I’m writing this from the woods off the coast of Georgia. Outside, all I can see are stars. Well, mostly all I see is dark, but also stars through the gaps in the trees. The only sound is crickets. Which sounds like a lazy writing cliche, but in this case it’s actually all I hear. Like for real.

I’m also CEO of my search analytics software company, Keylime Toolbox. And I’m consulting with several companies. And doing a lot of speaking. And writing. And so on. You know. The usual.

To  borrow that annoying answer from every terrible job interview ever, working too much is both my greatest strength and biggest weakness. Which is a totally obnoxious thing to say, but no joke, my tendency is to wake up, drink a bunch of coffee, then get to work. Then eventually go to sleep at some point. Repeat. I barely see my friends. I never date. I manage to not starve by way of Amazon Fresh.

I never really thought this was a problem until a few years ago (becoming an oldie can do that to you, I guess). I started prioritizing sleep (which I just used to think of as a necessary evil and did as little of as possible, and now I realize is maybe the most important thing you can do to be healthy, grow old, and stay smart).  I took several months off and traveled the world. I tried lots of things, but balance eluded me. And sure, I know that balance is a mythical unicorn, but my nature is to throw myself full in headfirst to whatever I’m doing. So I can hard-core take time off. And I can hard-core work. But once I’m focused, it’s game on. Amazon Fresh it up and keep the coffee coming.

So.

I decided to try a radical experiment.

Is it possible to do lots of great work but not do it 20 hours a day? That seemed unlikely so I introduced a forcing function.

Meet my forcing function:

I’ve set out across the United States, working as I go. Instead of waking up, then drinking coffee, then working, then sleeping, then doing it all again, I’m waking up, drinking coffee (obviously), then finding a local coffee shop or library or cafe or park. Then working. Or maybe waking up, firing up the generator to make some coffee in the middle of nowhere, and looking out on this while working:

I’m discovering cool little towns. Seeing friends that are scattered across the country. Learning about tech like cell boosters and wifi extenders. Taking truck stop showers (no, seriously; I am not saying this will help with the dating thing). Discovering cool museums. Launching software features. Leading workshops.

I can’t work 20 hours a day because at some point I have to find a place to stay for the night.

I bought a 2009 Roadtrek 170 popular, which is small enough to fit into a regular parking space, but large enough to have a bathroom and shower, full kitchen, double bed, and two different places I can set up an office. I can stay at an RV park with full electrical, water, sewer, and cable hookups or I can stay overnight, fully self-contained (including roof-mounted solar panels) in a Walmart parking lot.

I’ve been on the road for 11 weeks and have driven over seven thousand miles.

Is it working? Sort of. I still work a lot and still feel like I’m not working enough and still feel that anxiety of always being behind. But I also feel like I’m living my life now, and not waiting to live it.

Want to see where I head next? I’ve started a blog documenting the trip at Girl Meets Road. And of course, you can check out the cool stuff we’re launching at Keylime Toolbox. I might even start posting here more often!

And maybe I’ll be headed your way. Let me know where you are so I can add you to my GPS!

I don’t understand people who don’t drink coffee.

I don’t mean that I don’t understand them philosophically, like why are they against such an awesome beverage? I mean that I literally don’t understand how their bodies are physically capable of functioning. Telling me you don’t drink coffee is exactly the same as telling me you avoid oxygen.

I’m even baffled by people who can get out of bed and shower before they have a cup of coffee. And those people who have their first cup at the office. When I check into a hotel and find that the rooms don’t come with coffee makers and instead I’m supposed to somehow manage to put something presentable on my body, operate an elevator, and use the power of my mind to operate my legs and feet in a motion that enables me to walk across a lobby, I’m completely stumped. How exactly does one do that without already having had coffee?

The absolute only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the knowledge that coffee will be in my body in less than two minutes. (A few months ago, when my doctor wanted me to take a blood test that required me to not eat or drink anything before, I seriously considered booking a hotel next to the lab because I wasn’t sure how I would be able to not only get out of bed, but drive the 15 minutes to the lab in the morning coffee-free.)

You can see then, how alarming it was to open the drawer where I keep my Nespresso capsules to find that I had just brewed my last one.

Normally I have several backup coffee makers (two Keurigs, a french press, a standard coffee machine), but my house is being remodeled so everything’s in storage while I temporarily live in another location. I’ve had to go minimal. Hence just the one Nespresso.

Nespresso coffee is OK. I’m not one those fanatics who thinks it’s the world’s greatest. But it is the world’s fastest. Get out of bed, manage to find the kitchen (mostly through blind luck), press one button. Coffee. Done.

I normally order the capsules from the Nespresso web site by the case (a packet of 10 capsules last me 2 days at most) well before my supply gets too low, but I’ve been traveling a lot and had somehow lost track.

I immediately went online and rush-shipped 100 capsules. In two days, all would be well with the world. But how to survive those two days? Surely I can buy Nespresso capsules someplace in Seattle, right? I searched [nespresso capsules seattle]. The Nespresso web site page came up. Put in my zip code, find coffee near me! Both Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table are just around the corner. Disaster averted.

That afternoon, I popped into William Sonoma, innocent, carefree, and oh so naive. I walked around. I saw the machines but no capsules. Someone behind the register asked if I needed help. Yes! I just need some Nespresso capsules.

“Oh,” she said (so casual! as if she were saying nothing ominous at all!). “We don’t sell them. We only sell the machines”

She saw the expression on my face.

I explained that surely she was mistaken. I had gone to the Nespresso web site and typed in my zip code and was sent right to this store. The promised land of coffee.

Then she explained.

Nespresso doesn’t sell their capsules in the United States. The only way one can get them, if one is not say, in Paris or Barcelona, is to order them from the web site.

She saw the new expression on my face.

I told her the tragic tale of the empty drawer. She immediately went into code red mode. “You already ordered from the site right? And you picked next day shipping, right?”

Yes, yes, of course yes.

But what about tomorrow?

“Wait here.”

And then she was gone.

Moments later she returned. William Sonoma has a few of these capsules, you see, so that potential customers of the machines can try the coffee. As the capsules tumbled from her hands to mine, I could feel the panic lifting.

“Thank you, thank you.”

In my head, I thought, I will always shop at William Sonoma at every possible  opportunity.

Here’s the thing. You can run Super Bowl ads or email marketing campaigns or engage in social media or merchandise your stores just right, but in the end, one employee can create a loyal customer for life or someone whose new hobby is building a hate web site in your honor. Flyers judge an airline by the helpfulness of the agents at the ticket counter. Travelers leave terrible Tripadvisor reviews for hotels that spent millions on remodeled rooms but nothing on front desk staff training.

Who’s the person responding to those social media inquiries, answering the customer service line, running the cash register? As you invest in new technologies, don’t forget to invest in people. And a well-stocked supply of coffee for emergencies (obviously).

Last week, I talked with a BBC reporter about a story she’s writing on the importance of networks for women (I’ll add the link when the article is published in a few weeks). I think this is an important issue, so I wanted to talk with her honestly, without any spin.

Who You Know

The reality is that of course who you know is important. Whether you’re looking for a job, employees, customers, funding, media coverage, or advice, more connections are always better. And it’s a virtuous cycle. Say you know someone great who is looking for a job. If someone else in your circle is looking to hire for that role, you make the connection, and you’ve paid back double.

Most networks grow organically. Let’s grab a drink after work. Who wants to watch the game? Men make up the majority of tech and of course know a lot of other men. When they make plans to have a scotch or watch some football, they mostly aren’t actively looking to exclude women. It just happens that way. And along the way, they trade advice, learn more about each others’ companies, and their networks grow.

Where does this leave women?

Certainly, women should be proactive and start their own organic networks. Some of the best support, advice, and referrals I’ve gotten have been from the women in my networks.

Women can also join what they consider the men’s networks. Mostly, men really don’t want to exclude women. They just aren’t thinking about balancing gender ratios when they get thirsty for a beer (I’m talking here about informal networks, not formal, structured ones, such as those organized by companies, when lack of thought about gender is both short-sighted and inexcusable).

During the interview, I mentioned that I occasionally attend regular poker games and I’m nearly always the only woman. I’m a really terrible poker player, but no one cares (in fact, they probably appreciate the easy money!). I’ve met lots of great people and always have a good time. Sometimes work stuff comes up; sometimes it doesn’t. The networking isn’t the point, but a happy side effect.

But Dudes Don’t Have Any Overlapping Interests With Women

I told the reporter that I think some women are hesitant to join these kinds of events because they worry they’re not really wanted or they’ll just get in the way. When you have a man who just got $6.5 million to launch a women’s web site being published in the New Yorker saying:

“I am a dude. I don’t have a lot of overlapping interests with most women my age. I’m really into history. I’m really into markets and finance.”

And:

“Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read. When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’?

Then you could easily start to assume that men (as evidenced by that dude), media (as evidenced by the New Yorker giving that dude a voice), and venture capitalists (as evidenced by those who gave that dude money) at the very least think of women as having completely different interests than men (and certainly don’t expect to be hanging out with a group of people with such a lack of overlapping interests).

(Can’t help it, although surely obvious aside: the last time I heard a man say “I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it” was probably yesterday.)

And then you think, sure, I really want to walk into a room full of men who see me and think, there’s that woman with no overlapping interests, who doesn’t care about money or our world and only wants to talk about stupid books.

What If They Think I’m Just a Taker?

The BBC reporter I talked to also thought perhaps that some women think of going to these kinds of events as mercenary: that they’d be attending just to try to get something, and that would leave a bad taste. I agreed that no one should be hanging out with people they don’t enjoy spending time with, participating in activities they don’t like. My point, rather, was just that at this point in time, women are fewer than men in tech. And so focusing on only creating more women’s networks may not be enough. We also should turn (accidental) men’s networks into co-ed networks, and that may require us to take a leap of faith that we won’t show up someplace and be relegated to the women’s book club corner so the men can talk finance. I believe that most men aren’t like that dude. (The reason some women may be so hesitant to go to that poker game is that some men are in fact exactly like that dude, and we women know that from experience.)

Later, I was talking with a friend about the interview, and I mentioned how I just had an honest conversation, but since these types of articles have to surface only short sound bites from larger discussions, I’m now worried that I’ll come across as mercenary and in it only for what I can take from my fellow poker players. And that’s not what I was trying to say at all.

Which is one example of how complicated it all can be to talk about. But all of tech is better off if we can. Plus, maybe we all can get some good book recommendations.

January 15, 2013

Active Users, Habits, and Puppies by Vanessa Fox

5 Comments

I just finished The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, which talks about identifying and improving habits. (You can’t really “break” habits; the best you can do is replace the routine withe something else. The key is identifying the cue (what triggers the habit autopilot) and the reward (what you get out of it) — both of which can be tricky to pin down — and then finding some other routine that will satisfy that reward.)

The book walks through personal examples (why does the author eat a cookie every day at 3pm and can he change his behavior?), organizational examples (can Starbucks employees all learn to have an automatic, pleasant reaction to an irate customer?), and marketing examples (why do always buy the same brands, even if we don’t like them?).

This morning, I spoke to a group of owners of tire stores. One asked what tire dealer I frequented and I said that I didn’t go to a tire dealer. I always go to the Volvo dealership for maintenance (even for non-warranty items). And as I was speaking those words, I realized why. Volvo has three years of free maintenance, including oil changes. The whole time I was thinking how nice and convenient Volvo made everything for me, they were really ingraining a habit that would last longer after the free maintenance expired.

We talk a lot about viral components and stickiness, active users and differentiators. But if we want users to come back to our products again and again, we need to both provide a reward (the awesome thing our product does for them) and a cue (what triggers the automatic action to come back). The reward alone (having an awesome product) isn’t enough.

For some products, everyone’s trigger might be different. (I never log in to Facebook unless I’m waiting for a flight to take off and everything’s packed away except my phone and a magazine, and then I always check Facebook). Some companies are trying to create new triggers rather than rely on existing ones (the big red Google+ number that shows up at the top of all logged in Google pages comes to mind).

We experience these triggers all the time — every time our phone buzzes, which is always, we look down to see what’s going on. If we have a product, can we create cues that trigger habits? And more importantly, as  consumers, can we identify cues before a habit is formed or change the routine to something else if it’s too late for that? Maybe every time my phone buzzes, I pet a puppy rather than look down to see the latest check in? Does anyone have a spare puppy I can attach to my phone?

Seattle Startup Weekend Women’s Edition is this weekend and I’m a coach. But hey, where’s the men’s edition? Can’t women attend the regular startup weekends? Is this discrimination or what?

Our Network is Based On Who We Know (And Who Our Network Knows)

We talk a lot about ratios. That tech conference you just went to had 35 male speakers and 2 women speakers. That startup you just read about has only one woman employee. And she’s the admin. We talk about all kinds of reasons for this (women don’t pitch to speak; we don’t encourage women to take science and match classes in seventh grade; women tend to interrupt their careers to have babies….) but one obvious fact is that we only know who we know.

Finding good speakers and good employees and good friends and good people for anything is a lot about first, the hard work of finding them and next, the hard work of figuring out if they’re the right fit. But even when we cast a wide net with the best of intentions, we tend to start with our network. The people we know and trust. And often, we just so happen to hang out a lot with people who are the same gender as we are. So that’s who we know. And that’s who they know. And if conferences and startups and engineering departments have a high ratio of men, it’s likely they mostly know more men. So it’s just reality that searches often start with networks comprised largely of men.

Last year, I realized I had twelve or so people working for me in either permanent or contract roles and only two of them were men. One of which was the admin. Were I a male founder with nearly all male employees, someone might have cried foul,  but the truth was that my staffing selections were not on purpose. I didn’t set out to find women to work for me and I didn’t seek out a female attorney or CFO consultant, but that’s just how things ended up. Why? Because while I have a strong network of both men and women, I just happen to have more women friends. And they happen to have more women friends. So when I ask around for recommendations, I end up largely with a pool of women candidates.

Helping women at an event like this startup weekend get more comfortable (see the third point for more on this) being involved with more events is one step in connecting the dots so a mostly male network and a mostly female network can become a larger connected network. Like me, many of the participants and mentors and judges at this event likely are connected to both men and women, and this event helps get women just starting out on everyone’s radar. Which in turn helps everyone because when you’re looking for a diverse group of speakers or employees or friends, that hard work of finding them gets a bit easier when you have networks of both men and women to reach out to.

Even Without Discrimination, There Can Be Unconscious Bias

Remember those old gender discrimination exercises where you had to tell a story about a doctor and a nurse and the point was to show that most people called the doctor “he” and the nurse “she”? I don’t know if that still happens but I know that we (as an American tech culture) mostly think we’re beyond that. I don’t want to spend too much time telling stories that refute that perception since the very definition of unconscious means that you don’t see it even if it’s right in front you, so I’ll just share this one story.

Last week, I had a mobile detailing service out to my house to wash my car. I was talking to the very nice guy who was managing the effort about his plans to start his own small business and he was asking for my advice and I can promise you that he respected my opinions and didn’t value them any less because I’m a woman.

And yet. At one point he said to me “I couldn’t help but notice you’re not wearing a ring.” And then he explained why he was asking. He motioned at my house and said (after asking for my advice as a business owner remember), “I was just wondering, where is the man who is paying for all of this?”

You Feel More Confident When You Feel Less Alone

Without question, effective networking can give a boost to someone who wants to be be successful in today’s startup culture (whether as a founder or an employee). And it can be scary for everyone (both men and women) to go to an event such as a startup weekend for the first time — not knowing what to expect, not knowing anyone. But it can be even harder when you feel completely different from everyone else. A couple of weeks ago, an employee of mine was talking to me about a Rails Camp he was going to that weekend. He kept using male nouns and pronouns to refer to the group that would be there. Finally, I interrupted him. “You mean the men and women…” Well no, he told me. Only guys have signed up.

A few years ago when I still worked at Google, I was at a luncheon at the Grace Hopper conference for the women that Google had sponsored to attend. I was talking to one college student who told me how grateful she was for the opportunity to be there because the entire time she’d been at college, she’d never had another woman in her computer science class. She’d never had the opportunity to collaborate with a woman. Ever.

I’m not saying that women can’t hack it in environments with a lot of men, I’m just saying it’s nice sometimes to be reminded that other women are out there. I don’t want to get into stereotypes about how men and women are different, but I think it’s telling that I’ve been avoiding telling the following story in this post, even though I’m a confident, successful woman in tech, I have large networks of both men and women, and I don’t really care if you know that I went shoe shopping last weekend.

Years and years ago (I mean it — this was like 1995 in the telecom corridor of Dallas) I started a new job at a startup that made testing equipment for SS7 networks. On my first day, a woman rushed up to me. “I”m so glad another woman finally works here. Finally, I have someone to get manicures with!”

I resisted telling that story because I didn’t want this post to about women getting manicures, but you know what? In part, that’s exactly what this post is about. At the end of a hard work day, a woman can’t always turn to a male coworker and ask him if he wants to go grab a drink and talk through things. In some situations, of course. But in many others, I’m sorry, but she just can’t. And we all need people we can turn to.

If this event helps a few more people find someone they can turn to, I’m all for it.

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  • About Vanessa Fox

    Vanessa Fox
    I write and speak about the search engine industry and searcher behavior and help companies with online strategy and audience engagement. I'm fascinated by our searching culture and how it's shifted the way we seek out and consume information.

    In 2010, I wrote Marketing in the Age of Google, which I updated and released as a second edition in 2012.

    In 2008, I founded Nine By Blue and Blueprint Search Analytics, which I sold in 2013.

    I used to work at Google, where I built Webmaster Central and helped launch sitemaps.org.

    Now I'm CEO of Keylime Toolbox, software that generates online performance insights from Google Webmaster Tools, web analytics, and server logs for organizations of all sizes.

    I'm also traveling the United States in an RV, working from a different city every day.

  • Girl Meets Road

    I'm working from a different city every day, traveling the country in my Roadtrek 170. See where I am now at Girl Meets Road.