On Going Fast Nowhere

I do feel like I’m deceiving myself. It feels such that the problems came and pulled me under even before they existed. Like time-traveller problems: come back from the future and they prevent their own birth, by making me put off entrepreneurship, and look for something else. Like open a coffee shop. Or go back being a post-doc…

It’s of course very harsh on those problems, since it’s me who created them, by becoming the not-at-all mythical “wantrepreneur”. I keep talking that much that I convinced a lot of people that I am up to more than I am actually accomplishing. It’s not for the lack of trying, mind you…. depending on the definition of “trying”.

If reading stacks of books about the subject of entrepreneurship counts as trying, then I’m pretty darn hard at work. If networking, or going to events, hearing other people’s experience, asking them for advice counts as trying, I’m still right there in the middle of the pack. If the only thing that counts is whether I made a sale of any kind – well, I got nothing. Let’s even be more generous, count learning as trying in the Lean Startup way – still got nothing. Have plans to have more than nothing, but those “urgent” plans are at the same stage as they were a month (maybe even two months?) ago.

Main conference room on the second day with speakers
APEC Startup Accelerator Leadership Summit 2013

This is all not because I’m stupid, I’d like to believe: my shoelaces are correctly tied  (just checked now), I regularly converse in languages other than my native tongue, and I can keep up a conversation pretty well, according to others. But still, sitting at Starbucks, just having put down the most recent book I’m reading of “this is how you do your business”, I have to ask myself – why am I doing this, and what’s “this”?

Maybe it’s all just fear, fear of the unknown future, where those time-traveller problems come from. Or maybe I don’t care enough. Or maybe I’m holding it wrong. Or maybe I’m just taking this all too serious? Premature optimization of things, before I haven’t tried anything? Waiting for others to show my path, and in the same time rejecting pretty much everyone else’s opinion as they cannot possibly understand and have the same amount of passion to my idea(s) as I have? That even if I yearn for the opposite, I’d rather spend an evening in with the sci-fi novel I’m reading (and which is brilliant so far), than push the limits by testing out the great ideas I convinced myself to have come up with?

My guess: all of the above, and then some. So many rhetorical questions, good grief…

That’s the current status, being full of aspiration and total helplessness. Seeing a lot of great examples, and thinking “I could do that!” and “I could never do that!” in the same time. What causes this? Can all this reading and preparation instead of helping, just piled up inside of me as intellectual pus? That might fit – something that tries to help me, and I have to get rid of to be okay.

Okay, boy. Let’s try something different: I’m calling in a learning ban, and get out to where the real action is, where the real fighting goes on with real bullets. What good is your runway, if you never spin up the propellers to take off?

(May I still finish the one I’m reading now? ….  Fine, but that’s the last one.)
(What if I could avoid some common mistake if I just have read X by Y? ….  Fuck it, use use your common sense instead)
(But, but ….  No but, can go back to your books when you have something exact to learn. You know enough. )
(H…..  Shut up.)

 

The Lean Startup of Me

Recently I have read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, and it got me thinking on multiple levels. It had so many interesting insights and counter-intuitive results, that it really inspired me to take a good look at so many things I’ve been doing. I’m not running a startup (yet) by the common definition as in running a company, but take a look at his definition:

A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

First, this pretty much applies to the physics lab I’m working in as a post-doc at the moment: team, uncertainty, novelty. Most definitely have to take a big look how can I that group better using the lean lessons (in another post).

On the other hand, could this definition apply to quite different but just as important thing: myself? I do aim at creating something new, making a person like no-one else in the history; I am extremely uncertain; and I’m a human as well (though not sure how many humans one needs for an “institution”).

The Lean Startup book cover
The Lean Startup book cover

Could these lessons somehow adapted to one’s own development as a person? Can the observations be far-fetching enough to encompass this much?

Startup lessions applied to a person

Here I’ll be picking out some points that stood out for me, and see if I can use them to be more successful – whatever that means (getting there in a minute).

Stop wasting people’s time

This is probably the number one thing he brought up. Stop wasting people’s – and your own – precious time. Don’t build a product that nobody wants (if you are a company), don’t make things unnecessarily troublesome for others. If discussing something, get to the point. If want something, use your voice. Don’t promise something then underdeliver. Make things transparent, whether it’s about good or bad things, since then others can make up their own mind with complete information and minimal distortion.

Make it clear to others that you expect the same from them as well.

When it is about myself, I should really figure out what is wasting time, and what is valuable. It is not always obvious, playing games, reading, watching a movie, checking things on the ‘net, writing emails can be just as much be a growing experience as total, utter timesink. I know already I have a lot of timesinks, now have to eliminate them so I can spend more time with the things I value. But it’s only me who can decide it, since everyone’s values are different.

I do feel that if there’s only one advice from the book to take, this would be it.

Learning

The second major thing that got to me, that the aim of the startup is actually learning. One has to learn what are the good things to do, how to handle different situations, what do people react positively, or even just how people react to different changes one makes in the startup setting. Success is then the amount of validated learning.

But this is the same thing for people: I should set up hypotheses, and learn about them, try to prove and disprove the fastest way possible, so I can improve my attitude and behaviour towards the world. By gaining more understanding, success is then now all that knowledge that I can put to use to achieve the goals I’ve set out to reach.

This learning for myself can be very many, all different kinds of stuff:

  • Could waking up earlier make me more productive during the day?
  • How can I make myself wake up ealier if I constantly oversleep 5 alarm clocks?
  • How to work together with people with the least amount of effort?
  • What is the setting I can enjoy my books the most?
  • What steps to take to become a better writer?
  • Would I improve my work environment if I applied some lean principles to our lab?
  • What’s the best way to start new projects?
  • Would delegating in some important side projects make them work better?
  • What techniques work best for me to learn new languages?
  • Would running, swimming, cycling, hiking or something else make me feel (and be) healthier?

These are not all good questions, not all actionable ones. Just all the things that I have brainstormed here, but it’s a start. Would have to take actual things to try and learn from. There are plenty of questions. Now just take the time to formulate plans and learning goals.

How to measure success

This is connected to the learning goals, in a way, that I would have to have some meaningful metrics whether I’m getting closer or not. The idea of “vanity metrics” and “actionable metrics” from the book are really fundamental things as well – way too easy to get useless (and even worse: misleading) vanity metrics of a process (such as total visitor count for a website) instead of actionable metrics (like income from products that didn’t exist in the company X years ago).

This is much harder to apply to people, as a person’s learning goals are probably more qualitative than quantitative, and quantitative things could feel quite awkward or unusual. But still:

  • How big part of  income is from projects that I have started in the last X years?
  • What fraction of my projects are still alive (even if not managed by me) after X years?
  • What fraction of people I worked together with started their projects on their own?
  • How big part of my communication is with my important long term friends? How many is with new friends? How big portion of my new friends are dropping out of touch within a year?
  • What fraction of books I’ve read inspired me in one way or another?
  • What fraction of new places I’ve visited, within the country or abroad, are such that I’ve haven’t heard about them X years ago?
  • How many new techniques, tools, languages I know and could use / use regularly that I couldn’t X years ago?
  • What fraction of ideas I come up with I could turn into working projects?
  • What fraction of my expenses I consider “well spent”?
This X years ago seems to be a convenient shortcut (also taken from the book), and there might be a better way of looking at things, though since we are talking about temporal change (getting better over time), it might be a good one.

5 Whys

The 5 whys is a very powerful management technique to figure out the root causes of things: whenever something bad happens, ask (and figure out) what was the immediate cause (the first why), then figure out the cause of that (the second), and go back at least 5 layers until you get to the root cause. Here’s an explanation video by Eric Ries how to use that in the startup setting.

It is useful to see beyond the obvious and fix the real issues. Can guide what should one put effort into, and how much. This technique would work right away with myself:

  • “I’ve broken an expensive PC card in the lab” (true story)
  • Why? – I connected the power supply wrong
  • Why? – I had a fleeting thought that it might not work, but didn’t pay enough attention
  • Why? – I was too sleepy that day
  • Why? – Stayed up too late for too many days in a row
  • Why? – Been on Facebook, checking things out

Here you go: cut down on Facebook, sleep better, don’t do anything critical when tired, do stop to think even if I know what should be done, and finally get my electronics knowledge in shape (and check out that power supply).

Outlook

Of course I wasn’t the only one coming up with similar ideas, there’s also for example The Startup of You, that seem to be a bit more focused how you achieve a startup, instead of the things I mentioned here of how to be a better/more successful person using the lean startup principles. Still there might be plenty to learn there. And here’s an infographic about that from Imagethink (picture #2 on their site).

Infographics
The Start-up of You from http://imagethink.net

All in all, I want to see how this works out in the long run. Will definitely be a lot of work, but there’s so much to gain, that it worth it. One doesn’t become an Elon Musk, a Salman Khan, Richard Branson or Richard Feynman by sitting around.

And to get there, you can leave me some useful or useless advice in the comments.