Sunday, August 21, 2011

Products and Punchlines

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

People are always surprised when they find out I run a company and tell jokes to drunk people at night. They ask questions like “Is comedy your true love? Is comedy just a hobby? If you get rich from your day job will you just follow your dream?”

So to set the record straight, I do comedy and Kogeto because I love both, and by doing both I maximize the chances that I’ll enjoy most of my waking hours without having to resort to multiple bottles of tequila.

 It also helps that I don’t have kids. Not yet, anyway.

The truth is that my two interests are not all that different. Making great products and writing funny, tight jokes are to me the same basic process – both require focus, discipline, and the willingness to listen when the people around you tell you that your ideas stink. That happens to me on a regular basis, because I have a lot to learn as both a CEO and a comic, and people are never shy about sharing their own personal theory about what you need to do better. The trick is to know when to listen, and when to realize you’re being offered the contents of someone’s else’s own personal bag of crazy.

Of course, writing jokes and developing complex engineering products are not exactly the same thing, and I’d like to take a few moments to talk about the differences, and why I enjoy bouncing back and forth between one world and the other.

One of the great things about standup comedy is that you get to perfect your jokes by performing them over and over again in front of different audiences, tweaking and honing them until they have the exact effect on an audience you desire. I know comedians who tweak jokes for years before “locking them down,” slowly adding and removing bits of language until the joke is perfectly tuned.  And then they'll get bored and rip those bits apart to find new bits.

A great example is Louis CK’s discussion with David Letterman about how everything is amazing and no one is happy. This video made the viral rounds two years ago, picking up a few million hits on youtube and being reposted to youtube/facebook/google+ by fans and click trolls as if it was the greatest and most innovative idea people had ever heard. But I first saw Louis do this bit on Dr Katz back in the 90s, which means he was doing it on stage even earlier. The difference was, back then he was just talking about airplanes being amazing, because most people hadn’t yet heard of the internet.

My point is not that Louis CK is a hack – he’s one of the best comedians working today (if you don’t believe me, watch Louie on FX). Rather, the point is that joke writing is an iterative process, like sculpting. You chip away every extraneous part to make the jokes tight, surprising and satisfying for the audience. This can take years. But then you encounter a new idea that has the power to dramatically widen the scope of what you're talking about, and you get to retool the entire thing. In Louis CK's case, turning a bit about how airplanes are amazing and people should stop complaining about flying into to a much larger idea about how the forward rush of technology fails to make us happier because people get instantly lazier the moment you make their lives easier - a smart, funny observation that adds even more bite to an already solid bit.

The best part is  Louis can do this all on his own -  there are no approvals, no committees, just him. Each time he tells a joke, he can do whatever he wants with it. He can deconstruct it, move the ending to the beginning, or even explode it and make it about something much bigger and more pervasive than what he originally was writing about. His process is entirely his own - and trust me, while (non-hack) comedians share the common goal of writing great material, their individual processes could not be more different.

This is one of my favorite parts about comedy - nothing is set in stone, and every time you step foot on stage, you have the option of either doing the jokes you've been doing for five years or doing something entirely different. It's essentially a voyage of self-discovery, as you and only you are responsible for creating laughter in a room full of strangers, and the way you decide to do it (and how many risks you decide to take) is entirely up to you. This process inevitably teaches you a lot about yourself you might never learn if you didn't step foot on stage, and while frequently punishing the results are worth it.

On a micro scale, the product development process at Kogeto is completely unlike this. Developing something  like Dot requires a diverse team including engineers, designers, programmers, writers, manufacturers, and filmmakers amongst others. While the company started with just David, Josh and I working on Lucy hardware (and partnering to build everything else), the moment we moved into the consumer space we needed software developers, graphic designers, web developers, a social media expert and more. We had to manufacture hardware in a completely new facility and build relationships with a slew of talented optical engineers.  Each of these people have passionate ideas about what the product should be, what the company should feel like, and how we should work together. It's an occasionally contentious process, but as long as great products come out of it, it's extremely rewarding. But unlike comedy, we don't have the ability to take back something we did last night - it's out there, for the world to see, sometimes for years at a time.

This is especially true when you make actual stuff (as opposed to web services and software), as we do. We finished designing Dot's hardware essentially two months ago, and the first units won't come off the assembly line for another several weeks. We won't really know what the audience thinks until we ship these products, and if we learn something that makes us want to make a change, it will take weeks, if not months, to implement it - that's just the nature of making real, physical objects that do something unique.

I don't mind telling you that's the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.

And while all of this can be incredibly frustrating and occasionally terrifying (especially when compared to the instantaneous feedback one gets when you walk on stage to tell a new joke), the satisfaction of knowing that you and your team have created something real - something unique that people can hold in their hands and that will impact their lives in some meaningful way - is amazing and worth all of the sweat and pain. And I'd be lying if I didn't say that all of us at Kogeto don't feel a little bit of pride about the fact that, in such a terrible economy, we make THINGS right here in New York. We design, manufacture and ship our product within the state in which we all live, and the fact that this process employs 50-60 people makes us all pretty happy.

But I also really enjoy leaving the office, walking a few blocks north to the Village Lantern, and telling a joke that I wrote in 2004 in a way that's slightly tweaked based on something that happened to me last week. And following it with a story about how, earlier in the day, the ATM asked me to enter my PIN before depositing a check - as if I'm deeply concerned about people fraudulently depositing money in my account. It's immensely satisfying, on the same day when I'm sweating out some software glitch or delay on the production line, to know that both my old jokes and something I wrote this afternoon can connect with the audience. It gives me the confidence to go in the next morning and solve the problems waiting for me at work.

It's how I keep balance in my life, and manage to go to sleep tired but satisfied.

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