One year ago I was working on the mobile first team at AOL. This team was responsible for building innovative mobile products for AOL. We were all, mostly, in Palo Alto. We also all knew each other pretty well because most of us had worked for together in the past. In fact, years ago, a bunch of us worked on a startup called 12seconds. It was a short-form video service that pre-dated Twitter’s Vine by several years. Thinking back to a year ago, I remember we were watching a different short form-video service, Viddy, taking off with 15-second videos. Even though we worked at AOL, we still owned 12seconds - the brand, the code, etc. even though it was shut down. Turning the 12seconds site back on was a regular discussion amongst the crew. Why not, right? At the same time, Draw Something was seeing incredible growth, right before it was purchased by Zynga.
Our idea was to combine a-synchronous video (12seconds) and a turn-based game (Draw Something)?” The result was a product called “Clucks.” It’s like a mobile, video game of Taboo. This product wasn’t appropriate for AOL (no mobile games, no social video apps) and we likely wouldn’t have gotten a lot of support to prioritize it over other more crucial projects. But, we were excited about it so we decided to build it on our own and utilize some of the core 12seconds code base to accelerate the project.
Some people collect stamps in their spare time. We build apps.
So, over several weekends and late nights we worked away on this little side project. According to California law, if you steer clear of work hours, do things on your own equipment and don’t compete with your employer you can tinker with anything you want. You can see where this going - we built it, we loved it, we shared it with AOL because we liked working there and, although many at AOL thought it was a cool product - the AOL legal team was less than sure. Who owned it? We used code base from an old company? What was our motivation? It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to go into the details but let’s just say I learned a term: out of process.
Yep, I was the leader of the out of process people. The crazy people in Palo Alto. Truth be told, we were a little crazy and we were out of process - caused in large part by my immaturity in a large company and our distance from the leadership in New York and Virginia. At the time, I was very upset. I was upset with Bob Gurwin. One of the corporate legal people. Those damn legal people. Those legal people who screw up every great deal. Who stunt innovation in a large company. That make it impossible to create opportunities. Oh Bob Gurwin, he was the enemy.
Bob Gurwin was the enemy because we kind of knew him. He worked on some of our projects - a TOS for this, helping us find the right person for Trademarking. He turned into a legal turncoat, working for the man telling us that we were “out of process.” We spent a couple months on conference calls with the enemy as they tried to understand why a group of employees would build an app outside of the company? It was a painful time. I’ll admit I never experienced anything like it.
Under normal circumstances, this would create a healthy grudge built on anger and misunderstanding. Except that right in the middle of it, Bob Gurwin friended me on Instagram. I scoffed, “Gurwin friended me on Instagram. Can you believe that?” My co-workers shook their head. “I should reject that request, right?” People shrugged their shoulders. “If I accept that friend request isn’t that saying it’s all okay? That I want to be his friend?” Again, people shrugged their shoulders. I sat on it for a couple of days and then in a fit of optimism I said “fuck it” and hit the accept button.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it turned out that Bob Gurwin really loved Instagram. He’d comment on how cute my kids were, he’d compliment me, he’d make fun of me, he’d tell me stories. I got insight into his life, his partner, his love of Disney (don’t ask me why) and just his general Gurwin-ness. We soon became Facebook friends too. I dare say that we actually became friends. We never talked about the legal issues we were having on Instagram or Facebook. I was still upset but I cared about him. I still do. It made things easier - I could trust him because I knew him. I knew that he wasn’t being intentionally malicious or evil.
Bob Gurwin works in Dulles, Virginia. We had never met each other. Guess it makes sense why there was so much misunderstanding between us initially. That happens a lot. People working together remotely who had never actually met each other. Easy to judge people when you don’t really know them. I’ve sure done it. But, I did finally meet Bob Gurwin. It was right at the end of my AOL career. He was visiting Palo Alto.
I remember the feeling. This guy that looked exactly like the Bob Gurwin on Instagram came right up to me and gave me a hug. I reacted the only way I could - I hugged him back. It was an inspiring moment for me. In the end, I made mistakes, they played their legal roles too well and it pushed me to my next startup. But, I don’t think I ever would have reached that conclusion if Bob Gurwin hadn’t friended me on Instagram. The humanity of a social tool is what brought clarity.
But, what were the chances that was all going to happen? How many business relationships are soured because we don’t understand each other as PEOPLE? All the business collaboration tools are focused on “productivity” and “file sharing.” What’s more important - a powerpoint or a picture of your cute kid? Or that mountain biking trip you took last weekend? Or an open invitation to lunch? What gets to the heart of collaboration - the business objects or the social objects?
We live in a world where the hours and places we work - even the collaborators we engage are abstracts of what we recently considered normal. In order to succeed, we’ll have to embrace a new form community, a closeness bred by social tools that are truly social - not masking themselves as collaborative enterprise tools. It’s time to bring your identity to work and feel good about it. Just like Bob Gurwin.