One of the most interesting and simultaneously challenging realizations I’ve had is that as a founder, especially the CEO, you essentially have chosen to never become an expert of anything. Oh, and if you don’t embrace that reality, it’s probably going to affect your likelihood of success.
Danielle Morrill wrote that there are a handful of roles that she became very good at, yet she no longer cares to play. As she continues her fascinating journey with Referly, I feel I can relate to a lot of what she’s going through, from my experience with Buffer.
Huh - I was a coder?
It’s crazy. I haven’t coded more than a day every two weeks for over six months now, and I haven’t coded at all for the last two. If I look back at the whole of the last year, I wasn’t coding, I was doing a bunch of other things. Important things.
Yet, looking back at my life and my identity, it’s largely been defined by programming. It was such a core part of who I was. I learned to code when I was 12, I was a freelance developer and I did Computer Science. So it feels odd that in just a year, I can be so distant from it. And that’s exactly how I need to feel. That’s what needs to happen for Buffer, and it’s what will help me grow the most, personally.
Repeatedly firing myself
If you’re a founding CEO, I believe that you are doing your company a disservice if you don’t fire yourself from your skill position.
- Joe Kraus
For much of the first year, I was coding. I did whatever was needed to build the product, from design and front-end work to back-end and server admin. Then, we started looking for investment and everything changed. I had to learn how to pitch investors, how to describe our traction. Then I had to work with Leo to learn how to get press. We got into AngelPad and Tom immediately joined us. That was when I first fired myself. I was no longer the main coder, Tom took over and gradually all of my code was touched and improved in some way by Tom.
That was a shock for me, to let go of my main thing. I got over it, and found a joy in the immense personal learning and growth of Buffer which we found as a result of my doing all these other things.
A few months later, we realized the power of mobile for Buffer. I jumped in and learned to code Android, just enough to build a decent version of Buffer for Android. It was hard, I was stuck almost every day with a new challenge in Java. Then, just as I found my feet and gained confidence in the coding, I knew how truly fundamental mobile will be for us, so I knew I needed to hire someone to do it full-time. Sunil joined us and I gradually reduced my involvement in Android development. I never became an expert, then I fired myself and we found someone else.
Feeling lost, and getting used to it
Being an expert of nothing is draining, and something I never anticipated. There is a lot to do, and you don’t really know how to do any of it. On top of that, you’re supposed to be the leader, to know everything. You’re meant to be the expert that everyone can look to. They’re counting on you.
It’s pretty hard at times, if I’m totally frank. There are days when I wonder what it is I even do anymore. Everything used to be so tangible - I would write a line of code, and it would do something for me. These days, there are these fluffy things like culture (and it’s so important), and I have to direct product and hire new people. I have to manage much of the team, and talk with investors. I truly have no idea what I’m doing - I have zero previous experience of hiring, or managing people, or being a product manager.
Every day I’m an expert of nothing. And just when I finally start to feel like I know how this role works, and the activities I need to do? That’s exactly the point when I need to hire someone to replace myself, so I can move onto the next thing I have no idea how to do.
I’m starting to find a kind of peace and comfort in this place now. I quite like it. It is a real privilege to be able to experience it.
Photo credit: Daniel Novta
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle
I’ve been obsessed with thinking about, adjusting and building upon my habits for a long time now, and working on good habits is probably one of the things that’s helped me the most to make progress with my startup. In addition, it seems like habits are now becoming popular again. This is a great thing, and books like The Power of Habit are helping lots of people.
I’ve discovered that perhaps one of the things which is rarely discussed with habits is failing with them. How do you keep going with building habits when you fail one day, or you have some kind of momentary setback? I thought it might be useful for me to share my thoughts on habits, and particularly the aspect of failing with habits.
Building an awesome habit
There are the steps I’ve found which work best for creating an amazing habit:
- Start so small you “can’t fail” (more on the reality of that later)
- Work on the small habit for as long as it becomes a ritual (something you’re pulled towards rather than which requires willpower)
- Make a very small addition to the habit, ideally anchored to an existing ritual
How I built my most rewarding habit
The habit I’m happiest with is my morning routine. It gives me a fantastic start to the day and lots of energy. To build it, I took the approach above of starting small and building on top.
I started my habit two years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. The first thing I started with, was to go to the gym 2-3 times per week. That’s all my routine was for a long time. Once I had that habit ingrained, I expanded on it so that I would go swimming the other two days of the week, essentially meaning that I went to the gym every day at the same time. I’d go around 7:30, which meant I awoke at around 7am.
Next, I gradually woke up earlier, first waking up at 6:45 for several weeks, and then 6:30. At the same time, I put in place my evening ritual of going for a walk, which helped me wind down and get to sleep early enough to then awake early. Eventually, I achieved the ability to wake up at 6am and do 1 hour of productive work before the gym. This precious early morning time for work when I was the freshest was one of the things that helped me get Buffer off the ground in the early days.
The next thing I made a real habit was to have breakfast after I returned from the gym. I then worked on making this full routine a habit for a number of months, and I had times when I moved to a different country and had to work hard to get back to the routine after the initial disruption of settling in. It was whilst in Hong Kong that I achieved being very disciplined with this routine and wrote about it.
My morning routine
Today, I’ve built on top of this habit even further. Here’s what my morning routine looks like now:
- I awake at 5:05am.
- At 5:10, I meditate for 6 minutes.
- I spend until 5:30 having a first breakfast: a bagel and a protein shake.
- I do 90 minutes of productive work on a most important task from 5:30 until 7am.
- At 7am, I go to the gym. I do a weights session every morning (different muscle group each day).
- I arrive home from the gym at 8:30am and have a second breakfast: chicken, 2 eggs and cottage cheese.
- At 9am we have the Buffer team standup video Skype call.
It may seem extremely regimented, and I guess perhaps it is. However, the important thing is the approach. You can start with one simple thing and then work on it over time. I’m now working to build around this current habit even more.
Failing whilst building your awesome habit
One of the most popular and simultaneously most controversial articles I’ve ever written is probably The Exercise Habit. It’s one which has been mentioned to me many times by people I’ve met to help with their startup challenges. I’ve been humbled to find out that a number of people have been inspired by the article to start a habit of daily exercise.
Whilst in Tel Aviv, I met Eytan Levit, a great startup founder who has since become a good friend. He told me he had read my article and was immediately driven to start a habit of daily exercise. I sat down and had coffee with him and he told me about his experience, it was fascinating. He told me that he did daily exercise for 4 days in a row, and he felt fantastic. He said he felt like he had more energy than ever before, and was ready to conquer the world. Then, on the 5th day Eytan struggled to get to the gym for whatever reason, and essentially the chain was broken. The most revelatory thing he said to me was that the reason he didn’t start the habit again was not that he didn’t enjoy the exercise or benefit greatly from doing it. The reason he failed to create the exercise habit was the feeling of disappointment of not getting to the gym on that 5th day.
Get ready and expect to break your habit
"I deal with procrastination by scheduling for it. I allow it. I expect it." - Tim Ferriss
What I’ve realised, is that one of the key parts of building habits might be to know that you will not flawlessly create your habits. You are going to break your habit at some point, you are going to fail that next day or next gym session sooner or later. The important thing is to avoid a feeling of guilt and disappointment, because that is what will probably stop you from getting up the next day and continuing with the routine.
In a similar way to how Tim Ferriss deals with procrastination, I believe we should not try so hard to avoid breaking our habits. We should instead be calm and expect to break them sometime, let it happen, then regroup and get ready to continue with the habit. Perhaps we took too much on, and we cut back a little or try to add one less thing to our habit. Or maybe we just had a bad day. That’s fine, and a single failure shouldn’t stop our long-term success with building amazing habits.
Is there a habit you were building and are not anymore? Why is that? Which habit are you happiest with? I’d love to hear your experiences on creating habits.
Photo credit: darinaniz
I believe that when you’re building a startup, it is as much about developing yourself as it is about developing your startup. This week I’ve stepped up my gym routine and managed to go to the gym every morning at 6:30am, and I spoke at an event in Bulgaria to 160 people over Skype yesterday. Both these things made me uncomfortable, but I’ve realised that “feeling uncomfortable” was just what I needed.
Why is it a good thing to feel uncomfortable?
Seth Godin describes why we should feel uncomfortable using the following chart:
Godin argues that most people reach some comfortable “Local Max” and then stay there, because to jump to new heights almost always involves some discomfort:
"The problem is that to get to Big Max, you need to go through step C, which is a horrible and scary place to be."
In The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, which I’ve mentioned before, the authors say that stress is a crucial part of growth:
"Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand capacity physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually so long as it is followed by adequate recovery"
I think the need to get out of your comfort zone is even more true when you’re building a startup. Ben Yoskovitz puts this well:
"Dont start a company as a tech person if all you want to do is code. If all you want to do is code, then get a job coding. Starting a company means to do a lot of things youve never done, and a lot of things you wont be comfortable doing. Get used to it. Make the uncomfortable comfortable."
Shifting from uncomfortable to comfortable
I’ve found in the past that if I get excited about something and dive in too fast, I will often work for longer than I realise is productive and then burnout. This makes for a bad experience and makes it easy to avoid trying again.
I think a better approach is what Loehr and Schwartz propose: to go beyond our comfortable levels and then step away and renew. Repeating this process can build our capacity to do anything and make us comfortable with new things.
Of course, when something becomes more comfortable we should strive to get out of our comfort zones once again. The compounding effect can be very powerful.
Growth in one area can mean confidence in other areas
A great side effect I’ve found of stepping out of my comfort zone in one area such as speaking at events or stepping up my exercise routine is that growing my skill or capacity on one of these areas can give me a massive amount of confidence in almost every other area of my life. This is a good reason why we should have many areas where we stretch ourselves. Here is a great part of an interview Tim Ferriss had with Matt from 37signals:
"If your entire ego and identity is vested in your startup, where there are certainly factors outside of your control, you can get into a depressive funk that affects your ability to function. So, you should also, lets say, join a rock climbing gym. Try to improve your time in the mile. Something like that. I recommend at least one physical activity. Then even if everything goes south you have some horrible divorce agreement with your co-founder if you had a good week and set a personal record in the gym or on the track or wherever, that can still be a good week."
Some of the things I’m doing to feel uncomfortable
Working on a startup has given me many opportunities to feel uncomfortable and therefore gain skills in many areas I was never comfortable with. Here are some of my top ones:
Speaking: Believe it or not I’m actually an introvert. I squirm on a stage, but I get a kick out of sharing my story and helping others and that’s why I am always pushing myself in this area. I’ve now spoken at quite a few events of various sizes, and I usually say yes to speaking opportunities precisely because I know I find it uncomfortable. It’s definitely getting easier.
Sleep, health and exercise: I’ve always struggled with getting enough sleep and keeping up a gym routine. Over the last few months I’ve managed to put in place a sleep ritual which I’ve kept to almost religiously. I then created a morning gym routine, and for the last two weeks I’ve been to the gym every weekday morning at 6:30am. With the consistency handled, I’m now pushing myself out of my comfort zone further by making my weight training routine harder and keeping track of my progress.
There are many others too: even this blog is something I still find hard to keep up, and since I’m primarily a developer I’ve had to push myself to become a better designer and deal with server admin tasks for Buffer. I’m also about to get rid of my apartment and go travelling for several months with my co-founder Leo.
What are you doing to feel uncomfortable?
That brings me back to the title of the post. Have you thought about whether things are getting a little too comfortable? What are you doing to push yourself out of your comfort zone? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, I am sure there is much we could all learn about pushing ourselves further.
Photo credit: Capture Queen