CaptainU wins the Chicago New Venture Challenge

Captain U LogoCaptain U, a site co-founded by my good friend and ex-bandmate Avi Stopper, finished first in the running at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business’s New Venture Challenge today. The New Venture Challenge is one of the more prestigious new venture competitions in the U.S., where the final 10 teams present and are judged by a pretty brutal panel of 15-20 high profile venture capitalists. $50K is up for grabs to the top teams. Captain U is also a finalist the MBA Jungle biz plan competition.

Captain U is a social networking site that allows high school soccer players to network (and be recruited) by college coaches. It launched last year and is picking up great momentum! Congratulations Avi and team. Gooooooaaaaaaaaalllllll!!

Why Twitter Matters

Twitter LogoWhen I heard of and experienced Twitter at South by Southwest Interactive 2007, I groaned. Wow, another way for people to waste time online, I thought.

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is an online messaging service that allows you to broadcast short, 140 character updates (termed “tweets”) to a waiting audience of other users who are also posting updates. The updates are meant to be “what you are doing” at that moment, but really contain all types of short-form content that are as diverse as the users who write them. On Twitter, though, you select the people whose updates you follow, building an aggregated “twitterstream” of the people who matter to you. Similarly people may or may not follow your updates.

I finally started using Twitter a couple of months ago when I saw that it was not, in fact, merely a diversion for internet geeks (in my defense, there are many out there). It has staying power. What I noticed, once I started to use it, is that hidden in Twitter’s simplicity lies a game-changing adjustment in social communications that could end up reinventing the way we do a lot of things in our personal lives and in business. That’s quite a bold statement, so bear with me.

Back in my days as a software developer I worked for a company who did and still does publish a suite of sophisticated tools for managing the business flow of a commodities trading business. Along this business flow we had organized the software into many parts that matched the real-world process. The contracts subsystem would allow users to enter buy/sell agreements, the distribution subsystem then allowed them to match those agreements to the required physical distribution, and so forth into invoicing and accounting.

One of the big issues we contended with early on was the communication between the subsystems. The activities of one always affected another, so when something changed in one domain the others had to be alerted in real time. This was a painful process to code. Which other subsystems needed to be alerted of what, and when? It was even more painful to maintain as the system grew and evolved new capabilities.

In response to this issue, our team rewrote the messaging architecture to what in programming circles is referred to as a publish:subscribe model. This model created a virtual broadcast system where every subsystem would publish its activities (um, “what it was doing”) to the entire system and the other subsystems could choose what messages to pay attention to and which ones to ignore.

This approach was far superior, for many reasons. Here are my top three:

Transparency is rewarded.

First, the higher number of status messages developers published to the broadcast system, the more they were rewarded by not having to worry about what other systems might need. This allowed for a high degree of transparency within the system about what every part was up to at any period of time. This became very helpful for troubleshooting and performance tuning (oversight) of the entire software package.

Autonomy = efficiency

Not having to worry about communicating to other specific subsystems allowed developers to have more autonomy and focus on the more important work of making their specific piece of the system work better and faster. It saved time, and money.

Spontaneous innovation happens.

Availability of more activity information than you think you need leads to creative thinking about how you might actually be able to use the extra stuff. Early into the publish:subscribe model we found developers using information in unexpected ways to make their particular domain more powerful and useful.

So you might be able to see where I’m going with this. Twitter is the publish:subscribe model applied to personal instant messaging. As a result, it is superior to the other existing tools (basically any other IM client), which are based on the de facto one-to-one messaging model – for the reasons I mentioned above. In the Twitter world each person is like a miniature subsystem, broadcasting information it thinks the world might be interested in. And others listen, selectively.

The important thing in understanding Twitter’s importance is to focus on certain contexts for Twitter, not on the platform itself. Without context the tool does seem frivolous. Unless you are a researcher you wouldn’t care about listening to the global twitterstream. It would be an overwhelming torrent of which you might find a miniscule percentage relevant to you.

It’s also important to note that the default approach – to subscribe to your friends – is actually one of the less useful applications of Twitter. I love my friends, but many of them just aren’t doing things minute-to-minute that are of any relevance to me. Personal details for the purpose of friendship don’t usually require instantaneous communication (unless you like to stalk your friends), which is why social networking websites and one-to-one IM work just fine for those purposes – not to mention old-fashioned and still far superior technologies like using a phone or (gasp) actually spending time together. Plus, real friendship is forged and bolstered by the slow-moving plate tectonics of our lives, over the long term – not by the daily humdrum of changing moods and insignificant occurrences.

The best application I see is actually at the workplace, or really any club or organization that has to get things done. In the same way that my old company’s system had parts, so organizations have departments, and departments have people. People at work benefit greatly from timely transparency with each other. The more autonomy every department/person can have, the more resources it/he/she can focus on the appointed task. And the creativity that leads to broader capabilities and innovation is fueled by an understanding of what others are thinking and doing.

So Twitter-like technologies might allow workplaces to function more efficiently and creatively, but why am I making the wild claim that it will reinvent the way we do things? Well, if you had an internal Twitter and a profile page to post longer documents, photos, and files at the office, would you even need email? How often does a lack of transparency, either intended or unintended, hinder your group accomplishment? Think about it.

Would you need a boss? Would your boss really need a boss? Would you ever need to have a meeting? Or would, through Twitter, the organization be able to function more democratically, instantaneously solving problems? Given a couple of “elected” leaders and judges, could organizations become almost completely flat and dispense with the immense overhead of traditional command-and-control management? Consider it.

What if you injected the twittering of your customers into the mental collective? Could your whole organization provide customer service? Could getting your product or service to market become extremely agile, taking input from your body of customers in near real-time?

How we do business in the future (Enterprise 2.0?) could be radically changed, in a way that makes us all more productive, and more satisfied, all because of a little website cutely named Twitter.

UPDATE: Strangely, Max Kalehoff published a good post with exactly the same title as mine, on the same day. Not implying any shenanigans, our posts are very different. Just saying it must mean that a lot of people are figuring out that Twitter “matters.”

Addicted to a better world?

World of Warcraft GamersBack in the late 90’s I worked for a small start-up software company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was my first job out of undergrad college, and I loved it because I worked with a bunch of other fresh-outta-college people in a 30-person company where we dreamed big.

Around this time, one of the first (and probably the first that gained really wide popularity among people who weren’t traditional “gamers”) massively multi-player online role-playing games came out – named Everquest. A MMORPG (yes, that really is the acronym) is a game where you can go online, log in, and play as a character in a completely immersive 3D virtual fantasy world. The world is populated by other virtual characters controlled by other gamers doing the same things you are. It’s fantasy gaming with a social element. The most popular MMORPG now is World of Warcraft which is reported to have 62% of the market, which means they have approximately 10 million monthly subscribers.

A few folks at work tried it and got into it a little bit, but there was one guy who REALLY got into it. After awhile, his door at work would remain closed as he spent hours upon hours (and lots of company time) playing Everquest. His workplace gaming started to cut into the real work he was supposed to be doing, and worsened until the inevitable happened and he was laid off. It was a shame, and it left the rest of us searching for an explanation.

I myself have had unnatural urges to play everything from Starcraft to Minesweeper (yes, Minesweeper) – but nothing that ever interfered materially with my ability to hold down a job, be in a relationship, or eat regularly. Yet my friend from that job isn’t alone. A couple of weeks ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival I got to see the debut of Second Skin, a documentary film which followed a couple stories where people destroyed their lives playing online games. One guy lost his job and his family, not minding “as long as he could keep the lights on and the internet connected.” Games can be horribly addictive. But why?

I’d never heard any really good structured reasons explaining why people can get as addicted to games as they can to drugs or gambling – until I heard another talk at South by Southwest Interactive from game designer Jane McGonigal, who offered some fascinating insight.

Jane observed that these games are increasingly designed to mimic the real interactions between people (people get married and have funerals in these worlds), but they seek to separate themselves from the real world environmentally (dragons and trolls and damsels in distress). The goal is clear – to create a world that is more interesting, more fulfilling than the real world by keeping the meaningful pieces and throwing out the rest. And because the economic purpose of game design is to get you to play more, designers have gotten exceptionally good at understanding the triggers within people that generate that interest and fulfillment.

As a game designer with a philosophical streak, Ms. McGonigal has spent a great deal of time thinking about what those triggers might be in a universal sense. She shared with the audience why she believes people get addicted to games, particularly the immersive role-playing variety. What is unexpected is that these reasons have nothing to do with cool graphics and sound, imaginative monsters, or compelling plotlines. They have to do with the satisfaction of more basic human needs, and there are four of them :

1. There is satisfying work to do (accomplishment).

2. There is an opportunity to be part of something bigger (significance).

3. There is a chance to be good at something (expertise).

4. You get to spend time with people you like (relationships).

The best (most fulfilling) games are very clear about how you can do the things above (instructions), have better features for allowing interaction (community), and give frequent, quality feedback (milestones).

The implication is that people who become addicted to games are finding much more satisfaction in the dimensions above than they are in their real lives.

So have game designers become the new experts in the psychology and sociology of human fulfillment? I find the theory fascinating – and I believe it holds water. Psychologists and sociologists are already studying gaming environments and learning important things from them.

If we spend more time capturing what we learn from game worlds, and applying what we already know, we might just be able to use those lessons to restructure the real world to be more fulfilling. To be more like a game. Wouldn’t you love it if your real life, especially the part of it you spend at work, could be something you could get addicted to?

UPDATE: My friend Josh aptly messages: “those 4 things also describe working at Google.” One of the many reasons why they are probably on the Fortune 100 list of best places to work. Jobs at Google.