1. How healthcare.gov could have been built in a day

    From the New York Times: “Nearly 70,000 agents and brokers have been certified nationwide to sell health insurance on the federal exchange. Many say they could be the troubled health law’s best ambassadors with the potential to boost lackluster enrollment figures.”

    At some point along the way, the folks implementing the health care law decided that things had to get fancy — tech fancy. Rather than focusing on what really mattered to consumers — understanding their options and getting a health care plan that doesn’t suck — they instead decided to focus on tech bling: things like real-time results and deep integrations with all sorts of horrendous, archaic systems across dozens of states.

    I make no pretenses to fully understand the ACA or the technical requirements it spawned. That said, it’s quite possible that with the right leadership, vision, and understanding of consumer needs, healthcare.gov could have been built in a day. 

    Let’s start with some of the faulty biases upon which it was built:

    It’s the interwebz! Therefore it has to be real-time! When making an important decision like which plan best protects the health of your family, is it that important to have instant search gratification? I’d wager that most people take some time to think over their options and get advice from friends and family. Even for those who might make a snap decision, their experience buying health care isn’t going to suffer that much if they can’t BUY! IT! THIS! SECOND!

    It has to integrate with…EVERYTHING! Integrating with a single, modern, well-documented app can sometimes be challenging. Now imagine integrating with dozens of different health care providers in different states with different technologies, many of which are old and crusty. Insert Marlon Brando: “The HORROR!”

    It’s important to appreciate that these two premises don’t solve the actual problem of helping people pick a good insurance plan. Instead, if you can actually get the technology to work, the problem it solves is helping people see a set of options quickly. That may seem like semantics, but actually it’s fundamental to the misfire that is healthcare.gov: it’s solving the wrong damn problem.

    Let’s return to the fact that there are 70,000 Obamacare-trained insurance brokers out there waiting to help. These are people who understand the nuances of health insurance. They understand how to help people pick the right plans. And they can probably explain the details of a plan better than a website that requires people to read lots of fine print.

    So, drumroll, here’s how to build healthcare.gov in a day:

    1. Build a simple website focused on a highly optimized web form for consumers to enter their information and needs.

    2. Tee up the army of 70,000 insurance brokers to build a menu of options for each consumer who fills out the form. Then call people to walk them through their choices.

    Rather than worrying about a zillion archaic APIs, the emphasis could have been on A/B testing and building a great user experience that made it incredibly easy to understand what to do. A simple web form would say something like, “Hi, Welcome to HealthCare.gov. Please give us some basic information. Within 24 hours, a friendly human being will call and walk you through some awesome new plans.”

    The airline industry and sites like Priceline set an important precedent for this. As I understand it, in its infancy, Priceline was simply a form into which you submitted a request. Behind the scenes, legions of human beings were calling the airlines trying to find the fare you wanted. Priceline would get back to you in 24 hours with your ticket. It wasn’t real-time, but it was still a great experience for customers. It was so good, in fact, that it completely upended the old way.

    It could be argued that healthcare.gov might make insurance brokers go the way of the dinosaur like Priceline, Orbitz, and Kayak did to travel agents. The difference is that health insurance is complicated. Buying it with the help of a consultant makes a difference. You don’t need much consulting when it comes to buying an airplane ticket from Denver to San Francisco.

    It would be fascinating to find out the conversion rates on healthcare.gov. Of those few lucky people who are actually able to perform a search, how many actually buy a plan? How many actually buy a plan immediately relative to those who keep the browser window open for a few days while they think about it and seek consultation? And a level deeper, what subset of those people actually get a plan that best fits their needs?

    Sadly, as is too often the case, the allure of hot technology trumped the possibility that a simple solution was there, right in front of our face. For $300 million, healthcare.gov (hardly) solved the problem of serving up real-time results of health care options. What it failed to do was help people actually get appropriate health care — which is something that could have been done in a day using simple technology, a measured approach focused on a specific goal, and a vast amount of infrastructure that was already in place.

     
  2. Notes: 1

    3 ground rules for PR crisis management

    At some point, your company will have a PR crisis. Airbnb had its infamous home ransacking, Curebit was recently caught stealing web designs and background music for a product video, my kid’s daycare had a teacher quit and send vitriolic emails to the parent listserve. Even 37signals recently had a crisis when one of their developers publicly disclosed the name of a file that a user had uploaded to Basecamp.

    What’s a company to do when it’s being publicly flayed? Here are a few ground rules from what I’ve observed and how I’ve handled such situations myself:

    1. Move Fast

    A million things come across your desk every day. It’s your job to identify which ones might blow up, not brush them under the rug, and confront your worst fears. Right now. Don’t send 8 emails relating to other things. For the time being, this is the only thing. Part and parcel of moving fast is mobilizing the necessary people within your organization. If need be, pull developers, marketers, and whomever else you need off the normally scheduled projects they’re working on. 

    2. Say you’re sorry

    David Heinemeier Hanson wrote a strong mea culpa after the privacy breach mentioned above. It worked well for a few reasons: it humanized 37signals by saying hey we make stupid mistakes, this was one of them, and this is what we’re doing to make sure it never happens again; it used strong, honest, non-legalese like “trust is fragile”; and it was open about an even worse hypothetical scenario in which a file name like “Downsizing-Plans-2012.pdf” was released. Saying you’re sorry is critical — even if the situation is somewhat out of your control. Airbnb should have apologized profusely to their host whose house got ransacked. And the director of our daycare should have said, “Look, there’s only so much I could do about this email being sent out, but I’m really sorry it happened.” Which leads us to the third point.

    3. Own the narrative

    Assume that the truth will find a way out. What “out” means can vary: Will all your customers learn about the situation? Is it going to show up on a bunch of prominent blogs? No matter what, you have to get in front of the curve and tell your side of the story. The way the crisis is represented by other outlets may be slanted or inaccurate. You need to have your version prominently available to contend with, if not crush, the other side of the story. Your narrative has to be truthful, because that’s the right thing to do and because the truth will find its way out — as it did on an obscure personal blog in the Airbnb saga.

    Crises that are managed poorly spin out of control. You have to get in front of the curve quickly or it will only get worse.

     
  3. Twitter spam is the best kind

    I just crossed 100 followers on Twitter, a dubious honor that confirms my standing as one of the least cool people on the internet. But I have a secret. I’m even less cool than it seems. The two followers who put me over the top were both spammers, 

    Did I report them? Heck no! If only there were 9,347,443 more like them, I’d be on par with Ashton Kutcher. My Klout score might not go up with these two new friends, but I’m feeling the love.

     
  4. There are only so many corners you can cut

    Yesterday, I read an article in TechCrunch about Curebit, which just raised $1.2 million. I clicked the link to their site and did a double take. Wait, what?! Their homepage looked exactly like the Highrise homepage from 37signals, which was the subject of a great blog post on A/B testing.

    I dropped into gchat and hit up my friend Trevor who works for 37signals. He was perplexed. He sent me a screenshot, it was completely different from what I was seeing. I sent him a screenshot. Oho! The old A/B switcheroo. The Curebit test version that I was getting was a ripoff of Highrise, down to the actual images, which were still being served up by 37signals.

    Our respective screenshots made their way into some 37signals Campfire room and then all hell broke loose on Hacker News and Twitter.

    Initially, Curebit didn’t understand what a bad decision they’d made. They wondered aloud if it was okay to keep the “quick and dirty” test and just “give credit” to 37signals. This only exacerbated the problem by showing a lack of remorse or understanding of what they’d done. Instead, their defense was basically, “We’re just being lean, testing a minimum viable product to see what works.”

    I’m a big fan of the MVP approach to figuring out what customers like and need. All the merrier if you can avoid building a big piece of technology altogether. One of my favorite Chicago success stories, Centro, is a massive online marketplace for buying and selling local advertising which was started on a bunch of spreadsheets. If you can, figure out the model and then wrap some sweet technology around it.

    Cutting corners — i.e., features, development time, technology altogether if possible — is a good thing to do to understand what a market wants. But Curebit’s defense is a dangerous misunderstanding of minimum viable products — one in which “lean” and mvp” somehow come to justify stealing. 

     
  5. No, you don’t need to build an app

    Why does everything have to be an app these days? You’d think there were no businesses before web or mobile apps. 

    App mania is actually pretty destructive. Here’s how the narrative usually goes. Someone comes to me and says, “I have this great idea for an app. It’s like this for that and it’s gonna be amazing!!” Next comes a question: “So where can I find a developer?” I encourage them to think of other ways to explore their idea that don’t require building an app. They nod and smile and then go off and find a developer on Craigslist or a consulting firm, spend $30,000, and launch something 9 months later that’s terrible. They get 5 users and fall into a deep depression.

    Here’s the thing: many “app” businesses don’t need to build apps in the first place. Whatever happened to just providing good old services? For example, a dating company without an app?! Impossible? Nope. It’s Just Lunch is a match-making service that has grown massively without an app. Building technology in many (most?) cases is a means for scaling, which is the opposite problem companies have when they’re first born.

    Alas, the appification of the startup ecosystem has created this luster around building your own technology, even if it’s totally unnecessary. Not to mention that building a piece of technology or managing its development is incredibly difficult for people who aren’t technical. Put simply, if you’re not technical, find a way to start your company that doesn’t involve building an app. Find a way to present your offering at first as a good old fashioned service. Figure out the model and then, waaaaaay down the line, think about appifying it. 

    Detaching entrepreneurship from building apps is incredibly liberating for non-technical people. It could be an enabler for a completely new class of entrepreneurs: people who are capable and creative, but non-technical. Too many of those people aren’t even coming out to play now for fear of the fact that they can’t make apps. There’s lots of great, inexpensive, off-the-shelf technology out there for non-technical people. Use those tools to start a business and focus on the most important thing: making products and services that make customers happy. Your app with shiny gradients and rounded corners can wait.

     
  6. Learning how to get things done

    Joel has a great, concise set of criteria for hiring: “Smart and gets things done.”

    At its best, the education system does a good job teaching the “smart” part — english, math, science. But what about the “gets things done” part? I’ve never heard of a high school or college that teaches a course in time management or project management. It’s basically sink or swim: you finish your homework or you don’t. In college, this translates into all-nighters — which are unsustainable and unhealthy.

    What should be taught as a skill ends up instead as something you either have or you don’t; or that you have to learn on your own, even though there’s no obvious source to turn to for lessons like this.

    Learning to be organized, methodical, and effective might seem to belong in the self-help section at Barnes and Noble, but the implications are big. At stake on a micro level are issues of self-confidence, happiness and success. On a macro level, it’s about building a society where people entering the workforce know how to get things done. Imagine how much more productive we’d be.

     
  7. Nudging email closer to the cliff

    Email is a scourge. Extreme email efficiency and inbox zero has helped keep me sane over the last few years. I bet most people would list their burgeoning inboxes as one of the biggest causes of stress. At the very least, it’s definitely one of the biggest productivity killers.

    At CaptainU, we have long been practitioners of “conversational email.” No greetings, no signoff, and no fluff. Just 1-2 concise sentences. Length does not equal quality. It was awesome to see Facebook roll out their new direct messaging feature a while back because it was exactly in line with our thinking about what email should be.

    To further wean ourselves off email, this past year, we started using Campfire for the entire company, not just the development team. As a result, there’s basically no email traffic within CaptainU. The other benefit is more transparency — everyone knows what’s going on at all times.

    Here’s the next step in the demise of email: I’m going to try to get rid of email subjects. Most of the time, the subject is just a throw away or I end up writing the same thing in the first sentence. 

    What other ways are there to crush our email dependency?

     
  8. Rooting for the downfall of credit cards

    Why do we still use a payment technology that Elvis carried around in his wallet?

    Last month, 17% of the credit cards CaptainU attempted to process on monthly web-app subscriptions failed. 

    To be fair, we try to run cards for a few extra months after their first failure because some of them are debit cards that don’t have sufficient funds for a month or two. So 17% includes build up from a few previous months.

    For most cards that fail, we got little more explanation than, “This transaction has been declined” or, “Contact card issuer for details.” Right, let me just call a zillion banks to find out why these cards are failing. I don’t even know who the card issuer is.

    What’s particularly painful is that these are subscriptions we’ve earned because we have good product that people want to pay for. We follow all of the dunning best practices, but still — 17%.

    There’s a land rush for payment processing — Square, FeeFighters, Stripe, Chargify, and Braintree, Recurly to name a few. Everyone wants a piece of the action, because it’s gigantic. I’ve talked with folks at a number of these companies, but no one seems to be paying attention to the biggest problem.

    I really don’t care that I can get an average of .25% lower here. And I really don’t care that so and so has a slick UI with rounded corners and gradients that are easy on the eye. What I care about is that 17% of our transactions failed last month.

     
  9. Notes: 6

    We’re missing the point on SOPA

    It’s been fascinating to watch the fallout over GoDaddy’s support of SOPA. The web community has rallied in an inspirational way to challenge their support of a law that would basically wreck the internet.

    I’m afraid, though, that we’re missing the real point here: SOPA is a microcosm of the corruption that is destroying America.

    I’m not much for histrionics like “destroying America.” But the intractable gridlock and ridiculous decision-making in Congress are rooted in the flood of corporate money that dominates policy.

    SOPA is a perfect case in point. It’s a law that was dreamed up and fast-tracked to the forefront of the congressional agenda by corporate interests. This list of official SOPA supporters, posted by GoDaddy which is deep in damage control, is just so wrong. These are the companies that are buying the republic. Can you imagine what Benjamin Franklin would say if confronted with this? (After wondering “What is Beachbody LLC???”)

    60 Plus Association

    ABC

    Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP)

    American Bankers Association (ABA)

    American Federation of Musicians (AFM)

    American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)

    American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)

    Americans for Tax Reform

    Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States

    Association of American Publishers (AAP)

    Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies

    Association of Talent Agents (ATA)

    Beachbody, LLC

    BMI

    BMG Chrysalis

    Building and Construction Trades Department

    Capitol Records Nashville

    CBS

    Cengage Learning

    Christian Music Trade Association

    Church Music Publishers’ Association

    Coalition Against Online Video Piracy (CAOVP)

    Comcast/NBCUniversal

    Concerned Women for America (CWA)

    Congressional Fire Services Institute

    Copyhype

    Copyright Alliance

    Coty, Inc.

    Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB)

    Council of State Governments

    Country Music Association

    Country Music Television

    Creative America

    Deluxe

    Directors Guild of America (DGA)

    Disney Publishing Worldwide, Inc.

    Elsevier

    EMI Christian Music Group

    EMI Music Publishing

    Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

    ESPN

    Estée Lauder Companies

    Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)

    Gospel Music Association

    Graphic Artists Guild

    Hachette Book Group

    HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, Inc.

    Hyperion

    Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA)

    International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE)

    International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC)

    International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

    International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT)

    International Trademark Association (INTA)

    International Union of Police Associations

    L’Oreal

    Lost Highway Records

    Macmillan

    Major County Sheriffs

    Major League Baseball

    Majority City Chiefs

    Marvel Entertainment, LLC

    MasterCard Worldwide

    MCA Records

    McGraw-Hill Education

    Mercury Nashville

    Minor League Baseball (MiLB)

    Minority Media & Telecom Council (MMTC)

    Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)

    Moving Picture Technicians

    MPA - The Association of Magazine Media

    National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)

    National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators

    National Association of State Chief Information Officers

    National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA)

    National Center for Victims of Crime

    National Crime Justice Association

    National District Attorneys Association

    National Domestic Preparedness Coalition

    National Football League

    National Governors Association, Economic Development and Commerce Committee

    National League of Cities

    National Narcotics Offers’ Associations’ Coalition

    National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA)

    National Songwriters Association

    National Troopers Coalition

    News Corporation

    Pearson Education

    Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

    Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)

    Pfizer, Inc.

    Provident Music Group

    Random House

    Raulet Property Partners

    Republic Nashville

    Revlon

    Scholastic, Inc.

    Screen Actors Guild (SAG)

    Showdog Universal Music

    Sony/ATV Music Publishing

    Sony Music Entertainment

    Sony Music Nashville

    State International Development Organization (SIDO)

    The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO)

    The Perseus Books Groups

    The United States Conference of Mayors

    Tiffany & Co.

    Time Warner

    True Religion Brand Jeans

    Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)

    UMG Publishing Group Nashville

    United States Chamber of Commerce

    United States Olympic Committee

    United States Tennis Association

    Universal Music

    Universal Music Publishing Group

    Viacom

    Visa Inc.

    W.W. Norton & Company

    Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, L.P.

    Warner Music Group

    Warner Music Nashville

    Wolters Kluewer Health

    Word Entertainment

    Why do we allow corporations to distort policy decisions in their own favor? Why is it okay for a list like the one above to even exist — let alone be disseminated on the United States Congress’s website?

    The default counterargument to the notion that businesses shouldn’t be allowed to craft laws that favor them is that you’re “being anti-business.” The SOPA standoff presents us with a unique opportunity to not only contrast the interests of the businesses listed above with people. It also allows us to look at how their interests conflict with other businesses. Because, should SOPA pass, it will destroy a generation of companies that have a much better chance of pulling America out of its economic malaise than Ultimate Fighting Championship, Viacom, the NFL, and everyone else listed above. 

    For more on this topic, please check out Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig’s book Republic, Lost and his fascinating talk at Google.

     
  10. A restart for Women’s Professional Soccer

    I really want WPS to succeed and I’ve been thinking a lot about how a fresh approach to technology can save the league. The other day, I suggested that the league should blow up its existing website and start from scratch using a lean approach. This go around, I want to get more specific.

    Goals of the new website

    • Let the players’ compelling stories on and off the field sell the team 
    • Build and nurture a community of supporters around each team and its players
    • Engage the community with awesome, regularly updated, honest content (not canned marketing stuff)
    • Sell tickets and merchandise and promote special events 
    • Build, learn, and iterate quickly — the clock is ticking

    Building from the ground up

    Let’s just all delight for a moment in going into the old code, selecting all, and pressing delete. Aaaah, a fresh start; rid of the old ball and chain. Create directory: WPS 2.0.

    Our new site is going to be all about the players: who they are, what they’re about, what they do off the field, etc. The theory is that making the players and teams accessible to young girls and their families, will help fans connect with the players and the team. The personal connection with the players will put butts in the seats and get the league on the right track. The philosophy that this is a professional sports league like the NFL or MLB with larger than life characters doesn’t fit the market. Fans need to be able to reach out and touch WPS players. And the way to keep people engaged en masse is through the web.

    This is where I’d start

    With a 1-2 week build using Rails and Heroku to speed up development and minimize sysadmin work, build a simple, elegant community site. Get rid of all the fancy background graphics in favor of sleek, subdued minimalism that helps users focus on what matters most, fresh new content about the players. The site should look and feel like a modern web-app, not like the mess of loud sports team websites out there.

    For each player, there’s a player page, which is essentially a tumblog of Tweets, text updates, videos, and photos that the players take on their phones. Players can upload content directly to their pages. To maximize speed, it would make sense to wrap Tumblr or Wordpress. Their mobile apps would make it easy for players to post. For each post, there’s an “upvote” button. Posts that get the most upvotes appear on the team’s homepage, which is basically an aggregator of all the most popular posts from across the individual player pages. 

    At the top of the individual page, there’s a nice headshot and a player bio written in the first person with a text field and the call to action “Subscribe to my personal newsletter by email or SMS.” Each player page also lists the date and time for the next game and a link to buy tickets. For Round 1, that’s it.

    The coaches would each have pages — as would members of the front office. And to emphasize that this is a “community team,” there would also be a page for fans to post to as well. Fan posts would be submitted initially by email.

    These 30 or so individual pages would roll up into one very active, exciting, continually fresh team page. This would create a steady stream of interesting, honest content. 

    The result

    Imagine you’re a 13-year old girl who’s a Tobin Heath superfan. Now you can learn about who Tobin is, interact with her, and get her newsletter the day before each game, reminding you to rally your parents and friends to go.

    You also know that for Tobin Heath superfans, she’s going to be hanging out with her fans and signing autographs at the Mall at Short Hills on Sunday afternoon. You go, you meet her, and become even more passionate about supporting her. You buy her jersey, go home, and check her WPS page for the pictures she’s posted from the outing. You see that her next game is next Saturday. You share it on Facebook, telling your friends how awesome Tobin is and that they should join you at the next game. 

    Online reinforces online reinforces online. It’s a virtuous circle.