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Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

What money can buy

A while back, I mentioned Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life. One of the points Needleman makes is that for almost any problem in life there is a very specific amount of money that will solve it.

If you are building a software company and have figured out how to scale, there is usually a specific amount of money that will help you execute your plan. This is what VC’s provide.

If you have an incredible idea but no time to build it, a specific amount of money will allow you to quit your job to focus on your startup. An angel investor might provide this.

If you are sick of hosting your own blog, there is a specific amount of money that will help you remove that problem from your life.

If you want your son to be a racecar driver when he grows up, there is a specific amount of money you can expect to invest in that goal.

If you want to impress your sweetie on Valentine’s Day, you can think of a specific budget to lavish her with gifts, flowers, and a dinner at a fancy restaurant.

BUT … there are some problems that can’t be solved entirely with money – it’s important to know the difference.

Happy Valentine’s Day – spend some time today appreciating the things that money can’t buy.

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Envision then do

You have to know exactly how you want the music to sound in your head, hear exactly how it actually sounds in the room, then bring the two as close together as possible.

That’s paraphrasing a knighted British conductor – I read the quote at school more than twenty years ago and since then haven’t been able to find who actually said it. If you know, please tell me.

When you get pretty good at something, you can start doing it without thinking. Perhaps you can get up in front of people without having to prepare or write without having anything to say. Maybe you can start hacking away on a software project before you really know what you want it to do.

In some ways that’s good. If you want to improve your craft, you have to do it. Sometimes it’s best just to dive in and see what happens.

Sometimes it’s not so good. You can spend an afternoon or a week or a year building something that nobody wants.

So it makes sense to balance doing with envisioning. Before you sit down to practice your craft, ask yourself the simple question, “What am I trying to accomplish?” Picture the outcome in your head. What does it look like? How do I get there?

Got it in your mind? Good. Now sit down and make it happen …

BUT – as that conductor pointed out, the “music” you envision in your head never sounds exactly the same as the music in the room.

On the way to building the software you envisioned, you found shortcuts or obstacles or serendipitous detours. Sometimes you have to plow past these to realize your vision – but sometimes you have to alter your vision to take advantage of what your software and your customers tell you. Building software is an ongoing negotiation between what’s desirable and what’s possible.

Whether you’re creating software, making music, writing a blog, or sculpting, the goal is to maintain a lofty vision while bringing your vision and your reality as close together as possible.

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There are some things in life where it’s important to do a great job. For example, the difference between being an OK musician and a great musician is an enormous amount of work … but it’s worth it, both to the musician and the audience.

Surprisingly, there are things where it’s NOT important to do a great job – it’s only important to do it. And trying to do a great job where you shouldn’t can actually prevent you from doing a great job where you should.

I thought about this yesterday while shoveling snow. The difference between shoveling and not shoveling is huge – you can’t get your car out of the driveway if you don’t clear a path. But the difference between shoveling and shoveling perfectly is insignificant. Does it really matter if there are little strips of snow between shovel strokes? Does it really matter if the sidewalk has perfectly square edges? No. It’s snow – it’s going to melt eventually anyway. Just push the snow around to clear a path for your car and clear a path for pedestrians as quickly as possible – time saved doing a mediocre job shoveling is time that can be spent doing something more worthwhile.

So what about building a startup – is there anything like shoveling snow in a startup, something that’s more important to DO than to DO WELL?

One thing that comes to mind is managing email. Fred Wilson spoke about email the other day – he gives it an hour in the morning, an hour at night, and maybe an hour in the middle. He does what he can during that time, but he’s not willing to invest more in the overall process. For him, “doing email” seems to be like my shoveling the driveway – just get as much of it done as possible, but it can never be perfect.

I’ve never emailed Fred Wilson, but I have corresponded with Brad Feld and Seth Godin, two other famous startup people who receive a shocking amount of email yet respond personally to any reasonable request, usually within 24 hours (in fact usually within 5 minutes). How do they do it?

For starters, their emails (at least to me) are very short. They trust that I will be thrilled to get a reply from them, so they don’t bother setting me up with useless niceties like “It’s very nice to meet you, Patrick …” It’s more likely to be a reply like “thanks” or “yes” or “not at this time.” Seth once gave me very quick feedback that I wrote something “generous,” which meant a lot to me, coming from him. I once asked Brad for an interview, and he simply replied back, including his assistant, saying “+1 [assistant’s name] please schedule.”

I want to be the kind of person who replies back to every email I receive and doesn’t leave loose ends. I am not that person yet – not even close. To get there, I’m pretty sure I need to learn what Brad and Seth (and probably Fred) were forced to learn a long time ago – it’s better to get email done than to get it done perfectly. If I don’t have an answer for a request, I’ve got to learn to reply back with something like “I have forwarded your message to a colleague, and I will let you know when I hear back” or even “I don’t know, but I will let you know if I find out.” That’s better than what I do now, which is stroke my chin, put it in a “tickler” folder that gets buried worse than my inbox, and never get back to it.

I want to answer every email with a wonderful nugget of helpfulness, but I simply can’t. Too often, that reality ends up burying me, which gets me down. And that feeling of defeat impacts my ability to do the rest of my job well.

The fancy word for this is satisficing: “a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.” Every email requires a decision. If you attempt to maximize every one of those decisions, you will never “finish” your email. That leaves you with a stack of unmade decisions which is worse than a stack of adequate – but completed – decisions.

Email is never going away. I just need to learn how to do each one a little bit more poorly – it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s counterintuitive, but the end result is actually “doing email” better.

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A warm welcome

Last night was the holiday party for Microsoft’s West Michigan office. I work at home, and I report into a different organization than most of the people who work around here – heck, my boss is based in St. Louis – so I only get to see my local coworkers once or twice a year. The last time I saw people like Tom and Matthew and Kim and Robert and Nate was at last year’s holiday party.

I had a conflicting work call (Smart Bear Live recording), so I walked in late to the dinner. Like many people, I have slight social awkwardness about such situations, essentially thinking “I wonder if any of these people will remember me?” But when I walked in, I was greeted so warmly that I was almost embarrassed. It was a really good feeling.

After dinner at The BOB, we went upstairs to the comedy club and watched a pretty decent open mic followed by two quite funny professional comics. All in all, it was a very pleasant night.

Driving home, I remembered how nice my coworkers made me feel when I walked in, and I couldn’t help but ask myself – how often do I make other people feel that way? Something to think about.

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A little hungry

Don’t forget – Smart Bear Live recording is today, 2/9/2012 at 5p EST with special guest VC Mark Suster! Join us at Jason’s BlogTalkRadio channel.

A friend posted a recent video of me speaking (no, I’m not linking to it), and I have to confess … I looked fat. Not terrible, but not good. When I crossed my arms – as apparently I am prone to do – they tended to rest on my belly a bit. Not a good look. It didn’t help that I was wearing a t-shirt that was a bit on the tight side. Can’t rock that right now.

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My wife tells me I just need to dress better, and I am going to work on that. My weight hasn’t fluctuated from 155/156 for several months, so at least I’m not increasing. I can afford a couple of gut-hiding outfits.

I don’t believe in diets per se – if I want to lose weight, I assume I need to slowly consume fewer calories than I burn. I have to create a slight calorie deficit and maintain that until I reach my target.

I’m only 5’5” so 155 is technically overweight, as my doctor has informed me a couple of times. Last time I ran a marathon, I was down to 132, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to set a target weight of 140. That’s “only” 15 pounds. Surely I can do that.

To get there, I’m going to change just three things in my diet (exercise is a bonus – I’m running every day, but I think it’s time to add some resistance training to the mix). I’m going to eat a smaller lunch – since I’m at home, sometimes I pig out. Can’t do that and lose weight. In the afternoon, around 3p, I’m going to make a point of eating a healthy snack, whether I want one or not. If I don’t, then I’m going to be too tempted to eat junk. Finally, I’m going to give up my beloved cookies with my herbal tea before bed, at least for a while. I’m going to just drink my tea and notice that I’m a tiny bit hungry.

Thank goodness it’s 3p, because I am a little hungry now – time for a banana.

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Don’t break the chain

I read where someone asked Jerry Seinfeld the secret to success. “Don’t break the chain,” he said.

He was referring to a chain of big Xs you make on a calendar … You figure out what’s important to you, and then you do that thing every day. When you do it, you get to cross off that day, making a chain of days in a row …

Don’t break the chain.

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Autosave

My 8-year-old son Gus just had a nice day recovering from a great gymnastics meet by staying in his pajamas all day and alternating make-up homework (he was sick most of last week) with lengthy rounds of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, his new game for the XBox.

Gus takes his racing games very seriously … he’ll sometimes spend an hour or more customizing a car with wheels, parts, and decals (it’s kinda like photoshop – I think he’s learning design skills from this). When he’s having trouble overcoming a specific racing challenge … well, let’s just say it gives us all an opportunity to work on anger management principles.

So after a great day of racing and customizing his new game, he turned off the console and then looked horrified. “I forgot to save!” He was crushed. All his “work” from today was lost.

I thought for sure it was a mistake – doesn’t it just save as it goes along? I had him turn the game back on, but sure enough, it was back to where he started the day. Unbelievable.

I did an Internet search to be sure his work wasn’t lost and eventually discovered that you have to go through multiple menu levels to enable “autosave.” Obviously, I did this – if it didn’t have autosave, that game was going in the trash – but what planet were they on when they didn’t enable this by default?

You don’t have to guess what your users prefer … you can measure their behavior patterns. I don’t know if there’s an easy way to get telemetry data for XBox games, but there are various toolkits to measure users’ actions for web, Windows, and phone applications. When choosing default settings, I would tend to err on the side of NOT losing any data and only change that default if my measurements showed a vast majority of users bothered to go into a menu to turn OFF something like autosave. It’s possible EA did the research that proved most users didn’t want autosave on and Gus is an anomaly … but somehow, I doubt it.

I remember my friend Rory repeating his rant that the stupidest question in all of computing is “Do you want to save?” Of course I want to save! Why are you asking me that? Worse – how is it possible to forget asking me that??? Just save it and allow me to revert if necessary.

If you’re a developer, please – PLEASE – make it harder for your users to throw information away than to keep it.

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