On choosing work in times of deep change

We live in strange times.

I’m not sure how it compares to the intensity of other eras, but it seems significant when looking at a longer timeline.

My grandmother, for example, walked hundreds of miles to escape work camps during World War II, got on a boat to Israel that promptly sank, and somehow still made it through. And that’s an abridged version, with none of the suffering mentioned.

Syrian refugees have been facing the same kinds of problems for the last several months. But we can’t seem to do much about it because we’re angry, upset, or grief stricken for what feels like a minute or actually is only a minute. Then we either forget or become too overwhelmed to do much about the problem. 

Read More

Do free work on your own terms

Usually, I tell people not to do free work.

It’s especially important if you’re a programmer, designer, or writer and the value of your work isn’t as obvious as what someone might assign to a pair of new shoes. 

But that’s not entirely accurate. Some of the world’s best and most talented creatives do free work, and quite regularly. Free work can be a good way to stretch, to try something new, to take a risk. 

Often, where the problems arise in free work are with people who don’t understand or care about what matters to a creative. 

This is best summed up in a tongue in cheek price list that graphic designers share every now and then. Basically, if you’re doing free or low pay work, you’d better also have the creative freedom and opportunity to experiment with it. 

Someone that doesn’t understand this balance isn’t likely to appreciate your best work, either. 

In other words: it’s ok to do free work, as long as it’s on your terms. 

Doing the work is more important than celebrating entrepreneurship

There’s a great phrase that a friend of mine from Boulder uses often. 

She calls it “doing the work.”

It’s one of those things that seems obvious, but isn’t well understood by startups or founders. 

Sometimes that’s because of ego and/or too high a degree of self-awareness, and sometimes it’s simply because “doing the work” can be a slow, painful process without much worth celebrating. 

Doing the work isn’t about appearances, it’s about the value actually delivered or created. 

Read More

A strong culture isn't about what happens when things go well

Startups and corporates both constantly preach about the importance of culture.

It's something that's supposed to attract and keep the hardest working and most talented folks, and people who lead teams or found companies like to brag about how good their culture is, and how much everyone likes working there.

But good, deeply creative culture has nothing to do with sodas in a fridge, ping pong tables, bonuses, awards, or praising people.

Read More

The power of looking for patterns that don't match

Pattern matching at it's most basic is about finding things that seem to fit together. 

In venture capital that often means looking at startups and interpreting what works well, or what makes a good entrepreneur. There are plenty of problems with the method - Chris Dixon wrote about a few of them in 2012, and there is significant research that suggests that pattern matching through things like gender and race may unconsciously lead to much narrower ideas of what works, and poorer outcomes for picking winners.

But one of the things that's not dug out as often is that looking for patterns that don't match is a valuable skill. Another way of thinking about it is: everyone wants to know what makes a winner, but not enough people want to know why something doesn't work, why a pattern you expected to fit, simply doesn't. As it turns out, those tend to be the underpinning to finding patterns that create growth in a company (and probably as an individual, too). 

For example, one of the most complex questions in an early stage business is: we've found something that works, but how do we know it will last? You can pattern match your way to more users or customers ("hey this works let's do more of it"), but unless you're paying attention to which patterns don't match, you'll likely get hit hard when a tactic doesn't work. There's a very small peek at that struggle in a recent update from Mike Wilner at Compass, which matches designers/developers to small business owners & entrepreneurs who need a smart, basic website.

Both sides of the coin are important. You have to be willing to seek things that don't make sense, because they can help you hedge against your own unconscious bias. And it increases your ability to see things at a much larger scale, instead of simply chasing things that fit what you've already run into.