Self-Driving Cars, Part 0.5

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

This past week Tesla unveiled the “D” model, which has a lot of cool features — but as per the post title, I want to talk about its advances towards our future self-driving reality.

Check out the demo here (particularly, the second half of the video):

On the one hand: It’s pretty incredible to actually see these sorts of features in real life as opposed to just in fantastic theoretical prose about the future. It’s definitely a little intimidating — the reviewer for TheVerge actually titles his piece “My Lap of Terror.”

I’m terrified, but for entirely different reasons.

As should be clear at this point from my recent update history, I’m rather zealously looking forward to the day when cars are driving themselves around the road. It’s worth noting that assisted driving features have been publicly available in cars since around 2003, when Toyota began selling a car which could parallel park itself. I have the same level of confidence in car technology’s ability to safely and effectively navigate both Toyota’s parking and Tesla’s lane changing and speed limits.

What I have very little faith in is people.

For example: How long do you think it’s going to take for some lunatic to post a video to YouTube of himself turning on Assisted Driving and then just completely abandoning the drivers seat?[ref]We already had the Ghostride fad circa 2006.[/ref]

You think it’ll take a few weeks? A few days?

What if I told you… someone actually already did exactly this over two months ago?

Scarier than that, because I think it’d be far more commonplace: Just simple lapses in human judgment. I think assisted driving leads us to being lazier drivers. We already have a hard enough time checking our blindspots when we switch lanes.

Say you’re a little groggy and happen to be taking your wife’s car to work instead of your Tesla one morning. Or say you get comfortable enough with assisted driving that you justify it as a good time to take out your phone and sneak in a few text messages from behind the wheel. All it takes is one second.

I don’t want to start sounding too much like your nagging, paranoid parents here. But no question about it: Lazy driving and distracted driving lead to accidents.[ref]Tangentially: It’s worth reading up on the European cities which made their streets safer by removing every single form of traffic signal, on the premise that without all of the crutches of traffic lights, stop signs, and so on, drivers would intuitively be relegated to be hyper-aware of their own safety, so they’re more careful. Accidents have gone down precipitously.[/ref]

We’re in sort of a treacherous valley right now — at the far end of the horizon, the utopian fully-autonomous vehicle. One view of the world was that we might just make one big gigantic leap across — say, Google just deploys its self-driving car and we all hope it clicks. What it looks like, though, is that we’ll be crossing the valley baby step by baby step — inching closer to the future and deploying the self-driving car on a feature-by-feature basis over several years. There’ll be growing pains either way; I can only hope that we make it across quickly.


Advanced Email Tactics

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

A few techniques I’ve grown fond of employing lately:

1. I put the greeting, and my recipient’s name, in the email subject rather than in the first lines of copy.

I think this helps email stand out in a mountain of inbox jargon. The sweetest music to anybody’s ears (err, eyes) is their own name. My sense is that my messages get turned around more quickly — especially notes to people who I haven’t spoken with in a while or who maybe weren’t expecting to hear from me.

The result looks something like this:

hey mark email


(Hat tip to Cy, who first brought an idea like this to my attention.)

2. I leave the period off the last sentence in the email.

A slight grammar offense, sure, but the benefits make up for it.

Here’s an example:

hey natalie email no period

By leaving off the last period, I find my emails are far easier for recipients to quickly respond to. It’s more casual, but no less formal because the ease in prose doesn’t arise from the use of conjunctions or colloquial diction. It evokes a sense of briskness, but stopping well short of the childish overzealousness that was the hallmark of, say, vintage Dugout-era Jim Thome.[ref]Maybe my most obscure internet reference on this website to date.[/ref]

This is the same sort of hastiness that you’ll see in, say, Mark Cuban’s weblog. He goes a bit farther — employing haphazard capitalization, formatting, and so on — than I’d feel comfortable with in a formal email setting. I think his goal is to exude a sense that he’s not really spending more than 17 seconds on any given rant, but also, in a weird way, it makes his work easier and faster to read and react to. And that’s precisely the sort of behavior I’d generally like to extract from my email recipients.


3. Things I don’t do.

A) Email signatures. These started out as an okay idea. At one point, in fact, they were a huge contributing factor to the viral growth of Hotmail.

Now, they’re just stupid. Gmail (and I’d assume other modern email clients too) has figured out that they’re a waste and will clip the bottom of your message off as soon as it’s figured out you’re in the signature zone.

What’s the point of a signature? It’s not to convey important information. Most people include the following three things in their signatures: Their name, their email address, and their phone number. Any time you’d need my phone number, I’m going to be sure to write it out again for you. Something’s truly amiss if you should need to be reminded of what my name and email address are.

A signature in a hand-written letter is more a token or authenticity and care. “This was definitely me who wrote this letter, and I put thought into it.” None of that sentiment comes through when you’ve got a signature set to send automatically with every message. In fact, you’ll often see people conclude emails with an individually written “Best, Charles” — so now they’ve got two signatures.

B) Separate signature from your smartphone. “Sent from my Samsung iPhone S1000 by VeriSprint Mobile.” This was an important thing to have, but only back in like 2003 when people were sending emails using T9 Messaging on flip phones and errant words were potatoes knife like text grade dad not all that uncommon.[ref]Sent from my 2003 Mobile Device[/ref]

First of all, “Sent from my iPhone” signatures make you a participant in an Apple viral marketing campaign which you didn’t sign up for. Second, if you’re on a smartphone, you’ve been afforded an ample screen, a Qwerty keyboard, spellcheck, and every other convenience any modern computer might possess. Any errors in your message are entirely your own fault.

…Then again. Suppose there is something to the idea of “Sent from my smartphone” exuding and prompting a sense of hastiness. I wonder what’d happen if I just set my desktop email signature to “Sent from my smartphone.”

C) Legalese.

This e-mail message and all attachments transmitted with it may contain legally privileged and/or confidential information intended solely for the use of the addressee(s). If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any reading, dissemination, distribution, copying, forwarding or other use of this message or its attachments is strictly prohibited. If you have received this message in error, please notify the sender immediately and delete this message and all copies and backups thereof. Thank you.

My reaction when.

The Insanely Unique Thing About Movie Trailers

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Movie trailers are almost universally enjoyed. There’s lots of things which make movie trailers great.

That’s not what I like best.

The thing that I like best about movie trailers is a little different. It’s not a feature within the movie trailer, but a fact about the trailer itself: Movie trailers are all…actually just advertisements.

I think this combination (A: They’re ads, and B: everybody likes them) is positively one-of-a-kind. Nowhere else do consumers share the same universal joy about advertising.[ref]The Super Bowl, maybe?[/ref] The ads aren’t even all that difficult to avoid, if you just decide to show up a few minutes late to the theater or linger at the snack bar. But no! To the contrary, missing the ads at the beginning of a showing is almost like missing the best part of the entire movie-going experience.

There’s a handful of things which contribute to the success of the movie trailer. It certainly helps that trailers are advertising for pure consumer entertainment. It’s possible that consumers are more tolerant because there’s a fairly equitable ad-to-content ratio (3-4 trailers vs. 90+ minutes of movie). They don’t really have to bring up the pain point of pricing since “find your local theater and pay the cost of a movie ticket” is pretty universal knowledge.[ref]You might readily imagine how trailers would become distasteful if they all ended with “Buy your tickets today! Just $14.99 plus shipping and handling!”[/ref] But what I think deserves the lion’s share of the credit is the notion that more than almost anything else, movie trailers are incredibly articulately targeted.

With a movie trailer, you’ve got:

  1. A very strong idea on demographic (theater full of self-selected people suitable for G, PG, PG-13, R)
  2. A great head start on behavioral factors (viewers have already established they like going to the movies)
  3. A great head start on psychographics (viewers who are settling in to see a horror movie are highly primed for other horror movie trailers)

It feels like the entire modern consumer economy is fueled by advertising — our apps, our websites, our shows, our blogs. And more often than not, that advertisement is treated as a nuisance — some disruptive noise to put up with which helps your service provider to pay its bills — which we’d all avoid if we possibly could. There’s a reason AdBlock Plus is consistently among the top-rated add-ons for Chrome and Firefox. Companies like Spotify and Pandora hedge their entire business around freemium services which basically say “Hey! If you like the product but don’t want to put up with the crappy, ad-riddled version, you can pay us money!”

There’s research which suggests we consumers see an average of 5,000 ads per day. That’s crazy. Five thousand disruptions on a daily basis. 1.85 million annoyances annually.

Movie trailers give me hope. They prove that it’s possible for ads which fund the world around us to be something much, much better than the pesky bother we halfheartedly put up with today. That’s exciting.

On a related note: I’m joining a company today which aspires to do more or less exactly that.

Self-Driving Cars, Part III

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last month I wrote about my favorite aspects of Self-Driving Cars. I explored more deep-future stuff… not just empowering disabled people to use vehicles, but the implications of autonomous vehicles on real estate and city infrastructure.

In the first week of July, Google Co-Founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin sat down for a 40-minute chat to discuss their vision of the future. Watch the video or read the full transcript here.

Here’s a quote from Brin:

“If you look at the self-driving cars, for example, I hope that that could really transform transportation around the world, and reduce the need for individual car ownership, the need for parking, road congestion and so forth.”

And another:

“I hope [self-driving cars] can be a really dramatic change. Off the bat, of course, there are the many people who currently cannot get around if they’re too old, too young, disabled and so forth. But that’s still just a fraction of the population. I think the bigger changes can come to the community, the lifestyle, the land use. So much of our land in most cities, about 30 to 50-percent is parking, which is a tremendous waste. Also, the roads themselves, which are both congested and take a lot of space are just unpleasant. So with self-driving cars, you don’t really need much in the way of parking, because you don’t need one car per person. They just come and get you when you need them. … Fundamentally, they can just make much more efficient use of the space and therefore, people’s time. So I think that can be really transformative.”

And a quote from Vinod, the interviewer:

“I love the car, because it’s such a radical transformation economically. The way I look at it, it costs $300 a month to lease a car or hiring a driver is $300 a day. A driverless car is a 97-percent cost reduction in the cost of a driven car, making it cheaper than a car you own probably. So it completely changes economics.”

Glad to see we’re all on the same page.

Nest Connected Home & Smart Devices

July 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s a recent article about Nest covering all the details about how Google plans to make Nest the center of the connected home.


I’ll boil down the use cases and pain points they’re claiming Nest can help solve:

  1. If you’re running the wash, and Nest notices you’re not home, it’ll keep your dryer running for you so your clothes don’t wrinkle
  2. Nest can toggle your lights on and off, or turn the bulbs red, if it notices elevated CO2 levels
  3. Nest can text your neighbors if it detects smoke in the house
  4. Next can notify you if it thinks your kids are messing with it
  5. Nest & Mercedes are buddies now, so you can turn your thermostat on the EXACT SECOND you arrive home so you don’t waste energy
  6. Nest & Jawbone are buddies, so when Jawbone thinks you’ve fallen asleep it can adjust the thermostat to nighttime mode

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

My grievances from largest to smallest:

  • A big part of Nest’s whole shtick is that it can save you money by making you smarter about your utility bill. In my opinion (and in Kevin’s, who’s written about this) , it seems kind of implausible that nickel-and-dime-ing a utility bill after laying out the $250 to first buy the device is ever going to return positive from a monetary basis. That’s the benefit that #4 and #5 are trying to sell you on. And yet… there’s #1, which promises TO LEAVE YOUR DRYER RUNNING INDEFINITELY[ref]How I feel about this.[/ref] while you’re out of the house for who knows how long. It’s worth pointing out that under just regular use, your clothes dryer already accounts for roughly 12% of your house’s entire electricity bill.

    What interests me: How does Nest justify building a system for this? They had to have done research to identify this use case and pain point. Who in the world A) Is regularly having the problem of leaving the house with the dryer running only to come back to wrinkled clothes, and B) Is upset enough about this that they need to buy an expensive product? I need to meet these people; maybe there’s a bridge I can sell them.[ref]This assumes they’re not too busy saving up on their utility bills so they can afford a nicer Mercedes.[/ref]

  • Generally, you probably don’t really care about the room temperature once you’re asleep — after all, you’re asleep. When you do care about the room temperature is when you’re trying to fall asleep. I’m not sure what Nest & Jawbone’s intent is with #6. If they’re turning the thermostat off when inhabitants are asleep and won’t mind the heat/cool, then great, you’re saving another few nickels. If they’re saying you want to adjust the thermostat to make falling asleep more comfortable, then the timeline here totally misses the mark.

    Either way: For this system to work, it requires everyone in the entire household to have their own Jawbone, otherwise you’re dependent on the one Jawbone user to be last to bed and first to rise if you want to ensure that everybody’s comfortable. So I guess, now that you’re two to six $100+ devices in the hole, you’re ready to really start saving money.

  • If there’s CO2 or smoke: Please, benefits #2 and #3, don’t alert the neighbors. You’re probably not all that close to them. If you’re not home, I don’t know why Nest might necessarily expect that they are. I also don’t know why Nest thinks they’re going to be checking your windows for suspicious red lighting, or why Nest thinks they’ll have any idea what this even means without you first having to go over and teach them. Do you really want to go and have that conversation?

    Please, just tell the authorities.

  • It’s 2014, you own a home, you’re in a financially sound enough position to put a Nest in your home, and your unattended kids are messing with your thermostat to entertain themselves? Don’t they have iPads? If #4 is what’s getting you excited about this connected home, you’ve got way bigger problems than your utility bill.

As usual, complaining is the easy part. Anyone can complain on the internet. What I get excited about is the challenge of coming up with the right products and strategies myself.

So: What would I do if I was on Nest’s Product team? I’d stick to the core thesis which made Nest such a big hit in the first place: Pick an already-existing interface in the home which nobody really carefully thinks about, and design the shit out of it.

Specifically, I’d take the same basic interface of the Nest thermostat, make a new product, and put it right here:



It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that the Nest Thermostat would make for an amazing shower faucet interface.

Look at this picture here. What in the WORLD do those three knobs do? The middle one probably turns on the water… but getting just the right temperature? That could take weeks of practice and fine-tuning.

Isn’t it ridiculous how every time you bathe at a hotel or a friend’s house, you have to re-learn how to get the shower right?

Here’s how it should look:NestShower


  1. Press the Nest and the water comes on, press it again and the water goes off. Not hard to add the right design language to make this intuitive. You might even really idiot-proof this and make it so twisting the Nest turns it on, too.
  2. Like the thermostat, the front-facing display shows the temperature. Twist it to adjust to the desired degree Fahrenheit/Celsius. One color background (say, red) indicates the water hasn’t arrived at the desired temperature yet, another color (green!) says the water’s perfect.

Now all I need to learn — once — is the water temperature I prefer.

There’s challenges, sure. Shower faucet installation is substantially more complicated than the installation of a thermostat or smoke detector. You’ll probably need buy-in from plumbers. That’s a hurdle, but it’s not unsolvable.[ref]There’s actually a relatively famous HBS case study on this very subject.[/ref]

In fact, if you want to get really smart & fancy, and if you want to really pay attention user process flow and User-Centric Design, you’d employ the following design which Kevin & I have been talking about:


One set of controls outside of the shower, one inside. Which at first glance looks totally preposterous and superfluous.

But when you think about how you actually use your shower, isn’t it totally ridiculous that you have to dip your hand in the shower and risk getting wet to turn the shower on, or otherwise you have to stand in the shower naked with freezing water splashing at your toes while you wait for the water to heat up?

All showers are designed that way not because this is an enjoyable experience, but because in a practical sense, the faucet heads were physically attached to the pipes behind the shower. With Nest being a “smart” device, why not give users the luxury of keeping their clothes on until the water’s good and ready, instead of the other way around?

Hey, here’s that Billy Mays part: BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

There’s been rampant speculation (and from the comments section, bellyaching) that Google might plan on serving ads on the Nest display screen. Google has since denied the rumor. This was a pretty obtuse thing to complain loudly about, anyway, because nobody in any home, ever, is spending their time and undivided attention in front of their thermostat.

You know where people do spent a ton of time and undivided attention? Yep. In the shower. So if Google actually did want to make a smart device which could meaningfully serve news headlines, the weather, and the occasional ad… the Nest Shower Head would be a bona fide place to do it.



How SnapChat is going to start making money

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

In case you were wondering. This past week, SnapChat unveiled “Our Story.”  With it, the company sent this video out to all users. The media has been up in arms raving about how Our Story is some kind of masterstroke. What piqued my curiosity, however, was this follow-up message which SnapChat HQ sent:



Oh hello, SnapChat message with a link in it. Hello, clearly branded messaging. And hello, framework for advertising on SnapChat. Nice to meet all of you.

How to start a business

May 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

A prospective client comes to me and asks “Josh, I want to start Business X. What do I do?”

Actually, lots of prospective clients ask me this.

There’s nuance — some have raised serious funding and some haven’t, some want to get into the music space, others in fitness, others in nonprofit, and so on. There’s a lot of specially-tailored advice, accordingly, but there’s some more generalize-able insight I thought I’d share.

The biggest thing I consistently see missing from business plans and aspiring entrepreneurs? Get your first 15 customers.[ref]15’s a good starting point, though depending on the size of the customers, you might want more, you might want less.[/ref]

Things that you (maybe surprisingly) don’t really need in order to get your first 15 customers:

  • Funding, investment, or loans
  • 10-year financial projections
  • 796-page business plan
  • Gob’s business model
  • A Technical Co-Founder
  • Business cards
  • Office space
  • Precise laser-focused research
  • Etc.

Things that you do typically need:

  • A few sentences about what you’re envisioning
  • Some small prototype/demo
  • Hustle

The stuff in the second bullet list: Cheap. The stuff in the first: Expensive — if not costly in terms of money, then in terms of time and prognostication.

We initially did things the wrong way when we conceived Eleven Magazine years ago. As students in an entrepreneurship class,  we spent weeks building business plans and financial models and pitching to prospective investors who probably thought we were a bunch of idiots because I’m sure almost every single thing we wrote could be challenged or proven wrong.

It was a fun academic exercise, but it didn’t get us all that far in a practical sense. In the ensuing years of running the magazine, we never wound up referencing the business plan or financial model even once. We’re lucky that we had enough energy, hustle, and intelligent advisors[ref]To whom I am still and forever indebted.[/ref] to get us to the next step — otherwise we could have easily been bogged here forever or given up without even really giving our idea a chance.

What actually got Eleven off the ground was taking our prototypes out to potential customers, selling, and learning. It turns out our initial pricing strategy was utterly ridiculous. It turns out our initial sales strategy — printing out a dense, 11-page[ref]Of course it was 11-pages[/ref] media kit to give to every customer — was also ridiculous. It turns out people did really respond to the product and the physical medium. So we proved we were on to something, and fixed the things that didn’t work.

Before we knew it: Eleven Media Group had its first 31 customers — and our revenue was safely in the black — and we hadn’t even printed our first issue. We also learned a lot about what it would really take to run this company and had a chance to decide whether and how to move forward — without sinking our (or investors’) money into a nebulous pit.

I think the same philosophy can be applied to nearly every business from apps to retail. Sure, there’s a big challenge in securing the right real estate for your retail store, and you’ll want to have an idea of how many customers you’ll need to make the numbers sustainable. But if you do that first — if you put the carriage before the horse — then you miss out on answering key questions like “Is this really something that customers want” or even more importantly “Is this really even something that I want myself?”

Envisioning running a lofty, growing, successful business probably sounds enticing to just about anyone and it’s what drives aspiring entrepreneurs to the arena. Understanding the grit of what makes your startup work is something that will invariably be learned quickly — so learn it before the fixed costs and heavy philosophizing and save yourself from potentially barreling down a lifestyle you might not love or a business that might not work.

Best of all: once you’ve got your first 15 customers, figuring out everything else in that first bucket immediately comes much, much more easily.

(Oh hey, also, I guess. If you thought this was helpful and you’d like to talk more pointedly either personally or professionally, I’m just an email away at

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