Category Archives: Learning

When you don’t know what made you successful, you make new mistakes

Most startup founders tell me they learn more from failure than they do from success. The reason primarily seems to be because you can point to one (or many) things that directly affected your failure, but success tends to have multiple factors contributing to it.

Then there’s the age old “I got lucky”. Which is interesting in itself, because the most successful people I know attribute their success to luck more than to anything else.

Success does have its challenges though in terms of being a good teacher. Most often we are told that what got you to a certain point wont get you to the next “level” and that you need to change your processes, systems, people and technology stack.

I had the chance to talk to 3 founders in consumer internet companies, over the last few weeks about their pilots and how their initial MVP’s are going – most of them had “successful” beta products with engaged users and many referrals. The one thing though they all felt was that they did not learn what made their products stick.

The superficial learning – about features in the product or the instant gratification a user got from their product was mentioned often, but that’s not enough.

To truly go from Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to Product Market Fit (PMF) the most important thing I have learned is that you need to know what made your product a “success” for your customers.

Let me give you one personal example and one professional one.

When I set out to lose weight and get fit (I lost 50 lbs in 25 weeks), I thought the key was to eat less and exercise more. In fact I thought they were equally important. I also believed a calorie lost was a calorie gained. Not true actually.

“A calorie lost is worth at least 2-3 calories gained”.

I learned this the hard way.

When I started, I put my data into MyFitnessPal (MFP) and it said I needed to eat 1650 calories each day or less. MFP, also tracks your exercise (automated via API from MapMyRun and FitBit). So the first few weeks I tracked what I ate and also automatically tracked when I exercised.

I would eat about 2000 calories and workout for about an hour to burn 550 calories and assume that it would turn my weight in the right direction. Turns out that was an incorrect assumption. My weight was flat.

When I truly started to eat less than 1650 calories, and still keep up the workout regiment was the only time I lost weight.

Then I experimented with my workouts and my eating. I tried eating 1500, then 1400 and finally 1300 calories or less each day for 3-4 weeks. My exercise regiment was constant. I lost a lot more weight than I anticipated.

I tweaked it further (because of travel) and reduced my workout to 45 min and still tweaked my eating for 3 weeks from 1500 to 1400, and finally to 1300 calories a day for 3 weeks. I lost the same amount of weight as I did when I worked out for 1 hour.

So the key to success was portion control and food, not exercise as much. That was something l learned. Now, that may work for my body type and may not for all, but it is important to experiment the key to ensure you understand the contours of your success.

Now for a more professional example.

I used to write more often that I do now, but over the last 8 years I have written about 800+ posts to average about 100 per year. Many are forgettable, so there.

I tried to experiment with writing short posts, then longer ones, then ones about current technology (newsworthy and topical) and finally about humor and self learning.

The ones about technology and news generate the most page views. Which, I know I am not supposed to care about, but I do.

The ones where I talk about what I learned from entrepreneurs generate the most comments, which I love again.

The blog posts which are short generate more likes on Facebook and the longer posts tend to get more shared overall.

I experimented more with length of my posts, the topic, the category, the sharing options, and the titles, but I don’t think I have found the formula for “success”.

The only thing I know is that if I write often, I tend to get more emails from entrepreneurs, talking about their own experiences, which I love the most.

So what happens when you don’t know what makes you successful – you tend to make more mistakes, but you tend to also learn a lot more.

If learning is your objective and constant learning at that, then I suggest you dont find out what makes you successful.

I learned that blog posts about my reflection tend to generate more interest than those written dispassionately about the world and its affairs.

I still have to find out what makes a successful blogger and have to define success first. Until I do that I have to be content with the assumption that I will learn more and make more mistakes, not knowing what made a post a “success”.

The one piece of advice I’d give myself from 15 years ago

“Skills are overrated, Connections are invaluable”.

Fresh out of school and eager to ‘conquer the world” I wish I focused a lot less on picking up “Analysis”, “Critical thinking”, “Strategy”, “Time Management”, “Project Management” skills and instead focused on “building and growing connections with people”.

I get 2-3 people emailing me to be their mentor every day. Most of these folks are young, fresh out of school and are at a large company – most times a tech company like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc.

Since I have very little time, I schedule 15 min when I can with them to help them learn what I did not learn, but wish I had 15 years ago.

Most young people focus on picking up “skills” or “intellectually stimulating global assignments” like a stint in China or India, etc. so they can be a well rounded individual. Then I try to push them towards entrepreneurship.

At this point, they usually (90% of them) tell me the dont think they have the skills to be an entrepreneur and point to their lack of sales, marketing, branding, positioning, coding, scaling, hiring, interviewing, motivating, etc. Any number of skills that they believe they dont have yet to be an entrepreneur.

Here’s the thing – skills are easy to develop for “most” people. If you are at a company like Microsoft or Google (or any other large company), you are reasonably skilled already. Else, they would have not hired you.

Focus your attention on building networks and connections with people instead at these places. There are folks who will be there building careers for the next 15-20 years there. They will get to important positions, just because they are there for so long. You will need their help at some point.

The other way I have found is to offer help on projects that executives have which they will never get to but are keen to execute. Offering your time and smarts towards that helps you build a relationship with top executives.

Build connections and networks not skills.

Book review: “Average is over”; about the future of successful people

I tend to read about 1-2 books a month. Largely on my kindle and sometimes audio books. I was referred to Tyler Cowen’s book “Average is over” by a friend who reads more extensively than I do. She wishes that I dont give her unnecessary attention.

It is about $10 on Amazon Kindle. If you want to be the 0.01% of innovators, creators and influencers, then you should read this book.

I have believed in the theory that “normal”, “average” and “balanced” are the worst words in the entrepreneur’s dictionary. Things like “best practices” suck. If something is a best practice you are getting no value from it at all, since someone who found out about it in the first place got the most value from it.

The basic premise of this book is that the next generation of technologies, innovations and breakthroughs in the next decade will not result in economic gains for the “average” folks.

Instead the folks who are extremely driven, intelligent and motivated are the only ones who will make it big.

The rest will see their quality of life improve marginally, but will have to find other means to feel “good” about the contributions they make.

I would recommend you read this book (or skim it) if you have an interest in economic activity and the history of innovation.

How to be a better manager – providing feedback to your direct reports and employees

There are 3 types of behaviors when it comes to managers giving feedback to the people that work for them.

1. I’ll give you no feedback - little praise, no criticism until the year-end when I have to do reviews.

2. I’ll give you unvarnished feedback immediately when I hear something from others you work with or from my own interactions. As it happens, often and early.

3. I’ll watch the interactions, notice behaviors and patterns and give you feedback every so often - weekly, monthly, quarterly and avoid “the last thing I heard syndrome”.

It is obvious that #3 is the best way you can be a manager. Feedback is very important to employees. They want to know what they are doing well and what they need to improve. As a manager you are at one of the best positions to tell them that. After all most people spend more interaction time with their managers and peers than their spouse (which is unfortunate, but true).

The rule of thumb to follow to give feedback as a manager is to watch for “lines not dots“. I love that phrase from Mark Suster.

Ideally you have the chance to talk to, watch and get feedback about an employee over a good period of time (ideally a month, but I have seen folks do it over a week or even over a quarter) and then make sense of the patterns.

The first kind of manager is absolutely useless, but tragically more folks like those exist in the corporate and startup world that we’d like to admit. This kind of manager is obsessed with “results” alone to provide no developmental feedback to their employees. If numbers are good, they will let employees get away with murder (figuratively) but if they are bad, then everything is suspect.

The second kind is sightly better, but not by much. They give raw, unvarnished, ball-by-ball, running commentary on the employee’s actions – from others, from their own interactions and from random folks as well. The reason it is useless is because they dont help detect patterns – they only remember the “last” thing someone said and repeat that. So, if there was something about an employee not responding to one email, that one person said, on time, this type of manager would rake your coals over that, even if that’s not the usual pattern of that employee.

The third type of manager is the evolved one. They listen, keep notes and keep both anecdotes and feedback for the employee in a file or in email so when the monthly or quarterly review period comes, they can provide both data and concrete examples.

These types of managers will be the most appreciated in your startup. They “invest in the lines and not the dots”. They look for patterns and observe behavior over a period of time, instead of giving conflicting feedback over even a small period, and unwilling to understand the behavior of the employee.

It takes a lot of effort to be that type of manager. They are very valued because they invest in their employees.

The trick I use to keep track is send myself emails with the Subject line having the name of my direct report. I have filters setup for the name as well. Every so often (I do it monthly) I will go and review all the emails I sent to myself about that employee and look to summarize the feedback. Then I also keep not of the anecdotes so I can help them recall behavior and suggest some corrective action if it needs to happen or kudos if that’s in the order.

What is the hack you use to help provide feedback to your employees?

Size and speed – the two most important aspects of your market, to get #venturefunding for #startups

I spoke to an entrepreneur yesterday who is focused on the health and HR markets – two of the toughest markets to target. Health has so many regulations to work with and HR has so little budget. So, take both of them together and unless you have a “head on fire” situation – aka compliance problem, they are very difficult to sell to.

Most, but not all venture investors care deeply about the market you startup is targeting. Here’s a rule of thumb – larger the market, more likely a VC is going to care about your company and to be willing to invest. Billion dollar markets are important to VC’s, and preferably large billion dollar markets. You need to do both a top-down and a bottom-up market analysis to show them that it is a large market. If it is less than a significant size, then I’d advice you not to go pitch VC’s.

In many cases, you wont know the size of the market. It could be small ($100 Million or less) or you just dont know how to position it as a big thing. Most venture investors will take a meeting, but end up not telling you that the market is too small, but tell them to “keep updated”, or “you are too early for us” or “we need to see more traction”.

When you dont know the size of the market or you know that the market is small, then I’d advice you not to go to venture investors. It does not serve your cause and wastes their time.

The second most important reason to get a venture investor on board is if the market is expected to become large “quickly”. While size of market is rather objective, the speed of the market is largely subjective. Which is why venture investors will rely on other “experts”, who understand and know the market well to help them “do due diligence”. If the market is expected to rapidly grow, it makes sense to invest as a VC. Else, your company wont grow quickly and things get difficult.

Many venture investors will also tell you that they invest in entrepreneurs. They tend to focus less on themes and more on the expertise, background, success, knowledge and execution potential of the entrepreneur teams.

Taking a risk on the team is normal for a venture investor, but taking a market risk is rather dumb. If they dont (that’s the problem to a large extent, which is “their” view of the market, not yours) view the market as large or moving quickly then be prepared to have a lot of “meetings with VC’s” resulting in zero follow on meetings or investment.

How to solve the immigration problem for startups and income inequality problem for older Americans with one solution

Americans have 2 problems that are high on the list right now. Income inequality and Immigration.

So there are two alternative solutions:

1. Every year, Forbes publishes the best places for Americans to retire.

This is for the many folks who have made okay money but are not wealthy or ultra high net worth individuals.

So, in effect America is trying to export its retirees.

This is a small number right now, in the thousands. This solves the problem of healthcare for the old and also helps the older folk’s money go farther.

2. For the immigration problem we have solutions as well.

This is a slightly larger number, 65,000 each year. This solves the problem of new talent for companies and also helps young aspirants get a better shot at a better life.

Every year, America also imports new fresh talent.

Think of this like a balance sheet. Immigration imbalance occurs constantly. Right now America does not export as many retirees as it imports immigrants.

Which is why many folks are up in arms about raising the # of allocated H1B visas to foreign legal immigrants.

The reason we get so many immigrants is because it is attractive to be in America.

The reason many retirees don’t leave is because it is not attractive yet to live outside America.

Why is not so attractive to live outside the United States right now?

First, there’s a standard of living issue – access to quality services is just not as good abroad as it is in America,

Second, there is living away from friends and family, and finally

Third, there’s fear of the unknown.

Most older Americans move to Florida or a state in the south so they can get better weather and pay fewer taxes anyway. So, the living away from family is something they are quite used to and they actually end up making new friends.

If we help some of the countries in the “top places to retire” help to build better services, such as transport, healthcare and support, then they become more attractive.

To solve the fear of the unknown, I think the best solution is to educate older Americans on these countries and their culture, unique offerings, weather, etc.

Finally if we eliminate double taxation for Americans going abroad or “suspend” tax filing and payment when they spend, say, more than 80% of their time in their “retirement” country, then you make retiring abroad, more attractive.

That should increase the number of people leaving annually to say about 50K from the current 5K and help “keep the distribution even in the people import/export balance sheet”.

What do you think?

A #contrarian’s field guide to New Year Resolutions

TLDR; This field guide helps you set new year resolutions and help you achieve them by using both a top-down and bottom-up approach towards managing your energy and hence managing your time better.

To achieve you new year’s resolutions, I propose 3 steps:

1. Top down prioritization.

2. Bottoms-up audit.

3. Planning and scheduling your energy.

You have to both do a top-down prioritization and a bottoms-up audit towards goal setting, because the top-down alone will tell you what you want to do, and the bottoms-up will tell you what you are doing right now. The planning will help you then figure out where you are wasting your time and energy and where you need to focus it instead.

Lets do the top-down first.

There are 9 categories of goals people have as individuals according to me.

1. Relationships: The need and desire to be connected as humans with friends, family and other people at large. Examples include, getting married, making new friends, or spending more time with your siblings for example.

2. Career and Work: When you are a student it will be around “what you want to be when you grow up”, but it is pretty much the same as an adult. Work goals include promotions, improving communication – public speaking for e.g. etc. Starting a new business falls into this bucket.

3. Intellectual: These are for you to learn. Many people like to learn new languages, read books and expand their mind as part of this category.

4. Health: Keeping your body fit enough and in shape to be able to achieve what you think you can. Losing weight is the most common goal in this category followed by promising to quit smoking.

5. Financial: Making enough wealth to be able to afford the things you’d like to have as part of your life. You might have other goals in this

6. Spiritual: The quest to find your inner self, and the meaning of life, the universe, god, etc. The most frequent goal in this category is to find your inner peace.

7. Interests & Hobbies: Travel, learning a musical instrument etc. fall into this category. Going to an exotic place for vacation is the most frequent goal in this category followed by learning a new musical instrument.

8. Giving back and Social Goodness: These are for individuals who want to give back and help the less privileged. Most people volunteer at charities or non-profits / NGO’s to help them in any way possible.

9. Self improvement: These are to better yourself as an individual, making time to grow as a person (not intellectually, but emotionally). E.g. I will not get angry with my kids, or will not blame someone else for my problems. The quest to be a better person drives this category of resolutions OR the willingness to correct a character flaw.

Now that we have a comprehensive category list, I suspect you can add your own resolution – such as “I will be a nicer person” or “I will meditate more”, which will fall into one of these buckets.

After you put your resolution into the bucket, write it down – both the resolution and your category.

P.S. here’s a contrarian tip – NEVER have more than one goal. More on that later.

The reason I think you should start with categories, is that it will help you focus on managing your energy not your time.

Then the second task is for you to do a time audit for a week. This is the bottom up approach. The best way to do this is to create a spreadsheet with 1/2 hour slots from the time you wake up to the time you sleep.

Then put what you are doing in that 1/2 hour slot for 1 week. This includes time to bathe, eat, work, etc.

The next step is to categorize the time audit items into your categories above as well.

It is okay to put sleeping into health category. If you listen to podcast or listen to music during your commute then put it in the health or interests or hobbies category.

Then take the categories you have and add up the time per category.

Plot the category and time spent on a pie chart.

Most people are absolutely shocked when they do this exercise at this point. They find that 25-35% of their time is truly “wasted” – they dont do anything else when the sleep – which is why many successful people apparently sleep less – god bless them, but I cant. Or they are spending time bathing or eating, etc.

So you have a top down priority and a bottom up use of your time.

Step 3, is planning and scheduling: The planning should help you find a way now to schedule time on your calendar for the one new year’s resolution or goal you set.

You can do the scheduling on your calendar by alternative or better time management.

If something is a priority for you, then you better spend more time on it than anything else.

My rule of thumb is that you need to spend at least 35% of your time on the one New Year’s resolution you set for yourself. If you are unable to do that, then prepare to fail.

If you find many other things taking up your time, deprioritize them and manage your calendar like a manic and NEVER let other things “creep” in.

Please let me know if this works for you, but remember you have to do the top-down and bottoms-up part (which might take you a week if you dont know your calendar yet.