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Archive for February, 2011


6.5 Tricks To Becoming A Better Writer

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

1) Have linkbait titles.

I was recently reflecting on whether all this blogging has made me a better person because, we all know, no one reads this stuff. Similarly, it is unlikely that it has made me a better person in any respect other than that I may be a better writer. Am I a better writer? Well, I read Tim Ferris’ study on titles that get retweeted. I have heard the standard Digg-bait logic for title writing.

2) Appreciation of SEO.

My gut instinct is that most of that stuff about linkbait titles only has value at scale. Am I getting value out of that? I suspect that the only real value I am getting from writing better titles is probably SEO and Tim’s suggestions about writing crazy titles probably diminish the SEO value of a post. Of course, I am knowledgeable enough about SEO to know that the real driver is not my amazing title writing but the number of links to my post/blog. Which is few.

3) Writing a good lead.

I am terrible at this. Most of my posts are stream of conscious rambles – also, generally, rambles that are continuations of things that were going on in my head already, so the first paragraph rarely tells you the preceding story. I would actually say that my tendency is far more to have the first sentence be either a sub-title to the title, an explanation of why I am writing a post with that title, or a bad joke. Mostly bad jokes. The good news is, if this were fiction, I am doing a good job of starting in the middle rather than the beginning, so it is Hollywood.

4) Story Structure

Alas, I rarely even bother with this any more. When I was a high school debater, I was required to do extemporaneous speaking events as well – until I proved so consistently terrible and disinterested in it that I was finally put out of my misery. Every competitor in that game knew the format:

  • Introduction
  • Point 1
  • Point 2
  • Point 3
  • Conclusion with circular reference

I have found that most of my blog posts today are something like:

  • Introduction
  • Point 1
  • Peter out……..

This is a visceral trade-off in some ways. Would people prefer me to bang out a post or three per week (my target is three per week) or would you like a monthly post that is a ten page well-constructed diatribe?

I have opted to ere on the side of volume and pointless-ness. Certainly, that means many posts are simply me getting a quick thing off my chest, but that isn’t necessarily bad. Some of those things are good.

5) Value Brevity

Some days I think I should simply focus all my wittiness on Twitter. Some days I think I should abandon Twitter to capture all the wittiness on my blog. Maybe I should more aggressively stream my wittiest tweets onto Twitter. Regardless, I certainly look at some of my blog posts and how they peter out and think, “If I could get this down another ten characters, it could just be a tweet.” But I like to tell my stories how they are. I do think of myself as an entertaining storyteller and I am loath to ruin a good story simply to get it down to 150 characters.

But I do think it tells you something about the market that if you go google “blogging makes you a better writer”, 4 of the first 8 results are actually “twitter makes you a better writer”. If twitter actually makes you a better writer, we are doomed as a society.

6) Writing makes you a better writer

This is probably the best thing that I have gotten out of blogging – besides the relationships I have built through blogging. Every single writer says, “to become a better writer, you have to write.” I have cranked out almost 400 blog posts. There has to be a pony in there somewhere.

Despite that, I do not think I will ever write a book. I love great writing. I appreciate great writing. I have found that if I work very, very hard I can write very well (few examples of this exist on my blog, but you could look here or here), but I cannot sustain it. And I have bad writing so much that I cannot write a book. You want good writing? Go read Jonathan Safran Foer.

6.5) Annoying writing devices are annoying

Any time people use that “and a half” cliche in list writing, I instantly loathe them. I loathe them. Jeffrey Gitomer? LOATHE HIM. (I cannot link to him but let’s say that every week he tells you X.5 ways to do something in sales.)

I cannot read a post, no matter how linkbait, that starts that way. I encourage you to never, ever do that. It is a stupid thing to say and a stupid device. It reminds me of people that price things with a $0.99 on the end – maybe studies demonstrate its effectiveness, but I find it so smug and I feel like I am being sold the post – and Jeffrey Gitomer knows that no one likes to be sold, they like to buy.

Your transparent use of devices makes me hate you. That is not good writing. It is as unsubtle as a jackhammer.

Was this post facetious? As I mentioned, I ramble. That was not the original intent. I was spending some B-time thinking about what I could do to improve my blog posts, but unfortunately I have been struck with the stark realization that the key to this is time and the only way I can create time to improve my posts is to post less frequently.  My informal polling, as well as research by third parties, indicates that frequency right now is pretty good and I would be hurting myself to lower it. And I am barely keeping up as it is.

So I have decided to settle – a recipe for non-greatness.

Alex Gizis is Worth His Weight In Gold

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Alex Gizis is one of the biggest geeks I know. And I love him for it. This post is about how great it is to know geeks. And more importantly, start companies with geeks.

One of my favorite sayings is that true innovation happens close to the iron. By that I mean that people like myself tend to move the world in one of two ways:

  • incrementally, or
  • impractically

The reason that is true is that I am not close to the iron. I am a suit. People close to the iron can realize much more dramatic change.

I was asked to give an example of this the other day and I used Alex in my example. The example goes something like this:

I have a great idea for a new start-up: We are going to build teleportation devices. Huge market opportunity. I am going to have a market cap bigger than all the car companies, all the airlines, and Fedex… combined. Awesome idea.

Should you join my company? No. I am an insane person. You would dismiss me out of hand.

If Alex called me and said, “Hey Brent, I think I figured out a way to build a machine that teleports matter,” I would quit my job the next day to help him realize it. Because when a guy like Alex tells you that he has ideas that sound crazy, he has figured out how to make them work.

Look at his current company, Connectify. He was playing around with Windows 7 and thought, “I bet I can turn these computers into routers quickly and easily”. Lo and behold, now every Windows 7 box can be a wifi station for free. If I told you, “hey, lets turn every Windows 7 computer into a wifi hot spot and build a mesh network”, I sound crazy. Alex already did it.

I am a suit. My ideas relate to markets and needs that customers have that become more or less apparent to people studying the market. People close to the code see things you can do with the code that no one imagines to be reasonable.

Those are innovations that change the world.

When Bonus Plans Go Wrong

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

So last week we talked a lot about structuring bonus plans. Because it is bonus plan season, I have heard some horror stories that I wanted to talk about.

So when a CEO at a big company is setting up his budget for the coming year, one of the top of mind things is “making my bonus”, “making my bonus”, “making my bonus”. Because really, what else is there? You want to set up the plan for success. Typically this means signing up for the smallest number possible. Signing up for a huge revenue and profit target makes getting your bonus hard. It would be way better to sign up for a smaller number, then hit the huge number and take advantage of the monster accelerator to make crazy bank.

And this is true for every part of the organization! You want to retain your best talent. That means paying out big bonuses. The problem is, if you set your goals low, you have to set expenses low. Frequently that means layoffs. You can rarely justify low revenue goals and high expenses. Even in a start-up, your revenue goals still need to increase significantly on a percentile basis year over year though expenses may exceed revenue.

Unfortunately, sometimes this works too well. When public companies lay off large numbers of employees, then pay out large bonuses 12 months later, it is disconcerting. Or when they are “getting set” for next year and do a big layoff and then pay out large bonuses simultaneously, that can be even more disconcerting.

The other situation where this is disturbing is when a company makes goal based on one-time transactions not pre-conceived by the original plan – like selling assets to generate net income.

Not to name names, but a public company that we are all familiar with just paid out on significant over achievement of plan when stockholders and third parties would probably call it anything but the plan they had in mind.


How To Structure Your Bonus Plan

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

I am a huge believer in bonus plans and yet I see far too many small companies not offer bonus plans. Let’s do a quick Bonus Plan FAQ:

Why don’t they offer bonus plans?

I suspect it is because they worry that they will not have the money to pay out at the end of the year.

Why should you offer a bonus plan?

Bonus plans, structured properly, can be motivating. They can align an employee’s efforts with the company’s objectives and can help drive retention.

When I started at, few things excited me more than my boss telling me: “Last year we hit 173% of goal. We are at 143% right now.” When I looked at my target bonus and did the math, I got excited. Low base be damned, that was a big check. It is exciting to crush your goals.

How big a bonus do people need?

The real question here is how large does the bonus need to be to change behavior. I think a 25% bonus creates a huge change in behavior. A 10% bonus makes people happy: That is more than a month’s salary! A bonus smaller than 5% does not create big behavioral changes. A bonus smaller than 2% might as well be zero.

At one place I worked, I was told that the bonus could be between 10% and 45% based on achievement of company goals. Lofty claim, but as every employee there will tell you, despite this claim, the bonus every year was 10%. As my former boss at this employer said to me: For a claim like that to be credible, there has to be a year, somewhere, sometime, when they pay out the 45%. Employees know what is crazy and what is real.

How would you structure a bonus plan?

Glad you asked. Here is a simple approach: Conventional wisdom says that a bonus consists of two parts: Funding the pool, then splitting the pool.

Funding the pool means getting the money to pay out bonuses. If you are just getting started with your bonus plan, I think you do that something like this: You have a revenue target this year of X and a profit margin target of Y. For example, you have a consulting company and your goal for this year is to get to $1m in sales and $200k in profits. That is like consulting company financial model 101. So the salaries you pay out to the company are probably on the order of 1/3 of the revenue: $330k. So if you want to offer a 15% bonus to all of your employees, you need to set aside $50k. This means that monthly you have an “expense” of setting aside $4k for your bonus pool. (15% of monthly salary expense) Including that expense, you want to get to 1m in sales and 20% margin. So we have a starting point for funding the pool. Now, the pool gets smaller for failing to achieve goals and the pool gets bigger for over-achieving. Typically, people talk about having an “accelerator” for over-achieving on goals. Regardless, the model might look something like this.

At less than $800k in revenue or less than 15% margins (whatever some reasonable number is – a number that would be bad but not completely disaster), the bonus goes to zero. At $800k and 15% margins, the bonus pool is funded at 5%. You can then draw some lines from there that help you fund the pool with varying amounts between 5% and 15%. Similarly, you might say: If we exceed $1.2m in revenue with margins at 25% or greater, the pool becomes funded at 25%. If we exceed $1.5m, the pool gets funded at some greater amount (40%?) – we accelerated it. The point is that at some not completely insane number greater than goal, it grows much faster. There is probably a margin component here as well, but my point is that if revenue goes up but margin stays flat, that is still pretty amazing for a small company and the ownership can carve out a little more profit to give back to the employees – that is where the acceleration dollars frequently come from. Typically the idea is that at a certain point, ownership starts splitting incremental profit dollars with employees (maybe 50/50 at peak acceleration).

Pick a number that can be achieved. When CEOs at medium or large companies with boards and investors and things like that pick this number, they pick it like they will be fired if they don’t achieve it. If you pick overly ambitious goals as your target, you set up everyone for failure. Stretch goals are for the accelerator. Realistic goals are for the basic number.

So now you have a pool of dollars – maybe 10%, maybe 20% of total employee salaries. Employee reviews suddenly mean a lot! Somehow you do them, but the point is that your top 10% of employees should get 2x their target percentage. And the bottom 20% get nothing. And the rest get something approximating the target and you have some extra funny money to spread around.

When do you distribute bonuses?

Annual bonuses can be distributed whenever. A lot of companies also use this to drive retention in ways that aren’t fun for employees. Tools like: We do annual reviews 30 days after the period ends (February 1 for people on the calendar year) and then payout bonuses on April 1. So now people would be crazy to quit before April 1 – You leave a free month or more of salary on the table!

What else could I do?

Once you have this framework, you can do a lot of different things. Some consulting companies, rather than having an annual bonus, have a per project bonus based on profitability calculations associated with that specific job. Some people do this quarterly.

Many (virtually every) large companies have different target bonuses for different titles (more senior people have larger targets – 10% for the rank and file, 15% for VP, 20% for SVP, 25% for CEO, stuff like that). This just requires that you accrue money into the pool at slightly different rates for salary by title. If you are big enough to have this kind of striation, then it is probably not hard to do the math.

Finally, many larger companies with more mature plans segment out the corporate achievement from the personal achievement to varying degrees. This recognizes the oft-claimed “I can’t affect how well the company does” whine. So a junior person with a 10% bonus plan may have that bonus funded regardless of corporate achievement. The CEO only gets paid if the company achieves its goal (100% tied to corporate performance). The VP may be 50% personal achievement (funded regardless of corporate goals, tied to his achievement of MBOs) and 50% corporate goals. But remember there is no accelerator for these people – there is just divvying up the pool of cash created by the aggregation of people at their level.

But I can’t affect GOAL X!

You hear this a lot from junior people, but you shouldn’t let that bother you. We gave people utilization targets at previous employers and heard from junior people all the time, “But I can’t control my utilization”. That might sound true on face, but let me tell you this: Our best consultants never had a free moment, yet our most problematic consultants struggled to find people that would take them on. Somehow, performance was correlated with utilization in a highly constructive way. The more awesome your work output was and the more awesome you were to work with for both our teams and our clients, the busier you found yourself.

Secondly, we wanted people motivated to get busy. You should look for work. If you think you are about to run out of things to do, you need to start asking around. If we offer you work, but it is not as “awesome” as you were hoping it would be, we want you to think for a second before you tell us that it is not good enough for you.

Thirdly, if we are struggling to keep people busy, your utilization is probably going to be the least of your bonus worries in a second.

Why did you recommend tying everyone to corporate goals then?

I kicked off this post with the supposition that you didn’t have a bonus plan yet. If you don’t, and you want to introduce one, the most pressing problem is usually arranging to have the cash exist to support one. Tying it to corporate goals is the best way to ensure that achievement of bonuses only happens if there is cash in the bank to support it. If the goals are missed, then the company simply transfers the “bonus reserve” expense into the coffers of profit to make the year whole.

Similarly, I recommended an annual plan because an annual plan gives you time to save cash, makes you less sensitive to AR/AP issues, and is easy to administer. Many people will tell you that more frequent bonuses motivate people more because they are more tangible.

How can ownership game the system?

There are a lot of ways to get ahead in this system if you are ownership. First, you typically don’t pay a bonus to people that join in Q4 of that year – yet you are taking dollars out to fund plan. These dollars later drop to the bottom line. Furthermore, many people quit through the course of the year – those people were having dollars reserved for them the whole time, yet their bonus goes “poof” when they quit.

In large organizations, typically the CFO socks those dollars in a rainy day fund for resolving any conflicts that arise in the bonus process (“OK, I will increase the pool for your division 1% more to help you out”) or if you need some extra money for a hire outside of budget.

This also helps when you have varying bonus goals and you want to move the needle a little more for a guy that gets a big payout. Now you have a little slush fund to help goose his payout a bit without taking money from other people.

Finally, another key trick is that you pay out on people’s base salary paid out, not on their actual base. So if someone joined July 1 and makes $90k/year with a target of 10%, then their eligible bonus at plan is actually 10% of $45k – they only received $45k in pay that year. This actually makes a lot of sense because the business was only accruing bonus dollars for that person for half the year – 10% of the $45k was accrued.

Small Businesses Are Causing Economic Collapse

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

I have talked about Coasean economics before: Firms grow or shrink around the concept of transaction costs. As long as the marginal value of absorbing a function into the company is positive, a company will continue to vertically and/or horizontally integrate. Similarly, as services become cheaper, it makes sense for companies to shrink – sometimes in unfriendly ways.

One of the most common manifestations of this law are the axioms we hear around building start-ups today: You can get pretty far on a few hundred thousand dollars, when you needed millions in the past. Companies that had to have 20 people and tons of hardware and software (Sun boxes and Oracle licenses) to launch can have two guys and AWS and be ready to roll. It is widely agreed that there are more rapidly growing companies (thanks to the market testing going on by the sheer volume of new start-ups) and more start-ups than ever before.

Still, the economy is sucky. I read an article in the Atlantic that really got my gears turning last week. You should read it.

Unemployment is high. Super high!

And I don’t think there is much to be done, frankly. Manufacturing jobs are moving off-shore. The global value of manufacturing work will be set by countries with far lower standards of living than the US, unfortunately. Knowledge work is moving off-shore as well, although I think we are seeing, as organization focus on agility, that the nature of software and business requires a nimbleness and group-think best served by co-location. In fact, the value of that nimbleness and co-location dejustify distribution, even as tools for distributing work become more widespread. Isn’t that amazing?

Still, when you pay more for co-location, that limits the amount of people you can employ. But that is okay because we have nimble technology. Unless you need a job. Then it is tough because companies only have a few employees.

I want to go one level deeper in the analysis of how Web 2.0 technologies have changed the game: I think most small service businesses will disappear also. When I look around my local market, I see dozens, probably hundreds, of four to twelve person service companies. Why? I am increasingly seeing a trend where the employees of these companies realize that they are not adding a lot of value. Small businesses like that frequently struggle to keep staff utilized, resulting in low utilization and poor profitability. The result is that nobody is making mad cash at a business like this. Plus, the possibility of losing a big client and two or three people getting laid off happens with alarming regularity.

Why not go free agent? More and more people are choosing exactly that. And with the growth of things like co-working facilities, the terror and loneliness of being a free agent, as well as the stigma, are being erased. Further, I am seeing at places like the Baltimore Beehive that the aggregation of free agents helps free agents find work: If a programmer wins a job, he pulls in a designer. And vice versa. Rarely does he look to a big firm to help him. And he is co-located with the designer so the relationship is easy to manage.

Ronald Coase would say that even a small firm adds a lot of overhead. Does it lower the price of services? As the economy has changed, frequently not. Markups usually shrink as people become free agents.

What kills an ad network?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Many people commented last week on the AdWeek article about’s decline – an article that I foreshadowed with my magnum opus dissection of ad networks: Whither Ad Networks.

While I agree with the gist of the article (obviously, based on my previous writings) – Ad Networks are screwed by the advent of exchanges – I think there is a bit more to the story.

  • sales organization basically disappeared for quite some length of time under Tim/Jeff
  • technology execution was not great/distracted during this key period

One of the things that shocked me – absolutely shocked me – was Tim’s approach to when he took over Aol. Rather than treating as the jewel in Aol’s crown, he focused on the content side of the business.

Maybe, coming from Google, he was spoiled by the best ad inventory in the world (pages with search results) and wants to recreate that awesome inventory, knowing that advertisers will follow. But what he had at was probably the third biggest aggregation of advertisers buying inventory in a marketplace after Google and Yahoo!. One would have thought that he would value that highly and focus on how to get more advertisers participating in that marketplace. His approach to achieving this was to minimize the sales force’s role in bringing advertisers into the marketplace and bet heavily on self-service. Unfortunately, self-service grew, but not in a Googly way. Google’s self-service was the way that people could access the most valuable inventory on the Internet (search results). The result was an incredibly strong gravitational pull. Further, the self-service platform was not production ready when he started to downsize the sales focus.

I suspect (and I have no knowledge of this from an insider perspective) that some of the consultants and advisers he brought in from Google and/or internal Aol people counseled him that Google + DoubleClick would run over and crush that entire business. The result is he became less invested in the business, took the sales force and diverted them to selling premium content.

Did execute poorly? Did the market change? Sure. But if you take 75% of the sales people and tell them to go sell Aol, that is bad, too. technology didn’t execute crisply either. They are in the midst of an ad server consolidation project now that will hopefully leave them with a more nimble, flexible architecture, but as a result of this and previous, similar projects, following the market with mediation technology, APIs for programmatic buyings, DMPs, and other technologies didn’t really happen. ended up bidding into exchanges to expand their reach (just do simply low frequency bids on run of network-ish inventory, low-tech), but not becoming an exchange because that required more technology execution.

So while it is easy to say that a new technology era happened, Aol failed to respond to that change and that is why they are no longer successful, that overstates the effect outside factors had on the state of today. I agree with the insider comments in the AdWeek article that internal miasma played a role as well. The decision to aggressively shrink the sales force and underinvest in the technology stack no doubt had huge impacts on the business.

Now, maybe Tim made the right decision – maybe executing on the tech would have not been successful regardless, so Google would have won, so this was the right thing to do. There is no way to know. My point is divorcing the external pressures from the internal changes is impossible, so no single factor pointed the way to the decline of the organization.

When you look around online advertising, DNA is imprinted on many of the most successful companies out there. Sadly, when you look at Aol, there is precious little DNA left and the DNA there is no longer given the tools to build that business.

New Five Minute Diet Revolutionizes World

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

I know I went after Tim Ferris pretty hard earlier this week. As a Tim Ferris disciple, as I am sure many of you are, it was a hard thing. But I must keep going. I MUST KEEP GOING.

Maybe you are saying, “Maybe the moral of the story is that losing weight is hard. The MED is high.”

Maybe. At the end of the day, there is an element of caloric restriction that is basically a law of nature. If you eat less than X, you lose weight. Eating less is hard, ipso facto, diet is hard.

But I want to give you an example, unexplored by the Ferris, of what I was hoping for.

Saw a new study on CNN last August that I have tried to take advantage of and I recommend it to you as well. This was a small sample size, but it was published in the peer-reviewed journal “Obesity”, which is the leading journal in the field for medical research, so it is the real deal.

Here was the study:

  • The scientists prescribed the exact same low calorie diet to two different groups.
  • The variable they introduced was that one group drank 16oz of water before each meal.

What happened?

The group that drank water before each meal lost 4.5 pounds more than the control group in three months.

That is a great diet. All you have to do before dinner each night is drink a large glass of water and you will lose a tiny, tiny amount of weight.

You will soon see Facebook ads for “water” replacing the ads for Acai Berry. I suspect the conversion rates will be low.

What is the best first step for starting a new company?

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

When I was a senior in college at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, already hard at work on my first start-up, I found myself standing next to the Dean of Wharton, Thomas Gerrity. Dean Gerrity was a pretty impressive guy. He was renowned for being the only Dean of a business school that had actually run a huge business. He had gotten a double undergrad from MIT, been a Rhodes Scholar, then gotten a PhD from MIT, but then he started the Index Group and grew that to be a billion dollar consulting company.

Yeah, he is a lot smarter than me.

So I told him that I had a consulting company and asked for his advice on starting a company and he said simply, “Have your first customer before you start”.

It doesn’t get simpler or truer than that. The first paying customer is always the hardest one. Now you have a reference-able client, you have revenue, you have success stories. That is half the business right there. Getting that first customer is similar in many ways to finding a co-founder. If you struggle to find a co-founder and can’t find someone that is interested in buying before you start the company, you might be barking up the wrong tree. These are all good gating criteria to tell you if you are ready to be an entrepreneur or if your idea is credible.

Tim Ferris Stole My Breakfast

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

The Minimum Effective Dose not only delivers the most dramatic results, but it does so in the least time possible… These are the types of prescriptions you should seek and these are the kinds of prescriptions I will offer.”

– Tim Ferris, The Four Hour Body

I have historically been a Tim Ferris fan. I blog about him all the time. I wrote an endorsement of his new book before it even came out and bought five copies of his book when it was released.

But now I am in a snit. I am trying to adopt the Tim Ferris philosophy regarding diet and it is sub-optimal. He outlines at the start of the book that he is looking for little changes that make a big difference. At the start of the diet chapter, he characterizes his diet thusly:

“Let me explain exactly how Chris and I reach and maintain sub-12% body-fat, often sub-10%, by strategically eating like pigs”

That is all well and good to say, but what he outlines is a diet where you can eat like a pig one day per week and the other six days you must follow a draconian diet plan that crushes my soul. Here are the things you are not allowed to eat on Tim’s diet plan:

  • No bread
  • No rice
  • No cereal
  • No oatmeal
  • No potatoes
  • No pasta
  • No fried foods
  • No dairy
  • No fruit

Tim further comments in a recent blog post:

“The following will address 99%+ of those who are confused:

– If you have to ask, don’t eat it.
– If you haven’t had blood tests done, I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you aren’t measuring inches or haven’t measured bodyfat % with an accurate tool (BodPod, etc. and NOT bodyfat scales), I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you’re a woman and taking measurements within 10 days prior to menstruation (which I advise against in the book), I don’t want to hear about the lack of progress.”

So much for taking the easy way out. My failure to do extensive blood testing and get access to tools like a BodPod mean I have no recourse to complain, yet my complaint is that I have to do all this stuff in the first place.

Enjoy meats, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, and plenty of beans.

I have to tell you, if that is the minimum effective dose to drop fat, then I am a monkey’s uncle. Am I losing weight? Some, not as much as I would like. Of course, I am basically getting there via caloric restriction: Egg whites are low calorie. Vegetables are low calorie. Chicken, etc. I don’t eat beans every meal.

Does this feel easy? Is this how I enjoy the holidays without the weight gain? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for holiday fun.

As I reflect on this, it seems like just playing the weight watchers game would be a more “Occam’s Protocol” than this plan. Or that thing that home delivers meals.

How Do You “Flow”

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Recently, a budding entrepreneur sent me the following question:

How valuable is “the zone” to you – that working flow state?  If it’s extremely valuable how do you protect it (closed doors? headphones? etc.)?  How do you protect it without alienating family?

I thought this was a fascinating question and syndicated it out to some of my fellow entrepreneurs and people I know and respect. Here were their answers:

Brian O’Kelley

I sit smack in the middle of the AppNexus office. We don’t have cubes, just lines of tables. It’s my job to be the nexus of communication for the company, to hear the  sales pitches and creative ideas (and dumb ones). I think I exude a “don’t bother me unless it’s important” vibe, but let me tell you: if somebody interrupts me when they know I’m in the zone – it’s important, and I want to be bothered.

Some of my developers say the buzz and murmur of the office is annoying, so they wear headphones. I don’t like headphones, because you don’t hear anything going on around you. There’s a lot of ambient information floating around. I can tune out the noise, and I’d argue that selective hearing is a skill that entrepreneurs need. I think it works well at home (and not just when the baby is crying). My family is priority #1, so they get dibs on my attention – but they also respect my need to focus.

Finally, I’d say that the ability to context switch quickly and fully is imperative. I can’t type and listen fully to someone, so I need to stop typing, give you my full attention, and then go back to total focus. Cooperative multitasking, if you will. That mitigates the need for “the zone” to be protected. If I can pop in and out easily, interruptions aren’t that big of a deal.

Dave Troy

It’s all about planning how you’re going to use your time. I block out each day in terms of what I plan to do; if I’m doing email, I plan a couple of hours to focus only on that. If I’m doing programming, I set aside a block of time for that. In general, bigger blocks are better. Also, if you really want to program creatively, there’s nothing worse than having something hanging over you – like a phone call at 3pm. Block out the whole day and leave yourself an open end-time. Amazing how creative you can be in that context.

Mike Subelsky

When I am feeling stagnated, I tend to leave my house and go to a coffee shop.  I can get a lot of things done outside the house, even though I have a pretty sweet office setup.  When I’m home and working I turn on a loud white noise generator app that blocks out all sounds, so I’m less tempted to stop what I’m doing every few minutes to see what awesome things my kids are up to.

But, I just recently started to change my mind about the importance of all this.  The Zone is extremely valuable to me, but there’s only so much I can do to get it. As much as I want to be in the zone all the time, I don’t want to miss out on a second of my young children’s development.  My wife also works and we share the childcare duties 50/50, so there’s a real limit to how isolated and creative I can be on a given day.  So, I’ve started to squeeze what productivity I can out of the short intervals that I do have.  I guess I’m saying that while nothing beats being in that flow state, I’m finding I don’t have to be in a flow state to be creative and get things done.

Andy Monfried

“the zone” is hugely valuable to me.  it comes in two ways.  one is verbal — which is phone time, and the other is idea, or email, writing time

i like to make my commute in, and drive home (and drive 60-90 minutes each way in and out of nyc, and its only a 15 mile drive) my “phone zone.”  i use this time to connect with employees, clients, and people i need to speak with.  i typically make a list of 2-3 calls i MUST make — and make sure i call them (scheduled or not) then.

second is writing emails and/or jotting down ideas.  most of my ideas come to me at odd times, therefore i leave myself long voicemails, and then the next day listen to them, and briefly transcribe my thoughts.  i will leave myself generally 3-5 essages on my phone per week (i call my office number and leave a message) — and, i’ve done it in the middle of the night, or while watching a game.

my REAL zone of thought and output typically comes from “solo” time (commuting, traveling on a plane) and 99% of my ideas are not good — but the 1% is important that i can capture the “lighting in a bottle” to remind myself and DOCUMENT when the “goodness” of the zone happens.

Capturing and documenting sometimes is AS IMPORTANT, as finding the zone….

Jonathan Mendez

best way to protect is get your flow on from 9pm – 2am when you can’t be disturbed

Jerry Neumann

It’s very valuable to me, when I can find it.

I protect it by:

(a) having an office (can’t get it when kids are around)

(b) having blocks of time when I don’t plan any meetings or calls, either whole days or half-days

(c) occasionally turning off the internet, when I’m having trouble concentrating