What Every Entrepreneur Should Learn From Factory Floors

“What would you need to do to double your revenue (or profit)?”

That’s usually my opening question when we have strategic reviews with our businesses. The answer highlights the biggest constraints to the growth of the business.

I start with this specific question because many leaders have one problem in common: they come up with great solutions but to the wrong problems. It may sound stupid but every day, thousands of leaders come up with excellent solutions to the wrong problems. When this happens, you may work your butt off, but it won’t materially change the business.

One of my favourite business books (I’d highly recommend it), The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, addresses this particular question.

The Theory of Constraints

The Goal was my original introduction to the Theory of Constraints (TOC). In short, TOC describes systems and how to operate them for maximal output. The concept describes the benefits of analysing a production system like a chain of processes. To improve the chain, the weakest link must be identified. In the case of a product line, the weakest link is the stage with the lowest throughput.

As for actual chains, there can always only be one weakest link. Once that link has been strengthened, another link will be the weakest, but there are never two links that are both the weakest at the same time.

A Paper Clips Factory

In the case of a production system in a factory, the weakest link is the element with the lowest throughput. Imagine that you’re producing paper clips and that process has two stages: 1) Cutting the steel wire and 2) bending the wire into shape. The step with the lowest throughput sets the pace for the total chain. The slowest process will dictate the overall throughput of the chain. 

To illustrate: Imagine that you have the capacity to cut up to 10,000 wires per hour and to bend up to 6,000 cut wires per hour. In this setup, your total output will always be limited to the lower of the two – the bending process – which in this case would be 6,000 per hour. Any improvements you make to the cutting process will have no impact on the total output. In other words, the only way to improve your output is by tweaking your weakest link – the bending. 

If now, you buy an additional bending machine so that your bending capacity increases to 12,000 clips per hour (two machines times 6,000 clips per hour per machine), then your new weakest link will be the cutting process which is still limited to 10,000 wires cut per hour. If you were to add a third bending machine it would be obsolete as it would not add to the total output. Once you can bend more wires than you can cut, the bottleneck will switch to cutting. Increasing the throughput of a non-bottleneck process will never increase your overall output!

TOC outside the Paper Clip Factory

While the example may seem overly simplistic, it illustrates TOC well. In practice, I often find that people don’t apply TOC. As mentioned earlier, the consequence of failing to identify the weakest link or the bottleneck of the business is that you solve the wrong problem! 

There are no good reasons to work on the wrong things. The most common reasons I see is when leaders have lost sight of the problems or simply have not be aware of their own biases for solving the wrong problem (they often cannot see the forest for the trees). 

The importance of solving the right problem can hardly be overstated. Be aware of your biases! If I had to define myself within a single function, I’d consider myself a marketer. I know my bias and that if I don’t think structured about a problem, my natural inclination is that I resort to a marketing solution. But that may be wrong.

For a hammer, every problem is a nail. Similarly, for a marketer, every problem has a marketing solution! (Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway has written a fantastic piece on this). We must force ourselves to put our effort where it is most impactful, not where we find it the most convenient or interesting.

A real-world example

We had a workshop on marketing for an events business. We wanted to sell twice as many tickets and the team wanted to do this through email marketing. They came back with a – probably – great strategy for increasing open rates and click-through rates.

The challenge was that no strategy for open and click-through rates would ever allow us to double the output. It was simply not realistic to increase the rates enough to sell twice as much. In other words, the constraint, in this case, was the marketing channels and the solution would be to find new marketing channels (That is naturally a bit more qualitative than the factory in the example above).

Once you do your analysis well and can define the right problem, the solution usually comes quite easily. I find that more people struggle to define the right problem than to solve it once they’ve found it.

Thinking ahead

Once you’ve identified your constraints, it pays to think a bit ahead. Once you’ve solved your first constraint, what comes next and at what levels does it constrain the business?

A real-world example

An entrepreneur I know built a B2C e-commerce company. They really wanted to scale the business massively. It was the funding heydays of the early ‘10s so the focus was on revenue and margins took a backseat. The obvious solution to achieving hypergrowth was, therefore, to generate more demand. They just needed a great TV commercial and growth was inevitable. 

The team doubled down on the TV efforts and produced a great spot that did well with focus groups and checked all the important boxes. All execution was by the book – what could go wrong? 

The marketing campaign worked like a charm. They generated tons of demand. The challenge? The business didn’t have the inventory to scale and satisfy the demand generated. In other words, thousands of customers saw the commercial on TV and went to the website just to see “sold out” across the vast majority of products.

The long and the short of the story is that the team didn’t realise that once they had lifted the demand constraint, they would quickly encounter a new constraint on inventory. They simply didn’t have enough products to sell to scale as quickly as they’d like!

I like to keep things as simple as possible. The theory of constraint is beautiful in its simplicity

A thank you note from your future self

I was reminded of an important point today: We are oftentimes limited in the projects we can take on, simply because we don’t have enough capable people in our organizations. 

We have new products to launch, markets to enter, marketing initiatives to execute; why aren’t we? Every single one of our businesses has an endless list of important strategic priorities that we can’t execute on today simply due to lack of bandwidth – we never have enough responsible, entrepreneurial people to handle everything we want to do!

It’s a common theme to recruit people only once you have a project for that person. The combination of the time horizon for sourcing, interviewing, signing, and onboarding a new person and the speed with which the business evolves at the early stages, we will always have more high-ROI projects than people to execute on them.

As entrepreneurs, we must always be on the lookout for the smart talents that can step up and over time become the leaders of our future markets, products, etc.. 

I am yet to see an organization with too many talented people. Time is always our biggest bottleneck – recruit AAA people and gain additional operational leverage. In the current environments, financing is never an issue, as long as the projects provide a great ROI.

Whenever you find yourself with an opportunity to grow your business further, the one thing you would love more than anything else is to have recruited a great person to take responsibility for this, six to twelve months ago. That way, she would be fully onboarded and well up to speed on your business so that she could take full ownership and execute with the required understanding, context, and urgency. Recruit today so you don’t have any regrets in the future.

Recruiting people with future projects in mind is obviously different from recruiting for a specific project or role as you can’t be as specific in your pitch. It is therefore important that you talk more about the sorts of things the candidate could do rather than exactly what they will do.

From my experience, being able to recruit (future) rockstars and to set the right level of expectations for them are the two single most important skills for any leader. Take a proactive approach to growth – your future self will thank you!

If you’re looking for inspiration on how to recruit the best candidates, I shared our approach in this post.

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Image credit: JoinCakre

The Meta-Machine: A Guide to Building a Company

Being an entrepreneur is about building a company. Fast-growing companies may seem chaotic and frequently focus more on firefighting problems rather than on actually building up the company. 

“The real enemy of execution is your day job!” McChesney et al. argue1. “We call it the whirlwind. It’s the massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis; and, ironically, it’s also the thing that makes it so hard to execute anything new. The whirlwind robs from you the focus required to move your team forward.”

Building a company at break-neck speed will always produce its own whirlwind. The challenge is that an hour spent on fighting fires is an hour that was not spent on building the business. As entrepreneurs, we, therefore, must distinguish between when we are building the business and when we are operating the business. 

The business as a collection of machines

In order to avoid the whirlwind (or Blizzard as he calls it), legendary investor, Ray Dalio2, recommends viewing the business as a collection of machines that are each based on logical cause-effect relationships. These relationships allow the designer of the machine to come up with rules for how to manage it which ensures that the outcome is predictable, repeatable, and can be performed by multiple people.

“Most people get caught up in the blizzard of things coming at them,” Dalio explains. “In contrast, successful people get above the blizzard so they can see the causes and effects at play. This higher-level perspective allows them to see themselves and others objectively as a machine, to understand who can and cannot do what well, and how everyone can fit together in a way that will produce the best outcomes.”

Designer versus operator

“If your business depends on you, you don’t own a business – you have a job.
And it’s the worst job in the world because you’re working for a lunatic!”
– Michael E. Gerber. The E-Myth Revisited 3

If the entrepreneur is required to be involved in the operations of each machine, she will be the bottleneck for the number of machines in the company and consequently for the scale of the business. She must free up her time and make each machine in the company independent of herself. 

To do so, she must first carefully recognize when she is working on the business (designing or improving machines) and when she is working in the business (operating the machines).

“Most people remain stuck in the perspective of being a worker within the machine,” Dalio argues. ”If you can recognize the differences between [when you design the machine and when you operate it] and that it is much more important that you are a good designer/manager of your life than a good worker in it, you will be on the right path.” 

It is in building machines that the entrepreneur adds more layers to the business. So how does one design and build a good machine?

Designing the machine

As a company scales, the knowledge that remains tacit (i.e. inside the head of the person doing the task) will eventually become a bottleneck. If that person leaves or if you need other people to execute the same task, it will no longer be possible to do so to the same standard. It also has the unfortunate effect that the person doing the task can never be promoted or moved to another team as the process depends on her (you can read more about that here). Building machines is a way to make tacit knowledge explicit and enables you to improve on it.

To my experience, designing a good machine consists of six phases:

  1. Design a winning process
  2. Document the process
  3. Create transparency on performance (and make it auditable)
  4. Hire and train an operator
  5. Audit the process
  6. Optimize the machine continuously

Step 1: Design a winning process

The most common reason for not building a robust process is that people either 1) are caught up in the operations or 2) try designing the perfect machine in the first go. The challenge is that you’ll never have the perfect process. Most processes can always be improved further. Accept that you won’t know how the perfect machine works without having tried it. Design the best you can and work from there.

The initial process

In order to design the initial process, immerse yourself – for the time required – into the project. Depending on the complexity of the process, you should be able to design an initial version in 15-30 minutes.

It’s important to include:

  • Objective – What are you trying to achieve and how will you know/measure whether you’ve achieved it (KPI)?
  • Process – The steps required to replicate the outcome. Here is an example from McDonald’s that illustrates the required detail

A machine for an email newsletter could for example include:

  • The goal 
    • E.g. people clicking through to read the full article on the website
  • The process for e.g. how to
    • Segment the subscribers
    • Design the newsletter to be consistent with the brand
    • Pick the right subject line
    • Write the content in the right style
    • Send at the right time
    • Split test variations
    • Measure and evaluate performance

In building a machine or company, Dalio sets out four ways to ensure you get the best machines:

  1. Seek out the smartest people who disagree with you and try to understand their reasoning
  2. Know when not to have an opinion
  3. Develop, test, and systemize timeless and universal principles
  4. Balance risks in ways that keep the big upside while reducing the downside

Stressing point 1, the easiest way to improve your process is to get help designing the process from the most believable and knowledgeable people in the field – both people who may agree or disagree with you.

As Harvard epidemiologist, Marc Lipsitch, explained in relation to understanding the Coronavirus 4, we must distinguish between three levels of information:

  1. What we know is true; 
  2. What we think is true—fact-based assessments that also depend on inference, extrapolation or educated interpretation of facts that reflect an individual’s view of what is most likely to be going on; and 
  3. Opinions and speculation.

While most entrepreneurs aren’t battling global pandemics, there is a key takeaway for designing a winning process: Even though no one knows the perfect way to do something (information that is true), some people will have a more qualified idea (what we think is true) based on their experience with and understanding of adjacent fields. Don’t let this hold you back. Don’t seek to get input from hundreds of people. Find a few critical people who can give you input and move forward.

Getting started

Getting started can often be daunting. The best way is to start by mapping out the different parts of your machine. If you are designing a machine for email marketing, for example, you may start by mapping out the components:

  • Database management and segmentation
  • Sending schedule and frequency
  • Email template design
  • Testing methodology
  • Performance dashboard

Once you have the high-level breakdown, you can start dividing each of them into subparts and define more granularly.

Step 2: Document the process

Imagine building a bakery. You would never let the baker play it by ear every time he would bake a new batch of bread. Even if you successfully did so, then firstly, you would be completely dependent on your current baker and unable to scale the size of the team as the next baker would start over in developing his recipe.

Secondly, if the recipe (knowledge) only existed in the head of the baker (-s), it would be incredibly hard to improve the result in the future. If e.g. the bread turned out too salty, how could you possibly improve on this without knowing how much salt was used in the first place? Without this knowledge, you are starting from scratch every time.

In other words, for a predictable outcome, you must standardize the way you bake bread. Author Michael E. Gerber 3 calls this orchestration: “Orchestration is the elimination of discretion, or choice, at the operating level of your business.”

This is not to say that the process is now set in stone and will never evolve, but more about this in step 6.

A word of caution: What may seem simple at first will grow complex over time. The complexity only scales with the number of tasks, so try to keep things as simple as possible so you don’t drown in complexity.

How to document the process

When documenting the process, don’t overdo it. I have seen too many entrepreneurs writing 10 or 20-page documents describing something that could be described on a one-pager. Keep this as simple as possible. Unlike this very elaborate guide, a list of bullet points will often do well at first. Once you have the list, get input to ensure it’s sufficiently detailed to be self-explanatory.

A common problem is that people start the documentation too late. They start when everything is up and running and therefore forget some of the parts involved in reaching the success or they become blind to some of the critical actions they are taking.

Step 3: Create transparency on performance (and make it auditable)

In order to do well repeatedly, we must start with the end: What can we measure to know whether we are doing well?

Depending on your machine, the metrics you need to monitor vary greatly. As for all KPI-setting keep this simple and focused on the essential metrics. It’s easy to overdo this and end up with too many KPIs. If everything is important, nothing is important.

You would often want to include both leading and lagging indicators in your dashboard. Leading indicators predict future performance. An example can be the number of sales meetings for a sales rep. While you cannot take that to the bank, there should be a correlation to future deals. 

Lagging indicators are backwards-looking and show how well you did. In my experience, lagging indicators can often be boiled down to one or two metrics. For performance marketing for example, I find gross profit to be an excellent metric as it encompasses both the volume aspect of marketing and the cost efficiency aspect. It’s important to include both aspects as most jobs entail balancing efficiency and scale, or other similarly opposing metrics. 

Step 4: Hire and train an operator

Entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist, Ben Horowitz 5 emphasises the importance of training with a perfect example: “I learned about why startups should train their people when I worked at Netscape. People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense. Would you want to stand on the line of the untrained person at McDonald’s? Would you want to use the software written by the engineer who was never told how the rest of the code worked? A lot of companies think their employees are so smart that they require no training. That’s silly.”

If we buy in to the idea that orchestration is essential (Step 1), then it must follow that we train our people to follow the process. People often mistake training for not utilizing people’s smarts. Contrarily, I see it as a way to speed up the process of value creation and the learning.

Take Google Adwords for example. If we don’t have a clear process for how the account should be optimized and expanded or don’t train people on that process, then we leave it to the employee to figure it out on their own. What are the odds that the one person you have hired finds the best solution for this task? 

As we will see in step 6, processes are not static and will evolve, but why not start from the best possible foundation rather than with a clean sheet of paper? Too many people mistakenly focus on “innovation and creativity” in the design of their initial processes. Rather, start with the best and most proven model as a baseline and innovate from there. Without a baseline, how could you know if your innovation is actually performing better? The importance of this can hardly be overstated.

By convention, even inside of our group of companies, only one solution can be the best for any given problem. In other words, if everyone else copied the process of that one task, they would immediately achieve better results. 

Processes + Training = Consistency + Repeatability

Step 5: Audit the process

Once you’ve got a solid machine and have trained people to operate it well, you must find ways to ensure that the machine runs smoothly and according to the recipe (if it doesn’t and the output is better, you should update the recipe).

My favourite example of this is peer review in coding where senior developers will look through the code written by other developers before it makes it to the final product. The principle can though be applied to even the most basic tasks (at McDonald’s, employees must mark on a sheet when they wash their hands so supervisors can see that they live up to hygiene standards).

A common mistake in auditing is to look at the operational output only. It’s easy to only look at the results, but you risk missing key insights that way. If you truly believe in your process, then people who don’t follow the recipe must have a big potential for improvement. 

By accepting output as the only metric, you may simply be setting the performance bar too low and thereby accepting performance below what should be possible.

Step 6: Optimize the machine continuously

The key to building a machine is to have a strong process. Without a process, there is no machine. At the same time, a common fallacy is a belief that the “perfect” process is just around the corner and therefore not defining the process now. “A little more experience and we will do so much better” is often the excuse. We may indeed learn more next week, but we shouldn’t let that hold us back when building a company. Define the process and improve it as you learn.

Optimization should not happen by chance. Improvement should not be organic. With orchestration we must take a scientific hypothesis-based approach to optimize our machine. What this means is that we should make changes only after carefully thinking about a) what are we trying to improve? b) what can we do to improve? c) why would this change improve the process?

Putting it all together

The opportunity cost of not having great machines is that you won’t be able to free up yourself. In my experience, machine-building skills is the single biggest predictor of success for entrepreneurs and leaders. The ability to ensure great performance while making yourself obsolete makes you promotable and allows you to free up time for other projects.

A few lessons before you jump into building your own machines:

  • Don’t build multiple machines simultaneously. Build one, make it work, move on
  • Train people to understand and differentiate between when they are operating and when they are building the machine
  • As you become more proficient, seek to spend an increasingly larger share of your time on designing, building, auditing, and optimizing machines rather than operating them
  • Trust the process. If your machines don’t produce the right outcome, the problem is with one of the six steps above, not with the idea of making yourself obsolete from the operations

The machines become a pipeline for talent in its own right. Operators learn to optimize the machine. Once they can optimize, it’s easier to learn how to design machines from scratch.

Build a company by designing and building great machines!

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  1. McChesney et. al. The 4 Disciplines of Execution
  2. Dalio, Ray. Principles: Life and Work
  3. Michael E. Gerber. The E-Myth Revisited
  4. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-to-report-on-the-covid-19-outbreak-responsibly/
  5. Horowitz, Ben. The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Image credits: https://www.pexels.com/ and YouTube.com

On the Exponentiality of Life

There is a common misconception about how success accumulates. I repeatedly see posts on social media along the lines of:

I suppose the message is that if we are just a little better, we will be about 38 times as good a year from now. While it’s hard to challenge the notion that we should strive to be better every day, the message is hardly actionable. 

The poster is missing a crucial point of exactly how effort compounds. In real life, compounding works slightly differently than in mathematics. Let me illustrate with an example from nature.

A tale of two acorns

Imagine an old oak tree dropping its yearly acorns. The acorns are carried away by nature and eventually, find a place to sprout. 

When two such acorns are located in close proximity, a competition of the two will start. It’s a competition for nutrition, water, and sunlight. Initially, both will have plenty of all the ingredients for a strong start to life. 

As the oak sprouts grow, they will eventually start leafing. The sprout that found an (even a slightly) more nutritious location will start the leafing a bit earlier. Maybe a day earlier, maybe more. The leaves act like massive solar cells to capture the energy of the sun, allowing for even faster growth.

As both plants grow in height and size, they will cast an increasingly larger shadow. The sprout which got the head start on leafing will have more and larger leaves and will develop larger roots to access more nutrition and water from the ground.

At first, each plant goes about its development independently of the other sprouts, but an interesting dynamic soon kicks in. At some point in time, one plant will reach a size where the leaves and twigs will start shading for the other, smaller, plant. 

From this point onwards, there is no turning back: The larger sprout will get a disproportionate amount of sunlight and the deeper roots will capture more nutrition and water. Combined, this will allow the plant to grow taller and add further twigs and leaves even faster than the smaller plant, which in turn will mean that it will grow disproportionately faster at an accelerating rate.

From here on, it is only a matter of time before the larger plant will completely outgrow the smaller plant which will eventually fade and wither with the lack of sunlight and water.

The metaphoric shadow and reach for sunlight are applicable to many other parts of professional life. The following examples will highlight the commonalities between professional life and that of an acorn.

What entertainment, venture capital, and hairdressers have in common

At first, the tale of the two acorns may seem irrelevant to the real world – how often are you, after all, competing directly head-to-head with others?

If you look at Hollywood actors, a few actors earn more than almost everyone else combined. Are some actors, objectively speaking, really ten or 20 times better than your average A-list Hollywood actor? Not compared to the average actor, but an A-list actor. I’m not an expert, but it seems like pure talent is unlikely to explain the full difference in income. Rather, some actors seem to increase the likelihood of box office success significantly more than others. If an actor can increase ticket sales by just a few percentages because of his/her name alone, then that may warrant a much bigger pay.

Another example – in most metropolitan cities, the most expensive haircuts easily cost more than 10x the average, but that doesn’t mean that those expensive hairdressers are ten times better than the average hairdresser. In other words, the price you can charge as a hairdresser is not linearly correlated to your abilities. Similarly, a car that tops at 320 km/h will be more than twice as expensive as one that tops at 160 km/h, everything else being equal.

This is what economists call increasing returns to scale. Increases in input give you a disproportionately large increase in output.

The below graph indicates the relationship between the perceived level of skills and the outcomes (the price you can charge, the number of movie roles offered, etc.). The size/volume of outcomes (vertical axis) increase with your perceived abilities (or rather, the perception of your abilities), but not in a linear fashion. The point here is not the exact slope of the curve, but that the shape is highly convex. The graph is not linear – life is not linear! 

Similarly, for venture capital (VC) investing, the vast majority of VC funds deliver below-market-rate returns, while a few continuously outperform the market2. It’s beyond the scope of this post to speculate in the average smarts across VCs, but one thing is for sure: The more successful you are, the more opportunities come your way – regardless of your smarts. 

This is particularly important for VCs, as they need to “return the fund” on a few investments that make their money back 10, 20, or maybe even 100 times rather than a lot of “satisfactory” investments. For that reason, access to the best deals is a crucial requirement as those home run deals are scarce and missing one may be critical. No amount of smarts can make up for sub-par deal flow.

Implications

The conclusion is simple: The marginal effort counts the most. The next hour of effort counts more than the last. The opportunities you receive today are due to your hard work (or lack thereof) in the past.

The conclusion also implies that our time is “perishable”. Every day we do not move to the right on the curve, we are missing out on opportunities/revenue/etc. In other words, there is a massive opportunity cost of not being the best version of ourselves today.

In a professional context, this means that by not being at your best, you aren’t proving your worth and, as a consequence, you may then not receive the next opportunity or promotion. Many people talk about seeking your own luck. Being at your best will maximize the chances that you will be “lucky” when the chance comes. 

Similarly, for most people, the early years in your career set the direction for the next many years. It’s harder to change the trajectory later on than to set it right from the start. 

Whatever you set out to do, do it well. Give it all you’ve got. Anything else is a waste of time. Be the sprout that grows to cast a shadow rather than the one to stand in it. The importance of this can hardly be overstated.

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Sources:

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/maddieberg/2019/08/21/the-highest-paid-actors-2019-dwayne-johnson-bradley-cooper-and-chris-hemsworth/
  2. https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/01/the-meeting-that-showed-me-the-truth-about-vcs/

Graphics: https://www.blog.400contacts.com/uncategorized/the-most-motivational-poster-ever/

Some of my favourite books of 2019

The best books I read in 2019

2019 was a productive reading year for me. I got through the equivalent of 27,679 pages over 75 books, audiobooks, and ebooks. Some of them were very inspirational and some less so. I often get asked for book recommendations, so this post serves to go through the best books of 2019 for me. Note that the books may be of an older date, but I read them in 2019. Some of the books were new to me, others are books I had already read previously.

When looking back, the 20 best books can be grouped into four categories:

  1. Philosophy and psychology
  2. Entrepreneurship
  3. Politics
  4. Finance

If you prefer, I have added all the books to this shelf on Goodreads to make it easier for you to add the ones you like.

The first books require a little more explanation due to their nature, so don’t be scared by the longer descriptions!

Philosophy and psychology

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Jordan Peterson). This book was fantastic. I started by listening to the audiobook, but immediately after finishing it, I ordered a physical copy so I could re-read it armed with a highlighter and a pen. This is one of those books (like Zero to One) that is so dense with insights that every chapter could easily have been a book of its own.

The premise of the book is that as a consequence of the modern scientific and fact-based society, only things that can be measured objectively are considered truly valuable to society. Therefore, virtues and personal values, which are subjective, are no longer important and, consequently, have lost importance. This means that people end up without a compass that can provide order in the surrounding chaos of the world, leading to despair and other mental challenges.

The book addresses a number of mental issues in our modern world and suggests ways to return to a number of guiding principles – the virtues that have gotten lost in the modern world.

This book is by far one of the most thought-provoking and concise (particularly given the incredibly intangible topic) books I have read in recent years. A must-read for anyone interested in understanding their own psyche and the big trends influencing (western) society.

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius). This is one of the few books I return to repeatedly. The book is a fantastic reminder of the core principles of stoicism on how to live a fulfilling life and how to be a better person: How we perceive the world, how we interact with others, and how we deal with things beyond our control.

The one quote that always stands out to me is “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Stillness is the Key (Ryan Holiday). For me, Ryan Holiday is one of the best modern writers on the principles of Stoicism. I was a big fan of his previous books (even back to before they were concerned with stoicism). Stillness is the Key is the final book in Holiday’s trilogy on stoic principles and I’d recommend all three to anyone seeking to understand stoicism better (The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy).

The Bhagavad Gita. This book is a cornerstone of the Hindu faith. It was recommended by a friend. The book describes the battle between the Pandava and Kaurava armies. Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness, and love, provides a warrior, Arjuna, spiritual enlightenment to realize that the battle is for his own soul.

I am new to Hinduism and found it very interesting to see so many similarities to stoicism.

The Inner Game of Tennis (Timothy Gallwey). I find this book fascinating. It was originally written to address the mental sides of playing tennis but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how this can apply to other aspects of life. The concept of the four different playing styles translates easily into different strategies to life and business.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Robert M. Sapolsky). A rarely comprehensive and holistic read covering the patterns of behaviour, all the way from individual genes to something as complex as how humans act during a war.

The book is excellent for anyone interested in the biochemical side of behaviour. But before you start on the almost 800 pages, note that firstly, sometimes the book is unnecessarily and overly technical in the biochemical explanations (and this is from a reader who is a student of biochemistry!). I went through this as an audiobook which is not a suitable format for all the explanations of the chemicals. Secondly, the very long chapters make the book harder to split across multiple sittings.

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray). This book was a bit of an eye-opener to me. Before reading it, I thought that most of the differences I have experienced in relationships were due to idiosyncratic differences between two specific people. This book changed that. It described generic differences between males and females that I always thought were unique to my own situations. Apparently, I am not alone.

Having since then shared the book with multiple people, the feedback is very consistent: Everybody feels like it describes patterns of misunderstandings between men and women that they thought were unique to them and their relationship.

Entrepreneurship

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers (Ben Horowitz). I re-read this book. There is no easy way to describe this book. It covers the entrepreneurial rollercoaster ride of building a company including all the ups and downs. The book is filled with gems. It was just as good this time as the first time I read it.

Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen (Donald Miller). This is a short read and brings an interesting perspective to building a brand – like a fairytale! The long and short of it is the right positioning, strong consistency, and a good story.

Politics

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert A. Caro). After many recommendations from people with good taste in books, I decided to embark on the extensive journey of getting through this 66 hrs audiobook (or 1344 pages of paper if you prefer).

It is a very thorough documentation of the career of a man with incredible achievements and a very visible fingerprint on New York as of today. A story about how Robert Moses navigated the political systems to get an absurd amount of power and the many ways he used to keep hold of it. A power that wasn’t intended to reside with one, unelected individual.

As for most other books of this length, the story could have been told in far fewer words. That said, it resulted in a thorough description of Moses, his motivations, and how he played the system to get (and keep) what he wanted.

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith). Besides from a humorous description of various dictators (often an inherently sad topic), the book brings about the inherent challenges of various societal structures. Through examples, the book also explains some of the aspects of our western societies and why they are the way they are (e.g. I have often wondered why many parliaments seem to be so unnecessarily large).

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (John Perkins). An entertaining and novel view on geopolitics and how (allegedly) the west keeps the rest of the world in an iron-grip through aid, international institutions, supporting local unrest, and military intervention. While I am not sure how much of this to believe, there is rarely smoke without fire.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises (Timothy Geithner). This year, I decided to get a better understanding of the events during and following the great financial crisis. Stress Test is a very educative, humble, and (seemingly) honest description of the final financial crisis from an insider. The considerations, reflections, and tradeoffs between short and long term consequences, between what is best and what is popular are interesting and go much further than I had imagined.

Besides this book, I also read Ben Bernanke’s The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath which I would recommend for people seeking another perspective. It offers a good explanation of opinions on monetary and fiscal policy during the financial crisis, but I prefer the style of Geithner’s biography due to the style which comes across as more honest and less censored.

Finance

The Most Important Thing Illuminated: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor (Howard Marks). A book on investments without any numbers is a rarity. That said, it raises a number of alluring and unique points. Whether all the points are described in other books is hard to say, but they are concisely described with a clarity and insight that I haven’t seen before.

A must-read for any investor who favors a fundamental or value approach over technical analysis.

Mastering the Market Cycle: Getting the Odds on Your Side (Howard Marks). An excellent book describing the mechanics of the multiple cycles influencing the financial markets.

For readers of The Most Important Thing, many elements in this book may seem repetitive. If I had to pick one of the two only, I’d go for The Most Important Thing, but in my opinion, both are worth reading.

The Alchemy of Finance (George Soros). A dynamic alternative to the classical models of macroeconomics. It is clear that the dynamic/reflexive model is of more relevance to investors than the classical static ones. A lot of overlaps with Soros on Soros (also by George Soros), though I prefer this one as it is both more practical and stronger on the philosophical part.

I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I did! Please feel free to send me book recommendations or feedback!

Learning Trees: 7 steps to structure and accelerate your learning

It used to be that people would spend the first part of their life going to school, the second part of their life applying what they learnt in school, and the third part of their life retired and potentially teaching others.

Things are changing rapidly nowadays. It used to be sufficient to accumulate knowledge in the initial years of a career only, but knowledge now becomes irrelevant and outdated faster than ever. Simultaneously, new technologies and industries arise that are impossible to prepare for and learn about years in advance.

With this in mind, the ability to acquire new knowledge and skills are now more relevant than ever.

While some people have an easier time learning new things or acquiring new skills than others, there are certain ways to increase efficiency and, thereby, the speed of learning regardless of your talent for learning.

This guide will highlight techniques that have worked for me – techniques I’ve picked up from literature, and speaking to multiple true masters of accelerated learning. The result is a 7-step process covering how to: 

  1. Define your learning objectives
  2. Decompose the topic into a learning tree
  3. Get a sufficient level of depth
  4. Validate your learning tree
  5. Figure out the best way to learn about each twig
  6. Activate your understanding
  7. Stay up to date

1. Define your learning objectives

The best place to start learning is to define your learning objectives. Most people have an intuitive idea about the direction of the topic they want to learn about, but they lack a specific goal. A lacking goal usually comes from a lack of context, and this makes mapping the learning tree harder.

To illustrate this, imagine a person wanting to learn more about human behaviour. Depending on the actual objective, “human behaviour” could mean anything from understanding the biochemistry of the brain or the nervous system to developmental psychology. 

Ultimately, you will structure your learning differently depending on whether you seek to change an old habit, understand how your diet impacts your behaviour, or how to raise your child. It is therefore important to define the context of your learning as part of the objective, e.g. “human behaviour in order to change bad habits.”

An example of an objective could be: “I want to learn more about and improve on my EQ in order to improve my relations with other people and build stronger bonds”

In most cases, it is hard to definitely say that you have learned a new skill, as it is rarely a binary outcome but rather something you can always improve on.

2. Decompose the topic into a learning tree

Imagine that you are in a new city and want to visit three tourist attractions at three separate addresses. A map won’t give you the experience of going there, but it will help you navigate the new city, help you get from one address to the next in the most efficient way, and help you minimize travel time. The Learning Tree has the same role with regards to your learning.

In an AMA on Reddit, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk talked about learning: “One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” Think of your Learning Tree as the concretized version of the semantic tree.

To build a tree, you’ll need to start by decomposing the topic into its various conceptual sub-topics. This enables you to build a mental structure of the topic, which acts as a skeleton where you can attach your new insights and knowledge. This is what I refer to as the Learning Tree: each topic branch out into subtopics, which again branch out into another set of subtopics ad infinitum.

Example

Throughout this article, I’ll use emotional intelligence (EQ) as an example of how I would work with the learning tree. If you want to improve your (EQ), the broken down conceptual model of EQ could look like this1:

Emotional intelligence
  1. Personal competencies
    1. Self-awareness
    2. Self-management
  2. Social competencies
    1. Social awareness
    2. Social interaction/relationship management

Each of those can be further decomposed so that for example Social Interaction/relationship management could break down as per the below example.

Example2

2.2 Social interaction/relationship management

2.2.1 Inspiration (of others)
2.2.2 Influence/communication
2.2.3 Developing others
2.2.4 Teamwork/collaboration
2.2.5 Change catalyst
2.2.6 Conflict management

When you design the tree, you need to be careful to include all the sub-topics (the branches and twigs of the tree) you could learn more about on every relevant step.

The Learning Tree needs to cover the entire universe of each topic at an appropriate depth, even though you may already know that you want to focus on just a few of the sub-topics. This ensures that you don’t miss any crucial areas which could potentially limit your understanding. 

Insight

For EQ, even if you already know that you want to focus on improving your abilities within Social Interaction, you still need to ensure your list is comprehensive at the level where Social Interaction is just one branch.

If you don’t do this, it’s easy to falsely conclude that emotional intelligence only relates to our relationships with others (a commonly held belief). You will then completely miss the fact that in order to understand others, you must first understand yourself: It is no easier task to imagine a kind of feeling that you haven’t experienced before than it is to imagine the melody of a song you have never heard.

As you reach new insights, awareness of the full Learning Tree will also help you place those insights into the bigger picture. 

Feel free to only break down every relevant branch as you go down the tree, but ensure to do it fully every time the tree branches out, otherwise, you may lose track of how everything ties together in the end.

Tip

You may benefit from creating your Learning Tree in a clear structure that is both mutually exclusive and commonly exhaustive (MECE). To be mutually exclusive you should find a structure where the same subtopic does not fit under multiple headlines. Just like the example of the map above, it is significantly easier to navigate a city if each address appears only once. To be commonly exhaustive, you should include every subtopic – even the ones you may already have decided not to focus on.

3. Get a sufficient level of depth

At first, when learning a new language, the words melt together and seem like one long stream of sounds. But with experience, the sounds become words and you’ll be able to discern the different words from each other.

The same goes for learning. As you learn more about your topic, you’ll be able to expand on the Learning Tree with more detail and granularity. Some areas may seem like one at first, but the distinctions become gradually more obvious as you gain a better understanding.

Example

Think about how “engineering” may be perceived as one single area or function for most non-engineers. For engineers, however (and for the rest of us benefiting from their work), it makes a massive difference if the engineer is specialized in building bridges or aeroplanes. You probably appreciate the differences every time you cross a bridge or fly on an aeroplane.

Personally, by investing time in research initially, I like to go as deep as I can when designing my learning trees at first. I thereby identify all areas exhaustively so I know which area to focus on. As a novice, this may be impossible for some topics, but the important point here is to be as granular as possible to gain a broad understanding.

Keep in mind that the required depth of your tree depends on your use case. You can stay at the more superficial levels if you are just looking for a conceptual understanding rather than developing a profound skill.

4. Validate your learning tree

When learning a new skill, ignorance of an important branch can easily be the difference between strong competence or incompetence. Consequently, you’ll need to ensure that your learning tree reflects the real world.

There are often multiple ways to design Learning Trees covering the same topic. Rather than Personal and Social Competencies, for example, the tree for EQ above could equally well have been split by Awareness (passive) and Management (active) at the first level. 

It’s important to accept differences, but only as long as the overall tree is valid. It is easy, for example, to miss a layer in the tree when you are new to a topic. As per the example above on social interaction, omitting a layer is critical as you may miss out on new branches of insights that fork out from that layer, making it harder to get a comprehensive understanding.

There are many ways to validate your learning tree. The two most common are:

  • Speak to someone who is further down the learning curve than you are – this is my favourite way. If you are able to get input from a true expert, he/she may also provide guidance on where to start your studies and recommend good resources 
  • Research existing models or frameworks – during my research for EQ it became apparent that there was consensus around a model broken down like the above. In your own research, ensure that it includes the consensus and not just an opinion from a random person. Also, make sure to add other areas you find that aren’t part of the consensus model – you can always re-draw your tree later if a different branch or sub-topic  is more suitable

5. Figure out the best way to learn about each twig

Once your tree is designed and validated, you need to find the best way to gain the understanding, insights, or skill required for each sub-topic (the twigs of your tree). 

To optimize your knowledge, you need to consider both the type of media and the specific resources that will teach you what you need to learn.

Type of media

Books are more affordable and available than ever before. Videos and articles about most topics are available online, for free, and the list goes on. 

Information is no longer a scarce resource or the limitation for your learning. Chances are that the only thing holding back your learning is your own time and commitment to the cause.

To learn something new, start by exploring the media which best suit your way of learning. Some of the most common ways include:

  • Books (physical and ebooks)
  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Online courses
  • Conferences
  • Conversations with experts

Some of these formats (top four) are obviously easier to use than others (conferences and conversations). Resources for your area may not be available in all of the above formats, so find the best match between availability and your preferences.

Specific resources

Once you’ve set yourself on the type of media, say books, you need to find the best books to cover your topic.

Places I usually find recommendations for the best resources (My favoured form of learning is via books):

  • Check Quora if someone has already asked for recommendations
  • If the topic is taught at universities, I check the syllabi of the relevant courses for leading universities
  • Check interviews with domain experts. It’s common for them to list resources
  • For books, check the bestseller lists on Amazon and rankings on Goodreads
  • For videos, check ratings and view-count of YouTube videos. Although TED talks are usually much more conceptual, YouTube can provide more in-depth knowledge
  • For online courses, check the reviews of the largest sites (E.g. Udacity, Udemy, Coursera, Lynda, Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, Stanford Online, iTunes U, etc.)

It can be tempting to jump in with the first book or video you come across, but it may be worth your while to check the consensus to ensure you don’t invest your time sub-optimally.

Tip

If you want to go extra deep into a field, check the references sections of the books you read. Often, the books that are frequently referenced are worth reading.

A separate post on how to get the most out of reading books will follow at a later date.

6. Activate your understanding

As mentioned earlier, information is available in abundance. Knowledge is like language skills. For most people, they understand way more words (passive vocabulary) than they would actually use in their daily communications (active vocabulary). This should be particularly familiar for people speaking a 2nd or 3rd language.

Similarly, information can easily become passive (or forgotten!). That may be fine if learning is just for inspiration, but if your intention is to use your knowledge and develop it into skills or a profound understanding, you need to activate it.

I’m a big believer in the adage, “See one, do one, teach one.” The challenge for most people is not to “see one” (e.g. read a book, watch a video, speaking to an expert), but rather how to get in a situation to do or teach one.

Do one

For skills, nothing replaces practice. Doing the work itself is paramount. In cases of “just” securing understanding, studies suggest that repetition is important. One way, of course, is to read the entire book/watch the video/etc. again. I personally find it helpful to write notes and use these to write a summary. This is a good way to gather my thoughts and get a clearer picture of the key takeaways. It ensures that I don’t succumb to recency bias, focusing only on the learnings from the last chapter of a book or the last 5 minutes of a video.

Physical books have the added benefit of the ability to write in the notes. For ebooks, I use a kindle or the kindle app on an iPad. With these, I am able to export all my highlights which makes using them for a summary faster.

Finally, once I’m done with the first draft of my summary, I search for other summaries online to see if other people have highlighted different points from the material than I have – this helps me rethink my takeaways while the materials are still fresh in mind.

Teach one

Explaining something in a way that is easy to grasp for the listener requires a profound understanding. I find that having to explain something to another person forces me to think about what I have just learned with more structure and from the most fundamental principles, compared to if I just had to remember it for myself. This is probably a result of 1) the clarity required to explain something, 2) the pressure of not wanting to look like an idiot when explaining the topic.

It can be difficult for most people to get in such a situation, but I find that there are two good substitutes:

  1. Explain the topic to someone who is willing to listen, even if they may not have an explicit interest in the topic
  2. Develop teaching materials as if you were to teach the topic

The first is quite self-explanatory but the second point may require some explanation. I often find that forcing myself to prepare a document or presentation on a topic helps me structure my thoughts. I often make the materials with one particular person in mind and develop the materials in a way that I think would be able to teach him/her everything I now know about the topic.

Engaging with people who are further down the learning curve may help expose if parts of your understanding (or teaching materials) show a lack of understanding of certain areas. Try your best to always challenge how profound your understanding is and whether you understand the first principles.

7. Stay up to date

Finally, once you’ve built your learning tree and achieved the desired depth, keep in mind that most fields evolve over time. 

I recall at the graduation ceremony from business school, one speaker highlighted that of the things we had learned during the coursework, one third would be irrelevant for what we would work with, one third would be outdated by the time we would need it, and only one third might be relevant for what we were going to do.

Similarly, the knowledge that you have acquired may also be left behind if you don’t ensure to stay up to date.

Summary

To summarize the above, the best way to accelerate your learning is to follow the 7-step process:

  1. Define your learning objectives
  2. Decompose the topic into a learning tree
  3. Get a sufficient level of depth
  4. Validate your learning tree
  5. Figure out the best way to learn about each twig
  6. Activate your understanding
  7. Stay up to date

This methodology is based on both empiric observations and academic research. Please share below how it works for you and if you have any other ideas that have helped you accelerate your learning.


Sources:

  1. Bradberry, Travis: Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (2009)
  2. Goleman, Daniel: Primal Leadership (2013)

Images: Pexels.com

Generating Value Through Execution: 7 Steps to Rising in a Start-Up

The pinnacle of generating value within our companies is the ability to execute. Unless you’re in a corporate environment with a strict career ladder, the opportunity to grow within a company and attain more responsibility is determined by your ability to generate value for your team and the company as a whole.

As we will explore in this post through the introduction of the Execution Pyramid, an individual who operates at higher levels of the Pyramid will see a faster rate of both personal and professional growth.

The main idea behind the Execution Pyramid was first developed by my partner at Nova Founders Capital, Mads Faurholt-Jorgensen and we have since used and developed the model to help our team members grow exponentially, guiding them on the path to execution whilst adding value at every stage. Whether you’re working with a company at an early stage of its development, like many in our portfolio, or a company that is more established, the principles are the same.

The philosophy behind the Pyramid transcends experience levels, so whether you are early on in your career or an experienced professional, being cognizant of the levels can help you understand how to maximize your impact and add value.

The Execution Pyramid utilizes a hierarchical structure and is composed of three distinct layers with seven steps in total. The steps in layer one are substitutes for one another and the quicker you rise, the better. From step 3 (Summary) and on, the steps become complementary and add on to the value you provide to the team and company. In some cases, you can execute at one level without the lower layers, but I highly recommend that you don’t. I’ll give examples as I go through the individual layers on how to do both.

Execution Pyramid

LAYER 1: The Base Layer — Understanding the importance of time

Execution Pyramid - Base Layer

The first layer consists of three steps and goes from adding no value to helping the team or management be more effective by saving time.

Step 1: No information

To illustrate the No information layer, imagine a team member reading an article with important updates about a topic relevant to the team (a software update, changes to a procedure, legal changes, etc.) and them not sharing that information with the team. In this case, the team member adds no value and in some cases, value may even be lost. The rest of the team will have to spend the same time understanding and potentially sourcing the same piece of information. With a high opportunity cost across all of our companies, this highlights the importance of sharing basic information amongst peers and team members.

The same concept applies to software development when documenting code, participating in meetings on behalf of a team, conducting an analysis, and so on. Information is the currency of adding value.

Step 2: Full information

The second step in the base layer is giving full information. You find a relevant article and send the link around to your colleagues without any further information. While you may help the team by sharing the article, the value you’re adding is very limited. It will take the rest of your team the same amount of time and effort to get the information as it took you.

Step 3: Summary

The highest step in the base layer is mastering the art of the summary. You’ve completed a piece of work: attended a meeting, conducted research, read an article about a relevant topic or similar tasks. Instead of giving the full story, you’re now summarizing the key points. It’s critical to this step that you understand both the topic you are working with and the business context. It’s impossible to summarize a piece of information and highlight the most important points if you aren’t able to filter the relevant from the irrelevant. At this step, you are now saving time for your teammates or manager, making the process of knowledge-sharing more effective.

Action points:

  • Think about how you can boil the research or article down to a few bullet points. It is particularly important to think about the “so what” of the article – what are the key takeaways?
  • Make sure your summary doesn’t get too long – most people are busy so strive towards a summary that takes less than 2-3 minutes to read
  • Think about who the summary is relevant for in your team and share your summary with them
Execution Superman

LAYER 2: The Decision layer – Enabling informed decisions

Execution Pyramid - Decision Layer

The second layer is about making information actionable and involves presenting options, giving recommendations and a way to execute the plan. In particular, it’s important to show the thought process behind the recommendations and ideas as you progress further towards the top of the Execution Pyramid.

The progress from step to step in the first layer requires nothing more than a conscious decision to do a better and more value-adding job. Progressing from one step to another in the second layer requires an increasingly profound understanding of the business. For example, it is impossible to recommend an option and give an explicit plan of execution if you aren’t familiar with the challenges within your field.

Step 4: Present options

Building on from giving a great summary (Step 3) the next value-add is to present the options that are available to the team or company. By presenting options, you are making the decision-making easier for the team leader.

Aside from enabling your manager to make a more efficient and informed decision by presenting the options you see, this will also train you in understanding the decision-making process. Does your manager bring up other options based on your summary that you didn’t think of? Did she pick the option you would have gone for? Make sure to get the most out of this step and ask questions. Seek to understand why she may prefer to act differently than you would and do your best to understand how she could see options that may not have been obvious to you. Assuming you’ve joined a team with a leader that you can learn from, this part of the process is the best opportunity to get an insight into how they think and approach problem-solving and decision making.

Action points:

  • Make sure that you don’t end up with too many options – in most cases, 3-5 will do
  • Do your best to be MECE (Mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) in picking your options so they aren’t indirect duplicates
  • Ask questions when you go through the options with your team/manager
Execution Superman

Step 5: Recommendation

When you’ve presented the summary (step 3) and the options (Step 4), the next obvious step is to make a decision and indicate which option you would go with. Don’t be afraid to make recommendations from your options, even if you aren’t completely comfortable. Just highlight it when you present your recommendation that you aren’t completely sure, making it clear that from what you understand, you would go with option X. This is a great starting point for a discussion and for you to get valuable feedback on why that may or may not work.

Note that many have a tendency to jump straight from Summary to Recommendation (or sometimes even without the summary). It’s difficult for your manager to evaluate whether your recommendation is truly the best if he doesn’t understand how you got there. Helping your manager understand your process, means you need to help him answer five questions about your process:

  1. Which options did you consider and why did you consider these options?
  2. What was your basis for evaluating them?
  3. Why do you recommend the option you’ve picked?
  4. Which critical assumptions did you make in picking your recommendation over the other options?
  5. If your critical assumptions were different, which options would you then go for? (if you have more than two such critical assumptions, you may need to be selective in doing this)

When picking your recommendation, do your best to be as structured as possible. Could you evaluate all the options based on a universal set of criteria? (Tables and grading (or Harvey Balls for visual presentations) are great for this). The better you manage to explain your train of thoughts and your process to pick your recommendation, the easier it is for your manager to make a decision. The decision-making changes from understanding a problem and thinking about options and pros/cons to simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Of course, the longer process will be initiated if the answer is no, but as you get better and so do your recommendations, a larger share of your recommendations will hopefully materialize.

Action points:

  • Be structured in your evaluation – it makes the following discussion much easier and concrete
  • Get input on your evaluation on qualitative criteria (from team members or online research) so you avoid any bias you may have
  • Ask questions when you go get feedback on your recommendation

Step 6: Plan for execution

Once you’ve picked a recommendation, the next step is to plan how to execute on the idea. This step requires an excellent understanding of the business and the particular challenges and bottlenecks you may face in the execution. It is incredibly important to highlight any single points of failure and to identify the main stakeholders in the successful execution of the project. Finally, the plan of execution should include a clear timeline and an overview of the resources required to succeed. Action points:

  • Consider which critical assumptions you’ve made – does your plan have a single point of failure?
  • Make sure to include a timeline broken down by each milestone
  • If you are not completely confident about your plan (in whole or parts of it), mention that upfront, when you present it to your team
Execution superman

LAYER 3: The Autonomous Layer — Mastering the art of execution

Execution Pyramid - Execution Layer

In the autonomous layer, the process and nature of the work change significantly. You will pro-actively fix challenges as they arise. You will take responsibility for the results, and not just the execution of projects. This is the highest degree of value in an organization. If the manager doesn’t have to spend time with you on defining your tasks, you can spend the time on developing your skills and think about how you can keep on developing.

Step 7: Execution

The top of the pyramid consists of only one thing: Execution. While this may sound very simple, don’t rush into this! It’s a double-edged sword and while a successfully executed autonomous project may buy you some brownie points, a failed one may put you in bad standing. Executing autonomously has multiple points of failure. Failing on any of the underlying layers will lead to a negative outcome, even from a successful step 6. In other words, the business impact of executing the wrong plan may be anything from bad – at best – to disastrous, even with excellent execution.

One final consideration before jumping into the execution phase is your relationship with your manager. Depending on the amount and nature of the trust you have with your boss, she may not be comfortable with you going solo on your plans yet. Even in situations with a great and trustful relationship between you and your boss there may be reasons unbeknownst to you why working autonomously isn’t the best option at that time. For bigger organizations, there may be information that you haven’t yet received, which – had you known about – would drastically change the direction and what you would spend your time on. Action points:

  • Make sure you get feedback on your plan internally
  • Even though you may be at the execution step, it’s always a good idea to inform your team/manager about your plan
  • Once you start executing, make sure you take full end-to-end responsibility for the success of the project. If you are taking on a project, there are no excuses for not delivering

You are never on just one step

Depending on the nature of the task, you may be able to progress faster on certain tasks than others. If you’ve have joined a marketing team for example and have been tasked with doing AdWords, you may get to the execution level relatively fast when it comes to the day-to-day optimization, but that may not mean that you yet have the experience to significantly change the total budget. This has an important implication: Not only does the amount of value you create in a given area depend on how far up the pyramid you are able to operate, the value you add to the company overall is also a function of the number of different tasks you can comfortably deal with at a higher level (step 4 and beyond).

What’s in it for me?

All the talk about how to add value to the team or the company may lead you to ask, “What’s in this for me?” The answer is simple: Unlimited growth potential – both personally and within the company! When people are hanging around at the lower levels, the interaction they have with their boss will be more instructive: Which tasks to look at, how to approach them, etc. Once you progress up the pyramid, the nature of the relationship changes. The role of the boss is now to coach and support you – to help you understand and eventually find the answer yourself.

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Image credits: ComicVine, WallPaperCave, ForWallpapers.

AirHelp

Henrik Zillmer, AirHelp founder, on being part of Y Combinator and moving to Silicon Valley as a foreigner

AirHelp

Henrik Zillmer has been a friend of mine for some years now. In the past, we built e-commerce companies across the continents, but nowadays, Henrik works on AirHelp, which he co-founded and now heads as the CEO. AirHelp was picked to be part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 Class and has since succeeded in helping more than 250.000 customers being compensated for delayed flights.

What inspired you to start AirHelp?

That’s a completely random situation. I started by having the problem of delayed flights myself and then I spoke to other people who had the same experience: pain and suffering. Eventually I said, “Okay let me help some of my co-workers, friends and family”. Once I did that, I realized that maybe if I did it for everyone it could work as a business model. That’s basically how it happened.

I was not specifically qualified to go into aviation. I’m not a lawyer or pilot and I have never worked in the travel industry before. It just happened; it was not really my domain expertise. I have a sense of entrepreneurship and then on top of that a good mix of people in my family. My brothers and cousins are pilots and my uncle is a lawyer, so I had the right mix of people who could give advice in this model. Ultimately, it’s just a good idea!

I think the demand has always been there, but I think the lawyers – who in the past were doing this for bigger groups of travelers – didn’t see the potential in automating lots of it

Very interesting. How did that happen from being an idea to building that into an real business? How did it get started in a more formalized and structured way?

I don’t think we have been super structured at any given point. I think that may also be a characteristic of a good startup – you move so fast that you don’t have everything under control.

The way the business started was a landing page two-and-a-half years ago. We asked people for flight information and we would then go and get the money, get the compensation from the airlines in exchange for 25% of the compensation we got for them. If we didn’t succeed, it’s free of charge. There was no functionality as such. It was just a landing page where you could type in your flight information.

Zillmer Bloomberg

Various news media and different consumer rights news shows picked up our landing page. We got about 3,000 members in one week. Then my two co-founders and I were doing customer support for two months, just answering people and figuring out how this would work. We also tried to map out how we could automate a great part of the work so we could get high volume of claims instead of just the one or two people we could help per day.

That was the first phase of the landing page that turned into a bigger page with more functionality that then turned into a mobile app that turned into an email scanner, which turned into partnerships and so forth. I think all of it happened in a natural order, but everything began with just emails being sent back and forth.

Its sounds like the perfect way to test the demand before building a business around it.

I think the demand has always been there, but I think the lawyers – who in the past were doing this for bigger groups of travelers – didn’t see the potential in automating lots of it or powering the whole thing by tech, and thereby making it possible to handle lower value claims. That’s really what we did. We took law, put it into code, and made it accessible for everyone in an app. That’s quite revolutionary in a way – you don’t see law applied in that way in many other areas.

You can never be so desperate that you choose to work with people who can damage your company. If your gut feeling says that this person might cause problems in the future, then it is 100 percent certain that this will happen

You mentioned your co-founders earlier. How did you end up teaming up with them?

The first 12 months were really, really tough. At first, it was just me, but then I found two partners. One friend going way back to elementary school and another guy I met at an entrepreneurship event in Southeast Asia (Project Getaway). They both jumped onboard and then we were three.

On the topic of co-founders, it’s important to choose them very wisely. Before you start any company, you have to sit down and agree that from now on, you will do one or maybe two years with no pay and work your ass off 100 hours a week. You do that until the company raises money, breaks even, or becomes profitable. You all need to agree on the same vision and mindset, the hours that you’ll do it for no pay or very little pay, and sticking through the whole startup phase. It’s very important to align.

When you choose your co-founders, you need to set these agreements in a shareholder agreement or some document. If you don’t, then some people will lose their motivation after six months because there’s no salary or they might get an offer from another company that sounds better. But that’s not part of the deal. You need to align those expectations before you sign and say yes, this is what we’re going to do and allocate the year of our lives – or two or three years – to the project. We are going to do it even with the big chance that we won’t get any money out of it at all. You do it because this is what you believe in.

Airport delays

An issue many startups face once they’ve got the initial proof of concept, or product-market fit, is financing. How did you get it off the ground? Were you able to fund yourself in the early days or how did you get this started?

Firstly, when raising money, be very careful in choosing the right investors. You are in dire straits in the beginning because you don’t have any cash and have a lot of things you want to do, but cannot afford. All of a sudden, investors come along that can give you money, but these investors might be terrible investors, and since you’re desperate, you have tendency to say yes. But these people don’t just disappear.

You can never be so desperate that you choose to work with people who can damage your company. If your gut feeling says that this person might cause problems in the future, then it is 100 percent certain that this will happen. They just need to be small indications. Getting an investment is one thing, but when you start working with each other, whew! That’s a completely different thing. Remember, once they own a piece of your company, you can’t just get rid of them without paying them out.

You need to be careful, but don’t go too far in the other direction either and say that it has to be that one perfect investor. I have seen many startups being too proud to sell shares and equity in their company, and then the company died. It is a balance, so don’t go to any of the extremes and be careful.

Y Combinator is almost like a church—it can even be like a religion for some people in Silicon Valley. They have an extreme focus on product: The product quality and value proposition for the customer or user

You managed to secure a number of advisors and investors in the early stage, how did that affect your development?

Yes, we’ve had some great advisors. Different advisors for different things. We’ve had entrepreneurial advisors – one of our angels for example, Morten Lund, a famous Danish angel. Morten is very inspirational and knows what it means to be a startup, to create a company, to get other people to follow you, and to build an ambition or a goal that everyone works toward. He also helped connecting us to the right people.

From an industry perspective, we’ve had other advisors who know how the travel or legal industry works. We quickly got advisors with the expertise that we didn’t have in the team.

At the end of the day, many of the advisors we worked with shared their knowledge but didn’t recommend a decision. They mostly said, “This is how it works, this is the knowledge I can give you, however you are in the best position to make the decision yourself because you know more about your own company and about the specific situation that you’re in.” You have to make this decision yourself. That’s also something Y Combinator preaches a lot. They don’t make the difficult decisions for you.

Advisory can be many things, but we’ve used it for knowledge –to gain expertise. Eventually, you will reach a point where you know more about what you’re doing than anyone else. That’s got to be your competitive advantage. If you don’t, then someone else will be able to do it better. Eventually, the advisors will turn into a board of directors for bigger companies. They are industry experts, and that is a different form of advisory.

We will get more in depth with the experience with Y Combinator later, but one thing that strikes me looking at AirHelp and having been on the sideline from early on is that you were a very global business more or less from day one. How did that affect the way you built AirHelp?

Yes. That’s a very good observation. That is where AirHelp differentiates itself from a lot of our competitors today. AirHelp was born global. We never had one country in mind where we would grow the business and then spread to other countries if we were successful. AirHelp was an international play from day one. We knew that there might be some local law firms who would focus on, say, Germany, Holland or Spain. You would think they would move to other countries, because they wouldn’t be satisfied, right? Interstate Removalists Australia can create a stress-free relocation for you. You know, if I were a German startup and had 80 million people as potential customers, I would be pretty happy about that market and wouldn’t have any incentive to go to other places. Those markets are big enough for a company.

Silicon Valley attracts some of the brightest minds in the world. It provides many opportunities for people with the interest and passion for tech. All those people gathering in one place, with money and funding for the whole thing

The lack of incentive was exactly the gap in the market that we saw. We wanted that people could always use AirHelp, no matter which country you are in, who you travelled with, where you travel from, or where you live. If we could succeed in this then we would be the preferred service of every traveler.

No one wants to search locally for a provider in each country that they’re flying to or from. We said from day one that AirHelp would launch in eight languages and eight countries in Europe, even if it would slow down our development. If you have eight countries and eight languages, then everything you do, any functionality, you’ll have to translate. That definitely slows things down. In hindsight, this was actually what made us the preferred service and created a momentum compared to many of the competitors. It was also one of the reasons Y Combinator saw us as a team who could take this entire market of flight compensation. The international scope has been a fundamental part of what we do and we’ve focused on that since day one.
ycombinator
Now that you mentioned Y Combinator – coming to Silicon Valley as a foreigner, what are some of the things that struck you as different from your experiences in both Europe and Asia previously?

Y Combinator is almost like a church—it can even be like a religion for some people in Silicon Valley. They have an extreme focus on product: The product quality and value proposition for the customer or user. You are your product, right? You can’t hack growth. You can’t be very good at sales. You can’t be very good at your finances. You can’t be very good at anything unless you have a product that kicks ass and sells itself. So really, get focused on product.

The focus is perhaps a bit different from what you see outside of Silicon Valley where the emphasis on product is not as high. Society works in a different way in Europe or Asia for example; it’s not so much about getting the cleverest minds to create a product that is superior to everyone else, right?

Silicon Valley is all about product development and less about everything else. The belief is that if your product is good, it will naturally become big, as people will use it and refer others to use it.

Is this focus on product the only reason they have been able to build so many large and successful companies?

I think brainpower is a big difference. Silicon Valley attracts some of the brightest minds in the world. It provides many opportunities for people with the interest and passion for tech. All those people gathering in one place, with money and funding for the whole thing –the universities play a great role too where people jump in and out of faculties as CEOs or co-founders. All this has created this huge melting pot of great talent, money and people who know what they’re doing and with great expertise. Those three things make Silicon Valley special and are very difficult to copy.

I don’t think you will find the same power of VCs in line with Silicon Valley anywhere else. They simply don’t have that amount of money in one place, in one city or one area.

It is definitely easier to raise money in Silicon Valley. When we started in Europe, we probably had about 30-40 “Nos” for every “Yes” from investors we talked to. Forty meetings for every Yes from investors in Europe! When we moved to Silicon Valley, that number went down to around 20 Nos for every Yes we got – and that was on twice as high a valuation! All of a sudden, we could raise money much easier than before. That has a big impact, especially on startups like ours. We knew that if we want to go fast and meet the demand then we needed to raise money. If you can’t raise money, well it’s going to go slower and it’s going to take too long time.

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Regarding your point on the valuations, is that because they see more opportunity in the companies or do they just have higher valuations for comparable companies?

No, I don’t think those are the reasons. It’s much more risk-willing capital. In Europe, VCs are not willing to take the high risk on software or internet startups. There are a lot more people with more money in Silicon Valley and since they are not scattered over 18 different countries, nationalities, languages, it’s much easier. In Europe, people don’t speak the same language, which also makes VCs much less connected and harder to reach out to.

When you have a high concentration of VCs and angels on that level, then they’re competing with each other in getting a good deal. It’s the push on the entire market. If you don’t want to dilute yourself as much as possible, then Silicon Valley is the best place to be. It also attracts people for that reason when they can raise large sums without giving away the entire company.

Many of these things sound like they are difficult to replicate. Are there any lessons that other parts of the world can apply to catch up with Silicon Valley?

I think it’s the mindset first and foremost. I definitely saw that coming to Y Combinator. The European startups had a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to sell themselves. They didn’t know how to present their own company so that other people would understand it. If you pitch to investors and you can’t present what you’re doing so other people understand it, then you can’t raise money. It’s that basic. Many of the people who were in our batch were simply not as good at this because they were European and being modest. They were maybe also less clear about what their value offering was. That’s why they didn’t do as well in fundraising after Y Combinator.

In that sense, entrepreneurs outside the US can learn to present their company better and figure out what it actually is that they sell and how they make the world a better place. That’s very important – especially also to raise money in Silicon Valley.

The mindset of the investors is also different. Investors in Silicon Valley are typically all startup people themselves so they’ve gone through the hell of starting a company or maybe multiple startups and maybe done exits. They know what the entrepreneurs have been through from day one. This is something that most European and Asian VCs don’t know.

To my experience, most partners in VCs in Europe are typically management consultants or bankers. They’ve never had a startup. They don’t know what it means to run a startup. They look at the investment as if they were looking at a corporate company they used to work for. This is completely different.

You’ll certainly never find the next Facebook, YouTube or Google if you apply management consultant logic to a startup. Many VCs in Europe are simply not picking up on the good deals because they don’t have the mindset of an entrepreneur. That may also be the case to some extent in Asia, but there it’s more family-driven. A family may have created a huge success, but they might not be as talented investors as European or American investors where former entrepreneurs have gone through several exits and invested several times.

Most startups I’ve seen that failed has been because the founders were simply not having the sense of urgency and seeing the painting on the wall, so to speak

Taking a step away from Silicon Valley as a topic, what have been some of the biggest learnings you have learned yourself and would pass on to other entrepreneurs?

Henrik Zillmer, AirHelpMy biggest recommendation is to get a sense of urgency in the company. From the day you start a company, you only have a limited amount of time before your company will die. You only have limited amount of time where you can go without money, or where you’ll be able to raise money and then the company may be able to live for another 18-24 months. But then the company will die. You’re always fighting for survival.

If you don’t have the sense of urgency and ability to execute quickly, then your startup will die. It will either run out of cash or survive a few years and eventually die when other companies will win the battle because they have that sense of urgency and are able to execute much faster.

The first two years of a startup are all about survival. You need to implement a sense of urgency in everything you do in a startup. There’s no reason to say that you are going to do it tomorrow or to sit and talk about it some more and then figure out what the customer will say or what the partners will say and speculate. Instead, go out and ask the actual customer or partners. Pick up the phone or email and take action.

I cannot emphasize this enough, most startups I’ve seen that failed has been because the founders were simply not having the sense of urgency and seeing the painting on the wall, so to speak. Your company will die if they don’t get to profitability as fast as possible.

Great advice. I couldn’t agree more! Do you have any other projects going on now, or are you still fully devoted to AirHelp?

That’s the thing –you can’t have more projects on the side. AirHelp for me is 110 percent. That’s what we focus on and what we do. We have been under way for two-and-a-half years now.

We initially said it was going to be three-to-five year project and potentially longer if we were successful. Now, it seems we have really attained a foothold in the industry and we have lot of new things coming out. We could potentially go all the way to an IPO, if everything goes as we want it. But of course, there is only a fraction of startups that have gone that far. But you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time thinking about this because you will never get there unless you are able to build a company. That’s where all my attention is on right now.

Finally, what are the different places you look to get inspired in your work? Are there any books, blogs or podcasts that you would recommend?

Maybe cliché but I think Richard Branson has done some great books. They really illustrate the hard work associated with success and that it has taken 40 years of working your ass off to reach the point where he is. That is really what you have to acknowledge before going into a startup. There is no easy way.

For blogs, I think Sam Altman, Paul Graham, Paul Buchheit, some of the Y Combinator partners are writing great stuff about entrepreneurship in general.

There’s a couple of podcast I listen to: I think 500 startups Dave McClure has a weekly podcast that’s very good. He’s a no bullshit kind of guy. He quickly picks up on business models or revenue models and asks the right questions. Michael Arrington is also a good guy who has a podcast. They do interviews of startups or founder interviews and they show a very good understanding of entrepreneurship and the business model. It’s different to what you would hear from any journalist at TechCrunch or Business Insider, etc. They wouldn’t ask those questions.

 

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What is your take on the focus on product and what can the rest of the world learn from Silicon Valley?

 

Images: A1Travel and AirHelp 

Lessons on Flow State and 9 Ways To Get There

As many others, I have often worked long into the night and until the early morning. Nowadays, it is rarely because I have to. There is rarely a pressure for me to work until 4am or the expectation for that sake. Most often when I sit up late at night, whether in the office, at a hotel room or in my apartment (when I am occasionally at home), it is something else that drives me. Something internal that makes me forget about time and about how I should get more sleep than what is now left of the night.

Since I was little, I have had the experience of being “completely sucked into” certain things I was doing, whether that was drawing (a passion of mine when I was younger) or nowadays when I am working on the growth of our companies. It feels as if time just fast-forwards whilst I am being highly productive. My pen (or the cursor on my computer) leads itself.

Not until a few years ago, have my interest in psychology led me onto the phenomenon of flow or flow state. I am sure most people have experienced this highly productive state, even without being aware that there was a term for it. As with so many other things, once I got a term for it, it becomes “a thing” and once it is a thing, it became something that I can pursue and explore further.

I will use this post to share some of the insights I got from researching about flow state, particularly on how to reach it (which seems to lack research) and what the consequences are for the person experiencing it.

Flow state, the quick background, and the consequences

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term flow in his book Flow – The Psychology Optimal Experience – Steps Toward Enhancing The Quality Of Life. He describes flow as being “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

The consequences of being in a flow state are predominantly positive. The effect of flow state comes in one or more of the following three forms:

  • Affective form – i.e. related to the intensity of arousal or motivation derived from fulfilling the task
  • Cognitive form – i.e. mental abilities and processes related to knowledge such as problem solving, comprehension, memory etc.
  • Physiological form – i.e. the full concentration of all body functions to the given activity (have you ever wondered why many top athletes perform best under pressure?)

All of which can influence the quality of your output positively both during and immediately after the flow state. While the increased quality of output could be a motivation for reaching flow state in itself, the feeling of being in flow is by many described as being so intoxicating that it becomes the main reason people want to reach flow.

In his TED talk, Professor Csikszentmihalyi emphasises an interview with a successful American composer describing the feeling of flow state as: “[He doesn’t need external input to compose], he needs just a piece of paper where he can put down little marks, and as he does that, he can imagine sounds that had not existed before in that particular combination. So once he gets to that point of beginning to create […] a new reality; a moment of ecstasy. He enters a different reality. Now he says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist.” While the world around you may feel blurry, a flow experience is usually described by:

  • Focus and concentration
  • A sense of ecstasy
  • Great inner clarity
  • Believing that the activity is doable
  • A sense of serenity
  • Timelessness
  • Intrinsic motivation for completing the task

I am sure that most people have tried this experience of focusing so much on one task that the external world seems to blur.

[The flow state] sounds like a romantic exaggeration, but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second.
In order to hear me and understand what I am saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That is why you cannot hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you. [4]

The shortage in processing capacity also describes another familiar phenomenon:

When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, [you don’t] have enough attention left over to monitor how [your] body feels, or [your] problems at home. [You] cannot feel even that [you are] hungry or tired. [Your] body disappears, [your] identity disappears from [your] consciousness, because [you do not] have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do something well that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time feel that [you] exist. So existence is temporarily suspended and [you brain] works by itself. [4]

How to reach flow state

We have all tried reaching flow state at one or more occurrences in the past. Reaching flow state is desirable both when it comes to productivity and joy of working with a challenge. Given the increased quality and quantity of output, there is no doubt that we can benefit from being in flow state in many cases. This leads to the big question: What can we do to reach flow?

How to reach flow state is still a rather unexplored area of research. Scientists have tested the likelihood of reaching flow state in different environments and while there are certain factors that increase the likelihood, some seem to be so basic, that reaching flow state without them is impossible.

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Skill-demand compatibility

Clear goals and immediate feedback

The first two parts are relatively easy to grasp. The task needs a goal and you have to easily know whether you are progressing or not. It is best if the task has a finite goal, but to my experience, it is also possible to reach flow with a task as long as the desired direction is clear. I have reached flow state in projects where there is no logical ending – i.e. a painter can feel flow, even though the painting may not be “done” at a specific point.

Photo: WikiMedia

Skill-demand compatibility

Csikszentmihalyi first described flow as a specific match between the skills of the person and the challenge he faced. If the match is wrong, the feeling will be boredom, relaxation, anxiety or any other of in total seven non-flow states (see diagram). However, in a certain mix of skills and challenge, the flow state can occur. Skills vary from person to person so no single task will allow all people to reach flow state. In the same way, a task that may cause flow today, might not have caused it yesterday and may not cause it tomorrow as your skill level develops over time.

Underlining the importance of matching skills and challenge, a set of researchers made a group of people play the video game Tetris. Three groups got a different challenge level each. The first group got one designed to instil boredom; the second one to instil an overwhelming challenge and the last one to adapt to the skill set of the player. Not surprisingly, the last group experienced the highest degree of involvement in the game.

No silver bullet

Fulfilling all the above preconditions will not necessarily put you in a flow state. The readiness of an individual to reach flow state differs from person to person and some people may not be able to reach it at all. The readiness differs because the potential to control his or her consciousness differs from person to person.

Attention is what makes things happen in consciousness, for some people attention is directed from the outside, by stimuli like external emergencies and the demand of work and family. Others direct their psychic energy guided by goals and values that they have simply taken from their cultural environment without reflection. [2]

If certain features decrease the likelihood of reaching flow, the big question is how to increase the likelihood.

People who need only a few external cues to represent events in consciousness are more autonomous from the environment. They have a more flexible attention that allows them to restructure experience more easily and therefore to achieve optimal experiences more frequently. [3]

While it may be difficult to measure if a person is directing their attention predominantly towards internal or external factors, research has isolated a number of traits common in the people who are more likely to experience flow state.

  • Internal locus of control – i.e. believe that you can control your own life
  • Autonomy orientation – i.e. the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined
  • Action orientation – i.e. a proactive as opposed to a reactive personality

9 things you can do to increase the likelihood of flow

With the prerequisite conditions outlined, the big question remains “what can make me more likely to reach flow state?”. Firstly, you need to make sure that you fulfil the requirements explained earlier:

  1. Ensure a good skill-challenge match. Alternatively, go for something that will challenge your current skill set – e.g. raise the bar
  2. Have clear goals. You can use sub-goals if the main goal is very large and seems incomprehensible
  3. Focus solely on the task and avoid interruptions. Shut the outside world off with a noise cancelling headset if your surroundings seem distracting
  4. Ensure you have enough time. Flow state is rarely reached straight from the start. Make sure you have enough time to reach it

Secondly, you may find some of the following tips useful:

  1. Be regularly physically active. The state of the psycho-physiological system is more likely to affect the period an individual is able to stay in a state of flow. Multiple people have described the feeling of control and will to action following activities such as running, yoga or martial arts
  2. Train your ability to focus attention. “Attention is what makes things happen in consciousness”. A common way to train focus of attention is meditation
  3. Listen to music. Listening to music can help get you in a certain higher mental state enabling flow
  4. Be creative. Some people describe how being creative stimulates flow. Some of the commonly described ways are through e.g. arts
  5. Be fresh. Exhaustion, fatigue, or self-regulatory resource depletion is likely to inhibit your readiness to enter a state of flow

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What have you done to reach flow state and are there any particular techniques that have worked for you?

Please share your experience in the comments below


Sources:

Danny Dover on Fulfilling The Bucket List and Beating Depression

In AntarcticaThe second part of my interview with SEO expert Danny Dover delves further into his personal development and his bucket list. You can read the first part which is about SEO and his career here.

When I spoke to Danny Dover we got off-track early on.  I remember asking him a few questions about his background, and one answer caught my attention:

“When I’m not doing digital marketing things, I am spending a whole lot of time working on a bucket list.  It is a group of about 150 things that I want to do in my life before a specific deadline, and I started with 150 and am now down to 13.  So that’s what I spend most of my free time doing.”

We then spoke a lot about what had driven him to build his bucket list and his reasons for wanting to achieve this.

It sounds like you have been busy then.

I have been busy, yes.  It has been a great journey.

Perfect.  What is the most exciting part of your list?

Well, initially it was just making the leap out of kind of a traditional marketing role — specifically the 9 to 5 at AT&T — and then living a lifestyle similar to yours with a lot of travel, spending time in lots of different countries and experimenting with that.  A lot has been physical challenges such as climbing mountains and running marathons but more have been mental challenges and growth challenges.

dover-flying
Flying a plane

Out of curiosity, what are the last 13 things on your list?

  • Get a six-pack
  • Learn to play chess well (1550 on Glicko-2)
  • Go Olympic lugeing
  • Learn to do a standing backflip
  • Go to Dubai
  • Learn an instrument
  • See Mount Everest
  • See the Taj Mahal
  • Go to air combat school
  • Go to the Tour De France
  • Learn another language
  • Living in the wilderness for a month (going to be the second to last bucket list item)
  • Go to an animal killing and eating ceremony

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Running a marathon

What has driven you to want to live in the wilderness?  It runs counter to what you do for a living today, which is all about technology.

I want to take that alone and with minimal distractions to reflect on my life thus far. Ultimately, I want to write a book about the whole Life List experience.  I won’t share what other people might be able to take away from my experiences on the list.

I would imagine that once you get a taste of these things, the hunger keeps on growing.  Did you set 150 things and stop there, or you do frequently add more things as you go along?

Let me give you a little more context on this whole experience.

Rewind 4 years ago from now.

I had gotten far professionally, but I was not feeling a lot of fulfilment. I felt completely out of balance and ultimately unhappy. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and did not know how to get better. I was looking for a positive way out and I did not want to just take a bunch of pills and do a lot of therapy.  I wanted to find something else that healed me from the inside out, as opposed to putting the outside in.

I talked to people who seemed genuinely happy with their lives and asked them where that was coming from, or what they attributed that to.  It turned out to be the experiences that they had, the people that they had spent time with, and ideas that they had learned. After realizing that, I realized those are things I could start focusing on doing now.

There is no reason to wait until the end of your life to start doing all the stuff people normally put on bucket lists.

I gave myself a deadline of May 25th, 2017 and I made a rule that I would not add anything to the list until I completed it.

Nascar
Danny Participating In A Nascar Race

Do you think you will make it and get to all of them before May 25th 2017?

It looks like yes, assuming that everything continues to go the way that it is.

That sounds amazing.  It must be very fulfilling, not just the experiences themselves but also setting such an ambitious goal and looking like you will reach it.  It sounds like it has been quite a project.

Yes.  It has been by far the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.  I have changed in a lot of different and unexpected ways.  I have grown a whole lot, learned a lot of new skills, and, most importantly, I have met a lot of really, amazing people that I otherwise never would have been able to meet.

Incredible.  Which one of the things you have done so far has surprised you the most positively?

It is actually two. When I first started this journey, I was quite overweight and one of the first big list items that I pursued was training to run a marathon.  There is a lot that goes into that process and I happened to live in Argentina at the time.  Not only was there the language barrier and all the problems associated with that, but there was also a lot of problems trying to get the right information on how to diet and exercise.

Overcoming that hurdle and realizing that, yes, I can do these things even if there are lots of things working against me, surprised me the most.

The other big surprise came from trying to answer the question, how the heck do you pay for these things and be flexible enough, or follow through on your other commitments. This is still a work in progress but just asking the question has been a learning experience.

In Machu Picchu
In Machu Picchu

Do you do this by working as a long-distance consultant? Did you find other ways to finance this or did you just do work as you were going along?

It has been a whole bunch of things.  When I first started this list, I was still at Moz.  That was just a normal technology-focused job at a start-up. Later, I continued the list when I worked at AT&T.  The consultancy came after that.  And now I make a fair amount of money just writing about the list itself (see http://www.lifelisted.com/).  Hopefully, the list will pay for itself someday, although I am not quite at that point.

It sounds at least like a close-to-perfect way of doing things right — setting a list of things to do and then finding a way to get them done.  And of course, if you can live off that, that would be amazing.

Yes.  I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to live, but I can tell you that this has been perfect for me.  This has been exactly the challenge and journey that I needed in my life.

Easter Island
Easter Island

I am wondering, what’s your plan? Will you just create a new bucket list once you’re done with the one that you have now?  It sounds a bit like it.

We’ll see.  I’m going to continue travelling and looking for adventure.  That’s something I’ve learned is extremely important to me.  So I never see that stopping.

I know you were based out of Singapore for a time.  What has been your favourite place so far?

My favourite place to live has been Ho Chi Minh City.  I love Vietnam.  I love the community there.  I love the feel of the people.  I love the food.

This is the second part of a two-part interview.  The first part is focusing on Danny’s career and SEO in general. You can read it here.

Photos: Danny Dover’s personal images