Off Social Media for 10 Days

I wondered where the time went. All of a sudden it was 1:30am. I hadn’t texted my girlfriend today.  And now I was too tired to send one.

Last month was a blur. I was working… or was I? I’d open Youtube for a work task and spend 45 minutes watching NBA highlights. After lunch on Facebook, I’d mindlessly scroll through my newsfeed and bounce around like a ping pong ball from Trump to an ex-flame to another update that made me roll my eyes. Then I’d find out an acquaintance just sold his business for 1 million dollars. That would wake me up. What’s my problem, what the fuck am I doing with my life? Why am I on Facebook when I should be working?

I’d try to work. But it would get harder each time. If I couldn’t make progress I’d return to that half-finished podcast or investigate that guy who made a million dollars – how did he do that? He wasn’t even that smart. I’d end day after day feeling unaccomplished.

After a few weeks, I realized I needed an intervention. I was in a bizarre no-mans-land where days would fly by and I seemed busy and occupied but nothing in my life would move. I’d compulsively reach for my phone when I was bored, lost, and frustrated, as if it held the answers. My friends would tell you I am horrible at keeping at touch. Ironically, social media wasn’t helping. I would spend hours on the posts and stories of acquaintances and celebrities, but still hadn’t replied to my best friend’s email from 3 months ago.

In April I recorded a memo: “I feel in touch with everyone who matters the least and out of touch with many who matter the most to me.”

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6 months later I hadn’t changed a goddamn thing. 

“How to quit Facebook” on Google led me to Cal Newport’s TED talk about quitting social media. This led me back to his book, Deep Work, which I had been circling for years. I finally pulled the trigger, hoping the $16 price tag would stop the insanity, and force me to reflect, at least for a few days.

I spent the next 3 days reading and digesting the book.

I took immediate action: 

  1. Deleted Facebook and Instagram off my phone. Try using Instagram on your computer. It sucks.
  2. Committed to 5 days off Facebook and Instagram unless for business purposes. If so, turn off / close social media immediately after.
  3. Committed to 5 days of deep work on a personal project. For me this was spending 2 distraction-free hours per day writing a short story.
  4. Set a daily time limit for work activities: 7pm. No work allowed after!
  5. Limited my online / chat / social media time during the work day to 11:30am – 12pm, and then 5-7pm. To help, I turned off ALL phone notifications during the day.

After a few days, I felt a quiet sense of accomplishment. It had been awhile  since I gave myself the gift of working undistracted. Deep focus was a strength of mine, helping me become valedictorian of my high school. The 60 minute deep work periods were the same length as my high school periods. I was giving myself that gift back, growing that latent power.

I felt less annoyed and more focused. In fact, I started to cringe at just the idea of logging on to Facebook or Instagram. When I did, I’d see beautiful pictures of beautiful people in beautiful scenery and laugh. It was all a big joke. It was insane. 

Cal Newport asks readers to consider 2 questions after their social media fasts:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? 
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

I concluded that my 5 days had been noticeably better without social media. I had written half a short story; I started my Perfect Day project which I had been mulling over for 2 years; I met new people and had deep, interesting conversations. Remember, no work after 7pm!

I did have a few hiccups. I went to the wrong place for a weekly salsa social (the organizers announced the last-minute change on Facebook). My friends would talk about people on Instagram and I couldn’t see the latest juicy photos on my phone (I’d make one of them show me). As far as I know, only my girlfriend cared that I wasn’t on Facebook (“Less social media is a good thing but me having to pay the price of hearing from you less isn’t.”)

I still fell into the late-night Youtube rabbit hole, my guilty pleasure and reward for a hard day’s work. Hours would fly by. Again 1:30am and too tired to chat.

So I must find reasonable rules to end this addiction. The reward is mindless relaxation. What other activities would give me a similar or better feeling?  Meditation? Reading?  Talking to friends? Maybe I need to set a cut off time too, say no social media after 11pm!

I write this to say that I am still working through this addiction. I expect this to be a lifetime effort. Tech behemoths will continue spending billions to monopolize my attention. And my priorities will change with age and circumstance. 

Have you ever signed onto Facebook and forgotten why? That’s how addictive it is.  With some distance, I started to see Facebook for what it is: attention skittles. Login, get a skittle. Use Facebook more, get more skittles. Maybe some days you get 1 skittle, but sometimes you’ll get 30 (like on your birthday)!

The problem, of course, is that unless you sell them, skittles don’t contribute to your long-term goals. They distract you and steal time from your most important work and relationships. You get addicted to sugar and forget the taste of real food.

I liken social media to other pernicious addictions: potato chips, alcohol, and porn. Thoughtful parents limit their kids screen time each day. Shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves?

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Big Idea: 

Design choices that place people and purpose at center of gatherings make them transformative.

Context:

Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Priya Parker is a professional facilitator. She helps activists, politicians, businessmen, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She has worked on race relations on American colleges and on peace processes in the Arab world. She studied organizational design at MIT and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

My Personal Story:

I have a theory: you can know more about someone from 5 minutes on a basketball court than 5 months in an office. Whether it’s basketball or board games, shared, non-work activities show people’s true colors. This book helped me understand the fundamentals of transformative gatherings. 

Exercise 1

Commit to a gathering about something. Don’t conflate category with purpose. For example, don’t celebrate turning 40. Instead ask yourself the purpose of your birthday party this specific year. 

“Gatherings that please everyone occur, but they rarely thrill. Gatherings that are willing to be alienating— which is different from being alienating— have a better chance to dazzle. How do you arrive at a something worth gathering about? What are the ingredients for a sharp, bold, meaningful gathering purpose? Specificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself and the more passion it arouses.”

For your next gathering, make purpose your bouncer. Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out. Specifically, pay special attention to who you invite and who you don’t. Yes, this means excluding people – even good friends or important people – if their presence distracts from the gathering’s purpose.

Exercise 2

Rules-based gatherings bring freedom and openness to gatherings. Use rules to create a temporary alternative world.

“There is a certain kind of fun in trying something for a bounded moment. The kind of restriction that might feel oppressive if permanent can seem compelling and intriguing when it applies sometimes, as part of a conscious effort to create that temporary alternative world.”

For example:

The Influencer Salon gathers 12 strangers every month to cook and eat together. The invitation contained these rules:

  • Conversation: we ask that guests do not discuss their careers or give their last names until after the presentation portion of the evening
  • Photography: photos are only allowed during the presentation portion
  • Attendance: People who confirm and do not attend are unlikely to be invited again

Some other rules I liked while reading this book:

  • You are not allowed to buy your own drink
  • One conversation at meals
  • Turn off technology
  • No talking about kids
  • Wear white, including socks, shoes and headpieces
  • If you’re going, be there from start to finish
  • If you don’t respond to the RSVP you won’t be invited again
  • Share challenging moments that seldom come up in ordinary conversations

Implement at least 1 rule that enforces the gathering’s purpose.

Exercise 3

Like all good stories, memorable gatherings start and end with a bang.

Start your gathering off by priming, ushering and launching.

Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it, not at the actual event. Take advantage of this pre-game window to sow any special behaviors you want to blossom at the event. 

“Every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up… priming can be as simple as a slightly interesting invitation, as straightforward as asking your guests to do something instead of bring something… it could be the way you name your gathering.”

Then help usher your guests across the threshold of your gathering. How can you great a physical or psychological passageway that tunes out the prior reality and captures people’s attention and imagination? This could be a door, passage, trip, or even greeting guests as they arrive.

Then launch the event by awe-ing guests and honoring them.

“The opening is, therefore, an important opportunity to establish the legitimacy of your gathering… your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

Endings should mirror your openings. When you feel energy waning or conversations dying, announce a last call to signal the outbound ushering process.

“So you’ve issued your last call, people have been primed to think about the end, and the event is winding down. How do you actually close? A strong closing has two phases, corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward. Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired— and to bond as a group one last time. Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world.”

For example, the organizers of TED ask a comedian to close a days-long conference with a 15 minute wrap.

You can also reaffirm not just what the group did but who they were during the gathering.

Then connect the world of the gathering to the world outside. That could be a verbal or written pledge, a physical symbol, a letter written to their future self, a gift to turn an impermanent moment into a permanent memory.

Think through how your gathering’s opening and ending. For the opening focus on 1 action you’ll take to prime, usher, and launch the gathering. For the ending, make sure to have a last call, and  closing session that looks inwards and turns outwards before re-entry into the real world. DO NOT start or end your gathering with logistics. 

Quote:

“Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.”

“Before every gathering she creates, she asks herself two questions: What is the gift? And what is the risk? She thinks of each of her gatherings as fulfilling a specific need for a specific group of people. But for that gift to be given, she has learned, there needs to be some amount of risk. ‘No true gift is free of risk,’ Benedetto told me. She defines risk as ‘a threat to one’s current state that could destabilize the way things are.’ The risk is what allows for the possibility of the gift.”

Dope Footnotes

Priya believes in a certain magic of numbers and density in creating transformative gatherings. I will refer to these often! From her book:

Numbers of people

In my experience, there are certain magic numbers in groups. Every facilitator has his or her own list, and these are obviously approximations, but here are mine: 6, 12 to 15, 30, and 150.

Groups of 6: Groups of this rough size are wonderfully conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling.

Groups of 12 to 15: The next interesting number is around 12. Twelve is small enough to build trust and intimacy, and small enough for a single moderator, if there is one, formal or informal, to handle. (When multiple facilitators are required at a large meeting, it is customary to divide the number of participants by 12 to figure out how many facilitators are needed.) At the same time, 12 is large enough to offer a diversity of opinion and large enough that it allows for a certain quotient of mystery and intrigue, of constructive unfamiliarity. 

Groups of 30: Thirty starts to feel like a party, whether or not your gathering is one. If smaller gatherings scale greater heights of intimacy, the group of 30 or so has its own distinctive quality: that buzz, that crackle of energy, that sense of possibility that attaches to parties.

Groups of 150: The next interesting number lies somewhere between 100 and 200. When I speak to conference organizers who think about group dynamics, the ideal range I hear again and again is somewhere between 100 and 150 people. While they disagree on the precise number, they all agree that it’s the tier at which, as one organizer told me, “intimacy and trust is still palpable at the level of the whole group, and before it becomes an audience.”

Tides of humanity: Well beyond these gathering sizes is the sea of humanity. Think Bonnaroo, the World Cup, Tahrir Square, the Million Man March, the hajj in Mecca, the Olympics. These are gatherings where the goal is not so much intimacy or connection as tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd.

Density: 

Billy Mac, an event planner, swears by the following parameters for the number of square feet required per guest for different vibes: 

  • Square Feet Per Guest   |   Sophisticated   |   Lively   |   Hot 
  • Dinner party   |   20 sq. ft.   |   15 sq. ft.   |   N/ A 
  • Cocktail party   |   12 sq. ft.   |   10 sq. ft.   |   8 sq. ft. 
  • Into the night/ dance party   |   8 sq. ft.   |    6 sq. ft.   |   5 sq. ft. 

He suggests dividing the “square feet of your party space by the number to get your target number of guests.” If your entertaining space is 400 square feet and you want a sophisticated dinner party, invite 20 people. If, instead, you want a “hot” dance party, invite 80 for that same space. Mac says one of the reasons party guests often end up gravitating to the kitchen is that people instinctively seek out smaller spaces as the group dwindles in order to sustain the level of the density.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Big Idea: 

Deep Work – activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit – is economically valuable, rare in today’s knowledge economy and leads to a meaningful life.

Context:

Cal Newport is a young computer science professor at Georgetown University who has published more than 60 peer reviewed papers and 5 best selling books, all while raising a family and not working past 5:30pm and weekends. He doesn’t use social media.

My Personal Story:

Last year my MacBook was stolen so I had to work at a nearby internet cafe. I hated going there because it was full of obnoxious teens playing video games. So I would do all my thinking on pen and paper and only go there if I had to. I discovered that I only needed 1 hour online/day to complete my job. Without a computer I was more productive.

When feeling overwhelmed with distraction I usually ditch my phone and work at a riverside cafe. This matches a study Cal cites about attention restoration theory – that sending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

Deep Work gives me a persuasive argument (backed by academic studies) to disconnect from the internet and routinize deep work.

Exercise 1:

Feel the power of deep work. 

Schedule two 60 minute sessions to complete an activity that supports your most important professional goal. This activity should be challenging but achievable so you lose track of time. No internet or phones allowed! A countdown timer helps, whether its a stop watch or Focus Timer app. How much progress did you make? How do you feel once you’re done?

Exercise 2

Integrate deep work into your schedule and support it with routines and rituals. 

Cal writes: “The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

The most useful tactic I took from this book was the idea of fixed schedule productivity: fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time OR certain number of hours, and then working backwards to schedule deep work.

Employ fixed schedule productivity to your working week. Pick a daily shutdown time and stick to it. For Cal, that’s 5:30pm on weekdays, and no work on weekends. Then schedule your deep work within your time constraints. This habit also gives your conscious brain time to rest and your unconscious mind time to sort through your most professional challenges. Most athletes, authors and scientists cannot do more than 4 hours of deep work/day. As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”

Exercise 3

Now further train your attention muscle by working out 1) your ability to concentrate and 2) your desire for distraction. 

Cal suggests a 1-month social media fast and scheduling every minute of your day but this is probably too much for most people. 

Instead I recommend scheduling your daily “connected time” for one week. This connected time includes texting apps, social media and internet. I went with 11:30am-12pm so I could respond to text messages and 5-7pm so I could respond to work emails. I also allowed myself 8pm+ to be connected online. 

Online research related to your deep work is allowable – but you should open and close your browser after finishing the task.

This is more about adhering to your connected times rather than the amount of time itself. So if your work requires you to be online every few hours than schedule those blocks in but stick to them.

Cal also recommends committing to a shallow work budget of 25% or less of total work time.

Shallow work is “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted, that tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” 

To identify shallow work ask “how long would it take (in months) to train a part recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”  You should focus on the tasks that would take longer.

For 5 working days schedule your daily connected time. Take note of how much time you’re spending doing deep work vs. shallow work. What routines would help you tilt the balance more towards deep work?

Quote:

“To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.

For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.

But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.”

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Big Idea: 

In order to be creative you need habits that prepare you to be creative.

Context:

Twyla Tharp is one of America’s greatest choreographers who since 1965 has created more than 130 dances for her company, the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.  She has created pieces to the music of everyone from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven to Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

Exercise 1

Every artist has a ritual that impels them to get started on their creative task.  This automatic sequence replaces doubt and fear with comfort and routine. For Tharp, it’s getting into a cab each morning for stretching and weight training.  For a chef, it could be tending his garden. For a composer, it might be playing a Bach fugue. For a basketball player, it’s bouncing the ball 3 times before a free throw.

Identify one trigger – whether an action, surrounding, or feeling – that warms you up for your best creative work, and stick with it for one week.  Create your own mini-routine of self-reliance, and Pavlovian dog response to start creating.

Exercise 2

Tharp also believes that distractions are just as much an obstacle to creativity as fear.  She suggests subtracting dependence on creative crutches to increase creative independence, creating a protective bubble that forces you to rely on your own ability.

Take one week off distractions such as mirrors, clocks, newspapers, speaking, the internet.  That’s right. Don’t look at a mirror, a watch, a newspaper, for one week.  Subtract this clutter for one week to add more creative room.

Exercise 3

To find an idea, scratch. Dig through everything to find something.  Tharp advocates scratching for ideas through: one’s memory, environment, reading, conversation, nature, culture, mentors and heroes.  Ideas are everywhere; we just need to find them. Remember the unshakeable rule that you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.

To get started, find the tiniest microcell of an idea that gets you going.   Scratch smaller when stuck; don’t write about the town, but rather the upper left-hand brick on the Opera house.

All good ideas open up possibilities, turn you on and keep you moving forward. A bad idea closes doors and confines.

Remember Freud’s quote: “when inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.”

If you run out of ideas, break routine.  Travel to a different city. Read a magazine you never looked at before. Scratch in a different place. Look for new combination of ideas: metaphors.  

When presenting an idea to others, ask yourself if your idea generates forward or backward momentum.  Does the idea move people to action and create more possibilities?  Or the opposite?  Present your idea in its most generative form.

Exercise 4:

Creativity is an at of defiance.  You’re challenging the status quo and questioning accepted truths and principles.  You’re asking 3 universal questions that mock conventional wisdom: 1) why do I have to obey the rules? 2) why can’t I be different? 3) why can’t I do it my way?

Pick a fight with the 1 routine or ritual of the world.  

Quote:

“The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.”

The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist

Lynne Twist has spent five decades working in philanthropy, raising hundreds of millions of dollars to end world hunger. In The Soul of Money, she shares her experiences working with the world’s wealthiest and poorest people, and how to live fulfilling lives, both rich and poor must overcome the 3 myths of today’s money culture: “there is not enough, “more is better,” and “that’s just the way it is.”

Does your money flow to your highest values and commitments?

“I suggest that if you are willing to let go, let go of the chase to acquire or accumulate always more and let go of that way of perceiving the world, then you can take all that energy and attention and invest it in what you have. When you do that you will find unimagined treasures, and heath of surprising and even stunning depth and diversity.”

The Guy’s Guide to Salsa Shoes

I still remember my first salsa lesson in Medellin, Colombia. I remember the music and struggling to copy the instructor’s footwork. I knew then, in that cramped, sweaty hostel, that I’d be dancing salsa for life.

It has been 3 years. After 1 year in Colombia, I’ve continued salsa-ing weekly in the US and Asia, where I split my time.

I have a strange, accompanying obsession. Salsa shoes for men. Yup, I get eye-rolls from friends every time, so I thought I’d bring the conversation here. Maybe there are some fellow salsa shoe nerds out there.

Here’s what I’ve been looking for: what’s the best-looking, best-performing, most comfortable and versatile salsa dance shoe out there?

  • Style: What shoe looks good?
  • Performance: What shoe helps me dance better?
  • Comfort: What shoe could I wear for hours – and NOT wreck my feet and back?
  • Versatility: What shoe could double as both a salsa and going out shoe?
  • (I HATE having to bring an extra pair of dance shoes)

Just so you know where I am coming from: I am a former Division 1 collegiate tennis player with lingering back and ankle problems. I grew up playing tennis on hard-courts 3 hours a day, and this continued through my mid-20s.

I’m not really a “shoes guy,” so a lot of this is new territory for me. But as an athlete, I’ve always wanted the best equipment – why not for salsa?

  1. What Do the “Pros” Wear?
  2. Review of Salsa Shoes for Men – Pros and Cons
  3. And The Winner Is…
  4. Do It Yourself (DIY) Solutions
  5. Contenders for Best Salsa Shoe for Men? 
  6. After 3 Years Dancing, I’ve Yet to Find the Perfect Salsa/Bachata Shoe

What Do the “Pros” Wear?

My first stage of research was to see what the best dancers were wearing – this included my dance instructors, local dancers I looked up to, and what I could find online.

Ataca and El Tiguere

I look up to these two bachateros the most for their style, technique, and sense of fun.  It seems like they prefer bright, shiny loafers – Jose Bottas before and Taygras now. They look fly but I don’t have the confidence to wear shiny stuff on the dance floor. At least not yet.

Daniel

Daniel and Desiree’s bachata videos were the first ones I found on Youtube. Back then I thought sensual bachata was bachata. To quote my friend: “That’s not dancing, they’re just having sex on the dance floor.” And Daniel – girls love him and guys try to be him – even in those tight pants! He mostly wears what look like jazz shoes. Sometimes he’ll wear running shoes or cross trainers.

Rodolfo Montano Castro 

Love watching this guy dance, especially in the liquor store! His feet move like they’re hitting the drum. He always seems to wear well-worn sneakers with thin soles. For bachata, a little grip is okay because the guy doesn’t turn much – if at all – in Dominican style.  If you watch Joan Soriano’s music videos, lots of guys are just wearing sneakers or even just sandals.

Terry

Who needs shoes?! This whirling dervish sometimes dances on his bare feet. He might tape them up. Or just wear Birkenstocks! In more formal situations it looks like he wears latin or jazz shoes. Just goes to show that “tone is in your fingers.” Just like how Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix could rock any guitar, a great dancer can be amazing with the simplest of shoes – or no shoes at all.

p.s. I saw Terry and Cecile at a salsa festival in Vietnam. One of my favorite moments was watching them dance outside, under the moonlight, with no audience. Just jamming and improvising, not a word spoken. They are incredible artists and while Terry gets most of the attention, I think Cecile is just as amazing.

Adolpho Indochea

One of my Colombian Salsa teachers – and still my salsa idol – was a world salsa champion and he looked up to Adolpho for style and choreography. So of course I had to see this guy dance! Youtube him. He is spectacularly precise. Even when social dancing, Adolpho seems to prefer the traditional latin dance shoe.

Salsa Teachers & The Best Guy Dancer(s) in Each City

My teachers in Colombia recommended dance sneakers because they are more comfortable than latin dance shoes, but similarly force you onto the balls of your feet and are easy to spin in. I review them below. But most top dancers I’ve seen wear sneakers, loafers, or running shoes when social dancing. I’ve seen a few wear jazz shoes or latin dance shoes, but they are in the minority.

I’ve noticed most guys go for comfort over performance, unless they’re on stage performing – then they might wear dance shoes.

So to sum up, while each dancer has his own style, there do seem to be some commonalities on what makes a great salsa and bachata shoe:

  • Light weight
  • Clean, snug fit, not clunky
  • Thin sole to feel the ground
  • Flexible sole to simulate your natural foot
  • Eye-catchingly stylish – whether overstated or understated – to express that dancer’s attitude
  • Comfortable

Review of Salsa Shoes for Men – Pros and Cons

Salsa Sneakers – Dance Sneakers

These were recommended by my first dance studio in Medellin. Shout out to DanceFree! Dance sneakers are lightweight and durable like a normal sneaker but have a split sole – one for the balls of your feet and one for your heel. The outsole is smooth which makes these shoes easy to spin in. The split sole also literally makes the shoe more flexible.

It took me a while to get used to the feeling of a split sole and the way it forces you to dance on the balls of your feet. I am assuming most newbies will feel the same way. These are great value practice shoes and you can also wear them out social dancing. The con is that even though they’re designed to be a durable, outdoor shoe, you can’t really wear them “out.” I’ve worn them to dinner, the bar, etc, multiple times before dancing and I find I have to pay attention where I’m walking – especially with steps.

Dance Sneaker ProfileDance Sneaker Sole

Cost: $50-70 USD

Brands: Bloch | Capezio | D’Raso

Latin Dance Shoes (with Heels)

Now I know what girls have to deal with! ;). I bought a pair when I was in Taiwan. They are dressy, and the suede soles make them the easiest to spin in. Your shines will be on point. Many instructors have told me that the latin heel also improves your dance form. Wear these and you make a statement that you’re a serious dancer.

I remember being excited to try them at a social in Taipei. These are definitely shoes you need to bring with you. You don’t want to scuff up the suede bottoms or wear a high heel shoe to the sports bar.

The problem is they are quite uncomfortable, even after they are broken in. Your toes scrunch at the bottom and now I know why girls are SO EXCITED to take off their high heels after a long night out. You’ll feel the same way. I think these shoes are the best for performances or even short periods of social dancing. But they lack versatility – you’ll never wear these outside the dance floor.

Latin Dance Shoe Profile

Cost: $60-70 USD

Brands: GFranco | search Amazon | your local dance shoe store

Jazz Shoes

I didn’t even know jazz shoes existed until I took a salsa class where the instructor was wearing jazz boots. Jazz shoes were his favorite because they were light, cheap, and felt like a shoe sock. I bought a pair of split sole jazz shoes and agree that they are the ultimate practice shoe. They give the closest feel to dancing without shoes. It’s much easier to do shines, spins and Dominican bachata wearing these shoes. The only problem is you can’t wear them outside the dance floor. The suede soles will get dirty or ripped up and I don’t even want to think about what would happen in the rain.

Jazz Shoe ProfileJazz Shoe Sole

Cost: $20-30 USD

Brands: search Amazon | your local dance shoe store

Running Shoes

These are super comfortable, lightweight, durable and provide a lot of support. You could walk – and dance – all day in these. Plus you can rock well-known brands. I spent my first 6 months learning salsa with a pair of Nike Pegasus running shoes. However spinning is a problem. You can but you’re going to risk messing up your ankles and knees because of their grip. Running shoes tend to have bottoms that grip the surface, whether that’s asphalt or dirt roads. Also, the trade off to cushion and comfort is a thicker sole, which makes you feel further from the ground. Some running shoes like New Balances and Asics are a bit wider and clunkier too.

Running ShoeRunning Shoe Sole

Cost: $60-140 USD

Brands: Nike | Adidas | New Balance | Asics | You Know Them All Already

Sneakers 

These are my favorite shoes to wear out social dancing. They are light and fit the foot like a classic dance shoe. Plus, they’re fashionable and matchable. In other words, they offer the most versatility, and you don’t need to bring another pair of shoes with you. Many have smooth synthetic soles ideal for spinning on multiple dance floor surfaces. I found my Converse shoes a bit tiring because of their thicker, heavier sole, but later found a Vietnamese brand with a thinner outsole that sold for $25/pair. They got scuffed up quickly but at that price point I was okay.

The downside to this type of shoe is that they don’t offer much support. Many also have sticky rubber bottoms, which makes sense given their skateboard, tennis or basketball origins. They are also casual shoes – you can’t wear these to formal events.

Many dancers have told me TOMS are the best because they are lightweight and spin well. Through internet research, I have found a Brazilian brand – Taygras – originally made for soccer and capoeira, but since adapted for dancing. I just ordered a pair and can’t wait to report back here with my review.

Taygras

Cost: $20-80 USD

Brands: TOMS | Taygras

Formal Dress Shoes

I have searched far and wide for formal black/brown dress shoes that I could dance in. This would solve a number of problems: 1) I wouldn’t have to bring an extra pair of shoes to work 2) if a dress shoe is comfortable to dance in for hours, I’d probably love to wear them to work. What guy would turn down stylish comfort?

The problem is that I find most dress shoes to be incredibly stiff, heavy, and literally, hard to dance in. The dressier the shoe, the stiffer the sole. Some of these have leather or even suede bottoms that make it easy to spin, but I found my feet tiring out quickly (unless I was drunk!). They also tend to have sharper, stiffer leather around the ankle, so I would inevitably cut up my ankles.

I’ve gone through 2-3 dress shoes, and this is the closest I’ve found – a leather mocassin with a flexible outsole.

Leather Shoe PairLeather Shoe Profile

I’ve also discovered dance brands GFranco and Jose Botta online. These brands outfit many top latin dancers and a dressy loafer seems to hit the sweet spot between formal style and function. I honestly don’t feel like my salsa or bachata is good enough to justify a purchase yet, but when I do, I will report back here. I’m leaning towards Jose Botta because you can wear his shoes for work and play too.

Cost: $40-140 USD

Brands: Jose Botta

And The Winner Is…

For practice: jazz shoes.

Practice is usually at home or in a studio with a smooth floor. At $20-30, jazz shoes are the best value option in my opinion. The only issue is you have to bring them with you. If you’re too lazy to bring an extra pair of shoes, I’d go with running shoes or sneakers. However, I wouldn’t wear these if you’re practicing a lot of spins.

For social dancing: sneakers

In my opinion, sneakers are the most versatile shoe. They look good before, during, and after dancing – and you don’t have to bring an extra pair out with you. You might not be able to pull off those double spins, or show off your fancy footwork, but these have served me well. If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of performance for comfort, running shoes with smooth outsoles make a nice backup.

For formal dance nights: dress shoes

As long as they fit well and are broken in, these are your best bet. Latin dancer shoes would work too but you have to buy and bring an extra pair to the event. You probably already have a preferred dress shoe with a leather bottom.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Solutions

I want to mention a couple “DIY” solutions I’ve seen:

  • Talcum Powder – sprinkle on the floor and rub on your soles so they are less sticky
  • Dance Socks – these look goofy, but hey, I would trade looks for less injuries
  • Suede Dance Soles – take your favorite shoes and put a suede sole on ‘em
  • Sanded Down Soles – hire a cobbler to smooth out your soles on your most comfortable pair of shoes

Hot Dance Tip: Know Your Dance Floor Surfaces

After a month practicing in my jazz shoes, I was excited to wear them out social dancing. However I found that the suede bottoms didn’t work in 2 out of the 3 social venues I dance at weekly.

I realized that the dance floor is just as important as your shoes. Before you invest in a pair of salsa shoes, I’d observe what other top dancers are wearing at that venue.

In my opinion, plastic synthetic is the most versatile shoe outsole, followed by leather, suede and rubber. A smooth, synthetic outsole can be used on all dance floors: wood, ceramic, vinyl, linoleum and carpet.

Contenders for Best Salsa Shoe for Men?  

My good friend and the Bachata Champion of Vietnam recommends TOMS for their versatility and performance. I will buy a pair and report back here soon.

I am most excited about trying Taygras! They look great and have a flexible, smooth sole made for dancers. Plus, I like the ethics* of the company.

* Did you know 20 BILLION shoes are made every year and 90% of them go un-recycled? Let’s just say it: the leather industry is destructive to animals, leather workers and the environment. I want a shoe that LASTS long, causes minimal harm, and that can be recycled if possible. Taygras use 100% recyclable materials.

It seems like Jose Botta had the same problem a decade ago and designed some great shoes. Ataca and El Tiguere have endorsed his shoes for their functionality and performance. They’re on the expensive side, but I will try when I am good enough to rock them!

GFranco has some slick looking dance shoes, but like Jose Bottas they are on the expensive side. I will try and report back here. The only thing is the company explicitly says that its shoes aren’t meant for daily, outside wear.

After 3 Years Dancing, I’ve Yet to Find the Perfect Salsa/Bachata Shoe

This is what I want:

  • Stylish, easy to match
  • Lightweight – a heavy shoe makes mastering new footwork and shines even harder
  • Hugs shape of your foot – they don’t feel clunky
  • Thin sole to “feel” and get off the ground immediately – quick to react
  • Encourages me to dance on the balls of my feet
  • Cushion and flexibility that gives energy
  • Smooth outsole to make spinning easy on many different surfaces
  • Versatile outsole that you can wear outside in different weather
  • Can double as a work and play shoe
  • < $100 so they don’t break the bank

Has anyone found the holy grail? What are your favorite shoes for salsa and bachata. Tell me in the comments so I can continue this crazy journey…

The Art of Profitability

To succeed in business, you have to be a student of profitability.  Where does your profit come from?  How do companies profit from the services and products you use everyday?

Below are 22 different models of profitability presented in examples you can relate to your own business (these are taken from the Art of Profitability, and represent the most common profit models – surely there are more!).  There may be some profit-sources you never considered before.  Some questions to think about as you go through the different profit models:

  • Which of these profit models are at work in your business?
  • How does profit happen in your competitors’ businesses?
  • How well do your employees understand our profit models? Is the organization aligned to help capitalize on them?
  • Are there new profit models that you could apply to improve profitability and lower risk?
  • Which of your current initiatives could improve your profitability and should be accelerated? Which may actually impair it, and should be discontinued?
  • Which specific actions can your organization take in the next ninety days to improve our profit position?

I have attempted to illustrate each profit model through definition, conditions and examples.

Profit Model Definition Conditions Examples
Customer Solution Profit Invest time and energy in learning all there is to know about your customers. Then use that knowledge to create specific solutions for them. Lose money for a short time. Make money for a long time.Study customers, create a custom solution set with multiple services. Develop relationships. Caters to customers that require relationship building Once Factset identified a company as a potential customer, they’d send a team of 2-3 people to work there for a few months, learning everything they could about the customer, how their systems worked (& didn’t work), what they really cared about. Based on this genuine knowledge, they’d develop customized products and services tailored to the specific characteristics and economics of the account. Once they landed the account, they spent a ton of time integrating their product into the customer’s systems. During this process, revenues were tiny and costs were huge. But after 3-4 months, they were woven into the daily flow of customer’s operations. Software debugged and working fine. Now one person could maintain account, part-time. More people in company use it. Costs fall, revenues grow.
Pyramid Profit Company caters to different levels of price sensitivity. Offer a range of services from low price / high volume to higher price / lower volume.The base of the pyramid consists of low-priced high-volume products, while the apex is made up of high-priced low-volume products.

The bulk of profitability is concentrated at the top of the product pyramid, but the base plays a strategic role — often through a “firewall” brand — in protecting the profitability at the top.

Has to be a hierarchy of customers with different expectations and different attitudes towards price.Top of pyramid is the most profitable so make sure you have enough customers at the top. Mattel and Barbie: Barbies were priced $20-$30. But imitators can come in below you, so you build a firewall, a $10 Barbie. Barely profitable but prevents other companies from establishing a connection with your customers. And even girls who start with the $10 Barbie move on to buy accessories. Then made a $100-$200 Barbie for nostalgic collectors.Nokia PhonesSkypePhone Plans
Multi-Component Profit Same product, several businesses.Multiple products and/or sales channels, and only some of these represent the bulk of profitability. The customer behaves very differently on different purchase occasions;  he or she has different degrees of price sensitivity.To maximize sales in the high-profitability components, it’s necessary to have full presence in the less-profitable components as well.Caters to customers that consolidate on fewer suppliers. Coke has different prices per ounce depending on whether you buy it in a grocery store, from a vending machine or in a restaurant.HotelsRetail Clothing Stores
Switchboard Profit Multiple sellers communicating with multiple buyers via a power broker associated with the service provider. The more buyers and sellers that join the switchboard, the larger the margin commanded by the service provider. Can’t do it with a small percentage of supply: once you have 15-20% of market, an upward spiral kicks in. Perceived probabilities go way up, and all deals start flowing your direction. Profitability per unit of effort also goes up.Need connections with major suppliers, or significant market share of suppliers. Michael Ovits (TV and movie producer)Ovitz put entire movie needs together: representing writers, actors, director, and represented them as a package to studios for greater profits and profitability per unit of effort.Ebay
Time Profit Takes advantage of innovation, newness, uniqueness, to gain time limited competitive advantage. Requires strong early sales effort to maximize high margin revenue.Profit margins quickly erode as competition catches-up.When a product is new, it earns premium profits. Then, when a competitor copies the innovation, price competition drives profits to zero.

Companies relying on this model make continuous innovation the modus operandi.

“When you see #2 in the rear-view mirror, step on the gas”.

Need to have major product launches, or ways to “squeeze out the juice before everyone else learns the secret.” Intel CPU’sElectronics
Blockbuster Profit Identify and support blockbuster opportunities or “home runs” and manage the research and development process to maximize chances of success. Usually for products / industries with high research and development costs, highly influenceable demand, or where there still are many discoveries to be made.Usually need an intensive marketing campaign. Movie StudiosBook PublishersDrug Makers
Profit-Multiplier Profit Take a skill, asset or intellectual property and make money from it 5 or 6 times. Take any asset, iterate it, reuse it, give it a different form.Results in better profit from lower development cost, as you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you use it. Branding helps here: leverage brand to multiply the value of one service by selling loosely related services under the same branding.Different from the Multi-Component Profit because it’s not the same product: it’s different products from the same original asset. Selling Information Online (blog, whitepaper, ebook, video course, etc)Disney(Lion King movie, broadway play, lunchbox, game, stuffed animals, etc)
Entrepreneurial Profit Totally aligns an organization behind rational, common sense, profit-seeking activity, rather than all the extraneous nonsense that only large organizations can afford or tolerate. A mindset that says, “We can’t afford to operate any other way.”  Total focus on customer responsiveness, energy and efficiency. Relies on speed, focus, innovation, rapid learning and cost-control.  Essentially a Lean Startup. IMVU
Specialist Profit Specialists usually can achieve a) lower cost through better knowledge b) better price through reputation or unique design of offering c) shorter selling cycles d)more rapid & market penetration because of existing connections.  This results in higher margins than generalists. Budget Airlines

Tennis Shop

Orthodontists

Installed Base Profit Initial product sales or profits are slim and profit is realized on follow-up products and services.This model is about transferring power from the customer (initial purchase with more price sensitivity) to the producer (subsequent purchases with less price sensitivity). If seller makes initial purchase price too high the customer will switch brands.Seller must keep user engaged and its follow-up products easy to buy.

Take some aspect of your business where customers are returning naturally and stimulate it more – market aggressively.

Gilette (Razors and Blades)Nintendo Game Consoles

Laser Printers

 

De Facto Standard Profit The more players who buy and enter the system, the more valuable the network.Being the standard leads to less surprise and allows you to plan more (Surprises cost money by causing you to react, respond, scramble).Your customers do your marketing for you. Microsoft Office

ETS (who run SAT tests)

CFA Exams

Brand Profit The company expends significant marketing investment in order to build awareness which is reinforced by customer experience. You know brand profitability is working when a consumer says, “I only drink Coke” even-though blind tests show consumers are often unable to distinguish the difference between Coke and its competitors. Need time and resources (persistent spending) to build cumulativebrand awareness and loyalty.Need to go after the share determining segment (SDS) – “the SDS is the most important segment in the market. That’s the one where high share today translates into high share of the whole market tomorrow.” NikeCoke

Cigarettes

Specialty Product Profit Similar to brand profit but companies use above standard materials and design to generate higher margins until competitors start to imitate.”Find the richest fields: the place where customer need, technical feasibility, and lack of competition intersect.” Need to continually develop new niche products with higher margins.Difference from Blockbuster Profit is that this is niche: specialty foods, specialty papers, etc. Finding a legitimate need or variation and addressing it. Ben & Jerry’sPrada

Tumi

Local Leadership Profit Many businesses and their company economies are totally local. Risk occurs when these companies fail to recognize they are a local business model.Strive for local leadership, this could mean x locations per city / county.…

in doing so take advantage of lower purchasing costs, lower recruiting and advertising costs, shops as billboards, foot traffic and higher awareness and potentially slightly higher pricing.“Saturate the circle” or “fill the column.”

Requires financing and operational expertise to multiply quickly StarbucksWalmart

McDonalds

Transaction Scale Profit Turn small business away to focus on the big accounts; bias yourself to big business Big transactions are a function of your relationships, and it takes years to build relationships Real estate agent who only sells houses worth over 1 million dollarsAd agencies

Investment Banks

Value Chain Position Profit Some places are much more critical than others. The high ground. The river ford. The mountain pass. The bridge. The isthmus. The channel – think of Gibraltar, Suez, the Bosphorus.What’s true in geography is true in business. There are places in the value chain that are ten times more valuable than others in terms of profit, power, and control. These special places are the control points of the business landscape and could arise from scarcity, bottlenecks, connection with customers, relative value added, etc. The location of value chain position profit is different for each industry and can change rapidly.Be aware of existing control points, radical shifts in control points, and new control points that could arise. Justin BieberLebron James

Apple OS & Itunes

Google

 

Cycle Profit Industries characterized by distinct and powerful cycle. The company can not control the cycle, but it works to maximize its position within the cycles grip. As capacity tightens the companies lead price increases, as capacity loosens, its lag price declines.When others lose money, you break even. When others break even, you make money. Hard to predict cycles.The key to profiting from cyclical industries is arbitrage –  to “lead” or be ahead of the up cycles and to “lag” or be behind the down cycles.   This can be done through buying low / selling high, reducing costs, or increasing / lowering prices depending on where you are in the cycle. ShippingTravel Industry (adjust rates seasonally)
After Sale Profit Price sensitivity is highest when ticket price is high, variability is high, and there are lots of options (i.e. houses, cars, TVs).  Customers spend a lot of energy finding the best deal.Price sensitivity is lowest when ticket price is low, variability is low, and there are few options (i.e. coffee, service contracts, insurance, accessories). Requires a mini-market has been created or brought into being by the initial sale; usually mini-market items are lower priced and frequency of purchase is greater.Difference from Installed Base Profit is that other companies are profiting from after sale products Insurance companiesIphone / Ipad accessories
New Product Profit The Profit Parabola |_/\_ “The total profit earned by all players in a market goes up, peaks, and comes back down to zero.”Manage the parabola strategically by overinvesting on the left-hand side of the parabola, and underinvesting on the right-hand side.On the left-hand side, above all else, fight for mindshare. Be seen as the category leader in the mind of the customer. Merchandise your product mercilessly. Be everywhere. Build plants and do subcontracting deals as fast as you can.Before hitting the peak of the parabola, invest less money to manage the business to maximize cash flow (right-hand side).

“Get off the last wave first, catch the next wave first.”

The objective is to reverse the investment ratio about a year before hitting the peak; therefore, you need a good grasp of when the product will peak.  Could conclude this from growth rates, customer excitement / boredom, etc.Which stage are you in?  The gold rush, peak, or no profit zone? CarsWalkman
Relative Market Share Profit Companies with high market share tend to be more profitable due to a) scale economies in manufacturing b) greater purchasing clout c) lower per-unit manufacturing costs d) lower per-unit costs for overhead and R&D e) attracting the best talent – everyone likes to work for a leader f) more resources, cash or otherwise g) more ability to control / plan the market. General ElectricSamsung

 

Experience Curve Profit Experience in serving the market and strong financial management drives down the transactional cost. Danger with this profit model is that you can miss the forest for the trees; innovations that make you irrelevant, or the invention of a new model that delivers the same thing at a 20-30% lower cost.
Low Cost Business Design Profit The company thrives on reducing the cost per unit through cumulative experience. The low-cost business design doesn’t need huge market share to be hugely profitable. It is hugely profitable as long as it continues to be dramatically lower-cost.  Dollar stores

To succeed in business, you have to be a student of profitability.  Where does your profit come from? Are there new profit models that you could apply to improve profitability and lower risk?


Reading List

Adrian Slywotzky, The Art of Profitability

Web

Derek Sivers, Presentation on the Art of Profitability

Customer Development

You have a great idea and write a business plan. You get funding and build a team. You work and work and work and finally build something. But when you launch your product or service, no one comes!

This is a typical problem faced by start-ups: to be completely focused on product development.  What start-ups need is a parallel process of customer development to reduce the risk of building the wrong thing.

At its core, customer development is about getting out of the building (and your head) and testing your core business assumptions with actual customers.  Few business plans survive first contact with the customer, so you should discover and validate your customer while developing your product.

At a high level, Customer Development is about questioning your core business assumptions. In other words, Customer Development teaches that rather than assume your beliefs about your business to be true, you should apply an engineering, or scientific method, to what is really not a scientific endeavor (building a business), in order to validate the ideas.

The primary advantages of implementing the framework are that you don’t spend gobs of money discovering what works, but rather save the money for executing and scaling what you have already shown to work. An organization applies a learning process, rather than merely executing what you assume to be the right business model.  If implemented properly, Customer Development helps a business become highly focused, capital and resource efficient, and while not a guaranteed success, more likely to find Product-Market Fit and market traction.

– Brant Cooper, Author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development

Pioneered by Steve Blank in The Four Steps to the Epiphany, customer development follows 4 stages: customer discovery, customer validation, customer creation, and company building.  These stages give entrepreneurs a framework to keep the appropriate customer focus.  For example, according to Startup Genome, the most common mistake internet start-ups make is to scale (Stage 3) before finding product / market fit (Stage 2).  Customer development keeps start-ups focused on customers, their source of survival.

I created the following table to simplify the 4 stages of customer development:

Stage Definition Goal Key Question
1. Customer Discovery A specific product solves a known problem for an identifiable group of users Problem / Solution Fit Do I have a problem worth solving?
2. Customer Validation The market is saleable and large enough that a viable business might be built Product / Market Fit: find a repeatable and scaleable business model Have I built something people will pay for?
3. Company / Customer Creation The business is scalable through a repeatable sales and marketing roadmap Scale How do I accelerate growth?
4. Company Building Departments and operational processes are created to support scale Sustain Growth How do I support growth?

Customer validation is often the most difficult and important stage in determining the success of a startup.  Getting through this stage means getting your first customers and identifying a scaleable business model.  If you are unable to find product / market fit, you must pivot and test a new business model, potentially with a new market segment.  This could necessitate going back to Stage 1, Customer Discovery.  Yes, a pain.  But the principle here is that your precious resources should be spent on getting product / market fit right first, not on scaling efforts with an unknown business model.

I have found customer development framework useful for asking the right questions – and taking the right action – at the right time. Customer development is about building while testing your assumptions, instead of blindly “just doing it” or sticking with a business plan whose world or assumptions are no longer valid.


Figuring out the right thing to build is the most important task of start-ups. This can only be done by “getting outside the building” and testing your value hypothesis with actual customers as soon possible.


Reading List

Steve Blank, The Four Steps to the Epiphany
Brant Cooper, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development

Web

Brant Cooper’s summary of customer development  (author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development)
Eric Ries’ summary of customer development (author of The Lean Startup)
Steve Blank  gives a lecture about customer development. (Audio, Slides, Videos)
Ash Maurya’s Customer Development Checklist for a Web Startup (Discovery, Validation)
Acquire Convert’s Customer Development for Copywriting

The Lean Startup

The Lean Startup Summary

  • The Lean Startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty. The Lean Startup takes lean manufacturing concepts and applies them to the process of innovation in uncertain environments.
  • The big idea is to figure out the right thing to build – that customers will pay for – as quickly as possible i.e. “validated learning”
  • Startup productivity is not about how much stuff you are building (or dollars, awards, press, vanity metrics) but how much validated learning you are getting.
  • You must have a hypothesis in order to have validated learning.  Startups need to have a value hypothesis (how does the product or service deliver value?) and a growth hypothesis (how are customers discovered?).
  • The goal is to minimize time through the Ideas BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN feedback loop, which is another way of describing the scientific method.  To do so, you first need to ask what you want to learn (what is your growth or value hypothesis)?  From that… How will you measure your learning outcome (metrics)?  From that… What do you need to build (minimum viable product) to measure it?

  • Minimum Viable Product – building something to test your growth or value hypothesis with minimum effort and the least development time.  The idea is to remove any feature, process, or effort that does not contribute to validated learning.
  • 5 Why’s – when encountering any problem, get to the root cause by asking why 5 times, and then spend proportionally more time on the root cause.
  • A pivot is a special kind of change designed to test a new fundamental (and strategic) hypothesis about the product, business model, and engine of growth. Pivot types include Zoom-in, Zoom-out, Customer Segment, Customer Need, Platform, Business Architecture, Value Capture, Engine of Growth, Channel, and Technology.  You want to pivot before you scale.
  • Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, summarizes lean startup principles on his book page.
  • Reduce uncertainty by satisfying the following stages:
  1. Discovery – find problem / solution fit
  2. Validation – find product / market fit through a minimum viable product
  3. Efficiency – found product /market fit,  fine tune and optimize user experience
  4. Scale – focus on customer acquisition

Entrepreneur and lean startup proponent Ash Maurya describes the stages of successful start-ups similarly in his book Running Lean.

  1. Problem / Solution Fit: do I have a problem worth solving?
  2. Product / Market Fit: have I built something people want?
  3. Scale: how do I accelerate growth?

Maurya emphasizes focusing on learning and pivots before Product / Market Fit, focus on growth and optimization after Product / Market Fit.

Reading List

Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Ash Maurya, Running Lean

Web

Professor Chuck Eesley, Stanford University, Technology Entrepreneurship
Max Marmer and Bjoern Lasse Herrmann, Startup Genome
Eric Ries, Startup Lessons Learned

Evaluating Your Business Ideas

How can we think deeper and more broadly about our business ideas?  How can we evaluate each idea’s market potential?

Below are 8 frameworks to evaluate, structure and refine your business ideas.

The Business Model Canvas

“No business plan survives first contact with a customer”

– Steve Blank, Serial Entrepreneur, Author & Lecturer at Stanford University

Based on the work of 470+ strategy practitioners from 45 countries (and described in great detail in Business Model Generation), the business model canvas allows you fit your business model on one page.  The categories you must think through are your business’ Value Proposition, Customer Relationships, Key Activities, Key Resources, Key Partners, Channels, Customer Segments, Revenue Streams, and Cost Structure.  There’s an iPad toolbox and printable PDF available for free on the book’s site.

Here’s a video that describes the elements of the business model canvas:

A derivation of the business model generation canvas is the lean canvas by Ash Maurya.  It uses the same one-page format, but with different categories: Value Proposition, Problem, Solution, Key Metrics, Unfair Advantage, Channels, Customer Segments, Revenue and Cost Structure.  You can easily create your own lean canvas at:

http://www.leancanvas.com

The beauty of these 1-page canvases is they allow you to quickly describe your business model in an easily shareable format.  Gone are the days where you need to spend a month preparing a detailed 20 page business plan!  The vast majority of startups will look nothing like what was described in the original business plan; the premise behind these tools is to quickly make your best plan, get feedback from others, and then start validating your model as soon as possible.

Customer Value

In Innovation: The 5 Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, Curtis Carlson and William Wilmot argue that business innovation must be centered around creating customer value. Their value proposition template is “NABC:”

  • What is the important customer and market NEED? Does your product or service make a demonstrable difference to your customers?
  • What is the unique APPROACH for addressing this need?
  • What are the specific BENEFITS per costs that result from this approach?
  • How are these benefits per costs superior to the COMPETITION and the alternatives?

This template keeps you focused on your customers and competition.  Can you offer your customers something materially more valuable than the alternatives and in a sustainable way?

10 Ways to Evaluate a Market

Here’s a handy back-of-the-envelope method you can use to identify the attractiveness of any potential market. Rate each of the 10 factors below on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is extremely unattractive and 10 is extremely attractive.

  1. Urgency – how badly do people want or need this right now?
  2. Market Size – how many people are actively purchasing things like this?
  3. Pricing Potential – what is the highest price a typical purchaser would be willing to spend for a solution?
  4. Cost of Customer Acquisition – how easy is it to acquire a new customer? On average, how much will it cost to generate a sale, in both money and effort?
  5. Cost of Value Delivery – how much would it cost to create and deliver the value offered, both in money and effort?
  6. Uniqueness of Offer – how unique is your offer versus competing offerings in the market, and how easy is it for potential competitors to copy you?
  7. Speed to Market – how quickly can you create something to sell?
  8. Up-Front Investment – how much will you have to invest before you’re ready to sell?
  9. Upsell Potential – are there related secondary offers that you could also present to purchasing customers?
  10. Evergreen Potential – once the initial offer has been created, how much additional work will you have to put into it in order to continue selling?

Add your scores.  Anything below 50 is probably not worth investing your energy and resources.  Any idea that scores 70 or higher signifies a strong opportunity.

Core Human Drives

Does your business satisfy a core human need?  Many times our purchases are motivated less by the product than by what the product gives us: money, status, power, love, knowledge, protection, and pleasure.  Buying a BMW is about much more than getting from point A to B.

According to Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, the authors of Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, all human beings have 4 core human drives that profoundly influence our actions:

  • The Drive to Acquire – the desire to obtain physical objects as well as immaterial qualities like status, power and influence.  Companies that promise to make us wealthy, famous, influential or powerful connect to this drive. (i.e. retailers, investment companies)
  • The Drive to Bond – the desire to feel valued and loved by forming relationships with others. Companies that promise to make us attractive, well-liked, or highly regarded connect to his drive. (i.e. restaurants, conferences, dating services)
  • The Drive to Learn – the desire to satisfy our curiosity. Companies that promise to make us more knowledgeable or competent connect to his drive. (i.e. graduate programs, publishers, training workshops)
  • The Drive to Defend – the desire to protect ourselves, our love ones and our property. Companies that promise to keep us safe, eliminate a problem or prevent bad things from happening connect to this drive. (i.e. insurance products, legal services, alarm systems)

Josh Kaufman, author of the Personal MBA has added a fifth:

  • The Drive to Feel – the desire for intense emotional experiences, pleasure, excitement, entertainment, and anticipation. Companies that promise to give us pleasure, thrill us, or give us something to look forward to connect with this drive. (i.e. sporting events, concerts, travel companies)

The more core human drives you connect with, the more attractive your offer will be to your potential market.  Consumers are not rational.  Why do some guys spend thousands of dollars on alcohol at clubs but only 20 dollars/month on a gym membership?  Because “going out” satisfies a much more elemental need than “working out.”

12 Economic Forms of Value

Did you know there are only 12 ways businesses make money?

  1. Product – create a single tangible item, then sell and deliver it for more than what it cost to make.
  2. Service – provide help or assistance, then charge a fee for benefits rendered.
  3. Shared Resource – create a durable asset that can be used by many people, then charge for access.
  4. Subscription – offer a benefit on an ongoing basis, and charge a recurring fee.
  5. Resale – acquire an asset from a wholesaler, then sell that asset to a retail buyer at a higher price.
  6. Lease – acquire an asset, then allow another person to use it for a predefined amount of time in exchange for a fee.
  7. Agency – market and sell an asset or service you don’t own on a behalf of a third party, then collect a percentage of the transaction price as a fee.
  8. Audience Aggregation – get the attention of a group of people with certain characteristics, then sell access in the form of advertising to another business looking to reach that audience.
  9. Loan – lend a certain amount of money, then collect payments over a predefined period of time equal to the original loan plus a predefined interest rate.
  10. Option – offer the ability to take a predefined action for a fixed period of time in exchange for a fee.
  11. Insurance – take on the risk of some specific bad thing happening to the policy holder in exchange for a predefined series of payments, then pay out claims only when the bad thing happens.
  12. Capital – purchase an ownership stake in a business, then collect a corresponding portion of the profit as a one-time payout or ongoing dividend

Use this list to get to the heart of your business model.  For example, my bachelor cooking school business would provide value as a product, subscription and/or audience aggregator.

Total Available Market

Consultants, financiers, and business development professionals do this all the time: size the market.  What is your total available market?  What we’re looking for here is 1) the number of available customers and 2) the potential value of each customer, which requires top-down and bottom-up thinking.

Unfortunately, we can’t employ pricey consultants to do this for us or purchase thousand dollar industry reports as bootstrapping entrepreneurs.

To determine the number of available customers, start with studying your competitors online.  Do they publish their financials or number of customers anywhere?  You can also look at how many people are searching for your product or service using Google’s Keyword Tool.  You can use Facebook Ads to see how many people fit your target audience (i.e. Chihuahua owners).  Or you can find a site with a large number of potential customers – such as Amazon, LinkedIn and Craigslist – and piggyback off their customer base.

To determine the potential value of each customer, you’ll want to calculate each customer’s lifetime value. You can talk to potential customers to get an idea of how much money they spend on their dog or tennis equipment, but usually you’ll just have to make your best assumptions and guesses. This is why it’s often best to scratch your own itch or to scratch your group’s itch – you can infer much about your customer’s buying habits through your own behavior.

I highly encourage you to read Noah Kagan’s post How to Create a Million Dollar Business This Weekend to see how he calculated his Total Available Market.

Blue Ocean Diagnostics

In the global bestseller Blue Ocean Strategy, the authors provide a number of handy tools and diagnostics to identify blue oceans: uncontested market spaces through new value propositions.  Personally, I have used the Blue Ocean Strategy Canvas and 4 Actions Framework many times over the years for different consulting projects.

Blue Ocean Strategy Canvas charts out the factors of competition on x axis, quality of offering on the y axis.  Which 3-4 factors present the best opportunities for new value propositions?

4 Actions Framework asks which factors of competition should your offering eliminate, reduce, create and raise?

Your GFP Quotient (Gut-Fit-Passion)

Which of your ideas sounds the most exciting?  Which business could you imagine working on (and staying on top of the industry) for 5, 10, 20 years?  Which business can you provide both a unique product and high value to customers? Which business fits your desired outcomes and lifestyle? Which one has a purpose that’s enduring and important to you?

This goes back to understanding your strengths and interests.

There’s a lot of headaches, sweat and tears ahead.  And success will require persistence and tenaciousness. What – aside from the money – would make it all worth it?

 

Reading List:

Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA
Alexander Osterwalder, Business Model Generation
Ash Maurya, Running Lean
Curtis Carlson and William Wilmot, Innovation: The 5 Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want
Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices
W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy

Web

Noah Kagan, How to Create a Million Dollar Business This Weekend (article)