Stumbling Upon My Greatest Investment

I recently met with an old colleague, Hicham, to catch-up over coffee. Hicham and I didn’t just work together — he hired me at my first tech company when I was struggling to shift out of the finance industry.

We made our way through the normal rounds of chit-chat — reminiscing about the “good ol’ days” and sharing what we’re up to now. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

But then Hicham changed the subject and caught me off guard: “You know, I still have that thank-you letter you wrote me.”

He was referring to the handwritten note I’d sent him, along with three other interviewers, thanking each of them for their time and consideration for the position I’d interviewed for in 2010.

We eventually changed topics, caught up a bit more, and parted ways.

But as I walked back to my apartment, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Hicham had said. Our casual catch-up led me to a powerful realization: Until now, I hadn’t even been aware of the greatest investment I’ve ever made.

How long did it take me to write, address, and stamp four thank-you notes and drop them into a mailbox? 30 minutes, max.

What was the return on investment for those 30 minutes? I’m struggling to put a number on breaking into the tech industry, working alongside incredible people for five years, and ultimately learning the skills to start my own consulting company.

Admittedly, sending a handwritten note is pretty easy. At the same time, though, it’s just as easy not to do it. And I think that’s why Hicham hung onto that piece of paper. I was the only candidate who made a personable, memorable connection that set me apart from the pack.

Who do you care about? Maybe it’s an old mentor. Or a friend who helped you through a tough time. Or a new customer you met at a conference.

Write them a note — they might just remember it 9 years later.

Create Your Own Crystal Ball

I have a bad habit that I just can’t seem to completely kick. It’s a detrimental disposition that poses a constant threat to my overall tranquility. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you suffer from it, too.

I call it the “I just knew that was going to happen but did nothing about it” habit.

From the present, most historical trends feel inevitable — even predictable. Hindsight is 20/20, right? In a recent conversation I told a friend, “Real estate prices in Denver have been going crazy. I saw this coming…should have invested five years ago!” Well, if I knew that was going to happen, why didn’t I do anything about it? Our hunches are worth zilch unless we take action.

I recently read Tim O’Reilly’s book, “WTF?”: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us,” which explores the future of technology and how we can better harness its power. Throughout, O’Reilly provides theories about the future — and shows how it is indeed within our power to influence its outcome.

Reading “WTF?” made me think: What if we could take these theories a step further? What if we could create a framework for employing our personal beliefs and experiences to confidently analyze the future and, most importantly, take action?

What if we could create our own crystal ball?

And thus, the Crystal Ball Questions were born.

Crystal Ball Question 1:

What rhymes with history?

“Mark Twain is reputed to have said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ Study history and notice its patterns. This is the first lesson I learned in how to think about the future.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

Our experiences tend to loosely follow — or, as Mark Twain reportedly observed, rhyme with — trends from the past. When pondering what the future may hold, we should ask ourselves: Where and how might familiar patterns repeat themselves? We can’t assume the end results will mimic history exactly, but we can apply historical principles to the present to determine potential correlation.

Crystal Ball Question 2:

What’s weird?

“It is almost always the case that if you want to see the future, you have to look not at the technologies offered by the mainstream but by the innovators out at the fringes.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

“This is a key lesson in how to see the future: bring people together who are already living in it. Science fiction writer William Gibson famously observed, ‘The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.’ The early developers of Linux and the Internet were already living in a future that was on its way to the wider world. Bringing them together was the first step in redrawing the map.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

About eight years ago, my friends and I stumbled upon an oddly addictive game called Spikeball. While playing together in Central Park — and explaining the game several dozen times to curious onlookers — we realized Spikeball could be on the precipice of explosive growth. So we started throwing pick-up games and small tournaments with anyone we could convince to spend an afternoon hitting around a yellow plastic ball. Seven years later, those scrappy competitions evolved into SummerSpike, the largest Spikeball tournament in the world. (It was even featured on ESPN2 in 2018.)

Look around and identify what’s weird, out of the ordinary, or just plain underrated. It might take on a new life tomorrow.

Crystal Ball Question 3:

What might become a commodity?

“When one thing becomes commoditized, something else becomes valuable. We must ask ourselves what will become valuable as today’s tasks become commoditized.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

“What might we do with our time, if we didn’t have to work for a living? The things that require a human touch, for starters. Caring for our parents and our friends. Reading aloud to a child. And things we do for love. Enjoying a meal with a loved one is not something that machines can make more efficient.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

When a product or service becomes commoditized, consumers no longer care who produces it. And as that product or service consequently loses market value, other enterprises often capitalize on new opportunities to innovate. For example:

  • When air travel became a commodity, experiential trips became valuable.
  • When smartphones became a commodity, apps became valuable.
  • When streaming music became a commodity, live concerts became valuable.

Businesses fear commoditization, but you and I should embrace it.

We should ask ourselves: What else might become valuable if a current commoditization trend continues, and how can we take advantage of our foresight?

Crystal Ball Question 4:

What are rich people doing today?

“I’m fascinated by a comment that Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, made to me over dinner one night: ‘If you want to understand the future, just look at what rich people do today.’ It’s easy to think of this as a heartless libertarian sentiment. Our dinner companion, Hal’s former student and coauthor Carl Shapiro, fresh from his stint at Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, seemed horrified. But when you think about it for a moment, it makes sense.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

“After all, we already know that given sufficient income, people routinely pay more for better, more personal service. The rich still live in a world where doctors make house calls and personal tutoring is the norm.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

People aspire to be wealthy, and successful companies often profit by bringing specific experiences of the rich to the masses. For example:

  • Rich people have their own private drivers. With the advent of Uber, millions of consumers can summon a ride within minutes.
  • Rich people own houses all over the world. Thanks to Airbnb, more travelers can enjoy homestays around the world.
  • Rich people have assistants to fetch their coffee and food. Now, through Postmates and Seamless, regular Joes can get those items delivered, too.
  • Rich people wear the most expensive designer dresses. With Rent the Runway, price-conscious shoppers can do the same for a special event.

What else do rich people enjoy today that may provide opportunity for democratization?

Crystal Ball Question 5:

How can you shake things up?

“I hope to persuade you that understanding the future requires discarding the way you think about the present, giving up ideas that seem natural and even inevitable.”

-Tim O’Reilly, “WTF?”

Remember those snow globes your mom used to pull out of the attic every holiday season? The winter scenes inside were dull and undisturbed until you grabbed the globes and shook them up, sending the snowflakes into a delightful frenzy.

This last theory is just like that — but for your life. Travel somewhere new. Take a new way home from work. Read something new. These tactics can freshen your perspective on what the future may hold.

I’ve begun using these questions to help guide my decisions in the present, and to confidently crystallize my thoughts and plans about the future. Essentially, the questions boil down to this: If I anticipate that something might happen later, what can I do today?

Of course, there might not always be a concrete action or next step that I can take — but that’s OK. At least I can peer into my crystal ball, ask all the right questions, and make an informed decision. (And, in the process, take one step closer toward kicking my bad habit.)

My Only Advice Before You Start a Services Business

I’m approaching the fourth anniversary since I started Sangora, a consultancy that helps media companies design and implement their advertising technology.  

Over the past few years, I’ve been asked a range of questions about how to start a services business:

“How did you build your website?”

“What kind of business insurance do I need?”

“Which state is the best to form an LLC?”

Looking back on these questions, I realized that they’re actually incorrectly focused. Why? Because they zero in on the administration and optimization of a business that doesn’t yet exist.

Sure, such questions feel important when pondering a jump into entrepreneurship, and yes: Many of them will have to be answered eventually.

But when you’re on the precipice of starting a services business, I only have one piece of advice:

Find one person to buy what you’re selling.

Don’t worry about your future website. Just find one paying customer.

Don’t spend time investigating the best state in which to form your company. Just find one paying customer.

Heck, don’t even quit your day job. Just find one paying customer.

Why is this my only advice? Because you simply don’t have a business to manage or optimize until you’ve found that one customer. Focus all your efforts on this sole task — everything else can wait on the back burner.

Moreover, as you spend your energy on finding that paying customer, you’ll naturally unlock answers to other important questions:  

  • What kinds of objections am I encountering?
  • Am I targeting the right type of customers?
  • Is this a service that people need or want?

So if you’re thinking about starting a services business, don’t worry yet about the intricacies of running it. You’ll figure out those details after you achieve your single focus:

Just find one customer.

What’s your one piece of advice in an area you know well?