2014. Hard* Lessons Learned

These annual posts have become a tradition for me. I’ve started to write them each year and this year I started taking notes around December 1st, my birthday, as I always do.

For reference. Here are my 2013 and 2012 posts.

This year was good.

I got married to the best human being I’ve ever met this year and we even have a baby on the way. We added a great dog to our family. I traveled as much as any year prior. The company is bigger now doing more business than it ever has.

I lead with my family because I’ve gotten much better this year at managing that equilibrium.

I haven’t gotten better at everything… I have not gotten any better at keeping up with, managing, or understanding my inbox. My wardrobe gets critiqued frequently, but I have been loving stuff from DSF lately.

Some things are the same and some things are different, primarily in the sense that there are more things. More people, more variables, more considerations…

If there was any basic theme to this year it’s probably that the ass kicking I received in 2013 made me more thoughtful and arguably more pensive. I can’t help but feel that I’m more soft spoken in the majority of conversations these days.

I added a * to hard* in the title simply to call out that this year wasn’t anything like years past. It wasn’t as gut wrenching. A lot of really unbelievable things happened to me in the last year and I removed and added back the word hard a few times.

2014 was a transition year for me. I assume 2015 will be as well.

I’ll try to explain the transition a bit…

I don’t think a great metal band can make great music after their life changes for the better in a dramatic way. I think artists and founders have this problem too.

There’s only so much anger that any metal band is going to have left once they’ve got all the things in the world they dreamed of and aren’t fighting to play a big show.

There’s an irony in potentially losing the things that helped make you great, as you become great at something.

Anger, angst, and a desire to see something new in the world are powerful motivators. Inspiration comes from a lot of places but almost all of the creative inspiration in my life, and in my work, has come from deep rooted places of anger over the way something worked, technically.

My thought has been that if you lose the anger, angst, or see the thing you thought should be in the world now working and functioning… You must dramatically change to make sure the rest of the world gets access to it.

I grew up listening to countless musicians that transitioned from expressing something in music to producing professional work. Basically, their professional work is after they got rich, got huge budgets, and most of them started making really shitty music.

2014 was the year I started getting concerned about this for myself. It was the year I became self aware that my creations could start sucking.

I’m not a metal band but musicians are an interesting parallel to founders. We, as do many others, kill ourselves to get our message/creation out, and as a result, everyone around us. This occurs until a point at which we actually start to shift to running a company and being a good steward of the idea or the works future, instead of hoping we have one tomorrow.

Creatives hope that when we start, if it works, that we’re happy at the end of the journey. That typically only comes after the initial creation happens because we had to create because not creating is not an option therefor there will be a creation of some type. As most creatives know, at that stage it’s an outlet.

At that outlet stage it’s coming from our being as much as co2 is. It’s the exhale to our inhale and the lack of the works existence means our lack of existence. To wake up and not produce something other than whatever you feel is to not exist.

We create to express and if we get the confidence we start sharing it. Somewhere along the way, getting the bright idea that we could pay our bills, with our angst, but what happens when the angst goes? What happens when the energy goes?

The inspiration isn’t the only concerning variable. Touring, is a variable.

Founders and musicians both tour. I did it for the better part of 3 years of this project. That’s what speaking at conferences to get the message out is. It’s entertainment for one group while another sells tickets to people who want to see you on stage. There are openers and there are keynotes.

I’m finally at a point where I don’t have to tour as much and I really like that. I really like being able to pick the shows I go to instead of just having to be at them all.

I’m not helping my team when I’m at every show. I’m not a part of the next series of creations when I’m at every show.

The transition from an endless tour to planning the next show is important.

Some musicians run into the same problem any founder is going to face when it’s working. They get to a certain point and they run the risk of not making the shift into music as a profession, rather than just an outlet.

Some make the transition and their new stuff sucks because they lost inspiration in the process. It’s not easy.

A common trend of failures is losing the inspiration that helped people make great things who couldn’t find it again.

The road to success is littered with failures who were eaten by the world once they passed over the precipice of the world accepting rather than wondering if they had talent.

A common trend of failures is an addiction to the tour.

The endless shows/conferences will guarantee a never-ending tour until you can’t take it anymore if you don’t manage them well.

A common, less analogy riddled trend of failure that is more unique to founding companies is just learning to manage people.

Thinking and working on this transition has been 2014 for me. Working with some trusted partners and friends to make the transition.

Without further diatribe on creative transitions… Here we go. 2014, hard* lessons learned…

Be a good steward

As our companies/creations outgrow us as people, which they will do quite frequently, regardless of our title it’s always our responsibility to be a good steward of the idea.

As we start, as we leave, as we invest, as we take risks, as we succeed.

There will be no success when your interest is separated from the success of the idea or project. We must always be a good steward.

A̶d̶d̶ / Take Away

Are you the type of person who turns up the hot water first or turns down the cold water when the shower isn’t hot enough?

Try being the person who turns down the cold water first.

You’ll be amazed how quickly that will follow into other parts of your life.

Give credit before it’s due

Early on, you know who wrote the great code before a customer uses it. As projects evolves you stop learning who wrote the code that you’re using. There’s just a lot of it…

When you learn of something that’s good, code or text, ideas or designs… give credit where it’s due and never stop. Everyone on your team (at work and at home) builds something and most care deeply about the quality of their output.

If you see something great then point it out. Don’t wait for a review or a ranking. For a holiday or a birthday. Give compliments, not candy. Compliments when given correctly reinforce confidence and great work.

I’m not advocating you throw parties for contracts that aren’t signed. I’m advocating that you recognize wins, big and small, without having to implement or follow a HR driven process.

Sometimes you don’t need to respond

There’s a lot of unproductive noise in the world.

It’s no more your responsibility than it is mine to rationalize it let alone respond to it.

Never stop hiring people better than you, at everything.

Hire above your weight class. Compete above your weight class. If you don’t give up you’ll learn to compete there, too.

If you become the 5 people you spend the most time with I’d suggest picking 5 people who are honest, really funny, really nice, fearless, and dangerously smart.

Perfect practice makes perfect.

This isn’t my rule. It was taken from someone I met named Doug when I first got to Des Moines. Practice isn’t important if you’re doing it wrong or not doing it enough.

Never fool yourself into believing you’re an expert on something if you spent a little bit of time on it… Doing something once or twice doesn’t make you an expert, it simply means you’ve gotten over the initial fear of doing it and the person who knows more hasn’t been in the same room with you long enough to crush your confidence and make you look foolish once you’ve left.

If you want to be really good at something… Practice… Practice perfectly.

If you practiced for all that time the wrong way… You are probably worse off than the guy who didn’t practice at all.

If you practice perfectly on the other hand… God help those who stand in your way.

make time to Meet people you like for no reason at all

It’s somewhat pathetic to say you or anyone needs a reminder to spend time with people you like without a reason, but you might.

There are dozens of people in this world I know well that I can’t help and I don’t want anything from. I just love their company. I used to keep list of people I wanted to meet and why but that list has largely been consumed by people I can’t wait to see again and the why is pretty simple…

I like them and spending time with them makes me better. It makes me laugh, it gives me inspiration, or it challenges me in some other way.

Live simply and you’ll attract the right people.

The more junk you accumulate the more junk you have to move.

The more shiny junk you have, the more people you’ll attract who follow shiny junk.

Dump the junk. Live simply.

When you speak, say something.

Words are just noise unless they contribute something to whomever hears them.

If you aren’t sure what you’re saying, stop talking.

Attack results, not people.

We’ve all been sold something (or had someone try to sell us something) by disparaging someone else, or an idea.

As you shop, bad salesmen sell you products based on finding some bad opinion to share about another person/brand or any number of things.

These bad salespeople down sell others by up-selling negativity. They typically attack people, not the results their customers are after.

The good salespeople, sell by finding out how what they have to give solves a problem their customer has. They do it with such eloquence that they make you want to buy from them and they’re a pleasure to work with.

Furthermore, when that great salesman can’t help you he refers you to someone else instead of trying to make you buy what he has.

That’s good sales.

Organizations have a lot of sales in them… Internally and externally. Be honest about what doesn’t work, what you don’t do, and how to be a great referrer when people are asking something.

If you learn to attack the problems, not the people who appear to be in front of you, you’ll find solutions.

If you learn to just attack people, you’ll just find new enemies. Attacking ideas pays dividends for you and customers. Attacking people costs everyone incalculable sums of time and money.

This isn’t just a sales issue. If you attack a person, it’s personal. If you attack a problem, you’re trying to find a solution.

Make your own decisions

No one knows everything and situations are different. Context changes and the best you, or anyone can do, is make the best decision possible with all of the information you have available to you.

If Paul Graham and Matt Mullenweg can disagree over the best way to work with great people, the rest of us should know there is more than one way to solve a lot of problems…

Pick a side, run with it, and modify course if it makes sense to do so. There is no GPS system for founding and building companies. The AI for that is a ways out…

Be religious about being an agent of change

I said this at Big Omaha in 2013 and I believe it.

If you want something to change you either have to be a part of the change or create the movement that makes the change an issue.

I rarely get what I’m working on built overnight and if you looked at my work and progress on a week by week basis I am a gigantic failure. If you look at it in aggregate, as a zoomed out timeline, I’m doing ok.

What I’m trying to say is this…

If you’re playing the long game it’s better to be the wind than the rock.

Putting this to bed!

If last year was a continued swing big, this year was learning not to hit myself in the back of the head with the bat as I swing.

As always. Thanks for reading. 😉