Why I’m Doing It All Wrong

The only thing that I’ve ever done right in my life is to doggedly pursue the things that I’m interested in. To the detriment of everything else. No matter what anyone else says.

Pursuing my interests regardless of what anyone says has worked well for me. I’m naturally interested in business. I’m naturally interested in coding and design. I’m naturally interested in writing.

And so my goal is this: to be able to do those things sustainably, for the rest of my life.

That, in a nutshell, is why I do this every day.

I initially skipped over this post, but I’m glad I went back and read it. Exactly the sort of things that run through my mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in the startup frenzy, that if your product isn’t social, free, an app or whatever, that you’re doing it wrong. The startup way is a lottery. One where most players number one and only goal is to get funded, that somehow somehow once we do that, the rest will be easy.

I just want to sell products to customers and make money that old fashioned way. It’s easy to forget that the number of businesses making money (and lots of it) day in day out far out weigh the number of businesses winning the startup game. We just don’t hear about them, because making money is out of fashion.

Monkeys in a cage

Five monkeys are caged together and there are some bananas hanging from the top of the cage. Some scientists attach an automated device for sensing if the bananas are moved; once a monkey tries to get any, an electric shock travels through the cage so that all monkeys get shocked. In the beginning, a single monkey climbs up to the bananas, touches them and every monkey gets shocked. So he doesn’t try anymore, but the other four monkeys try the same thing and the result comes to be the same. Therefore, the monkeys learn something in common: that is, do not get the bananas! You’ll get a painful electric shock! The scientists then replace one of the original monkeys with a new one. This new monkey sees the bananas and wants to get them right away, but the other four monkeys beat it when they see its actions. Since these original four monkeys think the new monkey will make them get shocked, they stop the new monkey from getting the bananas. This monkey tries a few times and the others beat it every time without it ever getting the bananas. Of course, all five monkeys don’t get shocked. The scientists then replace another of the original monkeys with a new one. This second new monkey sees the bananas and you bet it wants to get them immediately. But, sadly, the others beat it and the first new monkey beats the newest one even harder then the others (for the newest one is the rookie and has the lowest social status). Just like before, the newest monkey tries several times to get the bananas and is stopped by the others when they attack him. The scientists continue to replace all the original monkeys until no monkeys who actually felt the electric shock remain. Now none of the five new monkeys dare to touch the bananas yet none of them know why. They only know whomever wants to get the bananas will be beaten.

Frequently I write about doing what matters most and not getting caught up in the stuff that makes the least amount of difference. The tale above is a great story that leads on from that; Making sure you know why you’re doing something.

This recently came up in a conversation about re-designing the homepage of viewshound.com. One person thought the front page should be laid out one way, while another thought it should be laid out another way. The problem was, neither answered the question of firstly, why the homepage needed to change and secondly, what did we want to achieve by changing it. The naive answer to the second point is that we want to “increase page views”, but really in essence the answer is a lot more in-depth than that. Are we looking to drive first time visitors to individual articles or are we looking to drive people to category pages? Are we optimising for new arrivals or optimising for frequent readers? Once you rule out these sort of low-level questions, the route you take becomes a lot clearer, and changes for the sake of making changes becomes a problem of the past.

Working on the edges

Imagine your business is a lovely big garden. You tend to the flowers, water the plants, and place your seeds carefully in the hope that a few months down the line they’ll blossom into a beautiful array of colours. But you don’t mow the lawn. As time goes by, your lawn gets overgrown and filled with weeds, eventually swallowing up all the hard work you put into your flower beds. Would you do this? Of course not, so why do we run our business like this then?

The lawn is the heart and soul of your garden. It’s plainest and simplest to maintain, but it is the easiest to neglect in favour of working on the things that are more attractive. Are you neglecting the core of what makes your business run, in favour of what’s more exciting? Blogs, SEO, Facebook, Twitter, Affiliates, Promotions are not your core concern. You need to be making sales. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is how sales are made. They are fillers for an already churning sales engine. Pick up the phone, go and meet potential buyers. Start the engine of your lawn mower and mow your lawn.

The details of technology

I dreamt last night that a load of “business” people had been suddenly injected into our company. I got into an argument over the difference between two different hosts, stating that they are the same while someone else jumped in stating that they are totally different while citing various technical reasons, that really made no difference to the delivery of the project.

A while back I turned down working on an idea some acquaintances had because I didn’t have time. It ended up that someone else I knew took up the project. When first going over it myself I remember thinking a pretty much complete MVP could be done in a month or so, but last I heard, the other developer was still working on the project backend framework a few months in, with no basic site or anything in sight.

This is a common problem with starting a new site. It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical aspects while missing out on delivering actual usable software. I always remind myself of the General Patton quote “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week” and so the same stands for programming. Better to launch something sloppy today, than something perfect in the future. If the project is successful you can alway incrementally improve the code you rushed in. If the project’s a flop, you’ll know a lot sooner.

If it’s hot, it’s probably too late

Hot is the new hotness! Every month or so there’s a new hot topic in startup land. There was social, mobile, local, game mechanics blah blah. And with every wave of new hotness, comes a fresh wave of startups trying to get in on the deal. If it’s hot right now, and you’re thinking of getting in, don’t, it’s too late. Don’t even think of entering a space where others have a six month or more lead on you. Yeah, they’re grabbing all the attention right now, but in six months when they’re no longer flavour of the month, you’ll be the one left holding the bag.

They always says don’t trade stocks off the recommendations in the newspapers, because by then you’ve already missed out. This is exactly the same. If you want to swing for the fences, create something visionary that no-one else has thought of yet, or better yet, something so boring in an arena where competition will be sparse now and the foreseeable future. Yes, perhaps there’s someone else secretly working on the same thing as you right now, but if either of you turn out to be right, the other could be in a prime position to ride the other’s coat-tail to success.

To achieve something great, start with something small

Everyone has grand ideas and dreams. The dream of being the match winning goal scorer in the World Cup final. The dream of being richest man on Earth. The dream of being a great husband, great father, great friend. Then comes a time when we realise we’re a million miles away from the things we set out to achieve, we freeze and resign ourselves to the fact that we’ll probably never get there. Some will carry on regardless, and of those few, only a small handful will reach that end goal. But we don’t need to be in the majority of those that fall away at the way side. We just need to understand that to reach that final goal, requires us to achieve smaller ones first.

Weight lifting is the perfect example of this. If you want to squat 200kg, don’t load on 200kg and try, because you’ll most probably fail, injure yourself and never try again. To reach that goal, load on what you can manage, then each week come back and add some more. Some weeks you’ll lift it, some weeks you wont. But the more and more you come back and try to add just a little bit more weight, the closer and closer you’ll get to lifting  your final goal. Then one day  you’ll turn up and lift 200kg. You’ll look through your notebook, full of all your previous session’s numbers, and see all the steps it took to get there.

And that’s the same principal for anything in life. If you want to achieve something great, start with something small. Want to lose 100lbs? Then start with the first pound. Want to run a marathon? Then start by running just a single mile. Want to be amazing guitarist? Then start by learning a single chord.

This all applies so much to business. We see all these big businesses offering loads of products and services, or huge web applications packed with functionality, and we strive for that. But the burden will be too great. You’ll fail, your ego will be bruised and you’ll never try again. You never hear the story of how these businesses started by doing one thing and how they all built their empires from there. You need that first step to be sure that you can take the next. You can’t be everything to everybody, and if you try, you’ll be nothing to nobody. Don’t be sucked in by business porn. Don’t rush into a thousand things in the hope of achieving something or that something will stick, because you can’t apply enough stickiness to that many things at once. The humble beginnings are boring, that’s why you never hear about them. You read about startups on TechCrunch and don’t realise that people have been using and hashing out the issues on those sites for ages. If you’ve been around long enough, you get to experience the wonder of seeing someone truly launch their site for the first time and needing beta testers, then a year later seeing them doing their “real” launch. Only then can you really appreciate how these things evolve and how the subsequent success was down to focusing on a single idea/concept/function and executing that perfectly right at the very start.

You are your own demise

When a business is going nowhere, or even worse, going downhill, the temptation is to blame the idea or to blame customers. Rarely do we have the courage to admit the problem is really with ourselves. Potential sales are lost because people “just don’t get it”. We say that they’re stupid, brain dead and missing the opportunity of a lifetime. When business dries up we blame market conditions. When the lights are turned off for the last time we say the timing just wasn’t right.

Before we point the finger we should be asking if there is something we did wrong. Businesses are not limited by customers or market conditions, they are limited only by those that run them. Sometimes that can’t be helped, after all, there are only so many hours in a day and the limitations may be that of time or resources. More often than not, the problem is that of realisations. We don’t realise that we’re doing the wrong thing. We believe in the wrong ideals. We hope for X or Y to happen. We wait for feature X or Y to be ready. We blame everyone but ourselves.

Only when it’s too late, do we look back and see where we went wrong. How if we’d only done this instead of that, we could have made a break through. We’re so caught up in the moment of our business that we can’t see the wood for the trees. Imagine yourself three, six or twelve months from now. Imagine your business has failed from no traction or no revenue (or whatever factor determines your business a success or not). If you could spend that time again to get your business really going, would you do what you’re doing right now? If the urgency of surviving was hanging over your head, would you do what you’re doing right now?

Don’t limit your business or your life because you’re following the motions of what someone in your position should be doing. Don’t do something because you read it in a book. Don’t do it because someone told you to. Do the right thing. Your opportunity may not last.

What we all need is understanding

There’s always that storyline in films and TV shows. Parents despair as they become more and more distant from their angst ridden teenage son/daughter who complains of just being mis-understood. There all the signs of neglect on the parents side, by not spending enough time/showing enough love, then there’s normally some sort of event that brings them all together again to be one big happy family. Think John McClane in Die Hard and his daughter Lucy, or Sean Archer in Face/Off and his daughter Jamie. The parents and the teenager are living separate lives and there’s a clash when they come together, because neither understands where the other is coming from.
As a developer one of the ways this problems often occurs is when working with people not from a technology background. Warren Buffett’s famous advice is to simply “Invest in what you understand.”. Many people take the time to understand their market, but do not take the time to understand the technology/process. It’s no surprise to me that the only company that I’ve worked for that’s actually achieved a measure of success is run by people who not only have a very clear understanding of their market, but also have a very clear understanding of the technology they provide. And what of the others that are no longer around? It’s no surprise I spent a lot of time at those places trying to explain how things worked and why things couldn’t be done. Yes, and while some businesses needs to be about pushing the boundaries and innovation, to do so also requires a knowledge of the limitations of what currently exists.
I have been as guilty of this sin as everyone else. As a developer it’s very easy to take no interest in the customer side of things and care only about the technology, and perhaps to a degree this is an even worse situation to be in over having management that don’t understand technology. When this happens solutions that are unusable by anyone can end up being delivered. I know for a fact I have delivered plenty of products without ever asking myself who the product is actually aimed at, all the while being feature focused. Where as now, rather then only caring if something can be done or not, I try and ask myself who will be trying to achieve a task and what is the best way for them to go about doing so. As with anything, there is a balance that needs to be found.
Managers, understand the technology. Developers, understand the market.

There’s always that storyline in films and TV shows. Parents despair as they become more and more distant from their angst ridden teenage son/daughter who complains of just being mis-understood. There all the signs of neglect on the parents side, not spending time with them or not showing enough love. Then there’s normally some sort of horrible event that brings them all together again to be one big happy family and they all live happily ever after. Think John McClane in Die Hard and his daughter Lucy, or Sean Archer in Face/Off and his daughter Jamie. The parents and the teenager are living separate lives and there’s a clash when they come together because neither understands where the other is coming from.

As a developer this problems often occurs when working with people not from a technology background. Warren Buffett’s famous advice is to “Invest in what you understand.” and while many managers take the time to understand their market, they don’t take the time to understand the technology/processes of their business. It’s no surprise to me that the only company that I’ve worked for that’s actually achieved a measure of success is run by people who not only have a very clear understanding of their market, but who also have a very clear understanding of the technology they provide. What of the others that are no longer around? It’s no surprise I spent a lot of time at those places trying to explain how things worked and why things couldn’t be done. And while some businesses are about pushing the boundaries and innovating, to do so requires a knowledge of the limitations of what currently exists.

As a developer I have been as guilty of this sin as everyone else. It’s very easy to take no interest in the customer and to care only about the technology. Perhaps to a degree this is an even worse situation to be in over having management that don’t understand technology, as when this happens, solutions that are unusable by anyone are usually delivered. I know for a fact I have delivered plenty of products without ever asking myself who the product is actually aimed at, all the while being completely feature focused. When I think back to those products, it’s a wonder they survived any sort of usage at all. Now, rather then only caring if something can be done or not, I try and ask myself who will be trying to achieve a task and what is the best way for them to go about doing so. As with anything, there is a balance that needs to be found.

Managers, understand the technology. Developers, understand the market.

What’s your business hook?

I was doing some reading on usability stuff and thought I’d check out our homepage. Pretending that I know nothing about what we do and then reading all the text on the front page, I asked myself: How does a user use us? Is it an online service or is this a marketing site for a manual service that we provide via phone/email whatever? After reading it a couple of times, there is no way of ever knowing. Yes, there is the take a tour, but that’s already one click away from the homepage, and most people don’t scroll or go a level deeper then the homepage unless they already know what they are looking at is of interest to them. One can argue that the front page is a “teaser”, or a hook to gain a persons interest, but looking at the studies done, people don’t browse like that. The hook is not “Could this be of interest to me? I should find out more” but “This is of interest to me. Show me more.”