Life Outside My Cube

My life, a work in progress.

Category Archives: dreams

Asking the Right Question

Most of us would admit to asking ourselves, at some point in our lives, questions about how to earn more money, how to become independently wealthy, how to retire at age 40 and so forth. And we get these rather smallish ideas about how we can do something to earn that money or independence, but really don’t get anywhere.

So it turns out I’ve been asking the wrong questions all this time. Justine Musk says,

Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs. Ask yourself what you have the potential to offer that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace you, no one could outsource you, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally). Then develop that potential. Choose one thing and become a master of it.  Choose a second thing and become a master of that.  When you become a master of two worlds (say, engineering and business), you can bring them together in a way that will a) introduce hot ideas to each other, so they can have idea sex and make idea babies that no one has seen before and b) create a competitive advantage because you can move between worlds, speak both languages, connect the tribes, mash the elements to spark fresh creative insight until you wake up with the epiphany that changes your life.

Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? So the question changes from “how can I earn X” to “what am I deeply into”. This sounds somewhat like the old adage, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” In other words, find out what you like to do, and somehow you’ll be able to monetize it. Which is awful advice – few people ever get the opportunity to see that become a reality.

Justine, however, puts a twist on that, and says it’s the intersection of two passionate interests that create the spark leading to a successful idea. So I get that too, it’s one of the reasons why we cross-train and organize interdisciplinary groups. bringing both together creates synergy.

Of course, one needn’t insist that a single person master both worlds – this could as successfully accomplished by two or more people with disparate passions who agree to jointly cooperate to achieve something neither could do (or do as well) independently.

All in all, though, it’s an idea worth considering.

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The Slough of Despond

Five years ago I was at the tail end of  self-employment, and a year from accepting a position with my current employer. I was working for my father on and off – he did not have sufficient income to pay me fulltime – and some programming, web design and home-business gigs. Unfortunately, there was not enough sustainable income, and my family was getting deeper and deeper into debt, which would at one point top $50K. I was feeling helpless, frustrated and depressed.

I had left my previous job 6 years before, to take on some work with my dad. He (inexperienced in software development, but too persistent to let that get in his way) designed and coded a software program used in the long-term care dietary business, and needed help with, well, Help. It wasn’t writing code, but technical manuals was fine with me to start with. I shortly after began to assist with software development, support, sales and marketing. It wasn’t long, however, until financial difficulties began. There was not sufficient income from the company to support me fulltime, despite my dad’s hopes and dreams that things would get better. He paid when he could – or wanted to – but it wasn’t enough, and we soon began relying on credit.

The peculiar thing was, I didn’t feel I could just say “no” to him and move on. By the time things were bad, I was fully involved and he was – to a great extent – dependent on me. I felt that to bail out at that point would be not only end my hopes for a work-at-home job, but also crush his hopes and dreams. How could I do that to my own father? I was beset on all sides – my supremely patient wife continued to urge me to quit, my bank account begged me to find a paying job, and my dad continued to not care about my financial situation. I felt helpless to act at all.

Well, I did act a little, and purchased a reseller account from a web host, thinking that I could fill in the gaps with web programming and hosting. Weak in the sales/marketing area, I found myself undercharging (per my astute wife) for work, and giving away too much for free. Hardly the way to make a decent income, but when you’re working for your friends (how else do you get started in this business?) I felt like it was almost an insult to charge going rates. Plus, I wanted to “build up the portfolio.” Unfortunately, since I did next to nothing marketing-wise, the web business didn’t grow. I don’t believe I was equipped to be a successful entrepreneur – I was only a technician (according to The E-Myth) and missing the kind of skills needed to grow the business. Here I was full of programming skills, but I didn’t know how to effectively do anything about getting clients. That was frustrating.

So I was in a horrible financial situation, feeling helpless and frustrated. There was a terrible amount of pressure to change my situation, but I seemed to be paralyzed. One reason might be that I sincerely thought that working from home was the Ultimate. Oh, we’d escaped the traditional church and were meeting in homes, we’d rejected public schools and home educated our children. Bringing the work home seemed like the next logical step, and God-ordained. Yet here we were in a much worse financial situation than we’d ever been in! What was I doing wrong? Were we totally deceived? I began a long period of self-doubt and depression over our situation. I lost interest in work, in the business, in home life.

What do I wish I would have done differently? I don’t think leaving the previous job was wrong; I’d do that again in a moment (besides, a layoff there was imminent). Here are some things I, in perfect hindsight, would redo:

– Talk openly with my dad about my finances, and ask pointed questions about his. Finances were never an open subject with my folks, and I didn’t get started of with a good foundation. Hence I had no savings to draw on, and we weren’t accustomed to changing lifestyle to accommodate reduced income. Anyhow, if my dad and I could have talked about my financial needs on a regular basis, perhaps we both would have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t working out, and bail earlier with no hard feelings.

– Connect with other web developers in the area in order to work cooperatively. I was lacking some skills, but perhaps with others we could have presented a full complement of abilities to potential clients. In an office, I find myself wanting to connect with other independent types at coffee shops, open workplaces, and the like – I should have jumped at those opportunities, or created them. Alone in a home office is no way to network.

– Get out my shell. I’m an introvert, and find it extremely difficult to cold-call and meet new people. Less so now, but much more then. I should have sought for advice on how to overcome this inward tendency, and how to improve those skills needed for an entrepreneurial business to survive.

– Open up to people. When things are going badly, I have a tendency to withdraw. I should have talked more openly with my wife and family about what I was going through, and drawn comfort from their love. I felt like nobody knew what I was going through. I’m sure some did, but I didn’t open up about it, to my loss. It wasn’t all about me and my failures (what I thought at the time); it was about the journey God was bring me – and us – through. That should have been shared more openly.

– Do that which I think or know is right. I was full of fear at what people would think, or how people would take my actions if I stopped working for my dad and friend (I’d set up a little home-business with a close friend that supported his business) and found a “regular” job again. Walking in fear is not a good thing, I realize now. I wish I would have gotten that back then.

A bright spot in all of this is that our eyes were opened – through that friend – to the beauty of God’s undying love and the hopeful theology of the kingdom during this low period. Had I not gone through these difficult times and been brought so low, I don’t believe I would have been as open to receive these truths. Through the slough of despond, God has brought us out into a beautiful vision of life and purpose. That’s a topic for another post, I think.

* Questions 6

Beating a Path To Your Door

I hear people say sensible things all the time; my problem is that I don’t remember those things. Every once in a while, though, one sticks in my head and I find myself thinking about it over the course of several days.

I heard a radio commentator say that the devastation in Japan was going to be a boon for entrepreneurs. That’s all, just a short sentence. But I got to thinking about what it would be like to build a village / town / city from scratch, and all the business and infrastructure that would be needed. Entrepreneurs for sure! There will be a boatload of opportunities there!

I don’t mean to trivialize the personal and business destruction that happened there. I know lives, families and fortunes were lost in a matter of hours. It was a horrific thing, even if it’s so far from my imagination because of where I live. My heart goes out to those who have lost so much.

I don’t live where there are those kind of new opportunities, though, and at first I was tempted to sulk a bit. Coincidentally, I’d read someone that said, regarding starting a business, that you don’t need to do something something that no one else is doing, you can just do what they’re doing better. Now that’s sensible. I’m sure you (and I) have heard it a million times, but for some reason it stuck with me that day.

How many business have you patronized where you were dissatisfied with the product, service or employee performance? We to often encounter, for example, restaurants where the meals are mediocre, or the wait staff are far from satisfactory, and come away saying, “In my restaurant, things would be different.” Of course, we don’t have the experience or capital to open a restaurant, but that’s only one example. I’m sure there are many other opportunities out there for an entrepreneur to open a similar business and distinguish himself from others by providing a superior product (maybe harder) or superior service (easier). In fact, I’d say that receiving superior service is quite remarkable these days.

A recent visit to both Lowe’s and Home Depot made this clear. I’ve shopped in both innumerable times, and was generally frustrated at the difficulty of finding available floor staff for assistance. This time, however, not only were we audibly greeted by most every employee, we were always within sight of a helpful blue- or orange-vested person. When passing out of the store (were were just browsing at that point), a friendly casher engaged us in conversation, and reminded us that we could get a Lowe’s gift card at the Giant Eagle just down the way and get double Fuel Perks this week!

Well, didn’t we just high tail it down to that Giant Eagle and buy a $100 gift card, then come back to Lowe’s and purchase what we were looking at? A no-cost minimal effort on the part of one person brought profit to 2 stores and one happy couple. That’s what I’d call superior service, and it makes me much more likely to patronize that Lowe’s from now on. It also makes me think too, that any business that treats its customers this way will profit, regardless – or in spite of – the competition.

So what’s stopping you from taking that bad experience you’ve had, and turning it and some capital into an entrepreneurial opportunity?

* Question 3

Changing Directions Again

I’ve been working on a spec for a new project that was looking to take 4-6 months of development, and was pretty psyched about it. It was for a current high-visibility client, and they had a lot riding on this app, and I was to be the project lead.

Today my boss told me that the client was not paying their bills and was going through some cash-flow problems, and that there would likely be a delay – not outright cancellation – of the project. Drat.

Fortunately, there is another unrelated project in the wings that I can work on, with a new hire, that will take us at least through the summer. But it’s not the direction I’d hoped to go, technically – it involves some major add-ons to an existing PHP/JS/Oracle product, and I was really hoping for the new C#/.NET MVC app would be approved.

So in one quick sentence, the direction of my work for the next 6 months changed dramatically. That happens often, I suppose, though we don’t always notice it. A quick decision, a wrong turn, the flick of a butterfly’s wing, and our life course takes a different direction. Or does it?

Being human, I so many times want the ability to predict the future, and when it’s somewhat possible (e.g. preparing for a long-term work assignment), I feel comfortable, in control. When circumstances outside of my control change all of a sudden, I’m disappointed, upset that my plans aren’t going to be fulfilled, thrown for a loop.

In the business world, plans are good, helpful, even essential. But they should always be subject to change. The more we hold tightly onto our plans, the more difficult it is to accept change, even for the better. I see this repeated over and over again on Kitchen Nightmares (a fav on Hulu), as stubborn people resist positive change, even in the face of bankruptcy.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this train of thought. Just a few tidbits, I guess. Don’t resist change you’re not in control of. Embrace positive change. Be flexible. Trust God. Enjoy your life journey.

Dogpatch conveys backwoods ignorance, but is decidedly the opposite

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of incubators and shared office space. Having attempted the entreprenurial route (unsucessfully, it’s another story) for 7 years, the feeling of independence and wide-openness is still fresh in my mind. Since I live in a rather technologically scarce area, much of the vibrant dot com community activity has taken some time to migrate here. It’s only been since 2008 that a shared office space has opened up in the nearest major city.

I’d be very interested in spending some time there, but since I already have a full-time job, and the place is around $100/month, it’s just not been a high priority. I long for the shared developer community, because I have ideas and I can contribute, but I wish there was something closer and cheaper I could participate in.

Or manage, even.

The new Polaris incubator – “Dog Patch Labs Cambridge” – got me thinking again about the possibility of starting an incubator. I toyed with the idea years ago when a local elementary school went up for sale – opening up the possibility of living in part, and renting out part. Never worked out . The price was too high, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was within a half-mile of a major university.

Now I find myself in a village of only 5000 people, and the nearest university is a half-hour away. Decidedly Mennonite community. No tech at all. More of a tourist/antiques type of place. There are a number of small facilities that could work well with a bit of work. But I have a few questions.

Doesn’t the money need to come first – to buy the place and prep it – before I can promote it to the greater community? How would a potential mortgage lender view a business plan of this type? Can I get some small piece fo real estate in a local business, like Red Gate did? With lunch? Would people be willing to relocate in order to work in my village? Are there enough suburban commuters from the local cities to draw from that would be interested in (1) starting a low-capital-investment or software/web-based business, and (2) willing to do it from my incubator location? Is there enough geeky infrastructure in the community to support these kind of people?