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Your problems aren’t what make you special, your solutions are.

13 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I spent this weekend in beautiful South Beach Miami attending FOWA (Future of Web Apps), one of the most acclaimed conference events in our industry at this point in time. Not only did I have a fantastic time taking in the familiar sights of SoBe, but connecting with old friends and new on the most pressing, important, and interesting issues that we’re facing today.

To all of the old friends that I got to catch up with, it was great to see you and don’t be such a freaking stranger. To all of the new friends that I made, I look forward to seeing you again (many of you in Austin in just a few days) and continuing to inspire and be inspired by one another.

Quick thanks

Before I go any further, I want to give thanks ONE more time to Alex DeCarvalho and his team for organizing Barcamp Miami, and to Ryan Carson, Mel Kirk, and the whole Carsonified team. All of these people worked their ASSES off to give us all an opportunity to engage over the last few days. I’ve spoken to Alex and Ryan individually about this and their organization and involvement are clearly crimes of passion, and the results of their respective events show how valuable their passionate contributions are. I told Ryan how impressed and inspired I am by how and what they do, and that I was even more impressed by the vote of confidence FOWA being in Miami was for the new and very exciting Miami tech/social/web community. I hope that some day I have the ability to give they way Ryan and his crew do.

Thanks out of the way, and on to the meaty stuff.

I don’t really care to give a run down of each and every presentation, or every presenter. I’ll just hit a few key points in my mind:

Meeting Brad Neuberg in person

I will say that I was honored to have Brad Neuberg present for my coworking session at BarCamp, and having his input and conversation was out of this world awesome. Brad’s effectively the godfather of the movement that I pour my heart and soul into, and while he’s since stepped out to openly trust a couple of new ambassadors including myself to carry things forward, hearing how appreciative he is of our work was wicked cool, and hearing his view on how things are going based on where they came form was unique and I’m grateful for it.

Lessons from Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra goes one step beyond her blog “creating passionate users” by creating people who create passionate users. Her words are consistently brilliant and inspiring, and as I’ve said many times before, there’s nothing cooler than hearing someone you respect reciting the mantras you live your life by.

One of the biggest takeaways from Kathy’s presentation, for me, was the notion that real (physical) world interaction is the only place where real problems get solved. The fact that our brains are tuned to read faces, body language, and other nuances that the internet obscures makes it difficult, if not impossible, for us as software creators to deal with unless we prepare by talking to the actual users before we build the application. This sounds a whole lot like my constant reminder to the coworking community, and other community-driven ventures, that you need to be building your community before you build the construct that they will eventually spend their time in.

Furthermore, Kathy spent time on of the idea that the realest problems that our users face are social, and far less technical. As geeks, we do the thing we understand best and work our faces off to reverse engineer social problems and base our applications around them. I think the important concept suggested here is a very simple and obvious cycle that I’ve been unintentionally living. When a geek converts a social problem into a technical “solution”, its for the purpose of using the tools that we know best to generate metrics and optimize the problems with the social situation. In the best situations (and the best apps), the new solution that comes from the optimization done by the software has a very real and measurable effect on the real life problem that was initially identified. The circle is closed when a good online community surrounding the digital problem/solution pair spends time interacting with its community offline as well. This could be something large scale like attending and interacting with conferences like FOWA, or it could be something like hiring a community evangelist whos entire job is to work FOR the community members and listen for more real world problems.

At the root of all of this is the fact that technical problems are easy to solve. Social problems are the bitches of it all. But they’re the most compelling, and that’s why we’re all here.

Give til your face falls off

Taking this idea one step further, we can jump to the end of the day of conference speakers to my good friend Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary’s presentation was the first of the day to not include any slides because, well, Gary just doesnt roll like that. Gary’s presentation was about community building in the future (though I’d argue its how we need to build communities NOW), and building a personal brand around a product or service, but where I think he did a good job of allowing me to connect the dots back to Kathy’s talk in the beginning of the day because he talked about the importance of giving, giving, giving until your effing face falls off…and then giving just a little bit more…to your community.

One of the things this got me thinking about is that despite the fact that there is a notion of giving online (think Facebook “gifts”, think Ma.gnolia “thanks”) that do a VERY good job of simulating the effects of giving, there is nothing that can replace a tangible exchange. Someone who I spoke with last night asked me if I thought that was why people still send informal letters via the postal service when e-messaging is free and faster, and I my response was a very enthusiastic yes. Much like you lose the ability to read a facial expression online, you lose the ability to exchange a certain unmeasurable but very important energy when ideas, information, or tangible goods exchange hands in physical space.

So lets connect some more dots.

The internet has given us a great deal of ever-improving tools for collaborating and exchanging information online. Its easier now than ever before to work in distributed teams, to keep everyone in synchronization with the information that they find most valuable for a given need.

What the internet hasn’t done, and what I’ve heard many luddites say, is that it doesn’t do a very good job of reminding us to “get out of the pool” once in a while and remember what its like to be involved in one of those real world giving exchanges.

Drew Olanoff posted on his tubmblr last week after we went to see Foo Fighters together and had a really great opportunity to catch up, all because he saw a tweet of mine saying I had a free ticket. Twitter is, in my opinion, a product that does an exceptionally good job of closing the circle that I discussed before. What’s even cooler about twitter is that it closes the circle of real world problem->online solution->real world solution in different ways for different people (more on that soon).
This goes beyond software, and I think Gary’s presence isn’t they only example of that. Coworking is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to get the effects of some of the best online communities in an offline format. I almost view our office as a brick and mortar version of a really fantastic forum-style community where people are there, within a given topic (or skillset) to get something done but a constant and persistent “off topic” channel allows them to slip out of their usual comfort zone, or even better, into someone else’s comfort zone. The “accidental education” and “acceleration of serendipity” that occurs in these types of formats is wild and amazing, and why I think people are drawn to online communities because they have a very low barrier to create and join.

Which brings me to my final point (for now). I’ve talked to a LOT of people in a LOT of different places all over the world about their desires to set up coworking, participate in coworking, etc. Over and over, I hear something like, “I want this here but we have this problem that’s really unique to our area”. I’ve asked many people to explain their problems that they face or fear that they will face if they were to attempt to fire up a coworking community, and I have a secret.

You all have the same problems.

Your problems are not special.

If all you do is focus on your problems, you’re not special. In fact, I think they call that “complaining”.

The most common issues I’ve heard are those of real estate costs and availability, physical location accessibility (no one place is ever central enough), not enough people are around to pull it off, local cultural implications, “someone is already kinda doing it nearby but it doesn’t really work for me”, or everyone spends more time talking about doing it than actually making any forward motion.

Thats only about a half of a dozen problems, and they are nearly all technical. The exact problems that I’ve discussed may vary slightly, but ultimately, a great deal of the problems can be boiled down to one or a couple of these factors.

Thats literally hundreds of times that I’ve heard about the same 6 problems. And every time, “well in location x…..its hard because…”.

If this doesn’t illustrate that you’re problems arent what makes you special, I don’t know what will. Everything offline has a barrier to entry. What sets your community or potential community apart isn’t your problems, it’s how creative you can get with your solutions. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, think about what you do have that no other place in the world does. Use that as your base, use that as your solution.

I think there’s a great deal of value in prototyping your solution using online tools, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the end goal should be an offline interaction.

I’m speaking specifically about coworking because its one of the things that I hold closest to my heart, but once again, I think that this construct of thinking can be overlaid on top of lots of other social problem->technical solution->social solution transactions.

I plan to revisit this topic, but that’s the majority of the dot-connecting that went on for me this weekend.

A few other takeaways from FOWA Miami 08:

  • Kathy Sierra’s use of light profanity and cute puppies in her presentation are based on her understanding of what things our brains are tuned to. You should use those things to your advantage, too.
  • Matt Mullenweg continues to impress me as a speaker and visionary (and a dude who’s even younger than me). His notions about scaling are very interesting to me, especially a this point in my life, my career, and all of the things I’m interested in. The fact that scaling people and communities is much harder than scaling business and applications further reinforces the fact that technical problems are easy, social problems are the ones that kick our asses.
  • Tantek and Brian Oberkirch are two of the smartest people I know, and two of the nicest people I know, and two of the geekiest people I know. A really fantastic conversation I had with Brian the morning after FOWA helped me reassure myself in some decisions and conclusions I came to this weekend, and an exchange with Tantek at the beach party last night also reinforced some of the techniques that I will continue to use to interact with the communities I care so much about. Thanks to both of you for helping organize the content of this event and for being such great people in general.
  • Blaine Cook, who talked about how you get your app to the masses, took a bit of a beating (a friendly beating with a feather pillow, of course) as his phone rang and twitter crashed while he was on stage talking about it. Blaine is clearly shockingly, shockingly intelligent and more importantly, capable of keeping things on the level. If I had the kind of responsibility he has towards twitter, I’d be WAY jumpier. The most valuable thing I think Blaine said though was regarding their decision to stay with Ruby on Rails. The fact that more mature development platforms have had the same stumbling blocks that Rails has now, and have simply had more time to mature, doesn’t mean that Rails is less viable. What it does mean is that RoR needs someone to find the stumbling points and be prepared to fix them for generations of Rails developers to come, and Twitter itself and the practices of Blaine and the team at Obvious are doing a very good job of rapidly discovering those stumbling blocks. Twitter is more than just a service, and more importantly, in my opinion, Twitter isn’t about Twitter.com. Again, more on the Twitter topic later.
  • As always, hallways at conferences have some of the coolest interactions with some of the smartest people. Remember, not all smart people are comfortable on stage, but in a one on one setting, they will blow your mind. If a presenter doesn’t make you swoon, go out in the hall and meet someone new. It’s ok. You’ve already paid for the conference.
  • Cal Henderson from Flickr is a unicorn of technical knowledge and impeccable presentation skills. I’d love to talk to him more, if for no other reason that I love the style of slides he uses (similar to what Tara Hunt uses), driven by large words overlaid on pictures to illustrate points. I’d love to master that technique to supplement my speaking skills.

And finally, in general, you don’t have to be big to be big. You don’t have to be big at all. Be honest. Be transparent. Don’t pitch me, bro. Engage me. Do cool stuff, stuff that makes you happy. Do it from your heart, not from your wallet or your PR deck.

And don’t even get me started on PR in social media right now. I’m a bit of a fireball on the topic, so I’m going to try to calm down before I spit out anything I don’t really mean.

Thanks FOWA Miami 2008 and all of its attendees for kicking ass. 4 more days until SXSWi08.

Ahhh…crap.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.