This is a TED talk by Dan, a high school math teacher. Yes, a high school math teach can have TED ideas worth spreading. You just have to watch.
There is a wow effect if you are patient enough to watch the entire video, and you will be rewarded with his discovery. I only wish I grew up learning math this way.
But it’s not too late. As entrepreneurs we are trying to solve real world problems, we can and should put this problem formulation mindset in use before going out blindly working on a “solution” that is not needed.
So, ask ourselves to try answer this question in one short sentence: what is the problem?
Can’t describe it in words? Find a real world object and show it (visualization). Technology today makes it so easy to capture any real life moments…Once it’s tangible and visible, problem will be formulated naturally. From there it will become easier to come up with variety of solutions.
On the surface, Starting up is about creating new things using what we have learnt and experienced. When I set out to create a new tool that I envisioned, I immersed myself solely on that project: didn’t we all have learnt that focus is important for any startup effort?
However, one of the biggest drawbacks of being a business oriented entrepreneur is this: we focus so much on the “market”, “customer”, “BUSINESS” etc., all these commercial “beings”, that we forgot how big the real world is.
While I was waiting on my partners to work on their parts, I slowed down and had the opportunity to meet new people, see what others are working on, read more, watch more…in turn, I grew the desire to learn and do more.
Here is my normal trajectory before slowing down: home, coffee shop, coworking space, home
Here is my new trajectory when I had more time: I would walk to SoMa area every other day with my friend, hitting different startup office, going to different meetups, even “creating” happy hours with new people I met. This otherwise “slow” period actually made me busier, both physically and mentally. For example, I came across incredible people like personal development writer Steve Pavlina; Introvert genius Bret Victor, the beautiful mind behind Apple’s many products and so many ground breaking inventions; Early engineers, designers at flickr, movity, trulia, see the incredible data visualizations projects they are working on; I would meet a 22 yr old business prodigy who is re-inventing physical map, first aid kit, and tell the insider story about San Francisco’s private “public space”… I would find these people on twitters and see what other stuff they are working on, who they are tweeting with. Not surprisingly, I would discover @triberr this way, an genius way for small bloggers to reach out to bigger audience accumulatively; I would then compare triberr to other fast growing social media utility tool like @bufferapp and @onlywire…and draw some kind of conclusion that a genuinely useful social media utility tool such as these three tend to see exponential growth in short period of time, reaching global alexa ranking of top 5k, which is more than credible for any legitimate online business entity.
My mind is roaming like crazy as I am writing. Internet super marketer John Chou tweeted a couple days ago: write when you are emotional.
A supposedly slow period completely overwhelmed my mind with all these new things and I suddenly realize: this is my feeling and this is the stuff I need to write about. Before this slow period when I “focus” on my own project, I was struggling to find more interesting websites to look at and I usually have no more than three browsers session open at any given time. Little did I know that I was missing out on real people. Once I “met” and “learnt” about these new people and new ideas, I can relate much more to what they are doing than those read from techcrunch. As I am writing this blog post, I have more than a dozen browser sessions open and more than plenty stuff to read, draw insights and inspiration from.
So, is this information overload a good or bad thing?
To me, It’s more than a good thing. It drives me through these cycles:
seeking out new people and idea –> review and digest new info –> draw insights: 1. How can I apply what I have learnt to my “business”; 2. What new knowledge should I get my hands on learning? (in this recent case, I am considering data visualization application.
Going back to the subject: starting up: is it about learning or creating?
I think both: an entrepreneur sets his/her sights on a specific problem to solve: that is creating. However, without intentionally reaching out to creative source and learning from new, creating process could soon become less interesting, less motivating: I guess that is when doubts are coming back to us especially those with short attention span. I would argue that learning is equally, if not more important than creating. Learning makes us imagine; learning propels us, making us more resourceful;
Learning makes us more emotional; If nothing else, learning makes us become a good story teller – after all, without story who would we become?
Despite having lot of blogs doing founder interviews, many first time entrepreneurs still find difficult to discover actionable startup tips and insights. I have had the opportunity meeting amazing group of entrepreneurs through hosting on airbnb. My current guest, Paul House, for example, is a self made independent online publisher who has been traveling the world while doing his online business called www.healthaliciousness.com for 3 years, working on it alone and happy.
Paul is one of the most open, friendly person I have met. He is constantly on the hunt for interesting meetups, new ideas. He walks to everywhere, average 4 miles a day to all these meetings. His site is all about healthy living and he collects the data, does the analysis, writes the article, codes the site all by him self. He is not a programmer by training (studied statistics), he doesn’t even code in Linux. His whole achievement is driven by his deep passion about health and science. He accomplishes while learning. So I asked him to do an interview with me and provide actionable insights for other entrepreneurs.
The interview is in the Q&A format, enjoy!
Q: What is your business?
A: I own Masparasol Media Group which seeks to create informational products that are clear, accessible, and free. The transformation of data into information yields many great insights and new discoveries, which is very exciting. My driving passion lies in the science of aging and my dream is to one day see an end to all degenerative diseases, nursing homes, and physical decline. I am not sure if aging can truly be cured, but researching the question is what motivates me to create. I am currently working on a new project: http://www.science-of-aging.com/
Q: Give us some ball park numbers of site traffic, profitability for the 1st 12 months.
A: By the end of the first year I was getting around 5000 visitors a month and less than $1000 in yearly revenue. I remember saying things to my Mom like “I made 30 cents today” and she would try to be encouraging. Most people though really wondered what I was doing, and why I wasn’t making money immediately. That kind of expectation is a bit crazy, but you have to deal with it. What was important was that I was getting traffic and some revenue. Every month I would put my traffic and revenue down on a spread sheet. I graphed it and made a goal. This to me is very important, it gives you direction, and when you have a little bit coming in, it can go a long way with encouraging you. Some people were telling me I needed to make some huge business plan, have a marketing plan, etc…That may be fine if you are seeking funding and want 10 employees right away, but for most small operations, it is not really necessary. Most entrepreneurs I meet say they did not have a business plan until they needed one to show a bank or VC. I still don’t have a formal business plan, why would I need one? I do keep track of my numbers though, and make projections, how could you not?
Q: What was the top 3 things you do everyday from 0 to profitability?
1. I loved what I did, I don’t know what else I would do. Loving the internet and creating information is what helped me stay on course all those times I questioned myself, or felt discouraged by the reasonable fears of people around me. If you love it then you will keep doing it till it works.
2. I looked at the analytics. Checking the data gave me great insights into what was working and what wasn’t. It was the basic compass to getting back on track. I don’t know where I would be without data to tell me what was most productive.
3. I learned from others. I went to networking meetings and met a lot of people who just wanted to share and teach. I never had a formal mentor, but I had a few temporary informal ones who helped. Reading is also great, I read the stories of Google, Facebook, and Steve Jobs. This was tremendously inspirational. I also kept up with Steve Pavlina’s blog and searched the internet for ways to build pages, traffic, or social tools.
Q: Give us a case study of how you write successful articles (decompose an article of yours)
A: I think a lot of people look at an article as a one time thing, but I look at it more as an informational product. Just like any product you should expect it to go through versions, test new designs, and make changes. Of course, collecting feedback from readers is also important. When I wrote the article for the “Top 10 Foods Highest in Calories” I wrote it thinking that most people would come there to loose weight. The opposite was true, most of the comments from readers were asking for good foods to help them gain weight. Because of this I added in sections of foods recommended for weight gain, and also a section of weight gain tips. This ultimately helped the article become more popular and is a good example of taking feedback and then changing the product so hopefully more people find it useful.
Q: Give us a case study of how you monetize effectively.
A: I actually don’t have any particular case study. I monetize through a partnership with Google which allows the content to be free and also gives me time to make the content better. Google provides relevan,t and hopefully, useful advertising on a user by user basis through an automated algorithm known as the Adsense program. Advertising in itself is a posted notice intended to deliver information about products and services to make peoples lives better. The quality of effectiveness of this model is largely on Google’s side which I think is mostly effective for a majority of my readers and hopefully gives them even more useful information.
Q: What was the last couple of weeks like before you quit your job to pursue this business?
A: The last couple of weeks were very exciting. I was taking a lot of notes on business ideas. I still keep those notes and look over them from time to time. I already had a couple business ideas going, and so I looked forward to working on those. I had also saved money to travel, and so was looking into getting a backpack, and planning trips to South America and other far off places.
Q: Did you hire or did you make the site yourself? If latter, any suggestions to others on how to DIY?
A: I did everything on my own, I never hired anyone for anything, other than renting a hosting provider and getting a domain name. To say I made it by myself, though, seems odd since there are so many great open source internet resources, and I owe a great deal to them! My advice is that people learning to code use google to look up coding questions. When they search they are likely to find many free tutorials and open source scripts to guide them. I suppose it depends on your personality. I always like hacking at code and creating pages or layouts. Others think an entrepreneur should start with the role of delegating and hiring people, this will allow them to better assume a leadership role later. Personally though, I think it is a great thing to know most of the ins and outs of your business in great detail.
Q: What was the first version of your site and how long/how much work did it take you?
A: The first version of my site was as world-produce.com, it was designed to sell fresh produce to anywhere in the world. It took me less than 3 hours to get the domain, hosting, and site set up… maybe even 30 minutes. I was very inspired by 4 Hour Work Week at that time and I really liked how Tim Ferris endorsed just jumping in and quickly doing something. He emphasized results over perfection. From reading subsequent books I have found that both Google and Facebook value speed over perfection. It is a great value on the internet where so much data can be collected and data-driven iterations can be made on the fly. At the heart of business is risk, and seeing fast results can be addictive, motivating further action, and gathering more data to find the market.
Q: What was the first 2 weeks after quitting your job like?
A: It was great! I saw a lot of opportunity in the world. Out on my own, my perspective was: “There are so many ways to make money without a job” I had a good time waking up when I wanted, and then quickly applying new ideas or iterations to my site as I thought of them. I adopted an abundance mentality with making money. I sold stuff on ebay and craigslist to simplify my life, and the cash was welcomed. I also revisited backup plans if my business didn’t take off, like going to graduate school or exploring jobs in completely different fields. Before I was a health care analyst, but I thought of working in a restaurant, or on a cargo boat. It was a time of dreams and very exciting.
At the same time I also slowed down, took a lot of walks, appreciated nature. When I left my job I wanted to dedicated more time to family, I think that happened in those early weeks. I also wanted to travel more and I had a ticket to Belize 2 weeks after I quit, so I was also anxiously anticipating that. I had it in my head that I would work on building my internet business while travelling. Everything was new, I felt very free.
Q: How did you bootstrap? Give us an idea what you were living off of.
A: When I quit my job I moved back in with my Mom. She was starting a small business of baked goods. She put a roof over my head and dinner on the table, so I owe her a lot. I also helped her in her new baking business where I could and I learned a lot by going to trade shows with her, and also I learned about the ins and outs of a more tangible traditional business which I think helped me a lot. Like I said, I had saved money to travel and I set off on a one way ticket to travel Belize and South America until…? I had it in mind I would stay in $10 a night hostels and spend $5 a day on food. When I started traveling though, boredom and strife crept in. I had all this ambition for business which was at odds with the more relaxed life of travel. I ended up returning home 2 weeks later, even after I said goodbye to everyone I knew like I was going to be gone for months! I think an important part of being an entrepreneur is the ability to know when to quit, and do it without regret. You have to be ego-less and not care what anyone else thinks. When I was back home I continued to sell things on ebay or craigslist for cash, I even dabbled in doing computer repair via craigslist, going to people’s homes to repair their computers at prices much lower than geek squad. I only netted $100 doing this. Of course during those early times you have to deal with a lot of social strife. Your friends and family wondering what you are doing, how you are living, etc…You have to keep faith, the bay area understands internet businesses and startups, but it can be tougher to convince people in other places that you are really using your time well.
Q: What is your vision now and where this is going? go big or be small business?
A: My vision is to create information and find new insights or discoveries in the biology of aging. I don’t know if it is going to be a big business or small business. I think it is important to enter business doing what you love and see where it goes. Of course you want to plan, but I don’t plan to the point of being large or small. I think this is in part the Google way of doing things. I read a book by an early Googler who said the company had these key attributes that I strive to have also:
1. Don’t do what you did in the past
2. Don’t copy others
3. Have no strategy
4. Be independent and non-conformist
Q: Give 3 actionable suggestions for first time entrepreneur
A: 1. Take time to do something you love. In a strange way the first step can be doing nothing and then seeing what you do most often. Whatever (productive) activity you naturally do would be a good starting point for figuring out how you can make it a business.
2. Read and Network! Meeting people and telling them about your idea can provide you with great perspective and insights. This is true even if the people understand very little of your business. Everyone has a valuable perspective. Of course, books can be great for providing inspiration, ideas, and guidance.
3. Start more than one business, and don’t be afraid to quit or change direction when you have to! You are your own boss now and there is an ocean of endless opportunity to provide value and do good.
Roller-coaster like mood swing is weekly routine for an entrepreneur, it’s inevitable to sometime feel being on top of the world when things move forward smoothly, other times feel miserable when things move backward or stay stale. Even having a cofounder could not entirely remove the feeling of being lonesome worrier: So it’s especially important to remain a focus on our vision, remain in control of our own mood.
1.Early morning 20 minutes meditation
Lately I have been reading a bit history about Bruce Lee. And started a morning meditation session of 20 minutes. I would wake up to the morning sun and open up the window to breath in the fresh air, and surround myself with the soothing sign of green tree leaves outside my window, pleasant birds’ tweets. I don’t have any particular techniques of meditation, just simply sit there, breath slowly. Instead of keeping my mind blank, I take this opportunity to repeat my entrepreneurial vision, purify it in my head. I don’t think of any specifics of my startup project. I find it helpful to “don’t think, feel it — Bruce Lee, Into the dragon”. It helps me to focus on the graduer vision, strengthen the foundation of my belief. Hence, stay motivated.
2.Read to be inspired
There are so many moments throughout the day that I feel:”if there is a magic force helping me and put my site or product in front of millions people…”, that will never happen before we create real value for other people. Alexis Ohanian, the fun loving reddit founder once said: you have created an awesome product, why not make the marketing of it fun for your customer”. SEO is important, email marketing is important, PR is important, event is important, tweets are important…ONLY AFTER we create value. Otherwise, users will come, and GO.
Out of desperation, I pulled out the facebook feed from my favorite brands. Today I encountered an airbnb’s post
A simple video, isn’t it? Besides being interesting, it also makes me think. People crave for inspiration. Give people what they crave and everything else will follow.
After the meditation, after seeking out and getting inspired, our mind is more stimulated and smitten. The last thing we want is to forgo all that excitements and inspirations and feeling trapped by mundanity again. So it’s important to transcend what we have taken in and digest it, turn it into the nutritional source for our mind and mentality.
I am trying to do all these on daily basis and whenever I find myself doing “marketing gimmick” trying to get “traffic”, I will remind myself with all these efforts I have put in and try to be a better person than someone who sells gimmick.