Money is an Addiction

My name is Kenton and I’m addicted to money.

I know that sounds silly. Even sillier now that I’ve written it. It’s like saying I’m addicted to air or water. I need money to survive today. To pay my mortgage, buy my food, put gas in my car so I can get to work. It’s not so much an addiction as a necessity.

Sometime things we need pass turn unhealthy. I need food to survive, but an obsession with food can lead to obesity and other health problems. It can become unhealthy. And the same with money.

Once I spent a family vacation to Australia working on a report. Why did I not go to the beach with my kids, forging lasting memories, and instead sit in the hotel researching and writing? Because the report would pay $10,000 and I wanted the money.

When I don’t have money, I wake up in the middle of the night wounding where the next check will come from, like a junky jonseing for his next hit. I’m distracted during the day, thinking about money.

And when I have money, I’m worrying about getting more money. Or how long this money will last. In the case of the later, I’m rationing out the dollars, making it stretch until the next cash infusion comes. It’s really pathetic.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. So I’m admitting it.

The next step is surrender to a higher power.

I’ve been out on my own for over six years. In that time I have learned one very important lesson. If you put in the effort, things will work out. Despite all my worrying about money, we’ve always made the mortgage payment and put food on the table. That happened because I took real steps to ensure income would be coming in. The worrying did nothing productive.

Even when things look bleak, there is always an option. When my mortgage was coming due for renewal, I was really worried. But then I found a bank that would give me a better interest rate AND a few thousand dollars cash back. I put in the effort and it worked out in the end better than I imagined.

So I’m going to try to break the addiction. Stop worrying about money and spend that time doing the things I want to with my family. I’ll let you know how that works out.

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Sometimes You Need a Break

Sometimes you just need a break. Have a coffee with a co-worker. Take a walk during lunch. Spend a week on a beach. I’m sure there are psychological and physiological reasons for this. I don’t know. It just seems part of the human condition that we need to take time off from what we are doing. Recharge our batteries and passion.

I know it’s time to take a break when the quality of my work suffers. If I’ve made the same stupid syntax error eight times in a row, it’s time for a break from coding. If I’m stumbling over my well rehearsed pitch, it’s time to take a break from meetings. Sometimes I even need breaks from activities I do to unwind!

The great thing about taking breaks, is that when the break is over I’m refreshed. My work quality increases. I can give the activity 100% again.

Sometimes you just need a break.

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Choose One Thing to Excel At

Odds are I’m average.

Some things that I’m average at don’t bother me. I’m average height, for instance. Never woke up in a cold sweat thinking I need to grow an extra few inches. I’m an average driver — I’m OK admitting that. I type at an average speed. Look, it gets the job done. These things I’m quite content being average at.

Some things I work hard at being average. I eat well and exercise regularly so I can stay an average weight for my height. Golfers work hard to shoot par (read average) on the course. I practice, practice, practice — read books and articles — to try to be what I would consider an average coder. That takes a lot of work since there are so many people out there working hard to be great coders. It’s like I’m running to stand still.

So yeah, I’m pretty mediocre. In most things.

What makes me different is that I pick one or two things to really excel at. The rest I’m ok being just so-so. I don’t try to excel at everything. Just one or two things that are important to me.

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he challenged the company to pick four products that they would focus on. Four things that they would do insanely great. All the rest didn’t matter.

What are the handful of things you will choose to be insanely great at?

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Minimum Viable Product-Sheet

When I designed laser chips for optical networks, we always had a general specification to work from. Being young, I imagined that these product sheets were dreamed up my geniuses with crystal balls. Turns out they were written by product managers.

How did the product manage come up with the specs? They talked to our customers. They asked about their problems. They came back to the mother ship and asked us, the designers, what could be done. They then went back to the customer with some trial specs. The customer would take that backs to their designers for feedback. This would continue until there existed a product sheet that we thought we could build and the customer thought would be useful.

Now this wasn’t work for hire. This wasn’t a contract to produce ten thousand parts. This was simply an understanding that “if we could produce this produce it might be useful enough that our customer would buy it.” A minimum viable product sheet.

Starting my new company, we didn’t start with a fully built product. Or even a web site. We started with a PDF listing bullet points we thought might be useful to our potential customers. We got them on the phone, we asked them to review the bullet points. We iterated until we had a list that people were saying “yeah, that would be useful.” Then we started building.

I’m not going to say that this is revolutionary or that it pertains to startups or software. After all, it is exactly when we were doing in a 100 year old manufacturing company. I think that in software in general, and web in particular, we skip the minimum viable product sheet and go straight to the minimum viable product. Perhaps if we slowed down, started with the product sheet first, our products might just be that much more awesome!

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Coming Out of Hibernation

I feel like I’m coming out of hibernation. The past year and a half I’ve been heads down building and iterating on product. All I’ve had time for has been family and building. One of my strengths is that I can focus for long periods of time on projects without the need to go out, socialize, network or any of those types of distractions.

But now it’s built. And I have time again to do the local things I know I should do. And this is a great week to start coming out to events in Ottawa. Tonight is DemoCamp. Tomorrow is StartupDrinks. It’s going to feel good getting out and reconnecting with people. Catching up after 18 months of being holed up in my den. If you are in Ottawa, please come up and say hi. Hope to see you there!

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Your Family is Also Your Startup

When I was younger, I viewed my startups as a family. The long hours, experiencing success and failure together, forged a strong bond among the team.

That bond took work to build. It didn’t just happen. As founder, I would plan parties and weekend events for us to do as a team. During crunch time, I would buy pizza for the crew and stay with them even if I wasn’t directly involved. It’s what you do to build a strong team and it takes effort.

Now I’m older and have family of my own (3 kids, loving wife, annoying dog). Balancing family and a startup is hard. It’s easy let the startup come first. You find yourself justifying your priority in some form of “my family loves me and will understand.” When I did that, my wife almost left me. I missed out on my son’s first year.

My family is my second startup. Actually it is my first startup — my business is my second startup. Just as building a great team takes effort, so too does building a great family. Your family deserves to be treated as such.

As a founder, you would never show up to work two hours late every day. It sets the wrong example and sends the message that this endeavor isn’t very important. Show the same respect for your family life. If you are meant to come home at 6pm then don’t show up hours later because work was more important.

And just like you observe proper meeting etiquette — don’t check email, don’t take phone calls, or allow your self to become distracted — give the same respect to family time and events. Dinner time and family outings are just like meetings at the office, only they are with your home team.

Now I’m not perfect. There are some nights I miss my kid’s bedtime because I couldn’t pull myself away from a coding problem. That’s as lazy and undisciplined as sleeping in late on a Monday. And my kids still have to remind me “no cell phone at the dinner table Daddy!” When that happens, I feel the same shame as if meeting chair asked me us turn my phone off.

I’m now giving my family the same importance as my startup. I try to apply the same discipline at home as I do at the office. Yes it’s hard, but I’m seeing a marked improvement in the quality of my home and work life.

Doesn’t your family deserve to have the same attention as your startup?

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We Raised Too Much Money

A couple of years after closing Distil, I was having coffee with Maxx. Maxx had made the first investment in Distil. Much of our conversation was rehashing old war stories.

Then he said “the problem was we gave you too much money.” Now this statement didn’t shock me as much as you might expect. Robert, my CEO for the later half Distil, and I had also done a postmortem and reached the similar conclusion.

But it was really weird having the person who actually gave me that money telling me he had given me too much. I had always assumed VCs and investors knew what they were doing. That they possessed some magical way to divine just what a startup needed to succeed. And here was one of those magicians telling me he had gotten it wrong, that he had made a mistake and at least partially felt some blame.

Maxx no longer worked for GrowthWorks. Following the financial collapse of 2008, the seed fund he was managing had been closed and he had moved on to greener (non-VC) pastures. So we were both free to discuss how we really felt about startups and venture capital.

So what did it really mean that we had raised too much capital? First we had funded Distil for growth. Our analysis, from different perspectives, led us to the same conclusion — that game based learning would be big. The winner in the space would be the company that could scale quickest.

Obviously in hindsight our analysis had been wrong. How did two arguable intelligent people come to the same wrong conclusion? I had based my analysis on the feedback we had from two large customers we had closed. Yes, two is a ridiculously small number, but these were very respected international organizations. They were telling us how big they thought this market would be, and I was basing my analysis on their figures.

But the VC should have a different set of figures, right? Maxx had made several phone calls to prominent analysts in the eLearning space. Many of these experts felt that what was holding game based learning back was assessing the learning. This was Distil’s core, patented, technology. From his perspective it looked like we had cracked and protected the key element preventing the wider adoption of game based learning.

So that’s the why. But what would we have done differently?

We both agreed things would have been better with less money. Having the funds to scale (even having only closed two customers) we spent and grew much faster than the market (see Building a Startup v. Building a Business for more information). With less money we would have been forced to focus on the most immediate concerns, rather than building for future problems. Having too much money we couldn’t resist the temptation to grow quickly.

It was good talking this through with Maxx. Together we learned quite a bit. With my new company I’m bootstrapping for as long it makes sense. Not because I can’t raise funds, don’t know investors, or am lazy. Because having too much money is a disastrous as not having enough.

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