Mario Sundar's Speakeasy

Twitter's 1st evangelism comms guy, Linkedin's 2nd PR guy. These are my thoughts on tech, public relations, and life.

Time for Stories: The Next Era Of Social Media is Now!

LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, now Firework

This post has been a long time coming. But I couldn’t have picked a better time.

It’s when the dust settles, that the stories begin.

The past decade has truly been a roller-coaster in my life and work 1; but the highs can be captured in two startups I was a part of, and whose products I’m most passionate about. And my excitement at a third startup, where I started recently.


Preamble

It is 12 years since I started at LinkedIn 2.

A whole eternity has passed between now and then. Social has evolved from the social network to the feed 3 to “the like,” 4, both of which reinvented modern communication, to Twitter’s @ mention, hashtag and threads and finally today’s ubiquitous Stories.

It is these 3 social tech innovations that have signaled a paradigm shift in how we communicate — game-changers — and I’ve been lucky enough to have been a part of two of these seminal moments in technology. Here’s that story, and mine.

Network.

Hashtag.

Stories.


Network. When LinkedIn Changed Work.

I recall when I started at LinkedIn the world was a different place, Twitter wasn’t around, Facebook was still just in colleges and Friendster was a cautionary tale.

LinkedIn didn’t even have a profile picture and there were extensive debates on adding this simple feature! But the six years that followed LinkedIn launched a slew of new features (Hat tip, @adamnash) that is now a mainstay of professional networking whether it was People Search, the world’s first application platform for professionals, game-changing smart features like Who’s Viewed my Profile, or LinkedIn News that originally launched as “LinkedIn Today” (stealth version was called “LinkedIn Signal”) — becoming today’s modern resume and Professional News Magazine in one.

Regardless, it was an exciting part of my journey in social tech, that was made even more special as nearly half a billion professionals across the globe today call LinkedIn, their work home!

Next stop. Twitter!


Hashtag. When Twitter Changed News.

While at LinkedIn, Twitter was starting out and I recall when one of my colleagues, Steve Ganz, brought it back from SXSW in 2006, and gave me a hands-on guide 5.

38,000 Tweets, 13 years, and 7500 followers later, I’m still smitten.

Twitter, as a product, was a slow-burn but a few weeks in and I was hooked and it was clear from day one that it was an information sharing powerhouse. Ditto for Facebook, I remember Jeremiah Owyang, rave about Facebook after an afternoon of golf. But, I digress…

Fast forward, 10 years and there I was at Twitter HQ, as part of the PR team built by Natalie Kerris, Apple veteran, and yes it was thrilling to be a part of a product that only rivals Apple in my daily consumption.

Twitter products that have changed the world, include the world’s acceptance of the @ mention (that was invented by @jack), Retweets (a throwback to the era of blogging where you reblogged others), the hashtag (accidentally invented by Chris Messina) and the Twitter thread (that was accidentally invented by another user, Marc Andreessen).

Walking into their San Francisco offices (seems quaint now in the era of the pandemic where Twitter WFH for life!), but the time I spent there (albeit short-lived) was worth the space Twitter occupies in my heart. And I wish it had been longer… Gotta move.

Next Stop. Now!


Stories. When Snapchat Changed Publishing.

Since Twitter, we have seen 4 years of chaos in the world culminating in an election that just wrapped. I have been at a couple of other startups, including one that competed with Google Photos, and was later acquired by Snapchat.

Speaking of Snapchat.

It is clear that what Snapchat created with Stories has taken the world by storm. Never have I seen a social feature, get copied so thoroughly. And, Snapchat just copied TikTok today.

Just this past year, we have seen every social platform from Pinterest to (yes!) LinkedIn, mimic this feature and pay homage to the most exciting space in social tech; one that is short, compelling and visual.

Tomorrow. The Best Part of Storytelling is Now.

That brings me to the latest startup I joined recentlyFirework.

Through a challenging few years, I find my life and career come full circle within the social space. This is a startup that gives me a chance to once again work by the side of Jerry Luk (co-founder, Firework) who built LinkedIn’s mobile app, back in the day.

Firework sits in the short video and stories space, a grown-up more like Google AMP Stories, than the flippant memes you might see on TikTok. A creative medium that lets publishers tell their boldest new stories in modern ways, while connecting with an emerging global audience in ways that has never been done before!


Stay Tuned for more…

It has been quite a journey since LinkedIn in 2005 and it’s been even more tumultuous in the past 6 months, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

I will continue blogging my thoughts on life in the time of Covid-19, evolution of social technology, and my personal focus on health, fitness, and spirituality.

So follow me and over 10,000 of my followers and connections on LinkedIn and Twitter. For now, the easiest would be for you to follow me on Twitter @mariosundar.


  1. I recently walked through what made it such a wild ride, and how meditation & running saved me. ↩︎
  2. Here’s an early interview I did with friend & analyst Jeremiah Owyang, where an awkward me talks him through what all this means to tech and me ↩︎
  3. Remember when the chaos erupting from their users when Facebook launched the feed in 2006 ↩︎
  4. The “Like” was created by Bret Taylor, who also created Google Maps, and much later Quip, which sold to Salesforce ↩︎
  5. I also recall LinkedIn co-founder and Head of Product, Allen Blue, giving me a demo of the very first iPhone when he got his before the rest of us, time stood still! ↩︎

Filed under: About Mario Sundar, Best-of, Firework, TikTok, What's New in Social Media

CEOs Good to Great: Who Makes the Cut and Why?

3 Lessons I Learned from Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn

My five years at LinkedIn 1 is the best experience of my career.

One of the biggest reasons: Jeff Weiner.

Here’s my thoughts on what made Jeff the best CEO I’ve ever worked with, as he transitioned his role a month ago to Ryan Roslansky after 11 years of one of the most successful runs as Chief Executive I’ve ever seen.

From L – R: Jeff’s first LinkedIn Hackday judging with Adam Nash hosting, to the picture on the right, arguably (correct me if I’m wrong) Jeff’s first LinkedIn All-Hands in 2009 as he was introduced as CEO by founder Reid Hoffman, and below: my peers in the marketing & comms team, circa 2008: Richard Chen & Krista Canfield

There are Good CEOs, and then there are Great CEOs. Besides, Jeff Weiner, Dan Nye and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), I have worked on Jack Dorsey’s team (Twitter), Andrew Dudum (who now runs Hims) and worked closely with Adam Nash (CEO Wealthfront) during his time at LinkedIn — one of the best product minds I’ve ever seen. But, I can objectively say, Jeff Weiner is as good as it gets as a leader.

Here’s three reasons why and three lessons I learned:


Lesson 1: Compassion As Purpose

Jeff Weiner was always about the High-Order Bit. I talk about that in my post on grief. As Steve Jobs would often say, what is your high-order bit. And Jeff would always ask us to stack-rank prioritize our goals, and if I had to pick the highest-ranked legacy of Jeff’s — it’d have to be compassion.

Harvard Business Review wrote about the “Best Leaders being Great Teachers,” in which they relate a story shared by Mike Gamson 2, who I got to know in 2008 and who went on to lead LinkedIn’s Sales efforts:

Another example comes from Mike Gamson, a senior vice president at LinkedIn, who told Business Insider that his first meeting with the company’s new CEO, Jeff Weiner, involved a two-hour discussion of Buddhist principles. Gamson said he wanted to be a more empathetic leader, and Weiner asked why he wasn’t instead aiming to be more compassionate. The pair explored the difference between those concepts, with recourse to a religious parable.

I have a similar story, though I wish I had the chance to explore spirituality more with Jeff, than just this brief moment during my time at LinkedIn…

The Aha Moment: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Some of you may have read my recent post on how Meditation has become an incredibly important part of my life, helping deal with grief and cope with chaos.

Way before that post, there was this anecdote:

During my time at LinkedIn (since early 2007) I had the opportunity to work with the founding team, executive team, and Jeff during his first few years since his time as acting CEO.

Fast forward, to a particularly high-stakes conversation I was having with Jeff in the middle of a tumultuous period in my life, and (of course) I have a panic attack 3.

I don’t know how other CEOs might have handled it; maybe they’d asked me to collect myself and reschedule the meeting, but Jeff instead helped guide me through composing myself while he suggested breathing techniques that are common to those who meditate, and it helped calm me and got me on to the habit of meditation that I have finally put into consistent practice.

Sure, it felt strange sharing this here, but it’s the tiny moments in life that leave a mark. Of the five years I spent at LinkedIn, this experience is at the top of my list!

Compassion in the Workplace: A Feature, Not a Bug

CEOs also need to recognize that we are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, stressors mounting by the minute 4, an epidemic of loneliness so desolate that compassion is more relevant now than ever in the history of the workplace.

A group of researchers from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School released results from a survey they conducted in the second half of May, and 55% of people said they were more stressed than in January, before the virus was perceived to be a widespread threat.

We are living through unprecedented times, when over half of a country’s adults are under a once-in-a-century moment in history and this situation is only likely to continue.

As the workforce transitions into Gen-Z you recognize that unlike prior generations, they care most about personal well being and a work-life balance and more than ever, they crave a sense of purpose. 5. The two biggest takeaways post-pandemic (epidemic of loneliness and the WFH phenomenon) will demand that CEOs be more compassionate, wise and spiritual; the best among them setting an example worth emulating.

Jeff has also created a platform-for-compassion in The Compassion Project for elementary school students across the United States, inspired by the PBS Documentary “A Class Divided;” a classroom experiment in compassion that has its origins in a teacher’s efforts to calm her students and help them understand discrimination and divisiveness in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination.

We’re in a time where people are increasingly being torn apart. People are looking to reinforce their own views by connecting with others that look like them and sound like them. Tribalism, as some would call it, is reinforced through both conventional and new media channels. – Jeff Weiner

Couldn’t agree more. It’s never been more important than in these days Black Lives Matter, where stoked by the fires of circumstance and polarization, we find our deepest insecurities bleed into an epidemic of anxiety.

These circumstances are seeing parents moonlight as teachers while going about their day jobs, a shocking increase abuse, both in homes and in the workplace, as we continue to isolate and expose ourselves to the searing heat of 2020. It is, now more than ever, for all of us (at work and home) to create a platform for compassion in every imaginable scenario.

Great leaders don’t just teach about work—they also proffer deeper wisdom. – Harvard Business Review

Lesson 2: Clarity, Consistency and Curiosity

The very first thing I recall Jeff define as CEO was a clear vision (“Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce”) and mission (“Connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”). Remember this was before the IPO, when LinkedIn has 30 million users (that under his leadership has scaled to 700 million users) 6, and the stack-ranked priority, the high-order bit for Jeff was identifying those core values, then sharing that with the leadership team, and as part of his Comms team our priority was disseminating that vision across our entire company.

One Vision, One Mission, Godspeed.

The Vision Jeff entrusted with his teams, and the Mission he demanded we create for ourselves were reiterated over and over again, until you could blurt it out were someone to wake you rudely in the middle of the night.

And everyone in the company knew that 7, as Reid continues:

Jeff says that you build trust through consistency over time. One of the things he said that stuck in my mind was that by the time that you’re getting bored of yourself saying a message, your organization is just beginning to hear it.

And Jeff hired for Mission Sync:

This showed up in how Jeff recruited people to LinkedIn. His pitch wasn’t, “Come work for me.” It was, “Come work together with me on this mission.”

Great Leaders Teach, But Also Relentlessly Learn

Star leaders also take a page from Socrates and teach by asking sharp, relevant questions, often in the course of furthering their own learning. According to a colleague at HCA, Frist “was always asking probing questions to find out what was happening.” He did it to “educate himself, not to make you feel like you were doing something appropriate or inappropriate. It was an educational venture.” 8

Jeff’s product curiosity was always spot-on. Not only was he one of the first few people at LinkedIn, who understood the true import of Twitter that I evangelized internally relentlessly, when everyone was wondering where does fit into the larger corporate storytelling paradigm. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, relates a similar story about Jeff when he first visited Jeff at Yahoo! Network critiquing the product with Jeff’s team 9

Jeff’s reaction was perfect and telling — he was intellectually curious rather than defensive. He showed an intensity of curiosity and learning, especially towards being what I call an infinite learner. And, he wanted his people to talk and interact more than he did, which reflects Jeff’s focus on leading the team, as well as being a part of the team. – Reid Hoffman on Jeff Weiner

Lesson 3: Culture & Community

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer, famously asked 10 Jobs during the last few months of his life, thus:

I once asked him what he thought was his most important creation, thinking he would answer the iPad or the Macintosh. Instead he said it was Apple the company. Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product.

And I think Jeff understood that very well, since the day he started at LinkedIn.

Our All-Hands was a big deal. And with Jeff’s arrival, it became the heart-and-soul of LinkedIn’s culture. I briefly had the fortune of working with Jeff on crafting those until my good friend Armen Vartanian took over, and it was clear from Day One, Jeff was going to carry forward the vision and reiterate it in ways — both artful and purposeful — at these gatherings.

The All-Hands wasn’t just an excuse for us to gather, like the Pixar building that Steve Jobs built, but it was a reason to be a part of something bigger than yourself. It was the culture, given who LinkedIn is about connecting every single professional in the world — bigger than all of us professionals working at LinkedIn.

And it worked. And it shows.

How You Go from 100s to 16,000 Employees!

In another distinct way, Jeff’s actions pay homage to the lessons left by Steve Jobs, especially with the way he crafted his transition, to Ryan Roslansky, who came to LinkedIn from Yahoo!

Jobs maintained an excellent and relatively stable executive team during his second tenure at Apple. The more mature and confident he became, the more he surrounded himself with strong, opinionated executives who felt comfortable arguing with him. – There Is No “I” in Steve, Fast Company

Jeff came to LinkedIn that way. With a team in mind, a plan in place and this transition, as Reid suggests was always the best case outcome, and kudos for finding a stellar product leader to carry forward that vision:

Another great lesson I learned from Jeff was the importance of having multiple succession plans for every executive — one for an immediate emergency successor, one for a year down the road, and one for the long-term. Ryan was Jeff’s long-term succession plan. He was Jeff’s first hire after arriving at LinkedIn, and had worked for him at Yahoo for five years before that, so they have a very strong and lasting alliance. – Reid Hoffman

Jeff’s Biggest Legacy is the team he built and is leaving behind. Having briefly crossed paths with Ryan, it’s clear LinkedIn is in great hands.


In Summary; Thank You Jeff!

And, yes, these are all stellar examples of why was trending on LinkedIn a few weeks ago, given the outpouring of gratitude and employees, past and present, sharing their career high — working for Jeff.

Of course, in classic Jeff style, the All-Hands was a huge-send off with singing of Jeff’s favorite song, which did and would have brought tears to the eyes of anyone who had the pleasure of working at LinkedIn with Jeff during a glorious run. No wonder, the hashtag was trending for a while.

This is my story.

For showing me what real leadership is; #ThankYouJeff!

The Last LinkedIn Alumni Reunion Dinner I attended in 2019 with some of the early folks, hope to see Jeff in the future


  1. My alma-mater of over five years, and where I spent my most informative and insightful years as the second PR & Marketing Hire right through to our I.P.O. ↩︎
  2. A great Harvard Business Review by Sydney Finkelstein on what separates the best leaders – the ones that teach ↩︎
  3. Check out how meditation helps me cope with grief, while dealing with a relentless pandemic in 2020 here and how this episode might have been my first foray into meditation ↩︎
  4. Here’s the most recent study on July 1, 2020, that finds 55% of Americans are stressed with numbers shooting up if you’re past 50 years of age ↩︎
  5. Source: Dynamic Signal, “When Gen-Z’ers believe they are surrounded by like-minded people who feel their effort has a purpose, work is less like a job.” ↩︎
  6. Source: Statista and 400 employees (that Jeff scaled to 16,000 employees!), Growth of LinkedIn members from 2009 to 2016 ↩︎
  7. Here in Jeff’s own words that we heard reiterated during those formative years, how and why one should define their Vision, Mission and Values so clearly ↩︎
  8. Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Tuck School, Dartmouth, writes “Best Leaders are Great Teachers” for the Harvard Business Review, calls out their Socratic approach as well as their compassion ↩︎
  9. I’d highly recommend you check out Reid Hoffman’s LinkedIn post on Learnings from Jeff ↩︎
  10. This Harvard Business Review piece by Walter Isaacson outlines The Real Leadership Lessons of Jobs, which include Focus, Simplify, and Taking Responsibility to the End ↩︎

 

Filed under: Best-of, Jeff Weiner, Latest at LinkedIn, Linkedin, LinkedIn Colleagues, LinkedIn in the News, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Thoughts

2020: Reflections on a Year Gone Wrong!

How I escaped my worst year and what it taught me about 2020

It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.

2020 was the worst of times!


Table of Contents

2020 is unlike any other year in modern history. It is up there with 1918, 1919 and 1920; the three years suffused by World War I, that got decimated by the Spanish Flu. A pandemic of epic proportions that laid waste to 100 million lives, and came back wave after wave decimating hundreds of thousands more with each subsequent wave two and three times as awful as the first in the spring of 1918 1.

That’s where we find ourselves this beautiful summer morning in 2020. On top of the pandemic rearing its head, we find ourselves in a couple more pandemics; racial and informational, both of which have been exacerbated since the 2016 election leading to the most divisive climate in this nation’s great history.

But you wonder, what was my worst year and what does it have to do with 2020.


2016: The Worst Year of my Life, Until 2020

I lost my Mom.

I lost my Dream Job.

I lost my Girlfriend.

Snapchat from WayBack: Pics From my last trip that reunited me with my parents, sister, and nephew Gabe.

I didn’t see this coming — at all! To lose one of the above, and I’ve seen people lose their minds. To lose all three, albeit slowly, then suddenly and some in parallel; was an earthquake, on top of a tsunami in the middle of a hurricane. And to sit there in the middle of that storm unraveling, was an uncanny experience and one that has steeled me for the rest of my life. In particular, one that has steeled me for 2020.2

“There is no love of life, without despair of life.” – Albert Camus

Here’s my story of 2016, what I learned from it, and how I’m applying it to this Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” ― Viktor E. Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning

What I’d have given to not go through those months of distress, losing the most important people in the world to me, seemed cruel and incomprehensible 3, but as cliche as it sounds, those tears were meant to teach.

Turbulence clouds the mind, mists the future, and all I could do was silently spiral into a mental paralysis. As I now connect those dots; when all three had fallen through, it truly felt like falling off of a cliff and I was free-falling. And there was nothing to stop the fall.

And it was at that moment, that I found meditation.


Step 1: Find your High-Order Bit!

Steve Jobs calls it the High-Order Bit. The one that has the power to unlock other powers, exponential across other options. Jeff Weiner, in his very first week at LinkedIn, told all of us to come up with each team’s mission / vision statement, and then figure out our stack-ranked priorities as we re-aligned every part of the organization. And the high-order bit is the one that sits atop that pyramid of priorities.

If you could do just one thing right now, and one thing only with the most impact on every other priority, what’d it be?

For me, that was meditation.4

Fight, Flight or Meditate?

To be honest, at that point in 2016 when the bottom fell out, I wasn’t thinking straight. I was free falling, and my-then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-ex recommended guided meditation with former teacher of hers. And all it took was one session, and the free-falling turned to free-floating. A free association of ideas, possibilities and peace. And since then, I’ve tried my darndest to describe what meditation is, to the uninitiated.

3 Keys to Meditation: The why, the when (it works) and the how of meditation?!

The Why: Bend or Be Broken!

“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” – Confucius

The parables are as old as Time itself, but the lessons are simple, and frankly until you experience that moment of no return, when you lose someone you dearly love and can’t ever see them again; when you walk through and out that door.

That’s when shit feels real.

As Harvard University psychiatrist George Vaillant, describes in the most recent edition of Scientific American, describing the mental health crisis humanity faces, thanks to the pandemic.

A resilient individual resembles a twig with a fresh, green living core. “When twisted out of shape, such a twig bends, but it does not break; instead it springs back and continues growing.” 5

Apparently 2/3rds of individuals recover from traumatic episodes and may even learn from it, but a third of us are lost for months, maybe years.

My own experience from a couple of years ago, could have turned out vastly different, were it not for some opportune decisions I made; regardless, I did lose time to the vicissitudes of trauma. Decisions, like meditation, that came through a lot of soul-searching, a supportive family, and a few good friends that cared about me.

Without them, I’d have been lost, and my writing is an humble effort at educating even one lost soul how I came through that door, and lived to tell the tale.

When you lose a parent (especially, a parent); that’s when all bets are off. The foundation shows its true shaky premise and you have to hold on for dear life, spiritually. But what presents itself as an impossibility — “how could this happen to me,” and “how will I ever get out of this situation,” gives you the ultimate lesson in living — “Let Be.”

The Bard Said it Best: “Let Be”

Hamlet (Act 5, scene 2, 217–224):
Not a whit, we defy augury.6 There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to

come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all.
Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t

to leave betimes, let be.

Accepting I don’t have all the answers, that where I am isn’t the endgame, that I don’t even have a clue what the endgame is (!), and looking forward into the “abyss” with peace, not fear at the uncertainty — is what meditation teaches us. Much like Yoga isn’t just about the physical solace it provides, nor is Meditation just about calming the mind. It’s about using the storm, to find the calm — the eye of the storm.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape. – Pema Chodron

The When: Meditation is the Cure, The Key is in the Abyss!

“The Arrival of Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” – Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche 7

With apologies to Winston Churchill, “We can all be trusted to do the right thing (in this case, Meditation), once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

I had tried meditation in the past, but never felt the need for it, nor did I miss it. But, when things got ugly, I frankly had no other alternative, and the more I held on tightly to everything that was slipping, like sand, through my fingers; the more I needed an out, and that’s where meditation came in.

It’s as if someone found the secret to life, locked it in a treasure chest, threw the chest and the key down the abyss. And each time one of us stares into the abyss, we fear it swallows us whole. But, the journey to find the key must be made.

The journey to find the key is the right thing. The only option.

And so does fear. In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness. – Pema Chodron

And the right thing… is meditation.

There is nowhere to hide.

Sometimes, however, we are cornered; everything falls apart, and we run out of options for escape. At times like that, the most profound spiritual truths seem pretty straightforward and ordinary. There’s nowhere to hide. – Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

There is nowhere to run.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. – Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech

Now, meditate.

The How-To Meditate: Zoom out, Zoom in!

Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear. – Pema Chodron

The secret to meditation is letting go with focus, and to “not get carried away by hope and fear.” You’re watching your life unfold, without the affectation of your ego. It’s the real world mental equivalent of the Dolly Zoom, best encapsulated by the famous scene in Jaws:

“You can observe more of the background, while keeping the foreground in the same place.”

The Dolly Zoom as you can see describes meditation perfectly. In much the same way as the Dolly Zoom, employs both the telephoto and the wide-angle lenses at the same time, meditation is the deliberate practice to lose yourself-and-your-ego by focusing on two things at once — the foreground of your life, and the background of your life — until they both disappear and you experience this weightless, groundless feeling as described by Pema when you’re fully in the Now-minus-Ego.

The challenge with meditation is that it’s underrated and vastly misunderstood, so many folks let go of the practice before they master it. Let me walk you through my three simple hacks to get started. Stick with this for at least 30 days, and let me know whether it worked or not @mariosundar.

I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind

I wanna do things for the benefit of all mankind

I say to the willow tree, “Don’t wait for me”

I’m saying to hell with all things that used to be

— “My Own Version of You,” by Bob Dylan

Step 1: Third Eye First, Tune your Spine!

The three steps I outline need to happen at once, and there will be a moment when you subconsciously do all three, but I’m still at the stage where I’m tryna ride this bicycle of my mind, and those moments of blissful riding the mind are few and far in-between.

While there might be a lot of exaggerated stories about the “Third Eye,” the fact of the matter is that it’s a simple hack to focus on a specific point, it could be a mantra (as is common in Transcendental Meditation – that everyone from Howard Stern to Jerry Seinfeld swear by), but the answer is simple — find a word or visual spot to focus.

Personally, I shut my eyes, sit erect on my yoga pillow and focus on a spot between my eyebrows and trust me be — it is not easy to focus for a concentrated period of time on any spot (visual or mantric), and the trick is to pursue that for as long as you can. And if you can do that for more than a few minutes, you’ll see yourself floating away, while focusing on that spot.

Dolly Zoom your mind. Tuning Fork Your Spine!

In yoga meditation, the meditator withdraws the life force (prana) from the sensory and motor nerves — by a process known as pranayama (life-force control) — and directs it to the higher centers of awareness within the spine and brain. – Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship

That’s where you start. Keep your spine straight and your focus on either a mantra or a visual point between your eyebrows.

Step 2: Empty Your Breath

Equally important, I realize how crucial proper breathing is to achieve the meditative flow, after you hit the first two notes from Step 1. It’s amazing how bad we are at breathing right; anxiety and stress and alcohol and lack of sleep doesn’t help. But meditation can be a bridge to getting better at something so foundational to better living.

Controlled breathing, like what you just practiced, has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment. – New York Times, The Benefits of Controlled Breathing 8

My first experience with this was during a particularly high-stakes conversation I had with Jeff Weiner 9 way back in 2010, who I had the pleasure of working with during my nearly 6 years at LinkedIn, and I recall him asking me to breathe in and out, in a measured way when I was about to have a panic attack (more on my anxiety in a later post). But that worked, and it’s clear why that is the case.

Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol. – New York Times, The Benefits of Controlled Breathing 10

Next week, I’ll outline the modern tools I use to track the effectiveness of my meditation, if you’d like to track that either subscribe to this blog here, or follow me @mariosundar.

Sneak peak (Week of June 29, 2020: Meditation Hardware)

  • The Apple Watch (Tracking Runs, Meditation and Workouts)
  • Core vs. Muse (Tracks Meditation)
  • Komuso Design (Tracks Breathing)

Sneak peak (Week of July 6, 2020: Meditation Software)

  • Headspace vs. Calm
  • Core vs. Muse
  • Transcendental Meditation (TM) vs. Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF)
Step 3: Empty Your Mind

So, the worst year of my life and what it taught me about 2020.

I didn’t think I’d make it out of 2016 in one piece. But, here I am. Thanks to family; thanks to a few close friends. And thanks to my biggest epiphany.

All happiness rests in one place. Between our ears! There’s the rub…

Happiness isn’t a given. Kurosawa, inarguably the greatest writer / filmmaker ever, once said:

“With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. … The script must be something that has the power to do this.”

With bad software between your ears, even the best circumstances life gifts you might be wasted materially, and most definitely spiritually. But with good software buoyed by daily meditation, calm and equanimity, you will take anything life throws at you, and you will create a masterpiece.

Yes, it sure has been a long, hard drive

But someday every thing’s gonna be different

When I paint that masterpiece – Bob Dylan

Since 2016, right through to the Pandemic of 2020…

I ran most days (88% – 92%).

I quit alcohol.

I lost 50 pounds.


Finally, I’m back to writing.

SnapBack to Now: That’s me, 50 pounds lighter, before the Pandemic of 2020, in front of my favorite restaurant

Now, let’s do this all over again! Here we go…

The best way to follow my writing is Twitter. I’m also in the process of redesigning so you can find my writing in your Inbox!Please subscribe to @mariosundar, with 7500 other friends who follow me, or if you’re in Public Relations or Marketing, connect with me on LinkedIn, with 3500 other professionals in our space. I also have a secret project I’ll be launching shortly. Stay tuned.

It’s good to be back.


  1. Source: John Barry’s “The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” that outlines the excruciating spread of a pandemic that took 100 million lives and 5% of the world’s population, with two thirds of lives taken between 18 – 45 years, across three waves in the middle of a World War, via Peter Attia’s excellent podcast — The Drive ↩︎
  2. My experiences resemble this retelling in the New York Times by Eva Holland, Author of “Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear.” I call it “Deliberate Resilience.” ↩︎
  3. Everything at that moment, will feel random, meaningless, surreal, but make no mistake, it is suffused with meaning and it will take years to unwrap. The only gift I wish for you is to be open and curious over the next few years. ↩︎
  4. This is particularly true for those of us, stuck at home, with our inner demons. Sam Lansky, Author of Broken People, nails this dangerous time to slip-and-slide into binge-eating-or-drinking in his terrific TIME piece Stuck With Yourself: The Hidden Price of a Pandemic ↩︎
  5. An introspective Scientific American feature delves into similar themes I discuss in this post on the macro-psychological view of the pandemic and how 2.6 Billion people are coping with anxiety ↩︎
  6. The exact moment where Hamlet recognizes everything is out of his control, and learns in the following lines to accept with grace, and the moment shall arrive. More here ↩︎
  7. A beautiful primer on why “Chaos is Good News” from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche ↩︎
  8. Lesley Alderman, Psychotherapist and New York Times’ contributor, outlines the Breathe-Exhale-Repeat Formula that is a necessary Step 2 in my outline for meditation efficiency ↩︎
  9. Jeff Weiner is currently Executive Chairman at LinkedIn, and I had the pleasure of learning and working with him during the first four years after he began LinkedIn’s comeback from layoffs back in 2008 ↩︎
  10. “Breathing is meditation for people who can’t meditate,” says Dr. Belisa Vranich, author of the book “Breathe”) ↩︎

Filed under: About Mario Sundar, Best-of, Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn Colleagues, Thoughts, Writing

Five Reasons I ditched Writing App “iA Writer” for “Ulysses!”

Writing and blogging tools have come a long way since I first started using iA Writer, one of the simplest writing tools I could find to publish on WordPress or Medium. Today, there seem to be three writing apps of varying degrees of complexity from left to right that has risen to the top — iA Writer, Ulysses, and Scrivener.

Kafka on Writing or How to Beat Writer's Block
Kafka on Writing or How to Beat Writer’s Block

After some debate, and a few years of using iA Writer, I switched to Ulysses recently since it feels like a grown-up version of iA Writer. It takes the craft of writing seriously, provides an accountability better than any other writing platform and seems to make the inscrutable keyboard-friendly plain text formatting syntax — Markdown just as simple as needed. So, without further ado, here are the five reasons I decided to “upgrade” to Ulysses from iA Writer.

Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.

Franz Kafka, born on July 3rd and my greatest inspiration to overcoming writer’s block

Five Reasons to Switch to Ulysses!

  • Better Organization: There’s a story to be told about story-writing platforms like iA Writer and Scrivener but Ulysses organizes itself best from the eyes of a writer
    • The Writer’s Journey: The way the app is organized — from personal notes to blogging to writing a book; all the while allowing for random thoughts to permeate an “Inbox” is a terrific way to organize the writing process, regardless of your stage of writing interest.
    • Markdown Onboarding: The challenge at times (for me) with iA Writer was that the organization was rather nebulous around Markdown; 1 that seemingly is a feature, not a bug. Ulysses on the other hand does a pretty good job of educating you on Markdown and distills it down to core features that every writer needs – whether it is adding images, videos, or footnotes (all three of which I had desperately sought to add on iA Writer but constantly lost and finding myself scouring the web for Markdown syntax). Not only does Ulysses guide you while you type in markdown commands but it eases the confusion should you forget the syntax; like when you try to add a URL with the basic syntax, it automatically pops up the URL title bar and you take it from there vs. not knowing if what you did was right.
Markdown to add images on Ulysses
Markdown to add images on Ulysses

I get a distinct feeling, there’s a lot more onboarding magic waiting to happen within Ulysses as I continue to use it, and with the determination to get back into the daily writing game, it was crucial that I had a product that allowed me to see progress being made and that held me accountable.

Onboarding their Subscription and building a community made it worth the price of admission
Onboarding their Subscription and building a community made it worth the price of admission
  • Progress Bar: I love the goal-setting feature which pops up when you hit attachments in the main-screen that allows you to not only tag (which makes for the easiest organization; something that iA Writer was strangely lacking) but also lets you add images (yet another feature that I found missing in iA Writer because previews were almost impossible to do); but most importantly, it allows for goal setting (both in number of characters, but more importantly with a due date for your writing). Believe it or not, the past week has seen me draft over three posts, and being intentional about setting a date/time to start blogging and completing the process truly helps beat back writer’s block.
  • Backup & Version Control: Oddly enough, losing a well-written draft on iA Writer was the trigger that led to my switching apps and one that early users of Microsoft Word might recall. I still can’t find that iA doc which was lost while transferring it across folders on iCloud. And just the fact that Ulysses backs up all its documents with version control was enough for me to switch. Just syncing across devices within iOS isn’t enough (maybe if you’re a real amateur) but it’s the ability to hold the documents in place, for perpetuity that gives a writing app the distinction it deserves.

    It’s like one of my favorite moments from Seinfeld, where Jerry and Elaine mock the reservationist for taking their reservations but not holding it.

    See, you know how to take the reservation; you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation – the holding!

    Anybody can just take em.

     

     

  • Multimedia: Speaking of embedding YouTube videos, the only reason I briefly switched to Medium (more on this later) was their exceptional web editor that allows you to preview any multimedia link (from images to YouTube videos to tweets) right there on the page as will be seen on your published page. That’s a terrific feature and one that iA Writer could care less about (remember, they are the markdown writer — plain text writer) but frankly, most of my posts are social in that they connect to a bunch of images, videos, and tweets as jumping off points for conversations. Ulysses is helpful in embedding / previewing pics, embedding videos (not previewing) and are yet to allow for either on tweets. Regardless, this is a considerable upgrade from the iA Writer interface whose primary goal was not moving from your keyboard but made previewing quite the pain.
  • Quality Pays: Finally, the pricing. The fact is there’s a reason one pays for a Mac vs. a lesser priced PC and that argument has been made before. While iA Writer charges $29.99 for the Mac version, and $4.99 for the iOS Version and I haven’t paid a penny more since I purchased it years ago.

    Ulysses goes a different model — subscriptions! And while I’m not a fan (I frankly don’t have a clue how many apps I have subscribed for that I don’t use!) this is an app I plan to use on a regular basis. And on a feature-by-feature comparison, it wins. Frankly, it wins on their document organization, keywords, and backups, because — words matter. When you pay for quality, it shows. And $39.99 a year, ain’t too bad a price to pay for that.

What’d make it even better

Medium’s web-based editor is most definitely the best WYSIWYG editor on a blogging platform out there. It’s miles ahead of WordPress and that’s their secret sauce. I just wish something as simple as Ulysses or iA Writer will allow Twitter, YouTube and Image embeds (Ulysses allows image and video embeds — but (vid) embeds doesn’t translate to WordPress and it’s not as good as it can get, auto-play can be)

 

Regardless, I have to stress that writing on iA Writer is a terrific way to get into the habit of writing or getting back in the game. And you can always upgrade to Ulysses later. Love both these writing apps!

Tweet-Roll: Further Reading // Writers to Follow

Thanks to the following writers for their work that I reference and include above. But more importantly, this is a mini-version of blog-roll that used to be a great way to find a community of similar writers. When I started my blogging experience, I found a community of early bloggers who were included in my first blog-roll including @jowyang, @annhandley, @chrisbrogan, and of course, the incomparable @guykawasaki. Further reading and cast for this post, below: 

About Me: Thanks for reading. I’m Mario Sundar, Twitter’s 1st Evangelism lead in 2016, also LinkedIn’s 2nd PR guy between 2007 and 2012. I’ve been blogging for over 10 years and these are my thoughts on technology and communications.

If you like my writing, please subscribe, comment or respond here below. Or you can find me @mariosundar on Twitter.

  1. iA Writer aggressively markets itself as a Writer for Markdown and purposefully stays on point, making simple additions like images and videos painful.

Filed under: Business Blogging, New Products, What's New in Social Media, Writing, , ,

Microsoft’s Office Space under Attack!

When was the last time you felt elated about using Microsoft Word, or Microsoft Outlook, or any of the products in the Microsoft Office Space? Never.

Cue classic Office Space printer demolition scene

All of these products were built with an utter disregard to the user experience, much like printers, much like phones in the pre-iPhone era. All of these products have widespread usage within the enterprise but much like the DMV, don’t seem to give a crap about their users’ experience. But that was before the iPhone. The iPhone taught us was that if we build an exceptional product for users, the enterprise is within reach. Focus on the user and the rest will follow.

Into this new dynamic, we find two new extremely buzzy mobile entrants: Slack and Quip.

  • Both Slack and Quip are meant to operate in a Post-PC world.
  • Both Slack and Quip are mobile-first, making their usage on iPhones and iPads as efficient as using them on the desktop.
  • Both Slack and Quip will eventually take on Microsoft Office if they execute well – Quip, by recreating the killer apps (Word and now spreadsheet) as well as the newsfeed (collaboration) while Slack started with messaging and is now moving to own killer apps like document editing and in the future “calendars and task management.”

Jessica Lessin at The Information, seems to think that Slack and messaging apps’ hype is overrated. But I think she’s missing the bigger picture that Slack and Quip are both not just about messaging.

Be leery of products that tout their better messaging experiences. As Arjun Sethi, co-founder of MessageMe who just joined Yahoo told me: “Messaging is secondary. The primary use case cannot be messaging.”

Agreed. But I think in both cases, Slack and Quip, it’d be inaccurate to think their ambitions are relegated to messaging. Office made Bill Gates the richest man on the planet because of the platform they created.

A platform whose crown jewels thus far remain:

  • Killer apps
    • Documents and spreadsheets (Word and Excel)
    • Presentation (Powerpoint)
  • the dots that connect them
    • Email / collaboration (Outlook and OneNote)

That is all there is to this cash cow, the killer apps and the dots that connect them. For Facebook it’s photos and the feed; for LinkedIn, it’s jobs and their enterprise product; and for Apple it’s the Camera and the Phone.

Interesting to see that all of Microsoft’s office products hinged on the ability for people within an organization to collaborate and I believe this fundamental secret sauce is under attack with products like Quip, Slack and Evernote.

Both Slack and Quip, aim to recreate that dynamic from the ground up in a mobile future that Microsoft frankly does not own nor lead anymore. Quip has created the post-PC version of killer apps that drives work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they built the rest of the killer apps mentioned above (they just launched spreadsheets as a premium feature), should they find a demand for it. And once they create the suite, the superior product experience will drive large teams and enterprises to ask for “Quip Inside” to their IT teams, the same way we bugged our IT teams about switching us from Blackberries to iPhones. And we saw how that played out.

What do you think is Slack and Quip’s potential? Are they overhyped?

Postscript: There are others who are also jostling within this space, like Asana (which aims at collaboration from to-dos) and Evernote (which aims at it from note taking), and as someone who has tried the product I find Quip extremely addictive for an Enterprise product and I’ve heard the same about Slack from startups and friends who have been using them. Box and Dropbox are two other pieces to this puzzle from a server side, with Box playing the LinkedIn to Dropbox’s Facebook.

But make no mistake, what we are seeing right now is the Unbundling of Microsoft.

Filed under: New Products, Quip, Slack

The Secret about Secrets

Dreams are a window to the human soul. So are secrets.


There really is no place to be truly honest on the web today. There’s no place to scream like no one’s watching. Sadly, this is especially true on issues that matter to you, on issues that make you, or issues that break you.

Yesterday’s news that Facebook is dabbling in the creation of an “anonymous” app has Om Malik seeing red. Facebook has owned the market for your identity on the web and now seems to also gravitate towards the opposite end of the spectrum, ostensibly to alter perception on their approach to privacy?

Facebook’s DNA is about mapping people, their relationships and booming their online identity. In fact, online identity is their most killer feature. It is what we all use to log into various websites to leave comments, or sign-in to new apps and services. It is how many Pinterest. Facebook identity is Facebook. So that is why it is hard for me to take any attempts at anonymity seriously!

Is this a PR move? Let’s give Facebook the benefit of doubt in that all of their successes (as driven by advertising) is also driven by an acute sense of how social works. That and given the lengthy product roadmaps that dictate the creation of products, I think anonymity on the web is something Facebook is giving a lot of consideration and this just might be their initial foray into that space. There might be more than meets the eye and I bet there’s a simple answer to all these hyperactive rumors. Here’s where my heads at in this space.

1. Contextual anonymity is empowering, transformational

Relationships matter. Always have, always will. Just ask Facebook and LinkedIn.

But as psychologists will tell you even within the concentric circles of our life (partner, family, work, neighbors, industry, etc.) we employ varying degrees of straight talk (think “fake it till you make it” resumes) for varying reasons. What if we added anonymity to these different concentric circles?

Google + tried creating these circles (minus the anonymity) to provide different slices of news feeds for different communities within your network.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 1.20.04 PM

Facebook did the same when it allowed you to share different content to different slices of your life.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 1.21.43 PM

And Branch tried the same mix of generating conversations within communities (experts, journalists, etc.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 1.23.21 PM

Given that Facebook acqui-hired the team at Branch and Josh Miller from Branch currently leads Project Anonymous, it’s not a stretch to imagine the much rumored product being an extension of the DNA that powered Facebook Groups and Branch.

And since Facebook owns the social graph, it’ll be very easy for them to anonymize conversations within groups already created. For example: I’ve a group for my closest friends (10 people), people I worked with while at LinkedIn (30 people), etc. There are so many ways to slice and dice sub-communities within your Facebook graph and just toggle pseudo / anonymity into the mix.

But what’s the benefit of anonymity, you ask…

2. Corporate Dens: When Communities *talk *

Enter Secret.

I became a recent convert to Secret after stumbling upon the concept of “contextual anonymity;” see a Secret experiment called “Dens” which allows for honest feedback within the filter of anonymity in your workplace. Dens seems like a powerful device to enable people at companies to speak up, be playful, and share their daily thoughts that others can follow within the community / company. Even the 360 degree feedback finds in confidentiality, its Achilles Heel:

People who have never gone through the 360 process before are usually initially worried about how the data will be used and if it will remain confidential. You need to ensure you assure them up-front that it is a confidential process and won’t come back to haunt them at performance review time.

The benefits for safe, anonymous comments in similar settings should be pretty obvious to Facebook. Granted there’s room for slander but I’m sure product driven updates will mitigate just that.

3. When Honesty Matters

Take Quora, a content network that allows anonymity for a slew of reasons. Here are a few reasons why this works:

Besides the reason you included, sharing life experience, other reasons include, but are not limited to:

• political/religious views where those views might be persecuted by a strong majority: Falun Dafa, pro-democracy in Hong Kong, Muslims in India, Christians in Iraq, etc…
• Experiences with drugs, and mental illness, or any other taboo subject
• Simply wanting to hide your content from being explicitly pushed out to people who follow you
• Asking questions that you are not able to fully, or clearly enunciate, which feel like they might appear trolly, but aren’t

As I’ve become more active on Secret, I find many heartwarming snippets of humanity show up. And this is just the tip of the iceberg since the network hasn’t hit critical mass yet. But the opportunity to leverage anonymity for its goodness vs. the acts we’re used to seeing on the web, is an untapped market.

Goodness.

Kindness.

Controversy.

And more

Can we scale this kind of a network is all that’s left to be seen. And if Facebook is going to bring a billion people into the world of anonymity, it could tip the scales.

Time will tell.

Filed under: Branch, Facebook, New Products, Secret

Hacking Time and To dos

To dos, like New Year’s resolutions, are a Herculean challenge that most of us have tried and failed. Nothing works. Paul Ford), former editor Harper’s Magazine, thinks we repeatedly waste time building to-do applications with no serious solution in sight:

One of the systems Victor talks about is in that speech is Doug Engelbart’s NLS system of 1968, which pioneered a ton of things—collaborative software, hypertext, the mouse—but deep, deep down was a to-do list manager. Since then the world of technology has never hurt for personal productivity tools.

Every year or two there seems to be a new hotness: it was Remember the Milk for a while, and OmniFocus, and TaskPaper, and Asana. Asana’s tagline is “Teamwork without email.” And of course there are tons of productivity technologies that don’t involve a computer, including the “Getting Things Done” system, which tore through the Internet like wildfire for a few years—Inbox Zero is its legacy.

That said, I believe we are at the cusp of upcoming technologies like speech recognition, the evolution of notifications, and a renewed focus on what I’d like to call “life management” (think wearables) that will finally put a dent in the way we manage our lives, to dos included. A couple of examples that have attacked this problem with some level of success have been “Mailbox” and “Google Now” to cite a couple of examples. Sure, these are early attempts at fixing email and to-dos, but I see this as a harbinger of the future.

The Challenge with To-dos

The biggest challenge with time management apps is the fluid requirements of To do apps. They have to scale from the micro (staying focused on the immediate task at hand) to the macro (that needs perspective with other apps like the calendar, ideally with notifications); the simple to the complex, the one-time to the repetitive (like habit tracker @liftapp); the important & urgent to the trivial; and so far we’ve just had blunt instruments with which we’ve been trying to hack away at this complexity called life.

All this complexity also has to be handled with little input from the user, or you risk losing them at the get-go should you try to gather much information from them. And the input medium has to be as simple as possible, not forcing the user to be typing away with difficulty on their smartphones. That’s where Google Now becomes more and more magical, as they delight their users by surfacing information users might have missed. This will be the future of To-dos. Read through Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan’s post comparing predictive search to digital assistants:

However, there’s no question that Google Now has proven that there are some search needs that can be predicted. These are often especially tied to location. That’s why — in retrospect — it’s not surprising that predictive search has emerged as more a smartphone feature rather than a search engine feature. We got Google Now for our phones long before we got it for our desktops.

Indeed, predictive search may even develop into an essential smartphone feature. We may come to expect every phone to have it, just as we expect our phones to have cameras or notification areas. And just as people might not buy a phone deemed to have a bad camera, they might also pass over a phone with poor predictive search in favor of one offering better.

The other major challenge with to-dos is handing off some of their actions to apps like email and calendar. Like some to-dos, that are important or urgent, could very well be a unit on your calendar. Now how does one hand that off across apps?

[Update: Since the writing of the post, Khosla VenturesTimeful App launched on iOS this past week, and seems to do a terrific job thus far. More on that in an upcoming post]

Now if only there was a way to dumb down this process to its fundamental basics, where the user does none of the heavy lifting but experiences the benefits of (feedback loop) of such a system, we might have a start. Granted we do not have a single solution that is cross-application and cross-platform, yet.

Hacking To-dos with Siri

This past weekend, upon transitioning to Apple’s latest OS X Yosemite, I feel I may have a quick fix, at least for now that might ease my time management. [This post was written before the launch of Timeful, so expect a sequel shortly.] Two of the biggest improvements in Yosemite, besides the mobile iOS influenced look-and-feel are Notifications (at a swipe) and Reminders that (finally!) syncs across mobile and desktop.

And the secret sauce to make this time management hack work is Siri. In its most recent avatar, Siri is a pretty good note taker, transcriber, and so removes the biggest obstacle with Reminders, which is the act of opening an app to type in your to-do, now all you’ve to do is say it out loud and it’s integrated into a giant catch-all. Let’s call that folder: “Do.”

In addition, I’ve created a bunch of often repeated categories, which range from Groceries (which I turn to when I shop at Google Shopping Express or Instacart), to Chores, which I’d rather not turn to, but gotta. At the end of each day, I review the “Do” folder and either assign a time / date for completion, either / or a folder that I can turn to “Later.”

The missing piece to all To-dos is Timing. Notifications (across mobile and desktop) can really make this work, unlike all past attempts at To-do apps. The good news with the new Mac OS’s is that Notifications are integrated cross-platform and a cursory viewing is just a swipe away under the newly redesigned OS X on the right hand of the desktop.

Frankly, this is as good as Reminders are gonna get for now, but I bet there are ways to further do the thinking for us, as Google Now has shown.

The Future is Brighter

With my experience with Timeful these past 24 hours, it’s clear that time management can be hacked on mobile and desktop in a way we haven’t been able to do thus far. And with increasing tie-ins with the mobile OS and the world of notifications (check out Naveen‘s (Partner, Expa) essay on how “notifications are becoming the app itself”) and predictive search, we just might be able to crack this case.

Also, notifications will allow time management apps to interact with the user on a project to project basis in a way that task managers haven’t been able to in the past. The benefits of such one-click incremental interactions (task done or task moved forward) in future OS’s will bring about a sea change in the efficiency of to-do apps.

When we can interact with our data in short bursts via notifications, we make remarkable efficiency gains, especially on tasks that we perform again and again. Apps will become more about information and communications; we’re going to think of them as services instead of as windows onto our data. The things that can make best use of single click efficiency will soar. A whole new world is up there waiting for us at the top of the screen. We just need to pull it down.

Finally, one of the time management fads talked about in Paul Ford’s piece was David Allen and his until recently ubiquitous Getting Things Done (GTD) craze in the nerd community. Even comedian Drew Carey outsourced his time management to Allen to fix this problem and learned this:

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan.

And that plan needs to be made in concert with the big picture, without which the minute next steps mean nothing. Curious what David Allen thinks of the new wave of time management?

How do you track time in your life? Curious if any of your time hacks beat the version I outline above. Tweet me @mariosundar or just leave a comment below.

Filed under: HOW-TO Use Social Media, New Products, What's New in Social Media

The Secret to Effective Communication: Being Heard is not Enough

Communication is underrated and vastly misunderstood.

The larger the audience, the more cliched and tiresome our communication becomes. Worse still, we seem less wary of the impact of our words when we write for larger groups.

Corporations tend to be the worst offenders in this category especially when they get tied down in their inane press releases and top-down missives. The problem is even more acute during trying times, when a CEO needs to rally his troops behind a common cause.

I give you, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella’s recent missive around the organization’s future direction.

Rather than poke holes in Nadella’s tired cliches, I’d like to share the secret sauce on how anyone can communicate efficiently to large groups of people.

And there’s no better story to illustrate this than Steve Jobs’ trial-by-fire return to Apple at Macworld 1997 when this had happened.

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There was something dramatic, almost Shakespearean, about Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. A humbler, self-deprecating leader, whose second act was laser focused on first getting Apple out of the red. To do that Jobs would have to rally his troops, inspire them, yet give them a dose of real talk; a delicate balance he pulled off with style at Macworld 1997. Here’s the secret sauce to doing that.

1997-macworld1

1. Be Upfront

Always, be honest with your troops – both internally and externally. This doesn’t mean you have to share all but you’ve to find ways to address the elephant in the room. And once you do, the ultimate segue would be to find a way to inspire confidence and hope amidst the burning embers.

Jobs gets into it right away, highlighting the three complaints leveled against Apple and how he sees it:

“Apple’s not as relevant as it used to be everywhere, but in some incredibly important market segments, it’s extraordinarily relevant.”

“Apple’s executing wonderfully on many of the wrong things!”

“Rather than anarchy, people can’t wait to fall in line behind a good strategy. There just hasn’t been one.”

He agrees with the accusation, does not gloss over the facts, but spins it in a way that inspires confidence. It’s his own way of saying “It’s not you, it’s us” which goes down well with the audience. A lot of executives seem to forget they are talking to a bunch of rational, smart folks and try to ignore the obvious sword hanging in the air. They avoid the elephant in the room, and lose their trust. Lose their trust and you lose your audience.

Every time you write, visualize a skeptic you’re trying to persuade. Convert her and you’ve won them all. Instead I’m loathe to find myself reading press releases and corporate missives that sound like this:

We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world. Computing is ubiquitous and experiences span devices and exhibit ambient intelligence. Billions of sensors, screens and devices – in conference rooms, living rooms, cities, cars, phones, PCs – are forming a vast network and streams of data that simply disappear into the background of our lives. This computing power will digitize nearly everything around us and will derive insights from all of the data being generated by interactions among people and between people and machines. We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.

You lost me at “mobile-first, cloud-first world.” Most people don’t know what the heck the cloud is; just ask Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz.


Nobody understands the cloud. It’s a fuckin’ mystery!

So get to the heart of the matter with simple words. Think like a blogger, not like a novelist.

2. Talk Normal, Write Simple

Corporations sure think they are people, but turn on a press release or a camera and they sure as hell sound like corporations. As Anil Dash suggests, I’m sure Nadella and team write normal when they email each other but turn on the spotlight and it turns weird; like this scene from Talladega Nights:

I’ve seen this Deer-in-Spotlight phenomenon in many an executive, but I’ve also seen some of them overcoming it over time. Writing makes it worse, since there’s no immediate feedback to your original missive. But if Nadella and his PR team are seeing the tweets or posts since, they should know this could have gone better.

Sure, most of Nadella’s speech might have avoided the obvious hard truths but worse still, there was no letting up on the esoteric:

A few months ago on a call with investors I quoted Nietzsche and said that we must have “courage in the face of reality.” Even more important, we must have courage in the face of opportunity.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”
Even True Detective makes more sense now:

Someone once told me time is a flat circle; where everything we’ve ever done, we’ll do over and over again.

The reason I insist on simplicity, is comprehension – the ultimate goal of all communication. In our attention-deficit world, the disparity between being heard and listened to is huge. The importance of your words lies solely in its ability to drive action and that cannot happen with the incomprehensible. This ain’t about you, the writer.

It is always about the reader.

3. Be Precise

Now to the heart of the matter. Rhetoric teaches us that in order to drive action, you need to persuade. And that happens with clarity of vision. Flashback to our 97 Macworld and here’s how Jobs set the stage for the future; inspirational, and on hindsight, prescient:

“We have the makings of a really healthy company, with some really talented people that need to come together and execute on a great plan.”

“What’s the fundamental problem? Declining sales.”

He then dives straight into how they are gonna overcome that in 5 concrete steps:

  • Board of Directors (calls out people but does it in a very subtle manner)
  • Focus on relevance
  • Invest in core assets
  • Forge meaningful partnerships
  • New product paradigms

Actions speak louder than words. And to back up those words, he clearly spells out actions like installing a new board of directors, one which includes the legendary Bill Campbell (who just today retired, after 17 years on Apple’s board), Steve Jobs’ close friend, Larry Ellison, among others.

”The confidence starts with a really clear vision. Then you take that vision down to strategy. People have to look at it and say “Yes”, they can do that. The past has been failure. The new board inspires hope.” – Bill Campbell

It’s just that Jobs makes what seems impossible for any CEO to do, seem easy: calling out past mistakes honestly and focusing on what needs to change, boldly and precisely.

One more thing: Bolt of Lightning

Towards the end of the presentation Steve Jobs says something that kinda gave away the mainstay of rhetoricians:

“Sometimes points of view can really make you really look at things differently.”

“For me when I was looking at the statistic and it hit me that Apple is the largest education company in the world, that was like a bolt of lightning. That’s huge.

“What an incredible base to build off of.”

“Another bolt of lightning is that Apple and Microsoft equal 100% of the desktop market.

And so, whatever Apple and Microsoft agree to do, it’s a standard (laughter). I think you’ll see us work more with Microsoft because they’re the only player in the desktop industry. And I think you’ll see Apple work more with Microsoft more because they’re the only other player in the desktop industry.

I hope we have more cooperation in the future because the industry wants it.”

Art of Manliness points out the third rule of persuasion – Appeal to Reason:

Finally, we come to logos, or the appeal to reason. Aristotle believed logos to be the superior persuasive appeal and that all arguments should be won or lost on reason alone. However, he recognized that at times an audience would not be sophisticated enough to follow arguments based solely on scientific and logical principles and so the other appeals needed to be used as well.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle states that appealing to reason means allowing “the words of the speech itself” to do the persuading. This was accomplished through making inferences using deductive reasoning, usually in the form of a formal syllogism. You’ve seen these before. You start with two premises and end with a conclusion that naturally follows the premises.

Jobs had to conclude that speech with a convincing call to arms. The troops were still skeptical but his conclusion hits at logic, while earlier in the speech, he tackled emotion:

Microsoft + Apple = 100%
What we do together = the desktop standard
The industry wants it.

The conclusion of Nadella’s letter reads:

Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”

We must each have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life? What insight can I illuminate? What individual life could I change? What customer can I delight? What new skill could I learn? What team could I help build? What orthodoxy should I question?

With the courage to transform individually, we will collectively transform this company and seize the great opportunity ahead.

Confusing quote, followed by rambling ideas (“What orthodoxy should I question?” Uh?) ending with more meaningless blah.

Let me clarify, this is not a dig on the writing style of one CEO over the other. It’s a reminder that most of us, myself included, sometime gets sucked into the “more is better” mentality, as a writer. And that’s just a bad place to be in, if the goal of your writing is to communicate effectively.

Conclusion

Every leader should be writing for the audience’s collective cynic, not to their internal sycophants. And I notice CEOs oftentimes do the latter. And don’t get me wrong, any decent PR effort can help broadcast this mindless jargon across the airwaves and social media, but then all you get out of that is awareness.

Communications, in my opinion, is far bigger than PR-as-Marketing and it involves converting people over to your line of thinking and this happens only with strong beliefs and convincing rhetoric. And to do that just follow the rules I outline above.

 

Filed under: Crisis Communications, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs

Time has come to change how we read

Google Reader is dead. Long live reading.

If you are from the real world and happened upon posts from any-and-every tech blog, you wouldn’t be mistaken in assuming that today marks the demise of the written word, now that Google’s offed Google Reader.

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Image Source: Business Week

But as Joe Coscarelli of New York Magazine, notes, most people don’t know Google Reader from Google Currents, less so care about its disappearance:

As a blogger this might be blasphemy, but the online echo chamber when beloved products, however esoteric, change or shut down is out of control. Worse, it might convince us, through repetition, that these things matter. Regardless of what your social media circles might indicate, the universe will not mourn Reader because the amount of people whose job (or even hobby) it is to consume and process news is actually minuscule. Thankfully.

As a matter of fact, in their rush to tease out the minutiae, I fear we have missed the big picture. There is a fundamental disruption happening in how news is consumed.

Many apps (Digg, Aol, Feedly) are scrambling to jump on the RSS bandwagon by touting their next Google Reader but fact is we are already seeing attempts at more efficient ways to consume news.

And RSS is only part of that story.

What’s the New TiVo of News?

Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker, writes of the problem that ailed Google Reader:

But a feed reader still represents a fundamentally different vision of gathering information than the social model that has gripped the Web. It is largely a single-user enterprise—a digital monk diligently scanning feeds. And it is intensely focussed on the Web sites most important to the user, rather than the omnivorous grazing that characterizes scanning news on social media, as links are surfaced by the people the user follows.

Fact is most of the sites I recommend below have moved away from the RSS-only model while curating social content, in many cases with a lil help from an expert – a trait most successfully used by Gabe Rivera and his trinity of popular news aggregation insider sites Techmeme (Technology), Memeorandum (Politics), and Wesmirch (Celebrity).

As Matt says:

Everybody consumes the Web differently, so it’s hard to imagine a single reading service that works for every person. But it seems reasonable to think that one combining a person’s deep and abiding interests with the serendipity of social media could work for most.

But the future for news readers is brighter than ever and here’s not one, not two, but five different reasons why:

1. Flipboard

The one news app I cannot live without today would have to be – without doubt – my Flipboard.

Flipboard pulls together the disparate threads of news that course through our ubiquitous social media world and makes gorgeous sense of it. Everything from your LinkedIn to Facebook updates, YouTube to Instagram (even SoundCloud), and most importantly, your Twitter followings are displayed in an elegant magazine like format. It’s the kind of design one normally expects from Apple, and Flipboard’s attention-to-detail here is impressive (Follow their designer, @craigmod).

The important distinction to make here is that Flipboard is primarily a consumption device. Though it provides you options to tweet or update your status on any of your social accounts, the beauty of Flipboard is its visual clarity and the ability to on-board you with great news right away.

2. Feedly

For those hard-core Google Reader users who fret-and-fumed since the announcement-to-shutter was made, Feedly has been a god-send. Not only has Feedly invested the most in making this a smooth transition for users, they have also made the most gains among the same user base (up to 3 million users now). In addition, they now support lost RSS reader tools (like @reeder and @newsify) stay alive.

From a user perspective, what feedly has done is provide a quick replacement for Google Reader with a blazing fast cloud service, which you can find at Feedly Cloud. What’s most shocking to me in this whole scenario is why Google didn’t transition those influential Google Reader users to Google Currents – their Flipboard wannabe – the same way Flipboard did!

What Feedly does with its aggressive push into the Google Reader space remains to be seen, but I’d watch out for what they have up their sleeve next.

3. Newsify

All great news consumption apps start on mobile. Flipboard set the standard and, believe it or not, Newsify and Reeder are two similar apps with similar credentials.

RSS subscriptions, unlike the real-time ephemeral nature of social, add up pretty fast in an inbox and what you found is that you had to declare news bankruptcy pretty soon, deleting days worth of RSS content.

What you need is a pictorial, almost Pinterest-like, visualization that allows you to skim through hundreds of posts while picking out the ones that seem most interesting. If it’s 4.5 star app rating is any indication, Newsify seems to have nailed that experience for the iPhone and the iPad.

4. The Modern Op-ed: Quora and Medium

What Huffington Post successfully started, Quora and Medium have tried to emulate. The goal: to find and amplify excellent sources of authoritative analysis, with topics ranging from breaking news to expertise across varying categories.

While Quora is focused on news-via-experience, Medium seems to have perfected the art of the modern op-ed, democratized it while still maintaining its quality.

But what all these sites do is take the traditional news model and flip it on its head by finding commenters, whose comments are the starting point to creating worthwhile reading, and giving these individuals a platform to write and a community to pontificate.

5. Social News: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Finally, the elephant in the room. Social.

Let’s not forget that all of the above innovation rests on social.

What would Flipboard do without Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn feeds. Would their pages be as interesting or even exist?

Most of what I follow on Flipboard are Twitter lists I’ve created. Most of what most people follow on Flipboard are also built around links shared on social sites. With LinkedIn already showing how a successful social news product should be built around relevance and Facebook clearly showing its cards with what could potentially be a social news engine, we can see the direction that social news is gonna take in the coming years. And it’s gonna be a game changer.

So let me leave you with a question:

How do you get your news today? Is it on Yahoo News or Flipboard or Twitter? Do you read news primarily on your phone as you are boarding the train or on your desktop once you get to work or with a New York Times subscription while you drink coffee in the morning.

Leave me a comment.

Filed under: Curation, Facebook, Journalism, Medium, Quora, Social Media Tools, Tumblr, What's New in Social Media

Quora’s Big Problem

I haven’t been on Quora in a long time.

I used to be there every single day, so much that many Quora users’ feed was filled just with stuff I curated. But that was months ago.

Slowly but surely as Liz Gannes from AllThingsD suggests in an interview with co-founder Adam D’Angelo, “it can be easy to forget to visit Quora, with its random jumble of writings on topics that are interesting but not crucial.

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So as a friend of Quora’s (I even hosted a Quora meetup at my digs last week) and an obsessive about how startups communicate in today’s social media world, I carefully read through the article to figure out if it had clues to where Quora may be headed but was disappointed. Here’s the where and the why:

Paint a picture

I’d love to do a Kara Swisher style deconstruction of the answers but frankly it’d get repetitive here, so let’s just cut to the chase and address the big questions and what they lacked.

Where’s Quora now and where are they headed?

Adam: We’ve become more data-driven. When you’re small, you have to do everything on intuition, but now we’re at the scale where we have a lot of users, so we can run experiments. We have a data team that’s pretty big, actually.

What do you use the data for — is it personalization?

Adam: No, it’s more about to make decisions about what to build. We’re looking at whether something’s going to be a good investment of resources. When you’re small, you can say, “I use the product myself, and I’m annoyed by these things, so let’s change this.” Now we can say, “Twenty percent of our users have encountered this issue that makes them less engaged or more engaged,” so we can test it. That’s really important, because then you don’t have to centralize the decision making. So it doesn’t all go through me.

I think one of the challenges with operational details is that it detracts from the bigger picture and introduces more questions with room for confusion. Wonder how it’s done?

Mark Zuckerberg and the folks over at Facebook, have figured out a way to code every announcement (even ones as mediocre as their recent Facebook Home announcement) in broad strokes compliant to a grand vision:

Mark: At one level, [Home] is just the next mobile version of Facebook. At a deeper level, I think this can start to be a change in the relationship that we have with how we use computing devices. For more than thirty years, computers have mostly just been about tasks, and they had to be–they were too expensive and clunky and hard to use, so you wouldn’t really want to use them for anything else. But the modern computing device has a very different place in our lives. It’s not just for productivity and business, although it’s great for that too. It’s for making us more connected, more social, more aware.

Home, by putting people first, and then apps–by just flipping the order–is one of many small but meaningful changes in our relationship with technology over time.

It’s always about people first. And, Zuckerberg has truly come a long way and learned well.

Words matter. And, ideas matter even more. This is an area where Quora absolutely needs to spend some time articulating their vision, and they gotta do it now.

Now show it works

How big is Quora? What are the most important metrics to you — volume of content, how many people use it?

Adam: We look at people who use it. We don’t share the particular numbers, but it’s pretty big, and it’s growing.

Nah. Not good enough. From a communications perspective, this is the worst answer one can probably give but some startups do it and think they can get away with it. Guess what? No one’s buying it.

You’ve got to come up with metrics that are understandable to the public and it needs to be framed the right way. When I joined LinkedIn, we were close to 5 or 6 million members on the site  and from my first day there, our vision was always clearly framed around the world that we operated within (5 million professionals on LinkedIn vs. 25 million folks on Facebook). Likewise, with Quora, there’s a plethora of factors they can make a great case with to show growth in relevant areas, the most obvious being the number of questions answered each day the world over by knowledge workers in specific topics and categories. Instead, it falls flat when you say: “we’re pretty big and growing.”

Always, show, don’t tell.

Let me give you another example, this time, more relevant to Quora’s size. Take Flipboard for example, which has done a good job of framing their metrics around Flips. How many articles are being flipped, read and therefore shared in their magazines. I’ve created three magazines on Flipboard and psychologically it’s a great feeling when I have 100s of thousands of flips even when my readers number in the thousands. Either way, it’s good for the user and the reader to know where things started, and how it’s doing right now relevant to that start.

Even when Apple was floundering, Steve Jobs always painted a clear picture of the future. This needs to be done; without which everyone’s lost. Moving on…

The elephant in the room: Purpose

You’ve introduced a bunch of new content types in addition to Q&A. What’s working?

Adam: So we have answers, blogs and now we have reviews. The area we define as what Quora’s good at is long-form text that’s useful over time, and where you care about who wrote the text. Not that you need to be friends with them, just that they’re someone trustworthy.

Their introduction of boards was the first time I stepped outside the fan circle and re-evaluated my enthusiasm for the product. And since then I’ve noticed a deterioration in the quality of the Quora feed. Things never been the same since.

But this question leads to clarity in the mission which also should answer why I should use Quora. But instead it led me to thinking of the reason why I’ve dropped out of Quora oddly similar to the reason Liz gave in the early paragraphs: “it can be easy to forget to visit Quora, with its random jumble of writings on topics that are interesting but not crucial.

Every product mission should have a purpose in the lives of their users that makes the product irreplaceable. Take LinkedIn, whose mission to transform the lives of all global professionals led to – jobs. Helping users find a better job, a dream job.

It may not be what LinkedIn talks about all the time, but as a user, it’s this promise that keeps bringing you back for more. It’s this tacit understanding that leads you to update your profile, build your connections and maybe share articles you hope your future boss will “like.” But it all starts and ends with that purpose for a user: what’s in it for me?

Once that reason exists in the users mind, is articulated and is based on reality – it creates a compelling reason to return over and over again. A compelling reason to contribute. Frankly, I think Quora’s unique strengths may lie not just in gathering, sharing and building that knowledge graph (since there are so many others building that graph) but rather in the application of said knowledge towards intelligence and skills that will give it a purpose it so sorely lacks.

But, what do you think is Quora’s purpose? 

Thoughts? Leave a comment.

Filed under: Public Relations, Quora