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.

Not too long after we resumed our hectic day-to-day schedules, we found ourselves wanting to talk about new topics that had popped up as well as revisiting some of the decisions we had made on the prior trip. With the holidays coming up, we decided to schedule one more retreat.

Rather than having fried eggs and bacon, I made a proper soup this time around.

Rather than having fried eggs and bacon, I made a proper soup this time around.

Doing something a second time means we can improve on our initial experience. Here are some adjustments we made:

  • Rather than having long 3-hour sessions to tackle big topics (e.g. “what is our mission”), we opted to for 1-2 hour sessions with the hope that we would approach each with greater intensity and focus.
  • We planned our meals in advance and did a much better job buying groceries. Last time, we subsisted mostly on fried eggs and bacon; this time, we have enough ingredients to make a few tasty meals. This afternoon, I made a rustic kale and sausage soup.
  • We’re going to avoid reading emails and checking in on the team in-between sessions so we can keep clearer heads and think about our long-term needs.
A big sturdy table is a must for us to do our work.

A big sturdy table is a must for us to do our work.

Part of the fun with these off-sites has been staying at very cool AirBnB homes. We’ve stuck to a set of criteria when looking for options:

  • Good Internet connection
  • A nice kitchen
  • 2 bedrooms, preferably 2 bathrooms
  • A big sturdy table to do work on
  • 2-3 hours outside of the city
  • In a quiet area surrounded by nature
A spacious, well-stocked kitchen makes all the difference.

A spacious, well-stocked kitchen encourages cooking on these trips.

This Catskills home is pretty sweet. It’s cozy and has a really beautiful view of the lake. I saw that there was even a New York Times article written about the home, which was cool to find out after we booked it.

I’ve worked with Sei-Wook for over 8 years, and while we’ve occupied the same office space for most of that time, it’s surprising how little of that time was actually used to engage in meaningful, thought-provoking conversation. Over the past year, we’ve adopted a few new routines to help facilitate more dialogue and collaborative planning. This includes a weekly breakfast meeting every single Monday at 8:30AM and also a couple of “War Room” sessions during the week, one to review business development and the other to talk operations. And while these have been incredibly helpful, there’s still so much more to cover. I think these off-site trips are a welcome addition to the mix, and I hope it’s something we can keep up in 2015.

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.

Check out this passage told from Arthur’s perspective as he thinks about his wife Elizabeth’s grief-stricken behavior over their son’s death:

“But if you learn anything in a marriage it is when to give up. I used to think that all marriages ran the same trajectory. They start with wanting to climb inside the other person and wear her skin as your own. They end with thinking that if the person across from you says another word, you will put a fork in her neck.

“That sounds darker than I mean it to, for it is a joke. The truth usually lies in between, and the most one can hope for is accommodation, that you learn to move around each other, and that when the shit hits the fan, there is someone to suffer with. That sounds dark, too, but I am sure you understand. There are few things in this life we are equipped to do alone is all I am trying to say.”

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
I’m a big Ian McEwan fan and have read most of his books. My favorites are Saturday, Enduring Love, and Sweet Tooth. The Children Act was also a quick read. It’s about a family court judge in London named Fiona Maye who must decide the fate of Adam, a seventeen-year-old boy who is refusing medical treatments for religious reasons. While dealing with her demanding profession and this challenging case, Fiona is also faced with domestic trouble: her husband Jack, after 35 years of being married, tells her that he wants to have an affair.

Check out this segment, which happens shortly after Fiona learns from her husband that he would like to have relations with another woman:

“Thus the engine of self-pity began to turn and she helplessly summoned various treats she’d arranged for him. The list was unhealthily long—surprise operas, trips to Paris and Dubrovnik, Vienna, Trieste, Keith Jarrett in Rome (Jack, knowing nothing, instructed to pack a small case and passport and meet her at the airport from work), tooled cowboy boots, engraved hip flask and, in recognition of his new passion for geology, a nineteenth-century explorer’s specimen hammer in a leather case. To bless his second adolescence on turning fifty, a trumpet that had once belonged to Guy Barker. These offerings represented only a fraction of the happiness she urged on him, and sex was only one part of that fraction, and only latterly a failure, elevated by him into a mighty injustice.

“Sorrow and the mounting details of grievances, while her true anger lay ahead. An abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl.”

The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Siberian Taiga by Sylvain Tesson
A French writer spends six months in solitude in the pristine natural environment of the Siberian Taiga. Stocked with books and cases of vodka, Tesson is kept company by two dogs and passes his time fishing, going on hikes, reading, watching the stars, and contemplating this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of living in solitude for an extended period of time. Not only solitude, but with little or no connection with the outside world—no television, no radio, no Internet, and no phone. How would I pass the time? What would each day feel like? How would I adapt? What books would I take with me?

There are some really beautiful lines throughout the memoir. Here are a couple:

“Between longing and regret, there is a spot called the present. Like jugglers who ply their trade while standing atop the neck of a bottle, we should train ourselves to balance in that sweet spot. The dogs manage it.”

“When you organize your life around the idea of possessing nothing—then you have everything you need.”

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz
I found this book incredibly helpful in helping me think about my own business and management approach. Horowitz tells the story of how he ran and grew his business Opsware, eventually selling it to Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion. He doesn’t spare details and talks about the harrowing moments when the company was on the brink of failure and also the many mistakes he made as CEO.

Big takeaways: think carefully about the flow of communication in a company; tell it like its, even if it’s bad news; every CEO makes thousands of mistakes—don’t take it personally; it’s incredibly important to have solid management processes for recruiting, hiring, compensation, and training.

I find myself going back to this book every few weeks whenever I’m facing a new set of decisions or refreshing myself on tips like how to interview for executive positions and what to ask when talking to employees one-on-one.

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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