I have a new project!!!

Hello world!

I am excited to announce that I’ve figured out a thing that I would like to create! My last real project was the now-defunct time-capsule app that I launched in 2016, Sealed Messenger, and that was a lot of fun and also a failure. To be fair, just about every other time capsule app so far has also failed to gain much traction, which means that there may not be a market there or at least not as an independent service. The best feedback I ever got about Sealed was, ‘seems like a feature, not a product’.

Since then, I have been working in large enterprise UX/UI design consulting and having a great time traversing healthcare, finance, higher education, utilities, and manufacturing, designing connected dashboards, chatbots, task management systems, and other automated solutions — but these are projects that I don’t choose, that enable other people’s visions and create impact according to stakeholder groups and corporate strategies far external to my own desires.

It has been rewarding to be focused on craft – the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’ or ‘why’ – but I have truly missed having a project all of my own! I did some freelance work alongside my design job over the last few years, but I have reduced that as I have felt increasingly that I didn’t want to work on just anything. To start working on something new, I had to create space for that thing to grow into.

Towards the beginning of Covid I joined an author’s group led by Smiley which was a lot of fun, and the resources, good vibes, and accountability that came with that were an excellent jolt to the system. The writing buddy I got paired with has been the best part of the experience – it has been refreshing to make a new friend during the pandemic and I still look forward to our weekly check-in’s.

So I am excited to announce that I am writing a book which will be called 101 Ways to Use a Hanky. The rest of the working title is, “a practical, historical, and personal guide to get you hooked on using hankies“. I am imagining it to be sort of a family friendly coffee table / bathroom book that you could flip through and learn something fun, put it down, pick it up, and maybe be inspired to try something new.

Basically, I have allergies. I sneeze a lot. Most people who know me will attest. And I have a grandfather, who I call Pop, who always carried handkerchiefs. My dad was more of a bandana guy, but I did see him carry that hundreds of times as well.

After blowing through a prodigious amount of paper tissues, I decided to order a pack of hankies from amazon.

And they were great for blowing my nose and allergy maintenance.

But I also noticed that I started using them in other odd ways, like as a napkin during dinner, or as a cover for my hand to touch something dirty, or to get better grip, to provide some protection for a delicate object, dry things, collect crumbly items, and, well, almost a hundred other things!

Yes, I believe a hanky could be used for hundreds and maybe thousands of different, distinct use cases. And yes, I do define what constitutes a ‘use’: if people actually do it and there’s some distinct value to the method, it’s a use case. I get more technical than that – that’s the simplified definition.

And part of my punchline is — just like carrying a hammer makes everything look like a nail, carrying a hanky starts to shift how you see the world, and you can discover ways to save effort, be physically safer, and more effectively manipulate your surroundings to find easier paths through moments in your life.

Not to mention all of the money you will save from buying less paper products and the environmentally friendly nature of reusing a piece of fabric.

So that’s that! I’m taking the slow but steady approach. I have drafted over 100 uses for hankies and organized them into eight or nine categories or ‘chapters’, but there is still a lot of refinement left to be done. I’m currently working on learning how to illustrate the elusive, ghostlike shape that is a white square piece of cloth, and I’m setting some rough sights on getting a draft done in a year, and then probably another year to see it into print, or whatever its final form takes.

If you have some fun ideas for how to use hankies, please share them with me! I am especially looking to hear about anyone’s experience as a hanky user themselves and what your most common use cases are, as simple or extravagant as they may be. All perspectives are welcome! If you have an experience or idea to share, or if you would like to stay in the loop about this project, please feel free to fill out this form and / or contact me directly via email, Facebook messenger, or here in the comments!

Keep calm and hanky on! 😛

Why Sealed

I’ve feared this day for quite some time. After many months of teasing the world with what could have been empty promises, Sealed is done and ready, or at least done enough to deliver the core experience that I dreamt up almost two years ago. But before I press the ‘publish’ button and write a trendy announcement post on Medium, I want to explain a little bit about why Sealed, why now, and why me.

In the hours after learning that my father had died by suicide in January 2012, I quickly began to register that that event would be part of my story from then on, one of those formative experiences that would probably go on to affect future decisions and reappear thematically even without conscious effort. Immediately I became frustrated by the situation because I felt that that event was singularly sad and bad. Nothing good should come of it. Nothing should be born of it, no silver linings nor unexpectedly useful side effects. I felt viscerally disgusted by the idea of ‘using’ the suicide to tell my story or achieve any goal, let alone putting it on social media and owning it as part of my shrink-wrapped virtual identity as a differentiator from all of the other twenty-something white guys out there. Somehow it felt different from the classic son/daughter-of-a-cancer-survivor who, after a terrible dark period, rallies to bring new hope and light to the cancer survivor community in all of its happy-faced, bike-riding Facebook glory. I think that’s what we all know as stigma, but to me it presented as instinctually sacrosanct.

And yet here I am, claiming my story and brandishing it about, all the while squirming fervently because it still feels wrong. But the truth of the matter is that Sealed arose in large part because of the conditions I’ve just described, and so it is very much a part of the story if I am to tell it.

My dad was a warm and effusive person who had a deep pit of loneliness at his core. When people ask me why he killed himself (as rarely as that does happen), I often say that he died of loneliness. Despite his salesman’s gregariousness that led him to befriend people left and right, he ultimately displayed negative behaviors that pushed people away and left him very much alone. It’s easy to play the blame game here but the truth is that my father was abused early and often, even as a toddler, and the demons he kept were beyond any of our control.

But I grew up seeing his demons and I tried very hard to help swat them away. I could see his loneliness and for many years I took every action that I could think of to help keep it at bay. Teenaged Alex wasn’t quite so thoughtful about it, but that’s my demon to keep. Listening and analyzing and trying to help have become core tenets of who I am today, that damned silver lining.

Sophomore year in college was already a time of extreme turbulence in my life as I was undecided between pursuing a pre-med track and this other thing, ‘entrepreneurship’, as I first really contemplated it after watching Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man, which was full of big, definitely optimistic viewpoints. Between a tough but sure bet of a medical career and a tough and unsure entrepreneurial path, I decided to keep my options open but ideate, and ideate vigorously.

I spent a year and a half having ideas, which was a lot of fun but not very productive, until I took a step back and noticed a theme in my scribblings: time, our struggle with it, and how our struggle has changed in the context of our modern tools. I hate that I have relatively few videos of my dad talking, and none where he directly addresses me. Mid-senior year I had the idea for a personal digital time capsule. A friend suggested making it social — messages that you send but are locked at first, until the time arrives for it to unlock. So I badgered my friends and family about it and even co-led a student forum exploring entrepreneurship studies and thus began the hustle, the struggle as a non-iOS developer to bring an iOS app to market.

That’s a different story, that’s the how, which I’m sure I’ll circle back to and talk about at some point. For now, I wanted to clarify the why: Sealed is an app that allows people to give other people things to look forward to. It’s a relationship tool, a way to be a proactive human and make a small dent in your friend’s loneliness quotient. It can be a gesture or a means of communication; if you receive a message that will unlock in three years, the content of the message doesn’t even factor into the equation for three years. Instead, you’re left with the simple knowledge that, in three years, you’ll see something sent by that person three years ago. Taken as it’s meant, this is an earnest, hippie-dippie, karmic expression of my desire for people to be good to each other, to be there for each other, and to be mindful about each other’s loneliness and how dangerous it can be.

I’ve struggled to communicate these intentions through branding and design, but overall I’ll be proud to present Sealed to the world.

Very soon!

Stay tuned.

Lots of Little Things

I get asked all the time how Sealed is going and what I’m doing to make it happen, and one phrase always bubbles to the surface as the most accurate response: “lots of little things”.

By little things, I don’t mean that the task in front of me is ‘little’, nor that it will be easy or happen overnight. What I do mean to communicate is that my day-to-day is not as straightforward as entering an office at 9am and working on an excel spreadsheet for 8 hours until quitting time. There may be days that I spend eight hours on a single task, but frankly those days are few and far between. What I usually end up doing is a lot of little things.

These are the big things: Design the UI and continuously investigate UX. Keep in touch with the dev team and make sure things are happening. Build a team. Find experienced mentors and advisors. Figure out the business plan. Continuously create and update all pitching materials. Figure out marketing and make a promo video. Find the right investors and prove to them that Sealed will make them money.

But I could never say to someone, “yeah, I built a team today, and tomorrow I’ll raise a 500K seed round”. These are not “tasks” so much as they are goals that guide what I do from day to day. My job is to take each of these tasks and break them into their most achievable components, and then achieve micro-tasks until the larger task itself becomes achievable.

So on any day, I might work on a few UI screens, email a few potential advisors, marketing gurus, or potential teammates, read about the Boston VC / Angel landscape and identify potential funding avenues, or refine or execute a section of the video ad script.

What I don’t hear people talking about enough is timing. In my experience, timing is everything. It’s like cooking a multi-course meal. The meat has to be defrosted for hours before cooking time, and then marinated long before the asparagus goes on the grill. It wouldn’t make sense to make the balsamic vinaigrette dressing at 8am when it wouldn’t be needed until dinnertime, just as it doesn’t make sense to email everyone-and-their-mom months before the app is anywhere close to being ready.

So I do lots of little things every day, with the top of my task list being revealed to me daily from a panoptic assessment of where I’m at and where I should probably go next. Key word ‘probably’, as I’ve definitely already defrosted the meat too early and overcooked the asparagus, but luckily Whole Foods is right around the corner and has a special on their coconut chicken.

One little thing: Sealed was on Betalist yesterday. Sign up and share, people!

'I put the steaks on.' 'Are you crazy? The potatoes aren't even close to done. The steaks will be coal by the time they're ready.' 'No they won't, we're almost out of propane.'

Good, Selfish, and Lazy.

Earlier this year I was on a mission to put together 15K so that I could participate in Hidden Founders, an accelerator/development service that accepted Sealed into their inaugural class of non-technical founders. In pursuit of forming a relationship with a wealthy benefactor, I reached out to several VC firms in the Boston area with a cold email. Much to my surprise, one replied, we met, and one of the partners decided to introduce me to a bunch of his helpful friends: a few lawyers, serial entrepreneurs, and angel investors.

The next week, I met with a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, who we’ll call Bob. We met at a Starbucks in Framingham off of route 9. He’s a kind-eyed man with a wandering energy and the assuredness of someone who has seen his words come true. He sat me down at a table and proclaimed,

People are good, selfish, and lazy.

I stared back at him and said, “OK”, digesting, thinking about rational actors and Pareto efficiency. He launched into a spiel about his latest project and how he is catering to the customer.

I don’t remember much of what Bob said after that, but those initial words stuck. Good, selfish, and lazy. It’s almost self-contradictory, but not quite. It’s different from pure utility maximization, which doesn’t adjust for normative evaluation or social forces. It’s also not groundless idealism. It’s a matter-of-fact encompassment of Bob’s experience with people, a descriptive trifecta that somehow neatly describes human behavior.

That people are selfish and lazy is an easier truth to swallow. Rational acting theories have dominated our economic landscape for much of the last century, and evolutionary behavioralism would certainly indicate that each man seeks to maximize his gains while expending the minimum amount of effort, lest he tire and get eaten by a saber toothed cat.

But is that really true? Does every man always claim resources to the detriment of each other man? What if we introduce a woman to the picture, or a child, or a friend? The internet is filled with long angry conversations about whether the inherent man is good or bad or neutral, and oftentimes, society becomes the culprit in turning neutral babies into bad men. And from a systems perspective, that may in fact be true. Sending millions of men to prison is a societal pathway that is likely to have a deleterious effect on neutral or even good men.

But I think that it is society that saves us. Not our dear consumerist and classist society at large that we’ve grown to love, that’s more the result of the selfishness and laziness.

It’s our immediate society that saves us. Our friends, our family, our relationships. I am a good person because I want a tribe, and if I were to be a bad tribesman, people wouldn’t like me. It’s as simple as that.

Of course you could argue that ensuring success for one’s tribe is a selfish act, and that may be very true, but regardless of the source of the goodness, everything comes down to relationships. There is nothing we care about more. It is the kernel of good that can singularly upend our desire to lie, cheat, and steal. It causes us to do things that are completely at odds with any “rational” man, such as jump in front of a train to save a stranger or work excruciating 70 hour weeks for decades on end.

It is this centrality of relationships to the core of mankind that I think will allow Sealed to take root and grow. Sealed offers an easy way to reaffirm relationships in an apparently thoughtful way. It taps into that highest power in a way that can easily be used in one’s self-seeking while simultaneously demonstrating affection and goodwill.

Of course this is all speculative and self-congratulatory, but in my head, the math works out. All that’s left is to find out. Until then, stay selfish! I’m counting on it.






How to Sell Sealed

There are many ways to spin a product. Facebook could have been sold to baby boomers who wanted to reconnect with long lost college classmates. Twitter could have been spun as a way for activists to amplify their message. Snapchat could have been marketed as a tool for business professionals to communicate instantaneously across departments or between cities.

But Facebook started with college@students.edu, creating that initial scarcity that made it desirable. Twitter managed to combine microblogging-as-self-expression with tweeting-as-public-broadcasting, and Snapchat flamed its way through every high school in the nation as a way to thwart their parents.

How did these companies know to target the users that they did? Did they do extensive market research and customer validation? Did they run focus groups and a/b test taglines and color schemes? Was the process wholly scientific or was it human intuition that led to these decisions? Of course the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but what does that mean for Sealed?

Sending a time capsule message is a very abstract concept, and as such, there are a number of different use cases that could be compelling to different users.

The Relationship-Driven User

Use Sealed to give your friends or family something to look forward to. Send your significant other a message in the morning that will unlock when they get out of work at 5pm.

The Pragmatist

Send birthday and holiday messages and gifts ahead of time. Never miss a birthday again.

The Sentimentalist

“Someday this moment will mean something.” These users are haunted by the passage of time and our ever-pending mortality, leaving themselves a trail of breadcrumbs for then they are old and “remembering the days when…”

The Joker

Send a friend a message for 25 years from now. Why? Because you can. Better yet, send a picture of nothing. Imagine the let-down…

– – –

Each of these approaches will appeal to a different user. How do I know which of these users will be the most engaged and likely to become an active evangelist? How can I decide on how to sell Sealed?

The following are potential strategies for customer validation.

  • Short ~$50 campaigns of Facebook / Google ads, A/B testing.
    Pros: nearly immediate results in hard data. Cons: expensive and hard to avoid bias in the testing process. Validately and Optimizely do this. This guy did it with $30.
  • Create an online survey.
    Pros: will receive subjective feedback in real sentences from real people, which could result in insights. Cons: survey design is tricky, hard to avoid bias. Hard to get large number of responses, and most people responding will know me personally, contributing another layer of bias.
  • Go out into the world and ask.
    Pros: real-time feedback from town centers, shopping malls, etc, could lead to enlightening conversations. In person I can make note of the subtler aspects of people’s reactions and probe deeper into unexpected results. Cons: very easy to ask ‘leading’ questions. Responses in person are likely to be self-censored to some extent in order to “be nice” / protect my ego.

What this all boils down to is a conundrum. I am currently trying to design a product for a user that I have not truly identified yet. My unscientific intuition-led gut-guess is first Sam and Sammy, 24-year-old lovebirds who value displaying thoughtfulness towards each other, and second, Mommy Jane with baby Jaye as she revels in those precious moments with her young child. People in relationships and young mothers are my top two guesses, but I could be completely wrong. Without a data-backed validation process, it’s impossible for me to know for sure whether I’m building a product that anyone wants, and that’s the number one rule of entrepreneurship… build something that at least SOME people really, really want.

Even with an extensive ad campaign and conclusive data, I’m still not sure I would accept validation or refutation without users having tested the actual app, because I think the experience of having an inbox full o’ surprises from your closest friends and family will be more tantalizing than a pre-product ad campaign or questionnaire can reveal. But I could simply be in love with my own idea and blind to its faults…

What do you think about how I am thinking about this? Do you have recommendations or ideas for most productive next steps? I plan to troll around the Natick Mall this coming week with some flyers and a sign-up form, maybe that will give me something to work with.

“The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
—Steven Pressfield