Our Motivations - Dan Pink - Inventables on Friday

Every Friday at Inventables is a free for all. Employees do whatever they want to do. Whatever they think is most important.

Ask yourself, is this Crazy? or Obvious?

Dan Pink gave an interesting TED Talk about the surprising science of motivation. The summary is that through a number of social psychology experiments he has boiled down what motivates a worker taking on tasks where there is more than one answer to three things.

Autonomy - Mastery - Purpose

At Inventables his findings were not so surprising. We haven't used those 3 words before but we've set up our company to benefit from this kind of approach for many years. In 2002 when we were just starting out and had very little money we established an $1200 exploration budget for every employee. The only rule surrounding the budget was the money was earmarked for exploration. There were no approvals required, no expectations of ROI, no timeframes. Each employee was given that money, trust, and autonomy to go explore. Companies that apply Dan Pink's ideas get this kind of approach, where a traditional company finds this frightening.

In 2008 when we shifted from a service based company to a company focused on building a web application we introduced a program called Free Point Friday. This program allows every employee to work on whatever they think is most important every Friday - no questions asked. We practice agile software development where a point is a relative, team-specific measure of effort to complete a feature story. We base our points on complexity rather than time. Free Point Friday has no accountability, no expected deliverables, and you don't even need to come to the office. Here are a few example projects people have done:

Free Point Project #1: Police Sirens that go off when a vendor buys a lead on our website
Free Point Project #2: Oneth1ng.net - A free web app to help team members focus on the 1 most important thing they will accomplish each day. We use this as a digital version of our 15 minute morning stand-up meeting.

Free Point Project #3: A "You might also like" feature that uses machine learning to get smarter the more our website is used. This feature increased sales leads being sent to vendors by 50%.

More on our thinking behind Free Point Friday in a minute, if you aren't familiar with Dan's TED talk, take a break from reading this point and watch it here:

We named it Free Point Friday because it happens EVERY FRIDAY. This isn't a concept we are giving lip service and this isn't a program that gets routinely cancelled because of other "urgent" work. We believe this is urgent. For some employees it actually takes a little getting used to and for the first few Fridays they work on what they were working on Monday-Thursday. As CEO I need to remind them it's Free Point Friday. If you've never worked in an environment like this you might feel a sense of guilt in the beginning, like you're doing something wrong. We believe you're doing something right and here's why.

As the CEO I'm very careful to hire people that are honest, trustworthy, share our values, and believe in what we're doing. I then give them tons of autonomy and time to become a master of their domain. You see we're on a mission to change the course of the world. We believe product innovation comes from lots of exploration and experimentation. We believe if more engineers explored what’s possible rather than going with the status quo, we’d have more companies like Apple, Google, and Boston Scientific giving birth to new products that improve people’s lives. If we succeed our new materials marketplace will change the world forever, not only because it’s more efficient, but because people will believe they can find new and better solutions to their problems they didn’t realize existed.

When that resonates with people, when they too believe that it's important to explore what's possible, then we have someone that is a candidate to join our company. When they do it's no problem to give them tons of autonomy. It's no problem because they will do more with that autonomy than if I told them what to do! You can't inspire someone by telling them do it this way. I'm inspiring them by coalescing our purpose into 3 powerful words that are changing the world - Explore What's Possible. This comes out in everything we do and shapes our product, excites our customers, and of course attracts our employees.

From what I can tell most companies are giving the concepts Dan Pink explains lip service, some are tip toeing in, but we are living it. At Inventables this kind of culture actually works. Monday - Thursday tends to produce incremental improvements on what we already have and typically Friday is where disruptive ideas and features are born.

I believe there is no better place to work in the city of Chicago. Think about it, what other company gives you 50 days a year to do whatever you want?

Creating a Startup Environment where Software Developers Thrive

On Wednesday May 19th I'm giving a talk at The University of Chicago’s co hosted by the Student Chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Group from Booth. If you're interested in coming please RSVP for the event.

The topic for the talk is "Creating a Startup Environment where Software Developers Thrive". One challenge in growing a startup is building a strong technical team that is focused on solving a problem your customers care about enough to pay for. Sometimes software engineering teams get distracted by technology and lose focus on what's best for the customer.

I will talk about my experience creating an environment (physical and digital) that allows the software development team at Inventables to thrive. I’ll discuss his strategy, process, and specific tactics that he’s used successfully at Inventables.
This talk is targeted at Computer Science and Business students.

Here's a taste for technical folks:
Inventables has a culture built on agile software development. We believe that by writing tests first you gain superior insight not just into what your code needs to do, but also how it should be structured. We pair program, and we follow the red-green-refactor loop relentlessly. This approach helps us deliver code early and often. We constantly scout out and incorporate the best tools for the job. Right now we’re using GitHub for source control; Ruby on Rails for our web development stack; and Cucumber, Rspec, and friends for our testing. I'll be getting into more detail at the talk but in the meantime if you're interested in learning more or coding with us, check out our technical blog Developmentables or apply to join as a software engineer.

Each developer gets an exploration budget and every Friday the opportunity to work on a "Free Point" they work on whatever they think is most important.

Here's a taste for the non-technical folks:
Inventables is a VC funded startup that helps vendors of materials and technologies market their products to people who are looking to solve sourcing problems. Funded by True Ventures in San Francisco the company operates an online marketplace where vendors including DuPont, 3M and Exxon Mobil use the site to create product pages like this one that describe the properties and applications of their products. Engineers, industrial designers, and product developers at companies like Microsoft, Ping, and Kraft Foods find these product pages when searching the internet for new materials and technologies.

If this sounds interesting please RSVP and we'll see you there.

Time and Temperature Sensitive Labels

These self-monitoring freshness timers have already been integrated into Febreze refillable air fresheners, but their usefulness goes beyond household appliances.

These smart strips are useful for monitoring any sort of material with a shelf life, be it food and beverage products, medicines, lab materials and more. Another great thing that goes with easy readability of the monitor is the fact that once activated, the strips are self-contained and thus tamper-proof. Moreover, there are strips available for use at all sorts of temperatures, and even ones that account for differences in elevation.

The form of the strips has evolved beyond the simple "peel and stick" method. The manufacturer has developed a way to embed the strips in any flip-style cap so that it activates upon the initial opening of the product, so that you can see throughout the lifespan of the product exactly how old it is. Which is great, because I'm sick of smelling milk to see if it has turned.

In February, the company announced that a toothbrush manufacturer has agreed to develop a new toothbrush that integrates the technology. The goal is to underscore the three month life span of the typical toothbrush to the consumer, and encourage regular replacement. The initial run of these newly integrated toothbrushes will be "modest," however, they are optimistic about the potential of expansion after the first run, citing that as of now approximately 110 million toothbrushes are sold annually in the UK, with an additional 400 million sold annually Stateside. Given the relative ease of activation and use of these strips, it would not be surprising for this technology to be the norm for monitoring expiration dates in the coming decade.

Tips and Tricks for Inventables

We are constantly learning how the most successful buyers and vendors operate on Inventables Marketplace. In recent weeks we've been sharing these anecdotes with folks that stop by our office for usability tests. We found ourselves answering similar questions in each meeting. This led us to believe that lots of other folks probably had the same questions on their mind about how to get the most out of Inventables.

In response to this, we launched a new site for Inventables customers called Inventables Tips and Tricks.

Our goal with the site is to provide all sorts of information to help buyers and vendors get the most out of using Inventables Materials Marketplace. Since it's not practical to meet with thousands of buyers and vendors we're going to attempt to offer up tips, tricks, and answers to common questions through this new website. Our intention is to do this in a personal, easy to understand format. At the bottom of each article you'll see the name of the person that wrote it sometimes accompanied by their picture. We hope this touch will help people get to know our team here at Inventables and remind you that our site is run by a team of committed people not a faceless corporation.

We're using a vanilla template and the CMS provided in Google Sites which makes it easy for us to add, edit, and delete information without needing our software engineering team's time. Right now we've got 8 new articles up on the site.

If there is a topic you're interested in let us know. We'll be updating it regularly so check back often.

Makerbot - Part 2 Building the Y stage

The first step in building the Y stage is finding all the components that are needed. They give you a picture of what they all look like here:

I wish they had put all the components needed for each sub assembly together in one plastic bag. It would have made it much easier and given me confidence I had the right pieces. In my bag marked "Build Surface Kit" it had the Build Platform wood and Orange Makerbot plaque but it only had 5 magnets, 6 nuts, and 6 screws. In the picture they provide there are 10 magnets, 12 nuts, and 12 screws so it's not clear if I am missing pieces or if I am supposed to mix and match from the different bags. To add to the confusion the picture has 12 of each but the bill of materials calls for 6 of nuts and bolts.

6 M3x16 bolts
6 M3 nuts

Despite the ambiguity I just dug in and started building. About 30 minutes later I have this to show for my work, a completed Y Stage:

Beyond the Pedway Interview

Tim Jahn from Beyond the Pedway Interviewed me about Inventables

Makerbot - Part 1 Unboxing

While I was in New York at a party thrown by our investors True Ventures I met the founders of Makerbot.

I chose to enroll as a mechanical engineer at the University of Illinois because I love building things. That passion for building, science, and technology drove me to start Inventables in 2002. Our mission all these years has remained the same but our approach to realizing the mission has made three major transformations. We are always trying to realize the mission in a way that has the largest impact on the world without compromising the integrity of the mission.

The concept for our Exploration Budget came from thinking about how we could achieve our mission. Exploration budget gives every employee budget and license to go explore and innovate. The natural tendency of a company is to incrementally improve their main product. This is healthy in the short run as it delivers immediate benefit to the current customers but it does not encourage disruptive ideas or lay the ground work for success in the long run.

Enter Makerbot:

I recently used some exploration budget money to buy a Makerbot. I bought it (aside from geeking out on it's coolness) because I think it represents a meaningful step in the ongoing fundamental shift in our economy. It represents a move from an "Industrial" economy to a "Maker" economy. In a free market capitalistic economy businesses tend to continually move to the path of least resistance. They tend to move to make things cheaper and cheaper with new technology. This makes everyone "richer" because a dollar today can buy a lot more to improve your life than it could 100 years ago. In the extreme case you can now buy antibiotics to cure what we consider common sickness that people use die from. I think in the future you will be able to buy a GI Joe on Amazon and rather than paying for Hasbro to design it in Rhode Island, manufacture it in a factory in China, and ship it back to America to be sold Hasbro will design it in Rhode Island, upload the design to Amazon, and you will download it (like we do songs in iTunes) and print it out on our 3D printers. Today it might sounds silly but I think this is the future of eCommerce.

The Makerbot currently sells for $1000 and you must assemble it yourself. Once you do, you can "print out" parts made of ABS plastic that have been made with a 3D cad software. Today it only works with ABS plastic but in the future I'm sure you'll be able to use other materials like Soft Polyurethane Elastomers, High gravity plastics that mimic metals, and Thermally conductive plastics that dissipate heat. It's not going to be long before these 3D printers are as common as deskjet printers and you can pick one up for the same price as a deskjet fully assembled! The big question is will they be selling them at Best Buy, Office Max, or Home Depot!

Thanks to @Last Software founders Brad Schell and Joe Esch the world has a free 3D CAD package.

Brad Schell, Jim Leggitt, FAIA and Joe Esch at the 2008 Google Basecamp.

Google bought @Last Software and has expanded it with Google Sketchup, the 3D Warehouse, and connected it to Google Earth. This kind of software used to be really expensive and only available to big companies. (I used one of their competitors during my summer working at General Motors Electromotive Division) Sketchup now makes it available for free to anyone with an idea and some passion to make it real.

In this series of blog posts I'll be telling the story of the assembly and use of the Inventables Makerbot, it should be a fun adventure.