It's Pronounced Chookshaw

The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Only 6% of People Can Pass This Test

Welcome to the test that only 6% of people can pass. Only the most focused people are capable.


You failed. You clicked on the link. You’ve interrupted your focus and set yourself up for another 30 minutes of aimless online wondering. If you want to make $100k/year, that will cost you about $24 (you’ll see what I mean below).

It’s not entirely your fault. Countless resources have been spent studying you, the internet user, to understand what it takes to get you to stop what you were doing and click on a link. Your limited defenses are being challenged by an army of hundreds of thousands of well-educated marketing experts and computer scientists, all of whom are highly-motivated to translate your clicks into revenue. You’re bringing a cup of water to a forest fire; it’s not even close to a fair fight.

But fight you must.

One of my favorite quotes is from Tony Robbins, who said that the defining factor of success is not resources it’s resourcefulness. He’s right. The corollary is that it’s your job to be focused enough to be resourceful.

I have found three ways beyond exercise (that one is well-known) that have helped me to focus.

My “Hourly Rate”

I have a financial goal for myself for what I want to make annually. Dividing that number by 2,080 (the approximate number of hours a full-time employee works), I know the amount of money I need to make in that hour in order to reach that goal. That’s my hourly rate. From there, I’m either doing something to earn that number, or I’m “spending” that money by doing something else. Would I pay that to watch an hour of cat videos? Probably not.


After being diagnosed with some weird skin thing that flares up when I’m particularly stressed, I realized that I had to get things under control. So, I started meditating. Here’s the bottom line: it changes your brain for the better (read this and this). If you have never tried it before, check out or one of their mobile apps. Start it today and never stop.

Learning a Foreign Language

I’ve started to re-learn Spanish, which is part unlearning some of the Spanglish that was part of my El Paso upbringing, and part simply learning the basics that I either never understood or completely forgot since middle school. In addition to a few great free learning resources (Duolingo and the Notes in Spanish podcast), I’m reading news at BBC Mundo and CNN en Español as well as watching football games in Spanish (¡Vamos a acereros de Pittsburgh!). It forces me to think about what I’m reading or hearing/seeing, rather than just passively consume. The unexpected consequence is that it has made me more focused in everything I do.

One last thing…

We’re in the early stages of what is about to be a brutal electoral season (at least in the U.S.), and it’s starting already. The only thing worse than allowing your prime attention resources to be hijacked by random quizzes and cute animals is actively sabotaging those limited resources by getting dragged into a political fight online. I call it Attention Sabotage Syndrome (ASS). Don’t be one. Quit Facebook or Twitter if you have to, but it’s just not worth it.

Snooze Button

As a kid, I sprung to my feet the minute my alarm went off. While most parents complained of having to drag their kids out of bed, mine complained about me waking them up in the morning. I was always bright and chipper, well-rested and ready to go to school or wherever I needed to be.

Then, in college, I discovered the snooze button.

The snooze button is the physical manifestation of our worst instincts. We hit it for temporary comfort, but end up with poor sleep health and the domino effect of starting our day playing catch-up. Think about that — our mornings begin with a decision that is high-cost / low-benefit, then wonder why we’re always feeling behind.

What’s worse is that it’s not the only snooze button I’ve got.

I hit the workout snooze button a lot. The let’s-go-out-instead-of-cooking snooze button gets its fair share of taps. The five-more-minutes-of-Twitter-before-I-get-moving is another favorite. Laundry, meditation, yard work, they all have snooze buttons. Every time I hit a “life” snooze button, I get the same result as I do the one by my bed: a few more minutes of inertial comfort at the expense of future pain, frustration, and anxiety.

Few of us can afford to invest our limited time and energy so wastefully. As a result, I’ve decided to quit the snooze button. Who’s with me?

(P.S. – I apologize for the shorter post, but I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.)

In a Jam

As I sit here typing this, a pot of ghost pepper jelly is getting to temperature on the stove, getting ready to be canned, labeled, and eventually handed out to family and friends over the holidays. My wife and I grew many of the ingredients in our backyard garden (supplemented with some not-worth-the-space green bell peppers), and I’ve developed reasonable canning instincts, if that’s even a thing.

My 24-year-old self would be embarrassed.

My 34-year-old self is quite content.

Like most, I had a 10-year plan early in my career. It’s cool to see how many of those things that I had hoped for my future self are now reality (marriage, getting my MBA, co-founding a successful start-up). I’m also humored (and humbled) by how much I didn’t achieve (amongst the incredibly long list are: running a marathon; getting my pilot’s license; and buying a private island [no, really, it’s on the list]).

Most striking have been the imperceptible-at-the-time ways that I’ve grown beyond the limits of what my 24-year-old self put on me. I’m less of a hot-head. I’m more patient and detail-oriented. I’m more open to negative feedback. I’m less worried about keeping score. I swear less. Ultimately, I’m someone I wouldn’t have entirely recognized (and not just because i’m going prematurely gray).

For those who are wringing their hands over Millennials, please stop. We’re capable of developing and testing plans, encountering challenges, and seeing the world a little differently on the other side. Some of that growth will be supported by people who are actively willing to guide us (that could be you!). More of that growth will come from people who serve as the anti-example. We’ll eventually figure out what works and adapt what we’ve learned to new situations. We’ll pick up skills that we didn’t even recognize existed. And in your honor, baby boomers, we’ll complain about how the generation behind us is lazy,  doesn’t know how to communicate, and is unprofessional; nothing like how we were when we started our careers.

Alright, now who wants some pepper jelly?

Let Me Google That For You

Has someone ever asked you a question that could have been easily answered with a quick Google search?

Let me introduce you to, short for “let me Google that for you.” The site’s existence is a snarky response to one of the diseases of the 21st-century workplace: people asking questions that could be easily answered themselves, usually by doing a quick Google search. If you’re the victim of a LMGTFY question — and have no concern for your relationship with the offending questioner — send them a LMGTFY link. They’ll think twice, and search at least once, before asking again.

(I really hate LMGTFY questions.)

My friends at Solutions 21 talk a lot about the gap between knowing and doing. That gap is growing ever wider, not because people know less (though research shows that access to the web makes you think you’re smarter than you are), but because answers to many questions are readily available. If you’re asking LMGTFY questions, or only providing operational-level answers, you’re allowing your work product to be a low-value commodity (and you’ll likely be rewarded in kind).

It’s fairly simple to deliver high-value answers. When I was a market research analyst, my boss would say, “I made the job title ‘analyst’ because I wanted you to interpret the data, otherwise I’d have called you a ‘market research reporter.’ ” Reporting the data is a commodity. Interpreting it, and providing reasoned, recommended solutions is what’s valuable.

Not sure exactly where to start? Here … let me Google that for you.


Startup confession: I hate validation with a passion. Not the process of it (whatever that process is, anyway), but the expectations that have been placed on it.

Validation is supposed to determine whether an idea is worth commercializing. The theory is that the innovator goes through a series of processes that lead to a black-and-white answer: either yes, this opportunity will obviously make me a zillionaire; or no, this opportunity should die on the vine. Validation becomes the insurance policy against failure and, with failure being a fate worse than death in many innovation circles, it’s be-all, end-all.

Let me be clear: no one ever, ever, ever does this.* Why else do you think that 90% of startups fail?

The problem is that we’re mostly wired to pursue the new and shiny, to say yes rather than no. Consciously or unconsciously, instead of validating the idea (i.e. empirically determining whether to move to the next step using a rigorous, data-oriented methodology), we try to rationalize all of the reasons to move forward. While we usually need about six positive messages to make up for one negative one, in our “validation” process, we tend to focus on all the data that we’ve got that says that we should keep pushing forward with commercialization.

There are plenty of articles about how best to validate (caution: whatever validation is, it is not a five-minute process), so I won’t duplicate the efforts of the many who are trying to sell you some sort of secret sauce. However, there are four big things that tend to be make-or-break when deciding to pursue a new idea. They are:

  • Degree of Differentiation – Your idea needs to be different enough to compete against other solutions while being tough to duplicate (technically or legally).
  • Market Size – The business needs to pursue a market big enough to meet your goals, whether that’s just to put food on your table or to make enough return to attract investment
  • Resources – You need the time to pursue it, a team that can compliment your strengths, and the financial resources to fill in the gaps, all from the first flick of the light bulb to the moment you put out the “for sale” sign.
  • Marketing 4Ps – Product, place, price, and promotion; they all need to work together to make the awareness-interest-decision-action cycle as short as humanly possible.

There’s other stuff, of course, but these are the big four. If you can rationalize this publicly with your right hand on a stack of enter-your-sacred-text-here, then you’ve done great work. This is what most people want when they want validation. They want some data, some third-party information that shows that you’re not a mad scientist.

For extra credit, I recommend one more step — the project premortem. The idea is simple; instead of waiting for things to get to their logical conclusion before doing an analysis of what went wrong, have a session with you/your team to talk about all of the reasons the project will fail miserably. When this is the goal of the discussion, everyone is open to talking through the potential pitfalls that they might otherwise be uncomfortable expressing in the face of the blinding optimism that comes with launching a new venture. It’s a fantastic exercise.

*This isn’t technically true, of course. Like how some people rotate their tires after every 3,000 miles or balance their checkbook every month instead of checking the balance online, it happens, but not often enough to discuss.

The Lesson of Second Place

When I was in kindergarten, I was fascinated by outer space. While other kids were into pro wrestling, cartoons, or dinosaurs, I was dragging my parents on near-weekly treks* to the local planetarium. I had a personally-autographed picture of Clyde W. Tombaugh (discoverer of Pluto) on the wall in my room. I was a weird kid.

Like every other elementary school student in America, I was required to participate in the science fair. Given my obsession with the planets, I wanted nothing more than to show off all of the things I knew about the solar system. I won’t get into embarrassing details about the process of constructing my display, but let’s just say that I was unusually proud of my cotton-foamcore-glue-glitter masterpiece.

The memory of the day is a little blurry, but I’ll never forget the feeling of running up to my project and seeing the second place ribbon on it. As a kindergarten kid competing against everyone up to the third grade, I was so proud to have won second place. What an accomplishment against the bigger kids! My first award! I could hardly contain my excitement.

My next memory is of finding the first-place winner, a third grader’s project that was also about the solar system. But, wait… Her colors weren’t right (Saturn isn’t blue-green!). Her Pluto was beyond Neptune (nope). She didn’t have an asteroid belt. I went from being very proud to being very confused – if she got these things wrong, and I got them right, then why did she win first place?

When my parents came to pick me up, I told them about how I won second (yay!) and how the girl who won first  got a lot of things wrong (boo!). In good Millennial-parent fashion,  they approached those in charge about the decision to ask about the disparity. The judges immediately dressed my parents down for doing the work for me. “What kind of lessons are you trying to teach your son?” they asked. “Is it so important for him to win a science fair that you have to do the work for him?” Despite my parents’ best attempts, the judges refused to believe that I did the work. Worse, they saw me as a cheater instead of a kindergarten kid who really, really, really loved the stars. I was devastated.

This James Harrison Facebook post, and the ensuing debate over participation trophies, sparked the memory.

Every time the “kids these days” subject comes up, a.k.a. Millennials in the workforce, the debate over trophies renews. Largely, there are two camps: the EARN IT crowd, that believes that participation trophies make kids soft and entitled to something that they didn’t necessarily deserve; and the ENJOY IT crowd, that believes that building confidence in kids is important to their ability to try new things and forge their own path, recognizing participation being part of that process. As with most public debates, there is no middle ground.

I recently went through the trophies and awards that my parents had packed away for me. Some of them were for participation (so much for the adage “80 percent of success is showing up”), others were well-earned first-place awards. It was great to go through them, of course, but I ultimately threw every one of them away. Well, except for that framed ribbon from the science fair. I kept it because it represented one of the most  challenging life lessons that I’ve learned; that sometimes, even if you do your best, and even if you get the results, you might not win. Further, in the vast majority of life, winning (whatever that means, anyway)  is based upon factors that are out of your control. Yes, work hard. Yes, do your best. And yes, if you’re failing, you either need to get better or do something else. Finally, it also taught me that losing is okay, too.

My verdict on trophies is this: they’re only as good as the meaning you give them. Teach kids to value the award over the effort, and they’ll grow into adults who value the appearance of success rather than the work it takes to get there. Ultimately, that meaning is a an infinitely-better reflection of your values than any piece of hardware you could ever earn, or get for just showing up.

* Pun alert – Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) was born in my home town of El Paso, Texas.

Macro Beer Champions the Silent Majority

Proudly a Macro Beer

Don’t Fuss Over This

Budweiser threw the first big punch with what The Atlantic called “The Super Bowl’s Riskiest Ad.” You probably saw it, but here’s the copy (and the video):

Proudly a macro beer. It’s not brewed to be fussed over. It’s brewed for a crisp, smooth finish. This is the only beer Beechwood aged since 1876. There’s only one Budweiser. It’s brewed for drinking. Not dissecting. The people who drink our beer are people who like drinking beer. To drink beer brewed the hard way. Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale. We’ll be brewing us some golden suds. This is the famous Budweiser beer. This bud’s for you.

Reaction was swift. Craft beer drinkers blew up in anger and snark on Twitter. Media cherry-picked tweets to maintain the narrative. Jim Vorel wrote thoughtful analysis about AB’s hypocrisy. Carla Jean Lauter (The Beer Babe) wrote an excellent point-by-point analysis of the spot. Dick Cantwell, co-founder of Elysian (recently acquired by AB InBev), was annoyed. It was spoofed almost immediately in a counter-ad. And even Bud’s marketing VP, Brian Perkins, said that he “meant no offense”.

From a Promotion-P marketing perspective, I think the ad was hugely effective. Instead of taking heed of MillerCoors CEO Tom Long‘s  2012 call-to-action for the industry to build “Brand Beer”, Budweiser took a shot at the very thing that is keeping brand beer in the running against wine and spirits, i.e. the taste- and brand-conscious attitude that, at times, puts off the silent majority of beer drinkers who like macro beers. The result was a celebration of a populist appeal that got exactly the reaction from craft beer lovers that the ad was mocking. Strategically, that’s one hell of a rope-a-dope.

The only shock is that it has taken this long for macros publicly challenge craft beer. Budweiser’s declining market share is well-documented, and Perkins has been on record saying that they want to go after 21-27 year old consumers with a new strategy. That demographic is rejecting macro beers at a rate much higher than other generations of consumers, and Bud is going for the long game that comes with early exposure. It’s giving up on the consumers who have driven craft beer demand in the hopes that younger drinkers will become brand loyal.

Maybe this ad will get craft breweries to realize what the macros have known all along — that building brand relationships with a wide range of consumers creates a hell of a lot of goodwill that can be leveraged into messages just like this one. Even if the Brewers Association hits its stated goal of craft beer making up 20% of market share by 2020, that means that the macros are still controlling 80% of the market. Combine this with macros’ craft beer brand acquisitions and you have a recipe for dominance in the channels craft breweries need to survive and grow. Unless craft breweries want to be left fighting over local bar tap handles and growler sales, they must figure out a way to pitch a bigger tent and welcome the folks who just want to enjoy a beer with their friends. If not, there’s a serious risk of losing the culture and variety that has driven nearly a decade of double-digit craft growth, effectively teeing up the macros to swoop in and win the war.

UPDATE: 1:47PM on 2/3/2014

Really solid analysis from Beervana that hits similar notes. With a read here.

Three Ways to Be a Better User: RaceJoy and the Pittsburgh Marathon

It will be a joy to use next year.

It will be a joy to use next year.

“How great would it be if we could track you using your phone GPS for the race tomorrow?” I asked my wife in anticipation of her 13.1 mile run at the Pittsburgh Marathon. She thought it would be a cool way for family and friends to keep up with her, so we began searching — and quickly found — the solution. RaceJoy is an app designed to help get information on race day, with an $0.99 upgrade that would let you use GPS to track runners (as well as send cheers and other cool little features). We both ponied up the fee in our respective app stores (we’re a mixed iPhone/Android family) and moved on with our day.

The next morning I was standing at around the sixth mile and assumed that my wife wouldn’t get past the starting gate until at least 7:30 (she was in the fourth “corral” behind the starting line leaders going at 7am sharp), so I began checking my phone around then to see what her progress might be. After a few refreshes, it was obvious that RaceJoy was down. A few check-ins over the next 45 minutes or so and I realized that it was likely down for the count. Disappointing, obviously, but not the end of the world. I got to see my wife, she finished the race injury-free, we got to grill burgers and sausages with friends, and the world continued to turn.

Or, at least I thought. I decided to check in with Twitter to see if I was the only one who had issues with the app. I found a couple of tweets like this:

Then I began to read the tweets from RaceJoy. They’re a two-person team and look to be from Pittsburgh (or at least CMU), and seemed to have developed this system with the Pittsburgh Marathon in mind, though it had been used at other events. You can tell that they were looking forward to this being their big coming out party, and the scale of the failure just made it all that much worse. Piling on was unnecessary, though there was no shortage of it.

To their credit, RaceJoy let everyone know that they would be refunding anyone who paid the upgrade fee through Google Play, and would be mailing checks to anyone who bought it in the Apple App Store. They owned up to the issues, apologized to everyone they could, and were trying to solve enough technical issues to salvage the day. Then there was this tweet:

That one hit hard.

I’m writing this as an innovator apologist and realize the importance of feedback — no matter how severe — in the real world. To some extent, there’s nothing better that could have happened to RaceJoy long-term than to have an expensive catastrophic failure (assuming they’re not financially devastated by the refunds). But the level to which people were comfortable being mean was disappointing and decidedly un-Pittsburgh-like.

For those who’ve never invented anything, let me say this — making stuff is hard. It’s very hard. It’s excruciatingly hard. It’s nearly impossible. And, making something that works every time is even more difficult. It takes days/months/years of meticulously working through every imaginable (and unimaginable) scenario to make sure that the customer experiences something effortless. Think about that — years of work so that your experience is effortless. And we expect this effortless experience for 99 cents (a good portion of which goes to Apple and Google).

We should be better users.

This isn’t a complete list, but if you want to be a constructive user who encourages people to take the risk of making something to improve your life, I ask you to keep a few things in mind:

  1. Be Kind: Inventors have thick skin, but please do not treat every malfunction as if it was akin to the brutal murder of a household pet. Innovators understand that you’re disappointed and expect a better experience. Most innovations you use aren’t made by large corporate monoliths, but by individuals or small teams (in this case, Shelly and James) who are trying to make the world incrementally better. Vitriolic anger and condescension are not kind responses.
  2. Be Specific: Please provide specific, constructive feedback. Things don’t always work and it’s not always obvious as to why. Sometimes it really is user error, but sometimes it might be a situation that the innovator hadn’t previously considered.  Knowing what happened from beginning to end can help an innovator take one step closer to making the experience effortless for everyone.
  3. Be Forgiving: Life is hard. We all fail. Being open to trying something again (or trying until it works). Nailing an app with a flood of one-star reviews might feel good, but it might also ensure that the innovation made to make your life easier that didn’t quite work as expected won’t be available the next time you need it. It helps to have perspective, realize that most of these failures are not life-threatening, and be open to trying again when you have a chance.

In closing…

Please, please be better to each other. Innovation is hard. And, to Shelly and James, who were working tirelessly to make things work in the middle of a whirlwind of crappy feedback — well done. You two did an exceptional job of handling the issues fairly, kindly, and publicly. It’s easy to get defensive in these situations and you handled yourselves perfectly. If I wrote a post about how to be a better innovator, your response would be a case study.

My ‘Buying Local’ Mistake

For those who might not know, I host a radio show for my real job called Pittsburgh Impact Radio (click here for the iTunes podcast). In my most recent show, I interviewed Buy Pittsburgh First, an organization that promotes the idea that companies can, and should, buy from local suppliers. From an economic development standpoint, this is a huge opportunity — between 40%-60% additional economic impact is made when a purchaser buys from a local supplier vs. a national/non-local one. That translates to jobs, more consumption of local products and services, multiplier effects and other good stuff.

As an entrepreneur currently selling into the local and national market, I too have skin in the buy local game. It is easier for me to market and sell product to companies nearby (I can demonstrate how our product looks and works). It’s cheaper for me to fulfill my orders to local companies. And, in the (rare) case where something isn’t quite right, I can fix it personally. Our company is another case study in why buying local makes sense — the service is often far beyond any national vendor and we’re willing to go above-and-beyond in ways that are impossible for our other customers across the country.

So, my ‘buying local’ mistake. Somewhere in the radio interview, and I believe it might have been said multiple times, I mentioned that there is an obligation to buy from local vendors. Given the regional impact, and what it can do to accelerate growth, it sounds like something that is reasonable to say. Further, I have also worked in economic development for seven years, so I’m comfortable talking about connections between buying from companies and how that can impact an economy. But, after more reflection, I realized that I was dead wrong. There is no obligation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In any business transaction, the decision comes down to what option brings the most value. Some of these are objective measures (price, turnaround time), and some of these are completely subjective (brand, reputation). A commitment to buying local is decidedly a subjective perception of value. Regardless of how much value we might individually place on buying local, that doesn’t mean that we do it at each opportunity, or that it’s right to always buy local. Sometimes, the local option just doesn’t deliver the value we need, regardless of proximity.

I won’t say that it doesn’t hurt when a local company won’t take a meeting or consider our product. I’ll admit to getting irritated when a company decides against giving us a chance to prove our concept. But, the reality is that it’s not their fault for not buying. It’s our fault for not delivering enough value (or, worse, targeting the wrong market).

This doesn’t mean that I will not continue to be an advocate for buying local — I think it’s a great opportunity to have a disproportionate impact on the local economy (and get exceptional customer service at the same time). However, I have made a decision to stop making it personal, start delivering more value, and eliminating the words “should” and “obligated” from my vocabulary.

Actually, the New iPhones Are Awesome

Five colors to enjoy (plus a gold iPhone 5S)

Five colors to enjoy (plus a gold iPhone 5S)

I’m not an expert in technology and don’t want to give the impression that I’m capable of giving a careful analysis of the new hardware or software in the two versions of the iPhone that were launched yesterday. This post isn’t about the guts, or the new interface, or iOS7.

This post is about looks. And, from that perspective, I think this was a brilliant move.

The mistake that handset manufacturers have made, really since the beginning of time, has been that almost all phones look decidedly masculine. I remember a good friend of mine, Meghan Skiff of Mixy Marketing, complaining about how her then top-of-the-line Blackberry only came in masculine colors. “I’d pay serious money to get this in pink,” she said.

Until these iPhones were launched, the only way to make a mobile phone stylish was to add a case. Given just how long smartphones have been around, that is a pathetic record.

The books are right — when marketing to women, pink is not a strategy. But style is.

That is where Apple got this right. The gold tone iPhone 5S might have been widely panned and the multiple colors of the stepped-down 5C might be considered garish, but for the first time there is an iPhone that can appeal to both style and substance. 52% of adult women carry a smartphone. How has no handset manufacturer taken this into its design consideration?

Good design makes everything better. That means both style and substance. While there can be plenty of arguments about whether Apple has been as innovative in this generation of iPhones as years, they’ve clearly taken a step in the right direction in recognizing that style can be a competitive advantage in the mobile market. With so many women using smartphones, creating a line that appeals to various tastes is long overdue.

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