Taking Time to Reflect

Do you ever feel you need to pause and reflect?

In a world where we are always asking ourselves “what’s next?” I think it can be equally, if not more, important to look back and ask, “how did that go?”.

At work, we run retrospective sessions regularly with our teams to allow us to reflect on the previous week. We share what went well and how we could improve. I find this such a powerful practice, but it’s only recently I’ve begun to embrace retrospectives more personally.

It started with journaling more regularly. I write about experiences or situations I found challenging, and this has helped me understand myself better. Now, I want to extend the retrospective practice to reflect on the activities I do such as, work, fitness and now blogging.

Which brings me to the purpose of this post. I’ve decided to take a two-week break from writing here. Mainly because I’m taking an overdue holiday, but also to reflect on the experience of writing.

I think these moments to pause for reflection are vital to improving. I’m looking forward to looking back and how it will inform what comes next!

5 Lessons I Learnt From My Failed Startup

BitMate was a web application that helped developers start new projects faster. Was, is the keyword in this sentence. I founded BitMate in August 2016, but nine months later, I was closing it down.

Here are the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned through my experience as a founder. If you are thinking about starting a company or at the beginning of your journey, I hope this post helps you avoid making the same mistakes I did.

Start for the Right Reasons

In 2016 I wasn’t happy. I was working with a great group of people, but I found my work uninspiring and unfulfilling. I was frustrated at my lack of opportunities, and I was facing challenges in my relationships outside work too. I felt like I needed a clean break, a new challenge and starting a company in a new country seemed like it would be the answer.

I took the leap, left my job, moved myself to New York and started BitMate. Those first few months were exciting and full of promise as I set out to fix all the problems I was facing in my life with one cleverly designed solution. But as the reality of my new challenges began to sink in, my problems began to magnify.

Looking back on that time now, I realise I was nieve. I wasn’t passionate about the reasons for starting BitMate or the problems my potential customers had. I was looking for a way out of the challenges in my life at the time.

Moral of the Story: Starting a company is hard, and the chances of failure are high. It’s unlikely it’s going to pay off in the short term, so I think it’s vital to fall in love with the process, not the reward. If you love the process, the rewards will probably look after themselves.

Don’t Assume Your Customers Are like You

The idea for BitMate came from my own experiences, working as a developer building proof of concept applications to help companies validate product ideas. I needed to start projects quickly and didn’t want to build similar functionality from scratch every time.

While working on projects, I started writing scripts to generate code and speed up my work. Gradually these scripts got more and more complex until I could build the base framework for new projects in seconds.

I showed what I had built to some of my teammates and got some positive feedback. I thought what I had created could help other developers reduce their workload as I assumed they experienced the same problems as me. That turned out to be a big mistake!

Moral of the story: Don’t assume that your problems are the same as other peoples. Even if you find a few others with the same, that doesn’t mean there are enough people with that problem to start a business. I realised too late that most developers didn’t start new projects as often as I did so didn’t need BitMate.

Show Customers the Product, Quickly

Before starting BitMate, I had read The Lean Startup. I knew I needed to get my product in front of customers quickly so I could get their feedback. But when it came down to it, I was worried about showing potential customers a lousy product. I spent four months working on the product alone. I didn’t show anyone what I was building, and the scope kept creeping.

I know now that I was scared of negative feedback on my creation. It was more comfortable to build another feature, or improve the design than to find potential customers and risk them not liking my product.

The more I invested, the worse this problem got. I was committing the Sunk Cost Fallacy, avoiding showing people the product for fear I had wasted time, money and effort. I continued to invest with the crazy belief that the more effort I put in, the more likely customers would like it.

Moral of the story: Put your solution in the hands of potential customers early. I mean, really early. Ideally, before you’ve written any code, or invested any money. Talk to them about the solution, build a paper prototype, or try to sell your solution before it exists. Do anything you can to get validation before investing too much time and money.

Consider How the Product Scales

I never got the opportunity to see if BitMate would scale to thousands of customers, but I know it wouldn’t have been possible.

I thought BitMate’s customers had the same problems as me, which meant enabling them to start projects that combined lots of different options. However, when I finally began to talk to potential customers, I realised people wanted even more combinations than I thought. With every extra option, the complexity of the product grew exponentially.

By the time I closed BitMate, our product had become hugely complicated. We still only asked eight questions to customers when we built an application, but each question came with multiple choices. It meant BitMate could generate over 1,600 different variations and each of these had to be tested to ensure they worked every time we changed anything! At this point, adding one more question would have increased the possible variations exponentially to over 3,000!

BitMate could never have been a successful and sustainable product at scale. It only took simple maths to realise we would have drowned in technical complexity.

Moral of the story: Start with the end in mind. Begin by considering what success at scale means for you. It doesn’t have to be a billion-dollar exit or millions of customers. Instead, it might be a reliable income and more time to spend with your family. Either way, work out how much revenue and how many customers you think you need at scale. Consider what you’re company would look like, how many people work there, what the product would look like, and what you’re role will be at the company.

Building a good picture of where you want to go allows you to work backwards to avoid creating a company that cannot reach those goals or takes you somewhere you never wanted to be.

Build a Support Network

When I started BitMate, I turned my life upside down. I left my job, moved country and started a technical and business challenge more significant than I had attempted before. I had great support from my partner, family and friends, but if I’m honest, I was out of my depth.

As the months wore on the loneliness of my situation became very real. I was working alone, harder than I had before, but I wasn’t achieving what I had hoped. When I did see friends, I put on a brave face. I would say I was almost there, success was just around the corner, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

As this cycle continued, I could feel the effects on my mental and physical health. I was frustrated at myself for not being able to find a way to turn the impending failure into a success, and this undoubtedly put a strain on my relationships.

It took me a long time to realise that closing BitMate wasn’t a personal failure I couldn’t recover from but an opportunity to put my energy into something else. Since then, I have spoken to many other entrepreneurs who have experienced similar challenges, if only I could have spoken to them during the struggle.

Moral of the story: Starting a company can be a lonely experience. You will go through tough times and experience many failures. Family and friends can provide excellent support but be careful not to lean on them too much. They don’t want to live your startup journey aswell! Instead, try to build a support network of other entrepreneurs who understand what you’re going through. Attend meetups, go to conferences, and read about others experiences and consider getting a co-founder.

Lastly, remember to keep perspective. Struggling and failing can be emotionally stressful, but there is no shame in it. It’s essential to look after your physical and mental health through the journey so, even if this startup fails, you are ready for your next experience!

Starting a company is hard; eight out of ten new businesses fail in the first 18 months (I managed it in nine months!). Although we all want our ventures to be a success, I think you learn more from the failures than you do from the successes.

I have no regrets from my time running BitMate. I learned more about myself, how to create a product, and how to run a company in those nine short months than I had in the previous few years.

I hope by sharing my experiences, I don’t discourage you from starting you’re own company, but instead, inspire you. Just by reading this, you are better equipped to start than I was as you can try and avoid the mistakes I already made!

And even if you do start and fail, don’t be put you off. Welcome the experience because it’s setting you up with deeper insight, more conviction and better odds for the success next time.

Good Luck! 

The 5 Stages of Productivity

Productivity is a measure of output over time. All other things being equal, the more you produce per hour, the more productive you are. There are lots of ways to increase productivity, but I believe all increases in productivity fall into one of these five stages.

The First Stage: This is the simplest, get better at the task you have to do. Work harder and develop your skills.

The Second Stage: Find people who are cheaper than you to do tasks for you. People working together should be able to get more done, faster.

The Third Stage: Invest in tools that can boost the team’s output. For example, buying a digger for a team that previously dug trenches with shovels would significantly increase their output.

The Fourth Stage: Invent in new technology. Creating new technological innovations is how considerable leaps in productivity occur. Often these leaps enable huge savings or massive increases in customer value creation.

The Fifth Stage: This is a step that most of us never reach: At this stage, you need to figure out better things to work on. At this point, you can’t achieve more by working harder, smarter or finding more people. You can no longer react to demands. Now you must go your own way.

The fifth step is where the real productivity improvements occur. Saying no to somebody else’s demands and finding another way to achieve the goal. This is what separates great organisations from good ones, extraordinary people from frustrated ones.

Ask More Questions

Today I was told a great consulting proposal should be made up of 70% questions and 30% answers. While it’s a rough guide, it’s surprising. Writing a proposal is a response to a set of problems you have been tasked with solving, yet this suggests questions are equally, if not more, valuable than answers.

Often we think we must have the answers to be credible, but it’s not a realistic expectation. Knowing what the right questions to ask is a long term career, mostly because nobody knows the correct answer to every question.

Mental Calluses

“You have to build calluses on your brain just like how you build calluses on your hands. Callus your mind through pain and suffering.”

David Goggins

When I first started kayaking seriously, I would rarely finish a session without having sore hands. The friction between my hands and the paddle would build up until it rubbed the skin away, leaving painful sores. Other kayakers would try different techniques to prevent this, but I found the only thing that worked was to let my hands harden naturally.

Over time, calluses built up, protecting my hands and enabling me to paddle without any pain. However, as I pushed myself to paddle longer distances, my hands would become sore again. Each time I tried to go further, it took time for the calluses to become stronger and enable me to go further and further.

But pushing myself to go further didn’t just put calluses on my hands. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also putting calluses on my mind.

It was through kayaking that I learned how the brain tries to protect the body. Whenever I pushed myself to kayak further, it pushed my body into discomfort. In these moments, my mind would try to use every trick in the book to get me to stop, to prevent me from stepping too far outside my comfort zone.

Sometimes, I successfully ignored my brains complaints and pushed on. The more often I did this, the less my mind complained and the better I got at ignoring its complaints. By pushing through when I most wanted to quit, I was building calluses on my mind.

I read once that the average person thinks 2,000 – 3,000 thoughts per hour. With so much going on in our minds, doubts are inevitably going to crop up unless we learn to control our thoughts.

I’ve personally found physical training provides the best environment to learn how to manage your thoughts. However, there are many other ways to put calluses on your mind. Any activity where you can regularly seek out situations that push you outside your comfort zone will work. Then when you most want to quit, you must push on.

You should start with a small step into the unknown to prove to yourself you are capable of overcoming what you thought you could not. Then it’s time to knuckle down and tackle the source of your more significant fears head-on.

Every time you take a step forward when your mind is telling you to stop will make your brain stronger, ready to take on your next challenge.

Good luck!

The Accelerating Pace of Change

The world is changing at a faster and faster rate. It’s not our perception; it’s a genuine phenomenon that is explained by the networking principles that form the basis of our social systems.

The pace of life systematically increases with population size: ideas spread faster, businesses are born and die more often, and economies continue to grow. This increase in pace follows the Geoffrey Wests 15% rule, which states that if the population doubles then the pace of life will increase by 15%.

Sustaining this growth requires the time between innovations to get shorter and shorter. Significant changes and paradigm-shifting discoveries must happen at an ever-accelerating pace. The general pace of life is quickening but also that rate at which companies must innovate is getting faster and faster!

To see this in action, we only need to look to history. It took humans over a thousand years to move from the Stone Age to the Iron Age but less than thirty years to move from the “Computer Age” to the “Digital Age”.

You can see this same acceleration in the developments of human consciousness. Frederic Leroux’s work defining five stages of social consciousness development demonstrated how the time it takes for societies to shift phase is decreasing.

All of this means that although time isn’t getting faster, the pace of change is speeding up relative to it, driven by the forces of social interaction. It’s the reason we feel life is getting faster and also why companies must find new ways to develop innovations at a faster rate than ever before.

Whole Selves

Workplaces have traditionally encouraged people to show up with their “professional” self and to check all other parts of themselves at the door. This strange personality separation can lead us to some pretty bizarre behaviours.

We sometimes forget that our actions at work can have a profound impact on others lives outside of work. And equally, peoples lives outside of work can severely impact their time at work.

We need to create workplaces where people can bring their whole selves, and we understand how our actions impact people holistically. Opening our organisations to wholeness is how we can develop tighter bonds and help each other achieve our true goals.