Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Fast Company/Lydia Dishman: This Ex-Googler's Predictive Search Tool Could Change The Future Of Networking

Fast Company


    07.25.17 tech forecast

This Ex-Googler’s Predictive Search Tool Could Change The Future Of Networking

Node founder Falon Fatemi wants AI to one day give the best-connected people in our networks a run for their money.

By Lydia Dishman5 minute Read

“Google has had a major influence in terms of my DNA and how I look at the world,” reflects Falon Fatemi, one of Google’s youngest employees when she was hired, at age 19, in 2005. Her experience there–and in the years since leaving her final role as a Googler, at YouTube, in 2011–laid the foundation for her newest venture, a search and discovery tool called Node.

Search is useful when you know what you are looking for,” Fatemi explains. But “discovery” (which is when you don’t) is much slipperier considering that “more information is created on the web in a single day than you can possible use in a lifetime.” On the eve of Node’s launch out of stealth, Fatemi spoke with Fast Company to share how her career–first as a Googler and more recently as a business consultant in Silicon Valley–inspired her to build a more predictive search algorithm with the potential to change the way we network.
How Networking Led To A Tech Idea

As Fatemi sees it, most search engines still rely on users at least thinking that they know what they want. Google already deploys artificial intelligence wherever it can–for instance, by autocompleting keywords in its search bar–to help users zero in on those wants.

Fatemi’s vision for Node is to predict them ahead of time, and to start with, the platform is focusing on a relatively narrow problem among a specific user base: sales and marketing professionals in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) space looking for the right people and companies to convert to customers. The idea for that bubbled up partly from Fatemi’s time at Google, where she remembers being thrown into the deep end right away.

“I capitalized on internal resources and worked to understand different facets of the company,” Fatemi recalled in a contributed article for Fast Company in 2015, “from the treasury department to the philanthropy team. By carving out a few hours here and there to meet with people on interesting teams, I plotted my trajectory and wasted no time going after it.” As a result, her professional network grew at a fast clip.

After spending six years in Mountain View, Fatemi put the many contacts she’d made to new use, diving into the startup world in 2012 as strategy consultant to entrepreneurs and VCs. Serving as a matchmaker between people, companies, and industry resources brought Fatemi into contact with the likes of Quora cofounder Charlie Cheever and major investors like Mark Cuban. Among the transactions she helped broker were “millions of dollars in investments, a number of acquisitions, and a number of sales and marketing partnerships.”
Falon Fatemi

Before long, their collective impact led Fatemi to step back and analyze all the introductions she’d made. “What is it within my own matching algorithm that facilitates these opportunities?” she recalls musing. Fatemi realized that she was essentially acting as a node within her own network, helping others find well-timed opportunities.

She had made a conscious effort to get to know the business objectives of every person in her network, and began manually pattern-matching them. Then she’d present the most relevant opportunity to a matched pair of people and prepped both sides for an initial conversation. But to do anything like this for other people at scale, Fatemi recognized, would require drawing on some of Google’s search mechanics and reinventing others.

The tech giant’s mission statement has long been to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” As Fatemi pointed out in her earlier Fast Company post, “Google’s data method works because the company closely monitors data trends with an eye on what’s next–in other words, in order to anticipate future needs, not just to understand what’s happening right now. The question then becomes: What can we do now to head them off beforehand?”

Node’s value proposition is Fatemi’s answer to that question. And in her view, the most logical place to test the platform’s predictive matchmaking was to see how well it could surface “the right person, at the right company, at the right time, and even suggesting the right message to reach out [with].”
[Screenshot: courtesy of Node]
The Value Of Predictive Recommendations

Node has grown quickly over the past couple of years in stealth; according to the company, revenue has doubled in the last six months. Node integrates with Salesforce and counts companies like BlueJeans Network, Periscope Data, Pagerduty,, and others among its current users, for which Node’s recommendations have enabled nearly $100 million in total revenue.

If Node could help SaaS marketers determine who their next best customer might be, its predictive networking possibilities might reach much further than that.

From here, Fatemi says, it’s easy to see how Node’s algorithm might be applied to recruiting, public relations, or even finding the next great investment. However, she’s quick to point out that while Node’s algorithms sift through publicly available information to build profiles of individuals and businesses and map their relationships, it’s the person or company using Node that owns those datasets, not Node itself. Where it gets a little squishy is just how “private” these personalized recommendations can be.

Back in 2016, Google changed the way it tracks its users across the internet by combining their personally identifiable information from Gmail, YouTube, and other accounts with their browsing history across the web. Facebook, too, has been tracking users by name, as have other sites. And, of course, you can opt out, provided you’re aware that you’re being tracked and don’t want to be.

That means that, basically, the ads delivered to the websites you visit are served up according to your past Google searches, online purchases, and the like. Fatemi dismisses this type of predictive advertising as “dumb repurposing”–reading past behaviors to encourage similar ones. Instead, she imagines a future where you’d get ads for things you might be interested in buying based on smarter pattern-matching, but not necessarily keyed to what you’ve done before, or what you think you like.

Like other tech leaders working through these problems, Fatemi believes that fine-tuning recommendations can only make our lives easier. “We’ll know we have succeeded as a business when any application you log into, you’re not only getting proactive recommendations of people you should know, companies and job opportunities you should pursue, articles you should read–but you should also be able to enter in [the] type of opportunity you’re interested in, and the system will facilitate a recommendation and even suggest what you should say,” Fatemi explains.

Think of the most useful person in your professional network–the one you go to for advice negotiating your salary or making introductions in a field you’re just getting a foothold in. So far, technology hasn’t come close to replicating this (although LinkedIn is trying). For AI to become something truly invaluable, Fatemi says, it will need to be able to give that type of contact a run for their money. “You need to have a social layer that understands who people are and what they care about.”
About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.


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    07.26.17 9:00 am robot revolution

How Facebook Used AI To Make The Trippy Effects In This VR Film
The idea behind Jérôme Blanquet’s innovative film Alteration was for viewers to experience what it’s like to be an AI.

By Daniel Terdiman5 minute Read

When Jérôme Blanquet set out to make his new virtual reality film, Alteration—which, among other things portrays an artificial intelligence diving into a man’s dreams to steal them—he felt strongly that AI should play a big part in the project.

“As a filmmaker, I would like to represent…using AI in the dreams of a human,” Blanquet says. “For me, only AI can represent what AI can [represent] in the human brain.”

Alteration, which was launched yesterday for the Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Oculus-powered Gear VR, centers on Alexandro, who volunteers to take part in a dream experiment, unaware that the researchers running it are going to inject, digitize, and take over his subconscious with an AI in the guise of a woman named Elsa.

The story progresses through scenes representing Alexandro’s memories, the AI always hovering nearby. His wife, Nadia, who plays a central role in some of those memories, objects to Elsa’s presence, leading Alexandro to pull the plug on the experiment–with disastrous results.

Nadia is a painter, and Blanquet wanted to show the crumbling of Alexandro’s subconscious by blending it with the very style of the canvases on the wall of her studio, even as Nadia is slowly absorbed in his dreams and replaced by Elsa.
[Images: courtesy of Facebook]
Representing The Alteration

The filmmakers’ goal was always to represent that alteration visually and, originally, they thought they would do so using traditional post-production animation tools. But Blanquet knew that AI researchers at Facebook had developed an algorithm for style transfer–the very visual method for recomposing images in the style of other images–he wanted in the film, and wondered if it was possible to incorporate that algorithm into his VR film–“to make real style transfer, with real AI,” says the film’s producer, Antoine Cayrol.

“Elsa wanted to take the place of [Alexandro’s] wife, through the style of her paintings,” Blanquet said. “Style transfer is really what we thought makes sense when you look at what’s happening in the story.”

The film’s executive producer, Yelena Rachitsky, who works at Facebook-owned Oculus, which helped fund Alteration, explained that VR was a natural medium for applying style transfer, given that in virtual reality, there’s no limits imposed by reality. And by using the effect, the filmmakers were able to impart the kind of visceral feelings of what it’s like to be an AI, Rachitsky says.

“It’s an interesting approach to go through that,” she says, “and it wouldn’t have the same impact if it was a traditional film, because you’re not immersed in it. Things shift and change, but then it kind of captures you all around. It just changes your feeling of what you experience in the space.”
Like A Hackathon

In the meantime, the folks in the Paris office of Facebook’s AI Research (FAIR) lab were eager to help out, especially since they came aboard before shooting started. Applying style transfer to a VR film was likely something no one had done before, so they wanted to find out if AI-generated imagery could help establish the story in an immersive VR film.

One of the best parts of working on Alteration was the brainstorming sessions before filming began, recalls FAIR research scientist Antoine Bordes, since those conversations influenced the direction of the production. “From the beginning of the project, we were involved,” he adds, “showing them what AI was capable of doing.”

Befitting Facebook’s involvement, those brainstorming sessions were akin to a hackathon, recalls research scientist Piotr Bojanowski, since there was no guarantee that the filmmakers would be able to incorporate the still-experimental cutting-edge algorithms that came out of the research lab.

One particular challenge, recalls Bordes, is that the style-transfer effects FAIR had developed were known to work on content for mobile phones, and for 4K video, but no one knew if it could be scaled to work on fully immersive scenes like those required for a VR film. Even if it could be scaled, Bordes says, “would it look good enough for [Blanquet] to put in his movie?”
The Challenge Of The Unknown

For the folks at FAIR, it was important that the answer was unknown. After all, what’s the fun in going into a project already knowing exactly how it’ll turn out? “If we knew at first” it would work, says Bordes, “we wouldn’t have done it….Usually, when we try to pick these projects, [we ask] are we going to learn something” about AI.

In this case, the unknown was whether or not style transfer could be applied to a VR project, in which the visual effect must be scaled in 360 degrees, and at high quality.

For those who watch Alteration, the answer is a pretty clear yes. Although the technique didn’t end up working for each of the 14 paintings by French artist Julien Drevell–as well as three corrupted noise images–that Blanquet and Cayrol brought to FAIR to experiment with, the final product demonstrates that for those that did work, the effect is striking. It results in a seamless blending of pictures on the wall with the entire visual dynamic, gradually subsuming every bit of what’s in front of the camera in all 360 degrees, including the characters. When a stylized Elsa appears above Alexandro’s bed, you realize the AI has taken over, in every sense of the word.

[Images: courtesy of Facebook]
Having succeeded in applying style transfer to a VR film, FAIR’s scientists will move on to other projects. But they get the satisfaction of knowing they’ve proved the method can work for VR production. In fact, Bordes says, FAIR may well open-source the algorithm it created, in line with Facebook’s common practice of publishing its research.

In order to achieve the desired effect, the FAIR team had to train a series of neural networks that would be utilized for altering the film’s frames. The team had to scale the style transfer process for professional-quality VR, which meant 4K resolution, as well as 360-degree and stereo video, the FAIR team wrote in a blog post about their work on the film. They also had to train their networks on larger-scale images than originally planned because of the immersive nature of VR. It took over 120,000 hours on powerful computers to train the models, not to mention hundreds more hours on even more powerful machines to apply the models to the actual movie frames.

“It was a big bet for the team,” says Cayrol, “because the process was really original. We were sending the files to FAIR, and they processed them. Then they would send us examples of what came back. It was like opening your Christmas gift.”
About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.


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    07.25.17 lessons learned

5 VCs Share The Worst Ways Founders Botch Their Pitches
From offensive lingo to off-base metrics, investors have heard it all.
5 VCs Share The Worst Ways Founders Botch Their Pitches
[Source photo: Mathisa_s/iStock]

By Beck Bamberger4 minute Read

Here’s a riddle: What takes a tenth of a second to occur and can make or break your startup? No, it’s not the computation performed by your tech product’s proprietary algorithm. It’s a first impression, and the Princeton researchers who discovered how quickly we form them also found that our first impressions don’t change much after getting to know somebody for longer.

So while you really need to nail your whole pitch, your fate might be sealed within a few short moments of first meeting with an investor. Indeed, if there’s any group whose job it is to suss out strangers’ trustworthiness quickly and meticulously, it’s venture capitalists. That’s certainly not to say they always get it right, of course, but the fact remains that you’ll need to avoid those first-meeting turnoffs if you’re going to succeed.

According to five VCs, these are a few of the most cringeworthy ways founders tend to screw up right out of the gates–what it takes to avoid that.

Related: Do These 5 Emotionally Intelligent Things Within 5 Minutes Of Meeting Someone
Overconfident Name-Dropping

Using names of investors who are “almost certainly in the deal” is a big red flag, says Ewa A. Treitz, a venture partner at Black Pearls VC who focuses mainly on early-stage tech startups in Central Europe. This kind of information is very easily verifiable with my peers,” Treitz points out, “and if untrue, the deal is off the table.”

But even when it’s entirely accurate, name-dropping can start things off on the wrong foot. “It also says a lot about the founders’ confidence in their business,” she adds. Relying on “outside confirmation as opposed to their own conviction is a dangerous strategy, never played by the winning teams.”
Market-Size Misses

“A huge turnoff is when founders come to us with a totally overblown estimate that doesn’t reflect their corner of the universe,” says Brad Svrluga, cofounder and general partner at Primary Venture Partners.

He explains, “One vertical SaaS company selling into health care providers came to us and quoted their market size as total health care IT spend. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The administrative software they were pitching only touches a fraction of that market, and their numbers certainly shouldn’t reflect the countless other portions of HIT spending–like CT imaging software, supply-chain management software, patient-portal technology, etc.–that have nothing to do with their product.”

VCs are especially attuned to identifying off-base estimates like these, says Svrluga. “When determining market potential, founders should be 100% focused on their specific product. Lumping in everything else from a particular industry will only raise questions and distract potential investors from what’s really relevant to their business.”

Related: Lessons From The Early Pitch Decks Of Airbnb, BuzzFeed, And YouTube

Nisa Amoils, a partner at Scout Ventures, has seen market misses as well. She adds, “A founder needs to show a bottom-up analysis based on sales projections. This is more realistic than only providing [a] top-down claim where you say you will get X percent of the total market size, which is always huge in every pitch. Your total addressable market should be arrived at by estimating both carefully.”
Subtle Signs Of Character Flaws

“If there is one validating factor–assuming we already like the business in the pitch, of course–it is the level of ethics/conduct we get from the entrepreneur at the very first meeting,” says Jonathan Tower, general partner at Catapult VC. Tower asks himself one question of every founder he meets: “Would I have complete confidence in the entrepreneur exercising good judgment with key relationships that the firm has?”

“If I get a whiff from the first meeting that the entrepreneur is not on the level, is being cagey, fudging too many important details, is being condescending to younger staff or gatekeepers, is playing power games–these are all quick no-gos.” Tower adds, “Character cannot be taught, and these tendencies are apt to show up again and again if we work with that entrepreneur. Frankly, life is too short.”
Tone-Deaf Or Insensitive Language

It’s no secret that the tech sector in general and the VC world in particular have serious diversity problems, and that those demographics have contributed to a spate of scandals in Silicon Valley over the past year. While there are important efforts underway to change things, some VCs have learned to weed out bias simply in the ways they’re spoken to by founders.

Related: This Women-Led VC Fund Wants To Show The Valley What Real Gender Equality Looks Like

“Words matter, and the language people use reflect the type of founder they are and the type of company they are going to build,” says Chang Xu, an associate at Upfront Ventures. She recalls one uniquely egregious example. “I had an entrepreneur say that he’ll ‘open the kimono’ with me. As I’ve learned, this is a term used in finance to mean sharing the inner workings of the company. However, it’s wildly inappropriate.”

Xu couldn’t be more right. In fact, when Fast Company assembled a bracket of 32 examples of awful business jargon (including “synergy”, “touch base,” and “move the needle”), readers voted “opening the kimono” as the absolute worst. (It was ceremonially destroyed in the form of a piñata in August 2015.) As Xu describes the offensive encounter, “I look at the entrepreneur wondering if they have ever pitched to a female VC, or better yet, an Asian female VC, and realize the irony,” she recalls.

“Next time I hear the term, I’ll respond with, ‘sure, drop your trousers.'”
About the author

Beck Bamberger founded BAM Communications in 2008 and writes regularly for Forbes, Inc., and HuffPost about entrepreneurship, public relations, and culture.


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    07.24.17 platform wars

How To Launch A Killer Email Newsletter
Don’t launch your email newsletter blindly–get a head start and learn from my successes, failures, and many experiments over the years.
How To Launch A Killer Email Newsletter
[Photo: Flickr user Nationaal Archief]

By Cayleigh Parrishlong Read

A few years ago, when I started working on newsletters, most people thought email was dead. Social media, it seemed, was THE way to reach people.

But today, thanks in large part to the unknowable ways of algorithms–which have made it nearly impossible to definitively figure out how to reach your followers on social media platforms–the reliability of email as a form of communication has put the newsletter back in the spotlight. Today, newsletters are flooding inboxes. The question isn’t whether or not you should start an email newsletter; it’s how can you create a newsletter people will actually want to open?
What Day Or Time Of Day Is Best To Send A Newsletter?

This is probably the most asked (yet least important) question about starting a newsletter. There is no universal day or time to send an email. Rigorous testing of Fast Company’s Daily newsletter proved that whether we sent it at 6 a.m., noon, or 4 p.m., our open rate stayed the same. Emails have a long shelf life, and users will go back and click on an email that interests them hours, days, and even weeks after you send it.
So, When Should You Send It?

Even if your open rate remains the same no matter what time you send your newsletter, your campaign’s highest open rate will be in the hour following your send time. So you should be mindful and thoughtful about the time you choose. Consider four things here: your workflow, your audience, your competition, and your goal.

When does it make sense in your workflow to send the newsletter? Pick a day/time that fits into your schedule, and make sure it’s a time that you can replicate each day or week. Consistency in send time is important in order to become a part of your readers’ routines (and you want to be part of their routine).

Depending on the type of newsletter you’re sending, preparing a newsletter can be incredibly time consuming, and hitting a strict deadline can be stressful. Leave yourself enough time to create, get feedback on, and test your newsletter–more on that in a minute.

Make sure you consider your users when choosing your send time. Try to imagine what they’re doing at the time they receive your email, and ask yourself: do they want your email then? At 9 a.m. on Mondays, I imagine Fast Company‘s East Coast readers heading in to work, maybe still commuting, maybe standing in line for coffee, maybe already at their desks while our West Coast users are just waking up–and most of those activities give those readers just enough time to skim through the Fast Company Daily.

The easiest way to stand out is to be the only new email in a user’s inbox. Scope out your competitors and pick a send time that doesn’t overlap with theirs.

Finally, consider what you want your user to do with your newsletter. If you’re asking them to click through to take a survey or read your 1,200-word exposé, don’t send your newsletter during their morning commute, when users are likely preoccupied and short on time. That kind of content might make more sense on the weekend.
The Week’s newsletter (left) uses long paragraphs and NYT’s daily news brief (right) uses bullet points and short sentences so you can read and skim more information in the same amount of space.
What Else?

Your newsletter design should be mobile-first, simple, and skimmable. Here are some tips from my experiences over the years:

    Bear in mind the screen size of your readers’ phones when you’re developing your newsletter’s layout and creating content. Choose bullet points and short sentences instead of paragraphs, and use headers to break up text.
    Keep your paragraphs short and use lots of headers to break up the material.
    Do use photos–but remember that they won’t always load quickly, or at all, in certain browsers and email clients. So it’s best to start your newsletter with text, and place photos lower in the email, so they have time to load before your users scroll that far down..
    Unlike the web, email does not support fancy fonts and complex design because of all the different inboxes, devices, screen sizes, and mail platforms out there. So make sure you test your design in as many inbox types as you can. Many email newsletter management tools feature a render option, which should enable you to see what your newsletter will look like across a wide range of inboxes.

Subject Line
Your subject line is what will make a user either open or ignore your email, so it’s important to get it right. Your subject line can be anything: a question, an answer, a single word, and even a full a sentence–as long as it’s intriguing enough to make your readers want to click on it.

Make sure to test your subject lines, at least when you’re starting out on your newsletter adventure. Many newsletter platforms like Mailchimp have an A/B testing feature that allows you to easily pit one subject line against another by testing your options on a small sample of your subscribers before sending the winning subject line out to the rest of your list.

At Fast Company, we test a series of subject lines on Twitter before we send out our morning newsletter. We send out a bunch of early morning tweets with our possible subject lines (and the links to the stories that each line goes with) and we choose the winner based on which tweet garners the highest engagement rate. That’s how we choose the subject line you receive from us in your inbox every morning!

Good content, with the right voice and format, is obviously the most important part of a newsletter. Perfecting that, with lots of feedback from outsiders, is really your first step.

Once you have good content, and subscribers, you’ll still need to work hard to keep subscribers hooked. Users will naturally lose interest in a newsletter within the first few months. You need something extra to keep them coming back–-something unique that sets your newsletter apart from the rest. It could be a unique format like the number-centric Significant Digits newsletter, the pop-culture-heavy references in TheSkimm, inside-baseball stories from a niche provider like Nieman Lab’s journalism news digest, or exclusive offers and giveaways–for example, I always open the Creative Market newsletter to get the free design template and font downloads for that week.

I discussed earlier how we test subject lines for the Fast Company Daily newsletter each day, which is an ongoing method we’ve found to be successful at maximizing email engagement on a daily basis. But there are a lot of other tests–ongoing and occasional–that are important to ensure your newsletter is a success.

What should you test?
Start with your questions or uncertainties about your newsletter, and the problems you think it has. Then ask your subscribers about those things through surveys and observe their behavior on a macro level with A/B testing.

When we set out to redesign the Fast Company Daily, we had our ideas about what needed to be fixed (for starters, it featured bright blue links and wasn’t responsive to different screen sizes). But we knew that before we changed anything, we would first need our users’ input. We started by sending a survey to our most loyal subscribers (the subscribers who open our newsletter the most–this is data we can easily pull from our newsletter service provider, MailChimp), since they were the ones who would be most affected by any changes and, we thought, would be the most willing to give feedback.

We focused the survey on what we ourselves thought were issues with the newsletter, and on aspects of the newsletter that we thought were already pretty good but could be more perfect, like story selection. In the end, we found that the most important questions we asked were:

    “What do you do when you open the Fast Company newsletter?”

This told us, at the most basic level, what the use of our newsletter was–which was important when we considered what our goals were for the redesign. Ultimately we needed to make it easier for our subscribers to skim through the headlines (which is what most users said they did with our newsletter), and try to increase our click through rate (which was our objective).

    “What do you like or dislike about the Fast Company Daily?”

While it took a while to read through and identify themes across all the answers to this open-ended question, it was definitely worth it. The answers to the question helped us see problems we didn’t even know existed–like duplicated stories across our newsletters, or lack of labels for our video links.

These long-form answers helped us get to know our users better, so in the future when we consider changes, we have a base understanding of who they are, how they think, and what’s important to them.
Most important question in our initial user survey, which told us what users wanted from our newsletter: to skim through stories.

Don’t Blindly Trust Your Audience (Or Your Own Instincts)–Test Everything!
After we learned what our subscribers said they do with our newsletter, we had to put their feedback (and our own assumptions) to the test and see what they actually did. So, we divided our subscriber base into three sections, and sent each group a different newsletter.

Group A was the control, and received our traditional newsletter. Group B received what appeared to be the traditional newsletter, but with an element or two that differed from the original in order to conduct A/B testing. And group C received something completely different: an email dominated by text, not interspersed with images.

The “A” and “B” newsletters helped us answer some quick questions.We sent A at 7 a.m. and B at noon or 4 p.m. to see whether there was a better time to send the newsletter (there wasn’t). We sent A with one subject line style for a week, and B with another style, to see whether there was a specific subject line formula that worked best (there wasn’t). We put 6 stories in A and 10 stories in B to see whether more stories in our newsletters resulted in a higher click through (it didn’t).
The original Fast Company Daily, used for test “A” and “B” (left) used for A/B testing. Fast Company Daily test “C” (right)–an all text newsletter used for testing alternative newsletter formats.

Meanwhile, newsletter C helped us test a newsletter type we thought we should be sending, a newsletter that didn’t just contain a list of links and images but instead was dominated by text written by a reporter or editor. For the record, most of our users hated that newsletter–since, as we learned in our our initial user survey and the ongoing survey we linked to every day in newsletter C, all our users really wanted to do with our newsletter was skim through headlines to find what interested them. Paragraphs of text weren’t conducive to skimming.

All that testing led us to our current newsletter format, which is informed by all the lessons from newsletter tests A and B, and designed based on the daily feedback we received from subscribers of newsletter test C.
How Do You Know You’re Succeeding?

No matter what type of newsletter you’re creating, you should be looking to measure success in two key ways: loyalty (the consistency of your users’ engagement) and growth (growing and maintaining your subscriber list). Whether the end goal of your newsletter is to drive traffic, develop brand awareness, drive sales, or world peace, being successful at achieving any goal first depends on the loyalty of your users and the size of your audience.

Driving loyalty
Make sure to engage with your users. Email as a medium is a multi-directional communication device, so make sure to use it that way–not just as a one-way delivery system for your content.

A good way to promote engagement with your users is to solicit responses. That can be as simple as encouraging them to email you back with comments or feedback.

Polls are a very easy way to get your users engaged with the least amount of effort on their part. When we sent detailed surveys to our most loyal subscribers, we had a 30% response rate from them and received some very valuable and lengthy responses from our subscribers. But to find out what the rest of our subscribers wanted–subscribers who might not be as committed to us as a brand and therefore might not be willing to put in as much effort as our loyalest readers–we added polls to the bottom of each newsletter with simple questions like “Did you read the editor’s note at the top of the newsletter?”

We experienced a higher response rate with 1-question polls because users didn’t have to leave the newsletter to submit feedback. The barrier to participation was low.
1-question poll in the Fast Company Daily that lowered the barrier to participation so that we could get feedback from more users.

You can also get users to engage with your newsletter just by asking questions–for example, Muckrack and other newsletters have daily trivia questions. It’s a good idea to encourage engagement that extends outside of the email–try to get users to engage with you on other platforms, and even at real-life events. TheSkimm has built probably the most loyal subscriber base with their skimm’bassadors program–they offer incentives to users who promote the newsletter, incentives like branded Skimm products, access to early product testing, invitations to events, and a shoutout in theSkimm on their birthdays.
Muckrack’s question of the day (left) promotes user engagement and theSkimm’s Skimm’r of the week (right) acknowledges loyal users.

Make sure to test different engagement strategies and see what clicks (no pun intended) with your audience. If they feel like you hear their voice and that they truly are part of your newsletter community, it’ll be easier for them to feel connected, and they will be more loyal as a result.

Being proactive about growing your newsletter list is as important as sending your newsletter. But how do you grow your following?

    Use Your Network: From day one you should reach out to everyone you know to sign up for your newsletter, and get them to get their contacts to sign up, too.
    Socialize: You should also use social networks to actively promote your newsletter. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn–get posting! You can also use Twitter cards (through Twitter’s ad interface) to promote your newsletter and solicit 1-click signups.

Fast Company Daily newsletter Twitter card to add 1-click newsletter signups to tweets.

    Partner Up: Look for other people or businesses that run newsletters with a similar target audience and reach out to them to promote your newsletter. If your audience is large enough, you can reciprocate by promoting their business in your own newsletter.
    Keep it simple! Make it as easy as possible for users to sign up for your newsletter. Don’t clutter your signup pages on your website with multiple fields or lots of text. You want to minimize the barrier to entry.If you have a website, make sure to create a clean, simple sign up box and feature it in a prominent place. Newsletter pop-ups may be annoying for the user, but they are an effective way to get signups–so try to minimize irritation by designing these boxes in an attractive and easy-to-navigate manner.

TheSkimm’s newsletter signup box is clean, simple, and prominent on their site.

Never stop promoting your newsletter, even if you feel like you’ve hit your goal subscriber number. Remember that users can lose interest in your work, so to achieve growth you need to gain active users at a faster rate than you lose them.
Final Thoughts: Always Think About Your User!

One big advantage of an email newsletter is that a user has to be pretty fed up with a newsletter to go through the steps required to unsubscribe. But considering how many newsletters are flooding inboxes these days and how detrimental non-essential emails can be to maintaining a healthy inbox, purging one’s inbox is become more and more important.

I recently realized it was time to set aside some time and cull my newsletter subscriptions in an attempt to take back control of my inbox. I was ruthless, and cut 95% of my subscriptions. I cut anything that came daily that I didn’t read daily, and kept only newsletters that gave me something I couldn’t get anywhere else. You don’t want me to cut your newsletter out of my diet, do you? No. So make sure you’re always thinking about how you can make your newsletter essential to your user. When your reader evaluates her subscription diet, no matter how consistently you send your newsletter, no matter how much you have tested it, the only thing that will really matter is how good the content is. More on that in another installment.

If you aren’t already a subscriber, sign up for the Fast Company Daily below!

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    07.14.17 most creative people

5 Startups Changing How Americans Buy Their First Home
The antiquated mortgage process is getting a digital upgrade.
5 Startups Changing How Americans Buy Their First Home
[Photo: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]

By Ainsley Harris3 minute Read

House-hunting starts online these days, with a visit to Google or Zillow. That initial search might lead to a FaceTime “open house” or uncover a 3D house tour. But put in an offer, and the process quickly turns analog. The hunt has gone digital, but applying for a mortgage still involves fax machines and pay-stub printouts.

That is finally changing. Entrepreneurs steered clear of the highly regulated mortgage industry in the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, which was precipitated by a glut of subprime mortgages, repackaged and marketed by Wall Street as low-risk securities. Now they see potential to transform a slow and expensive process, and at the same time serve first-time homeowners accustomed to managing their financial lives via smartphone. The prize, if they succeed: A share of the $8.4 trillion U.S. mortgage market. Here are five of the most promising startups to emerge so far.

This early-stage Y Combinator startup recently caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, who invested $5 million last month via his philanthropic vehicle, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Landed’s mission is to bring home ownership within reach for educators by funding as much as half of their down payment.

When the homeowners sell, Landed takes a cut of the home’s appreciation. Zuckerberg’s investment will support growth in three California school districts with high housing costs. “We hope this kind of down payment support will help to make it a little easier for great educators to stay and build successful careers in the region,” CEO Jonathan Asmis says. The startup partners with local lenders and real estate agents to implement its financing model.
Clara Lending

Jeff Foster, cofounder and CEO of of Clara, brings a similarly mission-driven approach to his mortgage startup. Foster left Wall Street and joined the Treasury Department in 2010, where he helped craft housing policy reforms in response to the unfolding financial crisis. “[Americans] took on loans they couldn’t understand because they didn’t have a good toolkit to evaluate choices,” he says. At Clara, he has raised $27 million to build a fully digitized mortgage process from scratch, while layering on financial education for prospective borrowers. “Our goal is to streamline that process and help the borrower make better decisions.”

Social Finance (SoFi) has quickly morphed from a student loan refinancing operation to a one-stop shop for the financial needs of affluent millennials—including mortgages. The company introduced mortgages in October 2014, and within two years originated over $1 billion worth of loans. Many of those have been “jumbo” loans, which require just 10% down but charge a higher interest rate.

For the typical SoFi customer—high-earning, but early career—jumbo loans offer a way to get on the real estate ladder in pricey markets like New York and San Francisco. “We’re bringing a lot of new folks into the SoFi community through our mortgage product,” says Michael Tannenbaum, chief revenue officer. As of January, mortgages were his fastest-growing product, with roughly 60% going to first-time buyers.

When LendingHome launched in 2014, it focused on “fix and flip” real estate investors. Then, with $1 billion in originations under its belt, the company began targeting first-time homebuyers this past spring. “We’re focused on giving homebuyers confidence and control over the process,” founder Matt Humphrey told Forbes. That means incorporating tips and feedback into the application itself, and offering features like a way to lock in a desirable interest rate. LendingHome has raised over $100 million to date.

Quietly, in the background, white-label software provider Blend has been helping established banks up their digital game when it comes to processing mortgage applications. The company launched in mid-2015, and raised $40 million in Series C funding in January of last year. Its mobile-friendly product imports an applicant’s financial information from around the web and speeds the bank’s time to a pre-approval decision. “The multi-trillion dollar mortgage industry has been running on legacy technology for decades,” says cofounder and CEO Nima Ghamsari. Blend’s technology offers banks an easy upgrade, compliant with regulatory demands and far cheaper than the $7,000 or so that a paper-based mortgage origination typically costs.
About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.


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    07.11.17 pov

Are You Ready To Consider That Capitalism Is The Real Problem?
Before you say no, take a moment to really ask yourself whether it’s the system that’s best suited to build our future society.
Are You Ready To Consider That Capitalism Is The Real Problem?
Fifty-one percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism. [Illustration: Kseniya_Milner/iStock]

By Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk7 minute Read

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

In February, college sophomore Trevor Hill stood up during a televised town hall meeting in New York and posed a simple question to Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. He cited a study by Harvard University showing that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism, and asked whether the Democrats could embrace this fast-changing reality and stake out a clearer contrast to right-wing economics.

Pelosi was visibly taken aback. “I thank you for your question,” she said, “but I’m sorry to say we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.”

The footage went viral. It was powerful because of the clear contrast it set up. Trevor Hill is no hardened left-winger. He’s just your average millennial—bright, informed, curious about the world, and eager to imagine a better one. But Pelosi, a figurehead of establishment politics, refused to–or was just unable to–entertain his challenge to the status quo.

There’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital. [Illustration: Kseniya_Milner/iStock]
It’s not only young voters who feel this way. A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 64% of Britons believe that capitalism is unfair, that it makes inequality worse. Even in the U.S., it’s as high as 55%. In Germany, a solid 77% are skeptical of capitalism. Meanwhile, a full three-quarters of people in major capitalist economies believe that big businesses are basically corrupt.

Why do people feel this way? Probably not because they deny the abundant material benefits of modern life that many are able to enjoy. Or because they want to travel back in time and live in the U.S.S.R. It’s because they realize—either consciously or at some gut level—that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on.

Because let’s be clear: That’s what capitalism is, at its root. That is the sum total of the plan. We can see this embodied in the imperative to grow GDP, everywhere, year on year, at a compound rate, even though we know that GDP growth, on its own, does nothing to reduce poverty or to make people happier or healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time, by some measures, inequality, poverty, and hunger have all risen.

Gains are seen as the natural property of the investor class. [Illustration: Kseniya_Milner/iStock]
We also see this plan in the idea that corporations have a fiduciary duty to grow their stock value for the sake of shareholder returns, which prevents even well-meaning CEO’s from voluntarily doing anything good—like increasing wages or reducing pollution—that might compromise their bottom line.

Just look at the recent case involving American Airlines. Earlier this year, CEO Doug Parker tried to raise his employees salaries to correct for “years of incredibly difficult times” suffered by his employees, only to be slapped down by Wall Street. The day he announced the raise, the company’s shares fell 5.8%. This is not a case of an industry on the brink, fighting for survival, and needing to make hard decisions. On the contrary, airlines have been raking in profits. But the gains are seen as the natural property of the investor class. This is why JP Morgan criticized the wage increase as a “wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion” to workers. How dare they?

What becomes clear here is that ours is a system that is programmed to subordinate life to the imperative of profit.

For a startling example of this, consider the horrifying idea to breed brainless chickens and grow them in huge vertical farms, Matrix-style, attached to tubes and electrodes and stacked one on top of the other, all for the sake of extracting profit out of their bodies as efficiently as possible. Or take the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, where dozens of people were incinerated because the building company chose to use flammable panels in order to save a paltry £5,000 (around $6,500). Over and over again, profit trumps life.

It all proceeds from the same deep logic. It’s the same logic that sold lives for profit in the Atlantic slave trade, it’s the logic that gives us sweatshops and oil spills, and it’s the logic that is right now pushing us headlong toward ecological collapse and climate change.

Millennials can see that capitalism isn’t working for the majority of humanity, and they’re ready to invent something better. [Illustration: Kseniya_Milner/iStock]
Once we realize this, we can start connecting the dots between our different struggles. There are people in the U.S. fighting against the Keystone pipeline. There are people in Britain fighting against the privatization of the National Health Service. There are people in India fighting against corporate land grabs. There are people in Brazil fighting against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. There are people in China fighting against poverty wages. These are all noble and important movements in their own right. But by focusing on all these symptoms we risk missing the underlying cause. And the cause is capitalism. It’s time to name the thing.

What’s so exciting about our present moment is that people are starting to do exactly that. And they are hungry for something different. For some, this means socialism. That YouGov poll showed that Americans under the age of 30 tend to have a more favorable view of socialism than they do of capitalism, which is surprising given the sheer scale of the propaganda out there designed to convince people that socialism is evil. But millennials aren’t bogged down by these dusty old binaries. For them the matter is simple: They can see that capitalism isn’t working for the majority of humanity, and they’re ready to invent something better.

What might a better world look like? There are a million ideas out there. We can start by changing how we understand and measure progress. As Robert Kennedy famously said, GDP “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

We can change that. People want health care and education to be social goods, not market commodities, so we can choose to put public goods back in public hands. People want the fruits of production and the yields of our generous planet to benefit everyone, rather than being siphoned up by the super-rich, so we can change tax laws and introduce potentially transformative measures like a universal basic income. People want to live in balance with the environment on which we all depend for our survival; so we can adopt regenerative agricultural solutions and even choose, as Ecuador did in 2008, to recognize in law, at the level of the nation’s constitution, that nature has “the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Measures like these could dethrone capitalism’s prime directive and replace it with a more balanced logic, that recognizes the many factors required for a healthy and thriving civilization. If done systematically enough, they could consign one-dimensional capitalism to the dustbin of history.

None of this is actually radical. Our leaders will tell us that these ideas are not feasible, but what is not feasible is the assumption that we can carry on with the status quo. If we keep pounding on the wedge of inequality and chewing through our living planet, the whole thing is going to implode. The choice is stark, and it seems people are waking up to it in large numbers: Either we evolve into a future beyond capitalism, or we won’t have a future at all.

Dr. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics who works on international development and global political economy, with an ethnographic focus on southern Africa.  He writes for the Guardian and Al Jazeera English. His most recent book, The Divide: A Brief History of Global Inequality and Its Solutions, is available now.

Martin Kirk is cofounder and director of strategy for The Rules, a global collective of writers, thinkers, and activists dedicated to challenging the root causes of global poverty and inequality. His work focuses on bringing insights from the cognitive and complexity sciences to bear on issues of public understanding of complex global challenges.

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    07.20.17 hit the ground running

Former Recruiters Reveal The Industry’s Dark Secrets That Cost You Job Offers
Recruiters are often asked to do the impossible, which sometimes makes them resort to unsavory—or downright discriminatory—practices.
Former Recruiters Reveal The Industry’s Dark Secrets That Cost You Job Offers
[Photo: tookapic via Pixabay]

By Rich Bellis7 minute Read

    We’re seeking a creative, experimentally minded, outside-the-box thinker to join our fast-paced, innovative team.

According to Laurie Ruettimann, who became a consultant after 12 years in HR and recruiting, job descriptions like these are “generally a lie.” In her experience, “They’re just looking to fill the position with someone who will stay a little longer than the person who quit.”

Not that recruiters want candidates to know that. Many are simply trying to squeeze people into job descriptions that may be outrageously ambitious or just mismatched for the needs of the role. As a result, recruiters sometimes resort to bad habits, indulge in crude biases, and mislead job seekers in order to keep their clients happy. Fast Company spoke to a few who’ve since left recruiting to learn some of the less-savory realities inside the industry—and what candidates can do to protect themselves.
Your Identity Might Get You Typecast

“A lot of recruiters—most that I know—will Google candidates who make it pretty far [in the hiring process],” says Ruettimann, “and then use Google image results, and also blog posts, tweets, and open Facebook accounts to judge someone’s character and credibility,” practices that she observes are frequently discriminatory and in many cases illegal.

Whether or not they’re aware of it, recruiters typically have a preconceived notion of what the ideal candidate looks like, Ruettimann explains, which often rests on stereotypes. Weight bias is still especially prevalent, she’s found—”these beliefs that someone who’s overweight is slovenly or lacks motivation.” And in her view, “diversity in Silicon Valley’s mind is the picture of Phylicia Rashad,” says Ruettimann, referring to the actress who portrayed Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. She has seen African-American women get considered more readily for roles as diversity/inclusion chiefs while white men more often lead the pack to head up sales teams.

One recruiter who spent a decade at a Canadian executive-search firm backs this up. The recruiter, whom I’ll call Mark (he requested anonymity to speak candidly), says there’s “a penchant to see more diversity, but the definition is narrow,” typically reduced to race and gender; it was common to tout a candidate for being a “visible minority.” “It’s the only way to highlight that for the client on a call,” he explains, since “we can’t put it in our documentation.”

Mark also claims “there’s kind of a sweet spot” in terms of age for C-level positions. “My boss would say things like, ‘Did they have enough gray hair?’—not literally, but are they seasoned enough, do they have enough experience where they could be credible?” There were occasions when recruiters would nominate younger, well-qualified candidates for senior leadership roles, Mark recalls, but “I’d say 20% of the time they’re open to meeting with that person.”
There Are Fewer Applicants Than You Think

Erica Breuer is a personal branding strategist who worked for a year at staffing agency before deciding she’d had enough. One tactic she says was “used a lot was throwing out there how many people we’re [supposedly] speaking with when really it might’ve only been one to two options.” By the time a recruiter reaches out, she says, they’ve probably narrowed the candidate pool more than they’re letting on.

“Many candidates feel that there’s this huge job market and they’re competing against all these people,” says Breuer, and employers use that assumption to their advantage. “You always hear about this pile of 500 applications, when that’s not what it’s looking like behind the scenes.” So if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re speaking one-on-one with a recruiter, you may already have more leverage than you think.
Fancy Credentials Still Count (Way More Than They Should)

At the start of the hiring process, says Mark, “You get 100 resumes every single time, so how do I get to the top 20% of these people quickly?” One solution, all too often, is to zero in on prestigious credentials.

Recruiters “go to lower common denominators,” he says: “Who are all the Ivy League–school grads? Who are the McKinsey folks? Who is from a brand or company who we know and love?” As Mark points out, that leaves a candidate pool that’s only as diverse as those elite institutions. “We wouldn’t eliminate people for not having these things,” he says, “but we would prioritize people who did have Harvard credentials, for instance.”

In Mark’s experience, the only really effective workaround is a referral. “It can supersede a lot of things. It depends who it’s from, but if the CEO says, ‘We should be talking to that person,’ [recruiters] will be screening that person”–no matter what name brands may or may not grace their resume.

To be considered against stacked odds like these, he say, “it’s really important to be able to network your way in . . . Go look at LinkedIn profiles of people inside the organization. Look at how they came up and where they came up, and model their paths. What led them to their role eventually?”
You May Need To Oversell Your Skill Set

According to Breuer, many companies are “either looking for someone who has a very specific type of experience—like ‘programmer of 20 years but also has experience writing for women’s magazines’—or [are] just stacking up all these skill sets that no one person has. They’re both impossible scripts.”

“There were times where I would sit my candidate down and say, ‘Listen, they’re really looking for this—what can we do about it?’ I would encourage the candidate sometimes to just bring it up and be frank,” or else to talk up a snippet of their experience to match what an employer wanted to hear.

Breuer says she’d also have to “prep the client” in situations like these, encouraging hiring managers to ask a certain question that she’d coached the candidate to answer. “When you get to that point when you only have two options, you’ve got to get creative with your candidate.”
“Solopreneurs” Need Not Apply

Ruettimann believes an economic downturn is overdue, which will flood the job market with legions of contract workers, freelancers, and so-called “solopreneurs” applying for corporate jobs with full-time benefits. Whether or not that proves true, Ruettimann says that in the recruitment world, “nobody really believes in the gig economy.”

The prevailing attitude, she says, is that “if you’re self-employed, it’s because you can’t get full-time work.” So job seekers looking for traditional roles after years supporting themselves—particularly older ones—she says, “are facing serious ageism and bias in the workforce.” Ruettimann’s advice is twofold: “If you’ve been in this gig economy, get your references in order and make sure you’re working for really awesome clients who can vouch for you, then think about turning those clients from customers into employers—like now.”

Second, “downplay how much you took on in terms of risk or innovation or ability”—that experience won’t matter nearly as much as a job description may lead you to believe; in fact, risk-takers are seen as unpredictable liabilities. Instead, Ruettimann suggests, “highlight the fact you can work in a team, that you can take orders, that you’re looking to learn, you’re looking to collaborate.”

No matter what they claim, she says, recruiters are “looking for someone who will come in and assimilate with the team, not necessarily challenge it.”
The Job Is Being Made To Sound Better Than It Is

In Breuer’s experience, “there are a lot of companies talking about their mission and values, but it’s really a sales story. I was seeing huge promises get made to candidates, and three weeks in they’re emailing me saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t what I expected.'” The two items she found most commonly oversold were “the degree of flexibility that came with the role and e-learning and internal education [opportunities].”

“I think companies know how much both of those things mean to candidates,” so recruiters tout them, often in good faith. But, she says, “I don’t think companies have the best systems and internal processes in place to make sure they’re fulfilling on them.” As recruiters, Breuer explains, “we have these stories that we repeat—that sales story. We believe it when we’re saying it because we’ve heard it so often,” even if it isn’t entirely true.

The solution? “There’s nothing better than actually asking to speak to a few people who work there,” says Breuer. Read every Glassdoor review you can. Get ahold of former employees on LinkedIn. “If you think you’ve done enough research, do that extra half hour—reach out to a few more people, Google it one more time.”

She adds, “If you’re not feeling sure, there’s probably info you haven’t uncovered yet that’s making you feel nervous about what you’re looking at.”
About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.


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Keeping Track Of All These Voice Assistants Is Becoming A Problem
As the Siri and Alexa clones add up, all their different skill sets and ways of talking could turn consumers off.
Keeping Track Of All These Voice Assistants Is Becoming A Problem
[Source Photos: Flickr users MouthGuy2013, and Nicole Mayone]

By Bob O'Donnell5 minute Read

Even for a casual observer of the tech industry, it’s easy to see that digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby are hot. Whether embedded into the latest smart speakers, built into the latest device operating systems, or evolving as independent entities, these new anthropomorphized chunks of code are receiving enormous amounts of attention from tech vendors, the tech press, and the general public.

But as hot as they are, there’s confusion among consumers about what digital assistants are and what they’re supposed to do. That’s largely because the various assistants offer an overlapping, but different, set of “skills,” to use Amazon’s term.

My firm, TECHnalysis Research, surveyed just under 1,000 people who own and use smart home and digital assistant products. The key takeaway of the research is that no one assistant currently has the ability to meet most people’s needs—more than half (55%) said they use multiple digital assistants. And just over a third of that group said they weren’t comfortable doing so, because of differences in the ways assistants currently work.

The various assistants understand different “wake-up” words, and different phrases to call up specific data or actions. If people have to learn how to address and ask questions or make requests of assistants in very different ways, it may cause confusion that ultimately leads to a slowdown in adoption of assistants in general.

The decision over what assistant to use depends on the device they live in. Those that live in smart speakers (“Alexa . . .”) are used more than those built into phones or PCs (“Hey Siri . . .”), the research shows. Interestingly, multi-assistant users most often select an assistant based on the device that’s closest to them.

It also depends on the task the user has in mind. Eighty-six percent of smart-speaker owners ask their device to play music, for example, while just 52% of smartphone users ask their assistant to do so, and only 46% of PC-based assistant users.
A New Concept

The path to consumer-friendly personal assistants includes a few milestones in computing (don’t forget Microsoft’s Clippy), but Apple’s Siri was the first to popularize the concept in 2011. It presented itself as a mobile, voice-driven interface (with a limited vocabulary) that allowed certain types of commands to be made and certain types of information to be requested. Even as it has expanded its applications, Apple has sought to keep Siri’s skills limited. Siri was also limited by the single basic microphone found on an iPhone or iPad.

The “big bang” in the digital assistant world came with Amazon’s Echo device, which was announced in the fall of 2014 and became widely available in the spring of 2015. The Echo used a specially designed microphone array optimized to get a clean “input” signal from your voice. More importantly, though, Echo’s assistant, Alexa, also brought with her a wider vocabulary of recognizable words than Siri. And a year into her life, Alexa learned even more words as developers created third-party skills for her.

Along the way, Microsoft introduced Cortana. Google first tried Google Now, then renamed the assistant “Google Assistant,” suggesting that the artificial intelligence-powered assistant would underpin lots of Google services. In addition to voice, both of these assistants also brought with them an enhanced AI focus. Each in their own way, they proactively learn things about you by looking (with your approval) at your productivity and personal data. They use this data to offer more personalized and contextually relevant data to you throughout the day. Siri and Alexa have steadily added these machine-learning capabilities, too.

Samsung’s Bixby and the Google Lens add-on to Google Assistant give the digital assistant the power of sight. The use the host device’s camera to capture images of people, objects, and places around you, then use sophisticated AI to recognize and manage them. This new twist adds an intriguing layer of contextual information. The assistant can see what’s going on around you.

Related: After Lots Of Talk, Microsoft’s Bots Show Signs Of Life

Moving forward, we’ll see even more capabilities added to digital assistants, including more natural responses, the ability to sustain longer conversations, and other skills that haven’t even been thought of yet. In many cases, however, those advancements are likely to be rather subtle, such as moving from a two-question interaction to a three-question one, or providing a slightly more contextually appropriate response to one of your queries.

As assistants gradually get smarter, they’re likely to specialize in different ways to accommodate different users and use cases. Actually, we’re already seeing differences in approach among the various assistants. One assistant might be good at providing answers to random questions (“What’s the capital of South Dakota?), while another might be far better at helping a user organize a future conference call.

While the ultimate goal of all the assistant platforms may be the same—to provide the digital equivalent of a personal assistant—each of the big tech companies creating them is coming at the concept with a unique perspective and with its own agenda. Apple wants to provide links to its services, all while maintaining the privacy of individuals. Google wants to leverage search to gather lots of personal data to create a smarter assistant (and potentially open up new advertising channels). Amazon wants to provide an intuitive, natural language front door to its many services, and maybe gain a foothold in the tech platform wars.

In practical terms, that likely means the various assistants will end up asserting themselves as very distinct, and different, personalities.
Platform Wars

This all matters because digital assistants represent the next great tech platform battle. All the major tech players know this, and are working to create platforms that can be built upon to sell additional services, provide deeper hooks into their respective ecosystems, or develop other types of products or business models that have yet to be completely figured out. Because of that potential, digital assistants now carry with them the gravitas of being inherently important for future business.

At the same time, all these major tech vendors also recognize that it’s still early days for digital assistants, so there’s a chance for almost anyone to release a product and grab some market share.

For consumers, digital assistants represent an intriguing glimpse into the future of more personalized, more contextualized, and more meaningful types of computing experiences. They show the potential for all the intelligent devices around us to go way beyond simply showing us pretty digital things on various screens. Assistants could enable completely new types of interactions with users. They could become like personal concierges that show us just the right information at just the right times. They might also provide a bridge between the digital world and the analog world we inhabit.

The era of the digital assistant is coming, but getting there—and determining where there is—will mean a rocky climb, as we search for the right words to speak to overlapping, incomplete visions of that future.

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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    08.27.14 work smart

Templates And Hints For The Perfect Email For Almost Every Situation
If every email you sent was perfectly phrased and well-received right out of the inbox, how much time could you save?
Templates And Hints For The Perfect Email For Almost Every Situation
[Business: Kazoka via Shutterstock]

By Kevan Lee10 minute Read

Have you ever received an amazing email, one that you’d like to print out and pin to your wall, one that made you grin from ear to ear or slow-clap in appreciation and reverence?

When I come across these gems, I drop them into a “Snippets” folder. I study them, I swoon over them, and I borrow bits and pieces of them to send better email.

Now imagine that every email you send is as great as these occasional all-stars you receive. Impossible? Not at all. Worth shooting for? Definitely.

Related: Six Ways To Write Emails That Don’t Make People Silently Resent You

At Buffer, we strive for 100% awesomeness in the emails we send to customers, and that pursuit of excellence carries over to the emails we send to teammates, colleagues, friends, and family. We want to send better email, the kind that delivers the intended message plus the desired emotion.

So I’m happy to share some of my sources of email inspiration. These are the templates and snippets that have caught my attention over the past few months, and which I’m hoping to include in more of my communication in the inbox. Think you might like to try any of these out in your daily emailing?
An email template for shaving 20 hours off your work week

Author Robbie Abed took to LinkedIn to share a pair of emails that he had used successfully to shave his workweek from 60 hours to 40 hours.

Here is email number one, which is to be sent on Monday.

    Subject: My plan for the week


    After reviewing my activities here is my plan for the week in order of priority. Let me know if you think I should re-prioritize:

    Planned Major Activities for the week

    1) Complete project charter for X Project

    2) Finish the financial analysis report that was started last week

    3) Kick off Project X–requires planning and prep documentation creation. Scheduled for Thursday.

    Open items that I will look into, but won’t get finished this week

    1) Coordinate activities for year-end financial close

    2) Research Y product for our shared service team

    Let me know if you have any comments. Thank you!


The clear intention here is to set the expectation for the week ahead and give a supervisor a clear understanding of what you’re working on.

Then, on Friday, you send a second email, summarizing what you completed during the week and noting any open items that need further attention or follow-up from colleagues.

Related: The Only Five Email Folders Your Inbox Will Ever Need

The idea here is simple: Set expectations early on in the week and follow through at the end of the week. According to Abed, this provides clear boundaries on your time, it shows your supervisor that you are responsible and organized, and–if everything goes according to plan–it might get you out of the office on Friday having worked zero overtime.
How Michael Hyatt says no to guest bloggers

Author and speaker Michael Hyatt gets a lot of email requests for a lot of different things. One of the most popular requests is for guest blogging – either bloggers who wish to submit guest posts to his site or other sites looking for Hyatt to write for theirs.

Here’s how he says no to guest blog pitches.

    Dear [name]:

    Thanks for your interest in being a guest blogger on my site. I am grateful that you took the time to write this post and submit it. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be able to use it.

    I have received scores of submissions–more than I expected. As a result, I am having to turn down many well-written posts, including yours. Sometimes this is because the topics overlap or the posts are too general for my audience. Regardless, because of my time constraints, I can’t really provide more detailed feedback.

    I wish you the best in your writing endeavors. If you have another post, I would be happy to consider it.

    Kind regards,


Here’s how he says no to invitations to guest blog.

    Dear [name]:

    Thanks so much for thinking of me as a potential guest blogger. I am honored.

    Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time. It is all I can do to keep up with my own blog! As a result, I’m afraid I will have to decline your kind invitation.

    Again, thanks for thinking of me.

    Kind regards,


I’ve been on the sending and receiving end of similar emails several times over the past few months. I happened to save a favorite “thanks but no thanks” snippet that I thought sounded appreciative and kind yet still said no.

    I’d love to take part and it sounds like an amazing opportunity. Unfortunately I’ll have to pass, as I’m currently a little over-committed and won’t be able to make the time right now.

Related: Here’s When You Should Use Email Instead Of Slack
Email snippets for saying no

In the examples above, Michael Hyatt said no to guest blogging. That’s a great start. And what about the scores of other opportunities we may need to turn down throughout the week?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time coach and trainer, shared a series of snippets for saying no in a post published on 99U. She seemingly had a “no” snippet for any scenario. Here are a few of my favorites.

When you receive perpetual last-minute requests:

    I would love to help you out, but I already made commitments to other (coworkers, clients, etc.) to complete their projects today. It wouldn’t be fair to them to not follow through on what I said I would do. I will be sure to fit this in as soon as possible. Thanks for your understanding.

When people ask you about everything instead of directly contacting the appropriate person:

    That’s not my area of expertise. I would be happy to connect you with someone who could best help you solve this problem.

When you’re given an exceptionally short deadline:

    I know this project is a high priority for you, and if it’s absolutely necessary for me to turn something in by that date, I can make it happen. But if I could have a few more (days, weeks, etc.), I could really deliver something of higher quality. Would it be possible for me to have a bit more time?

When asked to do something optional that you can’t commit to right now:

    I appreciate you thinking of me, and I’m honored by the request. But unfortunately, I don’t have the time to give this my best right now. I think you would benefit from finding someone who can devote more time and energy to this project.

Related: How To Cut Your Email Time In Half
7 simple sentences to set better boundaries

Could it even be as simple as a sentence? Wharton professor Adam Grant has a pretty quick list of seven different sentences that might work to set boundaries on your work/home life. Here’s the list:

    The Deferral: “I’m swamped right now, but feel free to follow up.”
    The Referral: “I’m not qualified to do what you’re asking, but here’s something else.”
    The Introduction: “This isn’t in my wheelhouse, but I know someone who might be helpful.”
    The Bridge: “You two are working toward common goals.”
    The Triage: “Meet my colleague, who will set up a time to chat.”
    The Batch: “Others have posed the same question, so let’s chat together.”
    The Relational Account: “If I helped you, I’d be letting others down.”

Of these seven, I’ve had a chance to try Nos. 1 and 3 just in the past week. The first felt great, as it truly was an opportunity I was excited to pursue yet the timing just wasn’t ideal. Sentence No. 3 felt just as good; had I committed, I would have been way in over my head. So not only was I able to set a boundary, I was able to ensure that the work was completed the best way possible.
How to send the best emails to your customers

In The Customer Support Handbook: How to Create the Ultimate Customer Experience For Your Brand, Sarah Hatter describes in expert detail exactly which words and phrases should be used in a modern-day customer conversation (and which shouldn’t).

Empty words (do not use):

    This issue
    That isn’t
    This isn’t
    We don’t
    We’re unable to
    I can’t

Full words (use liberally):

    Thank you!
    I’m really sorry
    This sucks
    I know this is frustrating
    You’re right
    That’s a great idea!
    Let me check and get back to you
    Thanks for sharing your idea/thoughts/taking the time to help improve the product

Magic phrases:

    “You’re right.”
    “I’d love to help with this.”
    “I can fix this for you.”
    “Let me look into this for you.”
    “I’ll keep you updated.”

Power replies:

    “You’re right, we could definitely do this better.”
    “Thanks for being open and honest about your experience so we can learn from it.”
    “I really appreciate you helping us improve our process–we don’t want this to happen again.”
    “I know this is a huge disruption to your day and I’m working to get it fixed.”

I had a chance to use the “disruption” line just today with a customer who had a less-than-ideal experience. I’m not sure if my choice of words was what won him over or not. I am happy to say that he was super pleased to receive my reply–nothing to sneeze at for a customer we might have wronged.
What to say instead of “Let me know if you have any questions”

Chris Gallo at Support Ops has an interesting, applicable way of looking at that all-too-common wrap-up to the emails we send. How do you end your conversations on email? Seems like we typically choose one of these cookie-cutter sign-offs.

    “Please let me know if you have any questions.”
    “If you have any other problems, just let me know.”
    “If there is anything else you need, please let me know.”

Compare this with how you end conversations in real life. Gallo points out that none of us talk this way to our friends and family; why should we talk this way to our beloved customers?

Perhaps the best example Gallo cites is this one:

    “If there is anything else you need, please let me know.”

    Should I need something else? Am I going to need something else soon? Are you saying that I’m needy?

Instead of the stock answers, try these questions, which sound more human and feel more conversational.

    “Does this help you?”
    “Did that answer your question? And does it make sense?”
    “Anything else that I can help with today?”

(The above example comes from Chase Clemons’s Support Ops email guide, which has loads more examples, if you’re interested.)

I’ve been trying these new signoffs in my personal emails for the past couple weeks, and I will say that it can be a little disarming at first. I definitely felt the urge to end with a token platitude rather than an open-ended “Does this help you?”

Fortunately, it gets easier the more you use it. And I’ve had many meaningful conversations that I might not have had otherwise.
Out with the “buts,” in with the exclamations

This one I’ve borrowed from our Chief Happiness Officer Carolyn who wrote about her removal of every instance of “but” and “actually” from her customer support emails.

With “but,” Carolyn removes the conjunction and replaces it with an exclamation point, splitting one compound sentence into two simpler ones.

    Sentence 1: “I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.”

    Sentence 2: “I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.”

With “actually,” she removes the word entirely, often opting for a new word or phrase to open the sentence.

    Sentence 1: “Actually, you can do this under ‘Settings.'”

    Sentence 2: “Sure thing, you can do this under ‘Settings!’ :)”

I was inspired by these examples, so much so that I’ve gone to the extreme and attempted to remove all “buts” from the blogposts I write and the conversations I have. It’s interesting, even if I’m unable to follow through 100% of the time, just to note how often the word might come up. I’m prone to use it more often than I thought.

I’ve found that recognizing great emails is one thing, and using them is another. This is why I started cataloging the emails I love and referring to them regularly when I need inspiration on what to say. I go with a fairly straightforward copy-and-paste, which can take a bit of time. The SupportOps crew (and many of our Buffer heroes) use Text Expander to have snippets available via a keyboard shortcut.

This article originally appeared on Buffer and is reprinted with permission.

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