Book Review: Small Giants by Bo Burlingham

519jtUnq-eL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’m glad I read the 10th Anniversary Edition of the book because I think the extra chapters or modifications make for a much different book. Throughout the book, as he was describing what the small giants do to be giants, without disparaging what they do, I was thinking: “that only works if your profit margins are big, very big”. The new chapters follows up on some companies and what happened to them when those margins become smaller. Long story short: it’s not pretty.

The range of covered companies surprised me. I knew this was not about big companies, so, no Apples, Googles, Microsofts or Facebooks. But still, the range of employee size was from 1, yes, 1, a single person company, to a over-1000 employee company. It’s clear that towards the extreme of the scale, many of the ideas and principles don’t work as well and it might be a stretch to call them small giants but it is exactly that that makes them interesting on this book as it shows the boundaries you could expect if you try to create a small giant.

Reading this book made me think that maybe I don’t want my own companies to be small giants. Maybe I want one of my companies to be one but not the others, I’m not sure yet. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with or without being a small giant but if you expect your company to behave like one when it’s not, you’ll be thoroughly disappointing; and for me, that’s the big lesson.

★★★☆☆

Buy Small Giants  in USA
Buy Small Giants in the UK
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Book Review: Product Demos That Sell: How to Deliver Winning SaaS Demos by Steli Efti

51JWygnFx1L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I’m new to demoing so I don’t have a lot of references to judge this book and its contents. Everything that I read makes sense.

If we are going to judge by authority, Steli Efti, has the track record to write this sort of book.

I think it’s interesting how much it covers around the demo, how much is about qualifying the attendees, scheduling, etc. It seems like a lot of what’s involved in having a successful demo is not the demo itself.

One issue I had is that the book sometimes have to get very descriptive. Maybe a book is not the best source to learn how to demo and this is something that should instead be delivered as a video course or in person.

★★★☆☆

Buy Product Demos That Sell: How to Deliver Winning SaaS Demos in USA
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Book Review: The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday

81SLYRdcbaLThis book is a sort of different explanation of the concepts of Stoicism. The book claimed the original works by Seneca and others are very accessible but I found The Obstacle is the Way way easier to digest.

This books claims obstacles are a good thing and tries to prove it with many examples of people that achieved great things thanks to their obstacles. I’m not sure I agree. I think there’s a survival bias I that analysis similar to the one the author points to when looking at a list of millionaire college drop outs.

I wish the book would prove things by using data instead of anecdote but I’m giving it four stars because it this book made me think. It made me think about my current obstacles and the attempt of thinking of them as a positive thing made me find new solutions (or reconsider previously discarded solutions). I still thing they are obstacles and that they are bad for me, but they seem more surmountable. That’s no small feat for a book.

★★★★☆

Buy The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph in USA
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Book Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey

The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People 3I think I had my expectations wrong for this book. I was expecting it to focus on business and professional growth when most of its focus is on relationships and families. And when it addresses the professional life, it’s from the point of view of a manager/leader of a big company.

It has some interesting concepts such as the emotional account that I think if everybody followed them it would make the world a happier place. But I strongly disagree that there’s a correlation between following those values and one being more effective. For example, the book asserts that if you treat people respectfully, they’ll respect you back. This is not true. This is not how the world works. This is not how the brain work either and some of the facts about the brain that this book cite have been proved false.

Lastly but not least, the book gets awfully preachy, jumping into religion like if that was fact or proof of anything.

All in all I think the book pretends to be scientific but it’s very dogmatic. I’d recommend avoiding it.

★☆☆☆☆

Buy The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change in USA
Buy The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change in UK
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Screensaver Ninja might be coming back

Since discontinuing Screensaver Ninja, I have received many messages asking when it is coming back: over Twitter, Facebook, email, and even one person tracking me down on Reddit..

For those of you who don’t know what Screensaver Ninja is, here is the old explainer video:

It has been very painful to read these messages for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I strongly believe in the product. I want to have it; use it; and enable others to use it. I constantly see expensive and badly designed dashboards or wasted screens, which my product will address. Secondly, judging by the requests, other people want this just as much as I do. Not proceeding with Screensaver ninja could be a wasted business opportunity; although it is hard to tell if the demand is enough to support its development right now.

I set up a landing page explaining what happened to Screensaver Ninja and a form for people to register for notifications of its potential comeback. This was a way to save everybody’s time and frustration; for those emailing requests for up to date information when I could only say, with sadness, “it’s over”. To my surprise, this form has been gathering five or so leads a week, which is rather a lot for an abandoned product.

I have started playing with the idea that I might revive Ninja: This time I have designed a bigger system that covers many more use cases and allows me to support both Windows and Mac OS as well as other platforms just as easily.

During this process I identified the technological bottlenecks; the aspects to product creation that can take months to negotiate and solve, such as hacking Apple’s cookie jar or packaging Chromium. In doing so, I have built a selection of prototypes testing my choices – and everything is working beautifully.

So that’s it: I have decided to revive Screensaver Ninja. I have emailed all of you whom have shown interest to tell you the good news, and have received an overwhelmingly positive response from both individuals and corporations; some wanting to run hundreds of instances.

I want to be completely transparent with my supporters; I am building Screensaver Ninja by myself in my spare time between long days and after hours work at two different consultant gigs. Whilst I am looking into the options of partnerships, developers, and marketers, I have decided not to wait for these additions to the team in order to make progress. I’m very excited about this phase both from the technical as well as the business points of view so Screensaver Ninja is moving forward and I will have frequent updates.

Going into the property business 

I’m a tech entrepreneur and that has not changed, but after six or seven years of trying to have at least moderate success, I’m starting to hedge my bets.

On the side, I want to have some passive income and it looks to me like buy and hold properties, that is, buying them and renting them out, also known as buy to let, is the way to move forward. I identified some very profitable areas and they are in the least expected places. For example, in London you can expect a return on investment of around 3% while I’m getting something around 16%.

If you want to listen to my journey, I’m documenting it as I go with Clayton Morris on his podcast about investing in property. He just published the second episode in which I talk about getting the money for my first two deals.  I just pulled the trigger on starting the business. I’m super excited and I can’t wait to share more good news in the next episode. 

Bank says bad debt OK, asset not OK

I want to start buying property with the goal of generating passive income from rent. I’ve read a bunch of books, listen to podcasts, did my research and I stumbled upon a good opportunity that needs more money that I have right now but still a very low amount. So, I need a loan.

I went to a couple of banks to ask for a loan and the answer was essentially: no, we cannot lend you the money to buy this asset that will pay for itself, but if you want to blow it up on a holiday and buy some useless toys, sure, here it is!

Mind you, I can easily pay the loan from my salary. I actually save more money every month than the monthly payment of the loans and I have in the bank a third of the money. My salary has been steadily going up and I’m in an industry in which I’m in a lot of demand. Where my plan is a safe bet, betting on me is even safer.

I’m not one to believe in conspiracy theories but it almost seems like their rules are designed for people to be stupid, instead of smart, with their money; to get in bad debt instead of growing their wealth.

Now, for the nitty gritty details: I asked for a personal loan, some banks disqualify me because you are not allowed to use it for business, some banks disqualify because I’m planning on buying property. They say: “we cannot give you a personal loan for property because you may also get a mortgage”

“Ok, can you give a mortgage then?” “No, because your property is in another country”

“Can you do anything?” “No”

Let’s say I take this supposed mortgage they are so afraid of and the plan fails. Whoever has the mortgage will repossess the property and I’ll pay the bank out of my salary the same way I would if I wanted to spend the money on a caribbean cruise or home improvement.

This feels utterly ridiculous.

Using Non-Violent Communication for business

I’m just getting started reading the Non-Violent Communication book. I was in the middle of chapter 2 when I put it to work, with amazing results, in a business setting. Needless to say I’m sold on the idea and I’ll continue reading the book, perfecting it and recommending it to other people. This is what happened.

I was doing market-fit research for a new product called Glycast, which is like AdSense for Podcasts. Some years ago I built the core tech for it, but the timing was wrong and it sat on the shelf until now. Now I want to put this tech to good use, so I recorded some videos explaining how it works for podcasters and advertisers and started reaching out to talk to them, get their feedback, refine the product, validate the idea.

Shortly after setting up the landing page I got a message from Dave Jackson of School of Podcasting. In his email he asked a few questions about the service and linked to a YouTube video. I clicked the link to find a video recorded by him, with the title “Clueless Podcasts Advertisers”.  I though maybe this was about things to avoid, to watch out for. Nope, that video is about me. He never mentions me by name but he describes my operation and quotes me verbatim.

My blood started to boil. I’m not trying to harm anybody. I’m just searching for feedback to build a product podcasters and advertisers are happy with and the first message I get is attacking it. In my 6 years or so of running startups I been constantly attacked, so this wasn’t new to me. I don’t understand the mentality of people that when they don’t have a use for your product, they attack you, insult you, spread false information, etc. I normally just move on.

My first reply to the Clueless Podcast Advertisers video was, well, clueless. It went something like this:

I really don’t appreciate you posting a video, calling us clueless. We are not trying to harm anyone blah blah blah and you are attacking us. You are saying this and that and your are wrong, WRONG, WRONG.

Thankfully, I decided to stop and apply the principles of Non-Violent Communication I just learned. The first thing we have to do is observe without evaluation. We often mix the two. The books gives a few examples, such as:

You are too generous.

which is a mixing of observation and evaluation. On the other hand

When I see you give all your lunch money to others, I think you are being too generous.

is separating the two. Me, feeling attacked, was an evaluation of the situation. It was time to ignore that painful evaluation and observe. I re-read his email, I re-watched the video, observing, like an impartial third party and what I found surprised me.

David is helping people get into podcasting. These people are in a vulnerable position because they don’t yet understand the industry they are getting into so they can be subject to scams and abuse by unscrupulous third parties. I bet David is constantly exposed to people that signed up for the wrong service, bought the wrong microphone and now they are coming to him for help. And all he can do is break the bad news: you wasted money, you wasted time, you lost your audience, you are re-starting from scratch. I constantly see entrepreneurs making similar mistakes and I have to break the news and every time I wish I was there earlier, to warn them.

From David’s point of view, I was an potentially unscrupulous third party that was trying to pull off a vendor lock in. Podcasters needed to be warned about me! At this point, I felt I was on David’s side. How weird! It was a fast onset of high level empathy. I re-wrote my answer to be:

About the video. I’m not here to harm anyone. I’m here to make a product to help podcasters and advertisers connect, be more efficient. I’m building whatever podcasters will need to be happy. I understand your worry and your desire to warn your audience that might not understand RSS distribution and make a bad decision now that will cost them a chunk of their audience later on. That’s not something I want to do and I wouldn’t be happy with any company holding an audience hostage like that. I do want to work with you, and other podcasters, to make sure I meet your needs of an excellent platform that will help monetize your podcast, whatever your size is, whatever your topic is, and focus on your craft, on what you love, on podcasting.

I sent the email and I felt immediately better about it. Much better than if I sent the previous version. I consider it a success for Non-Violent Communication and I moved on. Shortly after he asked me for permission to publish this email and I said yes. What I wasn’t expected is that he was going to record a podcast episode reading the whole email and commenting about it: http://schoolofpodcasting.com/7141-2/

Among other things he says, referring to us:

I’m completely blown away by their response

About our solution, he says:

interesting, creative and I like it

He particularly refers to the paragraph I re-wrote as “the coolest part on the email”.

What a phenomenal result! I’m completely sold already on the principles of Non-Violent Communication and I can’t wait to finish reading the book and possibly reading other books too, to learn how to apply them.

The book that changed my life will horrify some of my friends

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand changed my life. Whether that was for the better or worse, it’s up for each person to decide. For me, I’m very happy with the change and I’m glad it happened. I didn’t turn into an objectivist though.

Literarily, I don’t think the book is great. I think Ayn Rand needed an editor, a very strong one. Those 15 page-long single-paragraph monologues do not make the book better. The book should probably be reduced to 500 or 600 pages from its staggering 1192.

The book divides the world into good and bad people, like many stories do, and it’s a bit simplistic. There might be a few surprises but at the end, everyone is clearly good or clearly bad. At least from Ayn Rand’s perspective. So far, nothing surprising. What was surprising for me is how the world is divider.

Good people are producers, they are the people that come with ideas, that start companies, that push progress, that fund science. Bad people are consumers, the ones that take more than they give, the ones living on welfare, but also the ones creating welfare. Bad people are the one telling the good ones that they cannot reap the benefit of their work, that it should be share.

Atlas ShruggedIn Atlas Shrugged, the good people are the Steve Jobs, the Thomas Edisons, the Steve Wozniaks, the Elon Musks, but also the Nikolai Teslas. The badies meanwhile are the Karl Marxs, the Vladimir Lenins, etc.

That’s what the book says, what objectivism is about, and not what I necessary believe. My personal belief is that if you stop the Jobs, Edisons, Musks, then you are a badie, you are stopping progress. But as a society we should take care of the people that fall into misfortune, of the ill, of the downtrodden, of the disabled, of the needy. That’s where I disagree with Ayn Rand.

One issue with the book is that she equates CEOs to the good people and that frustrates people because a lot of CEOs are more takers than creators. And most creators, like Tesla, never carried the title of CEO. Indeed, the biggest creator of all in the book is not a CEO, it’s a lowly engineer.

I don’t believe being a taker makes you a bad person but I do believe that being a taker when you can be a creator makes you bad person and this is why the book change my life. When I read it I was a taker. I was an entitled engineer working at Google most likely not producing as much as I could take when I knew my ability to product was much higher. I was waiting for someone to open the door for me to a position of productivity and that wasn’t going to happen, you have to open the door yourself.

My life changed, I decided to become a producer. So far, I reached the point of co-founding a startup that reached 4 employees (not counting me) that created various products that hopefully are making people more effective and productive. And I’m just getting started. I want to do more, I want to get bigger and provide a great working environment for more people and produce more and better products. I want to produce and give as well as take my share for my work.

Since reading Atlas Shrugged I’m a much better member of society and I wish other people would also make this transformation but I doubt Atlas Shrugged would be the catalyst for many people. It has too many issues.

Picture by Anoop Menon

Hell yeah or no

In Tim Ferris’ interview of Derek Sivers, in which he says that if your answer to a question is not “Hell yeah”, it should be “no”. This got the “Hell yeah” from many listeners and some custom artwork created. But I’m not sure I agree.

Let me elaborate a bit on the concept. Derek Sivers’ argument is that if you say yes to too many things you are going to be oversubscribed and when something truly awesome comes your way, you won’t be able to say yes because you’ll be too busy, too tired or won’t even notice. He said that if it wasn’t for him constantly saying “no” to everything, he wouldn’t have started the Nownownow project.

What’s missing from this equation is the opposite. If you are too picky, if you often have better things to do, if you are not constantly bombarded by projects and opportunities, like Sivers is now, then you might become isolated. You might miss the great opportunities because you weren’t there to see them.

I think a better approach should be something along the line of “You should be taking N new opportunities per year” where N is of course, hard or impossible to define. It’s up to you but the frequency of saying yes and no should vary to have a constant N. If you are bombarded for opportunities, then yes, you need a strong filter, such as “Hell yeah or no” but if you are not, then you need to go out and find them and that means saying yes to things that are not “Hell yeah”.

For example, for the past 4 years I been hyper-focus on my company, Carousel Apps, and my productivity has been high. But also, I missed the enjoyment of helping others with startup and the opportunities of collaboration, making connections, etc. That’s why in 2016 I want to have one evening a week sitting down and having a long conversation with someone about whatever it is they are doing and trying to help them in any way I can.