Wednesday, August 17, 2016

You Will Suck at First, but Don’t Give Up

I have a confession to make.
In the quiet of the night, I sometimes watch things my friends don’t I watch.
Don’t worry. It’s Alice Fredenham singing for a Britain’s Got Talent audition.
She’s talented. She’s mesmerizing. Was she born with that talent?

It’s Easy to Watch, Hard to Try

Why do I share this with you? Try this one.
A few weeks ago, I lead a small introductory JavaScript class.
I encouraged everyone to follow along on their laptops, but instead everyone just watched me.
I stopped, and told them, learning to program is like learning by debugging(meaning you learn by fixing things that are broken).
I got blank stares.
Last week, I encouraged everyone to improve their product management game by building things.
Thinking about these stories made me realize that this advice was not very helpful, because there is a huge inertia to starting.
The root cause of the inertia is fear.
Fear of failing. Fear of imperfection. Fear of embarrassment.

Standing on the Shoulders of …

Thankfully, you don’t have to be afraid. Just as I could secretly shed a tear watching Britain’s Got Talent, you can start using a secret technique.
The technique is simple.
Smart people think of original ideas. Smarter people borrow (or steal) the idea of smart people.
Then, just add a little bit of your own idea to the base. Your own little spice to the base soup; it’s your secret sauce, magic dust.
Seriously. I was reading an interview of John Clark in Balsamiq Interviews (go ahead, it’s a FREE e-book. Download it.) He said something that perfectly illustrates this.
“I saw something like User Testing and thought, “That’s quite good. It’s a good idea that delivers a lot of value,” but I felt that there were things it didn’t do. I don’t like to knock a competitor, but I had my own view of how it could work. They’ve proven the market, clearly. They’ve been going a few years now. So rather than taking on a very risky and completely new type of application, I thought …”
Well, there are a lot of gems there in that short interview passage. I leave it to you to dig them out and apply them in your life.

Change Your Attitude

So, there you go. You have to let go of your fear of starting, and get excited. And by not having to start from scratch, you get an easy win to start. From what I’ve seen, it’s a big mind shift for many folks.
The technical term for this is metanoia, which means a shift of mind. The non-technical term is something like “think outside the box.” (Please stop saying that.)
And it’s not just you. If you’re a product manager or a team leader, perhaps you need to instill this new attitude in your team. Somehow!
I recently read a book that develops some of these ideas more expansively, and I think you’ll enjoy reading it.

by authors whose last names make me hungry and want to read Moby Dick again.

Happy building!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

How we made a grand in one day teaching what we know

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, likes to call out false choices.

Do you eat or do you exercise?  You do both.  Do you network outside of your company or do you work hard for a promotion where you are?  Well, actually, you do both!  It's an AND.

Talking and Doing

Notice, I didn't say talking vs. hustling.  It's talking AND doing.

I regularly meet aspiring startup founders. They have great ideas. For some reason, their actual business falls short.  It's a common problem.  I ran into someone who had a great staffing business idea.  But, what she does day to day is like a traditional recruiting business.  Hard work.

I'm guilty of this myself.  I have lots of great ideas.  A year later, I don't have a single dollar to show for the ideas.  Big problem.  You can sympathize.

I wonder why.  It could be that,

  • You struggle to start.  There's a saying: perfect is the enemy of good.  You know, sometimes you spend too much time on the drawing board, and the game is over by the time you start.  That same Reid Hoffman said: "if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late."
  • You didn't get right people and mentor to help you.  I wrote before about the power of context and how people around you make you.  If you don't learn from other people, then you end up reinventing the wheel.  Don't do that.  Just ask someone who knows what she's doing what you should do.
  • But, at the end of the day, you just gotta embrace the pain.  Don't be afraid to fail, because failing is part of succeeding.  Don't step back, step forward.
If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

Wasn't this post about making a thousand bucks?  In a day?

Fast Prototyping

This reminds me of the time that some acquaintances and I tested an idea with ultra low cost and cleared a grand in a day.

We were all in San Francisco at the time.  We had an idea.  Lot of people wanted to get tech jobs.  There are SAT prep courses, but there were no interview prep program for technical folks.  We all happened to know startups and tech companies in the area, and we always heard them complaining about how hard it is to find engineers.

So, we thought, why not connect all these people who want the tech jobs, make sure they know what they are doing, and connect them to the companies?

We could have written an elaborate business plan, and talked to dozens of companies, and reached out to potential recruits to validate our idea.  It could have taken weeks.  Instead, we said: okay, if there really is money to be made, then let's test it.  Let's see if we can get a small group of people to pay money to show up to learn a little bit about technical interview.  (One of the group was a technical interview expert, so we already had the content taken care of.)

So, we set a date.

We asked around and found a company that let us use their classroom for free one Saturday.

We sent around some word, and got a group of about 20 - 25 folks to pay $50 - $100 each to show up and learn for a day.  It was a few years ago, so I don't remember the exact figures.

Here's the proof of what we did - Interview Bootcake SF 2014.  (Name takes after Parker's Interviewcake, a site to help engineers prepare for technical interviews.)

Parker Teaching Stuff. Parker is a technical interview expert.
If you still don't believe me, some pics.

Parker Teaching More Stuff. Parker found
Business Model and Startup

From there, we could have taken the business further.  We could have focused on creating on-line content and selling that.  Or we could have focused on the in-person business and taught more classes and gathered more people paying tickets.  Or we could have become a recruiting business, and charged the companies to hire the talented engineers we were finding through the class.

This is how startups work.  You build something fast, test your assumptions, and then build on the lessons to move forward.

As I said, some of you struggle to get started because you're spending too much time talking and talking and talking and designing, but not doing.  At the same time, it's no good to just do things without thinking about the bigger picture and your plan.  You have got to do both.

My challenge to you is, think about how you can take this lesson to help you improve something you are working on.  It doesn't have to be a business idea.  Maybe it's a personal project.  Maybe it's a personal goal.  You can break out the core issues, set up a quick experiment, and test it out.

Once you succeed small, you can build on that success and dream bigger.  Onward, upward!

Further Reading

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Announcing pre-orders for Save Money, Get Rich: the Low Tax, Low Cost Way

A few months ago, a friend asked me about my work.  I work in finance.  After a few questions about what I do, she mentioned that she knew nothing about retirement investing.

I asked her if she had 403(b) at work (she works for a non-profit).  She said she did, and that her employer automatically contributes a small amount to the account.  Other than that, she didn't really know much about investing.  She said she wished she knew more.

I remembered other young professionals who either knew little about investing, or knew about it but had been unable to get started.  So, I thought I would write a brief book about tax-advantaged accounts that can help young professionals save for the future.

Of course, getting rich isn't just about money.  Our wealth consists of our relationships, our happiness, health, and other intangible things that matter to us.  Still, a firm financial foundation is an important driver of happiness.  So, I worked on a brief book.

The book will be released on Amazon on Monday, February 22, and I wanted to tell you about it.  I hope you'll consider checking out the book (even if just the free sample) and leave a positive review for the book.

Save Money Get Rich
Book link -

(Please excuse the draft cover - it is getting finalized this week.)

These are the topics the book will contain:
1. Rules of Wealth Building
2. myRa, IRA and Taxes
3. Health Savings Accounts
4. 529 College Savings Plans
5. 401(k), Solo 401(k), SEP and Qualified Plans
6. Time, DRIPs
7. Robo Advisors and FeeX
8. How You Can Save More, plus Free Bonus
9. FAQ and Further Reading
10. Living a Richer Life

Stay Tuned

In the coming weeks, I'd love to share some book recommendations to help you lead a happier life.  I'll also work on some ideas to help you connect with colleagues at work.

Please stay tuned.

Further Reading

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

How to reinvent yourself

An end is a new beginning.

In today's fast and volatile economy, you have to know how to reinvent yourself, and be comfortable doing it.

How did you end up here?

There can be many reasons why you came to feel like you hit a dead end.  It's life.

Maybe you got passed over for a promotion, and now you feel stuck.  Or worse, you got fired from your job.  Even a successful professional might be yearning for meaning, asking if she chose the right profession.

Maybe you are turning a new chapter in your personal life.  Are you going through a separation?  Or did you lose someone you love?  You can't help but think of those missed moments for a deeper connection.

You know that dwelling on the past won't change the present, but you can't help it.  It hurts.  It's life.  But, how can you move past the struggle in your life, stronger and better?

Coming to America

We have different expectations about what living well means today than generations before.  Only about a century ago, millions of immigrants were coming to America to start over.  Correction.  Millions are still coming to America to start a new job, new life, new culture, new family.

When my parents came to America (from Korea), they didn't really know how the future would turn out.  They settled in, learned the language, and continued their self-education to provide a better life for the family.

My mom didn't have a college degree when she came to America (she had dropped out to raise us in Korea).  But, she worked during the day, drove us to sports and music, and then attended evening classes.  She eventually got a master's degree in education.  Today, she teaches ESL kids who are near and dear to her heart.  I still don't know how she did it, but she did it.

So How?

Have No Regrets

When I moved to Silicon Valley and started hustling for startups, I was a fish out of water.  I'd trained as a corporate middle management, and had a freshly minted MBA.  It was little (i.e. no) help in freelancing.  I had to try new things, fail a lot, and learn how to sell something to make a buck.

More than once, I wondered: what the hell am I doing?  Why didn't I stay in my corporate gig complete with a six figure salary and plenty of upside?  I had plenty of reasons (boredom, stagnation, people, etc).

But, the point is, I left because I wanted to be something else.  How am I doing on that path?

I can choose to dwell on the past, or I can focus on thinking of what I am trying to become.  It's a simple choice.  So, no regrets.

Nothing Is Wasted: You're Just Training

No regrets.  Easier said than done, right?  One thing that might help you is to think of any setback as training in progress.  It's like the old saying, if it doesn't kill you, it only makes you stronger.  Why is that?  It's because you're learning, and you're experiencing something that will help you be more mature or more skilled next time you encounter a challenge.

You see this all the time with little children.  Today they fall.  Tomorrow they walk a little better.  Today they struggle with words.  Tomorrow they are pointing and talking non-stop.  (I have a cute niece who's now going through this phase.)

You're the same.  You're just being put through a trial so you can get better.  Practice makes perfect. (So many cliches.  Want one more?  No pain, no gain.)  Take things in stride, and think of how you can best take advantage to improve as much as possible this go around.

After he had invented the first phonograph and the lasting lightbulb, Thomas Edison became a national sensation.  But, Edison lost the electricity battle (AC/DC), and then Edison went into mining.  Mining turned out to be a disaster.  But, that didn't stop Edison.  He put the different experiences together - the light, the phonograph that recorded sound - and he put together what was the first motion picture camera in the world.  He was a master at reinventing himself, because he was always learning.  (Found a Kindle bio of Edison for free at the time of this post.)

Learn and Invest

I know I focus on this a lot, but it's true.  Learning and adapting is what makes us human.  If you don't learn from your failures, then that really is regrettable.

It's about building self-awareness to learn what works and what doesn't work for you.  How can you do it better next time?

You know how in stock market they say, buy low and sell high?

Well, if you are in a low, then perhaps it's a great time to invest for the future.  What new skills could you pick up?

Going back to my story, I'm now back in a corporate workplace.  The time I spent hustling taught me so much about how to build something new and create value.  In my work today, I have to know both finance and sales.  Thanks to the different experiences I've had, I know how to do both (otherwise, I'd only know accounting).

Treat Yourself

Reinventing yourself, becoming something better, is all about a mindset.  If you resist and moan about changing, you'll be miserable.  You'll become grumpy and stressed out.  Instead, if you take new challenges and competition as a way to learn and improve, you'll derive a new sense of purpose.

Staying healthy helps.  I take health for granted.  But, whenever I'm down with a migraine, I realize just how lucky I am to be physically healthy.  Physical and mental health go hand in hand.  Make sure you are taking care of yourself physically so you can stay mentally focused, and vice versa.

You know best how to get fit.  It might involve going out for a long run.  It might be eating less sugar and healthier fare.  Or it might be things you don't do, like eating ice cream and watching TV till 2 AM.

It Takes a Village

This can be hard, because whatever you are going through feels very personal.  It's your own cross to bear, and no one understands you.  Except, it's not true.  You'll be so much happier if you can share your troubles with a close friend.

In a professional setting, you don't even have to disclose your feelings.  Just be honest about challenges you are facing and your desire to overcome them.  Enlist your manager and your teammates help you get through the situation.  If you approach it in a mature fashion no one will shy away from helping you.  It's practically their job to help you.

Speak up and don't be shy to share that you want help.  People love working in teams and helping others.  Give them a chance to step up.


A lot of this is just a mind game.  That's the battle you have to win first.  If you can get comfortable with looking forward rather than back, and taking a learning attitude and invest in yourself, then you'll become a master at reinventing yourself.

Further Reading

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

5 Ways to Have More Fun at Work (and Life)

If you'd ever struggled to find happiness or purpose in your life, you might have asked yourself: "what would I do if I never had to worry about money again?" or "what makes me happiest?"  (Did you win PowerBall?)

The problem with such thoughts experiments is that they tell you nothing new.

You only know what you like or dislike by trying it out.  And unless you tried cocaine, you just don't know what it's like (I never tried it).  As you experience new sensations and pick up new ideas, you have both the experiential and mental assets to imagine new possibilities.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.

And if you want to know what matters most to you, then there's no time like today to DO.  And rather than get bogged down with weighty topics like meaning of life or finding happiness, why not start with some practical ways to have more fun tomorrow at work?

1. Organize.

I know that this doesn't come naturally to everyone.  But, it is deceptively simple and deeply powerful.  Marie Kondo's "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" is an international phenomenon.  I naturally like to fold clothes and tidy up my surroundings.  I know people who don't.  What I see is that the physical surrounding has a mental and spiritual impact.

Something as trivial as messy dishes lying around or clothes on the floor affect your mental state.  Does it say you are above appearances?  Does it say that it's okay to let things slide, that you are indifferent?  I don't know.  

But, I do know that the very act of cleaning or organizing can be mentally soothing, and help you be happier.  Before you can flow, you have to remove the clutter.

2. Teach.

You often experience unhappiness at work, because something is out of your control.  An example could be the pointy-haired boss telling you to do something in a way that feels stupid to you.  Except you can't say so without getting fired.

It's true.  I know you're smarter than your boss.  But sadly, you're not the boss.  So, you feel frustrated.  How can you gain more control over this twisted situation?

Well, in today's collaborative world, the only way you can do this is to teach.  Do you think a process is "stupid" and you could do it better?  Okay, show me.  Then, teach others.  Teach your colleagues.  Teach your managers.  Teach the masses by writing about it.

Teaching creates opportunities for conversations.  Teaching is teamwork.  Teaching is a tool to gain control over the problem.  It takes time, but you'll learn and grow in the process.  Teaching relieves the pressure, and will help you have more fun.

3. Forgive. 

You're not having fun, because you're holding a grudge.  You still remember that time she slighted you with her criticism, when she crapped all over your report.  Or when your manager passed you over for a promotion, you took it personally.

Get over it, you're not that special.  They probably do the same to others.  And they probably did it out of habit and knew no better.  It wasn't because they hate you.  Everyone is just trying their best.  Smile and help people do better instead of holding a grudge.  Water under the bridge, as they say.

I remember, one time, one of my coworkers always seemed to contradict everything I said in meetings.  It felt blatant.  It felt personal.  It made me upset to the point of nausea.  I would avoid her in the hallways.  Everytime I had to talk to her, my blood would boil and I dreamed about the day I would become CEO and fire her.  Then, one day, I decided maybe I should listen to her.  Maybe I should smile and ask her why she thinks my ideas are bad.  She's human.  I'm human.

Forgive others, and take a deep breath, and go about your day.  And you'll have more fun.

And forgive yourself.  We are all learning.  No child is born who can add and subtract straight out of the womb.  There's no child who never falls and cries.  Just like that, we all make mistakes.  Making mistakes is just part of who we are.  So, for those times that you have hurt others or hurt yourself, forgive yourself.  Then, you won't feel so bad about laughing at jokes.  Heck, maybe you'll start making jokes yourself!

4. Work More.

Seriously.  Work more, not less.  More is more.  You're not having fun at work, because it's hard.  Work would be more fun if you were better at it.  You would go into a flow.  And it's awesome.

When I was young, I played the violin.  It was a drudge practicing those scales and stretching my fingers up and down a small wooden fingerboard.  Plus, it wasn't really cool. But, once I got good, it became fun to see what kinds of sounds I could produce, or how smooth a tone I could draw out of the instrument.

In high school, I swam.  At first, I drank a lot of the pool water.  I competed in swim meets and would finish dead last at every single time.  It was no fun.  That summer, I resolved that I would practice inordinately until I became fast.  I learned proper strokes from swim coaches, swam with faster people on a swim team, and then hit the pool on my own.  I would swim every day for miles.  I would pay attention to my arm and feet movement in the water, and perfected the feel for the flow.

I became one with the water.

The following summer, I dominated my regional league in most of the events.  The high school coach wanted me very badly on her team.  Everyone on the team knew of me.  I was a celebrity.  Sort of.

It's harder to get good in intellectual pursuits, because you have less tangible feedback loops.  You can race and see how fast your time is.  You can't do that when you're working on a board presentation or working on a spreadsheet model.  It's hard to know how good you are at giving advice to a junior banker or to startup founders.  Still, you get the idea.  The more you are doing your chosen work with attention to what you're doing, the better you're going to be at your work.

At first it might suck, but eventually, it'll help you have a lot more fun and gratification.

5. Play More Ping Pong.

Sometimes, I literally play a game of ping pong with colleagues at work.  I'm lucky; we have a ping pong table, and the company doesn't mind.  We have a good culture; as I said, I'm lucky.

But, I see others take a quick break to walk about the grounds before returning to work.  In my previous work, I would go join a yoga class during lunch.

It doesn't matter.  The point is, if you're not having fun, you can literally take a moment to do something that actually is fun.  You could even drive to daycare and see your son or daughter play with other kids for 30 minutes.

Sometimes, you want to do this even if you are enjoying your work.  Changing the physical context helps your brain juices flow and helps you generate new ideas.  You'll have even more fun in your day job.  This is why you feel so refreshed after going away on a vacation.  You've changed contexts and stimulated your mind (read more about the power of context).

I remember calling a big city lawyer friend at 11pm.  She was still in the office.  She said she was there by herself.  I asked her, why don't you go home?  She said she couldn't.  She said she was miserable, but she had work she had to do before the next morning.

Really?  If you're miserable, why don't you change something about it?  I know the money might be good.  I know the company culture may not support going home before midnight.  I know.  I get it.  But, really.  Why can't you go home?

Enough for now.  I need to go crush Joe in a game of ping pong.  Then, I'm going home.

This story is also posted on LinkedIn.  If you're a professional who found this post useful, please like and share the story on LinkedIn.

Further Reading

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