First off, I think Berlin is the greatest city in Europe to live in. You’re off to a good start.
Now, this “guide” to the startup scene is aimed at someone in particular:
You’ve got some experience in your field, and you want to work here in Berlin.
If you’ve been rocking some weird-ass framework for web apps since the tender age of 13, sold a few companies and now are seeking a position as an advisor in Berlin – this doesn’t apply to you.
Now, what I’m going doing here is break down the startups into various different categories and give recommendations for each category.
The Liga One Companies
Examples: SoundCloud, Wunderlist
These companies are well established and fairly stable.
Pros: these companies have good brand name recognition. They’ll pay more than your garden variety startup. They’ll also have training, team events and structured career paths.
Cons: Wunderlist is now owned by Microsoft, and SoundCloud is fairly stable. You’ll be working in a much more mature, more structured environment. They will not be hiring as many generalists without experience.
The Company Builders
Examples: Rocket Internet, Makers, FinLeap
You’ve probably heard about Rocket Internet, the startup behemoth of Berlin.
The thing about Rocket Internet is that they “build” tons of companies Therefore, most people work at one their companies such as Wimdu or Helpling.
They have a terrible reputation for treating employees terribly (unscientifically, I’d say 50% attrition rate in the first 6 months before you hit Kündigungsschutz – the fairly robust protection under German law against dismissal).
They pay terribly, as well.
Stock options? Forget about it my friend.
On the plus side, they offer unlimited free cereal that you can cry into every morning.
Seriously, you want to go into these jobs with your eye wide open.
Rocket Internet’s model is to provide a ton of structure for their new startups. Therefore, expect their companies to have fairly formal interview processes with requests for references, multiple rounds of interviews and tests.
When is Rocket Internet & Co a Good Idea?
Here’s what I’d say:
– You don’t have a better offer elsewhere
Rocket Internet is a great place if you’re low on experience, but you’re willing to put up with low pay and long hours. You’ll get great experience in seeing how companies get scaled globally.
And if you’re good, your chances of getting more responsibility will be high. I’ve met people in their late 20s who’ve been handed charge of divisions of over 70 people.
– You’re being offered the helm of the company at a ridiculously young age
Their model is based on hiring elite graduates who have offers from McKinsey & co. They’ll offer them a much lower salary in exchange for a seat at the wheel of a brand new company. Typically, you’ll be looking at 60k/year and very low stock options in the order of 0.1% to 1%.
If you’re in that boat, then Rocket Internet can be a good deal, I suppose.
Bottom line: Rocket Internet is a ruthless, fairly insane place to work that you might be able to use to your advantage.
Lone Wolf Startups
These are companies that have taken VC funding and aren’t affiliated with one of the company builders.
You’ll find a list of them on Angel.co/berlin and so forth.
Here, the relevant factors are personalities of the founding team, the financial situation (level of funding, revenue, business model), the product and the team you’ll work with.
Here, it’s hard to make generalizations about what to expect. They can range from amazing to okay to ridiculously bad.
Their hiring processes tend to range from fairly informal to ridiculously informal. Ridiculously informal meaning you meet for a coffee and start working that afternoon as a freelancer.
Q: How do I know about their financial situation?
Berlin companies tend to be a bit more tight lipped about financial information (data privacy and all that). You’ll get an idea from press releases, Angel.co, the number of senior employees on LinkedIn and so forth.
A company that has hired in a VP Sales with a solid background has a certain level of cash on hand, whereas a founding team made up of a bunch of newly minted graduates is probably broke.
You can also ask them straight up in the interview process. If they’re doing well, they’ll murmur about 7 figure funding rounds and 5 figure month revenue rates. And if they’re broke, they’ll bluster about you asking inappropriate questions about sensitive information.
A Startup of Ideals
Running a startup is a status symbol in Berlin. A startup built around art, music or culture is better. And running a startup for social good is the ultimate symbol of status.
The problem is that the last category, social good, means that you’ll run into terrible ideas, low funding and no salaries whatsoever, in many case.
You’ll probably run the “startup” out of the coffee shop in Betahaus.
On the flipside, they can be a lot of fun, and you’ll have, and been invited to, great parties.
Just make sure you have a way of earning 3k+/month on the side, a rent-controlled apartment and a healthy liver.
The Sleepy Enterprise Companies
These aren’t the sexiest of companies, but they do a good job at selling products companies need at enterprise pricing.
Because of they actually run a business, they offer market-level salaries and stability.
Variants of these startups are ones that haven’t taken (much) VC funding, and are largely bootstrapped. In my opinion, they’re the hidden gems of the Berlin startups.
As far as I know, Travis-CI, Plan.io and Small Improvements all fall under this category.
The “I just learned Ruby on Rails” Bros
Example: talk to someone in a coffee shop in Neukölln.
This is a startup, usually a mobile app, that a couple of guys/girls dreamed up. They’re incredibly scrappy and they’re trying hard to make it work.
It probably won’t work, but they’ll end up learning a ton in the process, and the whole experience will end up costing them less than a crappy 20K/year MBA from a no-name university in Switzerland.
Just make sure you’re not their unpaid intern with promises of a salary once they get funding.
If they’re the best offer you’ve got, just go start something yourself.
What I learned validating my first product idea on an email list of 268 people while living in Paris
Last summer I was living in a tiny, 16-square meter apartment in Paris near Strasbourg-Saint Denis. The weather in July was HOT. I’d stick my chair on the desk and work at a makeshift standing desk with the window open.
As inner-city Paris goes, Strasbourg-Saint Denis is pretty damn ghetto, so all sorts of streets noises wafted up to us on the 5th floor.
And, amongst the prostitutes and street hustlers, my girlfriend and I validated a business idea we had.
I think this account will be valuable to someone who wants to develop and ship a first product. That said, I’d use the same exact techniques if I was working for a SaaS company.
Ready? Here’s how it went down.
My girlfriend had a blog with about 4,000 monthly visits and an email list of about 250 people.
That’s frickin’ miniscule!
Your grandmother’s knitting blog probably does better than that.
My initial reaction was, “Wait until your email list gets to 3,000 people, and then we can start thinking about doing something with it”.
And then I thought about.
Based on human psychology, she’d be very unlikely to keep churning out blog posts, pitching guest posts and promoting her stuff online without seeing anything that looks like success.
And by success, I mean money (if that wasn’t clear). I was living in a TINY apartment in Paris
So, we decided to think about selling an informational product. Now, you’ll probably think that’s pretty scammy and/or lame.
Fair enough. Here’s my take: online video courses are pretty cheap to produce, so long as you have the necessary knowledge yourself, and they can deliver a lot of value to the students, assuming they learn a valuable new skill.
It’s actually a fairly common path for many tech industry titans.
As Amy Hoy points out, 37signals’ first product was an e-commerce search report for 79 dollars.
My takeaway is this: solving someone’s problem should come first, not the tool you use to solve it, such as software, a video or an ebook.
So, an online course it was.
The few people on the list had written in saying they’d love to start their own little freelancing business.
Top tip: when people subscribe to your list, make sure the confirmation email invites them to email you. This will be a fantastic source of information on your audience.
We’d been freelancers for the last two years. We weren’t rich, but we knew enough to help people go from zero to their first few paying clients.
And my girlfriend had done some one-on-one coaching with readers of the blog with great results.
So, let’s recap:
We had a business idea: an online course on getting your first few clients as a freelancer, and we had a tiny audience of 268 people on an email list in MailChimp.
The next step was to put our pitch for our *non-existent* product in front of our list of 268 subscribers, and see what they thought.
I wrote an email that described what freelancing had allowed us to do: go snowboarding in the Alps on a Monday, go surfing in the afternoons in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and so forth.
Put simply, I sold the dream.
Then, I said who this course was PERFECT for (and who it wasn’t for). Obviously, it wasn’t for anyone who’d already had some success at freelancing, and it wasn’t for someone who wanted to create a product, for example.
I gave a high-level overview of what the course would entail, why they should follow it (and not another course).
Then, the call-to-action.
My call-to-action wasn’t a fancy tracked-link back to a sales page kicking off a sales funnel.
Nope, it just asked them to click reply and say if they were interested (I even wrote what they had to write) and, optionally, to say why they wanted to freelance.
“Just reply “I’m interested”
A ghetto sales setup for an Irish guy living in Paris’s finest ghetto. Perfect!
Are you interested in writing a sales email?
Here’s the breakdown of the one I wrote:
- Sell a dream or make a promise.
- Say who this is for and who this is not for. The more you exclude, the better the included feel.
- State what the offer is about. What will they get specifically? (in this case it was 12 twenty minute videos).
- Give them an idea of how the experience will feel like: will they feel pampered like as the Four Seasons? Crushed like ants like at an introductory CrossFit WOD? In this case, they’d be focused on taking small, specific steps every week towards getting a paying client.
- Ask them for some sign of interest.
Are you worried that this will mean an overly long email?
The short and simple answer is don’t worry about length; worry about making your email persuasive for the minority of people who will end up buying.
“Long emails won’t get read by most people, just the ones that end up buying” – bastardized version of a quote of a Very Famous Direct Response Marketer.
Here’s a screenshot from the campaign results in MailChimp:
And what happened next?
13 people said,” YES I’m interested”. Count me in.
The Three Emails Sales Series: When You Sell, Sell!
And so on we went on our business idea validation. It was time to find out if they’d be willing to pay the princely sum of 97 euro for this course.
So, I stood up at my desk, and I wrote three emails.
The first one was long and brutally honest. I said, listen, it’s going to be tough to find your first few gigs, especially if you’ve never done this before and you’re not a Ruby on Rails Dev or some wildly in-demand hipster.
But I asked this question: “Imagine yourself three months from now, 12 months from now, and you’ve successfully gotten your first couple of clients. How would you feel? Empowered?”
And what would happen if you didn’t do it? What would have changed?
This technique is subtle and wide-spread. Sales people might refer to it as the puppy-dog trick:
“I can understand you’re not sure about whether you want to buy this delightful puppy. Listen, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll leave the puppy with you in two weeks, and if you don’t want it when I come back, I’ll take it off your hands”.
Or put it this way, once you’ve thought about having something valuable in your life, it’s tough to think about going back to life without that valuable thing: be it a fixie bike, a sweet apartment or, in this case, an online course that teaches you how to freelance.
The next part was to go into detail about what each video would offer. I wrote little snippets of the crispy benefits each video would offer.
Finally, I stacked up this course against the other options: hiring a coach for 2,000 euro +, going to business school and so forth.
Only at that point did I provide a link to the paypal page where people could pay, and I let them know that the link would expire at the end of the week.
The next two emails were short and to the point: here’s the benefits to joining the course and here’s the link. The last email went out on the day the course closed.
Out of the 13 people who said they were interested, 6 people decided to buy.
In total, my first product launch had brought in 582 euro or about 600 dollars.
Now, we just had to build the f**cking thing!
The 150 euro Product investment (or was it 4150 euro?)
As I said earlier, online courses are fairly easy to produce compared to a SaaS product or a physical product.
Here’s the tools we used:
- Google docs for writing
- Camtasia for screen capture
- Wistia for video hosting (free up to 10 GB)
- Password-protected WordPress page template for delivering the course
- Samson Meteor Mic
- Sketch 3 for illustrations
- Mailchimp for sending out weekly emails
My girlfriend and I wrote out the script for each video, created a powerpoint presentation to go with it, and she’d go through the script and presentation while recording her screen using Camtasia.
Obviously, the big investment here was our time. Conservatively, I’d imagine we put in 200 hours in writing the scripts, creating the presentations, recording the screencasts, editing and uploading the videos.
Bill those hours out at just 20 euro an hour, and you’re looking at 4,000 euro investment in time, alone.
And this brings us to what I think is an important point about validating and launching your first product idea: you really can’t think in terms of a return on investment at this early stage.
I believe the value in having marketed, sold and created the first product outweighed the fact that we spent about 4150 euro, at a minimum, and brought in 582 euro maximum (assuming nobody refunded).
Truth be told, it was tough to ship a video, transcript, presentation and write up an email to send to the six students every week for 12 weeks. We were both working for a tech company in Berlin, and some days I’d have to come home after working all day and sit down to edit the video and upload it to Wistia.
But the fact that the students prepaid for the course and were impatiently awaiting the next “episode” meant that we felt 100% obligated to deliver each week.
In fact, one time we were at my parents house in Ireland, and we were trying to upload the video to Wistia on the crappy DSL line in the middle of the countryside, and one of the students sent an email demanding to know where her weekly video was!
The advantage of building the product in weekly intervals also meant that we could improve the product every week based on what we’d learned the week before.
My girlfriend got more confident speaking on the mic, and the powerpoint presentations were more and more polished.
How to Make Your Product Amazing for your First Customers
Now, when you launch an online course, it’s easy to lose your students, as they often will interest, become bored and forget about you.
It’s in your interest that your students succeed and get results from your course. Obviously, successful students are less likely to refund.
But honestly, that’s not the main reason.
Fundamentally, you need people to get value from your product, be it SaaS, an online course or a funny t-shirt.
Call the “Time-to-Value” metric or your value proposition, if you want.
How did we make 100% sure that our first 6 students got value from the course?
Well, we put in time to make sure this was the best course it could be. My girlfriend had tested the framework in one-on-one coaching. She’d tweaking aspects to improve it, and she’d gotten great results for her students.
It wasn’t some half-assed collection of ideas that she mumbled into the microphone.
But we also offered what the vast majority of online courses don’t offer: personalized attention via email.
Every week we’d send out an email with the link to the latest course video, but then a few days later we’d follow up with an email asking how it had gone and asking them to send their homework back to us if they were comfortable with that.
And when they did send us an email, my girlfriend and I would sit around a table with coffee discussing how we’d approach their problem. We’d research on the internet to find different approaches, and we’d send back thoughtful advice.
The Minow’s Advantage: You can be personal and thoughtful
That’s an advantage you have when you’re just starting out: you can really get inside your customers’ problems and find solutions for them (even if it’s not always exactly your problem).
And it pays off in the long term: Jason Lemkin at SaaSstr pointed out that your first customer may be or is likely to be just like your 1000th customer.
Therefore, if we sold this course 1,000 times, the 1000th customer would likely have the same problems, expectations and needs as this very first set of 6 customers.
The Most Terrifying Thing We Did: “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”
After three months, our first batch of customers had finished their course, and it was time to do something that terrified me: ask their feedback on their experience and areas we could improve on.
I really didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to hear the truth! It’s a pattern I’ve also seen in Series A startups: they often don’t want to collect data because the truth might hurt, a lot!
The method of getting feedback was using a survey on Survey Monkey.
The approach I used for getting feedback was to look for qualitative feedback. I don’t care whether it’s “statistically significant”. We’re talking about a pool of six people here.
I just want, in their words, how they felt about the experience of taking the course, what they got from the course and how it could be improved.
Therefore, the questionnaire was four questions long, rather than 40 spread over 4 pages.
The result was that 3 people, or half of ‘em, gave detailed, qualitative feedback, which I find much more useful than pages and pages of multiple choice answers.
What would I have done differently?
In hindsight, the product itself was far too big. It took 3 months of weekly work on it to ship the entire product. And my girlfriend already had a one-on-one coaching version of it that she could adapt.
Amy Hoy recommends that your first product should be a tiny product such as a short e-book or online course.
So, I’d do a 4-video course instead over 4 weeks.
Secondly, I’d make the course even more interactive. I think you can’t spend enough time emailing and talking with your first few customers, so I’d set up Google hangouts with them on a weekly basis.
Depending on your situation, you could even make the course tinier still: Pat Maddox over at RubySteps had a 48-hour product challenge and he charged 11 dollars for his ebook. I bought it, and really enjoyed it!
After Validating the Product Idea, the Fun Just Begins!
We’ve since worked on the product even further. Being the nerd I am, I built a custom wordpress site with a sales page, checkout, payments via PayPal, logins for students, a link-up to an automated series of course emails via MailChimp once people signup and automatic drip-feeding of content.
That was all possible because I knew we had validated our product idea. I could invest more time in it. Recently, we re-opened the course on the new system with a price point at 497 euro or three times 197 euro, and we got 5 students for a total income of about 2,500 euro on a list that was 620 people.
That’s almost four times the revenue the first time around, just by increasing the price and building a better delivery method.
I’m reasonably confident that we can now invest the time to grow the email list to 6,000 people and we’ll have a business that could bring in 50,000 euro a year just within this one course opening twice a year.
And we’ll help a boatload of people have fun in the process!
Let’s Have a Chat!
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve either had the patience of a monk, or you’re really interested in making your first product.
I love talking to people who also want to make products.
So, if you have an idea you’d love to discuss, let’s schedule a call here. We’ll chat about your idea, how you could validate following a lean model and next steps. And you can tell me what’s worked for you in the past. I think we’ll both learn!
We might even become friends Bear in mind that I’m in Europe, so if you’re in the US, the morning will work better for the timezone difference.
I’m trying out Bookmore, as it makes finding a mutual time easier: Schedule a Call
You’re writing the copy for a startup website. You have a new idea, or your old idea is undergoing a bit of a pivot.
You need to explain your idea on your website.
You need copy. Snappy, persuasive copy that will make people want MORE.
More signups, more shares, more investors.
Your concept is great, so you want your website to drive home the concept of a bacon subscription service so nobody can deny its inherent, bacon-y goodness.
What do you do?
Why, open a Google doc, and start writing out the value prop of your bacon-as-a-service business.
“Succulent, thick slices of grass-reared bacon hand-delivered by men with mustaches and gentile manners every Friday in time for the weekend”
There it is in all its glory. A sentence that grabs what you do and puts it out there for the world.
But then some says that the men-with-mustaches gives the wrong vibe, and the sentence is far too long, anyway. People don’t read on the web, DUH!
Now, you have go back and start writing again.
“Bacon-as-a-service. Home Delivery. Delicious.”
Hurrray! It’s short, snappy and everything copy should be.
Right? Time to publish!
Wait, what’s wrong here?
The assumption that people don’t read on the web.
That’s just plain wrong.
People don’t read things that don’t speak deeply to them. When I use general, generic words to describe a highly specific THING, you aren’t going to be interested.
But when you deeply understand your audience, when you know them better than they know themselves and when you know how they speak and think, you can write copy so targeted that they can’t help but pay attention, clicks and cash.
Hell, if I saw that grass-fed bacon hand-delivered by hipsters was on the cards, I’d be sticking my credit card into Google so fast my French banque would be having a heart-attack.
But here’s the rub: startups are generally characterized by not having a great understanding of your audience. You barely have any customers, and your own grasp on your own product is thin, at best. And you might change the entire concept radically overnight.
Something as simple as changing your “Go to Market” strategy might mean you’re talking to a whole new audience.
Oh, and the usual time-frame for a website is, “Up by yesterday would be great, if you can stretch on it”.
So, if you’re in the position where you need to write copy fast, and you don’t have the time or even ability to talk to existing or potential customers, mull over their words and generally soak up the vocab of your target audience, whadda ya do??
Cry? Yeah, go do that.
Here’s a harsh truth for you. Your copy will probably suck.
No amount of hours of thinking about how to say the heading succinctly will make it better.
You don’t have to be a great writer to write great copy. You just have to understand the hopes, fears and dreams of your target audience.
But if you need a website fast, you’d be best to write it fast, give it a fairly superficial edit to make sure it reflects your value proposition as you currently understand and put it live in a very simple (think: cheap) design.
Hell, keep the copy short if you want.
Now, your website is live. The big launch is DONE.
Just ship the fucking thing.
The real work can now begin. Listen, it takes time to convince your target audience to get on the phone for a chat, so you can start understanding them. Putting up a survey on your site will take some time as well to gather responses. Building up a picture of how they talk and think isn’t going to happen overnight.
The software world gets this. They ship their minimum viable product. Something so small its value is almost nothing. And then they get over the fear of shipping, and they keep shipping every day, refining and expanding until it’s a full-blown work of art.
You should do the same.
Ship your message, and refine it weekly.
That’s how you write copy for your startup.
Now, you just have to convince the boss that this is a good idea. Start by sharing this article with the boss.
I’ve been studying copywriting. Every evening, I sit down with a pot of Chamomile tea and write out an advertisement by hand for an hour. Yup, my life is all rock-star living.
A few days ago I was writing out a classic ad for a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. The ad starts with the story of two guys who had similar starts in life, both graduating from the same college and both starting in the same company. 40 years later, one was running the company while the other was a line manager. What made the difference? – reading the WSJ, apparently.
I beg to differ. The difference between extraordinarily effective people and most people is in their systems.
This is how a good system works: I hate to exercise. It’s not my fault; it’s in my DNA not to expend energy on pointless activities. So, instead, I just show up to CrossFit three times a week.
The good people over at CrossFit have come up with another system that is startling effective at getting people to work out really, really hard. In fact, they work out so hard that the most common criticism of CrossFit is that people injure themselves from working out too hard.
Why does this system work? For one, I don’t have to think about anything. My job is to show up and do what I’m told. Contrast that to most gyms where you have to show up, figure out what you’re going to do, then do it, hope you’re doing it right and then wonder when you can stop.
The result is that most people get confused and just run for 30 minutes on the treadmill and never see any results.
The point of this is that CrossFit is a system, whereas messing around on the treadmill without a plan is not a system.
Once you start seeing your life in terms of systems, you have a set of tools to optimise and change your life.
You want to find a job? There’s a system for that (and you probably aren’t using it). You want to lose weight? There are millions of effective system for that. You want to become a juggler? There’s a GREAT system for that!
You can simple select a system for the result you want and take advantage of YEARS of trial and error of others.
Unfortunately, humans don’t seem to “get” systems very well at all. It’s taken me years to truly appreciate systems. Before that, I just thought I’d have to “work harder” and “try to figure it out”. The problem is the willpower is an exhaustible resource, and trial and error is a slow way for any one person to learn.
So, I’ve compiled a list of the systems I use, split out over different categories:
1. Health Systems
- Slow carb diet (loose fat, gain muscle, feel great)
- CrossFit (become your own hero!)
- Becoming a Supple Leopard (flexibility, good posture, increased strength)
2. Organisational Systems
- Google calendar (set reminders that are sent to your phone, plan reviews)
- Evernote (never forget an idea again)
- Dropbox (backup and internal file sharing)
- To-Do lists
- Check Lists
3. Communication Systems
- Gmail (set up with multiple email addresses)
- SMS alerts sent to iPhone when emails from important clients are received
- WordPress blog for networking, spreading ideas and keeping up contact
- Skype (I really want a better alternative!)
4. Finances Systems
5. Productivity Systems
- Accountability partner (my surrogate boss)
- The PomoDoro Technique
- Weekly reviews/plans
- Evening planning for following day
- Just Showing” system (for tough items, I’ll count just showing up as a victory)
6. Wardrobe System
- I systematised my wardrobe so I can travel for extended periods with a 20 litre backpack that weighs about 7kg.
7. Meeting New People
- CouchSurfing MeetUps
- Natural networking
So, that’s an overview of my more important systems that run my life. Not all systems work for everyone. But most people will benefit from implementing some of the above systems to make their life run more smoothly, achieve goals and not have to work so damn hard.
I’ve been trying to take more risks. It’s why I gave up 2500 euro a month in income. That steady stream of cash was stopping me from pursuing other sources of income with any sense of urgency. It’s also why I tried Karaoke for the first time last Saturday, singing a duet of “I’ve had the time of my life” with my brother-in-law. And it’s why I’m spending three months looking after my awesome one-year-old nephew.
It’s not longer just a question of your investments. Risk taking has become so important for everybody because there isn’t much in the way of a roadmap for many careers. My friend Jon is a data journalist. That’s a pretty new area, so he’ll be part of figuring out what the career of a data journalist looks like. And to do that, he’ll have to try different stuff.
But trying new stuff is tough. For a long time, I though about risks in terms of probability. Now, I realise that risk is really emotional for most people. The real reason I don’t write for my blog is that I worry people will think I’m an idiot. For years I went to the gym and avoided the free weights because I didn’t want to do something stupid like drop the weights and get kicked out the gym (Then I started CrossFit where dropping weights is what it’s all about). My brother won’t go to CrossFit because he’s worried that he’ll have to do pullups and he can’t do pullups, so he’ll look like a weakling, and so he doesn’t go.
1. If you enjoy the process, it’s probably a risk worth taking
One way to look at whether you should take a risk is whether you’ll enjoy the whole experience of it. Jumping out of a plane is hardly going to be a great risk to take if you don’t enjoy the experience at some level.
For example, I’ve been learning web development over the last few months. I find it fun to play around with code, so the risk that it won’t pan out for me is reduced. At least I’ll have spent some time geeking out on things I enjoy, even if I don’t make a cent off it.
On the other hand, working in a job I hate for 40 years just to have a shot at a nice retirement seems a horrible risk to take because that’s 40 years of misery.
2. It gets harder to take risk as you get older
I’m 25, I have zero commitments, debt or long-term contracts of any nature whatsoever. My income travels with me. I don’t even rent a house. I sleep very well at night. I could join a band of roving gypies tomorrow.
But, looking around me, it’s obvious that as I get older, the commitments start building up: cars, houses, boats and whatnot. It’s also easier to live on beans and tuna fish when you’re in your twenties. That’s entirely normal. But when you get to your thirties and your friends are jetting around to different resorts, buying houses and new cars, it’s harder to live like a monk.
Therefore, I’m trying to be far more aggressive with taking risks when I’m in my twenties, because I might not get the chance later on.
3. No matter what happens, you’ll be happy as you always were
My biggest takeway from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness was that people who’ve suffered terrible loss – decades of wrongful imprisonment, political disgrace or paralysis – often view such experiences very positively. In the long-term their level of happiness rebounds to its previous level or even slightly higher.
Therefore, no matter how things turn out, you’ll probably be stuck with your own personal level of happiness (which you can choose to influence).
So, that’s how I look at risk taking.
Here’s my mini-challenge: Try to take some small personal risk this week – think Karoke or dancing lessons rather than FOREX trading. I don’t want to be responsible for any bankruptcies!
The modern curse is wanting to do anything but that what you’ve set out to do. It’s why PhDs never get done, masters are written at the last minute to scrape by and Facebook is an internet giant.
One of my favourite things is to practice different variations on introducing myself. Yup, I’m a bit of a weirdo. But the results are fascinating. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a legal translator. They’ll usually start talking to someone else. Other times I’ll say I run a legal translation business, and they’ll be dying to know more.
But when I say I work for myself, the next question is always: is it hard to stay motivated?
And staying motivated is the key to excellence. People like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated or Cal Newport demonstrate that deliberate practice of your trade, professional or craft is how you become really good. It’s not innate talent. You aren’t born a great writer.
The top performers in any domain didn’t get there entirely by chance or on the back of a natural talent. They got there by constantly working on their weaknesses, challenging themselves and taking their skills to the next level. It’s very, very tough (which is why they often take naps in the afternoon).
Also, they often put in these tough hours over decades to get where they were. It wasn’t just a few tough months of work to get to the top.
Therefore, understanding and cracking the code of motivation is one of the keys to developing unusually high levels of skill. And developing high levels of skill in areas makes life interesting, rewarding and fulfilling. So it’s important.
I’ve struggled with not doing any work (and especially the work I was paid to do), even though I really wanted to do the work.
The answer most people come up with is to get inspired or get motivated. Preferably by reading some awesome pages of the internet. And then maybe listen to some great music. And finally make some coffee – before kicking ass and doing some WORK.
Unfortunately, that’s a little like a sugar high – you quickly come crashing down again, because motivation comes in waves. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you do not.
A better approach is systems. Systems work when you’re down, when you’re up and in between. You don’t have to rely on your finite willpower. You can trust the system instead. So, that’s what I’ve been working on this year with a vengeance. I’ve tried a lot of things, but I now have a core set of processes that work quite well.
Most of this stuff below is very simple. I’ve known about them for years. But I did not do them, so I frequently felt entirely unmotivated and procrastinated like hell.
1. Plan and review on a regular basis – weekly/daily/hourly
A weekly basis works best for me. I look at the past week, measure what I did and assess how successful I was. I analyse failures to exactly what I’ll do differently next week.
Sometimes the changes are tiny. I find it very hard to get up in the morning. But I find it very easy to listen to podcasts in bed. And when I listen to podcasts in bed, I can get up really early. So I’ll make sure my headphones are beside the iPhone and I have a cool podcast downloaded. That’s an example of how small the changes often are.
Then I’ll plan the next week. The key, I’ve found, is to have tasks that can be done in 15-20 minutes. No longer. And the more precise I am on the details of doing it, the better. Therefore, l write down the page I have to start on or the link to a site I need to read.
2. Test to find your high productivity times and schedule high value work for these times
I’ve tested working at night. I can’t. After 9pm, I’m done for the day. My main work times are in the early morning and in the early afternoon. If I really need to be focused, I’ll throw a nap in between, because it’s like getting a fresh start to the day.
I’ll block these times for my hardest work such as translation, learning new skills or finding new clients.
3. Have an accountability partner
This part makes most people shake their heads, wondering if all is well in Tom’s world. But almost everyone with a job has one: a boss. But when you work for yourself, either in business, studying or even personal hobbies, you need to somehow make yourself accountable.
It’s quite powerful to tell someone what you plan to do and then have to check in with that person a week later and tell them how you did. I’ve found that picking your significant other is not the best approach, because it’s far easier to rationalise why you did nothing to them than someone else.
4. Get Google Calendar to remind you of what you need to do
It’s easy to start learning a language, get side-tracked and then forget about it and never do it again. Google Calendar allows you to schedule reminders that get sent to your phone by SMS. These days I get text messages at all hours telling me do anything from do physio to learn French or to plan something for the weekend. My brother even had Google calendar send him insults at 6:00 am in the morning, telling him to “wake up you lazy bastard”.
Wrapping up, the system works like this: on Sunday evening I review my past week and plan the upcoming week incorporating the lessons learned from last week. Therefore, over time I get better a planning, so I’m more likely to do what I plan. This in turns breeds confidence in myself, which is important.
Then I pass on the review and the plan for the following week to my accountability partner, and I put reminders in Google calendar so I won’t forget at the critical times.
Finally, I protect the most valuable times of the day for high level work.
And boom! no stress productivity.
Every so often my brother rings me on Skype to ponder for an hour on whether he should quit his highly paid job in the Oil and Gas industry of Canada and go live on a beach in Costa Rica.
It’s a bit of a dilemma: earn a shit ton of cash in a boring job, or party like it’s 1999 in paradise.
But there is a flaw in this thinking, and avoiding such flaws has opened an entirely interesting way of life for me. It’s allowed me to go from feeling frustrated in an office in Munich to partying like a rock star on a Caribbean island, train with world champions in Iceland and return to the family farm in Ireland for a month.
So what are these flaws that Tommy is talking about?
1. Narrow Framing or Failing to See ALL the options
When it comes to a job you hate, there’s a whole spectrum of options at your disposal. You could talk to your boss, tell her that you just need more time working with people, or suggest that you take on an exciting side-project.
You could test trying working out in the morning before work, or you could start taking more senior people out to coffee to get their ideas on how to improve the situation.
Personally, I was dissatisfied with my job. It was quite good, but I wanted to trave. The problem was that I had no money to do so. The solution was to get my boss to agree to hire me on a freelance basis while I jetsetted around the globe. That way, I was out of an office that was confining, out of a city I’d had enough of, and I still had steady income to bankroll the mission.
When faced with a this or that decision, ask yourself: Are there other options here that I’m missing?
2. When you have a choice, the answer is often to do both (or the Yes and Yes Technique)
This summer I had copywriting and web development on the brain. My dilemma was which one I should go after. The answer, I realised, was both – Yes and Yes. Especially at the early stage, you can pursue multiple options. Focusing on one is like a thirteen year old ruling out all careers but that of a lead singer of a boyband. It’s a little early, son.
Laser-like focus comes later when you’ve got the lay of the land and you’re ready to go for mastery in a particular field.
So, widen your choices, and maybe decide to do all of them. What mental frameworks for taking tough decisions do you have in your toolbox?
Just under a year ago I became an uncle, so I’ve moved to New Jersey for three months to look after my nephew. It’s been enlightening. I’ve tested home ownership (hated it), and now I’m testing another cornerstone of traditional living: babies.
This much is clear: when you have a baby, time management takes on whole new dimensions.
1. Make everything specific
When you’re in your mid-twenties, you can have abstract goals, such as progressing in your career, getting in shape or starting a company. It’s a great intellectual exercise when you’re lying on your bed on a lazy Sunday afternoon, deciding whether to make pancakes in your underpants.
This leads nowhere when kids are in the picture.
When you have kids, you don’t have the luxury of wasting time. So plans have to be specific: being a great writer becomes spending 25 minutes at nine at night writing a blog post. Getting ripped for the summer means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the gym.
Even getting drunk requires walking a logistical tight rope involving babysitters, carefully timed alcohol consumption and a plan for remembering to return in time with enough money left to pay the babysitter. It’d sober the most ardent Celtic tiger cub.
2. Make it super easy to do
I flew to New Jersey with US Airways, possibly the worst airline in the world. You have to watch the same film as everyone else on one flickering, low definition screen while the audio fades in and out.
Therefore, I took refuge in reading their inflight mail order catalogue. I love these catalogues, because they’re full with insane time saving tools – everything from solar-powered mole repellers to nano-UV wands to sterilise your salads.
On the flight I had no idea who bought these time-saving tools. Now, I do: Parents. When your life is divided up into 15 minute intervals between cleaning up poop and wiping up vomit, you need every advantage you can get in doing daily chores.
If doing anything requires any modicum of thought, you just going to lie on the couch instead, watching day time TV.
3. Have a schedule that reminds you what you have to do
Newspaper columnists constantly berate parents for over-planning their kids’ schedules. Well, if you don’t have a damn schedule, no soccer is ever getting trained. That’s why I made my very first meal plan with my sister. Every meal for the week is perfectly planned out based on the contents of the fridge. It was a special moment in productivity and sibling bonding.
Now, I use Google calendar to send me reminders to do everything from daily physio to monthly reviews. It’s like having a virtual mother. On that note, Google should stop messing around with stupid glasses and driver-less cars and come up a robot to feed babies.