Category Archives: reading

Visual book notes: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

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Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup book is popular, and for good reason. Ries shows people how to make the most of the Build-Measure-Learn loop whether they’re starting a snazzy technology company or creating an intrapreneurial venture within a corporation. Many people get hung up on the idea of launching with a big bang, but if you take this Lean Startup approach, you might learn a lot more by talking to actual customers and by experimenting with with your business. I particularly like the reminder to simulate technology with people first, as it can be tempting to procrastinate getting market feedback because your technology isn’t built yet. Do it by hand. Do it for one person at a time, if needed. There’s plenty to learn, and you don’t have to let development cycles slow you down.

Ries also emphasizes the importance of pivoting, which is what you do when you realize that your original business idea was off the mark. Pivoting is about listening to customers and growing into the business they want you to be, while taking advantage of the things you’ve learned in the past and the assets you’ve already built. Sometimes you should persevere instead of getting distracted by one or two stray opinions, but other times, you should listen to what people (and your experiments!) tell you.

Another key point in this book is that of accelerating this feedback loop. Get faster at building, measuring, and learning from the results. Orient your organization towards it. Practise relentless improvement until your build-measure-learn loop is fast and smooth. Then your company will be an incredible engine for learning!

Whom this book is great for: Starting a company? Read this book. You’ll get lots of tips from it, and you could save lots of time, money, and frustration along the way.

Interested in making things happen even within a large company? You might be able to use the build-measure-learn loop to make your day job even better, or to create scalable value outside your typical job responsibilities.

What I’m learning from this book: I’m using the concierge approach to help people with Quantified Awesome, because it’s fun building something that’s tailored to the way people work and what people want to measure. My goal is to get to the point where people are happy to pay $1-5 a month for tools to help them ask and answer questions about their life using data. I’m also going to work on using the build-measure-learn approach for entrepreneurship (a meta-experiment!), and using the minimum-viable-product approach to writing a book using LeanPub. Someday I might even use split-tests – or better yet, help businesses use them to set up experiments!

The Lean Startup
Eric Ries (2011: Crown Business)
ISBN: 978-0307887894
Buy this book: Amazon.com (Hardcover, Kindle) Amazon.ca
If you buy stuff through the links above, I get a small commission, yay! I’d tell you it’s a good book even without the commission, so here are some other links: Google Books, Toronto Public Library (book, e-book)

What do you think of this format? Do you want more detail? Less detail? More drawings? More hand-writing? More stick figures? What other books would you like me to visually summarize? I’m near one of the world’s biggest library systems, and I love learning from and sharing good books.

Spousonomics: Using economics to master love, marriage, and dirty dishes

I love research-backed books that help us understand why we do what we do. Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson’s Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes was no exception. The book takes a look at common marital conflicts and situations, showing the underlying economic principles that influence our actions. For example:

  • Division of labour: Splitting chores equally may not result in the most efficient or the happiest of marriages. Specialize, remembering that payoffs can change over time.
  • Loss aversion: People hate to lose, which can result in really drawn-out fights. The advice to “never go to bed angry” can backfire. It’s okay to have time-outs.
  • Supply and demand: If you want something to happen more often, don’t make it costly or risky.
  • Moral hazard: It’s easy to take good things for granted. It’s also easy to end up trying to avoid any sort of conflict. The sweet spot is in the middle, where you’re not taking your relationship for granted, but you’re not paranoid about your spouse quitting.
  • Incentives: Think about the incentives you use and if they’re really effective. Trust can be much more useful than nagging.
  • Trade-offs: Think at the margin: consider the costs and benefits of small changes. Ignore sunk costs when making decisions. Get over the “it’s not fair” fixation.
  • Asymmetric information: Communicate clearly. Don’t play games by hiding or withholding information. Figure out the essentials of what you need to share so that you don’t overload your spouse.
  • Intertemporal choice: It’s easy to make good decisions for the future, but hard to stick with those decisions in the present. Use commitment devices to help you stick with your resolutions or good ideas.
  • Bubbles: Non-bubbly married life is normal, so don’t stress out if you’re no longer infatuated. Beware of being unduly influenced by groups – just because everyone else seems to be doing something doesn’t mean it’s right for you, too. Don’t get overconfident.
  • Game theory: Don’t let the urge to retaliate or overcompensate lead to you to wildly polarized positions. Work together to get optimal results, not just individually-optimal results, and use commitment devices to help you stick with it.

The book goes into far more depth, and is an excellent read. It’s illustrated with case studies (problem couples who usually end up patching things up) and lots of research.

Here are some thoughts I particularly like:

If there are areas you care about but you feel helpless in, put in the time and effort to develop the comparative advantage in at least one of them. The authors tell the story of one economist who put the time into at least learning how to bathe an infant so that his wife wouldn’t end up with all the child-rearing tasks – and so that he wouldn’t get tempted to take advantage of that kind of a division.

Looking for things to read? In terms of marriage research, I’d recommend “Spousonomics” and Susan Page’s “The 8 Essential Traits of Couples who Thrive”. What do you like?

Book: Daddy Long Legs, and letters

A chance remark by the turtle about Daddy Long Legs led me to request the 1955 musical from the Toronto Public Library, and then to read the book online. Fred Astaire’s dance sequences (particularly the first one where he makes drumsticks dance better than most people do) and a couple of good lines, and a nice ending made me smile. Yes, the age gap’s bigger in the movie than it was in the book, and it must’ve been hard for Astaire to perform that with what was going on in his personal life, but it’s still a good one.

The book, on the other hand, was an unexpectedly delightful find. It’s written as a series of letters from this orphan-turned-aspiring-writer, with vivid descriptions and general cheer. I’m half-inspired to do more letter-writing myself, or to bring that kind of vivacity to my blog.

(Will you put up with descriptions of life? In any case, it is my blog, and I would like to be able to remember. =) Prepare for more adjectives!)

Now I am on the lookout for other epistolary gems. I have requested “A Woman of Independent Means” from the library, remembering my mom’s recommendation. Do you have any favourites?

Work on the business from the outside, not in it – Book: Effortless entrepreneur

One of the key points of “Effortless entrepreneur” is that you need to create systems and delegate work so that you can free up time to improve your business.

p38. Work on the business from the outside, not in it. A great
entrepreneur builds systems to run the business as if it were a
machine, and stands over it instead of being part of its inner
workings. A business owner should sell that machine to clients and
perfect its functionality, but not sit in the gear room. How many
times have you seen a local store owner answering phones, doing
paperwork, and assisting customers all at once? This business owner
works IN the business, not ON it, and hasn’t identified the different
positions within his business, such as receptionist, salesperson, and
cashier. Instead, he does all those jobs himself.

Creating manuals and training maps for each position from the get-go
forces you to evaluate what needs to be done and helps identify tasks
you might not think of right away. That can mean fewer unpleasant
surprises down the road. At first, you’ll likely have to work IN your
business and do most, if not all, of the work for each position.
That’s common when you start out. But create a system that allows you
to just work ON it as soon as possible. Once that system is operative,
a business gains its true value.

Work on your business, not just in it. It makes sense, although lots of small-business owners find it hard to make that jump.

How can people practice this now? After all, even if you work for a company, you work for yourself, too.

It’s kinda like what Trent (The Simple Dollar) writes about in “Who is your real boss? Some perspectives on career success”:

My belief is this: the people that succeed are the people who invest that energy and time and patience and thought a little differently.
What do I mean?

  • Option A: Let’s say you go to work each day and leave it all on the
    table. When you leave work, you’re so drained you can barely make it
    home. You sit on the couch, vegetate for a while, eat dinner,
    vegetate a bit more, then hit the sack. Or perhaps you’re a parent
    and you leave work with just enough energy to get through your
    parental requirements in the evening.

  • Option B: On the other hand, let’s say you go to work and
    intentionally keep half of your energy for yourself. You give the
    company 50% of the gas in your tank. After you leave, you spend that
    50% improving yourself. You go to night classes. You go to the gym.
    You go to the library. You go to meetings of professional growth
    groups, like Toastmasters.

Well, maybe not 50%. If you can do your work with 80% effort, and then invest the rest into building skills and processes, then it’s like a savvy entrepreneur investing time into building systems, not just fighting fires. Sometimes it’s more like a full-energy work and 20% extra, but I enjoy the work and the learning along the way.

At work, I’m learning about the way we work on projects: the processes, the templates, the questions and conversations. I like making systems, processes, and tools, so I’m learning how to improve things.

I’m working on applying this idea of “working on the business, not just in it” in personal life as well. Hence the household optimizations: batch cooking and a chest freezer, tweaked routines, relationship-building. Capacity-building for future adventures.

I’m looking forward to do even better. At work, I want to to learn more about Drupal 7, consulting, and the processes we have. I’m also looking forward to writing up more notes and coaching others. In the rest of life, I’d like to experiment with delegating again, invest time into becoming a better writer, and continue building wonderful relationships.

How about you? How can you not only work in your business, but on it?

Effortless entrepreneur: Work smart, play hard, make millions
2010 Nick Friedman and Omar Soliman
Three Rivers Press
ISBN 978-0-307-58799-2

Book: Effortless entrepreneur 2011-01-10 Mon 19:27

Moving my book notes online

I moved more of my book notes online, reasoning that a braindump is better than occasional whining about the lack of a good system. ;) Fellow Emacs geeks who use Org will probably get the most out of this, as they can open it in Emacs and work with the hierarchy, but someday I may figure out a neat little hyperlinked solution that will make it easy for everyone else. Or I’ll pull more and more of these posts into my blog, where they’ll be individually linkable and commentable.

Compare: http://sachachua.com/blog/category/book/ , which wins points for being graphical and highlighted and comment-friendly, but loses topical organization, overview, search, and offline access.

It’s a start. Here’s what’s working well:

CAPTURE: Using Org + Remember to capture book notes uses the same process as my other notes. Diagrams can be scanned in and attached to files. I used to scan and OCR dogeared pages, but typing or dictating them in is okay, and it helps me review. The capture part of my process is fantastic.

ORGANIZATION: org-refile or copying and pasting are easy, so this part of the process is fine.

REVIEW: I might schedule times to refresh my memory of certain books. I can do that with Org agenda fairly easily.

SHARING: Here’s where the process breaks down a little. org2blog-post-subtree is great, and I’ve used that a number of times to post the relevant subtree of book notes. That adds the notes as entries in my blog, storing the post ID in my Org file so that I can get back to the post afterwards. org2blog also makes it easy to edit entries, hooray.

Once it’s in my blog, people can use the categories to find other entries. However, my current blog layout doesn’t highlight the categories, and it’s not easy to browse the different book-related categories. Maybe it’s worth tweaking a “reading” or “book” category layout page.

Aha! How’s http://sachachua.com/blog/book-notes/ ? It’s a manually-edited list at the top (thanks, Org!), followed by an automatically-generated index. I’ll gradually move my other notes into this system – text notes in my Org file and blog entries for linkability/commentability. Progress…

Marking up books

I’ve been rereading Adler and van Doren’s “How to Read a Book”. I always get tripped up by the advice to mark up one’s books (p48-51). I’ve experimented with this on and off – wild sallies into the world of underlined passages and marks in the margins of books that I own — but I always recoil, returning to furtively dog-eared pages (and even this, when done to library books, earns me a teasing frown from W-). But Adler and van Doren spend two and a half pages arguing for the value of writing in one’s books and giving tips on how to do it effectively. Their reasons:

  • It keeps you awake and concentrating.
  • It makes your reading active.
  • It helps you remember the thoughts of the author.

Maybe I can get the same benefits by writing my thoughts down elsewhere, but not on the printed pages. Ratchet up my book-blogging, perhaps, as a life-long project to build a personal, digital syntopicon?

W- has started a fresh new professional notebook for 2011. In this, notebook he writes down ideas and lessons from his work and from the books he reads. He’s been taking notes on another book I’ve browsed and dogeared – Visual Meetings.

I sporadically keep paper notebooks. They can be much more convenient than typing on a laptop, especially when one is propping a book open to the right page. Perhaps the tablet will make it easier to keep my handwritten notes?

What would my ideal book notes system be like? Decades later, I’d like to be able to say – ah, if you’re interested in that, here are the books I’ve read about it, and this is how they’re connected to each other, and the arguments they made, and how my personal experiences have supported or contradicted them, and what I’ve done with what I learned from those books, and what else I could add…

Margin notes can’t contain these, but maybe I’ll figure out my own system over time – searchable, hyperlinked, backed-up, personal, and social. In the meantime, I keep my notes in an Org text file, organized in an outline, tagged with keywords, and (occasionally) published on my blog.

What’s your system for book notes?

ISBN:0-671-21280-X
How to Read a Book
Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren