2020 reading list (in progress)

Books read

  • One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer
  • How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
  • The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (Re-read)
  • The Narrow Road by Felix Dennis (Re-read)

Currently reading

  • Eat People by Andy Kessler
  • Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner
  • Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit by Steven Pressfield

Upcoming

  • The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen
  • The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole
  • German Boy by Wolfgang W. E. Samuel
  • Built to Sell by John Warrillow
  • Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style by W. David Marx
  • The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
  • Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke
  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  • Reread: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Quin
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • *Born a Crime° by Trevor Noah
  • The Republic by Plato
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Frenemies by Ken Auletta
  • Merchants of Truth by Jill Abramson
  • Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini
  • The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger
  • Designing Design by Kenya Hara
May 31, 2020 reading books

An open list of problems and product ideas

These are ideas for products that I’m unable to build or I’m unsure of the validity of. There’s some possibility that we’ll pluck one of these out in the future and work on it. For the time being, though, I’ll use this as a place to chuck what pops into my head. Feel free to work on one of these ideas if it appeals to you.

  1. It’s hard to make sense of the news. On one end there’s click-bait, infotainment, and sometimes misinformation. On the other there’s quality journalism that’s time consuming to process. I’d pay for a service that provided me with 2 — 3 sentence summaries of key news stories, in as unbiased a manner as possible. Although this could lead me to more detailed stories, I see it as different than a collection of headlines. Headlines are built to create excitement and engagement. This would be purely a briefing for the layperson (e.g., me).
  2. Misinformation is rampant. The uninformed now have equal means for sharing stories as professionals and institutions. Given their weakness in research and fact-checking they help give credence to ridiculous—and sometimes destructive—notions. Their voices are effectively hijacked by social engineers who use them to weaponize information. Can we create tools/systems (in addition to better funding public education) to help inform those who’re most susceptible to spreading misinformation?
  3. Business writing is loaded with bullshit. We’ve all caught ourselves using jargon-heavy terminology and clichés. I’d like to have a tool that’d check my writing and highlight such terms before I hit Send.

P.S. I’ll continue adding to this list.

May 31, 2020 startup products ideas

What game are you playing?

Over the past two decades, I’ve worked on products that failed, and ones that succeeded. Drawing conclusions about the cause of these outcomes is challenging.

First, there are many variables. It’s hard to pinpoint which ones made the difference. Additionally, timing is a big factor. A product that fails for one group can later succeed for someone else (often due to a change in the market). Sometimes execution makes the difference. At others, it comes down to the team and how suited they were to the task.

My perspective comes from helping to design and promote small products and businesses. Most of these were built by only two people. I’m talking about bootstrapped products, which also narrows my expertise. (I’m not apologizing for this; it’s purely to provide context.) I’ve also worked with larger organizations on bigger projects, but I tend to look back on these less frequently.

As I consider the products/businesses we’ve worked on, I see one commonality that stands above the rest. It is that the more singular a business/product’s purpose is, the better the outcome.1

This relates to how a product is presented. A singular product is explained to someone new with a short sentence. Typically it follows this structure: [Product name] helps [audience/user] achieve [outcome].” It needs no enthusiasm or additions. The moment I find myself saying, it also does…” or, this is great because…” I know I’m in trouble.

This singularity isn’t limited to the nature of the product. It also relates to what I wish to achieve by building it. Am I trying to make a profit? Do I want to create an opportunity for others? Is it to see how big I can make it? Is it for fun? Do I want to fix something that’s broken/wrong? (In the context of this article, I’ll refer to these objectives as the game that’s being played.)

Every new reason I add to a product/game acts as a justification. E.g.: Maybe this first part isn’t that exciting, but when we couple it with this… ta-da!” Or: Sure, we need to be profitable, but if we aren’t that’s OK—because our mission is so important.”

See what I mean? By adding elements it gets easier to trick oneself into working on something that can’t stand on its own. Worse yet, you can keep adding reasons. With each new one, you further obscure actuality—and your ability to see it as such.

Forcing yourself to be singular in purpose (both with your product and your reasons for making it) frees you to explore alternatives.

If your pitch doesn’t stand on its own, maybe it requires further investigation. Or, it might need a clearer explanation. Alternatively, you might just need to work on something else. (If this is the case, the earlier you recognize it the better.)

Similarly, if your mission is critical—and profit truly doesn’t matter—you have new options. Maybe you can open-source it, run it as a not-for-profit, or give it to someone of means who can ensure it comes to life.

The important part is to know which game you’re playing.2 Are you in it for profit? Fair enough, we all need to pay our bills. Is this for your own edification? Good on you for doing what you love. Do you want to help others? Wonderful! We need more people who think in this way.

Whichever game you choose, recognize what winning looks like—and act as such. Just don’t lie to yourself by pretending to play another game3 if the current one isn’t working out.


  1. It’s hard (arguably inadvisable) to play more than one game at a time.

  2. At one point, I wanted our design studio to be a great place to work, build high-quality work for clients, win design awards, push the boundaries of design, and earn the recognition of our peers. That’s a tall order, and we failed at almost all of them. Later, we focused purely on servicing our clients’ needs and dropped everything else. The outcome improved immeasurably.

  3. Pivoting repeatedly or continually rewriting your mission statement can indicate that you’re doing this.

May 31, 2020 mission products purpose startups success vision

A lightweight test for product viability

Most of the products I look to build involve scratching my own itch”. By this, I mean that I’m looking for a solution to a problem I have.

When I see an opportunity like this, I tend to start planning/designing immediately. This happens before I’ve identified demand or determined whether a viable tool already exists. This is because I’m enthusiastic. I love playing with how a new product might work. This impulse is costly, though.

I’ll take a different approach with future ideas. Instead of acting immediately, I’ll first look for existing products that resemble what I wish to build. If I can’t find any, I’ll look harder. This is because the probability of any idea I have not existing (in one form or another) is infinitesimal.

I’ll then sign up for their service and use it. If I don’t feel like signing up, I’ll ask myself why. A reluctance to join probably indicates that the perceived need isn’t real. This signifies a good reason to not pursue the idea.

If it works, I’ll use it. If it solves even 75% of my problem, I’ll likely stick with it. Building an alternative that’s only incrementally better isn’t advisable. Plus, much of that difference is likely personal preference—and not representative of a true opportunity.

However, if I use their product—and find myself frustrated—that’s a different story. If it lacks core functionality or features, those might warrant further investigation. They might even help shine a light on what’s begging to be built.

May 30, 2020 product design research startups tests

A return to basic blogs

Objects that do one thing tend to do so better than multipurpose ones. This is why a knife cuts, fork lifts, and spoon scoops. Could one tool serve all three functions? Yes, but none well.

The expanding nature of blogs diverted them from their innate purpose. The humble weblog was a useful addition to the web as that alone. Like most new things, though, folks played with what else it could be. While such exploration is necessary it led blogs to a bad place.

Blogs became a tool for establishing reputation/influence. So, folks concentrated on building audiences. They added analytics to measure their audiences and engagement. Once quantified, they could introduce ads, sell courses, or negotiate book deals. Today’s blogs are bloated and in a sorry state. Even WordPress, the essential blogging tool, has transitioned into a full content management system (CMS).

What if we stripped all the gimmicks away from our blogs and returned to their original purpose? If nothing else, we could remove the promotional aspects, and concentrate on solely the writing. In our dopamine-centric state, this is unlikely to happen en masse. Nevertheless, I’m going to post some notes and see how doing so feels—free of all the hoopla.

I have a blog and a Twitter feed—but, I’m not writing on either at the moment. Instead, I’m posting this where no one will read it, and I’m not sharing it with anyone.

This is an experiment. In it, I’m removing the part of blogging I find problematic: promotion. This task is time-consuming. It also gets in the way of the writing process and the resulting content.

So, I’m using this space solely as a tool for posting my observations, notes, and contemplations. It’s an attempt to find an efficient way to jot down what’s on my mind.

This means avoiding posts aimed at any form of persuasion. I’m not taking a position or trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m also not using this to build a personal brand or promote a product.

Since I don’t need to influence anyone, I can skip writing click-bait headlines and adding decorative illustrations. (Preparing OG images used to take an embarrassing amount of time.)

If I don’t need an audience, there’s no need for sharing buttons or widgets. I also don’t need to seed“ a post by posting it to Reddit or HN, with hopes that it’ll attract new readers.

I’m not looking for validation, engagement, or community. So, there are no likes, gold stars, hearts, or commenting. This last part is particularly nice because it gets me around the guilt of not replying to positive comments. It also means avoiding mean ones that would have previously ruined my day.

Analytics? Nope. Pageviews? Don’t care. SEO? I always hated the notion.

Subscriptions? I guess someone could use the RSS feed, but I’d rather they didn’t. Subscriptions add pressure. I used to worry that posting too frequently might offend someone. I also felt that posting infrequently seemed neglectful. I don’t want anyone’s email address or permission to send them notifications.

I write because my mind is perpetually gnawing on some problem or idea. Getting these down helps clear my machine for other topics. In this way, I see writing like taking a poop or squeezing a zit. It feels good to get it out.

Promoting one’s writing starts as an ancillary task, but grows. Soon, it takes more time and effort than the writing itself. That’s the reason for this experiment. I want to get back to the part I previously enjoyed so much—without all of the cruft that got in the way.

I’m looking for the most efficient way to jot down ideas and relate them to one another.

I’m not sure why I’m posting this online—instead of in an offline journal. For some reason, pushing it to the web feels somehow more real. I also seem to pay a little more attention to clarity and syntax when I do.

BTW: The tags below are for me to see how my articles/thoughts link together.

May 30, 2020 blogging promotion writing