The Daily Gratitude: a complement to the stand-up meeting

dogstar

I recently started a new company where I’ve been heads down doing a lot of testing and building. Part of this experience has been working with a new team that works remotely.

From day one, we’ve started to think about our culture – and the focus on culture has been inspired a lot by our advisor Joel Gascoigne and the crew at Buffer. (You can view their culture deck here.)

Among many things, like kindness, humility and authenticity, we deeply value gratitude. The thing about gratitude though, is that it’s not just an attitude – it’s a practice.

Continue reading “The Daily Gratitude: a complement to the stand-up meeting”

Celebrating detachment

cinque-terre

When I pause, I get to reflect back on how much has happened over the last two years. My life is almost unrecognisable now. When you’re living in the moment – going through periods of immense change, you’re often unanchored to the past. So much so that it’s hard to see progress without reminiscing about where you’ve come from. Not seeing progress is demotivating as you can’t understand the results of your actions.

Today, as I prepare for a sneaky summer sojourn to Europe and let my drive chill, I feel proud of where things are at with work and grateful for the brilliant community I seem to have gathered around me. Perhaps what I’m not so proud of is some of the things you miss out on along the way when you’re pushing hard to create something. In my case, it’s often the art of simple relaxation. I’m incredibly bad at it. Put me on a beach with a book and while it’s most people’s idea of bliss, I dance with the guilt of not achieving anything. It’s a huge challenge to be comfortable without ‘doing’ for an extended period of time.

In this post Psychological Detachment – The Importance and Benefits of Mentally “Switching Off” From Work During Leisure Time, Dan DeFoe discusses how crucial mental disengagement during off-work hours is for well being. When you’re doing a startup, it’s almost impossible to switch off.  There’s always something more you can be doing and ‘shit hits the fan’ at least once a month. You can try to make the most of working longer to gain a sense of control but this is a huge mistake for productivity. You get more done by stepping away. DeFoe recommends:

“Clear physical and mental boundaries between work and non-work life provide best pathway to psychological detachment.”

and

“The effects of psychological detachment evidence in day-to-day changes and fluctuations.  Past research shows associations in noticeable changes in contentment, cheerfulness, fatigue, depletion, irritation, and job performance relative to detachment from work.”

According to research he came across, the most important aspect of the restorative environment is “fascination”. I used to associate relaxation time with social time (often eating, drinking, sitting, etc.), which doesn’t have to be the case. You can create your own version of it – I’m more of a fan of writing, napping and walking.

Charlie Hoehn also has an incredible post about how he pushed through and switched off successfully using ‘play’ in the context of fun (after all Dr Seuss reminds us that “Adults are just obsolete children.”).

“Giving myself permission to PLAY was the cure for my anxiety. It was a subtle but powerful shift in how I viewed the world.”

and the symptoms:

“The real problem had been my state of mind. I’d become increasingly adept at rejecting any form of “non-productivity.” I couldn’t allow any form of play if it didn’t contribute to earning money or doing something “meaningful.” Even when I was with friends or doing something that was supposed to be fun, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the time I was wasting.” … “Once I saw that I’d forgotten to treat my work as play, I knew what I had to do in order to fix it. It was simply a choice.”

One of the things I’ve done for both my personal and work email is put an out of office autoresponder on. A few months back, my inner tech early adopter was laughing at how redundant such a function was and how only the land of corporates used them (after all, you can’t take a true break and palm off all your responsibility in a startup, right?). How wrong I was. Being super responsive and connected year-in, year-out is ridiculous and letting people know when you’re off the grid is not only respectful to them – but yourself. It creates a subtle barrier.

So, what’s next? For starters, I’ll be travelling and getting out of Manhattan’s humid rabbit warren. Most of the trips I’ve taken in recent years have been work-oriented and location independent in style – glued to the next wifi location. This time I plan to barely open my MacBook. I’ll be headed to the UK first for a friend’s wedding, then the South of France before driving along the coast to Italy. There, I’ll cover Cinque Terre, Florence and Tuscany, Rome and Amalfi.

Follow my travels along via Instagram – and don’t forget to play this summer/winter.

Image credit: Maranola Night on 500px

Note: I wrote this post two weeks ago – I am currently listening to the distant church bells on a peaceful evening in Corniglia :)

Email-led startups

emailHumble beginnings in the box…

A couple of months ago Ryan Hoover wrote a great post on email-first startups. It really resonated with me as it articulated our journey at The Fetch better than I could.

Two years ago when I sent out the first curated digest of events in Melbourne, I received a fair share of dismissive comments about email as the format choice. Email was in the height of its unsexy period and internet junkies were in abundance saying it was being replaced by apps and social (now we know neither were true). Some people said they didn’t use email much anymore – especially to discover things. Some had trouble getting beyond our website just being landing page to drive email sign-ups.

It didn’t stop there, a year later when I went full-time at The Fetch, I would still get asked what I was working on – followed by a puzzled look regarding how newsletters could fill my days. What I was doing confused the tech startup scene, especially in Australia, as even though plenty can recite lean startup methodology – many couldn’t accept it without a ‘tech product’. The closest mental basket they placed it in was as a blog (yep, really) or a media play.

Although the emails had been making revenue since day one (well, one-month post-launch but I’m taking it) and without doing any selling, I would regularly get asked: “How does it make money?” in a somewhat suspcious tone. (One: it takes two clicks to visit our site and figure out how our beta does, and two: I take this as a massive compliment as our sponsored content seems to be subtly integrating with the user experience nicely.) It turns out some just didn’t want to believe in the power of the medium.

So, welcome to the weird and wonderful realm of email-led startups. The Email Mafia if you will.

Hoover lists Thrillist, AngelList and Timehop as email-first examples and states:

All of these startups have since expanded into web and/or mobile applications but email is where they were born and has enabled them to validate their business and gain traction with relatively minimal investment.

This brings me to a few points about why I love email:

Lean

Email crushes it when it comes to testing ideas. A web form to capture addresses, access to kick-ass sending software and content is mostly what you need to get started. As a non-technical founder who’s hosted sites before and knows a little front-end development, I found this to be a perfect launching pad. Asides from the domain name, the set-up costs were minimal. When we rolled out in other cities, I would localise the newsletter templates and logos, and we were good to go. Yay for full autonomy.

The team at our HQ’s been lean to date too – we’ve done what we can with one employee over one year. More difficult developments like custom payment forms and our back-end event API tool were handled by Mat externally. Our ‘sushi profitability’ allowed us to start hiring organically.

Focused

Next up is focus. When you’re dedicated to the simplicity of email and slow, continuous evolution, feature creep isn’t an option. Heck, additional features don’t really stand a chance when resources are maxed. Everyday ideas where to take The Fetch are thrown at us yet we just keep sticking to the weekly issue deadline. On the topic of deadlines, email-led startups are amazing for providing structure. You’re effectively releasing an update with each send. This means, no more stuffing around with bloated product roadmaps, overzealous polishing of processes or waiting to see how users interact with your offering. These tight deadlines mean you have to get stuff done. Plus, being consistent and reliable is a great way to build trust with users.

Email is also focused in the way that it delivers information. As the web becomes noisier than a rabid hyena with content being exponentially produced (related: Brad Frost’s Death To Bullshit talk) –  a return to trusted voice and curation is natural. If you can package up the zeitgeist and save people time, they’ll appreciate it. For me, newsletters are the new magazines. I know I’m biased but I probably use my iPad to read a magazine magazine once every few months but read a few newsletters every day. I also don’t pay that much attention to my social timelines or feeds anymore.

Dave Pell of NextDraft highlights this well in a piece on The Verge:

The inundation of news, tweets, and status updates has left people feeling overwhelmed. Email is a tried and true, old school way to communicate with people … Email is still the killer app. It looks great on all your devices and the user experience is always exactly what you’ve come to expect. Look at the rise of Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket. People love plain, glorious, readable text. Email is also a technology that everyone understands, and it’s personal (if someone wants to respond to me, all they have to do is hit reply). Tweets and status updates flow by and disappear into the black hole that is the Internet of five minutes ago. Interesting links and stories you find in an email newsletter are always right where you left them.

Wired’s recently published article on Why E-Mail Newsletters Won’t Die included:

“As much as we’re told e-mail isn’t sexy, no one sends more e-mail than Facebook or Twitter,” says Berry, the former chief technical officer of the Huffington Post. “And the reason they do is we’re all on e-mail and it brings you back” to the site that sent it.

With Google announcing it would shut down Google Reader, the future of RSS for content aggregation is also looking dire. Andrew Chen even went as far as to quit offering RSS from his popular startup blog altogether in favour of email updates. The action drew controversial responses from his readers with some short-term disruption but ultimately I think it displays great foresight.

Solid Base to Grow From

For me, social media is about short-term conversations while community is about long-term relationships. Email is still the core of our online identity (and the lynchpin for every service you sign-up for) – it’s a perfect place to form a bond. Nearly everyone has one and it’s easy to port this relationship across to other channels.

“When someone subscribes, they invite you into their inbox on a regular basis,” ~ Ben Lerer in 5 Secrets of a Great E-Newsletter Business.

We should all take this relationship very seriously and avoid abusing it by sending subscribers crap (something I wish a lot of old-school marketers would follow). Attention to detail and human-elements are key. Readers can tell when a message is hand-crafted and thoughtful. Metrics will reflect this. Something I’ve been proud of with The Fetch is that our average open rate across-city is 47%, our click-through rate is 54% and churn or unsubscribe rate is less than 0.5% [data taken from May 2013]. These appear to be staying put regardless of growth too. We frequently get messages from people saying they’ve unsubscribed from everything else asides from our newsletter because they love it. While it’s a treat to share these sentiments, what I mostly want to get across is that yes, email rocks but it’s what you do with it that counts. :)

To quote Dave Pell to finish:

“Email has always been a great medium. It’s the content of most emails that’s problematic.”

Related: Video interview with Shoe String Startups about The Fetch’s lean beginnings and ‘Is there such thing as a technology company anymore?. Are we all tech companies? On Quartz…

Not just another post about burnout

goldengate“We’re on a road to nowhere”

I can’t believe it’s May.

It feels like the last few months have flown. And by flown, I don’t mean in a jovial, enjoyable manner. It’s been uncomfortable. I’m likening it to being chucked in a river and only just keeping up with its current.

I was focused for so long on getting my long-term US visa (related: immigration reform for entrepreneurs), that once it happened, there was a pause. When I first got to NYC, I powered through getting the home and office set-up that after it was all done, I felt tired. Now, for anyone who’s just moved, let alone someone creating a startup, this might seem natural. However, it’s been an unusual state for me. I recently admitted this to my friend Jen. She laughed, remarking that she thought of me as one of her ‘Ninjas’ for getting things done as well as being everywhere, so it was good to see I was human. (I say this mostly to display things are relative – and to share vulnerably from a place of strength, not to boost ego.) It was somewhat of a relief as I tend to house a High Expectations Asian Father in my head!

Since then, I recognised I’ve been getting a taste of burnout. And I haven’t really encountered it before. You can read all the lifehack and productivity tips you like but until you experience something, it’s hard to relate. I believe we don’t understand much about burnout in startups because a lot of literature is focused around the initial – or final days of companies. It’s either the hustling, fearful enthusiasm or calming hindsight of success. Once you’re one or two years into working on something, it’s different – you need to find that balance to continue. Burnout isn’t to be confused with stress either. You are very conscious of when you’re stressed – it’s manifests physically and is the result of too much. Burnout is the opposite – it sneaks up on you emotionally. It’s the result of too little – it’s hopelessness and detachment.

Burnout feels like you (can) no longer give a shit about things you usually care so much for. Your momentum is off. Giving up seems like a serious option. You’re indecisive and lost. You feel bitter. Unsupported. And according to Marissa Mayer, resentful:

“I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful. I tell people: Find your rhythm. Your rhythm is what matters to you so much that when you miss it you’re resentful of your work.” ~Mayer

Tomasz Tunguz offers another perspective with the antidote to burnout being progress. To him:

“Burnout is a motivation problem, a listlessness, a defeatist attitude, and perhaps even a hopelessness, triggered by the lack of progress.” ~Tunguz

He recommends highlighting what you have done each day as a reminder of the progress made. I love the idea of a ‘done list’ instead of a ‘to-do list’ as a place to leave our minds as we finish each day. Celebrating what you have achieved and the resulting successes is crucial. It’s definitely not something I’ve done enough of to date, and while this keeps one in a humble beginner’s mind – awareness of progress helps build confidence. You need to regularly reflect on how far you’ve come. Rebekah Campbell has a post on why this is important:

“When you’re burdened with a list of unmet goals, it’s easy to overlook what you have achieved.” … “I learnt that this approach weakened motivation.  The team didn’t feel appreciated and productivity dropped.  Worse than that, we weren’t having fun!” ~Campbell

Andrew Dumont also published a Svbtle post last week with some tips on avoiding burnout. You hear the following suggestions a lot but working out, sleeping well, taking time off, unplugging, getting small wins and a healthy diet can make a massive difference. I now aim for at least one day a week where I’m not working on my startup. Because the beta version of The Fetch involves a Monday morning deadline, I realised I’ve work every weekend for the past year and a half. There’s comes a point where working longer and harder isn’t viable anymore.

In fact, I’ve recently revisited my entire schedule after Amber Rae’s Fast Company piece on optimising for creative performance. I try to hold all my meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, get in the zone with solo work  on Monday and Wednesdays and use Friday for catch-up requests, coworking in cafes/spaces and getting through the inbox. I’m following Amber’s lead and scheduling nothing for all day Saturday and Sunday mornings – enjoying free time and allowing for more spontaneity, not to forget new city exploration. I’ve moved most of my non-work related communication and mentoring to Clarity and cannot recommend it enough.

Another thing to note is that if you’re like me and actually love your work, it is hard to switch off to do other things. I’m not exactly going to finish up for the day to do some drinking at a noisy bar, but I might like to put some energy into a side-project (like this blog). Now I’m in one place, I’ll also take up biking everywhere again.

If you’re trying to navigate burnout, my final tidbit is to cull any niggling negativity from your life. As cliché as it sounds, life really is short and it’s a waste of time trying to please everybody, or bring naysaying connections along for the journey. Make space and you’ll attract the right peeps.

So, I guess this did just turn out to be another post on burnout. :) If you have any other tips or words of wisdom, please share in the comments or hit reply to send me a message if you subscribe via email.

Related: Burnout on Wikipedia and this entry has a great table on the difference between stress and burnout.

A note about the help you need

helpDon’t walk alone

I just archived another email…

Another request to help someone. Mentor them. Advise them on a new project. Connect with them. Meet for coffee. Try out their beta. Promote something. Listen to or troubleshoot their problems. Usually these requests wouldn’t bother me, but today they do.

You see, doing a startup is hard work. You only have so much energy to drive things forward. At times, I’ve used every last drop of my creative and physical energy to get things to where they are today, and keep the momentum going. Everything that happened is because of an action. Do nothing and nothing happens. It feels like I’ve been pushing a muddy cart uphill solo and then some (brilliant) others joined when they could see the destination.

But there’s lots more to do and sometimes I need the help too.

My friend once said to me: “You have to be selfish to be selfless”.

And it’s true. I cannot continue to provide for others if I don’t get my own company’s foundation firmly planted.

I’ve always been independent, self-sufficient and practical, looking after myself from my early teens.

From four years ago, when I wanted to discover more about startups and Silicon Valley – I flew myself there and back from Australia many times. I slept on couches in Palo Alto while barely post-pubescent grads coded around me until 4am. I went to events as a nobody and introduced myself. I trawled investor-authored blogs, Hacker News and Quora for knowledge. I bootstrapped my own projects via savings, testing the market fit. I found opportunities by being ridiculously curious and interested in the space.

I’m sure it’s a story many others share.

Now, I find it a little ironic that I’m asked to mentor on programs where entrepreneurs get flown about, accommodated, advised, introduced, sent to events and even funded off the back of a fuzzy idea on a LaunchRock landing page.

That’s it though – if there’s support, you need to take it.

Don’t do a me. There’s nothing noble about it – it’s stupid. It’s becoming increasingly obvious the best entrepreneurs are the ones who can bring the help together.

Case in point: my other friend (who’s a loveable extroverted chap) was recently transitioning from consulting to wanting to do another startup. Around a month ago he invited many of his network out for dinner one-on-one to chat about his new ideas. He then brought people together to get a landing page done and shared in a startup-related group that he’s looking for a cofounder. A couple of days ago, his new site was featured on TechCrunch.

The difference? He’s asking for help left, right and centre.

So, if you’re more like me. Get out there and find the advice and support you need. Speak up for it… consistently. It’s not being shameless or weak, it’s being smart.

I look forward to giving more again soon. Once I first learn how to ask.

Related: Check out Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk on the art of asking.

Go on, get criticised

boat

During my first weekend back in Australia, I wrangled the time to catch up with a friend. Over lunch, she made a comment that kicked off a stream of thoughts I’ve been wanting to post about for a while. Her comment was actually in relation to this blog you’re reading now. She mentioned I had sent out a post a few weeks before that had really obvious typos and grammatical errors in it. It seemed she was almost embarrassed for me… that some words I put my name to had gone out into the world unpolished. I admitted to her that I often write late at night, publish without another’s once over or edit, and that my intention was to simply produce. After all, I put together ~15 posts in the last month across The Fetch and my own blog alone. While I don’t want to get too bogged down in the specifics of this interaction, I think this provides a fantastic reminder for your journey to doing.

This journey starts with… putting stuff out there. To do, you need to put stuff out there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been using physical fitness as an analogy for getting stuff done. You can’t go straight from being borderline obese to running marathons. It takes a lot of work and savvy habit hacking and formation. You start by walking around the block, cutting out certain kinds of foods, taking the stairs and become aware of what you need to do to keep going. The same goes for your professional lives – in this case, I need to put crap blog posts (or poorly edited ones) out there frequently to improve. I would also never have had the opportunity to grow a promising professional community in The Fetch if we didn’t put sub-optimal stuff out there to begin with. Heck, the first digest I sent in Melbourne had yellow links. Yes, YELLOW eye-watering links.

There’s a concept that’s referred to in the creative industries, mostly in music and television, called Old Shame. It’s when you’re mortified by your previous work: think naive albums, clunky lyrics, cheesy movie parts, bad fashion. I continually have old shame by my earlier productions – but this is great as it means I’ve evolved. I could delete older work but instead I embrace it. I’ve left the first marketing-focused blog I published aka The Zeitgeists on the web for years (which never ceases to draw close pal Eddie a good yet loving laugh).

And yet, like many of my points, it often comes back to lean (startup) methodology. Your work should be small, continuous iterations towards a goal with plenty of testing. If I never published a post for fear of errors, I would still be at the starting point without any feedback or reception from my readers. Frequent publishing allows me to see what’s interesting and useful to people, and what’s not. So, remember:

“If you are not criticised, you may not be doing much.” ~Donald Rumsfeld