It’s Surprisingly Easy to Stand Out

peter-gibbonsIn one of my favorite comedies, Office Space, the protagonist Peter Gibbons laments to a pair of consultants that the only real motivation at his job is to “work just hard enough not to get fired.” He walks them through a typical workday, which includes coming in late, staring at his desk for a few hours, and generally doing very little actual work. This rare bit of honesty impresses the consultants, and instead of firing Peter, they send him on the fast track to upper management.

One day, Peter was an anonymous office drone. The next day, he got promoted. Why? Because he was one of the few people at his company who stood out. All it took was a little honesty.

Most people are content to do the bare minimum at their jobs. Most people want to make just enough money to get by. And most people will never achieve much of anything, because they simply don’t care to.

In a world where the majority are OK with being anonymous, sitting still, and never growing, it’s actually very easy to stand out.

So why be like most people, when doing just a little bit extra makes you stand out so much?

You Need to Know What You Don’t Know

A somewhat famous saying states “You don’t know what you don’t know.” In other words, there are factors out there working against you, which you aren’t even aware of. Plus, you aren’t even aware that you are unaware of them.

I say you’d better learn exactly what these as-yet-unknown things are, so you can either steer around them.

Otherwise, you’ll be just one of many unremarkable people offering useless advice, opinions, products, or services.

12 Ways to Fail in Business

Sometimes, knowing what not to do is your biggest asset. I’ve failed in business before, and I’m sure I’ll fail again, but I’ll be damned if I make the same mistake twice.

Here are my fool-proof ways to guarantee you’ll fail in your business ventures. Avoid them at all costs!

1. Cast too wide a net.
You must find a relatively small niche and dominate it. You cannot be all things to all people, so don’t even try.

2. Build a monument to yourself.
It’s not about what you want, it’s what your customers want. Never forget it.

3. Refuse to change/pivot.
My most successful business went through a few different iterations before we settled on the right path (which was the simplest idea of all, by the way). Always be flexible to what the market is telling you.

4. Rest on your laurels.
Once you get a taste of success, it’s easy to take your foot off the gas. Don’t. Push harder. The time is now. Someone else out there is hungrier than you, and wants to take what’s yours.

5. Go it alone.
Almost every great business person has at least one great partner. Two heads really are better than one. You can’t do it all, so don’t even try. Partner up.

6. Partner with the wrong people.
Speaking of partnerships, it’s essential to find the right fit. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your partners, so make sure you a) like them, and b) they’re smart, dependable, and resourceful.

7. Neglect sales and marketing.
Many entrepreneurs get so caught up in their great idea that they forget about how they’re going to sell the damn thing. Figure out your market niche and how you’ll sell to it, and plan on dedicating a large portion of your time (at least half of it in the early stages) to generating sales, both through marketing and direct sales.

8. Don’t test anything.
Remember in Glengarry Glen Ross when Alec Baldwin’s character said “Always be closing?” Well, I say “Always be testing.” Try new things, think of new products, new promotions, new pricing structures, new markets, add-on services. Never be afraid to try anything, because everything is worth testing.

9. Forget customer service.
Most people would rather not take the time to answer the phone and respond to emails all day. Believe me, I know — I did almost 100% of the customer service for my last business for four years, and I hated it. Still, the effort paid for itself many times over, as our customers appreciated the effort immensely.

10. Seek perfection.
Many products or services face big delays, or never even see the light of day at all, simply because the founders had some perfect idealized unreachable goal in mind.

So think big, but start small. Get your barebones product or service to market, and see if there’s interest. If people want it, then work on improving it. The iPhone wasn’t perfect when Apple launched it, and it still isn’t. It never will be. Yet they sell 200 million of them a year. As my friend would say, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”

11. Give up.
Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. I can’t even tell you how many setbacks I’ve had over the years. Many were my own doing, others I couldn’t control. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die sometimes. I made zero money for years. But I never gave up.

You must keep going. Are you in doubt? Good. Just don’t give up. Start over from scratch if need be, but never give up.

12. Sit on your idea forever.
The worst mistake you can make is never actually starting. Most people never achieve much of anything because they spend more time daydreaming than doing. Be a doer. Get started.

I Used to Fear Routine, but Now I Embrace It. Here’s Why.

The older I get, the more complicated life gets. I have two young children, a wife who just went back to work, and several projects I’m either working on or considering working on.

And of course, I need a little recreation time once in a while, too.

Simply put, I have a lot going on. The only way to combat so many moving parts is by embracing a routine.

I used to fear and despise routine. I was afraid of doing the same things every day because I thought “that’s what old people do.” Who wants to be an old person? I wanted to go to sleep or get up each day whenever I damn well pleased.

But that just doesn’t work in the real world. Since I quit my job a couple months ago, I quickly realized I needed a strict routine to be a productive person.

Here’s my current daily routine:

  • My alarm goes off at 6am (every day, even on the weekends)
  • I snooze it until about 6:30 (OK, maybe 7 sometimes)
  • I get up, get refreshed, and make coffee (I love coffee)
  • I drink the coffee lovingly (I told you, I love coffee)
  • I read for an hour or two (books on my Kindle — usually non-fiction, but I’ve been getting more into fiction lately)
  • I eat something quick (usually yogurt/granola)
  • I do my work (lately I have been coding a lot more than writing — sorry to everyone asking what the hell happened to my blog!)
  • I eat lunch around 1pm (sometimes later if I’m busy with meetings, but I try to stick to 1pm)
  • I get back to work again (more coding and/or writing)
  • I stop working at 6pm at the latest (family is important)
  • I fall asleep by 11pm at the latest (I’m exhausted by this time)

This routine allows me to take all the guesswork out of my day, so I can focus on getting shit done. Some days, particularly on weekends, include a lot less work and a lot more recreation/family time, and that’s OK. What matters is sticking to everything else.

What do you do to keep yourself on track each day? What could you add or subtract to your routine to improve it? How do you think I could improve my routine? I’d love to hear from you.

Five Unconventional Ways to Get the Most out of College

I’ll admit it. I didn’t put much time into my studies in college.

Yet I absolutely loved the experience, and unlike most kids who don’t try very hard in school, I still got a lot out of it. Here are my top five unconventional ways to get the most out of college.

1. Get a part-time job in a field you enjoy — it may become your actual job one day.

My first real tech job was at an on-campus non-profit web startup. I applied before I ever even stepped foot on campus, nailed the interview, and enjoyed every bit of the time I worked there. I learned a whole lot about web development, which eventually helped launched my career a few years later.

2. Be outgoing and make friends with people you normally wouldn’t be friends with.

The social aspects of college are incredible. You’ll never get another chance to spend so much time simply meeting and hanging out with so many different types of people. Don’t waste it.

3. Take day trips to cool places outside of your campus.

It’s all too easy to get trapped in your daily routine of class, partying, video games, etc. Get out of town with a few friends and go experience something else besides what your college offers. In hindsight, I wish I had done a lot more of this.

4. Pitch a department head on a new project you can get paid to create.

A friend of mine introduced me to the head of the bioengineering department at my school, who I pitched a new website idea for. I spent one summer creating the site and getting paid pretty well to do it. I met a bunch of awesome new people too! Tip: it’s actually really easy to get in front of department chairpeople, and they usually have a budget to spend on just about anything they see fit.

5. Start a company with your friends.

Some of the world’s best companies were created by a handful of friends in college (Facebook is perhaps the best example). You don’t have to dream that big, or even be successful. It’s all about the process of starting something and seeing it to completion. This experience will benefit you later in life, regardless of how your project turns out.

Conclusion

There are many other benefits to college than just going to class and studying. Make sure to take advantage of all of the amazing opportunities that this chapter in your life affords you.

Dealing with Doubt

dealing-with-doubtExternal doubts are relatively easy to deal with. Most of the time, criticism is helpful, and when it isn’t, we ignore it.

Internal doubt, on the other hand, is a different animal. It’s really hard to ignore yourself.

So, your best bet is to embrace your doubts.

Doubt is good.

Doubt means you’re thinking.

Smart people are full of doubt, because they realize how little they actually know. They spend a lot of time exploring their doubts. They beat up ideas and processes and products and services until very little doubt remains. Then they doubt some more.

If you aren’t doubting, you’re probably not creating much value.

Those who do, doubt.

I Didn’t Blog Yesterday

one-day-blogging

 

Because I didn’t have the time.

Because I was too busy with other work.

Because I started two articles but couldn’t finish them.

Because I couldn’t think of anything good to write.

Because I was afraid a new post wouldn’t hold up to the previous one.

Because I didn’t want to.

Because I didn’t try hard enough.

5 Things College Doesn’t Teach, But Should

5-ways-college-doesnt-prepare-you-for-the-real-worldFor most students, college is an amazing experience. I’m certainly no exception — I’ll never forget the great times I had with my friends there. Post-college, however, a different kind of hangover sets in.

After leaving the fantasyland of college, many young people are woefully unprepared for life in the real world. A college education, for all of its merits, completely neglects some key skills that all people need to learn if they’re going to be successful.

Here are five ways college doesn’t prepare kids for the real world.

1. College doesn’t teach kids personal finance.

One day at college, a couple of my friends returned to our dilapidated rental house with fresh Chase Bank t-shirts and matching beer mugs. (I’m not sure if they were designed to be beer mugs or not, but that’s what they were used for.)

“All we had to do,” they said, “was fill out a credit card application.” Obviously, the lure of free made-in-China megabank-branded swag was more than enough to get the deal done.

A few weeks later, both of my friends received shiny new plastic cards with $1,000 monthly spending limits and 15% annual interest rates. These guys were generally not to be trusted with a six pack of non-premium beer, let alone a credit card. Yet banks were all too willing to extend credit to them, or should I say, to prey on them.

Thus began several years of credit problems for my friends. Not too long after, I bore witness to several calls from banks and collection agencies wondering why, oh why, didn’t these 19 year-old kids didn’t pay their bills. I even knew one guy who declared bankruptcy at the age of 22 because of his crippling credit card debt!

I doubt these stories are unique. Colleges and universities across the country routinely allow credit card issuers to set up shop on their campuses. Even worse, however, is the fact that colleges do nothing to teach kids about the dangers of debt.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for the lack of personal finance education, considering the average U.S. student loan debt was $29,400 for the class of 2012. At the very least, colleges are complicit in the $1.2 trillion debt scheme. They’ll happily accept your money, but they won’t teach you about it.

Imagine if the first day of freshman year, colleges were obligated to disclose the average student loan debt that graduates leave the school with?

At my school, every student was required to take an expository writing class, meet certain math requirements, and many programs even forced students to take at least one foreign language course. Yet not one of us was ever asked to learn about personal finance. Most of us left school with no idea how to create a budget, refinance a loan, or avoid debt.

These basic finance skills would have served students far better than the majority of the courses, and in my opinion, should become a prerequisite at every college and university nationwide. In fact, they should be taught in high school as well, but that’s another story for another day.

2. College doesn’t teach kids to sell or negotiate.

If you majored in marketing, you may have gotten a cursory explanation of what makes a good salesperson. But even then, you probably learned nothing about actually selling.

Like personal finance, selling is a skill that nearly all successful people have mastered. Selling also isn’t taught to most college students. Those that do go on to be good salespeople are forced to learn the ropes through a combination of research, mentoring, and trial and error, all on their own. Sadly, most people never learn to sell, and it severely limits their earning potential.

Selling has an undeserved stigma amongst many in academia. Professors may think selling is beneath them, or that most kids won’t actually use the skill. They’re wrong. Selling is involved in nearly every aspect of business.

  • If you’re looking for a job, you’re selling yourself to a company.
  • If you want to create a new project, you have to sell it to your boss.
  • If you want more customers, you have to sell to them.
  • If you need a loan, you have to sell yourself to the bank.
  • If you want a promotion, you have to sell someone on the fact that you deserve it.

Selling is everywhere. If you can sell, you can work anywhere in the world, and do almost anything. Kids should have to learn this before they graduate college.

Negotiating is closely related to selling, and college kids don’t learn how to negotiate, either. Normally the price of something as expensive as college could be negotiated, but it isn’t, and thus it makes sense why colleges don’t require kids to learn how to haggle. Imagine millions of students pitching schools on why their education isn’t worth the cost, and they refuse to pay that much? That would be a beautiful thing.

3. College doesn’t teach kids how to get a job or start a business.

You’d think that for $150K, college grads would at least know exactly how to put their education to use, right? Wrong.

Most kids graduate without a clue about:

  • What makes a great résumé
  • How and where to market your résumé
  • How to create a kick-ass LinkedIn profile
  • How to network with the right people on LinkedIn
  • How to nail a first job interview, and follow-up interviews
  • How to negotiate a salary
  • How to get a promotion, and advance in your career

Shouldn’t all of these topics be wrapped up in a required exit course for seniors called something like “Getting a Job 101”?

And then there’s entrepreneurship, which is all but completely ignored in college:

  • How to find your niche
  • How to start a business
  • How to find your first customer
  • How to grow an email list
  • How to write marketing copy
  • How to get to your first $1 million in sales
  • How to scale and grow your business to $10 million and beyond

Even in business school, these topics are barely touched upon. That’s a shame, and kids deserve better.

4. College doesn’t teach kids about cutting edge anything.

Back in 2000, my university barely even had an Information Technology (I.T.) program. Even more embarrassing, the small amount of classes the school offered were borderline useless. Instead, I learned everything about web design, development, and content at my job and on my own.

Little has changed these days. Unless a student is involved in a scientific research program, odds are their curriculum will be many years behind the curve.

Things move really fast out in the real world, certainly several times faster than they move in higher education. I recognize how difficult it is for a massive educational institution to keep up, when many multibillion dollar for-profit public companies can’t. But they should at least try really hard.

Instead, many schools remain mired in the traditional approach of teaching the same old stuff, year after year. And as usual, it’s the students that suffer.

5. College doesn’t teach kids about investing.

If you major in finance, you’ll learn the basics of investing. Probably not much you can actually put to direct use in your own life, but you’ll at least understand how different investment vehicles work.

The other 90-something percent of students graduate without a single clue about how to invest their money. Here are just a smattering of important things that all young people should know, but likely don’t:

  • The differences between mutual funds and ETFs
  • Why 401(k)s are usually a scam
  • The different tax advantages of a Roth IRA and Traditional IRA
  • The current 10-Year Treasury yield, what it means, and where it’s going
  • What the Federal Reserve is, and its massive effect on the markets
  • What separates a good stock from a bad one
  • The dangers of penny stocks
  • The dark side of the financial newsletter industry
  • How to avoid big investment losses
  • How to build a diversified portfolio based on your specific risk tolerance

I could go on and on. I’ve spent the last eight years working in financial media, and I can tell you first hand that even seasoned investors fail to grasp the concepts above. So recent college grads really don’t have a chance.

What else do you think should be required for students to learn in college? I’d love to you hear from you, so leave a comment on this post or on Facebook.

Also, if you like this and other posts, please share them! I really appreciate it. Thanks!

The 4 Best Alternatives to College

the-four-best-alternatives-to-collegeI’ve been getting some great feedback on Facebook regarding my first two posts examining the true value of a college education (see Part 1 and Part 2). Today, I want to take a closer look at what I feel are the best current alternatives to college, and even some potential new paths that might be available to my kids as they reach college age in about 15 years.

College Alternative #1: Free and Low Cost Education Programs

I already outlined some of the free options available yesterday, so I won’t get into them again. Instead, I want to think about possible alternatives that may emerge over the next decade or so.

Looking into the future is difficult, but I can imagine a couple of scenarios:

  1. Low (or no) cost co-op programs run by the companies themselves – Some colleges already do this (Drexel, for example), but a combination of work and study seems like a really great formula for success to me. Imagine if some brave companies actually started running these programs themselves? It’d be a home run. They could screen young applicants, train them up in the subjects that really matter to them (think Writing Effective Emails 101, or How to Sell), and give them on-the-job training in a variety of roles they might be suited for. Isn’t this a better strategy than blindly hiring 21 year-olds with liberal arts degrees?
  2. High schools that train kids to work, not prepare them for more school – About of third of high school graduates don’t enter college, and they leave high school woefully unprepared for the real world. What if true alternative high schools existed that trained kids to actually work? (I know that vo-tech schools already exist, but these still do a poor job of preparing kids for the real world. They don’t reach kids personal finance or how to sell, for example.) I’m talking real training for kids that want to enter the workforce immediately, and get them fully prepared for living on their own.

College Alternative #2: Give the Kid a Business

As I wrote yesterday, it costs about $150K on average to send a kid through a four-year college (and most kids don’t finish in four years). For that money, parents could buy a decent business instead and have their kid run it.

Of course, that means your child needs to be smart, responsible, and hard-working. I don’t know many 18 year-olds who meet all those requirements, but they do exist. You could also always negotiate an arrangement where the former owner of the business trains your kid for a year a two before they take over, possibly with an opt-out if the kid doesn’t like the work.

If you already own a family business, that’s even better. The only problem is, most kids don’t want to go into the family business. Whether out of spite, teenage rebellion, a general dislike for the industry and work, or sheer laziness, kids just don’t want to seem to follow in their parents’ footsteps. I’ve seen many scenarios like this play out, even in some very lucrative fields. So while providing a family business opportunity sounds good in theory, there’s no guarantee your child will go for it.

College Alternative #3: Trade School

I know many people who’ve had great success becoming electricians, plumbers, etc. after foregoing college to enter trade school. Many of these professions are always in demand, and unlike college, trade school teaches people real-world skills that are directly used on the job.

Even less-intensive trades like barbering require a lot of physical labor, but the rewards can be immense, particularly if the skill is parlayed into owning your own business.

College Alternative #4: Entrepreneurship

As an entrepreneur myself, this is my personal favorite option. Imagine allowing your kids to pursue their own focused education following high school. Reading books, taking free online courses, and connecting with like-minded young people online could put them on track to starting their own business.

They’ll probably fail early on, but so what? No entrepreneur has a 100% success rate (or anything approaching that), especially in their infancy. You live and learn, you try and fail, and try again.

I can’t imagine a more ultimately fulfilling path than starting multiple businesses. Beginning this process at age 18 gives kids a great chance to eventually execute a highly profitable venture that could benefit them for many, many years to come.

What ideas do you have for your kids (or future kids) that don’t involve traditional college?

Should I Send My Kids to College?

Is this little guy dreaming of how he'll put his college degree to use? I doubt it.
Is this little guy dreaming of how he’ll put his college degree to use? I doubt it.

I’m lucky enough to have two beautiful children. My daugher is two-and-a-half years old, and my son is almost six weeks. More than a few people have mentioned college savings accounts to me, and to be honest, I haven’t even considered putting money away for school for them. Here’s why.

College Is Probably Only Worth It If You Have Very Clear Goals.

If one or both of my kids want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, or something similar, then I’ll send them to college. Several years of traditional schooling is currently the only track to one of those professional careers.

If my kids don’t know what they want to do (the vast majority of young people fall into this boat), then I will either delay college for them until they figure it out, or encourage them to seek alternatives.

Note that I do not believe that college is the place to figure these things out. I’d rather my kids spend time reading, learning, and exploring on their own for a year or two after high school than waste time and money taking a slew of introductory college courses in massive lecture halls, memorizing and regurgitating information spoonfed to them.

In my experience, kids that don’t know what they want to do with their lives, yet attend college anyway, spend much more time partying, sleeping, and otherwise goofing off than they do on their studies. Which brings me to my next point.

For Far Too Many Kids, College Is a 4 to 5 Year Vacation That They Don’t Deserve.

If my kids don’t enter college with clear goals, and aren’t pursuing a professional career that necessitates college, then the college experience amounts to little more than a multi-year vacation. Indeed, most students have a great time at college — not surprising considering they’re living with a bunch of their best friends. But there is such a thing as too much fun, which I witnessed first hand. A number of kids I knew flunked out of school. Many others simply never finished their education, or stuck around seemingly forever.

We have some data to back up my anecdotal evidence: only 59% of first-time, full-time college students who entered a four-year college program in 2006 graduated within six years. That means 41% still didn’t finish after six years. In the financial world, these people would be known as “write-offs,” meaning it’s very safe to assume they will never actually finish.

It’s worth noting that the more selective a college is, the more likely its students are to graduate. This seems like common sense to me, because elite high school students tend to also be elite college students. However, there could be other factors at play, because selective schools tend to be more expensive (although that’s not always the case), meaning that parents will probably put a lot more pressure on their kids to succeed when much more money is at stake. And speaking of money…

Given the Skyrocketing Costs of College, Getting a Good Return on Investment Is Becoming Very Difficult.

College is extremely expensive. According to the latest College Board data:

A “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2014–2015 academic year averaged $23,410. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $46,272.

This total college budget includes tuition, room and board, and all the other wonderful fees that anyone who’s attended college can explain to you via an expletive-riddled tirade. So let’s pick a nice, round number, and budget $30,000 per year for my kids.

Remember when we discovered that only 59% of new college students graduate within six years? Well, fewer than 40% of new students graduate within the traditional four years. So odds are, it’ll take my kids more than for years to graduate, if they ever graduate at all.

Let’s say it takes them five years to finish school. That means a total investment of $150,000 each, plus five full years of time where they’re earning almost nothing. What’s more, they’re unlikely to gain much real-world experience during this period.

That’s a whole lot of time and money, so it better be worth it! Isn’t it possible that there’s a better way to invest in my kids? As it turns out, yes.

There Are Great Alternatives to College, and Many More Are Coming.

In recent years, no-cost online education options have exploded. Here are just a few resources at kids’ (and adults’) disposal:

  • Kahn Academy – Offers 100% free videos explaining over 2,400 different topics, from math to physics to computer programming to history. Most of these videos are produced by the very smartest people in the world, simply because they want to share knowledge with everyone, for free.
  • Code Academy – Learn virtually any type of computer programming for free. Enough said.
  • Coursera – Free online courses from the top colleges and universities around the world. Actual classes that students pay thousands of dollars for, except you get them for free.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare – Arguably the greatest technology school in history has put much of its curriculum online for free.
  • edX – Same deal, most MIT and Harvard courses are available here for free.

So instead of spending $150K to send my kids to college, they can learn literally the same exact things, in the same exact courses, online, for free. FREE. Did I mention all this stuff is free?

If college is strictly about learning, then it’s hard to justify paying for my kids’ education. As the online education world continues to evolve, we’re guaranteed to see even more free and low-cost options in the coming years.

When my kids reach college age in 15 years, will traditional college be necessary at all, or will a college degree still be the new high school diploma? Am I better off paying them $150K over five years to take a bunch of free online courses on their own, and design their own careers accordingly? I’d love to hear your thoughts.