Why I dropped out of college to work on a startup

On this day, around 2 years ago, I’m about a few weeks away before I’ve had a brief Skype chat with Joel on a side project he was working on. He’d called it bfffr.com. It was a site that would let you queue up Tweets and release them well spaced out over the day.

The reason for chatting in the first place, was because I wanted to get some advice on a student survey site I was working on at the time. As the conversation moved on to how bfffr was doing, Joel said that within the first month he had already 4 paying customers and made a bit over $20. I was blown away. I had never made money online myself.

Joel said that now with a few users and good validation, it was time to switch over to do some marketing. That was my cue. “Oh, marketing? I can do that!”, I remember typing. At the time I had absolutely no clue what that meant. I was half-way through my second year in college and had just gotten the hang of using Google Chrome.

Fast forward two years, we had successfully created and grown a company to 7 awesome people, moved to San Francisco, raised a seed round and started to pull in revenues close to $1m per year. So, close before the year ends, I wanted to take some time out and reflect what and how this has happened over the past 2 years.

The move to drop out of college

It wasn’t actually until 2 months ago, that I’ve officially dropped out of College. After one semester working on Buffer and significantly neglecting my degree, I decided to first take a year out. I said to myself “I don’t know if this is going to work, so if I take a year out, give it a go and fail, I can always go back to finishing my degree”.

And so, Joel and I packed our bags and we moved to San Francisco that summer after my semester ended. It felt great, I had no pressure to succeed, as I could always just go back finishing up my degree. At the same time, this gave me a strange feeling of freedom. Without the pressure, I could push much harder than I had ever done before.

That summer, after a lot of sweat and tears, we managed to just about get into an incubator (AngelPad) that also gave us $120,000 in our first seed money. I had never seen that much money before, neither imagined being able to use some of it. We went on to raise a total of $450,000 which would allow us to quickly hire a few more awesome people to push Buffer (Joel had quickly changed the name from bfffr to Buffer) to the next level.

In short, from the beginning of that summer 2011 we moved to San Francisco until fall of 2012 when the new school year would start again, I had time to push as hard as I could and figure out whether Buffer was working or not. I was in a safe state, where nothing truly catastrophic could happen. It was great and eliminated a lot of risk.

When I eventually made the call that I won’t go back to studying, the odds were looking a lot better. We had stable monthly revenue, Visas to stay in the US, an office and a lot to look forward to. At this point, it was a very easy choice to briefly write to the University authorities “Hi guys, I won’t be coming back, please cancel my subscription.”

The one thing I like to remind myself of is that I didn’t drop out of college to work on a startup. I started working on a startup, which saw great traction, so I had to drop out of college. When I tell this story, I often get it wrong and mix up the causal relationship between the two.

All in all, I believe that, that first moment of asking Joel if I could help out with marketing at bfffr was the key turning point in my life as I knew it. And I’m incredibly grateful for it.

 

The power of reading books more slowly

Every evening, before I go to bed, I tend to read 2-3, sometimes 4 pages of a book that I’m in the middle of.

It didn’t used to be like that, I would take time out of my day and spend a longer time reading a book, trying to soak as much in as I could. I would feel great if I was able to finish a book in an afternoon, gaining all this “knowledge” so quickly.

Recently, however, I’ve realized something. In the middle of reading “The 4 Agreements” (an incredible book, I’m glad Joel showed me), it took me over 1 week to just read the 1 agreement, which is maybe 20 pages.

After that, I stopped reading for a few days and just let the thoughts sink in – and most importantly, let them manifest as actions. Or to be more precise have those thoughts manifest as small experiments.

That is exactly where I think my problem with reading at long stretches used to lie. I would read dozens and dozens of great points and thoughts from the author and connect it with my own thinking.

What I would fall short of, most of the time is to test and experiment with some of the authors finding.

I started doing this much more and with the recent experience with the 4 agreements, it became a lot more clear.

Another example I’d like to mention is when I started to read “Peace is every step” from Thich Nhat Hanh. With this book I couldn’t even read more than 1 page. Not because it is so dense. But because every single thought Thich puts across is so extremely valuable, that I don’t want to rush through it.

That’s why I now limit myself to not reading too much in one stretch. One, two, three, sometimes a few more pages is enough to get insight into a great point the author has made.

Then it’s time to stop, to reflect, to let it sink in and most importantly – to start experimenting with that exact idea right away. Does it work for me? Does it not? It makes reading a much richer and more mindful experience. And it feels great.

How do you read?

Why positivity trumps everything

How do you focus on daily positivity and happiness in life? You practice it every day, just like playing the violin or learning to ride a bike.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learnt so far with Buffer and with general activities that helps become a happier self:

Would love to get your thoughts on happiness practices you’ve discovered or things that make you happy every day.

The importance of a daily morning routine

How do you start your day and why is it so important to take control of it? In the second episode of startup life, Joel and I are discussing the various benefits of having a clear and set daily routine:

 

It’d be great to get your thoughts on what the first things are you tackle as soon as you get up. Is it heading for the train or bus to work? Or do you have a different ritual you invented by yourself. Let me know your thoughts below! :)

What are the 3 things you focus on in life?

There are tons of different topics I’d like to put into blogposts every week. To make more of them come alive, we’ve started to publish weekly videos, discussing these topics in very short form of around 5 minute videos.

Here is the first one title “What are the 3 things you focus on in life”, talking about how to set priorities in life and succeed with them.

I’d love to get your thoughts on how you structure your life and which top 3 priorities you would set.

 

Growing like bamboo

The way bamboo grows is one of the most bizarre, fascinating and untypical occurrences for plants and for nature in general, I’ve learnt. At first, for 5 years, after you have sown the seed you see nothing, other than a tiny shoot, poking its head up from the ground.

All the actual growth is happening underground, where an incredibly complex root system is established interwoven outward and upward across vast amounts of land.

Then, towards the end of the 5th year, the bamboo shoots up and grows over 30 meters tall. The plant is in fact the fastest growing plant on earth and can grow around 1m within 24 hours during that period.

Are you the same?

The metaphor of seeing startup founders grow in the same way bamboo does, couldn’t fit any better, I believe. There are people, struggling for years and years, going from failure to failure without achieving any meaningful results.

And then, almost overnight, they start building businesses, which sell for billions or raise hundreds of millions in funding.

What is hidden for the eyes of the general public is that these people have been growing like crazy: underground. The learnings and darings you get as a startup founder gives you an unprecedented experience in business, I believe. And that is precisely why they can then create the fastest growing businesses in such short amount of time, ‘all of a sudden’.

So, the next time you are wondering why nothing is working, why everyone is achieving hugely successful things and you aren’t: don’t worry. Keep going and create a huge volume of work. You are just growing like bamboo.

Photocredit: shékum

Arena thinking

A great entrepreneur I look up to and friend of mine was recently covered by one of the largest mainstream newspapers in her country. She received a lot of hate and negativity from the audience, something all too common for mainstream news.

It triggered me to think more as the conversation led on to talking about stopping to engage in any of these kinds of interviews and coverage. When really, what you want is exactly the opposite – more of this. More coverage, more exposure, more being talked about. The key is to understand where the criticism is coming from, and how to look past it. The key is to understand who is in the arena and who is just a spectator.

To achieve this, a humble learning that has greatly helped me is to adopt a different kind of thinking. I’d like to call it arena thinking. It is most likely best described by Roosevelt’s famous quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Whenever you read this quote, you’ll be reminded that the critic, no matter if positive or negative mind you, should have no impact whatsoever over the effort you are taking.

What happens when you put yourself into the arena

It is very hard to prepare yourself for when you are entering the arena. We all do it. Whenever we do simple things, like giving a presentations in class, for a small group of people or bigger things, like speaking in a stadium filled with hundreds of thousands. Whether we build a business, write a book or compete in the Olympics or in your local club. It doesn’t matter. Whenever you present yourself, whenever you put yourself out there, you are entering the arena.

When you enter the arena, it gets almost instantly filled with spectators. Some cheer you on, some boo you out, some just leave.

The instant question is, so what do you do then? Where do you turn? Where will you find support if you are exposed, standing in the arena and becoming the target for love, hate, ignorance or whatever spectators throw at you?

What I’ve found is that the only place you can turn to are other people also in the arena with you. In the example of running a startup, with you in the arena are two types of people:

  • Customers, stakeholders, influencers in your space
  • Experienced, other entrepreneurs – people with significant expertise of standing and playing in the arena.
  •  

    According to Seth Godin, these are the only people entitled to an opinion, that you should pay attention to. These are the kinds of people, you might want to aim and engage with and become friends with.

    It is these people – others who stand with you in the arena that can help you, push you forward and bring you to where you want to be. In my experience, nothing is more important than to look after the people you spend time with.

    Finding and making friends with others in the arena

    What you’ve probably quickly noticed already are the conversation with people who are in the arena with you.  They are distinctly different.

    People who are with you, they don’t think about criticism, good or bad, because they are no spectators. They aren’t looking for entertainment in any form. All they care about is progress, because they are in there with you, in one way or another. They depend on you, or you depend on them, regardless, progress and effort is the only thing that will be of interest to them. And that’s powerful.

    What I’ve found is that it can be quite difficult to adopt this kind of thinking, especially with people outside the area you are operating in. It is much harder to appreciate the effort for a photographer or ballet dancer, than it is for a fellow successful entrepreneur for me. Yet the most successful people manage to do exactly that, whichever event they come across, they appreciate the effort into achieving or failing first.

    Once you can quickly identify between arena thinkers and spectators thinkers, it’ll be easy to know which conversations to take forward and which ones to let trickle out.

    Seek out these people and pick up every chance you can to be in the arena yourself, instead of on the spectator seats. It is arena thinkers that will be the ones that drive you forward.

    What are you tips for when you are in the arena?

    Photocredit: DiverseTraveller

    Why we should stop thinking

    Recently, I’ve started to offer more free time for Skype calls so I can help and work with more people in the startup world. It’s been an absolutely terrific experience. From only a few calls, the key takeaway, that most people seem to struggle with is to stop more thoughts enter their minds and to finally get their hands dirty without any more ideas or thinking involved.

    The same struggle is true for me. If there is any one thing that I’ve been trying to work hard over the past two years, it is to force myself to stop thinking. To actively act against ideas and thoughts entering my mind, keeping them out with brute force at times.

    You see, ideas, thoughts, inspiration, information, that’s never the problem. The skill is to limit yourself to only dealing with a set amount of them, so you can escape analysis paralysis and spend most of your time in a non-thinking state of mind, where you get stuff done.

    The trap of thinking

    Especially if you are an entrepreneur, thinking can turn into a real trap and limitation for what you are doing. To most of us it is clear that nothing beats experience. What’s much harder to grasp is that in order to gain experience, you have to let go of thought.

    The trouble is that our mind tricks us. We are trained to see and judge any situation, so we can put lots of thought into it. If a situation looks like we are being successful, we analyze it to repeat it. If it looks like we will fail, we do the same, think it through and see how we can evaluate it in order to avoid it.

    The problem is this:

    “You’re never as smart as you think you are when you are winning and never as dumb as you feel when you are losing.” ~ Michael Hyatt

    Whilst we are trained to think – to think about losing, about winning, about what happened last week, about what will happen next week, there is one key thing to note: It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about playing lots of games.

    Thinking evidently gets in the way of that, it doesn’t allow you to play lots of games, but instead prompts you to dwell on the few games you have won or lost, paralyzing you to move forward.

    Here is a man, that avoid lots of thinking, who avoided dwelling on the past or lingering with his wins. Instead he played lots of games:


     

    Balancing your 3 states of mind

    Thinking is our dominant state of mind. We always think, we can’t help it. Someone even once said: “We are addicted to thinking”.

    And yet, I believe thinking leads to neither success, nor happiness. I believe that our mind can be in any of the following 3 different kind of states.

  • A state of flow
  • This state is something everyone knows. Studying it, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaliyi explained it as this:

    “It’s the experience of being intensely absorbed in an activity, an experiment, or a feeling.” […] “You feel like a waterfall.”

    For a programmer it means to be in the zone, for a writer it means to be in a state where words just flow, for a painter it is the impulsive moment of putting the paint on the canvas. I’m sure you can name plenty more examples.

  • A state of experiencing the present moment
  • This state of mind is again something everyone is familiar with I believe. It is when you have complete awareness, when your head is absolutely clear and you notice every detail around yourself. To give some common examples where most of us manage to get in a state of experiencing the present moment, these might help:

    It’s when you watch the sunset in a quiet place. It’s when you stop to smell the flowers, listen to the street artist’s song or when you look out of the window to watch the snow fall.  It’s when you stop and listen to the birds sing or the wind blow. It is these moments, where you are fully present in the moment.

    Thich Nhat Hanh put this into words so clearly and easily that I believe this will make the most sense:

    Let’s say that you want to eat a peach for dessert one evening, but you decide to only allow yourself this luxury after washing the dishes. If, while washing the dishes, all you think of is eating the peach, what will you be thinking of when you eat the peach?

    The clogged inbox, that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off, tomorrow’s to-do list?

    The peach is eaten but not enjoyed, and so on we continue through life, victims of a progressively lopsided culture that values achievement over appreciation.

  • A state of thought
  • And finally, the state of mind that has become our default is thought. We are in this state most of the time during our waking hours. It’s when we analyze, evaluate, judge, imagine the future, worry about the past, make up stories in our head or think about ideas.

    Would I break down in which states we are in every day, I believe that 80% would be in a state of thought, 15-20% in a state of flow and rarely or never in a state of experiencing the present moment.

    What I believe is much more appealing to be successful, and to be happy would be a life where you are nearly all the time in a state of experiencing the present moment (happiness), broken up by a few chunks of flow (productive, creative work). And limiting yourself to a drop of thought every day.

    The reason to limit thinking to a minimum is simple:

    Thinking is like looking at a compass and seeing if you are still headed in the right direction. If you continue looking at your compass day after day, you might make your sense of direction more accurate. And yet, you are still not going to get anywhere.

    Start doing and build your muscle of non-thinking: Jfdi

    The above is nothing small to aspire to. It is damn hard in fact and takes lots and lots of practice. I’m probably someone who struggles more than anyone else to turn these things into reality and move away from thinking – my current state is to manage a meditation session that lasts 9 minutes.

    As an entrepreneur, the reason to think less and do more, is even more important and probably best explained in this quote:

    I make mistakes faster than anybody. I think, go, do. That’s the Omniture mantra. While you’re figuring out what to do, we’ve tried two different things and have figured out the right one. ~ Josh James

    The only way to do move forward is to put your mind as a thinking tool aside and get into a state of flow, doing and trying as many different things as possible. Mark Suster put this into better words than I ever could with his post on Jfdi (“Just fucking do it”):

    Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right.  They move the ball forward every day.  They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct.  Good entrepreneurs can admit when their course of action was wrong and learn from it.  Good entrepreneurs are wrong often.  If you’re not then you’re not trying hard enough.  Good entrepreneurs have a penchant for doing vs. over-analyzing.

    It is about stopping to believe in doing “that one thing” and getting on with lots and lots of different things, where you will eventually discover along the way what works and what doesn’t.

    Of course this can be very challenging at the start, especially as most of our education evolves all around thinking, from elementary school, to high school to university. In order to build your muscle of non-thinking, you have to start as small as possible. Like going to the gym, your muscle of non-thinking will be very weak. Consciously making time for a state of flow and getting into experiencing the present moment takes considerable effort. Leo Babauta, Tim Ferriss and Susan O’Connell describe in this fabulous video how to get started.

    How are you approaching thinking? Have you ever tried to limit your thinking to focus on other states of mind and do more?

    Your default state of mind is happy

    For a long time, I’ve always wanted to learn to mediate and start improving my inner sense of calm. Multiple times in the past few months I’ve tried to follow some very straight forward guides from various Buddhist books I’ve been reading. They all mention to just sit down for 5-10 minutes, close your eyes, focus on your breathing and let your thoughts flow.

    I couldn’t do it. Every time, after less then a minute I’d get up and just get on with what I was doing. Recently I mentioned this to a friend of mine and they recommended me an amazing application called Headspace, that teaches you meditation.

    So, for the past 10 days, I’ve been mediating 10 minutes a day. Instead of having to find my own way, Andy Puddicombe, the founder, walks you through the exercises. It changed everything. It reminded me again, the art is not what to start, it’s how to get started.

    All of the early lessons Andy uncovered in these 10 sessions were truly fascinating. They explain things in such easy and clear ways I was blown away.

    The sky is always blue

    One of Andy’s key messages, that absolutely stuck with me after the past 10 days is this simple line: The sky is always blue.

    In the first few session Andy says it over and over again. “The sky is always blue, if you think about it, it really is.” And the sentence I’d attribute so little meaning at first, became incredibly alive all of a sudden.

    No matter which time of day or year, the sky above us, is in fact always blue. Whether there are clouds, it’s raining, snowing or what have you. The, sky, after all things is still there behind it all, blue as ever.

    Looking at this line now, it is probably one of the most comforting ones any one of us can read. Our minds, no matter how sad, cluttered, full of thought, excitement or loneliness they are – are in fact always happy and calm. It’s just that sometimes things get pushed in the way of the clear blue sky.

    Andy continues and says this amazing line:

    “Happiness is not something we have to create or achieve. It’s something that’s always there.”

    Happiness, it’s there, ready for us to grasp when we are ready.

    Kids smile 400 times a day

    It’s one of the most inspiring TED talks I’ve seen by Ron Gutman, featuring these stunning results. Kids at age of just a few years old, smile on average 400 times a day. Adults on average only smile around 20 times.

    It’s an amazing testimonial to the fact that no one needs to teach us how to smile. We always know and knew how to do it. We always know how to be happy and how that feels like.

    It’s a though that really makes feel great, it means there is nothing to wait for until you achieve happiness, no long path to go down. It’s something you can very easily start doing today, or better yet start re-doing today.

    Working on my daily happiness is one of the things I focus on as much as I can. Throughout the past few months, there were definitely some very interesting (re)discoveries to make.

    How are you approaching a state of happiness? I’d love your thoughts on this.

    photocredit: incurable_hippie

    The myth of doing “that one thing”

    Over the last two years since I’ve been working on Buffer, there is one particular theme that keeps coming up over and over. It is in fact so consistent both in my own actions and other startups and founders that I work with, that I felt it finally deserved a full post.

    It is the myth of being able to do one thing, that one thing, that will put you, your career or your startup to the next level. That one magic action or event, that will all of a sudden flick a switch and change things forever.

    I remember one (other) particular email conversation I had with Noah Kagan, founder of AppSumo, where I fell into the “one thing trap” as I did so many times. I asked him this:

    “What was the most valuable user acquisition strategy for Mint after you have hit 100K users?”

    Noah replied this:

    “the crappy answer is a few things:

    1- infographics

    2- pr

    3- winning tc40

    4- sharing data to get tons of articles

    5- having a great product that was 100% free.”

    As Noah is a humble guy, he wrote “crappy”, when really, this is not crappy at all.

    It is rarely the case of being able to do “just one thing” that will automatically move the needle and have our startup succeed. What comes much closer to the truth I believe is to have lots and lots of different smaller things, that all add up to give you a bigger, successful outcome.

    That one interview, that one write-up, that one investor

    These are the different examples that come to mind that I had in my head the most: “If we only get TechCrunch to write about us. If we only get this app to integrate with Buffer. If we only get this one investor on board. If we could only get this one big Twitter user to send one Tweet about us.” If only one of these things will happen to us, we will be saved and everything will be successful.

    Unfortunately, that’s not the case. You get that one TechCrunch write-up and you learn, it doesn’t bring you anything else than a few hundred users. That one integration actually only has limited impact, with that one investor you still have 5 others to go.

    The trouble is, you get caught up and so obsessed doing that one thing that you stall. You turn towards coming across as desparate and any development deal, talk with reporter or investor ends up in you begging on your knees. I did this many times, and it’s not a great approach.

    Instead, what I’ve learnt is that there should be lots of different aspects you are working on at the same time, it means trying to get a large volume of write-ups, a large volume of integrations, a large number of investors.

    Why? Because it all comes down to Ira Glass’s words about “doing a huge volume of work”.

    Ira Glass’s law of doing a huge volume of work

    The following video from Ira Glass, an American radio and TV host, is one that I have watched dozens of times and I hope you can check it out too. It explains everything without any further explanation needed:

    Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

    This is the most important part I believe:

    “There is a gap. That for the first couple of years, that you are making stuff, what you are making isn’t so good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.” […]

    “The most important, possible thing you could do is to do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap.”

    Frankly, it took me a long time to admit this and to understand it. It is so easy to put your finger down on something and say “this one thing, if I get this right now, everything will change”. It is absolutely tempting and comforting for your head. Unfortunately, it’s not what will get you to the next level.

    Have you ever been trapped by having to “just do that one thing”? I would love to hear your experience on this.



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