Over the weekend, the Engage team descended on Austin for SXSW Interactive. This is my fifth year going — the first was 2007, the famous SXSW where Twitter got started (and where I signed up). I’ve come to think of it as my version of a Bill Gates Think Week — an opportunity to recharge and collect inspiration from some of the smartest minds on the planet.
This year, there were four talks I found particularly captivating. And based on all the stuff I physically wasn’t able to attend because the conference has gotten so massive, I’m barely scratching the surface. (In other words, it’s going to be a busy spring and summer listening to all the podcasts…)
Tony Schwartz — The 90 Minute Solution: Live Like a Sprinter
The focus of our all our attention is managing our work — cramming more and more of it into the finite number of hours in a day. But what we actually should be doing is managing our energy. We are very good at expending energy, but terrible at building it up. Schwartz uses a metaphor from biology to describe this: humans are meant to pulse — oscillating from high peaks to moments of rest in an inexorable cycle. We are not meant to act like computers, running at high speeds continuously and multitasking.
Studies have been conducted of concert violinists. And surprisingly, the most successful ones aren’t the ones who stayed on stage practicing the longest. The highest performers limited their practice sessions and practiced no more than 90 minutes at a time, three times a day, usually in the mornings when their energy was at its peak. They also rested between practice sessions, and slept nearly 9 hours a night. The top performers always slept more than the next most successful group down the line. The world’s top performers get on average 14 more hours of sleep in a week than the average person. From this, Schwartz lays out a startling fact — the hard limit on meaningful activity in a given day is 4.5 hours, and the most effective way of planning your day is to schedule three ninety minute intervals of hard work — and no more.
Rest is just as important to success than the hours you spend “in the zone” working. In fact, how well we work is dictated in part by how well we rest. Take elite tennis players. The top performers were found to be able to control their resting heart rate between points by one less beat per second. Given two players with the same talents, the one who is able to rest and recharge more effectively will always have the advantage.
Schwartz’s talk was so good I immediately bought his book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance on the Kindle as I was sitting in the audience. Below is an hour-long talk he gave at Google on the same subject and the Ogilvy Notes of his presentation.
Phil Libin — Love Can Pay the Bills
I love Evernote, and with proliferation of different Apple devices for different contexts in our lives, this handy note-taking software that auto-syncs between all your different devices has come in especially handy lately. Phil Libin is Evernote’s CEO, but instead of focusing his talk on his (awesome) product, he broke into multiple levels of data geekery to give us an inside peek at the freemium revenue model.
For most people, Evernote is free. Rather than crippling the free product as many companies do, Libin decided to make it something any user would be satisfied with. He wants people to be happy with it. The longer you use it, the more you love it. The more you’ll love it, the more you’ll pay for its advanced features.
To justify VC funding in a lousy economy for a product that 90%+ of people used for free, Libin dug deep into the numbers. He was one of the first people in the Valley to make use of “cohort analysis” — which he terms the new pivot. He’d track usage for a given group of people — e.g. Evernote users who signed up in March 2008 — and found that even as people used it less, they would generate progressively more revenue over time by signing up for the premium version. Now, in 2011, revenue from March 2008 users is at its peak; three years later, they haven’t lost interest. Among Evernote’s earliest users, a stunning 23% use the premium edition. Libin used the data to secure more funding, and the investment is paying off.
The shot I snapped below dramatically visualizes the composition of users over time from each of these monthly cohorts. These are clearly Excel default charts, but that doesn’t make the analysis any less cool. It’s not often you come across someone who can tell you exactly what the numbers mean and present them in such an engaging manner.
There’s no video I could find online of a similar presentation given by Libin, but this TechCrunch post from last year summarizes his findings.
Tim Ferriss — The Four Hour Body
I’m a huge fan of the self-assurred Ferriss’s first book, The Four Hour Work Week, a guide to living a Pareto-optimized life that has a lot in common with Tony Schwartz’s analysis when you think about it. I had shied away from Ferriss’s newest work on extreme physical performance since some of the examples — massive steroid injections — didn’t seem all that appetizing. As I tweeted during the talk, it’s a miracle that I work out at all. Super-optimizing those workouts is not that high on my agenda.
I was pleasantly surprised that Ferriss shied away from his book’s creepier anecdotes to give some practical advice. The key to making good habits stick is repetition — and in his words, rigging the game so that you win. Nike+ found that the tipping point was five workouts before someone became a committed runner. You are dramatically more likely to quit before five workouts than you are after five. It doesn’t matter how intense those five workouts are — only that you get in the five. Ferriss suggests shortening each session to half an hour rather than an hour to make crossing this threshold easier.
Obsessive self-tracking is a theme that recurs often in Ferriss’ work. (It also underlies Schwartzian analysis — only when you are truly self-aware of the energy you currently possess can you truly harness it.) The thing Ferriss has found in talking to high achievers is that they tinker and keep good records. They do not accept the limitations placed in front of them. Objective measures of performance are important, because what gets measured gets managed. If you’re trying to lose weight, ditch the food diary and instead snap a photo of the food in front of you with your iPhone. Use fear, shame, and embarrassment to your advantage!
Here is an Authors at Google talk Ferriss gave earlier this year as well as the Ogilvy Notes from Ferriss’ presentation:
Matt Lira and Aneesh Chopra — Data Driven Government
This was the year that open government made its first huge splash at SXSW. A dozen or more panels were devoted to the topic of civic involvement online — including a talk by our very own Mindy Finn on the tech you see and the tech you don’t in political campaigns.
One of the most enjoyable panels for me was a townhall-style conversation between our friend Matt Lira of Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, moderated by DCI Digital’s Julie Germany. Also joining in the conversation with the legendary Tim O’Reilly.
It’s clear that technology is playing more and more of a role in connecting government to its citizens. Much has been written about the role of the Internet in political campaigns — especially when the topic is raising money or gathering fans or followers. Much less has been said about how it can actually help us govern better — and that’s the key question, according to Lira.
The Administration has done some interesting things to open up access to data and let outside developers in. He told the story of FederalRegister.gov, in which all Federal regulations were made available as an XML feed. “Three guys,” Chopra said, were looking for a challenge, and set out to tackle the most complex data set they could find. What they settled on was an open feed of Federal regulations (telling in itself). They built a site, and before they knew it, the Archivist of the United States was on the phone asking if they’d turn it into the new FederalRegister.gov, which is actually a cool site. Chopra further said that a big assumption behind his efforts is that knowledge is widely distributed — a belief he attributes to President Obama — and they’re constantly asking how government can tap into the expertise of ordinary Americans to solve problems?
O’Reilly himself put his finger on a big issue: Congress can be transparent, but who is going to read 2,600 page bills in 3 days? Can’t we impose a 25 page limit on legislation — the National Highway Act was something like this length. Lira says that the new majority is actually making bills shorter. And O’Reilly asks, what about 25 page regulations? Not if the lawyers have anything to do with it, says Chopra. Fine, O’Reilly responds to applause, let’s just get rid of the lawyers.
Having had a good look at the Federal IT infrastructure from the time when I briefly served in the Bush Administration, I asked Chopra whether things like transparency and apps contests — which mostly occur on the outside — is masking the real issue, which is making the bureaucracy faster, more effective, and more responsive to average citizens? How do we bring the culture of rapid, iterative development we hear so much of at SXSW inside of government? Chopra says that the bureaucracy is now empowered to award contracts through other means — such as contests and challenges that ask people to perform the work upfront. This is a step in the right direction, but I’m doubtful that the truly huge Federal IT projects subject to the largest cost overruns would be awarded this way.
It was tough keeping this to just four panels, and if you’re interested to catch up on some more, we encourage you to check out the 357 tweets from Team @EngageSXSW.