Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

CATEGORY: Careers

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!

Don’t be enamored with the vehicle, but what makes it run – knowledge from Questlove

I recently listened to an interview with Questlove of The Roots on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing.

Questlove is an extremely thoughtful, introspective, and smart person who had a ton to say about history, dieting, and much more.

But one of the quotes he said that stood out to me was that he “wasn’t enamored with the vehicle, but what makes it run.” I’m kind of paraphrasing the quote because I’m too lazy to go through the interview again to find exactly what he said. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I think that quote is very powerful.

Don’t pay all of your attention to that big end goal. Rather, focus on each specific, smaller task that you’ll have to accomplish to reach that goal, and you’ll achieve it.

Let’s take entrepreneurship, for instance. If you’re a startup founder looking for that big exit but can’t stand the day-to-day grind, you’ll never make it. But if you work hard every day and continue to learn every way to best serve your customers, you’ll have a better chance to build a successful business.

If you’re raising a child, are you longing for the day your kid turns 18 so he or she can go off to college? Or are you enjoying as many moments together as you can?

Are you working toward that one day when you can retire, or trying to make the most of each day of work and enjoy the ride?

Many times the journey is more important than the destination. So don’t be so enamored with the vehicle, but what makes it run.

The life of a startup founder – when little things are big deals

Head in Hands

Here’s a little story about how warped my brain is from entrepreneurship, the roller coaster ride that being a startup founder is, and how my idea of a “win” has drastically changed.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing customer development for my startup, WinOptix. I’ve spoken to over 30 government contracting business development folks to learn about their problems with the BD process and pitch my concept to get feedback.

I learned so much about the government contracting industry and received a ton of great feedback.

And to my surprise, one of these interviewees (let’s call him Victor, not his real name) said that he would pay to have a tool like WinOptix built!

(Yes, I definitely got excited about this at the time, but that isn’t the situation I’m writing about in this post.)

I told Victor I would get back to him soon. I hadn’t even incorporated the company nor did I have the ability to build the product, so I had to get to work on both fronts before moving the potential engagement forward.

At the same time, I was setting up my new WinOptix email address with Google’s G Suite. I emailed Victor from that new account.

Usually I would set up email forwarding to my primary email address so I can manage everything from one account and not have to check multiple inboxes. Except I forgot to do so this time.

Of course, Victor emailed me to set up a time to chat about moving forward soon. And I didn’t receive the email until I checked my WinOptix account much later. UGH.

I replied with an apology. No response. I emailed him again. No response. And again. No response.

I was totally bummed out that I might have missed out on the first paying customer because of a stupid email setup mistake. This could have been huge for WinOptix, and I just banged my head on the wall about how dumb I was and how I screwed up a massive opportunity.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my screw up and how I might have missed out on my first customer. I actually had some trouble sleeping and was down on myself for a while.

After a couple of weeks, I made a last-ditch effort and gave Victor a call.

To my surprise, he picked up the phone! He said he saw my emails and was planning to respond, but had been so swamped that he didn’t have time. And he said he was still interested in working together on the product, and will reach out soon.

I was ecstatic, just because of a simple phone call.

I didn’t even get a firm commitment, but the simple fact that the potential deal was still alive and that I didn’t totally screw it up was a big win to me.

I thought about how this situation – an email setup snafu, a missed email, then the redeeming phone call – is such a small, insignificant blip in the big picture.

But the impact that it had on me was profound.

Then I thought about a couple of things:

  1. Is this relatively small situation having such a major impact on my psyche a good thing for me?
  2. Is my reaction to this situation a telling sign of my ability to be an entrepreneur? Do I need to be more even keeled and steady, and not get so high when good things happen and so low when bad things happen?
  3. Do other early-stage entrepreneurs feel the same way?
  4. What does this situation say about my attention to detail?
  5. If I worked for a larger corporation, what would be an analogous situation, and would I feel the same way?

I’ll write more about these thoughts in future posts. To be continued…

What do you think about this situation? Did I overreact? Have you been through something like this – where a small situation has a profound impact on you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo courtesy of Alex Proimos on Flickr

When the Guilt Creeps In

I’ve recently realized that I feel guilty more often now than I probably ever have.

It’s not that I feel guilty for doing things in the past that I regret, because I have very few regrets. It’s more like I feel guilty when I don’t do things that I know I should be doing.

For instance, I just was not motivated to work the other day. I was tired, hadn’t exercised in a while (which makes me feel like crap), and just couldn’t get myself to attack important tasks. I completed a few little tasks that took minimal brainpower, but just couldn’t get myself to get the bigger, more important things done.

And I felt completely guilty about it.

I have a ton of projects for work. I have a laundry list of tasks to do around the house (which many times includes laundry), there are everyday things to do to take care of Maya, and a bunch of other general life events going on. And I feel guilty when I’m not taking care of these tasks.

I feel guilty when I check social media instead of working on mockups for my startup. I feel guilty when I sit down to watch TV, which doesn’t happen all that often anymore, instead of searching for ceiling fans to buy for the house. I feel guilty when I read and respond to email when I should be writing that blog post or eBook. And I feel guilty when I read all of these blog posts from entrepreneurs about how productive they are EVERY…SINGLE…SECOND.

I didn’t feel this way in the past, at least not to this extent. Maya didn’t exist 22 months ago, so that was never an issue in the past. But I didn’t feel guilty checking my personal email during my prior jobs. I didn’t mind taking a long break to socialize with my coworkers. I didn’t feel sorry for going to the gym in the middle of the day.

Maybe becoming an entrepreneur changed all that. And getting married. And having a kid. Maybe I care more about these things that are part of my life now, than what was part of my life back then. I’m not sure.

A possible solution would be to not do the things I shouldn’t be doing, and do all of those things that I should be doing, all the time. Then I won’t feel guilty, right?

Yeah, I suppose. But eventually that will lead to burnout.

I think the problem for me is accepting that not all of my time needs to spent on getting things done. Taking some time to do something brainless every once in a while is OK. Actually, it’s probably a good thing.

It’s tough to disconnect from work when you’re trying to get a startup off the ground. But doing so every so often is much better in the long run, for your physical and mental health.  Still, it’s a difficult thing to do.

Do you feel guilty when you’re not being as productive as you can be? If so, how do you deal with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

I’m a man of diverse interests – is that a bad thing?

I have a lot of interests and a broad set of skills. I’m what you may call a jack of all trades, master of none. And I keep wondering if that is hurting me.

Nearly four years ago, I blogged about whether breadth or depth was better for your career.

I started out in materials science and engineering in undergrad. I got bored of it so I didn’t pursue a job in the field after graduation. Instead, I went to grad school for industrial engineering.

Then I went into consulting, what can be considered one of the most generalist professions.

When I got bored of that, I went back to business school and upon graduation, got a job in sports marketing.

Now I’m a tech entrepreneur, marketer, and product guy.

Clearly, I fall into the breadth camp. Or maybe the “get bored quickly” camp.

I was drawn to consulting, marketing, and product because of their breadth. I moved away from materials science because of its specificity.

I’m not saying that I should have stuck with materials science. But if I had stuck to a single function or industry, would I be further along than where I am today? Maybe. I’m not sure.

There are so many conflicting points of view about this. Some say you should focus on your strengths and have others do the rest. Others say to stop focusing on your strengths. Some say focus on one business, others say diversify your life.

I don’t know what the right answer is. And apparently many “experts” don’t agree, either.

I think the important thing is to continue to learn what you need to learn to improve, whether that subject matter is related to your strengths or weaknesses.

I learn a lot about marketing every day and continue to strengthen that strength.

Also, I’m a shitty programmer but I continue to learn to code because I think every tech entrepreneur should have at least some of that knowledge.

But this doesn’t stop me from thinking about whether I’d be better served by focusing on one thing or broadening my skills, and whether my diversity of interests is a bad thing.

What are your thoughts about having diverse interests? I’d love to hear your story.

How is your work judged – by hours, output, or results?

There are many ways to judge how well someone is doing their job, but I’ve been thinking about three primary ones – hours, output, and results – and the impact they have on each other.

Hours

If you’re judged on hours, you likely have to show up at an office, log your time, and directly trade time for money.

Lawyers and consultants are judged this way, where billable hours and utilization are the main metrics. These firms charge their clients some crazy amount for each hour of their employees’ time, so it makes sense to maximize the number of hours worked.

Another form of being judged by hours is how big corporations do it.

These large organizations force you to work in the office from 9-5 and as long as you show your face and maybe get some work done, you’re all good. Many times it doesn’t really matter how much work has been done in that time, as long as the time gets logged. Ever see Office Space? You know what I’m talking about.

Output

Being assessed by output is different, of course.

If you’re a sales rep, you may be judged on the amount of sales calls you make or appointments you book.

If you’re a content marketer, you may be assessed by the number of blog posts you publish.

Software developer? Your main metric might be how many lines of code you create.

Judging by output is certainly better than assessing by time spent, as there is evidence that work has been done.

Results

Results is where the rubber meets the road.

If you’re a lawyer, did you win or lose the case?

If you’re a consultant, did your strategy get implemented, and was it effective? How did it impact your clients’ bottom line?

If you’re a sales rep, how much revenue did your sales calls bring in, and what is your win rate?

Nearly every job can be measured by results, which is the best measure of effectiveness. Unfortunately not every company chooses to do so.

The interaction between hours, output, and results

These three criteria don’t exist in their own vacuums.

High output can potentially lead to great results.

More blog posts written can lead to better search engine optimization (assuming the posts are high quality), which can lead to more web traffic and sales.

More sales calls can lead to more revenue. Even if you have a low win rate, the more calls you make, the more deals you may be able close.

While more code may not necessarily mean better software, the more code you write, the better you’ll get at software development, which will lead to better software.

And if you work hard, create a lot of output, and see good results, you may enjoy your work more and create even more output.

But more hours won’t necessarily lead to more output or better results.

A law firm can pile on the hours and still lose the case. A consulting firm can deploy a ton of consultants’ time and come up with the wrong solution.

And it’s these companies that judge effectiveness on hours worked that are being disrupted. The consulting industry is undergoing change, while the legal industry is in decline.

On a personal level, more hours may be detrimental to your output and results, as you might burn out and wind up hating your job.

So take a moment and think about how your work is being judged, and whether you want to be assessed in that manner.

If not, what will you do about it?