January 2013

Looking back and looking forward

January 1, 2013 - Categories: reflection

Have you ever felt unsure about whether you’re moving forward or where the time went? A friend called me up and asked for help on being able to see the progress in her life. I walked her through the process of doing a weekly review using a Google Docs document.

A weekly review is really simple. Write down the dates you’re talking about, and then write down what you did. Look at your calendar, e-mail, and to-do list for hints. Don’t worry about pinning things down to a specific day; just write down what you remember. Set yourself a reminder to do this again next week – it might be a calendar appointment, it might be an item on your to-do list. Lather, rinse, repeat.

When she got to the end of the things she remembered about last week, I asked her some questions about relationships and life, and we turned up quite a few more things to celebrate.

She was surprised by how long the list was. People do a lot, but it’s hard to remember what you’ve done. You make progress an inch at a time, and you don’t see the miles.

I can remember about a week back, and that only with the help of my notes. Any further back, and I know I’ll be missing important things. I write so that I can remember. Daily blog posts roll up into weekly reviews, which roll up into monthly and yearly reviews. I can tell you where the last ten years went: where I’ve gone forward, and where I’ve lost something along the way.

It’s good to celebrate the little wins, though, and that’s part of why a weekly review is so useful. We forget where life goes.

It’s also good to see the gaps, to come a little closer to what you really want. Writing down your ideas for the next period keeps you from forgetting. You can move away from the plan, especially if other opportunities come up, but the plan is a useful default.

Reviews are so useful that I do several yearly reviews, even though that can be a little confusing. The New Year holiday is a natural time to do an annual review, one synchronized with other people. My birthday is another review point. It’s useful to summarize life as a 28-year-old or 29-year-old. It helps people relate across the years. My experiment anniversary is February and my fiscal year ends in September; both are occasions for a mini-review. So I’m regularly looking at a sliding window of time, figuring out how far I’ve come and what I want to do with the next year. Sometimes this confuses me, but still, it’s handy to periodically check. (See my previous reviews.)

I also regularly look forward. When I analyzed the phrases I used on my blog in 2012, “I want to” and “so that I” were my top two phrases. I write about what I want to do. I mindmap and draw my ideas. This looking-ahead is part of my regular weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews. Thinking about the future pulls me forward so that I don’t get stuck in the past. It makes the present more vivid, more real.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions (or at least that’s what Wikipedia says he is). He looks towards the past and the future, and so do we.

See also:

Visual book review: Blue Ocean Strategy–W. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne

January 2, 2013 - Categories: visual-book-notes

Most business books focus on beating the competition. Blue Ocean Strategy (Harvard Business School Press, 2005) focuses on breaking out of red oceans of competition, creating new markets instead. Here are some ways to find alternative markets: alternative industries, strategic groups, buyers, complementary product and service offerings, functional/emotional appeal, time.

Click on the image for a larger version of the sketchnote.

20121228 Book - Blue Ocean Strategy

Feel free to share this! You can credit it as (c) 2012 Sacha Chua under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canadalicence.

Blue Ocean Strategy is a good book for established companies that are finding it challenging to differentiate themselves, but it’s also a good read for companies that are starting out and who are looking for their unique selling propositions (USPs).

I’m going to go over different business ideas, sketch red ocean / blue ocean strategies for each, and see about talking to lots of people in order to help validate the sketches. Looking forward to it!

Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book notes. Want me to sketchnote your event? Know of any interesting tech / business talks coming up? I’d love to hear from you!

Sketching twelve business ideas

January 3, 2013 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, planning, plans

In Running Lean, Ash Maurya recommends that you document your “Plan A”s – sketch out many possible businesses and business models so that you can rank them. I spent some time on January 1 sketching different business ideas, which I’ve shared on my experiment blog. Here they are as a quick gallery.

I’m planning to print these out, prioritize them, and figure out how to derisk the most promising ones. Do any of them stand out to you as particularly interesting?

See my sketchnotes of Running Lean for more tips from the book, or check out my experiment/business blog for other business-related thoughts.

Web app idea: Stamp mix calculator

January 3, 2013 - Categories: geek, idea

2013-01-03 11.05.45

I’ve resolved to send more paper letters. I also have an odd mix of stamps that I want to use up: some with Canada Post’s permanent postage, and various denominations throughout the years. There are different rates for domestic, US, and international letter mail. Naturally, I want to optimize my stamp use so that I use the minimum number of stamps and avoid exceeding the required stamp rate.

Some examples for the $1.80 international rate:

And lo, someone has actually built a stamp optimizer. Also, only one in Google Search? What do people call these things?

Next question: Has someone built a stamp optimizer that lets you keep track of your stamp inventory, maybe through bookmarkable parameters? It would be neat to be able to not have to enter in your particular mix of stamps each time. That might be overengineering this, though.

Who knows, I may sit down one day and code this just for fun. It totally fits the profile of the programming competitions we used to do in high school and university.

Imagining the next five years and planning 2013

January 4, 2013 - Categories: planning, plans

One of the assignments in the Rockstar Scribe course I’m taking through Alphachimp University (affiliate link) is to sketch where you want to be in five years. This is my sketch.

20121228 5 years vision

What does that mean for 2013?

Work: I’m focusing on business idea validation, sales, and marketing this year. It’ll mean scaling down my consulting income, but I think the opportunity cost will be worth it. To keep building other market-valued skills, I may still do a little web development – primarily for my own projects, but possibly for others as well.

Relationships: I’m focusing on spending time with W- and friends, especially through exercise and cooking. I’d also like to organize things more at home, and to learn more kitchen skills.

Life: Regular exercise supports my goals here as well, and so does organization and decluttering. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into Emacs for planning and organization, too.

Learn: I’ll research and go to interesting events to sketchnote. I’ll also keep an eye out for good books to review.

Share: I’ve sketched out an editorial outline of things I want to write about, which may help me write with more deliberation.

Scale: I’m documenting many of my ideas and processes in a public manual, and I’ll add more as I learn how to scale up.

Onward and upward!

Monthly review: December 2012

January 5, 2013 - Categories: monthly, review

Last monthly review, I wrote:

What might December look like? I want December to be a time to:

  • celebrate and share the things I’ve learned in the past year
  • lay the groundwork for more awesomeness in 2013
  • reach out to people and help them out

To help my consulting clients prepare for the transition and also to help me ease into other kinds of businesses, I’d arranged to take all of December off from my consulting engagement much like I’d taken September off. During my regular consulting months, I kept 1-2 days a week free to nudge these other businesses along, but I wanted to experiment with full-time focus on building other businesses such as this conference sketchnoting idea. I’d still be available by bat signal in case they needed urgent help or questions answered, and I promised to check in every so often.

You’d figure that having three extra days to work on my business combined with the typical holiday slow-down would leave me with empty space to fill. I got tons more done than I expected. I sketchnoted the Lean Startup Day conference livestream hosted at MaRS (professionally!), to much delight and retweeting. I came up with a company name, designed my own logo, registered the domain and created a website, and worked on my marketing and sales plans. There’s something about focus, steady progress, and momentum. Despite the holiday closure of many of the events I regularly go to, I sketched a lot anyway.

W- took some time off work during the holidays. He usually works really hard, so I decided not to waste the opportunity. I blocked off time around my existing appointments and asked my assistant to postpone other arrangements until after the holidays. We spent our time trying new recipes, organizing the house, building a habit of exercise, and getting ready for the next year. I’ve been going to krav maga self-defence and fitness classes once a week for more than a month now, and I’m ratcheting it up to twice a week.

One of the other things I experimented with in terms of time was to use my mornings for coding and a little writing. It felt great to sit down and tweak my Emacs configuration for extra productivity, add small improvements to my Quantified Awesome, or tinker around with WordPress on my websites and blogs. I saved the afternoon for meetings, planning, and drawing. I’ll be back to a 3-day consulting schedule in January and February, so I’ll need to see if I can find the same balance on Mondays and Fridays or whether business-related work will take up all my brainspace. If so, then I’ll know that from March onwards, I should focus on building a flexible business instead of taking on full-time contracts that may distract me from what I want to learn and do.

What could January look like? I’d like to:

Post index for the past two months, newest on top

Weekly review: Week ending January 4, 2013

January 5, 2013 - Categories: weekly

W- took this week off too, so I kept my workload light in order to spend time with him. He rewired the house so that our DSL connection would be more reliable. Yes, this is what my husband does for fun. ;) I pitched in with some iptables fiddling so that we can configure the DSL modem from behind the router instead of having to plug into the modem directly. It was fun geeking around again!

The New Year holiday was a good excuse to tidy things up, review the past, and plan the next steps. I sketched some ideas for life and business, and I’m looking forward to exploring them soon.

Blog posts

My favourite blog post this week was #9 (Imagining the next five years and planning 2013) because I liked the drawing I made for it, although #7 (sketching twelve business ideas) was a close runner-up.

  1. Weekly review: Week ending December 28, 2012
  2. Visual book review: Running Lean–Ash Maurya
  3. Stocking up on chicken stock stock stock
  4. Emacs Org: Display a subset of tasks by context
  5. Looking back and looking forward
  6. Visual book review: Blue Ocean Strategy–W. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne
  7. Sketching twelve business ideas
  8. Web app idea: Stamp mix calculator
  9. Imagining the next five years and planning 2013
  10. Monthly review: December 2012

Accomplished this week

CD: could probably delegate part of this; PD: partially delegated!

Plans for next week

Time review

Cooking: Warm lentil salad with sausages

January 6, 2013 - Categories: cooking, life

“Eat more healthily” is a popular New Year’s resolution. It’s on our list too – a push towards eating more vegetables and less meat, exploring more variety, and developing kitchen skills.

Last Monday’s new recipe: warm lentil salad with sausages, which I found while looking for warm salads to enjoy this winter. Lentils have become one of our kitchen staples. W- makes rice and lentils in the rice cooker for a simple, filling weekday or post-gym meal. I wanted to find other ways we could prepare lentils so that we could play around with different tastes. I looked for a non-dairy salad that I could put together mostly with ingredients we usually have around, and the warm lentil salad with sausages on Epicurious fit the bill.

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Ingredients:

How I did it (although you should probably check out the real instructions if you want to try this):

  1. In a medium saucepan (after having gone through several options from the cabinet), combine the water, lentils, and bay leaves, bring the water to a boil, and lower the heat to a simmer. Chop the other ingredients, checking the saucepan occasionally.
  2. In a 12” skillet, drizzle some oil and sauté the onions and garlic for about a minute. Add the carrots and celery. Cook until slightly softened. Realize you’ve forgotten to add Italian seasoning / thyme, salt, and pepper; season the vegetables, mix them up, and cook them until softer.
  3. Check on the lentils and salt them too.
  4. After a few more minutes, the lentils should be tender. Worry about overcooking the lentils. Drain them and pick out the bay leaves as you see them. Mix the lentils and vegetables in the saucepan.
  5. Contemplate whether to make this a vegetarian dish or to put in the sausages as well. Decide to go with the sausages. Look up how to roast sausages; put them in a 400F oven, turning them when you remember.
  6. In a small bowl, whisk apple cider vinegar (or red wine vinegar, if you have it), mustard (or Dijon mustard, if you have it), and salt and pepper. Add olive oil, whisking constantly, until it looks about right.
  7. Pour the dressing into the saucepan. Mix it in and taste it. Realize that it doesn’t quite taste sharp enough, so make up another batch of dressing and put that in too.
  8. Keep the lentils on low heat while waiting for the sausages to finish. Try it out before announcing the availability of dinner to others in the household.

I’m getting better at trying new recipes out. I can decide: I don’t have that, so let’s use this instead; hmm, this needs a little more bite; okay, this needs to be put on hold while I finish this. (Hooray for the Internet, though!)

My next steps in lentil awesomeness: buy lentils in bulk from Kensington Market or a good bulk food store, and experiment with growing them in our backyard. (Did you know that Canada is the world’s largest export producer of lentils, according to Wikipedia?) Buying lentils in bulk should work out cheaper than the fancy 500g organic lentil packages we get from The Sweet Potato. We’ve had fun growing peas and beans, so lentils might work out well in our garden too. Exciting!

Epicurious: Warm lentil salad with sausage

Emacs Org: Display projects with a few subtasks in the agenda view

January 7, 2013 - Categories: emacs

I wanted a view that showed projects with a few subtasks underneath them. That way, I could quickly scan my projects and make a little progress on each of them. Here’s a sample of the output showing a few of my projects:

Headlines with TAGS match: +PROJECT
Press `C-u r' to search again with new search string
  organizer:  Set up communication processes for Awesome Foundation Toronto
  organizer:  TODO Announce the next pitch night
  organizer:  TODO Follow up with the winner of the previous pitch night for any news to include in the updates

  organizer:  Tidy up the house so that I can find things quickly
  organizer:  TODO Inventory all the things in closets and boxes         :@home:
  organizer:  TODO Drop things off for donation                       :@errands:

  organizer:  Learn how to develop for Android devices

Here are the user-defined functions that set this up:

(defun sacha/org-agenda-project-agenda ()
  "Return the project headline and up to `sacha/org-agenda-limit-items' tasks."
  (save-excursion
    (let* ((marker (org-agenda-new-marker))
           (heading
            (org-agenda-format-item "" (org-get-heading) (org-get-category) nil))
           (org-agenda-restrict t)
           (org-agenda-restrict-begin (point))
           (org-agenda-restrict-end (org-end-of-subtree 'invisible))
           ;; Find the TODO items in this subtree
           (list (org-agenda-get-day-entries (buffer-file-name) (calendar-current-date) :todo)))
      (org-add-props heading
          (list 'face 'default
                'done-face 'org-agenda-done
                'undone-face 'default
                'mouse-face 'highlight
                'org-not-done-regexp org-not-done-regexp
                'org-todo-regexp org-todo-regexp
                'org-complex-heading-regexp org-complex-heading-regexp
                'help-echo
                (format "mouse-2 or RET jump to org file %s"
                        (abbreviate-file-name
                         (or (buffer-file-name (buffer-base-buffer))
                             (buffer-name (buffer-base-buffer))))))
        'org-marker marker
        'org-hd-marker marker
        'org-category (org-get-category)
        'type "tagsmatch")
      (concat heading "\n"
              (replace-regexp-in-string "^" "  "
                                        (org-agenda-finalize-entries list))))))

  (defun sacha/org-agenda-projects-and-tasks (match)
    "Show TODOs for all `org-agenda-files' headlines matching MATCH."
    (interactive "MString: ")
    (let ((todo-only nil))
      (if org-agenda-overriding-arguments
          (setq todo-only (car org-agenda-overriding-arguments)
                match (nth 1 org-agenda-overriding-arguments)))
      (let* ((org-tags-match-list-sublevels
              org-tags-match-list-sublevels)
             (completion-ignore-case t)
             rtn rtnall files file pos matcher
             buffer)
        (when (and (stringp match) (not (string-match "\\S-" match)))
          (setq match nil))
        (setq matcher (org-make-tags-matcher match)
              match (car matcher) matcher (cdr matcher))
        (catch 'exit
          (if org-agenda-sticky
              (setq org-agenda-buffer-name
                    (if (stringp match)
                        (format "*Org Agenda(%s:%s)*"
                                (or org-keys (or (and todo-only "M") "m")) match)
                      (format "*Org Agenda(%s)*" (or (and todo-only "M") "m")))))
          (org-agenda-prepare (concat "TAGS " match))
          (org-compile-prefix-format 'tags)
          (org-set-sorting-strategy 'tags)
          (setq org-agenda-query-string match)
          (setq org-agenda-redo-command
                (list 'org-tags-view `(quote ,todo-only)
                      (list 'if 'current-prefix-arg nil `(quote ,org-agenda-query-string))))
          (setq files (org-agenda-files nil 'ifmode)
                rtnall nil)
          (while (setq file (pop files))
            (catch 'nextfile
              (org-check-agenda-file file)
              (setq buffer (if (file-exists-p file)
                               (org-get-agenda-file-buffer file)
                             (error "No such file %s" file)))
              (if (not buffer)
                  ;; If file does not exist, error message to agenda
                  (setq rtn (list
                             (format "ORG-AGENDA-ERROR: No such org-file %s" file))
                        rtnall (append rtnall rtn))
                (with-current-buffer buffer
                  (unless (derived-mode-p 'org-mode)
                    (error "Agenda file %s is not in `org-mode'" file))
                  (save-excursion
                    (save-restriction
                      (if org-agenda-restrict
                          (narrow-to-region org-agenda-restrict-begin
                                            org-agenda-restrict-end)
                        (widen))
                      (setq rtn (org-scan-tags 'sacha/org-agenda-project-agenda matcher todo-only))
                      (setq rtnall (append rtnall rtn))))))))
          (if org-agenda-overriding-header
              (insert (org-add-props (copy-sequence org-agenda-overriding-header)
                          nil 'face 'org-agenda-structure) "\n")
            (insert "Headlines with TAGS match: ")
            (add-text-properties (point-min) (1- (point))
                                 (list 'face 'org-agenda-structure
                                       'short-heading
                                       (concat "Match: " match)))
            (setq pos (point))
            (insert match "\n")
            (add-text-properties pos (1- (point)) (list 'face 'org-warning))
            (setq pos (point))
            (unless org-agenda-multi
              (insert "Press `C-u r' to search again with new search string\n"))
            (add-text-properties pos (1- (point)) (list 'face 'org-agenda-structure)))
          (org-agenda-mark-header-line (point-min))
          (when rtnall
            (insert (mapconcat 'identity rtnall "\n") ""))
          (goto-char (point-min))
          (or org-agenda-multi (org-agenda-fit-window-to-buffer))
          (add-text-properties (point-min) (point-max)
                               `(org-agenda-type tags
                                                 org-last-args (,todo-only ,match)
                                                 org-redo-cmd ,org-agenda-redo-command
                                                 org-series-cmd ,org-cmd))
          (org-agenda-finalize)
          (setq buffer-read-only t)))))

… and the relevant snippet from my org-agenda-custom-commands:

(setq org-agenda-custom-commands 
      '(
        ;; ... other stuff goes here
        ("2" "List projects with tasks" sacha/org-agenda-projects-and-tasks
         "+PROJECT"
         ((sacha/org-agenda-limit-items 3)))
        ;; ... other stuff goes here
        ))

See this in context in my Emacs configuration.

Planning by the numbers: Checking the length of my runway

January 8, 2013 - Categories: finance

I’d been setting aside an “opportunity fund” ever since I started working at IBM. Last February, I embarked on the experiment for which that opportunity fund was earmarked: a 5-year adventure in learning how to build businesses, create value, and have fun. What can you do if you have a good foundation? What can you do with a long runway?

Periodically checking the status of this runway helps me make sure I have the space I think I do. I don’t want to have to cut my plans short. I’d rather adjust early and plan ahead. I’m treating business money as separate for now. I haven’t drawn any income from it, because I want to use that money to fund further growth within the business and build up its own opportunity fund.

It’s tough watching my savings account go down without putting anything back into it to top it up. Well, technically, the GIC ladder I set up replenishes my savings account on a regular basis, so I’m actually watching my GIC total go down. This is according to plan, but it’s still hard to think about, especially with major expenses such as travel on the horizon. Here the numbers are reassuring; plan the work, and work the plan.

I check how I’m doing every month. I’ve usually been near my projected monthly expenses, but November was higher because I started going to the krav maga gym that W- frequents as well. Even with the additional monthly expense and with travel budgeted for, I still have about 4.3 years of runway (pretty much right on track). I can dig into my long-term savings if necessary, so I have a bit of buffer.

It’s great to have eight years of financial data. I’ve been tracking my expenses in Ledger since 2005, when I moved to Canada for my master’s degree. I’m happy to see that I’ve been able to slash my net expenses to less than half of what they were the year before. Here’s a sparkline that shows how my expenses have changed over the past eight years: image My top expense categories this year were household contributions, miscellaneous cash expenses, pet care, eating out, and gifts. I wonder if I can get friends to shift towards dinner parties instead?

Psychologically, it might be a good idea to draw a small amount from my business in 2013 so that I can top up my savings and make a small investment in index funds. I want to make sure that I do this properly, so I may need to find an accountant who can help me figure out the dividends versus salary question for small amounts. (Probably dividends, based on my research…)

I might also manage the risk as I head into greater uncertainty and more learning. I can take on short writing, drawing, web development, or consulting projects, especially during gaps between conferences and events I’m interested in.

Still, so far so good, and it’s good to have the numbers to back it up!

Visual book review: The Art of Pricing: How to Find the Hidden Profits to Grow Your Business–Rafi Mohammed

January 9, 2013 - Categories: visual-book-notes

Setting a price for products and services seems like a black art. The Art of Pricing covers strategies that you can use to come up with differentiated prices, versioned products, or segment-based approaches.

Click on the image for a larger version of the sketchnote.

20121229 The Art of Pricing

The Art of Pricing has some tips for entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out the right price for their first product or service (see the value decoder on p99). It has more tips for business owners who have established a few profitable offerings and are trying to figure out how to tweak the levers for more profit or expanded markets.

Feel free to share this! You can credit it as (c) 2012 Sacha Chua under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada licence.

Sketchnote: ENT101 Lived It Lecture–Kunal Gupta, Polar Mobile

January 9, 2013 - Categories: sketchnotes

Update Jan 17, 2013: Added video!

I sketchnoted this live at the free MaRS Entrepreneurship 101 series (webcast and in-person session every Wednesday). Click on the image for a larger version of sketchnotes.

20130109 ENT101 Lived It Lecture - Kunal Gupta, Polar Mobile

Feel free to share this! You can credit it as (c) 2012 Sacha Chua under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada licence.

Here’s the video:

Lived it Lecture with Kunal Gupta of Polar Mobile ― Entrepreneurship 101 2012/13 from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Find more details on MaRS Discovery District’s blog. Check out my other ENT101 sketchnotes, or other sketchnotes and visual book notes!

(more…)

Business experience report: Amending my T2 corporate tax return

January 10, 2013 - Categories: business

I’m still figuring out how to calibrate my stress level when it comes to accounting and paperwork. While reconciling my business credit card statements, I realized that I had double-entered my September credit card charge from WIND Mobile. Correcting the mistake meant fixing last fiscal year’s corporate tax and sales tax returns. Digging into my records, I noticed that I was also missing a few months of bills from Fido, my previous cellphone provider. I’d forgotten to download the electronic statements before moving to WIND Mobile, and once that went through, I didn’t have access to the system. Meep!

“I am definitely not panicking,” I said. “No, sirree.” I took a deep breath and researched the process for amending a T2 corporate tax return. It involved sending a letter to my tax centre. The HST return was much easier to adjust: just change the numbers through the Canada Revenue Agency website. After updating my numbers in Quickbooks and TurboTax, I drafted a letter with the particulars. I hunted down the schedule form and the line items that needed to be changed.

Then I spent an hour working on avoiding the same problem in the future. I downloaded all the other statements I could get my hands on and setting up my routines so that I’d get a reminder to do this quarterly. I also added a checklist for when I’m closing accounts or moving to another company: remember to download statements!

The following morning, I called Fido to find out if I could get electronic copies of my bills. The agent told me that the electronic copies were deleted when my account was closed, but that I could request paper bills for $4 each. Since I probably wouldn’t be saving that much more by claiming it, I decided to remove the missing months from my tax claim.

Then I called the Canada Revenue Agency. The agent confirmed my understanding of the process for amending the T2 corporate tax return – send a letter with the items to change. In my case, I didn’t have to attach all the bills for the telephone; if they wanted additional documentation, they could ask. Yes, I could remit the payment beforehand in order to minimize interest. I told the agent that it probably came out to a difference of $30 or so. I asked, “Should I be majorly stressing out over this or minorly stressing out?”

The agent laughed and said, “It’s no big deal. Don’t worry.”

This is what I mean by calibrating my stress level. There are so many things I’m still figuring out. If I stress out too much, it’s expensive. (Get an accountant to chase all these little things down? That would probably cost more than the tax savings.) If I stress out too little, that can be expensive in terms of time and money and well-being too. Talking to people helps. I want to know what I should be paying attention to, and what can be sorted out later on.

The other thing I have to remember is that this doesn’t have to be that scary. The CRA reassessed my tax return for an extra $146, but they weren’t intimidating about it. I’m up front about the fact that I’m learning, but prospects and clients are cool with the experiment. The consequences of making mistakes are not as earth-shattering as my lizard-brain sometimes fears they are. As I learn to trust, I’ll be able to try things out more freely.

Learning from other people’s experiences helps a lot. I occasionally browse through small business forums and blogs for glimpses into other people’s adventures. I need more stories of uncertainty and starting out, I think. There’s this temptation to gloss over the rough spots, to present an image of smooth running.

I like hearing stories like how my parents carefully, carefully considered their equipment investments back when they were starting out their studio in the tight import-controlled environment of the Philippines in the 1980s. Do they buy this piece of equipment and risk that their capital gets tied up in something that lies unused if the jobs aren’t there? Do they pass on it, taking the risk that if they decide they do need it, it’ll no longer be available? I want stories of figuring things out.

Some people tell me that they like these business experience reports. If you like these experimental observations, can you recommend any other people that I should be reading too?

Reading old letters and relearning how to write

January 11, 2013 - Categories: friends, life, writing

image

a snippet from my 2006 annual letter

I’m tremendously lucky to have family and friends who humour me by writing letters. On several occasions, I’ve asked for letters as presents, and they’ve obliged: before my trip to Japan, before my trip to Canada, on various birthdays. Letters from my mom and dad sustained me through my bouts of homesickness, and letters from friends in far-off places have given me glimpses of other people’s lives.

I’ve kept almost all those letters in binders. I lugged that first small collection through Yokohama and Tokyo during my six-month internship there. Then back to the Philippines, then (bolstered with more letters and wishes from friends) tucked in one of the three suitcases that I brought to Canada, anxious and hopeful and ready to start my master’s degree. The long-distance relationship I was in grew, then dissipated. I kept the letters, although I didn’t look at them for a while. Through other relationships and friendships, more letters arrived.

I have many letters, but not all. I don’t have the ones from high school. I remember prolifically writing letters then, with a boyfriend who was also epistolarily-minded and who often slipped letters into my locker in addition to writing me e-mail. (We ran into Eudora’s per-message size limit, that’s how much we wrote.) I don’t have all the quickly-dashed-off greeting cards. I don’t have the letters I’ve sent. If I had thought about keeping a copy of my correspondence, it’s lost on forgotten hard disks, the way my private notes often become fragmented while my public blog survives.

It’s okay to have gaps in the record; I’m amazed that I have this history at all. My mom has a point when she urges me to print photos. The physical presence of an item nudges memory. A binder of letters can be rediscovered. A folder on a hard disk is easier to overlook. E-mail is not designed for printing, while a letter is written to stand by itself.

But a physical copy is limited to one place at a time. Whether the letters are in a binder in a basement cabinet or a box on a shelf above my desk, they’re still inaccessible unless I am there, unsearchable unless I flip through them. So I scanned in my collection over several hours during the New Year holidays – ringing in the new by celebrating the old, planning the way forward by remembering the path before.

Filed in Evernote, tagged by sender and by subject, these letters are reminders that people have taken time out of their day to share something. I’ve come a long way from home. I’ve gained much, but I’ve also lost some things along the way, and this might be one of those things I want to relearn. The rhythm of correspondence was broken for a while, and I’m curious: is it the shift towards Facebook, Twitter, and blogs? the cocooning effects of marriage? links made too tenuous by the dwindling of shared experiences? Or are these conversations that I can return to?

And other questions: Who was I that my friends took the time to write to me? What can I write to other people? What kind of a good friend was I then, and how do I build that again with those friends and with new ones?

I’m not precisely certain. I do know this: I remember in public because that’s the most reliable way that I can remember, but other people hold their stories closer to their heart. I have friends who are decidedly not on Facebook and who hardly have an online footprint. If I want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives, I need to ask. That could be why I’ve been having a hard time writing, the same way I prefer the indirection of blogging compared to the directness of e-mail. It seems presumptuous: “Please take the time to tell me about your life.” But the world is full of interesting people and I want to get to know them, so I can try.

imageI refilled my fountain pen and dusted off the prettiest stationery I could find, this Carta di Firenze set with a beautiful peacock-and-flowers pattern with powder-gold spots – another gift from my mom, to whom I wrote the first note. Then I wrote another note to a friend, and another, and another, and another, and another, until the creamy notepaper was used up. To make it easy to enjoy the pattern on the inside flap of the envelopes, I used stickers to seal the letters closed instead of sealing the flap all the way. Well, the letters may be mundane – I’m still re-learning how to write a letter – but at least the paper is pretty. I looked up the postage (it’s gone up quite a bit!), stuck on an assortment of stamps (another dusty collection I should get through), and put the letters in my bag. I tucked the surplus of envelopes into my newly-labeled “Envelopes” drawer, also quite full of the odds and ends of collections. (Why is it that there’s always this mismatch?) No more buying stationery until these cabinets are empty, and emptied in the best way possible.

Time to revisit books like A Woman of Independent Means (Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, not the no-nonsense financial guide by Gail Vaz-Oxlade), Daddy Long Legs, and Yours, Isaac Asimov. Can you recommend any good epistolary novels?

Do you write letters? E-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com and let’s swap mailing addresses. I can’t promise that I’ll write regularly, but I think it would be great to learn this again: the art of letter-writing, and the art of being the kind of friend who writes.

Weekly review: Week ending January 11, 2013

January 12, 2013 - Categories: weekly

It was an awesome week. I hit the ground running in my consulting engagement, coming up with a useful feature for the theme and learning more about analytics. I’ve also been working on learning more about sales. The sales script I drafted helped me a lot with a phone conversation, and I’ve been working on drawing and writing more pitches.

I’ve been working on exploring more of the vegetables and ingredients at the supermarket. This week, I prepared fennel and celery salad, and today I cooked quinoa for the first time. (Turns out to be yummy with dried fruits and nuts as some kind of breakfast.)

And I biked! Whee! Temperatures had been above zero for a number of days, and since there was no rain forecast, I biked to work on Thursday. The Martin Goodman trail I usually take to work turned out to be maintained and lit during winter (except for a small dark patch). Aside from a couple of snowbanks that I carefully walked my bike through, it was easy riding, and I made it in around the same time it normally takes in fall. The earliest I’d biked last year was February 21. If I can bike in January – and if I can slowly work my way up to biking in other weather conditions – that opens up lots of possibilities.

… and I’ve been going to krav maga and fitness classes with W-, so yay!

My calendar’s starting to fill up, but it’s a good sort of filling up. The year is off to a great start.

Blog posts

My favourite blog post from this week was #7 (Reading old letters and relearning how to write), because it felt good to explore that.

  1. Cooking: Warm lentil salad with sausages
  2. Emacs Org: Display projects with a few subtasks in the agenda view
  3. Planning by the numbers: Checking the length of my runway
  4. Visual book review: The Art of Pricing: How to Find the Hidden Profits to Grow Your Business–Rafi Mohammed
  5. Sketchnote: ENT101 Lived It Lecture–Kunal Gupta, Polar Mobile
  6. Business experience report: Amending my T2 corporate tax return
  7. Reading old letters and relearning how to write

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

The smugometer

January 13, 2013 - Categories: life

Wake up early? I feel smug. Survive an exercise class? Smug. Bike in winter? Smug. Try a new recipe (particularly a vegetable-focused one)? Smug. W- and I joke about smugness – a playful take on (self-)satisfaction, for me – as one of my key motivators.

This smugness is deliberate. I like celebrating the little wins. Habit changes are easier when they become part of your identity. The more I take these new habits into myself, the more I reframe myself as the kind of person who does these things habitually, the easier it becomes to maintain that behaviour. Smugness is part of that. It’s about telling yourself, “Aha! I am the sort of person who can make this change.”

Pat yourself on the back every so often. Cheer your own self on. That might make it easier. As long as you’re light-hearted about it and don’t actually become convinced of your own superiority, you should be all right. Then you can keep stretching yourself by inching your smugness threshold higher.

Emacs Org: Task-related keyboard shortcuts for the agenda

January 14, 2013 - Categories: emacs, org

I really love the way you can tweak Emacs’ keyboard shortcuts and functionality to fit the way you want to work. Here are three keyboard shortcuts I’ve added to my Org agenda to make it even easier to work with tasks.

x: Mark the current task as done. Same as typing t x, but somehow it feels like it has more oomph as a single-character shortcut.

X: Mark the current task as done and create a new task at the same level, taking advantage of the task template I’d previously created in org-capture-templates.

N: Create a new note or task at the current position.

Make it easy to mark a task as done

(defun sacha/org-agenda-done (&optional arg)
  "Mark current TODO as done.
This changes the line at point, all other lines in the agenda referring to
the same tree node, and the headline of the tree node in the Org-mode file."
  (interactive "P")
  (org-agenda-todo "DONE"))
;; Override the key definition for org-exit
(define-key org-agenda-mode-map "x" 'sacha/org-agenda-done)

Make it easy to mark a task as done and create a follow-up task

  (defun sacha/org-agenda-mark-done-and-add-followup ()
    "Mark the current TODO as done and add another task after it.
Creates it at the same level as the previous task, so it's better to use
this with to-do items than with projects or headings."
    (interactive)
    (org-agenda-todo "DONE")
    (org-agenda-switch-to)
    (org-capture 0 "t"))
;; Override the key definition
(define-key org-agenda-mode-map "X" 'sacha/org-agenda-mark-done-and-add-followup)

Capture something based on the agenda position

(defun sacha/org-agenda-new ()
  "Create a new note or task at the current agenda item.
Creates it at the same level as the previous task, so it's better to use
this with to-do items than with projects or headings."
  (interactive)
  (org-agenda-switch-to)
  (org-capture 0))
;; New key assignment
(define-key org-agenda-mode-map "N" 'sacha/org-agenda-new)

Check out my Emacs configuration for other ideas.

Sketchnote about mindmapping: Rock the Monkey: Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-based Learning–Chuck Frey

January 14, 2013 - Categories: sketchnotes

Learn more about mindmapping in this sketchnote of Chuck Frey’s Jan 14, 2013 webinar on Rock the Monkey: Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-based Learning. Click on the image for a larger version.

20130114 Rock the Monkey - Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-Based Learning - Chuck Frey

Feel free to share this! © 2013 Sacha Chua, http://sachachua.com (Creative Commons Attribution Licence)

Learn more about mindmapping on Chuck Frey’s blog, The Mindmapping Software Blog. You can also follow him on Twitter (@chuckfrey).

For more sketchnotes, see http://experivis.com/ and http://sachachua.com/blog/category/sketchnotes . Enjoy!

This post originally appeared on Experivis, the company I’m building around the idea of turning experiences into visuals.

Quantified Awesome: Taking inventory of stuff in closets and drawers

January 15, 2013 - Categories: organization, quantified

“Did I buy that aviator hat, or was I just thinking about it? Did I give it away?” “Have you seen my Twiddler one-handed keyboard?” “Now where did I put those markers…”

Sometimes I find it hard to remember where I’ve put stuff, or even if I bought the stuff in the first place. I think so carefully and so vividly about whether I want to buy some things that I can find it difficult to distinguish between memories of buying and using that thing versus my imagined tests of whether I would use it if I bought it.

It’s useful to know what stuff you have and where. It means not needing to buy things again. It means not wasting time turning the house upside down. It means being able to cut down on clutter instead of letting it invisibly pile up.

I’m no stranger to using external tools to get around the limitations of my brain. Since my Quantified Awesome dashboard includes some support for tracking stuff, I spent 45 minutes adding a bulk-entry interface and making sure it updated my main list.

image 

With my newly-improved stuff tracking system, I spent two hours taking inventory of various things stashed in drawers, tucked away in cabinets, and otherwise placed in forgettable locations. Along the way, I tossed out old business cards, miscellaneous electronics, and other clutter. I consolidated things so that there was one place for all the index card containers I had. I tallied a total of 207 items – not everything in the house, but a good start.

It turns out that I didn’t buy that aviator hat after all, or if I had, I donated it. I found the Twiddler keyboard in basement drawer #4. The markers were in my backpack.

Having answered those questions, I can rest – or at least, until another half-memory sends me searching.

Visual book review: Cool Time: A Hands-on Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time–Steve Prentice

January 16, 2013 - Categories: visual-book-notes

It can be difficult to get work done in an environment filled with interruptions. Cool Time: A Hands-on Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time (2005) offers many schedule-based tips on how to plan your day so that you have time to deal with interruptions as well as to focus on your real work. I like the emphasis it puts on managing people’s expectations and “conditioning” them to work with you better.

Here’s a sketchnote that summarizes the key points from the book. Click on the image to see a larger version.

20121230 Cool Time - A Hands-on Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time - Steve Prentice

Cool Time is a good book for people who work in an office and use calendar systems a lot (or would like to make better use of their calendars). Even if you work on your own, you might find it useful to adopt the “I-beam review” involving 15 minutes of planning before you start your day and 15 minutes after for processing. If your life is even more interrupt-driven, David Allen’s bestselling Getting Things Done (2012) book is an excellent read focusing more on managing your to-dos.

Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book notes for more business- and technology-related visual summaries!

Figuring out my guidelines for time

January 17, 2013 - Categories: decision

It’s tempting to estimate the value of the time I spend on various activities and to try to optimize this, especially if I start thinking about how many times I’ll repeat a routine or make the same decision.

Here’s a quick checklist I can use so that I can avoid going down the rabbit-hole of over-analysis (or at least, mostly avoid it):

This will help me remember the long game, where compounding interest can do something fascinating, and where it makes sense to avoid golden handcuffs of fixed or habitual costs – while investing in the things that do make a difference.

In which I do the same thing again and again

January 18, 2013 - Categories: business, learning

People ask me if sketchnoting is my passion. At the risk of losing business because we’ve bought into this myth that your work should be your all-consuming passion—no, actually, it isn’t. Or at least it isn’t my only passion, or even my strongest one.

What I’m really passionate about at this moment is learning. Sketchnotes are an excellent way for me to remember and share ideas. Bonus: I get to connect with speakers, authors, and fellow learners along the way. But the reason why I am focusing on building it as a business is because I want to learn more about marketing and sales. People tell me that my notes of conferences and events are awesome, so it makes sense to learn about marketing and sales in the process of selling something that people can appreciate and value. I sketched more than a dozen businesses I could be in, and this seems as good a place as any to start.

I’m curious about sketchnoting, but I’m even more curious about building businesses. I have a feeling that this must be weird. I think many programmers and artists shun business because it distracts from their work. I don’t see the business-work as all that different from the other things I enjoy – coding, drawing, cooking. I get to learn. I get to tweak. I get to hack. I get to debug. I get to play. I get anxious about accounting and paperwork, but even that is a learning sort of anxious.

People wonder how I can do so many different things. The truth is that it’s the same thing, again and again, and that’s what helps me learn. Find the unity of what you do and what you want to learn, and learning becomes easier.

It’s my dad’s 65th birthday today

January 21, 2013 - Categories: family, life

It’s my dad’s 65th birthday today. He’s having a party with sixty-five guests, and from the pictures that people were posting on Facebook, they were having a lot of fun. =)

I wish I could’ve been there. My dad is the sort of person who’s best in person. He has all these wild stories and projects. Besides, I think Skype makes him sad. I think Skype makes my mom sad too, but she puts up with it better, and so she tells me stories about what she and my dad have been up to.

Fortunately, my dad loves taking pictures, so I can catch glimpses of his life through Facebook. He writes well, too. You can hear his voice when he writes. And other people like telling stories about him and taking pictures with him, so it’s very easy to keep up with his adventures.

W- is at work and J- is at school. It’s a good thing I blocked off my calendar and left myself some space to breathe. I cuddled up with the cats and got through another bout of homesickness. Well, mostly. It’s hard to deal with this. I’m getting better at reminding myself why I’m here. We’re saving up for flights and some other major expenses that are coming up this year, so we can’t visit nearly as often as I’d want to. Even if money were no object, J- has to be in school, so W- needs to be here, so I want to be with him. It would be nice if our extended family were all in one city, but it is what it is. I could no sooner turn my back on this than turn my back on myself. The double-digits-below-zero weather isn’t helping my mood any, but the cold air turns out to be bracing and refreshing, so I might go out for a walk later.

My dad is awesome and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. I’m also looking forward to hearing about another year of grandfatherhood. Wonderful stories are ahead.

It’s traditional to make a wish around birthdays. Even if it’s not my birthday, I’m going to make a wish anyway. I have to figure out what I want to wish for, because otherwise this sort of distance is only going to get harder, not easier. I wish we can get better at celebrating life while being less distracted by the distance. That’s all the distance is – something that gets in the way while there are so many other good things to focus on. I have to work on that.

In the original version of the Little Mermaid, the potion that gave the mermaid legs also made her feel like she was walking on sharp swords. I’m lucky in that it doesn’t feel that way all the time. The trick is to keep dancing even when it does.

Anyway, it’s my dad’s 65th birthday. He and my mom show me that it’s possible to live an awesome life, and so I will too.

Weekly review: Week ending January 18, 2013

January 21, 2013 - Categories: weekly

There’s something I have to tweak about my schedule, because I think I’m getting further away from my ideal day instead of closer to it. I was a bit stressed last week – forgetful, frazzled, frayed. I think it’s because I’ve been scheduling like it was December and I really should adjust to the fact that three days of my week are spoken for (with good work, yes, but still spoken for!). That, and my evening events have come back in full force. I want to spend more time at home, more time writing, and more time cooking. More time drawing for myself, too, and more time coding again. These are the things that centre me.

I’d been working on connecting with people, but maybe there are better ways to do that. Meeting people in person is high-fidelity and high-bandwidth, for sure, but it does take up a lot of time. There’s still so much I can do to build things that help people and to connect with people over the Internet.

Time to slow down and gather myself up.

Blog posts

  1. Weekly review: Week ending January 11, 2013
  2. The smugometer
  3. Emacs Org: Task-related keyboard shortcuts for the agenda
  4. Sketchnote about mindmapping: Rock the Monkey: Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-based Learning–Chuck Frey
  5. Quantified Awesome: Taking inventory of stuff in closets and drawers
  6. Visual book review: Cool Time: A Hands-on Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time–Steve Prentice
  7. Figuring out my guidelines for time
  8. In which I do the same thing again and again

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

An embarrassing failure is the result of a series of unfortunate decisions, and that’s a good thing

January 22, 2013 - Categories: decision, kaizen, life

Failures can be caused by all sorts of factors, but an embarrassing failure exposes the unfortunate decisions along the way. This is a wonderful thing. While it’s easy to shrug off other kinds of failures as bad luck or bad timing, embarrassment is a clue that there are many things you can improve. It is that ever so human emotion when you know you haven’t been your best – and it points to what better looks like.

For example, last Thursday, I’d scheduled a 3pm call to talk about sketchnotes. I had noticed some power problems with my phone and had drained my battery several days in a row. I usually managed to squeak by with my backup battery, but I had misplaced it on Wednesday night, so I didn’t get to charge it. I tucked a USB cable into my backpack so that I could charge my phone off my computer – or at least I thought I did, as I couldn’t find that when I searched my bag right after settling in. I switched to low-power mode and that seemed to slow things down, so I figured that 70% charge would probably be enough to get me to the afternoon. After a meeting, I checked on my phone… and found it practically dead. I bought an overpriced USB cable from a nearby electronics store and plugged it into the computer. The cellphone was discharging faster than it could charge, though, even though I wasn’t using it. And then it was time for the call.

After a few attempts, I had to admit defeat and reschedule. Fortunately, the person I was going to talk to was very understanding, and we managed to sort things out over Twitter. Even with that resolution and my subsequent return to regular work, I was stressed. I could still feel that rush of adrenalin after trying to scramble some kind of a solution. Although I knew I could still do well, I also knew that stress messed with my brain and made me more likely to overlook other important things.

I also knew that this lingering stress was unnecessary. We’d rescheduled. The worst-case scenario would probably have been being perceived as a flaky unprofessional person, but that was temporary, bounded, and not part of who I was. I could do something to make it better. (Locus of control – useful thing to know about!)

So I made a list of many things I could have done to make it better, and that helped me clear my mind a little. I got back to work, focusing on some analytics that I knew would give me the pleasure of a few small wins. I was tired enough to leave my scarf behind and then to not be sure about whether I locked my cabinet (needing two extra trips up the elevator to retrieve one and confirm the other) – but at least I remembered before going on the subway. Glass half full.

I still went to fitness class, where W- met me with a bag of clothes and my shoes. It was a struggle to get through that class as well – oh no, more moments of suckiness! – but I got through it anyway. It’s important to learn how to do things even though you don’t feel like it.

Anyway, back to the good things about embarrassing failures: there are lots of things that I can fix, and I can prioritize them based on effort and benefit. Phone-wise, I found out how to use Titanium Backup to uninstall a large number of applications at once. My battery life has improved. I’ve ordered an extended battery, which should allow my backup battery to be a backup again. Routine-wise, I’ve created checklists in Evernote. Checklists are wonderful. Life-wise, I think it’s time to make myself a little more space – sometimes these are symptoms of trying to pack in a little too much.

20130118 phone

This is good. I’m learning to not beat myself up, and to celebrate the ways I can improve things and move forward.

Another step forward, perhaps, would be to be able to do this before embarrassing failure highlights the need – like the way defensive drivers (and cyclists, and walkers…) constantly scan for opportunities to go wrong and plan what to do. To balance that building of a strong safety net (several safety nets, in fact) with the ability to let go and fly – that will be a wonderful thing to learn.

Helping people learn more about programming

January 23, 2013 - Categories: business, development, idea
A number of people I know want to learn more about code. People see it as a useful skill, whether they’re dealing with functions and macros in Microsoft Excel, building tools in Ruby or PHP, or playing around with graphics in Processing. I had tea with a designer who’s learning how to code in the process of building a personal project. Since he was there and the code was there, I figured I’d help by answering any questions he had. By the time we wrapped up, he’d solved three of the things he was getting stuck on: limiting queries, working with inline PHP, and using AJAX to dynamically pull in data. Good stuff.

Helping people learn is so much fun. I loved teaching introductory computer science. Even though sometimes it was frustrating, it was such a thrill getting people to those "aha!" moments. I speed-read, so it’s easier for me to skim through Google results and documentation to spot just the right function. I’ve made lots of mistakes, so it’s easier for me to debug things than it is for people who are starting out. Sometimes all people need is a nudge in the right direction, a snippet of sample code, and then they’re off. I get such a kick out of it. It’s high-leverage – a little help can go a long way.

Problem decomposition is a key skill: breaking a challenge down into small, motivating steps, identifying the things you need to figure out first so that you can build on top of them. It’s hard when you’re new, and easier when you’ve solved lots of similar problems. I want to get super-good at this, which probably means doing this with more breadth and depth so that we have more building blocks to play with.

I’m figuring out what I like. I like one-on-one sessions and co-working chats more than group tutoring or teaching a class. I don’t mind looking at someone’s screen using Skype. I’m not an expert, but we can learn together, and I’ve been told that my enthusiasm is infectious.

What could this look like, if I folded this into my experimental life? Maybe it starts with informal coworking in a shared space, helping people while hanging out and doing my own work. (I might have a "Do Not Disturb" / "Open for Helping with …" sort of sign on my laptop.) I’m planning to join HackLab.to in March, after my current consulting gig winds up. (I hope the weather will be nicer by then!) More formally, people might book hour-long sessions in a cafe, coworking space, or library, like the way tutors meet with students. I’d get paid in cash (pay-what-you-can) and/or barter. I could offer virtual help, too – e-mail? Skype?

So there’s this idea of code coaching, for those questions that you can’t ask on Stack Overflow or on mailing lists, and for learning not just a specific thing but also the process of learning it. Shall we give it a try? I’m open to inquiries about Emacs Lisp, PHP, Ruby, Rails, JQuery, Excel functions and reporting tools, AutoHotkey, Bash scripting, and other things people might want to learn.

I’m a little anxious about the impostor syndrome, but I should just get over that. I confess up front: I’m not an expert in any of these frameworks, especially since most of them move faster than I can learn. <laugh> (You won’t believe the kinds of things people are building with Emacs Lisp these days!) I’m always going to be looking things up, because I switch between languages and don’t have all the syntax in my brain. I sometimes have to look up how to do basic control structures like a for loop. And I’ll tell you if I don’t have the foggiest idea how to solve something, but at least I can show you how I’d look for it.

This sort of mentoring is an expected part of teamwork. Who’s done this as an independent? Are there things I should watch out for? Will it hopelessly fragment my brain?

Who’s interested in exploring this with me? How would you value it, and how do we test whether it’s worth it for you and me? Jan/Feb’s busy with consulting, but maybe we’ll see what this looks like in March, or we’ll do low-key coaching for starters…

Related: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4857854

Accelerating my business learning: setting a goal for a new business every month

January 24, 2013 - Categories: entrepreneurship, experiment

The first year of my five-year experiment is going well. I learned how to set up the structures for five different kinds of service businesses:

and two kinds of product businesses:

… and I got to my first sale (and often beyond!) for each of them (WOOHOO!), which is a thrilling milestone to reach. In addition, I brainstormed more than a dozen other business models that might be interesting to explore, and listed even more ideas for things I wanted to see fixed.

I learned a ton from events, books, and conversations – and what’s even more fun is that I finally got to put into practice some of the things I’ve been learning about entrepreneurship and negotiation. It’s true! You learn things so much more deeply when you actually get to use them.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine any better way I could’ve used that time. Leaving the relative certainty of a corporate environment was definitely the right thing to do. Gradually learning about business through a combination of familiar skills and new opportunities – that was a good thing to do as well.

Seven(!) micro-business experiments in almost a year works out to a business experiment roughly every two months. Let me look at the pattern more closely:

Business First sale
Social business consulting March
Illustration April
Used book sales April
Web development contracting May
Writing e-books June
Public speaking August
Conference/event sketchnoting December

What could happen if I experiment with trying to build a business every month? When I first started considering it, I thought: “That sounds intense!” But looking at this past year, it’s almost like taking that first sprint of March to August (six businesses in seven months) and extending it just a few more months. What could I learn and share if I had the capability to test an idea every month? How could I learn how to structure it so that my co-experimenters – people who are interested in being part of this, and the clients who are part of that first sale – get the value they want without being burned by the nature of the experiment?

I think that would be an interesting book – something along the lines of Start-up of the Month. I’d love to read it. I could wait for someone else to write it, but I’m not sure how many people have the time and space and combination of skills to go ahead and try it, so maybe I can write it.

I’ll start in March, because I want to make sure that my current consulting clients are totally happy and that they transition well to being independent. There are lots of things I can do to prepare for that. Part of that preparation includes imagining what it would look like and feel like if I had this smoothly running machine for generating and testing ideas.

Being super-good at building a new thing each month means being able to:

To prepare for that, I can:

The risks:

I think this will be an excellent use of my second year of the experiment, and a good foundation for the other years. Exciting times! Whom should I learn from? Who wants to learn with me? How can we get started?

Planning my code/development learning

January 25, 2013 - Categories: development, experiment, geek, learning

One of the best things about programming is that as you learn more, the possibilities increase dramatically. Each new thing you learn can be combined with so many other things for even more awesomeness. I’m getting ready for my idea-of-the-month experiment, and I’m thinking about the kinds of building blocks I’d like to learn more about and use.

Android development – I can build small apps for myself
Data visualization library like D3 – web-based graphs
Some kind of Javascript/CSS/Rails front-end toolkit that makes it easier for me to prototype rich user interfaces
Evernote API, so that I can improve my workflow
AutoHotkey – finely-tuned timesavers
Rails 4 – prototyping
WordPress backend – building things
WordPress theming – design
Twitter API, for analysis
Meetup API, for analysis
Google Contacts, Google Calendar, IMAP headers – for analysis
OCR, speech recognition – so I can convert, even at 80% accuracy
Arduino, sensors, and motors – for interfacing with the physical world
Emacs LISP – for personal productivity
PhoneGap – cross-platform mobile apps?
Dropbox API – tools, analysis
Twilio or some other text API – communication

For March, I’d love to dig into Emacs, D3, and maybe Evernote. That way, I can prepare for the Emacs conference, visualize my Quantified Self stuff, and dig into my new brain backup system. :)

Weekly review: Week ending January 25, 2013

January 26, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Cancelled many of my evening social things because of the weather and because of early-morning priorities. Brr!

Blog posts

  1. It’s my dad’s 65th birthday today
  2. Weekly review: Week ending January 18, 2013
  3. An embarrassing failure is the result of a series of unfortunate decisions, and that’s a good thing
  4. Helping people learn more about programming
  5. Accelerating my business learning: setting a goal for a new business every month
  6. Planning my code/development learning

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Things I value unequally

January 27, 2013 - Categories: Uncategorized

I was talking to someone who taught a class at Trade School Toronto. To enable more people to access education, the school has a barter system where instructors can post a list of things they value, and students can creatively pay for their education that way instead.

I’ve been thinking about this because a few friends have asked me for help with learning things, and because I’d like to offer pair programming like the way that Avdi does. But I know that people’s budgets can be a little tight, and just using money ignores a whole range of possibilities. What would my swap list be? Here are some of the things I value and would be willing to swap for:

There’s more we can add to this list, of course, so feel free to suggest something that you think might be a good fit.

Experiment notes: Accounting, sales, and marketing–all the other parts of a business

January 28, 2013 - Categories: experiment

When I started my experiment last year, leaving the familiarity of web development at IBM for my own adventures, I wanted to dig into several big unknowns that I had little experience with: the paperwork and accounting required for business, and the sales and marketing that’s even more crucial to business survival. I had tracked my personal finances and prepared our taxes for years, but business finances were new to me. I’d loved reading sales and marketing ever since I could clamber up my mother’s bookshelves, although my understanding was still abstract. So I expected to do favourably, but I was still a little nervous. After all, this was one of the key differences between an independent life and one inside a company. My experiences with this would determine whether I could survive on my own or whether I’d do better within a structure built by someone else. Would the benefits of managing my own business outweigh the overhead? Would the experiment be a long, hard slog, or could I get the hang of the fundamentals?

Accounting and paperwork was the first hurdle. I wanted to incorporate right away to have that separation between me and the company, so that any mistakes I might make wouldn’t bring us all down with it. It was probably unnecessary, but it was good to know that as long as I paid attention to the details, we’d be okay.

For the most part, D.I.Y. paperwork has been sufficient. I filed my articles of incorporation online, registered my company with the Canada Revenue Agency. It took me a while to sort out getting a business credit card, but it was straightforward once I did so. There were a few stressful evenings of forum research and fact-checking on government websites, such as when I decided to cancel my cellphone claims and ended up owing additional taxes. (It turned out to be just a few dollars’ worth.) Reading entrepreneur forums like the ones at Red Flag Deals helped me watch out for common pitfalls, such as the installment payments that automatically kick in after you reach a certain income tax threshold. I’m still postponing the paperwork needed to figure out how to get money out of the company. One step at a time.

I’ve grown to like that separation of saying, “This contract is between your company and my company,” or “The business will invest in buying ____.” It forces me to make decisions: is this worthwhile for the business? I have a trade name now, although I’ve kept the main company as a numbered company so that I can stick all sorts of other experiments underneath it.

If I were to do it again – or even now – I’d love to have an accountant whom I could e-mail questions periodically. I’d still want to keep a close eye on my books, and my transaction volume is low enough that I can handle things myself with Quickbooks. It would be good to have someone doublecheck things, though, and answer my questions.

One of the things that makes it easier for me is knowing that this too is an experiment, and that I can start up a different company with a different structure in order to try out other things. I don’t have to get everything gold-plated the first time around.

That’s the paperwork and accounting part of the business, which is usually a thorn in people’s sides, but which has turned out to be doable and even a fulfilling Friday afternoon routine.

Sales and marketing were other parts of business that I’ve heard many fellow geeks gripe about, so I wanted to find out what both of those were really like. Most freelancers I know have their plates full with referrals and repeat clients, and many don’t actively sell their services. I was lucky to have had clients for consulting and contracting right away, thanks to personal networks and my blog.

In the past few months, I’ve been making myself scale back consulting so that I can force myself to learn more about sales and marketing. Digital conference sketchnoting gave me a great excuse to try it out. Sketchnotes are visual. People have built businesses around this before. Businesses have bought services like this before, although generally in other cities. The sales approach would be to reach out to conference organizers and event agencies, while the marketing approach might involve posting sketchnotes and resources for organizers. Illustration is a complementary service, too, and there are other services I can cross-sell.

Here’s what I’ve come to enjoy about sales:

My marketing has been a gradual process of building up my website and sharing more resources. I enjoyed designing a logo and thinking about how to explain what I do. I’m glad I can build my own website and tweak it based on the ideas I have. New entrepreneurs are usually advised to outsource web design and development, but I think there’s value in creating my own simple site and evolving it over time. There’s still so much more to learn.

Looking back at this first year of my experiment, I think that the overhead of building my own business has been more than worth it. Many people see paperwork, sales, and marketing as distractions from the fun stuff, the work that they actually enjoy doing. For me, these activities are like programming, although in a slightly different form. It’s like learning more about the APIs (application programming interfaces) of the world, exploring the standards and specifications to find out what’s required from me and what’s possible. It’s like developing procedures, dealing with bugs, and improving algorithms. It’s like playing around with an interface until you figure out something that flows.

I’m glad I started this experiment. It’s difficult to imagine a career path within a company that would shift me from development (which I’m good at and which I still enjoy) to learning more about sales, marketing, and finance (which I’d have no qualifications for, and which I’d probably be terrible at in the beginning). It isn’t optimal. It doesn’t make sense. On my own, I can make that decision to temporarily give up some productivity in favour of building a useful combination of capabilities, and then see where I can go from there. I am less awesome a developer than I could have been if, say, I’d spent a year intensely working with Rails in a boutique web development agency, but this combination of tech and business and creative and communication will probably come in handy someday.

I think this will give me a great foundation for further experiments. I spent the first year of my experiment learning that it’s not that scary to create something and get to the first sale. I’d like to spend the next year getting even better at taking a business from the sparkle in one’s eye to a prototype that people can look at, sign up for, or buy, learning more and more about de-risking ideas. Then three years to see what I can do with those skills, and then my first evaluation: back to the world of other people’s ideas, or onward with developing mine?

I’ll still need to keep working on the fundamentals over the next year, of course. Some of the things I want to learn or practise include:

This experiment rocks.

Imagining an index of sketchnotes

January 29, 2013 - Categories: drawing, geek, sketchnotes

With sketchnotes gaining in popularity, I’m often curious about how other people drew a talk. TED talks are popular for sketchnoting practice, and sketchnoters are beginning to bump into each other at conferences as well.

There are many avenues to share or discover sketchnotes, such as The Sketchnote Handbook Flickr Pool and the wonderful graphic recordings at Ogilvy Notes. Sketchnote Army is a blog that features lots of sketchnotes, and Twitter searches turn up even more. But there isn’t really something that’ll help you bump into other sketchnotes of the same talk, or even sketchnotes of the same conference.

Are we at the point yet where multiple people might be sketchnoting something? For popular TED talks, yes, and many conferences might have sketchnoters in the crowd. I think it would be interesting to make it easier for people to find each other and compare notes.

So I registered sketchnoteindex.com and created a quick spreadsheet to get a feel for the data that would be good to capture and how we might want to organize it. (Prototype with the lowest-effort thing first!) In addition to indexing topics, I’d like to eventually build an image and visual metaphor index too, so we can see how different people have represented time. Text search would rock someday. In the meantime, I put together a quick text prototype as an excuse to learn more about the Ember.js framework, although I’m thiiiis close to chucking it all and using Emacs or a Ruby script to generate static HTML.

Some things to consider:

Right now, Ember.js pulls the data off the CSV I exported from my Google Docs spreadsheet. That way, I don’t have to create an admin interface or anything else. I’m not actually using Ember.js’ features (aside from a little templating and a few models), so I may swap it for something else.

So this was about eight hours including data entry (300+ sketchnotes; I did it myself instead of delegating because I wanted to sketch the idea out quickly), going through the Ember.js tutorials, and fighting with Javascript.

First thoughts on Windows 8

January 30, 2013 - Categories: geek

I wasn’t particularly keen on Windows 8 myself. We’d just helped W’s dad switch Windows 8 from Chinese to English, which turned out to be difficult if you can’t read Chinese and don’t understand the various messages, but we managed to do it. The interface was different, but didn’t seem to offer a compelling reason to upgrade.

Naturally, this meant that I had to go ahead and do it. I figured that most people on Windows 7 would be hesitant about the upgrade, or even griping about the radical changes in the user interface. People buying new computers would be on Windows 8, and newcomers might even assume that the Windows 8 interface was simply the way to do it. Someday I might be more conservative about technology, but I haven’t reached that day yet. I can take tech risks (especially since I’ve got backups!), and it’s better for me to figure things out on my own time than to have to switch over when the circumstances require it.

I’m often in tablet PC mode, so I was curious about whether the new interface really would be more touch-friendly. I was also curious about the “Sharing” feature, which promised to be similar to the inter-app communication that I like so much in Android.

So far, Windows 8 is actually not that bad. I’d switched to using Launchy to start applications a long time ago, so I hardly used the Start menu. I didn’t miss it. I knew about the Charms bar and how to bring it up with a keyboard shortcut. I read through the other keyboard shortcuts and started finding my way around. I customized my lock screen, which my fingerprint lets me bypass.

I’m slightly disappointed that sharing isn’t supported for desktop applications, but oh well. It makes sense that the traditional apps haven’t been yet been rebuilt to take advantage of Windows 8’s new features.

We’ll see what new capabilities this might open up. Will I find apps that work together with my workflow? New tools that don’t yet support Windows 7?

I still miss the configurability of my Linux environment, but it’s easier to recreate the aspects I like from Linux in a Windows host than it is to get the drawing programs and automation programs I like working under Linux. Oh well. If I shift my business ideas towards development, I may dual-boot to Linux and have my lovely Emacs development/mail setup again. =)

Reflections on sketchnoting TEDxOCADU

January 31, 2013 - Categories: drawing, kaizen, process

I sketchnoted TEDxOCADU live, and my new workflow is working out well. I’ve been moving more of my sketchnotes over to experivis.com – do folks still want to see them here? Might be handy. Anyway, I like reflecting on what worked well and what I can do even better, so this blog is still the best place for that.

For TEDxOCADU, here were my experiments:

Set up all the layers and saved them as placeholder PNGs beforehand so that I didn’t have to type in filenames or look up speaker names.

Here are some things I can tweak next: