Category: Productivity

Jul 13 2018

More Thoughts on Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

A few weeks ago I read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It helped consolidate some thinking on my part and I sent a few copies out to friends who I knew would have thoughtful and interesting responses. One that came back is very worth reading as it has a healthy critique as well as some personal reflections. The note from my friend after reading Lanier’s book follows.

He makes a reasonable case (obviously with a lot of room to dispute individual points) that social media is “bad” in general and a source of concern. Some of it is old hat but the way he puts it together is certainly helpful. It seems like it would be good if a lot of people read it.

I had two major concerns with it structurally. First, he positions the book as making arguments as to why *the reader* should delete his or her accounts. But as is common these days, it conflates reasons that are self-interested with reasons that might justify a “boycott.” Many of the arguments are not about how the use of social media affects the reader directly as an individual, but rather its systemic effects. Even the economic argument doesn’t work individually – even if I’m a gig economy person, it does not hurt my prospects to use social media, it’s that the BUMMER business model exists at all that causes the problem. It’s all the rage of course to talk about boycotting anything that has any secondary effects we don’t like, but it rarely works, especially as we realize everything affects everything else, which is why people in Boulder who are concerned about CO2 still drive up to the mountains constantly just for fun. So I thought this really weakened the argument that he does not separate the two things. It’s really Three Arguments why you should delete your social media accounts and Seven Arguments why you should Boycott them.

The second concern is that he conflates Google with social media. Last I checked, no one uses Google Plus. Yes, Google has an advertising and manipulation-oriented business model, but it’s extremely different from Facebook and Twitter. I find the ads Google gives me generally useful, and I don’t see Google making me more of an asshole than I already am. It certainly does not make me sad. Yes, search does have the effect of causing SEO and content-poaching and all that stuff, so this distinction connects to my first point. I think the book would have been better if he had made a more clear compare/contrast with Facebook. I do worry that he is a Microsoft employee and he has a Google-is-the-enemy bias. I’d be very open to hearing how Google is bad for me because I have thought about this and I don’t see it (other than the same things that happen when I pass a billboard on the highway or whatever). I also like Chrome Mobile’s news feed – it’s very much tuned to things I find interesting (cosmology, AI, poetry, etc.) in a way that a news site like the NY Times, which thinks that POLITICS is what is important (just like the MSM) – he talks about religion but does not connect the dots that the MSM have elevated politics-is-the-most-important-thing into a form of religion.

From a personal perspective, in the past year, I went through a couple of transformations regarding Facebook (I don’t use Facebook and never really have). The first was after the election I realized I had gotten caught up in the politics-is-important cycle and was posting frequently on it. At some point, I realized I had been sucked in, and mostly stopped posting on current politics. That took a month or two. Then I had a run-in with a particular individual on something controversial I had posted, and it made me realize I too had been sucked into making controversy and drama there. My approach now is only to post things I think my friends will find funny (NOT political satire) or that offer an update on my life. Yes, I mostly post positive things, but generally not competitively. Instead of commenting I just Like posts, or just read them and move on. I mostly ignore the politics or I just smirk at how absorbed and overconfident everyone is. I probably waste a little more time on Facebook than I would like, but I do find that scrolling through stupid dog and cat and political posts and all that sometimes leads me to a post I am really glad I saw. So, noise to signal is high but really what isn’t?

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Jul 9 2018

Relentlessly Turning Input Knobs To 0

I’ve got a lot on my plate. I always do. Presumably, I like it this way because I’d change things if I didn’t. And yes, that’s continuous fodder for conversations with my therapist and with Amy.

I have always tried to ignore the macro, especially short-term dynamics, in the context of my work. I collect a lot of data and like to be well informed. I get this data from lots of different inputs. I regularly play around with the volume on the inputs as well as try different inputs.

One of my key inputs is reading books. I read 50 to 100 books a year (the number seems to be steadily increasing as I get older.) It’s a great joy of mine to sit and read, especially stuff friends recommend to me. I read across all categories and am game to try anything. And I’m willing to quit something I’m not enjoying.

A week ago I read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. While it had a few annoying characteristics (I didn’t love his forced acronym for the BUMMER machine), the insights from it were right on the money. I let it roll around in my head the past week as I considered my own behavior over the last six months.

Basically, I’ve turned down the input knobs on almost all real-time social media inputs to 0. I no longer look at Facebook or Twitter. I never really got Facebook, so I was a Twitter guy, but since mid-2016 engaging with Twitter has simply made me anxious, upset, jangly, and distracted. By the beginning of this year, I was broadcast only – sending out links via Buffer when I saw something I found interesting – but that’s about it.

Until a few months ago, I still had a bunch of inputs turned on. I had a Daily folder, which I’ve opened first thing in the morning for over a decade. The contents would periodically change, but it was always something like RSS Reader, some daily reads, Hacker News, my LinkedIn messages, or Google News.

I deleted my Daily folder a few months ago from my browser bar. The inputs were distracting me instead of informing me.

I’ve been using Sanebox for two years to filter out all the noise from my email. I’ve effectively unsubscribed (or – in Sanebox terms, blackholed) thousands of email newsletters. The ones I want to read each day go into my SaneNews folder, so I don’t read them once a day. The number in that folder is now very small and don’t include anything beyond stuff from the tech industry anymore.

While I haven’t deleted my social media accounts, I have turned all the inputs way down. For work, I’m very focused on my existing portfolio, Foundry Group business, and my writing. Beyond that, I’m spending my time with books and with people.

I feel different than I did six months ago. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel in six more months.

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Aug 25 2017

Saying No 100 Times A Day

Given my role in the world, I say no a lot.

I get hundreds of unsolicited emails a day, often asking me to get together, invest, or look at something. Lots of VCs and execs who I know simply ignore and don’t respond to these emails. I’ve always tried to at least respond to them unless they are clearly a mass email.

A long time ago I learned how to quickly identify what I don’t want to spend time on, which I wrote about in 2009 in my post titled Saying No In Less Than 60 Seconds. As time has passed, I’ve tuned this filter more, as the volume of requests has gone up.

It’s not a burden to receive the requests. It used to be a burden to say no, but it isn’t anymore. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why, how it used to affect me, and how it affects me now.

I’m fundamentally an information synthesizer. I want more, not less, data. I want it from a diverse range of inputs. My brain does a good job of storing away bits and pieces of the stuff I see, read, and hear (although I’m worst at hearing – I much prefer seeing or reading) and brings them back to the forefront connected to other things at the appropriate moment. That’s one of the reasons I read such a diverse set of books.

But I don’t need a lot of data to make a decision as to whether I want to spend time on something. I’m already extremely booked up, so if I don’t say no as often, and as quickly as I do, I can’t begin to imagine what things would look like in my world. While I’m open to lots of new things, I only want to spend time on things that interest me or that I feel like I can add something to.

The one downside of this is that a lot of my schedule is a reactive one, where I’m spending time on things because I said yes to a request. I believe this is part of my job and it can be a satisfying part of my existence. But, when it gets out of balance with all the actual proactive work I need – or want – to do, it often causes me to have lost stretches of time like I did this summer.

I’m sitting in Amy’s office with my laptop catching up on stuff today. I’ve already told about 20 people no so far as I went through my emails from yesterday and overnight that I hadn’t yet responded to. I’m sure I’ve got another 20 after I finish this post, at which point I’ll start attacking my weekly non-urgent to-do list. The music Amy chose is nice and mellow, the sun is shining, and I’m calm and contemplative after a full week.

If I say no to you, realize that it rarely has something to do with the quality of your idea or you as an individual. Instead, it’s about me and how I want to spend my time. I know there’s often dissonance in that, especially if you are a founder who is trying to get my attention because they’d like me to be an investor in their company. But realize that by saying no quickly, I’m respecting you and your time by not wasting it.

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May 30 2016

Writing, Running, and Reading

Snoopy in SummertimeIt’s summertime and Snoopy is happy.

I’m happy also. Summer is my favorite season. I’ve always been at my most creative in the summer and some of the profound life experiences that influenced me happened during the summer.

When I was a pre-teen, summer meant tennis. Endless tennis. Eight+ hours a day in the Texas heat except for the three weeks I went to Camp Champions.  It was awesome. I remember one summer with over 30 days of temperatures over 100 degrees. A break for lunch inside at the North Dallas Racquet Club felt really decadent. It was always a challenge to get back outside at 1pm, but we did it. And kept playing tennis.

I spent the summer between 11th grade and 12th grade living in Knightsbridge, just outside of London, and working for Centronics at their office in South Kensington. I wrote software on an Apple ][ to design the character sets for Centronics printers, ran a lot, learned how to drink beer, got into the drama of the Falklands War, and endured a Tube strike.

In college, summer meant going back home to Dallas. I worked for PetCom for several summers, putting in 80 – 100 hours per week writing software. Then one summer I rented a house at 2430 Denmark in Garland, Texas from my mom where Feld Technologies really got its start. I drove my mom’s Mercedes 240D around that summer – it went from 0 to 60 in about two minutes.

You get the idea. Every summer is a different adventure for me. Several years ago I wrote Startup Communities and Startup Life over the summer. This summer I’m finishing up the 3rd Edition of Venture Deals and writing the first draft of my newest book #GiveFirst. I’m gearing up to be in marathon shape with the goal of running the Portland Marathon in October. And I plan to make a healthy dent in my infinite pile of books.

This summer is going to be about writing, running, and reading. While the rest of the US is playing politics, I’m going to side step that since I expect the amount of negative energy around it will be legendary this cycle. I’m in a great rhythm around our portfolio and investing so I know what that tempo will be like. And, while I’ll travel a little, Amy and I planning on spending the summer in Boulder.

I’ll see you around town, if you are here. And now, I’m off for a two hour run.

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Mar 8 2015

Dealing With Email From Oldest to Newest

A few days ago, David Brown at Techstars wrote a great post titled “Staying Organized with Workflow” about how he stays organized. Brown and I work across the hall from each other and interact regularly. Often he’ll send me a note about something and I’ll just wander over and talk to him. He’s always available, super responsive on email, and very good at having a three minute meeting that results in a decision.

There was one thing in his approach that was something I used to do a long time ago, but stopped doing when I started using Gmail.

“Email Order. I process my email from oldest to newest. Yes, I cheat sometimes and answer a new one, but I try not to. It’s harder in Gmail because you can’t sort chronologically, but I just start at the bottom.”

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far far away when I used Outlook, I processed my email in chronological order – oldest at the top. Gmail doesn’t let you reverse the sort order from newest at the top, so I just got out of the habit of this. But when I get behind on email by a few days and end up with 100 or more to grind through, I always go to the bottom and work backwards.

When I saw Brown’s note, I thought “duh.” Often, I have an almost empty inbox (as I do now – there is literally one message in it – read, but not responded to – right now.) So, even when there are 17 brand new emails, just clicking on the bottom one and reading backwards works just fine. In fact, it’s even better in the current world than my previous Outlook galaxy because of conversation mode.

Unlike Brown, I don’t use tasks or filters. I find that when I move things to a task list, I’m literally exiling them to the land of never-get-done. The only exception is longer form writing that is not urgent, which I just star in Gmail, archive, and periodically grind through my starred folder.

Regardless of the process you use, contemplate reverse the order of response from oldest to newest. If you aren’t going to do something with an email, just archive or delete it – don’t let it sit there. And, if you want some additional good tips, go read Brown’s post Staying Organized with Workflow.

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Oct 15 2014

How to Find the Time to Accomplish Anything

Guest Post By William Hertlingwilliamhertling.com (Author)

William Hertling is a web strategist, programmer, father, short-order cook and the author of two award-winning and best-selling techothrillers: Avogadro Corp: The Singularity is Closer than It Appears and A.I. Apocalypse. You can follow him at @hertling or on his blog, williamhertling.com.

Maybe you want to write an app or a book. Maybe you want to start a business or learn to play the piano. Maybe you just want to kick butt in your day job. If there’s anything at all that you’ve wanted to do, but struggle to find the time and energy to do it, the tips below will help.

In the last five years, I’ve managed to find the time to write, publish and promote multiple books, including two award-winning bestsellers, develop a web application, maintain a blog, and present at conferences. I did all that while still excelling at my day job and actively raising three young children.

I’m not here to brag, but I do want to emphasize that if I can do all that while raising twins (twins!), then you too can find the time and drive to accomplish something big, whether that’s starting a business, developing a mobile app, or writing a book.

I’m going to share a bit of my own personal path as well as nine key techniques to making time, creating personal drive, and prioritizing activities that you enable you to accomplish anything.

Enter the Craziness

In 2002, I met Libba and Gifford Pinchot, cofounders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, at a retreat. The two tried to convince me to enroll in their new MBA program focused on sustainable business. I protested, saying that I was too busy. Libba said something similar to, “You can be busy for the next two years, or you can be busy for the next two years and get an MBA.” I ultimately chose to be busy and get the MBA.

Life may seem busy, but it always seems busy. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid taking on a new project. (I ultimately finished that MBA program while working full-time and with a newborn child, whom I brought to class with me.)

Once I was enrolled in the program, I grew to become friends with Libba and Gifford, frequently staying at their home. I noticed that Gifford worked all the time. Other than short breaks to play disc golf or to participate in drumming circles, I never noticed Gifford partaking in what I then considered relaxation activities: watching television or just sitting around doing nothing. I asked him about this. He told me that when he was doing what he loved to do, then it was enjoyable. The joy of accomplishing something worthwhile exceeded the joy he received from more mundane activities like passively consuming entertainment.

I should also mention that Gifford did take summers partially off: he would work only a third or half of the day, and spent the remaining time outdoors, chopping wood, kayaking, going on hikes, or doing woodworking projects.

The Nine Principles

Accomplishing something is a combination of having a goal (e.g. finishing a novel), making effort toward that goal (e.g. sitting down to write for an hour each morning), and making the most effective use of the effort (a combination of efficiency and priorities).

There are many techniques I use, but I want to share the most important.

The Only Person I Have to Cheat is Myself

Purpose: Fostering motivation and focus

When I was writing my first novel, Avogadro Corp, I would spend my most productive time writing in coffee shops. I developed a rule for myself: I imagined that if anyone in the coffee shop saw me surfing Facebook or the web, they’d laugh at me: “He doesn’t have anything better to do than surf Facebook.”

The sad truth is that on a moment by moment basis, it was vaguely satisfying to check in on Facebook and see what my friends were doing. But the time I had in the coffee shop was precious: carefully carved out of my daily schedule, limited to an hour or two at most. I could spend that time on Facebook, but at the cost of not writing. Or I could write, which might be painful on a minute by minute basis, but was immensely satisfying as I saw my novel take form.

In effect, I was using willpower (as facilitated by imagined peer ridicule) to exercise self-control to work on what was most important to me.

The notion that willpower is an exhaustible resource, also known as ego depletion, has been much discussed regularly. However, a 2010 study found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion”. (My emphasis added.)

In my own experience with weight loss, I found that the trick to avoid exhausting my willpower was to decrease the amount of time spent thinking about it. When trying to lose thirty pounds in 2011, I found myself thinking at length about the cookies, cake, and ice cream I was passing up, trying to rationalize whether I could have a small piece, what the effect might be, and whether I even wanted to lose weight. After many days of agonizing over my desire for sweets, I realized that no one else cared whether I ate those sweets or if I was fat or thin or somewhere in between. No parent, teacher, friend or spouse was going to tell me what to do, and quite frankly, I was exhausted debating it with myself.

I developed a simple mantra: “The only person I have to cheat is myself.” Instead of spending a great deal of mental energy over every sweet craving, I shortcut the process.

The phrase embodies three ideas: That your goals are important to you, you’ll disappoint yourself if you don’t focus on achieving them, and you can’t escape responsibility by expecting someone else to step in.

This simple mantra works for any goal you’ve decided is important to you.

Prioritizing the Three Most Important Actions

Purpose: Free up time and increase effectiveness

Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is loved by some and reviled by others. Part lifestyle choice, part time management, part promotion and marketing, and part entrepreneurship, the book advocates minimizing the time invested in traditional jobs.

One of the techniques Tim recommends is to start the day with a list of the top one to three most important actions for the day that lead towards your higher goals. Focus on those actions until they are complete. Then you’re free to spend the rest of the day however you want.

I believe that without clear priorities on what will achieve the most, most of us will fritter away the day on email and menial tasks. All that busy work is procrastination that avoids the most important tasks.

I used this principle while working at Hewlett-Packard. Each morning I’d spend ten minutes thinking about the most important things I could do that day to achieve my higher level work objectives. I‘d do the first before I’d check email for the day. Then I’d work on the second and third.

By remaining truly focused on the few most important things, we can be far more effective than we are otherwise. During this period, I helped Hewlett-Packard save on the order of ten million dollars a year on customer support costs, roughly a 100x return on my salary.

This principle not only helps you be more effective at what you’re doing, it helps you free up the time to do more. If I finished the three most important things I needed to do, and it was only two o’clock in the afternoon, I felt that I earned the right to choose how to spend the rest of my day. I might choose to fritter it away on menial tasks and email at HP, or I could choose to invest it in new interesting projects at HP, or I could leave early and go work on my own projects.

Stacking Functions: The Permaculture Principle

Purpose: Task efficiency

There’s a permaculture principle known as stacking functions, the notion that everything you plant in a garden should serve at least three functions. For example, an apple tree might provide fruit to eat, shade for another plant, and beautify your landscape.

This principle can also be employed towards work. As a blogger, I’m always looking for good content. If I need to research something for my job, or write a forum response to a question, I leverage that content and turn it into a blog post. My blog posts, in turn, get repurposed into books.

When I surf the web to read about the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence (fodder for my scifi novels), I use bufferapp to schedule out tweets to articles of interest. I’m researching at the same time I’m engaging with readers.

In my day job, I’m the first to volunteer to take on challenges like learning CSS and javascript, skills that I can then apply to refining my own website.

Anything can be stacked. With three kids and full work and writing schedules, I don’t get much time for social outings. So when my writing critique group meets, I bring a flask of bourbon.

Avoid Time Sinks (aka Why All-Clad is better than a Nintendo DS)

Purpose: Free up time

In 2006, I’d gotten a check for my birthday, and was wondering what to spend it on. My friend Gene Kim, cofounder of Tripwire and author of When IT Fails, suggested I get a handheld gaming device. (This was before smartphones.) He promised that it was not only a ton of fun, but that the games were playable in five minute increments. But as I had three kids in diapers, I couldn’t possibly imagine having even five minutes.

That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t bring anything into my life that consumed more time. No matter how awesomely great the handheld game console was, I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it if it required a new investment of time. I could only bring things into my life that either reduced an existing time investment or replaced time spent.

I pondered this for some time, and eventually decided to spend my money on an All-Clad pan. I already spent time cooking. An insanely great pan would improve my quality of life doing something I was already doing.

Although I don’t have kids in diapers any more, I still think about the stuff and activities I bring into my life, and consider whether they require a time investment, create time savings, or are a one for one replacement.

Outsource

Purpose: Free up time and maintain focus

Gifford and Libba Pinchot ran a consulting business, authored multiple groundbreaking business books and founded an MBA school, all while raising three children. They were smart, passionate, hard-working people, but at some point, that’s not enough.

Guess what? They hired someone else to wash the dishes and clean the house.

Outsourcing household work (cleaning and yardwork) is often one of the first steps. But it’s sometimes harder to figure out the next step.

After I published Avogadro Corp, I knew that I wanted to send review copies to newspapers, bloggers, and other folks in the tech industry. At the same time, I needed to be blogging and engaging online. And I needed to work on the sequel. I simply could not do all this in the time I had.

I was able to hire a friend to work about ten hours a week over the course of a month to research outlets, draft cover letters, and send out review copies. For my second novel, I hired someone to research Amazon’s top reviewers for me.

The trick to outsourcing creative work is to have a clearly defined goal (e.g. send a copy to each person in this 150 row spreadsheet, with a cover letter customized to them), and to set up a review point part-way into the work (e.g. “Draft all the material for the first ten rows, and let me review it before you go on.”)

Are you concerned about the investment? Are you wondering how you could justify spending money on an activity that might only be a hobby? In my experience, once I’m investing money, I’m even more motivated to ensure that I’m using my own time wisely. If I’m going to spend $15 an hour to have someone else do something, I want to be using my own time to do something worth way more than $15 an hour.

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Idea

Purpose: Increase kung fu and avoid procrastination

Gifford Pinchot used to say “early learning beats better planning”, and in some ways, this is the entire mantra of the startup movement. Tech startups succeed so often because they excel at doing and learning from their doing, while big corporations excel at planning.

There’s a relatively famous quote from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Jason Glaspey used to give a talk called Build Something, Build Anything. Jason, who has built multiple successful businesses from scratch, also emphasizes that every new project is a learning opportunity. He interviewed me a few months ago, and we discussed how I’d ping-ponged back and forth: Competing for the Netflix Prize taught me about recommendation engines, which led me to create a customer support recommendation engine at HP, a wishlist recommendation engine for Facebook, and finally led me to write a science-fiction novel in which recommendations engines lead to the first sentient computer software.

If you were to judge it by personal financial success, competing for the Netflix Prize, the Facebook app, and the HP project were all failures, because none of them netted me anything. (OK, I drew a salary while at HP.) But they did lead to expanding my social network, new technical expertise, speaking opportunities at SXSW Interactive, freedom to pursue new projects at HP, and the idea to write a best-selling novel.

Build something, build anything. Cultivate a maker mentality, and improve the quality of what you do.

Cultivate a peer group of similarly driven people

Purpose: Increase motivation, focus, and personal skills

It’s been shown in dieting, exercise, and smoking and alcohol cessation, that the most important group that will either help or hinder you to make changes in your habits is your peer group.

The most important relationship you can cultivate is with your spouse or partner. Fortunately, my spouse, Erin, is also a do-er: competing in triathlons and half-marathons, founding the band Ruby Calling, and recording music. We support each other in our goals and accomplishments.

Having friends like the Pinchots, Gene Kim, and Jason Glaspey is also inspiring, challenging, and educational.

Friends who do things inspire and challenge you to do more. Keeping up with the Joneses has a whole new meaning. And, of course, they can help you.

Gene and I get together at least monthly to share our objectives and talk things through. Occasionally we can offer direct help (I edited a scene in his book, he’s critiqued much of my writing), but the real help comes in the form of advice: “Are you sure that’s the highest priority? Have you considered X? Here’s how to calculate break-even point in sales.”

Telecommute

Purpose: Free up time and increase focus

If you have the option to telecommute, it can be a great productivity enhancer. I telecommuted three or four days a week for eight years. By doing this, I gained about ninety minutes back per day that would otherwise have been spent commuting to work, transitioning between spaces, and other inefficiencies. That’s about six hours a week: nearly an entire workday of gained time.

But more importantly, I could maintain a higher focus on the most important priorities, which both increased my effectiveness (because I only worked on the things with the biggest impact) and freed up more time (because once I was done with the highest priority tasks, I could decide how to spend my time.)

Some question the effectiveness of telecommuting. I don’t. It was during this time that I contributed the most to my employer. I had the freedom to imagine what would make the biggest impact to my organization and then to implement without the distractions that come from the office environment.

I still enjoyed my one or two days a week in the office, and used these mostly as networking activities to connect face to face with coworkers.

Minimum Viable Product

Purpose: Avoid procrastination and increase efficiency

Don’t do more than necessary. I could write about more techniques. But the more time I spent writing this, the less time I have to edit my next novel or spend with my kids. When you’ve reached the minimum viable product, it’s time to stop.

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Feb 21 2014

Bow In, Bow Out

A month ago, the Yesware leadership team came to Boulder for an offsite, a few customer visits, a several hour strategy meeting with me, and then a nice dinner with me at Kasa.

Before we started the strategy meeting, Matthew Bellows led us in a brief ritual where we “bowed in” to the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we all “bowed out.” I loved it – it set the tone of respect for each other at the start of the meeting and signaled the end of the meeting when we bowed out.

A few weeks ago, we had a Yesware board meeting. Matthew once again had us bow in to the meeting. This time there was a little bit of nervous laughter around the board table as it was the first time the full board had been exposed to this ritual. It wasn’t a negative tittering, just the sounds of a group encountering something unusual, interesting, and requiring some emotional intimacy while trying to process it in the moment.

Once again I loved it. It got me thinking about two things: (1) the importance of respect as a core value and (2) traditions that scale across the company.

Let’s start with respect. I’ve written about this many times on this blog. In 2004 I wrote a post titled TDC (Thinly Disguised Contempt)I learned about TDC from Alan Trefler, the CEO of Pega, who I don’t spend much time with but view as a long time friend and someone I’ve learned a lot from over the years. Early on at Feld Technologies, I learned how incredibly toxic TDC was and how critically important respect was. Respect for the people I work with, and the elimination of TDC from my mental state and behavior, is a core value of mine. Sure – I fail at it sometimes, but I keep practicing.

I have immense respect for Matthew as an entrepreneur and CEO. I’ve learned a lot from the few years I’ve worked with him. His calmness, even in moments of stress is powerful. The monastic culture he’s created at Yesware is inspiring. His execution as a leader, and the performance and cohesiveness of his team, is delightful to be part of.

Bowing in and bowing out made me gleeful. It was another wonderful example of something I could use in lots of other places and another thing I learned from Matthew. As I mulled it over, I realized the specific act wasn’t the key thing, but the power of a tradition that scales across the company. Bowing in and bowing out before and after each meeting. The gong that gets rung at Gnip every time a new sale is made or partner deal is signed. Or Paid PAID vacation at FullContact.

The combination of respect for every individual in the company combined with scalable traditions are incredibly powerful.

On Wednesday my partners and I had our monthly offsite. One of our rituals is a “check in” where we go around the table and each of us talks for as long as we want about how we are doing. Sometimes it’s a short discussion, other times it’s a long discussion. Since we do it monthly, nothing can build up. It’s similar to the monthly life dinner that I do with Amy – introspective, emotionally aware, and open. Some of these sessions have been incredibly powerful – on this one I had tears in my eyes at one moment as I was expressing appreciation for something my partners had done for me. And all of us had a powerful moment of calibration for everything we are feeling right now.

On Thursday I spent the morning with the Bullet Time Ventures team. This is the fund that David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars, founded. My partners and I are investors and huge supporters. The team was having an offsite and they asked me to participate in some of the discussion. I gave them a lot of suggestions and answered a lot of question, but one moment near the end stuck out in my mind when I was asked how my partners and I have managed to develop and sustain the deep personal and professional relationship we have, even with all the stress and conflict inherent in our business. I said that one of our deeply held beliefs is that we “never wear our armor to a meeting.” We call this being intellectually honest and emotional pure with each other. And it’s another example of linking respect with a scalable tradition – we never want to wear our armor in any of our interactions with each other.

Matthew – thank you for the gift of bow in and bow out. Both the specific action, and the reflection on the meaning of it.

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Nov 25 2013

It’s An Agile World

My post on How to Fix Obamacare generated plenty of feedback – some public and some via email. One of the emails reinforced the challenge of “traditional software development” vs. the new generation of “Agile software development.” I started experiencing, and understanding, agile in 2004 when I made an investment in Rally Software. At the time it was an idea in Ryan Martens brain; today it is a public company valued around $600 million, employing around 400 people, and pacing the world of agile software development.

The email I received described the challenge of a large organization when confronted with the kind of legacy systems – and traditional software development processes – that Obamacare is saddled with. The solution – an agile one – just reinforces the power of “throw it away and start over” as an approach in these situations. Enjoy the story and contemplate whether it applies to your organization.

I just read your post on Fixing the Obamacare site.

It reminds me of my current project at my day job. The backend infrastructure that handles all the Internet connectivity and services for a world-wide distributed technology that was built by a team of 150 engineers overseas. The infrastructure is extremely unreliable and since there’s no good auditability of the services, no one can say for sure, but estimates vary from a 5% to 25% failure rate of all jobs through the system. For three years management has been trying to fix the problem, and the fix is always “just around the corner”. It’s broken at every level, from the week-long deployment processes, the 50% failure rate for deploys, and the inability to scale the service.

I’ve been arguing for years to rebuild it from scratch using modern processes (agile), modern architecture (decoupled web services), and modern technology (rails), and everyone has said “it’s impossible and it’ll cost too much.”

I finally convinced my manager to give me and one other engineer two months to work on a rearchitecture effort in secret, even though our group has nothing to do with the actual web services.

Starting from basic use cases, we architected a new, decoupled system from scratch, and chose one component to implement from scratch. It corresponds roughly to 1/6 of the existing system.

In two months we were able to build a new service that:

  • scales to 3x the load with 1/4 the servers
  • operates at seven 9s reliability
  • deploys in 30 seconds
  • implemented with 2 engineers compared to an estimated 25 for the old system

Suddenly the impossible is not just possible, it’s the best path forward. We have management buy-in, and they want to do the same for the rest of the services.

But no amount of talking would have convinced them after three years of being entrenched in the same old ways of doing things. We just had to go build it to prove our point.

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Oct 16 2013

I’m A Talking Rubber Duck

Phin Barnes at First Round Capital just nails it today with his post To get the most out of your investors, turn them into rubber ducks

Go read it – I’ll wait and will be here when you get back.

I love Rubber Duck Debugging. I use this approach when writing, which I call “Writing with Yoda.” I have a little Yoda figurine staring at me at all times and when I stall out I just talk to him for a little while and then get started again. He always looks serene and wise and I almost always get going after talking to him for a little while.

Phin describes five steps to turn your investors into rubber ducks:

  • Frame the problem you are facing: describe the challenge in enough detail that I can understand it without being an expert (because I am probably not an expert)
  • Create context for an answer: Explain why this problem is a priority for you and the business and why you need to solve it now (because I am not involved in the day to day operation of your company)
  • Propose a few solutions: Describe a few paths you might take and talk through how you would choose between them (this helps me understand the outcome you want to achieve)
  • Be patient: Be open and engage deeply in the questions that I have and explain your answers with specific detail (even if it seems obvious)
  • Be active: The goal is to debug the system and the builder is most likely to find the bugs we seek (and to see others along the way)

These are similar to how to engage a great mentor, which we teach over and over again in Techstars – both to the entrepreneurs and the mentors. If you’ve ever done a Top of Mind Drill with me, you’ll recognize the Rubber Duck approach with one twist – storytelling.

I’m a storyteller. I learned this from my dad. It’s part of why I love to write – it’s a way for me to think out loud and figure stuff out while telling stories. So – my favorite Rubber Ducks are the ones who can also tell stories, at the right time.

The risk of a Rubber Duck only approach as a VC is that you become overly socratic. We all know the VC who just asks question after question after question. The questions are often good, and they drive you deeper into the problem, but at some point you need to take a break. You need a breath from answering more questions. You need an analogy to relate to.

This is when the Rubber Duck should tell a story.

At a board meeting recently, the CEO looked at me and said “just tell me the fucking answer.” So I did. And that works also. But not until the CEO wants that. Until then, be a Rubber Duck.

Remember – the CEO makes the decision, not the VC. Unless the CEO explicitly asks. And – if as a VC you don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, you have that discussion with the CEO right now. And if you are a CEO who’s VCs aren’t letting you make the decisions, buy them some Rubber Ducks.

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Jan 22 2013

Urban Airship Meeting Rules

I love Scott Kveton, the CEO of Urban Airship. He and his team are building an amazing company in Portland. If you do anything mobile-related and use push notifications of any sort, or real-time location targeting, you need to be talking to them. But even more impressive is how Scott leads his company.

The other day, I got an email from my partner Jason with a photo of the Urban Airship Meeting Rules posted on the wall. They are so logical as to be rules that should apply to every meeting at every startup from now until forever.

Urban Airship Meeting Rules

0. Do we really need to meet?

1. Schedule a start, not an end to your meeting – its over when its over, even if that’s just 5 minutes.

2. Be on time!

3. No multi-tasking … no device usage unless necessary for meeting

4. If you’re not getting anything out of the meeting, leave

5. Meetings are not for information sharing – that should be done before the meeting via email and/or agenda

6. Who really needs to be at this meeting?

7. Agree to action items, if any, at the conclusion of the meeting

8. Don’t feel bad about calling people out on any of the above; it’s the right thing to do.

I particularly love 0, 1, and 4. I rarely walk out of a meeting when I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to start paying more attention to this one.

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