Breaking Down Convention

Diets, Politics and Movies — What do they have in common?

Posted by Anthony

  • Diet regimens
  • Political campaigns
  • Disney movies

What do all 3 of these things have in common?

As it turns out, a lot; They all promise you that at the end of a predictably-structured process, there will be a reward waiting for you.

In short, they all sell you hope. Hope that, above all odds, you will get a result you would never be able to achieve without some outside assistance.

And when you begin looking around, you begin to realize you can apply this newfound observation to nearly everything.

There's a valuable lesson here:

If you're looking to make it big in life or business alike, then understand that hope is craved. If you can effectively sell it, you will capture an audience. And if that hope leads to an honest-to-goodness result, you'll have that audience forever. That audience will tell others; it will grow virally, with fervor.

The intersection of hope & result is home to a number of the best minds, corporations and products in the history of mankind.

So next time you're wondering how to elevate your game - how to get more people on your side, or become more successful - the formula is really quite simple: identify a problem, find a way to instill hope, and begin proving better things are possible. It won't take long before others take notice.

As basic as it sounds, it's easy to forget. And so, whatever walk of life you come from, it's worth reminding yourself regularly:
Create true value. Instill hope. Prosper.

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I’m Naive

Posted by Anthony

No, really, it's true. And so are you.

Humanity's number one biggest downfall is that we think we understand exponentially more than we do; we think technology can solve every problem, we trust people in positions higher than us to solve those problems, and we ignorantly accept that once we haven't heard about a problem in the news for a couple months, it no longer exists.

If ever there was a period in time that has proven this sentiment accurate, it has been the last decade or so. Last I checked, we (including but not limited to):

  • Attempted to restructure entire cultures in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Suffered from a hurricane in New Orleans that devastated the region
  • Had an economic meltdown of epic proportions due in large part to the advent of subprime lending
  • Leaked hundred of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico that affected sea life & towns within hundred of miles
  • Had a nuclear plant fail due to an earthquake, releasing hundreds of millions times a safe radiation level into the air & Pacific Ocean

In the short-term aftermath of nearly every single one of these events, the question on nearly everyone's mind was, "how could this happen?" But the reality that everyone knows - perhaps subconsciously, on a visceral level - is that these sorts of things happen because us humans are not in control of anywhere near as much as we think we are. We think we can dictate cultures, markets, nature - anything we throw enough determination and cash money at.

But we can't. Most grown adults can't even control their children. And then they go to work and try to control the world. It's a mind-numbingly ridiculous concept.

In spite of all of this, humanity's biggest strength is, well, the same arrogance and short-term myopia that kicks it in the ass every once in a while. After all, without dreaming big and quickly putting our failures behind us, we wouldn't get very far. And we use that mentality to accomplish the unthinkable - connecting societies all around the world via wireless signals, traveling across the world and to the moon, saving & extending lives. None of this would be possible without telling ourselves, every single day, that our capabilities are virtually limitless.

We just need to remind ourselves every now and then that most stengths come with corresponding weaknesses. Without understanding that, we're not well-balanced; we're just naive. Ignorant. And that will ultimately lead to our unraveling.


3 Business Lessons from “The Social Network”

Posted by Anthony

The Social NetworkThe Social Network is an intriguing story about the early beginnings of Facebook. Although certain facts are in dispute, the movie is largely based in reality. And while many people are currently flocking to theaters for entertainment value, this film is filled with juicy business lessons. My top three:

1. Ideas are important. Execution more so.

The movie focuses quite a bit on a feud between Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, and the Winklevoss brothers. All being students at Harvard at the time, the Winklevoss brothers claimed that Mark stole their idea. The Winklevoss's had the idea to create an exclusive, Harvard-only social network. Mark got wind of this, and within months, executed on this idea on his own. The Winklevoss brothers then spent the next few years of their lives pursuing every possible course of action to halt Mark's progress. All the while, Mark was too busy concentrating on making sure Facebook would be the biggest thing since sliced bread.

Ethically speaking, Mark could have gone about the situation in a more respectable manner. But from a business standpoint, it goes to show that while ideas are a dime a dozen, proper & efficient execution is rare. Some people, like the Winklevoss's, spend far too long focusing on the things that don't matter - like refining the idea, or chasing down people that do them wrong - while others, like Mark Zuckerberg, spend every minute focusing on the things that do matter - like making good ideas amazing realities. The people that win - hell, the people that deserve to win - are the ones that bring ideas to life. Even if those ideas are ripped off.

2. Love of the game is the only way to succeed at a massive scale

A lot of people think they can have a great idea and get rich executing on it. Problem is, if you don't love the idea yourself - if you don't live and breathe the idea - it will show. Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the team were Facebook. That's why, during legal meetings, Mark cared more about what was going on back at his office than the lawyer's. And that's why his programmers were "wired in" to their work, ignoring the outside world for hours on end. Without those sorts of personalities, Facebook would have never gained this level of notoriety.

3. Acquiring a ton of sudden venture capital funding is more exciting than achieving slow and modest profit, but is not to be mistaken for building a real business

The movie wasn't intending to make this point, but I certainly saw it sitting there, clear as day. There is a relatively new problem in business. Modern tech companies are built to gain valuation, and eventually sell. They're not built to be sustainable, long-term operations. Think Twitter, MySpace and nearly every other "fun" web 2.0 company.

Facebook's valuation is through the roof. And it's achieved vast amounts of VC funding. But from a profitability standpoint, their expenses are sky high, and they have virtually nothing to show for any of it. They're more transparent about the number of active users they have (500 million) than how much revenue they bring in. The reason is simple: the latter statistic isn't as overwhelming. They have a huge asset in their astounding user base, but fail to capitalize on that asset in any kind of significant way.

As it turns out, Eduardo Saverin, Facebook's original CFO, was onto something. He had a lot of intense debates with Mark Zuckerberg early on, claiming that it was important to get Facebook to begin paying for itself by exploring advertising opportunities. It's true that Facebook needed to "stay cool" and advertising could have potentially hurt that. And it's also easy to assume that Mark Zuckerberg was right and Eduardo was wrong. After all, look at Facebook's success thus far.

But we must remember that the story of "the social network" isn't over. What happens when the all the funding and inflated valuation disappears? Call Eduardo. He may have some ideas.


Technology Overload

Posted by Anthony

Don't blink. You may miss the latest must-have gadget, piece of software or technological convention. And without a doubt, you and your business will suffer because of it. Right?

Maybe. But probably not.

I know. A bit of an unexpected stance, coming from an entrepreneur in the web development industry. But in the past few years, I've been extremely in tune to the fact that most adults these days share a weakness - they obsess over new technology in about as levelheaded a manner as a child lusts for a new toy. Every time we see a new innovation, we immediately need to find a reason to have it and/or use it. And that's a problem.

We shouldn't be wasting resources buying, learning or implementing new things because they're cool. Technology should fill a need.

Now, that's not to say we can't have fun every once in a while. I bought a Droid X because it's a grownup toy that I enjoy. I mess around with new web technologies from time to time because they're fun. And every once in a while, those fun things turn out to legitimately help advance my knowledge and/or my business in a significant way. But most of the time, they don't. Most of the time, we're blinded by too much form and not enough function. Or by a technology that's 5-10 years too early to matter.

From a business standpoint - especially as a startup entrepreneur - what you need to do is focus. And it's hard to do that when you spend more time upgrading to 2.0 and 3.0 than taking full advantage of all 1.0 had to offer in the first place.

I see this everywhere. ERP systems are upgraded every year because they're "supposed to be". Phones are upgraded because 2 years are up. New web technologies are used because they're "more standard", despite the fact that current standards can usually get the same job done with less effort and more compatibility.

From now on, I encourage you to follow this rule: Buy new gadgets... for yourself. Try new technology... on your own watch. And stay up on the times... using side projects to learn your way. By all means, do these things because the kid in you wants to. But recognize where the kid should leave and the adult should enter. Once you step foot in your office, on the money-making clock, make decisions on the basis of what will be a sound decision from that standpoint. You just may find that Facebook apps, Droids, HTML5, and [insert latest crazes here] are nothing more than fun (but dangerous) distractions from real business.

All of this being said, you need to stay on top of new technology, because eventually these things do become relevant, obvious, cost-effective choices that you absolutely should make. But there is a difference between constantly learning and constantly adopting. Early adopters are rarely rewarded. While they're running around like chickens with their heads cut off, other people are utilizing "old" technology in perfectly efficient and effective ways, and making profits. Profits that will help them re-invest in new technology, when the time is right, with the satisfaction that the old technology was given enough time to realize a positive ROI. After all, that's the point of it, right?

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Why We Use CakePHP for Our Web Applications

Posted by Anthony

I am on my way back from Chicago where I attended CakeFest, an annual conference for CakePHP web developers. I can go into depth about the great experiences I had this weekend. But instead, I'd like to divulge a bit about CakePHP itself. This article is definitely for the more tech-focused crowd, so if that's not you, prepare for utter confusion or indulge in a different post of mine.

What is CakePHP?

CakePHP is an MVC framework that sits on top of PHP. It was originally developed a few years ago, in response to a lot of positive buzz about the Rails framework for Ruby. In essence, CakePHP is a logical evolution of the PHP language itself, in much the same way iRobots are progress for vacuums; without the help of either, you need to be utterly OCD and have far too much time on your hands in order to keep a bigcode base or house as clean as you'd like. CakePHP helps keep your code implicitly "clean" without much effort. It does this by forcing you to separate your data saves & retrievals, business logic and views/themes into distinct areas of the code, all of which communicate with each other in structured ways. If you've ever written incoherent code that ends up looking like "spaghetti" (come on, fess up), then you can quickly begin to appreciate why MVC and CakePHP are welcome changes to the process.

Why do we use CakePHP?

Here we are in 2010. There are a few other notable PHP frameworks avail ble. And in order to write MVC code, you can just, well, write MVC code. There's no need to use "somebody else's" framework. So what's the motivation behind doing so?

This is a simple one for us. CakePHP is the right decision in much the same way PHP is our clear choice over many other languages/conventions; it's extremely easy to use, it's 100% open source, and it offers a huge community of developers that we can interface with at any given time.

There are massive amounts of "plug-in" code available. Whether we need to interface with Google Analytics or upload images to Amazon S3, there is probably already someone in the Cake community who has done it first. And that saves us heaps of time and frustration. And if we need to home-brew some code, we can still bet on the fact that some core components of the framework will inevitably help us to do that with swiftness and ease.

In addition, because of the open source nature of the project, upgrades/enhancements are frequent. Any issues you come across are often fixed without your input in a matter of weeks/months, and those that are not, you can fix yourself and help give back to the community in the process.

Bottom Line

Nobody likes reinventing the wheel. And while you can write or use a more proprietary MVC system, nothing beats the ease, extensibility, and constantly improving nature of the CakePHP framework. They call it the rapid development framework for a reason. And by doing so, they're not-so-subtly implying that by doing it any other way, there's a good chance you may be wasting time.


It’s About the Talent, Not the Tools

Posted by Anthony

Back in my high school and college days, I was big into playing guitar and singing. And I was also fascinated by the idea of recording music. Especially for fairly competent yet entirely mediocre artists like myself, recording offered the opportunity to take the songs that were impossible to play live and bring them to life. Countless hours were spent tweaking and futzing trying to get small pieces of songs to sound just right. It was a very long, unnatural process, all in the name of trying to create something that sounded great.

Fast forward a few years and I've lost touch with music and recording. While I still dabble in it from time to time, it's been a while since I've recorded a serious track. So when I saw Groupon offering a one-day music recording crash course in Philadelphia, I jumped at the opportunity. After becoming a bit of a self-proclaimed recording pro a few years back, I figured it'd be nice to approach everything I thought I knew with a fresh mind.

After attending the course today, something funny happened. I re-discovered a fact I'd known all along, deep down, but managed to remain in denial about for years; I realized that no amount of tools can trump great talent - that despite this studio's insanely expensive production equipment, the best recordings were made by the best artists, not the best sound editing software. Who would have thought?

For years, I thought I could "trick" reality - that maybe if I edited my music enough, it'd magically go from "just OK" to "brilliant". To be fair, I was mimicking most modern artists who try to compensate for a complete lack of natural brilliance by overusing and abusing production tools. But I was ignoring the fact that the audience knows the difference between something naturally great and something that's gimmicky and forced.

The best artists understand this fact. And they understand that the studio is a place to trap natural brilliance in time, and not a place to manipulate mediocrity into something better. The Beatles understood this better than most. Their songs were simple yet profound. At their core, they were brilliant. And The Beatles used the studio to enhance these already outstanding songs, not create them.

The moral of the story is that talent can't be manufactured with tools, and true brilliance is impossible to fake. Whether you are recording music, developing a web application or starting a business - you need to feel it, you need to believe in it and you need to have the raw talent to execute on it. Meeting these prerequisites is the only chance you have of winning over your audience and making a long-lasting impression. The tools you use to help you get there should be fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.


A New Corporate Identity

Posted by Anthony

DistiSuite LogoWe've been undergoing a corporate identity refresh with DistiSuite over the summer, all culminating in the launch of our new sales site today!

Our Logo

First, we decided to get our logo re-designed. We vetted a lot of different designers for the task, but frankly, most didn't fit the bill. We wanted something clean, sleek modern, and professional. And to my surprise, most of the designers we spoke with didn't have the type of portfolio to suggest they could meet our unique requirements and were exorbitantly expensive, to boot. Then we learned about a website called LogoMyWay hosts a logo contest for you. You tell them exactly what you're looking for, set a fair price, and specify a timeline. From there, the contest is under way, and you rank submissions as they come in so designers get a feel for what you like and what you don't.

As we came to find, there are people out there - many professional designers - that detest these types of contest sites for many reasons. Frankly, I have no interest in debating the merits of those arguments. Capitalism is all about who can provide the best (legal!) goods & services at the most reasonable rate, and as far as I'm concerned, the contest strategy worked out great for us in that regard. We couldn't be happier with the results.

Our Website

Next up was the website. It was extremely outdated and desperately needed a refresh. While we are decent at web design, we are, by and large, web developers. Our focus is on functionality, not form. So we figured rather than spending a bunch of our time to come up with something "OK" ourselves, we'd instead seek out a proper designer for the job. It wasn't easy, but after a few weeks, we found somebody and were off to the races. The site launched today and we are very proud of our new home on the web. It's designed with only two goals in mind:

  1. Make it as obvious as possible to the visitor what we do
  2. Encourage them to contact us

That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. The old website had a lot of content. Useful content, but it detracted from the core message, nonetheless. At the end of the day, the sales website is supposed to bring in sales. So we tried as hard as possible to optimize it for that purpose.

A Sales/Marketing Video

We created a brand new video using some great audio recording equipment and a piece of software called Camtasia. It's at the top of our website's homepage and we are also able to pass it around on the web via email or any other medium we want. It's a great tool which will help potential clients understand what we do in less than 3 minutes. And oftentimes, that's half the battle.


Making Commitments to Yourself

Posted by Anthony

I just finished reading Switch, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. It's a pretty comprehensive book about "how to change things when change is hard". There are a lot of great concepts discussed in this book, but one simple, effective trick they recommended really stuck out to me. I know it works because I do it on a daily basis.

This trick is what they call an "action trigger". An action trigger is nothing more than a small promise to yourself that when "Thing A" happens, you are committing yourself to then do  "Thing B". We're all familiar with action triggers, although we may not realize they're deserving of a name:

  • We set an alarm in the morning so that we wake up on time.
  • We leaves a note on the fridge because we know we'll see it next time we get some food.
  • We put doctors appointments on the calendar so that when that day comes, we're sure we won't forget.

These are all action triggers. They're simple, but they're extremely effective.

Getting things done throughout the day is all about momentum. And unfortunately, we become overwhelmed by to-do lists because we don't know where to start, or in what order we should continue. That's where action triggers come in. Action triggers force us to imagine how & when we will get something done. By simply imagining it, we are committing ourselves to doing it.

Action triggers don't always need to be centered around events; they can even be focused on dates & times. Think: "When the clock strikes 10am, I better be doing such-and-such". In other words, it's quite simply better to use your calendar than your to-do list. A to-do list is open-ended, but when you put a to-do on the calendar - that's a commitment.

By the end of each day, I have (at the very least) my schedule planned out for the next day - down to when I will eat lunch, work on Mary Jane's website feature, call John Doe, do some paperwork, and get to the gym. This helps me understand the importance of time. When every single time-slot on my calendar is filled, and something comes up, I'm forced to ask myself, "is this really more important than that?" Most of the time, the answer is a resounding "no". But without a strict schedule, it's tougher to say "no"; you have no sense of what's at stake.

In addition, I have rules and boundaries for myself, based on my weaknesses. For example, I better not be sending followup emails (Thing B) before I eat breakfast (Thing A). This is important because I know my weaknesses. I know that if I get to the computer before I eat breakfast, I won't have breakfast till 11. Amazingly, it's far simpler to avoid your weaknesses entirely than to try to change who you are. And the same end goal is accomplished.

In a sense, action triggers are all about thinking of our brains as the parents, and our hearts as the children. When we were young, our parents did everything for us - they scheduled our days, set rules and boundaries, and made sure we stayed on track. Hopefully, anyway. Our adult selves need structure too. Action triggers are a way for us to achieve that. Because as it turns out, us grown-ups have just about as much discipline and self-control as when we were children. Without structure, we're lost.


The Catch-22 of Seeking Help During a Breaking Point

Posted by Anthony

When people are short on time, they tend to look for outside help in order to complete complicated projects as quickly and efficiently as possible. Money becomes less important than time. It's capitalism at its best.

In the past year, our business found and worked with a CPA, a lawyer, two freelance designers, one web hosting company, and a server administrator. That's a lot of time saved and tasks done right, without any nonsense... right?

Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. I won't get into individual case studies (I'm sure none of the people who have helped us this past year would appreciate public report cards). But one thing I can say is that we've learned some lessons the hard way; a lot of time needs to be put into the vetting process in order to find a service provider that can truly save you time and make your life easier. This process should consist of a few different stages:

  1. Explore what you actually need done. You may think you know. But write it down. Discuss it with a business partner, peer, etc. Is it one time, or is it actually an ongoing need? You may find that what you ultimately need differs from your cursory assessment.
  2. Decide how you will seek these services. You can use your relationship network, a certain website, etc. The medium you use needs to match the type of individual/firm you are looking to find. Don't go on craigslist for a professional, and don't expect high profile contacts to link you up with value (read: cheap) providers.
  3. Spend a decent amount of time vetting a good number of service providers. Ask them relevant questions and try to determine if they're truly the right fit for your needs. This isn't a time to judge. It's time to write down the facts of your findings, thank the potential service providers for their time, and inform them you'll be getting back to them in the near future.
  4. Begin to formulate a decision. Don't fall in love with one and ignore the fact that another provider may be a better fit on paper. Don't get overwhelmed by all the options and pick one randomly.
  5. Realize that you usually pay for what you get. Generally speaking, a good rule of thumb is that if you can't figure out how a particular provider is able to stay in business at the rate being asked, there are probably a lot of corners being cut and quality being sacrificed to make it happen. Once you get over that hump, there are providers that are charging anywhere from fairly to exorbitantly. At that point it's a crapshoot and cost isn't necessarily indicative of how good of a match you have on your hands. You need to know what you want (see step 1), and choose a provider from this group that you trust will competently carry out your vision for you.

These steps may seem obvious. But they are counter to how most people decide to seek out professional services. Most people tend to seek help at some sort of breaking point. When there's absolutely no more time to do a task, your first inclination is to call a service provider who can do it more efficiently. The problem is you end up ignoring a majority of the steps above. You assume you know exactly what you need, you seek services via the simplest medium possible, you talk to two or three people, convince yourself one is perfect (and somehow extremely affordable!), and move forward.

Then comes the disappointment. Hundreds or thousands of dollars later, you realize you spent almost as much time managing & fixing the project as you would have just doing it yourself. You realize that not only did you waste time, but money as well. Completely counterintuitive.

I'm not a fan of over-optimizing or wasting time on non-issues. That can kill a small business. But the fact is, the most successful small businesses understand there's a fine balance between over-optimizing and waiting too long. You need to anticipate your need for help, and should be able to identify when you're close to a breaking point. When you are there, begin exploring and vetting immediately. Because by the time the breaking point comes, you will be in no place to be making sound decisions; you need to be on auto-pilot.


Haiti: Exemplifying the Value of Distribution

Posted by Anthony

I was watching the news recently and there was a piece on CNN about Haiti's food crisis in the wake of January 2010's massive earthquake. Food crisis? How could this be? Didn't Americans and other generous countries around the world send enough food and money to last months, maybe years? Where did all of it go?

As it turns out, Haiti is experiencing a classic distribution problem. The #1 goal and priority was to get supplies to the country. And so most funds & mindshare were focused on that goal. A distant priority was figuring out what to do with the supplies once they arrived. And so many of them continue to sit around, just miles away from where they needed to be.

Many people - especially Americans - tend to discount the value of distribution. We shop wholesale where possible and push on retailers, dealerships, etc to operate at near-losses. We go online to purchase items that are available in a physical store for a premium. And - what do you know? - we donate straight from our cozy homes, and assume in good faith that the money will be turned into tangible help in some village thousands of miles away.

Problem is, by ignoring the value distributors have to offer, we are shooting ourselves in the feet. What we gain in cost savings and convenience, we lose in the ultimate effectiveness of our purchase/contribution.

Take a car, for example. While everyone hates to pay a dealership a penny more than what a car actually costs, let's consider for a moment the alternative. What if there were no dealerships? Where would you test drive your car? Would it be shipped to you? Where would you get it serviced? Who would you go to for simple questions and guidance related to your specific make & model?... The convenience a dealership offers is what, in the business world, is known as a "value add", and no matter how much it pains the average Joe to admit it, a value add is usually worth the price. That's what a distributor offers, and if distributors vanished tomorrow, the world would be a rough place for both suppliers and consumers.

Now - charity is a different beast. But the principles are the same. When you give money to an organization, the #1 most important thing to consider is how that organization uses the money. Most people hate to find out that a large portion of donations go to salaries and operational costs. They want to hear that 100% of it is going to supplies. And with an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude, it's pretty easy to be a person that makes those types of demands. I'm not one of them. The harsh reality is that without properly considering or funding the operational aspect of a charity, you end up with a situation like the one in Haiti - a bunch of supplies, and no clear direction.

So here's your action item -- every time you make a purchase or donation moving forward, ask yourself a) if you are ignoring the "value add" distribution has to offer, and b) what consequences that may bring. If those consequences are too great, then be willing to pay a premium, whether that means shelling out an extra grand or two for a car, or coming to grips with the fact that reliable charities use a certain percentage of contributions to fund operational costs. This isn't because they're evil. It's because they recognize that without proper distribution, everything else is meaningless.