG way?  TechShop has a huge printer.  Depending on what you need, it may be worthwhile to print your own instead of going to an office store. 
Did you know?
  • Almost all of the signage, wall hardware and decorations of TechShop were made at TechShop.
  • TechShop has Dream Consultants to help the less-than-mechanically-savvy inventor make what it is they drew on their napkins.
  • TechShop tradition is for the most recently opened facility to train the staff of the next facility to open.  So, our Chandler employees were trained in Pittsburgh, and they will soon be training the DC employees.  
  • Many of the products coming out of the classes are gear-shaped, to remind you of the TechShop logo.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Volt Drivers are the New Wise Minority: A Motion of Civil Disobedience

"When in the course of current events the constituency of the United States finds itself oppressed and hemmed in by that political body which governs us, and when the working people of this great country which I love so much finds itself with its backs against the wall due to circumstances and situations which are beyond our control, it naturally become the patriotic duty of every concerned American to stand up to and to oppose that which suppresses and restricts the God-given freedoms."
(excerpt from, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto” by Rev. Paul J. Bern)

I have two gripes with Arizona state law, both pertaining to my beloved Chevy Volt.  Look, I get that laws take time to pass or update, and that the law lags behind technology.  But I'm about to start my third year with the state's first Volt, and nothing has changed for us Volt drivers (except that most of the free chargers now require payment that exceeds the cost of the equivalent amount of gas).  I have been active and vocal on these issues with my state government, to no avail.  With my new job at a very green company, my commute is the worst part of the job - 24 miles one way!  If I babied my car with very gradual acceleration and coasting, and did not use any A/C or heat, I might be able to stretch a full charge to cover the round trip.  However, by plugging in at work, I am able to drive more normally, use climate control and not have to worry about stopping at the store or ATM on the way home later.  I'm nearing 1900 miles on my current tank of gas.  

My first gripe with Arizona law pertaining to the Volt was that, technically, a non-plug-in Prius, Insight or Civic Hybrid was allowed to park in an electric vehicle charging spot, and technically, my car could be towed or fined for parking and plugging in.  This is a great example of where the intent of the law is defeated by the letter of the law.  In fact, if you read the verbiage closely, you'll realize that not even all-electric cars, which are issued the blue sky license place and legally allowed to drive in the HOV lane, are technically not allowed in the plug-in spots, because their license plates say "electric", not "alternative fuel".  So taken at face value, there is literally no OEM vehicle allowed to park in the plug in spot that can actually plug in.  

"28-876. Parking spaces for electric vehicles; civil penalty

A. A person shall not stop, stand or park a motor vehicle within any parking space specially designated for parking and fueling motor vehicles fueled exclusively by electricity unless the motor vehicle is powered by electricity and has been issued an alternative fuel vehicle special plate or sticker pursuant to section 28-2416
B. If a law enforcement officer finds a motor vehicle in violation of this section, the law enforcement officer shall issue a complaint to the operator or other person in charge of the motor vehicle or, if an operator or other person is not present, to the registered owner of the motor vehicle for a civil traffic violation.

C. A person who is found responsible for a violation of this section is subject to a civil penalty of at least three hundred fifty dollars. Notwithstanding section 28-1554, the civil penalties collected pursuant to this subsection shall be deposited in the state general fund."
Source: http://www.azleg.gov/FormatDocument.asp?inDoc=/ars/28/00876.htm&Title=28&DocType=ARS

So, when the chargers were free from cost, I openly and proudly broke the law by parking my cute Li'l Red in the charger spots, logged in to the chargers with my card and plugged my baby in.  My Volt even made the newspaper when it was featured at a press conference celebrating the first official Blink Charger in the state.  Just a few days prior, I had happily visited Monti's, where the new chargers were installed, had a delightful dinner with my friend while patronizing Monti's, and then gained enough electric to make it the movie theater and back (where I wouldn't have made it on just electric otherwise).  

This was my first gripe, but I was assured by Ecotality that this law wouldn't really be enforced and that I would be given no problem parking and plugging in.  Indeed, in the two years I plugged into the public chargers free of cost, I never once received a ticket, warning, or even a second glance from a police officer.

My second gripe is pertaining to the use of the HOV lane.  Motorcyclists and drivers with at least one other person in the car are allowed to use the HOV lane during rush hour.  Notice that I didn't say carpool, because technically you could have a baby in the car and that counts as HOV, even though clearly the baby would not otherwise be driving itself in a separate car. 
The intent of the law is, at best, stretched into being ridiculous.  Then comes along the blue sky license plates.  Initially, the only cars that qualified for alternative fuel license plates were the Prius, Civic Hybrid and Insight.  All-electric vehicles also get blue sky license plates, although, as pointed out above, they are marked as electric, not alternative fuel. Vehicles using natural gas can also qualify for alternative fuel plates.  All of these blue sky license plates are essentially free passes to use the HOV lane with only one person in the car.  This is great!  Except guess which car has never been qualified?  
It's not that the specs of the Volt don't murder the Prius, it's just that our government is too lazy to review and qualify any new vehicles.  They argue that this program was just a pilot program for 10,000 cars and that it was limited to those cars.  What they don't talk about so much is the fact that through attrition of those first 10,000, they were able to release a fresh batch of 2,500 plates, but did so for only the models that were previously qualified.  A new Prius could qualify, but a new Volt using all electric on its commute and averaging well over 100 mpg wasn't even considered.  I tried it anyways, just to see how far I'd get.  The DMV website was quick to stop my attempt, stating simply that my car did not qualify, just as good as a gas-guzzling SUV as far as they're concerned.  

When I first got my Volt, I was working in Phoenix and my commute route would not have benefited much from the use of the HOV lane, so I generally didn't bother to play the civil disobedience card in this regard.  However, with my new, much longer and slower commute, I began considering it all over again.  Mind you, I am a law-abiding citizen, whose worst crime is speeding, which has vastly been reduced with my driving the Volt (since the car clearly suffers in efficiency at high speeds).  But when I'm stopped dead in traffic, and Prius after Prius zips by me in the carpool lane, it just makes me sick to my stomach.  

I get that the Volt isn't all electric, I'm not asking for it to be qualified as such.  But my commutes have been all-electric for the last three years, and will continue to be such with this new company and my ability to plug in.  To date, I have driven 50,685 miles, 32,064 miles on just electric.  The majority of the 18,621 miles on gas can be attributed to trips to Tucson and road trips; one of the great selling points of the Volt is that it can go further on gas, but commute on electric.  The car is great because it does exactly that.  

Anyways, if a baby in the back seat qualifies a driver for the HOV lane because he is carpooling, then I would argue the Volt, while being driven on electric, should also qualify.  Vehicles with the blue sky license plate are essentially pre-qualified, and while I think the Volt should be in this same category, I understand that it has not been.  But if a police officer sees a single individual in the HOV lane, pulls him over and then sees that he has a baby in the back seat, that's something different.  It's like the driver is being verified.  The cop would not issue a ticket, even though it was not clear prior to the pull over that the driver was carpooling.  Why can't a police officer similarly verify that I'm driving on electric, and send me on my way, ticket-free?  It wouldn't be hard; I could show him how much electric I've used since my last charge (and that I've used no gas), my current battery range, and my distance remaining to get to work or home.

This is another glaring example of where the intent of the law is defeated by the letter of the law.  A Prius, zipping along using gas (albeit minimal compared to other vehicles), and even a gas-guzzling SUV with two people in it (which could easily be more emissions and fuel consumption per person than efficient cars with no passengers), are welcomed by the state legislation into the HOV lane.  But a Volt, which the EPA gives a conservative 25 miles on electric per charge before switching to a fuel-efficient gas generator, is condemned to suffer the freeway with the gas guzzlers and not-efficient-enough cars.  

If the intent of the blue-sky alternative fuel license plates allowance in the HOV lanes was to encourage cheapskates to buy foreign-made cars, then I applaud the lawmakers of our state.  But if the intent was to encourage the use of greener vehicles, it missed the mark.  And since my letters to my state congressman have been unfruitful, I don't really see any other way to get my message heard, than to blog and post about it and to act on my obligation of social disobedience.  One can only hope that socially disobedient Volt drivers get pulled over so we can finally point out the absurdity of this whole thing.  No more will I sit in stopped traffic while ridiculous-looking Prii pass me by.

It would be an easy conversation.  I would simply challenge the officer, judge, and whoever else will hear me: What other car can go 1900 miles on 6 gallons of gas?  If I'm driving 50 miles per day on all electric, what really separates my car from the Nissan Leaf?  In what world is outdated technology rewarded and new technology penalized, even when it is better for the environment and the economy?  
"Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?"
(excerpt from "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Kickstarter Kenpo: How To Put the Powers of Influence to Work for Your Crowdfunding Campaign

There once was a guy that had a really great, creative idea and wanted to crowdfund the production of his idea on Kickstarter.  The people he talked to genuinely believed it was a great idea, and were happy to support it.  He had some film-minded friends help him make a kick butt video.  His story was heartfelt and impactful.  He worked diligently to rally his friends and family.  The campaign got some traction, but as those final hours ticked away, he realized he was not going to make his goal.  The time ran out in deafening silence and inactivity.   While some crowdfunding platforms, namely, Indiegogo, give creators the option of taking what they earned, on Kickstarter you either make your goal or you get nothing.  Exhausted and defeated, this much deserving creator with a worthy, genius idea, walked away with squat.  

This story is all too familiar for creators and fans of Kickstarter or friends of specific creators.  So I'd like to take a psychological approach to putting your best Kickstarter foot forward, kind of like self-defense for creators wanting to see their dream come true.  

Talk it Up, Don't Be Shy
Before even submitting to Kickstarter, there is a lot of pre-work you should do upfront.  The obvious set of actions is getting your Kickstarter content ready: your all-important video, your written message (your story), your bio, and the rewards.  We'll get into some of those later.  The thing that Kickstarters seem to either underestimate or not realize at all is making a network of connections to support your Kickstarter.  I think more recent coverage has dispelled the myth that Kickstarter is a magical fundraising land where random donors drop out of the sky and send you unsolicited money.  Most people get it now, that you have to assume you're driving all the traffic to your Kickstarter page on your own.  The likelihood that Kickstarter will feature you on any of their main pages is incredibly low, it's best not to count on it ever happening.  The key, then, is building your list of contacts and preparing your followers for your Kickstarter campaign before you even hit the launch button.  Once the campaign starts, it is your sole responsibility to drive traffic to the page and solicit every single donation.  Most successfully funded campaigns make it by tiny margins, whereas most failures miss the mark by a lot.  Be ready for an intense, non-stop flurry of activities to reach your goals.  

Before you can begin driving traffic to your Kickstarter page, you have to get over the hurdle of Kickstarter's approval process.  Some crowdfunding sites, like Indiegogo, allow anyone to submit virtually any project and have very low barriers to entry.  It might seem easy to get approved, based on the sheer numbers of Kickstarter campaigns going on.  What you don't see, however, is how many projects are rejected and for what reasons.  There are some crucial criteria that Kickstarter doesn't explicitly come out and say.  Most importantly, they want to see that you can deliver.  What that means is the following:
  • You have a background in a related area as your project, and you have experience.  Kickstarter is looking at your credentials for evidence that you can deliver what you say you're going to do.
  • You have a team.  Kickstarter knows that going it alone is not only difficult, it often spells failure.  Software projects have been rejected for lack of a development team, for example.  Make sure you show that you have other people contributing their unique talents in addition to yours.  
  • You have a product, or something very close to it.  A napkin sketch isn't going to cut it; depending on the type of project, the closer to the final thing, the better.  Finished song recordings, filmed scenes for your movie project, CAD drawings and a manufacturing plan for physical products, a prototype for software products, are all far more likely to be approved than an idea, a drawing, written lyrics or scripts, etc.  
In this respect, the name Kickstarter is a bit of misnomer.  It's not here to make your wildest dreams come true; it's used for wrapping up and closing out the hard work you've already done towards a specific goal.  

The good news is that those credentials that get you through the Kickstarter approval process are also the same credentials your backers are looking for.  They, too, want to see that you can deliver.  If you talk up your expertise in the area, people will naturally believe that you are an expert in that area.  In TV commercials, actors who have played doctors on popular shows are perceived subconsciously as medical experts.  Actors dressed like doctors also have this effect, and just claiming a title of doctor causes people to believe and act on the belief that the person is an authority in medicine.  Now, I am not encouraging misdirection of any form, rather, I want to encourage you to play up your expertise.  Use the titles and credentials you have earned, dress the part, and tell people why they should listen to you.  

One other tactic to consider is to prepare your networks before launching the Kickstarter campaign; provide education on what Kickstarter is.  Many Kickstarter campaigners were surprised to find out that they had would-be backers that either didn't understand how to donate or weren't really sure what Kickstarter was all about.  So the most important pre-work you're going to do is to build your list, and the next most important pre-work is socializing Kickstarter with your potential backers (especially those that may be less tech-savvy, like your Mom's bunco group).  

Putting yourself and your dream out on Kickstarter is a very scary way to get validation - you have the potential to be completely and utterly rejected in the public eye.  Thus, a risk averse and conservative approach to time limits tends to lead creators to lean towards a longer Kickstarter campaign.  Quite to the contrary, statistics show that shorter campaigns, in the neighborhood of 21 to 30 days, are more successful than 60 day campaigns in achieving their goals.  In fact, Kickstarter, wanting to see as many projects succeed as possible, did away with their option to go as long as 90 days when they saw how few projects succeeded with that length of time.  One very logical reason for this is the notion of scarcity.  When you chart daily fundings through a typical campaign, there is a lot of activity around the first few days, then a valley of low activity, and then a surge in the last three days or even in the last 10 hours.  The feeling of potentially missing out is a compelling one that gets people off the fence and moves them to action. 

Likewise, there is value in limiting certain rewards offered; as the number of backers approach the limit, it makes those rewards seem more valuable.  It is also prudent advice to limit the rewards that require a lot of your time and attention.  Don Steinberg, in The Kickstarter Handbook, recommends offering no personalized or customized rewards for less than $100.  Remember that your time is valuable, too, and the more time dedicated to fulfilling special rewards, the longer it will take to complete your project. 

Make 'em like you
Have you ever been to a Tupperware party, or a Pampered Chef party, or something similar?  These seemingly fun ways to make a little extra cash for the party host turn the power of liking around on us: we buy Tupperware or kitchen utensils because we perceive that we're buying from a friend and helping her out.  We don't realize that these are just marketing tools for Tupperware or Pampered Chef to sell to us.  The same is true of Kickstarter: expect that nearly 100% of your backers will be people in your personal networks.  What's interesting is that most successfully funded projects had no backers directly related to creators; instead, it was the tier 2 or tier 3 relationships that provided the majority of the monies.  In other words, your closest family and friends may not back you, but their friends and family are likely to.  So play this one up: tell your friends and family to share the message, even script it for them to make it easier to share.

Whether we like to believe it or not, there is a psychological part of us that prefers people that are similar to us, and those who are attractive.  Most successful Presidential candidates are good looking people, less attractive Presidential candidates have rarely won.  Likewise, putting an attractive person as the face of your campaign is a good idea.  Steinberg calls this the "cool guy/cute girl factor".  You also generally want the face of your campaign to relate to your audience (unless you're going for a shock factor, which is a different strategy altogether); so if you're targeting recent college graduates, don't use a 50 year-old man, use a 20-something.  

Another way to win potential backers over is by complimenting them.  Cialdini's discussion on a car salesman revealed that even something as impersonal and obviously geared towards selling cars as being the recipient of one of thousands of cards in the mail that said, "I like you" was able to enhance the car salesman's reputation and boost sales significantly.  So while our intuition tells us that making it personal is best, an impersonal tone of congratulations for finding the Kickstarter website and telling them how awesome they are may still be an effective tactic.  Watch the first 20 seconds of Freaker USA's Kickstarter video (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/freakerusa/freaker-usamaking-you-and-your-beverage-cooler) for a good laugh and a hilarious application of this power of influence.

Social proof
11% of projects go without receiving a single pledge, but 81% of projects that get to 20% of their goal end up reaching their funding goal.  This is no coincidence; we look to what others are doing for validation.  In talking about Venture Capital funding, a common analogy used describes being the first penguin to jump into the water where predatorial walruses may be lurking.  They need to get in the water to eat, but they want proof they won't themselves be eaten. Once you get one penguin to jump, and he comes out alive, the others will jump in with confidence.  If you think of crowdfunding as an extension of venture capital, you can imagine how important momentum is.  Getting over the first hurdles, the very first pledge, the first 10 pledges, the first 20% of your goal, serves as evidence that people believe in your project, validating your project with social proof, and thus encourages a potential backer's willingness to donate.  

Of course, your first backers won't have the privilege of seeing the momentum of the pledges.  Testimonials of people similar to your target market are a good way to give your project authority, social proof and a likability all at the same time.  You can also achieve this with associations and partnerships that appeal to potential backers for the same reasons.  

Creators are strongly encouraged to provide updates throughout the campaign and after being successfully funded.  The updates can work for you in a multitude of ways.  First, they give your backers a sense of involvement and make them feel closer to the project.  By keeping them engaged, they are more likely to mention the project in conversation or recommend it to their networks.  Second, you can use your updates to share the momentum and traction your project is getting, which further validates the backers' commitment with social proof.  

Reciprocity and apparent concession
Doing things for others creates a sense of social debt that needs to be repaid.  Offline fundraisers and sales people have used reciprocity tactics successfully for years: giving a flower to a passerby leads to a donation, waitresses giving extra mints get bigger tips, and providing samples of food leads to purchasing that brand's products.  The same is true of online fundraising; giving a little can mean getting a lot.  

You can use reciprocity and the contrast principle together for an apparent concession.  By asking your friends and family to donate money, and then following up with a request to share the link with their friends and family if they cannot pledge, the retreat to a non-monetary favor shows a concession on your part, and compels them to reciprocate with action.  Again, very few people related to you will end up giving you money, but if they ask their friends to help you out, you have a much stronger chance of making your goal.  

Value perceptions and the contrast principle
When you give something away for free or too cheaply, people automatically associate the item with low value.  "You get what you pay for," is so ingrained in our minds, that steep discounts actually turn potential buyers away.  If you set the price a little higher, you will attract people who want a valuable product.  

The average pledge amount for all campaigns is about $71.  This is much higher than what the typical backer pledges, which is in the $11 to $30 range.  This means there are a small number of individual backers in some campaigns that donate a lot, like hundreds or thousands of dollars.  It is important to separate out these two distinct statistics, because your projects may not be average or typical.  

A rule of thumb is that your most popular reward level is going to be the one that offers "the thing" that your project is producing.  So if your project is an album, the reward level that gets them the album is going to be the most popular, which may be around the $10 to $25 range.  But if your project is the newest and coolest 3D printer, your backers are more likely to give you the amount that gets them one of their own, which is most likely in the hundreds.  So think carefully about how cheap you want your thing to be offered at.  If you set the point too low, it will take a lot more backers to get to your goal.  Of course, there are always contrary examples, the best to my knowledge being when Freaker USA offered its backers their product for the $1 reward level.  They got creative with the other rewards to compensate for such a low requirement to get the thing.  Their campaign was brilliant, and hugely successful.  

While you don't want your rewards to offer the thing too cheaply, you also want to make sure your backers still see value in it.  Generally speaking, you want to offer it at a discounted price, cheaper than they'll be able to buy it later.  It definitely should not be marked up; they are pledges, not charitable donations.  You can then create higher reward levels where you add in additional features, special Kickstarter-only packages or personalization that go above and beyond the thing you are trying to produce.  

There are three pieces of good news about rewards that I think are overlooked.  First, it is easy to test the rewards with your followers before launching.  Sure, giving you advice is not the same as writing you a check, but you can at least get a feel for what they like and what they don't and at which price points, before you finalize it with Kickstarter.  Second, rewards can be limited during the campaign.  Once a backer has picked a specific reward, you cannot change what that reward is or how much it costs, but you can put a limit on it.  This means that if you've reached your goal or you've started to realize that one reward is getting so much action that it'll take you forever to fulfill, you can limit the number of people who can claim that reward, thus limiting your future commitments.  Third, rewards can be added during a campaign.  While too many choices up front can make it difficult for a backer to pick, it is a good idea for you to have planned backup rewards in case the thing really blows up and you find yourself needing to open up more reward options.  Adding rewards (or even loosening the limits on popular rewards) also gives you a very good reason to provide updates to your networks and backers, too.  

A great reward strategy that encourages early participation, and thus, starts the momentum, are what Russel Garenhan called early bird specials.  In talking with him I have noted that he had limited rewards that were identical to slightly more expensive rewards, except that had a small limit on them, like 10 or 15 people.  "You gotta do that," he explained.  "It puts pressure on the early people looking at it."

Video content
Without taking video quality or content into consideration, the empirical evidence is clear: you should have a video.  Michael Neel's post "Kickstarter Stats You Can Use" shows that projects with a video of any kind have had a 52% success rate, while those without one have a 35% success rate (http://www.vinull.com/Post/2012/07/25/kickstarter-stats-you-can-use.aspx).  That being said, what goes into your video is still more important to being successful.  

Chris Kocek posted a slideshow of "Kickstarter Best Practices & Next Steps" (http://www.slideshare.net/ckocek/kickstarter-best-practices-and-next-steps-10-1611-slideshare) in which he defines some elements of successfully funded Kickstarter projects, including a clear, concise product description "in less than 200 characters".  I would add to this that your video needs to have a hook in the first 20 seconds to keep a potential backer engaged.  Kocek also lists "well-lit photos/videos of the product in action" as a critical element to success.  You don't necessarily need to hire a full professional production crew, but good video footage and editing are important. Put yourself in the backers' shoes, if the creator isn't willing to put the effort into a good video, would you pledge money?  Chew on this: the top funded category on Kickstarter is film; they know how to make a compelling video and tell a good story!  

Make sure your video has a call for action, with very clear steps on how to donate. In the very fortunate case that your video goes viral, its viewers will not be seeing it in the context of a Kickstarter page.  This could become a very unfortunate scenario if your backers don't know by the video's content how or what they can do to help.  Thus, you need to make sure to tell them to go to Kickstarter and pledge before its too late.  Be direct and explicit, ambiguity leads inaction.  

How much to ask for
Several funded projects have lost money because they failed to account for just how much every aspect of the Kickstarter project would cost.  So it is definitely prudent advice to spend a good amount of time working through all aspects of costs that impact the project, including fixed costs related to the project (website, PR, advertising), the cost to you of the actual rewards, the cost to ship physical rewards, including international shipping, and the Kickstarter and Amazon fees (plan for 10% total to be taken off the top before you even see your money). 

So on the one hand, you want to make sure your costs are covered.  It is also interesting to note that, because successful projects usually only make their goals by a small margin, there appears to be some psychology that discourages potential backers from helping once a project is funded.  Thus, if you reach your goal in the first three days of a 30 day campaign, there isn't much more action to be had.  Kickstarter backers want an element of a challenge or gambling; when its sure to be funded it isn't quite as interesting.  

On the other hand, you don't want to be too greedy.  Many failed creators have lamented that their goal was just too high.  Garenhan learned this lesson with his first Kickstarter campaign, "I got a little greedy with the goal.... Basically, my first goal on that project was set to where I wanted to get it to make it worth my while to do.  You know, and I was being ambitious. But it had no basis of what it costs me to actually produce the hangers."  He then launch a new campaign for the same product, with a goal that was lower than the cost of a first manufacturing run.  It was a calculated risk that paid off, and the project was funded 310%.  It was risky, he admitted, but a calculated risk: if he made the goal and not much more, he could provide the rest of the upfront money needed out of pocket to get the inventory that he could sell to Amazon.  "I didn't really make any money off of it, but I had inventory."  

This seems to be the sweet spot for Kickstarter goals.  A Kickstarter campaign is intended to cover the costs needed to finish the project, not to give you a handsome profit.  Kickstarter customers seem to be savvy enough to not get suckered in to supporting projects with overly ambitious goals.  After the 7 - 10% fees are taken off the top, most of the products sold are going to be nearly at cost.  

While, of course, nothing can replace great ideas, unique marketing approaches, and awesome connections, the above components could mean the difference between getting funded and barely missing the mark.  Good luck and happy creating!