What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand: This book is essentially libertarian philosophy in narrative format. Since reading it in high school I’ve been thinking about the role of governments (less government is better) and potential for individuals to impact the world (it’s unlimited)
Leadership: The Care and Growth Model - Etsko Schuitema: The best book you've never heard of. Based on research done in South Africa during the 1990s, this book completely changed my view of what it means to be a leader.
The Beginning of Infinity - David Deutsch: The book covers a lot, but at its essence it’s about how humans make progress by forming better and better explanations.
I often find myself repeating this quote from the book: “Problems are inevitable, problems are soluble.”
What purchase of R2000 or less has most positively impacted your life in recent memory?
Definitely Airpods! I know they’re usually a bit over R2000, but I got mine on special so I hope that still counts?
Apple passed some kind of ease of use threshold with the Airpods. The form factor is so good that I always carry them with me and it’s never too much effort to put them on. As a result I’ve been able to spend much more time listening to audiobooks. They have given me at least a 30% boost in listening time.
Which app, website or software tool did you recently discover that you keep coming back to?
Goodreads.com for tracking books I read and discovering new ones.
Back in 2015, Mark Zuckerberg set out to read one book every 2 weeks. His year goals are usually quite cool but this one didn’t seem very ambitious to me. So this year I set myself a goal of reading 52 books.
I decided to use Goodreads to track my progress towards my goal, which has been super useful. At the moment I’m already reading High Growth Handbook as my 38th book. The site has also had another big benefit I didn’t expect - which is discovering interesting books by looking at what my friends are reading.
If you’re interested in what I’ve been reading recently check out my profile.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure”?
A few years back, I worked with Gys, who now runs OfferZen’s product team, on a startup called Admo. We spent a year building a digital signage product with Microsoft Kinect. If you’ve seen Minority Report then you know what kind of interface I’m talking about. The tech we built was pretty amazing, but we were struggling to make enough sales in South Africa. So I decided to go on a trip to Silicon Valley and New York to learn about the market and make a few sales.
One of the people I reached was a South African who moved to the US and had been the CEO of one of the largest digital signage companies in the world. I emailed him in Afrikaans, hoping that would make me stand out. It worked (!) and he invited me to come chat to him in Philadelphia.
Initially, we were scheduled to just have dinner together on the Friday, but he ended up spending his entire weekend with me. On the Saturday he took me to see the Amish communities in the area, all the while explaining what he had learned from working in the digital signage industry over the previous decade. He was very supportive and gave me a lot of actionable advice, but I could see he had some reservations during our chat.
Then, on Sunday, he told me that he’d thought about it and suggested that we don’t continue with the company.
He thought that we were wasting our talent building a company in an industry that has tiny margins and that I didn't seem excited enough about it. After our chat I went back to my crappy hotel room and cried. I realised he was right - we had an opportunity to build a meh business, but not one that would have any real impact. We ended up shutting Admo down when I got back to Cape Town.
This failure stands out because it was such a painful experience to realize we had spent a year of our lives working on something that wasn’t going to go anywhere. The experience crystalized to me that I needed to work on startup that a) is actually meaningful to me and b) has the potential to grow massively.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
I have a sleep routine that I do every night that I absolutely love.
In the early days of a previous startup we partnered with a new bank to help them build an agent app. We had gone all in for the project and the fate of the company depended on the project being a success - or at least it felt like it. My stress levels were off the charts. So much so that I literally could not sit for more than 20 min before the back pain from my stress became debilitating.
To deal with that, I started stretching for 20 minutes every night before I went to bed. Within a few days, I noticed my back pain going away. Over time the practice started becoming deeply meditative for me and I decided to stick with it. The only real adjustment I’ve made in the last 5 years is that I now listen to the same playlist while I stretch. It's a simple habit but it helps me sleep well every night!
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or mindset has most improved your life and why? Have you recently discarded one?
The most impactful change I’ve made is discarding the idea that a balanced life is good. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that I’m not a balanced person, at least not in the way most people define it.
When you think about most people who achieve greatness - whether that’s Elon Musk, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Serena Williams - you realize they’re not balanced at all. Elon Musk sleeps on the Tesla factory floor, Arnold gymed for 5 hours a day while bodybuilding and Serena won a grand slam while she was pregnant!
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking those people are gods, but they’re just like you and me. They’ve just decided to do what it takes and have developed the discipline to stay the course.
What advice would you give to your younger self about to enter the “real world”?
- Don’t work with assholes.
- Charge more for your product.
- Become really good at marketing.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
When I realize I’m overwhelmed or have burnout I focus of doing a few simple things:
- Eat healthily - the hack that works best for me is to purchase food upfront for the week rather than buying when I’m hungry and my willpower is low.
- Daily exercise - I don’t always feel like it but it always works. Surfing and running work especially well for clearing my head.
- Talk to advisors - I don’t find it very useful to talk about my feelings when it’s usually real challenges at work that caused my burnout. But I do find it very useful getting an external perspective of the problems I’m tackling.
- Re-establish my fire line - Even successful startups are a bit of a shit show on the inside, and it’s often overwhelming to deal with everything that’s going wrong. Reid Hoffman has this concept of a fire line, with the idea that you decide what is OK to let burn and basically just ignore it until later.