Earlier this week, someone posted this article — $5 million in revenues, 3 years in business, 4 lessons learned: Tips from a successful startup CEO — to OProducers. Santiago Valenzuela quickly responded with the following really useful comments. (I’m reposting them with his permission.)

I really dislike super-generalized “tips” like that. I often find it’s either uselessly general (“Be flexible”) or simply not really useful (“It’s possible to succeed in a recession” — this isn’t news, as evidenced by this 4 year old article.)

I’m nowhere near as successful as that guy, but here’s what I’m learning in my office furniture business. Different observations are, obviously, quite welcome:

1. Focus on what’s important: profits.

Being a small biz guy, everything is held together by bubble gum and shoe string. It’s easy to get lost improving little things and not focusing on the big picture, which is the next action that will move a customer to a sale. For me, that means keeping my name out there on online sites like craigslist and responding promptly to sales calls and emails. For you it might mean something else, but if you’re rearranging chairs instead of doing that, stop. You can literally spend 24 hours a day improving your business, but you need to focus on what’s important — which is making profit, not looking pretty.

I suspect that the thing that is both most important and most likely to get set aside for make-work is sales. Unless you start with significant seed money, you’ll be a salesman, at least at first. If you suck at sales, grab a book (How to Win Friends and Influence People is a great place to start) and learn.

2. Keep your network up.

Approximately 25% of the work I get comes from referrals or returning customers. This is setting up cubicles for offices. It always, always, always requires at least one follow-up phone call. A lot more of your work can come from these, I would bet. Get cards, call people every so often and ask them how they are doing and if they have any additional needs or people they think you would be a good fit with. If you did a good job for them, they like you, and a real person saying “This guy is great” — that is golden advertising that you can’t easily get otherwise.

3. Keep in mind why people buy your product.

Often the pricing for your product is based on your perception of its value — which is based on things like the materials you purchase and the time you put into it. This is the wrong way to go about selling stuff. While it is pretty obvious, I’ve seen others do this too, at surprisingly high levels. Instead, focus on why the customer would want to buy what you’ve got. For me, I emphasize a quick turn-around time and a free consultation where I suggest ways to arrange cubicles/desks to minimize expenses while still covering their needs. To emphasize this, I am starting to experiment with a pricing scheme that’s based on a per-person basis rather than per workstation / cubicle.

I focus on sales-y stuff like that because I have found it’s really rare for people to suck at what their business does. Programmers generally program well, for example. But it’s very easy to try and stick to your core competency and not branch out to where you need to go to succeed, and are probably currently pretty weak. If I could do one thing differently it would be to have gotten on top of sales and networking and spent less time obsessing about my inventory and the pricing. The former is far less important than the latter; if you master the former, you can be much more flexible with the latter.

Anyway, I hope this is useful and actionable, which I think all management advice should be.

I have a strong tendency to fail on Point #1, probably mostly due to some fear of trying the unknown (and perhaps failing) plus some perfectionism. Basically, my brain says: “Oh, that looks big and hard, and you might fail! Let’s tinker with the little stuff instead! You need to get that just right!” I hate being in that mode, but I find it hard to break out of absent some clear big goals to consume my attention. However, merely reminding myself to “stop rearranging the chairs” will be helpful, I know. That will force me to look at my bigger goals, and start working on them.

Where do you struggle?

Video: The Problem of Too Many Commitments

Mar 292012

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed overcommitment in projects. The question was:

How can I manage my projects better? Too often, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer volume of projects on my agenda. Because I’m overcommitted, I’ll miss important deadlines or allow some projects to be delayed into oblivion. Other times, my work is rushed and sloppy. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed that I become paralyzed, and then I don’t get any work done. What can I do to manage my various work and home projects better, so that I keep making progress on what really matters to me?

My answer, in brief:

If you tend to take on more projects than you can manage well, then you need to work on being more realistic and more selective. Otherwise, you’re just making false promises.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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Join the next Philosophy in Action Webcast on Sunday at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET at PhilosophyInAction.com/live.

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Praising the Good: OmniSync

Mar 202012

I’ve used GTD-style task tracking software OmniFocus for some years now. (Sorry, PC users: it’s Mac-only.) Although I have a few features that I’d like to see added, I love the program.

Recently, the company (The Omni Group) announced that their sync service has been taken out of beta. (That’s what syncs my OmniFocus database between my desktop, laptop, iPad, and iPhone… which is critical for me!)

Given that the service is free — and works so well — I thought that I should write them a quick note about how much I appreciate it:


I’ve been a devoted OmniFocus user for many years, and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your sync service. Before switching to it about six months ago, I was trying to sync my OmniFocus data between four devices using SwissDisk and then MobileMe. Neither worked reliably: SwissDisk was fine, until it suddenly stopped working. MobileMe would hang routinely, requiring me to restart OmniFocus multiple times per day. OmniSync has worked flawlessly, however… beta or not.

Of course, I hugely appreciate that it’s free, and I thought that the least that I could do is write to tell you that I’m grateful that you offer such a great service at such a great price.

So… Thank you!

The virtue of just is not merely about condemning evil: it’s also about praising the good… particularly the good that people offer you for free! I know how much I appreciate when people write to thank me for work that I’ve done for free… and I like to give as I get!

Dealing with Inept and Shirking Co-Workers

Feb 032012

In my January 8th Philosophy in Action Webcast, I answered the following question on the ethics doing the work of inept (and shirking) co-workers:

Is it moral to help inept co-workers? On my team at work, we have only a very few people who use their time productively. We all get paid for 8 hours of “work”, every day, but most of my team would rather talk on their phone, hide from management, and underperform at their job. We also belong to a union, which makes it harder for management to fire the ones who don’t work despite being informed about the situation. I often find myself in the position of helping these people, or going in behind them and fixing their work. I am beginning to feel taken advantage of, and am getting fed up with most of my co-workers. Is it moral to continue helping people who do not take their own work seriously?

You can find my the audio of my answer in the archive of Philosophy in Action.

Here, I want to offer the answer given by another. Rachel Garrett posted the following remarks to OProducers, and I’m reposting them with her permission. Her advice is excellent — and her way of framing the issue in terms of your obligation to your employer definitely helped my own analysis.

Without further ado, here’s Rachel’s answer to the question:

If the extra help to co-workers is getting in the way of fulfilling your own job responsibilities, you would need to devise strategies to cut down on the amount of assistance you render. But since you didn’t say that, I will assume that’s not the case.

It’s frustrating to be in a situation where your productive energy is getting drained by people who don’t perform their own job responsibilities. However, I would be cautious of how you’ve framed the question. You’ve given yourself an alternative: either continue helping these lazy co-workers and be taken advantage of; or refuse to help them (telling yourself it’s the moral thing to do).

The important thing to focus on is: What is my contractual obligation to my employer? What is my job? If you are getting paid for eight hours of productive work, and you finish your own assigned task in six, then the right thing to do is to spend the remaining two hours as productively as possible on your employer’s behalf. This may include teaching others how to do their job better, finishing tasks that others have left undone, and fixing others’ mistakes.

You’re not a manager of this environment, so the work atmosphere is not your responsibility. It’s your employer’s problem that they are getting crap for productivity from this part of their workforce. Going “on strike” and withdrawing your help, in order to force others to do their own work, would not be appropriate. Managers are the ones who should be monitoring and evaluating employees’ performance, and motivating them to do better. That job’s not yours to do. If management is not doing their job, there is nothing you can do that will fill that gap.

The best course of action largely depends on how good of a relationship you have with your own manager, how you’re evaluated, and how you envision your future at this company. If this is just a job, it’s perfectly fine to tell yourself, “I’m just here for the paycheck,” and stop caring about your co-workers. If the company is not connected to your long-term goals, then your co-workers’ goofing off shouldn’t mean anything more to you than a grouchy grocery clerk — something unfortunate that inconveniences you for a while, but doesn’t affect you much. If you can’t let it go, do everything within your power to find a new job before you become embittered and lose perspective.

If you have a decent working relationship with your manager, I would suggest logging all your extra work and fixes, for a week or two. Ask your manager if you can add a phrase to your job responsibilities (“Train other departmental personnel on X and Y procedures…”) that would help this count toward your upward development. Or perhaps you could find a job responsibility that you enjoy, and that would fill up your time and make you unavailable to pick up others’ slack. (Whatever you do, don’t sound complainy. You have a right to complain and you deserve sympathy from rational people who value their work, but complaining is almost certainly a bad strategy to get what you want from your manager.)

There are also some smaller things you can change or do…

  • Make people work for your help. “Sure, Amanda! I’d LOVE to help you get that month-end report fixed! I tell you what, I’ve gotten this question a lot, so how about I walk you through it and you take notes so you can write up the procedure. Then next month, we can use that as reference.”
  • It’s wrong for your co-workers to spend time on non-work activities when there is work to be done. However, most people do want to do things the right way and feel good about what they got accomplished. Your co-workers have the same human need for productive work that you do. They may be mismanaged and socially pressured, or they may have a genuine rotten attitude. There’s no way to reach inside and see. So give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • When you think about the situation, don’t use judgmental labels like “lazy”; use factual words like “unproductive”.
  • Reach out to your company’s Quality department for Six Sigma training. Identify common snags and mistakes in your department’s processes. Run a process improvement project(s) to fix them.
  • Increase your skill/knowledge level of Microsoft Office or whatever other software/systems you’re using. Learn how to automate and error-check to help avoid mistakes.
  • Read the book Crucial Conversations — I think it would be a great help in having some of the conversations you may need to have with your manager and/or co-workers.

I hope some of this helps.

Indeed it does! Thank you, Rachel. for that excellent advice!

Video: Tenacity in Pursuit of Goals

Jan 102012

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed tenacity in pursuit of goals. The question was:

How can I become more tenacious in pursuit of my goals? I find that I give up too easily on some of my goals, particularly when success is far away and much effort is required now. What can I do to make myself more tenacious?

My answer, in brief:

Tenacity is an important quality of character to cultivate, but it must be used selectively. If tenacity is a problem for you, don’t wallow in guilt: find creative ways to motivate yourself.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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All posted webcast videos can be found in the Webcast Archives and on my YouTube channel.

Video: Responding to Expressions of Hatred for Work

Jun 142011

In Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, I answered the following question about how to respond to expressions of hatred for work:

How should I respond when people disparage their work? Often, people make comments about the great burden that work is — not in the sense that they’re unhappy with some problem in their current job, but that they resent the need to work at all. These are the kinds of people who live for weekends and vacations. I don’t feel that way about my work, and I think these people are missing so much in life. How can I respond to such casual remarks in a way that might make the person re-think their attitude?

Here’s my answer, now posted to YouTube:

My Year in Review

Dec 312010

Since it’s the last day of 2010, I wanted to write up the highlights of what I’ve done in 2010. These doings are in rough chronological order.

  • I started 2010 as a half-dead, nearly-senile corpse, thanks to my crash into hypothyroidism in the fall of 2009. I’m not yet fully recovered, although I’m doing darn well and expect to be even better with further increases in my dose of desiccated thyroid. Basically, by diligently working on the problem and opting for unconventional treatments, I’ve returned to life. Everything else that I’ve done this past year depended on that. So… YAYAYAYAYAY!
  • In the spring, I re-organized and re-designed all my web sites due to the forced transition of my blogs from FTP to Google’s hosting. They’re all better for it, although definitely in need of another update now.
  • With much assistance from others, Front Range Objectivism has expand under my leadership. In January, FRO launched its third discussion group: 3FROG. FRO completed its two Atlas Shrugged Reading Groups in March, then created two new FROG discussion groups from them in April. Now FRO has five monthly discussion groups spread out from Longmont to Colorado Springs.
  • I launched Modern Paleo in March. I’m particularly grateful to its blog editor, Christian Wernstedt, and the other contributors to the blog, for their efforts. I have exciting plans in store for the site in 2011.
  • Between January and October, I recorded the remaining 13 podcasts in my set of 20 podcasts on Atlas Shrugged. Those podcasts turned out to be much more work — and much more interesting — than I expected. I’d hoped to start turning those podcasts into a book in 2010, but that got delayed by other projects… but hopefully not for too much longer.
  • In June, I tested out a new method of financing intellectual work by asking people to pledge for a podcast on finding good romantic prospects. That first pledge project was hugely successful, and I’ve funded other work via pledges since then. Oh, and that podcast is still available for sale.
  • In July, I gave a course at OCON entitled Luck in the Pursuit of Life: The Rational Egoist’s Approach to Luck. I was pleased with how that turned out. I had tons of productive fun at OCON in 2010.
  • I launched four new OLists, with the help of their managers. OProducers, OShooters, and OGardeners launched in April, and OHomos launched in July. You can expect a few more OLists in 2011, likely OCrafters and OGeeks.
  • Paul and I adopted our little spitfire, otherwise known as doggie Mae, shortly after OCON. I took her through a fantastic basic obedience class at Come Sit Stay in the fall, where she made huge progress on her fear of strangers. I enjoyed that so much that I did the same class with Conrad a few weeks later. I plan to continue with that obedience training because I enjoy it so much.
  • In September, I interviewed Stephen Bailey, Republican candidate for US House of Representatives for Colorado’s Second District, with the help of Ari Armstrong. Although Bailey lost the race, he ran a good campaign, and I was proud to support a truly free-market candidate.
  • In August, Ari Armstrong and I expanded and updated our “personhood” paper, now titled The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. It’s the most in-depth defense of abortion rights from an Objectivist perspective written to date — and it would not have been possible without people’s generous pledges.
  • In October, I launched my Rationally Selfish Webcast, answering questions on practical ethics every Sunday morning. I’ve gotten much better at those webcasts, and I’m really happy with the addition of Greg Perkins as the man charged with keeping me in tolerable order. I’m very grateful to everyone who is supporting those by their contributions to our “tip jar.”
  • I bought a new horse — Lila — in late October. In addition to all the riding I’ve done — including cantering along the road through blinding snow yesterday — I’ve done clicker training with her, which is really quite marvelous. I’ve the last few weeks, I’ve made some long-overdue progress in setting up my new barn too.
  • My hypothyroidism destroyed my physical conditioning, but I got into better physical shape than ever thanks to the kick-ass workouts at CIA FIT Gym. Also, I went on my first backpacking trip in September, and I enjoyed three fantastic days of skiing in Breckenridge in December. Of course, I continue to eat paleo, and I’ve enjoyed cooking and eating immensely this year.
  • With much help from others, I launched two new still-ongoing Atlas Shrugged Reading Groups this fall for Front Range Objectivism. And plans for March’s SnowCon are underway!
  • In November, Adam Mossoff gave a fantastic pledge-funded webcast on intellectual property. That’s now become a monthly series of pledge-funded webcasts with Objectivist intellectuals, with Eric Daniels speaking on the foundations of free speech in January.
  • And… last but not least… I enjoyed another stellar year of marriage to my most excellent husband. And I experienced the deep pleasure of friendship with many truly excellent and admirable people.

Overall, 2010 was an excellent year for me… but I’m really looking forward to 2011!

OList Happy Hour

Dec 212010

Due to a blog post by Amy Mossoff last year listing her accomplishments month-by-month, I’ve kept track of all my major doings this year. Now that I’m done with school — and working on more projects than I can remember at any given moment — I found that really quite satisfying and motivating. Hence, I’m super-excited by this week’s topic for the OList Virtual Happy Hour:

As we approach the end of the year, I think there is real value in looking back on our individual achievements from the past year, both as a source of spiritual fuel, and as a means of checking one’s bearings in contemplation of goals to set for the new year.

And, in the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, what better way to remember the year’s achievements than to share them with others?! Which brings us to this week’s menu:

Appetizer: What were your major achievements of the past year? Which of your achievement(s) of the past year make you the most proud?

Drink Special: Did you have any achievements that had a particularly significant impact on your life? Was this expected or unexpected? How do these achievements impact your expectations and goals for the new year?

The OList Virtual Socials are weekly online chats exclusively for subscribers to my OList E-mail Lists. Both lurkers and subscribers are welcome to join the chat. (I sent the instructions for joining the chat to all the lists in a December 18th message with the subject “OList Announcements, so please look for that before you e-mail me or Earl for instructions.) They start at 6 pm PT / 7 pm MT / 8 pm CT / 9 pm ET on Tuesday evenings. Officially, they last an hour, but people often chat longer than that.

I’d love to hear what others have accomplished this year — and, of course, to brag a bit myself — so OList subscribers, please do stop in for a virtual drink and bite to eat!

Productivity Versus Productiveness

Dec 022010

Note: I discussed this issue in last Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, and you can hear that in podcast form via NoodleCast.

On occasion, I hear Objectivists use the term “productivity” when they mean the virtue of productiveness. That’s a mistake, and I think people make that mistake because they’re not clear about the difference between the two terms. So I’d like to take a moment here to sketch the distinction as I see it.

Productivity concerns a person’s capacity to achieve his goals effectively and efficiently, without wasting time, effort, or resources. Hence, the dictionary notes that its concern for “the effectiveness of productive effort.” Productivity is wonderful — but only provided that a person’s goals are life-enhancing. I’d love for Steve Jobs to increase the productivity of his workers because Apple products enhance my life and happiness. Michael Moore, on the other hand, is more than welcome to spend days doing what could be done in mere minutes. For him to be efficient in the creation of his loathsome movies is not a value.

In essence, productivity focuses on the means by which a person achieves his ends, without evaluating the worth of those ends per se. The techniques of productivity — such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done — might be used to further the creation of beautiful sculpture, the marketing of new invention, or the dissemination of rational ideas. Or they might be used in expanding church membership, lobbying politicians for more environmental regulations, or writing a smear biography of Ayn Rand.

In contrast, productiveness is the Objectivist virtue whereby “man’s mind sustains his life.” In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff defines it as “the process of creating material values, whether goods or services.” Here’s how John Galt describes it in Atlas Shrugged:

Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live–that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values–that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others–that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human–that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay–that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live–that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road–that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up–that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.

To be productive in this sense involves a far wider range of actions than productivity. Most of all, productiveness requires that the material goods produced serve human life and happiness.

We often use the adjective form “productive” to refer to both kinds of activity, i.e. to productivity and/or productiveness. Yet they need not occur together. A person can be productive in the sense of productivity without being productive in the sense of productiveness. That’s Michael Moore. Or vice versa: I might waste time each day trying to find relevant papers for my current projects because I don’t use any kind of filing system.

Ideally and in the long run, a person should be productive in both senses of the term. A person’s drive to create the material values that sustain human life should impel him to seek the most efficient and effective methods of achieving his goals. Yet particularly in our day-to-day life, we need to maintain our awareness of the distinction between productiveness and productivity. Why?

By keeping that distinction in mind, we know that our occasional failures of productivity are not some kind of moral crime: they are not failures of the virtue of productiveness. In many cases, they’re just ordinary errors in managing our work-flow, and our aim should be to notice and weed them out over time. In other cases, they’re morally proper given the broader context, as when we work an easy day after weeks on a grueling project or when we take time off to tend to health problems. Moral guilt in such cases — which I know I’ve felt before, and I suspect I’m not alone — is not warranted and not helpful.


Oct 202010
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