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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Planning for the short term

We all have long term goals. We plan for them as well. The choices we make, be it in choosing what University to study at, what job to work for, or whom to come back home to everyday, are all part of these plans in hitting the long term goals.

But they are not good judges of incremental progress.

The human mind is buoyed by crossing milestones, by ticking off things as done. When we reach a milestone or get a task done in moving towards a milestone, it is a satisfying experience. It is a reward for a job well done. A validation of the planning exercise that makes us more confident for the next set of tasks. No wonder the 10,000 hours are necessary.

At the same time, it is a reminder for staying on track. A reminder to alert us when aren't meeting the milestones or getting tasks done in the time expected. A trigger to re-align priorities if necessary. An indication to step back and re-affirm that we are headed in the right direction.

Planning for the short term (sometimes even for a single day, although a week is my recommendation) will force you to really think about what it takes to achieve something. If you're unable to break your long term goals to that level, you fill find yourself not achieving those more often than not.

So if you drill down, you will see that planning for the long term is actually planning for the short term over and over. Otherwise, the long term goal will merely be a dream.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The real product life cycle

When what you are building has no alternative in the market, you need to make it really worthwhile for people to start using your product. Let's face it. It takes a tantalizing offer to jerk people off their inertial frames and to give your product a try.

When you get the initial set of adventurers to try your product, which is untested in the market and doesn't really have any reputation to go by, your only task is to delight them. To give them such a wonderful experience that they talk about your product (positively) to ten others.

When they talk to ten others about your product, more people will turn up looking for (you think they will come looking for your product? Forget it!) the experience described by those initial users. At this point, your only task is to live up to the expectation. This is where packaging comes in. The ones that come later are impatient. They are not seeking your product. They are not willing to go through any pain to get to your product. They are willing to drop the idea and go try one of the hundred others that they have been told about, at the first sign of disappointment. So put your product in fancy wrapping, offer attractive discounts, or get celebrities talking about your product. Create that sense of expectation to match what your early users have done for you. And repeat it.

Creating the expectation isn't the end of it. A competitor may be able to create even more expectation, even more hype and draw customers to their product. But only for a short time. Once the real experience with the product happens, the customers either respect you for living up to that expectation and turn loyal, or hate you for creating an expectation that you knew you couldn't live up to. Here, your task is to set good enough expectation to draw customers and a product experience to make their effort worth it.

The moment you fail to do what you are supposed to at any of the steps, your product will have its death knell sounded.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Productivity Hack

There are at least ten different things that I can list right now that I want to really work on and reach an assumed end goal in each of those. I put these down a couple of months ago and tried including a few steps to be achieved each week (a week is how long I plan for). But more often than not, I didn't hit the deadlines.

This week, I decided to change things a bit, in an attempt to improve my productivity.

I decided it is thoroughly unwise and counter-productive to treat all ten of them with near equal priorities. That was getting me nowhere.

From experience, I can get about 25 to 40 hours of deep work done in a week, the average being closer to 25 than to 40. I first came across the term 'deep work' in Cal Newport's blog and have since come to define it as anything that keeps me immersed with absolutely no interruptions (not on phone, browser, et al) for a period of time (ranging between 15 and 120 minutes), at the end of which I accomplish a target that I set out to. The target can be anything from publishing a blog post to writing a new product feature specification to running 5 kilometres.

This week, I decided to plan my deep work hours effectively as this is most instrumental in me reaching the said ten targets. Suddenly, my week now fell to about 30 hours from a previous 120 hours. This forces me to take up only one or two items from the ten in any given week. Hence, I might have to think about planning longer term if this yields better results.

From the ten, each week, I pick two items that involve me working on my laptop (my day job usually forces my hand in what one of those items will be) and another that keeps me away from the screen. I have realised I can push up the deep work hours if I split tasks this way.

The rest of the week is planned around immediate deliverables and unavoidable activities.

I will try this for the next two months and then try to optimize the time of day and day of week for picking the deep work slots from then on.

Fingers crossed to see this through.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Starting up

I'm sharing a few excerpts from Paul Graham's guest lecture at Sam Altman's Startup class at Stanford. I suggest reading the full article, but here are a few lines that really resonated with my thinking.

If founders' instincts already gave them the right answers, they wouldn't need us [partners]. You only need other people to give you advice that surprises you.
The way to succeed in a startup is not to be an expert on startups, but to be an expert on your users and the problem you're solving for them. Mark Zuckerburg succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups, because he understood his users really well.
Starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working. Gaming the system may continue to work if you go to work for a big company. Depending on how broken the company is, you can succeed by sucking up to the right people, giving the impression of productivity, and so on. But that doesn't work with startups. There is no boss to trick, only users, and all users care about is whether your product does what they want.
It's exciting that there even exist parts of the world where you win by doing good work. Imagine how depressing the world would be if it were all like school and big companies, where you either have to spend a lot of time on bullshit things, or lose to people who do.
Do not start a startup in college. How to start a startup is just a subset of a bigger problem you're trying to solve: how to have a good life. And though starting a startup can be part of a good life for a lot of ambitious people, age 20 is not the optimal time to do it. Starting a startup is like a brutally fast depth-first search. Most people should still be searching breadth-first at 20.
If you make a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, the ideas you come up with will not merely be bad, but bad and plausible-sounding, meaning you'll spend a lot of time on them before realizing they're bad.'s how Apple, Yahoo, Google and Facebook all got started. None of these companies were even meant to be companies at first. They were all just side projects. The best startups almost have to start as side projects, because great ideas tend to be such outliers that your conscious mind would reject them as ideas for companies.
So strangely enough the optimal thing to do in college if you want to be a successful startup founder is not some new, vocational version of college focused on "entrepreneurship". It's the classic version of college as education for it's own sake. ...what you should do in college is learn powerful things. And if you have genuine intellectual curiosity, and that's what you'll naturally tend to do if you just follow your own inclinations.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Choosing a song

It is so easy to listen to a new song, another song, today. Its just a click away. Every one of us can listen to pretty much every single song ever released at just the click of a button.

When this is the case, hardly anyone sits through the full three or four or five or six minutes of a song when she can flip to the next song (that may be slightly better at that moment) after listening to the first few seconds.

When we are spoilt for choice, it is natural to select the familiar and the popular easing the decision making process. After all, many of us are not connoisseurs of music. This is why new artists try so hard to make it to the Billboard Top 20. Because that will make them automatic choices for many lazy listeners looking for new music who will choose the familiar and the popular.

What happens is we cease becoming adventurers and participants in this grand experiment of art, and we simply become consumers and really good commodity experts.
- Richard Powers

When there is commoditization of a product, the quality invariably hits the lowest common denominator. This is good for nobody in the long run.

For the past few years, I have been giving every song five full listens at the minimum before I remove it from my playlist. I automatically rate a new song 5 stars and reduce a star every time I listen to it and don't really enjoy it. 

I'm still guilty of choosing the familiar and the popular when it comes to movies and TV shows though. And to a certain extent, books. I'm changing all of that gradually.