Monday, January 18, 2021

"The Minimalist: Less Is Now" Movie Review and How It Relates To Christianity

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash


We watched a new documentary on Netflix called "The minimalist: Less Is Now"

It's a sequel to Minimalism, a documentary also on Netflix.

Like so many things in life, I agree with 90% of the film. Yet, that last 10% - often the why behind the action - is different, and it tends to make all the difference.

The basic premise is that stuff won't make you happy. Yet, tragically, we keep buying more and more stuff in a vain attempt to find happiness.

It's like drinking honey when you're thirsty. There might be a temporary satisfaction from having something wet in your mouth, but it fundamentally won't quench your thirst. In fact, it'll make you more thirsty! And so you try drinking more honey...

And part of the problem comes from advertising and social media. Advertising, especially online targeted ads, are sophisticated enough to meet you where you're at and nudge you ever so slightly closer to wanting their product.

There's also the sheer volume of advertisement exposure. If you're told you need something enough times, you start to believe it. I remember learning that people need 7-12 exposures of a product/brand to move them along the 5-stage buying cycle. It sure feels like companies are aiming for at least 12 exposures.

And then social media makes it impossible to "keep up with the Jones" because it tends to only highlight the best part of people's lives - setting an impossibly high bar. And instead of just comparing to your physical neighbor, we now compare to 500+ "friends" regardless of their income, living expenses, or priorities.

Not pictured: the complete breakdown when we told them it was time for bed

It's not that advertising and social media are inherently bad, it's that they've unintentionally amplified consumerism - the desire to find happiness in stuff.

So far, I agree 100% with the problem. So what's the solution?


Minimalism

Here's what minimalism is, in the words of the two main guys from the documentary:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life's path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

And here's how it's used:

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we've built our lives around. Real freedom.

That doesn't mean there's anything inherently wrong with owning material possessions. Today's problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves. Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that's wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.

If I summarized their summary, it would be: minimalism is consciously owning/doing things that are important to you and ruthlessly cutting everything else. This frees you up to pour even more into those things that are important to you.

Again, I 100% agree with this sentiment.


What's Important to You?

The documentary shared stories of people discovering that stuff can't provide lasting happiness. And then ruthlessly cutting things out. Marie Kondo would be proud. I know I was inspired!

[Story telling side note: It would have been fun to watch someone go through the transformation instead of watching people talk about it after the fact and showing generic b-roll. Maybe that's the plan for part three? Call it "Minimal Makeover"! ha!]

Where was I? Oh yeah! You're not happy. You realize more stuff isn't helping. So you remove everything that isn't important to you (or, doesn't bring you joy, as Marie would say).

But then the film skips a step and goes straight to "having real freedom."

The step that was skipped is determining what's important to you. What does bring lasting joy? Lasting happiness? Again, what's important to you? This is critical. The cornerstone. The key element.

I think they skipped that step because they fundamentally believe one of two things:

One: The act of removing things brings inherent happiness. But this too seems fleeting. 
 
Two: What's important is unique to each individual, so it's better to not comment on it, lest some false limitations are added to minimalism. (Ex: living in a tiny house is not a requirement).

There is a notion that important things revolve around people, and giving to the greater good, but that's about as far as they take it.

This creates the danger of people trying to find lasting happiness, not in stuff, but in equally disappointing endeavors. You're no longer drinking honey, which is good, but you might have switched to Pepsi, which has a whole new set of unintended consequences.


Living Water and Lasting Happiness

There's a fantastic event recorded in the Bible where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and he asks her for a drink of water. But then he pivots the conversation to offer her true satisfaction and lasting happiness. Here's the event (highlights are mine):

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." - John 4:7-14

There is only one thing that provides lasting happiness. It's not honey. It's not Pepsi. It's water. Specifically, it's water that Jesus provides with the promise that once you drink it, you will never be thirsty again.

How you drink it might be unique, but unless you seek joy in Jesus, joy and freedom will always be fleeting - even if you minimize the amount of stuff in your life.


Minimalism Fits Perfectly with Christ

Christ answers the why behind what's important in minimalism:

You can only find lasting happiness in Jesus and his gracious gift to live with God after we die. We need to recognize we can't earn our way into Heaven. We can't do enough good deeds to offset our bad ones.

All we can do is trust what Jesus told us - that he is God, that he overcame death so we can have a joy-filled relationship with God today, and continue in eternity in Heaven. Regardless of our good vs bad deeds, all we need to do is humbly accept Jesus' gift.

If you think about it, it's the ultimate form of minimalism. There's nothing you can buy to make you perfect (or happy). So stop trying. Instead, look to Jesus, who said two things are important: love God and love your neighbors.

How you express that love is unique to you. Just like minimalism.

Let's modify the quote about minimalism above to show how perfectly it fits with Christ:

"Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that's wonderful. Minimalism [is a mechanism that] simply allows you to make these decisions [of how Jesus would like you to live your unique life] more consciously, more deliberately."

Remove everything in your life that isn't about Christ. What you'll find is lasting freedom and joy. You'll also find that the remaining items have to do with other people, and giving to the greater good. And this isn't conjecture, Jesus promised it while talking to the Samaritan woman.

Minimalism is a wonderful mechanism for achieving that simplicity and focus of your desire - your important thing - is to find joy in Jesus.


Jacob's Well in 1934, the same one use by Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

2021 Annual Letter: Experiencing Time Freedom

Enjoying my Father's Day gift

For many years, I've set and shared annual goals. I enjoy them, but also feel it's time to evolve for four reasons:

  1. I like the idea of finding problems to solve.
  2. Studies show that a year is too long and tends to let us set goals too low. Instead, we should focus on 12-week increments.
  3. I've started reading annual letters from CEOs I look up to and really like the format.
  4. I hit my big goal, which often drove my annual goals.

So, with that, here's my first annual letter, which will look back on 2020 and forward to 2021. There will still be goals, but they'll be framed as problems to solve, not SMARTER goals.

I started the year by saying goodbye to HP and setting a 2020 goal to relax. I primarily focused on three areas:

  1. Managing our rentals and filling our recently acquired storage facility.
  2. Building Majordomo
  3. Spending time with family

Let's get into it!



2020: Financial Freedom = Time Freedom

Leaving HP after 12 years was a radical change for our family. For one, I lost all track of time ("What day is it?") for three months, and now set my own schedule. It also meant I worked a lot fewer nights and weekends.

My schedule is a big deal for me. I run my life by my calendar. If it's not on the calendar, it doesn't exist. I could get all philosophical and say, "time is our most precious resource and therefore should be carefully managed." But I'm not. I merely like order and completeness - with everything! - which includes my calendar (and laundry, dishes, cars, files, table settings, music, passwords, spreadsheets, etc.).

Last year I made two relatively large changes to my schedule.

First, I overestimate how long it'll take to complete a meeting or task. If someone says, let's meet for an hour, I suggest 90 minutes (or at least schedule it that way in my calendar). I used to regularly have 30-minute meetings that went 45 minutes, and it drove me crazy. No more. 

This is important for two reasons: One, I no longer feel rushed and think better. Two, I do less. But here's the thing: it becomes apparent that I'm doing less while setting my schedule. So, instead of deciding what to cut when I run out of time (because something took longer than planned) - where urgent items always win - I now determine what's important ahead of time and schedule it in.

Not only can I make sure I've devoted time to my most important things, but I can also make sure I've scheduled in breaks. And, sometimes, I get surprised by finishing 15 minutes early instead of 15 minutes late.

It's not perfect, and sometimes I do over-schedule myself, but now it's the exception instead of a daily occurrence. Here's an example week:

Blue = me & Furlo Family Homes events

Green = shared Jessi / family events

Orange = Majordomo meetings

Brown = time-blocked tasks (more on this next)


Second (back to the main list of changes I made to my schedule), I incorporated time-blocking into my calendar. Since high school, I've kept simple to-do lists: X needs to happen by Y date. It worked well when everything was required. However, as an adult, most of the items on my to-do list are self-imposed/optional and without a specific due date. Most importantly, my list is long: way more things are on my list than I can possibly accomplish.

And so, the heat-of-the-moment decisions of what to do next often defaulted to the most urgent items, to something easy, or to the task that's top of mind. Leaving a list of incomplete, potentially important/complex tasks undone, and the feeling of being busy, yet unproductive.

So now, ahead of time, I block out time to work on things. And I try to block out more time than I think I need. I do less, but the items are of higher impact.

This was not an easy transition. I struggled with intentionally not doing things. I struggled to identify, and commit to, important things. In March, I really felt the anxiety of leaving so many little things undone. Wasn't I supposed to have copious amounts of time to get it all done?!

I've now come to terms with it. I view my to-do list as suggestions of things I could do, not things I need to do. If I need to do it - it's in my calendar as a time-blocked event. Everything gets at least 30 minutes. If it's a creative project, it might be 2-3 hours, repeated over 4 days. If I finish early, great! I get to schedule something else.

And some days I blow it all off because Samson invited me to play Super Mario on the trampoline.

When people talk about "Financial Freedom," what they're really talking about is the desire to work on things important to them. They dream of saying to their boss, "No, this isn't worth my time anymore. I'm out." But, and I can't stress this enough, the goal shouldn't be an empty schedule. The goal should be a schedule full of things you want to work on, with plenty of breaks, and the option to change it when something more interesting comes along.



Losing Money on Storage Units

Not everything was perfect this year.

We bought a 70-unit storage facility (J&J Mini-Storage), with one single-family home, at the end of 2019. Going into 2020, it was 50% vacant, and the goal was simple: get vacancy over 90%. We experimented with advertising and found two consistent sources: Google Adwords and Sparefoot. We ended up spending 10% of our revenue on advertising - about 10% more than I expected!

Since I live 30 minutes away from the facility, we set up a virtual office. People call a phone number, then fill out the paperwork and sign the rental agreement online. Once they do it, we send them a lock combo to get into their unit. In 2021, we're working on automating even more of the process so people can get into their units faster. And so my assistant doesn't need to answer every phone call within 15 minutes and have them set-up within an hour.

We also learned that we needed to do some minimal screening. When we started, we didn't verify anything. Now, we require a recent paystub or a deposit equal to one month's rent. You would be shocked at how many people back out when we ask for proof of income.

As of right now, we have 2 units available.

Sounds great, right?

Well... we also lost $9,000 throughout the year.

Here's a chart of our income and expenses, with the cumulative profit (well... loss in this case) going across the bottom:

The black line across the bottom is the cumulative loss of $9,000.

The loss is primarily for four reasons, two of which are directly COVID related.


Reason #1 (non-COVID)

It costs a lot more to find someone to rent a storage unit than a residential unit. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace work great for residents. But what would you do if you need a storage unit? You'd go to Google and search for "self-storage in XYZ" and then start calling the top hits.

We paid for ads on those searches and Sparefoot. I didn't include an advertising line item in my original analysis (yikes!) but ended up spending over $5,000 ($150-$200 per unit)! Given that most of the units are now full, I expect future advertising expenses to be much lower since the vacancy rate is now lower.


Reason #2 (non-COVID)

I installed a $2,000 security system myself and paid $3,000 to clear out many, many, many(!) truckloads of blackberry bushes. These are expenses I don't anticipate happening again. Though there will always be some sort of capital improvement expense, such as new roofs, repainting, and parking lot repairs.


Reason #3 (COVID)

When the lockdown started, we went for five weeks(!) with zero phone calls. That's good from a health perspective, but it put me behind on filling units.


Reason #4 (COVID)

11 customers stopped making payments at some point, and the pandemic created a massive gray area around collections/auctions. The residential moratorium is clear, but how it applies to storage is less clear. I decided to be as conservative on the rules as possible. But that put us in the hole around $5,300.

We have a plan to get back on track in 2021, which I consider incredibly fair (1. start paying something and worry about catching up later, if ever. 2. Remove your stuff and we'll call it even. 3. Ignore me and we'll auction it for you.)


2021 Outlook

Given those reasons, I don't expect to lose money in 2021. Still, it definitely made 2020 a tighter year financially than I would like.



Majordomo

Majordomo had a big year. At the end of 2019, we launched the Domoreport: repair estimates based on a home inspection within 24 hours, specific to your zip code.

In 2020, we launched four improvements:

  1. Customers can download the Domoreport as a CSV. This is helpful, as an example, for larger property investors who have their own database already.
  2. We also made it super easy to archive Domoreports, which is a big deal for agents and inspectors with many orders. Now they can de-clutter their list to only active deals while still finding old orders when needed.
  3. We made an app called the Domoscore, which lets people quickly assess a home's condition. It doesn't replace a home inspection, but it can help surface issues sooner.
  4. Finally, at the end of the year, we launched our most significant improvement: the Request List. This lets agents seamlessly take the next step with the Domoreport's repair costs: create a request list that goes with a repair addendum during inspection negotiations.
  5. Plus a whole bunch of bug fixes, naturally.


We also created a video that shows how the Domoreport works:




Relaxing During 2020

My goal in 2020 was to consciously, purposefully, find time to relax. And I did!... Mostly.

The pandemic offered an opportunity to stop doing many things, and I did, which helped.

We also started a family tradition of eating dinner by candlelight on Saturday nights, similar to the formal practice of Sabbath. Our kids are young enough that it only lasts through dinner, and as they get older, we want it to last the entire evening. For it to be a tech-free time to read, play board games, and hangout.

I tried not setting a morning alarm but ultimately didn't like it. Not because I missed things, but because I like the regular morning routine of reading my Bible, praying, journaling, planning, and exercising. Doing it in the afternoon was OK - better than nothing! - but I really like quietly starting off the day focusing on my relationship with God.


Books

I managed to read some books. I highly recommend each of them and hope this list sparks some interest for you.


Colorado Road Trip

Travel was light this year. When the lockdown started, I took a last-minute round trip flight to Colorado from Seattle and back on the same day(!) to help out with a family emergency. The round trip was $60 in total. Given how cheap the tickets were, and our family's low health risk, we contemplated taking a trip somewhere else but ultimately decided to submit to the lockdown request.

But in the summer, we took a road trip to Colorado. The kids traveled amazingly well, and it was great seeing family. It was delightful seeing Jessi's grandmother one last time. And chances are pretty high that'll be the last road trip to Colorado since Jessi's parents are moving to Washington sometime this year.


How To Solve Sudoku Puzzles

I know I'm late to the party, but this year I learned how to solve Sudoku puzzles. To be clear, I knew the basic rules, but never learned any strategy. Last year, I decided to learn. The app I play is called Good Sudoku and I like it because it teaches you different strategies for handling progressively complicated puzzles. I'm currently working on identifying Y Wings and am enjoying the challenge. Side note: I also foresee a future where I tackle the Rubik's Cube. Anyways, if you've ever wanted to get better at Sudoku, I recommend trying this app.

Speaking of apps...


New Phone; No Social Media or Videos

While upgrading my phone, an unusual thing happened: I couldn't copy over all of my existing apps and settings to my new phone. Instead, I needed to do a fresh install from scratch. So, I decided to NOT install any social apps or video apps. While I was at it, I uninstalled all video apps from my iPad. So far, the only one I miss is Youtube.

Don't worry, I'm not a minimalist. There are 64 additional apps in my app library.


I still have access on my computer, so I'm not part of the #deletefacebook crowd, but more in the #visit-occasionally group. And I regularly watch Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, and Youtube on my TV.

It all comes back to wrangling my schedule. I found that I could "unintentionally" spend an hour (or two!) watching videos and reading tweets. By removing the easy access on my phone, I naturally spent more time on more important/planned activities.

As a general rule, if I question keeping something in my life, I start by removing it and then adding it back if I genuinely miss it. Not only do I do that with apps, but also email newsletters: I unsubscribe and then re-subscribe later if I want. And the stuff in my house: I put it in the garage, and then only bring it inside if I want it, and after a year, I can choose to give it away knowing I didn't use it for a year.

If you feel like you might be spending too much mindless time on any app. Try deleting it for a month as an experiment. Just see how it goes. If you genuinely miss it, you can re-download it.



Remote Learning

Kindergarten

Elinor started dual emersion (Spanish & English) kindergarten this fall via Zoom. It consisted of three 30-45 minute sessions five days a week. At first, I didn't think it would be very effective because of the limited teaching time. But now, after observing it, I think it was fantastic, and potentially better than in-person learning for us. There are a few reasons it worked so well for us, and wouldn't for other families.

  1. Jessi used to be a kindergarten teacher in the dual emersion program. Elinor had a 1:1 experience with someone trained in her exact program. So, Jessi would observe the class, and then support what Elinor learned with additional exercises, all in Spanish.
  2. Jessi also runs an in-home pre-school and Elinor was able to participate when not on Zoom calls.
  3. Elinor didn't know any better.  As far as she knows, Zoom is school. Funny story: for a long time, she thought the other students were actors, just like on a TV show. It wasn't until she saw a classmate in real life that she realized they were "real people."
  4. Elinor is extremely comfortable with video apps because our whole family lives far away and it's the primary way we communicate with them.
  5. Elinor was able to slowly ramp into school: she's been able to figure out the language and school work aspect, without having to also deal with new social situations or leaving the comfort/safety of her home for an all-day classroom. As a result, I think she'll have a much better transition into all-day school than what typically happens (based on Jessi's observations as a teacher in this exact program).
I fully recognize that our experience is a-typical. We are truly blessed to be in this position.


MBA For Life

Willamette University offers an MBA for Life program. Basically, as an alumnus, I can take classes for free. I always wanted to, but didn't have the time to drive to the Salem or Portland campus. But, thanks to the pandemic, all classes became remote, and so I took a class... Friday nights from 6pm to 10pm (I know).

And it was great!

We spent our time discussing cases and holding small group discussions in breakout rooms. I really felt like my teacher did a great job managing the remote environment. Talking to other students (via Slack and IM), it sounds like this class was a better experience than others. One key is to require people to put their video on. Also, the Socratic method of asking lots of questions also worked well for engagement. Having an interesting topic also helps. :)



2021 Problems to Solve

J&J Mini-Storage

Our move-in process is too cumbersome. Someone calls, and we talk on the phone to determine the move-in date, ask if they want a lock, and if they're going to pay an extra deposit or provide proof of income. They then send us a picture of their driver's license and a recent paystub. They also watch a video that explains how we do things. We create a rental agreement via Docusign and set up payments within Cozy.

When that's all done, we text them the code along with a map of the facility. (Plus, we add their information to our systems.) Here's our internal checklist on ClickUp:



It's honestly not a lot, but it can feel that way to someone who simply called looking for storage. If we had an office, you'd just present them with each piece one at a time. So, that leads to two questions to solve:

  1. How do we present our setup in a comprehensive, yet non-overwhelming, way?
  2. How do we make it so we don't need to continually monitor each step? Right now we need to manually send the next thing, and it's not very efficient.



Majordomo

We're focused on two areas: sales and scalability.

Sales

In Great By Choice by Jim Collins, there's a concept called "Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs":

First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight. Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster. The ability to turn small proven ideas (bullets) into huge hits (cannonballs) counts more than the sheer amount of pure innovation.

2020 was all about firing remote/virtual bullets. We're still working on calibration and empirical validation. We have a couple of potential hits, but we're not sure yet. Our problem to solve this year is to prove a small bet so we can concentrate our resources on a big bet.


Scalability

We're at a precarious spot with the number of orders we can handle. It's precarious because we human-analyze each report, and those people require training. If we received 1,000 orders tomorrow, we'd have a problem because we don't have enough people to handle that volume.

In 2020 we cut our processing time by two-thirds, which is excellent! We did it by streamlining our backend system, but it's still fundamentally people-driven.

In addition to finding and training more people, we want to figure out how to transition to a primarily machine-driven process, with people performing quality control. It's a fascinating problem that involves machine learning, and could reduce our processing time to 1/12 of the time it is today - capable of handling spikes of 1,000 orders in a day.



Writing

This is less of a problem and more of a desire: I want to write more. Last year, I created an online class for people interested in investing in real estate called Sign Here. I really enjoyed making it - organizing all that I've learned - and the feedback has been great. I'd like to continue writing blog posts (and video scripts since Youtube is a thing). I like the idea of continuing book reviews since that, selfishly, helps me retain what I learned. And I'd like to write some topical posts: How I schedule and prioritize my time, how I budget and manage repair projects for the rentals, and my morning routine.

I'd also like to write a book someday. I have many tactical questions for publishing a book, but I'm still at the "Is this topic interesting?" stage. Other questions are: how do I organize my ideas? How do I build writing into my life? I'm going to start with The Practice by Seth Godin to help me figure it out. I might also take Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass on writing since I really like his style.



Closing Thoughts

Does it feel strange not having SMARTER goals this year?

Yeah, but focusing on these larger problems makes sense for where I am today. And in a lot of ways, it feels like a continuation of last year: Keep on managing the rentals and stabilizing the storage business. Keep growing Majordomo. Keep playing with the kids and resting during nights & weekends.

I'm not anticipating any significant changes, but if God has other plans for us, we'll try to be ready and willing to make those changes.




Thursday, October 08, 2020

Obviously Awesome Book Review


I typically read 6-12 books a year but tend to add 12-24 books to my reading list a year.

As a result, my reading list contains 172 books... And another list of 34 books that are "no longer on my reading list, but I don't want to forget about permanently." To make it worse, almost 100% of my list is non-fiction, making listening to audiobooks difficult because I like to highlight and take notes, and then reference what I read later.

As you could imagine, it can be a little overwhelming to chose ONE book to read when there are so many great options. That's why I'm grateful for recommendations from others, like this one on Twitter:



Today the Kindle version of "Obviously Awesome" by April Dunford is $7 and still a massive bargain if you have any interest in product positioning.

It's similar to Sprint in that it focuses on practical, applicable, immediate action steps. It's probably closer to a playbook than a traditional book. For example, Dunford doesn't touch on the research or psychology of why this process works. Instead, she focuses on her 10-step plan to create a product's positioning statement.


What Is Positioning?

"Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about." (p. 4) It's a way of setting the context for your product so people can quickly figure out what you're talking about. The trick is to do it from your customer's perspective.

As the creators of the product, we know a lot more about competing options and become proud of our hard work ("adding this feature took significant work! We need to feature it!"), but customers may not know or care about either of those.

Another common problem is that inventors started with an initial idea, but over time changed the product based on customer feedback. That's a good thing! But, the inventor still views and talks about the product through the initial lens, not the new product it's become.

This creates at least two problems:

  1. It confuses new customers because there's a disconnect between what they see and how you're describing it. And if it's not clear, they'll walk away.
  2. Or worse: "Customers who misunderstood your value chose you for the wrong reasons, and now they're trying to recover sunk costs by turning your product into what they thought they were getting. In a worst-case scenario, your development team may spend time building features for these disappointed customers, trying to appease a group that is likely to quit eventually, while overlooking your happiest customers." (p. 12)


The book goes into two more signs of poor positioning: slogging through long sales cycles and customers complaining that prices are too high.

But if you shift your positioning with your customer's perception, all sorts of great things can happen. Here's my favorite story from the book:

"There are lots of examples of products that have historically been sold for one purpose, but as markets shifted, they became better known in a completely different market. Take, for example, Arm & Hammer baking soda. Invented in 1846, baking soda, as the name suggests, was used for baking. The inventors created it in their kitchen and sold it in paper bags. It was wildly popular and the creators slowly grew the business, selling more and more baking soda until Arm & Hammer was truly a household name.

Then, in the 1970s, markets began to shift. As packaged food was on the rise and baking on the decline, sales of baking soda began to flatline. The inventors knew that another feature of baking soda was its ability to absorb odors; indeed, some consumers were already putting open boxes of Arm & Hammer in the fridge to help control bad smells. The company could have decided that odor control was not a market they wanted to be in. After all, would anyone really want to bake with a deodorant? But Arm & Hammer decided to let go of the past and focus on markets where they could be successful in the future. They started advertising their current product as a deodorizer for refrigerators and later launched packaging specifically designed for use in a fridge. Converted consumers were now buying a new box every thirty days. The repositioning drove product sales from $16 million in 1969 to over $318 million by 1987.

The repositioning led to other innovations as well—as Arm & Hammer became known as a deodorizer, the brand naturally extended to products for deodorizing everything from cat litter to underarms.

The starting point of this growth was Arm & Hammer's willingness to let go of their old way of thinking about the product.

Freeing your mind from patterns of the past isn't always easy. Thoughts about the evolution of a product, from its conception to launch, are often baked into the initial positioning. Customers don't have the same baggage—they know nothing about the history of the product when they first encounter it.

Market confusion starts with our disconnect between understanding the product as product creators, and understanding the product as customers first perceive it." (pp. 85-86)


Apple's iOS Positioning Problem

In current events, this is the problem Apple is having with developers and iOS. Apple views the iPhone as a closed ecosystem, much like game consoles: the maker (Apple) gets to approve all apps/games, use their market place (the App Store) to sell and distribute apps, and set all the rules for what can and can't be done.

However, developers are starting to view iOS as an open ecosystem, much like traditional computers: there is no approval process, and users can download apps from anywhere on the web, the app maker gets to determine the pricing model (free, 1-time, subscription, donation) and how payments are accepted (credit card, ACH, bitcoin, check in the mail, etc.).

Developers still view game consoles as closed systems (that's not to say they're perfectly happy with the setup). It's only with iOS that the backlash has started.

The issue is that the iPhone and iOS have slowly shifted over time - based on customer feedback - to allow for more customization, more options, and more features. That makes it feel more and more like an open ecosystem. Yet, Apple talks about and sets rules for a closed ecosystem. And because of the openness attributes the iPhone and iOS are adopting, the App Store rules themselves are becoming increasingly muddy as Apple tries to have it both ways. It also doesn't help that Android - a very similar alternative - has positioned itself as an open ecosystem. This is causing confusion, frustration, and at least one lawsuit from developers.

Apple should clarify their position in the market (closed or open) and then create features, App Store rules, and marketing materials that align with that position.

""You cannot be everything to everyone. If you decide to go north, you cannot go south at the same time." - Jeroen De Flander" (p. 47)


What Position Do You Choose?

That's the rest of the book.

She first starts with the five (plus one) components of effective positioning:

  1. Competitive alternatives
  2. Unique attributes
  3. Value (and proof)
  4. Target market characteristics
  5. Market category
  6. (Bonus) Relevant trends


The book does a great job of describing each component and how they all fit together. At this point, anyone who's taken a marketing class is nodding their head in agreement. Of course, these are the components.

But, how do you identify the right ones? How do you not get lost in the weeds? How do you see it from your customer's perspective? What if, like Apple, you have two distinct sets of customers (iPhone buyers and developers)? Actually creating a persuasive position statement is difficult! Remember, a company worth over 1 trillion dollars, making the most successful product of all time, is struggling with this right now.

To help, Dunford details the ten steps to create a position statement. Here are the steps:

  1. Understand the customers who love your product
  2. Forming a position team
  3. Align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage
  4. List your true competitive alternatives (this chapter was great!)
  5. Isolate your unique attributes or features
  6. Map the attributes to value "themes" (also super helpful!)
  7. Determine who cares a lot
  8. Find a market frame of reference that puts your strength in the center and determine how to position it
  9. Layer on a trend (but be careful)
  10. Capture your positioning so it can be shared


It's a relatively short book, so I won't summarize each step. You should read it. I'm working through these steps for Majordomo and am already seeing fruit from using this framework.

As the tweet suggested, if you're creating products or work in marketing, this is a fantastic book to read. I highly recommend it.


Friday, October 02, 2020

Superman Minimalist Mobile and Desktop Wallpapers

I was on the hunt for a new Superman desktop wallpaper. There's are lots of good choices and many great elements, but nothing was exactly what I was looking for. I'm a fan of a semi-subtle, minimalist wallpaper. You know, the kind where you instantly know what it's a picture of because it's a recognizable shape or silhouette. The image captures the essence; it's not a recreation.

And on a functional level, it reduces clutter on the screen. It's like background music: I want it there, but I want to be able to easily filter it out to hear the conversation.

Finally, I want the images to be LARGE so there are no visible pixels.

So, I borrowed elements from a handful of other Superman wallpapers and made my own. I created three color variants for mobile and desktop - six total.

They're below for your downloading and wallpapering pleasure. Click the image to see the full-resolution version.


Desktop Superman Minimalist Wallpaper

Midnight



Blue Sky



Red Sun




Mobile Superman Minimalist Wallpaper

Midnight



Blue Sky



Red Sun



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Craigslist's Help Forum Fails To Help


I had a disappointing experience with Craigslist this week.

When a rental is vacant, I post it on Craigslist because it's the best way to find qualified tenants in this area. I've been doing that almost exclusively for the past 12 years. I'm a happy landlord evangelist for Craigslist.


For the first time, my rental post was flagged and removed.


I didn't do anything different, so it must have been a change on CL's side. Either they changed their terms of use (TOU), or I've unknowingly been breaking the rules, and now they have a way to detect it.


That's fine. I have no issue with that. I want to follow the rules and am happy to bring my posts into compliance.


But that's when things started coming off the rails.


First, I noticed I wasn't getting any calls. So I logged in and saw it was flagged. I suppose I understand why CL wouldn't alert a spammer that they've been flagged, but I get the feeling that it only hurts someone like myself who's trying to do it correctly and not someone who's trying to game the system.


At this point, all I know is that my post was flagged and removed. I don't know why beyond a general reason that "the post doesn't comply with the TOU."



Fine. I read the TOU and posting guidelines. The closest thing I could see was that I included a link for people to apply online, which could be seen as "the primary purpose is to drive traffic to a website" (the yellow highlight is mine).



I removed the website link, but it was flagged and removed again. Great.


Next, I checked out the scam warnings and saw this (the yellow highlighted block below is mine):



I'm not asking for any financial or background/credit information through CL. I stated in the post that I will be asking for it later, but that's after a tour. In the context of the post, I should be fine, right?


I decided to deep into the bowls of craigslist.


It turns out, the "help" page isn't very helpful. There are some general FAQs (including one, btw, that gives instructions on adding HTML and links to a post. How does that align with their prohibited section? That must be for a different category?)


In fact, there is no way to get help from someone who works at Craigslist. On the help page is an option to "contact us" choosing that takes you to a list of issues, including "scams, spam, flagging." That gives an option called "My post was flagged off incorrectly"



But the only help is from the "flag help forum."


That's right. When you have an issue, the only solution is to ask the help forum.


So I did.


I shared my post's details asked what I needed to fix so I wouldn't be flagged and removed anymore. I felt like it was a genuine ask for help.


What happened next was a strange combination of guessing and belittling.


First, how is it that the only way of getting help is from a non-official set of people? All they did was start guessing things that maybe, might look wrong. And each post did it with a thick coat of "you should know better." Here's one of my early favorites:



Yeah, I am clueless, which is why I came to the forums for help. Apparently, I used the wrong word, I should have said "removed" not "flagged." I guess? I don't know. That's why I'm asking for help.


Or what about this one that's not even relevant to my question:



Not helpful, and kind of sad if that's been wrigleywannabe3rd's experience.


I clarified that including a link was an issue, and I was told there's also information I'm not entitled to.



I wrote back - because I couldn't help myself - that I am allowed to ask for this information in Oregon. And I clarified that I'm not asking for anyone to send me their information through CL, but instead by going through a standard application process. To which the reply was:



I know... which is why I'm on the forum asking for help.


The Epiphany

The next morning I got an idea of what I should do.


I found someone else's successful recent rental post and copied the format (using my info, obviously). I posted it, and it stayed up! I'm still unsure why my original post was flagged, other than there's a lot less information now.


I tried to be a nice guy and left one more note in the forum thanking everyone for chiming in. I shared the changes I made and thought we'd all leave on a happy note.


Or not.


Much to my surprise, the group looked up my post and decided to keep giving me further feedback.



Since the post was still up, I didn't feel the need to re-engage, but in all honesty, I felt like I made the changes they requested, and based it off a recently successful post. Why does my_generic_handle feel like it will be flagged again? That's a serious question since I never officially found out the problem. 


And my favorite comes from Jack80218:



Not only is this off-topic...


Not only does his suggestion not work for this 200 square foot box with ONLY outside walls, which he would know from looking at the pictures...


But he took the time to look up my wall heater's reference and quote the installation best practice...


While at the same time heavily implying that I did it knowing that the resident was the one paying for electricity.


*Sigh*


I must say, I am not impressed by Craiglist's help forums. Perhaps it's me and the reasons ARE obvious and I'm blind to it because I want to keep doing things the way I used to. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive and the truth hurts. But maybe it's just sour grapes because the members did take the time to downvote all of my replies (why is that even a feature?).


The Revenge of The Facebook

In related news, I decided to try Facebook's Marketplace. Using the same post that was flagged on CL - I got many great responses within hours, and two applicants, both of whom were highly qualified within 10 hours (overnight, no less). So, thanks to Craigslist's opaque flagging and help systems, I found a viable alternative.


I wouldn't say Craigslist lost me as an evangelist, but my enthusiasm has been tempered.


To be clear, I'm fine with flagging and erring on the side of removing suspected spam. Keep the marketplace safe! But if you're going to remove my posts, I want to be able to figure out why (beyond "read the TOU"), and ideally without belittingly. Especially since I'm not participating for the fun of it, but using it as a business tool.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Landlord's Book Review of Evicted by Matthew Desmond


I run a local real estate investment club, and this month I did something a little different and created a pre-recorded video. I did it for a couple of reasons, but the biggest reason was that I listened to an impactful book about poverty and discrimination in the rental business.

It's called "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" by Matthew Desmond.

My review is an hour-long video (there's a podcast audio version too), and if you're a landlord I recommend watching the video and reading the book.



Monday, May 18, 2020

Sacrifice, Patience, and Nuance During the Coronavirus


I read a fantastic article this weekend called, "Church, Don't Let Coronavirus Divide You." Even if you're not a church leader (or a Christian), I think this article does a great job of articulating how people ought to respond to the pandemic, especially as things start to open up. This is great advice for everyone. Below are a few parts that resonated with me.

The main problem is different convictions:
"Some will be eager to meet in person and impatient to wait much longer to get back to normal. Others will insist it’s unwise to meet at all until there’s a vaccine. Plenty will fall somewhere in between."
And compounding that is the question:
"Have you noticed how remarkably confident so many of us are in our views right now? Unfounded certainty ... is a contagion at least as viral as COVID-19 itself."
This stuck me in the heart. I definitely fell into this camp. Even at times being certain that nobody really knows anything! It makes it difficult to act civilly when there are vastly different opinions that are held as facts.

This actually sounds very familiar to politics. Though, at least for me, politics often feels like a distant discussion without much influence on my day-to-day life. The pandemic is different. So even folks like myself, who generally don't pay much attention to politics, have entered the conversation with a firm - albeit non-expert - opinion on how things should be handled.


Sacrifice

Instead, the call is to place other's interests above ourselves, to hold the posture of a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1):
"someone might find it personally difficult—even maddening—to have to wear a mask during church and stay six feet away from everyone at all times. You might think these precautions are a needless overreaction. But here’s the thing: even if it turns out you’re right, can you not sacrifice your ideal for a season, out of love for others who believe the precautions are necessary?"
and
"Likewise, those who think the lockdowns should continue should not pass judgment on those who question the wisdom of the government’s ongoing restrictions. Churches should strive to honor people on both sides of the spectrum."

Patience

What a good article! And it continues to talk about patience.
"To be sure, it is good and right to be eager to gather again... But we should be careful to not rush it. We should be careful to not go faster than governments allow, or faster than those in our community can understand. We should be patient with a timeline that might be slower than we’d prefer; patient with a reopening process that will doubtless be clunky; patient with leaders feeling the pressure of this complex situation; and patient with one another as we figure out the new normal. Those who are not comfortable with physical gatherings should be patient with those who are, and vice versa."
I'll be honest, I actually enjoyed the break, so I'm totally OK with a slow transition. Not out of health concerns, but because I enjoyed having an open calendar. I also understand I'm blessed to keep my standard of living, which is not true for everyone.

Jessi and I have talked about doing mini-quarantines going forward. It's a stay-cation: where you stop all normal activities, but you don't travel either. We do take breaks from activities, but it's usually not all at once and we have a tendance to fill that time with other activities. I'd like to institute some sort of regular family retreat/stay-cation/mini-quarantine.

Now having said that, I already know I'll struggle with being patient with "a reopening process that will doubtless be clunky." This is where I will need to regularly remind myself that they're human too and this is new to everyone.


Nuance

I appreciate the final thoughts on nuance. The idea of both seemingly opposite ideas can be true at the same time. We're encouraged to take
"the path that prizes both courage and prudence, and avoids both pollyannaish and doomsday responses. It means we can be skeptical of some aspects of the lockdown without resorting to outrageous conspiracy theories, and we can honor governing authorities (Rom. 13) while engaging them in civil pushback when necessary."

The whole article is great and articulates my sentiments well. I recommend reading the whole thing.