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In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

    Everyone these days is chasing after the billion-dollar idea. We look at the giants in the technology industry – Google, Yahoo, eBay, even Microsoft – and see companies that only a few years ago (or a couple decades ago in Microsoft’s case) were tiny startups struggling to get by. When they hit, they hit big, and made their owners more money than anyone on Earth had ever dreamed of having.

    Good for them. But their success has radically distorted the way most people look at their own lives, businesses, and prospects. The Google model of success is great – hooray them! – but frankly, it’s a little irrelevant.

    Most of us won’t have a billion-dollar idea. And even if we do, we’ll have it at the wrong time without the resources to make it a billion-dollar company. And you know what? That’s fine.

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    Oh, business books don’t think so. Peruse the shelves of your local bookstore’s business section and you’ll see book after book analysing, studying, describing, and generally fawning over the huge success stories. They all claim the same thing: follow the example of Apple, Starbucks, GM, Warren Buffett, or whomever and you, too, can be successful. Don’t follow their example, and you’re… well, doomed to failure.

    What a crock.

    First of all, visit a thrift store sometime and have a look at all the business books of yesteryear, and all the companies they held up as success stories. Compaq, Enron, Digital Equipment, Chrysler, AOL. Models to follow?

    But more importantly, it’s a false vision of success. Few companies ever operate at the scale the business gurus plot “success” at. And few of us need the kind of validation that building a billion-dollar business – or even a million-dollar business – provides.

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    I’m speaking out in praise of small success. The band that sells 50,000 copies of its album. The local dry cleaner who runs 6 branches citywide. The family with the chain of fast-food franchises. The couple that runs a popular pre-school and daycare. The painter voted Best Local Artist three years in a row by the city’s alternative weekly paper. The independent spirit who runs the city’s alternative weekly paper. The high school band teacher whose students win music scholarships year after year.

    I know it’s not flashy. But it’s good, damn good.

    1000 True Fans and the Stallman Model

    My thinking here derives from two sources. The first is Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1000 true fans. Kelly’s suggestion is simple: to survive as an artist doesn’t necessarily require a major label distribution deal, a wealthy patron, a contract with a multi-national publishing house, or an appearance on Oprah. All it takes is the cultivation – by whatever means necessary and possible – of 1000 loyal, devoted fans. People who will buy your books, records, t-shirts, paintings, or whatever else; who will travel hundreds of miles and line up for hours or days to see you speak, play, or perform; people who will spread the word, give your products (whatever hey are) as gifts, and talk you up to local business owners, media outlets, and other artists.

    If a thousand true fans are willing to spend just $100 a year on whatever it is that you do, that’s a healthy $100,000 a year income. Just from that core – others might well buy an album here and there, ask a library to carry your book, or purchase a print of your painting. But that core of true fan support is what sustains the artist, year in and year out.

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    Richard Stallman advocates something similar in his crusade for free (as in freedom) software. Again and again he’s asked how people can make money if they don’t charge for their software, and again and again he responds: by providing services related to their software. Support. Training, Customization. Made-to-order programs.

    Doing the right thing, Stallman admits, is not the fast-track to riches. Instead, he says, it’s a way for people who love coding to bring in a healthy income year in and year out. Coding for the software equivalent of 1000 true fans.

    Making a Living vs. Making a Killing

    What both Kelly and Stallman are advocating is making a living – a good, solid, stable living – doing something you love. It’s a living built on community-mindedness, social spirit, and a solid relationship with the people who buy or use your work. Yes, it means giving up the ability to “monetize” every interaction between a potential customer and whatever it is you make. But in return you gain the ability to focus on the thing you love, and the value it brings to other people’s lives, instead of the bottom line.

    Most of the business books on the shelves, and most of the businesses functioning  in our contemporary society, don’t have that luxury. They’re not focused on making a living but on making a killing – bringing in the big bucks, milking whatever they’ve got for whatever it’s worth, and making sure that not a single person derives value from their products without first ponying up some cash.

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    Of course, this hasn’t been without its successes. I’m not going to say there is no use for the kinds of innovations that some corporations have brought about – although it’s notable that very few corporations last more than a couple decades, and even fewer stay at the forefront of their field for even half that long. Microsoft is positively ancient by the standard of market leadership time (and there are plenty of folks who see their crown slipping); Apple is getting pretty ripe as well (they’ve been at the top of their game for about a decade now, in a rare corporate second  chance). Far more often the leaders of the pack give way to upstarts – remember Altavista?

    More importantly, the “making a killing” approach really is killing. Big corporations, especially publicly held ones, can’t afford community-mindedness, unless it yields a positive return for their public relations department. They can’t afford to build personal relationships with the people who buy, use, and live by their products – especially when, as so often happens, they are hiding information about health, environmental, and other risks from their customers. And let’s not forget that it was a handful of corporate leaders and financial players out to make a killing who brought the current economic crisis on us all.

    But it’s not to speak out against corporate greed that I am writing this piece. It is to celebrate the little successes, and to suggest that for most of us, they are more than enough to lead us to happy, healthy, and in the end regret-free lives. Because not a lot of people are willing to say it – certainly the folks who write business books aren’t. And it deserves to be said.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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