May the hustle be with you


I was busy working on my web app tonight and came to a brutal realization. I suck as a hacker. As I have been cramming to get this application built so I can move on to the mashtunbeer.com site, I have had to put aside some of my engineering tendencies. I haven’t been into anything that falls under the hacker umbrella for at least a decade. I studied engineering, and I was a bad student because I put all of my time and energy into understanding how everything worked.

Now, as I sit here with a looming self-imposed deadline, I keep finding myself wandering out into the documentation to find out why some little thing works the way it does. That is engineering, not hacking. I shouldn’t care why it works, because it already works. I should move on and try to understand something that isn’t working already. So I guess hacking is something I will have to work at. If I don’t want to suck, I am going to have to learn to operate differently.

This should be an important lesson someday when I am trying to work with, find, or hire either a hacker or an engineer. If I want someone that will just build it, but won’t be able to tell me much about why it works or dissect the finer points of different options, hacker all the way. If I want someone that understands every piece of code, moving or static, then that is an engineer.

So, does some complementary spectrum exist in the realm of hustlers? Thankfully, I am much more naturally a hustler, but I still bring some of my engineering baggage with me. I don’t typically want to jump into something and start getting busy without some sort of plan or vision for what I am trying to accomplish. It doesn’t have to be very complicated. Hell, most of the time it is just back of the napkin. That leads me to two points. First, I realize how valuable hustling is to me. So in 2011, the year of years, I hope the hustle is with you as it has been with me. If you want to accomplish something, start hustling. Use your brain, but get busy. If you are smart about it, you will find yourself making progress towards your goals. Second, what do you think about the comparison? If hacker is to engineer, hustler is to what?

Cheers!

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Time to start recruiting

Try as you will, you can’t escape the startup roller-coaster.  September was an awesome month, bringing new connections to other entrepreneurs and some positive and negative feedback about the business from brewers.  It started in Bloomington, IN where I was blown away by the amazing people in the startup community, hit a speed bump when I got into a car accident in Denver, and then concluded with a paradigm shifting experience right here in KC.  However, right around the corner, October was preparing to test my dedication to Mashtun.  I had a trip for my day job that left me feeling more underwhelmed than ever about my future in the company followed by news no founder wants to hear.  My co-founder and friend of many years has decided to part ways with Mashtun before we take the next step.  It left me with lots of mixed emotions.  I am glad that I know him well enough and that we are both strong enough people that he wouldn’t lead me on knowing he won’t be able to ramp up as I continue to dedicate more and more of my life to the future of this venture.  However, I am obviously upset that I am losing a top quality individual and someone that knows how to beat me in a debate.  I think it is valuable to have someone that can disarm you, especially when you like to debate and argue like me.
 
That said, I have done a little bit of soul searching and decided that I still want to do this.  I still believe in the mission.  It is an important challenge and has many high obstacles, but there are many rewards if we are able to find a way to liberate craft beer consumers and grant them the freedom to choose their products without restriction.  I have taken to describing myself as 75% hustler and 25% hacker (100% crazy), and I am prepared to take up some slack in the hacking department to try and build the product.  However, I have a very acute appreciation for the fact that I will run into severe time constraints and need someone else before long.  To that end, I am beginning my search for a new technical co-founder now so that I have plenty of time to get to know them and vice versa.  I don’t want to be in the position later where I don’t know someone well enough but I am forced to take someone because of the situation.
So, if you know someone that might be interested in joining up, I would appreciate the introduction.  I strongly believe in finding good balance in all teams, so I am listing some things about myself that you might not know.

  • ADHD
  • I am the 75% guy.  I need people that are better at following things through.
  • I am vision builder and tend to be abstract, but my engineering discipline taught me how to handle details.
  • I encourage alternate opinions, but I argue hard for my position when I feel enough information has been presented to make a conclusion.
  • I hate passive aggressive people.
  • I love beer (duh?)
  • I am passionate about building the right culture.
  • If I don’t know enough about a subject, I will research it until I can speak and act with confidence.
  • I am intense.  I wear my heart on my sleeve.
  • This is an evenings and weekend gig for me at the moment.
  • I am an open person.  If you ask me a question, chances are I will answer it.  I don’t believe in half-truths or white lies.

In a perfect world, I would prefer to spend a little bit of time chatting with people.  At some point, I might ask them to make some small contributions or demonstrations of their ability, and I would expect that they would ask the same of me.  Over the course of the next several months, this will hopefully present the person to work with next.

SO Summit Thoughts

Just over a week ago, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the first Startup Organizers Summit in Kansas City.  It was fortunate because my travel budget is completely destroyed and I didn’t have to travel to make it.  Also, as Steven Chau likes to say, we have only talked about organizing the KC Startup Community so far.  We haven’t done much.  By contrast, the summit attendees were largely people that had already done plenty for their respective communities.

A place to call home

It has been years since I felt so fulfilled by simply being a part of a community.  This gathering made me feel like I belong.  Despite the fact that we are still getting some of our efforts for the KC community spun up, it was clear that these were my kind of people.  By Saturday morning, I was wishing that there was enough time to spend an hour talking to every single person in attendance.  Obviously, there was not enough time to do talk to everyone, but I made lots of meaningful connections, especially with people that can act as resources for us in the future.  The future in KC is looking brighter and brighter by the day.

What we learned

When you feel like you are trying to build something impossible, it is good to know that there are others that have been successful doing something similar.  In my conversations with other organizers, it was apparent that we are not on this road by ourselves.  From Madrid to the Midwest, there are people volunteering their time to improve the outlook for the next entrepreneur.  We plan to keep up with this support network and ask for help when it becomes necessary.

I also spent a significant amount of time talking to the various curators for StartupDigest University Editions.  We have a pretty good vision for how to direct KC through the next phase of growth, but we will obviously need help from our regional universities at some point.  Matylda, Ryan, and Zach were all tremendously helpful.  They clearly understand some of the reasons they are able to engage their engineering students so well.  They will be great resources for us in the future.

What’s next?

The hallmark of any good conference is the action that comes from it and SO Summit scores high marks in this department.  I am pleased to announce that we agreed to start the KC edition of StartupDigest during the conference.  The first edition will be published in the coming weeks.  You can sign up to receive it here.

However, StartupDigest focuses on doing one thing well, and that is telling you what events are taking place that are relevant to startups.  However, KC is in need of much more.  When I was just getting started with Mashtun, I found it nearly impossible to find good local resources that met my needs.  I spent three weeks reading everything I could find in KC.  After all of that work, I found just one really useful group.  We need to make it easier to connect with our community and for people starting their very first company to find resources that are relevant to them.  It is my goal that the next set of entrepreneurs in our area will have a much easier time finding someone to talk to.  We will be announcing some things in this area soon.

Many thanks

Before I go, I want to say thanks to everyone that organized the event, and especially Adam Coomes and Steven Chau for inviting me.  Thanks to everyone that was so welcoming.  It created an amazing atmosphere that has left me with feelings of withdrawal (I miss the people I met).  Thanks to everyone that traveled from around the world to come together, share, and grow the startup communities that we all care for so dearly.  We plan to put your knowledge to good use for the benefit of KC startups.

Canceling cable TV soon

This is a little bit of something I learned a while ago.  Once upon a time, I dropped out of college and got a job.  It would be easy for me to blame it on video games, but the reality is I didn’t want to be in school very much, so I played video games instead.  When I got home, I got a job working 40 hours a week at something like $8 an hour stocking shelves.  It was really refreshing to live back in my parents basement and chill out for a while.  I did all kinds of things just because I wanted to.  I read A Clockwork Orange during my lunch breaks.  I played video games until I was tired of them.  I spent lots of time thinking about my future.  And it didn’t take me long to figure out that the economics of working without a degree were not going to be very helpful in the long run.  So towards the end of my first semester out of school, I told my parents I was going back.

Now, when I was a freshman they had helped me pay for things so I would not get a job.  However, they told me they wanted me to take an entire year off and that I wasn’t getting any support if I went back early.  I didn’t care, and in retrospect, it was a great decision.  Not only did I not have any money for anything, I didn’t have anything to take with me.  I moved into the dorms over the semester break and managed to get a room all to myself.  I left my computer at home, along with my TV.  And that semester, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life.  I can get tremendous amounts of things done when I remove a few of the habitual distractions from my life.  The next semester, I bought a new computer and got a TV, and while my grades dropped, I made do.  I still needed some help and support along the way, but I had made it through a major transition in my way of thinking.

As I spend time thinking about the next 6 months of my life, I have come to the conclusion that I am in another transitional period.  So many things need to be different for me to find success in starting mashtun that I need to eliminate as many distractions as possible.  I quit playing video games on the computer last year, but I still periodically play FIFA on my PS3.  All of those games are going away, along with cable TV.  I know that if I dedicate myself and live simply, I will be surprised at my accomplishments six months from now.

Is this crap normal?

I read a really good post by Paul Graham tonight when I should have been working on Mashtun.  Essentially, I realized that in the past two weeks, I have been rushing through my morning showers really quickly instead of taking a minute to wake-up and let my mind wander.  So to remedy this, I decided to take an 8:30 pm shower and see what happened.  What would be top of mind?  Would it be the current stresses of my day job?  Would it be the crazy amount of work left to make my start-up resemble something other than a joke?  The answer surprised me.

The thing that turned out to be top of mind for me was an intense self-doubt.  I am a pretty confident dude, but I don’t let ego get in the way of honest self-assessment.  I knew starting a business would be a tough task.  Hell, the failure rate should be enough to scare sane people away.  But I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of utter inequity.  I was prepared for what would easily be the most difficult thing I had purposefully chosen to put myself through, but not the inescapable feeling that I was wasting my own time, and even worse, wasting that of my business partner, my friends, and my family.  What followed was a simultaneously welcome and dreaded stream of conscience.

Is there even a reasonable scenario where this can work?  Is this not the dumbest thing I have ever tried?  It is definitely the most likely to fail.  Is following the customer development principles a good idea for us?  God, having a mentor would help with this feeling so much right now, wouldn’t it?  Maybe.  I should call my old mentor from UPS, Al Espinosa, and ask him why he saw fit to spend all that time giving me timely advice that made me successful in my pursuits there.  I wonder if KC will be able to help me find someone that can answer questions for me in this new chapter of my life.  At least I am not scared.  But it seems silly to keep going if I am so sure this is never going to work.  I mean, what is stopping someone else from doing what we are doing?  Honestly, we don’t have any “specifiable differences” as I like to call them.  If we make good progress, we will eventually develop some, but we don’t have direct domain expertise.  We don’t have money.  We don’t have much to make me feel better.

That is what is top of mind.  I still believe in what we are doing with Mashtun, and I think that we have as good a chance of success as any other first time entrepreneur.  We don’t have any MBA’s or MIT graduates.  We don’t have any former Paypal employees or rockstar developers, and thankfully, we don’t need any at this point.  We are going to have to be a bread and butter internet company in order to be successful, but it doesn’t make me feel any better knowing that.  The only thing I can think to do is to remember this feeling, keep working on my problem presentation, get ready for customer contacts, and move forward.  Feeling like crap definitely isn’t going to accomplish anything.  Still, I can’t help but wonder, is this crap normal?

Skilled Immigration Policy Changes Needed

STEM Immigrants should just be given citizenship!

Ours is an immigrant nation

If any argument is to be made, this one is it.  If you are a US citizen, unless you are Native American, you are the descendant of immigrants.  Why should you be allowed to tell other people from around the world seeking the American Dream that they can’t have it?  I find this especially true for those skilled workers that attended a university in the US.  Why make the barriers for citizenship so difficult that they might leave and go home?  In many cases, we have supported their education with tax dollars for scholarships and running state schools, so it is reasonable to want them to remain employed in the US.  Aside from the potential to create companies and new jobs, at the very least they will contribute taxes for the general welfare of the country.  On graduation day, they should go into a special program where they must work and pay taxes for some certain period of time and then they are granted citizenship.  End of story.  Forget the H-1B visa and the separate application for citizenship.  We want more STEM workers (Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering) in this country.  We NEED more STEM workers in this country.  If you want to contribute by convincing your kids to work hard and get into those fields, that is great.  But don’t try to chase off the people we are already training.

The skilled job market is not a zero sum game

In fact, I believe that the availability of STEM workers yields an exponential benefit for our country, at least compared to our current state.  But I will get to that in a moment.  Suppose I am hiring a new engineering position and, naturally, I need the most talented worker or my likelihood of success will drop.  The addition of more STEM workers to the employment pool increases my chances of finding the right fit for my new position.  However, if the best person for my company happens to be an H-1B visa holder, you might think that a US citizen just lost out on a job.  However, if I hadn’t found the right person, I might have withdrawn the job altogether or tried to hire in a country where the availability of my required skillset is higher.  More importantly, that displaced US worker, being a STEM degree holder, is still likely to find gainful employment.  For instance, having an engineering degree qualifies you to displace all kinds of other workers if you can’t find your desired engineering work.  In either case, the presence of more STEM workers, either through H-1B’s or open immigration, benefits the STEM community.

More importantly, educated STEM workers are adept at solving problems.  Many go on to specialize in other areas by obtaining MBA’s and working at upper and executive levels in companies.  Our country needs more people capable of applying problem solving methodologies to abstract issues.  We have problems major problems in US government, public policy, public debt leveraging, not to mention the long line of problems that the business marketplace needs solved.  More STEM citizens means more people are available to tackle the difficult issues facing our nation in the coming decades.  We are going to have to make tough and rational decisions to dig our country out of the deep holes we find seem to find around every corner.  Who is better to face these challenges than the members of STEM communities?  Having a larger and more engaged STEM community will surely help us find the right solutions to our current and future problems.

Keeping immigrants out won’t make you smarter

This is a reality that many people don’t seem to understand, so I will say it again.  If you aren’t smart enough, educated enough, or skilled enough to get a job where skilled H-1B visa workers or naturalized citizens are currently employed, keeping them out will not make you any more qualified for that job.  Period.  In fact, it is not likely that anything will happen except that job will disappear or will go unfilled.  So why allow this debate to be lumped in with general immigration policy or to be argued by people outside of the STEM and economics communities?  Furthermore, if an individual is so concerned about losing their job to an immigrant STEM worker, or any worker for that matter, they need to look at themselves in the mirror.  Seek to improve yourself before you seek to remove your competition.

H-1B workers can be used to artificially lower wages

This is the biggest crock of hogwash I have ever heard.  First of all, a company that employs this sort of strategy is probably more than a little desperate.  And even if they can make it work, so what?  Assume the company can’t do this because we get rid of the H-1B visa.  Those jobs are going overseas quickly.  Which is better for the US economy?  The government takes 20% of an artificially lowered wage, or 20% of nothing because the jobs aren’t in the US anymore.  You pick.

More to the point, if we allow those H-1B workers to have citizenship instead, how long do you think they will tolerate a lower than market wage before they leave for another job?  It is a fact that STEM workers can find the same jobs at different companies in the same market that pay very different wages.  The companies that pay their employees less do so by accepting the downsides that come with doing so.  The best way to solve all of the associated problems problems is to just get rid of the H-1B altogether.  If STEM workers want to work here and want to be citizens, just let them.  It benefits the economy at large anyways and it is a part of the DNA in this country, and we should not forget that.

Entrepreneurs – Are they born or made?

After a little bit of an online debate, Mark Suster and Vivek Wadhwa got together at Standford to carry on discussing Nature vs Nurture in person.  I tend to agree with many of the things Mark and Vivek talk about, but in this case I think the discussion exposed an interesting subtopic. Perhaps they would have gotten to it given enough time to debate, but absent that opportunity, I will try to do it justice here.

For starters, I should say that I fundamentally agree with what seemed like the middle ground of this argument and one of Vivek’s main points.  Assume that you believe entrepreneurs can be taught, but you believe there is a threshold of intelligence required to learn the necessary skills to be successful.  This seems reasonable, but why?  Where does the required broad aptitude come from?  I would argue that the desire for knowledge, the ability to obtain and understand it, and the skills to apply it are prerequisites to successful entrepreneurship.  I am not qualified to argue if these are innate or learned characteristics, but I believe they underscore the larger discussion.

The desire for knowledge

When I wake up in the morning, I have a burning desire to learn more about the subjects I am currently studying.  Obtaining knowledge is a fulfilling activity for me, especially because I see so many opportunities to learn (note the name of this blog).  If you don’t burn to learn, it is hard to expect that you will find enough of the knowledge necessary to succeed in entrepreneurial endeavors.  This complements the oft quoted entrepreneur quality of hustle.  Once you have learned, if you can’t hustle, you can’t succeed.  However, all of the hustle in the world won’t help a person that hasn’t spent enough time learning.

Obtaining and understanding knowledge

Wanting to learn is one thing, but finding the right subjects and being able to understand them is another.  A successful entrepreneur needs to be able to understand topics that cover the core competencies of business administration, some specific market, and the problems of customers in that market.  The process of obtaining information can vary from social discovery to formal education.  Consider that for many students in higher education, this is only half the battle.  Students may struggle to establish a sufficient foundation for their newly discovered knowledge and thus aren’t able to fully understand its implications.  In other words, for a desire for  knowledge to prove fruitful, the relevant topics must be found, consumed, and understood.

Ability to apply knowledge

Thinking back to high school, there was always at least one person in an advanced class that was out of place.  They would listen to the lecture and take notes dutifully, but once they tried to solve progressively more challenging or nuanced problems individually, they were stuck.  These students could typically be found asking others to share how they achieved a proper solution.  If you gave these students the pattern and explained it clearly, they could apply it to that same problem type flawlessly.  But once things changed, they weren’t able to visualize the solution.  To them, applying knowledge was like using a hammer, nail, and wood when asked to connect the pieces of wood.  For the successful entrepreneur, applying knowledge is like using a hammer, nail, and wood to build a house.

The entrepreneurs journey is partly a set of patterns and the successful traveler must be able to wield their knowledge as tools.  As new situations and experiences present themselves, the entrepreneur must use their knowledge in abstract ways.

So, whether you believe entrepreneurs are born or taught, my bet is that you can trace it back to what you believe about the above three characteristics.

Edits:

I caught a little flak for not saying which side of the fence I fall on, so here you go.  For me, it is sort of like math.  I can’t begin to count the number of times in my life that peers have told me they just can’t do math.  Since a pretty young age, I have been teaching others how to approach math so they could better teach themselves.  While I only had a dozen or so subjects, I never failed to improve the math grades of someone I worked with, especially after they moved on to later math courses/applications.  However, there is a surprising part of the population that thinks math understanding is innate.  It isn’t.  And neither is entrepreneurship.