Two good movies

Yesterday, Paula and I celebrated our 25th (!) anniversary with a great luxury – we watched not one but TWO movies. I enjoyed both immensely (but I enjoyed the time with my sweetie even more).

First we watched City of God. Not what you’d think of us as a romantic movie, but it’s extremely thought provoking and remarkably well made. It’s pretty violent, so if you don’t like violence, you might not want to see it. If you don’t mind the occasional gangster flick, see it. It’s subtitled, but we didn’t find that distracting at all. After you watch it, read about how it was made.

Later we watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This didn’t get great reviews, but we loved it. I hate spoilers, so I’m not going to give it away, but if you haven’t seen it, check it out. This movie even qualifies as romantic, though it’s not what you’d think of as a chick flick.

I think it’s fun to relate seemingly unrelated things. These movies had one notable thing in common – in both movies, a character’s photography played a key role (this is clear in the opening scenes of both, so no spoilers there). Both even used film instead of digital. I guess that was the theme of our one-day film festival.

Any day seeing a good movie is a good day … a day seeing two good movies? With the love of my life? That was a great day.

We never even kissed

Twenty five years ago today, Paula made me the happiest man in the world.

Our wedding was a bit different. Our first “date” was attending Catholic mass at the chapel on SMU’s campus, and we wanted to get married there. We also didn’t want our families to spend a lot of money on travel. We wanted to keep things simple.

Father Tom suggested we get married during normal Sunday mass … this is such a great option – I don’t know why more people don’t do it. We had 200-300 people attend our wedding, and all but 15 or 20 didn’t know they were going to witness a wedding that day!

We walked down the aisle together, while wonderful musician friends of mine played and sang. My friend Leslie’s husband took some great pictures, like this one, which still sits on my desk today:

paula

One of our favorite memories is that we were waiting for Fr Tom to tell us it was time to kiss, and he never did. When he announced us as a wedded couple to applause, we just butted heads instead. To this day, we often lovingly butt heads.

Thank you, sweet Paula, for all our adventures. I look forward to many more together.

Stacking Bricks

Ash inspired me, but I wasn’t willing to commit to a “real” startup … there’s something I really want to learn, but any effort has to fit into the constraint that it can’t eat up time that I’d rather spend with Gus and Paula. I’m also not willing to sacrifice our financial lifestyle to go all-in – no ramen-noodle startups for me.

After talking about the subject with my boss, he sent me a link to an article by Amy Hoy. I heard Amy give a talk at MicroConf a few years ago – I remember being very impressed with her no-bullshit approach to business, but I hadn’t thought about it in a while.

Along with her own successful SaaS business, Amy runs courses to teach people like me how to build no-bullshit businesses. Like most people, my challenge isn’t knowledge – it’s action and experience. I simply don’t have the experience of selling something I’ve made for money. If I ever want to build a sustainable business, I need that basic experience. I don’t know if I ever will build a “big” business, but I still want that basic experience!

Amy implores her readers to start small … build something absolutely tiny so that you can gain experience with all the other parts of the business – the parts that aren’t building the actual product. Building the product is the fun part – most creative types like me need to work on all the other parts (finding customers, exchanging value for money, supporting people, etc.).

Consistency is the name of the game here. Amy calls it “stacking bricks” – if I commit to consistent work on a tiny business, then before long, I’ll build on that success to make a slightly less tiny business. Eventually, I’ll build something substantial … but even if I never reach that point, I’ll be learning things I want to learn (it’s another form of practice).

After reading a bunch of Amy’s writing, I spent a few evenings making a site to help people choose a camera and paid about a buck a day to send some AdWords traffic to the “best for sports page” (yes! go there!) . When anyone clicks on the Amazon links and buys a camera, I make a few bucks (I got the idea for that kind of project from Noah Kagan, who also preaches small progress toward business-building … I also really like cameras). I ended up spending about $80 and have brought in $20 so far. Not a huge success, obviously, but I’ve already learned a ton – and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than business school. Most importantly, it’s not too big of a commitment – I’m just pulling from a tiny bit of my relaxation time that I’d otherwise probably spend reading Gizmodo or ESPN.

Just this week, Amy came out with a new approach that she’s promoting – her year of hustle. It’s even more prescriptive about the steps to build a tiny business. I trust her, so I’m going to do what she says. I’ll keep you posted.

Inspiration and work

Ash Maurya is one of my favorite business writers. He recently visited Grand Rapids and gave a talk related to his new book, Scaling Lean. It’s a follow up to his first book, Running Lean. If you run a business – or are thinking of starting a business – you should check out both books.

Ash’s talk inspired me to think about startup businesses again – it had been a long time since I thought seriously about what kind of business I would build if in fact I set out to build a business. Ash is so straightforward in his thinking, writing, and speaking that he makes it seem possible to build something great.

Ash reminded me that the first step is choosing a “who” – as in, who is my customer? For example, one industry that’s intriguing to me is hospitality. I’m a fairly picky consumer of hotel rooms, so I always notice opportunities in hotels. It would be fun and interesting to talk with small hotel owners and see what new software they’d be willing to pay for. Another interesting customer set is small manufacturing. Grand Rapids is home to lots of small manufacturers, and I’m sure there’s opportunity there. The first step is simply to talk with them.

After thinking about it a bit, I quickly came to the realization that now isn’t the right time for me to pursue these types of businesses … it takes a lot of effort, and I simply have other priorities. If you have the time and energy to pursue a startup seriously, study Ash’s approach. For me, I need something even smaller in scope. Tomorrow, I’ll describe what that is.

Practice, practice, practice

One of my favorite stories is about a ceramics teacher who ran a little experiment (I wrote about this a few years ago):

A college ceramics teacher decided to do an experiment with his two fall pottery classes. He told one class they would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced that quarter and their grade depended on the number of pots they threw — so the more the better! The second class was told their grade would be determined by the quality of their work and they only needed to produce one “perfect” pot.

The result? The better quality pieces came from the class that was graded on quantity. As they were making all those pots, they were getting better and better at pot-making.

It’s almost as if our brains can’t help but get better at something, even if we’re not trying hard to improve. The key is doing – it’s more useful to do something than it is to evaluate or analyze (at least for a beginner – things might be different when you’re pushing the limits of your craft).

If you want to get good at photography, take a ton of pictures. If you want to be a decent actor, try out for as many plays as you can. If you want to be a good computer programmer, write a lot of code.

Gus is interested in racing and seems to have a knack for it, so what he needs now is seat time – 10,000 laps will teach him more than Mario Andretti could at this point in his life.

When in doubt – throw more pots, and let your brain work its magic.

That’s why I’ve been writing more lately. On my birthday, I reflected on the rest of my career and what I wanted to do with it. Every option involved writing. I have a great opportunity at Moraware, and almost every way I can help the company involves writing. It’s clear – I need to write more.

So I’m practicing – I’m writing (and publishing) at least 250 words each work day (that’s about one typed page). My goal is to get to the point where I can write 250 words in 15-30 minutes without much effort. This counts.

There when you need it

My good friend, Steve, sells legal plans. I’m not actually sure what you call the category, but the brand is Legal Shield. Here’s an overview. Most of his customers are companies, because it’s a benefit that HR departments like to provide their employees (usually at cost), but he can sell to individuals, too. I used to have “group legal” at Microsoft, and I liked it, so a couple of months ago, I bought one of these plans from Steve and hadn’t thought much about it since.

Recently, our health insurance got totally messed up somehow. Multiple different practices have been sending us bills, because some of our claims were rejected. It’s super confusing, so it’s hard to tell whether the mistake is with the providers, BCBS California (my employer’s health plan), BCBS Michigan (my old self-serve health plan), or some billing service. It’s been driving us crazy!

I complained about my insurance snafu to Steve a few times, and he kept encouraging me to contact Legal Shield. I didn’t see why, since I don’t see somebody to sue. “Doesn’t matter – call them.”

Finally, I called (just a few minutes ago). Their process is amazing – a very pleasant lady answered my call (she wasn’t a lawyer … not sure there’s a correlation or not), made sure my info was up-to-date, started a case file, and worked with me to summarize my complaint. Just that process was helpful! Walking through the problem with her helped me understand better where the issue is.

The next step is a lawyer will call me back. I mentioned that I’m on the phone all day, so there might be phone tag, and she said, “What time do you get off work? Would you like a call back then?” Uh … yeah! It’s not a 24-hour thing (although they do have a 24-hour hotline to call if I ever get arrested), but it’s pretty awesome that they can work a bit outside my work hours. I should get a call back in a couple of hours.

It’s too early to tell if my Legal Shield attorney will be the solution to this particular problem, but the process has certainly been positive so far. I’m impressed.

If you happen to be interested in such a service for yourself or your company, contact Steve at Legal Shield, he’ll hook you up! I also got the identify theft protection … had a few fraudulent charges a while back, and I’d like to make resolving that simpler in the future.

API

An API or Application Programming Interface is a feature that companies often include with their software. It lets other programmers write code to interact with the software, almost like a remote control.

Most social media software companies expose APIs, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many more. If you use a 3rd-party client for any of these, those clients only exist because they can write to published APIs. For example, TweetDeck used Twitter’s API to make a Twitter client for power users (and it was so good that Twitter ended up buying them).

Many business software companies have APIs, too – APIs let people build integrations to link together various pieces of business software into (hopefully) coherent solutions.

Moraware has an API as well. It’s not as complete as it could be, but it’s certainly better than nothing. It lets companies create integrations with their products, like this one for a laser measuring tool. It lets programmers write code to automate certain tasks in our software – we even have partners who have based their businesses on building solutions that use our software (inventory is a popular area where those partners have made compelling additions). That means we’re the hub of a software ecosystem now!

One of my favorite work responsibilities is supporting programmers who use our API … I’m in customer support, but I’m also a programmer, so it only makes sense that I’m the one who does this (it’s a luxury many small companies don’t have – usually a programmer who’s busy writing other features has to provide API support, which can be distracting). I always enjoy the transition from thinking about our user interface to thinking about writing code against our API.

I’ve even started answering questions by posting projects and code snippets to github. I’m pretty sure this technically makes me an open-source programmer (and project owner), which knocks an item off my bucket list. It also makes it a lot easier to reuse similar answers for different customers. It makes me strangely happy every time I check something in and share the link with a customer.

There’s a lot we could do to improve our API. I’m the biggest advocate for doing this, but we have finite resources, and these improvements haven’t risen to the top of the list yet (there’s no guarantee they ever will, either). A couple of years ago, nobody was even using the API, but now it’s being pushed to the limit.

When companies don’t provide an API into their software – or provide an incomplete one like we do – programmers end up “hacking” solutions instead … this isn’t nefarious – it just means using heroic ways to solve a problem, or simply doing things with software that were never intended (and aren’t supported). In our case, that means some programmers scrape the web user interface of our software to get the data they need.

By contrast, an API implies an agreement with outside developers that says, “This is what we explicitly allow you to do with our software, and this is what we’ll support.” Anything outside those bounds might happen to work, but there’s no guarantee it will continue working.

Now you know what an API is – it’s just a way for programmers to manipulate someone else’s software in a controlled, supported way.

Working with my hands

Most of the work I do all day is writing or thinking or chatting with customers and explaining how to do stuff. It all happens in my head. This isn’t a problem at all – I like writing and thinking and chatting.

But it’s almost time for go-kart racing again … so for the last few weeks, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time working on the kart. I forgot how much I like doing this. I still have to think, of course, but it’s not an abstract kind of problem solving – it involves moving something physical from here to there and seeing if it behaves as expected. That’s remarkably satisfying to me.

This year, I’ve been getting a lot of help from my friend Chuck, so I’m learning even more than last year. I don’t think I could break down a kart and put it back together with my eyes closed yet, but at least I have a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are and how they’re supposed to fit together.

Our big focus this year is making the kart easier to maintain so that I’m more confident on race day. For example, I’m using fewer different types of bolts so that I can check them all without having to use so many different tools. Does that make it go faster? No – but as Chuck always points out, “you can’t win if you don’t finish” … making things easy to maintain helps ensure that you’ll maintain them – and thus finish.

It feels great to do something with my hands, and I’m happy it’s something that makes Gus happy. But now I have to admit to myself – if he weren’t karting, I’d have to find something similar to work on for my own happiness. I really like this stuff.

Regaining Lost Fat

A big news story this week tells of contestants on The Biggest Loser regaining the weight they lost. That totally sucks, and I feel for anyone struggling with their weight for the first time or the 20th time. It’s never easy.

While I’m happy that smart people are studying this scientifically, I’m confused by the conclusions people are drawing from the study. I’m going to sum up the media view as “those folks never had a chance, because their metabolism slowed down after losing the weight.”

This makes no sense to me. Yes, the metabolism of those people appeared to slow down significantly. Let’s stipulate that. But what does that actually mean? In a society where we have so much wonderful food that NOT eating is a huge challenge, then yes, a slower metabolism is a bit of a disadvantage. But our bodies are adaptation machines … if the same people lived in a world suffering from famine, their particular adaptation (having a slow metabolism) would be a superpower. If they want to stay fit, they need to cherish and work within the limits of that superpower.

One of the doctors came to the conclusion that “… the only way to maintain weight loss is to be hungry all the time.” Um … yup. it sucks, but if your body adapted to storing fat (because of that famine thing), then it’s going to take a long, long time to work against that same adaptation and teach it that it doesn’t need to store so much fat. You’re going to be working against hunger. Hunger is your Kryptonite. You have to recognize its unique power and come to grips with it.

If doctors can come up with a safe drug to suppress hunger, they’ll make a jillion bucks, and it will probably do a lot of people a lot of good. In the meantime, anyone who has lost weight (or wants to lose weight) needs to take a spiritual journey with hunger and find out how to coexist with it.

I strongly agree that the people on the TV show weren’t set up to succeed after the contest. It’s unbelievably hard to go from an all-day, every-day experience supervised by professional nutritionists and trainers back to the real world with normal responsibilities and little support. I hope the show does more to set up future contestants with better self-help skills.

In my opinion, there are three key “self-help skills” to succeeding with weight loss long-term on your own:

  1. Separate your weight from your worthiness. You’re lovable right now, and you’re lovable no matter how much you weigh. Love yourself TODAY. Think of your extra weight as a couple of bowling balls you’re carrying around with you: work hard to get rid of them, but always remember, they are not you. Getting rid of those extra fat balls is just an interesting, long-running experiment on yourself that you’re observing.
  2. Count calories and come to grips with a little bit of hunger – not a lot, a little. When you count calories, the goal is literally to run out of energy by the end of each day so you dip into your fat stores. Running out of calories sucks a little bit each and every day. If you let it suck too much by trying to lose too much too fast, you’ll binge and feel bad. When you do, just get back up and try again the next day. The amount of calories determines whether you gain or lose weight (very, very slowly). The quality of those calories determines how you feel. Unfortunately, in my experience, foods like vegetables and high-quality protein tend to make me feel better than similar caloric amounts of chocolate, beer, and many other awesome-tasting foods. Oh well – that’s all part of the spiritual journey of losing weight.
  3. Lift weights (or do similar resistance training). Any exercise is better than no exercise, but weight training is the most time efficient exercise you can do when you’re trying to get or stay fit. With weight training, your body keeps burning calories as it recovers from the training, and it triggers other positive adaptations as well. If you weight train regularly and happen to consume more calories than you need, your body will adapt and use some of those calories to build muscle (though some will still go to fat). For more info, read A Workout Routine. That site has been incredibly useful for me.

Bottom line: if you find something that works for you, do it and stick with it. This is what worked (and works) for me.

Movie Recliners

We watch a lot of movies at home, but once in a while, we like to treat ourselves by going to the movie theater. These days, the only theater we go to is the AMC on Alpine because they have recliner seats. They’re SO comfy … it’s like watching at home (in the good way) but with a much better screen and sound system.Now reclining

AMC must have taken out every other row of the old seats (or even more), because now you can walk freely through a row without having to ask people to move their legs – even with the seats fully reclined. You can’t see heads from the rows in front of you, either, because there’s a little wall behind every row, and each row dips down enough.

The recliners are set up in pairs, and you can lift up the armrest on one side to snuggle with your date (the other side is fixed and doubled up to block out the non-date human on the other side). In the smallest theaters, there’s even a bit of a gap between pairs – bottom line, it’s not a bummer to have a stranger sit next to you, because they’re not actually very close.

And finally – reserved seats! I’m picky about where I sit, and I love the fact that I can buy tickets and pick seats right on my phone without ever standing in line. If I were on the fence about going to a movie, knowing that I could get perfect seats would make a difference in my decision.

I don’t know how this theater is going to stay in business, because it’s never very full. While it is in business, though, you should definitely cash out your IRA and try it sometime.

Oh … we watched Jungle Book (in 3D). It was great. You should see it.