Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, spoke at Powell’s yesterday about the founding of Reddit and his new book Without Their Permission.

It was a fun talk: He’s a good speaker, clearly knows and enjoys his subject matter, and has plenty of fun anecdotes. His basic message is that we need to become entrepreneurs because its good for us personally and good for the world. The barrier to gain attention and achievement is high, but there are no gatekeepers stopping us from pursuing our dreams as there were even just ten years ago.

Here are my full notes from the talk:

Alexis Ohanian
Cofounder of Reddit
Author of Without Their Permission
  • The fear of being embarrassed holds people back.
    • Reddit started as an incredibly barebones html site. If being embarrassed had held them back, they would never have done it.
  • The fear of not knowing what you’re doing holds people back.
    • The secret is that nobody really knows what they’re doing if they’re trying anything new.
  • The world is not flat, but the world-wide-web is flat. It’s all equal. Two guys with a laptop and an internet connection can anything.
  • Reddit started in a suburb of a suburb of Cambridge, which is a suburb of Boston, which is not at all silicon valley.
    • great burritos in silicon valley, but no need to be there.
  • The enemy is the back button — Paul Graham
    • The enemy is whether people leave your site. 
    • You have to be better than cat photos.
  • So much is competing for our attention.
    • If you have ideas you want to spread, the bar is high to compete.
    • But word of mouth is just as important as it ever was
    • Watercooler conversations have just moved online
    • It’s so exciting to see people doing philanthropy, art, and getting their message out.  
  • Gatekeepers vs. no gatekeepers
    • Anecdote about Gary Larson and The Farside. He just barely managed to get syndication, and only then because he went on vacation and managed to get a deal. 
    • What about all the other Gary Larson’s out there who got filtered out because the gatekeepers said no?
  • All the web comics out there today could only exist in this era. 
    • xkcd only exists because of the internet. 
    • it’s a business that earns a living for their creator. 
    • there’s no way that the math joke from the programmer drawn with a stick figure would have been put on the page next to family circus.
  • Kickstarter has now given more money to art than the National Endowment for Art.
  • Choose your own adventure version of Hamlet.
    • No traditional publisher would have backed this. If they had, it would have been a meager, several thousand dollar advance.
    • On Kickstarter, he got $600,000 to write this.
  • Alexis would have been an immigration lawyer if he hadn’t had a fateful conversation in a waffle house.
  • If you are a programmer today, you have the most valuable skill possible.
    • And, you can be entirely self-taught. 
    • All the knowledge you need is available for free.
  • Paul Graham gving a talk about how to start a startup.
    • Alexis and Steve heard of this talk, realized it would be during spring break.
    • Decided to go there, rather than the beach.
    • Went from Virginia to Boston. 
    • Introduced themselves, talk him that they wanted to pitch their business (Mmm… something mobile using text message) to him.
    • He said “you have a slightly better than awful chance”.
  • Soon after, Paul formed Y combinator.
    • They interviewed for it.
    • Were rejected that night.
    • Decided they would prove him wrong.
  • Out that night with a bunch of Harvard guys
    • Harvard guys bragging about their bank jobs
    • They lied, bragged that they got into Y combinator
  • On the train back the next morning, get a call from Paul.
    • He hated the idea because it was based on phones (not smart phones). Said he’d let them in if they did something on the web instead.
    • They got off at the next stop, turned around, went back to Boston.
  • Had discussion about their experiences using Slashdot, reading newspapers, etc.
    • Paul said yes, on the right direction…build the front page of the internet.
    • A lot of pressure, when all they wanted to do was continue to live the college lifestyle.
  • Humans of New York — Brandon
    • failed out of University of Georgia
    • bounced around different finance jobs
    • suddenly decided he wanted to move to NY and become a photographer
    • his friends told him he was crazy. he didn’t even own a camera, didn’t know anything about photography.
    • But he goes to NY. his photos sucks.
    • He reads how to get better. A few days turned into a few weeks turned into a few months.
    • In four years went from having never taken a photo in his life, to being a worldwide celebrated and viewed photographer
    • From no fame or credibility to worldwide credibility, making the world suck a little less.
    • Hilarious and moving.
    • Ten years ago, that never would have been possible.
  • “Dude, sucking is the first step to being kind of good at something.” — Adventure Time
  • “Nobody does know what they’re doing. It all seems like its luck.”
    • Malcome Gladwell’s book Outliers — chance is still the biggest component of the equation.
    • The idea that all web links are equal. True only on a technical level. In the real world, still subject to luck: which link gets attention. 
  • “A lot of luck is part of it, but it also seems like dedication is part of it. You need talents like design, development, ideas, etc. What do you think your talents are that got your over the hill?”
    • The ability to build the thing is probably the most important.
    • My talent is the willingness to do anything/everything else: get takeout, call the wireless provider, anything…
    • Tenacity
      • Airbnb: founders ate nothing but cereal for a year and a half to keep costs down. They just wouldn’t quit.
        • Aside: Airbnb one day discovered that really good, attractive photos make people far more comfortable to rent an apartment. That discovery helped them turn the corner, turn into a billion dollar company.
    • Be comfortable with failure / negative feedback. Alexis has a negative reinforcement wall:
      • “You are a rounding error to Yahoo. Why are you even here talking to us?”
  • “What’s appearing to you about bit coin?”
    • It’s a digital crypto currency for the internet.
    • I’m cautiously optimistic about it because it’s just absurd how much money financial institutions make just moving money around. they’re a drain on the economy/world/money.
    • Even though silk road is shut down, we still see bitcoin transactions at roughly the same level. Good sign that it’s being used for legitimate stuff.
    • He gets bitcoin donations from people who torrent his book.

This is part five of a nine part series on How to Accomplish Anything When You Don’t Have Any Time.

Previously I addressed a mantra to stay focused, prioritizing only three things for action, stacking functions, and avoiding time sinks. Today I’ll talk about outsourcing work.


Purpose: Free up time and maintain focus

Gifford and Libba Pinchot ran a consulting business, authored multiple groundbreaking business books and founded an MBA school, all while raising three children. They were smart, passionate, hard-working people, but at some point, that’s not enough. 

Guess what? They hired someone else to wash the dishes and clean the house.

Outsourcing household work (cleaning and yardwork) is often one of the first steps. But it’s sometimes harder to figure out the next step.

After I published Avogadro Corp, I knew that I wanted to send review copies to newspapers, bloggers, and other folks in the tech industry. At the same time, I needed to be blogging and engaging online. And I needed to work on the sequel. I simply could not do all this in the time I had. 

I was able to hire a friend to work about ten hours a week over the course of a month to research outlets, draft cover letters, and send out review copies. For my second novel, I hired someone to research Amazon’s top reviewers for me.

The trick to outsourcing creative work is to have a clearly defined goal (e.g. send a copy to each person in this 150 row spreadsheet, with a cover letter customized to them), and to set up a review point part-way into the work (e.g. “Draft all the material for the first ten rows, and let me review it before you go on.”)

Are you concerned about the investment? Are you wondering how you could justify spending money on an activity that might only be a hobby? In my experience, once I’m investing money, I’m even more motivated to ensure that I’m using my own time wisely. If I’m going to spend $15 an hour to have someone else do something, I want to be using my own time to do something worth way more than $15 an hour.

This is part four of a nine-part series on How to Accomplish Anything (When You Have No Time). My first three posts included:

  1. a mantra to stay focused on what matters and shortcut the use of willpower
  2. picking the top three priorities and focusing only on those
  3. permaculture stacking: making sure that you get at least three uses out of everything you do

Today I’ll talk about avoiding time sinks.

Avoid Time Sinks (aka Why All-Clad is better than a Nintendo DS)

Purpose: Free up time

In 2006, I’d gotten a check for my birthday, and was wondering what to spend it on. 

My friend Gene Kim, cofounder of Tripwire and author of The Phoenix Project, suggested I get a handheld gaming device. (This was before smartphones.) 

He promised that it was not only a ton of fun, but that the games were playable in five minute increments. But as I had a full time job and three kids in diapers, I couldn’t even imagine having five minutes.

That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t bring anything into my life that consumed more time. No matter how awesomely great the handheld game console was, I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it if it required a new investment of time. 

The corollary to this is that I could bring things into my life that either reduced an existing time investment or replaced time spent.

I pondered this for some time, and eventually decided to spend my money on an All-Clad pan. I already spent time cooking. An insanely great pan would improve my quality of life doing something I was already doing. 

Although I don’t have kids in diapers any more, I still think about the stuff and activities I bring into my life, and consider whether they require a time investment, create time savings, or are a one for one replacement. 

Writing, time with my kids and spouse, and my day job all deserve time, and require strategic time decisions and tradeoffs to ensure I have enough time for them.

If you’re trying to free up time to take on a new project, you can evaluate the things in your life to see what time investments bring you value and which ones don’t.

(Just in case your thinking that deciding on a pan versus videogames has more to do with growing up than with time, I will point out that I did choose to bring videogames back into my life at a later point when I felt that it had a particular value that justified the time spent on it.)

This is the third install on my series on How to Accomplish Anything, especially when you have no time.

In my first post, I shared my mantra for focusing on the task at hand. In my second post, I shared a strategy for prioritizing only the three most important tasks.

Today I’ll talk about stacking functions.

Stacking Functions: The Permaculture Principle

Purpose: Task efficiency

There’s a permaculture principle known as stacking functions, the notion that everything you plant in a garden should serve at least three functions. For example, an apple tree might provide fruit to eat, shade for another plant, and beautify your landscape. 

The higher level idea is that you want to get the maximum usefulness you can out of anything you dedicate resources to (time, money, garden space, etc.)

This principle can also be employed towards work. 

As a blogger, I’m always looking for good content. If I need to write a report or research something for my job, I’ll leverage that and turn it into a blog post. If I write a forum response to a question, I’ll turn my answer into a blog post. With just a little extra effort, I’m getting two functions out of my original effort. Many of my blog posts will, in turn, get repurposed into books, adding the third function.

The blog itself serves multiple functions: it’s a place for me to capture knowledge or refine ideas I want for myself, to share that knowledge with others, and ultimately to drive traffic that helps sell books.

I surf the web to read about the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence. That’s fodder for my science ficiton novels, but it’s also of interest to readers, so I use bufferapp to schedule out tweets to articles of interest. I’m researching at the same time I’m engaging with readers.

In my day job, I’ll take on challenges like A/B testing and social web features, skills that I can then apply to refining my own website.

Anything can be stacked, even purely personal desires: With three kids and a full work and writing schedule, I don’t get much time for social outings. So when my writing critique group meets, I bring a flask of bourbon. 🙂

In the next post, I’ll talk about avoiding time sinks.

Yesterday, I introduced the series of posts I’m writing about principles to help you accomplish anything, especially when you have little or no time.

In the first post, I covered a mantra I use (the only person I have to cheat is myself) to short-cut the decision-making process about what I choose to do, conserving the willpower I use to stay focused on the things that are most important to me.

How do I choose what’s most important? That’s the subject of today’s principle.

Prioritizing the Three Most Important Actions

Purpose: Free up time and increase effectiveness

Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek is loved by some and reviled by others. Part lifestyle choice, part time management, part promotion and marketing, and part entrepreneurship, the book advocates minimizing the time invested in traditional jobs.

One of the techniques Tim recommends is to start the day with a list of the top one to three most important actions for the day that lead towards your higher level goals. Focus on those actions until they are complete. Then you’re free to spend the rest of the day however you want.

Without clear priorities on what will achieve the most, most of us fritter away the day on email and menial tasks. All that busy work is procrastination that avoids the most important tasks.

I use this principle while working at my day job. Each morning I spend ten minutes thinking about the most important things I could do that day to achieve my higher level, most strategic and most impactful work objectives. 

I do the first task before I will even allow myself to check email for the first time. Then I work on the second and third.

By remaining truly focused on the few most important things, we can be far more effective than we are otherwise. During this period, I helped Hewlett-Packard save on the order of ten million dollars a year on customer support costs, roughly a 100x return on my salary.

This principle not only helps you be more effective at what you’re doing, it helps you free up the time to do more. When I finish the three most important things I need to do, and it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon, I’ve earned the right to choose how to spend the rest of my day. I might choose to fritter it away on menial tasks and email at HP, or I could choose to invest it in new interesting projects at HP, or I could leave early and go work on my own projects.

This principle works best when you have measurable, strategic level goals. For example, in my old job, my most important annual goal was to save a specific amount of dollars in warranty spend for the company. In this type of role, I had tremendous leeway in how I fulfilled my objective, so long as I met it. These are the best types of objectives for both employee and company because they are directly related to business goals, and employees then are incented to meet and beat the business goals.

By comparison, in my current job, I have tactical goals that are focused on units of work completed. In such a role, it’s very hard to use creative ways to meet business goals. (Gifford Pinchot III, an innovation consultant for big company, would probably say this is an example of centralizing creative thinking at big companies, when in fact, you want to decentralize thinking. Gifford famously said “The brains of the organization are widely distributed; one per person.”) For the sake of both excelling in your day job as well as freeing up the time to accomplish more, it’s worth turning tactical goals into strategic, business level ones.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about stacking functions, the permaculture principles.

Maybe you want to write an app or a book. Maybe you want to start a business or learn to play the piano. Maybe you just want to kick butt in your day job. If there’s anything at all that you’ve wanted to do, but struggle to find the time and energy to do it, the tips below will help.

In the last five years, I’ve managed to find the time to write, publish and promote multiple books, including two award-winning bestsellers, develop a web application, an ipad app, maintain a blog, and present at conferences. I did all that while excelling at my day job and raising three young children.

I’m not here to brag, but I do want to emphasize that if I can do all that while raising twins (twins, gosh darn it!), then you too can find the time and drive to accomplish something big, whether that’s starting a business, developing a mobile app, or writing a book.

I’m going to share a bit of my own personal path as well as nine key techniques to making time, creating personal drive, and prioritizing activities that you enable you to accomplish anything.

Enter the Craziness

In 2002, I met Libba and Gifford Pinchot, cofounders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, at a retreat. The two tried to convince me to enroll in their new MBA program focused on sustainable business. I protested, saying that I was too busy. Libba said something similar to, “You can be busy for the next two years, or you can be busy for the next two years and get an MBA.” I chose to be busy and get the MBA.

Life may seem busy, but it always seems busy. That alone isn’t a reason to avoid taking on a new project. (I ultimately finished that MBA program while working full-time and with a newborn child, whom I brought to class with me.)

Once I was enrolled in the program, I grew to become friends with Libba and Gifford, frequently staying at their home. I noticed that Gifford worked all the time. Other than short breaks to play disc golf or to participate in drumming circles, I never noticed Gifford partaking in what I then considered relaxation activities: watching television or just sitting around doing nothing. I asked him about this. 

He told me that when he was doing what he loved to do, then it was enjoyable. The joy of accomplishing something worthwhile exceeded the joy he received from more mundane activities like passively consuming entertainment.

I should also mention that Gifford did take summers partially off: he would work only a third or half of the day, and spent the remaining time outdoors, chopping wood, kayaking, going on hikes, or doing woodworking projects.

The Nine Principles

Accomplishing something is a combination of having a goal (e.g. finishing a novel), making effort toward that goal (e.g. sitting down to write for an hour each morning), and making the most effective use of the effort (a combination of efficiency and priorities).

There are many techniques I use, but I want to share the ones I’ve found most helpful.

Today, it’s principles #1:

The Only Person I Have to Cheat is Myself

Purpose: Fostering motivation and focus

When I was writing my first novel, Avogadro Corp, I would spend my most productive time writing in coffee shops. 

I developed a rule for myself: I imagined that if anyone in the coffee shop saw me surfing Facebook or the web, they’d laugh at me: “He doesn’t have anything better to do than surf Facebook.”

The sad truth is that on a moment by moment basis, it was vaguely satisfying to check in on Facebook and see what my friends were doing. But the time I had in the coffee shop was precious: carefully carved out of my daily schedule, limited to an hour or two at most. I could spend that time on Facebook, but at the cost of not writing. Or I could write, which might be painful on a minute by minute basis, but was immensely satisfying as I saw my novel take form.

In effect, I was using willpower (as facilitated by imagined peer ridicule) to exercise self-control to work on what was most important to me.

The notion that willpower is an exhaustible resource, also known as ego depletion, has been much discussed regularly. However, a 2010 study found that “reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion”. (My emphasis added.)

In my own experience with weight loss, I found that the trick to avoid exhausting my willpower was to decrease the amount of time spent thinking about it. When trying to lose thirty pounds in 2011, I found myself thinking at length about the cookies, cake, and ice cream I was passing up, trying to rationalize whether I could have a small piece, what the effect might be, and whether I even wanted to lose weight. After many days of agonizing over my desire for sweets, I realized that no one else cared whether I ate those sweets or if I was fat or thin or somewhere in between. No parent, teacher, friend or spouse was going to tell me what to do, and quite frankly, I was exhausted debating it with myself.

I developed a simple mantra: “The only person I have to cheat is myself.” Instead of spending a great deal of mental energy over every sweet craving, I shortcut the process.

The phrase embodies three ideas: That your goals are important to you, you’ll disappoint yourself if you don’t focus on achieving them, and you can’t escape responsibility by expecting someone else to step in.

This simple mantra works for any goal you’ve decided is important to you.

Notes from Thor Muller’s talk at Webvisions 2012 (#wvpdx)

Get Lucky: The Business of Planned Serendipity
Thor Muller
  • A lot of success is luck.
  • But how can we manufacture luck? Can we create chance encounters?
  • There’s nothing random about luck.
  • GetSatisfaction
    • Started with a joke. (So many great scientific breakthroughs came from play.)
    • We could start a shwag of the month club. And we did, and within two months had 2,000 subscribers. But fulfillment is hard, and customer service is even harder. Hundreds of emails every day.
    • But we discovered that customers would repost our answers to them, and would ask questions on the web.
    • So founded GetSatisfaction. Now have 65,000 paid customers.
  • Serendipity = chance + creativity
  • Recent research shows that we can do more/different to enable creativity in ourselves. We can read the owner’s manual for our minds.
  • But… we’re wired to avoid risk and change. We want predictibility.
  • So how do we let in unpredictability and predictability at the same time?
  • The answer is planned serendipity
  • Jane’s Story
  • Preparation
    • “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
    • Obsessive curiosity. Going deep. Following curiosity further than is normal.
    • Jane’s first obsession was sculpture
    • Notice the anomalies. The things that don’t fit. (Most business people look for the similarities.) Arresting the exception
    • Forget what you know to be true. This is important to be able to make big leaps. Otherwise beliefs limit you. 
    • Jane went to school
      • played with materials. made something out of silicon and wood chips. it amused her that it was a bouncing wooden ball. 
      • When we think concretely, it’s about things very near to us in time, space, relationships.
      • When we think abstractly, we’re able to connect things beyond categories, because we’re seeing things from a much higher level perspective.
      • when Jane went into her materials workshop, she came in with a sculptor’s mentality. 
    • Structures you can use to create this: 20% time
  • Motion
    • To stir the pot. Run into new ideas and new people. Open space.
    • taking the materials workshop helped jane run into new ideas and new people.
    • computer models show that diversity helps solve complex problems.
      • when people are the same, and they tackle the problem, they all get stuck in the same place.
      • when people are very different, and they tackle a problem, they get stuck in different places.
      • the problem with the workplace is that we stick everyone into cubicles, so they can’t talk.
    • Structures to create: pot-stirring events and open space
  • Commitment
    • To have an overriding purpose. To stick to that purpose. 
      • Which implies: knowing what to say ‘no’ to.
    • Overly broad mission statements don’t help us unless they tell us what to say ‘no’ to.
    • Decision fatigue: the more decisions we make, the worse decisions we make. the decisions become arbitrary.
    • By knowing what to say no to automatically, we have more willpower left for the decisions that do matter.
    • Structure to create: The automatic No-list
  • Attraction
    • Jane talked to everyone about: scientists, media people, fellow students. 
    • Project your sense of purpose out into the world.
    • It changes what the world sees as possible.
    • And it gives people a place to come if they care.
    • For Jane, it brought people in who could contribute their skills.
    • Will to Meaning
    • Interviewed a group of people to assess first the sense of purpose of the people. then asked the people to do a 10 minute introduction of themselves. Then showed the videos to other people and asked viewers to rate the attractiveness of the speakers. Those people who had a higher sense of purpose were rated as vaster more attractive across the board.
  • Divergence
    • Branching strategy
    • Jane got a 35,000 pound grant. but the material was imperfect. that wasn’t enough money to do the necessary rounds of testing. the only way she could do it was to do the research and testing herself. she spent two years and taught herself materials science on the fly to perfect the material.
  • The Hidden Bias Against Creativity
    • Inserting uncertainty into a situation caused people to rank creative ideas in a negative way or with negative connotations. (the example given was a study in which some participations were told they would be entered into a lottery to win a prize. this uncertainty caused negative responses.)
  • Permeability:
    • Customer Community

Playing B-Ball with Obama: 6 Steps to Crossing Anything Off Your Bucket List is an inspirational post on Tim Ferriss’s about how to achieve anything you dream of, from playing basketball with President Obama to helping someone find a kidney.

It’s about the experiences of The Buried Life group, four friends who made a list of 100 things they wanted to do before they die. They also made a commitment that, for each item they accomplished, they’d help one stranger achieve a life goal.

The post is great, and they now have a #1 NYT best-seller: What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?

The six steps (explained at length in the original post):

  1. Stop and think about it. Really think about it. (Most people don’t do this until they have a crisis in their life. Don’t wait for a crisis.)
  2. Write it down. (Amazing things happen as soon as you write something down.)
  3. Talk about it. (Everyone knows someone, and someone can help you.)
  4. Be persistent. (Most people give up before they reach their goal. “No” just means “not now”.)
  5. Be ballsy. (“The level of competition is highest for realistic goals because most people don’t set high enough goals for themselves.”)
  6. Help others.
What are your goals?

One of my goals is to see my third book, The Last Firewall, made into a movie.