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Sure, you can pick my brain. Provided I can pick your wallet.

Pick my brain

Pick my brain published on No Comments on Pick my brain

I find people vary in how delighted they are to get requests to pick their brains. Some jump at them, possibly because they’re otherwise deprived of social contact, or because they’re highly altruistic, or because they really like free coffee.

But a lot of folks I know bristle at the question. My wife Alexandra calls it the “can-I-have-$500 call.” She points out it’s like asking someone to give up two potentially billable hours. (That’s once you factor in figure-out-a-date time, travel time and so on. And recognizing that different people bill at different rates, and some people drink coffee much more quickly than others.)

She understands that generating business often involves a courtship of coffee meetings and mutual exploration. But…

…there is a big difference between meeting with a consultant to assess whether you want to hire her, and asking her to simply give you a couple of hours to do the work you need. When you are talking to someone whose work includes analyzing problems, offering insight or making recommendations, “picking their brain” is the same as asking them to work for free.

Important cartoon milestone: This marks the first time I’ve created a Noise to Signal cartoon and post end-to-end on an iPad. The 12″ Pro was my birthday present, along with the Pencil and Logitech’s “Create” keyboard/cover. After a little hunting around, I’ve settled on Procreate for drawing and Autodesk Graphic for assembling the cartoon with its caption and logo. And writing this in WordPress with the keyboard was a breeze.

When I talk about the ease and precision of cartooning on the iPad Pro, it’s not so much to sell people on them. (Although, holy Hannah, it’s amazing.) It’s more to say that this is why you’re seeing a lot more cartoons this week from me. I’ll settle down into a more sedate schedule soon, I’m sure… but in the meantime, I’m having a ball.

(woman holding unicorn) Now the bad news. You're going to have to find housing in the Bay Area.

Unicorn Hunters

Unicorn Hunters published on No Comments on Unicorn HuntersPurchase print

Pitch: “Unicorn Hunters” — This reality show will follow the exciting, thrill-a-minute world of venture capitalists as they pore over income statements, commission reports and conduct hours-long, gruelling interviews with founders and key staff. (Note: we’ll need a LOT of clever camera work to maintain visual interest.)

I wonder just how concerned VCs are about housing affordability in the Bay Area (and in my home city of Vancouver), where both home ownership and rental costs are spiralling to prohibitive levels. The real estate bubble makes it a lot harder to attract those talented creatives that Silicon Valley supposedly values so highly, as they face punishing commutes from the far-flung communities they can still afford to live in. And it risks turning big swaths of urban landscape into deserts of affluence, feasible only for a thin, homogenous slice of the population.

(In lieu of the next two paragraphs, I’ll just say “Richard Florida.”)

(woman to business partner) I'm beat. Can we just make money today, and disrupt some other time?

Disruption fatigue

Disruption fatigue published on 1 Comment on Disruption fatiguePurchase print

Disruption of established business narratives and shaking the dinosaurs out of their complacency all the time—my god, it must be exhausting.

Take a break from all the disrupting and get some rest, people. You know who else had disruptors? Klingons. Grumpiest bastards in the galaxy, and now you know why.

(guy in hoodie to devil in business attire) So that's a no, but let's touch base again after I see how the Series A round goes.

Fallen angel investor

Fallen angel investor published on 2 Comments on Fallen angel investor

We’re now inviting a very exclusive circle of investors into Noise to Signal. We’re accepting only those with vision and foresight… the kind of vision that will lead them to embrace, as their sole return on investment, the satisfaction of knowing I spent every dime on art supplies and drawing apps.


Metrics published on No Comments on Metrics

Key Performance Indicator, in case you’re wondering.

Business casual

Business casual published on No Comments on Business casual

I don’t typically go in for that whole “Like if you…” “Share if you…” thing… but if I did, I’d say “Share if you hate seeing ‘business casual’ on an invitation.”

You could probably run a pretty profitable service for people, assessing the context and translating “business casual” into, say, “newer blue jeans, not too tight, polo shirt, sports jacket, dark socks, loafers but not sneakers.” Or “dark business suit; loosen the tie three millimeters.” Or “Speedo.” (Pro tip: it’s never “Speedo.” Or so I’ve been forcefully reminded on a few occasions.)

* * *

Work Smarter, Rule Your Email by Alexandra SamuelHey, big news from my partner Alexandra Samuel: her new Harvard Business Review Press ebook Work Smarter, Rule Your Email just launched today. It’s a short, lively read, but don’t let that (or the low price) fool you: her approach to managing email is a powerful one. It’s easy to implement (it’s an email strategy, not a way of life), and it will get you out from under your inbox.

You can get it for Kindle, iBooks and Kobo, or buy it straight from HBR Press.

Wait, what’s that? You’d like a Noise to Signal cartoon embedded in a promotional image suitable for sharing online because you love Alex and think she’s brilliant and want to help spread the word?

Friend, that’s what I’m here for:

Sharable Work Smarter, Rule Your Email cartoon


Shouldn’t have used PowerPoint’s “stupefied into immobility” template

Shouldn’t have used PowerPoint’s “stupefied into immobility” template published on No Comments on Shouldn’t have used PowerPoint’s “stupefied into immobility” template

How many more victims, PowerPoint? How many more?!

What’s in a name? It’ll cost you $400/hour to find out.

What’s in a name? It’ll cost you $400/hour to find out. published on No Comments on What’s in a name? It’ll cost you $400/hour to find out.

Here’s my personal history of the matrix.

 Mid-70s: I come across the word “matrix” for the first time, probably in the dialogue of a James Blish Star Trek novelization. I have no idea what it means, but from the context, it may be something interesting. I therefore pepper my conversations with it, condemning myself to a further decade of virginity.
Late 70s: In math class, we learn about arrays and matrices. I’m terribly excited. This, in case you’re wondering, is the differential diagnosis for being a nerd.
1998: I discover Alex has a predisposition toward expressing problems as 2-by-2 matrices. Also, she’s the kind of person who says “matrices” and not “matrixes”. My determination to marry her redoubles.
1999: Alex and I see The Matrix in Toronto. Whoa.

And that was pretty much it… until tonight.

You see, my browser died in the middle of writing this, and the most recent draft I’d saved had next to nothing, which meant I had to go back to WordPress’s autosaved revision. (A fine feature, that – kudos, WordPress.)

That autosave was missing only one line of text… but what’s technology for if not the opportunity to spend five minutes searching for ways to avoid one minute of work? On the possibility* there was a more recent autosave, I did a little clicking on the very latest revision… which apparently meant I was commanding WordPress to compare a revision to itself.

That made the screen go completely blank, followed by a notification that the system was trying to avoid an endless loop, and then a self-destruct countdown. When the countdown ended, a black box appeared, along with green terminal-style lettering that typed out

Wake up, Rob.

And then

The Matrix has you.

This, it turns out, is a long-standing WordPress Easter egg. There’s been a fair amount of debate over the years over whether to remove it, but so far it’s survived.

I’m a little embarrassed that I had no idea it was there. But for a moment there, getting that message while writing about The Matrix freaked me the hell out.

* Actually, not a possibility – WordPress only ever maintains a single autosave. The More You Know™, people.

Hold your horses there, Zuckerberg

Hold your horses there, Zuckerberg published on No Comments on Hold your horses there, Zuckerberg

Originally posted on ReadWriteWeb

This is for every would-be Internet mogul who has yet to type </head> on their big project, but has already written the speech they’ll give when they ring the opening bell at the NYSE.

(I say this as someone who had very specific plans for putting the kids through university on the proceeds of our Second Life venture. Sigh.)

Not that there’s something wrong with dreaming of making it big when you read about the Facebook IPO or the Gurflr acquisition or whatever’s chewing up the trending topics in Silicon Valley this week. There’s a lot of pleasure in picturing yourself in the shoes of the latest tech gazillionaire.

But not nearly as much pleasure in walking in them. At least, not while they were treading the winding, rocky path you have to follow to get there: all that planning, building, reversing out of actual dead ends, plowing through the illusory ones, avoiding impending disaster, living through disasters that stop impending and start happening, nurturing a community of users, finding capital, running out of capital, getting hacked, making the wrong hire, losing the right hire to a better offer, finally gaining some traction and then promptly getting slapped with a patent suit, trying to decide when to hold back and when to scale…

…and knowing that for every Mark Zuckerberg, there are countless others who worked just as hard, were maybe just as smart, but who made just one wrong call, or had the dice come up snake-eyes at exactly the wrong time, or one month before coming out of stealth mode saw someone else launch with the same product.

It isn’t all or nothing, of course. It’s not like you either create Facebook or dress in a barrel for the rest of your life. Even when your web app dies a silent, unmourned death, you’ve learned something along the way, you’ve probably built relationships (and hopefully didn’t burn any), and if you have the appetite to set off on that path again, that’s capital you’ll be able to draw on.

Maybe more important is how you look at success. There’s room for a very few Facebooks in the world, and if that’s your definition of success, you’re almost certainly doomed to disappointment.

But if you see success in creating something brilliant or useful or entertaining that reaches – not multitudes – but enough people to make a real difference in the world, then you’ll see a lot more opportunity out there. And at least for me, letting go of creating everybody’s favourite thing creates the room to create nine people’s favourite thing.

Which, who knows? might well open up the creativity and experimentation it’ll take to create the Next Big Thing.


Unintended consequences

Unintended consequences published on No Comments on Unintended consequences

It’s the dying moments of the Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Francisco. I’ve been cartoon-blogging like a madman – updates to follow – but in the meantime, thought I’d share a sketch from the flight down.


The big leap

The big leap published on 1 Comment on The big leap

Originally posted on ReadWriteWeb

Marshall Kirkpatrick’s the reason I get to draw every week on ReadWriteWeb, and on Friday, he announced he’s going to be launching a startup.

For me, this is one of those things that triggers the same surge of admiration, awe and vicarious terror that I have when I hear the words “So, we had our ultrasound and it’s triplets.”

Even when you know the people involved have razor-sharp minds, an intimate knowledge of their industry, creative ingenuity and rock-solid business sense – and with Marshall, I feel like I can tick the “all of the above” box – you also know there are going to be a lot more sleepless nights in their future, and a lot less uncorroded stomach lining.

But there’s also the excitement of building something new and amazing that wasn’t there before, something that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you, something that could change the world for the better. Maybe in a small way, maybe in a big one.

And that’s what makes it worth the risk, whether the venture you’re talking about is commercial, social, scientific or artistic.

Good luck with the triplets, Marshall.

Please, Not Another Banner Year

Please, Not Another Banner Year published on No Comments on Please, Not Another Banner Year

There are times when it seems like the economics of the web seem to boil down to:

  1. Find some white space on your site.
  2. Fill it with an ad.
  3. There is no number three. Check out these great discount air fares!

It starts innocently enough, with a few AdSense text placements. But before you know it, you have one of those Flash-based monstrosities lurking in your sidebar – the kind you don’t dare roll over, because if you do it spawns some demonic window that extends outside the boundaries of your monitor and knocks over furniture in your family room, while playing The Macarena at 130% volume.

It’s kind of nice, then, when a player in the — oh, god, what do we call it nowadays? ah, yes: the content industry — manages to come up with a revenue stream that’s a little more win-win than just hurling ads in readers’ faces. This week I stumbled across The Washington Post’s Master Class series: online courses that put the expertise of Post writers at your disposal.

It launched last month, and the tuition fees aren’t small; they’re along the lines of what you’d pay for a decent continuing ed class at your local college or university. That puts them in a different price bracket from most of the approaches I’ve seen newspapers take to finding a new source of income, like subscriptions or pay-per-article fees.

I wish them luck. Anything to avoid another banner ad.




Roadblock published on 1 Comment on Roadblock

Every organization seems to have at least one Dr. No: someone whose role in life appears to be to come up with a dozen reasons not to proceed with an intriguing idea… or even to explore it further.

That’s true in even the most traditional fields, but if you’re working in an emerging field like social media, you probably run into it constantly. And you may have learned such strategies as…

  • apologizing after the fact instead of asking for permission beforehand
  • keeping your project under the radar until the organization is so invested in it that they can’t back down
  • cultivating allies of greater or equivalent rank, who can defend your project against the slings and arrows of outrageous nay-saying
  • seething silently, venting anonymously to other social media or tech types online, and biding your time until your Negative Nelly or Quarrelsome Quentin retires
  • freshening your resumé, trolling LinkedIn and hoping to find green(light)er pastures elsewhere.

Or you could do something completely insane: getting to know what makes your nemesis tick, identifying the fears or doubts that keep them up at night, and addressing them. In short, you could engage with the enemy honestly and try to bring them around to a more positive outlook. (And if that doesn’t sate your lust to avenge a beloved cancelled initiative, you can always reflect on what Abraham Lincoln supposedly said about destroying your enemies by making them your friends).

Best-case scenario: you gain a supporter. Worst-case scenario: they win you over to their bleak, despairing view of the world. In which case, at least you can while away the hours… by finding reasons to say no to other people’s projects.

Hey, folks: have you entered the caption contest yet?

How hacktivist of you

How hacktivist of you published on No Comments on How hacktivist of you

Originally posted to ReadWriteWeb

Agree or disagree with the DDoS attacks attributed to activists affiliated withAnonymous, they’ve put the word “hacktivism” squarely on the radar of the chattering classes.

I’ll cop to a kind of Pavlovian response to hearing “hacktivism”, because Alex wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject and for several months it damn near displaced “What’s Steve Jobs going to announce next?” as our primary topic of conversation. (Thank god for those iPad 2 rumours, or we’d be in danger of it happening all over again.)

I’m enjoying hacktivism’s time in the sun, but part of me knows it can’t last. Already I’m hearing commentators stretching its meaning so they, too, can be using the word du jour: “Meanwhile, Biffixcor restated their third-quarter earnings for the second time. That’s what I call hacktivism. Right, Carol?” “That’s right, Jim. Coming up, weather and traffic – with our hacktivist eye in the sky, Monty. We’ll be right back.”

Toonblog: The seven harsh realities of blogging for bucks

Toonblog: The seven harsh realities of blogging for bucks published on No Comments on Toonblog: The seven harsh realities of blogging for bucks

Originally posted on BlogWorld

Saturday’s opening keynote featured Sonia Simone and Brian Clark of Copyblogger and  Darren Rowse of Problogger looking at the downs and ups of blogging with an income in mind. (You can catch the full write-up from Alli here.) And here’s my take.

My card. No, wait…

My card. No, wait… published on No Comments on My card. No, wait…

First published on BlogWorld. I’m cartoon-blogging there next week; let me know in the comments if you’ll be there!

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. You meet someone at a conference, you find a real connection – be it personal or business-related – and you exchange cards.

But as you hand yours over, you yank it back. “Oh, sorry,” you say, and fumble for a pen – “I just changed cell numbers. Let me just write in the new one… Hmm, you can’t really read that, can you?” (Of course they can’t, because you’re trying to write it on a little card with a big thick Sharpie, the only thing you could find in your bag.) “Do you have a pen? Or just some pointed instrument I could use to draw some blood?”

So if your business cards are out of date, set aside some time today to get some new ones printed in time for BlogWorld. (I promise: I’m doing just that as soon as I finish writing this.)

And if you want to stand out a little, here are a few ideas for business cards that make sense in for a social media conference:

Can you keep a secret?

Can you keep a secret? published on No Comments on Can you keep a secret?

Published yesterday on ReadWriteWeb

Don’t you worry – we’ll get to the cartoon in a moment. But first, would you mind signing this standard document?

It simply says you won’t give away the joke to the cartoon. And that you won’t tell any jokes with the same punchline, or a similar punchline. Ever.

Oh, that section? That’s just boilerplate. It means you acknowledge that anything you create from this point forward is a derivative work of this cartoon, and is therefore our property. Purely standard wording.

Um, yes, that next passage would appear, on the surface, to obligate you to buy a set of encyclopedias and four Magic Bullet food processors. Here, let’s just strike that out.

Look, can I level with you? Somewhere along the line, our lawyers… well, they went kind of… well, you don’t want to say “crazy”, because that’s potentially actionable. Let’s say “overzealous.”

Once they finished drafting contracts and handling the incorporation, I think they had some time on their hands. And they started thinking of ways to fill it.

Suddenly, we had to sign a liability waiver to use the coffee machine. You couldn’t use the photocopier without a notarized affidavit that you weren’t violating anyone’s IP. I found Terms of Use agreements posted above the urinals in the men’s room.

Look, you seem like a decent enough person. And the cartoon’s Creative Commons-licensed anyway. So go ahead and read it – knock yourself out.

Um, although in case you do knock yourself out, I’m going to need you to sign this waiver…

Continue reading Can you keep a secret?

Acquired tastes

Acquired tastes published on No Comments on Acquired tastes

This is to commemorate the newest addition to Google’s family: a company named Metaweb that produces a product called Freebase, and whose technology holds out the prospect of richer, more nuanced search informed by a massive, free and open database.

I’m in Portland, Oregon this week for OSCON. If you’re here too, give me a wave (I’ll be the guy drawing madly on his iPad, as I’m cartoon-blogging the event). Or drop by my sessionon Wednesday.

Or just acquire me. That seems to be the new “hello!”

The forbidden dance

The forbidden dance published on No Comments on The forbidden dance

Hey, I get it. A lot of people would like to make money from blogging. I wouldn’t mind it, either. (Hence the Google ads on, which so far have earned me a total of… um… excuse me, I have to go cry silently in a dark corner.)

But I’ve met enough people whose level of single-mindedness around monetizing their blogs worries me – for their sakes and their readers’. On the blogs I read and love – including the ones that make a lot of cash – what shines through is the writer’s passion for the subject matter, and for connecting with their audience.

Passion for making money? That’s a distant third at best. (Unless the blog itself is about making money and is still powerfully written and passionate, in which case you’re John Chow.) The blogs that are concerned first and foremost with driving eyeballs and flogging clickthroughs all seem to me to be dead, soulless places.

There’s joy to be had in this business, right alongside analytics and conversion rates. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know it’s my bottom line. And once we start commoditizing our relationships and conversations, we’ve given up something very precious.

By the way, my wonderful wife and partner Alexandra Samuel had a great post on something similar a few days ago. Do have a look!

Also, every flowchart ends with a reference to “meddling kids”

Also, every flowchart ends with a reference to “meddling kids” published on 2 Comments on Also, every flowchart ends with a reference to “meddling kids”

From my sketchbook: one of the few cartoons I’m drawing on paper these days.

Speaking of paper, want to do the world some good? If you live in Canada, check out David Eaves’ new Facebook group, aimed at convincing 100,000 Canadians to opt out of receiving the Yellow Pages: those massive tree-killing, energy-sucking tomes of advertising that land with a thud on your doorstep every year, even though you never asked for them. (Dave’s blog post explaining why tree-killing and energy-sucking is a bad thing is here.)

Guess the patent application’s a no-go, too

Guess the patent application’s a no-go, too published on 1 Comment on Guess the patent application’s a no-go, too

And just in case you want to see this one being drawn, here’s the high-speed version:

And the full version, complete with running commentary:

Once again, CamTwist, you rock my world.

Friends with benefits

Friends with benefits published on 2 Comments on Friends with benefits

The debate rages on over whether social networks (and Twitter, and YouTube, and, and, and) have any legitimacy in the workplace, fueled in no small part by people who sell tools to block them.

But employers who turn their noses up at Facebook et al. may well discover that their coveted Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y, a.k.a. those damn kids who won’t get off your lawn) are happy to return the favour when recruiting time rolls around. Blocking access to Facebook looks a lot like those IT departments that wouldn’t install web browsers on your computer a decade ago… or external email access a few years earlier.

And like those tools before them, the social web today is increasingly being used by companies and organizations for productive, collaborative work. So it’s not just a question of denying your HR department a hiring pool of cool kids. Blocking social media from your company can mean cutting yourself off from an important potential source of productivity, innovation and increased efficiency.

Of course, that’s an argument I like to make to people who haven’t just received a dozen Farmville notifications.

Originally published on ReadWriteWeb

Blogging was made possible by…

Blogging was made possible by… published on No Comments on Blogging was made possible by…

The new FTC guidelines for disclosure by bloggers have stirred up some anger among bloggers accustomed to getting free stuff and blogging about it without the heavy hand of governmental Big Brother yadda yadda – oh, you can finish the sentence yourself.

I can respect that it might get people’s backs up to suggest that their integrity is for sale, especially for such low prices. (Although, the last time I checked the exchange rate, integrity was down sharply against the dollar… and against the free chewing gum.) Then again, I’ve seen enough obviously feigned enthusiasm in some “reviews” to convince me that at least a few bloggers are happy to rent their voices – and readers – to any marketing department with a gift card and blogger outreach program.

All easy enough for me to say, of course; I have a job and make a pretty good living (touch wood). I can imagine that I might be tempted to modify my views if money was short and a blog review could put another meal on the table for my kids. Then again, for every blogger out there who’s struggling to make ends meet, there are countless more blog readers – the people the marketers are really trying to reach. Don’t they deserve to know about the relationship between product and blogger when they assess what they’re reading?

I’m a fan of disclosure, and while I haven’t examined the FTC guidelines in detail, I support the idea in principle.

But it’s interesting that the FTC went after bloggers rather than, say, entertainment writers who don’t mention the expensive junkets that movie studios take them on. A blogger who has to disclose that she or he received a free package of hot dog weiners has every right to feel burned after dropping fifty bucks to take the family to the latest “THRILLING!” “FANTASTIC!” “SURE-FIRE WINNER!”

For a Massive Fee, I’ll Show You How to Do It Right

For a Massive Fee, I’ll Show You How to Do It Right published on No Comments on For a Massive Fee, I’ll Show You How to Do It Right

I’m not sure what it is about social media. Here we are in this field that’s still emerging/exploding (or “explerging”, to use the trademarked term from my upcoming book, premium podcast, and $4,000-a-seat webinar) and constantly morphing. Yet there seems to be this powerful drive to lay down absolute laws about what works and what doesn’t.

Blogging? You should be posting twice a day. No, actually that’s too often; it abuses people’s attention. Wait, actually that’s not often enough; other people will eat your lunch. Actually, blogging’s dead, so move to Twitter, where you absolutely must follow everyone who follows you, unless you absolutely mustn’t, so don’t, unless you do. And when they do follow you, sending them an automatic direct message will either lift you into the Twitter elite or damn you to eternal ridicule. Possibly both.

I’ve fallen prey to this temptation myself, so I say all of this with a certain amount of chagrin. But I hope I’m on the road to reform: embracing my uncertainty, and vacillating with confidence.

(By the way, the title of Chris Brogan’s smashing blog post inspired the Neanderthal’s line in this cartoon.)

That’s delegation

That’s delegation published on No Comments on That’s delegation

It’s just not part of our culture here

It’s just not part of our culture here published on No Comments on It’s just not part of our culture here


2008-12-17-hedgehog published on No Comments on 2008-12-17-hedgehog