#4 - The peculiar case of Personal CRM

On relationships, counting friends, being busy, & tech-mindfulness

The idea of “Personal CRM” is one of the hottest memes on Tech Twitter right now. Almost every time I open the Twitter app, someone is talking about Personal CRM.

The basic idea being that there should be a consumer tool to help you manage your personal life and relationships with the same vigour as a sales rep manages their pipeline.

Some features often discussed are things like:

  • Weekly Reminders to call your Mum

  • Keep in touch with your university friends by surfacing those you haven’t spoken to recently

  • Tag people with topics you’ve discussed or meetings you’ve had to make it easier to circle back to those in the future

  • Who lives in Paris right now” - so I can catch up with them when I visit

  • Reminder to buy flowers for a friends birthday

As you can see from the tweets above - the idea is controversial and not at all universally loved.

Some are very enthusiastic about the opportunity. In fact, the renowned Silicon Valley VC YCombinator just invested in two “Personal CRM” companies Dex & Monaru promising to deliver on some of the features listed above. Ex-Mattermark CEO and SV “profile” Danielle Morrill requested one and for a while was building one in public.

Others though, are skeptical. Just search for “Personal CRM” on Twitter and you’ll find plenty of skepticism.

Now, on the surface, these ideas seem harmless and clearly valuable - but I do feel it’s worth digging deeper.

What’s behind this desire for Personal CRM? Why do so many think we need it? What does this desire say about our modern, connected society more generally?

Not to come off as a luddite, but I do think there may be something slightly more sinister at play here.

I have two theories which I’ll dissect in this post.

  1. We think we need help managing relationships in our modern, “busy” lives

  2. We see the idea of being better at relationships as a status symbol

Theory 1: The Irony of Abundance & Busy Modern Life

It goes without saying that friendship and personal relationships are important. Study after study suggests that strong, deep, meaningful friendships have a great impact on personal happiness and satisfaction.

Browsing Twitter and various articles on the topic, one gets the sense that it’s our busy lives that get in the way of managing our relationships, and a tool would be our saviour. We just have so much going on at work and at home, we just simply forget to follow up with our friends and family.

Most of us get the sense that we're busier than ever, or at least we perceive that to be the case. However, the numbers simply suggest we aren’t. Average annual hours worked has been on a steady decline for decades in the US and most European countries.

Less hours at work should mean more leisure time, more time to invest in friendships, our loves ones and building deeper relationships. So why would we need help?

Image result for hours worked per week

One theory to explain this oddity is the “infinite world” concept, first described by Tony Crabbe, who authored the book “Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much”.

There are always more incoming emails, more meetings, more things to read, more ideas to follow up – and digital mobile technology means you can easily crank through a few more to-do list items at home, or on holiday, or at the gym. The result, inevitably, is feeling overwhelmed: we’re each finite human beings, with finite energy and abilities, attempting to get through an infinite amount. We feel a social pressure to “do it all”, at work and at home, but that’s not just really difficult; it’s a mathematical impossibility. (Link)

Perhaps our relatively new, always-on, always-more-to-do existence does overwhelm us, leaving us stressed and emotionally unavailable to invest in our real relationships?

Perhaps it’s just guilt that is driving the obsession with Personal CRM. The fact that we do let weeks slip by without speaking to our closest friends and family. Perhaps we feel that using a tool will make us feel better about it? Almost like buying a gym membership on January 3rd after a heavy New Years celebration.

The great irony is of course that we do have time, we just choose to spend it on Netflix, Crossfit and Fortnite instead - and that’s of course totally OK!

In 2017, the average U.S. citizen spent 238 minutes (3h 58min) daily watching TV. The idea that being busy is blocking us from forming and nurturing fantastic relationships is pretty bonkers.

Theory 2: Personal CRM as Aspiration

My second theory is that there is a certain aspirational notion to becoming a relationship-master. That mastering the art of being “effortlessly thoughtful” (this is Monaru’s tagline) is part of being a successful person. Kind of like Crossfit or intermittent fasting.

I can almost hear them now: “I’m managing 2x more friends and at a higher quality than your Average Joe”.

Dunbar’s number refers to a cognitive limit that restricts us all - limiting the amount of social relationships any person can maintain fully at one time. Dunbar’s number suggests that between any person can only maintain 100-150 casual relationships at one point, and a much smaller number of stronger, deeper ones.

Image result for dunbar's number

Dunbar himself noted though that the definition of these Casual Relationships were "the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar".

Note the use of “bump into”. Not “added to the CRM, tagged, categorised and opted in to an outreach campaign in order to hopefully organise a bar visit.

Perhaps Personal CRM is just about a small number of hyper-ambitious 20-somethings who want to break out from the restrictions of Dunbar? People who want to take their Core Relationships from 5 to 50?

Ambitious? Yes. Helpful and healthy in the long term? Time will tell…

The risk of course with favouring the many is in diluting the value of the few.

Final thoughts

Saying “Happy Birthday” on Facebook, faving a friend’s tweet—these are the life support machines of friendship. They keep it breathing, but mechanically. (Link)

Whether or not you’re for or against the idea of Personal CRM, the real question here is whether we really need tools to help us manage either more volume of relationships, or improve the quality of the ones we already have. And whether tools can actually help us to achieve that.

This is the product-value premise that I just cannot get onboard with.

As a Hacker News commenter noted on the topic of Personal CRM the other day:

I think these is the fundamental premise that I don't personally agree with; the value of the relationship is what keeps you engaged. It's not simple forgetfulness that causes you to lose touch - you are prioritising other activities over the relationship.

I am a forgetful person. Almost to my detriment a lot of the time. However, I find personally that I never forget to catch up with the truly meaningful people in my life - instead it’s the people on the periphery. The people I’d love to bump into at the bar, but probably won’t go out of my way to organising catching up with. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps it’s actually better. To be mindful, engaged and aware of the few relationships that matter, and to not stress about the rest.

End of the day, managing a small number of valuable, deep relationships shouldn’t be that difficult and it shouldn’t require software. If one feels that it is necessary, I believe it points to a larger problem, one that warrants a much larger, broader discussion.

Until next time,

James.