Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

CATEGORY: Careers

A look back to 2017 and forward to 2018

At the beginning of this year, I didn’t make any resolutions like “lose 5 pounds” or “work out 3 times a week.” Rather, I just vowed to be more focused, disciplined, and consistent in work and life.

Let’s see how I did, and what’s in store for 2018.

Looking back to 2017

Focus

For 2017, I pledged to be more focused on a macro level (doing fewer things better) and a micro level (focusing more on the task at hand).

I’d call this a minor win.

In 2016, I spent a lot of time working on my podcast, the Go and Grow Podcast. While I really enjoyed it and it helped build an audience, it wasn’t getting me closer to my goal of launching my startup. So I put it on hold, which gave me more time and mindshare to work on WinOptix. That was a win.

But I did and continue to spend a lot of time learning how to program in Python. Python is great for data science (which will help with WinOptix) as well as back-end and web development. While learning Python took away some time and focus away from WinOptix, I think it will help me become a better technical leader, which will certainly help the company and my career in the long run.

On a micro level, there were certainly times where I got distracted from the tasks I was working on. But overall, I was very consistent in using the Pomodoro Technique and turning off notifications on my phone to stay focused. (Just as I write this, my phone buzzed. Ugh.)

Discipline

I vowed to be more disciplined with my schedule and diet and exercise regimen.

I’d also call this a minor win.

I made it a point to schedule my tasks in my Google Calendar the night before or morning of a work day. Specifically assigning a time to execute the task and setting its duration forces you to focus on that task and not allow it to expand. Super helpful.

Overall, I was relatively disciplined with my diet and exercise, if you leave out the last two weeks of holidays. 🙂  I worked out about 2-3 times a week, with a mixture of basketball, lifting, and push-ups and sit-ups at home. And overall, I think I ate pretty healthily over the year. Vicky and I did do the keto diet for a while, but my cholesterol spiked, so I had to stop. So I just went back to a balanced diet.

Consistency

I’d call this a draw.

I was pretty consistent in working on WinOptix. I worked an additional 10-20 hours per week on nights and weekends to make as much progress as possible.

I mostly kept up with posting to this blog weekly, only missing weeks where I was traveling or on holidays.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I was as consistent with blogging for Thorn Technologies. Writing about very technical topics like cloud computing can be tough.

And I was just OK in staying consistent on social media and keeping up with personal and home improvements.

A draw sounds about right.

Looking forward to 2018

2018 is going to be a big year. Yeah, I know, I say that every year. But for real.

First of all, I’m turning 40! So I better figure out my life soon. 🙂

Next, there are a few things that I’d like to accomplish this coming year.

While I’ll continue to be more focused, disciplined, and consistent, there are a few specific goals that I’d like to achieve.

The first is to acquire at least 5 paying customers for WinOptix. We’re launching the product by the end of January, and hopefully we’ll get a ton of feedback from our initial users to make the product better to the point where they’d be willing to pay for it. Then we can really go out to the market and sell it.

Second, I’d like to complete at least 3 Python projects. I’m currently working on a Pomodoro timer and a program that takes data from CSV files, concatenates them, and runs reports on the data. So my goal is to complete those and add one more project to the mix.

Finally, I want to be a better dad and husband. While this isn’t as concrete as the other two goals, it’s still something to strive for. I think I’m doing a good job, but I can always get better.

What are your goals or resolutions for 2018?

I’d love to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments, tweet at me @mikewchan, or email me at mike@mikewchan.com.

I feel like I’m starting over everyday…is that a good or bad thing?

Starting line

Ever since I became an entrepreneur over five years ago, there have been many starts and stops and ups and downs. Two steps forward, one step back (or sometimes three). The roller coaster ride is to be expected.

But what I didn’t really expect was how it feels like I’m completely starting over…every…single…day.

Not knowing anything. Researching all the time. Feeling lost. But learning a lot.

Is the feeling of starting over everyday a good or bad thing?

The good parts

Let’s start with the good.

First of all, I’m constantly learning.

There’s always a new marketing channel or tactic that needs exploration and experimentation. And even with the tactics that I’m knowledgable about, there are so many different ways to execute them to address different target customers, points in the buying cycle, and many other scenarios.

And running my startup WinOptix involves so many skills where I’m admittedly weak.

I’ve had experience recruiting in the past, but mostly for marketing roles. How do I properly assess the quality of a software developer or a UX designer? Sure, I can take a look at their GitHub or Dribbble pages. But that’s only scratching the surface. It’s tougher to discern how the person will work with you and integrate into your team, how hard he or she works, and many other factors.

I have plenty of marketing, sales, and business development experience, which has definitely helped in building software for these folks. But I’m attacking an space, government contracting, where I have little experience. So learning about the industry is a task that continuously needs to be addressed, and there’s always something new happening that I need to absorb.

I’m learning Python, and holy shit, that’s literally learning a whole new language. Some days I get it, other days it feels like I’ve never seen a line of code in my life. But learning to code forces me to concentrate and think deeply to solve problems. And when those problems are solved, boy does it feel good.

Secondly, things are fresh and I’m never bored.

Unless you count my five years of entrepreneurial experience as one job (I wouldn’t), I’ve never held a job down for more than 4.5 years. And before that gig, my longest tenure at a company was 1.5 years.

This is so millennial of me, even though I’m not one.

I’m not sure if I just get bored, if I’m not challenged enough, or both. I just need to constantly learn and do new things. That’s why entrepreneurship seems to be the right fit for me, at least for now.

Learning new things keeps my days fresh and exciting for me.

The bad parts

The first bad thing is that I often feel lost and helpless.

If you’re a newbie at anything, there are many times where you just don’t know what to do. Sure, you can research some blog posts, read that answer on Stack Overflow, or ask a colleague or friend what you should do in specific situations. But not knowing so many things can wear on you and make you feel like you’ll never be able to learn or accomplish anything.

Next, I’m becoming more unemployable by the minute.

Who the hell is looking for a marketer who has also been doing a little bit of sales, product, and strategy, while also knowing a little bit of Python, data science, and design?

While that description doesn’t sound too bad, it’s really broad. While I can go relatively deep on some subjects, I’m a generalist. And many companies want specialists with focus and depth of knowledge.

Finally, I feel that I’ve wasted a lot of time and money.

I’m a pretty educated guy – undergrad degree in Materials Science, Masters in Industrial Engineering, and MBA. But unfortunately I don’t use a lot of that education I’ve obtained.

I’m not saying I regret getting those degrees and that they haven’t helped my career at all. My engineering degrees certainly have taught me how to think logically and analytically, and my MBA gave be a broad business perspective and a strong network.

Yet I just feel that despite all my education, I’m still researching everything and feeling lost more often that I should be. Sure, I got those degrees a long time ago, and things have changed. But damn, I just think they should have more impact on my everyday work.

And shit, I’m almost 40 years old. Maybe I’m writing this blog post due to a mid-life crisis, maybe I’m just really introspective, or both. Regardless, it’s hard to see 20-somethings crushing it and making it on award lists like Forbes’ 30-under-30, as meaningless as those lists are. It’s difficult to not think back and say “Man, I wish I had known 15 years ago…”

Conclusion

There’s not much to conclude here. I’m really not sure whether feeling like I’m starting over everyday is a good or bad thing.

I love learning, and acquiring new skills will certainly help my career. But being a beginner at a lot of things doesn’t add that much value in the end.

Maybe I need more focus. But then boredom might eventually creep in. Then what?

What do you think? Do you ever feel like you’re constantly starting over? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In poker, business, and life, there’s only one real way to learn – by doing

poker-390064_1280

I took the last two weeks off from blogging because I was traveling for Thanksgiving to NY/NJ and the Amazon Web Services re:Invent conference in Vegas. I hope you didn’t miss me too much.

Anyway, while in Vegas, I of course had to hit up the poker table. Many times.

During one late night/early morning session, a pretty young guy (let’s call him Chad, I don’t remember his real name) who was also there for the conference sat down next to me. Nice guy, pretty chatty, and probably had a few drinks in him, like everyone else at the table.

He sat down with $100 and lost it within 20 minutes.

He whipped out another $100 and lost that within another 15 minutes, most of it to me on one hand.

He took out another $100. At this point, the guy sitting on the other side of him and I started helping Chad out a little. We told him how it was OK to fold once in a while (he essentially played every hand), the importance of position, and other poker fundamentals.

Regardless, he lost that last $100 pretty quickly.

When he left the table, I looked around and said “I guess there’s only one way to learn,” and everyone had a good laugh.

You can read all the poker books in the world and watch the World Poker Tour on TV, but once you step into that casino and sit down at the poker table, everything changes. And the only way to learn is to play a lot of real hands and probably lose some money.

You can read all the books and blog posts about how to build a company, recruit a team, develop a product, and more, but until you actually start putting in real work, you won’t learn how to do all that.

You can prepare yourself for raising that baby, but childcare books won’t ever prepare you enough for changing that first shitty diaper or dealing with a 2-year old’s temper tantrum.

The only real way to learn anything is to do it.

I’m not sure if Chad will learn from his experience in Vegas. After all, it was late, he was probably drunk, and it’s Vegas, so who really cares about losing a little money, right?

Regardless, the lesson is that there’s no better way to learn than by actually doing.

You’ll never be able to replicate situations at the poker table, in business, or life. The only way to learn is having the direct experience of doing.

So what will you do today to learn?

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.

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.

Think for yourself

Venture capitalist Leo Polovets tweeted the above statement out a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t agree more.

I know many people who are contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.

It’s good to be different, but only if it makes sense to be. It can be easy to be contrarian – just say the opposite of what others are saying. But you don’t want to be that kind of contrarian.

I also know many people who don’t have a unique or independent thought at all. They go through the ropes, agree with everyone, do what is expected of them, and nothing more.

I think that’s worse.

Independent thinking is the result of true analysis and understanding.

If you think independently, sometimes you’ll be contrarian, other times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll be right, other times you won’t.

What you’ll have is a say, an opinion, an input. And if that input is well researched and backed up, you’ll get respect for your thoughts, regardless of whether you’re right, wrong, contrarian, or conformist.

Think independently about that, and let me know what you think!

Putting your life and career into perspective

Last weekend I returned from an amazing two-week family vacation in Thailand.

This vacation allowed me to take time away from work (I didn’t even bring my laptop!), reflect on what’s going on in my life, and enjoy time with family.

We spent a few days in Ko Samui, where my cousin got married in a beautiful ceremony. A bunch of our family stayed in a beach villa and had a great time.

We then trekked up north to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to hang out with elephants, tigers, nature, and lots and lots of Thai food. Check out my “Le Tigre” below. 🙂

Zoolander would be proud

 

While on the trip, Steve Blank wrote a great blog post titled “Working Outside the Tech Bubble.”  The gist of the article is that because he works in tech, he sometimes forgets that most of the world lives outside of the Silicon Valley bubble. He has a summer home in New England, and most of his neighbors don’t know or don’t care about who the ex-CEO of Uber is or what venture capitalist funded which hot startup.

Reading this made me think about perspective.

Like I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been feeling guilty about not doing enough in both work and my personal life. I often look at others’ success and doubt myself and my decisions.

But when you put things into perspective, no matter how tough things get, it’s never that bad.

I’m not saying to look down on others’ hardships. It’s more about appreciating what you have and all of the options in front of you.

While in Thailand, we were amazed at how cheap things are. Uber rides were all less than $3, most meals were cheaper than $5 per person, and hour-long massages cost around $8.

Yet all of those low prices may be normal or expensive for the Thai citizens. And those citizens are working really hard to make those wages that are super cheap to us.

Many Thai people live in villages, without the comforts of running water and electricity that we are accustomed to.

There’s no doubt that people in the US still face hardships everyday. Crime, racism, and poverty are still rampant in society.

But by simply being born or living in the US, we’re luckier than 95% of people in the entire world.

We don’t have to face the threat of a suicide bomber day in and day out. Most of us have a roof over our heads with running water and electricity.

So whenever things get tough, I like to put things into perspective and appreciate how lucky I really am.

Sure, my career isn’t going exactly how I’d like it to go. Things aren’t perfect.

But it’s always helpful to take a step back and look at what I have – an amazing family, a beautiful home, good health, and lots of opportunity – rather than what I don’t have.

It’s good to put things into perspective once in a while.

The importance of taking time off from work

Career regret

A couple of weeks ago, a story about a woman who took a couple of days off from work to focus on her mental health went viral.

In summary, Madalyn Parker, an engineer who works for live chat company Olark, wrote an email to her team that said she was taking the next couple of days off to focus on her mental health. The company’s CEO responded, praising her for her email and stressing how important it is to take time off.

This is an ongoing issue in the startup world, where 80-hour work weeks are often the norm and considered cool. David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and CTO of Basecamp, completely disagrees.

In the early days of my career in consulting, I used very few of my vacation days, and the thought of taking time off to work on my mental health never even crossed my mind.

When I was working for the Washington Capitals, the seasonality of the job didn’t really allow us to take any days off between September and May (when the Caps would crap the bed in the playoffs). We would take some time of in the summer, but even then I didn’t take full advantage of it.

I thought that taking days off would slow my ascent up the ladder. If I was the hardest working person in the company, I would get promoted and get more responsibility and authority.

Looking back, all that crap didn’t matter.

Unless you have a terrible manager, no one is going to ding you for taking days off. And as important and valuable as you are, your big company will go on without you and will still be there when you return. It’s harsh but true.

But as an entrepreneur, taking days off matters more, both for better and worse.

Any day that you’re not working on your product or business is a day of progress and potentially revenue lost. For each day that you take off, your competitors may be moving ahead of you, and it’s a day where you’re just not learning anything.

But if you don’t take time off, you won’t be able to recharge and your mind will never be 100%. You likely won’t be able to make those creative breakthroughs that are so important to the success of a company. You’ll get burned out.

Quite a predicament, huh?

Personally, I’ve been feeling a lot of guilt lately. I keep thinking that I don’t do enough for my day job, I don’t do enough for WinOptix, and I don’t do enough as a parent and husband. I don’t know how much of that is true or if it’s just me.

One possible answer is that I can work harder. Dedicate more hours to my day job, stay up later to work on WinOptix, and spend more time with my family.

You can see just how impossible that is.

Hopefully it’s just all in my head. And I think some time away will help clear my mind and be more comfortable with my situation. It has to be real time away though, where I’m truly physically and mentally disconnected from work. Otherwise, it’s not really time away.

On that note, I’ll be traveling to Thailand for the next couple of weeks to attend my cousin’s wedding, hang out with some elephants and tigers, see some temples, and eat some amazing Thai food. I’ll see family that I haven’t seen in a long time, and spend time with my family exploring very different environments.

I’m going to take this time to reflect on my current situation, think about the path forward, and reset my mind. So I won’t be blogging over the next three Fridays. Hopefully I’ll come back refreshed, less guilt-ridden, and ready to kick some ass.

See you in a few weeks. And remember, go take a day or two off from work and don’t feel guilty about it. It’ll help in the long run.

Should you work on your weaknesses or focus on your strengths?

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Seeking Wisdom where David Cancel and Dave Gerhardt from Drift talked about why you should forget about your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. Read the blog post here and listen/watch the video at the end after you finish reading this post. 🙂

This point of view certainly makes sense. It’s frickin hard to learn or get better at something that you’re not good at. And because it’s hard, you’ll also get frustrated when you make slow progress.

So maybe that time would be better spent on focusing on your strengths so you can turn them into superpowers, and delegating the stuff you’re not good at.

Here’s an excerpt from the episode’s blog post about one of David’s weaknesses:

For example: I’m not great at following up (especially with email). I’m a momentum maker. And that means I’m better at focusing on the here and now than I am at staying organized and creating process. But I used to fight it and I would focus on every single hack and trick to try and help — from to do lists on my laptop, reminders on my computer, phones on my phone, notebooks, etc.

This lesson took me a decade to learn. But eventually I learned the secret: I needed to double down on my strengths and surround myself (and team) with people who complement my weaknesses.

As a non-technical startup founder, it would be faster for me to recruit a technical co-founder or a contractor to help build the app. So instead of learning how to code, I could focus on customer development, marketing, and sales, all stuff that I’m much better at doing.

I do think there are situations where spending time on your weaknesses makes a lot of sense.

High-leverage activities

The first is if that weakness is a high-leverage activity that will have a substantial benefit if it’s improved.

In David’s example, being good at responding to email is a positive trait to have. But is it a high-leverage activity? Is it worth spending a decade trying to figure out how to get better at it? Or can David easily hire someone to help him respond to emails and be more organized?

On the other hand, for my situation, coding is a high-leverage activity that would benefit me greatly to know how to do.

Software developers are tough to recruit, but I was able to snag one on a contracting basis to help build WinOptix. Things are going great, but what if he decides to leave? I’d be shit out of luck.

And if we continue to work together, understanding how to code will allow me to 1) better estimate how long it will take him and others to build features of the product, and 2) contribute to the development of the product myself (eventually).

If your weakness is a high-leverage activity, it might make sense to put in the time to improve it.

If you don’t really like your strengths, enjoy working on your weakness, or both

Let’s say I’m strong at marketing. But one day I just get sick of writing blog posts, promoting them, running paid ads, and all of the other tasks that marketing entails. What should I do then?

The first thing I should do is assess my career. But what next? Should I continue working on my marketing skills, even though it kills me inside?

And let’s say I’m weak at programming (I am), but I looooooooove it (I don’t. It’s aight, but I don’t know enough to love it yet). Should I not try to improve my coding skills, just because I’m not really good at it?

Or what if both were happening at the same time?

Focusing on my strengths certainly wouldn’t make me any happier or necessarily better at my job.

Over to you

While I do see David’s point, there are certain situations where shoring up your weaknesses might make sense. I think the decision will be unique to each individual’s situation.

What’s your situation like? Are you focusing on your strengths, or working on your weaknesses? I’d love to hear from you.

BTW, David Cancel was an awesome guest on my podcast. Thanks David!