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Wow. A letter to Denters

by Jason on March 31, 2015

makingrocksYou know how after you throw a big party, there’s this beautiful mess? Plates and glasses cover the tables, everything smells like wine and so many meaningful conversations are replaying in your head that as you load the dishwasher and wipe off the counters, you’re already planning the next party?

Sitting at my desk in Seattle today feels a little like that, only better.

You made Dent 2015 unforgettable.

From Laura and Scott Jordan’s epic opening party to that killer un-conference (er… back at the same place). From laughs and applause in the session room to late night chatter at the Sun Valley Inn. Learning parkour, competing on the Buick Autocross course, admiring Jessica Hagy’s cartoons, captioning David Horsey’s…it was a blast.

Dent 2015 was a wonderful opportunity to meet new and fascinating people, reinforce great friendships, and begin new partnerships.

This year we were able to open registration to attendees for Dent 2016 while we were still there in Sun Valley. Only a few days later, 21 folks have opted to join us again next year…so I guess we have to do it again in 2016. See you there, March 20-23rd!

It’s also worth noting that we made 35 “Limited Edition” registrations available, and 15 of those have been snagged already. They’re notably cheaper, but they’re non-refundable. If you know you’re going to be there, ti’s a great deal. (Need an invite? request it here).

(Photo by Kris Krug)

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Want to join us in Sun Valley? Request an invitation here.

Frenchmans

A few years back, Jason and I had the good fortune to sample the wines from Ketchum-based Frenchman’s Gulch Winery, and last year we visited their facility to chat with winemaker Charles Smasne (and to check the winery out as a possible locale for a Dent-related gathering.) As you can see from the photo, it’s really a neat little spot, and the wines are terrific. For the past year we’ve had the place bookmarked in our mind as a potential location for an intimate gathering.

When our partners at the social impact company GOOD asked about possible locations for their dinner on 3/23, they indicated a desire to do something different and that they hoped for a location that was truly unique. Frenchman’s came immediately to mind.

This location was further reinforced when GOOD asked us about food truck options. Coincidentally, denter Leigh Barer had just mentioned to us that she had sampled the offerings from the local food truck “The Haven” and was much impressed. Frenchman’s does not serve food, and The Haven has no wine, so like peanut butter and chocolate, it was a marriage made in heaven (“haven?). The icing on the cake is that the truck’s home base is literally a stone’s throw from the winery!

HavenThe Ketchum Keystone describes The Haven as offering “good, thoughtful food with no limitations. Vegetarian sandwiches with Portobello mushrooms, goat cheese and arugula, meatball sliders with provolone and parmesan, herb chicken and bacon salad, Verde pork and black bean tacos, mac and cheese, brown rice caprese and so much more are all made fresh daily.”

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jessieEvery time I turn around, I discover that someone from the Dent community is doing something new and interesting. No doubt Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the CEO of Dreambox Learning, is not the only Denter presenting at SXSW this year. But she is the one I just learned about :)

If you’re going to be in Austin this coming Tuesday, March 10th, be sure to visit Jessie during her panel at 3pm. According to an announcement from Jessie:

On Tuesday, March 10, at 3:00 p.m. (Central), I’ll be joined on stage by three innovative leaders in the field of education and education technology: Sehreen NoorAli, Head of Business Development at Noodle Education and Founder of EdTechWomen; Dr. Christine Johns, Superintendent of Utica Community Schools; and Teri Rousseau, President of Educational Services at Reading Rainbow. This is a passionate group of individuals from diverse backgrounds who are deeply engaged and invested in this important topic.

The session is called EdTech for Educational Inclusion, and you can find it listed on the SXSW schedule here.

We love sharing what Denters are up to. Please don’t be shy about letting us know what’s going on in your world.

Jessie will back back in Sun Valley with us this year for Dent 2015. Don’t have your ticket yet? It’s not too late to request an invitation.

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cofes

I love discovering ways in which members of the Dent community, without any additional nudging from us, find ways to work together throughout the year. In this case, Denter Mark Anderson, who gave a great presentation last year at Dent, will be keynoting Cofes 2015, a conference produced by Denter Brad Holtz that’s now in it’s 16th year.

Cofes, for it’s part, has been called an “edges only brownie pan” by attendees, and like Dent is a neat, curated experience in mid-April. If you’re looking for more experiences, it’s probably worth sending Brad a note and asking for an invitation, or just use their web form.

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Use the power of silence

by Jason on March 4, 2015

sunvalleymtsI came home to discover a really interesting article sitting open on my browser — no doubt left there unintentionally by Denter (and spouse) Monica Guzman, thanks! — about how to be amazingly good at asking questions.

Frankly, I think that asking good questions is a pretty fundamental life skill, and one that it not all that difficult in the grand scheme of things. People like to talk about themselves, and appear smart, and asking good questions can allow them both of those opportunities.

But if you’re actually asking to learn about things, whether it’s about an industry, a piece of history, a trade secret (you jerk!), or anything else, then don’t forget about the power of silence:

Start getting comfortable with asking a question, waiting for response, listening to the response and then waiting some more. Many times the person you are questioning has more information and will bring it out when you wait for it. You have to be comfortable with that silent period before the dam breaks. Police and military interrogators use silence very effectively. People feel a need to fill the holes in the conversation and often they will then bring out the critical bit of information you seek.

You’ll note they mention law enforcement here. I’m pretty excited for the session at Dent this year with Mark Duncan, who employs this and many other methods on a regular basis to solve cold cases, rather a lot like Sherlock Holmes…

If you would like to join us at Dent this year, please request an invitation! There is still time.

(Awesome photo of Sun Valley by Thomas Hawk, circa Dent 2013)

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We love hearing about (and sharing) the really cool stuff that members of the Dent community are doing. Stefania Pomponi, Denter and one of the Founders of Clever Girls Collective (the agency that architected the now-famous #batkid escapade in San Francisco), had the idea to create a new influencer network when she saw an American snowboarder move to Russia because that’s where he could find a sponsor.

The new network, called Team on 3, is designed to connect brands that want to advertise with the huge pool of athletes outside of the Russell Wilsons and Kobe Bryants of the world, who often have even more intimate connections with their fans that can be a real boon tot he sponsors. In their words:

We’re innovating the way athletes obtain sponsorships. While brands often use athletes in ad campaigns to increase brand exposure, fan affinity, and sales, they typically focus on the top 1% like Peyton Manning or Richard Sherman. In contrast, Team On 3 delivers access to the other 99% of professional athletes who are arguably more influential because they interact directly with fans, friends, and families with authentic, entertaining, and brand-safe content.

Congrats on the launch Clever Girls… and by the way, when are you going to add e-sports athletes to the list?

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Facebook LIkeThere’s a post up on TIME.com about how to get people to like you better. A collection of tips from Robin Dreeke, the former head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program range from the obvious (ask questions!) to the less obvious and more useful (best question to ask: what is challenging you?).

I always have my antennae up for skills that make up what is often attributed to charming individuals as a “reality distortion field.” At the end of the day, it’s a learned set of techniques for making the most out of your interactions with other people.

Here’s one of my favorite non-obvious tips from the TIME article, on making strangers feel at-ease:

First thing: tell them you only have a minute because you’re headed out the door.

Here’s Robin:

When people think you’re leaving soon, they relax. If you sit down next to someone at a bar and say, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” their shields go way up. It’s “Who are you, what do you want, and when are you leaving?” That “when are you leaving” is what you’ve got to answer in the first couple of seconds.

Research shows just asking people if now is a good time makes them more likely to comply with requests:

The results showed that compliance rates were higher when the requester inquired about respondents’ availability and waited for a response than when he pursued his set speech without waiting and inquiring about respondents’ availability.

Nobody wants to feel trapped talking to some weirdo. People are more likely to help you than you think, but they need to feel safe and in control.

The article closes with a good reminder: it’s not about tricks, but about trust and genuine interest. These are some ways you can show it better.

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envisioningYesterday a group of Seattle-area Denters got together for a tour of the Microsoft Envisioning Center (it’s attached to the Home of the Future, where Microsoft explores the future technologies for productivity), and for a little wine, pizza, and flight simulation at Flyte, a Redmond-area startup building some very cool new flight sim technology.

We had a very limited capacity for the tour and for the visit, but it was a great group. The envisioning tour, which is supposed to last about an hour, ended up at about an hour and a half, because our poor guide (David Jones – thanks!) kept getting caught in pretty fascinating debates around the concepts, potential implementations, and uses of the stuff we were looking at.

After the tour, we drove over to Flyte, where people took turns flying around in their crazy, six-projector powered conical flight simulator pod.

flyte-shot

As always, we love finding excuses to bring the Dent community together, and yesterday was no exception. We’re looking forward to seeing everyone again very soon in Sun Valley, March 22-25th. (Not going yet? Request an invite!)

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Nela Richardson on the Role of a Chief Economist

by steve on February 23, 2015

nelarichardsonOn March 24 2015, Redfin’s Chief Economist Nela Richardson will be joining us onstage in Sun Valley for a session titled “The Anatomy of Disruption”. (Request an invitation here.) In anticipation of her appearance, we interviewed her recently about what exactly a “chief economist” does.

For tech firms, the title of “chief economist” is a fairly new thing. Can you tell us why more and more companies are deciding this is an important position to add?

The “chief economist” position has been around a long time at government agencies and in banking. I started my career as a newly minted Ph.D. in the Chief Economist office at mortgage insurer Freddie Mac and also worked in the Chief Economist office at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a financial derivatives regulator for the U.S. government. What’s new is the addition of chief economist title to the org charts of technology companies and other consumer-facing organizations.

I think the addition of chief economist positions in the tech field is driven by two seismic and concurrent shifts in the information landscape. One is the enormous increase in data availability and the second is the emergence of new media as a consumer-friendly data repository.

Chief economists, and the research teams they lead, are used to make sense of and add value to the tremendous amount of data that is in the universe – including macro economics, demographics, social trends and proprietary company data. In addition, consumer-facing companies, like Redfin, are now using media to be much more responsive to and interactive with their clients and customers than in the past.

Data without analysis is like putting nails on the wall without hanging pictures. You know where the pictures go, but you have no idea what they look like. Chief economists help organize and analyze the vast amount of data in the universe and turn data into pictures that represent how the company’s brand interacts with the real world. That skill that economists bring to an organization is valuable for both consumers and executive decision makers.

“Data without analysis is like putting nails on the wall without hanging pictures.”

What are the key business aspects that chief economist seems to enhance/augment? We see marketing (largely via content generation), strategy, product management (largely pricing), and data science as being key, what else comes to mind?

To the ones you list I’d add risk management, revenue forecasting, investment analysis, strategy – any area where a company can apply data, models and the classic economist charm.

Of those things listed above, how does your work at Redfin align? What are the specifics of your role there?

I lead housing and real estate research center at Redfin. The placement of the research center within the Redfin Communications group is illustrative of our team’s priority to educate and inform homebuyers and sellers, media and other thought leaders and housing market participants.

When it comes to real estate, there is one essential question that everyone wants to know: “Who’s buying?”

Our team analyzes that question from every angle. We look at company brokerage activity to evaluate buyer demand and seller supply. We use models to assess which types of homes are selling the fastest, and in what neighborhoods. We examine demographic trends to get a sense of the type of buyer that is dominating an area – investor, first time or move up. We also distill the role of economic factors – labor markets, interest rates, oil prices, global instability, etc – on real estate, one of the most common and most expensive asset classes.

At the same time, we serve in a unique role in the company as a clearinghouse for all types of data – demographics, market, macroeconomic and company proprietary data. Under that lens the research team provides a valuable internal function as well.

But it’s not all serious stuff either. Redfin is not only an authority on the housing market, it’s also a lifestyle brand. We use data to engage readers through interesting and compelling analysis that is on the cutting edge of social trends. It’s a fun job.

Have you read the Robert Litan book? If so, what practical lessons does it offer and what would you add to his analysis? Are there other books you’d recommend?

I worked for Bob Litan when he was Research Director at Bloomberg Government and during much of the time when he was writing the book. Bob focuses on several applications of economics in the real world. In this way Bob shows how economics helps set up markets that change incentives and thusly lead to preferred outcomes. I think what’s important to remember, whether you’re talking about auctions or game theory, applied econometrics or anything else – is that at its core economics as a discipline is a collection of tools strung together by a few key fundamental concepts. It’s the role of the economist to figure out what to build with those tools based on the universe of materials (aka data) provided.

Also, along those lines it’s worth noting that predictions and forecasts are not the most valuable thing that economists do, but usually it’s the most reported thing.

“The most important economic tenet in my opinion by far is thinking on the margins”

Get a room full of economists together — do you think they’d likely agree(?) that many/most people, and (that includes managers and business owners) don’t tend to:

  • think on the margin
  • model processes with declining marginal returns
  • properly weight incentives
  • understand the nuances of supply and demand curve shifts and the causes thereof
  • understand the implications of public choice theory

What is missing from that list (or should be removed) and how would you weigh them in terms of importance?

Economics provides a very powerful toolbox that all economists are trained to use. The beauty of economics is not that these tools lead to the same answer (though I’m sure many wish that were the case) but that they provide a method of evaluating different answers using the same set of criteria. As economists, we are all speaking the same language even if we are telling different stories. The tools you mention above are standard to the point of being reflexive for most is not all economists. Deviations of these economic conventions in public discourse must be clearly and rigorously justified, defended and of course modeled.

The most important economic tenet in my opinion by far is thinking on the margins – it’s a key part of rational decision making for individuals, companies and other organizations. In a world of scarce resources, economics posits that an evaluation of marginal benefit is how rational decisionmaking occurs. What is the value of spending one more dollar, hiring one more worker or producing one more product? And does that benefit outweigh the costs? This is what distinguishes economics from almost any other profession. For economists, the value or disutility of any policy, model, investment strategy, etc., is evaluated by the incremental difference it makes to the company’s bottom line.

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How Stoicism Makes You Happier

by Jason on February 23, 2015

Marcus Aurelius (CC) License from Elliot Brown on FlickR Today, at what may be the height of Yoga’s popularity, it might be hard to remember that western thought also has ancient philosophical roots, and some of it can be just as useful as eastern meditation.

At our annual gathering in Sun Valley (request an invite here), we explore both the personal and the organizational sides of “denting the universe,” as Steve Jobs once said — and Stoicism, though not Jobs’ choice of philosophies, offers some really interesting systems for managing the self today’s world.

I am personally looking forward to Ellen Leanse’s session with Daniel Kottke (Steve Jobs’ Reading List), where we’ll explore the books that Daniel and Steve read together in the 70s and while traveling through India, and how it affected their worldview and their paths through Apple and beyond.

In Aeon magazine, Larry Wallace writes a spirited combination of a defense and an introduction to Stoicism, where he distills the major concepts of Stoicism down to this nugget:

What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’

Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity…

Stoicism does get more specific than that, of course.

In the New York Times, Massimo Pigliucci recently penned a piece called simply “How To Be A Stoic,” where he details a little of the specifics of his personal practice of Stoicism (complete with quotes stored on Dropbox):

Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value.

As both authors take care to point out, Stoicism actually lines up quite well with modern psychological theory and behavioral therapy; in other words: science says this stuff is not too hokey. In fact, the Navy Admiral James Stockdale credits Stoic principles with carrying him through a rather brutal seven years as a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

In more modern notes, some limited research cited in the Times article above suggests that practicing stoicism, despite its grim demeanor, actually tends to make you happier. Study respondents, on average, showed a 20 percent growth in the gap between their positive and negative emotions.

For Denters, I think the most compelling point is not that Stoicism is “it,” but rather than having a system or personal philosophy is a great way to boost your own personal ability to affect the world. Whatever version of philosophy it ends up being, simply having a baseline from which to operate can have a huge difference.

(If you’re interested in joining us for this invite-only retreat in late March, you can request an invitation here).

Image: Marcus Aurelius (CC) License from Elliot Brown on FlickR

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