Not Running A Marathon

2013/11/07 5 comments

Fortunately, life really is all about the journey. Now that I’ve had the experience of spending 6 months training for a marathon only to get injured 3 days before the race, I am finally able to grok this. While running a marathon had been one of my life-long goals, I earned something more valuable from the half-year of consistent training than I could possibly have gotten from demonstrating my progress in a 1-day event. Popular culture does a great job of emphasizing the impact of singular, heroic events. From an observer’s perspective, I don’t disagree. It’s exciting to watch Rocky Balboa, beaten close to death, find the inner courage to overcome a daunting opponent. That’s truly inspiring! But Rocky’s real battle was fought during his months of training prior to the event, a struggle that we only get to observe in the form of a joyfully-soundtracked montage.

For my birthday in March, I got a new pair of running shoes (thanks, Mom and Dad). I haven’t had a decent pair of running shoes…ever. I ran a half-marathon in 2011 with a pair of old, thin-soled crosstrainers that I convinced myself would qualify as “minimalist” shoes. In reality, they provided neither cushioning nor a consistent footbed, likely leading to the pains I felt after running back in 2011. So, after a year-long hiatus, I set a goal: run a marathon in 2013. I was by no means starting from couch-potato status (I play in an Ultimate Frisbee league and do some recreational road cycling / mountain biking with friends), but running was a unique challenge for me. I saw the value in the end goal, but the training process seemed…boring. My friends at Johns Run/Walk Shop had slipped me a 9-week training plan to go from scratch to 5k-ready, so I started with this smaller goal. It incorporated a very important step for me: walking. In my previous attempts to become a consistent runner, I always began my workouts with static stretches (apparently, that’s now considered a bad idea) and immediately after that I began to run. Walking always seemed like the 2nd-class motor skill for “those who cannot run.” Yet, placing my trust in a well-loved local running shop, I swallowed my pride and began my first few runs with the prescribed 5-minute walk. And it was incredible.

While walking got me started, it was a spreadsheet that kept me going. I learned a bit about reward loops from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. In this book, Duhigg discusses the challenge of turning Febreze from a novel chemical composition into a $1B+ brand for Proctor & Gamble. Initially, the product was targeted as a cleaning aid: when your stuff smells, use Febreze to fix it. Unfortunately, people whose stuff smelled didn’t actually notice that their stuff smelled, and sales were much slower than expected. However, many people have home cleaning routines: pick up stuff, make beds, dust, vacuum. P&G found out that if they inserted Febreze at the end of that routine as a celebration of a house-well-cleaned (not in the middle as a cleaning step), then people would buy and use Febreze more. While I probably smelled somewhat ripe after my morning runs, the reward that helped secure my habit was tracking a simple number that I invented: Workout Efficiency. When I run (or bike), I wear a Garmin GPS watch with heart rate monitor. This helps me to easily track two key stats: average speed and average heart rate. I then use these as the output and input values for my calculation of Workout Efficiency. As I progressed in my training, this efficiency number would consistently increase. If I took a week off, didn’t sleep enough, didn’t eat well, when it was particularly hot outside (or when I was injured), it would drop. The motivation of wanting to go to my spreadsheet to calculate this number after every run was a surprisingly large part of what kept me going. It turned out that seeing my efficiency number increase wasn’t even the most important part. It was just getting to enter the stats from a new run into the sheet. Creating this small reward was a key motivating factor in the success of my training.

It’s quite possible that I will never run a marathon, but setting that race as a goal engaged me in a worthwhile journey. I learned three lessons that will carry over to future journeys on which I embark: set a meaningful goal, start small, and keep track of your progress. If I had not chosen the significant challenge of running a marathon, I would have lacked the motivation to keep running when the training got boring or my life got busy. My mission kept me focused. Walking, as awkward as it felt, was the small step that helped me form and maintain my habit of running. And without the feedback loop (and reward mechanism) of tracking my pace and heart rate, I would have had no idea if I was getting closer to my goal or not. And these lessons are why I don’t feel bad about not running a marathon.

How To Buy A Bicycle

2013/09/02 Leave a comment

“Hey Nick! I hear you know a few things about bikes, and I’d like to get my own and start riding. Where do I even begin?”

Garrett checking out some bikes

I get this question a lot, and even spent a Startup Weekend working on an app to help people with it. It turns out, quite a few people rode a bike as a kid, and 10 or 20 years later, want to ride a bike again. But unlike buying a car, for which we have endless auto company commercials to educate us and sites like AutoTrader to help us sort through the thousands of listings, the process of buying a bicycle is not well-understood by most adults. Someday, we might get to finishing that project, but in the meantime, here are a few steps to get you started:

1. Envision yourself riding your future bike.

Where will you be riding? Who will you be with? What will you be wearing (ie work clothes or workout clothes)? How long will your rides be? Why will you be riding (commuting to work, recreation, racing, etc)? For bonus points, find stock photos or videos of other people doing the type of cycling you’d like to do.

2. Go to a local bike shop to look around and go for some test rides

I’m personally a fan of Pedal Power in Lexington. They’ll likely ask you to describe your answer to question #1. Bike shop people are super-knowledgeable about bikes (sometimes too knowledgeable), but they’re good at helping people find a quality ride. They don’t make most of their margins off bike sales, so turn off your salesperson aversion and just trust their advice. Please don’t showroom them. Their goal is to get you on a bike that’s a great fit for you, which helps build a relationship with you so you’ll come back for maintenance, accessories, etc. And yes, you will need to go back for those things.

3. Realize that a good, new starter bike will cost you $400-$800.

The things for sale at Walmart (and even Dick’s Sporting Goods) are “bicycle-shaped objects”. They cost less (up front) because they’re of a significantly lower quality, but will require maintenance sooner, and that maintenance will be more expensive in the long run. Another plus with a quality bike-store bike is that it will hold its value longer if you decide to sell it later.

4. Used bikes are great!

If you can’t find a new bike you like in your price range, high-quality used bikes are a solid choice. There are some hit-or-miss options on Craigslist, but Lexington (like many other communities) has The Broke Spoke community bike shop. They sell used bikes for usually less than $200, and the volunteer staff is super-helpful. The money earned from selling used bikes aides the shop in its mission to serve bicyclists who couldn’t otherwise afford bikes, parts, repairs, or training.

5. Accessorize.

Helmet is the only thing here that is a must, while all the others can be helpful depending on your answer to question 1. I usually budget an extra $100-200 for an assortment of the following:

  • helmet ($40)
  • bike lock ($30)
  • front and rear lights ($30)
  • water bottles ($10)
  • cycling shorts & jersey ($70)
  • fenders ($40)
  • cargo rack ($30) – to carry stuff on your bike
  • bike rack ($50) – to carry your bike on your car
  • “clipless” shoes and pedals ($120)

*Alternative option: BikesDirect – This is a good option for some people, but I only recommend it to people who know exactly what they’re looking for and have a restricted budget. Prices are low because the bikes are “off-brand”, factory-direct, and not well-adjusted to you, the rider. From my experience, most of the components (mechanical parts) on the bikes are of decent quality, and are much more maintainable than the aforementioned “bicycle-shaped objects”. Most bike purists won’t be happy that I included this, but for the sake of completeness, I don’t think I can leave it out.

I hope that helps, and if you have any other questions, just let me know!

-Nick

Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

2013/07/08 Leave a comment

Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz recounts a trip to the department store to buy a new pair of jeans, something he had not done in about a decade. The situation he encounters is different from what he recalls from his past: “All this choice made it possible for me to do better, but I felt worse. Why? I wrote a whole book to try to explain this to myself.”

He later concludes that an increase in choices meant an increase in expectations. When combined with his assertion that the best way to increase happiness is to decrease expectations, the abundance of choice paradoxically yielded a decrease in happiness.

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Living in the future

2013/07/06 Leave a comment

Sometimes, when I have difficulty relating to other people, I stop to wonder if it’s because I live in the future.

bttf

Steps forward
As I was leaving my office last night, I realized that I’m currently living at least a few years into the future. As I flipped the switches for the office lights, I watched our robotic vacuum cleaner meander around the carpeted floors. It may not have the personality of Rosie from the Jetsons, but our Roomba is a part of my daily life nonetheless. When I walked out the door, I wanted to listen to some music on the ride home, so I spoke to my cell phone to instruct it to launch Pandora and start playing some Daft Punk. Not only was the voice command process futuristic, but the music’s eclectic mix of old-school funk and modern electronica is filled with progressive undertones. I listened to a slightly dated Country music song last week, which professed that, “…these bills won’t pay themselves…”. This prompted my snarky internal reply that the songwriter must not have discovered the auto-billpay systems that have mostly automated my finances. As a member of the Quantified Self movement, I have collected more data on my diet, sleep patterns, and physical performance than did most Olympic athletes a generation ago. This provides me with early warning signs when I’m not getting enough sleep, when I’m eating too much sugar, and when my efficiency as a runner or cyclist increases as desired. Everywhere I go, there’s an internet connection, unless I choose to avoid it. With that connection, I can instantly communicate with any person I’ve ever met, on continents around the world, at a net cost of free. For my birthday next year, I’ll be asking for a personal genome assessment – which will cost $99.

Steps back
There are problems that we have yet to solve. Love vs Hatred. Self-Control vs Addiction. Disease. And there are whole new problems that we have created. The economy. Happiness vs GDP. Texting while driving. Obesity.

Caught in the middle: Anachronisms
The other day at a coffee shop, I watched an employee with a wireless biometric sensor on his wrist walking around the store doing a quality control inspection…on a clipboard. While I’m a huge fan of paper and pencil for creative tasks, it doesn’t seem to make sense for data collection that will eventually be digitized. At a meeting recently, an advisor of mine told me that her (technology) company still operates like it’s the 1980s, but her job is to bring her clients forward from the 1950s. It’s possible that my perspective as an early-adopter of new technology actually puts me at an empathetic disadvantage, especially when trying to sell technology products to enterprise customers.

A destination
What is our goal of technological progress? What are we working toward? I have some opinions on this, but there are a few concepts that I think we’re really struggling to deal with. The most prominent is abundance vs scarcity. Food technology has advanced to the point that we have more sustenance than we need to sustain ourselves. Now the Western world has crested the summit of hunger and is sliding down the slope of obesity. The same goes for our advances in information technology. We have no shortage of ways to communicate with each other, yet we waste this on cat pictures. The content of an Ivy League education is freely available on the web, yet the cost of attending public universities continues to rise. We’re at a transition where our skills of acquisition and storage are becoming less important than those of curation and discipline. Imposing a shift like this, so quickly and without the benefit of multi-generational transition time, yields a towering task.

Further reading
This post was only meant to be a stub. It was a brief mention of a few themes that I’d like to explore in a much longer form. If you’d like to follow along as I begin writing my first book, check out this Google Doc. It’s entirely possible that this will end up not as a novel (as I intend), but as a short story (acceptable), or just an abandoned document (most likely).

On the importance of asking questions

2013/05/27 1 comment

After a few years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that all business relies on the same simple principle: sell something for more than it costs you to produce. Along this line, I may have distilled the pair of necessary activities that any entrepreneur must master: know what you want, and ask for it.

Last year, I had the privilege of attending a special session of the Alltech Symposium, geared toward entrepreneurs. During this session, Jim Host and Pearse Lyons (two members of the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame) shared the journeys that led them to launch and grow their successful companies (Host Communications and Alltech, respectively). During his talk, Dr. Lyons dropped a nugget of wisdom that resonated with me. “Ask questions.” Dr. Lyons recounted a story from his youth, about being the kid who always asked questions. He annoyed his parents by always asking, “Why?” He questioned the establishment, in asking his boarding school administrators if he and his classmates could clean up after the school’s bingo nights. While it was nice to score some Be Good Points, what he really wanted was to collect the leftover beverage cans and bottles, knowing that he could recycle them and pocket the deposits. Even on his first sale of feed products (which would become the basis for Alltech), he wasn’t afraid to ask his customer (who had almost backed out on the purchase) if he would like to double his order! From his talk, it seems like much of Dr. Lyons’ success has come from the simple fact that he was willing to ask for what he wanted.

So, if there is value in this skill (asking the right question, of the right person, at the right time), what are we doing to ensure that our children are developing this skill? Based on my experience…not enough. With the increased emphasis on standardized testing, we’re pushing kids to get better at answering questions, but not at formulating their own questions. This seemingly small shift actually requires a major change. Asking good questions requires creativity, a skill that we’ve not yet gotten good at measuring. I will concede that iit take a lot more effort than measuring whether the correct answer was provided for a given question. In the story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a society is seeking the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything“. They pose this challenge to the a powerful computer, Deep Thought, which after 7.5 million years of computation, (spoiler alert) spits out the answer “42”. While living on in geek infamy, the number 42 is mostly useless without knowing the question to which it is an answer. When prompted for the question, Deep Thought is not powerful enough to render it, but proposes that a more powerful computer, called “Earth”, be constructed to resolve the Ultimate Question.

While my friend Luke Murray was guest blogging for Virgin.com, he wrote a post about how Sir Richard Branson wasn’t afraid to ask big. The result: he bought an entire island for less than 1/10th of the listed price…just because he asked the owner if he would accept a smaller sum. While the process of learning “question-asking” may seem without precedent, there is actually an excellent structure provided by one of the greatest inventions of human history: The Scientific Method. This method provides a framework for formulating questions based on what someone wants to know. And while most people are terrible at asking questions, it is a skill that can be learned. Yet, knowing how to ask questions does not mean that the process of asking is easy. As musician Amanda Palmer points out, “Asking makes you vulnerable.”

How can you do this in your own life? My friend Evan became frustrated when a vendor was supposed to send him some printed graphics but was running late. As a result, he didn’t want to pay the shipping fees for their product. Rather than just being mad, complaining to friends, or posting bad reviews about the company, he asked the vendor a question: “Will you give me free shipping?” Surprising to Evan, their answer was yes. I am still early in my journey as an entrepreneur, but the times that I have succeeded when: I knew what I wanted, and asked for it.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to Steve Jobs.

Tactics for reducing decision fatigue

2013/01/19 6 comments

I’m starting an experiment in restructuring my life to reduce decision fatigue.

If you’re like me, and not very familiar with the concept of decision fatigue, it is well-outlined in a 2011 New York Times article. At its core, decision fatigue is the assumption that we possess a finite amount of willpower, and that we expend this willpower as we make decisions throughout a day. This can lead to unintended (and often undesirable) psychological effects, such as a selection bias towards leniency after lunch, suffered by judges and even greats like Paul Graham. Fortunately, there are factors that can abate this fatigue. As the lunchtime anecdote alludes to, one of these is glucose levels, which this study from the University of Kentucky shows even happens in animals. The factor on which I would like to focus, as part of my desire to design a simpler life, is reducing the number of decisions that I need to make each day.

After a very brief analysis of my daily routine, there are several obvious areas in which I expend my decision-making energy unnecessarily. These wastes include:

  • clothing
  • meals
  • meeting schedule
  • exercise routine
  • content consumption (reading books, watching movies)

With the goal of minimizing waste in decision-making energy throughout a day, one approach is to cluster all of these low-value, low-risk decisions into a particular time of my day, such the night before. I’ve experimented with this for a few days with my eating habits, by using MyFitnessPal not as a post-consumption recording device, but as a meal-planning tool. I have notice the following benefits:

  1. I feel less decision stress just before mealtimes because I’m just executing on an existing plan
  2. I’ve been able to better avoid temptations to stray from my intended diet, because I’m not making decisions in-the-moment (a low-glucose moment, at that)

While the are only preliminary observations, they’re sufficient to convince me to continue this experiment. A few ways to expand this include planning my wardrobe in weekly batches (perhaps, on Sunday evenings), or selecting in one session all the books I’m going to read throughout the year. I’d really like to experiment with ways to make this easier with retail shopping, but that topic is deserving of its own post.

What are some ways in which you can reduce decision fatigue in your life? I’m really curious to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Hat tip to @MarkWittman for sharing this concept with me.

Why “Startup Communities” is Even Bigger Than I Realized

2012/11/03 3 comments

After spending a few days hanging out with Brad Feld, I’ve come to the conclusion that Startup Communities is not simply a book targeted at the minority of the population who currently identify themselves as entrepreneurs. What Brad is working on is actually much bigger. My conclusion stems from the idea that he left ringing in my head following his visit to Kentucky: “Every city was once a startup.”

Book cover of Startup Communities by Brad Feld

Buy this book.

I spent most of this morning researching the history of the founding of my city, Lexington, Kentucky. As Brad discussed his thoughts about startup communities, he kept referring to the “natural resources” present in a community. In the early days of the geographic area that would come to be known as Kentucky, a few people made the conscious choice to settle here. While their decision was not fully informed (they did not yet have TripAdvisor to review all the possible places to settle on the North American continent), they did the best they could with the available information in the late 1700s. They actively chose the Bluegrass region for its fertile soil, access to fresh water, and moderate climate. For a startup agrarian community, these are key ingredients. For a startup technology community, the key ingredients are much less geophysical. They’re human. As codified in Brad’s book, these ingredients include leadership by entrepreneurs, a long-term growth perspective, an inclusive culture, and events that engage and connect all members of the community.

I spent most of last evening discussing the fertile nature of Lexington with my friends over drinks. We’ve come to realize that our city has an abundance of untapped human potential: a core of stable employers, a continuous influx of smart people, and a sufficient mix of risk-taking individuals. It’s also a really enjoyable place to live, with good food, plenty of shopping, modern electricity/water/internet infrastructure, a swath of housing options, and a variety of entertainment choices. Yesterday, as we partook in some of the excellent nightlife offerings, it might have been apropos that we began our evening in Henry Clay’s Public House. Prior to becoming a statesman on the national scale, Henry Clay was not only a successful lawyer, but also an agricultural entrepreneur. Next, we moved to Lexington Beer Works, a recent addition to Lexington’s bar scene, with a host of specialty and craft brews. It’s no accident that this location has become one of the staple hangouts for the tech and entrepreneur crowd. Among its group of founders are veterans of Lexmark, the city’s largest technology company. To conclude our evening, we grabbed a snack from Dogs for Cats, a sidewalk vendor so-named for selling specialty hot dogs to the local populace of UK Wildcat fans. We paid for this food through Square, closing the loop on our tech-startup-community-time-warp of an evening.

Brad Feld has an assertion that “we can create startup communities anywhere”. There are two ways to read into this. One perspective is that we can create communities of startups (ie local groupings of early-stage technology companies). The other is to redefine how we view the general concept of “community”, through the innovation-centric lens of startups. Our communities, whether they’re local or virtual, official or informal, are forever imperfect and constantly changing. Yet, a core piece of human nature is an affinity for other human beings. We join together as sports teams, volunteer groups, and book clubs. We can’t help but form communities. But what if we more consciously formed our communities? The innovation frameworks used by startups are applicable far beyond the creation of technology companies. What if governments a/b tested as effectively as Google? What if schools iterated as quickly as Skype? Essentially, startup methods enable human organizations to take advantage of biologically-inspired innovation processes. And biology is pretty good at innovation.

Brad Feld speaking at Awesome Inc in Lexington Kentucky

Brad discussing Startup Communities at Awesome Inc

Thus, my take-away from Brad’s visit is two-fold. On the surface, he provided excellent suggestions for building our community of technology company people (and reinforcement for some of the things we’re already doing well). Yet, perhaps more importantly, he reminded me that what we’re doing is much bigger. While companies focus on creating tangible products and delivering valuable services, the true end result is a more abstract thing known as a better life. The identities of some of the greatest innovators are often tied to their products, but the lasting impact that they have had is actually through the communities and lifestyles they created. Even in the case of Steve Jobs, it could be argued that, “Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.” John Gruber’s statement about Jobs includes a note about self-similar fractal design, a math reference that I’m sure Brad would enjoy. This distinction is important, so I’ll be explicit: the way we build our products, should be the way we build our companies, should be the way we build our cities, should be the way we build our world. Perhaps the Boulder startup community’s greatest creation isn’t Storage Technology Corporation ($4.1B acquisition), or TechStars (top accelerator program), but Boulder itself. By turning Boulder’s lessons into a book, Brad has articulated a new way for creating and re-creating our cities. That’s big.

If you’d like to experience the vision for Lexington that my co-founders and I share, I invite you to visit us at Awesome Inc. It’s our 6000-square-foot prototype of the future of this city.

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