I'm Ryan Waggoner. I build things. I blog about how to work harder and smarter to build the life you want. You should subscribe.
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Why I’m not doing annual goals anymore (hint: it doesn’t work)

Posted in Goals, Habits by

I used to set annual goals (aka New Year’s Resolutions), but like so many others, I typically didn’t accomplish them. So I do a couple things differently now:

1. Break the year into smaller chunks (quarters and months) and do things around those timeframes

For example, I set quarterly goals for a few different areas of my life, like income, or finish a particular phase of a project, etc. The 12 Week Year and Pick Four are both good resources for this.

I also have started doing habit and one-off goals per month. So for 2015, every month I’m doing a set of one positive habits (do something every day), one negative habit (don’t do something at all), and one new experience.

For example, during January I meditated every day (positive habit), abstained from alcohol (negative habit), and tried out cryotherapy (experience). I’ll write up a separate post tomorrow on the monthly habits and experiences, and an overview of how Jan went and what I’m doing for February.

The only exception I can really think of right now is that I have a goal to read 100 books this year (more on this later). I probably should break that down to 25 books per quarter or 8-9 books per month though.

2. Focus my efforts on habits and systems over goals.

This helps me to focus my energy and attention on what’s actionable today, rather than something months away. I do still set some goals, but mainly as a way to calibrate my habits and systems.

So what’s the best way to figure out realistic goals and habits that fit together?

It depends on the topic, but I use one of two methods for goal-setting and habit formation:

Habit first: I look at the progress I’m making with current habits and the trend I’m currently on, and I extrapolate out from there to figure out what a realistic target goal is.

I’ll also typically add bit to the goal so I have to push myself. So if I’m reading an hour a day as a habit, and the books I typically read take 8 hours to finish, that’s ~3 books per month, depending on whether I do that habit on weekends. So I might set a quarterly goal of 10 or 12 books, instead of the nine that my current habit would predict.

Goal first: I look at where I want to be by a particular timeframe and then figure out what I need to do on a daily basis as a habit to reach that goal.

Which I use really depends on the subject. Sometimes I want to accomplish something by a particular date because of other things going on in my life, and I’d use the goal-first method. Mostly I think it’s a good idea to use the habit-first method, as it’s easier to nudge what you’re already doing into better performance than to overhaul everything all at once to meet some lofty goals. Although some things do require you to go cold turkey, so I guess there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule :)

But regardless of which method I use, I do a sanity-check with the opposite method. So if I’m wanting to read 25 books per quarter and I back that out to be 2 books per week, but my current reading habits have me reading a book every other month, I need to be thoughtful about whether I can shift my habits to the degree required to reach my goal.

Sadly, I’ve gotten out of the habit of keeping written goals, and that’s a terrible shortcoming. I think I focused so much on written goals back when I was setting annual goals that I basically got discouraged and felt that written goals weren’t worth focusing on. But in retrospect, I definitely feel that I should be tracking all my goals and habits in one place. I do track my habits, but I’ll be adding my goals to that list as well.

I’d love to hear from you what goals, systems, habits, etc. have worked (or not worked) for you in the past and what you’re doing these days.

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The most common failure mode is failing to show up

Posted in Achievement, Goals, Habits by

Lately, I’ve been worried about one of my projects and whether it is going to be able to provide enough revenue to be viable. I’ve been worrying that I haven’t yet found the right combination of things to do in order to make it all work. Here’s the thing though: I haven’t tried the combinations I have thought of. This project is failing, but it’s not failing because I’m doing the wrong things. It’s failing because I’m not doing anything.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” -Woody Allen

This is something I know, but I forget it constantly. Let me give you a few more examples:

  1. I put off hiring a virtual assistant for forever because I worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage one very well, or that I’d have to put more time into thinking about it than it would save me.
  2. I put off getting back into fitness in a serious way because I worried that I didn’t have the right workout plan.
  3. I put off getting serious about my consulting career because I didn’t think that I’d be able to get the types of gigs that I wanted.
  4. I put off restarting my blogging after taking some time off because I wasn’t sure how it fit into my overall personal brand.
  5. I put off building and selling iOS apps of my own because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make a decent return on my investment.

These are just a few examples from the past few years. I’ve bit the bullet and done all of the above, and most have worked out far better than I expected:

  1. I recently started using a VA service called FancyHands (affiliate link) and so far it’s been great. I’ve had to put a little thought into what I can pass to them, the best way to do it, etc, but so far it’s been a positive experience.
  2. My fitness always goes in cycles where I do well for a few months then not as well for a couple months, etc. I’m working on that, but my periods where I do well almost always start with me going to the gym for a few days and just screwing around, doing whatever exercises I feel like doing, etc. It’s not efficient or effective in terms of the workout, but it starts the momentum and then I gradually get my routine figured out and I’m off to the races.
  3. I should write several posts on my consulting career, but a couple years ago I started getting serious about it in terms of beefing up my skills, charging more, and focusing on my lead pipeline. The results have been amazing, and I’m grateful to have a host of awesome clients. It’s been a lot of work, but I’m enjoying it like I never have.
  4. Just like with the gym, I tend to go in cycles with my blogging. But my posts are always rough and painful when I start again after a long absence. I have trouble coming up with ideas and the writing just feels like a chore. But after a few weeks, I see blog post ideas everywhere, in many day-to-day conversations and experiences. It’s hard to explain, but the whole thing just starts to flow.
  5. On the iOS apps, it turns out I was right to hesitate. I put out a simple app earlier this year, just a toy really, but after that experience, listening to other people selling apps, and looking at how much I make as an iOS contract developer, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be releasing any more iOS apps of my own. Live and learn.

So not all have worked out (yet), but most have. But none of them worked out right away. They all took me showing up and working at it for awhile.

Get momentum, then refine

Momentum is powerful. Call it habit, whatever, but bottom line: it’s easier to keep moving than to start moving.

The easiest thing you can do today is nothing. The second easiest thing you can is planning to do something later. They’re both about as useful. If anything, planning is more dangerous because it makes you feel like you’re making forward progress, but you’re really not.

Do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, just do something. It might not be as wrong as you think, and if it is, you can adjust and do better next time.

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2012 Prediction: an A-list director will fund a film on Kickstarter

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Inspiration, Social Media, Technology by

Here’s my prediction: sometime in 2012, an A-list film director will successfully fund a feature film using Kickstarter.

Kickstarter’s time has come. If you haven’t heard of Kickstarter, you’re about to. If you have, you’ll still find this interesting.

Background

Kickstarter was launched in 2008 as a “crowdfunding” site and it works like this:

Someone who wants to create something (like a film, book, physical gadget, or website) creates a fundraising project. Every project has a deadline and a minimum funding amount, like $25,000. And then the project creator creates a number of pledge amount options ($5, $10, $50, $100, etc) and a prize that goes along with each one (like a t-shirt).

People who want to see that thing be created can pledge those different amounts and if the minimum fundraising goal is reached, their credit cards are charged and they get the prize that corresponds to that pledge level. If they don’t hit the minimum by the deadline, no one gets charged anything.

Pretty simple.

What’s odd is that this actually works. Really, really well. Since they launched, something like 50,000 projects have been launched on Kickstarter, and almost half have been successfully funded. And we’re not talking small numbers either; of the 27k projects launched in 2011, the average pledges collected per project was about $3600.

More on the stats here.

And then you have the monster projects, some of which have raised hundreds of thousands. You can see a list of those here.

So clearly Kickstarter is a really cool way for people to get money for their creative projects. But it’s about to become a lot more.

Two very significant milestones for Kickstarter came last week. The first is that one of their projects passed $1mm in pledges. A product designer put together an amazing iPhone dock and basically sold tens of thousands of pre-orders. Pretty unbelieveable.

But the bigger milestone came when veteran game designer Tim Schafer posted a fundraising project for his new game, Double Fine Adventure. He was trying to raise $400k in 35 days or something.

Instead he hit that $400k in about 8 hours. And the pledges just kept rolling in, hitting $1mm in less than 24 hours. As I write this, it’s at $1.77mm with 27 days left to go. More than 50,000 people have backed the project so far. I fully expect the media will pick this up in the next few days and the project will easily pass $2mm and possibly $3mm.

Something crazy is happening here. Kickstarter is obviously an amazing way for people with no following and no reputation to get their ideas funded. But Tim Schafer has just proven that it’s an amazing way for people with a following to get their stuff funded as well.

If I was a top director with an indie project I wanted to get funded, I’d be out right now shooting a trailer so I could post the mother of all Kickstarter projects. Not because I couldn’t get it funded any other way, but because the impact of having 100,000 or 200,000 donors backing your film would be huge.

While we’re waiting for that moment, what could you put on Kickstarter? Do you have an idea for a cool creative project or a gadget to make people’s lives better? Why not post it? What do you have to lose?

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Reader question: what to charge as a freelancer?

Posted in Development, Education, Entrepreneurship, Goals, Reader Responses by

I got a question last week from a reader named James on how he could start doing freelance web design and development, and how much he should charge. I was pretty brutally honest with him, because I don’t think it’s helpful to sugarcoat things. I’ve posted his question and my answer here, with his URL and last name removed. Hopefully someone else will find it useful.

The Question:

I would like to start freelancing, but I am unsure what my rate should be for the skillset I have to offer. Here is my website: [WEBSITE URL]. What was your rate when you started out?

– James

My Answer:

Hi James,

I think your question about the rate you should charge really depends on a few things, but before we dig into rate, I’d like to make a few comments on your website and how you’re presenting yourself. I’m going to be brutally honest, because no one trying to strike out on their own is well served by false praise.

The Feedback (brutal)

First of all, before we talk about anything else, your domain name is terrible. It sounds like a russian spammer site. Get a new one, preferably a .com and one without dashes. I just checked and [READERS-NAME].com seems to be available…are you crazy? Definitely go snag that before someone else does :)

Second, your site design is pretty bad and this matters, because most people who will be hiring you have no idea what good code or bad code looks like, but they know what a good website looks like, and if yours looks bad, they’ll assume you can’t code very well either. Not fair, but that’s how it is.

Here’s the fastest way to fix it: go to http://themeforest.com, find an HTML / CSS or WordPress theme that you like, and reskin your site.

Third, almost all of the examples of your work on your site are terrible. You’ve included some of your class assignments, some pretty crummy photoshop work, etc. The overall effect of looking at your portfolio is that you have no idea what you’re doing.

But don’t despair, because you actually have an impressive list of WordPress sites that you’ve worked on, most of which look pretty good.

Dump everything but those WordPress sites. And since you have like 50 of them, just go through them and pick the ten that represent your best work and which look the strongest visually.

Do not go for quantity over quality. When I’m looking to hire a freelancer, I look at maybe 3 or 4 of their examples, picked randomly. If any of them look bad, I close the tab and keep looking. I want people who care about their work, and who care about what they’re representing to the world.

Fourth, you need to focus on what it is that you want to work on. I would suggest WordPress, as there’s plenty of work in that arena, and that’s where your strongest portfolio stuff is. So dump everything else off your site and just talk about how you’re a WordPress guru. Don’t mention HTML / CSS, Flash, Photoshop, etc.

Finally, rewrite your resume to reflect this new focus. Drop any position that doesn’t have anything to do with web development / IT. Rewrite your skills and experiences to include more about web development / IT. Get rid of that forklift thing.

Rates

Ok, now let’s talk about rate. When I started, I charged $50 / hr. And believe it or not, I probably wasn’t much better than you. But what I had was a few decent examples of my work, and no crummy examples (at least not public ones).

To sum all the points above up, when you’re done, you want something more like this: http://www.jaredatchison.com/

I found that guy via a little Googling for “wordpress developer”. I have no idea what the guy charges, but I would guess somewhere in the $75 – 95 / hr range, and I’m sure he’s probably swamped with clients. The reason he can charge that is partly that he’s more experienced and has better client references / connections. But it’s also because he’s presenting himself a lot better than you are.

Few people go looking for a jack-of-all-trades “webmaster” type. You’ll have a much easier time getting clients and getting high rates by specializing in something. WordPress is a good place to start.

Growing in your career

I don’t know you, but I note that you’re new to this industry and just graduated from school with an associates. And little things like how you’re presenting yourself, your domain, your newness to twitter, etc. tells me that you have a lot to learn. This is a good thing! Everyone was once where you are, and we all managed to get past it. You can too. I would recommend that you start a couple daily habits:

1. Respond to a couple dozen postings on the Craigslist gigs board, FreelanceSwitch.com jobs board, AuthenticJobs.com. You won’t hear back from hardly anyone, but that’s not your fault. This is a numbers game, so start putting in your time.

2. Reading everything you can from these sites:

http://news.ycombinator.com
http://freelanceswitch.com
http://problogger.net
http://copyblogger.com
http://www.smashingmagazine.com/
http://wordpress.alltop.com/
http://freelance.alltop.com/

And as many more as you can.

You’re in for an adventure, but stick with it and you’ll see huge progress in the next couple years. Good luck, and let me know if you have any more questions.

If you enjoyed this post, join the conversation. I’ve been freelancing for awhile and I’d love to answer any questions on that (or anything else) that you might have. I won’t ever disclose your identity without permission. Hit me up!

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Get your advice from the second-best, not the best

Posted in Achievement, Goals, Habits by


Image by Philo Nordlund

There are some side effects of always blogging about your life and your efforts to improve it. Some good, some bad. For instance, I feel like I’m becoming that guy who is always trying some weird lifehack. I’m not quite to Tim Ferris status yet in terms of bizarre behavior for the sake of improvement, but give me a few years.

On the other hand, people are often nice enough to humor me and ask for advice. A friend recently told someone that I could offer some helpful thoughts on developing self-discipline and habits. Afterward, my wife half-jokingly complained that because she isn’t constantly promoting herself, no one really asks her for similar advice, despite the fact that she’s 10x as disciplined as me.

I think the “10x as disciplined” part was the half where she was joking, but I can’t be sure. Regardless, it got me thinking: do people just ask me for advice because I blog about stuff like this? And should I just refer their questions on to someone like my wife?

After some reflection, I don’t think so. While it’s undeniable that my wife is more disciplined, she paradoxically doesn’t have any advice to share. Alexis doesn’t think about how to be self-disciplined, she just is. She’s one of those people who offer the annoying “just do it” advice, because that’s just how she is.

Meanwhile, while I’m not where she is (yet), I’ve spent the last few years working very hard at improving, and it’s working. I have the data to prove it. I’ve drastically improved a number of areas in my life and I fully expect those trends to continue.

Imagine two athletes. The first has been considered a prodigy since birth, the best in the world, the very pinnacle of their field. They were made for the game and it’s easy to see.

The second is a very skilled amateur, but wasn’t always much good. In fact, they were once downright terrible. But they worked hard and eventually got to the point where they were good. And then they got to the point where they were great. Not as great as the first guy, but still very, very good.

Now, you want to become a great athlete and you can ask either of these guys for advice. You ask the first guy, right?

Most of us would, but I wonder if that’s the wise move.

Yes, the first guy will have good advice. He’ll have info on technique and knowledge about strategy. He’ll say all the right words. He can tell you about the game. He can describe it. But he can’t share with you the heart and soul of earning it. He can’t tell you what it feels like to suck. He can’t tell you about the dark nights of incompetence and wondering if you should just give up. He can’t tell you how to change.

In other words, if you want to be faster or stronger, don’t ask the one who has always been the fastest or the strongest; they were probably born that way.

Ask the one who has improved the most.

In order to be the best in the world at anything, you have to have an incredibly rare combination of determination, genetics, upbringing, and luck. You will probably not be the best in the world. But that’s not really what’s most important in the long run.

The most important thing is that you’re faster and stronger and better than you were yesterday. And the person who can teach you how to do that day-in and day-out for a lifetime isn’t someone who was born great, but someone who became great.

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Those little things you’re avoiding…are they worth dying for?

Posted in Personal, Time management by


Photo by US Forestry Service

I have a list of things I’ve been putting off for awhile. Stressful, unpleasant things. Things like calling the IRS with a question about our taxes. If you’ve never had to actually call the IRS, it’s horrible.

And none of these things are things that really needed to be done by a certain date, so they’ve just kind of hung around. And hung around. And the stress of having them hanging over my head wears on me, but I don’t really think about it consciously most of the time.

I think stress is often one of those things that creeps up on us over time and we somehow adjust to it. It’s like we’re on a hike and someone is gradually slipping pebbles into our backpack. A single pebble doesn’t make much difference, but when you have twenty or thirty extra pounds that you’re lugging around, you start to get worn out faster and faster, without really knowing why.

Yesterday it all came into sharp relief for me. I saw a blog post about another startup founder who let a dental situation get further and further out of hand, until he finally couldn’t bear the pain any more and went in for emergency surgery. They said if he had waited, he likely wouldn’t have survived the weekend.

Yes, you read that right. He almost died because of a tooth infection.

This got my attention because I have a tooth that needs extraction as well. And while it isn’t causing me any pain, it’s not a good situation and I have no good reason for not taking care of it. So after reading that post, I made a promise to myself that today I’d call and make an appointment.

And immediately after deciding that, I felt a little lighter. Just by acknowledging this thing that I was avoiding and putting a stake in the ground to deal with it relieved a little bit of stress I didn’t really know I had.

So I started thinking about what else I needed to take care of that I’ve been avoiding. I came up with a whole list. And I declared that I will not enter the 2nd month of 2012 without tackling these items.

January has been an awesome month for me, figuring out where I want to go this year, adjusting my goals and habits, and moving forward. And it’s working; I’m seeing forward progress.

But my pack is feeling a little heavy these days. Time to lighten the load and make sure I’m ready to tackle the next 11 months.

What single super stressful thing are you avoiding dealing with? Why not just suck it up and deal with it now? It’ll feel lousy and stressful today, but tomorrow will be so much sweeter.

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How a Barista and Losing a Quarter of a Million Bucks Taught Me to Ask for What I Want

Posted in Achievement, Finances, Goals, Personal by

Most people do not know what they want.

The other day at Starbucks, I watched the person in front of me get smoothly upsold from a cup of coffee to a $20 tea sampler set.

I’m not saying that the guy was pressured into buying it; he wasn’t. I’m not saying that he got ripped off; he didn’t. On the whole, he looked pretty happy about his purchase as he left.

But he came in for a cup of coffee, and the chances of him seeing and then buying that sampler set were almost nil. Until he was asked.

You have to ask for what you want. And a surprisingly high percentage of the time, you’ll get it. Maybe not high in the sense of 80% or 90% (though you might, depending on the circumstances), but getting what you want 10% of the time is better than getting it 0% of the time, especially when all it took was you asking.

This is similar to the maxim that if you want to date supermodels you need to be where they are. That’s necessary but not sufficient. You also need to ask them out. Talk to any practitioner of “the game” and they’ll tell you it’s a numbers game and if you have zero going into the top of the funnel because you’re not asking, you’ll get zero in return.

Yes, this is kind of a ridiculously simple observation.

And yet we don’t do it. We don’t.

Most people don’t really negotiate for their salary. Do you know how much simply asking for more is worth in this situation? (BTW, here’s a fantastic post on how to do it right).

I did it too; my first job offer out of college was at a large tech company, and I took the salary they offered without pushing back. That was incredibly stupid of me. I could have easily landed 10% more by pushing back a little. As it was, it took me almost a year to wrangle the 10% raise I should have had from the beginning. That’s thousands of dollars of income that is lost, forever. If I had simply asked for more, I would have gotten it. Let’s say I then put that raise into my retirement account (which I was severely underinvesting in at that time). By retirement, that would be worth a quarter of a million dollars.

$250,000.

For not saying the words: “Based on my research, this position is worth closer to $X”.

Decide what you want. And then start asking for it.

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A sunken ship and the absurdity of “goals vs. habits”

Posted in Achievement, Goals, Habits by


CC Image via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a recent guest post on Zen Habits about how you shouldn’t set goals. The headline was intriguing enough to pull me in, and then I was dismayed to find that the author had setup the story as a conflict between goals and habits. And concluded that since people fail to accomplish their goals, habits are the answer.

First, not everyone fails to accomplish their goals. I have set and achieved hundreds of goals over the last decade. Yes, I’ve failed at some, still working at others, but I definitely didn’t fail to accomplish any of them.

But the bigger point is that habits and goals aren’t alternatives to each other, but completely different tools that complement each other.

This almost seems too obvious to even have to say it, but you need both habits and goals to make effective forward progress. Without habits, your goals are just dreams, because they don’t propel you forward. And without goals, your habits end up taking you places, but you won’t know until you arrive if it’s somewhere you’d like to be. Plus it’s hard to know what habits you want unless you know where you want them to take you.

I used this picture of the half-sunken Costa Concordia because the disaster that befell her is an apt metaphor for what happens when you only have habits but not goals. Habits are the engine behind growth and change. You can’t actually accomplish goals on a weekly or monthly or yearly basis. Those are the timeframes, but all that work eventually comes down to a series of “today”-‘s (no idea how to punctuate that, but you get the idea). What are you actually going to do today? And habits are an extremely effective way to answer that question. But having only habits and no goals is like having a ship with a powerful engine, but no rudder. The Costa Concordia foundered not because her engines failed, but because they pushed her into the wrong thing.

Also, I suspect that most people (perhaps including the author of the Zen Habits post) have little success with goals because they don’t set very good ones. Judging by the habits he mentioned, I’m wondering if the goals he’s setting are vague and open-ended, instead of SMART.

Have you had success with goals?

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6 Lessons from Four Months in the PIE Startup Incubator

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Personal, Technology by

Two upfront warnings: first, this post is long. Second, this post is about my experience in a startup incubator over the last four months or so, so it might not be relevant to you. However, I think many of the takeaways can be applied to other situations.

Background

For the last four and a half months, I’ve been in a startup incubator (for my startup DailyPath) in Portland called PIE (the Portland Incubator Experiment). PIE is a project sponsored by Wieden and Kennedy, and our batch of eight startups also had Google, Target, and Coca-Cola as brand sponsors.

If you’re not familiar with startup incubators, they basically give fledging startups a little bit of seed capital, mentorship, and in our case, office space and access to networking opportunities with investors, press, industry professionals, etc. Our program ran from Sept 1st, 2011 through Dec 15th, and throughout that time we had investors, entrepreneurs, and advisors come in 2-3 times per week to speak to the group and/or do 1-on-1’s with each startup.

Our demo day is today, Jan 17th, and all eight startups will be presenting to a theater full of investors, press, and friends and family about how we’ve spent the last four months and where each of us are going from here.

Since we’re wrapping up with PIE, I thought I’d write up a few thoughts on the experience, what Ben and I have learned from it, and what to be aware of to maximize your own incubator experience, should you choose to do one.

1. Be careful about doing an incubator at all

There are tons of startup incubators out there, and new ones are popping up every day. And while there are a lot of potential advantages to joining an incubator, there are also downsides.

The primary advantages of a good incubator are access to investors, access to a group of experienced mentors, and being in the company of other serious startups. While you get some money, it’s usually not enough to make a huge difference. Most incubators give out $15k – 25k for teams of 1-4 founders, which isn’t much for the three or four months you’re in the incubator.

That said, I don’t think the average startup would be best served by an incubator approach. The amount of cash is too little, the mentors are generally accessible in our industry via an email or a tweet, and you can get the camaraderie of being around other startups via a coworking space. As for access to investors, AngelList has become the way to raise money as a startup, and with some hustle you won’t need the incubator to make connections for you.

For us, our program being sponsored by the largest independent ad agency in the world (W+K), as well as Google, Target, and Coke, was a huge factor in why it’s been good for us. But while there are a few “domain-specific” incubators out there, I don’t think most of the generic ones outside of Y CombinatorTechStars, and 500 Startups are probably worth it. You’d be better served finding a coworking space with other legitimate startups that you can be around without giving up equity. And then there are some that are just pure scams.

2. Be careful whose advice you take


Image by Gregory Taylor

One thing that became immediately clear to us was that we weren’t focusing on a lot of things that desperately needed our attention. Speaker after speaker came in and gave us a list of things that we had to be doing, like working on getting press, or building financial projections, or practicing our public speaking, or doing marketing communications (blog, twitter, etc).

The next thing we realized is that most of these people were well-meaning, but wrong. Yes, all those things are important, but the people giving these talks are specialists and domain experts. They’re not generalists like entrepreneurs have to be, and they have the luxury of focusing on one specific area. We’re constrained for time and capital, but mostly for time. So some of these things simply didn’t get done, and that’s ok. The important thing is to be aware of what you’re choosing to ignore for now, and to make sure you understand the tradeoffs.

One more thing to mention: startups are by nature ambitious, and they attract ambitious people. Ambitious people are generally quite opinionated and aggressive, so startup environments are full of people with strong opinions that they can’t wait to share with you. Be very careful to look at the results of the person giving you advice, and don’t mistake the force with which advice is given with the value of that advice. The squeaky wheel isn’t always the one that should get the oil.

3. You are not a big shot

When you’re accepted, it can be tempting to let that go to your head, and get an attitude that you’re too important to meet with this person or that person. You’re not. Or at least, you’re not because you got into an incubator. Just like raising venture capital, getting into an incubator doesn’t mean much. You haven’t built a business yet, you just took a tiny step.

4. Don’t judge a book by the cover

Related to the point above about how you’re not too important to meet with someone, one of the best things about an incubator is that it brings you into contact with a lot of interesting people who can help you get started in your business. But some of these people may appear from a distance as if they’re not relevant or helpful for what you’re doing. Be really careful with this attitude. I’ve had multiple experiences of wavering on canceling a meeting with someone because I just didn’t see what could come out of it, and then they ended up being extremely valuable connectors, partners, or sources of advice.

The key here is to limit your exposure to the risk of it being a waste of time. I’ll write more about this later, but try to tease out more via email, get them to meet somewhere close to you, just do a quick cup of coffee, and try to get *something* out of the meeting if it turns out they’re not valuable.

5. Leverage to the next level (more press, more funding, etc)

Incubators are stepping stones, so make sure you leverage them as much as you can. Right after we got accepted, we used the social proof of the incubator to raise some more money from friends and family. And while we’re not fundraising right now, most of the other startups in our batch have raised or are trying to raise additional funds coming out of the incubator. There’s a multiplicative effect here for investment and press that you should squeeze as much as you can.

6. Avoid blinders or narrow-minded thinking

As I mentioned above, we’re not raising money. We’re the only startup in our batch not raising money, and I’ll write more later about why. But this was a tough decision for us, and partly because we’re in an environment where it’s just assumed that you’ll raise money. There are real, hard-core advantages to raising money, but to claim that it’s the only way of building a company is just sloppy and myopic. So we made it a point to seek out the advice of other entrepreneurs who had bootstrapped their companies.

There are other examples, but suffice it to say that while you’re surrounded with dozens of people just like you for 14 hours a day for months on end, it’s worthwhile to talk to: a) non-technical people, b) non-funded technical entrepreneurs, c) non-technical entrepreneurs, and d) people who are very good at what they do, whatever the space they’re in.

Bonus #7: Get a good pair of noise-canceling headphones

If you’re in an incubator that has a shared space, like ours at PIE, make sure you get some good headphones because it’s really loud sometimes and when you’re in the zone, being in a noise and visually distracting space is the worst. Ben and I also come in pretty early (usually before 6am), which gives us hours of quiet time before anyone else gets to the office. So do whatever you have to do, but I recommend headphones.

Overall Takeaways

We had a great time at PIE and we’ll be sticking around in the space for a little while longer. If I could do it again, I definitely would.

If you’re headed into an incubator, above all, remember to have fun. Life is short and if you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, what’s the point? Enjoy the privilege of being able to focus on your new startup, being able to touch every piece of it yourself, and being surrounded by startups and mentors who want you to succeed.

If you’re thinking about trying to get into an incubator, that’s awesome. A lot of the success or failure of a startup is mental, so you can gain tremendous benefit by being surrounded by supportive mentors and peer startups, like the environment an incubator offers. Just remember that most successful companies didn’t join an incubator and didn’t raise outside capital. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, but you definitely don’t have to. Take a hard look at the options, talk to people on both sides (especially people who have been on both sides), and make the best decision for you.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or curiosities about the incubator experience. I’d love to chat more about it.

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Ken Rudin and the Beauty of Mastery

Posted in Achievement, Inspiration, Misc, Politics by

This is kind of a weird post, but I’ve been really impressed by this guy recently, so I thought I’d share. I listen to a bunch of different podcasts, including a few from NPR. Ken Rudin is a political editor who appears on “It’s All Politics” and on a weekly political segment on “Talk of the Nation”. Listening to him for just a few minutes will demonstrate that he’s knowledgeable, but where his mastery of political history really shines is in the weekly trivia question.

Every week on the political segment of “Talk of the Nation”, they pose a political trivia question. These questions are often very specific and obscure, I think to make it hard to Google. For example: “When was the last time that a political party gained control of a state legislature in the same year that the state’s university went to the NCAA playoffs?” And yes, that was an actual question.

So people call in and try to guess the answer. And what’s amazing to me is that Mr. Rudin apparently knows the history of every single political race in this country, ever. Seriously, he knows the history and life stories of candidates who ran and lost in obscure house races before he was born. These people probably don’t rate a Wikipedia entry, but he rattles off the stats and history without hesitation.

What’s more impressive to me is that he’s not at all partisan. I truly have no idea how he would vote in an election. He simply presents the facts and tells both sides of the story. His grasp and recall of the political arena are that much more impressive when you consider that he’s not there to promote an agenda, but because he loves the subject.

I bring all this up just because I really admire people like Mr. Rudin and I love observing mastery and great skill in action.

I don’t know that Mr. Rudin will ever read this, but if he does: I tip my hat to you, sir. You clearly love what you do and have worked very hard to master it, and that’s inspiring to watch.

Who do you admire for their mastery of a skill or subject? Extra points for being someone obscure.

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