A Progress Report of Sorts

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As I gear up for my Sunday evening routine of prepping for the week ahead, catching up with my inbox, and making sure all my projects at work are on track, I realized that it’s been a while since I updated my blog. In fact, it’s been a while since I paused to reflect on some of the things that have happened. The weeks, it feels like, have progressed at an unceasing, unrelenting pace. This is my time out and a chance to make note of certain things both in the spirit of celebration and as a reminder that I can always be better.

I got LASIK

In February, I went through with LASIK surgery. It was uncomfortable and painful for a few days, but the results have been amazing. No more glasses or contact lenses. I wear sunglasses when it’s bright out, something I never used to do. I look different in pictures. I wake up each morning and I see 20/20.

Of course, I got used to it really quickly. I had told myself before the surgery that not having to put on contact lenses would make it so much easier for me to wake up and work out each morning. That was wishful thinking. It’s still a battle, and I find myself battling my own excuses that it’s too cold out or that I should be careful not to push myself too hard and get sick.

Eating and drinking

I’ve been good about sticking with my plant-based diet. It’s pretty automatic for me now. On long trips or special occasions, I’ll allow myself some dairy, meat, and fish. It’s no big deal. But when I’m at home or at work, I’m pretty steadfast in my diet of fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and grains. My favorite go-to foods: dates and avocados. I still need to work more greens into the diet.

I’ve cut down alcohol consumption pretty heavily. Some weeks, I’ll only drink once. And when I do, I try to keep it light. This has led to some additional weight loss. I don’t think I’ve been as light as I am since middle school.

Meditation

I started using Headspace, a meditation app, back in January and I’ve stuck with it. I use it five times a week on weekday mornings. I wake up, push my pillow against the bed headboard, sit up, and go through the 10-minute session. I’ve finished the Foundation sessions, completed the pack on Focus, and now almost done with the Anxiety pack. I can honestly say that meditating has really made a big difference in how I go about my day-to-day. I’ve found myself processing day-to-day situations differently with greater awareness. It’s as if I’ve been able to develop a more detached view of the inner workings of my mind and, when lucky, been able to call bullshit on myself. There’s so much more to learn and practice–I’m looking forward to continuing and hope these packs never run out.

Travel & Running

I’ve been fortunate to do some traveling in the past few months. I’ve also been training to run my first half marathon, which is coming up in a few weeks. On my trips, I’ve made it a point to bring my running gear and sneakers so I can keep up with my training. These were some memorable runs in memorable places:

  • Santa Monica, CA where I ran along the beach with the iconic Ferris wheel in view.
  • Land’s End in San Francisco, CA where I could see the Golden Gate Bridge while running up and down the hilly trail.
  • Stone Mountain Park in GA where I ran the loop and saw the Confederate Memorial Carving depicting Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis–all while listening to Team of Rivals, a book about Lincoln and his presidency.
  • Paris, France where I ran along the Seine, passed by Notre Dame, and circled inside Luxembourg Garden.

I especially love the feeling of going for a run in the morning, letting my body feel and wake up to the the outdoors, and then making my way back knowing that I’ll reward myself with a hearty breakfast and a cup of coffee. I think it’s one of the best ways to start the day.

Reading

I’ve been less diligent about reading these past few months, but I did finish a few books that have left quite an impression on me. They are:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
After reading this, I have even more respect for Abraham Lincoln and the kind of leader and human being he was. His capacity for compassion, kindness, and generosity (expressed often in the book as his “magnanimity”) was almost superhuman, especially as he readily forgave and embraced those who undermined and betrayed him. His shrewdness for strategy, politics, and playing the long game was also admirable. He saw the bigger picture and was patient with his moves while his opponents and detractors could only see what was in front of them. When I finally got to the part of the book when Lincoln is assassinated, I couldn’t help but feel an incredible sadness. I wondered what would have been had he not died. What did America lose with his death?

Replay by Ken Grimwood
In this science fiction novel, the protagonist Jeff Winston dies suddenly at the age of 43 only to wake up as his 18-year-old self back in time. Without giving much more away, I’ll say that Jeff has multiple opportunities to “replay” his life but always ends up “dying” at age 43. I couldn’t put this book down, and found myself taking long walks replaying my own life for the past fifteen or so years. In reminiscing my blunders, successes, and luck, it became clear to me that the book’s lesson wasn’t about looking backward with regret and nostalgia. It was about taking control and savoring what lies ahead.

Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman
This business book, which introduces the Traction Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), has been a helpful guide for our management team at Barrel. The biggest benefit has been the framework for setting goals and keeping us accountable on a weekly basis. I hope to share more about this and its impact on the company in a separate post in the future. While we’re just scratching the surface of truly instituting the EOS company-wide, I like the progress I’m seeing so far.

Ten Years

The ten-year anniversary of Barrel is coming up in a few weeks. I’ve been thinking about the milestone, where we are right now, and where we want to go. It’s been a mixed bag of emotions. I’m grateful for so many things and there are plenty of fond and pleasing moments directly associated with the company and the people who’ve been a part of it. I’m also regretful and disappointed in what could have been had I been more focused and mature over the years, but I also tell myself that I’ll have plenty of opportunities to contribute, lead, and raise the bar of my performance. Overall, my mind’s been trending in an optimistic direction, and I’m excited about what lies ahead for Barrel.

Miscellaneous

A few other random things from the past few months:

  • I went to Omaha, Nebraska for the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder Meeting. I saw Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger speak and walked around a large convention center where I picked up some boxes of See’s Candies and took a photo with the GEIOC Gekko. It was a short trip, but memorable in that I got to spend time with my good buddies Andy, Sei-Wook, and Welton.
  • My favorite piece of entertainment consumed so far this year has been The Night Manager, a 6-episode miniseries starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. It was an incredibly entertaining spy thriller.
  • I’ve been continuing to work on Grove Ave with my buddies, mostly on weekends. Since launching our website and e-book in February, we’ve sent out 15 email newsletters and created a Growth Library page that currently features a list of 18 carefully selected books. We have some other pieces of the business coming together in the coming months, so I think it’ll be a very active summer.

Melanie and I took selfies in front of a couple different triumphal arches in the past few weeks:

Arc de Triomphe and the Washington Square Arch

Selfies in front of Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Washington Square Arch in New York.

Was It Sleep?

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Today was President’s Day. Our office was closed, so I slept in. I finally got up at 10AM as Sidney’s whining reached peak levels and I had to take him out for a walk.

I went to bed late the night before, around 2:30AM. I had been binge watching episodes of Mozart in the Jungle on my laptop. Let’s say I finally got into a sound sleep mode around 3AM and started waking up around 9, falling in and out of sleep and lingering in bed. Point is, I felt pretty well rested on about 6-7 hours of sleep.

I had a leisurely breakfast with Mel, took my coffee and later my tea, and caught up on work. Around 6PM, I made the hourlong trek to Chelsea Piers for my Monday evening workout with Andy.

We take our Monday evening workouts seriously. We have a nice structure to it, and we’ve been sticking with it for almost two years. We start off with a one-mile jog. We then stretch for 10 minutes. Then we go into our various routines that mix up high intensity interval training with some standard fare lifting and some stuff that reminds me of drills I used to do when I played football in high school. We wind down with an ab workout and then stretch for another 10 minutes. All of this takes anywhere between 90-100 minutes. And then we change our sneakers and get down to business on the basketball court.

It’s pretty late by the time we hit the court, so there aren’t many games going on. Sometimes we’ll get in on a 5-on-5 or 4-on-4 game, but we’ve often been disappointed by the no-defense style of play. So we usually opt for an intense best-out-of-three one-on-one matchup. We play with 1- and 2-pointers up to 12 points. If you can drain six 2-pointers, you win the game.

I’m sharing all of this because today, I felt different. Usually, by the time I’m done with the workout, I am beat. My legs and arms are uncooperative, and I’m fighting mental fatigue. My shots mostly fall short, and I usually find myself taking poorly formed jumpers that overcompensate for my failing strength. I falter, my defense breaks down, and I don’t go after loose balls. And, sadly, Andy typically gets the best of three games.

Maybe it was because my shot was on and I was lucky, but I was more impressed by the strength I had in my legs. I felt great jumping, shifting, and changing directions. I gave Andy some trouble whenever he drove to the hoop. I gobbled up the loose balls. And I had no trouble pulling up for a jumper and making the shot. I beat Andy 13-1 and 13-2 the first two games. We rarely blow each other out this badly. I even shot a two-pointer to end both games so I could earn a little extra credit. Andy was pissed, and we ended up playing a third game even though I had won the best of three. The third one was a lot closer, but when Andy pulled up to within one at 9-8, I sank a couple of two pointers to end the game, 13-8. Another game with extra credit.

As I reflected on the game over our post-workout dinner at Westville, I could only point to one difference: the fact that I didn’t have work and that I was able get more sleep the night before. A typical Monday for me starts at 6:30AM. The night before, trying to finish all my work, I’m usually up until 12:30AM or somethings 1AM. I’m finally fully asleep probably around 1/1:30AM, which means about 5 or so hours in bed. Add to that the stresses of getting ready in the morning. I’m going to write up a post one of these days that details the number of actions I need to take to get from my waking state in bed to the office. It’s a very complex set of moves that all need to go well in order for me to make it to work on time. I know everyone has some variation of this, and no matter how much you try to simplify it, I’m still amazed at the various mental and physical functions required for a successful get-up-and-go-to-work routine. Without going through this and being able to sleep as long as I want to, I found my energy level much higher than usual. I also think it helped that I didn’t have work, but I did spend a big chunk of time doing work at home.

I have more investigating to do, but as I burn precious sleep minutes trying to finish writing, I know I’ll have to devise some systems to ensure that I get more sleep.

 

10 Miles on a Cold Day

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pk-prospect-park-run

It was around 20 degrees fahrenheit this morning when I arrived at the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park. I had dreaded the moment ever since I started seeing weather forecasts a few days earlier. The Prospect Park Track Club Cherry Tree 10 Miler sounded like fun when I signed up a few weeks ago, but that was when I was enjoying temperatures in the high thirties and low forties.

But as with most of my fitness commitments these days, as long as I didn’t get injured or sick, I knew that a couple hours of being active would leave me feeling better once it was over. And I was right. A couple hours later, I was sitting at Naidre’s, waiting to pick up my spinach burrito and bike back home, having successfully completed the longest race of my life.

My time was fairly slow–nearly an hour and 28 minutes (or about 8:46/mile pace), but I finished strong and I also didn’t feel too much discomfort running in the cold. My four layers were actually more than enough, and my mittens, face buff, and hat kept me pretty warm. Towards the end of the race, I found myself taking off the mittens to cool off my overheating and sweaty hands. I’m hopeful about running faster times in the future, and know that if I continue training, I’ll be able to bring my times down.

Mentally, I felt great. I listened to an audio book the entire time I ran. It was Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes. Lucky for me, the 90 or so minutes that I ran was mirrored by his recounting of his first Western States Endurance Run, a grueling 100-miler through intense terrain in California. I almost felt a luxurious comfort not having to contend with blisters on my feet, dehydration, and kidney failure, all perils documented in the book. Listening to Karnazes’s struggles made my run feel much easier, and I forgot about the numbness of my cheeks and soreness in my calves.

I liked the lesson contained in today’s experience. During the course of a year, a month, a week, or even a day, I’m presented with so many opportunities to exert myself a bit more and to push myself through some discomforts in order to accomplish something worthwhile. Most of the time, I succumb to the path of least resistance and decide to limit my engagement or make excuses about how I’ve “done enough.” I don’t mean to make myself feel bad about my default behavior. Sometimes, I surprise myself and string together productivity, perseverance, and focus. What I’d love to see is a growing capacity to align these three and to get more out of my time. The ten miles I ran today was possible because I put in the time during the past six weeks to increase my capacity to run, and because I’ve been good about my diet and not consuming alcohol. The discipline gave me the willpower to overcome the freezing cold. Likewise, when it comes to everyday work, I hope that the habits I’m putting down today will continue to increase the capacity for me to contribute, create, and be better at what I do. That way, when I do have to exert myself and feel some discomfort, I’ll actually feel really good at the end of it, glad to have put myself through the experience.

 

Grove Ave, a New Business Venture with Friends

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Grove Ave Story

I’m happy to announce that I’ve teamed up with a few friends and launched a new startup.

It’s called Grove Ave, and our mission is to empower individuals who want to achieve more. Through our products, content, and tools, we aim to help our customers accomplish their goals.

Right now, we’re in the early stages of validating and testing some product concepts. It’s been a great learning experience as we’ve been going back and forth with manufacturers and experts in various areas to help inform our decisions. In the coming weeks, we’ll be running experiments to see if some of our product ideas can gain traction and find a market. There’s a ton of work to be done, and I look forward to documenting our progress both on this blog and elsewhere.

For now, I wanted to share some of the things we’ve been able to accomplish, how we’ve been going about doing our work, and a peek at some of the behind-the-scenes action.

What’s in the Name?

Grove Ave is inspired by a long road in Edison, NJ. There are five of us who currently make up Grove Ave, and four of us grew up in Edison. We chose Grove Ave to remember our time together at John P. Stevens High School (its address is 855 Grove Avenue), where we became close friends and pursued many productive activities in academics, athletics, club activities, and even in entrepreneurship.

JP Stevens Grove Ave Crew

Four out of five members of Grove Ave went to J.P. Stevens High School in Edison, NJ. Highlighted from left to right: Andy, Welton, Peter (me), and Warren.

We liked the idea of a grove, a small group of trees that grow close together, and how much all of us value the idea of growth. As we first floated the idea of building a business together, we kept coming back to creating products that would help customers pursue growth, both in their personal and professional lives.

Here’s a brief line-up of the team to give you a sense of our backgrounds and what we bring to the team:

  • Peter Kang (me), co-founder of Barrel, an interactive design agency; my specialty is in branding, design, and digital marketing, so I’ve primarily been getting the look and feel as well as the voice and tone of the Grove Ave brand in place
  • Welton Chang, pursuing a PhD in psychology at University of Pennsylvania and worked both for the government and military; Welton is a prolific writer and leading our product development effort; he’s also enlisted his friend Chris Angeloni, a neuroscientist at Penn, to consult on product development
  • Warren Chia, has his own finance consulting practice helping startups; Warren plays the CFO role and has been setting up our legal structure
  • Andy Ni, is a consultant at Accenture; Andy’s been doing the heavy work of liaising with manufacturers and potential vendors for our product and also doing deep research on using Amazon as a channel
  • Sei-Wook Kim, my co-founder at Barrel; Sei-Wook’s dusted off his coding skills to build the Grove Ave website and has been working with me on the digital marketing side; Sei-Wook didn’t attend J.P. Stevens with us, but we’ve made him an honorary member

Coming Up with the Logo

Grove Ave logo design

A screenshot of the artboard where I explored variations of the Grove Ave logo design.

For the logo, we sought to find a symbol that would represent growth. We checked out Wu Xing, the system of five phases/elements used in traditional Chinese philosophy to describe how the world works. We examined the five elements—Wood, Fire, Metal, Earth, and Water—and felt that Wood, which signifies growth (feeding Fire, putting down roots, etc.) and is associated with Spring, was an appropriate element for Grove Ave. As we dug deeper, we saw that Wood corresponded with Wind (巽, Xùn) one of the eight trigrams of the I Ching, the Book of Changes that is the oldest of Chinese Classics. We loved the simplicity and geometric quality of the symbol and adopted it as part of the Grove Ave logo.

Building Momentum

I have to note that Grove Ave is something we’re all doing on the side. We all maintain our full-time careers, and we’re really curious to see how we can make this business grow while sticking with our other commitments. Will this ultimately cap our potential or keep us from making this into something big? Perhaps. But the fact that it’s a side hustle doesn’t mean that we’re not taking it seriously. In fact, I’m pretty proud that we’ve been fairly disciplined about everything so far.

Grove Ave team communication

Left, a rare in-person meeting to hang out and talk business (minus Welton) in New York. Right, a screenshot of our weekly Google Hangout call.

Grove Ave work usually happens during breaks, after work, or on weekends. To keep things moving, we’ve established a workflow that keeps us accountable for tasks each week. On Sunday mornings, the five of us log on to Google Hangouts and have a very productive 90-minute session. We review what we’ve accomplished in the past week and what we should focus on for the coming week. We also talk through different topics most pressing at the time (e.g. branding, product selection, legal stuff, etc.). All updates and decisions we make are logged and posted on Basecamp, which we also use for general file and resource sharing throughout the week.

Starting with an E-Book

We knew that it was going to take some time to come out with our first product. We have a general idea of what the product will be, but there’s quite a bit of research, testing, and prep work we still need to do. So while our product development track continues, we decided to get some smaller wins and launch a few things incrementally.

Over Thanksgiving last year, Welton and I talked about a potential e-book for Grove Ave and how we could use it to grow our email list. A few hours later, Welton already had 5,000 words down and a fully developed outline for a book on productivity. We worked on some edits and continued to refine the manuscript over the next few weeks.

Grove Ave website design in progress

Grove Ave website design in progress. Thankfully, I have some experience designing websites.

In the meantime, after developing the logo and having discussions that helped us finalize our mission statement and tagline, I carved out some time to work on the website design. It would be a simple landing page to collect emails, but I wanted it to have a distinct look. Using free stock photography from Unsplash and playing around on Adobe Illustrator, I mocked up the homepage and shared it with the guys. Some weeks later, Sei-Wook re-familiarized himself with front-end development after five or so years away from the game and coded the designs.

Grove Ave e-book

I had to look up tutorials for Adobe InDesign to properly lay out the e-book.

I dedicated a couple weekends to laying out the book in Adobe InDesign and had to read up several tutorials and watch YouTube videos to properly set Welton’s writing into a proper e-book format. It was very rewarding to see the book take shape.

The Launch

Grove Ave E-book Cover 3D

We generated a 3D book image of the e-book to use for marketing purposes. It’s really easy to create one on boxshot.com.

Once the e-book was ready to go, we generated a 3D cover graphic on boxshot.com to make it look like a real product. We then spent some time last week setting up our email marketing. We’re using MailChimp, and I spent half a day setting up the designs for the email template and making sure the flow for signing up and downloading the e-book made sense. Sei-Wook set up Google Tag Manager and Analytics to make sure we’re tracking everything. I also created the first email campaign, which kicked off our weekly mailing, a bulleted list of five things people should read/listen to/watch that relate to personal and professional growth.

Grove Ave newsletter on Mailchimp

Putting together a newsletter campaign in MailChimp.

There was no big fanfare to our launch. We posted it on our respective Facebook accounts and texted/emailed friends. We’re gathering feedback and will start putting a plan together to do a more substantial marketing/PR push. For now, Welton’s been posting excerpts from the e-book to Medium, and I’m trying to streamline a process to make sure our weekly emails go out.

Next Steps and Takeaway

Finalizing our product, setting a price point, figuring out distribution, and getting our marketing plan in place will be our next big milestones. I can’t say exactly when this will be, but I know that we’ll be making progress on it every week.

Some pics of J.P. Stevens High School buddies over the years (early 2000s for the first two from the left and 2015 for the last one). I think we've aged very well!

Some pics of J.P. Stevens High School buddies over the years (early 2000s for the first two from the left and 2015 for the last one). I think we’ve aged very well!

And here’s the big-picture takeaway I’ve been thinking about from doing Grove Ave. I know it’s early and it’s not a full-time gig, so the stakes are fairly low. But at the same time, we’ve all invested time and energy into this. We’re also investing our own money to get things off the ground. What I’ve cherished is the fact that I get to connect with my buddies several times a week and work together towards a shared goal. I’m already quite blessed in that I get to go to work everyday at Barrel with one of my closest friends in Sei-Wook, so I feel doubly blessed that in my free time, I get to work on stuff with my lifelong buddies, crack jokes together, and share in whatever gains we achieve. Whatever may come of our endeavor, I know I’ll savor the journey and have a good time.

Visualizing Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People

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I recently finished Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. At the core of the book is the importance of empathy and the ability to see things from the perspective of the other person. What I found particularly engrossing about the book were the many detailed and memorable examples of interactions that people have day in and day out where the degree of empathy shapes how we feel and make others feel. The book had my mind racing with all the instances where I ignored, was oblivious to, or dismissed how the other person might have felt, whether it was a stranger, an employee, a client, or a loved one.

There’s so much to be gained with a heightened sense of empathy. In reflecting on my personal behavior over the years, I could remember the moments when I let the stress of work, the stubbornness of my pride and ego, and a general impatience get the best of me and completely blind me to how the other person might feel about the things I said, the way I said them, and my general demeanor. I let the feeling of shame and regret wash over me, and promised myself that I would do better.

To help me remember the lessons of this very amazing book, I spent some time on this snowy weekend creating little graphics with the text of Carnegie’s principles overlaid on top of scenic photos I found on my phone from the past couple years of travel.

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What I Ate and Drank Today

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I’ve been sticking pretty closely to a plant-based diet for the past five months. I feel great, and I enjoy the food I eat. In fact, I don’t really crave or miss the stuff I used to eat all the time.

I also recently finished reading How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Dr. Michael Greger, and it’s inspired me to continue trying new vegetables, fruits, spices, beans, and whole grains. I wish I wasn’t allergic to most nuts, but I make do with walnuts and pecans (and peanuts, which aren’t technically nuts). The book is packed with helpful information about different types of foods, and it also talks about various diseases and how a healthy plant-based diet can prevent or reverse a wide range of sicknesses.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Dr. Greger goes on to talk about what he personally eats on a day-to-day basis and how he loves to put hot sauce on everything. It got me thinking about my own preferences and how my personal plant-based menus have been formed.

Looking back on today, I felt like it represented a great snapshot of where I want my diet to be on most days. Although it’s missing beans and dark leafy greens, I thought it was a fairly healthy selection. You’ll notice that I have a preference for sweets.

Breakfast
Raisin English muffin sliced in half and toasted
One half with Justin’s honey peanut butter, the other half with Hampton Creek Just Mayo and sliced avocado

Black coffee

During Work
Green tea

Lunch
Warm Vegan Sansai Soba at Cocoron, a soba joint near my office
Soba noodles, mushrooms, flowering fern, bamboo, kitsune tofu, scallions, and deep fried tempura bits in bonito broth

Dinner
Mashed sweet potatoes
Toasted pecans, coconut oil, maple syrup, and flax seed

Broccoli and shiitake mushroom stir fry
Ginger, scallions, cilantro, and soy sauce

Dessert
Coconut ice cream with fruit
Blueberries, blackberries, mango, flax seed, and honey

Chamomile tea

I’ve become reliant on tea as a replacement for alcohol. I decided to cut down my alcohol intake significantly this year, especially as I train for a half marathon. Having to wake up at 7AM to run in the cold a few times a week makes it imperative that I feel as strong and clear-headed as possible. I can’t possibly imagine running in such conditions with a hangover. I’ve allowed myself 1 day a week for drinking, which I usually spend on Friday when my team has its weekly BourbON Friday. I like to switch it up between chamomile tea and a tumeric ginger tea.

I’m still surprised that I’ve so easily adopted a plant-based diet. I grew up dreaming of fried pork belly and Korean short rib dishes. I’m sure when the occasion is right, and I’m presented with an amazing meat dish, I’ll happily have some. But when it comes to my day-to-day and fueling myself with the foods that’ll make me feel nourished and energized, I’ll continue to stick with the plant-based route and see how far it takes me.

Lessons to Remember from 2015

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2015-lessons

I jotted down some lessons I picked up in 2015. Most of these relate to my work at Barrel. I wanted to post them in case others out there may find them relevant or helpful.

Structure and Planning Can Be Liberating

I believe more and more that “playing things by ear” is overrated and that the notion of freely figuring out what to do on the go can actually get in the way of spending time in a meaningful and rewarding way. I tried a few different things this year to give more structure to my schedule and to plan ahead as much as possible. Some examples:

  • Our management team at Barrel started plotting out all major meetings and appointments a quarter in advance to give us a better sense of how the coming months would play out. These include team meetings we need to prepare for, meetings with our CPA, as well as any business travel or conferences. Forcing ourselves to look 3 months ahead gives structure to the upcoming quarter and helps us anticipate the workload in terms of meeting prep as well as availability for taking on other responsibilities.
  • We instituted a morning daily huddle for the management team with a consistent structure that we follow. The three of us share each of these: 1) small victory from previous day; 2) top priority for the next 24 hours; 3) areas we’re stuck or find especially challenging; and 4) daily measures (accounts receivables and any new business activity). These happen at 9:37AM on the dot and last for about 15-20 minutes. We also end with a daily affirmation that we repeat together to feel centered on our mission and responsibilities. The huddle not only helps us sync up each morning and inform each other on what’s been happening, it’s also a great mechanism for helping us to plan out our day ahead.
  • We put a lot of work into some HR-related processes, namely our comp review system and our new employee on-boarding. With very clear structures, scripts, forms, and other pieces in place for these, there’s no more scrambling to get these done last minute. We just follow the process as we’ve laid out (we made some early tweaks based on feedback and experience) and this makes things very easy.
  • On a personal level, when going on vacation trips, I’ve found that some basic planning can lead to a much more enjoyable experience. Some things I’ve tried to jot down:
    • A list of restaurants to hit up
    • 1 or 2 activities to do each day
    • Some thoughts on when to go to bed and when to wake up each day
    • Groceries to pick up, especially if we’re staying for a few days at a hotel or AirBnB
    • What the transportation situation will be like and how much time we can expect to spend in transit

Having a plan doesn’t mean you always have to stick to it. But what it does provide is relief from having to make a slew of decisions in real-time. Instead, planning puts in structures to automate certain tasks and activities, allowing you to focus your energy on the most important matters (or to simply focus on enjoying yourself). By adhering to this type of discipline, I believe you set yourself up to feel less constrained and freer.

Listening is Teaching, Talking is Learning

I picked up the wording for this lesson from my wife Melanie, who came across it in a book by author Deborah Meier. The idea of listening as a way to teach really resonated with me because I don’t think I’ve been a great listener at Barrel.

I’ve often relished being the know-it-all with rapid-fire answers and instructions for anyone who came to me with questions. What I’ve realized from observing and tweaking my behavior is that people are more likely to understand and learn new things when they’re prompted to think deeply and figure things out on their own. While it may seem convenient and efficient for me to bullet list how an employee can resolve an issue or approach a problem, it’s likely that what I tell them may not be clearly understood or completely absorbed. So rather than answer a question with an answer (or command), I’ve found that asking the question right back and patiently listening to the person think things through can open the door for a richer discussion and a more valuable learning experience. As I listen, I might ask follow-up questions and also pepper in words of encouragement or praise.

Long-term, I think fostering this type of communication will help the team become more confident about problem solving on their own and figuring things out without having to come to me. I also think it’ll help expose me to different perspectives and to understand the different ways people see the same problem. I’m all for relinquishing the feeling of being the one with all the answers (which, by the way, is a very limiting mindset to have), especially if it means we can have team members who feel empowered and supported in figuring things out on their own.

Embrace the Ups and Downs and Keep Moving

These things happened in 2015 at Barrel:

  • Heavy turnover (over 10 people quit or were fired in a span of 5 months)
  • Lost one of our biggest clients
  • Suffered record monthly losses
  • Billing disputes with clients
  • Low team morale due to overstaffing

Sounds like a pretty crappy year, right? And yet, 2015 was, in my mind, one of the most exciting and memorable years. It definitely sucked to experience the things I mentioned above, but at the same time, these low points prompted us to reflect and change our ways. And as we faced other challenges, we got better at bouncing back. Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves and writing things off as hopeless, we kept at it and tried new things. Here are some things we accomplished:

  • Instituted a new interviewing and recruiting process that added new talented and strengthened retention
  • Added a roster of clients in the healthy lifestyle space, an area in which we’re working to establish ourselves as the go-to digital agency
  • Put in place a much more robust and structured expense management system to help us keep overhead down and find savings by cutting wasteful spending
  • Workshopped and streamlined our project management workflows and deliverables, helping improve client experience
  • Instituted new ways of resourcing team members on projects and also expanded our network of freelancers/contractors to help augment our capacity

My main takeaway from the ups and downs of this year is that it’s unproductive to fret and dwell on the downs. Crappy things will always happen in one form or another. Some may be preventable and work itself out while others may come out of nowhere and smack us in the face. Either way, I’ve gotten much better at taking these things in stride and focusing my energies more on the actionable steps we can take to move the company forward. We’re not going to have the solution or happy outcome for every bump we hit, but I like the idea of building an organization that is confident in its ability to overcome setbacks, to learn from them, and to be stronger, so that whenever we look back in a few months or in a year, we can honestly say: “Wow, we’ve changed a lot and come a long away.”

Dig Deeper to Identify and Address the Underlying Problem

I find that I’m the type of person who, when confronted with a problem, likes to jump on a solution as quickly as possible. In many cases, my eagerness to take action has served me well. But I’ve found that as I come across more complex challenges, my tendency to embrace rapid-fire solutions is sometimes counterproductive.

Where I’ve fallen short is in the questions I ask upfront. Rather than probe deeper into a problem to find out why it’s important, how it’s impacting the organization, and who potentially needs to be involved, my first line of thinking might be along the lines of “Is there a tool that can help us?” or “How do other companies handle this?” And right away, my focus shifts from closely examining our situation to wondering which web app will solve all our challenges. I’ve come to see this as a rather dangerous line of thinking. Putting too much faith in a tool, a new hire, or any other silver bullet solution is likely to lead to disappointment. I’ve learned this the hard way, and yet, I find it hard to let go of my ways.

This lesson contains a few takeaways:

  • Beware of the sexy, seemingly easy solution
    The alluring web app that promises to alleviate all my problems while putting everything in the cloud? Adopting a tool, especially for an entire organization, is never a cakewalk and it’s important to understand the commitment required to make it work. In many cases, a new tool may not be the solution at all, and instead, the best course may be to tweak whatever homegrown solution we have going already. The same applies to hiring someone as a way to solve a problem. Without properly understanding the underlying issues, hiring someone to come in and fix everything can lead to disastrous results. I wrote about the pitfalls of hiring to solve a problem a couple years ago but have acted contrary to my own advice several times since.
  • Map things out
    If it’s a workflow problem, writing down all the steps to the existing workflows or even diagramming it is a very helpful first step. For example, before going to look for tools, I could map out an existing process to better understand what works well and specifically which areas give us trouble. For other problems, I think writing in detail about the problem can be a useful way to identify gaps or underlying issues that may be easier to address than originally thought.
  • Always ask “how can we do this better?” as a baseline
    I found that starting with this question, rather than a prescriptive “how can we automate this” or “how can we cut down the cost of this” makes it easier to explore a variety of solutions rather than being zeroed-in on finding a specific solution.

Part of effective problem solving, I’ve found, is to have patience. And by patience, I don’t mean passivity or inactivity, but instead, a persistent and disciplined focus to gather and analyze data, ask meaningful questions, and to think both short and long-term about the impact of potential decisions. I know this is an area I’ve struggled with time and time again, but I think having greater awareness of my own behavior in problem-solving situations will allow me to pull back and employ a solid framework to identify and address underlying issues.

Parting Thoughts

My hope with these lessons is that they become institutionalized into the culture at Barrel. One way I can personally contribute is to continue modeling certain behaviors and seizing every opportunity to share these lessons or to highlight and praise behaviors that help advance these lessons. The better we, as a company, can tie specific examples to these lessons, the easier they’ll be to explain and share.

2015: Habits that Stuck

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Photo taken from an early morning run.

In 2015, I picked up a few new habits that I’m pretty proud of and hope to continue into the New Year. I want to share some of these, as they’ve had a very positive impact on my life.

Reading List

I started keeping a list of books that I finished as well as a backlog of books to read next. Whenever someone tells me about a book in passing or I come across a mention in an interview, tweet, or podcast, I add it to my backlog. Seeing my list of completed books grow has been rewarding, and putting the finish date on it gives me an idea of my reading activity month-to-month.

In 2015, I was able to finish 28 books and get through significant parts of a dozen more. The books I read influenced a lot of my thinking when it came to habits, whether it was exercise, how I conduct myself at work, how I communicate, and how I eat. So in a way, keeping a reading list and being motivated to read more than my usual amount was probably the most influential habit I formed this year.

If I had to choose, here are my top 5 picks for books this year:

Boot Camp at the YMCA

After a three year hiatus, I returned to regularly attending Thursday morning boot camp at my local YMCA. It’s an early 7AM class that is brutal to wake up for especially in the winter, but by 8AM, I always feel amazing and congratulate myself for making the right decision. The class is an intense mix of running, core exercises, and plyometrics (burpees!), and it goes pretty much nonstop for an hour. I feel like attending boot camp has been really great for keeping me in shape for other activities like pickup football and basketball. I also take pride in knowing that I’m the best bear crawler in my class.

Running

Just a couple of years ago, I struggled to jog for half a mile. Since 2014, I’ve been steadily increasing my capacity to run, and in 2015, I began to take up running more frequently. During the first half of the year, my participation in a duathlon race and a triathlon relay spurred me to run 3-4 times a week. Even after these races, I tried to keep up my running, doing at least one day of 3-4 miles each week. More recently, I’ve been trying to up the distance of my runs. I’m hoping to get my body comfortable with 7-10 mile runs.

A few things have kept me motivated to run besides the obvious health benefits:

  • Earlier in the year, I went to the New York Running Company at Columbus Circle, did the whole video recording and analysis of my running style, and picked up a pair of Saucony running shoes which I absolutely love and can’t run without. Every time I put them on, I get a boost of confidence that I can easily run a hard 3-5 miles without a problem.
  • I love having uninterrupted listening time for my audiobooks and podcasts, and running affords me this. The best was when I was listening to Finding Ultra by Rich Roll and being inspired by his stories of competing in ultra triathlons. It put me in a really focused running mindset.
  • Whenever I travel to a new place, going for a jog is a great way to discover the area. In 2015, I ran around Barcelona, San Francisco, Santa Monica, the Hamptons, San Diego, Melbourne, and Hudson Valley and enjoyed exploring these places.

Paying Attention to Credit Card Rewards

Earlier in the year, I came across this Rolling Stones article on Ben Schlappig, who runs the blog One Mile at a Time. I had never paid much attention to frequent flyer programs or to credit cards offering rewards, but I was fascinated by Schlappig’s exploits with rewards programs and decided to read up on ways to use rewards points to travel. In addition to One Mile at a Time, I also found The Points Guy to be a helpful resource.

I ended up signing up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which got me 50,000 bonus points (plus 5,000 more for referring my wife). I also took advantage of the 2x bonus points on restaurants and cafes as well as travel (airfare, hotels, and taxis), quickly racking up thousands of points. I’ve used points already to purchase airfare to visit my parents in Atlanta and also to buy some stuff on Amazon. When I think about it from a numbers perspective, these points get me more value than the 1-2% I was getting from my cash back credit cards, especially since those cards have a cap on the total reward amount. I also signed up for an American Express Premier Rewards Gold card and received 50,000 bonus points as well as 3x bonus points for money spent booking all of my airplane tickets to Taiwan and Australia (over 6,000 points).

I also took inventory of all my mileage points on various airlines and decided to be smarter about which airlines to use in the future in order to maximize rewards. As with my finances in general, I wish I had started on this earlier and taken the time to read up and sign up for the right programs, but it’s better late than never, so I’m glad I was able to gain a bit of fluency in this area in 2015.

Embracing a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet

I came across this video back in the summer and became curious about cutting meat and other animal products from my diet while upping the intake of plant-based foods. My meals typically centered around proteins such as pork, beef, chicken, and fish with vegetables often being an insignificant side dish or sometimes non-existent. I also rarely ate fruits except for the occasional banana. My lunches mainly consisted of cold cuts or a banh mi. I told myself I would try cutting out animal products from my diet for a few weeks and see how it felt.

It’s been over four months since, and I’ve stuck with a plant-based diet. I’ve cut out pretty much all animal products (I still indulge in some honey and kimchi, which has small fish as an ingredient), and I’ve tried my best to stay away from processed foods (I’ll eat chips or Oreos every now and then). No meat, no fish, no eggs, and no dairy. I’ve upped my intake of dark leafy greens (e.g. kale, spinach, bok choy, etc.) and also delight in trying different types of grains (e.g. faro, quinoa, brown rice, etc.). While I’m allergic to fruits such as apples, cherries, and peaches, I’ve been eating quite a bit of avocados, mangoes, oranges, and bananas. And for my sources of protein, I eat various types of beans, nuts, and seeds. I’ve also come to appreciate sweet potatoes, yams, cauliflower, and broccoli.

Here’s what’s changed for me:

  • I cook a lot more at home and go out to eat a lot less. I want control over what I eat and what goes into my food. My favorite go-to dish is soba noodles with veggies and mushrooms seasoned with sesame oil and soy sauce. I also make a mean smoothie using my Vitamix blender. At work, I stir-fry vegetables and rice (see how we do lunch at Barrel).
  • I feel great after my meals. I feel like the food I eat is easily digested, and I don’t seem to suffer from any kind of food coma or lethargy after a mainly plant-based meal.
  • I feel strong and energized. Initially, I dropped some weight as I got used to my new diet, but as I became more adept at incorporating new and varied ingredients, I’ve been able to maintain my weight and keep my muscle mass.
  • I look forward to eating all the time. I used to be a big snacker who loved cookies and chips, but I’ve largely cut those out of my daily routine. Instead, I look forward to cooking myself a nice meal at home or having a green smoothie.
  • I’m very curious about food and trying new things. I find myself paying closer attention to the produce sold at Whole Foods and at the farmer’s market, and I’ve been collecting different recipes to cook at home.

I’m committed to staying with this diet. I may enjoy a bite of sushi or a pastry made with eggs every now and then, but for the foreseeable future, I feel like there are too many benefits with a whole-food, plant-based diet to eat any other way.

During my twenties, I relied mostly on eating out, getting take-out, or cooking a piece of meat or fish at home. I also ate an inordinate amount of eggs and bacon. A “healthy” meal might be sushi take-out once a week. I don’t regret the way I ate in my twenties. I had many memorable meals, amazing dishes at great restaurants, and gluttonous fun hanging out with friends. Now, in my thirties, I’m okay with missing out on prix fixe dinners and all-meat cookouts. I’m excited to continue exploring plant-based foods that nourish, energize, and taste delicious.

Parting Thoughts

A year can go by very quickly, but it’s important to note that a year is a very long time to see small, routine acts quickly add up to something bigger and more impactful. A recap of how new habits impacted me in 2015:

  • The decision to eat a plant-based diet led to hundreds of healthy meals in just a few months, helping me feel better and more energized daily.
  • The decision to use credit cards with different rewards programs led to thousands of points I could use towards travel.
  • The decision to keep track of my reading list and be disciplined about reading on a daily basis got me through thousands of pages and greatly expanded my knowledge.
  • The decision to run and exercise each week helped me to stay in shape and log over a hundred miles of running.

 

I’m excited to explore new habits, optimize existing ones, and stop bad habits in 2016. What I’ve shared here are very specific to some personal habits. I also found that approaching my work in this manner was helpful for me (perhaps a topic for another post). There’s something very empowering about being deliberate and proactive about the way I behave and live my life. It wasn’t always this way for me, and I remember being content with “going with the flow” of everyday life. These days, I’m more likely to ask myself “how can I do this better or smarter?” and experiment with changes both big and small. I won’t always get it right, but what’s important is that I keep trying.

Goodbye 2015, and happy new year!

What I Learned from Watching HBO’s Hard Knocks

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bill-obrien

I really enjoyed this season’s Hard Knocks on HBO, a 5-episode series that takes viewers behind-the-scenes of a different NFL team’s training camp each season. This season, Hard Knocks focused on the Houston Texans. Bill O’Brien, in his second season as Texans head coach after his stint at Penn State, made the show very compelling for me, and I thought there were some good takeaways in his leadership style. One thing stuck with me is how O’Brien stays consistent with his message to the team and the various ways he reinforces this throughout training camp.

After a good practice, O’Brien tell his team: “We gotta do it all the time, we gotta keep building, we can’t go backwards. Let’s keep bringing energy to this practice field.” This is a message that he repeats in practices, before and after games, and during team meetings throughout the five episodes.

Rallying his team before a grueling session of practice, he tells them: “The one thing that we have to hold on to is our competitive edge. We can never lose our competitiveness. Ever. We have to come out here every day with the mindset that we’re gonna win every drill. That’s the mindset we gotta have. That is our edge. the way that we practice is our edge.”

And when it comes to evaluation, especially with roster spots on the line, he makes it clear: “What we care about as a staff is performance, is how you guys are performing day in and day out.”

And when he doesn’t like what he sees, he lets the team know: “We can’t have a shitty fucking day.”

The message he sends to his players is clear: you have to earn your spot on the team and show that you deserve it, every single day.

Throughout training camp, O’Brien not only broadcasts his message to the entire team, he reiterates it in his one-on-one conversations with players, especially those who are on the cusp of making the team. “Keep coming this week,” he tells Charles James, a cornerback who plays with heart but must overcome his small stature.

Even after naming Brian Hoyer as the starting quarterback, O’Brien tells him: “You’ve got to earn it every day. When it comes to leadership, it’s important for a quarterback to be a leader, no doubt about that, but you’ve got to earn it on the field. You’ve gotta win games with the Houston Texans before you become the leader of the team.” While O’Brien tells Hoyer that he’s “not on a short leash,” he tells the other quarterback Ryan Mallet that he should be ready to play if Hoyer doesn’t get the job done. We know now that Hoyer was in fact on a pretty short leash—after underperforming in the first three and a half quarters of the season opener, Hoyer was benched and replaced by Mallet.

There are a couple scenes in the show where the players mock O’Brien by imitating him. In both situations, they make fun of the way he presents himself (e.g. towel draped around his neck, his tendency to drop f-bombs, the repetitiveness of his message), but you also get the sense that the players respect and buy in to the content of his message.

The Hard Knocks series ends with a speech that O’Brien makes to his team after final cuts are made. The team, which started out with 90 players at the start of training camp, must slim down its roster to 53 players heading into the regular season. After a series of difficult conversations where he gives direct and honest feedback to the players who don’t make the team, O’Brien stands in front of the ones who’ve made it and reiterates his message one last time:

You have to work every day. Every single day to earn your spot on the team. Every day. Every day we come in here, it’s all about winning. We walk into the building and we say, “how’re we going to get better today to help the team get better?” It’s all about the team.

Every single day you’ve gotta show up in the building in the most competitive business in the world, the National Football League and you’ve gotta compete, you’ve gotta be alert in the meetings, you’ve gotta understand what we’re trying to do, you’ve gotta understand your role, and you’ve gotta earn it every fucking day.

I’ve been thinking about the message I want to convey to my team at Barrel day in and day out. The challenge is to hone in and carefully craft a message that is simple and easy for everyone to absorb. I’ve noticed that during the course of a week, I have a dozen priorities and values that I’m trying to communicate. While different circumstances require the appropriate message, I know that I need to think deeper and connect our priorities and values into a cohesive, easy-to-remember message. If O’Brien’s ultimate goal is to win as a football team, then the message he uses as the platform for the team’s values and priorities is to show up and put in the work every single day. I’ve been experimenting with some messages at work and seeing how our team members respond to them. I know that in order for anything to stick, it’ll have to a) sound and feel authentic, b) be dead simple, and c) resonate in a way that connects the individual to the goals and mission of the company.

So much of what leadership entails is communication. Over the years, I’ve mistakenly believed that I had communicated enough or that I didn’t need to repeat myself. I’ve learned the hard way that what may seem overstated or obvious to me personally may be unclear or under-addressed to others. Watching O’Brien on Hard Knocks, I found the consistency and repetitive nature of his message to be an effective leadership tactic that can play an important part in strengthening and contributing to team culture.

 
 


Note: This isn’t the first time I tried to write about leadership and football. I previously wrote about how running a business is much like building a college football program.

Reading Notes July 2015

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I really enjoyed the variety of books I read in July. I’m naturally drawn to books that I can directly apply to my work (typically leadership/management/business books), but I know that I have much to gain by exposing myself to ideas and topics beyond what feels professionally relevant.

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder
You don’t have to care much about beer to enjoy this story. It’s about fathers and sons, entrepreneurship, and the rapid rise of a small family business into a global brand. The Busch family is portrayed as colorful, sometimes crazy, and, like many clans that experience mega-success, ultimately very tragic.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
I’ve never been a big science fiction reader, but Chiang’s collection of short stories got me hooked. There is something very efficient and precise about Chiang’s writing, which comes in handy when he describes scientific or mathematic concepts that are central to the plot. My favorites were:

  • Tower of Babylon, about a civilization’s efforts to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, told from the perspective of a young miner who is brought to break through the vault into heaven
  • Understand, about a man who, by taking an experimental drug to treat his brain damage, finds himself with super-intelligent powers; this story is much better than Lucy, the Scarlett Johansson movie with a similar premise
  • Story of Your Life, about a linguist who is brought in by the military to communicate with an alien species and to learn their language; very excited to know that this will come out as a movie next year
  • Liking What You See: A Documentary, about a technology that disables the part of the brain that senses beauty and the debate this stirs when a college considers providing the technology to its students (you can read this online right here)

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A Black Swan is an unpredictable event that has huge impact, which we then, in hindsight, try to rationalize and make seem less random. Taleb points to examples such as 9/11, Black Monday (the stock market crash that happened in 1987), the Internet, various revolutions, and the fall of the Soviet Union. I didn’t especially find the concept of Black Swans to be groundbreaking, but I did find it helpful to think about confirmation bias and narrative fallacy, two human habits that Taleb blames for limiting our ability to appreciate and embrace the randomness of events. I listened to this in audiobook format, and it made for a very entertaining and quick listen. Some may be turned off by the smug and often arrogant tone of the book (I think the narrator does a good job of conveying this), but I found it quite entertaining.

A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting by Sam Sheridan
A Harvard graduate with a burning desire to learn all there is to learn about fighting and why we fight, Sam Sheridan chronicles his travels (Southeast Asia, Brazil, Iowa, Northern California, etc.), the various forms of fighting he picks up (Muay Thai, MMA, boxing, jujitsu, etc.), and the characters who inhabit these fighting worlds. It took me a while to finish this book, but I read it whenever I needed some motivation to exercise. Sheridan goes into detail about the grueling workouts that fighters go through to get into fighting form. I especially remember a line about how MMA fighters avoided drinking because a single beer could set their training back by as much as a week. Sheridan talks about the thrill of being pitted one-on-one against another person, but what I kept thinking about throughout the book was the mental toughness and discipline that these fighters have to develop in order to keep going.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This memoir centers around Murakami’s experience as a runner and how running and writing have been parallel activities for much of his adult life. Murakami goes into detail about his training regimen and how running has taught him much about writing—both require focus, endurance, and talent to do well. My weekly routine is nowhere near Murakami’s marathon-level mileage, but the 2-3 times that I do run each week have been incredibly rewarding and great for building my patience when it comes to work. I would be very happy if, twenty or twenty-five years from now, I’m still able to lace up like Murakami and log six or seven miles outside. His account of participating in a triathlon was also very relevant for me. I still haven’t been able to enter one due to my fear of swimming, and it was nice to read about how Murakami overcame his own struggles with swimming and finally found a quality coach who helped him with his technique and made him a much better swimmer.

Managing (Right) for the First Time by David C. Baker
I subscribe to David C. Baker’s newsletter which always has smart, insightful advice for marketing agency owners like myself. My business partner Sei-Wook even attended a conference put on by Baker down in Nashville earlier this year. I decided to buy a copy of his book Managing (Right) for the First Time after reading a newsletter in June titled “Why Your Agency is Still Stuck.” This led me to his blog post called “Managing People is Counter-Intuitive.” The post has a lot of the lessons contained in the book. I wish I had read the book five years ago, when I was first starting to manage people. Reading this book was a painful reminder that I learned things very slowly, and I kept telling myself that I needed to be much better.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this book was on structuring roles and the need to proactively define and make decisions on company structure. I’ve seen firsthand how the lack of structure or the absence of any planning done around the growth and career development of employees can lead to the departure of talented people or to reactive, crisis-mode situations where new positions are haphazardly created in order to retain people (and usually don’t work out). I’ve spent a good chunk of the past six weeks thinking through our company structure as well as the various roles. This is an area in which I absolutely don’t want to be caught flat-footed.

The book goes into detail around some other important management activities like employee on-boarding, making the transition into a management role, effective hiring practices, and becoming a good leader. But I believe the book is most valuable for its overall sentiment on managing people, and how it can be an enriching and rewarding experience for those who want to do it right. These lines from the introduction rang very true, and it’s something I think about every now and then:

Twenty years from now, let me sit down with one of your current clients and ask them about you, your impact, and what they learned. Chances are they won’t be able to dredge a name out of their murky memories. The same is true of your vendors.

But let me do that with one of your current employees in twenty years and they’ll remember you for sure. Hopefully it’ll be for the right reasons, and that’s the opportunity that is in front of you.

Reading Notes May/June 2015

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I’m hoping to post every month a list of the books I’ve read along with a few thoughts and some memorable quotes. Some of these books were consumed via audio and others were read in physical book or Kindle formats. As I’ve spent more time riding my bike or going for 3-5 mile runs, I’ve been able to get through quite a bit of audio books. I also try to listen when I walk the dog and when I commute. It’s harder for me to take notes when I’m listening, but these posts will force me to go back and revisit the books in text format.

Because this edition spans two months, it’ll be longer than the usual.

Double Your Profits: In Six Months or Less by Bob Fifer
This was one of the more exciting reads for me this year. It’s written by a consultant who helps companies cut costs. He offers direct, no-nonsense observations and tactical advice to companies looking to improve their profit margin. I took a few to heart such as:

  • Set arbitrary, non-negotiable budgets. People will find a way to be resourceful.
  • In a meritocracy, the bottom half complains. In a seniority or other system, the top-performing half complains.
  • Strategic cost are things that clearly bring in business and improve the bottom line (salespeople, advertising, and commercializable R&D); non-strategic costs are the costs necessary to run the business but don’t clearly bring in more business; split all costs into strategic and non-strategic costs; outspend your competition on strategic costs.

I’ve been able to quickly apply many of Fifer’s lessons at my company, and the pursuit of a meritocratic culture has been very energizing.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
I didn’t particularly enjoy this book as it felt like a never-ending New Yorker article, but I liked listening to the stories of how we as a civilization have pieced together, over time, the various periods in Earth’s history and the causes for the mass extinction of species in each. We are but a blip in the history of the Earth, and yet, it’s scary that we’ve managed to have such broad impact on its ecology and may already have trigger the next wave of mass extinctions.

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William N. Thorndike Jr.
I picked this book up after reading Warren Buffet’s biography. It was a very quick read and it highlights CEOs of various industries who all seemed to follow similar traits:

  • They shunned the spotlight and did not have outsized personalities (like a Jack Welch)
  • They were extremely conscious of cost and kept very lean operations (e.g. nondescript, low-cost offices or a handful of people running a multi-billion dollar cable company)
  • They were contrarians and often ignored what Wall Street analysts recommended
  • They were all savvy at the game of capital allocation, dispensing resources to areas that saw the greatest returns.

I found the characters fairly forgettable on their own, but as a group, their virtues are easy to remember.

The Lessons of History by William and Ariel Durant
I loved this book. So many incredible nuggets can be found in this small volume, which itself was culled from a lifetime of research (The Story of Civilization series) by the renowned historians William and Ariel Durant. After listening to the audio book, I immediately bought the physical book and these days keep it within arm’s reach so I can re-read a page or two when I have some time. Every paragraph seems to pack a new insight that I can reflect on for some time. Spanning topics related to history such as “History and the Earth”, “Race and History”, “Government and History”, etc., the Durants highlight patterns in history through clear examples and expound upon the unchanging nature of man.

Here are some quotes that have stuck with me:

  • The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.
  • The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact…Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
  • It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people: circumstances geographical, economic, and political create a culture, and the culture creates a human type.
  • Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group.
  • To the geologic eye all surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.

Why Can’t Elephants Dance by Louis Gerstner
This memoir by the CEO who turned around IBM in its darkest hour was a really enjoyable and quick read. Gerstner is a no-nonsense guy with a great leadership mind who instilled a sense of urgency into a stagnating corporate culture. Assessing the dire situation of the company, he eschewed talks of vision and quickly set about taking action, bringing IBM back from a period of heavy losses and setting it on course towards growth and profitability. Some quotes I liked:

  • I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.
  • Execution—getting the task done, making it happen—is the most unappreciated skill of an effective business leader.
  • I’ve had a lot of experience turning around troubled companies, and one of the first things I learned was that whatever hard or painful things you have to do, do them quickly and make sure everyone knows what you are doing and why. Whether dwelling on a problem, hiding a problem, or dribbling out partial solutions to a problem while you wait for a high tide to raise your boat — dithering and delay almost always compound a negative situation.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
I was a bit hesitant to start this book, which, at over 900 pages amounted to almost 27 hours on audio. I thought I would lose interest in the middle and give up. Fortunately, I found this Teddy Roosevelt’s biography, which ends with him taking over the Presidency after the death of William McKinley, quite entertaining and inspiring. I keep thinking about the qualities that made Roosevelt such a fascinating character: his incredible discipline when it came to writing and reading (he was a voracious reader and author of many critically-acclaimed books); his love of physical activity and the outdoors; and his zeal and limitless energy when it came to making things happen, especially as a government official. What I liked most about the book was that Roosevelt’s love of life and his constant nose for adventure made me want to take more chances and push myself in different ways.

Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholder 1965-2013 by Warren Buffet
It took me a while to get through all of them, but going through the entire collection of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters was probably one of the most educational experiences I’ve ever had. Buffet’s letters are a true joy to read. Here’s why:

  • Knowing that he ends up as a mega-rich billionaire, I had so much fun working through the chronology of Berkshire Hathaway, starting as a failing textile business and working its way into insurance, See’s Candies, and a myriad collection of other businesses and securities investments that snowball into one of the world’s most formidable corporations.
  • Buffet takes the time to explain various financial concepts to his shareholders. These include the basics of insurance, different types of accounting rules, derivatives, business valuations, taxes, and value investing. He repeats many of his lessons over and over again throughout the years, and it’s great to see that he sticks to the fundamentals when he talks through his investment decisions (e.g. buying great businesses at a fair prices vs. buying fair businesses at a great price). He also makes clear his disdain for those who erode shareholder value, whether they’re executives who greedily award themselves options while lobbying to make sure options aren’t counted as an expense or various financial wizards (investment bankers, PE/LBO firms, mutual fund advisors) who promise shareholders great returns for a great deal of activity while in reality delivering mediocre to poor results (and fattening their own pockets in the process through fees).
  • Buffet sprinkles his letters with various pop culture references, self-deprecating remarks, and jokes that reminded me that this wasn’t a guy who was only about the money as much as he was about having a good time while using money as a scorecard. I finished The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life as I was reading the shareholder letters, and what struck me was that Buffet’s greatest success wasn’t the billions he reaped, but instead, it was that he happened upon a game that he absolutely loved and could excel at for the rest of his life.

9 Years of Barrel, Advice for Myself

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A couple weeks ago, Barrel turned 9. In 2006, Sei-Wook and I decided to incorporate our business and made the commitment to build a company together.

Over the years, we’ve experienced our fair share of exciting wins and crushing disappointments. There are many things we’re both proud of and also things we ruefully wish we had handled better.

For me personally, the past 9 years have been an incredible learning experience, and the opportunity to grow a company has been both fulfilling and rewarding on so many levels. Whenever I reflect like this, I often wonder what kind of advice I would pass along to my younger self. When I think through how that conversation might go, I end up shaking my head knowing that my younger self, motivated by different priorities and perhaps too immature and arrogant to see the benefits, may not see the value in my advice. So rather than advice for my younger self, I’d like to jot down some thoughts for my future self, so that he may look back and see if what I value today has held up, or if new lessons and experiences have opened his eyes to a different set of behaviors and values.

Here are lessons, behaviors, commandments, or whatever you might want to call them, that I find particularly valuable 9 years into running Barrel:

Taking Care of the Body
I’ve learned to treat work as a performance. I show up, I do my best to add value and contribute to the team, and I crave results. To this end, I’ve found it incredibly important to take care of my body. When I am well-rested, energetic, and free from physical discomforts, I find that I am a better performer. I can concentrate on my work, I have stamina for back-to-back-to-back meetings, and I have a clear head when it comes to making decisions. Taking care of the body requires work. It means watching what I eat, getting quality exercise, and going to bed at a reasonable time. There are moments when I’ll get derailed, especially when I have a big deadline or I’m traveling, but I quickly work to detox and get back into a healthy routine. I’m also motivated by the fact that taking care of the body today will have immeasurable benefits for me in future years as I get older.

Learning by Reading Books
I am always guilting myself about not reading enough, but I cannot overstate the impact that reading books has had on my learning. While there are some blogs out there that I’ve learned a great deal from, I strongly believe that putting in the time to read full-length books has done me wonders. In recent years, I’ve read various books on leadership, company operations, strategy, design, pricing, investing, history, psychology, and science, and each book has added a new dimension to my thinking while expanding my ability to articulate my ideas. While not ideal, I rely on audio books to get through a good number of titles. Whereas in the past, I used to juggle 4-5 books at a time while hardly finishing any of them, I’ve gotten better at going through one book at a time, which has helped me to retain knowledge. Just like taking care of my body is an investment in my future self, I believe that reading books is a valuable investment in how my future self will think and see the world.

Keeping a Cool Head
No matter the situation, no matter the emotions, I’ve learned that treating others with respect and avoiding any words or actions that may cause embarrassment or hurt can be a powerful way to behave. Too many times in my life, I’ve succumbed to a negative emotion or overwhelming stress only to blurt out mean, petty, or hurtful comments at others. This is conduct unbecoming of a leader, and it only serves to undermine my own credibility. While I still struggle at times, I’ve learned to be better at receiving bad news and to respond in a manner that is less vindictive (“who messed up??”) and more productive (“how can we fix this?”).

For me, keeping a cool head is not so much about being steely cold and rational, but more about showing compassion and respect for others. It’s understanding that in a grander perspective, it’s not worthwhile to engage in unnecessary squabbles or to stew in anger at a perceived slight. There are better ways to spend the time—new things to learn, cool things to build, and fun moments to live with loved ones—that being consumed by resentment or discontent starts to look like a big waste of time.

This book by blogger Leo Babauta has been quite influential in my thinking and behavior.

Conclusion
The lessons above are general, and purposefully so. In reflecting on the many things I’ve learned in the past 9 years, the overarching lesson has been that the things I do on a daily basis have great, compounding effects over time. Every day, I am confronted by choices that allow me to live these commandments. Will I take care of body? Will I read a book? Will I keep a cool head? By making the right choices day in and day out, I believe I’m putting myself on a path towards something worthwhile.

Investing Fundamentals

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I’ve been slowly going through all of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder letters by Warren Buffet. I love the way he writes about investing, finance, and accounting with such easy-to-understand clarity and an easygoing tone. I’ve been thinking a lot about Buffet and his Vice Chairman Munger’s approach to business, good managers, and decision-making. One takeaway is the adherence to the fundamentals, and to keep things simple and to patiently stick with an approach in a disciplined manner. I’ve excerpted a passage from Berkshire Hathaway’s 1996 letter that I found to be a very good summary of Buffet’s legendary approach to investing:

Let me add a few thoughts about your own investments. Most investors, both institutional and individual, will find that the best way to own common stocks is through an index fund that charges minimal fees. Those following this path are sure to beat the net results (after fees and expenses) delivered by the great majority of investment professionals.

Should you choose, however, to construct your own portfolio, there are a few thoughts worth remembering. Intelligent investing is not complex, though that is far from saying that it is easy. What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word “selected”: You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

To invest successfully, you need not understand beta, efficient markets, modern portfolio theory, option pricing or emerging markets. You may, in fact, be better off knowing nothing of these. That, of course, is not the prevailing view at most business schools, whose finance curriculum tends to be dominated by such subjects. In our view, though, investment students need only two well-taught courses—How to Value a Business, and How to Think About Market Prices.

Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily-understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, ten and twenty years from now. Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet these standards—so when you see one that qualifies, you should buy a meaningful amount of stock. You must also resist the temptation to stray from your guidelines: If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio’s market value.

Though it’s seldom recognized, this is the exact approach that has produced gains for Berkshire shareholders: Our look-through earnings have grown at a good clip over the years, and our stock price has risen correspondingly. Had those gains in earnings not materialized, there would have been little increase in Berkshire’s value.

Lots of Writing Elsewhere

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TriathlonIllustration-v1

I’ve been keeping myself very busy the past few weeks with writing. I wanted to share some of the pieces I’ve written on other blogs.

Two primary places I’ve been working on: the Barrel blog, which we’ve been working hard to turn into a content hub for thought leadership that may appeal to potential clients and Buys with Friends, a side project that I launched with my long-time buddies Welton and Andy.

A bit more on Buys with Friends: the idea came to us on a weeknight as we were texting each other about blogs that we liked. We thought it would be cool to start one ourselves. In fact, Welton and I used to run an online web magazine for teens back in middle school and continued to run it throughout high school. We settled on a blog that would be about the things we buy and why we buy them. At a basic level, it would be a collection of product reviews. On a more aspirational level, it would be insightful commentary about the psychology of buying, our consumption habits, and the means and ends that buying serves in our everyday lives. In less than 4 weeks, we’ve published 15 blog posts. We’re hoping to get 2-3 up each week and see what we can learn from the experience.

For me personally, I’ve been enjoying Buys with Friends quite a bit. It’s given me the opportunity to play publisher, website tinkerer, marketer, and SEO specialist. I’ve been poring over articles by SEO and content marketing expert Neil Patel as well as the blog on Moz.org for tips and tricks. I’ve been able to play around with different WordPress plugins and themes and also create custom dashboards on Google Analytics. It’s been refreshing to be involved with a project in this way.

Here are some posts that I’ve written recently, both on Buys with Friends and on the Barrel blog:

Tasty Peanut Butter and Eating 30g of Protein Within 30 Minutes of Waking Up
I wrote about my breakfast routine of eating at least 30 grams of protein each morning and how peanut butter plays a role. I specifically write about Peanut Butter & Co.’s Dark Chocolate Dreams and The Bees Knees.

New Router for the Home: Probably the Best $20 Spent in a Long Time
I shared how upgrading my router at home made a huge difference in my Internet speed. Still can’t believe that we suffered slow Internet all these years due to an outdated router!

Key Features That Got Me Hooked On YogaGlo, My On-Demand Yoga Instructor
I’ve been using YogaGlo at home at least 2-3 times per week. This is a review of the web app from a user experience perspective.

How We Use LeadIn, a WordPress Plugin That Delivers Insights on Website Visitors
I’ve been having a lot of fun with LeadIn (I use it on my own blog), so I decided to write about it for the Barrel blog. It includes screenshots of the tool so you can see how we actually use it for business development.

USA Triathlon Analysis: How 5 Emails Can Enhance Member Engagement
I noticed that the emails I received from USA Triathlon after I signed up were overly promotional and not all that helpful. I decided to write a blog post about how the organization might want to rethink its email marketing strategy to better engage its members.

Another cool byproduct of writing these has been the opportunity to get some custom illustrations made for blog posts. I’ve been working closely with our junior designer Andres, and we have a good system going: I take a Post-It and sketch an idea I have very roughly along with one or two sample illustrations to demonstrate my color and style preferences; Andres then takes the sketch and turns it into a beautiful illustration. All the illustrations in this post were created in this way. Very excited to keep creating these.

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Overall, this process of writing publicly for both business and as a hobby has been very rewarding. By pushing to create content on a consistent schedule rather than a sporadic one, I’ve been learning to institute better editorial processes, smarter planning, and structured writing that can help me push out pieces faster. Every blog post still requires a great deal of focus and editing, but I don’t find it as daunting to finish and publish as I used to.

One more piece to share. Several months ago, I submitted a piece to SoDA. SoDA is a network of digital agencies around the world. Barrel became a member last year. They publish a widely circulated report each year. My piece, called “Ditching the Performance Review” made its way into the Talent section. It’s about the importance of one-on-one conversations and how having high quality conversations can really raise the level of an employee’s engagement and professional development.

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 highly recommend 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

Designing for Clients: 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 understanding 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 that clamor for “fresh, new, and exciting” designs, 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:

Uber
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.

Everlane
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 support@everlane.com 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.