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Last but Not Least
THE BEST OF THE BLOG
The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen
[AFTER 3 WEEKS OFF OF THE BLOG]
Long time no see! I just landed back in California from a long overdue mini-retirement through London, Scotland, Sardinia, the Slovak Republic, Austria, Amsterdam, and Japan. Some unpleasant surprises awaited me when I checked in on the evil e-mail inbox. Why? I let them happen.
I always do.
Here are just a few of the goodies that awaited me this time:
One of our fulfillment companies had been shut down due to the CEO’s death, causing a 20%+ loss in monthly orders and requiring an emergency shift of all web design and order processing Missed radio and magazine appearances and upset would-be interviewers
More than a dozen lost joint-venture partnership opportunities
It’s not that I go out of my way to irritate people—not at all—but I recognize one critical fact: Oftentimes, in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen. This is a skill we want to cultivate.
What did I get in exchange for temporarily putting on blinders and taking a few glancing blows?
I followed the Rugby World Cup in Europe and watched the New Zealand All Blacks live, a dream I’ve had for the last five years.
I shot every gun I’ve ever dreamed of firing since brainwashing myself with Commando. Bless the Slovak Republic and their paramilitaries.
I filmed a television series pilot in Japan, a lifelong dream and the most fun I’ve had in months, if not years.
I met with my Japanese publisher, Seishisha, and had media interviews in Tokyo, where the 4HWW is now #1 in several of the largest chains.
I took a complete 10-day media fast and felt like I’d had a two-year vacation from computers.
I attended the Tokyo International Film Festival and hung out with one of my heroes, the producer of the Planet Earth television series.
Once you realize that you can turn off the noise without the world ending, you’re liberated in a way that few people ever know.
Just remember: If you don’t have attention, you don’t have time. Did I have time to check e-mail and voicemail? Sure. It might take 10 minutes. Did I have the attention to risk fishing for crises in those 10 minutes? Not at all.
As tempting as it is to “just check e-mail for one minute,” I didn’t do it. I know from experience that any problem found in the inbox will linger in the brain for hours or days after you shut down the computer, rendering “free time” useless with preoccupation. It’s the worst of states, where you experience neither relaxation nor productivity. Be focused on work or focused on something else, never in-between.
Time without attention is worthless, so value attention over time.
Here are a few questions that can help you pop on the productivity blinders and put things in perspective. Even when you’re not traveling the world, develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things, whether important tasks or true peak experiences. If you do force the time but puncture it with distractions, you won’t have the attention to appreciate it.
What is the one goal, if completed, that could change everything?
What is the most urgent thing right now that you feel you “must” or “should” do?
Can you let the urgent “fail”—even for a day—to get to the next milestone for your potential life-changing tasks?
What’s been on your to-do list the longest? Start it first thing in the morning and don’t allow interruptions or lunch until you finish.
Will “bad” things happen? Small problems will crop up, yes. A few people will complain and quickly get over it. BUT, the bigger picture items you complete will let you see these for what they are—minutiae and repairable hiccups.
Make this trade a habit. Let the small bad things happen and make the big good things happen. —OCTOBER 25, 2007
Things I’ve Loved and Learned in 2008
2008 was one of the most exciting years of my life. I did more dealmaking and met more people than in the last five years combined. This produced many surprise insights about business and human nature, especially as I uncovered dozens of my own false assumptions.
Here are some of the things I learned and loved in 2008.
Favorite reads of 2008: Zorba the Greek and Seneca: Letters from a Stoic. These are two of the most readable books of practical philosophies I’ve ever had the fortune to encounter. If you have to choose one, get Zorba, but Lucius Seneca will take you further. Both are fast reads of 2–3 evenings.
Don’t accept large or costly favors from strangers. This karmic debt will come back to haunt you. If you can’t pass it up, immediately return to karmic neutrality with a gift of your choosing. Repay it before they set the terms for you. Exceptions: über-successful mentors who are making introductions and not laboring on your behalf.
You don’t have to recoup losses the same way you lose them. I own a home in San Jose but moved almost 12 months ago. It’s been empty since, and I’m paying a large mortgage each month. The best part? I don’t care. But this wasn’t always the case. For many months, I felt demoralized as others pressured me to rent it, emphasizing how I was just flushing money away otherwise. Then I realized: You don’t have to make money back the same way you lose it. If you lose $1,000 at the blackjack table, should you try and recoup it there? Of course not. I don’t want to deal with renters, even with a property management company. The solution: Leave the house alone, use it on occasion, and just create incoming revenue elsewhere that would cover the cost of the mortgage through consulting, publishing, etc.
One of the most universal causes of self-doubt and depression: trying to impress people you don’t like. Stressing to impress is fine, but do it for the right people—those you want to emulate.
Slow meals = life. From Daniel Gilbert of Harvard to Martin Seligman of Princeton, the “happiness” (self-reported well-being) researchers seem to agree on one thing: Mealtime with friends and loved ones is a direct predictor of well-being. Have at least one 2-to-3-hour dinner and/or drinks per week—yes, 2–3 hours—with those who make you smile and feel good. I find the afterglow effect to be greatest and longest with groups of five or more. Two times that are conducive to this: Thursday dinners or after-dinner drinks and Sunday brunches.
Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it.
Related: Money doesn’t change you; it reveals who you are when you no longer have to be nice.
It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do. If you have a strong informed opinion, don’t keep it to yourself. Try to help people and make the world a better place. If you strive to do anything remotely interesting, just expect a small percentage of the population to always find a way to take it personally. F ck ’em. There are no statues erected to critics.
Related: You’re never as bad as they say you are. My agent used to send me every blog or media hit for The 4-Hour Workweek. Eight weeks after publication, I asked him to only forward me positive mentions in major media or factual inaccuracies I needed to respond to. An important correlate: You’re never as good as they say you are, either. It’s not helpful to get a big head or get depressed. The former makes you careless and the latter makes you lethargic. I wanted to have untainted optimism but remain hungry. Speaking of hungry … Eat a high-protein breakfast within 30 minutes of waking and go for a 10-to-20-minute walk outside afterward, ideally bouncing a handball or tennis ball. This one habit is better than a handful of Prozac in the morning. (Suggested reading: The 3-Minute Slow-Carb Breakfast, How to “Peel” Hardboiled Eggs Without Peeling on www.fourhourblog.com.) I dislike losing money about 50x more than I like making it. Why 50X? Logging time as an experiment, I concluded that I often spend at least 50 x more time to prevent a hypothetical unit of $100 from being lost vs. earned. The hysterical part is that, even after becoming aware of this bias, it’s hard to prevent the latter response. Therefore, I manipulate the environmental causes of poor responses instead of depending on error-prone self-discipline.
I should not invest in public stocks where I cannot influence outcomes. Once realizing that almost no one can predict risk tolerance and response to losses, I moved all of my investments into fixed-income and cashlike instruments in July 2008 for this reason, setting aside 10% of pretax income for angel investments where I can contribute significant UI/design, PR, and corporate partnership help. (Suggested reading: Rethinking Investing—Part 1, Rethinking Investing—Part 2 on www.fourhourblog.com.) A good question to revisit whenever overwhelmed: Are you having a breakdown or a breakthrough?
Rehearse poverty regularly—restrict even moderate expenses for 1–2 weeks and give away 20%+ of minimally used clothing—so you can think big and take “risks” without fear (Seneca).
A mindset of scarcity (which breeds jealousy and unethical behavior) is due to a disdain for those things easily obtained (Seneca).
A small cup of black Kenyan AA coffee with cinnamon on top, no milk or sweeteners.
It’s usually better to keep old resolutions than to make new ones.
To bring in a wonderful 2009, I’d like to quote an e-mail I received from a mentor of more than a decade:
While many are wringing their hands, I recall the 1970s when we were suffering from an oil shock causing long lines at gas stations, rationing, and 55 MPH speed limits on federal highways, a recession, very little venture capital ($50 million per year into VC firms), and what President Jimmy Carter (wearing a sweater while addressing the nation on TV because he had turned down the heat in the White House) called a “malaise.” It was during those times that two kids without any real college education, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, started companies that did pretty well. Opportunities abound in bad times as well as good times. In fact, the opportunities are often greater when the conventional wisdom is that everything is going into the toilet.
Well… we’re nearing the end of another great year, and despite what we read about the outlook for 2009, we can look forward to a New Year filled with opportunities as well as stimulating challenges.
Happy New Year, everyone.
How to Travel the World with 10 Pounds or Less
Hauling a five-piece Samsonite set around the planet is hell on earth. I watched a friend do this up and down dozens of subway and hotel staircases in Europe for three weeks, and—while I laughed a lot, especially when he resorted to just dragging or throwing his bags down stairs—I’d like to save you the breakdown. Trip enjoyment is inversely proportionate to the amount of crap (read: distractions) you bring with you.
Practice in 30-plus countries has taught me that minimalist packing can be an art.
I returned from Costa Rica last Wednesday and have since landed in Maui, where I’ll stay for one week. What did I pack and why? (See the companion video at www.fourhourblog.com.86) I practice what I’ll label the BIT method of travel: Buy It There.
If you pack for every possible contingency—better bring the hiking books in case we go hiking, better bring an umbrella in case it rains, better bring dress shoes and slacks in case we go to a nice restaurant, etc.—carrying a mule-worthy load is inevitable. I’ve learned to instead allocate $50–200 per trip to a “settling fund,” which I use to buy needed items once they’re 100% needed. This includes cumbersome and hassle items like umbrellas and bottles of sunscreen that love to explode. Also, never buy if you can borrow. If you’re going on a bird-watching trip in Costa Rica, you don’t need to bring binoculars—someone else will have them.
Here’s the Maui list.
1 featherweight Marmot Ion jacket (3 oz.!)
1 breathable Coolibar long-sleeve shirt to prevent sunburn. This saved me in Panama.
1 pair of polyester pants. Polyester is light, wrinkle-resistant, and dries quickly. Disco dancers and flashpackers dig it.
1 Kensington laptop lock, also used to secure all bags to stationary objects
1 single Under Armour sock, used to store sunglasses
2 nylon tanktops
1 large MSR quick-dry microfiber towel, absorbs up to seven times its weight in water
1 Ziploc bag containing toothbrush, travel toothpaste, and disposable razor
1 Fly Clear biometric travel card (www.flyclear.com),87 which cuts down my airport wait time about 95%
2 pairs of ExOfficio lightweight underwear. Their tagline is “17 countries. 6 weeks. And one pair of underwear.” I think I’ll opt for two, considering they weigh about as much as a handful of Kleenex. One other nice side effect of their weight: They’re much more comfortable than normal cotton underwear.
2 pairs of shorts/swimsuits
2 books: Lonely Planet Hawaii and The Entrepreneurial Imperative. (The latter comes highly recommended. Check it out.)
1 sleeping mask and earplugs
1 pair of Reef sandals. Best to get a pair with removable straps that go around the heel.
1 Canon PowerShot SD300 digital camera with extra 2GB SD memory card. God, I love this camera more than words can describe. It is the best designed piece of electronics I have ever owned. I now use it not only for all of my photos and videos, but also as a replacement for my scanner. I’m considering testing the newer and cheaper SD1000.
1 coffee-harvesting hat to prevent my pale skin from burning off
1 Kiva keychain expandable duffel bag
1 Chapstick, 1 Mag-Lite Solitaire flashlight, and 1 roll of athletic tape. The last is a lifesaver. It’s as useful as duct tape for repairing objects but gentle enough to use on injuries, which I am fond of inflicting on myself.
1 Lewis and Clark flex lock (for luggage, lockers, zippers, or whatever I need to lock down/shut together). Standard mini-padlocks are often too cumbersome to thread through holes on lockers, etc.
1 Radio Shack kitchen timer, which I’ve been using to wake up for about four years. The problem with using a cell phone alarm to wake up is simple: The phone often needs to be on, and even if you use vibrate, people can call and wake you up before you want to wake up. The second benefit to using a kitchen timer is that you know exactly how much sleep you are—or aren’t—getting, and you can experiment with things like caffeine power naps of different durations … but that’s another post;) —JULY 11, 2007
The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm
I was stressed out… over dog cartoons.
It was 9:47 P.M. at Barnes and Noble on a recent Saturday night, and I had 13 minutes to find a suitable exchange for The New Yorker Dog Cartoons, $22 of expensive paper. Bestsellers? Staff recommends? New arrivals or classics? I’d already been there 30 minutes.
Beginning to feel overwhelmed with a ridiculous errand I’d expected to take five minutes, I stumbled across the psychology section. One tome jumped out at me as all too appropriate—The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen or read Barry Schwartz’s 2004 classic, but it seemed like a good time to revisit the principles, among them, that: The more options you consider, the more buyer’s regret you’ll have.
The more options you encounter, the less fulfilling your ultimate outcome will be.
This raises a difficult question: Is it better to have the best outcome but be less satisfied, or have an acceptable outcome and be satisfied?
For example, would you rather deliberate for months and get the 1 of 20 houses that’s the best investment but second-guess yourself until you sell it five years later, or would you rather get a house that is 80% of the investment potential of the former (still to be sold at a profit) but never second-guess it?
Schwartz also recommends making nonreturnable purchases. I decided to keep the stupid pooch cartoons. Why? Because it’s not just about being satisfied, it’s about being practical.
Income is renewable, but some other resources—like attention—are not. I’ve talked before about attention as a currency and how it determines the value of time.
For example: Is your weekend really free if you find a crisis in the inbox Saturday morning that you can’t address until Monday morning?
Even if the inbox scan lasts 30 seconds, the preoccupation and forward projection for the subsequent 48 hours effectively deletes that experience from your life. You had time but you didn’t have attention, so the time had no practical value.
The choice-minimal lifestyle becomes an attractive tool when we consider two truths.
Considering options costs attention that then can’t be spent on action or present-state awareness.
Attention is necessary for not only productivity but appreciation.
Too many choices = less or no productivity
Too many choices = less or no appreciation
Too many choices = sense of overwhelm
What to do? There are six basic rules or formulas that can be used:
Set rules for yourself so you can automate as much decision making as possible [see the rules I use to outsource my e-mail to Canada, included at the end of this section, as an example of this].
Don’t provoke deliberation before you can take action.
One simple example: Don’t scan the inbox on Friday evening or over the weekend if you might encounter work problems that can’t be addressed until Monday.
- Don’t postpone decisions just to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
If an acquaintance asks you if you want to come to their house for dinner next week, and you know you won’t, don’t say, “I’m not sure. I’ll let you know next week.” Instead, use something soft but conclusive like, “Next week? I’m pretty sure I have another commitment on Thursday, but thank you for the invite. Just so I don’t leave you hanging, let’s assume I can’t make it, but can I let you know if that changes?” Decision made. Move on.
- Learn to make nonfatal or reversible decisions as quickly as possible.
Set time limits (I won’t consider options for more than 20 minutes), option limits (I’ll consider no more than three options), or finance thresholds (Example: If it costs less than $100 [or the potential damage is less than $100], I’ll let a virtual assistant make the judgment call).
I wrote most of this post after landing at the monster that is ATL airport in Atlanta. I could have considered half a dozen types of ground transportation in 15 minutes and saved 30–40%, but I grabbed a taxi instead. To use illustrative numbers: I didn’t want to sacrifice 10 attention units of my remaining 50 of 100 total potential units, since those 10 units couldn’t then be spent on this article. I had about eight hours before bedtime due to time zone differences—plenty of time—but scarce usable attention after an all-nighter of fun and the cross-country flight. Fast decisions preserve usable attention for what matters.
- Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.
In working with athletes, for example, it’s clear that those who maintain the lowest bodyfat percentage eat the same foods over and over with little variation. I’ve eaten the same “slow-carb” breakfast and lunch for nearly two years,88 putting variation only into meals that I focus on for enjoyment: dinner and all meals on Saturdays. This same routine-variation distinction can be found in exercise vs. recreation. For fat loss and muscle gain (even as much as 34 pounds in four weeks), I’ve followed the same time—minimal exercise protocol with occasional experiments since 1996. For recreation, however, where the focus is enjoyment and not efficacy, I tend to try something new each weekend, whether climbing at Mission Cliffs in San Francisco or mountain biking from tasting to tasting in Napa.
Don’t confuse what should be results-driven with routine (e.g., exercise) with something enjoyment-driven that benefits from variation (e.g., recreation).
- Regret is past-tense decision making. Eliminate complaining to minimize regret.
Condition yourself to notice complaints and stop making them with a simple program like the “21-day no-complaint experiment” made famous by Will Bowen, where you wear a single bracelet and move it from one wrist to the other each time you complain. The goal is 21 days without complaining and you reset to 0 each time you slip up. This increased awareness helps prevent useless past-tense deliberation and negative emotions that improve nothing but deplete your attention.
DECISION-MAKING ISN’T to be avoided—that’s not the problem. Look at a good CEO or top corporate performer and you’ll see a high volume of decisions.
It’s deliberation—the time we vacillate over and consider each decision—that’s the attention consumer. Total deliberation time, not the number of decisions, determines your attention bank account balance (or debt).
Let’s assume you pay 10% over time by following the above rules but cut your average “decision cycle” time by an average of 40% (10 minutes reduced to 6 minutes, for example). Not only will you have much more time and attention to spend on revenue-generating activities, but you’ll get greater enjoyment from what you have and experience. Consider that 10% additional cost as an investment and part of your “ideal lifestyle tax,” but not as a loss.
Embrace the choice-minimal lifestyle. It’s a subtle and under-exploited philosophical tool that produces dramatic increases in both output and satisfaction, all with less overwhelm.
Make testing a few of the principles the first of many fast and reversible decisions. —FEBRUARY 6, 2008
The Not-to-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now
“Not-to-do” lists are often more effective than to-do lists for upgrading performance.
The reason is simple: What you don’t do determines what you can do.
Here are nine stressful and common habits that entrepreneurs and office workers should strive to eliminate. The bullets are followed by more detailed descriptions. Focus on one or two at a time, just as you would with high-priority to-do items.
- Do not answer calls from unrecognized phone numbers.
Feel free to surprise others, but don’t be surprised. It just results in unwanted interruption or poor negotiating positions. Let it go to voicemail, and consider using a service like GrandCentral (you can listen to people leaving voicemail or receive them as text messages) or Phonetag.com (receive voicemails as e-mail).
- Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.
The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day, and the latter just gives you insomnia. E-mail can wait until 10 A.M., after you’ve completed at least one of your critical to-do items.
- Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.
If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you “can best prepare and make good use of the time together.” 4. Do not let people ramble.
Forget “How’s it going?” when someone calls you. Stick with “What’s up?” or “I’m in the middle of getting something out, but what’s going on?” A big part of GTD (Getting Things Done) is GTP—Getting To the Point.
- Do not check e-mail constantly—“batch” and check at set times only.
I belabor this point enough. Get off the cocaine pellet dispenser and focus on execution of your top to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies. Set up a strategic autoresponder and check twice or thrice daily.
- Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance customers.
There is no sure path to success, but the surest path to failure is trying to please everyone. Do an 80/20 analysis of your customer base in two ways—which 20% are producing 80%+ of my profit, and which 20% are consuming 80%+ of my time? Then put the loudest and least productive on autopilot by citing a change in company policies. Send them an e-mail with new rules as bullet points: number of permissible phone calls, e-mail response time, minimum orders, etc. Offer to point them to another provider if they aren’t able to adopt the new policies.
- Do not work more to fix overwhelmingness—prioritize.
If you don’t prioritize, everything seems urgent and important. If you define the single most important task for each day, almost nothing seems urgent or important. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of letting little bad things happen (return a phone call late and apologize, pay a small late fee, lose an unreasonable customer, etc.) to get the big important things done. The answer to overwhelmingness is not spinning more plates—or doing more—it’s defining the few things that can really fundamentally change your business and life.
- Do not carry a cell phone or Crackberry 24/7.
Take at least one day off of digital leashes per week. Turn them off or, better still, leave them in the garage or in the car. I do this on at least Saturday, and I recommend you leave the phone at home if you go out for dinner. So what if you return a phone call an hour later or the next morning? As one reader put it to a miffed co-worker who worked 24/7 and expected the same: “I’m not the president of the U.S. No one should need me at 8 P.M. at night. OK, you didn’t get a hold of me. But what bad happened?” The answer? Nothing.
- Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.
Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.” Review Parkinson’s Law and force yourself to cram within tight hours so your per-hour productivity doesn’t fall through the floor. Focus, get the critical few done, and get out. E-mailing all weekend is no way to spend the little time you have on this planet.
It’s hip to focus on getting things done, but it’s only possible once we remove the constant static and distraction. If you have trouble deciding what to do, just focus on not doing. Different means, same end. —AUGUST 16, 2007 The Margin Manifesto: 11 Tenets for Reaching (or Doubling) Profitability in 3 Months
Profitability often requires better rules and speed, not more time. The financial goal of a start-up should be simple: profit in the least time with the least effort. Not more customers, not more revenue, not more offices or more employees. More profit.
Based on my interviews with high-performing (using profit-per-employee metrics) CEOs in more than a dozen countries, here are the 11 basic tenets of the “Margin Manifesto” … a return-to-basics call that gives permission to do the uncommon to achieve the uncommon: consistent profitability, or doubling of it, in three months or less.
I review the following principles whenever facing operational overwhelmingness or declining/stagnating profits. Hope you find them useful.
- Niche Is the New Big—The Lavish Dwarf Entertainment Rule
Several years ago, an investment banker was jailed for trade violations. He was caught partly due to his lavish parties on yachts, often featuring hired dwarves. The owner of the dwarf rental company, Danny Black, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying “Some people are just into lavish dwarf entertainment.” Niche is the new big. But here’s the secret: It’s possible to niche market and mass sell. iPod commercials don’t feature dancing 50-year-olds, they feature hip and fit 20- and 30-somethings, but everyone and his grandmother wants to feel youthful and hip, so they strap on Nanos and call themselves Apple converts. Who you portray in your marketing isn’t necessarily the only demographic who buys your product—it’s often the demographic that most people want to identify with or belong to. The target isn’t the market. No one aspires to be the bland average, so don’t water down messaging to appeal to everyone—it will end up appealing to no one.
- Revisit Drucker—What Gets Measured Gets Managed
Measure compulsively, for as Peter Drucker stated, What gets measured gets managed. Useful metrics to track, besides the usual operational stats, include CPO (“Cost-Per-Order,” which includes advertising, fulfillment and expected returns, charge-backs, and bad debt), ad allowable (the maximum you can spend on an advertisement and expect to break even), MER (media efficiency ratio), and projected lifetime value (LV) given return rates and reorder percent. Consider applying direct response advertising metrics to your business.
- Pricing Before Product—Plan Distribution First
Is your pricing scalable? Many companies will sell direct-to-consumer by necessity in early stages, only to realize that their margins can’t accommodate resellers and distributors when they come knocking. If you have a 40% profit margin and a distributor needs a 70% discount to sell into wholesale accounts, you’re forever limited to direct-to-consumer … unless you increase your pricing and margins. It’s best to do this beforehand if possible—otherwise, you’ll need to launch new or “premium” products—so plan distribution before setting pricing. Test assumptions and find hidden costs by interviewing those who have done it: Will you need to pay for co-op advertising, offer rebates for bulk purchases, or pay for shelf space or featured placement? I know one former CEO of a national brand who had to sell his company to one of the world’s largest soft drink manufacturers before he could access front-of-store shelving in top retailers. Test your assumptions and do your homework before setting pricing.
- Less Is More—Limiting Distribution to Increase Profit
Is more distribution automatically better? No. Uncontrolled distribution leads to all manner of headache and profit-bleeding, most often related to rogue discounters. Reseller A lowers pricing to compete with online discounter B, and the price cutting continues until neither is making sufficient profit on the product and both stop reordering. This requires you to launch a new product, as price erosion is almost always irreversible. Avoid this scenario and consider partnering with one or two key distributors instead, using that exclusivity to negotiate better terms: less discounting, prepayment, preferred placement and marketing support, etc. From iPods to Rolex and Estée Lauder, sustainable high-profit brands usually begin with controlled distribution. Remember, more customers isn’t the goal; more profit is.
- Net-Zero—Create Demand vs. Offering Terms
Focus on creating end-user demand so you can dictate terms. Often one trade publication advertisment, bought at discount remnant rates, will be enough to provide this leverage. Outside of science and law, most “rules” are just common practice. Just because everyone in your industry offers terms doesn’t mean you have to, and offering terms is the most consistent ingredient in start-up failure. Cite start-up economics and the ever-so-useful “company policy” as reasons for prepayment and apologize, but don’t make exceptions. Net-30 becomes net-60, which becomes net-120. Time is the most expensive asset a start-up has, and chasing delinquent accounts will prevent you from generating more sales. If customers are asking for your product, resellers and distributors will need to buy it. It’s that simple. Put funds and time into strategic marketing and PR to tip the scales in your favor.
- Repetition Is Usually Redundant—Good Advertising Works the First Time
Use direct response advertising (call-to-action to a phone number or website) that is uniquely trackable—fully accountable advertising—instead of image advertising, unless others are pre-purchasing to offset the cost (e.g., “If you prepurchase 288 units, we’ll feature your store/URL/phone exclusively in a full-page ad in…”). Don’t listen to advertising salespeople who tell you that 3, 7, or 27 exposures are needed before someone will act on an advertisement. Well-designed and well-targeted advertising works the first time. If something works partially well (e.g., high response with low percentage conversion to sales, low response with high conversion, etc.), indicating that a strong ROI might be possible with small changes, tweak one controlled variable and microtest once more. Cancel anything that cannot be justified with a trackable ROI.
- Limit Downside to Ensure Upside—Sacrifice Margin for Safety
Don’t manufacture product in large quantities to increase margin unless your product and marketing are tested and ready for rollout without changes. If a limited number of prototypes cost $10 per piece to manufacture and sell for $11 each, that’s fine for the initial testing period, and essential for limiting downside. Sacrifice margin temporarily for the testing phase, if need be, and avoid potentially fatal upfront overcommitments.
- Negotiate Late—Make Others Negotiate Against Themselves
Never make a first offer when purchasing. Flinch after the first offer (“$3,000!” followed by pure silence, which uncomfortable salespeople fill by dropping the price once), let people negotiate against themselves (“Is that really the best you can offer?” elicits at least one additional drop in price), then “bracket.” If they end up at $2,000 and you want to pay $1,500, offer $1,250. They’ll counter with approximately $1,750, to which you respond: “I’ll tell you what—let’s just split the difference. I’ll overnight FedEx you a check, and we can call it a day.” The end result? Exactly what you wanted: $1,500.
- Hyperactivity vs. Productivity—80/20 and Pareto’s Law
Being busy is not the same as being productive. Forget about the start-up overwork ethic that people wear as a badge of honor—get analytical. The 80/20 principle, also known as Pareto’s Law, dictates that 80% of your desired outcomes are the result of 20% of your activities or inputs. Once per week, stop putting out fires for an afternoon and run the numbers to ensure you’re placing effort in high-yield areas: What 20% of customers/products/ regions are producing 80% of the profit? What are the factors that could account for this? Invest in duplicating your few strong areas instead of fixing all of your weaknesses.
- The Customer Is Not Always Right—“Fire” High-Maintenance Customers
Not all customers are created equal. Apply the 80/20 principle to time consumption: What 20% of people are consuming 80% of your time? Put high-maintenance, low-profit customers on autopilot—process orders but don’t pursue them or check up on them—and “fire” high-maintenance, high-profit customers by sending a memo detailing how a change in business model requires a few new policies: how often and how to communicate, standardized pricing and order process, etc. Indicate that, for those clients whose needs are incompatible with these new policies, you are happy to introduce other providers. “But what if my largest customer consumes all of my time?” Recognize that (1) without time, you cannot scale your company (and, oftentimes, life) beyond that customer, and (2) people, even good people, will unknowingly abuse your time to the extent that you let them. Set good rules for all involved to minimize back-and-forth and meaningless communication.
- Deadlines Over Details—Test Reliability Before Capability
Skills are overrated. Perfect products delivered past deadline kill companies faster than decent products delivered on time. Test someone’s ability to deliver on a specific and tight deadline before hiring them based on a dazzling portfolio. Products can be fixed as long as you have cash flow, and bugs are forgiven, but missing deadlines is often fatal. Calvin Coolidge once said that nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; I would add that the second most common is smart people who think their IQ or resume justifies delivering late. —JUNE 24, 2008 The Holy Grail: How to Outsource the Inbox and Never Check E-mail Again
What if you never had to check e-mail again? If you could hire someone else to spend countless hours in your inbox instead of you?
This isn’t pure fantasy. For the last 12 months, I’ve experimented with removing myself from the inbox entirely by training other people to behave like me. Not to imitate me, but to think like me.
Here’s the upshot: I get more than 1,000 e-mails a day from various accounts.89 Rather than spending 6–8 hours per day checking e-mail, which I used to do, I can skip reading e-mail altogether for days or even weeks at a time … all within 4–10 minutes a night.
Let me explain the basics, followed by tips and exact templates for outsourcing your own inbox.
I have multiple e-mail addresses for specific types of e-mail (blog readers vs. media vs. friends/family, etc.). tim@ … is the default I give to new acquaintances, which goes to my assistant.
99% of e-mail falls into predetermined categories of inquiries with set questions or responses (my “rules” document is at the bottom of this post—feel free to steal, adapt, and use). My assistant(s) checks and clears the inbox at 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. pst.
For the 1% of e-mail that might require my input for next actions, I have a once-daily phone call of 4–10 minutes at 4 P.M. pst with my assistant.
If I’m busy or traveling abroad, my assistant leaves the action items in numerical order on my voicemail, which I can respond to in a bullet-point e-mail. These days, I actually prefer the voice-mail option and find that it forces my assistant to be more prepared and more concise.
Each night (or early the next morning), I’ll listen to my assistant’s voicemail via Skype and simultaneously write out the next actions (1. Bob: Tell him that … 2. Jose in Peru: Ask him for … 3. Speaking in NC: Confirm …, etc.) in a Skype chat or quick e-mail. How long does the new system take? 4–10 minutes instead of 6–8 hours of filtering and repetitive responses.
If you only have one e-mail account, I recommend using a desktop program like Outlook or Mail instead of a web-based program like Gmail for a simple reason: If you see new items in your inbox, you’ll check them. Like they say in AA: If you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery. This is why I have a private personal account that I use for sending e-mail to my assistant and communicating with friends. It’s almost always empty.
E-mail is the last thing people let go of. Fortune 500 CEOs, best-selling authors, celebrities—I know dozens of top performers who delegate everything but e-mail, which they latch onto as something only they can do. “No one can check my e-mail for me” is the unquestioned assumption, or “I answer every e-mail I receive” is the unquestioned bragging right that keeps them in front of a computer for 8–12 hours at a stretch. It’s not fun, and it keeps them from higher-impact or more rewarding activities.
Get over yourself. I had to. Checking e-mail isn’t some amazing skill that you alone possess.
In fact, checking e-mail is like everything else: a process.
How you evaluate and handle (delete vs. archive vs. forward vs. respond) e-mail is just a series of questions you ask yourself, whether consciously or subconsciously. I have a document called “Tim Ferriss Processing Rules,” to which my assistants add rules when I send them a note via e-mail with “ADD TO RULES” in the subject. Over the course of a week or two with a virtual assistant (VA), you will end up with an externalized set of rules that reflect how your brain processes e-mail. It often shows you how haphazard your processing is. I’ve included my “rules” here to save you some time. A few tips: 1. Setting appointments and meetings takes a lot of time. Have your assistant set things up for you in Google Calendar. I input my own items via my Palm Z22 or iCal, then use Spanning Sync and Missing Sync for Palm OS to sync everything. On my überlight Sony VAIO, which I still use for travel, I use CompanionLink for Google Calendar. I suggest batching meetings or calls in one or two set days, with 15 minutes between appointments. Scattering them throughout the week at odd times just interrupts everything else. (Update 2009: The Palm Z22 has been discarded, and I now use a 13-inch MacBook and BusySync to synchronize iCal with Google Calendar.) 2. If you jump in your assistant’s inbox and answer anything, BCC them so they are aware that you handled it.
- Expect small problems. Life is full of compromises, and it’s necessary to let small bad things happen if you want to get huge good things done. There is no escape. Prevent all problems and get nothing done, or accept an allowable level of small problems and focus on the big things.
Ready to jump in and test the holy grail? Here are the steps.
Determine exactly which accounts you will use and how you want them to respond to (or just categorize or purge) e-mail for you.
Find a virtual assistant.
Test for reliability before skill set. Have the top three candidates do something on tight deadline (24 hours) before hiring them and letting them in your inbox.
Use a probationary period of 2–4 weeks to test the waters and work out the problems. Again: There will be problems. It will take a good 3–8 weeks to get to real smooth sailing.
Design your ideal lifestyle and find something to do other than let your brain fester in the inbox. Fill the void.
TIM FERRISS PROCESSING RULES90
[Note the Q&A format—some of the questions are my standard points for VAs, some have been added by my assistant, who put together this document.]
[I often have exec-level assistants manage 4–5 other “sub VAs” who handle certain repetitive tasks, often at half the exec VA’s hourly rate. The exec VA takes on an office manager or, in some cases, COO-level function.] Download: www.alexa.com—Toolbar
Learn Statistics, Rank for Business Prospect and Joint-Venture Opportunities
Deadlines are extremely important. Be Aware of them, and Be Punctual!
If Tim says “Call me back,” CALL HIM BACK, do not send an e-mail. This is an important point, as Tim does not always have e-mail access because he is traveling a lot.
Even if it is late in the evening, he is up late, if he does not want to answer his phone, he will not. But PLEASE call him back when he asks you to. He much prefers a phone call to an e-mail.
Purchase and read The Elements of Style regarding proper grammar and punctuation. We are dealing with high-profile clients on Tim’s behalf and the proper writing techniques and message says a lot about his team.
Become as familiar as you can with his book and his website as to answer questions accordingly.
Tim Cell (your use only): [private cell]
Number to give others: [GrandCentral number]
Billing Address (Private):
ASK [head VA], for his AMEX NUMBER. SHE WILL ADVISE WHETHER PURCHASES CAN BE APPROVED.
Question and Answer (Preferences)
How do you feel about joint ventures?
I’m open to them, but my brand and respectability is #1. I will not do anything with anyone who comes off as deceptive or amateur. “Make millions while you sleep in our super-insane foreclosure program!” on the website disqualifies someone. I cannot be associated with anyone who might be seen as a liar or snake-oil salesman. Just ask yourself: If the CEO of a well-known company saw this, would he lose interest in speaking with me? If so, it won’t work.
For those who pass that criteria, what have they done already? I’m not looking for first-timers, generally, unless they have an excellent track record and reputation elsewhere.
Do you focus solely on profit-generating tasks?
No. I also look for prestige (Harvard, government, etc.), wide exposure, as well as building networks with people who have world-class skills in some area.
How do you handle spam?
SpamArrest and Gmail. I have no problem with spam at this point.
What is your optimal response rate (i.e., respond to all e-mails no later than 48–72 hours after received)?
Same day. I’m bringing you on to respond quickly.
Do you respond to any e-mails?
Yes, but I’ll want you to filter them first, respond to all you can, then mark the ones I should look at with the label “TIM” in Gmail. [Note earlier in this article how I am now asking VAs to leave to-do’s via voicemail.] Do you put in any events in your calendar?
Yes, but I expect I will move more and more to having you do it.
Do we “manage” your items, or do you delegate? We are cool with both, but prefer to manage.:-)
I’ll try to give the list to you to take care of. I NEED confirmations that you received the task (“on it—will be done at X P.M.” is enough) and like status updates on larger projects with milestones.
Who is on your team?
Me, the publishing team, and some PR folk at this point. I might have you get involved with my other businesses later, but that’s it for now.
Who do we have to collaborate with on a regular basis?
See above. 90% me, then possibly my publicist(s), tech support and web staff, and my book agent. More will come, I’m sure, but that’s it for now.
Who calls the shots for you?
You can decide anything under $100. Use your judgment and report the decisions.
Do you have “days” off (as in no business appts.)?
Let’s shoot for no appointments on Fridays, but let’s play it by ear. [Update: I now only have appointments on Mondays and Fridays.]
Who has been handling your appts. up until now?
Me. I haven’t had any in-person meetings for close to four years. Things have changed with the book:)
Explain to us your “optimal” work week (i.e., how long between phone calls, how many meetings per week, travel preferences, etc.)?
I go to bed late, so try and avoid calls before 10 A.M. pst when possible.
Try and “cluster” phone calls and meetings so that I can bang them out at the same time, as opposed to having one at 10 A.M., another at 1 P.M., and another at 4 P.M. Have them all in a row with 15–20 minutes in between whenever possible. I’d like to do phone calls before 1 P.M. pst when possible (so 10 A.M.-1 P.M.). Calls should be kept to 15–30 minutes, always with a defined end time. If someone asks to “jump on the phone” with me, send them something like: “To make the best use of everyone’s time, Tim likes to have a well-defined agenda with objectives for a call before jumping on the phone. Can you please send over some bullet points with what you’d like to cover and decide on the call?” Something like that.
Do you like us to schedule personal items in with your business calendar (i.e., order your mother flowers for Mother’s Day, etc.)? Absolutely.
What are “all” the e-mail addresses we respond to for you? See earlier text.
Do you like us to respond as “you” or something like “client support for Timothy Ferriss.”
The latter, probably something like “Executive Assistant to Tim Ferriss” below your name—I’m open to suggestions.
How many times a day do you want e-mail checked?
Twice should be fine to start. Let’s aim for a minimum of at 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. in your time zone.
What are your working hours?
10 A.M.-6 P.M. pst, then often 11 p.m.-2 A.M. pst. [Before you cry, “What happened to the four-hour workweek?!” realize that “work hours” here could be replaced with “active and available-by-phone hours.” I have lots of projects and do not preach idleness. I am VERY active. See the sixth comment on this post on www.fourhourblog.com for more elaboration or reread the “Filling the Void” chapter in this book.] Do you like using IM? Not really, unless it’s a scheduled discussion. Just leave yourself logged in, and I’ll log in if I need something. [I tend to use Skype chat these days, as it’s encrypted and I can avoid a separate IM program.] Do you prefer a phone call or an e-mail to answer a quick question?
PHONE CALL, absolutely. DO NOT e-mail me for anything urgent. I really follow my own advice and don’t check e-mail that often.
What is your favorite color?
Green like cedar leaves in July.
Call at the end of every day (if) there is something that Tim needs to respond to in his e-mail.
E-books: Tell them they can download the e-bookfromwww.powells.com.
Label all e-mails from “Expert Click” for Tim. No need to respond or forward.
All Linked-In e-mails can be archived or deleted as Tim receives notification of invites as soon as he logs into his Linked-In account.
For start-up inquiries in the health and wellness industry (or BrainQUICKEN start-up inquiries) please see the templates in
Gmail titled: Congratulations and General Business Questions—BrainQUICKEN Templates.
For language inquiries, please see the templates in Gmail titled: Reader Question on Language Resources—Language Templates.
When Tim types “dictate” in the e-mail response, this means that we can say to the recipient: As Tim is traveling at the moment and not able to personally respond to your e-mail, I mentioned your message while on the phone to him, and he asked me to dictate. This makes the process easier as we do not have to change the context of the person responding.
[This is to avoid having an assistant convert my first-person “Please tell him that I …” to third-person “Tim says that he …”—providing shorthand for “cut and paste” saves hours of assistant time.] If someone e-mail blasts a bunch of people and I am one of them, usually safe to ignore or delete. Read them carefully, of course, but if it says for example “a few influential people I know” or something like that then if someone can’t take the time to personalize for me, forget them. If Tim is copied, of course, that’s a different story.
Tim’s address is XXXX. THIS E-MAIL IS NOT TO BE DISTRIBUTED OR GIVEN TO ANYONE. If you want to copy Tim on an e-mail, please use the BCC field, so that it remains private.
Mark anyone from Princeton for me to look at (TIM label). [Note: I’ve since had to modify this due to volume.]
If I decline someone and they persist, give them one more reply—“Tim appreciates the persistence, but he really can’t…” etc.—and then archive future requests. Use your judgment, of course, but that’s the general rule. Some people don’t know when persistent turns into plain irritating.
Please also create a rule to respond with “scheduled” for all items I send to be put in the calendar (when they’re put in the calendar). Missing calendar items can cause big problems, so this is a check and balance to confirm.
No need to follow up with someone after a call has taken place unless Tim instructs otherwise, or they request something from us.
Send all speaking requests to XXXX and ensure that he confirms receipt. (However, also see items 38 and 39).
Foreign language requests (i.e., purchasing rights, if the book is available in a particular language, etc.) send to [the appropriate person at my publisher].
XXXX’s replacement at Random House is XXXX.
Inquire with Tim first before booking any speaking gigs on a specific date, as he may be traveling.
When booking appointments in the calendar, be sure to also ask which topics they would like to discuss, and put them in the calendar description for Tim so he can prepare. Also be sure to ask for a backup phone number in case they are not able to reach Tim. [I almost always have people call me unless I am abroad, as this is another safeguard against missing appointments.] Put initials in the subject line of calendar events so we know who (which virtual assistant) put the item in the calendar.
Prepare inquiries for Tim before sending to him for his review, i.e., get their Alexa ranking, possible dates of the event, a link to past events they have held, their budget, other confirmed speakers, etc. Then send this info to Tim for his review.
Respond to PX Method inquiries with the following response:
Thanks for your inquiry about the PX Method, however the PX Method page is designed as just a template others can look at as a reference for testing their own product ideas.
We are not sure if or when Tim will offer the PX Method for sale, but there are no plans at this time. We appreciate your inquiry nonetheless. Thanks!
[I get quite a few e-mails from readers who do not see the disclaimer on the PX Method mock-up page and thus attempt to order a product that isn’t ready to ship.] Download eFAX viewer to view Tim’s faxes. His fax number is: XXXX.
Event or speaking inquiries can be responded to as such:
Thanks for your e-mail and for your invitation to Tim. In looking at the event online, I see that the event is April X and X, 20XX in Portland, Oregon [for example]. Before I present this to Tim, could you answer a few questions for me, so we can make a more informed decision?
Would you like Tim to be at the entire event?
How long would the keynote presentation be? Or would it be a Q&A panel?
Do you cover travel and accommodation along with a speaker’s fee?
What is your budget for keynote presentations?
Have any other speakers confirmed to present?
As soon as I hear back, I can speak with Tim about the possibilities of making this happen. Thanks again!
this e-mail is:  blogable [x] ask first  private
Executive Assistant to Timothy Ferriss
Author: The 4-Hour Workweek
(Random House/Crown Publishing)
Bio and Fun: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog
—JANUARY 21, 2008
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