Problems are Opportunities

I love problems. I see problems as opportunities. If a solution can be found, that’s great. If a solution can be devised, replicated, and sold, that’s a potential business.

Of course, there’s more to a successful business than that. Any number of problems can be solved, but not all solutions translate to viable business opportunities.

But it starts with an attitude of “problems as opportunities.” It’s not a common attitude. If you want to be an entrepreneur, however, it’s a must.

The Toxicity of Negativity

It’s tough, I know. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur. Feeling bipolar is what some say. Indeed.

That’s why it’s important to shed the negativity in your life. You have enough stress as it is, why add more? By negativity, I mean habits, places and people.

Bad habits can range from decreasing your physical health – like smoking & eating fast food – to decreasing your emotional health – like procrastinating & avoiding tough decisions.

Negative places are those that aren’t conductive to a productive lifestyle. If you work best in a cafe, get out of your house. If you work best with other people around, find a coworking office.

Negative people may be tougher to shed, but is just as important, if not more so. Emotions are viral; they can be transferred from body to body. Being around people who are cynical, pessimistic, anxious, etc, can actually make you feel similarly.

As an entrepreneur, your path will include man dips and slumps. You really don’t need anything else to add to those downswings. Shedding them will feel dropping a massive weight off your shoulders. Try it, and you’ll start feeling more positive and productive almost immediately.

First Day of Improv Classes

I just had my first day of improv classes. They are an attempt to push me outside my comfort zone (which they certainly are doing). They are also good for entrepreneurs.

One of the main lessons from this initial class was to be comfortable with mistakes. To celebrate them, even.

Our instructor noticed how some students were flinching when they were doing our exercises, like answering the Name Three Things game.

In this game, we all stand in a circle. The person to your left quickly asks you to name three things that… and the rest of the question is left to the asker’s imagination. Like, “name three things that are blue,” “name three things that taste sweet,” or “name three things that you can do on Fridays.”

Some students would flinch their answers. Meaning they would shrug or answer in a question. “Three things that are blue. The… sky, water, and Smurfs?”

This comes off as a lack of confidence. The instructor asked, “if Obama said, ‘I want to be the president of the United States?’ would you have any confidence in that statement?” Probably not.

So our class was deemed a No Flinching Zone.

The instructor has taught this class all around the world. In every class, she declares the same rule. Interestingly, when she held this class in Japan, the word “finch” was translated to “a facial apology.”

That’s exactly what a flinch is. A facial apology. You are apologizing for your answer as if it’s a mistake. Meanwhile, you could be absolutely correct. But you haven’t given yourself a chance to be correct. You’ve already apologized for being incorrect.

Since we are celebrating our mistakes, there should be no apologies or flinches. Especially not when you’re doing improv or talking about something subjective.

Entrepreneurs are Bipolar

happy and sad “What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?” asked the business class instructor.

“To me, it means being bipolar,” answered Kamael Sugrim, co-founder and president of the non-profit mPowering. (Her foundation aims to help the ultra poor through mobile technologies and applications.)

Incredulous, the instructor pressed her. “What do you mean?” Other students had said the usual things: tenacity, passion, ingenuity. But bipolar? What an odd answer.

“I mean one minute, I’m on top of the world. The next, I’m slumming it at the bottom,” she answered. “One minute, I’m schmoozing with funders who are writing me checks. The next, I’m freaking out about our expenses. One minute, I’m putting together a grand plan to help thousands of starving families around the world. The next, I’m wondering ‘what the hell am I doing thinking I can save all of these people?'”

Raise your hand if you’ve had similar thoughts.

Every entrepreneur I know has gone through periods of self-doubt. Adeo Ressi, founder & CEO of The Founder Institute and calls this “the dark place.” “It is fucking hard,” he added in his usual colorful manner while he spoke at The Founder Conference 2010. “It is a very, very dark time. Every entrepreneur goes through it. You will too.”

There are occasionally eternally optimistic entrepreneurs, sure. But the majority will have times of great difficulty, coupled with times of great success. It’s the entrepreneur roller coaster. Mania and depression, rising with good news and dropping with bad.

And that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Photo by: surlygirl

Improvised Entrepreneurship

As a business leader, you often have to make snap decisions while walking and chewing bubble gum. It’s not always easy, but it’s part of the job. Also, it’s a skill you can improve.

How? Take an improv class!

Yea, I know. You’re thinking, “I don’t want to be a comedian. Why should I take improv?”

Because improv isn’t just about comedy. It’s about being in the moment, trusting your gut, accepting mistakes, and moving forward. Sounds a lot like what you do, right?

Here are 10 principles of improv and how they map to entrepreneurship:

Principle 1: Be prepared & warm up
Before doing improv, participants train their minds to sharpen their awareness, enhance their listening skills, and be ready for anything. In business, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen next. So the best thing you can do is to sharpen your awareness, enhance your listening skills, and be ready for, well, anything.
Principle 2: Willingness
Improv participants have to be willing to mess up big time, look foolish, and move on. Whether you like it or not, you will mess up big time and look foolish too. Perhaps more often than not. You may have maxed out all your credit cards and spent months locked in your room, only to emerge with a load of debt and obscene body odor. The key is to be willing to accept this and move on. And to take a shower.
Principle 3: Stay in the moment
Improv is all about what is happening now, because that’s where life is happening. As an entrepreneur, you should still plan for the future, but be mindful of the present as well. Keep an eye on today’s finances, metrics, market, and customers, and trends. It is important to balance the future and the present, long-term strategy with short-term tactics.
Principle 4: Shut up and listen
Good improv participants are good listeners. They don’t think about what they’re going to say next. They listen to what has been said, then build off of it. The next time you talk to your customers, make sure you listen. Put your problem solving urges aside so you can process what they are saying.
Principle 5: Action beats inaction
“Don’t talk about doing it, do it.” Be a shark. Keep on moving. If you suddenly find yourself going the wrong way, turn. Move quickly and course correct quickly. If you’re debating between doing more data analysis and taking action, I can help end that debate: take action.
Principle 6: Be honest
Doing improv means learning not to censor or judge your own thoughts. Improv participants express themselves sincerely and genuinely. And authentically. Leaders who act this way tend to inspire others to follow them as well.
Principle 7: Let go of (your need to) control
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the courage to change that which I can, the serenity to accept that which I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a powerful principle, one that I use in business and in life. The serenity to accept that which you cannot control is the key here. If you cannot control sometime, like the economy, there is no benefit in worrying about it.
Principle 8: There are no mistakes
Beyond being willing to make mistakes is the belief that there are no mistakes – only actions that lead to positive results, or lessons to be learned (which in itself is a positive result). When you are creating a new company, every step you take will be teaching you a valuable lesson.
Principle 9: Trust
Improv is a team-based activity where trust for others is a requirement. Same goes for a business too. Trust yourself, your instinct, your impulses, and your choices. Trust your team, for they are helping you achieve the vision of your business.
Principle 10: Teamwork (row, row, row)
Speaking of teams, improv participants don’t just trust their teammates, they rely on them. This interdependence is what makes improv work. And yes, a business is no different. If you don’t depend on others, you’ll never be able to grow your business. Take the time to build a solid, dependable team, then trust them to help move the business forward.
Bonus Principle: “Yes, and…”
Ah yes, a bonus principle. This is a pervasive idea that weaves through all of the others. It “implies acceptance, but not acquiescence.” It is the opposite of “No, but…” To be a successful business leader, you will need a similar attitude. They are not problems in your way, but challenges to overcome. They are not mistakes that hurt, but lessons to learn.

Want to know more about improv? Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre is a classic. Start there.

If you would prefer hands-on training, sign up for a local improv class. It is not about being funny. It is about being comfortable enough with yourself to think on the spot. And that is a skill any entrepreneur needs.

Props to: Harry Max

A Scrappy Entrepreneur’s Free Business Cards

Being a scrappy entrepreneur means being financially efficient.

I saw an example of that when I met Joe Greenstein, the CEO & co-founder of Flixster. When he handed me his card, I noticed the design looked oddly familiar.

Then I flipped it around. On the back of the card were the words: “Business Cards are FREE at!” The design was one of Vistaprint’s business card design templates.

Yes. The CEO of Flixster, a company that has raised around $7M and acquired the movie reviews site Rotten Tomatoes from News Corp (NWSA), doesn’t spend money on business cards. Instead, he prints them for free with Vistaprint.

Why? Because he’s a scrappy and financially efficient entrepreneur.

(The rest of his team has official Flixster business cards though.)

Evan Williams, The Man Behind Digital Publishing

“Simplicity is powerful.”
– E. Williams

Evan Williams What a lucky duck. Evan Williams, I mean. He was at the front of two digital publishing revolutions: blogging and microblogging (and almost at podcasting).

The way he developed his businesses and products is fascinating, for entrepreneurs, product managers, and 21st century writers alike. Here are some highlights that I consider particularly notable. Much of what I’ve gathered is secondary research from various articles, interviews, Wikipedia, and the great book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

In 1999, Evan Williams co-founded the company Pyra Labs. Their aim was to create online project management software.

During this time, the term weblog (remember that?) arose as a log (a “web log”) of a person’s activities, much like a journal. Many website owners began publishing weblogs, though it was a relatively cumbersome process that required technical knowledge. A few, like Williams, decided to write a simple script that allowed themselves to publish their thoughts without having to FTP or SSH into their servers and write HTML each time.

Then Williams had a shot of insight. He integrated that simple script into Pyra as an internal feature called Stuff. Later, it was launched as Blogger. Although it wasn’t an overnight success, this simple script eventually grew much faster than the project management software of Pyra.

For you younger readers, it may be hard to believe that blogging once wasn’t commonplace. But there was a time where pundits and journalists wrestled with its value. “Why would anyone blog?” they asked. And more importantly, “Why would anyone read a stranger’s blog?”

For writers, this opened up a whole new field of opportunities. Here was an easy way to publish your stories, your thoughts, and even your photos to the whole wide world. No technical knowledge needed; anyone could do it. The transformation was incredible.

Then, despite raising half a million dollars, Pyra ran out of money in January 2001. All of its employees left. Williams remained to keep Blogger running, striking life-sustaining deals and developing Blogger Pro, until Google (GOOG) purchased them in February 2003.

At the heels of the blogging phenomenon was podcasting, the publishing of audio content. People could now publish their writings or photos on a blog, or words as a podcast. A whole new class of publishers arose as a result.

Seeing the next digital publishing trend, Williams left Google to co-found Odeo in 2005, a podcast publishing and aggregation platform. It was like Blogger, but for audio.

Podcasting didn’t take off as vibrantly as blogging, but it’s still a strong phenomenon. There is definitely a niche of consumers who enjoy creating and listening to podcasts.

During one fateful brainstorming session at Odeo, Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of an SMS group messaging service. A prototype was built soon thereafter, then publicly released as Twitter on July 2006. Another new publishing platform.

Williams and team spun off Twitter as a separate company in July 2007. As of this post, it appears they’ve raised around $160M. $5M of that came from a series A round, perhaps buoyed by Williams’ track record.

You can imagine the immediate reactions to such a service, however. “Why would anyone tweet?” Pundits and journalists asked. “Why would anyone read a stranger’s tweets?” I wonder if Williams appreciated the irony and enjoyed it as deja vu all over again.

Although many use Twitter as a marketing vehicle (as they do with blogs and podcasts too), countless others see it as a publishing platform. It’s even known officially as microblogging in the industry.

That’s how I primarily use it too. Within its 140-character constraint is the ability to create a whole new class of art. Whether it be haiku, imagery, short stories, or even novels, there’s a lot of creative potential in Twitter as a publishing platform for 21st century writers.

Being a writer has never been more exciting. New technologies keep on revolutionizing the field and enabling new classes of creators and artists. It is easier than ever to publish a story, a thought, a song, a photo, a video, or any piece of art to millions of people around the world.

Sure, there are still questions of quality (how do I know if this artist is worth following?) and discovery (how can my art be seen?), but the tools are there. The means of publishing are there. Anyone can use them.

I sometimes wonder if the next company that revolutionizes the digital publishing world will be another Williams company. I’m not an EV fanboy, but I envy how he’s been at the forefront of two digital publishing revolutions so far. Being someone who loves this field, I gotta say: What a lucky duck.