This is the story of Bill.
Bill is a field technician working as a contractor for Time Warner Cable. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is assigned to my cable installation today (thanks to him I am able to write this—thanks Bill!). What he does know is that my experience with him will be painful as a customer, and enraging as an entrepreneur.
It’s 6:30AM. Bill wakes up this morning destined to fail.
He stumbles across his house getting ready for work, drinking some water to prepare for the warm Texas weather, avoiding caffeine or any chemical-laden beverage, “because I sweat on the job; it’s gross—it’s not good,” he’ll tell me later in the day after I offer him a Diet Coke. After dressing in the same uniform he wore yesterday, and probably the day before that, he heads to his employer’s warehouse to pick up today’s assignments, his tools, and his work van.
It’s 7:15AM. Bill arrives at work.
He stumbles by his locker and grabs his tool bag before heading to the office to retrieve the printouts for today’s assignments. Scanning through them he sees two appointments scheduled between 8AM-9AM. “Shit, you’ve got to be kidding me,” he mutters to himself; one of these appointments is mine, the other is across town. Austin isn’t a massive city by any means, but it will take Bill 20 minutes to get from one location to the other.
It’s 9:25AM. Bill calls me, already behind schedule.
Naturally, I’m using the restroom as my phone rings. I nod my head in appreciation of the comedic timing, reluctantly answering. “Yeah, uh.. is this a Mr. Kovar in the ‘mill-a-go’ building?” he inquired, butchering the word Milago. “Sure is. Need me to come let you in?” “Yes sir, but before we get started, I need to get to the cable access point. Is the engineer for the building in today?”
Lucky for me, the engineer was in and gave us the access needed. I follow Bill into the room curiously as he tells me how he suffered a hernia and had to take workers’ compensation to afford the medical bills and this is his first full week back on the job. As a result of this ordeal his old equipment was issued to another contractor, and after his return he was given all the old tools the company had laying around. Old and broken.
It’s 9:45AM. Bill can’t open the cable access box.
I peer over his shoulder, arms crossed as if I actually know what he’s doing and can provide some sort of input like, “maybe try a different angle?” He explains how Time Warner issues a specific screw driver which acts as a key to open cable boxes and how the previous owner stripped it trying to open the wrong kind of box; it’s rendered useless. “You’re telling me they knowingly sent you out with broken equipment?” All Bill can do is laugh to himself and give back a defeated, “Yep.”
We are reduced to waiting for his coworker to arrive with a working magic screw driver; Bill waits in his van to avoid potentially being towed. I sit in my apartment patiently, pondering to myself how this man can wake up every day knowing he’ll be dealing with an unrealistic schedule, a handful of rude customers, and an expectation to upsell every customer—he’s a technician, not a salesman—let alone make it home in time to take care of his son.
It’s 10:15AM. Dave shows up with working equipment.
Just as soon as he shows up Dave leaves to his own appointment, trading screw drivers with Bill in an act of kindness—apparently they’re mostly needed in apartments and big buildings, and Dave only had private residences on his schedule. Bill is finally able to showcase his skill, plotting his every move out loud to himself before conjuring cables from his tool kit and getting to work.
As he works, he asks about my role at AppSumo and how long I’ve been in Austin—he tells me that he’s from Louisiana and used to work as a master carpenter before the economy tanked, relying on his Army skills as a communication specialist to get his contracting job with Time Warner. I can tell he misses working with wood; there’s a spark of life when he talks about the craftsmanship required to work on historical homes and making his stance on today’s shoddy home builders known. Very quickly we’re getting my modem plugged in and, after some tweaking with energy levels, we have a solid signal.
It’s 10:30AM. We have a geek moment.
He’s never had a customer who supplied their own modem, “I didn’t know you could even do that!” We call in the MAC address and as we wait for the modem to (hopefully) register within Time Warner’s system, he notices my desktop is named Nebuchadnezzar. “That’s funny. I named my computer after a ship too—from Alien, Nostromo.” He tells me how Alien is his favorite thriller science fiction movie, but Blade Runner is his absolute favorite sci-fi flick; the original version with narration, specifically. Is say I’m too young to know and he laughs, telling me to watch it.
It’s 11:00AM. Bill knows he’s destined to fail.
Turns out something fishy is happening with the modem; we have to submit all of the numbers labeled on the back. Then out it comes: Bill levels with me about his job. We’ve bonded over sci-fi—we can talk about anything now. He tells me he’s tired, physically and emotionally, because of this job. Some days he starts work at 7AM and doesn’t get home until 11PM; he’s overbooked; and he has no benefits.
We run through his schedule for just today and figure that by 11AM:
These plus my other issues with Time Warner Cable conflate into a horrible experience as a customer:
It’s 11:30AM and my internet is finally working.
Just like that, Bill is gone with a firm handshake—on to be looked down upon by the next customer who is surely critical of him and of Time Warner for his late arrival, two and a half hours behind schedule. And here I sit, stuck writing this piece with a service that just feels wrong to use, as if my poor experience makes my internet not worth the burden of knowing how little Time Warner cares.
In short, don’t let your company become destined to fail. Pay attention to the little details—they add up.
PS: If you are in the Austin area and need a master carpenter, I know a guy who needs you just as much.
Here’s a lesson, compliments of LeBron James.
The more embedded into the startup culture you are—or any professional culture for that matter—the more your own success’ arrival is “about damn time.” We all celebrate the success of our peers; it’s the right thing for the ecosystem and it’s fun… but then we compare ourselves. And we dream. And we try to expedite our own success. We’ve tasted it second-hand, a sensation that tickles the spine and leaves us wanting more.
“I just went back to the basics,” James said. “I knew what got me to this point, and that was hard work and dedication, and I never had to prove anything to anyone. You know, in my first seven years, I just went out and let the game take care of itself.
Slow it down. Focus on the fundamentals. Put your head down and work, work, work. Some call it a grind, some call it the hustle—it doesn’t matter, it’s just work. The important thing is to learn as you go, to master your craft and discover the person you are becoming. Get to know yourself and also when you need a break or to have some fun. Most importantly, work on executing the fundamentals. It absolutely is about damn time; about how you utilize your damn time and about how you preserve it.
“And last year, I tried to prove something to everybody, and I played with a lot of hate,” James continued. “And that’s not the way I play the game of basketball. I play it with a lot of love, and a lot of passion, and that’s what I got back to this year.”
Everyone who manages to stick around, in any industry, does for the same reason: love. Jealous people will burn out and spiteful people will self-destruct, but those who do it for the love will grow, gain momentum, and become energized as they grind forward.
Love and passion are infectious. As confidence and cockiness are separated by a fine line, so too are love and lust. Make sure your work is fueled by love for the process and not lust for the end result. Do it for the love. Execute the fundamentals.
Your time will come.
Think about what your work means beyond its face value—its significance. As Tony Robbins suggests, the context of our experiences is what defines how we develop as people; it has less to do about what happens than what meaning we extract from the situation.
You see, it’s never the environment; it’s never the events of our lives, but the meaning we attach to the events—how we interpret them—that shapes who we are today and who we’ll become tomorrow.
From the opposite perspective, we can also inject meaning into an experience as a product creator. A book is only a collection of paper and ink until a deliberately crafted sentence leaps from the pages and plants an idea in the reader; something they can adopt and later spread on their own. A story is capable of empowering someone to overcome their fears and reach for new heights.
Just as a reader can finish a book having a new sense of purpose kindled within themselves, an app can inspire people to finally become healthy (Fitocracy) or give friends a lens into the world from your own perspective (Instagram). Skype and Facetime, to a traveling parent, means bedtime stories with their children when they’re away from home. Amazing products create meaning, representing not just a function, but a story. What story does your product tell to those who use it; why do they want to crack open your book or use your app?
Our concept of failure is broken. We fear failure, feel defeated by it, and can be discouraged by just the prospect of failure alone. To many, the term “failure” is a simple heuristic—a mental shortcut that we create early on—representing an end-state of humiliation, shame, etc. This is completely backwards: Failure can be one of our most powerful tools.
It starts at a young age. As children we are taught to strive for success and that falling short isn’t acceptable; non-success is quickly associated with punishment as a bad grade is given in school or a starting position in sports is given to the better player. With a little intuition, we can resolve that different people react to and anticipate failure in varying ways. Take this excerpt from a 2008 study, The Social Dynamics of Mathematics Coursetaking in High School:
Members of a social context can influence an adolescent’s personal valuation of math and, therefore, the psychological loss for failure to engage math, the adolescent’s sense of the importance of math, or the adolescent’s popularity as a result of engaging in math.
This suggests that one’s external environment influences both how important we perceive a particular action to be and whether or not failing that action is a big deal. Replace “math” in this example with something like “startups” and we can see how the social context of Silicon Valley varies with other areas.
Imagine the responses of people from different areas to hearing that your startup died: in certain cities you might expect a response like, “don’t quit your day job” and others you might expect, “so what’s your next project?” In his book Failing Forward, John Maxwell makes an argument that “the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.”
Changing our perception of failure is a subtle act in and of itself; realizing that disconnecting the emotional distress from failure strips it down to existing purely as a data point. Khan Academy does a great job of visualizing this with their Class Profile data:
This graph (showing practice modules successfully completed over time) exemplifies the importance of looking at failure as a data point. What we see is a plot line of mastery for each student, showing when they get “stuck” (horizontal) trying to understand a concept and when they master concepts (vertical)—every student learns at a different pace.
In a traditional scenario, students who don’t grasp a concept will be given a bad grade and the class will move on as a whole, predisposing “stuck” students to further failure. Khan Academy provides a new context for failure, allowing students to fail forward by shedding the pressure of deadlines and displacing the cognitive dissonance and self-blame resulting from bad grades; it prioritizes progress and rewards intrinsic motivation by removing the importance of getting good grades.
In the case of a business or system which relies on resources to continue existing, things become more complex. With an operational cost assumed, failure is the default state from which success emerges. This isn’t inherently bad; it just means your business needs to find success before it reaches the end of the runway. Lean approaches and “fail fast” processes have their merits in this environment by encouraging small, calculated risks and making data-driven decisions to maximize this runway. At AppSumo, nearly 85% of our tests fail, yet we are a healthy and growing company. That said, the idea of failing forward isn’t a process.
Failing Forward is a change in mentality regarding how you react to failure. In business, individually, and in relationships, failure is just a data point that adds value at a later time. Failure provides experience and wisdom to add to your repertoire—it’s an investment in your future. It’s easy to become emotionally entwined with a failure due to pride or hope, which is why we commonly see mention of the “trough of sorrow” in the startup industry. A supportive social system helps remove that emotional attachment by exemplifying that failure is a fact of life and it happens to everybody; sometimes we get stuck. It’s not how you fail that matters, but how you respond.
Don’t be afraid to fail. When you do, fail forward.
Tell me what you think via Twitter.
So vain are we. Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter. We Like it; we Love it; we spend countless hours on it. For what?
Social media is a talent trap. It’s where good, honest manhours go to die. If only we spent as much time producing something with our passion as we do seeking karma and self-gratification. Don’t Re-pin that recipe because the cake looks delicious; go make it yourself and post a picture of your creation! Don’t obsess over your Facebook Likes or Twitter Follower counts; these numbers are meaningless without context—without that actual 1-to-1 relationship.
This, in my mind, is the next obstacle for the social web to overcome. How do we turn each marginal minute of our time online from ‘wasted’ to ‘invested’ with these tools? A rather sobering perspective on this time wasting is described by Youssef Sarhan as the Facebook Like Paradigm.
Today Facebook enjoys 800 Million users; I’d guess, very conservatively, that Facebook processes about 2 billion Likes a day now.
This is where it gets depressing..
Let’s say it takes just 1 second to click a Like button.
2 billion Likes per day * 1 second = 2 billion seconds per day.
2 billion seconds equates to… wait for it… 63 years.
That’s 63 years of collective time people don’t get back, every day, spent clicking buttons on websites; and that number is only for Facebook. This time sink total is an indicator of Facebook’s prosperity, but at what cost does such prosperity come? Reid Hoffman observes that the success of a social network often correlates with its connection to one of the seven deadly sins.
Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins… With Facebook, it’s vanity, and how people choose to present themselves to their friends. It’s the feeling of being connected. I like to emphasize the importance of the deep universal, psychological structure in people’s minds… These are fundamentals for having a fulfilling quality of life.
Additionally, Hoffman suggests acting on these vices via social networks is important because it improves social connectivity versus traditional media, which I agree is true. However, an obsession over vanity metrics has driven down the quality of content generation. If I post more of what other people will like, I’ll get more Followers, Likes, or Re-pins. Ultimately, the social stream is re-run after re-run as the popular content works its way to the top, from rageface memes to designer dresses.
We need to remove this emphasis on empty metrics from social media so people can stop looking in the mirror at their own Likes and Followers and focus on the real benefits that lie beneath: the relationships they’ve fostered, the things they’ve learned, the good they’ve done for someone else… the context that numbers can’t articulate.
Join the conversion on Hacker News.
I make sure to start every day as a producer, not a consumer.
When you get up, you may start with a good routine like showering and eating, but as soon as you find yourself with some free time you probably get that urge to check Reddit, open that game you were playing, see what you’re missing on Facebook, etc.
Put all of this off until “later”. Start your first free moments of the day with thoughts of what you really want to do; those long-term things you’re working on, or even the basic stuff you need to do today, like cooking, getting ready for exercise, etc.
This keeps you from falling into the needy consumer mindset. That mindset where you find yourself endlessly surfing Reddit, Facebook, etc. trying to fill a void in yourself, trying to find out what you’re missing, but never feeling satisfied.
When you’ve started your day with doing awesome (not necessarily difficult) things for yourself, these distractions start to feel like a waste of time. You check Facebook just to make sure you’re not missing anything important directed at you, but scrolling down and reading random stuff in your feed feels like stepping out into the Disneyland parking lot to listen to what’s playing on the car radio - a complete waste of time compared to what you’re really doing today.
It sounds subtle, but these are the only days where I find myself getting anything done. I either start my day like this and feel normal and productive, or I look up and realize it’s early evening, I haven’t accomplished anything and I can’t bring myself to focus no matter how hard I want to.
At the core of every company is its culture—an embodiment of the founders’ personalities. It’s massively important to embrace your quirks as a founder and company as a whole, both good and bad. One of the driving forces behind AppSumo’s success is how well we play up our humor and creativity, utilizing them as tools that transform how professionals shop for educational videos and software.
For instance, the AppSumo logo is a caricature of a sumo wrestler with a burrito-eating grin on his face, Noah Kagan’s “title” is Chief Sumo, and our copy is specifically tailored to produce laughs while still being insightful and enticing. Similar to Gary Vaynerchuk, we probably scare off a handful of great potential customers with our approach, but the level of engagement and dedication we get from those we do attract is much more valuable to us. Perhaps what best exemplifies our culture is the new addition to the site: the Taco Rating System.
This isn’t because using taco instead of star icons is funny and remarkable (which it is), but because the culture at AppSumo encourages rapid ideation; there is no idea too simple or too stupid. The team is conditioned to set inhibitions aside and ask questions like…
Hey Noah, what if we use taco icons instead of stars for our ratings? Everyone uses stars—they’re boring.
Sharing and testing ideas at AppSumo has turned into a quirk of ours—a part of our personality—allowing us to balance our fun-lust and passion to scale while providing a unique experience for customers. How can you leverage your personality to enhance your personal brand or company? We all have weaknesses, so don’t get hung up on overcoming them; instead, execute on what makes you distinctly you.