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 Power of Frames

social dynamics entrepreneurship

I recently read Pitch Anything by Mr. Oren Klaff and one of the coolest concepts in the book was the idea of “frames.”

A frame is basically the set of beliefs, contexts, and assumptions that implicitly sit behind everything you communicate. The author argues that when two people meet, their frames eventually “clash” and that only one frame can win out. This concept was also discussed in The Game by Neil Strauss, but it was presented there in the context of attracting girls, not clients.

Anyway, after I finished reading Pitch Anything, I have been blessed with a special insight into how I and others think, and to the social dynamics underlying most business transactions.

Take sales, for example. When I first started out doing sales, my mentality was always about understanding what the client was saying as precisely as possible and, to the greatest extent possible, providing him with exactly what he requested. But it turns out that’s not the best way to do business. Often times, I’ve found, people respect when you challenge them because they see it as an opportunity for growth. I realized one day that with myself, when someone challenges me head-on, I find them really interesting and then start engaging about why they disagree.

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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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The Technical Founder Strengths and Weaknesses

entrepreneurship general

“We are hugely in favor of the technical founder. We will generally focus on companies started by strong technologists who know exactly what they want to build and how they are going to build it.” – Marc Andreessen

I’ve always prided myself on being a “technical founder.” Basically, it means that if I were hired as a dedicated software engineer I could make a pretty meaningful contribution to a software product, but that my primary role is to guide the growth of the company as CEO. I used to think that being a technical founder was an absolute advantage over non-technical founders since not only could I do the business thing, but I could really understand at a deep technical level how viable something is, and I also know what’s possible, which enables me to come up with product ideas and visions that non-technical founders might not be able to.

But life has this funny thing where our biggest strength can also be our biggest weakness. The trick is being honest with yourself about what they are.

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Lead Like the Great Conductors

entrepreneurship general

This is a beautiful exposition (and metaphor) on the role of a leader. I’ve often wondered if it’s better to set forth clear guidelines so that everyone knows exactly what to do, or better to provide people a framework within which to “tell their own story” (to use the words of Mr. Talgam in the video below).

Ultimately, I’ve found that different people respond to different styles. But if there is a “default style,” I believe the conductor who empowers the musicians to perform the music in their own style while providing subtle yet meaningful guidance on context, feeling, and intent produces the most beautiful music.

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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A Series of Stresses or A Series of Adventures

entrepreneurship zen

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.

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