Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

The Two Sides of Ambition

Trudy Campbell Mad Men quote

Image courtesy of Hark.com

The above quote is one of my favorite, because it is so true.

Ambition is one of the most powerful motivators. The determination to succeed and win can drive you to great heights.

Some of the most successful people in the world did not crush it right out of the gate.

Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting while he was alive, author J.K. Rowling was a broke single mother before her Harry Potter books hit it big, and the Beatles had to play thousands of shows at tiny clubs before getting noticed.

It was ambition and determination that helped these people work through the hard times and eventually achieve success.

On the other hand, there are plenty of ambitious people in this world who don’t see this level of success. What happens then?

Maybe your work isn’t being appreciated. In Mad Men, Peter Campbell is frustrated with not getting the recognition he deserves for winning clients for his firm. Hence, Trudy’s quote.

In this case, having ambition when you’re being held back can lead to dissatisfaction and frustration.

Maybe you have ambitions of being an entrepreneur but you’re burdened by financial responsibilities, such as student loans, a mortgage, and a family to feed. On top of that, if you hate your job, your ambition may lead to anger and resentment.

As you can see, ambition can cut both ways.

I think I’m a very ambitious person and have high expectations of myself. So at times when things aren’t going well with my career, I can get frustrated and envious of those around me who have achieved a high level of success.

How you react to your situation and harness your ambition will determine whether it’s a good or bad thing.

You have a few options here.

One option is that you can complain how you’re being held back and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can stay frustrated and let it continue to eat away at you. This will likely lead to strained relationships, poor performance, and an overall miserable existence.

The next option is just accepting your situation. You can weigh the pros and cons of the scenario – maybe your salary and job security is worth the lack of recognition or inability to become an entrepreneur – and just roll with it. While this isn’t ideal and you may have to temper your ambitions, you’ll likely live a relatively comfortable, satisfying life with good relationships.

Or, you can do something about it.

Speak up and ask for what you believe you deserve. Find another job. Strike out on your own, where you fully control your destiny. Or simply keep working and hustling hard.

Ambition can be an amazing trait to have, but it can also become a burden if you don’t harness it the right way. So make sure you do.

When quantity is better than quality

When Quantity is better than Quality - LI post

I believe that in many situations, quantity is more beneficial than quality.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article titled “Quality vs. Quantity – which should you focus on?“, where I questioned whether quantity or quality is more important in marketing and startups.

This argument clearly struck a chord, as that post received over 2,100 views, 419 Likes, and 103 comments on LinkedIn (the most ever for me, by far!).

I’ve been continuously thinking about that argument ever since I penned that article.

And while it may be controversial, I believe that quantity trumps quality in many situations. Hear me out.

Examples where quantity trumps quality

Let’s talk about content marketing. As long as you produce some minimum level of quality content, I believe that the more pieces of content you produce, the better off you’ll be compared to producing fewer, “great” pieces of content.

The longer you stick with creating content, the more pieces of content you’ll create, and the more you’ll be on the top of your audience’s mind. If you only create a few pieces of long, great content, they may be successful for a little while, but you won’t engage your audience frequently enough to have a lasting impact.

For example, Gary Vaynerchuk is EVERYWHERE. He posts at least 6 or 7 pieces of content per day. His content is good, but I wouldn’t say that it’s of the  highest quality and production value, because that’s not what he’s going for. He documents – he doesn’t “create” – so he can crank out as many pieces of content as possible. And now he’s internet famous.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson is similar. He writes everyday on his blog, and he does not always write good articles. He writes some solid, insightful pieces about startups, technology, and venture capital, but other times he writes about his vacations or just posts a link to a video. But he has written everyday for the past 14 years and thus has amassed a very large audience.

More customers is better than fewer customers who love your product.

Take EverPix, for example. EverPix was a beloved photo storage app which many called one of the best of its kind. Yet the company was only able to acquire 6,800 paying customers and died.

Wouldn’t you like to have more customers, some of which might be a pain in the ass, instead of fewer, perfect customers? Your revenue will be greater, your company will be larger, and you’ll make more money.

In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists fund entrepreneurs who are attacking large markets. And apps that have many users but little revenue and profit get funded (e.g. Snapchat in its early days) because VCs believe that if you build a large audience, you can eventually monetize that audience. I’m not saying this philosophy is correct nor is building a venture-scale business the only way to go, but it’s reality – scale and large markets get the dollars.

I can go on and on and name many other situations where quantity trumps quantity.

Here’s why I think this is.

Quality is subjective, quantity isn’t

Game of Thrones is an amazing TV show with a great plot, well-developed characters, and some of the highest production values ever. But some people still don’t like it.

I would not say that The Macarena was a good song. But it became one of the biggest one-hit wonders ever.

If you meet some minimum threshold of quality and consistently create, you will be able to find an audience that will like your work, because quality is subjective, and quantity isn’t.

Quantity can lead to quality

James Altucher preaches about thinking of 10 ideas everyday. Yeah, most of them will be crap, but out of those hundreds or thousands of ideas, there will be few that will be really good.

Your first few blog posts, podcast episodes, or videos will definitely be shit. But if you create (or document) every day, you’re going to learn very quickly about what it takes to improve and create awesome content. If you take two months to create that perfect video, you won’t learn fast enough.

The more customers you have, the more you can learn from them to improve your product or service, and faster.

Quantity can lead to quality, and that’s a powerful thing.

Conclusion

I’m sure I am going to get roasted.

But I do believe that quantity trumps quality in many scenarios.

Go ahead, roast away! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Where do you get your energy from?

I recently listened to an episode of The Growth Show podcast and the guest was Noah Kagan, CEO of Sumo.com and AppSumo.

The episode was primarily about how Noah was continually learning new skills and how he went about doing so.

A lot of that learning advice was valuable, but the one thing that stuck out to me was when Noah talked about the importance of finding “where you get your energy from.” He quoted a book and said that it’s not about how much time that you have during the day, it’s about how you allocate your energy towards things in your day.

I thought that was really profound.

Enjoying what you do, whether it’s work or play, is one thing. Doing something that gives you energy is on a whole other level.

At work, I enjoy marketing. But what really gives me energy is working with smart people, engaging with entrepreneurs, learning from customers, and building something from nothing.

In my free time, I enjoy watching Netflix. But that doesn’t really give me energy. What gives me energy is playing sports, hanging with my family, and interacting with my friends.

If you do things that give you energy, you’ll stick with those activities for longer, do them more often, and get the most out of them. You’ll learn more, and faster.

I thought that my dream job would be in the sports industry. My job at the Washington Capitals was an amazing gig, and I loved it and learned a lot from it.

But I also learned after a while that I really wanted to build something from the ground up, and that job didn’t really allow me to. It wasn’t so much the subject matter that was important, but the ability to build, launch, and grow something and take it from zero to one was what gave me energy.

And even though my startup career has been pretty rocky, it still gives me energy everyday.

So where do you get your energy from? And are you doing those things at work and in your free time? I’d love to hear about it.

“We’ll figure it out” means you probably won’t

I hear and use the phrase “we’ll figure it out” very often.

And that usually means that whatever needs figuring out typically won’t be figured out.

Whenever that phrase is spoken, the topic is usually something that isn’t that urgent nor important, so it gets deferred until a later time. Or it never gets talked about again.

Which is OK. We shouldn’t be spending time on things that aren’t important.

But what I don’t like about that phrase is that it’s ambiguous whether you’ll revisit it again to figure it out.

That uncertainly can lead to differing expectations and miscommunication. One person might think “it” is more important, so the expectation of figuring it out may be more urgent for one as opposed to another. This can lead to some angst.

And it adds to your cognitive overhead.

So instead of saying “we’ll figure it out” and leave it open-ended, either figure it out at that moment, place a due date on figuring it out, or clearly state that it’s not that important and trash it.

I’m going to try to practice what I preach. I hope I can figure it out. ;)

Using your commute time productively

Crowded commute

Commuting sucks.

It can be stressful and draining, and you literally lose sleep because of it.

I’m pretty lucky that I only have long commutes two days a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have to drive out to Columbia, MD from DC, and half of that ride I’m with my wife because I drop her off at her job, so it’s not that bad. The rest of the week I usually work at a Cove co-working space, which is a 12-minute walk or 5-minute bike ride.

So commuting isn’t a big problem for me, but it’s a huge problem for many.

Regardless of how long your commute is, I think that it’s time that can be used wisely.

Yeah, you can listen to some morning talk show or watch that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (not if you’re driving, though!).

But there are many things that you can do that can make your commute or travel time more productive. Here are some of my favorites.

Plan your day

One of the things I like to do during my commute is visualize and plan my day.

Most of the time I will have my daily tasks planned out the night before. So on my commute, I’ll think more about how much time to dedicate and what resources I’ll need to complete those tasks.

If you take public transportation, you can use your commute time to write down your tasks for the day and get organized.

If you drive, you can visualize your schedule, think about your goals of the day, and better understand what needs to get done.

Then when you arrive at the office, you can hit the ground running and get to work right away.

Listen to an educational podcast

I love podcasts so much that I started one (though I’m on break now).

Podcasts are great because you don’t need to devote your full attention to consuming them, so you can listen while you walk, drive, ride a bike, or do something else.

I like to listen to my favorite podcasts during my commute so I can find some inspiration, motivation, or even specific tactics that I can apply to work.

Most of my favorite podcasts are related to startups and tech, but there are other subjects mixed in. They include:

  • This Week in Startups
  • The Tim Ferriss Show
  • Recode Decode
  • Freakonomics Radio
  • Talk Python to Me
  • Mixergy
  • Y Combinator Podcast
  • A16Z podcast
  • Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin
  • Bon Appetit
  • And a few others…

Podcasts are a great way to learn while you commute, and I love fitting them in whenever I have time.

Clear your mind

With a kid, a day job, and a startup on the side, life is pretty busy.

Sometimes I like to use my commute time to just disconnect and take in the world around me.

When I walk or take public transportation, sometimes I just clear my mind, listen to the sounds of the city, and watch the people and vehicles around me. I also take the time to appreciate everything I have and how lucky I am to be healthy and have a wonderful family.

This doesn’t sound like I’m being productive, especially since I’m not doing the things I just wrote about in the above sections.

But disconnecting and clearing your mind for a few minutes a day can really help in the long run. You’ll be more relaxed, more creative, and less stressed.

While I don’t do it during my commute, meditation is something I’ve been doing more often. 10 minutes of breathing and relaxation every day can help minimize stress and increase focus on what you need to get done.

How are you spending your commute time, and are you using your time productively? I’d love to hear more in the comments.

 

More on Reps and Sets and doing little things everyday

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Reps and Sets – how repetition and making little improvements everyday can make a big impact in the long run.

Recently, I was watching The Herd, a sports talk show with Colin Cowherd. I forget what the context of the sports conversation was, but Colin was making an analogy of eating a single cookie everyday.

Eating a 200-calorie cookie doesn’t seem too bad. But it’s an easy thing to do and keep doing.

If you eat a 200-calorie cookie everyday, over the course of a month, you will have consumed about 6000 calories, which equates to almost 2 pounds.

In one year, you will have gained over 20 pounds! Just by eating a single cookie each day!

With weight loss, it’s not about doing some ridiculous diet for two weeks. Yeah, you may shed a few pounds, but those diets are largely unsustainable, and you’re likely to gain back that lost weight after the diet is over. It’s about being consistent and cutting out small things like cookies and soda from your everyday diet and generally eating healthy each day.

Just like improving your skills in anything. It’s about consistent, everyday practice.

Reps and sets.

Slack, distractions, and Twist

If you read this blog, you know that I’m all about finding ways to increase productivity and minimize distractions.

And the more and more I use Slack, the more I hate it because it’s a constant stream of distractions.

I’m not alone. See here, here, and here.

Don’t get me wrong – Slack is an extremely well-designed, well-built platform. The integrations are great and the ability to build tools and bots on top of it is pretty awesome. It’s a valuable messaging tool, which is why the company is the fastest growing business app ever.

The underlying philosophy of Slack and many business communication apps – a stream of messages with little organization – is what’s bothersome to me.

My problems with Slack

Imagine you work on a remote team and you’re 12 hours ahead of most of your team members. While they’re in the middle of their work day, you’re deep asleep. Not only will you be bombarded with notifications, but you’ll also wake up to a cacophony of messages with very little idea of what subject was started where and by whom.

Another example is going on vacation. I was on a two-week trek to Thailand and got pinged with many messages that had nothing to do with me. The messages that were relevant to me were buried deep in multiple channels. I actually didn’t realize I missed messages until one of my co-workers asked me if I saw the message he sent to me.

And I know that I’ve sent many messages that were missed or unread.

At the core of the problem is notifications.

Yes, you can set certain your notification preferences – such as seeing all notifications, only those messages that mention your name, or no notifications for a channel. Those aren’t granular enough, and I find that I still miss a lot of stuff no matter which option I choose. And all you hear all day is that knock brush sound.

Another issue is that Slack doesn’t provide you with email notifications, so it forces you to use its tool to check notifications and messages, which again leads to missed messages. This is great for their engagement metrics, but not great for productivity.

Twist – a more thoughtful communication tool

I’ve been using a relatively new messaging tool called Twist, which is built by the same company who created the popular Todoist productivity app.

The philosophy and benefits of the tool are laid out nicely in this Medium post written by Twist’s creator.

We use Twist for WinOptix. Our team is pretty small (only 3 of us, all part-time), so our message volume isn’t very high. But we’ve already seen benefits from the different approach Twist has taken to messaging.

Channels and Threads

Like Slack, Twist has channels that you can denote subjects for, such as “Design”, “Development”, “Marketing”, and more. But Twist goes one level deeper with threads within each of these channels. So under “Development”, we have a thread for “Development Task Organization”, where our developer and I discussed the best way to organize development tasks, and “FPDS data – GitLab Repo” where we talk about how to access troves of government contracting data.

These threads portray the messages in a more granular fashion so you have a better idea of what the conversation is about.

Twist's channels and threads

Twist’s channels and threads

Sender can choose who receives notifications

The next big feature is the ability for the sender to select who receives notifications. This is HUGE.

Let’s say that I just want to ask our developer a direct question. I’ll just select his name in the “Notify” field and ask away. He’ll be the only one who receives a notification. Everyone else who is part of that channel will be left alone but will still be able to view that message at any time.

This is the best of both worlds. This gives the sender the power to minimize distractions for his or her team, not just the receiver to minimize distractions for herself.

In Slack, you can type “@username” to specifically mention someone in a message, but if other employees in that channel have selected to receive notifications for all messages, they’ll still get pinged with this message.

(BTW, as I’m writing this, I just got pinged with a Slack notification that had nothing to do with me. Ugh.)

Email notifications

Everyone hates email, but I don’t think it’s that bad. I used to receive 200 emails a day, but I’ve pruned that down to less than half. Maybe I’ve just gotten less popular. :/

I might be old-fashioned, but my email inboxes are the center of my work life.

Anyway, I love how Twist sends me email notifications about messages that have been recently posted. This allows me to see if I missed anything important without having to check all of the messages in the app itself. And the asynchronous nature of email lets me review messages whenever I please.

Conclusion

This may seem like I’m hating on Slack, but I’m not. It’s a really great piece of software, but it just doesn’t work all that well with the way that I work.

And I’m not getting paid by Twist to write this post. I just think it’s a very well thought-out tool that focuses more on productivity as opposed to just communication.

The caveat here is that we don’t yet have a high volume of messages, but I think that the way Twist is set up, ramping up the volume won’t be as distracting.

Anyway, if you’re frustrated with the constant pinging and missed messages, I’d suggest giving Twist a shot. If you do, let me know what you think!

Reps and Sets

I interviewed David Cancel, Co-founder and CEO of Drift, for my podcast a while ago. Drift just raised $32 million from top-tier investors, and he has started 5 companies. The guy knows what he’s doing.

One of the things he always talks about is “reps and sets.”

There aren’t any secrets, hacks, or shortcuts. Being consistent, putting in the work, and getting better everyday is the only way to success.

mathhub multiplier

Getting a little better everyday can be huge in the long run. Image courtesy of MathHub.

You won’t get in shape if you go to the gym twice a month. You won’t run lose weight if you’re not consistently eating healthy food. You won’t learn to code if you’re not doing it and educating yourself everyday.

Reps and sets. It’s as simple as that.

Success doesn’t happen overnight

I keep telling myself that.

AirBNB is a massive success, and it feels like they got there overnight. But according to CEO Brian Chesky, their “overnight” success took a little longer than that.

overnightsuccess

Gary Vaynerchuk talks about this all the time. The guy is absolutely everywhere today, but it has taken him over a decade and thousands of videos and articles to build his audience.

James Clear had a great tweetstorm about the amount of work that you need to, over a long time, to be successful.

There aren’t any hacks or shortcuts to success.

I keep telling myself that.

Whenever something isn’t going right with my startup or my day job, I keep telling myself to be patient.

Whenever I’m coding (I’m learning Python) and I can’t figure something out, I keep telling myself that the solution will come with time (and a bunch of research on Stack Overflow).

When I go to the gym, I don’t expect to lose my gut after one workout.

Things take time.

Of course, you always want to be able to learn faster and do more in a shorter period of time. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.

Sometimes you have magical epiphanies, other times you just have to grind away until you figure it out.

All of that takes time. It ain’t gonna happen tomorrow.

I keep telling myself that.

Image courtesy of StartupTxt.com

The power of focusing on fewer tasks

I’ve been on a never-ending search to find a system that works for managing my short term tasks. I’ve experimented with different methods in the past – using my calendar as my daily task manager, writing daily tasks down by hand, and others – but they haven’t seemed to increase my productivity or made me more comfortable with my progress.

I’ve used Asana in the past, and currently use Trello to track all of my projects and tasks. Both are great tools (see the comparison article I wrote here) that certainly help me stay organized and not forget about anything that I need to do. But it’s less about logging the tasks and more about executing them to completion.

I always seem to have a bunch of overdue tasks in my Trello cards, and all I do is just keep pushing back their due dates. Shitty.

Trello Overdue Cards Blurred

Ugh. Lots of tasks overdue, and it’s usually much worse.

This week, I tried something different.

I selected four big tasks that I would absolutely complete this week.

There will still other weekly maintenance tasks, like analyzing web traffic, social media, and writing this blog post, that I would finish by week’s end. But the four highlighted tasks were larger To-Dos that were either started a while ago and never completed, or an important project that needed to get done soon.

To log these tasks, I created a new Trello board, starred it, and only put those four tasks on that board. That’s it.

No other tasks or lists to distract focus from those tasks. Four tasks on a little lonely Trello island.

I have to say – so far, so good.

None of the tasks are fully complete, but they are all 90-95% done, and I still have today and Sunday (when I always put in a couple of hours of work) to finish them off.

The key here is to really focus and put more time into a fewer number of tasks.

In the past, I would start writing a blog post, get sick of writing it, then start another post, get sick of that, then go on and do something else. After repeating this process for days, if not weeks, all I would have is three or four quarter-written drafts and multiple Trello cards telling me how much work I have to do.

This week, I selected one of those unfinished blog posts and focused on completing it. Lo and behold, it’s almost ready to go!

Not only will I get to archive that Trello card, but the progress I’m seeing gives me a shot of dopamine and gets me amped up to complete the next task.

Maybe I’ve finally found a system that works for increasing my productivity.

How do you manage your daily and weekly tasks? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!