Why I love working with small business and you should too

Apr 21, 2008 • Paul Singh

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of businesses ranging from the Fortune 500 all the way “down” to small bootstrapped businesses (including my own).

I’ve noticed an inverse relationship between the size of the company and the “interesting-ness” of it’s employees. Simply put: I’ve met the most interesting people at the smallest companies.

“But Paul,” you might say, “everyone is interesting in their own way – what do you really mean?” Often, the only difference between an interesting person and one who does not consider himself interesting is a matter of confidence – and a willingness to share their stories.

Small businesses are a unique place where employees have no choice but to be innovative and highly creative. When you tie those together with confidence and great communication skills, you tend to get the type of people that actively seek out (and share) new experiences – that makes them such interesting people.

When I was working with a large Fortune 500 company last year, the most interesting person I worked with was a horse breeder. Here at PBwiki, a much smaller company by comparison, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a helicopter pilot, influential bloggers, hot sauce aficionados, “hippies” (am I going to get in trouble for saying that?) and ex-librarians – a much wider range of people that all share the common traits above.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially those of you working in the “corporate” world. Let me know.

Here’s why you always wait for the last minute

This is the second in a series of posts about **the lessons I wish I’d learned earlier in life.Anyone remember getting assigned a project in school? You’d think to yourself, “I’ve got plenty of time, it’s not due for 6 weeks!” Then, before you know it, you’re cramming in the entire project on the night before it’s due. (I was a master of this throughout my school years.

Parkinson’s Law simply states that “work will fill the time available for its completion.” As Tim Ferriss puts it in his latest book, The Four Hour Workweek (buy it now, you’ll thank me):

If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.

This presents a very curious phenomenon. There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of one another:

1.) Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time. (80/20)
2.) Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important. (Parkinson’s Law).

The best solution is to use both together: Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to income and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines.

The idea is to apply the 80/20 rule to your to-do list first. Once you’ve determined what you really need to get done, start setting deadlines for each of the remaining things – and stick to them.

(Personal Tip: I set the countdown timer on my iPhone to 60 minutes each time I sit down. When the time runs out, I move on to the next thing on my list – no questions asked. I’ve found that, most of the time, I tend to finish the task within the time. If it didn’t get finished, I leave it on my list and get back to it after working through the next to-do items.)

How to avoid pissing off your mentor

Ben Casnocha wrote an interesting article on the six habits of highly effective mentees which is a great add-on to my previous post on goal buddies.

There’s no shortage of people hailing the benefits of mentors. There’s also ample advice on how to find mentors. Few talk about what to do once you’ve made contact with someone who wants to help you. You sit down to lunch with a potential mentor. What do you say? How do you act? How frequently do you follow up, especially if the person is busy and important?

Before you reach out to your goal buddy (you have one now, right?), make sure you keep a few things in mind (head over to main article to learn more about each):

  1. It’s all about the questions you ask.
  2. Have strong beliefs, weakly held.
  3. Have a long term perspective.
  4. Be open to topics not on your short term agenda.
  5. Follow up by showing interest in them (at least four times a year).
  6. Don’t make the mentor do the work.

Most importantly, don’t disrespect your mentor’s time. If they’re good enough to make you want them as your mentor, they’ve probably got a pretty busy schedule. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call from a mentee that starts something like, “Hi, I’ve got a quick question for you!” There’s no such thing as a quick question – just don’t do it.

The best people I’ve ever mentored have been very good at sending me an email to schedule time for their questions. Once we’ve set that expectation of each other, I know that any random calls I get from this person is either going to be a simple “Hi, how’s it going?” or a real emergency.

The point is that your mentor wants to help you – do yourself (and your mentor) a favor by working with his schedule.

The 80/20 Rule

What is it?

I first came across the 80/20 rule when I picked up “The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less” (Richard Koch). At the time, I sometimes accused myself of being lazy for not “working hard” but I realized what I was doing was living an 80/20 lifestyle and in fact probably being a lot more productive than those working harder than myself.

Simply put, the 80/20 rule states that the relationship between input and output is rarely, if ever, balanced. When applied to work, it means that approximately 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of the results. Learning to recognize and then focus on that 20 percent is the key to making the most effective use of your time.

According to Wikipedia:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, 80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes. Business management thinker Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy went to 20% of the population. It is a common rule of thumb in business; e.g., “80% of your sales comes from 20% of your clients.”

Some Practical 80/20 Tips

1. List unproductive or meaningless activities and eliminate them

Reason: 80% of the activities give only 20% of the value

List and look at all your activities. Only a few of them give the most value and meaning. Do you really need the rest of them? Eliminate the time wasters and keep the important stuff. Be ruthless; don’t be afraid to say no if you need to.

2. Spend most of your time on your most important relationships

Reason: 20% of the relationships gives 80% of the value

From all our relationships, only a small portion of them gives the most value to us. These are the few people with whom you have strong emotional bond. Usually these people are your spouse, your family, and a few close friends. You should spend the majority of your time nurturing these relationships.

3. Focus on creating more memorable moments in your relationships

Reason: 20% of the time in a relationship gives 80% of the memories

Well, the figures here are actually more like 5%-95% than 20%-80%. From all the time we spend in our relationships, there are only a few moments which give us unforgettable memories. Focus on making more of these.

4. Focus on your strengths

Reason: 20% of your skills give 80% of the returns

The few skills that give you the most returns are your strengths. It’s important to identify them so that you don’t waste time working on things which give you only small return. To be effective, you should do only a few things, the things you are very good at.

5. Find your productive “place” and make the most of it

Reason: 20% of your work time gives 80% of the results.

Everyone has a productivity “sweet spot”. Some people are most productive in the morning while some others are most productive in the evening. Maybe you work best alone, while others are most productive when they have some background noise. Whatever the time or condition is, try to identify yours and make more of it.

6. Stop reading everything

Reason: 20% of the stuff you read gives 80% of the value

Some books (and/or blogs) give you much more value than the others, so they deserve more time and attention. These are the few sources which could significantly improve your life. While for most books it is enough to read them just once, you should reread the important ones until you can effectively apply their lessons.

7. Learn to skim content

Reason: 20% of the content of a book gives 80% of the value

This is an important lesson if you love to read. There are so many interesting books to learn from and yet so little time. What you need to do is identify the critical parts of a book which make its top 20%, read it, and skim the rest.

8. Pack unused stuff or simply throw it away

Reason: 20% of the stuff is used 80% of the time

Only a small portion of the stuff you have is used often. The majority of it is rarely used, if ever. While you do need some of it to anticipate certain situations (for example, a first aid kit), most of it is practically useless. So identify the useless stuff and pack it or – even better – throw it away.

9. Focus your saving effort on the really big stuff

Reason: 20% of the categories makes 80% of the expenses

While trying to reduce your expenses on the small expense categories is good, you will get the most results if you focus your effort on the major categories. Write your expenses down, see where you spend the most and kill it.

How not to use the 80/20 rule:

1. 80 + 20 = 100

Don’t get caught up on the numbers. Both 80 and 20 are just examples of one type of uneven balances. The fact that they add up to 100 is a coincidence. You could call this the 50/3 or the 37/9 rule – the point is that your inputs don’t always equal your outputs.

2. 80/20 Applied Recursively

One argument I’ve heard against the 80/20 rule goes like this, “If you keep killing the 80%, eventually you’ll end up with nothing.” I suppose the people who argued this point felt they were being clever – I think they were being smartasses.

Once again, the numbers here aren’t that important. When you have a limited amount of time, you can’t perform every task possible. The 80/20 Rule suggests you look through all the tasks you normally could perform, pick the top 20% that create the most results and focus on them. Whatever time you have left can be spent on the less productive 80%.

3. The 80/20 Rule may not always work for you

When it comes to skill building, be careful. It might take 2 years to become 80% proficient but in order to get that last 20% of skill you need to invest another 8 years. (Medical Doctors are a good example of this.)

Be honest with yourself – if you absolutely need to be 100% proficient, focus all your energy to get that last 20%. Otherwise, move on.

4. “But I still have to do it…”

An argument I’ve heard against the 80/20 rule frequently goes like this, “Sure some tasks are less valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to get done.” Answering e-mails, making phone calls or having meetings may appear wasteful, but they still need to get finished, right?

This argument has an element of truth, but it conceals a bigger lie. The truth is that, yes, there are things that need to get done even though they aren’t wildly important. If I stopped answering e-mails I might miss opportunities, have my network degrade or lose important messages.

The bigger lie is that you have no control in adjusting where time gets spent. If e-mail isn’t that important, your goal should be to reduce the time you spend on it. If meetings aren’t contributing, you should have shorter meetings. If your hands are really tied and you have no control over how your time is spent, what’s the point of reading this post?

Putting it all together:

The point of the Pareto principle is to recognize that most things in life are not distributed evenly. These techniques may or may not make sense – the point is to realize you have the option to focus on the important 20%.

See what activities generate the most results and give them your appropriate attention.

My First Job: What I Learned Making Pizzas

Apr 9, 2008 • Paul Singh

My first job was at a Papa John’s Pizza in northern Virginia. Not only was making pizzas the only employment available to me, it was my favorite food at the time. What better way to make my first few paychecks?

**It’s All About the Process
**On my first day, each new employee would get a manual – a freakin’ MANUAL. This thing contained exact measurements, diagrams, pictures and clear instructions on how to wear your uniform, talk to customers, make the pizza, clean the oven and anything else you can think of. Damn, these guys were killing my individuality – I was about to become Papa John himself.

I quickly ramped up and was able to make pizzas, dispatch drivers and take orders within two weeks. I learned how to have a little fun and make some tips off of customers. I could smell the sauce and tell if it was made properly – I was that good.

**Fair Pay? Eat Your Weight in Pizza
**Did I mention I was paid nearly minimum wage? If I recall it was about $7.00 an hour. I could expect to make good money if I was willing to spend all my non-studying hours there at the store. Don’t get me wrong, it was good money for my first job but definitely an eye-opener.

The food was free – all we could eat.

**Quitters Sometimes Win
**By the end of the summer, I had decided to retire from pizza-making and move on to something else. It was time to move on to non-commission sales at Best Buy. The work was less time consuming and I got paid a little more. I now began learning how to talk to customers and had a tiny bit of free time to plan my next ventures.

What did I learn during my pizza-making days?

  • If you can package what you do into a process, you can teach it to others.
  • The guy who made the process gets paid a lot while the people performing the process got paid shit.
  • It’s important to be looking for the next thing – no job is forever and once you’ve learned everything at your current place, it’s time to move on.

What lessons did you learn in your early jobs?

Some lessons I wish I learned earlier in life

When most people today hear the word “lesson,” they usually don’t think of it as a good thing. Teaching a lesson may be looked at as being bossy or perhaps a know-it-all. While having learned a lesson may be viewed as a sign of weakness.

However, learning lessons is far from being weak. In fact, George Washington once said, “We ought not to look back unless it is derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.” Well said, sir.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. The 80/20 rule.
  2. Parkinson’s Law.
  3. Batching.
  4. First, give value. Then, get value. Not the other way around.
  5. Be proactive. Not reactive.
  6. Mistakes and failures are good.
  7. Don’t beat yourself up.
  8. Your attitude changes your reality.
  9. Don’t compare yourself to others.
  10. Worrying never gets you anywhere.
  11. Don’t take things too seriously.
  12. Avoid being technology’s bitch.
  13. There are opportunities in just about every experience.

In order to save you some time, starting next week and continuing each week, I’m going to highlight one of the lessons that you can focus on throughout the week.

Until then, why not send me a note and tell me about the lessons you’ve learned along the way. I’ll add the good ones to this list.

Two things I use to stay productive

I was catching up with an old friend yesterday and we started talking about how busy our respective circle of friends had become over the last few years. “You probably wouldn’t understand,” he said, “but while you get to do the cool stuff, the rest of us seem to be stuck in the daily grind.”Huh? Where’d that come from? What do I even say to that?

That got me thinking for a while. Then I realized that he saw me as the guy that somehow sidesteps trivial work and spends time on the “really important” stuff.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to call your ass out when you’re wasting time my time with asinine requests. At the same time though, I attack everything I do with two simple things:

Prioritization. Back in college, I knew people that could study, watch TV, play video games, shower and do 24362456 other things at the same time. I hated those people because I was the guy that had to go sit in the corner facing the wall so I could actually focus on my work.

To really become effective, you should get into the habit of asking yourself “What needs to be done?” on an almost daily (if not hourly) basis. What I’ve learned is that I have to ask myself this question every time I finish something because priorities can (and usually will) change once you’ve finished working on your most important tasks.

Clarity. I’ve found that just about project I’ve ever gotten involved in is too complex. And complexity is the enemy. We become confused and overwhelmed with too many possibilities and choices. Clarity is what we need – it gives us the power to focus on what really matters and say no to what doesn’t.

Next time you add a to-do (or even a larger project) to your list, make sure you clearly list what needs to get done. For example, rather than “Email Jack” you should probably write “Email Jack about tomorrow’s schedule” – those 3 extra words clearly define what you’re going to accomplish and go a long way towards getting things done.

So, give this a shot – it’s worked for me but I’d love to hear what you use to stay productive. Let me know.

The secret to actually reaching your goals

Mar 28, 2008 • Paul Singh

Many people will tell you that the only way to reach your goals is to get started today. I’m not going to dispute that but I will tell you the secret to actually follow through and reach your goal: find a goal buddy.

What is a goal buddy?

  • A goal buddy provides motivation. He or she will help you stay on track as you work towards your goals, give you a hard time when you slack off and praising your continued efforts to do well.
  • A goal buddy provides accountability. Being accountable to another person brings out our best efforts. Because we know our goal buddy is concerned about our progress, we’re more concerned. We don’t want to let our goal buddy down.
  • A goal buddy increases our determination. Having a goal buddy gives us the staying power we need to accomplish our goals. Achieving goals takes time and continued effort. (After all, they wouldn’t be goals if they didn’t force us to stretch and strive.) But if you don’t have a goal buddy, it’s too easy to shelve the goal, saying, “I’ll work on this later”. Having a goal buddy that we talk to regularly encourages us to make regular and steady progress.

So, here’s what you should do today:

  1. Brainstorm a list of potential goal buddies. Write down some names of people that you think would like to swap goal buddy services with you. Think of people that you know that have drive, persistence, and who are positive. Avoid picking someone who’s going to go easy on you. Also avoid picking someone that you’ll resent getting on your case such as your mother or spouse. Pick someone that might be a little uncomfortable. Don’t limit yourself to just friends and family. Think also of colleagues. And they don’t have to be located near you. Virtual goal buddies can work fine too. You can also look into mastermind groups, business groups, or activity groups in your area too (such as weight loss groups).
  2. Select People for Your Shortlist. Take all the people on your list and narrow it down to just a select few (ideally, no more than 5 people). Choose doers and non-complainers. Be ruthless, don’t leave someone on the list simply because you like them.
  3. Associate Each Person on Your List to your Individual Goals. (You do have your goals written down, don’t you?) Try to match your advisors up with goals they might have some interest in as well – it’s not totally necessary, but it’ll make them more likely to want to help you.
  4. Contact Each Person on Your List. Ask them if he/she would be willing to commit to being goal buddies with you. This would mean getting together at least weekly either in person or by phone to review each others’ progress on your goals.
  5. Get Started, Kick Ass and Reach your Goals.

If you have some experience using a goal buddy or being a goal buddy, let me know.

How to be more effective

Mar 23, 2008 • Paul Singh

One of the most common questions I get asked is this: “How do you get so much done?”

Friends are looking for my secret formula or the key to my efficiency, but I’m always sorry to tell them I don’t have any secrets. I do the same things that other effective people have done and that this blog will hopefully teach you to do.

Try these tips on for size:

  1. Ask yourself, “What needs to be done?” Notice that you’re not asking yourself, “what do I want to do?” This is a crucial difference and one that can’t be overlooked. If asked properly, this question will likely have more than one task. Effective people don’t try to tackle multiple things at once, they concentrate on only one task. If you’re one of those people that really likes to multi-task, you’ll pick no more than two tasks. After you’ve finished your task, go back and ask yourself the question once more – never re-use the original list.
  2. Ask yourself, “What is right in the context of the bigger picture?”As with the first question, this isn’t asking if this is right for you, your investors, your parents, your friends or for anyone else. Of course these stakeholders are important but an effective person knows that if a decision doesn’t work in the bigger picture, it’s not going to work for any of the stakeholders either. Although asking this question doesn’t always guarantee a correct decision, the failure to ask this question will virtually guarantee the wrong decision.
  3. Develop an action plan. You know that knowledge is useless until it’s been converted into actions. Before you jump into action, make sure you plan the course. Your action plan is a “living document” that will evolve with your successes – it is not to be seen as a straitjacket. Without an action plan, you become the prisoner of events. Remember, ideas don’t count – effective people are doers.
  4. Take responsibility for your decisions. A decision hasn’t been made until people know about it. It’s your job to set the deadlines, spread the word and be accountable. It’s also important to review decisions periodically – build these into your action plan. This way, a bad decision can be caught before it can cause too much damage.
  5. Take responsibility for communicating. Effective people make sure that their action plans and needs are understood by those around them. Specifically, this means that you need to share your plans and ask for feedback from your friends, family and peers.
  6. Focus on opportunities rather than problems. Let’s face it, problem solving has never produced results – it only prevents further damage. Taking advantage of opportunities is the single most effective way to produce results. My advice to you: next time you run across a problem (or even a complaint), quickly brainstorm three potential opportunities and stop there. Now pick one and get started.
  7. Run effective meetings. The key to running effective meetings is is to decide in advance what kind of meeting it will be. Different kinds of meetings require different methods of preparation and different results. Making sure meetings stay productive requires a good amount of self-discipline. When the meeting’s specific purpose has been accomplished, sum up and adjourn. Remember that any given meeting is either productive or a total waste of time.

Being highly effective is simply a matter of getting the right things done. Effectiveness is a discipline and, like every discipline, can be learned.