Sunday, May 31, 2015

Books which are currently changing my life

I’ve often seen lists of books which have had a positive impact on the individuals making the recommendation, but I’ve yet to see one which tells how the person’s life is currently being transformed by a particular set of books; which is what I’ve set out to do here.
I’ve therefore purposefully made use of the progressive form of the verb in the post’s title.
The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
The world has changed and this book drives home the point that the best approach to professional success is to consider one’s career as a startup, and it stresses the importance of having a plan B, as well as an extra emergency backup plan in addition to your plan A.
So three plans: Your current career (Plan A); something else you’ve prepared yourself to jump into if need be or if deemed more beneficial (Plan B); and your contingency plan if all fails (Plan Z).
This is particularly useful to me, as I’ve used to always have two or three sources of income, but all have eventually dwindled down to my current Plan A, which is my historic masonry restoration business. I have had  a Plan Z in place for some time, but the book has now stirred me to work in a focused manner on putting a new Plan B in place.
So this book is literally in the process of changing the course of my life as I strive to implement the Plan ABZ approach.
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel is a captivating thinker, and is often referred to as the Don of the Paypal Mafia.
There were some discussions lately about Silicon Valley being a religion. I don’t think that’s the case, but if it were, I’d personally vote Peter Thiel to be the leading ecclesiastic of it.
I’m speculating that having a meaningful intellectual conversation about changing the world with Peter Thiel would have to be a mind blowing event.
Powerful concepts abound in the book.
My personal takeaway is four-fold.
First, Peter Thiel makes the point that any given moment in the history of business happens only once.
“The next Mark Zuckerberg will not be starting a social network, the next Larry Page won’t be starting a search engine, the next Bill Gates will not be starting an operating system company; and if you are trying to imitate these people in some sense, you are not learning from them at all", he says. And so the question to be asking is "What great company is no one else building?"
Second, and this is something I’ve been keenly aware of on some level for the last 20 years, perfect competition takes away profitability. You need to build a monopoly through innovation so you become the last mover in a market and create lasting value and retain some of that value. This statement needs unpacking — watch the video and get it directly from Peter Thiel.
Third, we need to accelerate the pace of technology in order to sustain our society in the future. If you think we live in an age of great technological progress, think again. Our society is largely anti-technology. Go tell your neighbors that Google is working on life extension, and you’ll be surprised to find out that many of them will be against the idea and will claim that the planet will not have enough resources to cope with that advancement, etc. Most sci-fi films are dystopian. We tend not to trust technology to be used for the common good.
But the fact is we need much acceleration on the technology front so we can avoid environmental disasters, raise the entire planet’s standard of living, remove pollution, eliminate diseases, etc.
We’re behind, not ahead, so now is not the time to be complacent about innovating.
Fourth, businesses that could become big, need to start small — which is counter-intuitive.
Startup Communities by Brad Feld
Brad Feld has proven that startup communities can successfully be created outside of Silicon Valley.
His full thesis is explained in this book.
For me personally, the most comforting aspect of it is that tech communities need by default to be open to anyone who wants to be included.
This is helping me persist in my decision to make my Plan B centering around being involved in the tech/internet industry, even though my background is literally in brick and mortar.
I’ve come across other advice that would urge me to “stick to my day job”, but Brad’s philosophy will have been instrumental in helping me make the transition, if and when I do.
I also plan to help other non-technical individuals who have similar aspirations.
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
This book is really important to me.
Why make a particular career change? Why start a company? Why live at all?
Answer: ultimately, it is for the pursuit of happiness.
As I strive to make changes that’ll make me even happier, I’ve been asking what’s really important to me.
Something has clicked while reading this book.
My current idea of the type of business I want to build is like this:
It will be bootstrapped, as I’m not VC-fundable. It will be creating a positive impact in the world, which will be central to our company culture. Diversity will be celebrated.
When my condo would become too crowded, instead of renting an office space, I would rent a house in downtown Toronto for all of us to work from. I would mostly make the furniture with my wife out of raw materials from Home Depot, and with our artistic skills, we would fare adequately on the aesthetic front even with the self-imposed financial limitation.
Most of the space where there is natural day light in the house would be used as the company’s work space. Some of us could work on balconies or in the backyard in the summer.
I would reserve a room for my wife and I to sleep there so I could remove as much friction as possible in order to be fully engaged. My wife could retreat as often as she wanted to our condo in the North West end of the city.
I would turn the attic, or some other space, into a dorm so that employees would be welcome to crash there whenever they wanted — the more people in the house, the merrier.
We could all use the kitchen and outside BBQ and have meals together as we saw fit.
And we would be making a difference together.
That whole fantasy I’ve just described is what is currently close to my heart, as opposed to be aiming toward getting wealthy and living large, which were my aspirations of old.
I know which one would make me the happiest.
I've been slowly working  my way through this thought process in the last few years, but thank you Tony Hsieh for finally making it all come together for me.
The Alliance by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh
It is common knowledge by now that the job security of yesteryear has evaporated into the ether.
The Alliance offers a powerful framework for the new market reality that we live in which aligns employer/employee interests for a pre-determined amount of time in an honest, mutually benefiting way.
I can’t imagine managing a company without this knowledge in the current world we are living in.
Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper
Ever since Bitcoin has gotten the attention of the most elite tech investors and has caused them to invest millions in its infrastructure, I knew it would become a very important platform in the future — a fact which luckily has yet to materialize.
Many of us weren't quick enough on our feet to take advantage of the internet when it first arrived. It is still possible today to break through, but it is much more difficult due to the sheer volume of startups that compete for user attention.
Crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin offer the next big opportunity in the not-so-distant future.
The book provides the history of Bitcoin, and more importantly for me, it reveals what the catalyst has been in getting Silicon Valley interested — very useful to know, IMO.
My journey ahead is relatively understood to me; and if I arrive at my destination, it shall have been, in no small part, due to these books having guided me along the way.
I strongly recommend them to aspiring  — as well as seasoned — entrepreneurs; but, they would really benefit anyone.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lessons learned as an aspiring entrepreneur

I’ve had a few thoughts bouncing around my head lately that I wanted to turn into a blog post regarding some lessons I’ve learned in the last five years as a would-be entrepreneur.
It takes some of us longer than others and that’s okay.
On his podcast Jason Calacanis recently was interviewing a striking individual named Kenyatta Leal who had spent 19 years incarcerated for possession of a firearm under California’s Three Strike Law, but had made a complete turnaround and landed a job in the tech industry in the heart of San Francisco although he was still serving a life sentence at the time — in other words, if he ever came out — and had never seen the internet!
Jason then asked Kenyatta how could he ever have reconciled the fact of having lost 19 years of his life, to which Kenyatta retorted that he hadn’t lost anything, but that he had needed every single day he had spent inside to truly find himself and to determine his future moving forward.
Very, very powerful stuff; I strongly recommend to anyone listening to the entire episode — you will not regret having taken the time.
It made me realize that everyone’s journey is different and it’s up to me to make mine count despite the fact that I'm no early prodigy, to say the least.
Even though Instagram took off really quickly and sold shortly thereafter for $1 billion while I concurrently have seemingly gone nowhere fast, it will not help me to make the comparison.
I’ve come to realize that what’s important is to truly find my path and take it from there while making my advancements more efficient relative to myself, not to others.
Try not to go to battle with a only toothpick.
I started five years ago getting my first web development off the ground, not knowing any basics, much less knowing what PHP referred to. I didn’t know the difference between an angel investor and a VC. I didn’t even know that what I was planning to do was called a startup, and yet I had decided to do just that. It was a long learning curve as a non-technical solo founder having to outsource development and subsidize my own way while learning the rudiments of being a product manager.
Fast forward to now and I’ve come to realize that I had gone to battle with only a toothpick as my sole weapon.
No harm done, however, save perhaps for the extra long runway; but the exercise was excellent at driving home, (keeping the war metaphor going), that to succeed I need to go back to the gunnery and get myself a flame thrower, a bazooka and a few miscellaneous items before heading to battle.
When the needle ain’t moving there’s no point staring at it and hoping it will.
When (and where) I grew up, I’ve commonly heard people throwing the following expression at one another: “You get it quickly as long as I explain it to you for a long time”.
It was derisive, even when disguised as humor.
Being a mason, I have made my own version:
“I learn quickly if you bang me over the head repeatedly with a brick for a long time.”
Even though it is self-deprecating, I have felt that way with metrics: sometimes I can be stubborn.
When people would talk about metrics I would tend to tune out.
Well, after five years of very little traction, something has finally hit me on the topic of metrics. I have a difficult time putting into words, but “I get it now” is what I can say; and it is a profound, visceral grasp that is beyond a simple intellectual understanding or lip service.
It took getting hit over and over for 1,800 days with the same fact — a flat graph to contemplate — to really drive it home. Talk of being stubborn as a mule, LOL.
In short, you can make all the excuses you want, but the metrics tell the real tale.
It’s much more efficient (and rational!) to look and act accordingly.
Be thankful for what you already have.
I had a personal crisis a few months ago (sorry but I shall remain mostly opaque about what it specifically was) -- and I'm still not out of the woods yet -- which has made me truly appreciate the need to be thankful for what I already have, as it could all quickly go away.
When you’re chasing “the dream”, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll only really start living when you’ve reached it.
But you have to live your life every day that you are living it, because that is your life.
Now, when I wake up every morning, I still very much focus on what I want to achieve; but immediately after that, I take a few minutes to reflect on everything I currently have in my life and put myself in a mental place where I’m thankful for having it.
Don’t ever give up.
This is not a lesson I have learned in the sense that I once gave up and had to learn from it.
It is a continuous observation and appreciation of the fact that I’m not the type to give up and don’t intend to.
Call it the positive side of my stubbornness.
That may be the most important lesson of them all, as nothing is rarely handed to most of us on a silver plate.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Raising $ from VCs: Are you ‘unfundable’?

Even after having been reading every single blog posts from the likes of Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Marc Suster, Ben Horowitz & Marc Andreessen for well over a year; and after having done online courses on Venture Capital and Startups offered by the Kauffman Foundation, as well as Stanford University, I have nonetheless found the following slide to be extremely useful:

It explains the deal killers for VCs when getting pitched.
It paints a realistic picture of where one stands.
It provides a road map in order to address the situation, if one wishes to become fund-able.
It came from a talk given at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto by Michelle McBane.
Michelle manages in under an hour to also explain the entire term sheet in a way that can be understood -- not a small feat.
I highly recommend this video.
The direct link is
Raising money from venture capitalists - Entrepreneurship 101 2014/15 from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Cultivating Karma

In February 2014, I asked Brad Feld to help me with a project by accepting to be interviewed by me via email so I could write a story titled, “What it’s like to live in Boulder, Colorado.”
I thought, “Nice guy, but I’ll never hear back from him -- he's just too busy, and he won't give me the time of day.”
A few days later, I went for a walk and listened to a few chapters of one of Brad’s books on Audible.
At the point when I was most deeply considering what he was saying in the book, I got an email from him that said, “There it is”. He had answered the questionaire.
It felt a little surreal actually, and I told him so. He replied with one word:
I even looked up the word in the dictionary to see if I was missing something.
In a separate incident, a few months ago, upon returning home from an organic / holistic grocery store I frequent, I noticed that the cashier forgot to charge me for a $13 piece of steak (which is already a great price for a grass fed striploin beef, if you ask me).
So the next week I went back and paid for it. The manager commented that it was an unusual behavior for me to have done so, but then she paused and said:
“Ah, Karma”.
And that’s what it is.
I’ve been like this since I was a teenager, but I didn’t have a word for it before.
I couldn’t explain to someone why it was important to me to fulfill a certain agreement, or pay back what I knew I owed that the other party forgot to bill me for, or leaving a note if I scratched someone’s car when they weren’t around.
I often got laughed at by friends, family and others.
Now I can say, “It’s good Karma”.
It’s something most people can relate to and appreciate.
And I can think of at least two occasions when I didn’t do what I knew was the right thing, and it felt wrong.
If you want a concrete framework for applying this principle, read Brad’s post, titled “Give Before You Get”.
In it, there are some gems, such as:
“In order to give before you get, adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic — you do expect to get things in return — but you don’t set up the relationship to be a transactional one.”
“My goal is to live as happy an existence on this planet as I can and, by giving before I get, I maximize my chance of this.”
Today, I have received a phone call from another mason who lives in Tennessee and who felt stuck on a project and didn’t know who to turn to for advice. After doing a Google search, he came across some of my writings on the subject and managed to find my phone number and left me a message asking for my time so I could advise him.
Years ago, I would not have answered it — too busy, nothing in it for me, waste of time, etc. — in other words, a typical busy person’s way of dealing with a big enough ask when there’s too much on one's plate already.
I thought I would help him even if there clearly was nothing in it for me, and so I called him back.
Factually, I was following the give-before-you-get approach.
It meant a lot to him.
And that means a lot to me.
And he's going to pay it forward to someone else.
And so I feel the happiest when I work on cultivating my Karma, and very often, things just go smoothly when I do.