The Importance of Client Satisfaction

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I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we can best get a sense of the health of our business at Barrel. There are the usual metrics like inbound leads, deals in the pipeline, and expected revenue from signed clients. There are also in-project metrics like profitability and how we’re tracking towards meeting milestones and deadlines. But the more I’ve explored this, the more I am convinced that the most important metric is one that measures client satisfaction: how pleased are they with our service and how likely are they to recommend us to someone else?

In The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, there’s a fictional case study about a company called WonderTech, an electronics maker that releases a high-end computer. The company grows rapidly the first three years only to decline and fall into bankruptcy not too long afterwards. When closely examined, it’s possible to see that even with strong demand, the inability for the company to deliver its products on time led to dissatisfied customers and a loss in reputation. They were never able to fully recover from this, and subsequent sales and marketing efforts became harder and harder.

The following is a “worst case” scenario of the WonderTech case study as applied to Barrel. We’ve lived variations of this over the years and I don’t think I really understood what was going on except stuff just wasn’t clicking.

  • We started small and scrappy, taking on whatever work we could. We did our best for each one, happy to be given the opportunity.
  • Little by little, we would gain momentum by doing good work for clients, which would lead to more work through word of mouth and the quality of the work we produced.
  • Not only would the client give us more work, but we would entertain many new opportunities and take on several new clients. When this happened, it would soon be hard to keep up with the demand.
  • Our team members would be pushed to their limits, often working late nights to meet deadlines and juggling multiple projects.
  • We would take some shortcuts in hiring and find whoever fit the job description with little regard given to their cultural fit or their concrete skillsets.
  • Over time, things might slip here and there. Our long-time clients, fed up with our mistakes or inattentiveness, might reduce their spend with us or take the entire business elsewhere.
  • Faced with a loss in revenue, we would panic and seek out new clients, taking on any new engagement as long as it provided cashflow. We often ignored how difficult the client was or how the work didn’t align with what we were trying to be known for as a company.
  • This in turn would lead to less desirable projects and work that we wouldn’t be proud to showcase to prospective clients, making it harder to strengthen our reputation and land more clients.
  • Even worse, we’d lose talented team members who were not happy working on such client engagements, putting even more pressure on those who were left and also forcing us to use junior talent that then would make mistakes to further disappoint our clients.
  • And of course, all this time, the leadership team is in react mode, putting out fires and not spending an ounce of time trying to think strategically for our clients.
  • The vicious cycle results in stagnant or falling revenues, diminished profitability, and overall low morale.

It’s a tough place to be in, and one that could have been avoided. The allure of fast growth and increased headcount often deluded us into thinking that we could scale linearly and avoid growing pains. A more prudent thing would have been to weigh the opportunities for growth with what it took to keep our existing clients happy. If we felt that our existing clients, due to budget limitations or misalignment in the type of work we were doing for them, would no longer be treated with the same level of care as new clients, we should have proactively helped them transition to another agency rather than trying to hold on to them in a half-assed way. This way, we could make way for the new clients to be properly staffed and taken care of or make the conscious decision to turn down new business and focus on growing existing accounts.

It all sounds like common sense when I write it out, but in practice, it’s deceptively subtle and the gradual way in which the problem manifests makes it hard to realize when we are making the decisions that will ultimately come back and bite us.

So this is why I feel that a measure for client satisfaction, taken each week, is a proactive measure for ensuring that we don’t make decisions that will hamper us in the long run and fool us into thinking we can handle rapid growth. One approach I’ve been tossing around internally is to ask ourselves: “If asked today, would a client provide us with a positive testimonial that we could publish publicly?” If the answer is yes, then we are doing what we are supposed to do. If the answer is less certain, then we know we have our work cut out for us. If the answer is no, then we need to move on from the account and learn how we messed up so we don’t repeat the mistakes again. The goal of the game is to ensure that we can maintain a roster of clients that would, on a dime, gladly provide us with a glowing testimonial showering us with praise on the way we work and the impact we’ve had on their business. If we can’t maintain this standard for everyone, then we are in trouble.

When a client is satisfied, the vicious cycle I explored above, reverses itself:

  • The client tells others about us, bringing us warm leads that convert into new business.
  • We do a great job for the new clients, which then leads to more warm leads.
  • We’re selective in who we take on and only take on the number of clients we can absolutely do a great job for.
  • This self-imposed limit to growth allows us to land even better clients who give us the most interesting projects with budgets that allow us to do our best work.
  • Our team feels incredibly motivated and produces their best work. Their happiness and quality of work is a magnet for even more talent, feeding the team with a steady stream of great team members.
  • Talented team members require less oversight and projects are completed efficiently and effectively, allowing the company to profit even while compensating the team members very well.

Even when reading through this virtuous cycle, I can see how easily things can derail. All it takes are a string of bad decisions before things spiral into a vicious cycle. Perhaps the leadership team feels ambitious and wants to grow revenues by X% and decides to loosen standards on client satisfaction. What seemed unstoppable can quickly erode.

When I think about the actions that help prop up client satisfaction, a few come immediately to mind:

  • The speed of our response and communications.
  • The ability to provide useful guidance and information that make the client’s life easier.
  • To ask thoughtful questions that help the client clarify their thinking and planning.
  • To challenge the client, to the degree our expertise backs us, when they’re making questionable decisions.
  • To be on top of our subject domain and be confident in talking about what we’re supposed to know.
  • To proactively identify and present opportunities that the client might not be aware of.

There are countless other details that I think would be useful for me and the Barrel team to explore and breakdown ourselves, but the ones above cover a great deal. Beyond this, there is the hard work of truly understanding the goals of our clients and finding the ways in which we can deliver maximum value again and again. I think this is a challenge that any business in the world shares, and one that, if done right, can lead to tremendous success.

Halfway Through My Thirties, How’s It Going?

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I turned 35 today.

I spent the day watching some TV, going for a run, doing the laundry, catching up on work, and eating delicious meals cooked by my wife Mel. It was a peaceful and restful Sunday, just what I wanted.

Throughout the day, I found myself thinking about how I’ve hit the mid-point of my thirties. I was reminded of a blog post I wrote 5 years ago, Three Things to Consider for My Thirties. In it, I wrote about wanting to be a better son and brother, about gaining depth in an area of expertise, and having more patience.

Reflecting on the progress I’ve made in the past 5 years, I feel pretty good about where things are today.

I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to see my parents and sister more often now that they all live in Brooklyn. I’ve also prioritized spending time with Melanie and my closest friends, and this has made life much more enriching and satisfying. As with anything, you get into it what you put in, and relationships are such that making the time and the plans will go a long way in creating meaningful memories.

I’ve become more focused on gaining depth in my role as business owner and as a marketing consultant. The books, the hands-on experience on dozens of projects, and active learning from various experts have all helped me to gain confidence in my knowledge and armed me with skills to provide value to our Barrel employees and clients. I’ve never been more pumped about learning and the possibilities that going deeper presents.

When it comes to having more patience, there will always be room for improvement. I am, however, quite happy that I got into distance running and daily meditation. These two habits have helped me to concentrate for longer periods of time, stay in the present, and not get rattled too easily. I find that the things that stressed me out in the past for prolonged periods of time (e.g. an upset client, issues with an employee, external forces that cause inconvenience, etc.) have become less anxiety-inducing. In fact, more and more, I see issues and problems not as crises to react to right away but as opportunities to learn and create better systems and processes to prevent in the future. And for any issues that are out of my control, I accept that there’s not much I can do and proactively shift my focus to something that is within my control.

As I look ahead to the next 5 years and beyond, I know there will be all kinds of twists and turns. There may be very big life changes that’ll require me to adapt and revisit some of my priorities. And as these things happen, I hope that I’ll have the right mindset to embrace the challenges and continue to appreciate the privilege of being alive.

Lessons from Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns

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Lessons from Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns

Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour is a book that provides rules and tactics to help creative professionals charge more for new work and run a more profitable business. It’s by Blair Enns, the founder of Win Without Pitching, a training program that helps creative professionals win more business.

I’ve been a follower of Enns for some years, having paid for access to his materials, enrolling in his online course, signing up for his webinars, and listening to his podcast. I really enjoyed reading this book and found myself texting excerpts to my partners at Barrel, insisting that we ought to try X and Y approach the very next day.

Enns references quite a bit of the popular psychology terms that’s all the rage in business books these days, especially the different types of cognitive biases that shape our behavior. What I appreciated was how he tied these concepts to the everyday situations that creative professionals face when working with prospects and clients, and how, by understanding their biases, we can influence them into making decisions that can improve our outcomes.

This post isn’t a summary or a detailed overview of the book but thoughts on some of the takeaways that I found immediately applicable to my work at Barrel. Enns presents 6 “Rules” that make up something of a framework for pricing based on value and not by selling time. Five of those rules are represented in my takeaways below.

There’s a great deal of detail and practical advice that I don’t discuss here, including the emphasis Enns puts on “mastering the value conversation.” If you are in the creative services profession, I would highly recommend investing in the book, which you need to buy off of the website. One successful application of his tactics might net you 10X+ what you spend on the book.

Lesson 1: Price the Client and Not the Job

A principle of price negotiation is that the sooner in the sale you offer a price, the lower it is likely to be. Understanding the client’s context, and therefore your potential for value creation, takes time. If you find yourself offering prices early, you’re almost certainly short-circuiting the patient information-gathering that needs to happen in order to price based on value.

This wasn’t a revelation for us at Barrel, but it was a good reminder that taking the time during the information-gathering process to deeply understand the client and their business would help us form better ideas on the value of our services to the client.

In fact, when I think about one of the more significant changes a Barrel over the past 2-3 years, it’s been the shift away from seeing a new client as another project and instead, viewing them as a new relationship with the potential for several projects that may span from website redesigns to analytics and advertising work.

Lesson 2: Present Options in Your Proposals

One of the biggest pricing mistakes that creative professionals make is to put a proposal in front of the client that contains only one option. In such a take-it-or-leave-it proposition there are only two outcomes, 50% of which are positive and 50% of which are negative.

If you resolve from hereon to always put three options in your proposals, you will increase the percentage of positive outcomes by half.

Presenting options changes the question you are asking the client from, “Does this proposal represent good value?” to a better question, “Which of these proposals is the best value?” The brain is wired to answer the second question. In fact, it is incapable of answering the first question without first answering the second.

I’ve seen this work when it comes to our support & maintenance packages. It’s something we’ve been rolling out in more and more of our proposals.

I can recall so many conversations where I presented just a single price and the client, wanting a point of comparison, would go out and shop around only to get flustered because the prices were so vastly different from each other as was the understanding of what was and wasn’t included.

Lesson 3: Anchor with a High-Priced Option

“Anchoring is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information received,” Enns writes. Combined with the lesson above on presenting options in our proposals, I really like the idea of having an anchor option that pegs the value of an engagement very high in the prospect’s mind.

For a client with a budget of $20k, for example, it might make sense to begin with a $100k case study, allowing the firm to show the depth and breadth of its work while leveraging a high anchor. By comparison, a second case study at the $50k investment level will look reasonable, and a $30k option might look like a bargain.

A lazy mistake we’ve made over the years is to find out a client’s budget and to craft an option at exactly that level or perhaps a little bit higher, hoping the depth of the proposal’s details would impress and encourage more spending. This, of course, rarely happened.

What I’d like to see us doing more, per Enns’s advice, is to anchor with something high that equates to a “deluxe / the works” version, have a floor at the client’s budget that achieves the bare minimum, and present a middle tier that inspires the client to spend more while also getting more.

In terms of coming up with an anchor price, I really liked the question Enns poses in this highlight:

Whatever your answer to this question of, “What would we do, and charge, if money were no object?” it’s a great anchor option. When you present your proposal, beginning with this priciest option, you can easily explain, “We began thinking about solutions with a hypothetical exercise of what we would do if you were not budget constrained. Indulge us for a minute while we share what we came up with. It might inspire some ideas.”

Lesson 4: Say a Price Before You Show a Price

By forcing yourself to state a price before you show it, you are committing to talking about money before you retreat to write a proposal. By offering pricing guidance in the forms we’ve already discussed in the previous chapter, you allow the client to become conditioned to the investment you will ask her to make and you create the opportunity to discuss any price objections that may exist.

The key principle of handling objections, of price or any other kind, is that early objections are your friends and late objections are your enemies.

I absolutely love this simple yet effective approach. I’ve been trying it out on certain prospects and it’s helped to surface price objections much earlier in the process. It’s especially useful for prospects that don’t want to reveal their budgets. They’ll typically say something along the lines of: “We’re not sure yet, we haven’t discussed our budget / we’re still exploring options.” But when you let them know that you’ll be exploring proposal options from the $Y to $X range (Enns recommends writing/saying high to low when talking about price), there’s often a reaction that sheds more insights. “Oh, $Y is crazy, no way we can afford that, maybe half of that at most…”

Lesson 5: Keep Your Proposal to One Page

Enns recommends coming up with a one-page proposal format that presents the pricing tiers and is less of a submitted doc and more of a guiding document used in closing conversations. I know that for certain types of engagements, we need to be a bit more in-depth with our proposals especially if the prospect is dead-set on having a committee review multiple proposals side-by-side (a situation we try to avoid participating in as much as possible), but I’ve been testing a one-page format for various prospects where I know I can get on a phone call or meet in person to walk them through the options and reinforce themes about value and process that we’ve had in prior discussions.

Lesson 6: Invoke Policies

We run into policies all the time when negotiating with clients, and when they use them, we always back down. Anytime a client invokes a policy, they seem to win. But we shouldn’t let them, not always. We lose because we come into the negotiation backed by preferences and inclinations. Policies trump wants every time. We need to use more policies in our negotiations, and we need to meet policy with policy when a client uses one.

My partners and I found this one very amusing but also so true. We’ve actually been more and more eager to invoke policies, especially when there are requests or demands that are at odds with putting our team in the best position to perform well. Some policy thoughts we’ve dreamed up or actually used recently include:

  • It’s our policy not to participate in spec work unless we are able to publish it publicly and use it in our portfolio.
  • It’s our policy not to kick off the engagement without first reviewing proper intake materials from your team.
  • It’s our policy not to launch websites on a Friday.
  • It’s our policy not to start work until the initial payment has been received.
  • It’s our policy not to disclose our private financial information.

Lesson 7: Leverage Social Influence to Position Yourself as an Expert Practioner

Occasionally, you’ll be asked to sell to a prospect with requests like, “Tell me why we should hire you.” An expert practitioner should never accept such an invitation. Instead, counter with something like, “How about instead of trying to convince you, I tell you why our current clients hire us, and you can see if those reasons make sense for you?” By refusing the invitation to relegate yourself to vendor status, and instead, bringing your clients’ peers into the room, you have effectively swapped your own self-serving bias for your prospect’s bias to be influenced by others.

Oh boy, how many times have I accepted such an invitation only to fight an uphill battle? I really like the response Enns has written here, and it’s something that would play well to our strengths in most instances. In situations where I had the awareness to point at our body of work and to call out specific clients, the outcome was much more positive. When a prospect hears that you’ve successfully achieved something for a brand that they admire or have at least studied, they’re more likely to see you as capable and experienced.

What are My Deliberate Practice Opportunities?

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I recently paid for an online course called The Art of Focus (unfortunately, it’s no longer open to new students). It’s a series of videos and exercises designed to help increase my capacity for deep, focused work. In the introductory video, one of the topics is about Deliberate Practice. Here’s an excerpt:

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, studied experts and amateurs in an attempt to discern why they were different. Ericsson came to the stark realization that we can improve performance. What distinguishes the great from the normal is a function of applied effort in the same direction. In his words, to become an expert, requires a “life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” There are two components to this worth noting. The first is “specific domain,” which means we’re applying our effort not to 100 things but one subject.

Think about learning to play the violin. Have you ever watched someone practice an instrument at a high level, or done so yourself? They don’t alternate playing a scale with returning emails. They don’t alternate practicing difficult passages with checking Facebook. They sit and focus, letting their entire mind and body work on the task at hand. That is kind of focus you need to seek, because it’s the only thing that works. The second notable component here is the term “deliberate practice.” If we want to master any cognitively demanding field, it’s not enough to practice. We need to practice deliberately.

…Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance. Deliberate practice isn’t fun. It requires (1) focused attention on a specific skill; (2) immediate feedback; (3) rest. If it’s not something where feedback is obvious and immediate, we often need a coach or mentor to help guide us. In fact, even when feedback is obvious and immediate, a coach can often point out things we can’t see. 

I’ve been thinking about the areas, the specific domain, in which I can focus and improve my performance through deliberate practice. There are two that I really think are important.

Deliberate Practice #1: Making Presentations

The first is the skill of making presentations, especially with the use of a Keynote/PowerPoint deck. In my line of work, there are numerous instances where I have to make a presentation and hope that it goes well. Some are with prospective clients evaluating Barrel as a potential agency partner. Some are with existing clients who want to know what we’ve done for them lately or are expecting fresh new ideas. And others are with our internal team either in group communication settings (e.g. the monthly team meeting) or in one-on-one training sessions. It’s not uncommon to have a handful of presentations each week. So, why not deliberately practice and get better?

One thing I’ve been doing to pay focused attention on the skill of making presentations is to read books on the topic. One book that’s been really helpful is Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. It provides step by step guidance on how to put together and present impactful PowerPoint presentations. An immediate takeaway for me was to spend more time developing the structure and headlines of my presentation rather than jumping right into creating each of the slides. Once I began to understand Atkinson’s methodology, it made me cringe at the moments when I stuffed text onto a slide and read them out loud in front of my client or employees.

I think when it comes to getting immediate feedback, making presentations is a great skill to pursue because it’s possible to get usable feedback right away. Without even asking, it’s possible to gauge audience engagement and attention throughout a presentation. With prospective clients and existing clients, I may have to go by on this. With our internal team, however, I can simply ask an employee or one of my partners for their sincere thoughts and get some data on areas I need to improve.

Deliberate Practice #2: Pricing & Closing Deals

I’m almost finished with Pricing Creativity, a book by Blair Enns, which teaches (and preaches) value-based pricing for creative firms. It’s an exciting read for me as it touches upon a lot of the things I experience on a daily basis. I’ve been live texting my partners with excerpts as I come across insights that I think are “must-try” tactics for the business. It’ll take a great deal of effort and learning to master value-based pricing (the concept of pricing not based on our effort/number of hours but charging clients based on the value we add to their business through our work; e.g. if we add $1 million of business to their bottom line, then we should price for at least 20% of that and get compensated $200,000).

The idea of focusing on pricing and closing deals as a skill makes a lot of sense. This includes a few different components: mastering conversations with prospective (and even existing) clients, persistently testing out the value-based pricing approach (not all client engagements/projects will be appropriate for this), and ultimately closing the deal, which may include the submission of a proposal and negotiation of contracts. In other words, I want to deliberately practice the art of sales with pricing as a priority concern.

Each week, I have a handful of conversations that put me in position to practice (Sei-Wook, who handles most of our inbound sales inquires, is in position to practice at least a half dozen times a week). The key will be to put in more preparation work, to consciously note the flow of the conversations, and to put into practice some of the tactics I’ve learned from reading various sources. The feedback will be quite immediate if I’m careful to pick up on the prospect’s responses. I know I’m bound to make some mistakes and lose some opportunities as I push certain conversations towards value-based pricing, but it’s something I’m very keen to try out and learn from.

The other side of making sales a deliberate practice is to carve out time to develop smarter proposals. Pricing Creativity urges firms to create one-page proposals with multiple options. This is something we don’t do regularly, so I’ll have to devote some deep work time to writing out one-page proposals that prospects find acceptable. I actually think such a format, in the long run, will prove quite successful. The challenge is making the time to explore this new format and being persistent about sticking with it even when the first few prospects might reject or give negative feedback about it.

It’s All About Communication

Overall, I’m pretty excited about the idea of focusing on these two areas in the coming months and seeing how far I can take them. Because I am not a performer in the traditional sense–it’s hard to define and measure my contributions and output like you would a basketball player or even an actor–I find that the skill sets I can focus on revolve around my ability to communicate. When it comes to selling, managing employees, making presentations, etc., what I’m doing ultimately boils down to communications. So in order to be the most effective I can be at my job, my deliberate practice opportunities, however I label them, will most likely be tied closely to communications. There are a some other areas I have my eyes on, but for now, let’s start there.

Themes from Our Partner Retreat

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This past weekend, the four Barrel partners held an offsite retreat in Old Chatham, NY to plan the company’s priorities and initiatives for 2018.

The two full days of planning were incredibly productive and we came away with a roadmap that we’re very excited to execute on in the coming weeks and months. It also helped that the AirBnB we were staying at was stunning. A barn-style home, the layout of the home, the high ceilings, the flood of sunlight, and the tasteful furnishings all contributed to a comfortable and luxurious environment (here’s the listing if you’re curious–should be great for groups and families with kids).

Throughout our sessions, a few recurring themes emerged and by the end of the retreat, we were able to articulate and agree that these were important ideas to continually revisit in both our day-to-day and in planning anything for the future. Below are the themes with some thoughts on how they’re relevant to our business.

Understanding on Fundamental Concepts and Ideas

As we discussed various areas for improvement at the company as well as potential opportunities that we should pursue, we began to come back again and again to the idea of understanding fundamental concepts and ideas. Take for example the discipline of project management. We know there are certain aspects of project management that we can improve upon, like being more prompt with client communication or being more diligent about keeping project schedules up-to-date. But when we began to discuss potential solutions, like instituting checklists or providing strict training guidelines to new project managers, we all felt that there was something reactive and prescriptive about such approaches.

We began to ask ourselves: do all project managers fully understand why constant and timely communication with clients are important? Are they aware of the impact that project schedules have on the project budget and the utilization of different team members? While some of these things may have felt to us like common sense, we also recognized that, with the unending stream of tasks people are dealt, it’s easy to forget the why behind the assignments. By reinforcing basic, fundamental concepts and aligning with the team on an on-going basis, could we better encourage team members to think more critically and to bring a problem-solver oriented approach versus a task-oriented one?

We tested this idea on a number of other areas and disciplines and found that there was a glaring absence of discussion and training on the fundamental concepts underlying the day-to-day tasks. How does e-commerce work and why is it important for businesses? What purpose does good design serve and what must we know about the user in order to create an effective experience? What is the purpose of collecting data and putting together marketing reports?

A related realization was that, as the company’s partners who interface with clients about new work and think more often about the high-level implications of projects, we internalize and intuit a great deal of the why’s and take for granted the understanding behind certain approaches we take to client work and running of the company. But this level of understanding is often not fully shared or communicated with the rest of the team, leaving a gap that frustrates both the partners and the employees. So when we identified “training” as a big area for improvement company-wide, we began to understand that a big part of it would have to be a greater effort to align on the fundamental concepts of everything we do and an understanding that goes beyond the prescriptive and into frameworks, logic, and reasoning that empower people to make smart decisions on their own with greater confidence.

Playing for the Long Term

One exercise that we do during our annual planning session is to talk about our 10-year and 3-year goals. As we contemplated what Barrel could look like in 10 years, the merits of long-term thinking came into sharper focus. We agreed that we were in no rush to supercharge growth at the company, but to grow at a pace that would be sustainable for the company and allow us to build something we could be proud of.

A long-term focus meant that we didn’t have to attain incredibly lofty and stressful goals for 2018. We set numbers that felt like a sizable increase from 2017 but one that we felt confident we could realistically reach. This would in turn allow us to focus on the task of strengthening and smartly scaling various aspects of our operations piece by piece.

There was something incredibly liberating about aligning on our long-term approach. We consciously decided to stick solely to our own scorecard and timetable rather than minding that growth rate and perceived success of other agencies out there. This reduces an unnecessary pressure and frees us to devote our mental energies to tackling things that really matter, such as the challenge of how we can continue to bring value to clients in a fast-changing business environment. I also think that a long-term view imbues a degree of confidence, allowing us to make decisions that are proactive and on our own terms.

Another exercise that we engaged in was one where we had to list out the three uniques of Barrel that help us stand out from the competition. One quality that we knew we already embraced and should do more to emphasize externally was the fact that we care deeply about building long-term relationships with clients and how short-term gains and quick-win projects are less valuable in our eyes if they don’t serve to strengthen the value we bring to our long-term partnerships.

Ask and Be Unafraid of the Answers

During one session, we talked at length about the takeaways from Radical Candor by Kim Scott, a management book on communicating more effectively with employees. As we dug into the various topics of the book, one theme that we struck upon was the importance of asking what the employee thought about things. While we were more than comfortable asking employees to talk about their performance and their contributions, it was apparent that we were less comfortable asking them for feedback, about their personal aspirations, and what they thought they should be compensated. Why was this?

We realized that we were simply afraid. What if they said something negative about projects they’re working on? What if they were critical of the way we were leading the company? What if they wanted to be paid more than we could afford. Fear, fear, fear. But is all that fear necessary? What’s the worst that could happen?

We dug into this more and realized that there was absolutely no upside in being fearful. If an employee was unhappy about something and we provided a channel for venting or voicing concerns through our questions, this is a good thing. It can lead to productive discussions and real changes. If an employee doesn’t like the way we’re doing something or has real feedback about our performance as managers, that’s information we can use to get better. Sure it might sting, but it’s nothing we can’t get over. And what about the stress that comes from an employee asking for more money? If the employee is truly valuable and worth stretching to keep, it’s an opportunity to retain that person. If the business truly can’t support a raise at the moment, then at the least, we can have an honest conversation with the employee and discuss a plan to get him/her to their desired salary levels in time.

None of these conversations are easy, but choosing not to ask or simply evading such conversations is both cowardly and a surefire way to alienate and discourage employees. The takeaway for us: don’t be afraid to ask, be honest and forward in what we say, and embrace the challenge of whatever comes as a result.

Parting Thoughts

What made the retreat so enjoyable was that everyone was so dialed-in and eager to contribute to the discussions. I’m very fortunate to work alongside a leadership team that cares deeply about our team members, is passionate about the work that we do, and brings a no-nonsense approach to showing up day-in and day-out to do their part for the business. I’ve learned a lot just by observing my partners, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue on this journey of building and growing our company.

The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence Josh Waitzkin (Quotes & Thoughts)

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The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence.

Josh Waitzkin grew up as a chess prodigy and competed at the highest levels of competition. In his early twenties, he left the chess world to pursue a career as a martial artist, specifically in Push hands, which is rooted in tai chi and a very popular competitive sport in Taiwan. His book, The Art of Learning, chronicles his journey through both chess and Push hands experiences while laying out the framework of learning and growth that he developed for himself to achieve world-class levels of performance.

Throughout my reading of the book, I kept finding myself trying to tie Waitzkin’s approaches to my pursuits and if his lessons would be relevant to my field of business, marketing, and client services. While the rules of my “sport” may not be as clear cut or easily scored, I found a great deal to appreciate and relate to throughout the book. Below are some of the memorable passages I highlighted and my thoughts on them.

Growth Mindset

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

Waitzkin also uses the metaphor of a hermit crab ditching its shell to find a bigger, new one and how, in this transition phase of growth, there are feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability. Safe mediocrity is really easy to settle into, and despite my awareness of this, I know that I often find myself resisting the steps towards growth because I don’t like discomfort.

In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road.

I found myself nodding at this. I think about the “losses” I’ve suffered in my decade-plus of running Barrel–losing out on new business opportunities, losing client relationships, losing talented employees–and how, in the long run, each experience has led to new lessons learned and breakthroughs that otherwise may not have happened.

Mental Agility & Toughness

In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.

Beyond technical mastery, Waitzkin emphasizes the importance of the mind’s ability to be flexible, resilient, and creative. I really loved the idea of “[creating] our own earthquakes” because it speaks to an internally-generated motivation and drive rather than one that comes about as a reaction. I believe the former is a more robust and lasting type of motivation and one that can become a controlled tool rather than an unpredictable stimulus.

Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.

This reminded me of my experience running my first marathon. The last ten miles were brutal but not physically impossible. What I found the hardest was the voice in my mind telling me to stop and take it easy while I knew deep down that I could push harder. It was a struggle to make peace with the pain and to keep going, and I found myself stopping more times than I liked. I wondered during the race if I had not pushed myself hard enough during training to build better mental resilience.

One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction…

As a competitor I’ve come to understand that the distance between winning and losing is minute, and, moreover, that there are ways to steal wins from the maw of defeat. All great performers have learned this lesson. Top-rate actors often miss a line but improvise their way back on track. The audience rarely notices because of the perfect ease with which the performer glides from troubled waters into the tranquility of the script. Even more impressively, the truly great ones can make the moment work for them, heightening performance with improvisations that shine with immediacy and life. Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty, or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.

Performing under pressure and being able to maintain composure even after making a serious error is an oft-repeated trope in competitive sports. I found it helpful to think about this in the context of my own work. Mistakes get made when we create deliverables for clients or make presentations, and I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt flustered and out of sorts, going down that disastrous spiral, and I’ve also had experiences where I’ve been able to brush off mistakes, keep my cool, and come through okay. I think cultivating mental clarity and toughness, coupled with preparedness and mastery of our domain, help us to overcome mistakes and improvise more naturally.

Depth vs. Breadth

It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.

Waitzkin notes that by going deep and truly understanding every aspect of a basic skill set, the mind can better internalize and build a foundation from which other, more sophisticated forms and skills can develop. He mentions how he began learning chess by playing only with a king and pawn, forcing himself to learn the most fundamental moves and truly internalizing this before adopting more complex tactics. He also mentions his Tai Chi training and how he spent hundreds of hours refining movements and learning nuances in even the slightest motions, opening the door to greater control and understanding of Tai Chi’s virtues.

This notion of “profound mastery” of basic skills got me thinking about my line of work and how so much of our discourse is often on the new shiny thing–new tools, new tactics, new technologies, new frameworks–and how basic skill sets like communication, planning, and observing are often overlooked or seen as boring. Depth is hard and takes repetition and patience, and so it makes sense that most people will opt to expand the surface area of what they know and do little to dive deep and truly learn something.

When I turned 30 years old, I wrote that gaining depth was a major consideration. I still feel this way, and hope to cultivate more of it.


The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.

I really like how Waitzkin captures the importance of being present in our lives. I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the perils of mindless living, and I think there’s a lot of work for me to do especially at work, where I know that I don’t always bring my A game to every meeting or conversation. This type of “cruise control” behavior doesn’t lend to excellence.

Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn’t even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday—the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness—is where success, let alone happiness, emerges…

To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.

I absolutely love this passage, and it’s in line with why I think mindful cultivation of good habits is so key to happiness and growth.

2017: Habits That Stuck

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As another year comes to a close, I like to take stock of the habits I built and also think about new ones I want to develop.

I’m a firm believer in building a strong system comprised of good habits that promote healthy living, meaningful relationships, and continual stimulation for the mind. This also means being conscious of bad habits and finding ways to curb them, usually by replacing them with an alternative habit.

In 2017, it felt as if my system of good habits began to compound and build upon each other. I felt more focused, energetic, and productive than I’ve ever been in my life. I also felt less stressed out and generally happier than I could ever remember. Of course, that isn’t to say there weren’t stressful moments or wasted opportunities, but I rarely let myself feel too bad and generally progressed forward. I also realize I was incredibly lucky in 2017. Business was good, I stayed healthy all year long, and I got to spend quality time with family and friends. There’s no guarantee that I’ll always be this lucky, so it’s worth noting and being grateful for such luxuries.

2017 New Habits

Journal Writing

I started writing in a journal towards the end of 2016 and hoped it would continue. A year later, I’m happy to report that it has. I’ve consistently written in my journal every weekday morning. On some mornings, I’ll only have time to write for 5-10 minutes, but I especially enjoy the 15-20 minute sessions where I can use the time to document a dream, work through a problem at work, or expand on big goals and plans I want to carry out. It’s been a real treat to look back on previous entries and to read about books that were on my mind at the time or problems that were stressing me out at work.

Daily Mobility Exercises

I believe my mobility exercise routine allowed me to train for the New York City Marathon injury-free. The mobility exercises come right after my morning meditation. I give myself 15-20 minutes to roll out my feet, upper and lower back, and calves/ankles. I also stretch out my hamstrings and shoulders. In recent months, I’ve mixed in push-ups in-between sets. While time-consuming, I believe my mobility exercises help me maintain good posture, avoid injury, and develop flexibility. I’ll have to continue to challenge myself and mix in some new and challenging movements to the routine.

Tea Instead of Coffee

I decided to stop drinking coffee in July. It first started out as a ban on coffee past 2PM in an effort to give my body enough time to clear out the caffeine before bedtime. Then, I found myself drinking coffee even when it didn’t make my stomach feel so good and also sent me to the bathroom several times each morning. I decided to cut cold turkey and transition into teas. I’ve been drinking an even mix of green and black teas in the morning and switching over to caffeine-free teas after 2PM. While I miss holding and smelling coffee every now and then, I actually don’t miss drinking it at all.

Weekly Newsletter and Writing Blog Posts

I started sending out a weekly newsletter called Consumed/Created in May. I’ve stuck with it and have sent out 32 editions. It’s a highlight of things I read/watched/listened to during the week and also anything I personally created. The “consumed” part has been fairly easy to filled out, but the “created” part has been more challenging. It’s definitely forced me to write more blog posts than I’ve ever had to (including 28 for this blog and a handful a posts elsewhere). It’s also helped me to build a much atrophied muscle of being able to sit down for more than an hour and thinking hard about a single topic, distraction-free. I had become so used to rapid-fire text messages and emails that even an hour or two a week of quiet writing time was a rarity. With the newsletter and my blog posts, I made such moments a recurring weekly activity.

What Happened to Habits I Picked Up in 2016?

Did my new habits from 2016 make it through 2017? And if not, what happened?

Weekday Meditation

I’ve continued to use Headspace every weekday morning. I credit the practice for helping me to better handle stressful situations and to keep my daily existence usually drama-free.

Tuesday Date Nights

Mel and I continued to enjoy our weekly ritual of meeting up at a Brooklyn restaurant after work. We’ve rarely missed these and look forward to our time together.

Weekly Basketball

I had to take a hiatus from basketball for a few months leading up to the New York City Marathon to avoid injury, but I’ve started to play again more recently and can’t wait to hit the courts more in the coming months. I’ve become addicted to watching YouTube highlights of NBA games (basically a condensed 7-10 minute video of all the shots made in a game by both teams), so I’m eager to imitate some moves and chuck up a bunch of threes.


I’ve continued to eat a complete breakfast on most mornings. Even if I’m in a rush, I’ll usually grab a bowl full of blueberries along with a couple of dates and a cup of green tea. During the warmer months, I made a lot of smoothies (bananas, mangoes, kale, spinach, cocoa nibs, flax seed, and dates) and during the colder months, I usually go for English muffin with peanut butter and chopped nuts or oatmeal with blueberries, nuts, and maple syrup.

Habits for 2018

Lifting Weights Twice a Week

One thing I regret about my marathon training was not doing much weight training. I wish I had supplemented the running with more heavy weightlifting. A Crunch gym opened literally across the street from our apartment, so I decided to join. I’m hoping to put in at least two days of lifting there each week and build up some strength. If I can mix this up with running and basketball, it’ll be a fairly active weekly schedule.

Monthly Dinner with My Parents

One of the biggest changes that happened for me this year was that my parents moved to Brooklyn from Atlanta. This means they’re just a 10-minute car ride away from me and Melanie. It’s been wonderful to have them live so close, and it makes me happy to know that instead of seeing them only once or twice a year, I’ll get to see them more regularly. I also know that unless we make the time, even close distances can feel like an obstacle, so I’m going to work on pre-planning a monthly dinner with my parents so that at a minimum, we can look forward to hanging out once every four weeks.

Parting Thoughts

There are a number of other behaviors that I wouldn’t necessarily call habits but have been critical to my well-being this year.

I swapped out my memory foam pillow for a Purple Pillow. This was perhaps the smartest move I made in terms of getting better sleep. My only wish is that it wasn’t so damn heavy so I could carry it with me whenever I travel.

I deleted Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn apps from my iPhone early this year. While I still find myself checking Twitter and LinkedIn via web browser, my use of Instagram and Facebook has drastically decreased, opening up more time for reading and those NBA highlights on YouTube.

I’ve slowly moved away from being gung-ho about finishing books and have become more comfortable with reading parts and moving on to new books. This means less books listed on my Reading List, but I’ve come to understand that a book’s value is not in finishing it but in what I get out of it. To that end, I’ve become better about checking the table of contents before diving in, highlighting passages, and reflecting on the writing via my journal and blog posts.

Overall, in 2017, I tried my best to be conscious of my behavior and activities, never letting my mind go on autopilot for too long. I love routines but I avoid doing them mindlessly. Whether it’s running, working, hanging out, or any of my fairly simple habits, the ultimate underlying habit has been to stay aware and view my decisions with a critical eye. It’s been a wonderful year, and I’m looking forward to the opportunities in 2018. Happy New Year!

See previous:

Favorite Books of 2017

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As the year comes to a close, I wanted to share my favorite books list of the past year. Hope you’ll give one of these a try during the holidays.

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne

If you love football and want to understand how the game evolved from a stodgy, run-first sport into one that relies more and more on passing and spreading the field, this book will take you on a very rewarding journey of Coach Hal Mumme and the founding of the influential air raid offense.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer Ph.D

Lots of great, actionable advice in this book about the power of thinking small. Ask small questions, seek small rewards, solve small problems, and keep at it. Over time, these amount to big changes and big results. I read this book around the time we were putting the finishing touches to our Microhabits e-book and was happy to see many parallels.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston

I wrote a blog post where I highlighted my favorite quotes from the book and jotted down some thoughts. This is a timeless book with so much great wisdom about living life, enduring loss and grief, and constantly working to be a better person.

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M. Christensen

This book convinced me that we needed to embrace and offer a Jobs to Be Done customer interview offering at Barrel. I had always been a fan of JTBD and dabbled in it, but the book helped to solidify some of the ideas and concepts in my mind. We successfully completed a client engagement this year and established a process to offer it for future clients. This e-book from Intercom was also very helpful.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari

This follow-up book to Harari’s Sapiens explores a future in which technological advances introduce new questions of ethics and our understanding of morality and mortality. I wrote a short blog post with some excerpts from the book about spirituality and religion.

Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making by Venkatesh Rao

This book was a really fun mind trip into deconstructing everyday behaviors and looking at the concept of time and action through different lenses. I even made a graphic for one of the mental models that Rao discusses in the book.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Such an amazing novel. The story of Koreans in Japan and their struggles through the 20th century. Beautifully written, epic, tragic, and unforgettable.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

I began this book a number of years ago and then stopped before picking it up again this year and finishing it out. I think part of me didn’t want to read about Moses’s downfall. For all of the man’s faults (e.g. his racism, his corrupt dealings, his disregard for the poor, etc.), Moses shaped New York (both City and State) in ways that no one man ever had or has ever since. Any time I take a ride around the different boroughs, I’m reminded of the highways, bridges, parks, and buildings that were created under his authority.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is a very powerful book, basically a memoir, of Stevenson’s mission to serve those on death row (predominantly African-Americans) who may have been falsely convicted or were penalized unfairly. I found many of the stories in here to be heartbreaking, but Stevenson’s resolve as well as the toughness and resilience of his clients were very inspiring.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The other fiction book on my list. After spending my entire twenties reading mostly white male novelists (except for Ishiguro and Chang-Rae Lee), it was refreshing to read such a smart and incisive book. The story is about a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist double agent who comes to America after the fall of Saigon and continues his mission of spying on the anti-communist Vietnamese refugees. I wrote a blog post to reflect on some of my favorite lines from the book.

I feel fortunate to have read many interesting, fun, and eye-opening books this year. I’m hoping to finish up a few more in the coming weeks and excited to crack on my list for 2018. Of course, it doesn’t matter how many books one reads, but what we get out of them and how it helps us in our lives. I got a lot out of the moments when I could go back and write about a book or jot down some passages and my thoughts in my journal. That’s something I hope to do a lot more of in 2018.

You can always check out my on-going Reading List.

Netflix Culture Deck: 7 Slides to Remember

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After listening to an NPR podcast about Netflix’s legendary culture deck (read here), I decided to take a look through the 125-slide presentation to get a better understanding. There were a lot of great points that resonated with me. Last week, I printed up the entire presentation for the Barrel leadership team and we read the slides together out loud. I know we’ll continue to discuss and adapt certain lessons in the coming weeks and months, but for now, I wanted to highlight 7 slides that stood out to me.

I would highly recommend taking a quick read through the entire deck. It doesn’t take too long, and it’ll provide greater context for these highlighted slides. At its core, Netflix’s culture deck is about building a team of high performers and setting them up in an environment that enables them to excel (a healthy amount of freedom & responsibility, strong context provided by managers with limited top-down control, and a comp/promotion system that rewards A-players efficiently).

#1 – Values are Shown By Who Gets Rewarded, Promoted, or Let Go


I can’t agree with this enough. It took me a long time to grasp this, but nowadays, I know that who we hire, reward, promote, or fire is a direct reflection of our true values. What used to be fear of awkwardness and discomfort in confronting underperformance is, more often than not, replaced by a drive to stay true to our core values, which means being quick to reward, praise, and promote those who uphold and live our values and to address, remediate, or ultimately remove those who don’t uphold the values and fail to achieve consistently at a high level. We still have room to improve on this, but the concept is definitely top of mind.

#2 – The Keeper Test


We’re not yet at a place where I can say I would “fight hard to keep at Barrel” unequivocally for every person at the company. I’m open to exploring the severance option in the future feel that we have a strong recruitment system to consistently feed high performing candidates. I can recall several instances over the years when I was relieved to get a resignation from an employee. That should’ve told me that I waited too long and would’ve benefited from being proactive about removing such team members. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve!

#3 – Hard Word – Not Relevant


I wrote previously that when employees don’t know or aren’t aligned on the goals of a project, they will often lean on their effort as a gauge of their performance. This is on the manager/leader of the project for not setting the proper context (#5 is about this).

Over the years, we’ve had instances when employees would demand higher compensation and promotions based on the hours they put in and all the “hard work” they had to endure. As managers, we would disagree with the results and quality of the work, which would then lead to drawn out meetings about comp numbers. We would, more often than not, give in to most demands afraid that the employee would otherwise leave and put us in a tough spot. The employee, even with the raise, would not be happy since the process was convoluted and unexpectedly difficult.

These days, we’re better about articulating goals and demanding results when we don’t see them. We make it clear when team members fall short on performance and if they did well, we are specific to point out how and why. There are, for the most part, no surprises when it comes to compensation reviews.

#4 – In Creative/Inventive Work, the Best Are 10X Better Than the Average


I used to think this was a Silicon Valley platitude, but we’ve had some team members in recent years who’ve achieved 5x-10x results, and it accelerates all kinds of things for the business including better processes, happier clients, greater opportunities, and improved team morale. It’s not that they work longer hours or are technically more advanced. It’s a combination of the right attitude, a certain drive, curiosity, and intelligence that helps them focus, prioritize, and deliver solutions in a big way. While we may not have a 10x-er in every role, it’s worthwhile to want and to seek out those who’ll have such impact.

#5 – Managers: Are You Articulate and Inspiring Enough About Goals and Strategies?


When working in creative teams, so much depends on the manager’s ability to set the context and to make sure the team understands what they’re trying to achieve and why. I know I can always work to improve in this area. A big part is overcoming the curse of knowledge bias, where I might assume that the team knows what I am talking about and skip certain information and concepts. I’ll have to be more effective in sharing, educating, and training the team on certain foundational knowledge that will help set the full context and set them on course to solve the right problems.

#6 – Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled Model of Teamwork


I think the Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled model is one to continue aspiring towards. Right now, we are closer to a top-down structure where decisions and processes are established by the leadership team and then rolled out to the rest of the team. Given our small size, this isn’t as much of a problem right now, but if we are to continue growing and to have a higher ratio of high performing employees, then we’ll want to shift our culture to allow for less rigidity in process and more autonomy in decision-making based on the goals and strategy that’s been effectively articulated.

#7 – Three Necessary Conditions for Promotion


We’ve made many mistakes on the promotions front. We’ve promoted people in the past just to keep them even though they may not have been stellar. We’ve promoted people to bring a sense of uniformity across departments even when performances was clearly uneven among team members. We’ve promoted people just because the number of years they worked at the company.

This slide is a painful yet great reminder that promotions need to be taken very seriously and need to be considered a very important statement about the company’s culture and values. We’ve become more cautious about this and have upped our expectations on the person’s readiness for the role and their ability to model our culture and values.


We take inspiration and ideas from a number of different sources. Netflix is just but one corporate culture and certainly not the only one that has an emphasis on high performance. Reading the culture deck was a productive exercise that forced us to reflect and view our practices from a different lens. We’ll continue to draw from various sources and march along this endless journey of refining and improving our company culture.

Managing Complex Change Applied to Projects

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Mel shared the Managing Complex Change model with me a couple years ago and it’s something that’s stayed in the back of my mind. I had trouble recalling all of its components, so I decided to make my own graphic version to help me remember it better.

I like this model because it breaks collaborative change into five distinct elements: Vision, Skills, Incentives, Resources, and Action Plan. I also like it because I think it applies as much to projects as it does to big organizational initiatives. At Barrel, our projects can be quite complex and involve various stakeholders on the client side as well as different team members and contractors on our side. When I think about projects that have gone off the rails, this model can be helpful in pinpointing the missing element or elements that contributed to poor outcomes.

Here’s a project-based look at each of the outcomes in the model and what I’ve observed:

Confusion: No Vision

Managing Complex Change: Confusion

When it’s not clear why we’re doing something for a client, the project can quickly spin out of control. I’ve written before that not being clear on the goals of a project can lead to team members focusing instead on effort and on activities that may or may not be of value to the client. The poor outcome in this case is not only confusion but a work product that may completely miss the client’s expectations while the team may have poured a lot of energy into producing something they thought was great.

Anxiety: No Skills

Managing Complex Change: Anxiety

Tasking a team with little or no experience on a certain type of assignment and not providing the time or the training guidance to quickly ramp up on the skills can put a stressful strain that causes anxiety. I struggle with this from time to time because a part of me wants to challenge team members and put them in new situations. Sometimes they step up to the challenge and exceed expectations, but there are also times when they really struggle. I don’t know if there is a clear cut way to avoid this and it’s often a case-by-case situation, but having a culture of continuous growth and learning (a core value at Barrel) that is supported by on-going skills training and professional development along with paired project experiences, where someone with prior experience on a certain assignment can model for the inexperienced team member, may help us avoid too many anxiety-inducing situations.

Gradual Change: No Incentives

Managing Complex Change: Gradual Change

I wonder if “slow change” might be a better fit for this particular scenario. Incentives can be a number of things, but it really boils down to what’s in it for each of the involved team members. I think alignment of incentives starts with having the right people in the right roles, which provides inherent motivation for the team member to excel at whatever is assigned to them. At a project level, it may be worthwhile as the project lead to highlight for each team member what the opportunities are at an individual level. For example, for a designer at Barrel, the opportunity might be something like “this is a really great chance to know the ins and outs of this e-commerce business and to design something eye-catching for your portfolio” while for a developer, the opportunity might be something along the lines of “you can sharpen your skills with this particular technology and also take lessons you learned from the last project and push yourself to do this a lot faster.” Of course, it’s important to have a good understanding of and relationship with the team member in order to highlight the opportunities that truly get them excited and for them to view such as incentives.

Frustration: No Resources

Managing Complex Change: Frustration

The lack of resources is a recurring challenge for a people-intensive business like Barrel. We sometimes have too many projects and not enough people to get them done. People may get double-booked or a contractor might become unavailable at the last minute. One way we’ve gotten around this is by being as diligent about resourcing as possible. We try to look out weeks or months at a time to see if there are potential resourcing issues looming and we also try to stock up on various freelancer contacts in order to have them available for hire when the time comes. In our business, resources can be managed well by smart and consistent planning. At a project level, the lack of budget can be another source of frustration, especially if the client expects more. This problem can be avoided if we take the time to detail what’s possible for a limited budget and set expectations. Big problems emerge when we’ve failed to lay out what’s possible (and what isn’t) and instead have to react to client requests. It’s not that they’re trying to annoy or unfairly get more. More times than not, we just haven’t done a good job of communicating and providing guidance on what resources it takes to get something done.

False Start: No Action Plan

Managing Complex Change: False Start

I used to be a big perpetrator of false starts: good vision, some skills, got people excited (incentives), and put resources in place, but not enough time spent putting together a plan. These days, I try my best to write out a vision and action plan first before going out to put a team together. When you fail to have an action plan, you’re pretty much “winging it” and while this might work from time to time, it exposes you to breakdowns and sloppy decision-making. I find the act of putting together an action plan extremely valuable because it forces me to think about potential risks and roadblocks and pushes me to address these in a proactive manner. It also makes me prioritize tasks and think hard about the sequence of the project, thereby also acting as a filter on what we shouldn’t do. Without an action plan, a project can quickly get derailed, especially if resources are allocated towards non-critical tasks that suck up time and don’t move things forward. I’ve accepted action plans as a default for all projects. The on-going challenge is figuring out the right balance between an action plan that is super detailed / overly prescriptive and one that is too loose / flexible. Creating an action plan that has enough structure and details to serve as a foundation while giving some slack for improvised problem-solving doesn’t come easy. It’s a practice that I hope to continue to fine-tune and get better at as I work on initiatives and projects of all kinds.

The Spiritual Journey

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I read Homo Deus by Yuval Harari back in March and one passage that stuck with me was his take on spirituality and why religions are anything but spiritual. Harari defines religion as such:

Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

Religion asserts that we humans are subject to a system of moral laws that we did not invent and that we cannot change. A devout Jew would say that this is the system of moral laws created by God and revealed in the Bible. A Hindu would say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva created the laws, which were revealed to us humans in the Vedas. Other religions, from Buddhism and Daoism to communism, Nazism and liberalism, argue that the so-called superhuman laws are natural laws, and not the creation of this or that god. Of course, each believes in a different set of natural laws discovered and revealed by different seers and prophets, from Buddha and Laozi to Marx and Hitler.

Keep this in mind as you read the next passage:

The assertion that religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, just as the gap between religion and science is narrower than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much wider. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.

Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit. Thus for most people, academic studies are a deal rather than a spiritual journey, because they take us to a predetermined goal approved by our elders, governments and banks. ‘I’ll study for three years, pass the exams, get my BA certificate and secure a well-paid job.’ Academic studies might be transformed into a spiritual journey if the big questions you encounter on the way deflect you towards unexpected destinations, of which you could hardly even conceive at first. For example, a student might begin to study economics in order to secure a job on Wall Street. However, if what she learns somehow induces her to end up in a Hindu ashram or helping HIV patients in Zimbabwe, then we could call that a spiritual journey.

Why label such a voyage ‘spiritual’? This is a legacy from ancient dualist religions that believed in the existence of two gods, one good and one evil. According to dualism, the good god created pure and everlasting souls that lived in a blissful world of spirit. However, the evil god –sometimes named Satan –created another world, made of matter. Satan didn’t know how to make his creation endure, hence in the world of matter everything rots and disintegrates. In order to breathe life into his defective creation, Satan tempted souls from the pure world of spirit, and confined them inside material bodies. That’s what a human is –a good spiritual soul trapped inside an evil material body. Since the soul’s prison –the body –decays and eventually dies, Satan ceaselessly tempts the soul with bodily delights, and above all with food, sex and power. When the body disintegrates and the soul has the opportunity to escape back to the spiritual world, its craving for bodily pleasures lures it back inside some new material body. The soul thus transmigrates from body to body, wasting its days in pursuit of food, sex and power.

Dualism instructs people to break these material shackles and undertake a journey back to the spiritual world, which is totally unfamiliar to us, but is our true home. During this quest we must reject all material temptations and deals. Due to this dualist legacy, every journey on which we doubt the conventions and deals of the mundane world and venture forth towards an unknown destination is called a ‘spiritual’ journey.


With this definition of spirituality, how many of us are truly on a spiritual journey? I suspect very few people can honestly say they reject all material temptations and deals and pursue big questions relentlessly.

If anything, I’m reminded of all the religions, in Harari’s definition of the word, that I follow and how little I question their tenets–liberalism, and the belief in the equality of all people; capitalism, and the belief in trade and markets; animalism, and the belief that all animals are sentient beings; and various others that I’m sure have labels I don’t even know about.

If I was to characterize anything that I do as “spiritual”, it may be moments like this when I can take a step back for an hour and ask myself why it is that I believe in the things that I do, how it is that I came to those beliefs, and if it makes sense for me to continue believing in the same things. It’s likely that I’ll soon get tired or bored and return to the various distractions and obligations of life, but it’s also possible that a certain strain of thought may lead me to change my position on something, to pursue a new belief, or to slightly tweak an existing perspective. This practice–the occasional reflection and thought exercise on a few big questions–is a good safeguard against having ossified beliefs that make it tough for me to accept an alternative worldview. And I can’t discount the importance of reading and how books can spark these meditative moments.

I’ll leave you with this last bit from Harari on the cycle that turns spiritual journeys, which sought to question if not destroy existing belief systems, into established belief systems of their own:

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who fume against stultified religious structures often end up forging new structures in their place. It happened to the dualists, whose spiritual journeys became religious establishments. It happened to Martin Luther, who after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth they subverted the laws, rituals and structures of traditional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their names than in the name of any other person in history.


Favorite Quotes from The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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I recently finished reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a novel about a double spy agent during and after the Vietnam War. It was one of the more memorable fiction reads I’ve had in a while. I really enjoyed Nguyen’s style of writing and found myself highlighting a number of passages. I’ve been trying to get better in general about revisiting books I’ve read and re-reading my highlights. With The Sympathizer, I found it a very worthwhile exercise and got more out of reading these passages a second time.

This post will best serve a future me who can reminisce about the book some months or years from now. For those who haven’t read the book, I hope some of these passages can be a motivating teaser.

On Race, America, and Speaking English

The narrator, who was born to a Vietnamese mother and a French priest, continues to revisit his mixed-race identity and his “two selves” that seem at odds with each other. He reminisces his experience in college, which he attended in the US, where his ability to speak fluent English seemed to surprise people:

On meeting in person, my interlocutor was invariably astonished at my appearance and would almost always inquire as to how I had learned to speak English so well. In this jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States, Americans expected me to be like those millions who spoke no English, pidgin English, or accented English. I resented their expectation. That was why I was always eager to demonstrate, in both spoken and written word, my mastery of their language. My vocabulary was broader, my grammar more precise than the average educated American.

A character named Ms. Mori works in the same Asian studies department as the narrator. She is a fiery 46-year-old who becomes a love interest and is not shy about sharing her views on race and identity in America. She criticizes the narrator for what looks like his willingness to please white people:

You’ve mastered the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word yourself. What do you say to that?

She goes on talk critically about the head of their department, an old white professor who fetishes all things Asian:

I can’t help but feel he’s a little disappointed in me because I don’t bow whenever I see him. When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job. But I’ll tell you something else. Ever since I got it straight in my head that I haven’t forgotten a damn thing, that I damn well know my culture, which is American, and my language, which is English, I’ve felt like a spy in that man’s office. On the surface, I’m just plain old Ms. Mori, poor little thing who’s lost her roots, but underneath, I’m Sofia and you better not fuck with me.

Later, at a wedding, Ms. Mori is irked that the Congressman, an honored guest at the event, gets heavy applause after his speech that ends with a chant in Vietnamese:

Typical white man behavior, Ms. Mori said. Have you ever noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language and we just eat it up? He could ask for a glass of water and we’d treat him like Einstein. Sonny smiled and wrote that down, too. You’ve been here longer than we have, Ms. Mori, he said with some admiration. Have you noticed that when we Asians speak English, it better be nearly perfect or someone’s going to make fun of our accent? It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here, Ms. Mori said. White people will always think we’re foreigners.

The narrator is invited to the home of a Francis Ford Coppola-like director after providing detailed notes on a movie script that is to be about the Vietnam War. He is greeted by the assistant Violet, a white woman who seems to regard him with disdain.

What she saw when she looked at me must have been my yellowness, my slightly smaller eyes, and the shadow cast by the ill fame of the Oriental’s genitals, those supposedly minuscule privates disparaged on many a public restroom wall by semiliterates. I might have been just half an Asian, but in America it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t. Funnily enough, I had never felt inferior because of my race during my foreign student days. I was foreign by definition and therefore was treated as a guest. But now, even though I was a card-carrying American with a driver’s license, Social Security card, and resident alien permit, Violet still considered me as foreign, and this misrecognition punctured the smooth skin of my self-confidence. Was I just being paranoid, that all-American characteristic? Maybe Violet was stricken with colorblindness, the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color, the only infirmity Americans wished for themselves. But as she advanced along the polished bamboo floors, steering clear of the dusky maid vacuuming a Turkish rug, I just knew it could not be so. The flawlessness of my English did not matter. Even if she could hear me, she still saw right through me, or perhaps saw someone else instead of me, her retinas burned with the images of all the castrati dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men. Here I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Number One Son, Hop Sing—Hop Sing!—and the bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The performance was so insulting it even deflated my fetish for Audrey Hepburn, understanding as I did her implicit endorsement of such loathsomeness.

The narrator recalls a moment during the war when he was tasked with torturing a Viet Cong prisoner. One of the techniques was to blare music that would keep the prisoner awake. He opts for country music and shares his thoughts on why it was an apt choice for the moment:

Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment. Beethoven’s Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland. It was for fear of being beaten to this beat that black soldiers avoided the Saigon bars where their white comrades kept the jukeboxes humming with Hank Williams and his kind, sonic signposts that said, in essence, No Niggers.

On Women and Sex

The narrator has a complex history with women. He often reflects and laments the early death of his mother, who succumbed to illness in her thirties. She had him when she was a young teenager, exploited by an older priest who would become the narrator’s father. There is a long passage in which he describes his rampant puberty-stricken desire to masturbate, which leads him to defile a squid, a highly prized ingredient for a poor family, only to see it later used by his mother in her dish. There are heavy doses of Oedipal conflict throughout the book that now seem more apparent to me in revisiting these passages. For this section, I picked a few quotes that demonstrate the narrator’s view of the opposite sex.

Waiting at an army base during the Fall of Saigon, the narrator observes the prostitutes who have managed to be included in the air lift out of Vietnam. He then makes a more general observation about prostitutes:

I had an abiding respect for the professionalism of career prostitutes, who wore their dishonesty more openly than lawyers, both of whom bill by the hour. But to speak only of the financial side misses the point. The proper way to approach a prostitute is to adapt the attitude of a theatergoer, sitting back and suspending disbelief for the duration of the show. The improper way is to doltishly insist that the play is just a bunch of people putting on charades because you have paid the price of the ticket, or, conversely, to believe utterly in what you are watching and hence succumb to a mirage. For example, grown men who sneer at the idea of unicorns will tearfully testify to the existence of an even rarer, more mythical species. Found only in remote ports of call and the darkest, deepest reaches of the most insalubrious taverns, this is the prostitute in whose chest beats the proverbial heart of gold. Let me assure you, if there is one part of a prostitute that is made of gold, it is not her heart. That some believe otherwise is a tribute to the conscientious performer.  

The narrator, at a wedding, boldly decides to flirt with the daughter of the General, his longtime boss who still commands him in America. He subscribes to, with success, his approach in impressing a young woman.

Sitting down next to Lana and thinking of nothing, I merely followed my instincts and my first three principles in talking to a woman: do not ask permission; do not say hello; and do not let her speak first.

And then he struggles to keep his eyes away from her chest:

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope.

I found this passage to be another example of the “two selves” theme that comes up again and again throughout the novel. The narrator exhibits his carnal desire through his gaze of Lana, his more basic, animal self, all while showing his erudite, civilized self in deconstructing the word and meaning of “cleavage.”


I also highlighted some sentences here and there because I loved how they sounded and admired their construction.

It is always better to admire the best among our foes rather than the worst among our friends.

So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.

The emotional residue of that night was like a drop of arsenic falling into the still waters of my soul, nothing having changed from the taste of it but everything now tainted.

But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.

They’re beautiful, which may or may not have been a lie. They were not beautiful to me, but they were beautiful to her.

What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing? We can only answer these questions for ourselves.

The Importance of Training in an Organization

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Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours of preparation for each hour of course time–twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.

This assumes, of course, that the training accurately address what students need to know to do their jobs better. This isn’t always so–particularly with respect to the “canned courses” taught by someone from outside. For training to be effective, it has to be closely tied to how things are actually done in your organization.

– Andy S. Grove, High Output Management

Things have been going more smoothly at Barrel than I can ever remember. Sure, we have our occasional fire drills and challenges with clients, employees, and contractors, but overall, there’s a degree of stability, accountability, and consistency that feels… great. The more I think about why we’re enjoying such a period, the more I believe that training has a lot to do with it.

At Barrel, training happens in a number of ways. Each discipline has a lead who owns training for that group and dedicates time each week to ensuring that learning happens. Sei-Wook, Lucas, and Wes have done an amazing job in making sure our Project Management, Design, and Development teams, respectively, are constantly learning new things, reflecting on mistakes/difficulties and turning them into lessons, and building processes to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

In my case, I oversee our Growth Marketing team. We meet for 90 minutes every Thursday. I typically use that time to introduce new topics in areas such as email marketing, analytics, site optimization, or paid media. Many of these sessions include a great deal of drawing on the whiteboard and use of real client data to illustrate examples. Some sessions are devoted to collaborative problem-solving, where we tackle an especially challenging task together as a group while I also play the role of instructor who asks questions and nudges the students to making the right decisions on their own. I’ve seen over time the impact that training has had on our Growth Marketing team: they’ve grown more comfortable and confident in talking about various topics related to our discipline; they’ve become technically more proficient and adept at getting tasks done; and they’ve started to ask better questions that lead to better outcomes. Outside of my discipline, I’ve seen similar impact across the entire company as we’ve kept up our training.

My only regret is that I haven’t been as consistent in devoting my time to planning and giving full attention to these training sessions. There have been periods of intense training and then, in busy times, some lazier last-second planning that haven’t been as fruitful. This is why I thought it would be good to excerpt Andy Grove’s thoughts on training above. It is indeed one of the highest-leverage activities I can engage in, and something I need to be reminded of every now and then.

Other ways that training happens at Barrel include:

  • Peer-to-peer training, where co-workers within a discipline or across different disciplines, help each other learn new skills and processes. As managers, we try to encourage as many opportunities for this to happen as possible, often involving different team members in new employee onboarding or having team members present learning topics to each other.
  • External experts, where we bring in someone from outside the company to share their knowledge and to help us better understand topics that are less familiar to us. These engagements require investment and can get pricey, but for the right topics that are directly relevant to our client work, they can be very helpful. In certain cases, the expert may actually just confirm what we already know and have figured out on our own–instead, they help us validate and feel more confident about our abilities.

I think what’s been different recently than in the past is that training as an activity feels a lot more concerted and constant. Sei-Wook and I reflected on how we’ve come around to investing more of our time in the training of our team, whereas in the past, we may have hoped to hire for certain skills and assumed that merely bringing in someone would solve our issues. When I look back on a post written 3 years ago, I can see that I didn’t quite grasp the importance of training, just mentioning it once in passing. To truly build capacity within an organization, I believe what’s required is a commitment to training and real time and resources spent by the management team to foster a culture of continuous learning and growth. It’s not something that we do when client work is slow and people have time on their hands. Instead, it’s a built-in habit that gets reinforced during the weekly discipline team meetings, check-ins with various account teams, and in one-on-one discussions with team members. Any and all problems that come up having to do with execution, project management, and clients’ expectations have clear channels that flow into action. Our weekly meeting among the Partners serves as a very effective forum where we surface client and employee issues and quickly generate To Do’s that make their way into training sessions and new documentation for our processes. Seeing how we operate, our employees have become a lot more comfortable bringing up their observations and requesting that we address issues that they feel are problematic or could use improvement. Every week, there’s potential for everyone on the team to further their training and to become more effective at what they do. To see this in action has been very rewarding. Of course, the work continues and this week is yet another opportunity.

Level, Listen, and Leave Yourself Out

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“Preparing and delivering a performance assessment is one of the hardest tasks you’ll have to perform as a manager.” – Andy S. Grove, High Output Management

I’ve been re-reading sections of High Output Management by Andy Grove of Intel fame (he was president and then CEO at Intel during its years of incredible growth; Grove passed away in March 2016). There are a lot of valuable nuggets throughout the book. I wanted to highlight a section from his chapter “Performance Appraisal: Manager as Judge and Jury” because I thought it would serve as a great reminder for myself whenever I have to engage in performance reviews of employees at work. Grove introduces what he calls the “three L’s” to keep in mind when delivering performance reviews:

  • Level: be honest and straightforward in giving both praise and criticism to the employee
  • Listen: employ all your senses to make sure that the employee has fully understood what you are trying to communicate; in addition to using words, be sure to watch how the employee receives and reacts to the messages, and keep at it until you’re sure the employee is on the same page
  • Leave yourself out: giving performance reviews is tough and can bring out emotions in not only the employee but you as the reviewer; control your emotions and focus on the fact that the review is all about the employee and his/her performance

The section is called “Deliver the Assessment” and here’s basically the full text:

There are three L’s to keep in mind when delivering a review: Level, listen, and leave yourself out.

You must level with your subordinate–the credibility and integrity of the entire system depend on your being totally frank. And don’t be surprised to find that praising someone in a straightforward fashion can be just as hard as criticizing him without embarrassment.

The word “listen” has special meaning here. The aim of communication is to transmit thoughts from the brain of person A to the brain of person B. Thoughts in the head of A are first converted into words, which are enunciated and via sound waves reach the ear of B; as nerve impulses they travel to his brain, where they are transformed back into thoughts and presumably kept. Should person A use a tape recorder to confirm the words used in the review? The answer is an emphatic no. Words themselves are nothing but a means; getting the right thought communicated is the end. Perhaps B has become so emotional that he can’t understand something that would be perfectly clear to anyone else. Perhaps B has become so preoccupied trying to formulate answers he can’t really listen and get A’s message. Perhaps B has tuned out and as a defense is thinking of going fishing. All of these possibilities can and do occur, and all the more so when A’s message is laden with conflict.

How then can you be sure you are being truly heard? What techniques can you employ? Is it enough to have your subordinate paraphrase your words? I don’t think so. What you must do is employ all of your sensory capabilities. To make sure you’re being heard, you should watch the person you are talking to. Remember, the more complex the issue, the more prone communication is to being lost. Does your subordinate give appropriate responses to what you are saying? Does he allow himself to receive your message? If his responses–verbal and nonverbal–do not completely assure you that what you’ve said has gotten through, it is your responsibility to keep at it until you are satisfied that you have been heard and understood.

This is what I mean by listening: employing your entire arsenal of sensory capabilities to make certain your points are being properly interpreted by your subordinate’s brain. All the intelligence and good faith used to prepare your review will produce nothing unless this occurs. Your tool, to say it again, is total listening.

Every good classroom teacher works in the same way. He knows when what he is saying is being understood by his students. If it isn’t, he takes heed and explains things or explains things in a different way. All of us have had professors who lectured by looking at the blackboard, mumbling to it, and carefully avoiding direct eye contact with the class. The reason: knowing that their presentation was murky and incomprehensible, these teachers looked away from their audience to avoid confirming visually what they already knew. So don’t imitate your worst professors while delivering performance reviews. Listen with all your might to make sure your subordinate is receiving your message, and don’t stop delivering it until you are satisfied that he is.

The third L is “leave yourself out.” It is very important for you to understand that the performance review is about and for your subordinate. So your own insecurities, anxieties, guilt, or whatever should be kept out of it. At issue are the subordinate’s problems, not the supervisor’s, and it is the subordinate’s day in court. Anyone called upon to assess the performance of another person is likely to have strong emotions before and during the review, just as actors have stage fright. You should work to control these emotions so that they don’t affect your task, though they will well up no matter how many reviews you’ve given.

I’ve given over 100 performance reviews during my years at Barrel. We’ve made many tweaks to the format over the years, and yet, I know there’s still room for improvement. Looking back, the best reviews are those that have had proper preparation, solid documentation, and a session in which I was able to follow through on the 3 L’s–I gave frank, straightforward praises and critiques; the “listening” was evident in a productive communication flow; and I was able to avoid making any of part of the discussion about myself, keeping the focus totally on the employee. The challenge for myself and our organization is to raise the quality and consistency of our reviews so that even during very busy times, we are able to provide our team members with helpful and productive performance assessments that not only look back on their past work but help them chart the course for substantial improvements in the following weeks and months.

How (and Why) I Built an E-commerce Store in Under 8 Hours

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AgencyDocs is a collection of documents and templates based on our work at Barrel. It’s an e-commerce store where other agency owners or managers can buy things like our employee onboarding checklist, our project brief template, or our functional spec document.

Back in 2013, I wrote how I would gladly have paid for access to another agency’s documents to see how they did things. Over the years, we’ve seen bits and pieces of various documents through our association with various agency groups and with employees who worked at other companies before coming to ours. But I still felt that a website with a well-organized cache of docs could be a good resource, especially for new, up-and-coming firms who perhaps did not have many processes figured out.

I’ve launched various internal projects at Barrel over the years that were exciting, fun, and ultimately very painful. These projects included: a WordPress theme for viral marketing (over 40,000 downloads); a project-tracking software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool (over 10,000 users); three Shopify themes (installed on over 2,000 e-commerce stores); and a performance management tool for 360-style reviews on projects (never publicly released). While I am proud that these projects served various customers well and were of good quality, I regret the haphazard planning (100% my fault) that put our internal resources in a crunch and also left many of these products half-baked in the long-run due to neglect. It was only earlier this year that we shut down the last of these projects after a prolonged and annoying wind-down process.

With AgencyDocs, I vowed to learn from my lesson. I wanted to launch something that followed these rules:

  1. The project must directly benefit our core business, which is serving our clients.
  2. The project should not require any design or web development resources and should be something that our leadership team can handle without assistance.

To the first point, AgencyDocs has made it necessary for us to examine our own processes and to take account of what’s working well and what isn’t. In order for us to generate documents that may ultimately be useful to many other agencies, we’ve had to streamline some to be more flexible and generic. This process has presented an opportunity for us to improve existing documents and to question decisions we made some time ago. In my book, this is a direct benefit to our core business.

Another reason why AgencyDocs benefits our core business is that it can serve as a sandbox for us to test out various e-commerce tools and digital marketing tactics. I think having our own live e-commerce website with real customers will give us a golden opportunity to experiment with some interesting ideas and fine-tune them before rolling them out to our clients.

To the second point, this is where I promised myself not to start on a project that might eventually become a time suck for the rest of the team. My initial impulse was to get a few hours from a designer to get some branding done and a developer to help with the site theme, but then I told myself that I should try to do it all on my own.

The Store is the Easy Part

We build most of our clients’ e-commerce website on Shopify. It’s a fast-growing platform that’s become more ubiquitous in recent years. I personally like how easy it is to use and appreciate the attention they’ve put into the admin experience.

To get AgencyDocs started, I fired up a dev store using our Barrel Shopify Partner portal. This is not so different from signing up for a 14-day free trial off the Shopify site. I then went in and browsed for an appropriate theme to use. I actually liked the default Debut theme that was already installed, so I left things the way they were.

Shopify Theme customizer

Customizing the theme in Shopify was as easy as filling out a few fields.

Next, I went through the online store settings and quickly filled out and updated everything. These are some of the key things I did in about an hour’s worth of time:

  • Customized homepage settings (Online Store >> Themes >> Customize) by changing logo, font, text/link colors, the sections on the page, the images, and the text
    • I created the logo in Adobe Illustrator. Took me about 5 minutes. I used Avenir Next Condensed and picked a shade of blue.
    • I found a stock image for the hero from Unsplash, a site where you can get free images to use on your projects.
    • I also pulled an image from our Barrel team photo collection.
    • I kept the copy brief and wrote what I thought would appeal to an agency owner.
  • Customized the website navigation (Online Store >> Navigation) by simplifying the footer nav and adding a few links to the main top menu
  • Filled out everything under Preferences (Online Store >> Preferences)
    • Title and meta description: I played around with variations of the tagline and came up with a short description that would show up on search engine results.
    • Google Analytics: I created a profile under our Barrel Analytics account and pasted the tracking ID here
    • Facebook Pixel: I created an Ad Account under Facebook Business Manager, generated a pixel, and pasted the ID here
  • Set up payment provider (Settings >> Payments)
    • Selected Shopify Payments, which runs on Stripe, as our payment provider (2.9% + 30¢ per transaction for the $29/month Shopify plan that we’re on; it’s less for higher plans)
  • Customize checkout page (Settings >> Checkout) to add the logo and adjust some colors and to make sure refund, privacy policy, and terms of service text are in place.

I then installed a couple of apps to the store: Digital Downloads, which lets you attach files to products that become available after customers pay and MailChimp for Shopify, which helps connect Shopify with MailChimp, a popular email marketing tool.

AgencyDocs MailChimp and Shopify

Once you connect your Shopify account with MailChimp, you’ll be able to customize a pop-up and various automated emails from the Connected Sites section.

Once MailChimp was in place, I spent an hour customizing various elements. These included:

  • A welcome email that gave customers a free “gift” document, a checklist to use before kicking off a project and before launching a website.
  • A pop-up form encouraging people to sign up for our email list.
  • An abandoned cart email that goes out when people add a product to cart but don’t check out.
  • A product retargeting email that suggests different products to people who visited the site and viewed products.

I didn’t change the design much other than uploading the logo. I spent most of my time tweaking some copy. By setting these automations up, I know that MailChimp will ping customers and guide them to take different actions without me doing anything.

With these fairly straightforward steps, the skeleton of the website was in place. All I would need to do is write some content for the FAQ, upload the product, and get a domain name registered. Of course, one of those things, the product, would be the most important part of this entire project.

The Product

AgencyDocs products

The documents, our core product for AgencyDocs, is the most time-consuming and most valuable part of the e-commerce website.

Before I started on the website, my goal was to get together about 10 or so docs before officially launching. Before that, I set a goal to get 4 docs in place before doing a soft launch where I would get the website live, show it to some friends, and get some feedback. The 4 docs I decided to put up were:

  • Ops Checklist: what we use to track various HR, finance, and office activities that need to happen each day, week, and month (also comes with a Supplies Inventory Checklist)
  • Client Intake Questionnaire: what we use at the start of new client engagements to learn about our clients, their industry, their customers, and their goals
  • Project Brief: the document we use to inform our internal team of a client, the project’s objectives, and various details about what we need to get done prior to kickoff
  • Employee Onboarding Checklist: what we use to ensure that new team members are properly set up and equipped to begin their role at Barrel
AgencyDocs Product Descriptions

I spent a good amount of time writing the product descriptions to help potential customers know how and when these docs were used at Barrel.

Each product required a thorough review of the doc to ensure that they were general enough to be of value to another agency. I edited places where I thought the description or text was too specific to something we did internally and also added some guiding text to provide context. I stripped each doc of our Barrel branding so that they would be generic files that could easily be copied and pasted into another agency’s branded template.

After making sure the doc was in a good place, I spent a good chunk of time writing the product description and creating a thumbnail showing a zoomed out view of the doc to show how many pages and text density the customer could expect. For each description, I tried to be very specific about how and when we used these docs and how they helped our team. I know that not every doc will be useful to every agency, but my hope is that certain descriptions will hit a chord with an agency owner going through a specific pain point that can be mitigated by referencing our doc.

I created the product entries in Shopify, loaded in the text and image, and uploaded the file using the Digital Downloads app. All in, the product part of the e-commerce website probably took up 80% of my time. So if you really break it down, the website component that displays content and takes people through a checkout process probably took no more than 90 minutes and the rest of the 8 hours was spent on product. This, of course, is further distorted by the fact that I’ve not created any products from scratch but merely repurposed existing assets. Our checklists, project brief, and questionnaires took shape through the investment of many hours over the course of many years. Some have been tested on dozens of projects, clients, and employees. We’ve tweaked, refined, and rebuilt these docs countless times. Luckily for me, that work was already done in advance so that I may just make mostly cosmetic adjustments. For many others pursuing an e-commerce business, getting the product right will take 99.5% of the time and just 0.5% to deploy on a website. That is probably a more prudent ratio.

Just Halfway There

Now that the website is live and I’ve gotten very close to getting 10 docs up, the halfway point is near. Now the work of marketing and reaching the right people will become my primary focus, and there’s a great deal to be done. I’ve been compiling a list of influencers and giving away copies of docs to various agency owners for free in the hopes of generating some buzz. I’ll be leveraging my membership in different agency groups to offer special deals to members. I’m also compiling a list of various freelancer and website design and development blogs that I can hit up for a mention or blog post about our offering. This is nuts and bolts marketing work, the stuff that requires patience and discipline. I’ll also have to queue up some retargeting ads to serve on Facebook.

I don’t know what to expect from this project. It may end up selling well or it may not sell much at all. Either way, I’m not too worried because it’s something that I’ve kept very contained in terms of time and money investment. Beyond the Shopify $29/month fee and $11.99 for annual domain renewal, there are no other significant costs. I’ve asked my partners to pitch in a few hours here and there to clean up some existing docs that we can use as products. Other than this, it’s mostly an hour or so a day that I’ll be spending to see if this sticks. I’m in no rush and I’m happy to keep this up for a year or longer. If I come across young, up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs starting their own agencies, I’ll tell them to check the site out and maybe give them a discount code or just shoot all the docs to them for free. What I’m most excited for is to keep on growing the library of documents as we continue to streamline processes internally and have good things to share with others. And as a secondary benefit, I hope to try some innovative and interesting experiments with marketing to see how potential customers react and if anything sticks.

It always satisfying to engage in deep activity that brings an idea to life. With AgencyDocs, an idea that’s been percolating for some years now, I’m looking forward to nurturing its growth.


My Personal Finance Stack

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I’ve been revisiting the way I handle my personal finances in recent months and thought it would be good to list out my “personal finance stack” – the different accounts, tools, and workflows I have in place to handle my finances.

Back in March 2015, I wrote about how I had missed golden opportunities in my twenties to invest earlier (see blog post). It was only when I turned thirty that I seriously considered putting my money to work through various purchases of stocks and index funds. In the 2.5 years since I wrote that post, I’ve continued to put aside the majority of my income into various investments, but the allocation of these funds have changed somewhat.

First, I took all my money out of Betterment, an investing service that promises to manage money in a smart way for very low fees. I did not like the idea of constant tinkering and rebalancing that Betterment did on a weekly basis. I came to feel, whether rightly or wrongly we’ll see in time, that placing big bets on a handful of companies that I felt strongly about would be the way to go. In my mind, I thought about what Warren Buffett has said about a 20-slot punch card when investing: imagine that with each stock purchase, you punch a hole in the card, and after 20 punches, you can never buy again–how would that change the approach to the way you pick your stocks?

Without going into exact details, I bought a good chunk of shares of a tech company that I felt was still capable of long-term growth, not too different than what Microsoft was before the release of Windows 95. Later on, I would identify for myself another tech company that I felt very bullish about and allocated a good amount of my income to its stocks. My plan, and this is what Buffett was essentially preaching, is to believe in and hold on to these stocks for a very long time–maybe 10, 20, or even 30 years–and not worry about the choppy swings of the short-term.

Automatic Investments

In addition to my one-off purchases of stocks that I believe in for the long-term, I have a few automated investments in place. One of them is called Acorns. It looks at my credit card and bank transactions and looks for opportunities to “round up” and pulls those amounts into an investment account, where the money is used to buy various funds. So for example, my $4.25 purchase at a cafe would mean I have $0.75 in round up money. Once the total number of round-ups hit $5, there is a deposit from my bank account to Acorns. I’ve set transactions that end in $.00 to round up to a whole dollar. I’ve also set up the account to pull $5 from my bank account every single day. It’s been exactly 2 years since I opened an account, and I’ve put in an average of $160/month. I like Acorns because it’s got a fairly low fee structure ($1 per month for all accounts with a balance under $5,000 and .25% of the balance per year on accounts over $5,000) and it’s something I rarely even think about.

The other automatic investment I have in place is Motif Investing, which I recently started up again. It allows you to create a bundle of stocks–your “motif”–that you can then invest in as if it’s your own fund. I had some fun making my own motif consisting of companies that I think are make a lot of headway into AI and integrating AI into their businesses and felt comfortable enough to subscribe to Motif’s Blue program, which costs me $9.95 to automatically invest in my motifs each month. This is nice because a single share of some of the companies in my motif are close to the $1,000 range, so Motif allows me to own partial shares while charging me a flat $9.95 fee to get exposure to 8 different companies (whereas buying shares individually would cost me $6.95 per transaction in my brokerage account).

In recent months, I’ve also started making small bets into cryptocurrencies. I have a Coinbase account where I’ve set up two automatic investments–a weekly investment into Bitcoin and a biweekly investment into Ethereum. I understand that things are pretty speculative right now, but I’m not expecting to make a quick buck. I do think, from what I understand, that cryptocurrencies can be a disruptive force in the coming years, so I don’t think it’s the worst use of my money to have a little stake in the upside.

Real Estate

Since 2015, I’ve dipped my toes in some real estate. With a group of friends, we purchased a couple properties in West Philadelphia that have become very good rental income generators. Melanie and I also purchased a co-op in Sunset Park recently where my parents reside. That means a big chunk of our monthly income will go towards a mortgage, but we’re very bullish on the neighborhood and it’s great to have my parents nearby. With rising interest rates and the general hassle of buying properties, I don’t know if I’ll be doing many real estate deals in the coming years, but I learned a great deal by going through the property-buying process.


I don’t spend much time looking at my personal finances. I’ll occasionally look at stock prices as I might look up sports scores of my favorite teams, but I don’t fret if the market is down or get too excited if the prices jump. I do like looking at the overall picture every 10-12 months to see how things have grown. I’ve linked up all my accounts to Mint and Openfolio to get a high-level view of my net worth (at least where my stock investments are concerned). I haven’t spent any time trying to get real estate values into the mix yet. In writing this post, I was pleasantly surprised that since 2015, my net worth has increased by nearly 60% not counting any real estate holdings. This despite the fact that my earnings have stayed generally flat during that time.

I love the idea of steady, sustained growth in personal wealth. Sure, we might hit lucky breaks or land a big score that can make a huge difference, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be slowly rolling our snowball while we pursue our big payday. The nice thing is that if the big payday never comes, you can still be perfectly happy and comfortable with what you have.

Tools/Services in My Stack

Here are the tools/services mentioned above as well as others I use regularly:

  • Capital One Investing: What I use to buy most of my stocks.
  • Fidelity: I use this for my IRA retirement accounts.
  • Robinhood: Used for speculative stock purchases and also a way to put affiliate income from Buys with Friends to use. We’ve invested in some real estate stocks that pay nice 8-12% dividends each year.
  • Acorns: Automatic micro-investments using round-ups on credit card and bank account transactions.
  • Motif Investing: Ability to create your own fund and invest across various stocks for a flat fee.
  • Coinbase: Service I use to buy Bitcoin and Ethereum.
  • Mint: Popular tool that pulls in data from various accounts and shows trends and reports.
  • Openfolio: Mobile app that shows investment performance across various accounts and also provides performance benchmarks vs. other types of investors.

Tower Defense and Business Management

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Tower defense (TD) is a subgenre of strategy video game where the goal is to defend a player’s territories or possessions by obstructing the enemy attackers, usually achieved by placing defensive structures on or along their path of attack. – Wikipedia

I wanted to put my mind on auto-pilot for a few hours this weekend, so I downloaded a tower defense game on my iPhone. It’s called Pirate Legends and it reminds me very much of the Kingdom Rush tower defense series that I used to play quite a bit a few years ago. The graphics are cartoonish and the screen quickly fills up with dozens of enemy attackers swimming or sailing through the channels of water trying to attack my ship. It took me a few tries before my eyes and mind calibrated to the dizzying movements of the screen and I started to get in the groove of launching turtle-shell cannons and positioning the ship to blast multiple cannonballs at incoming enemy waves.


As I progressed through the different levels, it struck me that the core of TD strategy was not too different than running a business, namely the important task of putting the right people in the right seats (see “The People Component” chapter in Gino Wickman’s Traction for a good explanation of this concept). In a TD game, there are limited spots where you can place different types of “towers”. In the case of Pirate Legends, there are four types of towers: a cannon-based tower, a gun/spear-based tower, a magic tower, and a toxic-sludge tower that slows enemies down. As you play, you can pay to upgrade (think “promote”) these towers to ones that have greater powers and capabilities. The key to winning a level in a TD game is to have the right combination of towers that can most efficiently kill off the enemy.

How do you know how to have the right combination of towers? You have to have a good understanding of the enemy. While it’s an unfortunate word choice for the analogy I’m making, the “enemy” is the customer and the problems/challenges the customer brings to the business. In a TD game, there are many types of enemies. Some can fly, some can disappear underwater, some are immune to magic, and some can even disable your towers momentarily. Understanding the enemy’s characteristics will help inform the decisions you make in the types of towers you build. As I played Pirate Legends, I typically played each level the first time as a scout to see the composition of each enemy wave. Once I understood which enemy types would come in which order, I could devise a winning strategy and reconfigure my towers for a better chance to win.

In between levels, you can choose which skills you want to increase.

In between levels, you can choose which skills you want to increase.

The analogy extends beyond in-level gameplay. After you complete each level, you are awarded certain amounts of gold (or in the case of Pirate Legends, some golden anchors and toes) to build up your skillset or to add weapons to your arsenal. There are parallels to this in business: do you reinvest your profits in expanding operations, in providing additional training for employees, in enhancing marketing and sales, or taking it out of the business? In a TD game, the choices are much simpler and straightforward than in business, but the types of skills you invest in and the timing of that investment could impact your performance with new enemies in the next level.

The last aspect of TD that I’ll compare to business is the second-to-second management of the towers and their development path. When you start a new level, you have a limited amount of gold to build your towers. This means that a big chunk of the building will happen as enemies continue to come in waves. There are moments when the waves start to overwhelm the towers and get increasingly close to breaching your tower (and subsequently taking your lives). The key is to keep your cool and methodically build and upgrade the right towers at the right time while also deploying one-off attacks that supplement the towers. In the case of Pirate Legends, this includes a “hero” character who flies his plane and shoots at the enemy as well as a turtle shell that can shoot cannons for a few seconds before disappearing. When it comes to business, this is not too different from the manager doing his or her best to hire and promote the right people and also jumping into the action to help troubleshoot when necessary. Most of the time, it’ll be hectic with customers (or orders/projects/assignments/tasks) continuing to come in waves. The key is to keep your cool, trust your process, and continue to grind it out. In TD, when that final wave comes and you’re able to destroy everything with your fully upgraded towers, it’s a very satisfying feeling. Likewise, when you’ve built up a competent and well-trained team that can handle the toughest of customer demands, it’s a winning feeling.

Winning in business feels many times better than winning a level in a TD game, but TD is fairly easy and a lot less stressful.

Winning in business feels many times better than winning a level in a TD game, but TD is fairly easy and a lot less stressful.

To summarize, business lessons found in TD are:

  • Put the right people in the right seats (which means understanding the strengths and weaknesses as well as the right combination of people)
  • Understand your customers and their problems (the many types and nuances, and which of your people will be best equipped to handle them)
  • Be thoughtful in the way you reinvest in the business
  • Keep your cool, trust the process, and grind it out (the day-to-day requires rigor and discipline)

Of course, TD is just a video game. Business, as much as I love to bring analogies into talking about it, is not a game. It’s a serious activity that involves people’s lives, real money, and lots of time. It’s also not something you can totally figure out and master like a video game. No matter how good you may be at it today, there’s always a chance that something unexpected will trip you up tomorrow.

Thoughts on “Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact” by Phil M. Jones

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Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact by Phil M Jones is a very quick read. As in, you can probably finish it in under 1 hour if not less than 40 minutes. But its value was in making me think about the words I use in my day-to-day conversations and what kinds of adjustments I can make to shape conversations in favorable ways.

I’m not going to give a detailed summary of the book, but I’ll quote a few things and mostly dive into the actual “Magic Words” that Jones presents and how I find some of them useful in my daily conversations.

Magic Words

Magic Words are sets of words that talk straight to the subconscious brain. The subconscious brain is a powerful tool in decision-making because it is preprogrammed through our conditioning to make decisions without overanalyzing them. It works a little like a computer—it has only “yes” and “no” outputs and can never land on a “maybe.” It is strong and decisive and moves quickly. Using words that talk straight to the part of the brain that is free from maybes and responds on reflex gives you a fair advantage in conversation and can result in you getting your own way more often.

Jones begins the book by sharing his observation that successful people have one thing in common: “they know exactly what to say, how to say it, and how to make it count.” Magic Words are his cataloged collection of the words and phrases that successful people use to influence others in conversations.

Here’s the list of the Magic Words. I recommend picking up the book to get more context and more examples (it’s so short that pasting any more would essentially be copying over the whole book):

  • I’m not sure if it’s for you but…
  • Open-minded (e.g. “Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”)
  • What do you know?
  • How would you feel if…
  • Just imagine…
  • When would be a good time?
  • I’m guessing you haven’t got around to…
  • Simple swaps (e.g. turning “Do you have any questions?” into “What questions do you have for me?”)
  • You have three options…
  • There are two types of people in this world…
  • I bet you’re a bit like me…
  • If you… then… (e.g. “If you decide to give this a try, then I promise you won’t be disappointed.”)
  • Don’t worry…
  • Most people… (e.g. “Most people in your situation would probably select the middle option.”)
  • The good news… (e.g. “The good news is that we’ve got a robust training program and 24/7 customer support, so we’ll make sure you’re getting the most out of your product from day 1.”)
  • What happens next…
  • What makes you say that?
  • Before you make up your mind…
  • If I can… will you? (e.g. “If I can come down 10% on the price, can you complete the purchase today?”)
  • Enough (e.g. turning “Would you like 1 or 3 bottles?” into “Would 3 bottles be enough for you?”)
  • Just one more thing…
  • Could you do me a small favor?
  • Just out of curiosity…

My Most Frequently Used Magic Words

“Most people…”

I’ll typically use this with clients when guiding them through a decision, whether it’s picking the right content management system platform or the right email marketing software or the amount to spend on a certain paid media campaign. I might say something like “In this type of situation, our other clients do this and that…” or “Our other clients do this…”. If I don’t have specific client examples but can pull from my knowledge of the market, I might say “Most businesses…” or “Other businesses in your space…” and that tends to have the same impact.

“Just out of curiosity…”

Whenever there’s a rejection or some kind of deferred decision from a prospect or a client, I try to ask for the reason. “Just out of curiosity, what made you go with the other firm?” Most of the time, the client will offer useful feedback that I learn from.

“Don’t worry…”

I probably overuse this sometimes, especially when I’m too confident about an outcome. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure a way to get it done even though our team is pretty booked up for the next 2 weeks.” I don’t find these words to be too magical, but rather something to be cautious of, especially when I’m using it myself.

“What happens next…”

I use a variation of this when talking to prospective clients or at the end of a client meeting. It’s something along the lines of “So for next steps…” or “For our next steps…” and then I’ll proceed to paint the picture of what will follow from our end and what we need from our clients to get things moving.

Magic Word I Want to Use More

Could you do me a small favor?

I’ve found that people who know how to ask of others usually end up getting more. And it doesn’t have to be in a slimy and inconsiderate way, but just having the courage to ask for help can be beneficial in many ways. I’ve seen this work out nicely for me in the few instances I’ve used it. I hope it’s something I can use strategically more often.

Just one more thing…

The author talks about how TV detective Columbo would be so good at using this to quiz his suspects at the very last moment. I think it’s a powerful way to save a conversation that may be sputtering or to make a lasting impression. I’ll have to think a bit more on specific use cases, but I’d like to experiment with this one.


I like this one because it requires a degree of confidence and of knowing what’s right for my clients. Rather than giving my clients too many options, I think framing it as “X hours should be enough” or “4 weeks of development should be enough” would make the decision-making process easier for them. There are so many applications of this, so I’m interested to see how I can use it in different situations.

Personal Accountability and the Pursuit of a Boring Culture

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In QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, author John Miller offers a simple framework for handling ourselves day-to-day, both at work and in our personal lives.

The Question Behind the Question is built on the observation that our first reactions are often negative, bringing to mind Incorrect Questions (IQs). But if in each moment of decision we can instead discipline ourselves to look behind those initial Incorrect Questions and ask ourselves better ones (QBQs), the questions themselves will lead us to better results

The QBQ framework follows these three rules:

1. Begin with “What” or “How” (not “Why,” “When,” or “Who”).
2. Contain an “I” (not “they,” “we,” or “you”).
3. Focus on action.

This is a quick, skinny book that shouldn’t take more than an hour to get through. I think its strength is in its easy-to-remember format. Incorrect Questions (IQs) are bad. QBQs are what we need to ask.

While reading, I found myself thinking about all the IQs that I’ve said myself or heard from various people over the years. Things like:

  • Who screwed up on that assignment?
  • When will we finally hire someone who can do this right?
  • When will so-and-so ever learn how to do it correctly?
  • Why isn’t so-and-so coming up with the right solutions?
  • Why aren’t you setting us up for success?
  • Why is so-and-so so disorganized?
  • Why is the client so demanding?
  • Why don’t our projects have a big enough budget?
  • Why don’t we have enough time to finish our projects?
  • Why do I have to do all the thinking?
  • Why do I have to make all the hard decisions?

In the context of my work and being a manager, I came away with some thoughts for how QBQs can better guide my decisions:

Focus on myself and model the behavior I want to see.

Avoid IQs like the plague and handle all types of situations with a “what can I do” attitude. Teach through actions. By being consistent in my behavior day-in and day-out, I’m helping to establish cultural norms and expectations. It’s also worth noting that in the book, Miller is insistent that we can’t change other people. Years of managing employees has taught me that this is true. People change of their own accord, so rather than waste our energies trying to change someone else, it’s more productive to focus on ourselves.

Maintain a team that asks the right questions.

I feel fortunate to have a team at Barrel right now that subscribes to a high degree of personal responsibility and defaults to the QBQ framework. However, a series of wrong hires can undo the culture in a hurry. It’ll be of paramount importance to hire correctly and, if necessary, fire those who can’t get on board. The latter has to be done swiftly and without hesitation.

Remember that stress is a choice.

A disgruntled employee, an unhappy client, some kind of problem with finances or the office – all kinds of issues can pop up at anytime, but I always have a choice in how I deal with them. I can wallow in self-pity and blame external factors or I can just tell myself that things happen and ask what I can do to productively handle the situation.

The Pursuit of Boring

When I watch TV shows that depict the workplace, whether it’s a startup, a hedge fund, a law firm, a police station, or a warring tribe, it’s striking how often I’ll hear Incorrect Questions bandied about by the characters. Questions like “Who fucked up?” or “Why is this happening to us?” are commonplace. And it’s no wonder – these types of questions make for good drama. It introduces conflict and pits characters against each other. It’s what makes shows entertaining and interesting, the opposite of boring.

This is why I think boring is sexy, especially when it comes to the workplace. Boring means we’re focused on the work. Boring means we’ve got a process that we follow, repeat, and tweak without a fuss. Boring means we deliver for our clients. Boring means we hire good people, pay them well, and keep them productive. There’s no intrigue, there are no politics, and there’s nobody trying to undermine someone else. It’s just a team, showing up for work, putting in a strong effort, and going home.

Staying boring takes work, and I intend to continue my mission of keeping Barrel as boring as possible. I’ll end with a quote from Miller’s book which echoes a similar sentiment:

In seeking to practice personal accountability, we have to avoid the trap of thinking we’ve “arrived.” Personal accountability is not a destination. We don’t wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves an “accountable person” forever more. Rather, it’s a daily, moment-to-moment practice of avoiding the Incorrect Questions and asking QBQs instead. I’m not a finished product. Are you?

The Fundamentals of Knowledge Workers

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Whenever I think about fundamentals, I’m reminded of an interview that basketball player Andrew Bogut had on the Bill Simmons podcast in which he talked about the Warriors and how they practiced:

I still remember the first training camp we had under coach Kerr. We were doing basic passing drills into the passing net, like left-handed passes, right-hand, overhead, and doing dribbling drills through cones, and a lot of guys were pissed because they were like, “Hey, we’re NBA guys, we don’t need to be doing this stuff.” But coach Kerr was like, “No, we’re going back to basics. You guys turn the ball over way too much. If we can limit our turnovers and just turn it over four or five times less per game, we’re going to win a championship.”

Guys were kind of like, “Ugh, we don’t want to do these petty little drills,” but after a couple of weeks I think guys understood what he was trying to relay onto us. And it was genius in a way, because it’s just instilling the little things, like making the right pass, getting to a jump-stop, hitting your teammate on the chest so that he can get a nice rhythm into his jumper, and it just worked out perfectly.

The takeaway here is that in order to better execute sophisticated plays and run a certain type of system, everyone on the team must have sound fundamentals and avoid making costly mistakes that get in the way of clean, effective execution.

I’ve been thinking about the “fundamentals” of the team at Barrel and if we’ve been giving enough attention to the things that enable us to effectively execute complex projects like platform builds and multi-channel marketing campaigns. In our line of work, it’s easy to get caught up with someone’s smooth in-meeting presence or their effortless use of technical jargon. Such feats of “performance” might be praiseworthy, but they may also mask gaps in the day-in-day-out stuff that makes projects run smoothly.

I’ve tried to come up with a more generalized set of basic skills that apply to all knowledge workers (a Peter Drucker-coined term to describe people whose main capital is knowledge). These are what essentially make up the “day-in-day-out stuff”:

  • Clear and timely communication: the ability, in speech and writing, to articulate questions, actions, and responses that convey information to team members and clients/customers without vagueness or confusion, and to do so consistently within the appropriate timeframe; also, sound communication fundamentals means checking for spelling and grammar errors and making sure vocabulary and technical terms are used correctly (the discipline to proofread).
  • Task and time management: the ability to keep track of assignments and manage one’s own calendar/schedule in order to meet deadlines and effectively plan work blocks throughout the day and week; if you said you were going to do it, you find a way to do it.
  • Resourcefulness: the ability to leverage different sources (e.g. team members, Google, past projects, etc.) and to synthesize findings in order to come up with viable solutions, especially in situations of uncertainty; the findings may not be the end-all-be-all solution, but it’s enough to make progress and to get useful feedback that’ll further move things along.

Imagine trying to “practice” these skills with a team of knowledge workers. I wonder how our team might feel about training sessions on writing good email communications, using a calendar effectively, or doing smart Google searches. Would they initially groan like the Warriors players did at the prospect of doing basic dribbling and passing drills? Would they then appreciate and embrace the training because it tightens their fundamentals and helps them be better at their jobs?

As basic as the “fundamentals” I’ve outlined may sound, I have a feeling that many business owners, if they were to evaluate their teams and rate their employees on each of these areas, may find gaps and deficiencies that are hampering the overall performance of the team.

To bring it back to basketball, think about the talented and athletic forward with the huge wingspan and killer hops who has shown great promise (flashy drives to the basket and very athletic moves in transition) but continues to make silly turnovers with careless passes, is terrible at switching on pick-and-roll defense, and is often mindless about floor spacing and getting into the right position for set plays. A player’s lack of discipline in these fundamentals can really mess up the flow of the team and nullify the strong performances of others. As a coach, you may be tempted to keep the player in because there’s so much “upside” but shaky fundamentals may erode your confidence in that player over time.

Likewise, a knowledge worker who doesn’t communicate well, who doesn’t get assignments done on time, and doesn’t make the necessary attempts to figure out problems on their own will cost the business additional time and resources to manage.

When we hire promising talent with impressive experience and credentials, we rarely question their fundamentals and take them for granted. Of course they’ll be great at communicating or managing their time. Of course they’re natural problem-solvers. Otherwise, how else would they have progressed in their careers? And in most cases, the assumptions will be true. But, as Kerr and Warriors demonstrate, it’s not a bad idea to refresh ourselves on the fundamentals every now and then and make sure we’ve got the proper zip and crispness on our chest passes.

For those who are curious, here’s a list of fundamental skills in basketball that I came across on a site for new players and coaches:

  • Shooting
  • Passing
  • Dribbling
  • Lay ups
  • Jump stops
  • Pivoting and footwork
  • Jab steps
  • Screening
  • Cutting
  • Defense
  • Rebounding