Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reflections on 2012 and refocusing

As I spent some time updating our website with all the wonderful projects for social good that we worked on in 2012, I couldn't help but stop to reflect... on the first year and a half of existence of Guanxin — our social good collective, my experiences working as a self-employed designer/developer and my first taste of entrepreneurship being a director of a small, social enterprise.

It was quite a whirlwind of a year! And while not every moment, in the moment, felt fantastic or super wonderful — we all had our fair share of fear, anger, exasperation and exhaustion — there also were moments of aha, delight, pride and satisfaction. I felt that we accomplished quite a bit and learned quite a lot in the past year in our quest to improve the world through design and technology.

And we will continue to do so in the new year, refocusing our energies on what did work and learning from what didn't.

Here's what I've learned in 2012.

1. Be thankful

Often when you are in the thick of it, is is so easy to focus only on the bad parts and to not recognise or appreciate the good ones.

There was so much to be thankful for in 2012. In a time of economic austerity when it is so easy to simply turn inwards, it was such a blessing to be surrounded by so many good people who apply their talents to building a better world for all. And to be able to find funding for this collaborative work.

While it is not really in my nature to gush about how much I appreciate people, I am, however, so thankful to have had the chance to work with James, Nick, Tav, Cian, Matt, Louise, Jörg, Jamie. And, of course, my lovely partner, Meike, who always was patient even as I pursued the most Quixotic of paths.

These are the changemakers to watch. And I am so grateful to have been able to work with you guys on all our projects for social good. While we didn't always see eye-to-eye on all the details, all our hearts were pointing us towards the same destination. Keep fighting the good fight and see you there!

2. Learn as much as you can

Never. stop. learning.

2012, for me, was an banner year for learning. In some ways, even more so than the 5 years I spent working on a PhD.

Learning the latest in Drupal, HTML5, CSS3, Sass/Compass, Javascript, Python, Git, Linux admin, Arduino, Android.

Reading lots. Design and programming patterns. Web and mobile UI patterns. Gamification. Data mining. Learning from Douglas Crockford that Javascript does have good parts. I can't begin to tell you how many O'Reilly animal books I've read. But I've loved every single one.

Learning from my friends on Twitter and Google+ who are community managers, social marketers, entrepreneurs, developers, designers, do-gooders.

Going to meetups in London — my god, is this a fantastic city for learning where most events are free, and all you have to do is invest some of your time.

Udacity and Coursera and eduX and Khan Academy. Need I say more.

Playing with code, APIs, stacks, systems. I always am so humbled by the world of open source where professional software (and these days, hardware) is free to download and free to modify. Unlike in my previous life as a toy and medical device designer, sharing is the norm here and the barriers to entry are so darn low. And because it's so easy to get started, you can learn so much simply by playing and doing.

Contributing to Drupal (or open source in general). Reading the core issue queues. Writing issue summaries. Rerolling patches. And sometimes, even working up the nerve to review patches and contribute code.

Participating in the community is like learning by stealth, kind of like in the movie The Karate Kid. There are some seriously smart Mr. Miyagi's in the community, and Drupal is a pretty awesome reflection of that collective intelligence, even if it is written in PHP. ;-)

Paying for a Github account. Yes, it's true that you can access all the open source projects with a free account. But when you are paying monthly for something, you tend to poke around a lot more to figure out how you can get your money's worth. And yes, Github is a goldmine, and you don't even have to pay.

3. Dream as big as you can

Last year, I asked my old supervisor at the MIT Media Lab, Prof. Sandy Pentland, for some advice. And he said to me "to dream as big as you can." That was some of the best advice anyone has given to me. (Thanks Sandy!)

Having a North Star to stumble towards when you are in the fog of confusion comes in handy when the inevitable low point comes around.

When we couldn't figure out how to move forward with the design, the technology or the business, having hope fueled by big, aspirational dreams sometimes provided enough of that little, tenuous motivation to keep at it when all signs tell you to give up.

I can't even begin to count all the ideas and initiatives we pursued that fell flat on its face. The hard part is picking yourself up again and continuing to take action. Working on stuff that's important to you helps with this immensely!

(Although as a corollary, it's also important to know when to change tactics, which may appear to others like you are giving up. Strategic retreats are important. If you dare to do the difficult or impossible, people are going to think you are a weirdo anyway, so don't worry what other people think.)

4. Take action in bite-sized chunks

Having big dreams is essential. But the actions you take don't have to be perfect. Pick a direction and just get started. You can always change your mind later.

When you do pick a direction, do it with passion and sweat the details. Work your ass off! But remember to have fun. Work can be play and vice versa. (But do remember to take breaks and take care of your family.)

If it doesn't work, you can always file it away in your mental and digital libraries and pivot to something else. But these ideas that fail to meet the requirements of the problem at hand will come in useful for future problems. Trust me on this. It's not wasted effort.

Talent or skill makes it easier to start something. But experience (and having a library of "failed" concepts brewing in your subconscious) makes it easier to finish it.

And if the problem is too big, split it into smaller pieces and get started on a smaller chunk.

Did I mention, just get freakin' started?!? :-D

5. Find partners in crime

Self-employment and working on a start-up is a really lonely job. Existential pressures from finding funding and developing business models as well as everyone doing the work of five people can take its toll. It's not meant to be easy and it's not for everyone.

So find people who understand your plight and hang out with them. Teach them what you know. And learn from them.

Go work at co-working places like Google Campus and Hub Westminster. Go to meetups and conferences. Talk about it on your blog and your social networks.

And, if it applies to you, find people who will tell you it is okay to run your business as a business the old fashioned way — slow and steady — rather than as a start-up trying to grow exponentially. 

The recent boom of accelerators and incubators and the glorification of the "start-up culture" may have increased the amount of seed funding available to get started. We were so lucky to get some.

But, IMHO, the amount of angel funding to bridge the gap to where venture capitalists will even start talking to you isn't getting any bigger. 

So unless you get really lucky, you're going to get stuck after developing your first MVP prototype.

I think we should be telling people to start businesses with the expectation of growing it with hard work — you don't need the vast funds and rapid growth of start-ups if you define success on different terms.

Telling people that they might be the next Twitter or Facebook is as disingenuous as telling inner city kids to become footballers to achieve social mobility. There just aren't that many draft picks available, and the odds and numbers just don't support the start-up culture as a path to success or prosperity.

So that's it. In many ways, there's nothing new under the sun with regards to this advice. But experience it yourself... if you are up for it. It is quite a trip.

Best of luck, and may you achieve all you want to achieve in 2013.

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