Episode 286 | Five Guidelines for Balancing Learning and Doing

Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk through five guidelines for balancing learning and doing. They help define when learning and consuming too much information can actually impede the progression of your business.

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Rob [00:00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups For the Rest of Us’ Mike and I talk through five guidelines for balancing learning and doing. This is ‘Startups For the Rest of Us’, episode 286. Welcome to ‘Startups For the Rest of Us’, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.

Mike [00:00:27]: And I’m Mike.

Rob [00:00:28]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?

Mike [00:00:32]: Not too much going on. I took a mini vacation last weekend with the family and left around noon or so on Friday. And just got back last night. So I have not been doing very much this past week. Although getting out the door on Friday was a little bit rough because there’s all these things that were happening early in the morning. There were a couple of issues with my build server in the background. And I’m just like ‘Okay, you guys got to handle this.” Some things busted that probably shouldn’t have gone in when they did. But I couldn’t deal with it and I just threw it back at them and said, “You guys need to fix this.” Took them a couple days, but they got through it. That’s good to see

Rob [00:01:06]: Did the team make any progress while you were gone?

Mike [00:01:09]: They did. But I think I had mentioned this last week. One of the developers I have was getting married. He got married on this past Sunday. So he was out of commission. And then the other one was sick this past week. So that’s limited the progress. But there are things that are getting done. It’s just about two-thirds slower than it usually is.

Rob [00:01:26]: Right. And onboarding new early access customers is on your plate, right? So you didn’t get anybody new in the past week?

Mike [00:01:33]: Well I got that on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. I’ve turned people loose a little bit and then, of course, promptly left on vacation.

Rob [00:01:41]: Right. But you’re back in the saddle now?

Mike [00:01:43]: Yes. Things are going well.

Rob [00:01:44]: Cool.

Mike [00:01:45]: How about you?

Rob [00:01:46]: Well I finally pulled the trigger and switched email providers. We had been using just an old Web host—DreamHost. I’ve had an account with them for like a decade, and still use them for some less critical stuff. And for those who aren’t familiar with DreamHost, it’s a big shared host. And they’re massive. And over time a lot of their servers get slower and slower, and since they are so big they just have load balancing issues at times. So what we’d noticed is that over—it’s probably been on and off for like six months, we would see emails taking a while to be delivered to our inboxes. And so someone might reply and instead of getting it in the matter of seconds that you should, it might take an hour or two hours to come through. It was so intermittent though, and we figured a way around it with using POP to check our accounts instead of waiting for them to forward because I guess there’s some throttling going on that Gmail does with forwarding. We had worked around it but in the end, over the past several weeks, there’s been some massive delays within that POP hasn’t fixed. And it was really within the DreamHost servers themselves. Something about the spam filtering was just taking literally hours to run through emails. All that to say, it was just time to move. I’ve resisted it so long because it was quite a pain in the butt. The actual switchover was not a big deal, but I could not find a good email provider. I tried to work with Zoho and I got halfway through setting up all the emails and the domain and all this stuff, and it didn’t have several things we needed and the UI was bad. Google apps, I find to be catastrophically hard to use. It was hours and hours. It was very buggy. I would click save and it would say you saved. And then I would literally go away, come back and it wasn’t saved. And I had to do all [?] work arounds to get it to work. I don’t know of an ideal solution for this. But I do know Google apps has tended to be really solid. And since a lot of use Gmail as the natural client, it seems like the natural fit. But what a time suck that just did nothing for us. I probably, all told, spent 16 hours trying to configure it and then doing the switchover, and having bugs. It probably should have taken four to six. But there were so many rough edges that it is what it is. But I guess I feel good about finally being moved over and everything’s good as of this morning. Cross my fingers that that continues.

Mike [00:03:57]: That’s one of the downsides of all the different mail servers that are out there. There’s no universal mechanism for just saying I’m going to export everything here and import all my settings over to here. Then just toggle a switch and everything switches over. It just doesn’t happen that way. There’s all these little knobs and dials you need to fiddle with and make sure that everything works. And it sucks because you can’t test it quickly either. You have to make a change and then you have to usually wait a little while. And that little while might be as little as 10 or 20 minutes, and then there’s also times where it could take just hours. It sucks.

Rob [00:04:31]: You know one other thing on that email, the bummer is that DreamHost’s administration, the Web based administration of their email accounts is really, really good. The UI is good and they allow you to bulk update stuff. And they allow you to have a bunch of forwarding addresses just in a text area. And it makes it really easy and simple to administer. You see everything on one screen. And I couldn’t find another system that does it the same way. While learning a UI typically isn’t a challenge, when the UI is actually substandard and means you have to do four or five clicks to do what you could do with one click in your existing account, that was really the reason that I hadn’t wanted to switch away. It’s a bummer to take a step down and knowing that anytime I go in to administer it, if there’s multiple clicks with all this front end Java script code running and taking several seconds before the next page loads, it really is a drag that there’s not a better way to do this.

Mike [00:05:20]: So what’s on the schedule for today?

Rob [00:05:21]: Well we put out a call for podcast topics within Founder Café, which is our membership community, and we received a bunch of them a few months ago. And this is one of them. And the question was in essence, how do you balance learning and doing? And so I thought through it and I started pouring out all my thoughts, almost in essay format, which is not conducive to a podcast, right, because you don’t just want to read an essay. But I started seeing that there were these clusters emerging. And so I pulled them out into these distinct guidelines. I have five guidelines that we want to talk through today. I think the first thing that I want to clarify is the question was asked, how do you balance learning and doing, and what you and I realized pretty quickly as we discussed this in preparation for the podcast, is that learning and doing are not opposite things. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think what the person who asked the question was really asking how do you balance consumption, reading books, listening to podcast, learning from classwork, and that kind of stuff, with actual execution. And launching and getting features out the door and talking to customers, and that kind of stuff. How do you balance those because while you’re doing you’re still going to be learning, right? So while we do use the phrase learning a lot in here, what we actually mean is more like book learning or really consumption of material that’s going to educate you. And then doing is the actual execution of that and putting that into play and moving your business forward. And so with that in mind, the first guideline I want to talk about is to remember that learning is the fun part. So for probably everyone listening to this podcast, learning is like a siren song. It’s the fun part that you want to do. It’s the easy part. And the actual doing or the execution is where the rubber meets the road and that’s really hard to do. Especially since these days you can learn via audio when you’re driving, mowing the lawn, you’re doing the dishes, etc. So it feels like a good use of your time. You shouldn’t let that fool you. Learning can easily become a major time suck that masks itself as productivity.

Mike [00:07:13]: And I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind, just because of the fact that when you are learning you’re going through the process of either reading blogs or you go out and buy an eBook or you listen to a podcast on a particular topic, it’s definitely fun and interesting, but at the same time it doesn’t actually do anything for you. At least not in and of itself. It’s very difficult to measure your progress when you’re sitting there learning stuff because you’re not moving the ball forward on your product, or getting new customers, or anything like that. And it feels like you’re doing stuff. It’s very similar to a lot of the launch activities that we talk about in the past, about getting business cards and a Web site set up, and things like that. None of those things really truly do anything for your business, but it feels like you’re being productive. So it’s very much a trap that you can fall into. And it’s especially true because of the fact that many of us are driven to learn new things and do new things. That’s what most people find enjoyable about being an entrepreneur. You get to learn and do new things. And it can be very much a distraction if you’re not careful.

Rob [00:08:15]: And I think we both say this, not as people speaking down from Mount Olympus who never fall into this trap. I think I say it as a person who falls into this trap way too much. And overconsumes and overlearns, and I have to remind myself to step back and focus on what is it that I’m trying to accomplish with this learning. And that actually brings us into the second guideline, which is to embrace ‘just in time learning’. Jeremy Frandsen, from the Internet Business Mastery podcast, has this phrase that he uses. And he calls it ‘just in time learning’. And in essence it means pick the task at hand. So if you’re running a marketing experiment and you want to try Facebook ads, then go out and learn everything you can about Facebook ads and run it. But don’t learn about those back when you’re still trying to generate an idea or to validate and idea, unless you really need Facebook ads to do it. And so live by this. Embrace ‘just in time learning’ because it is the way to keep your mind from filling up with all this information that A, clogs your mind, confuses you, distracts you, but it also fills it up with stuff that may or may not be valid in six or 12 months. By the time you get to the point where you do need to learn SEO or where you do need to find product market fit, or whatever, all of this advice is not evergreen. A lot of this changes fairly frequently. And the stuff that I think about in terms of the cutting edge learning, I think it’s good for between six and 18 months as a rule. And after that, things will often just be different enough that anything you learned before that, you’re either going to have to learn by experience or you’re going to have to relearn it from someone else.

Mike [00:09:48]: It’s not like when you go back to mathematical equations that you’re learning in college or even high school, where those things, you learn them once and they will never change. The reality is that when you’re sitting there and you’re working on stuff, you deal with so many different things that they will change often enough that it will bite you and you have to go back and relearn them. It’s certainly not that you have to learn them from scratch. But they, as Rob said, they’re different enough that it makes you sit down and dedicate additional time to it. So getting to the point where you know 95% of all the different things about a particular topic, it almost doesn’t matter. And the fact of the matter is that most of those things that you do learn, the practice of those things and the execution is a little bit different than what you’re going to read about. In terms of Facebook ads, for example, you can learn a lot about Facebook ads and general practices, and how to structure and arrange things, but the reality is once you sit down and do them, you’re going to find that there are things that are different enough for your particular business that you need to make some adjustments. So you can do all the learning you want from a book or from a blog or a podcast, and the reality of your product itself is going to be different enough that you need to make those adjustment. Those books are just simply not going to take that into account.

Rob [00:11:00]: And an aside here to compliment this ‘just in time learning’ idea, specifically for you, listening to this podcast, if you’re launching products, it actually depends on whether you’re prelaunch or post launch what you need to be learning about. So if you’re prelaunch what do you need to know? Well there’s kind of a nice little sequence of events that needs to happen. You need to generate an idea, you need to validate the idea. You need to build the product or architect the service if you’re going to do more of a product type service. And then you probably need to start learning marketing. Maybe one or two channels at the most to generate that interest list. And you need to be talking to customers in advance. So those things, in that order, that’s the framework that I used for prelaunch. And then post launch, I think about it as finding enough customers in the space to get feedback. And you do that via maybe one or two marketing channels at most. And you do it with a lot of hustle and by talking to a lot of people. And then you’re going to need to find product market fit based on their feedback. And then that means build something people want. If you’re not a fan or the product market fit terminology or don’t know what it is, it just means you build something that people are really willing to pay for and are willing to stick around if you’re a subscription service. And then, after that is marketing and growth. I feel like everybody focuses on the marketing and growth piece, but it’s like the sixth, seventh, eighth step down the line. And I think take this ‘just in time learning’ to think about focusing on this learning step that you’re at. And really focus on the people talking about that, giving advice on that that’s fairly current, the current market conditions, and devour that. And then execute. Change it up and execute. I mean there’s a recent example I have where I’ve had to do some negotiations. A couple different instances. And I am not trained in that. I don’t have a ton of knowledge in it or experience. I mean there’s all the trite advice people give you. Don’t name the first number, and always do this and do that. But I really wanted to dive into it. So I got two separate audiobooks on it that were highly recommended. And there’s podcasts about a similar topic and I went through and I listened. I took a bunch of notes and I thought through, and then I made real action notes that weren’t just the notes from the thing but it actually related to the specifics of the situations that I was in. And then I looked at those and then I dove in. So that was an example. I didn’t learn negotiating five years ago. And if I had I probably would have forgotten it, might have been out of date. But the fact that I’ve done that just recently has helped keep it fresh and it’s something I’ll know for the time being that I can refresh in the future.

Mike [00:13:16]: And what you’re really doing here is you’re optimizing both for your time and for your performance. Because if you sit down and you are just about to do, as Rob said, for example, negotiation, then you sit down, you read about it and you learn as much as you possibly can, and then you put it into use. Versus if you did it five years ago or you studied up on it. Even in just 12 months ago, you will have had a lot of things that have happened between then and now, and you’re going to forget a lot of those things. So you’re still going to have to go back and brush up on it. And if you didn’t use it back then because it wasn’t necessarily a need, then essentially what you’ve done is you’ve spent a lot of time learning something that maybe you get your skills to 80 or 90%, and then over the course of the next 12 months they taper off and you’ll have to relearn a bunch of stuff. You’ll have to refresh your memory. And it’s simply not a good use of your time. And then, in addition to that, the fact of the matter is that when you go through that your skills are going to get rusty because you haven’t put them to use over that time. So those are essentially two different things that are in play at the same time. You are optimizing not just for your time, but also for your performance in performing whatever that activity is that you’re learning about.

Rob [00:14:23]: And the third guideline is that learning will only get you halfway. That basically, at some point, you have to execute in order to A, actually get anything done. And B, get the full amount of learning. And halfway is an estimate. It’s not exactly 50%. Maybe it’s 40, maybe it’s 65 or 70. But it will only get you part of the way there. What you have to realize is that learning is the easy part, it keeps you in your basement or in the nice comfort of just consuming information. Fires those parts of the brain that probably makes you feel like you’re doing something. But once you start executing you’re going to crash and burn, you’re going to make mistakes. And you’re going to learn more in a couple weeks that you can in months and months of sitting there and consuming material.

Mike [00:15:02]: I think it’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to consume as much information as you possible can to the point that you’re overconsuming and you’re not putting it into practice. And I know that historically, the reason that I’ve done that is because I didn’t want to make mistakes. So I felt like if I learned more than I would not make certain mistakes. Oh if I had only read that particular book, or if I had only seen that blog post and read it before I got this started, then I would have not made this mistake over here or that mistake over there. But the problem with that line of thinking is that there’s no line in the sand or guideline that says, oh, if you consume all of these things you won’t make that mistake. It’s very easy to forget some of those things or to only realize after you’ve made the mistakes that that particular lesson was going to be applicable to you. So just the fact that you’re sitting there learning, it can be very difficult and frustrating to dive into it when you don’t necessarily feel like you’re ready. I think that, myself included in this, a lot of people just don’t like to make mistakes. So you feel like if you’re going to learn more then you won’t make those mistakes. And I would say that that’s probably not always the case. In fact, it’s probably rarely the case that you’re going to learn enough to make no mistakes.

Rob [00:16:14]: Another thing to keep in mind with this one, tying back into bootstrapping a product, is that realize that learning will be different depending on the phase of your product. So learning’s going to get you halfway and it’s actually going to be a lot harder in the early days, unfortunately. And the reason is because when you haven’t yet built something people want, so you’re pre product market fit, there’s a lot of art, there’s a lot of mistakes, there’s a lot of flailing around, and there’s not nearly as much concrete advice for these steps because there really isn’t a path to finding it. As much as [?] startup, try to lay out a framework, it’s so much trial and error, and even people who’ve done it multiple times, meaning found product market fit and actually started to scale an app, really don’t have the exact formula for it because there just can’t be one. There’s so much trial and error. Which means that consuming more about it isn’t actually going to get you any closer to it. You just have to get to the trial and error. And this is interesting to think about. Back to the negotiation stuff that I was learning about, once I had listened to an audiobook and a half on it, I started to see a lot of overlap. And I actually had a third audiobook that I got, which was too much. And as soon as I started listening I realized I am overconsuming and I am hearing the same things. And I’m being overwhelmed with information. Which of these frameworks and paths should I use because now I’ve heard three different ones? And that’s where you need to step back and say, “Wow, I’ve made it halfway. I’ve made it to pretty much the extent of what I’m going to learn. I’m starting to see diminishing returns from that learning. Now I have to basically stop doing this, and I need to sack up and really kind of get out there and make some mistakes.” I got to be honest, I feel like it’s so much easier to learn about specific tactics after you have product market fit. Because this is where you have to line up marketing tactics, you experiment, you double down on what works. And that’s really the fun part. And there’s a ton of information out there about it. And it’s just so much more of a methodical approach. I won’t say it’s easy. I won’t say it’s fun for everyone. But it is a lot more well-defined than trying to learn before product market fit. And I think people spend too much time trying to get all their ducks in a row in that phase when, I’ll say, it’s impossible to do that at that point because there just is so much art involved in getting to product market fit. And the fourth guideline is to consciously cap your consumption. So keeping in mind this ‘just in time learning’ concept, if you’re focused on a problem, like validating an idea, I typically focus all of my efforts on learning as much as I can about that. I spend a few days. Sometimes up to one to two weeks. Then you have to stop and you have to execute.

Mike [00:18:40]: To me, this is really hard to do sometimes just because there’s so much that you can learn. And some of it’s going to be applicable to where you are right now. And some of it’s going to be applicable to you after you get to a certain point. So back to Rob’s point about the last one, about finding the product market fit for your product, some of the marketing and stuff that you learn and implement is going to be before you get to that point, and some of it’s going to be afterwards. And a lot of the learning is, I’ll say, somewhat generalized. Some of it is going to be applicable before you get the product market fit, and some’s applicable afterwards. And it’s not always clear when you’re learning it which is which. So, sometimes you have to tendency to overlearn because you think that it might be applicable, and it’s simply not. Consciously capping your consumption is a really wise idea because it allows you to learn enough, especially at a cursory level, so that you can start to recognize some of the patterns. And if you find that you are at a point where you’re implementing something and you realize hey, I actually haven’t learned enough to be able to implement this, you can always go back and learn more. You don’t have to continue plodding forward knowing that you’re going to be making these huge mistakes that maybe if you just learned a few more things then it would be better executed. You can always go back and learn more. But you can’t get back that time if you are learning things that are simply not applicable. So make sure that you’re putting a cap on your time that you’re spending on consuming this information. And I’ll be honest, I’m terrible at this. I have a hard time sitting down and scoping out I’m only going to spend X number of hours or days or weeks trying to learn how to do this. And it’s just difficult to do. And it’s partly because some of it’s time management and some of it’s also the fact that it feels nice to learn some of these things and to be able to talk to other people about it. But it’s simply not always relevant to you. So make sure that you’re capping that time so that you are optimizing for the things that you’re doing.

Rob [00:20:34]: And my fifth guideline for balancing learning and doing is to balance learning with inspiration. I feel like you need to strike a balance between these two things. You can only learn and focus on so many things at once. And so if you’re really focused on getting idea validation or whatever, when you stop learning, if you still want to consume things, you can turn your heads towards inspirational content. As an example, recently I’ve listened to a book called “Song Machine” that is about the hit factory that’s developed over the past 20, 30 years, of how all of our pop songs don’t tend to be written by the artist. They’re actually written by these factories. It’s this group of people that are manufacturing hits. There’s this great book called ;We Don’t Need Roads,” about the making of “Back to the Future,” that’s just really well told. “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe,” is a book I’ve read a few times. “The Snowball,” which is the biography of Warren Buffett. “Masters of Doom,” I’ve mentioned. They border that line between really inspiration and just kind of fun listening. They’re really isn’t a ton of this hardcore learning. You’re not learning tactics from these. And I really believe in this idea of getting more motivation, or this extradisciplinary learning that I think you need to get from broader sources. It’s not going to help you directly, but A, it takes your mind off of this focused problem, and it allows you to not get oversaturated with different ideas and confuse you. But it also provides inspiration. It can kill time if you really want to listen to audiobooks, podcasts in the car or while you’re doing the dishes or whatever. I tend to switch over to this once I’m oversaturated on a certain topic and I don’t want to get any more content in my mind. And the other bonus is it often gets me thinking about my business in a way that I normally would not consider. Hearing “Snowball,” hearing “Masters of Doom,” even hearing “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe,” it’s extradisciplinary. So it gets your juices flowing. And I find that little ideas and thoughts will sometimes resurface themselves later on that tie into that experience, that will help me in my business in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted.

Mike [00:22:28]: I think this is more of a focus on trying to figure out what sorts of things are going to help you without knowing what questions to ask. Let’s say that you have gotten product market fit and you’re trying to figure out what ways you can grow, you can certainly say, “Well, I’m going to do some paid advertising,” and you dig in and you learn about paid advertising. But what Rob’s really talking about here is that you are learning about lots of other things that are generally applicable to business versus solving a particular problem. So when you start doing that you’re able to get a wider view. And it’s much shallower, but it’s a wider view of business in general, and how different people have gone around solving different problems that they have encountered. And all it does is it gives you that hook that you can use later on in order to come back to later. For example, for “Masters of Doom,” or “The Snowball,” there’s a bunch of different data points that are in there, that if you were to go through and read those books, you’re probably going to remember bits and pieces but you’re not going to remember everything. And that’s not the point. The point is to anchor your brain to certain things where if you’re working on a problem later on in your business, if you remember that oh, I remember reading about this. Where did I read about it? And you can go back into maybe Amazon if you buy all of your books through there or through iTunes and their bookstore there. The point is to be able to go back and use those hooks to figure out where did I hear about that and where can I learn more about it? Versus I have this very ultra-specific problem that I need to solve right now. And that’s a very easy issue to deal with, it’s much more difficult when you don’t have that broad base of knowledge. And this is about enhancing your broad base of knowledge.

Rob [00:24:07]: And there’s a caveat to all this. You can’t just wander off into inspiration land when you only have five, 10, 15 hours a week to work on your product and you’re trying to get to launch. That’s where you have to be disciplined about getting work done and not using inspiration as a crutch or a feeling of productivity. Because it’s really not. If you only have those few hours then you have to focus on that problem at hand and just taking the next step towards getting your product out the door or growing it, depending on the phase you’re at. Mike [00:24:36]: So to recap, the five guidelines are, number one, remember that learning is the fun part. Number two, embrace ‘just in time learning’. Number three, remember that learning will only get you halfway. Number four, consciously cap your consumption. And number five, balance your learning with inspiration. If you have a question for us you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690. Or you can email it to us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from “We’re Outta Control,” by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for startups. And visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks you listening and we’ll see you next time.

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