Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

Would you choose Yale over a full-ride to a state school?

I recently tweeted this question out to my followers:

And I’ve been asking this question a lot to friends and fellow parents.

Assuming the world goes back to normal, a college education is still highly valued, and you’re in your current financial situation, how much is it worth to you for your child to have Yale (or any other top-tier school) on their resume?

Do you believe that the Yale brand is valuable enough to bypass a full-ride scholarship to a very good but not elite state university?

Twitter Responses

The responses were certainly varied. 

On one end of the spectrum, some people were completely against taking on debt. 

On the other end, some believed that the Yale brand sets up the student for long-term success.

Another respondent considered the quality of the student body:

And one person took into account the many options available in addition to just doing four years at one institution. 

Of course, the college selection process is very nuanced. There are many important factors to consider such as major, size of the student body, campus environment, and many others. 

As Karen Rands replied above, you can always attend community college or a state university then transfer to a more prestigious school later. 

There are certainly a lot of factors that aren’t accounted for in my question. But what I wanted to get feedback on was how much people valued the brand of a university. 

What is a University’s Brand Worth?

To many, the name brand of a university is extremely important because it reflects the quality of education, the student’s intelligence, and their ability to learn and succeed.

On one hand, your child having Yale on their resume is a stamp of approval that reflects extremely positively on your child. 

If a future hiring manager sees Yale on a resume, that candidate will always garner some consideration and likely will at least get a first interview. I don’t think that can be said for state schools ranked outside of the top 3 or 4. 

On the other hand, $300,000 is a hefty price to pay for that stamp.

And if your child got accepted to Yale, it’s likely that they’re smart and will be successful no matter what college they attend. 

Let’s take a look at some salary data from Payscale. Many of the Ivy League and other top-tier schools rank in the top 15 for early-career and mid-career salaries. 

Many state schools that I’ve posed in the question, such as University of Florida, Wisconsin, and others in that range, rank in the 200s. 

So it’s pretty clear that attending a top-tier school, generally, will increase your lifetime earnings by a significant amount. 

My Opinion

I would choose Yale over a full-ride to a state school for my daughter, Maya.

I believe that the Yale brand carries so much weight and will open many doors for Maya. And the experience of being around thousands of smart, ambitious students and having this network for life will absolutely help my daughter succeed.

Yes, $300,000 is a hefty price tag. But I think it would be worth it.

For the Twitter respondents who chose Yale, I asked a follow-up question:

If Maya got a full-ride scholarship to Berkeley (historically ranked #1), I’d definitely choose that over Yale.

I’d likely also go with UCLA, Michigan, and UVA.

When we get to the 5th-ranked schools (typically UNC and one of my alma maters, Georgia Tech), I’m not so sure.

I’m not knocking on state schools at all. Heck, I attended one (albeit for grad school), and it was a great experience. Many undergraduate state schools are just as good as some of the country’s elite universities at a much more reasonable price. And many exceed elite universities in certain factors, such as quality of specific majors, diversity of the student body, access to better sports events, and many more. 

I just believe that, all other things equal, graduating from an elite university brings many benefits that can open many doors and help one succeed in life. 

And that’s worth a good deal of money to me. 

The Importance of Brand, Generalized

More generalized, the question basically boils down to “How much does brand mean to you?”

The brands of the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the phone you use, and other products you own reflect you as a person. These brands provide signals about what you value and represent.

Personally, I am not all that concerned about the brands of my products. I just look for good products that work well and last. 

I wear clothes that I bought off Amazon, drive a Subaru Forester, and use an Android phone (which I do think is better than an iPhone, but that’s a debate for another day). 

But I do highly value education, especially if it helps my daughter succeed. Thus, brand in education is very important to me, and a brand like Yale is as good as you can get.

Conclusion

Not everyone agrees with me, and that’s perfectly fine. Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone values things differently. 

There are so many factors that goes into selecting a college, and it doesn’t just come down to brand. But I wanted to gauge the value that others put on a university’s brand.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this. Click this link to share this article and include your choice in the tweet. Or comment below.

Thanks for reading!

How Crypto Marketing is Different than Other Industries

Changing rules and regulations, the presence of scams, a larger number of target segments, and many other reasons make crypto marketing very different. 

Over the course of my 20-year career (yup, I’m getting old), I’ve done all kinds of marketing in many different industries. 

I have experience with content marketing, traditional and online advertising, event marketing, branding, analytics, market research, and many more. I’ve worked in software development, cloud computing, sports, consulting, government contracting, and a bunch of other industries. 

I’ve recently started marketing and growth consulting for a couple of cryptocurrency companies, Meter and Hydro Labs

And I’ve learned very quickly how different marketing for these companies is, compared to the other industries I’ve worked with. It’s like night and day. 

Here are the primary differences I’ve identified and will dig into:

  1. There’s more of a focus on community
  2. The rules are always changing
  3. Scams are abound
  4. There are many more target segments to engage with
  5. Current users have a strong focus on privacy, pseudo-anonymity, and security
  6. We have no direct control over token price
  7. Understanding the tech is more important 

Let’s go!

1) There’s more of a focus on community

Because we’re so early, there aren’t clear business and revenue models in crypto, nor are there definitive, proven ways to market these products. 

That’s why building a strong, engaged community is so important in crypto. 

Community is absolutely important in other industries to build brand loyalty. Brands like Harley Davidson, LEGO, and Sephora have garnered passion and loyalty by cultivating strong communities. 

But they are even more critical in crypto. 

While Bitcoin and Ethereum are very innovative technical products, their passionate communities are what separate them from the rest of the cryptocurrencies. 

A cryptocurrency’s value can be driven solely by the strength of its community and memes that come out of it. Founder of Scalar Capital Linda Xie wrote a great article on how memes can help build passionate followings and highlighted the Dogecoin case study. 

Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency that started out as a joke and has absolutely no real-world use. But it has a market cap of over $200 million primarily because of a fucking Shiba Inu. 

Dogecoin meme
Dogecoin is a great meme. Image courtesy of CoinNewsSpan

Building and consistently engaging communities on Twitter, Discord, Telegram, and other social networks allow you to converse with your members, communicate the benefits of your platform,  and garner feedback consistently.

Community reigns in crypto!

2) The rules are always changing

It’s early days in cryptoland. No one really knows what the rules are, which makes marketing really difficult. 

Let’s start with the laws that are set by the SEC and CFTC. While some countries like South Korea and India have clarified their crypto regulations, the US’ laws have massive gray areas that make crypto companies unsure about how to operate. 

Are cryptocurrencies commodities or securities? What makes them one or the other? Can they start as one then evolve to become the other? 

Too many questions and not enough answers. 

The lack of clarity on the legal front leads to opacity on many marketing platforms. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google have all banned crypto ads at some point, and many other smaller ad platforms follow suit. 

The rules about posting crypto-related content keeps changing as well. One day you can post as many videos about cryptocurrency on YouTube, the next day you’re banned

Again, that’s why building a strong community is so important. No one can take your community away from you. 

While many of us marketers pride ourselves on being agile and flexible, the constantly changing rules and regulations make doing our jobs really tough. 

3) Scams are abound

One of the reasons the rules and regulations are always changing is because of the myriad of scams that occur in the crypto space. 

ICOs introduced an innovative, democratized way for companies to raise funds outside of traditional venture capital and banking channels. And thousands of crypto companies took advantage of this during the ICO boom of 2017. 

While many of these projects are still alive and kicking, the vast majority of them were scams that made their founders rich and fleeced their investors. 

Everyone knows about Bitconnect, the massive exit scam that promised earnings of 1% daily and up to 40% each month. 

Hey hey heeeeeyyyyy! Bitconnnneeeeccccctt!

More recently, the PlusToken scam attracted investment of more than 200,000 bitcoin, 1% of outstanding supply.

The presence of scams like these makes marketers’ jobs tough in a number of ways. 

First, if you’re marketing a crypto protocol, you may face skepticism that your platform might be a scam. 

The abundance of scam ICOs have given people token PTSD. Thus investors, potential users, and the broader industry may harshly criticize your pre-sale tactics, token economics, and many other aspects of your platform and deem your project a scam, when it’s really not. 

Next, many service providers may not allow you to use their products, or make it more difficult to do so, simply because you work in the crypto industry. 

I mentioned earlier that ad platforms like Facebook and Google have changed their crypto marketing rules many times.

Currently, I am going through an onboarding process where an email service provider is asking questions about one of the companies I consult with. They want to make sure we’re not using their email platform to run a scam, and they want to maintain their high email deliverability rate. While I can’t blame the company for doing this, it’s annoying. 

Finally, partnerships are important for growth in crypto. And because it can be difficult to identify a crypto scam, we have to be super careful in doing due diligence of companies we partner with. 

In traditional industries, it’s much easier to identify bad actors. If a traditional financial institution is registered in Malta or the Cayman Islands, that raises a red flag. In crypto, that’s the norm!

The Cayman Islands has very crypto-friendly regulations as opposed to larger, more established economies. And the majority of crypto trading volume takes place on Malta-based exchanges.

It’s definitely tougher to identify scams in crypto, which makes in-depth research and due diligence for partnerships much more important. 

4) There are many more target segments to engage with

If you’re marketing a product in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, financial services, or other more traditional industries, you typically have a clear end user you’re targeting. 

For example, if I’m marketing wealth management services for Morgan Stanley, I’m likely targeting upper-middle to upper class people with stable incomes and a solid net worth. In general, most of these customers will have similar life goals and respond comparably to my marketing message. 

If you’re marketing a crypto/blockchain protocol, you have many different types of end users you need to reach. 

You may need to recruit developers to build on top of your protocol. 

You may need to engage miners or validators (depending on whether your protocol uses Proof of Work, Proof of Stake, or other consensus mechanisms) to help secure your network. 

You’ll have to interact with investors, whether they are venture capitalists looking to fund your project in exchange for equity, or retail investors who want to trade your coins for profit. 

You’ll need to work with exchanges to get listed so retail investors can buy, sell, and trade your coin. 

You may need to build mobile or desktop apps for your cryptocurrency, so you’ll have to work with end users to ensure that you build a great product experience. 

If you’re building the next iteration of money, you may have to work with merchants and retailers to get your cryptocurrency adopted for payments. 

Even within these segments, you have to understand where on the educational spectrum they lie. Are they crypto newbies or experts? Are they learning how to build on blockchain for the first time, or have they been creating advanced smart contracts for a while?

There are so many more audiences you need to engage and many different levels of knowledge, which makes crypto marketing very different and more difficult. 

5) Current users have a strong focus on privacy, pseudo-anonymity, and security

Bitcoin was built in large part in response to the economic bailouts received by big banks after 2008’s economic crisis. The OG of cryptocurrencies aimed to circumvent the centralized control and poor monetary policies set forth by governments. 

Bitcoin’s genesis block alludes to the 2008 financial crisis. Source: Bitcoin.com


As such, censorship resistance, privacy, pseudo-anonymity, and security are core tenets of the cryptocurrency industry and are paramount for much of the current user base.

These are certainly admirable principles but they don’t make a marketer’s job any easier. 

The data we collect on user behaviors helps us understand how our products are being used and how we can improve them. Tools like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and Amplitude, allow us to gather data on product usage and unearth user insights. 

In crypto, it’s much more difficult to track and analyze user behavior due to the focus on anonymity and security. 

I recently spoke with a founder who is building a decentralized marketplace about how he measures activity on his platform. He said that it’s tough to call the merchants who run stores on his platform “users” because he knows very little about them and who they are. Rather, he has to resort to the more literal, technical term “nodes” (each merchant runs a node), and he has very limited data about these nodes. 

It’s very difficult to perform feedback surveys and user interviews because many times you have no idea who your users are! That’s why building a strong community is so important. 

There is an opportunity for crypto marketers here though. If you are willing to put in the effort to discover who your customers are, interact with them one-on-one, and really get to know them, you’ll be ahead of the game. 

6) We have no direct control over token price

Pump it! To the moon! 

Token price is such a big part of the success of a crypto protocol. When the price of the token goes up, community engagement and sentiment increase, and more investment money flows in, causing a virtuous cycle. 

And we, as marketers, have such little control over that. 

Yes, if we build great protocols and products, market them well, and gain lots of users and revenue, theoretically the price and market cap of our token should go up. 

But at this early stage of the industry, there’s no way to really guarantee that. 

In traditional markets, the correlation between company performance and an increase in stock price is much higher for publicly-traded companies. Investors have tried-and-true ways of valuing companies, such as Discounted Cash Flow, asset valuation, and comparable company analysis models, so they have a pretty clear understanding of how to correlate certain factors to company success and a rising stock price.

Even non-crypto startups are easier to value because there is much more historical data to analyze. Chamath Palihapitiya’s VC firm Social Capital is famous for using a data-driven approach to assess potential investments by comparing the growth rate of those startups to that of its portfolio companies. And tools like Crunchbase and CB Insights allow investors to access tons of data to analyze and value startups.

Data tools that help investors analyze the quality of a crypto project are getting much better. Companies like Messari, Nomics, Kaiko, and many others aim to provide reliable, enterprise-grade market data. But we’re still early. 

And as crypto marketers, all we can do is put our head down, ignore the noise, and not try to look at the price too often (unless it’s going to the moon, of course). 

7) Understanding the tech is more important

If you’re marketing a customer relationship management platform, you don’t really need to communicate that the software is built with ReactJS on the front end, Python on the backend, and is powered by AWS EC2, RDS, and S3 cloud technologies. 

If you’re marketing a blockchain protocol, you will need to know what consensus mechanism your protocol uses, how the network’s security is maintained, and many other technical aspects. 

Even if you’re building products that aren’t protocols, such as a crypto wallet, a decentralized finance application, or a blockchain video game, the emphasis on security forces you to be knowledgeable about how your application will protect users’ funds and identities.

And all of this technical knowledge is no joke.

Conclusion

Marketing in cryptoland is very different from marketing in more traditional industries. 

Changing regulations, the presence of scams, a larger number of target segments, and many other reasons make crypto marketing a different beast. 

I believe that marketing crypto is much more challenging. But it also provides us with an opportunity to be innovative and lay the groundwork for best practices. 

And it’s super fun!

What are your thoughts on the differences between crypto and traditional marketing? Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear from you!

I hope you found this interesting! If so, please share this article with the share buttons on the left. 

Then sign up for my email list below and connect with me on Twitter for future updates.

Big thanks to fellow crypto marketers Jordan SpenceAlex Masmej, and Emily Coleman for contributing to this article. 

A look back at the 2010s, and forward to 2020

The 2010s was probably the most impactful decade of my life, both on a personal and professional level.

The decade was filled with ups (mostly personal) and downs (mostly professional). A lot of change happened, and I learned a ton, both in terms of new skills and knowledge, and about myself.

Recap of the 2010s

Here are some of the things that happened last decade. 

On the personal side, all great:

  • I married my best friend in the world (3 times in fact – in DC, Mexico, and Queens!)
  • I had an amazing, wonderful daughter
  • I bought a beautiful house
  • I traveled to Greece, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, Colombia, and many other great locations around the world

On the professional side, so-so:

  • I left my dream job in the sports industry to become a tech startup founder (and maybe F’d up career in the process)
  • I launched 3 startups that failed
  • I discovered crypto/blockchain and am working on transitioning to this industry for my career
  • I learned so much about technology, marketing, product, and what it takes to create a company

There’s not much more to say about the things that happened in my personal life. That side of life is amazing and I can’t be more grateful.

Regarding my career, I have no regrets, but hindsight is 2020 (pun intended!) and there are some things I would do differently. More on this in a future post!

Looking ahead to 2020

2020 is going to be another year full of change.

On the personal side, my resolutions are to:

  • Hit 160 pounds at some point (equates to losing 8 pounds from today)
  • Work on my poker game (I have a couple leaks I need to plug)
  • Be the best dad and husband I can be

On the professional side:

  • I aim to work in crypto full-time, whether it’s a full-time gig with one company or multiple consulting projects. I should have some positive announcements soon about this!
  • Get better at coding. I’ve been “learning to code” for over 6 years now. I just need to focus on come up with a plan to get much better at it and build some apps from scratch. 

Conclusion

The 2010s was a bit of a roller coaster ride, but overall it was an amazing decade. I can’t wait to see what the 2020s bring!

How was last decade to you? I’d love to hear what happened!  

3 Reasons Why Bitcoin is Important and Valuable

Books have been written about why Bitcoin is valuable, and I can certainly write many blog posts about this topic. 

But I’d like to boil this down to a few primary reasons why Bitcoin is important to me, and why it may be important to you as well.

If you haven’t read my blog post that provides an overview of how blockchain technology works, here’s the link. It gives a pseudo-technical overview of how blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, functions. 

Anyway, let’s move on to why Bitcoin is important. 

Censorship Resistance

Most of the benefits of Bitcoin is derived from the fact that there is no central party – whether it be a bank or government – that controls how it works. Rather, the network is maintained by a network of nodes that help verify transactions and manage the distributed ledger. Because Bitcoin is an open, permissionless network, you or I can run nodes to help maintain the network. 

Because of this decentralization, no one can censor how we use our Bitcoin. 

Take a look at the debacle that is happening in Argentina right now. The country is limiting US dollar purchases by its citizens to just $200 per month in order to maintain their international reserves. Basically, no one wants to hold on to their Argentinian pesos, but the government is forcing them to do so.

Uncoincidentally, Bitcoin is huge in Argentina, and the government is trying to control citizens’ purchasing of Bitcoin as well.

We don’t truly feel this kind of pain in America. But can you imagine if the US government told us how we can and can’t spend our money? You’d be pissed, I’m sure. Bitcoin solves this.

21 Million Supply Cap 

The US Federal Reserve has massive printing presses, and they’ve recently printed over $200 billion dollars to inject into the economy. 

Do you know what happens to the value of the dollar when the Fed does this? It goes down. This is simple supply and demand – the more of something you have, the less valuable it is. 

Here’s an interesting article of how the worth of the US Dollar has decreased. In 1913, the supply of dollars was only $13 billion, and $100 was worth $100. Now, with the money supply at $13,000 billion (a trillion, with a “t”!), $100 is worth only $3.87! 

And who is to stop the Fed from continuing to print more money and devaluing our currency?

Bitcoin’s monetary policy states that only 21 million bitcoins will be created, EVER. And this policy is written in code and cannot be changed unless the community agrees to do so (which is highly unlikely). Because the supply is set, the demand for Bitcoin is likely to go up, which will increase its value in the long run.

This makes Bitcoin a great store of value, similar to gold or Amazon stock. 

Sovereignty

Because Bitcoin is decentralized, you can have full control over the Bitcoins that you own. 

You don’t need banks to hold your money. And it’s not like banks actually hold your money for you. If you have $1000 in your bank account, that money isn’t actually there; your bank is using your money to make money for themselves, and that “$1000” printed on your statement is basically an IOU. 

When you own Bitcoin, you have the ability to store it yourself using non-custodial hardware wallets like Trezor or Ledger. This means you are in full control of your Bitcoin (or any other cryptocurrency that you own). Sure, you’ll have to trust yourself to not lose this hardware wallet, because if you do, your Bitcoin is gone. But you control your money, not some bank. And that’s powerful.

Conclusion

There are many other reasons why Bitcoin is important. There are drawbacks to Bitcoin as well.

Regardless of what you think of it, Bitcoin might be one of the most important social, economic, and technological developments we’ll ever see in our lifetimes, and I recommend at least learning more about it!

If you’re interested, here are some great resources to get you started:

  1. The Bullish Case for Bitcoin
  2. Bitcoin is Not Backed by Nothing
  3. The Bitcoin Whitepaper (PDF download)

I hope you found this interesting! If so, please share this article with the share buttons on the left. 

Then sign up for my email list below and connect with me on Twitter for future updates. 

Introduction to Blockchain and Cryptocurrency

Wow, I haven’t blogged here in over 6 months. Sorry about that! I missed you all.

Well, I’m back!

Anyway, some of you know that I’ve been a fan of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Although they may be overhyped, I’m going to hype it some more. 🙂

I think blockchain is one of the most important technologies since the internet was invented (seriously) and has the potential to change so many industries and people’s lives. 

On a personal level, blockchain and crypto has the potential to provide us with more financial freedom and control over our money. We have been too dependent on and trusting of government and banks regarding our personal financial matters. With blockchain and crypto, we can be our own banks. 

If you work in industries such as supply chain, finance, politics, and many others, blockchain can provide more transparency and speed than what’s available today. 

Blockchain and crypto is the future. It’s still extremely early, and the more you learn now, the more prepared you will be to take advantage of this future.

If you want to read an in-depth primer of how blockchain technology works, the benefits it brings, and how it can be applied, read this blog post I wrote for Coinifide (a blockchain education project I’m working with). 

I’m still learning everyday (there’s so much to learn!), and I’m excited to share my knowledge with you on this blog. Stay tuned for future posts on this transformative technology, the amazing things you can do with it, and how you can benefit.

Talk soon!  

Process > Results

I recently listened to the book titled Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by poker champion Annie Duke

Being a poker player, I was naturally compelled to read this book. And being an entrepreneur, I totally understand the difficulty of making decisions with little information. And Thinking in Bets crystallized this concept really well. 

The premise of the story is that in poker (and life) you have to make decisions with imperfect or very little information, and due to luck, the right decision may result in a negative outcome. 

For instance, before the flop comes, pocket Aces is the best hand in poker. So it’s always the right decision to raise pre-flop. But against another pocket pair, there is an 18% chance you will lose. So if your Aces get beat by another pocket pair, were you wrong for playing your Aces the way you did? 

On the flip side, you can make a terrible decision and play your hand like crap, and still win.

Here’s another example. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Seattle Seahawks had a 2nd down at the New England Patriots’ 1-yard line with 26 seconds left on the clock and a chance to win the game. They had one of the best goal-line running backs in Marshawn Lynch. But head coach Pete Carroll decided to call a pass play, and Seattle QB Russell Wilson threw an interception to end the game 

Many have called this the worst decision in football history. 

But what if Russell Wilson threw a touchdown? What would people have thought about Carroll’s decision? They would have likely said that it was “gutsy”, “brave”, and “fearless”.

In reality, the decision actually made sense, primarily due to clock management and the defensive formation the Patriots ran. I won’t get into it here, but you can check out this Slate article and this SBNation article for more info. 

We all make decisions with imperfect information.

Maybe it’s a decision to hire someone for your team at work, and that person doesn’t perform as expected. 

Maybe you decide to buy a new house in a great neighborhood, but a black swan event happens and the house’s value goes under water. 

In both cases, you could have done all of your research correctly, checked off all of the boxes, dotted your T’s and crossed your I’s. But sometimes things happen that you have no control over. 

If this happens, do you doubt your decision-making abilities? Do you not trust your process anymore? 

Certainly, you should try to find the holes in your thought process. Did you not see something you should have seen? Did you not do enough research? 

But if you’re confident you did all you can do, you shouldn’t doubt yourself just because the outcome wasn’t positive. 

If the outcome turned out the way you expected, I’d bet that you would think you’re a genius, right? Right. 

So the point of this all is to separate the outcome from the process. Whether you were right or wrong, you can’t let the result of your decision cast doubt on the work you did to get there. 

I think this is a really important mindset to have. Process over results!

Have you been in any situations where you thought you made a correct decision that turned out negatively? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Where do you go to do your best work?

I was chatting with a fellow startup buddy who primarily works out of coffee shops around DC. I asked him the question, “What’s your algorithm for selecting which coffee shop you’re going to work at each day?”

He said that it depends on the type of work that he needs to get done that day. If he needs to write, he’ll go to Coffee Shop #1. If he needs to get in a design frame of mind, he prefers Coffee Shop #2. For most other tasks, he’ll go to Coffee Shop #3.

I thought this was so interesting.

I work in an office two days a week and split the rest of my work week between home, a co-working space, and (less frequently) coffee shops.

These are vastly different environments with varying levels of noise, distractions, and comfort. So if I need to take calls on specific days, I’ll avoid coffee shops because they are too noisy. Or if I’m a bit tired, I’ll avoid working from home (that couch is soooo tempting) and will go to a co-working space or coffee shop so I can be surrounded by more energy.

But I never thought about which environment would be better for specific types of work, especially not to the granularity of different coffee shops (which are all pretty similar) for different skills.

There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of work environments, much of it surrounding the controversy of whether open offices are good or bad for productivity. For example, see these articles from The Washington Post, The Ladders, and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH is the founder of Basecamp and Ruby on Rails and has very strong opinions on the workplace).

Open offices promote collaboration, teamwork, and ideation. Open offices are noisy, lower morale, and increase interruptions.

The fact of the matter is that everyone works differently, and this can change with the day of the week. Or the type of work that needs to be done.

Many corporations force their employees to work from the office full-time. But I think that many companies are finally seeing the benefits of a more flexible work schedule for their employees.

Entrepreneurs often have the flexibility to experiment and find their ideal workspace for the type of work that they need to do or the mood that they’re in.

So my question is, do you know where you do your best, most productive work? Does the location vary by the type of work that you do, the mood that you’re in, or other factors? I’d love to hear more about your story in the comments, or tweet at me at @mikewchan.

Thanks for reading!

Is the startup you’re building big or cool enough?

I think about this a lot.

Is WinOptix is a big enough idea? Is my target market big enough? Is the concept interesting or impactful enough?

A lot of this “big enough” doubt comes from reading a lot of tech and startup news.

“Startup X raises $50 million dollars and now is worth $2 billion.”

“Startup Y has $100 million in revenue with no marketing.”

“Startup Z goes public, the stock pops, and the company is now worth $5 billion.”

I need to stop reading all of crap.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t know if WinOptix is big enough yet.

Yeah, the government contracting market is really big, like trillions of dollars big. But at the moment, I’m only targeting IT service providers, which is much smaller.

Can the product be eventually sold to other types of government contractors, or additional markets outside of govcon, so that the market gets much larger? Maybe. But I don’t know. I’m not there yet.

Here’s a post from Rob Go of NextView Ventures that talks about the “market size fallacy” for seed stage startups. That post makes me feel better every time I read it. It basically says, “you don’t know until you find out.”

And the product is in such an early phase that I don’t know if it will be cool or impactful enough.

There’s been a good amount of interest from prospective customers and partners. Industry experts believe in the concept and like what they see in the product. But I won’t really know how impactful the product will be until I get more paying customers.

There’s a lot of things I don’t know. But that’s OK.

So if you’re not sure how big your market is or how impactful your product is, that’s OK too.

Maybe your company isn’t venture scale. Maybe it is. So what?

Maybe your product is in a boring industry. Or maybe it’s in a hot sector like AI or blockchain. So what?

It’s tough to stop having FOMO, but it’s necessary. It’s hard not to think about chasing the shiny object. I think about cooler technologies and products all the time. But it just takes my focus away from what’s important.

So is the startup you’re building big or cool enough? Don’t worry about it, it probably doesn’t matter.

Is it good to be your own customer?

Being your own customer comes with pros and cons.

Many startup founders and investors say that it’s a good thing to “scratch your own itch” or “be your own customer”.

By this they mean that if you identify problems that you face yourself, you’ll have a true understanding on how to solve that problem, and thus can build a great solution for it.

A quintessential example of this is Asana, a project management software tool created by Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein. While working together at Facebook, they got frustrated with disorganized projects and lack of communication among team members. So they scratched their own itch by building an internal task management tool that they eventually spun out of Facebook into a separate company. The company is now worth close to a billion dollars.

Sure, it worked out swimmingly for Asana. But there are pros and cons to being your own customer.

Pros of being your own customer

There’s proof that a problem and pain point exists

Many startups build solutions and technology in search of a problem, and these are rarely successful. This issue is causing you some kind of pain – lost time, wasted money, or something else – so there’s proof that there’s a real problem there.

You have a deep understanding of the problem

Because you face this problem, you have keen insight into how to solve it. You’ll understand how to approach the solution and what issues to look out for.

Passion for the problem

Naturally (hopefully?), you’re going to be passionate about solving a problem that you face. The solution can have a material impact on alleviating the pain you face often, so it’s likely you’ll work harder to solve it.

Cons of being your own customer

All that sounds well and good. But there are issues that come with scratching your own itch.

You may have this problem, but not enough others do

There’s a certain hierarchy in startups that goes like this: feature < product < business.

You can build a small solution that solves your problem. But maybe it’s just a feature and not robust enough to be a full product.

You can build a full product that some people might use and pay for.

But in order to be a solvent business, you need many users and paying customers.

If you’re your own customer, this problem might be a scourge to you but may not be a big deal to enough other people to become a real business.

You may think you know everything

Because you face the problem, you may think you know everything there is to know about solving it. That is soooo soooo wrong.

This might cause you to build everything you want to build and ignore the input of your users. Or even worse, you might not ask your users for any feedback at all.

What you may end up with is a solution that is perfect for you, and no one else.

Passion might make you blind

It’s great to have passion for what you do. You’ll enjoy your work more, and it can help make you more gritty.

But having too much passion can also blind you.

If you’re so passionate about solving your problem, you might develop tunnel vision and not see when things aren’t working. You might not be able to identify that not enough people have your problem or that you’re solving it in the wrong way. And you may not be able to course-correct before things go down the shitter.

My situation with WinOptix

With WinOptix, I have a sort of hybrid scenario of being my own customer, and not.

I came up with the idea for WinOptix by trying to scratch my own itch.

While working at software development firm Thorn Technologies, we would use Maryland’s database of state and local government projects to look for potential work to bid on. But writing these proposals took a lot of time and effort, and many times we would write them not knowing anything about the customer and having no idea of our chances of winning the bid.

So I came up with the idea of a system that would be able to better predict the probability of winning these types of government contracts so businesses like ours wouldn’t waste time and resources going after projects we had a low probability of winning.

I didn’t have too much experience in government contracting, so I started doing customer development with people in the federal contracting space (a much bigger market than state and local). Their input completely changed the approach I would take to solving the problem and has been a massive influence on the product to this day.

While the initial idea spawned from scratching my own itch, I didn’t know enough about the subject matter to be confident enough to build a solution on my own. So I depend on the input of subject matter experts to inform the product development process.

I think it’s been a pretty good balance so far.

Conclusion

There are many pros to being your own customer, but it can come with some drawbacks as well.

Scratching your own itch is beneficial only if you can properly identify when it becomes a burden, and adapt accordingly.

Are you building something that scratches your own itch? What are the pros and cons that you’ve faced? I’d love to hear from you!

Grit, not talent, is the key to success

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. This is a great read for anyone who wants to improve at anything.

The theme of the book is that talent, while important, isn’t the key to success. Rather, hard work, perseverance, and stick-to-itiveness correlates much more highly to achieving goals and success in life.

I think this is so important.

Most of us aren’t blessed with natural, god-given talent in a particular skill, but you can still work hard and improve yourself everyday.

And grit is something that can be learned; it’s not just a characteristic that we’re born with.

grit-word

Case studies of grit

In the book, Duckworth highlights some powerful case studies of grit.

The book talks about how MVP and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Steve Young had a rough time when playing football at BYU. As a freshman, he was the 8th string (8th!) QB on the team and was essentially used as a tackle dummy for the defense. He wanted to quit, but his father told him that he couldn’t come home if he did. So Steve kept practicing his throws and improving his play everyday until he became the QB1. And he wound up setting all-time BYU records.

Then he gets drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and has to be the backup to Joe Montana for a few years. He could have asked for a trade, but instead continued to learn from one of the best in the business. He eventually became the starter for the 49ers and the rest is history.

Another powerful case study was of Francesca Martinez, a British woman with cerebral palsy who became a famous stand-up comedian.

Let that sink in a bit. A comedian with cerebral palsy. A comedian with cerebral palsy!

Dealing with cerebral palsy is extremely difficult. Cracking jokes in front of a drunk and raucous crowd is not an easy task. Imagine having to do both at the same time?

Martinez refused to accept her fate. She took speech lessons for years as a child (with her parents’ unwavering support) and has to perform speech exercises before each performance. She embraces her disability by calling herself “wobbly.” And she has sold out hundreds of shows and won many comedy awards. That’s pretty amazing.

The importance of grit for entrepreneurs and parents

Everyone can take away lessons from this book, but it’s a really important read if you’re an entrepreneur, parent, or both, like me. 

I used to think I was a pretty talented marketer and business person, and I certainly worked hard at every job that I’ve had. But I’ve been completely humbled as a startup founder.

There is so much I don’t know, and everyday I face situations where I have no idea what to do. I already have a couple of failed ventures under my belt and it would be really easy for me to just give up and find a corporate job. And I do think about quitting often. But I believe that if I keep pushing and learning, I’ll build a successful company in due time.

As a parent, I really want to teach my daughter Maya how to be gritty, just like how Steve Young’s and Francesca Martinez’s parents did.

She’s only 3 so it’s a bit early to ask too much of her. But there are times where she just says “I can’t” after failing to complete a task such as opening a container or climbing up on her chair.

So each time she says “I can’t”, my wife and I tell her not to ever say that, and assure her that she can do anything if she puts her mind to it. She has even started telling us not to say “I can’t” when we say it. It’s pretty funny.

Duckworth lays out a great system that she uses with her family to learn how to be more gritty.

First, everyone, including the parents, has to do a hard activity. This can be learning to play an instrument, picking up a new language, improving in a sport, yoga, or anything that requires everyday, deliberate practice.

Next, you can quit your activity, but not until the season is up, your membership runs out, or you come across another natural stopping point.

You also get to pick your hard activity. After all, if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to stick with it.

And she mentions that when her kids get to high school, they have to commit to the hard activity for at least 2 years.

I can’t wait to implement this when Maya gets a little older.

Conclusion

Even if you don’t have natural talent, you can work hard and learn skills to be successful. I can’t explain enough how powerful that is.

It takes deliberate practice and a gritty mindset to do so. But I believe that it also takes a strong support system and helpful people along the way.

If you’re looking to improve at anything, I highly recommend this book.

Let me know your thoughts about grit and how it has impacted your life. When have you been gritty? How can you improve your stick-to-itiveness? I’d love to hear your thoughts!