What I learned in 2017

Last week I came across a tweet by Patrick McKenzie about the value of writing and sharing what you have learned – in this case, what you learned in 2017.

I like Patrick. His writing has helped me over the years, and he was even kind enought to answer questions I cold-emailed him years ago when Mealime just launched.

So in the spirit of giving back and of reflecting on this past year, the following are the core lessons I learned in 2017.

Test your assumptions

2017 was the year that we finally began a/b testing in the app, and it sure taught me a lot. Over and over again, one of us (or all of us) would have a hypothesis, we would test it, and be proven wrong.

It was an effective lesson in humility, administered more than once!

When I’m taught an important lesson, or find a useful quote, or read an interesting book, I try to record what I’ve learned, so I can review it later. Else, I’ll almost certainly forget.

Awhile back I wrote down what I learned from a video Chamath Palihapitiya did, on growing Facebook to 1 billion users. The core lesson I got from this was also one of humility.

Here’s Chamath:

“You have to drop the ego. Ego is a product killer.

People who talk about “gut feelings” are morons. People don’t predict correctly. Therefore, you must invalidate all the lore.

Disprove all the “stuff” floating around in the company. If you can’t take a clinical approach to your company and shut out the ego, your product won’t succeed and you won’t know why.

You have to be (as a growth professional) relatively cynical (and confident / arrogant), but you can’t believe your own B.S.”

My assumptions in 2017 proved, on the whole, to be unreliable. This was an important lesson to learn.

Talk about your problems

I’m not much for confrontation. Because I’m a pretty relaxed and low energy type of guy, the cost/benefit of having a tough conversation always seems to lean towards not having one.

2017 was the year that some difficult conversations had to happen, and I was pleasantly surprised on the whole how they went. When you’re dealing with smart, reasonable people, things usually resolve themselves in a positive way. I found myself shocked how well some of these conversations went, and kicking myself for not having them sooner.

Whether it’s with colleagues, your partner, family or friends, I’ve learned that it’s much better to talk about the things that are bothering you. Letting something fester only blows the problem up in your mind when it could have been resolved with (paradoxically) much less effort.

My superhero skill is budgeting

There are many problems with advice. You only (generally) hear it from the winners, and I’m always skeptical about how accurate success stories really are. How do they really know that the thing they’re writing about was the cause of their success?

Despite this skepticism, I’m going to go on the record – my superhero skill is budgeting.

Budgeting is one of the few skills I’ve learned and practiced for the past few years that I can confidently say has enabled me to succeed. It certainly didn’t cause our customers to (eventually) pay us money and upgrade, but it did allow me to hang in there long enough for this to start happening.

What budgeting gave me was a longer runway to figure out how to make my business work. That extra time was crucial, as things would have turned out very differently if I’d been forced to stop working on Mealime and get a job.

As Paul Graham says, one of the keys to success is simply to not die.

I budget every dollar in my personal life as well as for Mealime. Every dollar is accounted for, has a “job”, and is used in strategic ways. This method gave me visibility into my finances and allowed me to clarify my goals. It stopped valuable dollars from slipping through the cracks, which they do all too easily without keeping a watchful eye on them.

Every few dollars saved was another day above water. And this holds true for business as well. Budgeting our business income has allowed me to feel much more confident in managing our cash. I’m not afraid of “unexpected” yearly expenses, for example, because I track and budget for everything.

I use YNAB for budgeting. They’re the best.

Write it down

When you have an idea, write it down.

When you’re stressed, with thoughts racing through your head, write them down.

When things are going well, write about your success. If you’ve had a bad day, write about what made it that way.

Just write. It clarifies things in the moment and gives you a valuable log to review in the future. I have dozens of journal entries from the years of struggle before Mealime found a place in the market. It’s taught me so much to look back with future knowledge and see the needless mistakes I was making.

Seeing how far I’ve come and how naive I was has also given me clues as to where my current-day blind spots may be.

Like that quote from Joan Didion:

“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

It sure holds true for me.

I’m not that smart

Most of my life I’ve been able to do well without trying. This has had two important consequences:

  1. I’ve only rarely had practice solving difficult problems. As real learning happens at the edge of one’s abilities, I feel like this has held me back.
  2. Related, I’ve (probably) had an inflated sense of my own intelligence (like everyone else), which has (in my case) caused me to be lazy.

Enter, the internet. Particularly, those hidden gems of communities on the internet filled with highly intelligent people that I wouldn’t ordinarily have any contact with. 2017 turned out to be the year that I joined several such communities and realized how out of my depth these people are. I’m routinely blown away by the articles, arguments, and comments being posted.

2017 was also the year, it seems, that gave me two core lessons in humility. I read these people and, aside from making me uncomfortably humble (at times), they also push to try to become better. I may not be able to make myself “smarter”, but I can build mental models, reason through others’ complex arguments (even if it takes me a long time), and read voraciously in order to, at the very least, avoid mistakes that I don’t need to make.

As Charlie Munger says:

“It’s remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

I’m not that smart, but that doesn’t mean I have to act stupid.

Learn marketing

Not just the latest growth tactic, channel, or new platform. But marketing. The big picture. I joined Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar last year and it was wonderful. Not at all what I expected, but I think it was just what I needed.

I can’t give Seth enough credit for what he’s built.

2017 was a strange year. It was my most successful year as an entrepreneur and one of the happiest of my life, but I also seemed to struggle a lot. It wasn’t an easy year. But I’m glad for that.

Too easy means I could have pushed myself harder and learned more. But too hard means I’m missing out on the joyful, non-”productive” parts of life.

I’m happy with the balance that was 2017. Hopefully, 2018 will bring me much of the same.