Ep. 233 – Rian van der Merwe – How Successful Companies will be Built on Ethics, and the Impact on Consumer Research

My guest today is Rian van der Merwe, speaker, writer and responsible for Product at Postmark, which is part of Wildbit. Wildbit is an 18-year-old technology company whose software centers around taking the pain out of the development process and is used by over 100,000 companies globally. Prior to joining Wildbit, Rian has served senior product roles at top firms including eBay, Naspers, Jive Software, HealthSparq. Additionally, he is the creator and actively contributes to Elezea, a blog, and a newsletter for people who create technology products.

Find Rian Online:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/rianvdm 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/RianVDM 

Website: www.wildbit.com 

Find Jamin Online:

Email: jamin@happymr.com 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jaminbrazil

Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaminbrazil 

Find Us Online: 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/happymrxp 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/happymrxp 

Website: www.happymr.com 

This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by HubUx. HubUx reduces project management costs by 90%. Think of HubUx as your personal AI project manager, taking care of all your recruitment and interview coordination needs in the background. The platform connects you with the right providers and sample based on your research and project needs. For more information, please visit HubUx.com.


[00:00]

On Episode 233, I’m interviewing Rian van der Merwe, responsible for product at Postmark, but first a word from our sponsor. 

[00:10]

This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com   

[01:35]

Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Rian van der Merwe, a speaker, writer and responsible for product at Postmark, which is part of Wildbit. Rian, thank you very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.

[01:54]

Thanks, Jamin. Good to talk to you again after about a decade. 

[01:58]

It has literally been a decade since I’ve seen your face. I have been following you on social. You had a book release a couple of years ago, which got a lot of publicity, and I just ordered a copy of it, another copy of that actually. Lost my other one. Before we jump into that, I’d like to start a little bit with your background. Tell us about your parents and how they have informed your career. 

[02:22]

Sure. So, I grew up in South Africa. I live in Portland now, but I’ve lived in a bunch of places up to this point. So, I grew up in a little town called Stellenbosch, which is about 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. It’s in wine country. I’ve lived in many places and I still believe that’s the most beautiful town in the world. And I don’t think that’s even remotely biased. We should put a photo in the show notes so people can decide. So I grew up there, went to school there, went to university there. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. My dad was an academic. He worked at the University of Stellenbosch his entire career. So you could imagine how weird it was for him when I would move from jobs every four or five years. It was a really strange thing. Someone who worked in the same place for 40 years. His field of study was geography and particular urbanization, and he grew up on a farm. So his main academic focus (And this is relevant, I promise. We won’t go too deep into urbanization, but it’s relevant to your question.) His main area of focus was particularly with small towns and why people move from small towns to cities and particularly why those small towns still exist. So it’s coming at it from a different perspective. Instead of understanding city life, he was trying to understand how small towns continue to exist after most people have left or after its reasons for existence have gone away. So, the consulting you did was like he would go to small towns and they would say, “Look, agriculture isn’t a thing here anymore. What do we do? Like how do we turn this into a tourist town? Or what other reason could there be for this?” And the reason is relevant here is that it really generated in me an intense curiosity for human behavior and how people live and work. I went on many of these trips with him to the smallest places in the country. And he always talks about the sense of place and understanding a sense of place. And I think that curiosity along with his academic journey has really instilled in me this idea of curiosity and a thirst for constant learning, particularly as it relates to how people live and how they want to live and the meaning that they search for in how they live. So he definitely had an enormous impact. I didn’t become a geographer, [chuckling] but the ways that he did his work definitely still impacts me. 

[04:57]

Well, I think that particular topic for me is one of tremendous passion. So, as you know, when I started Decipher in Palo Alto, I relocated back to my hometown, Fresno, which is about two, two and half hours away from Silicon Valley. And it is exactly…  They call it brain drain here. So, you’ve got people that are whatever, and then they get recruited and then they’re gone. As a byproduct of that, you have the job creators, this sort of like vicious cycle. It’s really hard for a local economy to be able to break out of an ag-based or whatever was the old way of growing to support a half million people.

[05:42]

Yeah. That’s particularly pronounced in South Africa, but I see it here too. Even in Oregon, I think about a town like Bend, which is in eastern Oregon, a little ski town where when I visited everyone said that you move to Bend and then you figure out what you want to do. People move there because they want to be in that specific area. But then towns like that, like Fresno and maybe Bend, have this weird identity crisis where they’re like, “We don’t know why we’re here sometimes.” And that’s very interesting to then uncover why they are actually there and how they can make a living. And particularly now like for us as a remote company, for example, and as we see more people work starting to move that way and, finally, Silicon Valley becoming less important in terms of hiring talent, I think we are going to see that even more and more with people staying in their hometowns. I still feel like that’s a way to save cities in a way and save towns because those people staying means that they bring additional culture and additional reasons for being into that town. I know we’re off topic now, but it’s a really interesting discussion for me around the way that we work and the future of work. 

[07:01]

Yeah. It’s something that I’ve seen. Actually, there’s a number of different companies that I follow that are talking about this a lot. One of them is a Survey Monkey and they’ve been posting… You know, Silicon Valley as an ecosystem, feels a lot like (and you’ll appreciate this, I think, given your tenure there) feels a lot like 1999 and 2000. I mean the congestion is just insane. There’s an industry report that’s done with the Bay Area Council for Economic Development. Over 30% of Bay Area employees are actively looking to move outside of the Bay Area and the reasons why are negative reasons as opposed to positive. But the broader point is companies as they wake up are going to identify or empower their employees to work wherever they so choose. But for me, the big question is it’s really hard to be in business. You can only do so many things well. And I think managing a remote culture could be one of the things you have to be disciplined and say, “OK, this is going to be a priority for us,” which then creates almost this like trade-off scenario of what things aren’t we going to do. 

[08:15]

Right. Yes, “trade-off” is the right word because I think in that trade-off you don’t need facilities management, you save other things. We’re a company of 30 people now. I’ve haven’t been there for 12 years, but I’ve been remote for 12 years and we have someone on staff whose title is Team Happiness and Operations and that’s what you’re talking about, right? But we don’t need a facilities manager or someone that figures out how to expand office space. And I think you’re right in that there’s a lot more companies talking about that. Base Camp obviously talks about it a lot, but then there’s Buffer and there’s Zapier, all these companies that are remote only, that are doing this more and more. And we’re seeing that, like you said, a lot of people prefer that. I don’t know how I would ever go back to not working remotely. It’s not for everyone, but I think that the way that it’s structured and the way that it allows me and the way I work to have uninterrupted hours of deep work and communicate asynchronously to my team has been invaluable for the way that I work. 

[09:23]

So, this is particularly interesting for me cause we’re like in the early stages of building a company. And one of my big challenges is I’m based in Fresno. So you have like this talent access issue. So part of our question that we’re answering right now is it OK to hire outside of the area? Are you finding that that almost like infringes on your family time, I guess is the, the concern around it? 

[09:44]

Not for us. So we have a very interesting culture where we’re currently experimenting with four-day work weeks where we work. So we work 32 hours a week, so Monday through Thursday. And since a lot of the team is in the East coast, I actually schedule my hours so that I work East coast hours. I work 6 to 3 every day. I like that. Not everyone wants to get up at 5:30 but I like that. So it doesn’t infringe on that at all. In fact, I get to go pick up my kids from school every day. And the important thing, I think, is that you have a space. Whenever we hire someone, we ask them where are you going to work? They were like “Coffee shops or a couch.” They’re like, “No, you need to have a space. We’re going to give you the furniture. You can’t just work wherever.” Like this is my office and I can close the door and I can work here. The sign on the door that says, “Dad is on a call” isn’t always as effective as I want it to be, but, for the most part, it works OK.

And so you have that. And the other thing I will say is I think why a lot of people are scared of this is that they try to recreate an office experience in a remote environment. So there’s a lot of synchronous work and that’s where it would infringe with family time, especially if you’re across time zones. Whereas for us, we have very few meetings during the week and we optimize for asynchronous communication. So we post something in paper, in Dropbox paper, and we say, “Let me know what you’re thinking within the next two days.” And then when someone else is, needs a break from coding and they want to do something else for an hour, they come out of that and this is a good break for them to then give feedback on that thing. And once you look at it that way: You’re not recreating an office environment; you’re actually optimizing for what remote work is good for. Like, let’s say you record a podcast, you don’t need to edit it with someone in person. They can work on it when they are ready. You can give feedback that way. So I would encourage it, I would say. 

[11:53] 

So, what tool… This could probably be very relevant for our listeners. What tools do you recommend companies look at when they’re thinking about in creating a remote culture? 

[12:02]

I’m not going to say Slack. We’re actually very, very anti-Slack. We have very strict rules around Slack. A lot of remote companies would say when you’re working, you’re in Slack. We don’t have that rule. We don’t make any decisions in Slack. You’re not required to come back after you were away and read through a thread and understand what just happened. We try to use Slack for troubleshooting and real-time issues on the site or making some announcements, but no real time work actually happens there. Our work happens in Dropbox Paper, which is like a Google Docs competitor, but it just feels less permanent. And then we use Basecamp for a more permanent communication. And then this is going to sound weird, but we like email. We like email better than Slack. Before we send someone a direct message in Slack, we would say, “Well, do I need to interrupt them right now or can this be an email that they get back to?” In fact, one of the people that work with us, Derek, built a Slack app called PigeonBot that you can download that let you email someone from within Slack. So instead of sending them a DM, you would type “/email” and it would send them an email instead of interrupting them at that particular time. 

[13:13]

I am 100% going to use that app. 

[13:15]

It’s fantastic. Yeah, it’s really good.  

[13:17]

Yeah, for sure. Let’s shift gears a little bit and get back on track. I’m really excited about hearing your perspective on this. Tell me about a time you had a difficult experience in life and came out of it.  How you managed that? 

[13:33]

Yeah, as I thought about this, ‘cause I knew this question was coming, it was really hard one to think about. But I think the one I want to settle on that’s maybe particularly relevant here is, and for your listeners, is just me, as a foreigner, breaking into technology in Silicon Valley, That was super hard because I finished my studies in Australia. I just studied for seven and a half years and didn’t stop. So by the end of it, I had a PhD, but I had zero from a foreign university and I had zero work experience and I met my wife in Australia and followed her to the U.S. and started looking for jobs and I realized it was completely impossible. Like I don’t have a visa. I was here legally, but as a tourist. I couldn’t work, but I wanted to stay here. We decided at that point that we wanted to stay here. So, I remember I spent the Christmas of 2003 on Monster.com. Does anyone remember Monster? 

[14:32]

Totally. Epic Superbowl ad company, right? 

[14:36]

Yes. We’re both aging ourselves a little bit here. But for the young ones, that’s how we used to find jobs. It’s on a website called Monster.com. Spent eight hours a day on there and, eventually, found a job at a market research firm, which is where I first encountered Decipher at Survey.com. And it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it was the only thing that I could pull off. And that part was really hard: just to convince someone that with taking a chance on it. I’m really glad that they did that. And then after that I moved to eBay and Decipher moved over with me and that’s why we’re still friends.

[15:17]

I’d like to think there’s more to it. But, yeah, good point. 

[15:19]

But yeah, yeah, yeah. But that was really hard. I remember at eBay, in particular, whenever my badge opened the door, I never got used to it. Like when I swiped my badge, I always wanted to call my mom and said, you’d never guess what just happened. They let me in again. I think of all my experiences in the U.S. 

[15:39]

The badge swiping at eBay is… You probably don’t know this. I smuggle out…  You know how you have to return the badges when you visited… OK, so I literally will hide the badge and I will lie and tell them I’ve lost it because for me this is like this… It’s a really… These are the companies that are impacting our world. It’s such a neat thing to be able to literally put them into my— it’s not really a scrapbook per se—but it’s my notebook, notes relevant for that particular day in the meeting. So anyway, it’s a big deal! 

[16:12]

I never got used to it. When they printed to thing. And I wondered if everyone was like me also lying in bed, just staring at it at night. And I don’t think they were. But, for someone who grew up in a small town that just like this was never on my radar and the ability to eventually make it there. And I know I came at this whole experience with a ton of privilege, but being able to get into America and be in that environment and just feel like I’m getting smarter through osmosis. I don’t even have to do anything. I just go to lunch with people who are so incredibly smart and I never forget that. Still to this day is the thankfulness around being able to do that is why I still love what I do what I do because it’s that again, that constant learning and that thirst for  knowledge and that curiosity that comes from my dad and his work is still with me in that challenge. And I don’t know how far you want to go into the challenge, but we did move to Silicon Valley with a blow-up mattress and a coffee maker and that’s it. We had nothing. And I remember I walked. I didn’t have a car, so I got an apartment right across from work so I could get to work. And lucky for us, there was a Blockbuster in a Safeway across the road too. Well, we didn’t have a TV, but there was a Blockbuster for eventually. I walked down to the Salvation Army and bought a chair for $20, but I didn’t have a way to get it back to my apartment. So I walked back, got my passport, gave them my passport and then they lent me a dolly so that I can push the thing. And then, I went back and picked up my passport and then I wanted a TV to it. So I took the bus to Best Buy and I bought a TV and lugged it in the bus (people thought I was crazy) back to the apartment. Didn’t have anything to put it on. So it sat on the box it came in for six months. And that’s how we started. 

[18:10]

God, what a great story.

[18:13]

But I just think about the ability to start like that and just keep going and eventually keep going and going and then be here in Portland now in this wonderful place that we’re at is such a testament for what is possible still here. I know we’re not going to talk about politics, but I know it’s weird here right now, but it’s still like I hang on to that memory of what is possible and how that challenge shaped us and my relationship with my wife and how we’re thinking about these things. 

[18:45]

Yeah, it is. I love this story you’re telling. My best friend has a very similar story. He literally grew up in a mud hut in Transylvania, transplanted here in seventh grade, and had a tremendous amount of difficulty fitting in. Right? And yet now he has beautiful family, makes way more money than I ever have, tremendously successful, happy, happy guy. And it’s interesting to me that America still is a land of opportunity and you can in a lot of ways if you take responsibility and have the humility. That’s the other part of it, right? I mean you have to be willing to check your humility at the door, or sorry yourself at the door in order to attain and grow. And like you said, take the bus with the TV or the dolly with the chair. I love that picture. That would be something worth putting on your mantle, right? 

[19:46]

Yeah, eventually we had to get rid of the chair and I was really sad about that because, as awful and bug-infested as I’m sure it was, it was super comfortable. And also, just this memory of that I don’t want us to forget; I don’t want to forget where that came from. 

[20:05]

Over the last 10 years we have seen a bunch of new roles emerge in the insights space. Data science, as you know, Python, R usurped old school SPSS, user-experience research, customer experience research. How are these different than market research? 

[20:25]

Yeah, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, particularly when I was at eBay. So my background is in research and market research and when I moved to eBay I was in the user-experience design team, specifically on quantitative user-experience research. So I thought about this a lot. It’s very fashionable even back then to bad-mouth focus groups. And so, I was trying to understand where does all this come from? But where I’ve settled, particularly with market research and user-experience research, is that I’ve always felt like market research seeks to understand the needs of a market in general. It’s concerned with brand equity, marketing position, attitudes. So attitudinal surveys and focus groups help you a lot with that. But I think the reason some of these other roles have come in is that it’s, particularly with digital products, hard to use those methods in the design of those products themselves. So I still think market research is incredibly important for understanding those kinds of things. Like what are my customers like? How do I position this product? But when it comes to figuring out interactions with a product, that’s where user research comes in. It’s concerned with how people interact with technology, human-computer interaction and what we can learn from their wants, needs and frustrations. So that combination of those two have always been really important to me: first, understanding the market we’re in, but then building a product that actually serves that market, I think, is more the role of user research. 

[21:49]

Methodologically speaking, it feels like we’re doing a lot of the same (I know there’s some differences too.) a lot of the same types of work. Do you think part of user experience is the place that it sits in the org structure like that job function sits in the org structure? In other words, is it more of like a just-in-time insight, which market research historically has not been able to facilitate ‘cause it usually sits outside of it? It’s kind of at its own thing. 

[22:20]

That’s a really interesting question. I think you might be right and I think one of the shifts we’re seeing too is that it’s becoming more and more important for people to understand the company they’re engaged with, not just the product. The most obvious example is Facebook. No one is just interested in Facebook, the product, anymore. They’re super interested in Facebook, the company, and all these ethical questions around it and the same with even Google and all these other big companies. We’re getting to a point where market research and user research need to…  We’ll talk about this a little bit later, but I think particularly around ethical questions and helping people understand the company they’re doing business with. I think those things need to be more connected and possibly, like you said, the issue is that they’re in different orgs right now. User research is always set in the design function whereas an interaction with the company is also user research and so that overlap I think is becoming more and more prevalent but our organizations aren’t structured for that yet. 

[23:22]

Yeah, for technology companies, this gets to, from my vantage point, one of the really important issues, especially for newer firms: how, when, and where should they be using consumer insights? And even in a little bit more context – Y Combinator has this fairly new product that they’ve brought to market called startup school, and it’s like a 10-week program free. This last cohort that they had, they have, I believe, 23,000 companies globally that are participating in it, which is a fricking gigantic number of startups. So I guess the full frame there is consumer insights definitely has a role and a place, and I think it’s really interesting for technology companies to have that framework of the how, when and where should they use those insights. 

[24:14]

Yeah, so my view on this has shifted a little bit over the years as well. Back in the day when I was at eBay, we had a user-experience research team of about 15 people and a market research team of about 10 or something like that. And that’s all they did. But it was among over 10,000 employees. Where I’m at now, which is a small 30-person company, I always like to say that research is something and talking to customers is something we are; it’s not something we do. This is something that permeates everything we do. Everyone’s involved. Our developers often get involved in first-line support when there’s a technical issue. Since my background is in research, even though I’m product manager now, I still talk to customers a lot. I sometimes handle sales calls if our sales person is on vacation or something. Our designers do usability testing and user research. Like everyone talks to customers and that relates to another product concept that a woman named Teresa Torres talks about a lot, which is continuous discovery, which is this idea that we need to talk to customers every week on a continuous basis so that research isn’t a project we do and then it informs our product. It’s something we do continuously. We build up our knowledge and our base knowledge about our customers. As we do this continuous discovery with customers, we build up a backlog of insights about them so that when it’s time to work on something new, we don’t necessarily have to go and you do a new project. We know so much already because we talked to them every week. So I’m a big proponent of that. I’m not moving away from this idea that research is a project as opposed to research is just a thing we continuously do so that we understand our customers because that informs everything we do. 

[26:03]  

So when you think about the differences of qualitative and quantitative research, do you think leveraging qualitative on a week…? I’m thinking about your weekly cycle framework. Is that more centric to IDI type? 

[26:17]

Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely more in-depth interviews. We have moved away from NPS. I don’t know how you guys feel about NPS these days. I know on the product side it’s kind of fallen out of fashion. We replaced NPS with… So the company Superhuman (I forget the name of the CEO) but they wrote an article in first round, which I can find for you about it. The survey they used basically says how disappointed you be if this product went away. 

[26:45]

Yeah, I’ve seen that. 

[26:46]

And then, why? So, we replaced NPS with that and we look at that consistently as to how many people would be extremely dissatisfied if we went away and why. So we try to summarize that about once a month. So, that’s the only ongoing quantitative work we do. The rest is ongoing qualitative work, and we use a product called productboard, which is product management software. We use that to collect all our insights in one place. I really like the way they’re set up in terms of gathering insights from a bunch of different places and then categorizing them and tagging them so that when it becomes time to work on something, we can actually do a search and go back and understand all the people we’ve talked to in the past about different things. 

[27:32]

I’ll definitely check them out. I haven’t heard of them before. Yeah, that CEO also has a strong point of view. I can’t remember the article title, but, if I remember correctly, it was like it was product market fit is a lagging indicator and you…  

[27:46]

That’s where this is from. It was a very long article as they usually are in the first round. So yeah, that’s where we got that from. 

[27:55]

Yeah. And so he actually had some methodology, ultimately, trying to get it to be a leading indicator, which is, obviously, a very different framework. Actually, I just saw that like two weeks ago. So it’s real interesting that you’re bringing it up right now on the podcast. The how, when and where parts, I want to dig in just a tiny bit. I guess the “where” that you’re talking about is really everywhere, right? Do you use your…? I can’t remember his NPS replacement question, which I really like. How upset would you be if, anyway, your product’s no longer available to use? But anyway, whatever that is and I’ll include the link to that, by the way, in the show notes. Is that sent every time because the way that your customers interact with you on is on a SAS basis, right? Are you guys doing that on annual basis per customer or is it quarterly? 

[28:49]

We do it 30 days after they become a paying customer. 

[28:54]

Got it. And then that cycle repeats every 12 months? 

[28:57]

So, every day we send to whoever became a paying customer 30 days ago. So they come in consistently. They actually go straight to HelpScout. Every response goes into our support queue. And then where they either get filed away or if there’s something serious or, what often happens is someone will say, cause one of the questions is what would you add to Postmark if you could like what’s one thing you would change? And often someone would say something we already have or they would say something that we have planned and then our support team would actually respond to them and help them out. So we look at every response before it then gets filed away. And then we try to do some kind of summary later on every month.

[29:41]

This is such a big opportunity for companies to employ a methodology like that. And if you’re systematic with it… One of the things that I learned in Decipher was… We had a similar kind of sequencing. We’re project-based for about half the revenue as opposed to SAS. So that created more opportunity to touch the customer. But when we would have a detractor, if in the following three months we could convert them to a promoter, using the NPS vernacular, then that was our number one word-of-mouth legion. I’m not suggesting that we should create a bad experience, turn it into a great experience, but I mean it was… 

[30:16]

That’s one way to go

[30:17]

Again, no. That would be a lot of pain. 

[30:21]

You should post that on medium. I’m sure people will love it. 

[30:26]

You know what. That actually would be a fun… I feel like I’d be a fool, but… Anyway, all right, so what is the biggest issue that’s facing today’s technology product creators?

[30:38]

I don’t want to be weird about it, but I really think it is taking responsibility for the ethical implications of the things that we make. I think that it’s too long that we talk about product design and user interface design. We talk about how things work and what they look like. We don’t talk about why they exist, and we’ve seen what happens when we don’t talk about why things exist and if things should exist. I don’t even have to give examples. Everyone knows, I think, what I’m talking about from Uber through Facebook, through all the Google stuff, all of that. And I think that we have for too long said, “Well, we just do the thing; we just make the thing; technology’s neutral.” The point is that it’s not, and I think that everything we make has a systemic bias in it. And I think our biggest challenge is, first of all, convincing people that this is an important part of our jobs. And then, second of all, asking the right questions when we make things to make sure that we build in ways to prevent the products that we make to be used for harm. And I know what that sounds like. I feel like it sounded like such a pretty answer, but I’m serious about that. I feel like we messed up, and we have to do better. 

[31:54]

So, there’s two distinct areas that I think you’re getting a lot of focus right now. One is privacy and the way that companies can use our behavioral data in order to market to us to create. Like, for example, probably Amazon knows what I’m going to buy next month whereas I have no idea what I’m going to buy this afternoon. That kind of a perspective is just unfair to me as a consumer. The other obvious example to me is like social media is just so good as a tool. I have countless examples of people almost dying because their prefer… It’s like that that need for the endorphin, the dopamine, is so great. So is that what you’re alluding to? 

[32:41]

Yeah, I think I’m referring to a couple of things. I think one of the things that is really popular in Silicon Valley right now is the idea of habit-forming products. And there’s books written about how to basically hack people’s psychology to get them addicted to your product. And I just think that’s not good. We shouldn’t be doing that. And on the other side of that, I also think that there’s a systemic bias in the things that we make. There’s lots of examples of this. When you train AIs just using a certain kind of face, it doesn’t recognize a different kind of face that might be a different color or different ethnicity because no one thinks about that because we just don’t have enough diversity in the people who make the products that we make. And we also don’t take responsibility for that. So I think that there’s the ethical implications. There’s the recognition of the bias that is inherent in every product that we make because algorithms don’t make decisions. People who make algorithms make decisions. And if that is not acknowledged, we get ourselves into trouble. Twitter is another great example. The abuse on Twitter that almost, I don’t want to say easily, but that could be avoided if there are people on staff who understand how abuse works. But there’s probably not because that’s not the type of people who are making Twitter right now. And I don’t want to get emails from people, but…

[34:10]

It sounds like it’s more like in alignment with Wall Street, right? Like the expectations of shareholders and what’s going to drive an investment of millions of dollars into… Abuse prevention is not necessarily something that’s probably not at all going to increase unless—you know what I’m saying—unless that has the other side, that of user gains.

[34:31]

For the longest time, it’s been growth above all else, and then figure out monetization later. So when you have growth above all else, that’s how things like growth hacking get started, which has a bunch of unethical practices in it. I’m not saying VC money is bad and we shouldn’t have it, but I’m saying your priorities change and your users aren’t your most important people anymore. As an example, at Postmark, we send email. We’re a transactional email service. It sounds boring, but it’s really exciting. I’m very fun at parties if you want to talk about email. We send email, but one of the things that we talk about a lot is we make a tool for developers, but we also want to understand how can we actually be good for people’s inboxes as well. So how do we get developers to send fewer emails? If they trigger a transactional email, a trigger email, right? So they’re like password resets but also often notifications. Say someone comments on a post. How can we encourage them to not send ten emails and make a digestive one instead? We’ll make less money, but we will save a person’s inbox. We’re not saving the world here. We do email, but that’s the kind of thing that I would love for us to think about more and that you CAN do if you’re not beholden to growth above all else… is how do we actually improve people’s lives and not just go for growth at all costs. Paul Jarvis has a great book that I just finished reading called Company of One that is great read for not just freelancers but for anyone who works in any company about sustainable growth and how that’s possible. 

Again, I’m not sure if we are running away from things, but I think that is our challenge: how do we get away from growth at all costs because we are losing so much of our humanity when we do growth at all costs. 

[36:33]

What is your personal motto? 

[36:35]

I don’t have one. I thought about this question a lot. I have a few rules and I think the most important one is when I see something in an email or in a post, particularly at work, that I get emotional about and I start typing, I stop and I go, “Give it eight hours,” and I set a timer and I don’t respond for eight hours because things need time and I don’t want to respond from a place of emotion. Particularly when you’re a remote company, that’s really easy to do to not see that the meaning behind the words and to get offended or whatever. And after that eight hours, I usually have an amazing, excellent response that is not emotional. But I think that’s the big thing. And then my dad just always talks about we cross that bridge when we get there. And I know that’s not a new thing but, as a product manager, there’s lots of things that you might want to cross before the bridge is there. And we should just wait sometimes. Just give it eight hours. 

[37:37]

Ah, that distance between the emotional reaction and the output of that—whether it’s words or actions—I think that’s something all of us could do maybe a little bit better job of. It’s funny how… 

[37:50]

I’m still learning. Sometimes I ignore my own advice, but for the most part, I give it eight hours.

[37:54]

For me, that’s really good in marriage, by the way. So like that and raising kids… 

[38:00]

You don’t always have eight hours, but if you take five minutes…

[38:04]

Going to put a pin in that just for a minute. Before we close out, I do want to talk a little bit about your blog. So you’ve had a longstanding blog on product and a newsletter. I love your newsletter, by the way. I really do. I read it every time it comes through more of like a bullet depending on my time, but it’s very insightful. I was pull something out. I love the references to other people’s work. That is also great. And you’re active on Twitter pushing the same, similar, obviously, in a Twitter context, but maybe you talk to us a little bit about that work. Where it spawned from? And your inspiration, I think, would be really interesting, and then what you cover. 

[38:42]

Yeah, so I’m coming up on ten years on the Elezea blog. The first post was in August, 2009. And I remember it because it was just after I resigned at eBay and we decided to move back to South Africa. And back to that original, initial discussion we had of getting smarter by osmosis is that I felt like I was in this incredible environment surrounded by people, and I was moving back to South Africa that has less developed technology culture and I was so scared of losing that that I decided to start this blog (at that point it was just a blog) as a way to force myself to keep learning—back to the keep learning thing, just to keep myself honest so that I don’t lose that. And that ended up being the best decision I ever made for my career. That led to publishing on Smashing Magazine; it led to the book; it led to multiple jobs. I have one regret and that is not choosing a better domain name. If I have one recommendation, it’s don’t choose a domain name that no one can remember or pronounce or spell. That is a bad thing. But now ten years later, there’s nothing I can do about it. Like it’s built up all this stuff in Google and I can’t change it, but I thought I was being smart. I wanted five letters and it has this great meaning. It’s a Swahili word that means “to elucidate, to clarify.” That’s this great thing and a great logo, but no one can ever remember it and no one wants to pronounce it. It’s E-le-ze-a, but no one ever wants to say that. 

[40:15]

Elezea. Yeah, I was wondering about that.  I was a little bit hesitant to botch that as well. 

[40:19]

No one wants to say it. 

[40:21]

But it is a fantastic source and by the way, Insights Nation, it is 100% free, which is also remarkable. Have you thought about a paid structure for that content? 

[40:33]

I do have that now more as a patronage setup. As I’m going on ten years, I did the math and the site cost me quite a bit every month in hosting and time and I pay for MailChimp like this. All these things that I just pay for and a have for a very long time and just realized I’m entering the second decade of this thing. And as I did that I thought, what do I really want to do? And I was like, I just want to keep writing. So there’s a patronage thing that’s like three bucks a month or something. There’s nothing special about it. If people find value in it… I just want to break even with it at some point where it’s not actually costing me anything every month. That’s all I want. So we’re not quite there yet. I’m not surprised you don’t know about it because it’s not something I push very hard. It’s just like I want to eventually, if I’m lucky, break even. 

[41:29]

We will definitely jump on that wagon. Listen, so I will make one recommendation that I’ve seen work really well in that on the paid side. And that is stickers. It’s stupid, right? So it costs a couple bucks to manufacture. But, if somebody jumps on the bandwagon for like a 12 month or whatever kind of thing and they get a sticker and then they can put you know, laptop sticker and it has this almost like “I’m part of this thing that’s cool” connection to it. 

[41:57]

Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about… I’d love to do a run of T-shirts. Not that I’m doing firewall, but I’d love to do that at some point. I was linked once eight years ago, but that’s a different story. But I do send people a PDF copy of the book if they sign up for that. But, yeah, stickers is a better idea, I think. 

[42:20]

My guest today has been Rian van der Merwe. How’d I do? 

[42:25]

Excellent, man. So good. Don’t put that video in the show notes, please.  

[42:32]

I’m going to have. I won’t. Don’t worry. I’ll put your improvement. Speaker, writer and responsible for product at Postmark. It has been an absolute pleasure to reconnect with you. Thank you so much Rian, for being on the show today. 

[42:45]

Thanks, Jamin. That was great. 

[42:47]

Everyone else, if you’d please take the time to screenshot, share this on social media, I would greatly appreciate it. Also, your five-star ratings mean that other people like you will be able to find this show. If you have any feedback, content you would like added to it or just stuff that you hate about me, feel free to email me at Jamin@happymr.com. Have a wonderful rest of your day. 

[43:21]

This episode is brought to you by HubUx.  HubUx is a productivity tool for qualitative research.  It creates a seamless workflow across your tools and team.  Originally, came up with the idea as I was listening to research professionals in both the quant and qual space complain about and articulate the pain, I guess more succinctly, around managing qualitative research.  The one big problem with qualitative is it’s synchronous in nature, and it requires 100% of the attention of the respondent. This creates a big barrier, and, I believe, a tremendous opportunity inside of the marketplace.  So what we do is we take the tools that you use; we integrate them into a work flow so that, ultimately, you enter in your project details, that is, who it is that you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them, whether it’s a focus group, in-person, or virtual or IDI’s or ethnos; and we connect you to those right people in the times that you want to have those conversations or connections – Push-Button Qualitative Insights, HubUx.  If you have any questions, reach out to me directly. I would appreciate it. Jamin@HubUx.com. Have a great rest of your day.