Work on what matters

I’ve made many mistakes in my short professional career. Some big, some small, and many others (known and unknown) that I still make today.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made (and seen) is wasting time on things that don’t matter.

It’s so easy to do.

You could spend hours (and days) finding the perfect business cards, over-designing a logo, hiring legal and accounting firms, going to networking events, perfecting your social profiles, writing up a business plan, opening bank accounts, etc, etc.

All of this feels like work. It gives you something tangible and allows you to tell people that you’re the founder of a business. After all, you have a business card and website that says so!

But beyond the bare essentials, none of this matters. It’s merely unimportant busywork that gives you a sense of accomplishment.

What does matter is building a small (often rough) product that you can test with potential users. Charging for something. Experimenting with distribution channels. Iterating based on user feedback. Making hypotheses, testing them, and committing to experiment and change things when the (often negative) results come in.

What matters is real work. It feels like it, too. It’s the work that’s always uncertain, that’s bound to fail over and over, that’s hard, plain and simple.

I try to avoid giving advice arms-length advice, but if I had to give one piece of advice to my younger self, or another just starting out, it would be this:

Starting something new is an uphill battle. It will be hard. And the beginning is the easiest part of the process. No matter how good you think your idea is, success only comes after years of toiling away in obscurity. You’ll always be short on resources, time, and information. Success requires dropping the ego, a commitment to continual improvement, a dash (or pound) of good luck, and hard work pinpointed on the things that matter.

It’s an easy idea to dismiss. “Just do what matters! But of course! Why didn’t I think of that before!?”

But what this requires is taking a hard look at yourself and not believing your own crap. Having the courage to admit that you’re not god’s gift to {your business}, that many of your ideas will be bad, and that much of the “work” you’ve been doing isn’t work at all.

What matters to your business? What matters the most? Spend your time on that. Ruthlessly focus on it. For this is where real progress hides.

Owner freedom vs employee freedom

What drew me to business was freedom. Freedom from the shackles of employment and freedom to experience all the things that employment denied.

Or so I thought.

I don’t know when the thought “employment = bad, entrepreneur = good” took hold of me, but I clearly wasn’t the only one affected.

One cursory look at the blogosphere and their fantastical titles, with posts glorifying mid-day gym routines and “work” days spent watching Netflix, shows how far this thought has spread.

Now that I’ve experienced both sides of the employment coin, I’ve given a lot of thought to freedom. It’s clear that there are certain freedoms you gain working for yourself (I can go to the gym in the middle of the day, for example), but what about the freedoms you lose?

What about the freedoms you have as an employee that you don’t have working for yourself?

Here’s a few of the ways I’ve experienced freedom on both sides of the employment coin:

Owner Freedom

Freedom of your time

You can go to the store, take a day off, go to the gym in the middle of the day, etc, etc.

Yet when I do this, business is constantly on my mind and I feel guilty about not working harder. Even when the “workday” ends (does it ever really end?).

Freedom to decide direction

Your decisions have impact and can change the course of the company.

Yet this responsibility can be stressful and daunting. There’s nobody to fall back on.

Freedom to earn more and pay yourself what you want

If you have the revenues, how you compensate yourself is up to you.

Yet it’s a constant battle between paying yourself and investing in the business to help it grow.

Freedom to continue working

For as long as your business survives, you can improve your craft without the fear of getting fired.

Yet you have to make it survive. And you have to learn to be comfortable earning little for (probably) a long time.

Employee Freedom

Freedom to leave when your day ends

Both physically and mentally. Particularly the latter.

Yet during business hours you’re (generally) not free to leave.

Freedom to work within your area of expertise

Allowing you to become great at your craft and to avoid the stress of making decisions that could bring the company to ruin.

Yet you have to follow the decisions of management, even if you disagree with them.

Freedom to earn what you’re worth

Immediately, and without years of below-market earnings.

Yet this can be stopped in an instant, if a layoff or firing happens. And raises are generally structured and limited.

Whether I’ve earned my paycheque as an employee or as an owner doesn’t seem to matter – the “other” side always look greener.

This is an obvious mistake in retrospect, yet when I was employed I can’t recall thinking about anything but the upside of owning a business. And now that I work for myself, I seem to dwell on the freedoms I’ve lost rather than focusing on what I’ve gained.

So if I could go back and teach young naive Jeffrey a lesson, it would be this:

Owning is not inherently better than the employment (or vice versa). They’re the same in many respects and different in many others.

The only thing that matters is how you weigh these differences in order to make the right choice for you, so that at the end of the day – that long workday of decades (if you’re lucky), of triumphs, of challenges, of problems, breakthroughs and tears – you can look back at your life and be content with the tradeoffs you made.

For it’s true that there are always tradeoffs. Yet it’s also true that the grass is always green – at least some portion of it – right where you are now.

Failure (not your own) as a teacher

Failure is a teacher.

Crashing and burning your way to failure in a spectacular way is an even better teacher.

Why? Because failure cuts, spectacular failure cuts deep, and I’ve found that the most guarded, strongly held beliefs in people tend to be based on emotional, embarrassing moments of failure in their past.

But these lessons from failure are sold; not given freely. For you may have spent years in a relationship, thousands of dollars on a business, or evenings and weekends for a job that has since sent you packing.

I wonder – could these lessons be bought more cheaply?

Is it necessary to experience failure yourself before you learn the lesson?

Or is it possible to learn the lesson from another’s experience?

My first business was a failure. Looking back at the business plan I wrote for it (do people still write formal business plans?) I can only cringe and laugh at my naivete. I’d had what I thought was an incredible idea and pursued it with blinders on, investing more and more while prospects dimmed and eventually winked out.

I found myself too deeply in my business and, at the time, I didn’t have the ability to step back and work on the business.

And yet, it sure taught me a lot. I learned that:

  • Ideas are important yet overrated. People like to do what I did – fall in love with my first idea and charge full-steam ahead. This is a mistake. Related: Ideas are just a multiplier of execution.
  • Hiring contractors instead of employees (if you can), isn’t as cheap as you might think. Reliability issues, constant hiring, paperwork, and lack of commitment, to name a few, are all very real costs.
  • Everything costs more than you think it will. Supplies, legal, accounting, compensation, even depositing profits into the bank! The list goes on and the profits keep dwindling. Be conservative and bake a buffer into your budgets and your prices.
  • The importance of finding great co-founders and business partners can’t be overstated. It’s vital and is more important than your idea. Ideas can (and should) change and adapt when you release them into the world, while co-founders are with you to the end.
  • You have to find contentment in your day-to-day. That doesn’t mean you have to love or have “passion” for your business, but it does mean that you can’t only be in it for the ends. The ends won’t sustain you when the going gets tough. A great co-founder may, though (read above point again).

Despite the financial failure of the business, it taught me very important lessons. But these lessons cost me $15k and a year and a half of my life as a 22 year old kid.

Could I have learned these lessons in a better (cheaper, quicker) way?

It’s easy to subscribe to the popular idea that this experience made me who I am today, therefore I shouldn’t wish to change it…yadda yadda yadda…but this idea fails to examine what if.

  • What if I’d been a bit more knowledgeable about how good businesses should work?
  • What if I’d made the effort to reach out and learn from people who have done it before?
  • What if I’d spent my evenings and weekends researching and reading instead of blowing full steam ahead at the first idea that sounded smart?

No, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Maybe I would be better.

Maybe just enough wisdom would have pushed me onto a better path. Wisdom found through books, interviews, and people in my community. Wisdom found without direct experience.

It’s like this – all the lessons I learned from my first business cut me deeply. There’s scar tissue. I won’t forget them because they were painful to experience (and even to recollect!).

But others have made these mistakes before me. They’ve written about them, talk about them, and are happy to share them. Could I not have learned from them and saved myself a lot of pain, money, and time?

I think of reading, listening to podcasts, talking to others who have been there, etc, etc, as a light scratch on the arm. It heals. It fades. Unless you scratch it again. And again. And after enough time those soft scratches cut deeper and deeper, and maybe they end up as deep as the one you received when you were a naive kid who didn’t know what the hell he was doing.

There’s no substitute for direct experience, they say. And I think there is some truth to this. I couldn’t become a top salesman just from reading books, but I bet I could accelerate my path. Or, I could learn that sales isn’t for me.

Failure is a teacher. But I think it’s an overrated teacher. Every lesson imaginable is already out there, documented with honest, painful prose, just waiting for you.

Learn from everyone, study your craft, and find success instead of failure.

And when things are outside of your control and you can’t succeed, find failure more quickly, learn the lessons you need to learn, and start again.

Things will be better when…

I used to think that starting a business would make me happy.

So I did it. $1,000 seed money and a piece of paper later, I was the proud owner of something new. Yet I can’t say that it was pride I felt that day; or joy, happiness, or even excitement.

Instead, that day ended up feeling like every other day, with one important difference – I now had more problems than I knew what to do with. Problems like:

  • How to build a website?
  • How to build a product?
  • How to market?
  • What to market?

The emotion I expected to feel – happiness – was instead replaced by a little excitement, a lot of anxiousness, and that little, pervasive question of “What now?”.

But mostly, I felt the same as I always did.

Time passed and I got to work knocking items off of my infinitely long to-do list. Now that I knew starting a business didn’t make me especially happy for any meaningful length of time, I began to think that I’d feel like a success if only my business could pay me a salary.

My first month’s paycheque was only $300, but it was my own. All of the business books and blogs I’d read told me that once you made your first sale or paycheque, you’re filled with excitement because you’ve done it once. How hard is it, they say, to do it again?

I did feel successful, for about a day. Then I got back to work.

Have you ever dwelled on a goal and felt absolutely sure that if you could just hit it, you’d put to rest all of the nagging thoughts in your head telling you to stop, that you’re failing, that it’s pointless to continue?

My next goal was earning $30,000 / year, because it felt like a real salary. It was enough to begin having a social life again, and to quiet the feeling that I was toiling far too long for far too little.

Two years later I hit the magical $30k salary (yay!).

I celebrated for a day, the euphoria wore off, and I realized how far I still had to go.

From an employee trying to become an entrepreneur, to a business owner dreaming of earning a salary, to anticipating the day I could raise my salary to $30k and beyond; no matter what situation I’ve been, I’ve found that achieving my goal has never made a lasting difference in my day to day mood.

I lived for those rare moments of “success”, but the insight I finally recognized was that the moment of achievement was fleeting. The other 99+% of the time – my life, essentially – was being ignored.

I was optimizing for the wrong thing.

This isn’t to say that setting and achieving goals doesn’t matter. I still find goals useful, but only because of the work I do after I set a goal – figure out the steps needed to achieve it, and get started.

I’ve found that unless I’m busy solving problems for my customers; unless I have a reason to work that’s divorced from my goals, I’ll always be in a state of uneasiness, unhappiness, or anxiety. Or all three.

My best days aren’t the days I get a raise. It would be laughable (if it wasn’t so sad) how quickly the feeling of excitement goes away after a goal has been achieved.

My best days are the ones in which I make progress on an important problem.

Maybe it’s just that simple.