Personal Finance: Making Up for Lost Time in My Thirties

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A screen capture from Openfolio showing the performance of my investments.

In my twenties, I rarely thought about my personal finances. I paid my bills, paid off my credit card each month, and kept up with my student loan payments. I didn’t think too much about retirement savings, and whatever leftover money I had, I kept in a savings account.

It was only when I was close to turning thirty that I started to think more about my finances. A couple of blogs influenced me:

  • Mr. Money Mustache: This blog is about a man who achieved financial freedom at age thirty through savings and disciplined frugality. A couple habits I picked up from his blog were: 1) not buying things I didn’t absolutely need and 2) putting away a more significant portion of my income into savings. From reading the blog, I also realized that I had enough money to immediately pay down the balance of my student loans rather than keeping cash in a sub-1% interest-bearing savings account, thus eliminating all those extra interest payments. Looking back, so many financial decisions seem like common sense, but I just wasn’t paying any attention.
  • Dividend Mantra: This blog chronicles the journey of a man trying to find financial freedom by age 40 through frugal living and investment of his savings into high dividend stocks. Dividends are payments made by companies to shareholders. Not all companies pay dividends, but there are companies that pay as much as 5-6% annually per share. So if you own $1,000 worth of a company’s stock, you could get $50-$60 in cash over the course of a year. What Dividend Mantra is trying to do is to accumulate a portfolio that will generate enough dividends to support his living costs, making it possible for him to live without holding on to a full-time job. The blog goes into great detail about each of his stock purchases as well as line-by-line breakdown of his monthly expenses.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve slowly become better at saving and investing. From not having any plan, I now save around 60% of my monthly income, splitting it between Sharebuilder stock brokerage account and a Betterment account. I use Sharebuilder to buy individual high dividend stocks each month. I use Betterment for their auto-investing service—all I had to do was indicate the stocks-to-bonds ratio I wanted for my portfolio, set a monthly deposit amount, and let them take care of the rest (for a small fee). Because all of my Sharebuilder investments are stocks, I’ve set my Betterment account to be mostly bonds. If you’re interested in the breakdown of my investments, you can check it out on Openfolio, a service that lets you share your portfolio and also benchmark and follow the investments of others (the image at the top is a screenshot from its Dashboard page).

My goal is to continue upping my monthly contributions so that I can put away as much as 70% of my monthly income towards investments. This will require some discipline on my end in terms of controlling my expenses. I think being smarter about spending habits will help. I’ve written previously about how eating brunch at home has been a great money saver. Drinking less and cooking at home are also ways that can contribute to savings very quickly. I’m not one to completely give up a good time out with friends and family, but I also know that going out too often quickly loses its appeal and becomes repetitive. I think a good goal for me will be to limit dinners and drinks out to once a week.

A few other resources on personal finance

  • While I didn’t agree with or follow all of the advice in the book, I thought Tony Robbins’s Money: Master the Game was a nice, inspiring read about taking control of personal finances. I’ve recommended it to some friends, and one thing I did act on was to get rid of my investments in mutual funds with high fees and to buy low-fee index funds instead.
  • Smartphone apps: I use SigFig to link up all of my investment accounts and to see an aggregated view of performance and holdings. I also check Mint every now and then to review my credit card charges and bank accounts. I’ve also been playing around with Robinhood, a startup that lets you buy stocks commission-free. I’ve put a small amount of money in here to speculate on stocks I normally wouldn’t buy. I won’t be funding this account regularly, but I was thinking about collecting loose change around the house and investing with that for fun.

I think being able to manage personal finances is an important life skill that only becomes more valuable as you get older. I’ve been lucky that my personal income has grown over the years with the growth of my business, but I know that earning more money is only part of the equation. By eliminating wasteful spending and becoming more comfortable with investing, I’m hoping to make gains in my thirties to make up for missed opportunities in my twenties.

One thing that I want to answer before I finish: what’s the ultimate goal of saving, investing, and tending to my personal finances? For me, it’s not about early retirement or reaching some kind of magic number. What I’d love to see is slow and steady growth that gives me a sense of security and stability. I know that money can be a powerful tool in giving me the flexibility to go places, spend time more freely, and to help people in need. To that end, I’m excited to continue learning ways to better understand and manage my personal finances.

Lessons from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker: Making Meetings Productive

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A group of us at Barrel have been reading The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker together. We started discussing it last week and will continue over the coming weeks. The book, written in 1967, doesn’t show its age (although there are anachronisms like the workforce being mostly a male-dominated space in those days). Its lessons are still applicable to people who work in today’s organizations.

Here’s what Drucker writes when he defines the label “executive”:

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.

For a small business like Barrel, in which everyone is a knowledge worker with the ability to materially affect results, everyone who works here is an executive.

Over the next few months, I will be posting various lessons from the book and reflecting on how I can apply it to our operations at Barrel. This isn’t a chronological summary of the book but rather a loose collection of topics that I found interesting to write about. I would definitely recommend that people check out this book.

Lesson 1: Make Meetings Productive

Of meetings, Drucker writes:

The key to running an effective meeting is to decide in advance what kind of meeting it will be. Different kinds of meetings require different forms of preparation and different results:

A meeting to prepare a statement, an announcement, or a press release. For this to be productive, one member has to prepare a draft beforehand. At the meeting’s end, a preappointed member has to take responsibility for disseminating the final text.

A meeting to make an announcement—for example, an organizational change.
This meeting should be confined to the announcement and a discussion about it.

A meeting in which one member reports. Nothing but the report should be discussed.

A meeting in which several or all members report. Either there should be no discussion at all or the discussion should be limited to questions for clarification. Alternatively, for each report, there could be a short discussion in which all participants may ask questions. If this is the format, the reports should be distributed to all participants well before the meeting. At this kind of meeting, each report should be limited to a present time—for example, 15 minutes.

A meeting to inform the convening executive. The executive should listen and ask questions. He or she should sum up but not make a presentation.

I found this to be a helpful framework for evaluating how we run meetings at Barrel. Here are some thoughts that come to mind when I think of meetings at our company:

  • Meetings are often scheduled when an issue needs to be discussed or decided upon. We don’t always have a clear agenda, and the discussions sometimes turn out unfocused and spill into other topics. The meetings often run longer than intended.
  • People, myself included, are generally hesitant to cut others off and to be strict in sticking with the allotted time.
  • Not all meetings have written follow-ups, so it’s sometimes easy to forget what was discussed or decided upon.
  • Even meetings with an agenda can get sidetracked because a particular issue gets talked about in detail. People, myself included, generally don’t cut in to move on to the next topic and instead are okay with letting the discussions go on.
  • Our Producers, who manage the projects and are the main point of contacts with our clients, are especially inundated with meetings. They are also the ones that set up the most meetings as well.
  • People, myself included, are not always 100% engaged in the meetings they attend. Some tap away on their laptops and phones and others doodle in their notepads. Some people may have the extraordinary ability to multitask and listen to everything, but I know I certainly don’t. I’m either bored or not finding certain discussions relevant, and yet, I am in the meeting.

Drucker writes later in the book:

Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings—some formal, some informal, but both stretching out for hours. Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed. An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done. Wherever a time log shows the fatty degeneration of meetings—whenever, for instance, people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization.

My primary issue is with the formal meetings that happen at Barrel. I don’t mind informal meetings that happen at people’s desks or in passing. These spontaneous interactions seem to promote knowledge share and sometimes generate enthusiasm and excitement. I often feel that formal meetings—those that have a set time on the calendar and usually have a conference room booked for the occasion—are less structured and organized than they ought to be.

My own experience tells me that in order to have a successful meeting, a great deal of prep work needs to go into it. When meetings are scheduled with the intent of “figuring things out when we meet” and light on the planning, I foresee drawn-out discussions that fill up time but produce little results. What we need are better habits for our formal meetings. Taking some cues from Drucker, I’m hoping that we can explore a checklist for our meetings to A) ensure that a meeting is absolutely necessary and B) that a basic level of planning has gone into it. Here’s a rough sketch of some preliminary items the checklist might ask:

  • What kind of meeting is it?
  • Can this meeting happen in an online chatroom?
  • Who must participate in this meeting for it to be effective?
  • Who will be creating the agenda?
  • What is on the agenda?
  • How long will this meeting take?
  • What are you hoping to gain from this meeting?
  • Who will lead the meeting?
  • Who will keep the time for the meeting?
  • Who will be taking notes and posting the documentation from this meeting?

I can think of a bunch of other details to ask, but I think this can be a basic start. The goal would be to share this with the team, especially our Producers, and to create a system where meetings are held if absolutely necessary and structured in a way to be maximally productive (e.g. appropriate information is exchanged, key decisions are made, etc.). I don’t think we’ll wipe out unproductive or semi-unproductive meetings overnight, but I think raising awareness and getting people to see the difference between such meetings will be a step in the right direction.

Slow, Incremental Training for a Sprint Distance Triathlon

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I’ve decided to train and enter myself in a couple of sprint triathlons this year. I’m pretty excited.

The common “Olympic distance” triathlon is:

  • 1.5 km (0.93 mile) swim
  • 40 km (25-mile) bike ride
  • 10 km (6.2 mile) run

The sprint distance triathlon is about half as long:

  • 750 km (0.47 mile) swim
  • 20 km (12-mile) bike ride
  • 5 km (3.1 mile) run

This type of physical exercise is uncharted territory for me. I am a terrible swimmer, having been in a pool only a handful of times in my adult life. I am not a good distance runner, having barely run more than 2 miles a handful of times in my life. The only part that doesn’t sound as intimidating to me is the bike ride. I’ve done a few century rides and some 30-50 mile rides, so I think I’ll be able to handle 12 miles.

I’ve convinced a couple of my friends to do this as well, so I’m happy that I won’t be doing it alone. I’ve started to sketch out a basic plan for training that feels realistic and doable. It goes something like this:

  • 3 workouts a week
  • Swim and strength training on Mondays
  • Running and biking on Wednesday or Thursdays
  • Running, biking, and strength training on Saturdays
  • Yoga stretches twice week

For the yoga stretches, I signed up for YogaGlo, an online subscription service ($18/month) that gives me access to hundreds of yoga videos. The great thing is that they have classes that are as short as 5 or 10 minutes, which is perfect for a quick stretch before work or after a workout. I’m impressed by its interface and pleased that it has videos catered to people who bike or run.

My strategy for training is to build up slowly and in a way that feels sustainable. Before even thinking about entering a triathlon, my routine was to work out at least twice a week. I think supplementing that with one more day and some additional time doing yoga stretches will ease me towards increasing my fitness. The thought of going from two workouts a week to four or five seemed too big of a jump. Perhaps after a month or so of three workouts a week, I can revisit my routine.

To get myself pumped up, I’ve started to watch old episodes of 24/7, HBO’s reality television series that covers the training and lead up to big boxing matches. I’ve always loved the footage of boxers training, the way they pay attention to strength building, conditioning, and boxing technique.

This episode of Manny Pacquiao vs. Chris Aligieri was especially entertaining as it contrasted the celebrity fame and wealth of Pacquaio (his own basketball gym, his own boxing gym, 200+ person entourage) versus the suburban Long Island scrappiness of Aligieri (living in his parents’ basement and driving an old Honda Accord). While Pacquaio would go on to dominate in their 2014 fight, I grew to like Aligieri as the underdog who reminded me of several guys that I went to high school with when I grew up in the Jersey suburbs.

It’s a shame there won’t be a 24/7 series for the upcoming Pacquaio-Mayweather fight. I’m always intrigued about the way athletes go about spending their time leading up to the big moment. The countless hours in the gym, the hills they have to run up at the crack of dawn, and the discipline with which they have to approach each meal in order to consume enough calories for the next workout.

I’ll end with a recap of today’s simple workout. The plan is to build up little by little each week so that by June, I’ll be in shape to finish a race.

Saturday March 21, 2015

  • 0.5-mile warm-up run
  • 5-mile bike
  • 1-mile run
  • 0.5-mile cool-down run
  • 10-minute yoga stretch

Thinking Beyond How It Looks

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I’ve jotted down some thoughts on design, especially for the type of work we do at Barrel. I’ll refer to them collectively as “websites” for simplicity purposes, but this can mean mobile apps, web apps, experiential interfaces and anything else that happen on digital screens. I’m going to talk about “the designer”, and in my mind this is anyone who is in the business of creating digital experiences. There are people who specialize and do parts and pieces, especially on larger scale projects, but I think the following points are worthwhile for any designer to consider:

  • The designer should always strive to make websites that look aesthetically pleasing. This is achieved through foundational understanding of how graphic elements and characteristics work together: shapes, type, images, colors, layout, opacity, spacing, and sizes. By having the basics down, the designer can hone in on challenges specific to the website.
  • The designer needs to explore the who and why in depth. Who is this website for? Why does it need to happen? Going in-depth requires careful understanding of contexts:
    • For understand the who: examining who the people (the end users of the website) are and how they can be defined and segmented in a way that groups common behaviors and needs; when and how they are interacting with the website; what mindset they are in when they land on the website (are they looking for something?); how they got to the website (via a trusted source? search? random click?); the actions that are desired of the end users; the underlying motivation and triggers that led to the end users coming to the website; the possible flows an end user can take through the website; assumptions or conventional behaviors that end users are bringing to the site
    • For understanding the why: the business or organizational need for this website and what role this website plays in the overall marketing, product, or other organizational strategy; the desired outcomes and success metrics; what’s at stake and who is tasked with the responsibility of seeing this website through; how the website is funded
  • The designer will benefit from justifying and tying design decisions to “how it will impact the user’s behavior” rather than “how good it looks”. This means that beyond understanding the context of the end users that come to the website, the designer will need to use research and conduct tests to help aid in design decisions that address how the end user will perceive and interact with the website. This is where the lines between aesthetics and interaction become blurry because certain decisions that seem aesthetic (e.g. imagery, typography, colors, spacing, etc.) may influence users to feel a certain way and impact their behavior. The more designers can explain their designs from a position of studied facts and research, the more confident they can be about what they put forward. An example: rather than talk about how a certain palette of colors were chosen because they look and feel nice, put in the research and come up with a strong reason to back the decision that X, Y, and Z colors were chosen because studies show that such colors activate certain behaviors in users and that the colors will also help differentiate the website experience from A, B, and C competitors that are doing it in this other way.
  • Designers should have a strong grasp on the possibilities and limitations of the technology that’s available to implement their designs. This might mean independent research and tinkering around with code. It could also mean deep discussions with developers and technical architects to shed light on topics like performance, cross-platform compatibility, and database configuration. This understanding will help designers define constraints that fall in line with a website’s budget and timelines while pushing the limits of the technological approach.
  • Designers should be eager to observe end user behavior over time and come up with experiments to optimize and improve the experience. This iterative process teaches real lessons and reveals a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. Every design that designers suggest should come with a very strong recommendation that it is a hypothesis and that only evaluating the results and trying new approaches will lead to meaningful improvements. This is often hard to do in client engagements, but designers should certainly try their best to make the case for such an approach.

When the above areas are considered, the designer can elevate the practice of design to be about problem-solving and human interaction. And whether the goal of the website is to tell a story to raise brand awareness, to encourage an e-commerce transaction, to enable more efficient workflows, or to generate new leads, the designer will see that making things beautiful is just the tip of the iceberg and that there is so much more to design than what looks good.

What Creates Brand Loyalty?

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I’ve been thinking about brand loyalty recently. What motivates a person to continue buying from the same brand? I wanted to think beyond the traditional brand loyalty attributes like perceived value, customer satisfaction, and brand trust, so I drew up this diagram to help me think through my hypothesis:
Loyalty Model: Convenience, Brand Appeal, and Recurring Need
Here’s how I’m using the terms, which I’m calling my Loyalty Factors:

  • Convenience: the ease with which the customer can interact and transact with the brand
  • Brand Appeal: the characteristics, aesthetics, and values that the customer identifies with, leading them to feel good about buying from a brand
  • Recurring Need: how often the customer feels that the brand can solve a problem or satisfy a desire

I’m omitting attributes like quality, performance, and customer service from this with the assumption that when there is relative parity in those areas, the distinguishing factors lean more towards Convenience, Brand Appeal, and Recurring Need.

Some examples from my personal life:

I find that Uber’s Convenience and Recurring Need factors are very high for me. I love their easy-to-use mobile app and I find myself needing the service at least once or twice a week. The Brand Appeal is a bit tenuous especially because of all the negative press I read about it, but the only time I’m really irked is when surge pricing goes into effect. Although I understand that there are economic factors behind surge pricing, the Brand Appeal suffers especially when I see surge pricing in effect at a time when I feel like traffic shouldn’t be that bad. I feel like the company’s values don’t always serve the customer. There is really nothing besides my own laziness stopping me from having Lyft as an alternative on my mobile phone.

Sweet Green
I love this fast casual salad spot near my work. The Convenience factor is pretty high. Although they don’t offer delivery, I can place an order online through an attractive ordering process and walk a couple of blocks to pick it up. I also like using my mobile phone to pay and collecting rewards (spend $99, get $9). I know that I can get a salad from a dozen other places nearby, but the Brand Appeal, especially the modern and clean aesthetics of the restaurant as well as its website, make me feel good about ordering from them. And because the product is all about seasonal, fresh produce, which aligns with my desire to eat healthy foods, I find that the Recurring Need factor is high. I aim to go there at least once a week. Unless I suffer from a food poisoning episode or move to a farther location, I can see myself continuing to be a loyal customer for some time.

I buy all my tops from Everlane. These include t-shirts, oxford shirts, sweaters, hoodies, and sweatshirts. Clothes don’t have the highest level of Recurring Need, but I buy a few items each season. Everlane also has a very beautifully-designed e-commerce website with an easy checkout process and free shipping on orders over $75, which ups the Convenience factor. I count myself a very loyal customer, but lately the Brand Appeal factor has been dropping for me.

Recently, Everlane came out with a new line of striped shirts accompanied by a very cute campaign showing a bunch of attractive real-life couples modeling the shirts. I thought it was well-executed and very cool, but a part of me wondered why there were no people of color represented at all in the campaign. I thought to myself, “Maybe this striped shirt isn’t targeted at someone like me.” Totally uncharacteristic, by the way, since I’ve bought from brands that hardly ever use non-white models. But because I am so invested in the Everlane brand and want to continue buying from them, I felt that the brand needed to continue delivering on appeal. I know Everlane has used minority models in other sections, so I am not accusing them of being white models only, but I was nonetheless disappointed by what I found with the striped shirt campaign. I ended up emailing about it and promptly received a response that my feedback would be shared with the creative team and that I would be credited $20 for my honesty. It was a nice gesture on their end, and I’ll probably pick up some button-down shirts, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to buy that striped shirt.

Cafe Grumpy Coffee Beans
I fell in love with Cafe Grumpy about 7 years ago when I used to go to their Chelsea location. I have a thing for hand-drawn face logos (I also love Kumon’s logo). When they opened some years ago near our apartment in Brooklyn, I would sometimes trek the two avenues to have their coffee on weekends. The Convenience factor wasn’t high enough for me to become a regular at the cafe, but when they started selling their beans at Whole Foods, I became hooked. And because we go through coffee beans at home fairly quickly, there is always a recurring need every few weeks to buy another bag.

Am I a loyal customer? It’s hard to say. If Whole Foods were to switch out Cafe Grumpy for something else, say Blue Bottle, Counter Culture, or a brand I’ve never heard of, I don’t think I would feel too bad. I’ll just grab another bag and see if I like it. I’m not loyal enough to order coffee online and certainly not discerning enough of a drinker to only stick to a certain brand of coffee beans.

I can see some holes with this Loyalty model, but I also feel like there’s some value to thinking about the way Convenience, Brand Appeal, and Recurring Need play into a customer’s decision to stick with a brand. It’s incredibly challenging to hit all three cylinders at a very effective level. But when it does work, the brand benefits from high customer lifetime value figures.

A final, non-digital example: the restaurant downstairs from our apartment, which, eight years ago, initially drew us in with its dark-wood, exposed brick interior and hip Brooklyn-modern menu, has kept its Brand Appeal over the years. The menu hasn’t changed much and neither has the personnel. The bartender and owner know us by name now and greet us warmly. After a long week of work and little desire to flip through Yelp for restaurant ideas, we default to this spot at least a handful of times a month. We know the menu by heart now and get to be testers for new cocktail recipes. We even celebrated New Year’s here recently.

The factors at play—Convenience (downstairs), Brand Appeal (interior design, style of food, service), and Recurring Need (we gotta eat and drink)—ensure that for as long as we live here and keep our appetite for the style of food, the restaurant can count on my wife and I being loyal customers for years to come.

Fending Off My Passive-Aggressive Ways at Work

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From my experience talking to employees at work, everyone appreciates directness, or at least the idea of it. People generally like it when they’re given direct and relevant feedback, even if it causes a bit of discomfort. They’d rather know than not know. People also think that they themselves are direct in their communications. Very few people ever admit to being passive aggressive, and certainly nobody comes to work thinking they’re going to be passive aggressive to their co-workers. Some people talk about being tactful and being sensitive to how certain things are brought up, but they will also say that they are, for the most part, direct with their team members.

Passive-aggressive behavior, in the workplace context, can be described as indirect acts or expressions of resentment or hostility that undermine productivity. A common example is that of a person who may be completely agreeable in conversation with a team member or supervisor only to turn around and talk shit about the other person. This spreads negativity in the workplace and weakens trust among team members. Another example of passive-aggressive behavior manifests when a person is angry or upset. This person might exhibit body language, facial expressions, and even disinterest in the work, but when asked if anything is the matter, he will say that everything is just fine.

There are dozens of ways that passive-aggressive behavior creeps up in our daily interactions. And while some actions may be deliberate, I believe that a good number of behaviors are totally subconscious. Like I mentioned earlier, nobody comes to work thinking they’re going to be passive aggressive.

The thing about passive-aggressive behavior is that I think we’ve all become really good at picking up on it and observing it in other people. Communication that feels indirect or secretive can easily be labeled by observers as passive-aggressive behavior. But when it comes to evaluating ourselves and our own passive-aggressive behavior, things don’t seem as clear cut.

I’ve thought about this for a while now because I know that I’ve exhibited some very passive-aggressive behavior in the past at work (and in my personal life, too, but that’s another story). The list runs long in retrospect, but I was unaware when these behaviors were happening. In fact, the dynamics of the workplace, including the employer/employee relationship and HR policies on what can and can’t be said, often foment passive-aggressive behavior (see this article for more). Think about office politics and how much is fueled by passive-aggressive behavior.

It’s a hard thing to do, but reflecting on my own passive-aggressive behavior reveals a lot of subconscious activity that I can try to avoid the next time around. Some examples of my previous transgressions:

  • Rather than give direct feedback, I have opted in the past to minimize our exposure to an underperforming employee by staffing that person on less important projects, or worse, not staffing them on projects at all.
  • I’ve complained in private to others about an employee’s lack of skill in certain areas without ever bringing it up to the person.
  • I’ve concealed my disappointment about someone’s performance while scrambling to get help from others without that person knowing.

If you asked me whether or not I am a direct communicator, I might answer, “When it feels easy, sure.” The truth is, I find it hard to consistently say what’s on my mind in a direct manner to those who’ll be directly impacted. Fear is a big component–fear of confrontation, fear that the person will dislike me, and fear that what I say might come off wrong and lead to conflict. What I should really fear is the missed opportunity to communicate clearly and to help facilitate a productive interaction.

I have a few ideas to help me fend off passive-aggressive behavior. They are much easier said than done, but good to keep in mind at work:

  • Give timely and direct feedback, even if it causes discomfort. Make sure the tone of the feedback matches the message I’m trying to get across. If it’s serious, make sure this comes through.
  • Stop talking shit behind people’s backs, even when I’m frustrated. Shit-talking creates a negative feeling that can affect outward actions in subconscious ways. Instead, try my hardest to understand the actions and behaviors of the person frustrating me–what might be going through that person’s mind, and how could we try to gain alignment?
  • Focus on people’s strengths and their upside rather than their weaknesses. It’s easier to see win-win solutions when you emphasize what’s possible rather than what someone can’t do.

Working with other people, no matter how pleasant and talented they are, is never a cakewalk. Mindless actions and bad habits can quickly snowball into miscommunication and distrust, even if things seem friendly and fine on the surface. I hope to continue raising my own awareness about my passive-aggressive behavior and try my best to model behavior that feels consistent, direct, and encouraging.

StrengthsFinder Redux

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Back in June 2013, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test. The test is 177 questions with a 20-second timer for each question. Based on your results, the 34 strengths in the StrengthsFinder system is ranked for you. By paying $9.95, I was able to get my Top 5 Strengths along with detailed descriptions of each.

In 2013, these were my top five (with my paraphrased description of each):

  1. Arranger: bring people, tools, and other resources together to get things done
  2. Focus: prioritize and take action, staying on track
  3. Activator: take ideas and turn them into action
  4. Ideation: make unlikely connections and come up with new and innovative ideas
  5. Achiever: take pride and get satisfaction from hard work and productivity

In the past 18 months, I feel like I’ve changed in many ways. I tried to re-take the test with my existing account, but when the web app told me that I couldn’t, I checked the FAQ to find this:

Your first completion of the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment will yield the purest and most revealing results. For this reason, each Clifton StrengthsFinder access code is valid for only one time through the assessment. Taking the Clifton StrengthsFinder more than once may actually skew the validity of the results.

I figured that since it had been a long time, I would be approaching the questions with a fairly “pure” mind. I bought an access code under a different account and took the test. Here are my 2015 results:

  1. Activator: take ideas and turn them into action
  2. Strategic: spot patterns and challenges and map ways to move forward
  3. Arranger: bring people, tools, and other resources together to get things done
  4. Communication: easily put thoughts into words and also like to converse and present
  5. Learner: interested in continuously improving and excited about acquiring knowledge and skills

Activator and Arrange are still in my top five, but I’ve replaced three of the strengths. I was curious about where my former top five strengths went and equally curious about where the new strengths came from. I opted for access codes (an extra $79 each for 2013 and 2015) to show me the full ranking of the 34 strengths. StrengthsFinder Results ComparisonA few things I noticed:

  • Communication took a big leap from #25 to #4. This may have a lot to do with my efforts to write every single day. I’ve also been proactively seeking out opportunities to give talks and participate in panels. I used to shy away from such things, but nowadays, I find them to be valuable exercises for organizing my thinking and honing my skills as a communicator.
  • Achiever dropped from #5 to #27. Part of this has been a result of developing better time management skills on my part. I feel like I do a lot more in less time these days. I also don’t equate “keeping busy” with “being effective” as much as I used to, so I think such line of thinking was reflected in my answers.
  • Focus dropped from #2 to #21. I’ve been trying to shift the nature of my work to the “important, not urgent” quadrant, which I find is less about measurable progress on a daily basis and more about spending time thinking about challenging questions. In 2013, I was spending a great deal of time executing on various marketing and business development activities which involved strict to do lists. These days, some of my activities are open-ended and take several days or weeks to see movement. For example, thinking about our team’s vision-based framework or overhauling our performance review system are complex initiatives that benefit more from strategic thinking than methodical focus.
  • Ideation had a slight drop from #4 to #7, but I like to pair this with the jump of Strategic from #9 to #2 (and also the jump of Activator from #3 to #1). I used to love coming up with new ideas all the time and getting really excited about them. One thing that’s bothered me in the past couple of years is the lack of followthrough on a lot of my ideas. I’ve been spending more time creating frameworks and writing detailed plans for new initiatives so that there is greater clarity around how new ideas will come to life and what impact they’ll have.

It’s easy to read into tests and find yourself trying to create coherent narratives for the results. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the most productive use of time to get too obsessed with StrengthsFinder results. For me, I enjoyed retaking the test and refreshing my memory on the 34 strengths. It’s a great way to help me articulate and describe strengths I might observe and discuss with my team members. I also enjoyed seeing the change in my results. While old habits are often hard to let go, I’ve worked hard to evolve and adopt new habits. While I won’t read too much into this test, the signs are at least encouraging.

Identifying Team Strengths

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Over the years, I’ve obsessed about our team’s weaknesses. With this mindset, it was easy to pick out shortcomings when thinking about anyone. Not enough attention to detail. Not a team player. Lacking in strategic thinking. Slow to anticipate. Dismal under pressure. Zero confidence when talking with clients. Can’t problem-solve.

This emphasis on identifying weaknesses motivated me to push the team to get better and, in some cases, led to personnel moves that either got rid of the perceived weakness or balanced it out with a new hire. But over time, I’ve come to see that viewing the team primarily through a lens of weaknesses can have a very demoralizing and negative effect on culture and employee development. Rather than lamenting and stressing out over weaknesses, why not shift some of the energy towards identifying strengths and finding ways to amplify what we’re doing well?

I decided to put myself through an exercise: list out my entire team and write down what I think are each person’s strengths. The results of the exercise showed me that there’s a lot to gain by embracing each person’s strengths. Below are some thoughts I came away with from the exercise:

#1) I need to know more about everyone’s strengths
I struggled to write specific, descriptive strengths for many people. Part of the reason was expected: I work closely with a select number of people on a daily basis, so my observations are bound to be uneven. But I know that with keener observations and key conversations, I can greatly expand what I know about our team’s strengths. The next step for me is to make these observations and conversations systematic so I can get a steady feed of information about what people believe are their own strengths and the strengths of their team members.

#2) I need to define what I mean by “strengths”
What am I really talking about when I say that I want to understand people’s strengths? I noticed from the exercise that a lot of the things that I considered “strengths” were really just basic perceptions. Hard-working, personable, professional. I don’t know if those necessarily qualify as strengths. I think exploring the concept of strength in detail will be helpful. I remember when our team took the StrengthsFinder test a couple of years ago and how it helped to facilitate discussions about strengths in very specific ways. I’d like to figure out a framework for observing strengths. Right now, my initial approach will primarily look for strengths that manifest in interactions with clients and team members and also in the execution of assigned tasks. I’ll also make a note of behaviors like extra-curricular professional development activities and volunteer leadership responsibilities to see if I can identify strengths.

#3) What does strength amplification look like?
It sounds really good in writing: “We’re going to amplify everyone’s strengths.” But what do I mean and how will I go about taking action? I think it’ll depend on the identified strengths. If it’s an underutilized strength, it might mean finding more or different opportunities for that individual. If it’s something that the individual exhibits in abundance, then perhaps recognition, encouragement, and modeling for other employees could be the approach.

I think the concept of weaknesses and strengths boils down to an individual’s habits. Habits that result in valuable contributions to the company’s business and culture are what we often determine to be strengths. Habits that detract, distract, or undermine the company’s business and culture are what we think of as weaknesses. I want to find ways to encourage and enforce good habits. I want to praise and recognize them as well. For this to happen, I’ll have to put in the work to truly understand our team’s strengths.

War Room Sessions

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I came across this blog post by Ramit Sethi about how he blocks out every Wednesday for “strategy time” where he thinks about the big picture and stays away from replying to emails. This reminded me of our War Room sessions that take place twice a week.

About 8 months ago, Sei-Wook and I started blocking out half a day for our Biz Dev War Room. Biz Dev is a bit of a misnomer because in addition to talking about prospective clients and business development activity, we also spent time discussing our processes, long term goals, and talent acquisition.

It was challenging to completely block out a 3-4 hour block during the day. Every other week, there seemed to be some big deadline or crisis that pulled us away from an uninterrupted session. We also had to remind each other to close out of our inbox and focus on the discussion. But whenever we managed to string together a few very focused hours of War Room, the results were immensely valuable.

We went on to create a Ops War Room where our Operations Manager Boram joins us for an uninterrupted session featuring discussions on HR, finance, culture, and recruiting. This, too, has been extremely helpful, and has enabled us to tackle tough topics like compensation, performance reviews, and team structure.

With over 50 War Room sessions under my belt, I’ve learned a few lessons on ways to make the most of the time:

  • Prepare an agenda with detailed discussion topics; even better if there are estimates to how long you want to spend on each topic; review the agenda with the participants prior to the meeting
  • Make sure someone is taking notes throughout the session; we share an Evernote notebook with each other and keep both agenda and notes in there
  • Follow up on unfinished discussions from the previous week if you need to so that things aren’t left hanging
  • Bringing in outside material (books, videos, articles) to discuss and relate to relevant topics can be inspiring and energizing
  • No checking email

Setting aside time for non-urgent yet important initiatives is hard to do. The temptation to quickly troubleshoot an urgent issue can snowball into hours of emails, meetings, and calls. The solution, I believe, is to systematically reserve and protect blocks of time with disciplined vigilance. My hope is that I’ll inch ever closer to a day when the majority of my time is spent on long-term strategic initiatives rather than the day-to-day bustle dictated by urgent requests and deadlines.

Lessons Learned from a Year of Writing

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Last week marked the one year anniversary of my writing experiment. In December 2013, I challenged myself to try writing at least three hundreds words every single day for the next year. Some of those efforts have made it to this blog. Looking back on the year, I’ve jotted down some thoughts on the experience, what I’ve learned, and what I plan to do going forward.

  • I’m really proud and happy that I kept up with it. Even when I was dead tired or incredibly busy, I carved out time to write.
  • Most of my entries were over 400 words. Many were in the 500-700 range. Some were 1,000+ words long.
  • I’m not proud of the days when I felt like I took shortcuts. For example, I would some work-related writing such as company memos and policy drafts as part of my 300+ word exercise. This, even when I was doing it, felt like a cop out. It didn’t happen every week, but enough times to make me feel like I cheated a little. I’m going to avoid counting such writing as part of the exercise in 2015.
  • I wrote a good number of entries while commuting to work. I would open up Evernote on my iPhone and tap away furiously while waiting for and riding the subway. I’m going to curb the practice of writing entire entries during my commute because I always feel rushed to complete my writing before my stop. Instead, I’ll use the commute to jot down ideas and complete the entry when I’m sitting down and able to concentrate.
  • I found myself reflecting more often on my personal habits, behaviors, decisions, and desires. Because of the pressure to write something every day, I often looked inward for topics. Many of my entries are about things that I like or don’t like about myself, things I wish I could do, places I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy visiting, and even some concrete plans for how I can shift my habits. I also analyzed certain days in detail with a critical eye and pinpointed moments that I could’ve handled better.
  • When I wasn’t writing about personal topics, I wrote a lot about the business. I wrote about interacting with employees, generating new business, planning for the next six months, what interview questions to ask candidates, and more. I also wrote about ideas for potential service offerings and products. I think by writing them down, I was able to see that most of my ideas were fairly terrible. In writing about my business, I was able to organize my thoughts and ultimately be in a better position to articulate my position on various topics. There were times when I would share a link to an Evernote entry with people at work if I thought it did a good job of outlining relevant ideas.
  • I wrote a few pieces of fiction. One was continuing series that took up 16 days about a guy who leaves New York to live by himself in a cabin in Maine for a year. I think in 2015, I’ll write some more stories.
  • My favorite entries were about the things I’m grateful for. Whether it was personal or work-related, it feels great when I look back on past entries to read about the things, small and big, that made me feel lucky. These days, in addition to my 300+ words exercise, I’ve been doing the 5 Minute Journal, which helps me reflect daily on things I’m grateful for. It’s been an uplifting routine for me.
  • One thing I didn’t do enough of this year was to go back and re-read my entries more often. Sometimes, I’ll write about something that feels incredibly familiar only to find that I had already written extensively about it a few months ago. I’m hoping to put aside more time on weekends to re-read old entries and see if some of them can be turned into public blog posts.

I plan to keep up my daily writing exercise in 2015. And with a year’s worth of experience under my belt, I will be making tweaks that can push me to write more challenging and stronger entries. These tweaks include: a more deliberate editorial schedule (or at least a pre-planned list of subjects) to encourage me to write broadly about different topics rather than scrambling for new ideas every morning; more entries that reflect on books I’ve read; and more experimental entries on crafting better sentences. Happy new year, and here’s to at least another 109,500 words.

Off-site Planning Retreat

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Sei-Wook and I arrived in Livingston Manor, NY earlier today for our off-site planning retreat. The house, which we found on AirBnB, is in the Catskills region. It’s in a remote area on a lake. The lake is frozen pretty solid.

This is the second time that Sei-Wook and I are taking a couple of days away from the office to pow wow about various topics. Here are a few topics that we plan to cover on this trip:

  • Financial planning for 2015: setting goals, examining expenses, and forecasting revenues
  • Better systematizing employee compensation
  • Brainstorming ways to more effectively centralize training and knowledge for our different departments
  • Exploring ways to better manage our client information through a customer relationship management (CRM) software like Salesforce

Our first off-site, which took place at an AirBnB home in Hudson Valley, was very fruitful. We had time to talk deeply about the direction of the company and also share our perspectives on various strategic initiatives. The most valuable piece was that by the end of the two days, we felt a sense of alignment in knowing the priorities of the business.

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Four Books I Remember from 2014

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Memorable books of 2014

The following are four books that I enjoyed this year and still think about from time to time.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
A man named Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of an elite Vermont private boarding school, confesses to the police that he has murdered one of his students with whom he was having an affair. But this isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a story told from different perspectives about loss, grief, regrets, and a marriage that has fallen apart. The Headmaster’s Wife was this year’s quickest read. I read much of the book in a single sitting.

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Playing Dominion

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I was first introduced to Dominion in 2011 during Thanksgiving break when I visited my old high school friends in Edison, NJ. I was instantly hooked and I found myself driving out to the nearest mall to pick up my own set.

Dominion is a deck-building strategy game. You draw five cards on each turn and play with piles of supply, treasure, and victory cards. The point of the game is to build a deck that will enable you to buy the most victory points. The game ends when the most expensive victory cards run out. The game can be played with just two players or as many as six if you have the Intrigue expansion set.

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The Impact of Small Self-Imposed Rules

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About a month ago, I instituted a couple of small rules to my daily routine:

  • A limit of two drinks per day.
  • No eating after 9PM.

There have been a few days when I didn’t abide by these rules. One day, I had an extra glass of beer. Another day, I ate a small snack around 10PM. But for the most part, I’ve been strict with myself, and I couldn’t be happier about the results.

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Thoughts on Negative Glassdoor Feedback

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We recently received a couple of negative reviews for Barrel on Glassdoor, a website where people can find reviews posted by employees and former employees as well as salary ranges. Except for a couple of very positive reviews from interns in the past, we hadn’t seen any other posts until the two recent ones. They’re very similar to each other, so I thought it’d be a good time to publicly assess each one and share my thoughts on the anonymous feedback.

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Remove Those Silly Bars on Resumes

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I’ve been looking at a lot of resumes recently, and I find myself annoyed every time I come across a “Professional Skills” section that depicts filled up bars with a percentage that indicates the level of the candidate’s proficiency in certain areas. I see this especially on the resumes of young designers and front-end web developers. Some experienced folks also use this, perhaps believing that it makes their resumes more interesting and visually appealing.

Here’s a made-up example of what I typically see:

I've come across too many resumes that have these arbitrary numbers for proficiency in particular skills.

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What I Look for in Young Candidates

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We’re starting to build out a more robust recruiting process at Barrel. For the first eight years, Sei-Wook and I have been primarily responsible for reviewing applicants and interviewing candidates. These days, we’re entrusting more experienced members of our team to recruit and hire junior-level employees. I think it’s crucial that they select people who are not only skillful but have the right attitude and exhibit the behaviors that align with our core values. These are baseline characteristics, and we make sure to ask the questions in interviews to cover both technical excellence (skills) and cultural fit (values).

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A Few Ideas for Enhancing Our On-boarding Experience

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I’ve been thinking about our on-boarding experience at Barrel. We have about 5-6 new hires who’ll be joining the team over the next 4-6 weeks. Training and outlining of expectations are at the top of the list, and we’ve been working hard internally to strengthen those. This weekend, I jotted down some other ways that we may be able to enhance our on-boarding experience. I thought I’d share them here:

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Themes on My Mind

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I’m exhausted, but I’m having a good time. Every week, there are all kinds of stresses and challenges, but I’m mostly able to navigate and handle things, which is extremely satisfying. And best of all, I get to work closely with a team that I respect and trust deeply.

Looking back on my writing (I’ve continued to write 300+ words a day since late December 2013) and the books I’ve been reading, I see that there are recurring themes. I’ve decided to jot them down since it’s helpful for me to see these as a list. Here they are:

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