Monthly Archive: January 2015

How much information do you really need to make a decision?

One of the worst things for any entrepreneur is to deal with a perfectionist. These people are like Kryptonite to Superman when it comes to decision-making because at least in the early stages of a business, absolutely nothing is perfect. It’s chaos. It’s madness. It’s not even very clever half the time, no matter whether we think it is. Perfectionists are just a terrible fit.

If I have learned anything in the insanity of building businesses, it’s that you have to make decisions with a limited amount of information. That may be anathema to an MBA graduate, but it would probably make perfect sense to a military leader. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. You can’t make the perfect decision. Sometimes you just have to go.

The question then, is how much information do you really need to make a decision? The only possible answer is that it depends on your appetite for risk. If it’s high, you don’t need much. If it’s low, you can never have enough. That’s probably obvious.

What’s not obvious is the dividing line between intelligent low-information decision-making and gambling. Gambling, no matter what the movies attempt to depict, is bloody stupid. Which means to me, you’ve got to have a little more intelligence about you before you leap into the unknown. Appetite for risk isn’t the same as willingness to commit financial suicide.

So how much information do you need?

Let’s break it down. Ex-United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was and remains a jerk and there’s little to be learned from him short of a billion cautionary tales. But he did once say something which in his bizarre rhetoric came across as … bizarre … but which is actually surprisingly bright.

He spoke about four things: known knowns, the things you are certain of; known unknowns, the things that you know you don’t have enough information about; unknown knowns, the things that you don’t realise you know until they’re suddenly up in your face, and unknown unknowns, the things you don’t have the faintest idea exist and therefore have the ability to blindside you.

I know. it’s gobbledygook. But bear with me.

Leave out the things you know you’re an expert in and the things you know you don’t know enough about and therefore approach with trepidation. Leave out also the things you don’t realise you know, because they’ll present themselves to you when you’re forced to think a little harder.

The buggers are the things you didn’t even know you needed to know.

Those are the ones that make the difference between gambling and low-information decision-making. The gambler is unwilling to predict that anything unusual might come around the corner. The low-information decision-maker is at least half-primed to accept it. Neither of them is particularly well-equipped to deal with it in advance, because by definition, you can’t be. How can you prepare for something you haven’t even imagined?

There is ample evidence however, that in at least knowing that your greatest plans are probably flawed, you can react intelligently, as long as you’re deep enough and broad enough to be able to apply lateral context. Your most important knowledge is non-specific. What have you seen, heard of, read about, that triggers a linking of dots? If you don’t have that, you’re naked.

Which bring us back to the first guy. Perfectionists don’t have any context beyond the flawed object that is in front of them.

How much information do you need? The truth is, you cannot know. Sometimes you just have to go. Preparation isn’t science. It’s a way of being. That’s probably why so few entrepreneurs actually build businesses that grow.

You can’t hope for success and keep wasting your todays

There’s this scene in the George Clooney movie Up in the air, in which he tells a character named Bob (who he is in the act of retrenching from his job), that he doubts his children ever really admired him. Naturally, it angers Bob, but Clooney’s character isn’t just being obnoxious. The Bob character studied French cuisine in university 30 years before, but gave up on whatever dream he had to be great in that field the moment he was seduced by a corporate job, even one that didn’t pay very much money. Fast forward 30 years and Bob, who has performed averagely in his average job, and achieved average amounts of recognition, coupled with average raises, is considered to be superfluous to requirements. Companies do that. It’s the worst thing about them.

There’s a fork in the road here. I could create an argument that any company that has a Bob on its payroll is one that obviously doesn’t grow its people very well and ought to be shamed into taking a long, hard look at itself. I reckon I could do that pretty successfully, because I believe it. More companies are like Bob’s employer than any of us cares to admit, and that is the worst thing about work.

I could alternatively create an argument that Bob should have tried harder. Having made a decision, he should have grabbed it with both hands, and all of that pseudo-motivational BS that management trainers and the like, try to tell you. Except that I don’t think the guy ever had a chance at being good in a job that was a compromise from the outset. His mistake was to sell out and you can’t just decide to love something.

I could make those arguments, but neither of those is the most important one in that scene, which I have watched over and over. The thing that gets me every time is the fact that Bob, much like the overwhelming majority of the western world, I have no hesitation in saying, is a sleepwalker. I’ve personally experienced this. I’ve allowed a year or two (thankfully never more than that at any one time), to pass by almost unnoticed as I talked myself in and out of the job I was in. You go through the motions, you do what is expected, but never enough to get any recognition. You’re just kind of, there.

And then it’s a year later. And then it’s another one.

I’d like to see a sequel to Up in the air in which Bob has rediscovered his excitement for French cuisine, opened a restaurant at the age of 55 and is finally having more fun days than boring ones. That’s probably pretty sappy, but I’d like to see it.

We’re all guilty of a little sleepwalking through our lives. But you can’t do anything worthwhile if you’re not excited enough about today, to do something about it. All those todays add up to one big chunk of either wasted or well-spent time. But don’t kid yourself that they’re ever just freebies.

You owe yourself the self-respect to think more broadly

I wish to compete at what I have chosen to be my highest possible level. It is true that it takes some people more time than others, and at nearly 45, I’m only a couple of years into my best idea yet. If I connect the dots, I can trace this back over a decade now, and possibly much longer, but as 2015 unfolds, the brainchild that was Happy Sandpit is evolving into an organisation that I wouldn’t bet against being a R1-billion pan-African business within another ten years. It happens to some people at 35. I’m aiming for 55. That’s just how it is.

But here’s the thing, and there is really no way around this: the narrow band of expertise which I spend my days selling is fatly embellished by a broad and constantly-increasing pool of connected knowledge which while often specifically irrelevant, is critical to its overall enrichment. You cannot dominate anything unless you give in to the fact that your quest for domination requires incessant growth. You cannot, ever, know it all.

In building the knowledge that fuels my organisation, I can tell you straight that I am borderline distressed by what I thought of as knowledge only two years ago. That realisation has given me a strategic goal of being equally distressed in 2017 by what I thought was detailed knowledge in 2015. There’s not only so much more to learn, things change.

What is at stake in all of this is the notion that it’s possible to ever be an expert over any sort of period of time. You can be sensational right now, and redundant tomorrow. That should scare you.

The goal therefore, must be expansive learning. But you run the risk, in focusing too narrowly, of being uni-dimensional. I could own a unique perspective on employee engagement, organisational culture and other people matters that fascinate me, and be able to add absolutely nothing of value to any conversation, even on that topic, because in isolation it lacks important depth.

Knowledge of how people behave in corporate banking environments is enriched by knowledge of global politics. As it is by war and conflicts. As it is by gender battles. As it is why people choose mainstream pop over mathcore punk.

Context matters. To me, the only solution is to be basically interested in absolutely everything, and as unbiased as you possibly can. You owe yourself the self-respect to think more broadly.

You can’t preach morality when there isn’t enough to eat

Missionaries and politicians alike know the solid brick wall of trying to convince role model-deprived people to modify their thoughts and activities. Employees of new businesses can often face exactly the same challenge in dealing with their founder bosses.

Even if we get over the fallacious statistic that nine out of 10 startups fail in their first year, the challenge of growing a business beyond a one- or two-person operation is huge.

A better statistic for failure, must include a clearer definition of what failure actually means (far fewer businesses close their doors than simply come to a stop with neither debt nor a clear revenue model) and some sort of industry segmentation (perhaps more restaurants shut down than do advertising agencies). Without applying such variables, any discussion of the topic is nonsense.

The real challenge for entrepreneurs isn’t survival, but growth. You can be a one-person show for years, while other businesses around you grow from zero to 200 employees within two years. Why is that?

One overriding reason simply is that entrepreneurs who haven’t got used to sharing early on, find it increasingly hard to do so later. The perception held by the leaders of a growing business, that people add to the experience, revenue potential and overall strength of a company, is often the opposite of that held by the solo entrepreneur once they have experienced any sort of business success.

Where for the growing business, adding people is a long-term strategy which carries short-term sacrifices in an expanding bottom line, for the solo entrepreneur, they can simply be viewed as a cost that limits immediate earnings. If you’re used to banking everything, even the ease of finding new business can seem like a poor trade off for 70% of your previous haul.

Employees who sign on in such a scenario, find themselves parring with a boss who feels that their very presence, however necessary it was considered to be at the hiring time, deprives them. In reaction, those bosses feel they are sharing too much already in providing a salary, and struggle to come to terms with the fact that their new member of staff has ideas that may change the business. It’s too vast a leap to make, so they get locked into a cycle of hiring, draining and losing employees, constantly returning to their solo status, which represents an exhausting sort of comfort zone.

It’s common wisdom that nobody ever achieves anything great on their own. Supportive people matter. If your dream is to build something substantial, you’d better learn to share, quickly.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Financiverse

One of my favourite feeds on Facebook is the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, which routinely debunks idiotic science including the anti-vaccination craziness, creationism, and the like. Its solid scientific approach to taking down pseudoscience is important work and I recommend that everyone subscribes.

Science requires no supportive adjectives. There is no ‘pure’ science, no ‘true’ science, no ‘real’ science. There is researched, then peer-reviewed science, and there is stuff that simply isn’t science at all. The Skeptics’ Guide doesn’t take an apologist stance; it is self-assured in its quest to stop stupidity from spreading.

It’s so good, that I think the model should be exported to other topics. Business and personal finance come to mind. In the past year, I’ve had a front row look at some truly audacious sales pitches for what is fundamentally vapour, and I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the way in which ordinary people have leapt to sign up. Something is wrong here.

Get rich quick schemes aren’t new of course, but perhaps because we’ve lived in such a lousy economy for such a long time, they seem more attractive than ever to the thousands of people who attend conferences because they’re just so tired of fighting.

But they’re a lie, make no mistake. And they’re sold by liars who haven’t achieved the success they lie about having achieved.

When I was a kid, growing up in Belgium and surrounded by American friends in our expat enclave, I used to read Archie and Jughead comics, and the thing I remember most about them were the cool ads at the back. You could buy a fully working nuclear submarine including crew, for $7. You could buy a full-size log-cabin or your own Frankenstein’s monster; a machine that printed real money or x-ray specs that fuelled all sorts of perverted pre-adolescent daydreams for a 10-year old Colin. All for $7. There were those who said that it seemed too good to be true, but I knew a good deal when I saw one. They didn’t ship to Belgium, so I never found out, and in my later years, I have found them a source of genuine delight. You can check some of them out here.

Get rich quick schemes act in precisely the same way, except they appeal to adult minds which should be skeptical enough to know better. Clever salesmanship, encased in perceived content, backed up by outrageous claims, all of it obfuscated by an almost invisible Internet presence, is con-artistry, in its most basic form.

Here’s what I know, and I hope you respect what you already have, enough to believe me: you can’t get rich quick unless you get into drug distribution, are lucky enough to make it in show-business, or you’re into wild gambling. And in all of those cases, your success is under immediate threat of evaporating from the moment it arrives.

Riches are acquired over time. They take effort and positioning and more often than not, they demand sacrifices. You’re surrounded by rich people, every day, but you’d never know it from their cars, or the seats they occupy on commercial airliners because they know that it was too hard to make their money in the first place, to spend it so easily.

There’s salvation in that, though. If it was so easy to get rich, you’d really have to be pathetic not to be it. But in reality, you’re probably neither.

The ultimate enemy of riches is impatience. Please don’t be suckered.

The new rules of online self-promotion

Oscar Wilde would have been stunned into silence by Facebook. It was his suggestion that the only thing worse in life than being talked about, is not being talked about, but there is no way he could have imagined a world of daily selfies and self-quotes as attempts at attention seeking. If you use social media, and Facebook in particular, as a promotional tool for your professional activities, you’re in need of some new rules:

1. Stop the @#@^&* Selfies and start thinking Groupies.

There is nothing more narcissistic and desperate than a Selfie with only two exceptions: (1) the profile picture … if there is nobody around to take one when you need it, and (2) the contextual Selfie, in which the point of the picture is something other than you. If your t-shirt says something rib-ticklingly hilarious, by all means, snap it up. If you’re about to jump out of a plane, do the same. Otherwise, if you’re that interesting, why do you have to take your own pictures? The Groupie on the other hand, may have merit. You and other people. You doing something unusual, especially if it involves other people. Groupies get a green light because they’re not only about you and probably have a story to them, which is actually what’s interesting.

2. You cannot be the one to decide you’re profound.

My timeline has a constant flow of pictures bearing inspirational quotes, attributed, sometimes correctly, to the historical figure who said them. I tend to skip over them because I say cleverer stuff than that, all the time. So do you, if you have a vocabulary that spans more than 200 words, and are perceptive enough about the world, to notice irony and humour. Public personalities speak in soundbites in order to get quoted, but the potency of that activity is dependent on other people deciding that what they said was profound. Posting your own quotes as if they’re the smartest things anyone ever said, is worse than posting a Selfie. And we know you spent more time on the font and the background than on the actual quote, which puts it all into perspective.

3. Think, the content of your character, not the content of your wallet.

Alain du Botton’s book Status Anxiety, is based on the hypothesis that we measure success not by how we’re doing on a macro-scale, but how we’re faring at a micro-level. You don’t lose sleep over the fact that Bill Gates continues to be richer than you, because he doesn’t offer an immediate reflection of your life. When the neighbour gets a new Porsche however, or a colleague gets promoted and you don’t, it’s a good, swift, kick in the ego. It is for that reason, and no other, that you posted a picture of your new car or announced that you’re sitting in first class on your latest trip overseas. Social media in most forms, offers you an opportunity to share ideas and create conversations, to share jokes and insights about the peculiarity of life, and Facebook is at its best when that is how it is used. The rest of this stuff tells us only about your need for attention.

Self-promotion is a necessary thing. If you aim to be relevant, it’s madness to hope that people will notice you on their own, so it’s worth putting some effort into it. Oscar Wilde’s statement is relevant for a Facebook world, because if your self-promotion activities are based on these three, they’re not really paying attention to you at all.

Je suis seulement un peu Charlie

Let me lay this on the line, and take what comes my way. I have been moved to a sort of blue funk this week by the image in my head of the team at Charlie Hebdo, pens in hand at their weekly editorial meeting, possibly laughing, possibly arguing, unsuspecting as they plotted out their next issue, just seconds before they were gunned down.

I have to say, however, until the news broke, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo and from what I have seen, I probably wouldn’t read it even if I lived in Paris. It’s not my cup of tea, all this one-sided swiping that lauds itself as brave journalism.

The murders that took away ten of the leading personalities behind Charlie Hebdo require no debate. They were appalling and there is no justification for them.

There is however a debate to be had about whether any of us really is Charlie.

Most people I know, and I include myself, make a concerted effort not to deliberately poke people where they are most sensitive. In a day-to-day context, if you go around speaking about people the way Charlie Hebdo does, someone is likely to punch you in the face. Whether it is right or wrong, in civil society, we actively practice not being offensive. We tell white lies. We smile politely when we’re bored. We may frown and tut tut at a crude joke, but we don’t step up and take the joke-teller down. It’s considered bad form at parties.

Perhaps we’re not always right to do that, but it’s ironic that it is precisely that form of social grace that stops us all from killing each other.

None of this is intended to pour scorn on satire as an art form. I’m fully open to that, and I don’t think it contradicts my social mores to choose a side of the fence to sit on. But I cannot realistically claim to be Charlie.

I’m sad about Paris. It shouldn’t have happened. As a show of solidarity for those who were murdered doing what they have a right to do, I think JeSuisCharlie is very stirring. But the truth is that in action, nous ne sommes pas Charlie. Pas du tout. And thank goodness for that.

And when the dust clears, the world moves on from the story, and the convenient bandwagon that has characterised this week is largely forgotten, I bet we’ll all simply go back to smiling politely.

The myth of the Lifestyle Entrepreneur

There is no doubt that the world of work is changing. But there is this weird thing I have been noticing lately. Like fad diets, would-be entrepreneurs are latching onto alleged new thinking which suggests that all the stuff about normal business nutrition we have known for centuries, is wrong. Rather than exercising caution about expenditure, expansion and the like, the new thinking suggests that the brightest minds keep a watchful eye that their business doesn’t infringe on their spare time.

One term that is bouncing around is that of the Lifestyle Entrepreneur, which as I understand it, describes someone who runs their business in the background so that they don’t have to leave the beaches of Thailand for a pesky office matter.

The role model for Lifestyle Entrepreneurs seems to be Richard Branson, who has mastered the art of running a global business from a hammock on Necker Island and is the antithesis of the office-bound, suited up, over-stressed executive.

Except that he isn’t.

From that hammock on Necker Island, Branson spends one hell of a lot of time on the phone, running his businesses, many of which (most of which, perhaps) are run by executives who are office-bound, suited up and over stressed. Branson may go out and play a lot more than he works. He may go out and work a lot more than he plays. I don’t know. What I do know is that he’s built a global business empire and fuelled it with talented leaders, placing him in a position to make that decision.

If the rest of us crave that sortIMG_1309 of success, I’m pretty certain you’d be better off turning up at the office, whatever that may be, at 08h00 every morning.

The Internet has certainly changed things, and it’s made it genuinely possible, easy even, to run a business from a laptop as long as certain things are in place. Internet access for instance. Aside from Doppio Zero in Pineslopes, I don’t know of anywhere in the greater Johannesburg area that has better Internet access than a properly kitted-out office. My advice if you want to run a business online would be to rent premises, get LTE and stay put for eight hours per day.

I realise I could be missing the point somewhat. If I had a library full of books that I had written and made vigorous sales online, through Amazon for instance, then I could certainly imagine a life where I jet in and out of airports to sun spots all over the planet and simply check my bank account once per week to see how much I can blow on shooters for the next seven days.

But that doesn’t seem to me, to be the classic definition of an entrepreneur. That’s a writer with an income. There’s a difference.

The recipe for building something calls for much more time on the job, than on the beach. That’s just the way it is.

This Lifestyle Entrepreneur concept is nothing more than snake oil.

It takes planning to appear spontaneous

I find that it pays to be meticulous. It’s not very sexy, but in business, I’d sacrifice a little raciness for predictable results pretty much every time. It’s what keeps the lights on. Being meticulous is my euphemism for what many may uncharitably call being anal, but I also find that people who have a go at me for being too meticulous (I insist on calling it that), tend to be in need of a little extra attention to detail themselves.

In writing this, what is on my mind in particular, is the new form of marketing plan I have worked out for 2015, which will dictate the time and date and provide a guideline for topics for everything I do between January 5, and December 31. It includes blog posts, video blog posts, webinars, live seminars, ebooks, and email blasts.

See, for me, 2014 was something of a bust on one significant front. I am a believer in the vicarious nature of online sharing and both the perceptions that are created through the various media (facebook, twitter and LinkedIn fundamentally serve my purposes), and the status anxiety that can lead people to tune in, whether they’re fans or haters. Do it right, and you become larger-than-life.

Since a part of my requirement, both egotistically and from the point of view of business common sense, is to be in the spotlight, I need to be more prominent.

The snag is, that I am me. It’s a bad thing to be if your goal is to constantly big yourself up, and worse still if you need to actually action things, daily, on the fly.

So I find that it pays to be meticulous. And by that I mean coldly mechanical. And by that, I mean anal. You’ll be thinking it by the time you see what I am about to reveal so I may as well say it for you.

Calendar overview of Happy Sandpit and COLINISM combined for 2015.

Calendar overview of Happy Sandpit and COLINISM combined for 2015.

This is a snapshot of my 2015 calendar. This document is backed by a detailed template into which I have added content to the end of the year. This blog post is the red block on January 5 and you can see just how much I’ll be expecting you to tolerate me for the rest of the year.

I’ll happily email you that template if you would like to use it. Drop me a line at colin at colinjbrowne dot com.

I have put this into place because I know this: what I do in the eight or ten hours that I work today is going to have every conceivable impact on what happens to me six months from today. A great day of reaching out, making contact, having conversations, will pay off, later on down the line. That’s always how it works.

But that’s the up-in-your-grill stuff, and I am pretty good at that. Unfortunately it always comes at the expense of the just-happening-anyway stuff.

This document is the plan for the just-happening-anyway stuff, so I don’t have to obsess about it. The plan is detailed. Anal, even. I can roll it out without having to panic on any given day, and be seriously prominent.

It’s kind of a way to dominate social media. I think that is helpful to my cause, and I wouldn’t bet against it working out just as I planned. It will be fun to look back in January 2016 and see how it all played out.