Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

The two sides of “checking the box”

Checklists are really valuable. They are an extremely helpful productivity tool that can keep you on track and organized when executing projects.

For instance, when I created episodes for my podcast, I had a Trello card that included 30 checklist items that needed to be completed before launching the episode.  This checklist identified who was responsible for each task and kept me and my producer on the same page. And once all of the boxes are checked off, we can publish the episode for all the world to hear.

Checking these boxes meant that progress was being made and work was getting done.

Trello podcast episode checklist

We had to complete 30 tasks before launching a podcast episode.

On the flip side, there can be a negative connotation for “checking the box.

Someone can just go through the ropes and “check the box” so they can move on to the next thing. They can spend the least amount of time possible to complete the task, project, or job with minimal effort.

That’s where checking the box means the opposite of getting work done.

If you’re just checking the boxes, that likely means that apathy and indifference has set in, which makes it tough to do good work. At that point, something has to change, whether it’s a change of scenery, learning a new skill, or moving to a new role or company.

Are you doing the good kind of box-checking? If so, awesome! If not, what change will you make?

The three technologies I’m most excited about in 2018 (aka my favorite buzzwords)

I’ve always been excited about how technology can change our lives, and there’s been a lot of new, almost Star-Trekky changes recently. But I’m most excited about the future of these three technologies and how they’ll gain widespread adoption in 2018.

Artificial intelligence

AI and machine learning were huge buzzwords the past few years, almost to the point of annoyance.

Every startup said that they were an AI company in some way.

Google identified that the world was transforming from mobile-first to AI-first, and they’re doing everything they can to usher in this world (Note: I believe Google more than the other startups).

Sales of the Amazon Echo broke records. 

AI products are getting better and smarter everyday. And in 2018, I think we as consumers will get more comfortable with AI handling more important aspects of our lives such as our calendars, emails, and shopping lists. I think we’ll get over the privacy concerns and the notion that AI robots will take over the world (they’ll just do backflips).

AI will be extremely prevalent in the enterprise, too, which will be evident in the ways we interact with these companies.

Enterprises will continue to use machine learning to have a deeper understanding of our habits, and thus the messages they send us will be more relevant (as creepy as that may be). Bots will automate many of our conversations, and they’ll be so accurate that we’ll think it’s a real person while accusing them that it’s a bot. There may be other times when AI is used and you won’t even know it.

AI has been hot, but I think it’s only going to get hotter and more widespread.

Voice recognition

As AI improves, voice recognition is going to get better in lockstep.

Siri sucks, but Alexa and Google’s voice assistant (who really needs a proper name) are pretty amazing. These are just previews of how voice will change how we interact with our devices.

I believe the existence of remote controls for our TVs, speakers, and ceiling fans is trending toward 0.

I think typing, like I’m doing now, will eventually go the way of the dodo.

I think we’ll interact with our devices with our voices so often that humans in the room will be confused whether we’re talking to them.

The enterprise will certainly be impacted as well. AWS recently announced Alexa for Business, where companies can build Alexa skills to pull up lead information, turn off conference room lights, or schedule a meeting.

We’re going to use our voices way more often in 2018.

Blockchain

I can feel your eyes rolling already. Bitcoin this, blockchain that. Blockchain was going to be the first section of this blog post, but I thought that many of you would get sick of hearing about it and stop reading.

Yes, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the hundreds of other cryptocurrencies are overhyped. Yes, it’s very early in the life cycle of the technology, and lot of it is speculative. Yes, you might have fomo for not buying Bitcoin earlier (half kidding).

All that Bitcoin stuff aside, the actual blockchain technology is going to change the way the internet and the entire world runs.

I won’t get too deep into the details of the technology; you can read this article for a great overview of how blockchain works.

Just imagine not having to trust Equifax with all of your credit history. That trust was breached. Instead, your credit history will be distributed across thousands of nodes all over the world, encrypted and immutable.

Blockchain can be used to track the source of every resource in the supply chain, so you can find out where your T-shirt was sourced from and feel better that some 9-year old Vietnamese kid didn’t produce your shirt in a sweatshop.

While it might take a while to pan out, blockchain is going to be one of the most transformative technologies we’ve ever seen.

Conclusion

Buzzwords, buzzwords, buzzwords. I’m not breaking any ground here, as these technologies have been hyped and touted as the next big thing for a little while now. But these are the three tech developments that I’ll be tracking closely in 2018, and I think they’ll dramatically alter the way we live.

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.

Three reasons why taking good notes is so important

writing-notes-idea-conference

I believe that note-taking is a very important skill, one that is often overlooked and under-appreciated.

Note-taking is often an afterthought, a mere formality. But I believe that taking good notes is even more important in today’s technology-oriented world.

First of all, meeting attendees are easily distracted by their phones and rarely pay full attention to what’s happening. I admit that I’m guilty of this sometimes. And I’d bet you’ve done this once or twice, right?

For some, checking Twitter is more important than understanding their team’s product strategy, and looking at pictures of their friend’s vacation on Facebook takes precedence over reviewing their budget. That’s why taking detailed meeting minutes is so important.

It sucks to be the scribe in a meeting, and many times this job is left to the lowest ranking employee of all the attendees. But it’s a very important task that can keep the team organized and on track, especially for those who weren’t fully present. Tasks can be assigned after the meeting, and minutes can be distributed so everyone remembers the important discussion points.

Second, in the same vein, we are constantly and continuously bombarded by information every minute. Instagram notifications, text messages, emails, and more come at us incessantly. We can’t possibly absorb all the words, images, videos, and other content that we read, watch, and listen to everyday.

By taking good notes, you won’t be forced to remember details of a phone call or meeting, and you’ll have a document with details that you can refer to later. Thus, you can dedicate that brain power to more creative or difficult tasks.

Finally, note-taking tools are better than they’ve ever been before. Whether notes are taken on a Google Doc, Evernote, or within project management tools like Trello or Asana, they can be easily distributed, organized, and tracked. Taking good notes can really help with keeping your team on track outside of meetings.

I remember when I was much better at note taking. During every meeting or phone call, I would take copious notes in a notebook or on a laptop. Then after the call or meeting, I would review the notes and file them away in a place where I can easily find them for future reference. I should go back to that process.

Maybe we should all put more thought and effort into taking good notes, instead of relegating it to a formality. It might have a big positive impact on our productivity.

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.

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. 😉