Living on $1 / Day

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

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

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

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

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

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?”

What’s wrong with that rather innocent question? Well, it’s missing a critical component that ultimately matters more than anything else.

Time.

If I were speaking to my self from 10 years ago today I would make a very important point of clarifying that the real question is not how can you grow a company to be successful. The real question is, how can you learn to be successful in the shortest possible time?

A college professor once told me: “Given enough time, every single one of you could completely master the subject I’m about to teach.  But the problem is you don’t have enough time and neither do I.  So you’re going to have to figure it out in one semester while you take all your other classes, too.”  What a perfect example of the same phenomenon.  When you go to school, the question isn’t “what can I do, no matter the cost, to get the highest possible grade in this one class”, the question is “how can I get the best grades in all my classes this semester while still having lots of time for fun?”.

I would say for myself that I have experienced more personal and business growth in the last 12 months than in the prior 3 years combined.  One of the fundamental differences?  I’ve started imposing more constraints on myself than just “learning how to be successful.”  I think about how I spend my time on each of my days.  If I feel like I’m thrashing a little bit (see definition at the beginning of the article), then I know something’s wrong and I invest some time to assess what’s going on.

I think one of the main differences for myself is that in the past year I’ve been fortunate enough to find some amazing mentors.  These are people whose accomplishments I am blown away by, who I have a great personal relationship with, and who are willing to give me input on ambiguous issues that come up.  After enough conversations, you basically start to pick up the same patterns of learning and the lessons that they accumulated over a lifetime.  Mentorship, I’ve come to realize, is literally the primary mechanism through which society evolves itself.

I mean, think about it.  If you didn’t know how to write but you knew how to speak, how ridiculously hard would it be to invent this concept of an alphabet, which combines different “letters” together to form “words” which are expressed in “sentences” which are organized in “paragraphs” and annotated by “punctuation.”  Writing is such a basic thing and yet figuring out writing from scratch would take probably a millennium.  But learning writing?  Well, a few years in school.

That’s how it feels since I’ve been fortunate enough to find mentors.  The “learning on my own” process is shortcut by about 99%.

When I think about how much thrashing I’ve done at different periods in my business career, it just makes me sad.  As Mark Cuban says, you can make as many mistakes as you want in business as long as you don’t make a really big one.  So, yeah, I avoided a really big mistake, but I think about how much time I spent on some things that one great conversation with the right person could have saved me from.  I mean, really, think about it.  The idea that a single 1-hour conversation could save you months of work?

And that’s really what it comes down to in the end.  The enemy of entrepreneurial success is not failure.  The real enemy of entrepreneurial success is thrashing.  What would you rather be?  Moderately successful at age 30 where you have another 70 years to apply the lessons you have learned, spend money, earn money, love, live life, grow, etc.  Or ultra-successful at age 80 where you’ve spent the bulk of your life learning how to actually figure out how to be ultra-successful.

Life, of course, rarely presents such black & white choices and the greater point here is really about how given enough time, sure, just about anyone could learn to be as successful as they wanted, but that time is precious, and scarce, and should be spent thoughtfully and purposefully.  A day spent making awesome progress on something you care about is infinitely more satisfying than a day spent thrashing.

 

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

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:

http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/sep2008/sb20080916_288698.htm

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

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.

Well, evolution has given us many wonderful things, but as my man Thoreau once said “You never gain something but that you lose something.”  In other words, when humanity discovered the car, we gained all kinds of wonderful things like being able to travel long distances, but we also lost the joy of just walking to get where we needed to.

And so it is with the Internet.  We gain incredible knowledge, access, communication, and most amazing of all rapid sharing of information and ideas.  But now we’ve lost the simplicity that prior generations had.  Distractions are literally assaulting you all day long.

The purpose of this post is just to admit the problem and link to a new book by Leo Babauta (whom I’ve previously read and enjoyed) on the subject of simplicity in a world full of distractions.  The book is simply called “Focus” and you download a PDF that is completely free (and amazingly uncopyrighted).

Enjoy!

The Starbucks Paradox

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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A Series of Stresses or A Series of Adventures

Although I love what I do, one of the more frustrating aspects of running a business is that YOU are always the bottleneck for everything. The reason we don’t produce sites faster is because I, personally, have to review them. The reason sales are at X but not Y is because I personally have not yet hired the right salesperson and because I personally am too busy to proactively follow up with every single lead. The reason we haven’t developed our new products faster is because I personally have to do some user interface designs but have been busy with other things.

It sounds awful even just writing all that! Actually, the obsession with “I personally” is ultimately I think the completely wrong attitude when it comes to growing a company, but that’s the topic of another post I’ve been germinating lately.

Anyway, one unfortunate side effect of being the bottleneck is that it creates a feeling that I’m never finishing everything I want to, which is stressful. In school, we were always taught that finishing 100% of our homework was a good thing. You worked and worked until you finished what you had to do, and then you go have fun.

But what if you’re in a situation where you will literally NEVER finish all your work?

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