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The latest from the BBT Blog

Everybody Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In the Face

It’s more important to adapt to the situations life throws at you than to try to create the perfect plan. The matter of fact is things hardly ever work out, no matter how many pre-mortem meetings you set up; instead of trying to create the perfect plan, prepare yourself to take the hit, and adapt to the situation accordingly. Make yourself robust or antifragile. As legendary boxer Mike Tyson says:

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“Everyone has a plan – until they get punched in the face.”
Get this print here.

Tyson unpacks this idea further in an interview:

‘If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere during the duration of that, the outcome of that event you’re involved in, you’re going to get the wrath, the bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Normally people don’t deal with it that well.’

Here are a few principles to consider the next time you get punched in the face, illustrated through a set of stories:

When Two Entrepreneurs Ran Out of Money

Just a few years before Airbnb was valuated at $10 billion and had a grander vision for shared cities, the company consisted of two designers. To validate their idea, they had hosted conference-visitors on a couple of beds in their apartment.

They weren’t in a good place. Both co-founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbla, were collectively in $40,000 of credit card debt. They had exhausted their cash and had long since ridden off the first wave of customers. They were still reeling from getting punched in the face, shortly after the first weekend their idea was validated. They just needed to stay in the ring until the bell to get their second wind. How could they buy more time?

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The two designers used their design skills on a completely different product: cereal. They bought boxes of cereal in bulk and designed novelty boxes of Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains to coincide with the 2008 election. Although this little stunt might sound silly, Chesky and Gebbla sold nearly $30k worth of cereal (at $40/box).

This helped them stay alive long enough to make it to startup accelerator Y Combinator. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It can be shocking to get punched in the face. It can be scary, confusing, and difficult to catch your breath and think straight. That’s okay. Just breathe. Calm down and prepare yourself to take action. Do what it takes to survive in the short-term, even if it means applying your skills to a completely unrelated venture - like using your cereal money to fund your sharing economy startup. As Ben Horowitz writes in The Hard thing About Hard Things, “If you survive long enough to see tomorrow, it may bring you the answer that seems so impossible today.”

 

How Mark Cuban Got Fired - and Started His First Company

At his first job at Mellon Bank, Mark Cuban took initiative. Cuban writes on Forbes about how he sent the CEO news clippings of relevant articles, write newsletters, or send updates on current projects. He thought his boss would be delighted. Instead, his boss yelled at Cuban for trying to go around him.

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That wouldn’t be the last time Cuban got in trouble at work. He left his job at Mellon and moved to Dallas, where he knew a few of his friends lived. He started bartending and started teaching himself programming. Then he landed a steady day job selling software. It paid $18,000 plus commission.

One day, he sold $15,000 worth of software. He got a friend to cover his shift at the office and called his boss to tell him he was going to pick up the cheque from the customer. His boss wasn’t happy - and told him not to do it. Cuban thought he’d change his boss’s mind when he showed him the $15,000 cheque. Instead, when Cuban got back to the office, his boss fired him on the spot for disobeying him.

Ouch.

Cuban just never seemed to do well at work. So he didn’t. He decided to not work for someone ever again and started his company that day - his first customer was the one who he picked up the $15,000 cheque from. After convincing the customer to work with Cuban’s recently-developed company instead of his previous one, Cuban created his first company Micro-Solutions (and ran into a young Michael Dell along the way). He would grow this company to one with $30 million in revenues, and sell it to CompuServe a few years later. This paved the way for his future success with Broadcast.com, the Dallas Mavericks, and onwards.

He could have buckled. He could have resolved to stop bumping up against the walls so much, to stop being proactive, and to cave to the pressures of typical bosses. Instead, Cuban chose a path that fit his personality better and punched back. He turned his perceived weaknesses - proactiveness and stubbornness - into his strongest strengths as an entrepreneur.

 

How IKEA was Started in a Volatile Communist Country

IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad had realized that much of furniture’s costs were in its assembly - both in the human resources required to put the actual pieces together, as well as the increased shipping costs. Kamprad undersold all his competitors by selling his furniture pre-assembled and shipping them in flat boxes.

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The angry Swedish furniture manufacturers reacted by launching a boycott of IKEA. Suppliers would no longer supply Kamprad with the material he needed to generate revenue. Kamprad and IKEA just got hit with a right hook.

Looking South of Sweden, Kamprad realized Poland was a country with cheaper labor and an abundance of wood. However, few companies had outsourced and imported like that during this time, and developing this connection would not be easy because Poland was a communist country. Moreover, it was a ticking time bomb - Kamprad had decided to go into Poland in 1961, right as the Cold War was peaking. (Author Malcolm Gladwell, who writes about Kamprad and IKEA in his book David and Goliath, likens this to “Walmart setting up shop in North Korea” today.)

It would be a cop-out to say that IKEA was forged simply when Kamprad made that decision; however, he had to work around the Polish security police watching his every move and the restrictions on dealing with a lack of infrastructure and trained workforce in Poland.

Do what you must to survive and cope, even if that means entering unconventional territory. The qualities that make something unattractive or difficult could also be turned to make that option your greatest asset; in this case, Poland’s untrained workforce and volatile environment repelled many businesses, but also meant that IKEA had the inexpensive labor and material it needed to compete aggressively against established furniture retailers.

 

Closing Thoughts

Getting punched is inevitable. Suffering is tolerable. Losing is optional. Even the most perfect plans can go astray, especially when exposed to the unpredictable environment of the real world. It’s difficult to account for everything. Instead, brace yourself and get ready to dodge and strike back when the moment happens. It’s not the adversity that defines you, but how you react to it.

 

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” - Charles R. Swindoll

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image sources:

- Obama O’s. via AirBnB.com

- Mark Cuban, on a $99 Texas Instruments computer. via Forbes.com

- Ingvar Kamprad - The Billionaire behind IKEA. via Luxedb.com

Do it For One Person

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Louis Armstrong playing the Trumpet for his Wife, Lucille, in front of the Great Sphinx and pyramids in Giza, Egypt.

“I don’t know the key to success,
but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” 
- Bill Cosby (quoting someone else)

Most artists, entrepreneurs, and creators hope to build something that will affect people on a large scale in life-changing ways. Unfortunately, the majority of them fail. During an attempt to compromise with so many different tastes, their products become watered down. Or, the scale of the issue becomes a matter of analysis paralysis and they don’t execute quickly enough. 

One of the things I always tell startups is a principle I learned from Paul Buchheit: it’s better to make a few people really happy than to make a lot of people semi-happy.

When you’re first starting out on a new product or side project, don’t do it for the masses — build it just for one person. This is relevant advice for all sorts of activities, including writing, art, and product design.

Writing and Marketing

Writing is becoming a greater challenge. While going viral can validate an idea or writing style, there’s no way on the internet to easily provide constructive feedback (e.g., no ‘Dislike’ button on Facebook) except for silence. Unfortunately, silence isn’t only caused by a lazy idea or sloppy writing; it can be the result of a bad headline, poor timing, or many other variables. It may not reflect feelings on the content, but the packaging it was presented in.

This incentivizes writers to avoid silence at all costs. On one hand, forcing writing to fit into the viral templates of Buzzfeed seems to take away from the content’s essence. It’s also paralyzing to attempt to write what you think your audience wants to read. Automattic and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg once wrote:

The antidote I’ve found for this is to write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.
Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!). 

Some of history’s most famous writers have only written pieces for one person. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
(click to share)

Similarly, in his book On Writing, bestselling novelist Stephen King talks about who he writes for:

In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention that person’s opinion (I know one fellow who says he writes mostly for someone who’s been dead fifteen years, but the majority of us aren’t in that position). And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.
Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader…I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.

Why is writing for one person so effective? And can this be applied and replicated in other fields of work? 

Art

Companies like Odyssey Works focus on what they call the Audience of One. One person, who had been the audience of their work, said in a New York Times article:

It was impossible not to be deeply moved. They’d removed things from my life, rearranged them and then put them in front of me.
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Johannes Vermeer’s “Art of Painting

When art is tailored to one person, it becomes much easier to go much deeper with the piece. After studying the one audience member for months, Odyssey Works creates sets of art — installations, conversations, and other types of experiences — that they present to the audience over a weekend. The co-founder explains the company’s objective:

“The goal is to find the deepest possible effect of art and the full breadth of emotional experience in the world,” said Abraham Burickson, the kindly and ruminative co-founder and director of Odyssey Works. “We get to know them so well, we don’t have to use guesswork to find how to make that happen. We’re ‘Amazon recommends,’ for art.”

The other extreme is what we see frequently today: artists trying to tailor their work for everyone, which dilutes the art’s power. It takes special talent and years (decades) of practise before artists can master creating intentionally for the masses while retaining integrity. It’s much more common for an artist to create for an audience of one, and have that happen to resonate with like-minded people — if they’re fortunate, the feeling they create in their subject will also be replicated in others, in extremely powerful ways.

Product and Design

Facebook product design director Julie Zhuo writes about two ways to build: the macro way uses massive amounts of data to drive product decisions. The micro way uses in-depth research with small quantities of people to make these same decisions: it helps you understand what’s missing today, and imagine the future.

There are dozens (hundreds!) of products that started the micro way — and plenty that were actually the entrepreneur’s own problems. Tattly originated when Tina Roth Eisenberg saw the temporary tattoos her daughter got from a friend’s birthday party — and realized that she could make much higher-quality temporary tattoos. Reed Hastings’ idea for Netflix originated from a huge late fee — one that he was so embarrassed about he wouldn’t tell his wife. Campaign Monitor grew out of David Greiner’s annoyance with email marketing managers.

These people scratched their own itches. They saw their own pains and couldn’t find solutions, so they built them for themselves. However, you don’t necessarily have to be solving your own pains — Wanderfly founder Cezary Pietrzak writes about how you can identify your ideal customers.

Similarly, Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham loves when you make other people’s problems your own:

One way to ensure you do a good job solving other people’s problems is to make them your own. When Rajat Suri of E la Carte decided to write software for restaurants, he got a job as a waiter to learn how restaurants worked.


Closing Thoughts

Everyone” is a byproduct of an incredibly successful thing that was made for a far more specific bunch of people.
Dan Sinker, Oh my god, don’t make things for “Everyone.

All hope is not lost. You can still make something that eventually blends into everyone’s lives. But you won’t get there by building it for everyone — you start by building for one person, or a small number of people, and grow from there. 

Don’t aim to get popular immediately. Focus on making a deep change in one person’s life instead: a reward in itself, and a steadier path to wide adoption. 

Inspiration is a fuel, a temporary ability to do tough things. Check out our online store at Busy Building Things or our blog for more great content.

This post was written by Herbert Lui and edited by Robleh Jama.