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Karmic Cow Shit

I never would have thought that 21 cubic yards of cow manure compost would be the basis for a blog post, but this particular pile of shit compelled me to share part of its story. It's got me feeling pretty good about my fellow human at a time when I could really use the reminder.

Last fall I moved into a new home in need of landscaping. So new that there was nothing living in our yard. No soil or worms, let alone grass, trees, vegetables, or flowers. While a tree and sod for the front yard was part of the purchase of our home, the landscapers had to wait for warmer weather to get it done. When the tree arrived earlier this week, I knew that the sod was soon to arrive and I'd have to get moving to till compost into the clay ahead of time as I had planned.

I called Brian at Soil Rejuvenation in Longmont based on a referral from a gardening class I took with Berthoud Local. He was incredibly patient, helping me think through how much compost to order, answering questions about where to rent equipment, and handling delivery logistics with several phone exchanges. He graciously cut my order in half after the first truckload arrived and it was obvious I had miscalculated the size of my yard. He took care of me even though it made his sale much smaller and threw a wrench in his delivery logistics.

I started spreading the compost last night to get a jump start on the work that I had planned on taking all weekend. 21 cubic yards of compost is a lot of cow shit. One of my neighbors walked up with two beers and a shovel in his hands, almost as if we were playing out a TV commercial. We spread some compost together, and when I called it quits to get something to eat, he walked across the street to help out other neighbors who were doing some landscaping of their own. His enthusiasm for lending a hand really struck me.

This morning I went through my usual routine for the start of a day, then headed out to spread some more compost at around 6:30am. About an hour into my work I knew that I'd have to plan on spending the entire day with the shovel and wheelbarrow. I started getting into the same mindset I have for long distance backpacking, focusing on one shovelful at a time and finding ways to appreciate the physical discomfort. I put together a plan to ask a construction worker to move it with a Bobcat in exchange for some cash if I had the chance. And then a pickup pulled up next to.

The driver rolled down his window, explained that he owned the landscaping company that would be laying our sod, and asked if I wanted help. I asked him what it'd cost, and when he told me he'd do it just to help me out, I didn't entirely believe him. He went up the street, grabbed his Bobcat, and spread most of my compost out, saving me countless hours of hard work.

When he refused my offer to pay I shook his hand and thanked him, particularly for setting a great example for his 10 year old son who had been waiting patiently as his father helped out a stranger. We shared a moment among fathers as he explained that setting an example for his son was what motivated him to help, and that I'd be sure to let my daughter what had happened this morning.

Every few days it occurs to me how lucky I am. Today was definitely one of those days.

I Meditate - You Heard Me Right

When I first tried meditation a little over two years ago it was among my dirty little secrets. I didn't like to talk about it because it seemed a bit trendy and I hadn't quite figured out whether it would remain an important part of my routine. It's fair to say that meditation has become an important part of my life and thought I'd share a bit about my experience so far.

The motivation to try meditation was rooted in my struggle with stress. At the time my stress level was affecting all aspects of my life, cropping up in all kinds of ways that I don't like. My breaking point was when I realized that I was getting tunnel vision any time I tried to solve a problem, blocking out any and all other things in my life, no matter how important. For bigger problems, especially ones without complete solutions, tunnel vision has a serious issue.

Sam Elmore, who I had worked with in a variety of company and individual settings, recommended that I try meditation and coached me through a few sessions to get me started. The first few felt almost useless - I had a hard time sitting quietly for 30 seconds, let alone the 20 minutes or so that I've build up to today. If you're giving meditation a try, start with whatever you can manage and build on it.

I also struggled with meditating regularly, and eventually learned to build up to a daily(ish) routine in the same way that I built up from 30 seconds to 20 minutes for a given session. I've started thinking of habits as footpaths, which can be established even if they're not walked every single day. Don't give up if you have a hard time squeezing it into your schedule. If you find it to be a valuable practice it will make it's way into your routine eventually. With some practice I've found that I can meditate on the bus ride into work when I can't manage it earlier in the day.

Two years later I've found that I appreciate meditation for a few reasons:

  • It's become "me time" that I carve out for myself, which helps balance the time I spend taking care of family, friends, clients, and other community members the rest of my day.
  • I'm able to notice when I'm getting stressed out, which gives me the opportunity to do something about it before it gets worse. Tension in my face, neck, or shoulders and shallow breathing have become warning signs that I'm stressed. When that happens I know I should get up and walk, have something to eat, or meditate to take a step back before I start to get tunnel vision.
  • I feel physically healthier. Lowering my overall stress level has helped with discomfort I've had in my lower back for years, has me out sick less often, and has made it easier to maintain my weight.
  • I'm much more productive. I'm able to focus on the task at hand without spending too much energy thinking about other things that need to get done. They're still there, but I'm able to keep them in my peripheral vision instead of getting in the way of what I'm trying to accomplish in the moment.

Thanks Laura Harrison and Galvanize for organizing a visit to the Boulder Shambhala Center this morning. She arranged for guided meditation for me and several other Galvanize mentors, which was a great perk and way to start off my day. It was also the inspiration for this post!

Puttin' On The Leash 2017

I've got a lot of reasons to be excited about 2017, with joining the board of directors for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley (HSBV) at the top of the list.

When my wife and I adopted our beloved mutt Zoe from HSBV 13 years ago I saw HSBV as an amazing resource for animals in need of a home. Years later, when I started to get to know the organization better by adopting our pit bull mix Zeke and volunteering with their events committee, I came to the realization that they serve people as much as they do the animals in their care.

HSBV provides homes for animals, to be sure, but in doing so, enriches the lives of the people that share them. In times of crisis, the organization supports families in need by providing emergency shelter for their animals. Training classes, particularly important for first time adopters, are held regularly on a variety of topics. The list goes on. 

Zeke's ready for Puttin' On The Leash 2017

Zeke's ready for Puttin' On The Leash 2017

I'll be headed to Putting On The Leash 2017 for the event's 25th anniversary on April 22nd and would love to see you there. If you're a little hesitant to attend like I was last year, know that it's a fun event with lots of ways to give to the organization.  I expected monocles and top hats. Instead it was puffy jackets and GORE-TEX (hey, it was snowing that night). Come join us if you're looking to pitch in a little!

When Feedback Loops Get Too Tight

There's a commonly held belief in building software that feedback loops should be tight. It's a sentiment that I agree with but I've come to realize that there's such thing as too much of a good thing in some cases. When feedback loops get too tight, software teams tend to get bogged down in the details, sometimes losing sight of overall business goals or just plain wasting time.

I've noticed this in personal projects that I've worked on. I work hard to set up processes and tooling to make communication lightning quick.  I iterate quickly. I pat myself on the back for being able to change direction on a dime. I mean, that's how smart people write software, right?

The trouble is, as the time and effort required to request a change gets smaller, there's a tendency to think less about the request itself before making it. I've found myself endlessly pushing pixels around on the screen to make a feature work just so, later realizing that I hadn't slowed down to think about whether the feature should really be built in the first place.

diminishing_returns_of_tighter_feedback_loops

It became much clearer to me when I started to drastically reduce the amount of time that I was investing in GSD, a productivity tool that I've written for myself. Early on I was working on GSD almost every day. I'd make a change each morning, use the product during the day, and determine the next change based on what I had learned.

When I stopped coding on weekdays the daily feedback loop stretched into a weekly feedback loop. I had assumed that my product would evolve more slowly but what I'm finding is that it's evolving more quickly instead. Daily feedback often focused on what made the product easy to use, while weekly feedback has a healthier perspective of what makes the produce useful.

I've come to realize that at some point, feedback loops become so tight that they focus on what feels urgent rather than what's truly important. There's a lot of value in taking a deep breath and spending a few minutes in reflection, sometimes spread over the course of several days, before shooting off that email or Slack message with your most recent feedback. You may find that you speed up by slowing down.

 

Thinking Out Loud

I've been half heartedly telling myself that I'd like to write more often but just haven't made the time to do it. It's time to get it in gear. As a way to think out loud I wrote that habits are more like footpaths than sidewalks, with each pass contributing to its formation over time. This post will be my first in quite some time, but a contribution to its whole nonetheless.

I've managed to build a routine writing short journal entries each morning and plan to use it as a model for writing blog entries like this one. Things that seem to have worked for me:

  • I write early in the morning when my head is clear and the interruptions of my normal day haven't started yet. 
  • I take an approach that's more like thinking out loud than it is long form writing. I plan to have my blog posts by slightly less half baked than the journal entries I write for myself but I'll plan on putting much less pressure on myself to have crystalized thoughts than I used to. 

While I'm not exactly sure why, I'm pretty confident that writing is an important way for me to better understand myself. It seems like that should be all the motivation I need to walk this way again. 

BOCC Is Moving to Galvanize

The next Boulder Open Coffee Club, scheduled for Tuesday January 10, 2017, will be held at Galvanize!

In the meantime be sure to thank Boomtown for being such a gracious host for the past several years. As guests in their space we've seen a transformation from co-working space to startup accelerator, several cohorts of companies advance through the program, the addition of a connected devices lab, and a beautiful renovation. Special thanks to Shaw, Leah, Jennifer, Erin, Jeff, and Toby for all the support along the way.

I've gotten consistent requests to find a venue with natural light and more of a coffee shop feel. It's taken a while to find a venue with both of those qualities along with the capacity and desire to have our group descend upon them but I think you'll agree that it's been worth the wait!

Galvanize
1023 Walnut Street
Boulder, CO 80302

 

Habits Are Footpaths, Not Sidewalks

I've invested a lot of time into learning about how to form habits to make the most efficient use of my time. About a year ago I stopped looking at habits as sidewalks and started thinking about them as footpaths, making them much easier for me to adopt. I'll explain.

I had been meeting regularly with Sam Elmore, a consultant I've gotten to know over the past few years, to talk through a variety of things including my desire to reduce stress in my life. I was frustrated with the trouble I was having building good habits around work routines, household chores, exercise, self reflection, and the like.

I had failed at implementing the Getting Things Done system, for instance. Having read the book more than once, all I had managed to do regularly was to use the Two Minute Rule, which hardly changed my life. The author had provided a blueprint for success that was easy to understand yet I failed to build a habit from it.

Sam's observed that I had been evaluating things as success or failure in strictly binary terms and submitted that a different perspective may be useful. He helped me think of forming habits the way that I might wear a footpath through a field. While it'd be ideal to walk the path every day, missing a day here or there wouldn't be the end of the world. Even the occasional walk is valuable, as it takes more than a few days for a footpath to get overgrown again.

Looking back at my original perspective, I realize now that I had been thinking of building habits as I might build a sidewalk. Use a blueprint, buy the right tools, let the concrete dry, and walk it from point A to B more efficiently than ever. Using this framework to evaluate success and failure, however, made me give up trying more often than not.

A daily habit completed 4 out of 7 days, for instance, was a failure; a partially built sidewalk isn't quite a sidewalk. Thinking about how walking through a field 4 out of 7 days would eventually wear a footpath, however, kept me motivated to come back for more, even if a day or two was missed here and there.

This perspective is especially helpful in the context of implementing processes for a growing team. It's rare to get every member to agree on whether or not a process should be implemented, or how or how often something should be done, let alone actually implementing it. There's some pretty interesting reading on how sidewalks are being planned in city parks and on college campuses (preview: they're not planned at all).

I've managed to use this analogy to help me build most of the habits that I've set my mind to. In writing this post I'm taking steps (pun intended) towards building a weekly writing habit. It'll be that much better if it helps you build a habit of your own!

My Favorite Question to Ask

I spend a lot of time talking to entrepreneurs and I've come to learn that the most insightful question I can ask is "What keeps you up at night?" I've found that it usually leads to a palpable feeling of relief and that the conversation digs a whole lot deeper from that point on.

Being responsible for a business, especially one that has the livelihood of others wrapped up in it, is stressful at times. To make matters worse, business leaders find themselves wanting or needing to put a happy face on to put employees', investors', and loved ones' minds at ease.

"What keeps you up at night?" gives the entrepreneur permission to talk about things that they otherwise feel that they have to keep to themselves. It cuts to the chase because it's clear that there's no need to keep up appearances. I've been thanked many times just for asking.

In some cases it's useful to frame the question so that we can home in on a specific topic. At MojoTech, for instance, I speak to entrepreneurs about building web and mobile applications that are critical to their businesses. The answer to "What keeps you up at night about this project?" gives me a much better idea of how to make the project a success.

That said, it not as easy as just asking the question. The hard work comes in listening carefully to the answer, asking important follow-up questions, and making good use of the information. I've found that "What keeps you up at night?" makes that hard work a whole lot easier - you may too.

Protips From a Year With Blue Apron

A year ago my cousin Lynne set me up with a free week of Blue Apron, a recipe and ingredient delivery service that she couldn't stop raving about. A year later we're still customers and can't stop raving about it either.

What We Love About It

I enjoy cooking but don't love menu planning, shopping for ingredients, or wasting produce because a recipe calls for just a small amount of something. Blue Apron solves all of those problems by shipping us recipes with just the right ingredients for three dinners each week. 

The service removes the least enjoyable aspects of cooking and lets us focus on the fun stuff - learning about and eating food. Blue Apron does a great job of this, providing us with healthy ingredients, some of which are new to us, in combinations that we don't normally think of. The colorful recipes are easy to follow and include little nuggets of wisdom about the ingredients and their uses.

$15 Tools to Speed Things Up

Blue Apron recipes require just a handful of basic kitchen equipment. That said, there are some tools worth spending a few bucks on:

  • Zester/microplane: many of the recipes call for peeling and mincing the zest of lemons and limes; handling both steps at once is well worth the money for a zester or microplane.
  • Salad spinner: I used to turn my nose up at these because they do nothing more than dry off produce that you've just washed, but with the amount of herbs and other delicate produce included in Blue Apron recipes, this is a nice time saver. 
  • Garlic press: mincing garlic is a common and tedious step - a garlic press turns a job that takes a few minutes into a few seconds.

Techniques to Keep in Mind

  • Crushing instead of chopping nuts: when a recipe calls for nuts, they're usually packaged in a small resealable bag and are meant to be chopped. Leave them in the bag and crush them with a rolling pin or rolling pin - it's much faster and you can take out some frustrations while you're at it.
  • Add some flavor with broth: lots of recipes call for adding water - to add some depth of flavor, we'll swap out 1/3 or 1/4 of the water with vegetable broth. We leave some in the refrigerator and use it at our discretion.
  • Read ahead: if you read ahead you'll find ways to save the use of a bowl or utensil that you don't need. The recipe may call for you to transfer something from your pan to a clean bowl, just to transfer it to the plate a minute later, for instance. In those situations we'll just leave the food in the pan until it's time to plate. One less bowl to wash is a nice win.
  • Read the "How to Recycle" page: after the first few weeks of deliveries we found ourselves thinking "What do we do with all this packaging?" Every delivery includes a cardboard box, insulated liner, ice packs, and plastic bags and containers for ingredients. All of those are recycleable, and now Blue Apron offers free shipping for packaging that you send back for reuse.

Other Thoughts

From a business perspective, Blue Apron is an interesting company to watch. We've been customers for a year and have spent $3,056.94 in that time. Who knows what our lifetime value to them will be, especially now that they're beginning to offer complementary deliveries - wines paired with their meals, for instance.

From an eating perspective perspective, I'm a huge fan, as is the rest of my family. If you're curious to give it a try check out their site to get a feel for how it works and what types of meals you'd be receiving. If you like what you see let me know and I can send a your first week free!

What's Your Professional Superpower?

I'm a VP of Product with a superpower. Sounds kinda impressive and kooky, doesn't it? It certainly did to me when Mike AbiEzzi, our amazing interim VP of Engineering at Simpler, told me that my ability to code is a superpower. After some reflection it started to make a lot of sense, and I started thinking about what superpowers others have.

Interested in an interim CTO/VP of Engineering? I hired Mike AbiEzzi to conduct an architectural code review and subsequently asked him to act as our interim VP of Engineering. I highly recommend him. You can get in touch with him here.

Many people in a VP of Product role don't have a strong technical foundation. Many don't need one - that's what a VP of Engineering is for. It's certainly handy to have, however.

The fact that I can jump in to lend a hand gives our engineering team extra flexibility. Need more horsepower leading up to a release? Need an extra set of eyes on a tough problem? I can put my developer hat on and pitch in for a while.

It's also helpful to Mike that technical debt isn't an abstract concept to me; I feel the burden first-hand because I'm contributing code regularly. He spends less time defending his decisions to maintain a healthy code base and more time getting it done.

Perhaps most importantly, I have an appreciation for what engineering entails in general. You won't find me saying "this feature seems pretty straightforward to build" very often. I understand that custom software is rarely as straightforward as it seems on a whiteboard.

Mike sees these as a reflection of my coding superpower; a superpower that makes me stand out among the product people he's worked with throughout his career.

While you probably haven't thought of yourself as a comic book hero, I'd recommend giving it a try. If you're a recent developer bootcamp graduate, for instance, you should be thinking about what makes you stand out among the rest of your class. Do you have a strong design background? Experience with data analytics and visualizations? What can you brag about a little?

What's your professional superpower?


Boulder Chamber: I Don't Want a Membership, I Want a Relationship

This morning I read and reread "The 21st century chamber of commerce - who needs it?" in the Daily Camera. Until things change, I'm thinking the answer is still "Not the startup community."

I used to work for the Boulder Small Business Development Center (Boulder SBDC) when it was hosted and partially funded by the Boulder Chamber. Having been on the Chamber payroll, I've kept an eye on its progress and wondered how it will stay relevant ever since.

If your read the comments in How Are the Boulder Chamber and Startup Community Relevant to Each Other?, a post a wrote a while back, business owners want "dialog" and "community" but don't feel that chambers provide it.

To my dismay the chamber representatives quoted in this morning's Camera article seem to miss something crucial: social media isn't for marketing, it's for communication. Marketing is one-way: "Look at the event I'm holding - it's relevant to you!" Communication is two-way: "How are the Boulder Chamber and startup community relevant to each other?"

More communication would be a good thing. Being asked to participate would be a great thing. Downtown Boulder, Inc. (DBI), similar in some ways to the Boulder Chamber, asked me to join their board. The Boulder SBDC is bringing me into their pool of quasi-volunteer consultants to help Boulder County businesses grow.

Neither of these organizations marketed to me - they showed me how valuable they are by having me work shoulder-to-shoulder with them on something. They've created a long lasting relationship with me.

Similarly, chambers need to consider that events are often more valuable to the organizer than the attendee. I don't pay to attend Chamber events because the convenience of attending is less important to me than relationships I build by organizing.

I help run Boulder Open Coffee Club and Denver Open Coffee Club. I used to run House of Genius, the Boulder Civic Hackfest, and a bunch of other stuff around town. I do these things because I enjoy surrounding myself with brainpower and give-a-shit and because the exposure is valuable to me. These things trump the convenience that a paid membership provides every time.

John Tayer, the president of the Boulder Chamber, is busting his ass to make his organization more relevant. If you get the chance to talk to him, tell him about your business needs and find a way to get involved. In the meantime, I'll send him the thoughts I've outlined in this post along with any of your comments below. Consider it a small step in building a stronger relationship.

Startup Job Security

This post was originally published on the Boomtown blog on May 27, 2015.

Is there such a thing as startup job security? Many startups have unproven business models and limited runway to figure it out, leaving job candidates wondering whether joining early stage companies amount to career suicide. For those who see this as a risky proposition, I submit that if you approach a startup career move as smartly as you should any other career move, job security isn't as elusive as you may think.

You need to get to know a company before making any career move, startup or otherwise. Evaluating an early stage company requires more due diligence than evaluating a Fortune 500, of course, but that's the price of entry. About a year ago I went through this process before making the leap to join Simpler, a startup with no customers, no revenue model, and no retirement fund. 

Simpler's founder, Alan Kane, had a track record of startup success and was being funded by investors that had backed him before. They were experienced as operators and investors in automotive software, the arena Simpler was getting ready to enter. They were in a position to make introductions to automotive manufacturers, dealerships, software vendors, and anybody else in the ecosystem.

I met with Alan. I talked to somebody else Alan was considering hiring to hear her perspective on the team and opportunity. I researched Alan's previous startup experiences. I met with one of the investors. I confirmed that there was enough funding to last a year. I called a CEO from one of the investors' other portfolio companies. While this took some effort, I was able to complete my due diligence in about 3 business days. By the time I wrapped up, my wife and I were confident that Simpler had a lot of ingredients for success.

After you've evaluated your chances of success at the startup you're considering joining, evaluate your chances of success with startups generally. If you're qualified enough to be hired by one startup, you're qualified enough to be hired by another. While traditional job security is about a stable career in a single company, startup job security can be about a dynamic career in several companies.

Prior to joining Simpler I had been Managing Director at Quick Left, which had grown in size and reputation in the time that I had been there. I had experience working with software developers and making technical sales. I had gotten to know a lot of people in the Colorado startup community, particularly by adopting a give before you get mentality. These are all reasons I was valuable to Simpler. My wife and I realized that others would find me valuable too.

Fast forward to today. I'm actively interviewing Ruby on Rails developers to join our growing team. Many candidates wonder whether Simpler will still exist in 6 months as I did a year ago. We've got paying customers, additional investors, and growing momentum. I like our chances. I tell candidates about the thought process I used to evaluate Simpler a year ago and ask them to do the same.

I recognize that the type of opportunity that presented itself when I joined Simpler doesn't come along every day. It was atypical in that not all startups have the same ingredients for success. That said, I had been patient and chose Simpler precisely because it was atypical. If you're thinking about joining your first startup, I encourage you to find the right situation, do your homework, and have faith that the startup community will help you succeed, whether its at your first startup or the next. As it turns out, taking the startup leap doesn't have to be as scary as it looks.