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 /

Going extreme with questions

Picture of the book, Occasionally, I come across parenting advice in a leadership book. When this happens, I smile and do a little cheer under my breath. It’s validating to see someone else writing about the intersection of parenting and leadership. 

One such example is in the book “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman, with Greg McKeown. From the book jacket,

“We’ve all had experience with two dramatically different types of leaders. The first type drains intelligence, energy, and capability from the people around them and always needs to be the smartest person in the room. These are the idea killers, the energy sappers, the diminishers of talent and commitment. On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go off over people’s heads; ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire employees to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. These are the Multipliers. And the world needs more of them, especially now when leaders are expected to do more with less.”

The book is full of stories of both kinds of leaders, and provides practical ideas for how to become a stronger “multiplier.” I enjoyed reading about how to develop a key trait of Multipliers – being a “challenger” vs a “know-it-all.” Most leaders spend their days answering a barrage of questions, and it’s tempting to stay in answer mode and be the boss. But, Multipliers know to stop answering questions and begin asking them.

Easier said than done? It was for the author, Liz Wiseman, who shared a story about how she had become horribly bossy with her young children, barking orders when it was time for bed: put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, pick up your toys, and so on. When she told a colleague how frustrated she was by it, he challenged her to ask only questions that night at home. No orders, just questions. She agreed to give it a try, and that evening she asked things like, “What time is it?” Her kids answered, “bedtime”. “What do we do at bedtime? They responded with, “We get on our pajamas and we brush our teeth.” Liz stood in shock as her kids then scampered to get ready for bed.

Are you up for the Extreme Question Challenge? Start by asking 100% questions, at home or in a meeting at work. The next day, adjust your approach to find a comfortable balance of asking and answering questions. You may be surprised by what your family or your employees already know. You may find you’re transformed as a parent or a leader, just as Liz Wiseman was.

Do you know of other leadership books that also provide parenting advice? Please share them in the comments. I’d like to read them!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

I haven’t learned that yet

When my son was about six years old, a family friend who was visiting us sat down to do math puzzles with him. At one point, our friend asked my son to multiply two numbers, and my son answered, “I haven’t learned that yet.” It was the perfect response! He owned the fact that he didn’t know something, yet he didn’t make any excuses. I was impressed.

I heard this phrase again this past weekend at the She++ Conference at Stanford University. The goal of She++ is to inspire women to embrace computer science. Given my daughter’s interest in studying CS, she and I decided to attend the event.

As part of the conference, a panel of Stanford Computer Science (CS) undergraduates, all of whom were women, shared their experiences. A recurring theme was that, while CS is a challenging degree program, it can lead to empowering, potentially world-changing, career opportunities. Many of the panelists shared stories of struggling with assignments and not getting great grades on an exam or two. Most of them had not done any programming until they entered Stanford, and understandably they felt intimidated by other students who had been programming since they were 9 or 10 years old. One of the panelists emphasized that it’s okay to say to yourself or others, “I haven’t learned that yet.” You can and will learn it! I couldn’t agree more.

As parents and as leaders, we can encourage others to be comfortable with the phrase “I haven’t learned that yet.” When we see someone looking perplexed, or struggling to get something done, we can ask, “Have you learned how to do that?” It’s our job to make it safe to ask for help and embrace learning new things, whether it’s simple multiplication or advanced computer algorithms.

I’d love to hear from readers about how they make it safe to ask for help or how they support others who might feel vulnerable because they don’t know something.  Please reply with a comment. I look forward to reading about your experience.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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.

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.