Zen

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When It's Inconvenient for the Company

capitalism entrepreneurship life zen

This is a post about striking the right balance between values and business needs.

A few weeks ago, I helped finalize the parental leave policy at Gruntwork and an interesting philosophical discussion came up: How many resources is the company willing to allocate to creating a humane parental leave policy?

Some larger companies like Netflix offer full pay for 1 year when your kid is born. As a parent, that kind of benefit is…amazing. If I were an employee of Netflix, I would revel in the idea that Netflix cares about me and my family, not just the next release milestone. It would make me feel a deeper emotional connecton to the company.

But Gruntwork is just 12 people total with 9 engineers, and while we’ve been profitable from Day 1 and growing fast, if one engineer were to leave for a year, that would reduce our engineering output by, on average, 11% while still having to carry that perons’s salary. Can you imagine what kind of impact an 11% engineering output reduction would have on NetFlix? Let’s say NetFlix has 2,000 engineers. That’d be 220 engineers gone for a year…while on full payroll!

The reality is that, as much as I personally want to support a year-long parental leave policy, the company simply can’t afford it right now. Or to be more accurate, if we chose to support a 1-year parental leave policy, we would have to increase our cash reserves to a point that would significantly slow down hiring and other initiatives requiring working capital.

Ultimately, having any parental leave policy at all is “inconvenient” for the company in the sense that it reduces your ability to pump out new features and bug fixes and/or puts additional load on the rest of the team. So…should we just have no parental leave policy at all?

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Living on $1 Day

social dynamics zen general

This past weekend, I volunteered at a clinic in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico (better known to Americans as “Rocky Point”). The clinic was makeshift, conducted in a church in a local neighborhood. It was completely free to the residents and funded with donations.

The surrounding residents would be considered low income by American standards, but I sat on many pre-visit interviews with them and most of them don’t think of themselves as struggling. They’re really just living their lives.

The locals have differences in their lives that I simply haven’t experienced. In my makeshift Spanish, I learned that one woman, Guadalupe, had been waiting at the free clinic for about 8 hours, not knowing when she would be seen.

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The User Interface of the Violin

zen general software

Earlier today, I met a friend for breakfast who’s an outstanding professional UX designer. I was curious about something:

“How do you balance the need to give people a user interface they’re familiar with and can do something with right away, against the opportunity to innovate and do new things that may take more time to learn?”

He gave a beautiful analogy in response.

“Consider the violin. It has one of the most difficult user interfaces in the world to use. But if you’re willing to put in the thousands of hours of practice, you can make such beautiful music with it. There has to be that trade off. If we demand of our users a steep learning curve, they had better be able to produce some beautiful music.”

I like that idea because I’ve met many designers who get so mesmerized by the idea of doing something new and amazing that they lose sight of the fact that “the tradeoff” has to make sense.

Give, Give, Give, Then Get

zen general

I’ve decided to try an experiment lately. At every opportunity where I see I can possibly add value to someone in some way, I try to do so.

This can mean connecting someone with someone else I know, sharing insights from experiences I’ve had that may be applicable, or even mini-projects that leverage my technical skills.

Like any other behavior change, this is a habit that takes some work to build, so I’m not 100% ramped up yet, but at least the habit is building, so hopefully after a few weeks it will just be my default behavior.

Anyway, I’ve had a few interesting observations about it:

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Your New Normal and the Futility of Stress

entrepreneurship zen general

I had a very powerful business experience about 4 years ago that taught me a lesson that I didn’t fully understand until recently.

I was the sole owner of a company that received a Letter of Intent from a publicly traded company to be acquired for around $1 million, all before I was even 30 years old. Sure sounds sexy, right? Well, the catch was that we were not profitable at that time and of course the time between receiving a Letter of Intent and actually signing all the contracts, getting a check in the bank, and considering the acquisition a done deal can be anywhere from a few weeks to over a year.

So we waited. Doing our best to not be too unprofitable and not incur too many legal expenses, but thrilled at the prospect of an acquisition that would instantly remove all the stress. I remember every day trying to act to the outside world like things were fine, but inside I felt incredibly stressed. Each day was a new opportunity to obsess just a little bit more about when the acquisition would finally close.

And then finally it did. Except that it didn’t go through, it fell through.

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Cutting Out the Noise

entrepreneurship zen general

I keep noticing a recurring theme in my hobbies and in business: cut out the noise and focus only on the essential.

It seems so simple, but the fascinating thing about life is that the things and people we encounter so rarely do cut through the noise. Instead it seems like most endeavors of consequence are messy, complicated and hard, and it’s not always clear why.

When you approach almost everything with the mentality of “how do I cut out the noise?” life becomes a very magical experience where a little effort in the right place can yield big results.

I think can think of at least 3 areas of my own life where cutting out the noise yielded big results.

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The Fundamental Entrepreneurship Challenge

entrepreneurship zen general

Thrashing n. To expend a disproportionately high amount of energy relative to the quality of output you receive

When I was younger and looked at successful companies, I simply could not for the life of me understand how they ever went from NOTHING to what they were today. The modern equivalent would be like asking “How did Jamba Juice launch hundreds of stores across the country? How did that start?” It made sense to me that if you raised a massive amount of money and then immediately bought all the capital equipment and hired all the people you needed then you’d at least be capable of serving all the customers, and that the massive revenue from the customers would balance out your massive expenses…but how did it all come to be from NOTHING? It seemed like magic to me.

And from this line of thought I embarked on what I believe is the fundamental fallacy of entrepreneurial thinking: asking the question “what does a company need to do to succeed?”

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Zappos Offers New Hires $3,000 to Quit After 4 Weeks

entrepreneurship zen

This article was posted two years ago, but it’s still a pretty cool concept. Basically, Zappos (the online shoe site that Amazon recently bought) will train new hires for 4 weeks, and then offers them $3,000 to quit. Check it out for yourself.

I feel these kinds of counterintuitive moves have a deeper wisdom in them. Conventional wisdom says “why would ever induce someone who we just spent 4 weeks training to quit?” A more zen approach says “we only want to work with people who really want to work with us, and we believe if they take ‘the offer’ we all saved ourselves the heartache of what would have been inevitable.”

The offer above isn’t perfect and does have its drawbacks, but it’s certainly a concept worth pondering.

Eliminating Distractions

zen

When man’s primary job was to find a way to eat each day, distractions were probably not a big deal. Primitive man had no facebook, no twitter, no IM, no cell phone. He just had a rumbling in his stomach and the grim realization that either he found some food or he and possibly his family wouldn’t make it past winter.

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The Starbucks Paradox

zen

I would say in the past month I had been going to Starbucks an average of 4 times per week. One visit of $4.25 is easy enough to swallow, but when I started running the numbers, I was surprised to learn that $4.25 x 4 days per week x 52 weeks per year = are you telling me I spend almost $900/year sipping a latte?

I long ago realized that the value proposition of Starbucks is much more than just coffee. Howard Schultz’s original vision was not to “make premium coffee and earn a profit,” but to transport the community-ness of espresso cafes he saw in Italy to the USA, where he felt our society had only grown more isolated over time.

Abstract as it may be, I think the stores do ultimately deliver on that concept. I don’t go to Starbucks solely because I like the taste of my drink. I go with a colleague, we know the baristas, we see people we know, it’s close by, it takes about 15 minutes…and so on. Basically, it’s just kind of a nice way to take a break!

Nevertheless, I needed to cut down the frequency. So here’s the strange part.

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