Business

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work – by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Date read: 5/7/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

The book outlines lessons from Basecamp and how to run a calm company. Refreshing resource, particularly for those who get caught up in the chaos of work. They discuss why calmness is a productive emotion and the work structure they use at Basecamp to help sustain that. Fried and Heinemeier Hansson also dig into work ethic, the danger of meetings, the importance of saying no, the myth of low-hanging fruit, why they ship before they test, and the rationale for why they only have a single product. It’s a great, short read that will help you challenge the status quo.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Calmness = productive emotion:
Goal at Basecamp is to be a calm company. Similar to Phil Jackson’s approach to pre-game speeches or halftime speeches. Remain calm and in control.

“Calm requires getting comfortable with enough.”

“Becoming a calm company is all about making decisions about who you are, who you want to serve, and who you want to say no to. It’s about knowing what to optimize for. It’s not that any particular choice is the right one, but not making one or dithering is definitely the wrong one.”

In victory, learn when to stop (Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power)
Basecamp currently generates tens of millions of dollars in profit and they’re happy with that. Not obsessed with doubling or tripling market share. Focused on serving existing customers well. 

Example, they’ve kept fixed monthly fee instead of per-seat business model. Helps them avoid conflicts of interest where biggest customer holds power over the product and controls your time. 

Also, why they only have a single product. 

Work structure:
Projects are typically six weeks cycles, followed by two weeks to wander and decompress. 

Monthly “heartbeats” written by the team lead to summarize progress that’s been made. Boils key learnings down to essential points. Automatically removes the noise of the day-to-day by taking a broader perspective.

Work ethic:
Effectiveness > busyness.

Point of diminishing returns: “Creativity, progress, and impact do not yield to brute force.”

Make the best decision that you’re able to now and avoid indecision: “Accept that better ideas aren’t necessarily better if they arrive after the train has left the station. If they’re so good, they can catch the next one.”

Saying no and getting more done:
Say no, claw back time: “The only way to get more done is to have less to do.” (Similar to Nassim Taleb’s quote, “You want maximal free time, not maximal activity, and you can assess your own ‘success’ according to such a metric.”).

“No is no to one thing. Yes is no to a thousand things.”

“When you say no now, you can come back and say yes later.”

“No is calm but hard. Yes is easy but a flurry.”

Myth of low-hanging fruit:
The idea that you can instantly move needles because you’ve never tried before is delusional. Almost always requires difficult work.

Hiring and talent:
“Stop thinking of talent as something to be plundered and start thinking of it as something to be grown and nurtured.”

Ship it:
Simulated environments provide simulated answers. If you want to know the truth about your product, you have to ship it and see how real customers use it in their natural environment. 

Basecamp doesn’t beta test. They don’t put things in front of users before they’re ready for production. Slow and timid response to feedback might help them catch a few things, but they value speed and conviction over safety. 

Building a Story Brand – Donald Miller

Building a Story Brand – by Donald Miller
Date read: 4/25/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

I avoided this book for a long time, despite numerous recommendations, out of an aversion to marketing and branding. But I’m glad I finally read it. The heart of the book is about clarifying and simplifying your message. Miller presents his strategy in a seven-point framework which forms that foundation of all great stories. Whether an artist or entrepreneur, it’s a great resource to help you improve your communication. I’ve already used the framework to overhaul my own website and improve my messaging in the products I’m building at work. You’ll get the most value out of this book if you follow (and actually complete) the exercises, chapter by chapter.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Two biggest mistakes in marketing:
-Failure to focus on aspects of product that help people survive/thrive.
-Requires too much energy from customer to understand what’s in it for them. 

Storytelling:
“Story is the greatest weapon we have to combat noise, because it organizes information in such a way that people are compelled to listen.”

The best products don’t always win. The best communicators do.

Say less and communicate clearly, otherwise customers will give up trying to organize and make sense of all the data.

Steve Jobs learned this through his experience with Pixar. In 1983, Apple launched their computer Lisa and took out a nine-page ad in the New York Times. When he returned to the company, took two words and put them on a billboard: “Think Different.”

Seven major elements, make up the SB7 framework:
Character, Problem, Guide, Plan, Call to Action, Avoid Failure, Success.

Three questions you need to answer to drive engagement:

-What do you offer? How will it make my life better? What do I need to do to buy it?

Above the fold: Promise an aspirational identity, promise to solve a problem, state exactly what you do.

Similar to: What is this? What’s in it for me? What do I do next?

1) A Character:
The customer is the hero, not you. What do they want?

Define something they want and open up a gap. 

Make it about survival. 

Make it a single focus.

2) Has a Problem:
Villain should be root source, relatable, singular, and real.

Three dimensions: external problems, internal problems, philosophical problems.

6) And Calls Them to Action
Major life decisions aren’t made until you’re challenged to do so. Must be challenged by outside forces.

Be bolder in calls to action. If they’re soft, they’ll be ignored.

If you don’t clearly invite customers to take a journey with you, they won’t. 

People are drawn to clarity. Have clear calls to action so they know what they need to do next. 

Transitional calls to action are different. Instead of “buy now” they allow you to establish credibility, create reciprocity, and position yourself as the guide (think free information, testimonial video, free trial period). 

7) That Helps Them Avoid Failure
If we don’t bring up the negative stakes early and often, story will fall flat.

What are you helping your customer avoid? What does failure look like?

8) And Ends in Success
Be specific – JFK didn’t say he wanted to build a “highly competitive and productive space program,” he said “we’re going to put a man on the moon.”

Identity transformation: From, To (anxious, glum to carefree, radiant).


The Messy Middle – Scott Belsky

The Messy Middle – by Scott Belsky
Date read: 10/20/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

More than a business book, and that’s what I loved about it. It’s a book about embracing the long game and leading through ambiguity–whether you’re a founder, entrepreneur, or artist, you’ll find relevance. Belsky details the endurance it takes to bring an idea to life. It’s not always as pretty as the beginning or end, but the middle is worthy of equal attention since it’s where most of the journey takes place. As a product manager, I found the book to be particularly insightful for my daily work and career. The next time I’m asked for a great product book, I’ll be recommending this. But again, the beauty of this book is that it’s relevant for anyone who’s building something from nothing. Those who are leading others (or themselves) through uncertainty will benefit greatly from it. Far from a generic business book with the same recycled ideas, it’s original, practical, profound, and one of the best books I’ve read all year.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

You cannot travel the path until you’ve become the path. Embracing the middle is the only way through.

Values/Principles:
-“The truth about telling the truth is that it does not come easy for anyone. It’s not natural or organic. The natural thing to do is tell people what they want to hear. That makes everybody feel good…at least for the moment. Telling the truth, on the other hand, is hard work and requires skill.” Ben Horowitz

-“There is no better measure of your values than how you spend your time.” SB, accounting of how you spend your minutes is hard truth of your values.

-Routines backfire when you do them without thinking. Throw a wrench in every now and then to see if it feels liberating and is no longer relevant/effective.

-Sometimes you guard your time too closely. Fluidity/flexibility to adapt is important, or else you won’t reach full potential. Need to create and preserve some margin of downtime in your day to accommodate opportunities. 

-You deserve this and you are enough. There’s a part of all of us that fights our own progress. Overcome these insecurities and doubts.

-"You are not your org chart, your department budget, or your title. Don’t let success at a company prevent you from pursuing scary and wonderful new opportunities to build.” Hunter Walk

Endurance:
-“You need to do your fucking job.” What Belsky would tell himself before going into a tough meeting, negotiation, or firing someone.

-“Playing the long game requires moves that don’t map to traditional measures of productivity.” SB

-“Curiosity is the fuel you need to play the long game.” SB 

-Resourcefulness is a competitive advantage. “Resources become depleted. Resourcefulness does not.” SB

-80% on boulders, 20% on pebbles.

Lead your team:
-Teams need to be reminded of where they are and progress they’ve made. Call out landmarks you pass and the terrain ahead.

-When discussing your teams efforts so far, weave in stories and leverage the perspective that excites you the most.

-Your perspective during trying times will help your team overcome moments of self-doubt.

-Not all meetings end with a solution, quit seeking a false sense of closure. Instead actively lead through a process of self-discovery.

-Unresolved conversations are draining. If you can’t provide closure, add energy, turn negative into positive. 

-“Your story has more gravity than you realize. Your job is to help your team make sense of the strategy–what they’re seeing, doing, and working toward. You are the steward of your team’s perspective, and there is always a way forward so long as you explain it.” SB

-Don’t aggressively market yourself, celebrate the people on your team and empower great makers. “Ego is rust. So much value and potential are destroyed in its slow decay.” SB

-Pick your fights and don’t deprive others of their own process. Sometimes the best way to instigate change is to plant questions as seeds and let them take root so you can avoid immediate reactions. 

Conviction:
-“For extraordinary outcomes, seek conviction in your work and build teams that value conviction over consensus.” SB

-Hesitation breeds incrementalism.

-Most effective way to communicate a vision is to declare it, rather than blunting blow with a comforting narrative that makes it sound less drastic.

-Progress is only possible once a decision is made. Can always backtrack and adjust as you learn along the way. Keep moving!

-Make your mind up quickly and go with the option that feels most right at first (don’t survey every available option). Otherwise you’ll waste time and energy searching for alternatives that may only be mildly more beneficial.

Self-awareness:
-Self-awareness is the greatest competitive advantage for a leader.

-Your sense of self shifts when you’re at a peak or in a valley. 

-Effort to understand how your mind works is only path to reliable self-awareness during intensity/stress.

-“You cannot win unless you know how you’re most likely to lose.” SB

-“Knowing when to ignore your experience is the true sign of experience.” -John Maeda

Ambiguity:
-Avoid temptation to describe what you’re building in context of what already exists (i.e. “It’s Airbnb for X”). 

-When you feel overwhelmed, remember the vision. Compartmentalize your ideas, look ahead, worry less about day-to-day concerns. 

-When you feel lost in ambiguity, ask a different question. i.e. Not “why aren’t people signing up?” but “what kinds of people would benefit most?”

-When you’re building something new, focus on asking the right questions instead of having the right answers. 

Defy prescribed roles:
-Directing blame and expressing disappointment take more energy than tackling whatever you’re criticizing. Take the initiative, even if it falls outside of your job description.

-“There is rarely a scarcity of process or ideas but there is often a scarcity of people willing to work outside the lines.” SB

-“You’re either a cog in the system or a designer of better systems…challenge every system you find yourself confined by.” SB

-Asking for permission to do what you know needs to be done will yield hesitation at best, rejection at worst.

Prioritize your team:
-“I have met many founders who obsess over product and steamroll their team. Most of them have failed. Team comes first.” SB

-If you want to execute well over time or make great products, prioritize your team over your goals and tend to your team before your product.

Hiring:
-Hire people seeking a journey rather than a particular outcome.

-Closing the confidence gap of new hires is more important than closing skills gap. Building confidence is important if you want to unleash someone’s potential. 

-Maturity and perspective > age and accolades.

-Best reason to fire people who aren’t performing is to keep your best people.

-Salary bands: subconsciously biased by age, years of experience, gender, and other characteristics that don’t correlate with indispensability. 

Founders:
-“What distinguishes great founders is not their adherence to some vision, but their humility in the face of the truth.” Paul Graham

-Greatest thinkers anchor ideas around a central truth they believe is unique and unrealized by others, but embrace questions when someone challenges them…they don’t look the other way.

-Poor leaders are too worried about being loved. The best founders have conviction in their ideas and aren’t hedging by spreading resources thinly across too many ideas. 

-Hold on to the openness, humility, and brashness you had in the begging.

Product:
-Speed through the generic stuff, but take time to perfect the things you’re most proud of. This is what differentiates your product, so it deserves a disproportionate investment of resources.

-Uniqueness of your product needs to be baked in, not sprinkled in at the end. Otherwise it’s likely to taste bland.

-Customers don’t engage with functionality, they engage with experiences. Make it more human friendly and accommodating to natural human tendencies.

-Competitive advantage is as much about what you choose to let go and not be, as it is about what you focus on. 

-One feature in, one feature out. Keeps you focused on simplicity.

-Having to explain your product, least effective way to engage new users.

-Empathy for your customers and humility in your market are powerful filters. Focus on these before you fall in love with your solution.

-Greatest brands developed by playing at far end of the spectrum and not trying to be everything to everyone. “Playing to the middle makes you weak.” Don’t give up your edge to appeal to broader audience.

-Engage emotionally as you create, but detach yourself when you’re evaluating.

Innovation:
-Every product or service in your life either helps you spend or save time. Best products remove a daily friction.

-Don’t be too different, familiarity drives utilization. Train customers on something new only when it’s core to what differentiates your product. Helps reduce cognitive friction.

-Big part of innovation is saying ‘you know what I’m really sick of?’ What frustrates you likely frustrates many others.

-True innovators value art up front and compete against incumbents through stuff that doesn’t intuitively scale. Give your customers something precious, uniquely personal, emotional, and seemingly scarce that cannot be easily scaled, automated, or commoditized. Preserving the art in your business gives it a soul that people can connect with. 

-At the beginning, must run manual experiments, spend endless amount of time with customers, and tinker until you find something special.

The Product Lifecycle:

  1. Customers flock to a simple product.

  2. The product adds new features to better serve customers and grow the business.

  3. Product gets complicated.

  4. Customers flock to another simple product.

The First Mile:
-Fewer options, shorter copy, simpler steps.

-Need to prime your audience to know, 1) Why they’re there, 2) What they can accomplish, 3) What to do next.

-30% of your energy should be allocated here. Top of funnel for new users, deserves to be well thought out. 

-Remember, people are lazy, vain, and selfish. You have 30 seconds to engage and address each concern.

-Best hook is doing things proactively for customer. Once you help them feel successful and proud, will engage more deeply and take time to learn and unlock the greater potential of what you’ve created. 

Measuring Success:
-Always ask “what is the real goal here?” Answer is rarely as measurable as you may think.

-Avoid too many measures, the more numbers you’re tracking, the less attention you pay to any of them.

-Boil your business down to one or two core metrics.

-Prefer, a referral network for independent professionals, uses a single metric, “number of working pairs.” Allows them to focus on what matters instead of getting caught in surface measures like revenue or downloads.

-Iconic and breakthrough product insight are not the result of trying to improve a metric. Square’s iconic UX requiring everyone to sign using a finger instead of bypassing small transactions.

Investors:
-“For strong companies, financing is a tactic. For weak companies, financing is a goal.” SB

-Is the team attempting to defy a likely outcome or make it happen in a better way? Invest in the latter. Uses forces already in play.

Editing:
“The question that I find most helpful to ask is, ‘if you had to keep 10 percent, which 10 percent would you keep, and if you had to, absolutely had to, cut 10 percent, which 10 percent would you cut?’” Tim Ferriss

Desire to Learn:
-Warren Buffett spends 80% of each day reading. When asked about keys to success, Buffett pointed to a stack of books on his desk and said, “Read five hundred pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

-Annual letters to investors, Buffett is self-reflective and self-deprecating. Admits when he struggles to understand something or has made dumb decisions. Remarkably open to changing his mind. All because of his persistent desire to learn.

Your Move – Ramit Sethi

Your Move: The Underdog’s Guide to Building Your Business – by Ramit Sethi
Date read: 9/20/18. Recommendation: 8/10.

Ramit Sethi is one of my favorite humans and writers (I Will Teach You to Be Rich is a gem, if you haven’t read it). He’s someone who gets it. Whether it’s finance, or in this case business, he’s always focused on the things that matter and assigning things their proper weight. In Your Move he offers insight into handpicking customers, being more selective about who you target, and why that’s fundamental to success. He emphasizes authenticity and crafting a message that resonates with your target audience’s hopes, dreams, pain points, and fears. It’s a book that should be able to point you in the right direction whether you’re struggling with your initial idea, defining your audience, or putting yourself and your product out there. There’s actionable insight for each.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

A successful business doesn't mean more money. It means more success, peace of mind and time.

Don't give things away for free:
-People value what they pay for
-Huge difference between free reader and paying customer
-Paying customer is far more likely to engage/open/use whatever they've paid for

"Most people reading this will not become millionaires because it involves extremely hard work and insane perseverance." -RS

Invisible risk of doing nothing > risk of starting a business

If you create value, people will be more than happy to pay for it.

Authenticity matters. Listening matters. When you sit down with customers, encourage them to open up by saying "Tell me about that." Or if you're sending emails, ask "What are you struggling with today?"

Make sure you've identified and are talking with your target market.
-If Ramit had talked to people his parent's age when writing his first book, he probably would have heard something about saving for retirement earlier. That message doesn't resonate with someone in their early 20s who wants to know what to do with their money, make it work for them, and buy a round of drinks for their friends.

Be selective and handpick your customers
-Allows you to target wants, needs, hope, fears, desires of that audience with pinpoint accuracy (and create products they want).
-"Students for life" philosophy.
-Regularly encouraging people to unsubscribe from newsletter (those who stick around are highly committed and engaged).

"Your biggest challenge is customer selection. You pick the right customer, you win. You pick the wrong customer, you lose. Focus on helping great people get better." -Marshall Goldsmith

Learn to embrace mistakes, otherwise, you get stuck in analysis paralysis (thinking instead of acting).

"Focus on being decisive and less on trying to make the 'right' decision. You'll never know until you try, and if you're wrong, you can always try again." RS

Beginners focus on the wrong things – worry about minutiae that won't change a thing and ends up exhausting.

Experienced pros have gone through this and know what to pay attention to (and what to ignore).

"Anyone can be 'efficient'–meaning they can do a given task pretty well. But very few can be 'effective,' meaning they select the right things to work on in the first place. Focusing on the right things is a true superpower." RS

Focus on your audience more, your competition less.

"Be different to be better. Don't be different for the sake of being different." RS

When you nail the right audience, price is a mere triviality. People will pay substantial money if you're solving a problem that's important to them AND they believe you can solve it.

Systems mentality: Life is always going to be messy. Successful people don't rely on "motivation or "working harder" to make things happen. They have systems for the big wins and let the inconsequential stuff fall by the wayside.

To sell you need to know four key things about your customers: their hopes, dreams, pain points, and fears.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. The things that worked from $0 to $100,000 won't always work when you're trying to crack $500,000.

Change the words you use to sell your products and you can drastically increase revenue.
-Focus on the reader and their pains, challenges and frustrations as they relate to your niche.
-Articulate their biggest hopes, dreams, and goals.
-What do they want? What's frustrating? What's going on inside their heads?

Product or service tiers (i.e. intro, intermediate expert) changes the question from if I should buy, to which should I buy?

If you view yourself as their trusted advisor and you have a product that will help them, you should be doing everything in your power to let them know about it.

"Stop and ask yourself: Are your products awesome? Do they really help people? If the answer is 'No,' then you need to make a better product." Graham Cochrane

30% Raise:
-Change the words on your promotional pages (take focus off product, shift towards customers)
-Offer more expensive option (tiered pricing)
-Begin selling sooner and more often

Rework – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier

Rework – by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier
Date read: 8/4/18. Recommendation: 8/10.

Relevant to anyone building, running, or growing a business. Fried and Heinemeier offer valuable first-hand experience that goes against conventional, mediocre business advice. They discuss the approach and tactics they've used to grow their own software company, Basecamp, to reach over 3 million people around the world. Much of their advice centers around remaining small, frugal, and profitable. They caution against business plans, workaholics, and ramping up as an end goal. Instead favoring adaptability, hiring people who have lives outside of work, and simplicity. They even encourage letting your customers outgrow you, rather than altering your product to add complexity. Keep it simple and build something that makes it as easy as possible for new people to get on board (that's where the continued growth lies).

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 

 

My Notes:

Plans let the past drive the future. They put blinders on you. "This is where we're going because, well, that's where we said we were going." And that's the problem: Plans are inconsistent with improvisation.

The timing of long-range plans creates problems because you're making decisions before you've begun, "You have the most information when you're doing something, not before you've done it."

Following a plan that has no relationship with reality is worse than having no plan at all. 

Ramping up doesn't have to be your goal. Don't be insecure about running a small, fulfilling business. 

Workaholics:
-Try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force = inelegant solutions
-"Workaholics aren't heroes. They don't save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a  faster way to get things done."
-"When people have something to do at home, they get down to business. They get their work done at the office because they have somewhere else to be."
-You want people who have a life outside of work and care about more than one thing -- shouldn't expect the job to be someone's entire life if you want to keep them around for the foreseeable future.

"The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use."
-Make hundreds of tiny decisions a day when you're building a product or service. If it's someone else's problem you're stabbing in dark. When you solve your own problem, the light comes on and you know what the right answer is.

"The original pitch idea is such a small part of a business that it's almost negligible. The real question is how well you execute."

"When you want something bad enough, you make the time–regardless of your other obligations. The truth is that most people just don't want it bad enough. Then they protect their ego with the excuse of time."

At Basecamp, they design their product to be as simple as possible because they believe software is too complex with too many features/buttons/confusion. They're comfortable with alienating certain people because the product from competition does more (but at the cost of being less intuitive). 

Basecamp focuses on timeless desires (not trends): speed, simplicity, ease of use, clarity.

After their first product had been around for a while, a few early customers said they were growing out of the application and wanted them to change the product to mirror additional complexities and requirements. They said no. Justification: "We'd rather our customers grow out of our products eventually than never be able to grow into them in the first place."

There are always more people who are not using your product than people who are. Make it as easy as possible for those people to get on board. That's where your continued growth potential lies.

"Do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition."

Find the epicenter, ask yourself: "If I took this away, would what I'm selling still exist?" i.e. hot dog from a hot dog stand.

When things aren't working, don't throw more at the problem. Do less. Will force you to make tough calls and sort out what actually matters.

Content and putting in the work >  tools
-Equipment is often a crutch for people who are desperate for shortcuts.

"Momentum fuels motivation." (and the same goes for inspiration)
-Get it out there, get feedback, don't squander your momentum/inspiration.

Inject what's unique about the way you think into what you sell - i.e. Zappos, customer service.
-Competitors can attempt to copy your product, but they can't copy how you sell it, support it, explain it, deliver it.

Enthusiasm for a new idea is not an accurate indicator of worth or priority. Let it marinate.

Build an audience/platform:
-Share information that's valuable to build a loyal audience. That way when you launch and need to build traction, the right people will already be listening.

"Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them. Teaching probably isn't something your competitors are even thinking about."
-Forms a bond unlike traditional marketing tactics
-Teaching = loyalty, respect, trust.
-Share everything you know.

"Imperfections are real and people respond to real."
-Don't worry how you're supposed to sound, be real.
-Pare things down to their essence, but don't remove the poetry (too polished sounds robotic).
-Talk to customers the way you would to friends (explain things like you're sitting with them in person).

Give some away for free (free trials). You should be confident that the product/service is so great that people will come back for more. 

"Trade the dream of overnight success for slow, measured growth. It's hard but you have to be patient. You have to grind it out. You have to do it for a long time before the right people notice."

Don't hire someone for a position until you've tried it first.
-Better understand the nature of the work, what a job well done looks like, know which questions to ask, and you'll be a much better manager.

"Don't hire for pleasure; hire to kill pain."
-Pass on hiring people you don't need, even if that person's a great catch. Worse problem to have smart people on board who aren't engaged/doing meaningful work.

"How long someone's been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they've been doing it."

With a small team, you need people who are going to do work, not delegate. Delegators are deadweight. They love to pull people into meetings where they get to seem important.

Hire managers of one - people who come up with their own goals and execute.
-Look at background, have they run something on their own or launched their own projects?
-Great product advice: find someone who's capable of building something from scratch and seeing it through.

"Writing is today's currency for good ideas."

"Write to be read, don't write just to write."
-Think of one person then write for that person (not a mob). 

"When something goes wrong, someone is going to tell the story. You'll be better off if it's you."

"When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of nonthinkers."