The Pursuit of Fame, Fire, or Famine (what should I do with my life?)

The more I learn about the world the more confused I get.

I remember looking up at people in their mid-twenties when I was 10 or so and thinking: “these people have it figured out”.  Now at the age of 28, and assessing what I have figured out, I humbly admit the answer is “very little”.  Investigating some of  society’s current macros trends, it’s more than palpable to conclude that the human race as a whole knows very little as well.  The economy and mother earth are fierce adversaries, our status as individuals tends to supersede the value of the collective community, the food we eat isn’t actually food…and the list goes on and on.

Given it’s now safe to at least anecdotally conclude that we as a species know very little; we are left with little able resources to help answer life’s most pressing questions.  Maybe the most pressing question that we face as autonomous individuals is: “what should I do with my life?”  Since we only have one life to live (that we empirically know of), this question is often met with fear, anxiety, and utter distain.  In a bifurcated world of good and evil, success and failure, and all other dualistic representations, we are led to believe there is one set path.  That those who diverge are lost.  This dangerous belief does not take into account the true networked dynamics of life, and leaves us in a predicament to decide, and therefore kill off the abundant possibilities.

If we are choosing a specific path to take, what are our choices?  I would say we have three: fame, fire or famine.

Fame” is status, traditional notions of success, and power.  Fame lives in the realm of one’s identity, which is more of a fabrication of one’s self than an authentic representation of it.  Fame is highly attractive and no one is fully immune to its allure.  Just like the diet coke that gives you that initial jolt and hint of euphoria while simultaneously killing off your brain sells; fame has the tendency to be a source of short term pleasure while having the capacity to erode one’s soul.

Seeking fame, status, or money is not necessarily bad.  Many virtuous professions produce fame, status, and money — one can easily argue that surgeons deserve every bit of their societal status and salary.   However, fame in isolation can lead to the adoption of harmful cultural values that prioritize individualism over value creation.  Unfortunately, we live in a highly templated culture that has adopted many principles driven by notions of scarcity.  We are taught to fend for ourselves and accrue resources for our own self benefit and self worth.  We are led to believe that only a select few can ever obtain an abundance of resources or attention — so we fight.  We fight hard for “fame”, doing things like preparing for the Ivy League admissions process before we can ride a bike.  This may be a necessary process in today’s world of limited access, however it undermines the sacredness of our childhood curiosity and playfulness.

All people pursue some version of fame.  The extent to which you pursue fame as your primary focus determines if your life’s pursuit is a worthy one.

Fire” burns at one’s core.  Fire represents the flames of passion inside you that illuminates the soul and if used correctly, can illuminate the world.  We’ve all heard stories of our ancestors harnessing the power of fire — how it expanded the practical notion of food, how it protected us from disease and the cold, and how it aided us in developing our understanding of the unknown that night formerly withheld from us.  Our ability to harness fire was a turning point in the evolution of the human race.

Today, fire is now ubiquitous and is used in many different forms.  However, there is one form of fire that we as a species are still trying to harness.  That fire is passion, the fire that we can all generate within us.  With an economy driven by creativity taking shape, the cost of consumer technology and communication tools reducing drastically, and with the mass “amateurization” of many formerly professional trades happening before our eyes the foundation for a passion revolution is forming.  College graduates leave school feeling lost as they’re left with student loans to pay off and an education that has prepared them to work during the industrial revolution.  The young people who are resilient and curious tend to stumble upon something that excites them.  If they’re really lucky (and persistent), that excitement evolves into a passion.  I’ve been lucky enough to be part of environment fueled by passion, audacity, and  hope.  I’ve seen people harness their passion, convert it into a market ready idea, and make a life out of it.  Of course this case is the minority, however given the information communication technology we have available to us today, the possibilities of harnessing passion and converting it into a career exist like never before in history.

It’s not hard to conceptualize the sheer power of fire.  The transformative nature of it’s core properties does not live in isolation, those properties can easily spread (like wildfire) to others.  But is it enough?  Can you build a life out of harnessing fire?  Or is fire merely a mechanism for self service which is inherently limiting?

“Famine”, is indicative of widespread scarcity.  However famine in this case represents the personal sacrifice of living in a state of material scarcity, in order to create abundance for others.  Beyond fame and fire, famine represents an altruistic state where one’s purpose lives outside their own self preservation.  Their contribution to the world is paramount.

Famine is an upstream swim.  The powerful current of ego bears down as us as we franticly try to swim ahead.  The harder we try to swim towards our worthy cause the more cultural values like status, money and looks push us down.  Any outsider witnessing this struggle might be right to call us crazy.  However, once you become captivated by this idea of contribution, you realize that it’s impossible to stop.  That devoting yourself to a worthy cause (or swim) is aligning one’s work with one’s soul.

Of course in a world of material  abundance (a world that the majority of people reading this lives in), pursing this important work does not always require extremely levels of self sacrifice.  However, it always requires extreme sacrifice of one’s ego.  Throughout our lives, we are conditioned to always put ourselves first.  For most, it takes a life changing experience like having a baby, witnessing extreme poverty, having a near death experience to start thinking beyond ourself, and to consider that we might simply be minute contributors to an infinite universe.  Regardless of if you have had a life changing experience or not, you can always tap into a sense of pure altruism.  If you believe we are all connected, that we live in a vast network of connected parts that is more important than the sum of each isolated part, then you have instant access to altruism, purpose, and empathy.

Fame, fire, or famine — which one is most worthy of our life’s pursuit?  No one can answer that for you, however, I would like to make the case for an option.  I believe it’s essential that we pursue all three.  We are complex beings, living in complex systems.  We require recognition and praise for our work.  We are fueled by meaning and passion as it sustains us over time.  We all deep down have an authentic desire to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.  Blend the three pursuits together and see what you get.  You may find yourself becoming uncompromising when selecting or creating your life’s work.  You may find yourself seeing the forest beyond the trees, and blazing a new trail in that forest as your explore.

The world needs people who think creatively and openly about their contribution to the world.  By harnessing the powers of fame, fire, and famine we can discover new ways to become more powerful than ever before.  Can we transmute our inclination to selfishly drive toward our own success into self worth combined with a burning passion?  Can we align our passion with the desire to solve the grand challenges our world faces today?  With this blended approach we may have the confidence, desire, and empathy to reshape the world.

 Photo: Damian Gadal 

Our Meaningless Lives

I was lucky to grow up with a mom that was…how do I say this…well, different. From the music she listened to, her fascination with testing her financial limitations, to the car she drove, she was different from any of the other moms I knew. She had an unwavering curiosity and sometimes a mild depression due to the harsh reality that was often casted over her unique idealism.

She would tell me things like: “I don’t want you to simply be happy, I want you to do more, to help the people of the world” and “You were made for this world”. These declarations were difficult to absorb being kid whose main objective was to fit in.

Today, her impact on me stretches throughout my life in all areas whether I like it or not. Some of her notions I reject while others I embrace; I believe she doesn’t want it any other way.

One of her passions in particular has always captivated me. She has a profound admiration for her heroes. Thinkers, artists, social reformers that she studies diligently. Books by Nietzsche, Aristotle, Carl Jung and others were consistently sprawled out throughout the house.

I often neglected one of her heroes for no particular reason. Maybe because he was a scientist, or possibly because he didn’t date back to antiquity or the enlightenment. However, Carl Sagan was never on my radar no matter how often she spoke about him in all his awesomeness.

Recently, I have bore witness to his awesomeness. His pleasant exterior patented by his combed over hair and softening smile, coupled with his syrupy voice made him science’s perfect ambassador. His ability to captivate even the most apathetic reader or viewer was a product of his tremendous storytelling ability. Sagan’s purpose was to integrate science into mainstream thought and practices. He challenged our beliefs all while strengthening our faith in our race.

One of his messages in particular struck me at my core.

Man’s search for meaning is a journey that pervades all of humanity. We have created gods, doctrinal stories, and religions to explain worldly phenomena and to give meaning to our lives. Institutions have been created to spread these ideas far and wide and to establish a sense of community that fortifies these ideas. Some people cultivate a more self-derived sense of purpose, which is a more postmodern approach that people like my mother harness to create meaning.

Sagan believed that manmade creations of meaning are often misguided. Science has constantly debunked comforting explanations of our existence; explanations that lead us to believe we’re in control of the universe. Science has the agency to scrutinize everything from concepts we have been indoctrinated with to conclusions deduced by using the scientific method. This leads us to the question: what did Sagan believe science was telling us about our purpose?

He believed science tells us that there is no greater purpose. That life is empty and meaningless. That humanity represents a miniscule microbe of the universe and is therefore relatively insignificant.

This is a terrifying idea to entertain.

Our lives are made of meaning, reasons, and fate. Does this mean that we live in a perpetual lie? Or does it mean that we have to reject the virtues of science to live worthy lives?

What it means is nothing. This statement has no meaning. No meaning gives way to emptiness and emptiness gives way to possibilities.

We as humans should not fear the unknown, our insignificance, or the cosmos. We instead should embrace the emptiness that exists. We should recognize and leverage the unlimited possibilities that this empty space yields.

As Sagan put it: “We are the custodians of life’s meaning”. There is no comic creator of meaning; we are the creators and purveyors of our very own purpose. What can possibly be more empowering than this?

So embrace god, your family, your relationships, your life’s mission—in this world, the possibilities of meaning are endless. Live big and bold lives that extend beyond the imaginable and inspire the minds and souls of others.

“If we crave some cosmic purpose, than let us find ourselves a worthy goal” -Carl Sagan

Thank you to my mother for helping shape my life’s purpose. Your influence has given me the strength and wisdom to live beyond my ephemeral self.

The Problem with Problem Solving

The formula is simple; identify an everyday life “problem” that impacts a large number of people.  Next step, create a product or service that solves the problem and deliver the solution (your product or service) to the people who have the problem.  This is entrepreneurship.  This is the formula that I was taught while starting companies in Silicon Valley, this is the formula being served up in incubators and accelerators across the globe, this is the formula used by social entrepreneurs to solve some of the world’s most pervasive problems.

You may have noticed that this formula is limited.  Yes, the summary above is dramatically simplified, however its limitations have more to do with the substance of the formula and less to do with its simplicity.

The problem with the “problem solution paradigm” is that it lives in a vacuum.  Solutions rarely target the root cause of an issue.  Instead, we live in a world of “fixes” and cover-ups which often augment the problem rather than providing a sustainable solution.  Thus what is a created is a problem-based economy that relies on the perpetuation of problems, so they can be solved by market based solutions.

Within this paradigm, we rarely take into account the entire scope of the problem, and the unlimited number of variables that give life to the problem.  We think small and create the insignificant.

Silicon Valley has been purveyors of this paradigm through the long tail of new startups  and investors.  Facebook and the mobile marketplace have created an ecosystem that supports an astonishing breadth of companies fueled by investors expecting many companies to fail but quick and ample returns from those who succeed (startup expert Steve Blank sums it this phenomenon here).

Lets admit it, small problems are easier to solve and therefore are more likely provide a financial return.  From this vantage point changing the world looks a whole lot less attractive.

If we as social entrepreneurs are committed to creating a better world above all else, it will take a paradigm shift, and a commitment to shifting paradigms.  It will require a departure from problem solving to becoming catalysts for true transformation.

It will take social entrepreneurs that have the vision and audacity to disrupt outdated systems, an unwavering commitment to people and the earth, and the ability to look beyond traditional theories of change.

It will take investors and networks like Omidyar Network with their priming the pump approach to sector driven impact investing.  Like Singularity University that asks their students to solve a problem that will positively impact a billion people.

It will take a new long tail that creates global change from the bottom up, using social enterprise and responsible business practices as its vehicle.

It is time to invest in a new formula.  A formula where positive social transformation is the output.  Think beyond the fixes and cover-ups, and to think about creating sustainable social change.

Prayer, Voice, Solution, Understanding

 

When I got the news yesterday, I reacted like  everyone else.  I was overwhelmed with sadness, anger, but most of all, a numbing feeling of “what the fuck!”.

I wanted to speak out, to do something, but given my emotional state, I didn’t join the discussion, as nothing productive would have came from it.  So I sat in prayer for the children, their families and for us as a society to seek reform at the root.

Much of the discussion seems to be about when to speak, and when not to.  The thing is, our voices are the most significant democratic tools we have.  To withhold thoughts, to avoid proposing solutions to an epidemic of this significance is to be sheep, it is to allow that feeling of numb I had pervade.

With that being said, it’s of extreme importance to acknowledge what our words and thoughts project into the world.  Anger is the protagonist of violence, blame creates further separation from what can be if we create collective understanding.  These tragedies are a product of this form of hate and misunderstanding.

I believe gun regulations should be extremely strict, I believe the treatment of mental illness should be integrative and holistic.  Above all, I believe in the need to create a more equitable world.  Media that glorifies  violence and status creates a separatist mentality, one of exclusion.  Watch Bravo for 2 minutes or our most recent machine gun heavy movie trailers and wonder why kids at school are excluded and young men are in a constant state of “proving themselves”.  How about the shrinking middle class and the starving poor.  The neo-liberal economic policies that keep the flow of money moving up with little to no trickle down.  These are all factors in the creation and conservation of inequity and therefore discontent in our country and the world.

We don’t know why this happened, we shouldn’t pretend to know.  However, we should be committed to understanding.  Understanding societal discontent, understanding these acts of violence, understanding the pain these families are going through.

All my love goes out to the family of those affected and the rest of the universe.

Post Election Questioning, A Need for Transformation?

 

The elections have now come and gone.  Our news feeds are now back to normal, broadcasting the latest in marriage proposal news, Instagram dinner pics, and all else in between.  I assume that never before has the US public been inundated with the incredible volume of media (both mass media and user generated) related to US politics, as we have during this year’s election.  But how much was signal, how much was noise?  The answer to this question depends on the overall efficacy of our political, corporate, and media institutions, which manage the messaging and therefore heavily influence our ability as people of the country to effectively fulfill our democratic duties.  I would argue that most of what was “messaged” created a noisy mess.

However, it goes beyond that noisy mess and the ephemeral nature of elections.  It goes beyond asking yourself: “am I better today then I was four years ago?”  We must start deconstructing the political system, and questioning if it works.  It’s a system that I believe is not only failing it own people, but infringing on the liberty of populations across the globe.  Maybe it’s less about the system and more about the policies of the system; but then again, faulty systems often support the development of bad policy.  We have learned that unlike nature, the system is not self-correcting.  The system is compounding, adding layers of power, money, and complexity.

Some may call this political cynicism by someone that doesn’t understand the system, nor wants to.  In many respects that’s true for this small sample size of one as I fail to understand many of the nuances of our political system.  What is far easier to comprehend is the effects politics have on our world.  Issues like: the failures of the Fed and Fiat money, modern day imperialism, the lack of a public and private divide, the refutation of scientific data when it comes to climate change, the military industrial complex, a two party system that is about self service and affiliation and does not promote self reliance — are all easy to understand.

For all the people that sees these truths, the question is: how do we make things better?

Making things better may mean being more responsible with the way things are now.  It might mean embracing the system as it is and taking ownership of our civic duty even in a democracy, which may be lacking certain democratic features.

It may mean fixing the current system in place.  Optimizing it to work more effectively and efficiently.  Going back to the true roots of democracy (or maybe it’s better to start at the meaning) and putting the interest of the people before the interest of the few and powerful.

Or the answer might be complete transformation, or as entrepreneur Max Marmer put it, creative destruction.  Throwing out the obsolete and creating a new system, or possibility a new framework for society.  Solutions have been designed that have little relation to the current systems we are governed under now.

First option we typically commit to (especially in November every four years) but fail to see through.

The second option is being pursued by activist groups across the globe like the Occupy Movement, Pussy Riot protests, The BDS Movement and others.  Many of which create massive movements spotlighting injustice, promoting accountability and often, system changes.  This requires a high level of boldness, guts, and belief.  It requires collective leadership.

The last option seems unimaginable.  Particularly, because it is unimagined.  Enter the realm of infinity and you enter the realm of fear and the unknown.  You also enter a new realm of possibility uninhibited by prior failures.

What exists today is all most of us have known.  What exists today only truly works for a select few.  What exists today will not exist forever.  I’m inclined to feel that transformation is needed.  That we must create a system that promotes our inalienable rights as humans, preserves and replenishes the earth’s resources, and sustains and flourishes over time.

I guess it’s time for us all to start thinking…

Confessions of a Semi-Intelligent Person and the Power of Awareness, Heuristics and Leadership

 

Have you ever heard that us human beings only use 10% of our brains?  Well that statement is actually  untrue…it’s an urban myth, and the very existence of the myth points to out our collective mental laziness.  Until a few weeks ago I actually believed the statement was true which might tell you something (yes I have a degree in psychology).  Ok, so now that we know that us humans have the capacity to use much more of our brains then most people believe, why don’t we?

Great question, however maybe I should be speaking for myself when pointing to underutilization of the brain since this is a confession.  So…

I confess…I’m not the smartest.

I am consciously aware that I often shy away from entering great depths of critical thinking since it requires an excruciating amount of energy, when in a discussion with a ridiculously smart person, I often find myself a point or two behind, and you don’t even want to hear about my SAT scores (down with standardized tests!!).

Even after acknowledging the limits of my mental abilities, I will tell you that it does not limit me in my all-around performance.  There are methods and principles that can help people maximize their performance without being cognitively gifted.  Just like the 5’10 former star quarterback Doug Flutie did (average height for a QB is the NFL is 6’3), we can create leverage to make our shortcomings advantages.

Here are a few ways I have overcome an intelligence deficient:

Awareness

I have found awareness to be far more important that intelligence in almost all circumstances.  Awareness to me is the balance between head and heart.  It means growing yourself beyond the knowledge you obtain, and cultivating a strong spiritual core.  It requires one to live with a healthy dose of skepticism while maintaining love and empathy.

The benefits of being an “aware” human being are infinite.  The primary benefit however is that aware people live a higher quality of life than others.  They have a better understanding of self and therefore are more happy and effective.  They have a better ability to connect authentically with people and situations.

Grow your awareness by slowing down, meditating, testing assumptions you have about life, and by spending time with incredible individuals.

Aware people are magnetic, they attract the people and situations to produce the best results.

Heuristics and Hacks

You don’t have to be exceptionally smart to create leverage, you simply have to be clever (or follow the practices of someone clever).  Creating systematic shortcuts when it comes to personal development, skill learning or work can help you maximize results while positioning yourself for sustainable input.

Personally, I use simple hacks to help myself make more quality decisions faster, and keep myself accountable.  For example, I have developed a list of core values that govern my thoughts (I wish all of them), actions, and long term goals.  Qualifying opportunities is turnkey when you have developed a strong set of governing values.  Anything that does not fall in-line with my values either gets dismissed or is not prioritized.

Another great practice is to create routine in areas you typically would not structure.  For example, when it came to diet, I generally would get hungry, acknowledge  my hunger, think about what type of food I feel like and what’s convenient at the moment, and after some intrapersonal deliberation I would go to a restaurant to eat (9 times out of 10 Mexican food).  Now, thanks to my wonderful girlfriend, it’s a much different story.  Our meals are prepared at the beginning of week, with a daily schedule posted.  This has led to: less mental strain allowing me to save decision making for more important issues, less time waited, and most importantly, an extremely healthy diet.

For more clever and practical methods for developing a personal operating  system, take a look at this Tim Ferriss interview where he discusses some interesting hacks for producing results.

Humble Leadership (soft skills)

I have a firm belief that leadership is the foundation that your effectiveness depends on.  Your ability to hold yourself accountable to your own results while empowering others to do the same  lays the ground work for being effective.

The great thing about leadership is that it’s not reserved for the brilliant; anybody can be a leader at any given moment.  Once again, it starts with developing a set of core values and having your actions align with those values.  This is integrity, not just doing what you say, but also doing what you believe in.  Leaders need to have the highest level of integrity.

Why does leadership make a person effective, and often more effective than one dimensional intellectuals?  Because good leaders move people.  They lead with passion and intent which drives people to do the same.  Intelligence often lives in a vacuum while leadership is scalable.

——

From the very beginning of our lives, we are conditional to believe that intelligence is the end all be all.  That belief is as shallow as intelligence often is.  Human beings, consume a level depth that no other living being that we know of do.  To be the best people we can be, we must dive as deep into ourselves as possible and make all the “goodness” rise to the top.

Never adopt the fallacious notion that you are not good enough, as that could not be further than the truth.

As Einstein once stated: “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

 

 

The Spark: Do Social Entrepreneurs Need a TOMs-like Story?

Stories sell.

A good story can pull heart strings, raise money, even sell millions of canvas shoes.  Stories have become the ultimate form of currency for the social entrepreneur, even more so than impact numbers, team, or traction in some cases.  This begs a few questions for every social entrepreneur:

“What’s my story?”

“How do I tell my story?”

“Do I need a story?”

Recently I read a story on SocialChange.is about the CEO of the Congo Leadership Initiative, a social entrepreneur named Nathaniel Houghton.  As a young white man who recently graduated from Cornell, naturally, the number one question he gets about his work is: Why Congo?

The thing is, Nathaniel doesn’t have a story.  He doesn’t exactly know why he’s serving the Congo over another community or country in need.  He has allowed passion and perspective move him towards serving the DRC.

The interesting thing about Nathaniel’s “story”, or lack there of, is that the people he’s serving doesn’t care about the story.  They don’t care about the contrast between their skin color and Nathaniel’s, they don’t care about his background, they don’t care about the politics of the country he comes from.  What they do care about is the service of the CLI, the work they do for the common good of their community, and the purity of their intent.

The purpose of a strong story is obvious.  Stories are meant to create an emotional connection with an individual so strong that they act, share, and identify with the story.  However, don’t let the lack of a story be a deterrent in you creating something special that can change the world.

The people you impact won’t care about how you got there.  They care about your impact on their present and future.

If you don’t have a story, go serve, and create your story as you go.

 

The Next Chapter: Massive Change with Change.org

The last two and a half years of my life started with one bizarre interaction.  An older gentleman walked into the office I was working at at the time and sat down across from me, a desk creating about 7 feet of distance between the two of us.  He reached into a manila folder pulled out a piece of paper.  He slid the paper across the desk, it appeared to be some type of flow chart that this man said was “the future”.  We talked about a crazy idea, putting a sales and marketing tool in the hands of the service providers of local businesses.  Giving servers, bartenders and baristas an opportunity to make more money, learn how to market themselves and most importantly, be empowered.

This conversation stuck with me for a long time after the meeting was over.  So much so, that I dedicated the next two and a half years of my life to executing this crazy idea that we call JoynIn.  The older gentleman (also the Founder) became a mentor and friend, we raised over a half a million dollars, we built a team that at one point was 10 people strong, and built a pretty freaking cool product.

A few months ago I hit wall.  I just couldn’t do the work with the same type of enthusiasm and pace as I was known for.  Something was different, and it was me.  It was my heart telling me that what I was doing was not right for me.  It was telling me that full and complete alignment with my life’s purpose was more important now than ever.  That validating my worth as an entrepreneur by building a successful startup was not important.

So a month I ago, I decided to leave JoynIn to write the next chapter.

Before “writing” it, I took time to think, feel and evaluate my values, skills, passions and vision.  A decompression process along with an intense personal audit gave me incredible clarity not just with my career, but with the values that guide my life.  I will make sure to outline the process in a future post.

A somewhat discouraging realization came when I discovered there were very few companies and organizations that really fit interest and impact profile I was looking for.  This was also illuminating, recognizing how embryonic the social change/ tech sector truly is.  Resisting my entrepreneurial tendency to build from here, I instead took the most non-scalable approach to the job search ever.  I built a short list, presented to key players at each company and started to interview.

Never going through a real job search process before I found it to be eye opening.  I found that most interviews are conversations, that you need to sell creatively from the jump, that high growth companies sometimes don’t even know how they got there, and to follow the most passionate people.

So after all this…where am I?

I am beyond excited to announce that I will be the Director of Channel Sales at Change.org, a company that is transforming how individuals and organizations spark massive social change.

What led to the decision?  Many factors, the main one simply being it was THE choice.  When I talk about complete alignment of purpose and passion, this is it.

It goes far beyond my own personal wants being met.  There is no other company that exists in this time and space that can create radical global shifts at the level Change can and potentially help shift collective human consciousness.

Sitting down with the CEO Ben Ratray for 30 minutes made that insanely clear.  That in the here and now, this is it.

A focused pivot

As I pivot in life, I naturally pivot in…blog.  Of course I will be chronicling my life experiences and repositioning those experiences so they can be of value to you.  I will also be taking a deep dive into the social change space, social business, leadership and other related fields.  This blog will be a dynamic resource for social entrepreneurs that define themselves by the social impact they create and for those who are looking to define themselves in similar ways.

Thanks for reading.  Hope you enjoy and then act!

 

Photo Credit: B Rosen

How Tech Startups Can Avoid Building Too Much Too Soon (Forbes Guest Post)

I miss writing…alot!  So much so that in desperation to get something out there, I decided to post something that I wrote a few months back.  So here it is.  It was posted on Forbes a few weeks back, now on my personal blog…hope it adds value to your work :)

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Most companies fail not because they don’t have what it takes to build a successful product or service. They fail because they build an unneeded or unwanted product or service. For many tech startups, this happens because they built too much, too early. They identify a problem in a particular market, and they try to obliterate that problem with possible solutions.

To avoid this, take notes from Eric Ries, the forefather of the The Lean Startup Movement. As a result of his work, we are seeing a radical shift in way startups are solving customer problems. Today, garage-office startups and Fortune 500 companies alike are approaching product development with a more “scientific” approach. The principles that anchor the Lean Startup help entrepreneurs avoid wasting time and resources on products or features that will have little positive impact on customers.

Here are three ways to avoid providing too much, too early to your customers — and possibly ending up with nothing:

Start with the real MVP

You have heard of a minimum viable product, right? Have you ever built one? Probably not. Most of us are educated under a more waterfall-driven product development approach — we design something robust, and then we build something robust. It’s a linear model which doesn’t leave much room for flexibility. One of the major issues with the waterfall model is that it does not provide an adequate environment to gather quick quality feedback. The purpose of an MVP is to test your idea as an experiment as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. This can be a banner ad that measures the conversion rate on people responding to your offering (AppSumo’s Noah Kagan and Tim Ferrissare pros with this method) or it can be a series of prototypes trying to solve an overarching consumer problem (like the guys at Aardvark, acquired by Google). At JoynIn, we built what we thought was an MVP, but found out (after months of development time) that adding too many features made it difficult to really test our idea. By building too much, too soon, we made our solution hard to validate. Even worse, we made our users have to dig to find the true value of our product. Lesson learned.

Hit one value proposition out of the park

Another huge lesson we learned was the more assumptions you try to validate, the harder it is to validate just one. Spreading your team’s focus too thin leads to mediocre features, customer service, and even affects your user. Quora is a good example of a startup that takes on a fundamentally simple value proposition and knocks it out of the park. They aimed to provide people the easiest way to find answers to questions on topics they cared about. Many believe they did this better than Yahoo! Answers, Aardvark, Answers.com and LinkedIn Answers by using semantic data that give users the answers they’re looking for. When you are looking to solve your customer’s problem, focus on the best possible solution rather than five good ones. Simplicity, clarity and leverage go a long way.

Don’t forget the most important question.

When you are building a product or marketing to an audience, always ask the “Why?” Ask this question from the point of view of a customer. Why do I want to spend $49 on this shirt? Why am I looking at this label over the others on the shelf? Why do I want to click the ‘Buy Now’ button? Don’t create unnecessary steps for the user to get to where they want to go. At JoynIn, we imagined that before each step our users took — whether it was clicking a button or filling out a form — they would ask themselves why they were doing it. The “Why?” had to justify the action and effort. For example, take a look at Groupon: the primary call to action is the “Buy!” button. Before clicking, I intuitively ask myself why. In this case, the reason is clear: to get 60 percent off a Swedish massage. Next step: confirm the purchase and enter in your credit card number. Why? To get a great discount on a Swedish massage. The effort to click a few buttons and pull out my credit card is worth it because of the deal.

Resist the temptation to solve all the world’s problems right away. Pinpoint your focus and embrace the Lean Startup principles. Doing so will help you understand where to spend your precious time, effort and money.

Startup Vision Validation

Building a startup is sexy.  The front-end developer with skinny jeans and hipster swag is the new version of a Scotch drinking Ad Man.

And this is all good…believe me I love to rock the fake nerd glasses just like the next SoMa hacker, but there is an issues that often arises along side new trends.  Trends tend to be superficial.  They are trends because they have hit some type of critical mass, and to gain critical mass you must have mass appeal.  Appeal typically lives on the surface…think about it.

Why do I bring this up?

Because I believe entrepreneurship should be about adding value instead of just solving problems (there is a difference).  Because I believe when you are not in touch with the purpose, the vision, or the “why”, you are not setting yourself or your organization up for long term success.

This is why I think every entrepreneur should go through thorough ”vision validation” before they start building a startup.

If you’re an entrepreneur you understand the concept of validation.  You’re constantly experimenting to validate certain assumptions you have.  You  ideate, build, test, learn and start all over again.  Going through this validation process helps you gauge your successes and failures and helps you pivot or preserve.

We often get caught up in the mechanics of building, the data and user feedback to the extent that we forget why we’re building what we’re building.  We need to validate our vision to see if the sleepless nights are worth it, if we can handle 40 “no’s” from VC’s, and if we’re ready to make a ding in the universe.

So how do you validate a vision or your dream?

I don’t know of a systematic process to rapidly test and validate a vision, mainly because when it comes to vision, your instincts or gut directs you.  Visions typically aren’t agents of the mind, strong visions aren’t intensely intellectualized, they live in the realm of passion.

Instead I believe that validating a vision should involve an inquiry-based learning process, where you are asking yourself questions to deeply inspect if your visions connects with your purpose, your interests, and the change you want to see in the world.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself in efforts to validate your vision:

Does my personal mission and company vision align?

Creating a successful company takes more than smarts and hard work…it takes passion.  The bigger the game you’re playing in, the more you are setting yourself up for temporary failure.  Smarts and hard work can do little to get you beyond those temporary failure; passion and vision does.

I have made it a point to only start businesses that I feel align with my personal mission, which is to add unique value with all I create.  If I don’t commit to that guideline when building a business, I know I won’t be able to commit to that business.

How will this idea push society forward?

This question tends to get lost in the sea of startup sexiness I talked about.  However, when reviewing the history of entrepreneurship, it’s evident that entrepreneur are creators that move the world forward.

If you are an entrepreneur this should be your underlying mission.  Go manage a hedge fund if your primary focus is money, politics for power and status…as an entrepreneur, your creativity and audacity is meant to transform society.

So ask yourself: if I execute on my vision, will the world be a better place?

Do I want to be doing this 10 years from now?

A friend of mine that sold one of his startups and Co-founded two Y Combinator companies was telling me about his new venture over the phone a few weeks ago.  Recently he’s been working on a few ideas that got some traction and had some legs, however he was not excited to grow those ideas.  This new ventures was different…I could hear it in his voice, he was pumped!  He told me that he took a bit of time to take a step back to reflect on the new idea he had…while “stepping back” he ask himself one simple question:

“Do I want to be doing this 10 years from now?”

He took a look at what his strengths, his passions, and the form of the business and answered the question with an emphatic “YES!”

Who else shares this vision with me?

This is a tricky one.

A competition audit is essential before starting a business.  Some industries support multiple players (like agencies and other service based companies), while others are winner take all (like network driven models like Facebook and Foursquare).  These varaibles are are important to access  before you start, however all this can be done with research.

When it comes to vision validation, it’s important to find peeople who shares your vision with you.  Most successful companies need a team to make it work, therefore inspiring a team that’s united under one grand vision is essential.

The best way to see if people share your vision is to simply share.  Start talking to people about your idea, and tell them why you’re doing it.  Don’t just tell anyone.  Tell people you look up to and really connect with.  People that if they backed you, you would know you’re on to something.

Lastly…

Before you build your next startup, take the time to validate your vision.  Look deep within (and sometimes outside) to see how your vision resonates with you, the people important to you and if it passes those tests…see if it resonates with your market.

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