Chris Worfolk's Blog


The Hard Thing About Hard Things

February 8th, 2016

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers is a 2014 book by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz worked at Netscape before founding Opsware/Loudcloud and later the venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz.

It is mostly a book for people who are running tech companies. This is mostlu obviously from the title. However, it’s appeal outside that setting is quite limited. If you’re not in that situation I would probably say that it is not a particularly useful read.

He covers a wide variety of topics. Primarily these are hard topics with no obvious answers. His conclusion is that some things are really hard and you can only learn to be a CEO by being a CEO. Nevertheless, there is good advice dispensed along the way.

It’s important to draw a line between facts and perceptions for example. It sounds obvious, but is difficult to do in the moment. He also says that if you want to do a successful start-up, you need to be doing things 10 times better than the competition if you want to succeed. It’s a high bar, though perhaps lower than Peter Thiel sets in Zero to One, who makes the case for only entering markets you can have a monopoly on.

What should you do about titles? Mark Andreessen suggests giving them out because they are the cheapest benefit you can provide for employees. In constrast Mark Zuckerberg gives deliberately deflated titles to ensure everyone is re-levelled when they enter Facebook.

He also mention’s the Facebook slogan “move fast and break things”. I have always liked this mindset. I am doing a lot of this at Sky at the moment, usually with a bug fix right behind it, and everyone seems to be happy with my delivery so far. If you want to change the world, you have to be bold.

Horowitz also recommends the film Freaky Friday as a great management resource. When sales and customer support went to war with each other at Opsware, he simply switched the heads of department with each other. They soon understood the other side and began working together to solve problems.

The-Hard-Thing-About-Hard-Things

Reasons to Stay Alive

February 7th, 2016

Reasons to Stay Alive is a book by Matt Haig about depression. He talks about his own breakdown in his twenties and how he survived it.

It’s a short read. Not only is it a short book but Haig keeps the chapters very short too. He mixes up the content. Sometimes he talks about his personal story, sometimes offers a list up and sometimes presents it as a discussion across time with his younger self.

I did not learn anything, but I did identity with a lot of the content. As such, I think for someone coming into contact with depression and anxiety for the first time, it would be a valuable read.

reasons-to-stay-alive

Learn Finnish online

February 6th, 2016

learn-finnish

There are some excellent tools out there if you want to learn French or German. There are plenty of tools out there if you want to learn Spanish, or Italian, or Polish. Finnish, not so much. There are a few resources out there, but nothing that really rocks.

So we are developing our own. Learn Finnish will be launching this summer. It will be a premium subscription service. Sign up for beta testing opportunities and advanced offers.

The 4-Hour Work Week

February 5th, 2016

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich is a book by Tim Ferriss. It it he lays out his history of how we reduced his commitments and built a living from outsourcing everything to free up his time to live a fulfilling live.

He starts by laying out his vision for how everyone can do it. I was skeptical given how much of a classic self-help scam it sounded like it. I was full of promises about how great my life would be and case studies of people transforming their lives. I stuck with it because if nothing else, it was interesting.

Having finished it, I’m now sold though. This is a great book.

Ferriss makes some key points. Nobody really wants to be rich. What you want is a rich person’s lifestyle. Therefore having loads of money may not be required. Secondly, once you accept this, the aim is not to make loads of money. You just need to make enough money to cover what you want to do. Therefore the aim is to cover your costs with the minimum amount of time, thereby freeing up the maximum time for living.

He suggests doing this in a number of ways. Remote working for example. If you can get a remote working agreement, you can work anywhere in the world that has an internet connection. This is most of the world these days. Once you are out of the office you can focus on being productive and probably do your work in half the time (avoiding the half where you spend answering emails, sitting in pointless meetings and procrastinating).

Muse products are even better. These are small online retail businesses. You import a product in a tiny niche and sell it on for a large mark-up. You don’t compete on price because you are not bothered about building a huge business, you just want a revenue stream. Then you outsource everything – manufacturing, distribution, customer services. It then runs with very little input.

Finally, he talks about outsourcing your personal life. Get a virtual assistant, either in the UK or a cheaper one in india. Have them do your boring and repetitive tasks such as filtering emails, managing your diary, doing background research, paying bills and a million other small tasks.

He recommends not reading the news. I agree, and wrote about this last summer. He also advocates speed reading, which probably isn’t a thing. He reminds you of great strategies like reversal trials: it makes everything more palatable even though it is hardly ever switched back.

Of course just being able to think of a high-mark-up product in a forgotten niche is no easy thing. It reminds me a lot of the draw an owl meme:

draw-an-owl

The step is essentially “find the magic product” and that is never going to be easy. However, what impressed me about the book was it’s comprehensive advice as to how to do everything else. Want to know how to find suppliers, test the market with advertising then outsource distribution? It’s all in the book.

Ferriss gives details of all the companies, services and websites he uses. A bold thing to do in a world that moves so fast as you book will be out-of-date quickly. There is no abstract details here, it is all about exactly how he did it and practical strategies to implement.

How much of the stuff in this book I will actually be able to implement remains to be seen. Ferriss is clearly an intelligent guy with business smarts, and so replicating his success is a tough challenge. However, I was impressed and inspired by the message that it is possible to escape the 9-5. It is not the hollow book you might expect.

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Leeds Restaurant Guide proof prints

February 4th, 2016

leeds-restaurant-guide-print-proofs

I am currently working on a printed version of the Leeds Restaurant Guide. It has been a long time coming. Three years ago, when we launched the guide, I always wanted to do a print version. However, the logistics of doing so have been complicated. Multiple attempts have been made. This time though, I think we have the setup correct.

This proofs represent the first attempt. They have gone back with changes, so it depends on how that goes. However, it’s a good first step towards the end goal.

The mindful walk home

February 3rd, 2016

city-street

My mindfulness book has recommended that I do one thing a day and really concentrate on it. I decided to do my walk home. I usually listen to an audiobook on the walk to and from work, so I decided to skip one of those and ‘be mindful’. Evening made the most sense as there was more light.

Here is what I noticed:

Not thinking about things is really difficult

Like super-difficult. My mind has no off switch. It wants to think about things. They are loads of things to think about. It doesn’t even need to search for things: there are already a bunch of topics rolling around in there that need some CPU time. How is one supposed to banish it all? I suppose that is the exercise.

The world is really noisy

Cars, planes, trains, alarms. They all make loads of noise. And when you are not allowed to think about anything, you think about that. It occurs to me that train tracks properly run alongside rivers because rivers have the flattest and most consistent ascent. However, that means the one potential haven of peace and quiet in cities often has trains running alongside it. The mode of transport I passed most frequently was the canal boat: all of which were silent.

I miss my thinking time

My mind jumps from topic to topic, but I actually enjoy most of the thoughts. My walk is good imagination time. I don’t really want to experience the world. It’s Leeds. It’s cold, dark and full of ugly buildings.

I don’t feel like I usually miss anything

According to the books, people experience this great awakening about how much of life they have been missing out on. I did not experience any of that. I probably did notice things more, but nothing that was interesting or memorable. It was just the regular world that is always there.

Raw fish

February 2nd, 2016

I am currently working my way through The River Cottage Fish book. I will be writing about the book itself later, but here is a progress update. I started with the raw fish chapter. After much research, I have decided that I do not like raw fish.

gravad-max

Gravad max. If any of them were enjoyable, I think this leads the way. Based on the Swedish gravad lax it uses mackerel instead of salmon. You put it in a cure of salt, dill and a few other things and leave it in the fridge for a few days.

salmon-tartar

Salmon tartare is a take of steak tartare. Raw salmon chopped up with capers, gherkin, parsley and seasoning. If you’re going to try it, ask if your fishmonger if they have any sashimi-grade salmon. Mine had none on display, but when I asked, she had some in the back.

sushi

The fact that sashimi-grade fish existed is something I wish I had known before the first dish I made: home-made sushi. The recipe book never mentioned it. Lesson hopefully learned. It turns out that sushi made with hot mustard tastes mostly of raw fish and hot mustard. Who could have predicted that? Let it never be said I do not try things.

Leeds Dock water taxi

February 1st, 2016

water-taxi

I was walking home recently when I noticed the two Leeds Dock water taxis, ee & Drie, tied up by the side of the canal. It gave me pause to think about the success of them.

Judging that depends on what you thought their purpose is/was. This in itself isn’t clear because I do not know whether the have been scrapped permanently, or whether they are just talking a very long holiday. As things stand though, they do not seem to have been running for over a month.

The new owners of Leeds Dock, Allied London (not a name that would endear yourself to Northerns), made a big slash about them. Pun intended of course. They put together videos of all the ways you could get from the city centre to the dock, including taking the water taxi.

Nobody did though. Unless you had guests visiting from Finland. This is not at all surprising. It is not any faster than walking. You would have to get to the station, then wait for the boat, then take a slow cruise down the canal.

This was not the fatal flaw though. The problem is inconsistently. They often didn’t run. How would you know if they were running or not? That is unclear. Certainly unclear enough that you wouldn’t make plans around them running. On one occasion I walked in the office to find an email telling me they were not running today. A bit late. People are put off by buses because they are sometimes late. But they run every day, to a timetable, and have done for decades. There is no such faith to be had in the water taxis.

Secondly, and here is the hilarious part, they don’t run when it is too wet. When there is ‘appalling weather’ such as a lot of rain (not flooding, which is perhaps more understandable – though it is a boat!) they stop running. Surely that is the one time you would want to use them in an attempt to stay dry?

I hedged at the start of this post by asking about the intent. It could be that the water taxis are designed as a promotional item. An attempt to provide the dock with some glamour and convince companies to move down there. If so, it has been successful. Sky are now down there with other companies likely to follow.

However, as a method of transportation, if it hasn’t already been scrapped, it seems only a matter of time. The only way I think they are likely to be a success is if at very least they run every day, come rain, come shine. With an emphasis on the rain, that does come most days.

The Tokyo Journal

January 31st, 2016

tokyo-journal

When I was a child, I used to publish my own magazine. It was called The Tokyo Journal. I have no idea why. It is unrelated to another publication also named Tokyo Journal. I claim they ripped off my name, five years before I was born, but it is difficult to prove either way.

My gran was recently having a clear out and came across an envelope full of them. I have long since lost all of my copies so suspected they might be gone forever. It was quite a pleasant surprise to be reminded of my past.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. Back then I was not the flawless eloquent writer I am today. My sense of humour was less refined. A lot of the material in there makes me cringe a little today. Nevertheless though I think what this shows is that I am a younger far-less-successful version of Richard Branson. Who wouldn’t want that on their CV?

Zero to One

January 30th, 2016

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is a book by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. In it he talks about the challenges of producing real innovation to drive a start-up business.

He emphasises doing something new. You have to get a monopoly, with a broad scope. I could start a Finnish restaurant in Leeds for example but I wouldn’t have a monopoly. I would be the only Finnish restaurant in Leeds, but I would actually be competition with all the other restaurants in Leeds nonetheless.

In comparison the biggest tech start-ups typically have achieved near monopoly. Google handles more search traffic than all other search providers put together. The key is to start with a niche market that you can dominate and grow from there. Facebook started by only accepting students from Harvard for example. University by university it opened its doors one at a time and achieved domination. Similarly eBay started with only collectables, and PayPal started by online targeting eBay power sellers.

It also needs to be a business that can stick around. How sustainable is it in the long term? Decades from now? Zynga is a good example. The games company was worth a huge amount of money thanks to the success it had with FarmVille and Zynga Poker. At its peak, its shares were worth $10 a pop. Now they’re worth only a quarter of that because continuing to predict what social games will continue to captivate the world is an unreliable business model.

Thiel argues that you should have a small a board as possible. Ideally three people; a maximum of five. Everyone at the company should be full time: no consultants, no part time workers, no remote working. A start-up is a family and people need to be together every day to bond. Founders and CEOs should pay themselves a little as possible. This sets an example to the company, but also helps keep themselves motivated.

If you are thinking about doing a tech startup, or actually starting one, this is probably a worthwhile book to read. It is not very hands-on, but contains a lot of theory that seems useful. Given it is quite short, it seems like a sensible investment.

zero-to-one