The $100 Test

Each week, Startup Edition poses a single question to a group of bloggers from the startup community. This week’s question is “How do you discover what people really want?” My answer? Use the $100 test, whether you’re creating software or planning activities with your family. 

Picture of a Hundred Dollar Bill
Image courtesy of nuchylee /

Every software development team has a long list of features they want to build into their product. At the same time, they are constrained by how much time or money they can spend writing and testing the code. To meet most of their customers’ needs, they end up identifying a “minimal viable product” of the most important features.

When I worked on the Dreamweaver team back in the late 1990s, we used a technique called the “$100 test” to help us prioritize our backlog of feature ideas into an MVP. Here’s how it worked: we gave the members of our customer advisory board an imaginary stack of 100 dollar bills and asked them to spend their money on the list of features we were considering. They could spend all $100 on one feature that they were passionate about, or $50 on two features, or any dollar amount on any number of features. They could even put their money toward new features. Any combination was fine, as long as it added up to $100 and represented what they wanted to see in the next release of Dreamweaver.

Today, many software teams use this test, or something similar, to discover what their customers want. I’ve also seen it used in brainstorming sessions to prioritize ideas that merit further investigation. It’s an effective way for a group to prioritize things when they have more ideas than their resources can support.

Does the $100 test have a role to play in parenting? I think it can! Let’s look at my family as an example.

My family consists of my husband, our two teens, and myself.

Do we want to do more than we can given our free time and our budget? Always.

Do we have an effective approach to prioritize things? Not really. After consulting with everyone, I make most of the decisions. While efficient, it’s not exactly effective, and I often feel burdened by it.

Coincidentally, we have a vacation coming up, and we haven’t yet decided what to do each day. I think we need a family brainstorming session to come up with loads of ideas, and then use the $100 test to figure out what activities we’ll do. It will be a great way to discover what we really want and to get everyone engaged and excited about the vacation.

What do you think of the $100 test? Have you used it outside of product development to discover what people want? Please leave a comment; I’d like to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

NOTE: This post is part of Startup Edition, weekly wisdom from founders, hackers, and designers who answer a single question each week. Click here to see other answers to this week’s question: “How do you discover what people really want?”

When was the last time you made someone feel smart?

drawing of a light bulb
Image courtesy of bplanet / 

Are there some people you enjoy spending time with because they make you feel good about yourself? My husband and I know an older couple who have a knack for asking questions that make us feel like we are the most interesting people in the world. (Believe me, we’re not.) This couple refers to conversations we had years earlier, complimenting us on our achievements since then and encouraging us to stretch ourselves in new ways. Given their advanced years, I’m pretty sure they must keep a diary of their activities, and read it before seeing us to be able to remember what we’ve told them. Whether this is their secret or not, they make us feel great every time we visit them.

I thought of these friends when I read “7 Tips for Making Other People Feel Smart and Insightful,” a blog post by Gretchen Rubin. (Gretchen is the author of the best-selling books “Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”) She writes

We all want to get along well with other people, and one way to do this is to help people feel good about themselves. If you make a person feel smart and insightful, that person will enjoy your company. The point is not to be manipulative, but to help other people feel good about their contributions to a conversation.

She goes on to share some suggestions, including taking notes about what others are saying, referring back to comments that they made earlier in a conversation, and asking someone to finish a thought if they got side-tracked. Each allows you to show respect for their ideas and their experience, and that you are paying attention to what they’re saying.  My favorite is asking for advice and acting on it. As Gretchen points out, we all love to give advice, and we feel smart when someone seeks our counsel. We may even feel brilliant when that person follows our recommendations.

Not only will Gretchen Rubin’s tips help you make others feel good about themselves, they can also help drive engagement. Are you a leader who wants to increase  employee engagement with your company’s mission and future? Or, perhaps you are a parent who wants to  improve your teen’s engagement with your family? Think about making them feel good about the contributions they’re making to any conversation, and making them feel insightful when you seek their advice.

Professionally, I ask others for advice frequently. I’m a collaborative person, and I appreciate learning from others and including people in my decision making process. But, do I do this at home? Turns out not nearly enough.

When I asked my kids if I looked to them for advice, they both shook their heads “no.” Whether they realize it or not, I learn from them all the time. Yet, learning from someone is different than asking them for input. When we seek advice, we’re trying to sort something out; we’re gathering perspectives to help us understand a broader picture. By default, we reach out to people whose opinions we respect and trust, and this, in turn, makes them feel smart and insightful. With teens who are still developing a sense of who they are and the adults they will become, seeking their advice gives them the opportunity to practice sharing their ideas and to develop confidence in their opinions. Chances are, they’ll also teach us a thing or two.

So, I’m making a resolution to include my kids in my decision-making process more often. Please share your ideas, or your stories about when you’ve sought your kids’ advice. I’d love to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Why You Should Ask about Bucket Lists

Pic of a red check markMany of us have a personal bucket list, but what about a professional bucket list?

We fill our personal bucket lists with our dreams: travel to far-away places, adrenaline-filled activities, famous people we’d like to meet.  I get a chuckle out of my kids’ bucket lists, which give me insight into their aspirations, however simple or crazy. A few years back, their bucket lists included ordering room service, riding in a limo, and jumping out of a moving car. As a parent, I could help make some of these happen, once I knew about them. (Note to my kids – Don’t even ask me to help with that last one!)

My bucket list is a jumble of ideas, not well formed except for a handful of professional things I want to get done some day. It includes things like contributing content to wikipedia, publishing a book about the intersection of leadership and parenting, and joining the board of a non-profit whose cause I care about.

By sharing these bucket items with all of you, research shows that I’m more likely to accomplish them. (You can read a summary of this research by Gail Matthews, PhD, published on the Dominican University web site.) In fact, since writing the first draft of this article, I took the plunge into wikipedia! For the Dreamweaver page, I wrote a brief history of how the project started, and I added some ACM publications to the IRIS Intermedia page. I worked on both of these software projects earlier in my career, and it felt good to add to their wikipedia pages.

Leaders can use bucket lists to increase employee engagement with their company’s mission and future. By asking about an employee’s list, we can discuss otherwise unspoken career goals and dreams. Whether it’s traveling internationally, developing code for a 1.0 software release, shadowing an executive for a day, becoming a patent holder, or something else, once you know you can make introductions. You can look for stretch assignments for them to take on. You can open doors!

What do you think of using bucket lists to improve engagement, with your family or your employees? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Look out for those “whatever…” responses

“Look out for those ‘whatever…’ responses.” I remember hearing this advice at a class about parenting teenagers. As the speaker explained how teens will tell you that they couldn’t care less by rolling their eyes, saying “whatever,” or just shaking their head while they leave the room, I found myself drifting off, thinking about work. Why? Because I was hearing the corporate equivalent of “whatever” in my group, which sounds like this: “Just tell me what to do.”

Over my career, I’ve unfortunately heard the phrase “Just tell me what to do” a few too many times. Perhaps you have seen this reaction at work as well? It might have come from a decision that someone didn’t agree with, or a process that wasn’t meeting their needs yet couldn’t be updated. It might have been directed at a customer who was impossible to please. Or, in the case with my group, I chalked it up to a supervisor who regularly micro-managed his team, never satisfied with the work they did. Regardless of the situation, “Just tell me what to do” is a warning sign that the employee feels they can’t be successful, no matter what. As a leader, you need to treat it as a red flag.

To better understand why teens say “whatever,” I looked to psychologist Michael Bradley, author of  Yes, Your Teen is Crazy.  In this book, Dr. Bradley explains that at some point, most teens realize that they’ve already learned the most important teachings from their parents, and they need to look to other sources for opinions on clothes, music, and even ethics. It’s a healthy part of becoming their own person, but it can be really hard on the parents. Especially if the teenager is doing it with dramatic eye rolling, the silent treatment, or those “whatever” responses.

When an employee says, “Just tell me what to do,” have they reached a similar wall where they no longer feel they can learn from their supervisor? Probably. If you want to keep them engaged with your business, talk to them about getting a mentor, taking on a stretch assignment, or applying for a different position at your company. Help them to find a situation where they can learn. Otherwise, they’re going to start looking for a new job elsewhere.

Have you seen the corporate equivalent of the “whatever” response? What have you done to address it? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

How to talk so teams will listen

It’s obvious that I’ve been thinking about the intersection of leadership and parenting for a long time. I recently caught up with someone I worked with over 10 years ago. As I told her about my new blog and leadership coaching business, she said that she had fond memories of a book club that I used to run for the program managers at our company. One of her favorite discussions was on How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Yup. I asked a group of professionals, most of whom did not have kids, to read a parenting book. In doing so, I asked them to imagine that the title of the book was “How to Talk so TEAMS Will Listen & Listen so TEAMS Will Talk.”  And it worked! We had a great conversation about the book and how to apply it to our work environment.

Do you have a favorite parenting book that has helped shape your leadership style? Please tell me about it by commenting on this post. I look forward to hearing from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When it’s time to kill the sled dogs

StateLibQld 1 242813 Frank Hurley's photograph of the Endurance being crushed by the ice in Antarctica, 1915

One of my favorite books is “Endurance,” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story of his attempt in 1914 to cross Antartica via the South Pole. After his ship became stuck in ice, Shackleton led his crew on a two year journey to safety. Along the way, he showed incredible leadership. One example is when he made the difficult decision to kill the sled dogs, who were a drain on their precious supplies.  Shackleton, knowing that his men were fond of the animals, talked about how much the dogs consumed for a few weeks before announcing his decision. By socializing the idea that they may need to kill the dogs, he gave everyone time to come to grips with it.

As leaders, we are faced with difficult decisions all the time. I remember a particularly challenging hiring process for a manager in my department. I was looking for someone with a specific technical expertise who could also chart an inspiring, strategic direction. After reviewing many resumes, I found an ideal candidate and brought him in to be interviewed by the team. Afterwards, I led a debriefing session to gather everyone’s feedback. To my surprise, they gave a collective thumbs-down. I couldn’t believe it! He was more than qualified and an all-around nice guy, but still the team didn’t think he was the right person to hire. Over the next couple of days, I muddled over this feedback, consulted with some of my trusted members of the team, and ultimately decided to hire him. My gut told me he was the one. When I announced my decision to the team, I made sure I did three things:

  • I acknowledged that I heard their feedback,
  • I told them I was going against their recommendations and explained why, and
  • I asked them to keep an open mind as the candidate joined us.

Even though my decision was unpopular, I heard later that the team appreciated how direct I was. They were open-minded as they welcomed their new manager, and he became both successful and well-respected. I would make that tough decision again in a heart beat.

The decisions we face as parents can be just as difficult and seem to be never ending. What pediatrician will we choose for our baby? Do we spend the extra money for organic food? Do we trust this caregiver? What school option is right for our child? Should we get a dog? Does our preteen need a cell phone? Is our 16-year old responsible enough to get her driver’s license? The list is endless.

Even with years of experience as both a leader and a parent, I still find it hard to make tough decisions because:

  • I may not have all the information to make the decision. So, I have to trust my instinct.
  • I may make the wrong decision. I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the impact of my decisions. If and when I make a mistake, I own it. I take responsibility for the decision and how to handle the fallout.
  • I may be less liked. Tough decisions are rarely popular.

Given that making difficult decisions is a fact of life, I have found these best practices helpful:

  1. reflect my personal values. I do my best to be genuine and transparent, and to share my thoughts about the decision in a way that is respectful to those that will be impacted. I try to empathize with anyone who will be impacted by a decision.
  2. I often socialize a decision before it is final to gather more input and to give others time to deal with it. I explain why I need to make the decision, and how I am going to make the decision. I listen to what others have to say about it, and decide if I should reflect their input in my decision. I make note of concerns that I want to address when I explain what decision I have made.
  3. don’t procrastinate. Tough decisions rarely get easier to make over time. If there is no obvious deadline, I choose one and stick to it. I strive to give myself enough time to evaluate options and the impact on my business or family, but not to the extreme that I can’t make a timely decision.
  4. I am definitive. When I share the final decision, I don’t second guess myself. I make sure others know the decision is final. At home, where my husband and I share the decision making process, I use words like, “Dad and I have decided…”  At work, I say direct things like, “This decision is final.”

While I hope you and I never have to actually kill any sled dogs, we will continually face tough decisions at work and at home. What best practices do you follow? I’d love to hear them and learn from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Turn on Your Listening Ears

When my kids were toddlers, I often took them to playgroups at local parks or friends’ homes. At one playgroup, I remember smiling when another mom told her son Ryan to “turn on his listening ears” and he actually reached up to twist an imaginary dial near his ear. It was his signal that he had heard his mom and was ready to pay attention.

While I often asked my children to turn on their listening ears when they were younger, I think I would fall over if they repeated that phrase to me now as teenagers. Instead, they have other cues to let me know they need my attention. Sometimes it will be a straightforward, “Can I talk to you in my room” or a sweet, “Can you tuck me in tonight?” When they were younger, I knew something was wrong when they threw toys or lost their tempers.

Regardless of the signals used, it’s so important to listen with our full attention. Many years ago, I made the mistake of not taking my hands off my keyboard when my co-worker, Bob, stopped by to talk. As I chatted, I literally kept my hands over the keys, poised to continue typing as soon as he left. I wasn’t aware of the silent “I’m too busy to talk” message I was sending. Thankfully, Bob called me on it. He pointed out my body language and how it made him feel. Ever since that day, I am more mindful of how I give my attention to someone who stops by my office.

Have you ever chatted with someone who is constantly scanning the room beyond you? When this happens to me, I think, “Why are they looking for someone more interesting or important than me?” Frankly, it’s rude! While I am sure I am guilty of doing this myself, I do take active measures to help prevent it. For example, I once had an office with a large interior window, and co-workers were constantly walking by. When I held meetings in my office, I would purposefully turn my back to this window so that I wouldn’t be distracted. It was a small gesture, but important for me to give my full attention to the other person in my office.

With my children, I also strive to use body language to show that they have my full attention. In the car, where many great parent-teen conversations occur, I silence the radio. At home, I turn away from my email and face them. However, I don’t pause doing the more menial tasks that might be at hand, such as folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher. Not only is it tempting to just keep doing these tasks to get them done while we talk, I also think their routine nature is comforting to my children and encourages them to open up. It’s even better when we can do these everyday activities together.

Clearly, there are many ways to give someone your full attention, but why is it even important?

  • To gain insight. I learn so much by listening. I glean different perspectives and sometimes pick up hip, new vocabulary. I get information I need to do my job or to be a better parent.
  • To build connections. I better understand the challenges others are facing and how I might help them. I try to show empathy, which can lead to more discussions in the future. My children and my employees need to know that they are being heard, that their thoughts are valued, and that they are cared about.
  • To model good behavior. If I don’t listen to my kids, why would I expect them to listen to me? Likewise for employees.

To give someone my full attention, I keep in mind this best practice:

  1. Stop what I’m doing. Unless the everyday activity is going to make someone feel more comfortable, I stop, really stop, what I’m doing. I put down my book, take my hands off the keyboard, face the other person, etc. If I need to pay attention to someone on the phone, I get away from my computer and other distractions. Sometimes, I’ll stand up to help me focus. If I’m in the car, I turn off the radio. I try to make the other person feel that he or she is more important than anything else going on.
  2. Listen without interrupting. I do my best to not jump in with my thoughts or a solution until the other person has finished explaining things.
  3. Ask questions to show that I am interested and to clarify anything that isn’t clear. I use the same open ended questions at home and at the office. E.g., “Tell me more” or “Give me an example” or “How did that make you feel?” or “What do you think we should do?”
  4. Summarize what I’ve have heard, as simply as possible.

When you turn on your listening ears, are you doing everything you can to make your child or employee feel that they are the most important person in the room? What approaches work best for young children vs. teens? When have you found it most challenging to give your full attention to someone at work? Please share your thoughts. I am listening!


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.