Monday, October 27, 2014

Discovery Flight Birthday Present (With Video)

In case you didn't know it, Jessi is awesome. For my birthday she found an opportunity for me to fly an airplane. It's called a Discovery Flight where you get a preview of what it would be like to take flying lessons. You spend an hour learning the basics and actually flying (with help). It's pretty awesome. Check out this fantastic video Jessi put together which also features a sound track from the best movie of all time.

This is then plane I flew.

 Here's what the cockpit looks like.

 There I am looking awesome.

 Our view. It was beautiful out.

The view from the side.

The view below.

And the wonderful lady who put it all together. Thanks Jessi!

PS. Taking lessons would be awesome, but it's $10,000 to $15,000 to do so. It think we have a while before living that dream. Until/If then, going up and actually having control of the plane was a great experience.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Value of Feedback and Inspections

(Image:There were an unbelievable amount of holes just like this all throughout the building. We scraped all of them back and patched them. There's an art to making them blend in.)

Clearly I'm not a parent or a teacher because any parent/teacher reading this will think this is the most obvious learning ever.

So... It turns out, if you give a task to someone who has never done that task before, you need to do at least two things.

ONE: Show them how to do it.

Just describing it isn't good enough. You actually need to model it for them. You literally physically show them how it's done. Then watch them try the activity and correct them until everyone is satisfied with the quality.

TWO: Inspect their work after it's done and provide feedback

When they say it's done, don't just just take their word for it. Go and inspect their work. Take a critical look and let them know where it needs further work. Take it a step further and explain to them what you're looking for when inspecting their work... hopefully it's the same as what you said before they started. Bonus points if you can have them show how it's up to your standard.

I tried skipping these steps, and it doesn't work. I tried just doing step two, and all it does is result in frustration for everyone. I've found that if I spend extra time on step one, the job actually goes faster and step two is very, very easy.

The scary part is when you've spent a significant amount of time on step one and they're still not up to your standard. That's when decision time comes in: Spend more time training (either from you or someone else)? Lower your standard? Have someone else do it? These are not easy questions.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How To Get Everyone on the Same Page of a Project

(Image: My project task list. Green means it needs to be done. An "X" means it's done. ip = In Progress.)

One of the things you do as a manager is give direction. When doing a rehab, you're giving tasks: remove this fixture, patch that wall, and replace the item over there.

The issue I ran into was getting everyone on the same page. At first, I created my own project plan which included tasks, materials, who was going to do it, and time to complete each. I'm actually pretty good at this and tend to land pretty close to my estimates. Then I kept that project plan for myself and simply let my guys know the bigger vision and only immediate next tasks.

Since I often have meetings for my job, I liked to give enough tasks to get them at least through my next meeting. So I would give 3 or 4 tasks. However, when I checked in, I found that only the first and last tasks were done, and the middle ones were forgotten. As you can imagine, this was slightly frustrating.

How do I get them on the same page as me? How do I get them to not forget a step? Ideally, how I do get them to be more self-empowered?

My current solution is working better. First, I only give two immediate tasks at a time. Second (which technically came first), I shared my project plan. So not only did I give them the overall vision of the project, but I also shared all of the details. We spent 45 minutes going through each task and making sure they understood each one. So, if they finish their immediate tasks, which I now just read off the list with them, they know what to do next and and how to do it.

It's not perfect, but it's a lot better.

Another side benefit is that they're actually freed up to give input into the project since they have a clearer understanding of what they're doing. For example, one day I asked them to install a new cabinet. They stopped and asked if I really wanted to install it before they painted the room. Notice, they remembered that painting was on the list (albeit an obvious one, but still), and felt comfortable asking about it.

I was able to send them off on another task from the list while I did some research. It turns out you do want to paint drywall with at least a primer before installing something to it. So we're following their suggestion and painting that wall first. If I hadn't given them the entire project, they would have gone forward without question, like earlier.

Lessons learned: Be organized and fully scope out a project before starting, then share your entire plan with the team. Take the time to slow down and make sure everyone is on the same page before you get too far into the weeds of actually completing the project. It'll help them know where they're going and provide an opportunity for feedback to make the project even better.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Mood of the Leader Dictates the Mood of the Group

I'm pretty sure I gave everything away in the title, but that's OK.

The other day I was in a bad mood. Do you know what I mean? One of those days where you just feel like being upset. There's no particular reason behind it, but everything bothers you. I'm pretty sure that happens to everyone on occasion.

Normally it's OK because it means I'm annoyed about life while in a phone meeting and nobody really knows except myself. I'm in my own little upset world.

However, when you're leading a group of people, even if only two people, you have a HUGE influence on the demeanor of the group. Because of my bad mood, I immediately put both guys on edge. I could tell they were walking on eggshells around me, and that bothered me even more! Then they started to get frustrated too. Before long we were all in a bad mood.

Surprised by the influence I had on the group, I became hyper sensitive to my attitude and tried to fix it. Here's what I did:
  1. I admitted to the guys that I was in bad mood, and it wasn't their fault.
  2. I apologized to them for putting them on edge and tanking the group's attitude.
  3. I then went away and laid down for 20 minutes to essentially reset my day.
  4. I came back and let them know I was changing my attitude. And I did.
The group's attitude got better and we went back to working well together.

So, as a leader, people are watching and following. If you bring energy to a project, others will catch that energy. If you're a downer, others will be downers. If you don't care about the details, neither will they. If you work hard, so will they.

Another, more fundamental way to think about it: Act like the follower you want to have, because that's the type of attitude you'll attract.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Credit Card In Motion Tends to Stay in Motion

(Image: One of my new toys tools for getting work done. Being able to easily put in finish nails is really ,really nice. Being able to powerfully blow air around is really nice too.)

According to, Newton's 1st law of physics states:
"An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. This law is often called "the law of inertia". This means that there is a natural tendency of objects to keep on doing what they're doing. All objects resist changes in their state of motion. In the absence of an unbalanced force, an object in motion will maintain this state of motion."
Pretty profound and clearly had a massive impact on our understanding of physics. I also think it goes beyond just objects and is just as true with human behavior. In physics it's called inertia, but with behavior its called habits. This make intuitive sense: we keep doing what we're doing unless something external stops us. And even when something tries to change us, we fight it.

But this last week I noticed the law of inertia in my life in a different way: how I spend money.

Normally I'm pretty frugal on my personal spending. Some would kindly point out I'm probably too cheap. Normally that's true. I regularly go an entire week without spending any money (I pay off our credit cards weekly, so I know when it's still a zero balance). What's strange is that it actually feels weird to pay for something after holding a "streak" that long of not pulling out your card.

However, this last month has been different. With the apartment project underway I've been regularly spending money. And since there are 11 units, most of my spending has had an extra "0" behind it. I'm fine with the expenses because I have a very clear path of how I'm going to earn it back, but I'm still spending money regularly.

But the most interesting part is that I've noticed I'm ALSO spending more money on personal items. Since I track my spending, I can clearly see I'm outside my normal levels. Even factoring for planned expenses, like new iPhones, our spending is 25% higher than normal. Yikes!

Digging deeper, a majority of that is food related. Not surprisingly, when we get busy we tend to eat out more. It also don't help that lately I'm working across the street from a pizza parlor that seems to purposefully pipe in fresh cooked pizza smells into my window around 4pm. Yum! But I've also noticed we have a couple more gadgets hanging around the house.

For each new gadget I have a really good reason for why we bought it, but combined they add up to a significant amount of extra spending. Lots of these items we've wanted for a while (new washer/dryer, new thermostat, new phones, plus a few more), but we've held off. Now all of the sudden we're buying everything. Is it just the timing of when things break? Partially. But mostly it's because we're in the spending mode, and so it's easy to break down and buy the item: "A credit card in motion tends to stay in motion."

How to Break the Cycle
Ideally I'd make the decision to go on a spending fast. I would literally leave my cards at home for 3 days and stop spending money. Ideally. Unfortunately, that's not an option when you're in the middle of a large rehab project. Just leaving my personal cards at home wouldn't help because the act of spending money is still occurring. Another option is to go to cash only for personal spending, which will also slow it down.

My hope is that simply identifying the inertia will slow me down some. I'm also looking for triggers that make my "spendy sense" tingle. If I know that pizza smells are going to start wafting my way at 4pm, I should eat some nuts at 3:30 to reduce my hunger a little bit. It might also look like making formal shopping a list ahead of time and agreeing with Jessi that we'll stick to the list (we do that for food, but that needs to be done for Home Depot as well). When we see something we "must" have, we'll add it to the list of the next shopping trip. When the next shopping trip comes, we can decided if it's still something we must have.

The point is to change something, to put an "unbalanced force" in a different direction. I know eventually this project will end and my spending inertia will slow down naturally. Since I still have at least another month of this project, my goal will be to start getting my personal spending under control earlier.

Finally, if I worked for Mint, it would be fascinating to look at the data and see if large purchases are followed by a temporary bump in unrelated spending. Am I weird, or does Netwon's first law expand to spending as well?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Passion of An Owner vs The Passion of An Employee

(Image: My temporary office. I keep the windows open and I really get a feel for the hustle and bustle of the city - yes even in Albany. When I go home, it seems really quite... and then the train goes by...)

For all of my working career I've watched a clock. Sometimes it's very explicit, like when I punched a time clock while working at Arby's. Other times, like with HP, there's an expectation for the amount of time you put in each week even if you get paid the same amount no matter what. Some weeks are longer than 40 hours, but there's an understanding on over time it'll even out with other weeks that require less time.

Everyone who's had a traditional job knows exactly what I'm talking about.

However, when you own your own business, it changes. I mean, I'm still watching the clock, but it's constantly wishing I had more time to get more work done instead of seeing how much longer I have to work. That's because the reward is no longer tied to time, it's tied to the final product (fixing a rental in my case, selling a product/service for others). This is a true shift in thinking.

One observation I've made is that I'm MUCH more willing to spend an extra hour working on something to get it just right than for my normal job. I'm also willing to work really late because I know that each day the unit isn't rented I'm losing money. Note: it's my money, not my employers. :) Also, it's beyond the feeling of "I love it so much I just lose track of time." It's not that. Trust me, there are parts of a rehab I hate (pulling staples from the floor where an old carpet was for example), but I still work extra long and spend the extra time to make sure it's done right.

When it was just Jessi and I working, this shift in thinking wasn't as obvious. We just did it because that's what you do.

However, when you hire someone, they don't have the same mindset. In hindsight it's obvious, but it really hit me yesterday while we were working on a specific task (removing fixtures and random nails from a room, and filling in holes). They just wanted to finish because it was getting near 5pm and they wanted to call that task done and go home.

I found myself in awe that they didn't care about spending the extra 20 minutes to finish it off right. I was totally willing to pay them, but they had other things to do. Clearly they didn't take ownership of this project like I have.

Again, obvious in hindsight, and understandable. But it still surprised me in the moment.

I find myself asking how I can get them to not care about the clock as much and instead care about how the project finishes. How can I do that when I even fall victim to watching the clock in my day job? I don't think just paying them more will work long-term. Somehow I need to get them to buy into the dream; to get passionate about the project.

For someone who follows the tech start-up space pretty closely, I'm surprised that I don't have the answer to this. How do other owners do it? Do they just settle for the fact that not everyone will have the same level of passion? Is it really settling? Clearly the work is still getting done and as long as someone who does care (me, in this case) is around to keep people on track, it's probably OK.

Perhaps that's one of the secrets to being a manager in larger organizations like HP. Perhaps you have to take a form of ownership and responsibility. Being on the manage side of my business, makes that pretty clear. Being highly skilled is nice, but being willing to put in the extra effort and genuinely feel the burden of responsibility for the project/organization is another thing. I will admit that I'm not at the same level for HP.

How could HP get me more passionate about my work? Again, higher pay would be nice, but I don't think that's a long term solution. Year end bonuses tied to performance are nice, but that's once a year and the amount is 1) a small percentage of my overall compensation and 2) not highly variable, so it's not really linked to my performance.

From an employer/owner perspective, one answer is to only work on projects that are exciting to employees. In my case, I should hire people who get excited about taking something old and broken and making it new. If couldn't find those people, perhaps I should re-think the project.

No real conclusions yet. Just observations and questions.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Work Hard On Your Dream

(Image: I fixed some plumbing in one unit. I never worked with PEX piping before, but it's pretty awesome. I'm inspired to redo our entire house with this one day.)

Since we bought the apartment building I've been busy. I think it would be good to get some of my thoughts out now that we're a month into this project. It'll be good because I think I'm learning some valuable lessons worth sharing, and it'll help me to process instead of just running as hard as I can.

There are many ways to get equity in real estate. One way to to pay a lot of cash for a property - instant equity. Another way is to improve a property where the final product is worth more than the cost to improve it. When improving a property, you can hire a contractor to do it for you or you can do it yourself. Doing it yourself is called "adding sweat equity". You can also take a hybrid approach and hire general laborers that you train and manage (depending on the nature of the work. I hired out the electrical work). Given the scale of this project I opted to hire general laborers that I manage.

Once we bought the place, I got internet access in one of the units and created a mini-office space. I also hired two guys through All-Star Labor who are actually doing the repairs for me. My schedule, despite not doing the work, is fairly non-stop:

  • 5am: wake up. Think about running, but instead spend my time catching up on emails or reading the news for the podcast.
  • 6am/7am: Start getting ready for the day by doing a set of push-ups and sit-ups.
  • 7:45am (or earlier if I have a 6:30am meeting for HP): Arrive at the apartments and get set up. Review my project plan and give the guys instructions for the day.
  • Do my HP work. In between meetings, bounce to the different units and make sure everything is going fine.
  • Lunch (could be as early as 11am, as late as 2pm): run errands, which usually involves buying supplies for the repairs.
  • Do more HP work while answering questions and giving direction.
  • 5pm: The guys head home for the day. I'm usually still working on something for HP.
  • 6pm: If I don't have something else scheduled in the evening, I'll work on a more technical project myself.
  • 8pm/9pm: Go home to eat dinner. Work on projects at home until I literally can't stand anymore. I was helping Jessi clip Vinnie's nails one night and almost fell asleep while holding him.
  • 10am/12am: Review my todo list and goals for the next day. Go to bed.
Clearly not your typical 8-5 day which ends with a walk in the park and watching TV. I've actually started losing track of the days because each day is so packed it feels like multiple days ago, and I don't really have weekends anymore, just days when I get to focus more on the apartment project.

It's a lot of work and definitely testing my physical, mental and spiritual strength. But you know what? I love it. I recently saw a Zen Pencils comic that captured my emotions perfectly:

Like the comic says, Jessi and I have a dream and realizing that dream is hard work - harder work than I imagined. But it's worth it because we're staring to realize that dream. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the evening walks where we dreamed about our future, but it's even better to be actively pursuing it.

If you have a dream, start working on it. Do one thing a day to advance that dream. However, I must warn you, you might find that seeing your dream come through might require an unimaginable amount of work one day. Is your dream worth that? It's OK if you find it's not, at least you know instead of wondering. If it is, I promise you'll be prepared to step up and work hard when the time comes.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Kickstarter Campaign - WinnowingFire Music

Our good friend, Rod Miner, has a Kickstarter campaign going for a few more days...We would love to see his project get fully funded!

Watch the video below for more info and check out his Kickstarter page here!

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bible #BookReview

When I set my goals in January, my very first goal was to finish reading the Bible. I said, "I'm going to finish the Bible this year. I've been working on my reading plan for 2 years and I have a little under a year left. The trick is to consistently read a little bit every day."

That's exactly what I did. Almost every day I would either read or listen to a couple chapters. Although I did get excited this last month and start reading more because I knew I was getting close. Hence the reason I finished this goal a few months early.

It's funny, I find I have a couple conflicting thoughts on finishing the Bible. On one hand I want to tell everyone about how awesome I am because I read the whole Bible. It is genuinely an accomplishment.

On the other hand, I'm reminded a quote, "What's important is not how many times you go through the Bible, but how many times the Bible goes through you."

Wow. That kind of puts things into perspective.

So, it is good that I read the entire Bible, but it has to go further than checking off a to-do list. For starters, it doesn't mean I don't have to read the Bible anymore because "I've already read that." Actually, I'm already thinking next year's goal involving scripture memorization so that God's word will really be imprinted upon my soul.

So what's in this book? (from a non-pastor point of view)

For starters, I believe the Bible is the Word of God. It's a book about God's relationship with humans. It's a relationship that started off perfect, but then human's broke that relationship by disobeying God. But crazily enough, God loves us so much that he put a plan into motion to restore that broken relationship.

To be clear: the Bible is not a history book or a science book. It's a relationship book and about the character of God. Yes, it does chronicle historical events, but the point of chronicling them is for the purpose of explaining the character of God and his relationship to humans.

Personally, I love the stories that are in it. There's a part near the beginning where the Israelites become enslaved in Egypt and God frees them. The whole event is amazing. God calls a man named Moses to lead His people. That interaction where God calls Moses is classic. Moses doesn't think he's qualified at all to lead, but God keeps handling every single objection until Moses runs out of excuses and decides to lead. I love it!

God then creates the law for the Israelites. This is perhaps the most frustrating part of the Bible to read. Not because it's a list of laws (though, that was tough to power through), but because it succeeded in it's intended purpose of showing humans that we're broken. You see, God created the law to show us that we're not perfect. To follow all the rules would make us perfect, and restore that relationship with God. But nobody could follow them perfectly. They kept failing over and over and over again. This part of the Old Testament shows humans failing to be perfect on their own. That restoration can't happen on our own. It becomes clear that we, as humans, can never be "good enough" to be good enough for God.

But then there's the twist. God knew we could never be perfect on our own. Yet, He still loves us and wants to restore that broken relationship. God, being pretty wise, realizes that He is the only one perfect and powerful enough to restore that relationship. So God sends himself, his Son, Jesus to earth. I won't spoil the birth story, but it's pretty awesome.

Jesus grows up and is perfect because he's God, while at the same time being fully human. I absolutely love reading about Jesus. Jesus strikes this perfect balance between being caring and calling people out. Jesus reveals even more about God's character and relationship with humans. For example, Jesus explains that it's not what you consume that makes you "unclean", but what comes out of you (your thoughts and actions). He explains that your heart and motivation are much more important than checking off something on your todo list.

Jesus even gives the greatest commandment of all time: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself." Incredibly simple and yet impossibly hard.

But here's the deal. Jesus coming down to earth was great for learning more about God, but that still wasn't enough. Our relationship to God was still broken. To right our wrong, punishment must be served. God went into painstaking detail earlier in the Bible to explain that anytime someone does something wrong, a sacrifice must be made. One option is to sacrifice yourself, but for obvious reasons that's not optimal. The other option is to have something else be scarified for you. The idea is to have something perfect that doesn't deserve punishment be punished for you. It has to be perfect, otherwise it's punishment will just be for itself. The Israelites often used a new born lamb or pigeon for this.

So, God wants to restore His relationship with humans because He loves us. In order to do that, a perfect sacrifice must be made on human's behalf. Jesus is perfect because he's fully God and fully human. Can you see where this is going? Through a not-so-random turn of events, the Israelites kill Jesus for claiming to be the son of God. Perfect sacrifice made. Relationship restored.

Then, something amazing happens. Jesus overcomes his death and comes back to life. God wins.

With Jesus' death and resurrection, He explains that he died for us. That all we have to do is ask for forgiveness from God about our wrong doings and accept that Jesus's death covers us too.

It's is pretty amazing and encouraging story. I highly recommend everyone read it. At the very least, check out the four gospels at the beginning of the New Testament. It'll change your life.