24 hours of happy

I stumbled across a Medium post a few days ago on how Pharrell’s song “Happy” has been topping the charts around the world, but somehow hasn’t made it here yet. The post says it will probably grow in popularity, and then because the summer hit of 2014.

After two days, I would not be surprised. The song is bouncy, and catchy, and just makes you want to dance. The music video just adds to it, showing a bunch of people dancing to the song.

As if the music video wasn’t enough, it actually comes from a much larger project: 24 hours of happy. Pharrell and his crew actually recorded 24 hours of people dancing to the song. You would think the song would get old, but after 2 days of watching it for a few hours a day (it was in the background as I worked), I’m not sure it will get old. There is something magical about seeing someone dance. Each person has their own personality and style, and each dance feels like a new video. Amazing.

The 24 hour video is the best thing I’ve stumbled across in a while. I can check in at any hour, and there is always joy and entertainment. Beyond that, it is a great example of how we music and technology can be fused to create the type of art that has never been created before. I hope other artists get inspired, and push the boundaries of what modern art could be.

Not yet a good bet

sprout

Yesterday, I wrote about my new goal to be more open on this blog. This means being more personal about my own strengths/weaknesses, delving deeper into my own psyche, and writing more about what I am actually doing on my enterpreneurial journey. It will make blogging more cathartic for myself, and should hopefully make a better read for you.

Here is an example of what I mean.

Earlier, I wrote about securing investment from others. The main idea behind that post was that in order to secure investment from others, you must seem like a good bet.  The problem is that you won’t always seem like a good investment. In those circumstances, the only thing you can do is bet on yourself. With time (and of course with working smart), you will eventually become a good bet.

If I look at that blog post, it sounds interesting in theory. The problem is that it is abstract. If you read between the lines, you will see what I was trying to get at. But, to make things easier, I could just come out and say it.

What I meant to say is:

I am not yet a good bet. But I hope that one day I will be.

Specifically, I speak in terms of startups. I am not yet a good bet for seed or angel funding. I know this because if I was looking at myself from an outside perspective, I wouldn’t invest.

In startups, a good investment seems like it has some sort of unfair advantage. There are several ways you could have an unfair advantage, and I don’t meet any of them. Here are what I can come up with:

  • Experience: Founders or early employees with a success under their belt have valuable experience. It gives them an unfair advantage compared to most, and it is no wonder why some of these people can raise on simply an idea. Guess what? I have no experience in startups. Zero points for me.
  • Team: You hear about team all the time. An experienced team is the best. If they aren’t experienced, a few super smart friends who have banded together may also be a good bet. It isn’t surprising that accelerators prefer teams. The bad news is that I am a inexperienced solo founder at the moment. Again, zero points.
  • Market insight: This is another form of experience. Even if I have no experience in startups, if I had deep knowledge about my niche, that would give me an unfair advantage; one that may be worth betting on. My area of expertise is in computer architecture, and now I am building a social media web app. Those aren’t the same thing: zero points.
  • Traction: If there is one thing that trumps everything else, it is traction. If doesn’t matter who you are. If you go to a VC with massive traction in a big market, you will be probably be a good bet. I have no traction.

Let’s check out my total score: zip.. zero.. zilch. This is why I am not yet a good bet.

So, I’m doing the one thing that I can do: investing in myself.

21 months ago, I quit an industry research job and jumped into the deep end. I picked up front-end and back-end web programming. I’ve dabbled in product design. I’ve built and scrapped three different products along the way. I’ve played with different consumer web apps and studyed them to figure out why they are great (or why they aren’t). I’ve spent a good amount of time on Hacker News, reddit, USV.com, etc. I’ve been blogging to develop my own thoughts. And, I’ve been slowly building a network of founders and operators. Through this time, I’ve been living off of savings, which obviously won’t last forever.

To be honest, I haven’t gotten far. But I still feel good about myself because I have learned a whole hell of a lot. I can feel the growth. Yes, there is a lot more to do, but progress matters.

I’m like a tiny sprout in the middle of the forest. Around me are the giant redwoods; the Googles and the Amazons. They dominate the forest, and are impossible to miss. Some are smaller, but still difficult to miss: the AirBnbs, Dropboxes, Pinterests, and Tumblrs. And even smaller, you see all the saplings. They aren’t huge, but they have grown a good bit, and show potential. These might be worth investing in.

But the sprouts? They are tiny. As an outside observer, there isn’t much you can do with all of the sprouts. You can’t really see them unless you look close. And if you look close, they are everywhere. Which one would you bet on?

As a sprout, the only thing you can do is (1) remember that everyone started as a sprout, and (2) give yourself the chance to grow.

So that is where I stand.

I am not yet a good bet. But with time, I think that one day I will be. Hopefully, it comes sooner than later. My savings won’t last forever.

Entrepreneurs: the eternal optimists

 

boats-sunset-flickr-jeantil

Recently, my girlfriend and I have started running together a few days a week. It is the perfect chance to exercise, talk about how our days went, and chat about anything that may be on our minds. So far, it has been awesome.

During our run today, I began to get excited about my current work on Soulmix. I started talking about how great things could be, and how exciting the big vision could be. I didn’t get more than a minute or two into this before my girlfriend stopped me.

The following conversation went something like this:

Her: “Alex, the big vision is great and all, but you need to figure out how to get it off the ground from nothing.”

Me: “I know, I know.. I’m just talking about how I’m starting to see more potential in the project.. of course, if it pans out.”

Her: “I just don’t want you to count your chickens before they hatch. In the past two years, you have gotten this excited 3 times already, and then later on decided to work on something different. It might be good to not focus on the big vision that much right now, and keep focusing on what comes next in the short term.”

Me: “Yes.. it has already happened a few times. But hey! I’ve been learning a lot, and I have to choose something to be working on. I’m only going to choose, it might as well be something which I believe has a big vision behind it. Whether it actually does? I’m not sure. I guess I will find out somehow. But I need to believe it.”

The last sentence seems to be one of the defining characteristics of entrepreneurs: we want to believe.

We are eternal optimists. Actually, it is more than that. We have to be eternal optimists.

The entrepreneurial journey is tough. It is a rollercoaster of a ride, and it would be difficult (if not impossible) to withstand the continual ups and downs without believing in ourselves, and believing in the vision. At times, that belief is all there is.

We are eternal optimists, but not eternal blind optimists.

The trick is to believe, and then forge ahead with eyes wide open, looking for the obstacles and market realities that will render the belief useless.

How do you manage this?

I don’t know.. I’m still figuring it all out. But I can tell you it certainly ain’t easy.

 

A lot of people…

alarm-bell-flickr-SchuminWeb

This phrase has always been a little pet peeve of mine: “A lot of people…”.

Fox News is a master at using this phrase: “A lot of people are asking whether… <enter proposterous thing there>”. Beyond the TV, it is used all over the place in real-life arguments and debates.

Whenever I hear this, warning bells go off in my head. Ding.. ding.. ding!! Warning, warning! Be careful about what comes next!

The main problem is an argument that starts with “a lot of people…” is vague.

What is it?

Is the argument arguing existence? It is possible, but if existence was the main argument, there would be no reason to say the words “a lot”.

People only add “a lot” because they want to make it sound like a lot. Usually people say it because it would support their stance in an argument.

So if we are trying to argue “a lot”, than how many?

Is it everyone? Is it most people? If it is one of these two, the argument makes a lot of sense.

If it isn’t most people in the world, the meaning of “a lot of people” becomes more difficult to understand.

Is it 45% of people? Or is it .1% of people. 45% is obviously a lot of people, but even .1% of the world population is a good number of people (with a world population of +7B, we’d be talking about +7M people!).

In this case, I want to make sure we agree on what we are talking about. If we care about percentages of a population, lets talk about that. If we care about the absolute number of people, lets focus on that.

Sorry, this post turned into somewhat of a rant.

I guess I’m just trying to say, if you hear an argument that starts with “A lot of people…”, watch out.

And if you find yourself saying it, make sure to think it through and clarify what it means.

OK, rant over 🙂

Moar thanks

RandyPausch-TimeManagement-Thanks-mod

This is a screen capture from a talk by the late Randy Pausch on time management. If you haven’t seen the talk, it is a great talk. Highly recommended.

During the slide, he mentions the importance of focus and organization in your working environment, and uses his desk as an example. He only has a few his desk:

  • An outbox that acts as an interface for physical things between him and his secretary.
  • A box of tissues. A class he teaches is particularly tough, and offering tissues is useful to comfort students who cry.
  • A wall calendar.
  • Work order forms.
  • Envelopes.
  • Post-it notes.
  • Thank you cards.

The last one stuck out at me. How many people have thank you cards on their desk?

Randy goes on to explain the importance of ‘thank you’s. People don’t say thanks enough, and it can make a huge difference. We tend to focus on the bad stuff in life, and forget the good. ‘Thank you’s help remind people the good that they have done. Even if nothing has gone wrong, that in and of itself can be a good thing. Randy mentions often thanking is secretary when things have gone smoothly: “a few weeks have gone by, and nothing has gone wrong. Thanks!”. There are even benefits to saying ‘thank you’. Once Randy thanked an attendee at a conference, who turned around and offered him a lucrative contracting job. So saying ‘thank you’ may even be a great strategy for advancing your career. Even so, the reason to give thanks is because it is the right thing to do.

This particular part of the talk greatly inspired me.

My desk is cluttered with much more than seven things on it, and none of them include thank you notes.

Perhaps it is time to get some, and spend some time actively giving thanks.

It also makes me think. Written letters are great because they feel very personal, but they require time, as well as a known mailing address. Email is more convenient, but feels less personal.

Is there a better way to send thanks? Hmmm.. perhaps there’s an app for that. If there isn’t, there should be 🙂

To feel alive

RUSH

I recently watched the movie Rush, a movie on the 70’s rivalry between Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. In a voice-over early on in the movie, James Hunt talks about women, driving, and feeling alive:

I have a theory why women like racing drivers. It’s not because they respect what we do, driving round and round in circles. Mostly they think that’s pathetic, and they’re probably right. It’s our closeness to death. You see, the closer you are to death, the more alive you feel, the more alive you are. And they can see that in you, they feel that in you.

This quote immediately rang true, and stuck with me: not the part about women (I’m sure it may be true), but the part about feeling alive.

The closer you get to death, the more you feel alive.

The thing is, this is pretty extreme. I’ve never had a real brush with death, and most of the people I know haven’t either.

For us, there may be another less-extreme way to put it:

You closer you get to failure, the more alive you feel.

This feels very true to me, although I admit I have only learned it recently.

For most of my academic/working life, I wouldn’t say that I did much which made me feel particularly alive.

In school, many things didn’t matter. Sure, an ‘A’ was tough to get. But for the most part, passing (i.e., getting a D- or better) was pretty easy. Grad school was similar. Getting a specific paper published was difficult, but with time, most PhD students figured out how to graduate with a paper or more. With so many PhDs graduating, failure didn’t feel like a huge concern.

Since I quit my job, things have drastically changed. Failure is a real option. I have already worked on several projects that have not panned out. These failures have cost me time and money, both of which are valuable. I make no money at the moment. I am spending from my savings, and each month without some sort of success eats into these savings. Each month brings me closer to going broke, which would feel like a real failure.

In short, I’m trying to say that my ass is on the line. I feel it every day, and it can be pretty stressful.

But you know what?

After nearly two years of this, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I feel alive. I feel that my work matters. There is real upside, and there is real downside. I am pushing myself, and I am trying to creating something meaningful in the world. Honestly, I can’t think of a better job.

Mastering art and craft

David-Hockney-Woldgate-Wo-001

I had never really been one for museums. I’ve visited a few, but have always gotten bored after ~20 minutes.

Last weekend, I took a trip up to the de Young Museum in San Francisco to see the David Hockney exhibit and something great happened. I had an awesome time!

What made the difference?

Museums usually cover vast areas of art, time, styles, etc. As I walk through, I appreciate that the art is good, but you get a few pieces per artist and then you move on to the next artist. And then the next time period. Something about this approach to art just doesn’t excite me.

This exhibit was different. We spent all of the time on a single artist in one single, large, multi-room exhibit. It wasn’t just a few rooms; it was many. The exhibition was called ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition‘, and damn did it live up to its name (as far as I can tell, but I’m no museum buff).

The exhibit showed David Hockney’s work throughout a good chunk of his career, and it was mesmerizing. It showed many of his sketches. It showed his oil paintings he is well known for. It showed the work from his two years experimenting with watercolor painting. It showed is large works of art, using several canvases to create a single piece (such as the image at the beginning of this article). It showed art that he created on the iPhone and the iPad. It covered everything, and it was amazing.

Most importantly, you could feel David Hockney’s passion. You would see an oil painting of a random person sitting in a chair. And then another with a different random person. And another with someone else. You see a painting of a landscape. And then the same landscape in a different season. Or under different lighting. Or in an abstract art style. Towards the end of the exhibit, I noticed the exact dates on his iPhone and iPad drawings. David Hockney is 76 years old now, and is drawing every day!

I realized that museums don’t excite me. But, artists do.

This was a story of a man who loves his craft. It wasn’t about a few pieces. It was about creating.. every.. single.. day. It was about repeating scenes, and making sure to appreciate the difference in lighting or seasons. It was about exploring a single medium (oil painting), and then another (watercolor), and even the more modern mediums (iPhone).

I left the de Young museum incredibly inspired.

David Hockney has painted for 50+ years. Over the years, he has created an amazing amount of great art. And he is still at it.

It has made me think a whole lot about how I approach work and career. If I chose something I was passionate about, and then worked at it everyday for 50+ years, what could I learn? What could I accomplish?

Maybe that is the trick to mastering a craft. It isn’t complicated. It just requires passion, and continued effort over time.

(For those in SF Bay Area, this weekend turns out to be the last weekend of this exhibit. If you have the chance to see it, I would highly recommend it.)