Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is writing this blog. He's a startup veteran, having built a company called Simplifilm. This blog is about things that he's starting to - but may not actually - think yet. It publishes irregularly.

Daily Operating System: A Theory To Practice

Days have gotten away from me, and I’ve not accomplished enough in 2018. My decision velocity is sluggish, as has been the output/throughput. For those of you nice people like David Gibbons that are telling me I’m too hard on myself, I say to you “meh.” I’m not, trust me, I’m not.

Time Freedom is a great thing, but it requires a really intense commitment. Listening to The SoloPreneur hour has helped me dial that idea in. I want to be free to go by about 2:30 or 3pm in the afternoon, Allan Branch style.

I have to use a schedule because that is how I work.

I know it can work because I watched my beautiful wife do it. I’ve watched my wife as she’s doubled her salary, lost 70# and become the best version of herself ever. Her schedule is rigorous (not for sissies) and she runs a tough schedule.

I got similar goals, man. It’s time to party.  “Playtime” is ended.

There are several things that I need to be able to do. In my current incarnation, I’m going to be a “solopreneur.” For at least a year I’m going to go from project to project helping small agencies add about a million in profitable revenue.

Here’s what has to go in my schedule in order for me to win the days:

  • Morning Ritual: Something built to get me centered and focused that gets me going mind and body. A 30-minute start to the day. A little “miracle morning” a little “Own the day.”
  • Core 4: The 4 main inputs I need to do daily live the life I want. Focused hours. “Reps.” This is a theory, that 4 focused hours can change your life and get most of your work done and gone.
  • Themed Days: We want to do things in batches. We want to have themes so that we get some economy of scale and don’t spend all of our time in transition.
  • Client Work: About 40-50% of my working time should be delivering value to my clients.
  • Family Time: This is important. Being able to do things with my family is critical.
  • Administrative Time: Dealing with taxes, gov’t agencies, cleaning your office and payroll is a part of what it means to be a solopreneur. We can’t yet delegate everything to a system or person (though we will.)
  • System Review Let’s set aside some time to look at our systems, and ensure that they are working well.
  • Margins (i.e. places for failover, rest, and recovery.) Both time and money.  I need some tools to manage this stuff.
  • Boundaries, Tools and Tactics Using things like Freedom and Google Calendar to manage this stuff.
  • Ending The Day I feel often like my days are endless. That I always leave each day with more on the hook.
  • Getting Back On Track: Rules to get back on track if something weird happens (Like today, I woke up to a flooded toilet, what to do about legitimate urgent interruptions).

I’ll be putting things up and linking up as I finished the posts. I need to have rules in place so I don’t have to fret over decisions and so things can become habits.

At First, You’re Writing For Yourself

I’m starting something new after spending a long time on Simplifilm.

I’ve got:

  • No following
  • No Audience
  • A network I’ve worn out.
  • Bad work habits.

This isn’t me saying “poor me,” I’ve started things from nothing before – and an assessment of where I’m at is so necessary.

I read from Russell Brunson (who I wrote off as a Tony Robbins type) that when you’re starting, you’re writing for yourself. I’ll add that it’s gotta be enough at first.

We’re writing to clarify ideas, build the habits, and solidify who we are. That’s where it starts. That’s the fountainhead and foundation. And so, if nothing happens, something’s still happening. You’re getting better.

Stephen King said the first million words are just practice. He’s probably right.

So, then this is where it starts. For myself.  To practice, to get better and to build.

And I gotta be OK with that for a while to go on the pat that I’m meaning to go on.

Mental Toughness, Part I.

I’ve been running again for about a week now. A few weeks ago I learned that I had a fractured elbow, and a bone spur.  Fractured may be overstating it a bit, but there are fractures there, and it’s grown spurs to try to ‘reach out,’ for the tendon.

This kept me from playing racquetball, a sport I really dig, and was using to get cardio and fitness.  It was at least partially caused by racquetball.  I was going to get surgery, but my Doctor noted that it was healing, and that it was “on the line,” so he decided to see if it would heal.  I’ve healed some more.

Early on though, any little jostle would “set it off” and I’d be in sort of bad pain for 3-4 hours and then it would dull and go away.  While waiting for the next appointment, it got a little better, and then the healing began, and now it’s more fine than not. Except when I do certain motions (like remove a belt).

It got better over time, I don’t know how long it took.  I didn’t do much for fear of aggravating it. This meant that I was out of shape pretty quickly.  Not that my “fitness” was ever perfected, but I lost cardio strength.

And mental strength.

About 10 days ago I started running again. I measured out a 3.4 mile loop from my house.

One left turn and a few right turns.

When I started – 10 days ago – I literally couldn’t run a mile straight through.  My feet would hurt, my legs, oh, I am breathing heavy.  All of that.

Now? I’m not in shape. But I can run 2.4 miles again.  I’ll probably be able to push it to 3.4.  Nothing hurts that much.  I have a little foot soreness towards the end. But just a little.

I’m crushing the goals, and telling myself simultaneously that I’m “taking it easy.”  All a mental game.

The changes cannot be physiological after 10 days. They are mental. Mentally, I believed I’d get faster, and so I did. It took less time than I thought. I figured it would be a month before I’d be able to run a mile straight through, but I did 3.4 miles last night.

So mental toughness is a thing.
It’s the thing I have to develop this year at the highest level possible.

Boundaries and Consequences And Children

When we see our flaws in our children, it’s a heartbreak.

When I was young, I wanted to find the end of the line. I wanted to know what was permanent. It was a hard thing for me.

I chased them, and society kept me safe. My parents sure tried, but I wound up being persistent. I’d always eventually able to wear them down and skirt the consequences with some token good behavior. My parole would come quickly.

I remember in school going to great lengths to feed my shock fix. Heckling the girls basketball team to the point where their opposing coach started coming into the stands. Getting a crowd of football spectators to chant “Fifty-Six has Bitch Tits,” at a Mid-Major college. It was fun for a moment. But the energy I spent on it, man?

In seventh grade, planted a rumor on the electronic scrolling message board (for a fundraiser if I recall). Civilized society doesn’t care. The Overton window didn’t then do anything. I remember how much of myself was spent on petty rebellions, tilting at windmills.

I played the part of Rebel. Because that was easier and more instant than excellence. And it got attention, and there were really no consequences. And the rebellion was harmless, no threat to the machine I raged against.

It took more and more to shock people. And it was taxing to try.

It was so boring.  The obvious dick joke. The joke that got a laugh once but was stale to me. The rote reactions.

My kid was looking for the wall. He popped off at school and said some profoundly stupid things. He earned his trouble. I remember when I was his age, there’d be an uncomfortable day, and then it would blow over. I’d learn little to nothing. The lecture would end, and I figured out all I had to do was fake some contrition to make the talking stop.

This was to alleviate boredom. To find stimulation.  To get some sort of fix. Because that was quicker than doing the work to earn one. Snark is like that. It’s easier to make a shitbird remark about someone’s family picture than to take your own.

So I gotta figure out how to impart a lesson. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let my kid follow those footsteps, but I’ll also be damned if I don’t understand his point.

Some Music

A few simple songs I used to dig at some point in my life and have lost touch with for a time:

2 Kool 2 B 4gotten – Lucinda Williams

2 Cool 2 Care – Anna Burch

Everlong – Foo Fighters

Heartspark Dollarsign – Everclear

Please Send The Letter – Alison Krauss & Robert Plant

The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion – Black Crowes

The Promise & Peril of Social Media.

I came to the Web when it was new. It was asynchronous. It was anonymous. It was decentralized. It was truly amazing. It had the “wild west” vibe. You could become someone different.

More specifically: you could transform yourself into someone different. You could become the future-self. Bit by bit by trying on new identities and trading ideas at a higher velocity. The early days of the web led so many people to really contribute.

And there was a lot of great writing. My friends from college wrote longform-ish essays on a lot of topics. I never believed it would collapse and consolidate down to one giant corporation.

But Facebook was ruthless. And they won the war by both skill and ruthlessness. It landed on our actual identities (for the most part). Our friends gradually joined the web to see the pictures of grandkids. We became ourselves.

And the content changed. Nuance was lost. We started our apparently neverending political debate. Someone was wrong on the internet after all. We had to fix it. Nuanced thoughts went to the comments sections.

Because Facebook was engineered for Facebook, not for us. It was designed for a lot of low value micro-interactions. To get the ALERT to pop up, and to keep the debate raging inside of us. All of that benefited Facebook and helped us get together. That was a good thing.

But, the “bad” thing is that we don’t have time for the Deep Work. We have adapted our behavior for Facebook because that’s the system of record for our social interactions. It’s where we live, as it were. And so we adapt to that. By wanting to be “Facebook Popular,” instead of really great, we win in the short term.

We lose in the long term. We don’t have the chance to do the work that matters, because we’re explaining the nuances of our political positions, or the highlight films of our lives. We are stuck in this loop because it’s designed to trap us. We mock our cats when they chase an uncatchable laser pointer, yet here we are.

We waste time arguing if Trump or Hillary is worse. Then we have to come up with increasingly preposterous ideas just to get the same dopamine fix. We wind up abandoning the truth and accepting and spreading idiotic ideas like Pizzagate just because addictions always require escalation.

Facebook’s not the binary choice that Cal Newport and John Mayer make it out to be. Facebook is useful when we set up boundaries. We can distribute, connect and spread our message using its platform. We can reach people. There is some truth to some of their mission, the Arab Spring gave us some hope for a connected world.

But we have to make the time to have a message. We have to protect and defend ourselves, and develop our ideas. This is what Facebook threatens. Doing the work and developing. Writing – even when nobody is reading yet.

My friend Srini talks about an hour a day. He’s right, of course. Protecting our hour is important…because that’s the real source of our value and power to contribute. Making

When you are intentional about your own time…and your use of Social, you can contribute and deliver more than you would otherwise. You can build value and then share it.

But only if you protect it and act deliberately about it. I mean to do that as rapidly as possible over the coming months. To spend more time on my own apps, on purpose, and less time consuming content on Facebook. I’m guessing that you’ll see more of me in a lot of ways that matter.

We Sold The Web Too Cheap

In the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 there so much hope.  I want it back.

To my core, I’m Gen X.  Every generation believes their songs were better, and their morals are superior to the one before and after.  But we had music, man.

The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam. U2. Ani DiFranco  (There was once a time when U2 and Ani both were artists, and not punchlines.) Liz Phair was singing about the things we all thought about. Erasure  and Paul Oakenfold played in the clubs where we were all sweaty and boozy and hopeful together.

Even our shitty guilty pleasure jam band had a chorus.

And you could be yourself. The Breakfast Club told us that.

There was so much hope in the world.  Our country, then, was united. We believed in an American future, where freedom would spread. Where we’d lift the world out of poverty and westernize every state, one by one. Gas was cheap. Our military was getting smaller. We were about to cure cancer.

I know, I know. I sound like Baz Luhrmann.

As Beck said: Things are gonna change, I can feel it.

In the late 1990s we were connecting fast. The web? We hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was incredible

I used a mix of corporate and private tools.

  • LiveJournal
  • Yahoo Chat
  • UseNet
  • AOL’s Instant Messenger.
  • IRC
  • Thunderbird.
  • Email chains with people from past and present.
  • Google Reader

Yes, yes, Napster.  Sorry. I was young. I mostly did it because it was faster than ripping my own music.

The openness of the web was the rub. It felt so free. We didn’t all have cell phones. So there was casual, asynchronous (but nearly instant) communication available.

For a few golden years, from say, 1996-2000 or so our parents weren’t there yet. So on LiveJournal we talked it out. We figured out who we wanted to be in privacy. Sure, there were politics around.  But the web was amazing, then. There was this feeling that it was all so new and so cool. And we had a lot of the same values.

We could manage our identity and be whoever we wanted to be.  Sure. There were trolls and goons and morons. But they weren’t institutionalized, weaponized and somehow concentrated. 

But we sold it too cheap. Google, the Gen-x company did that.

I remember the day that Google Reader was killed. It was a widely used product. And it was beautiful and amazing. I cultivated feeds of my favorites.  Old LiveJournal buddies (by 2013 or so I was pretty over LiveJournal.) New tech blogs.  Real estate shenanigans.  I’d go there most mornings and spend half an hour time hitting “J” to get the narrative of the day.  I was in control.

We picked stuff. And we read it in the absence of the social noise. Like a newspaper. There was no shouting.

When Google Murdered it, I sent an email to a few friends. “So much for Don’t Be Evil.”  The reply was “woah, shit.” 

This was the D-Day event. The assault on the URL and the decentralized, public web. I have feedly pro now. It’s good. They are good. But it’s not the same.

Google’s endorsement of RSS and the feed readers was meaningful. It meant that this “big new brand” was for the web itself. That they endorsed my choices, my agency. That they really did stand for more than selling me ads, that they were using ads as some stop-gap temporary measure till they could find a better way to collect value.  Links got worse once links got monetized.

Till this point – and despite their failures with Google Buzz, Google Wave, they were on firmly on side of the Web.

After this point, it was clear that they weren’t our friends.  They were just some company. A utility. I exchanged emails with a few friends “Oh, shit,” was the consensus. I lost trust with Google. Probably a good thing. Because I believed, man. I believed the mythos, and I believed every word about the world we were going to make. 9/11 was a blip. We’d all be fine.

Yet. Google had told everyone that RSS was uncool. Because user control no longer served Google’s machine. That RSS was derpy for propeller hat wearing idiots. Not even google saw a home for it.

Then the web we love got closed, bit by bit. Twitter came and went (and is now coming back again).  We watched Marissa Mayer (one of theirs, one of ours) run Yahoo aground.

With reader gone, and Google (possibly) now evil, there was less reason to resist Facebook. Sure, we couldn’t trust Facebook, but we didn’t need to resist them anymore.

This effectively closed the web.  We sold it too cheap. We trusted Google with too much. We didn’t build the tools that could help us sidestep big corporations and their interests. This was the “one job” that my generation had, to protect the promise of the web. And we didn’t do that.

With the Facebook stuff, there is now a brief window where we could correct that. We won’t, of course, because we’re tired.

The Big Lie We All Buy

What if I told you that all you believe about business is actually a lie?

What if you were chasing a dream that you could never attain?

That was me, for a long time.

I was a huge TechCrunch fan. Back in the day, I loved the Michael Arrington-led TC articles, breathlessly championing the fundings, the user growth. The future itself.

I loved their famous Pirate article. I loved it so hard. I wanted to take my place amongst the people that their great and snarky writers were writing snark about. Except that the reality was this:

 That first company I started made a lot of money for the venture capitalists – nearly $30 million – but next to nothing for the founders.

We never believed that that would happen to us. We believed that we’d somehow be immune. We just had to subscribe to the “hustle” worldview.  And if it wasn’t working, of course, hustle harder.

The “Hustle” Worldview is this…and you already know it:

  1. Go (REALLY) Big, or go home: It’s not a worthwhile pursuit to make a nice business for a nice family. The word “service” business is spoken with an epithet. You must be part of a creation myth, making forever companies, being part of the fabric of life itself.
  2. Hustle, Repeat, Then Hustle  Some More It was always about hustle. Making some code, grinding out deals.  Whatever your jam is, by all means, hustle. Tech Crunch taught us this, with their stalwarts MG Seigler posting as many as 10 articles in a day at times.
  3. Funding Is Meaning:  You exist to join the three comma club. A billion dollars. Small is a failure. The best way to get there is to accept funding and grind, grind, grind.
  4. It’s OK To Run At a Loss Indefinitely. Amazon did it. There’s a whole language about it: “burn rate” and “runway.See? We’re building the future. And so running at a loss was acceptable.
  5. You Gotta Risk It All The AirBNB team made cereal at the 2008 Democratic convention. Founders maxed out credit cards, kited checks and risked EVERYTHING because they believed (and were a little smarter than everyone else, just like you).

Every idea here has a sort of creation myth baked in. We wanted to be part of a chain of dropouts, misfits, and rebels. We wanted to be a crazy ones. That it’s somehow a good thing to do this.

This lie is still repeated everywhere. But it was all sold to us to benefit the truly powerful people that funded these companies. The VCs that were placing big bets on everyone needed the billion dollar exits. You had to be conditioned to accept that kind of risk.

Like some addict.

What (Dumb) Stuff I Did

What this did to my business was allow me to have a revenue-over-reality approach. I was pushing hard to grow my revenue. All the time. To grow. Year over year. Month over month. And we were growing. There were some good parts of our company, we were delivering and working with great people, and for a long time we did a good job.

We grew from $8k a month to $85k a month. We had a product that had a successful exit. Of course I was a genius. Duh?

And yet, it was a disaster in all the ways that really matter. Growth hid that. I was growing, so I couldn’t be failing. But I was nuts. My relationship with my wife (who is amazing) was in the shitter. I was barely home to see my kids. I was trying to line up work for now, for later. I was trying to sell and recruit and deliver. It was all working poorly.

When I wasn’t working, I felt guilty.

How Success Begets Failure

I watched with horror as the business I was building morphed into a lunatic Ponzi scheme. We had to grow revenue, so we sold more. Created package deals. Grew that top line number, consequences be damned. You’ve got a check now? Let’s have it

We were growing. So, we had to hire people. The people we hired technically had the skills. But in reality, they weren’t a good fit. They had the mercenary freelancer approach. Too cool for our company because (like everyone in Portland) they once worked on a Nike or Adidas project. So they couldn’t be bothered to deliver good work for us. Because we were dealing with uncool companies a lot of the times. A bolt-on for SalesForce. An analytics package. That was beneath a man that has once worked on the Swoosh. And I could have easily caught that had I bothered with reference checks. But because we had to get work out the door…we didn’t have time to deal with “trivialities” like screening candidates.

So then I needed new money to meet old commitments. That was terrifying. Especially since I was buying a house and my wife needed me to come through.

This built a cycle where we had to issue some refunds. And then we still had to pay the labor that created that defective work. This double whammy crushed what reserves I had (I was focused on growth, reserves are for fools!)

This was all in service to the lie: build the company into something which can be sold. Using revenue as a metric. Grow into your expenses. Then do it again. Be a serial founder.

During this time, I paid myself a lot less than a commissioned salesperson just selling our work would make. And I justified it to myself, my wife, and especially my ego. “This is just what it takes to grow. Plow your money back in.”

The old joke: sure we’re taking a loss on every unit, but we’re making it up in volume!

I was fragile. Exposed and then we hit a wall. A series of deliveries were unusable right in a row. The team I cobbled together wasn’t a fit. They weren’t bad people, I just didn’t have the talent or time for the kind of leadership we needed.

My standards had capitulated. It even became harder to sell because I couldn’t vouch for the work we were putting out. And I cared too much to pretend.  This was a blessing because the best parts of my network stayed intact, but a curse in that I coudln’t use my network for the pickup I needed.

Around this time was when I realized the true precariousness of my position. I was losing $35,000 a month. Selling more wasn’t the answer. Better work, better pricing, better ops would all have solved it. Selling more was just kicking the tire down the road.

And it was harder to sell when you know that at the end of the day you’re doing merely adequate work.

But I’m getting attention!

During this time it’s finally dawning on me that something is rotten in Denmark. I’m realizing, slowly, that the reality is worse.  The gut feeling comes more often. A worry that no amount of sales can paper over my errors. Still, my resolve remains. And some part of me buys into the narrative that it’s OK to struggle, that everyone goes through it. That the best companies barely made it.

During this time, I’m getting attention. I appear on big-time podcasts as a good example. I get to talk to high profile founders regularly. I’m invited to sit at the cool kids table and I get some coaching from a high-end sales guy. I’m on panels. I give advice. Some of it was probably even good.

What’s interesting is that they never ask the real questions: are you profitable? Are you sane? Is your life worth living? Have you created value? Are your books in order? Does your team feel good? Are you proud on the inside? How’s your family?

Nobody asked. So I wasn’t lying when I described the processes that led me here.

All Of This For Nothing?

All of this was for a reason. To someday build a legacy. To someday become ultra successful. To eventually have the life I was meant to have.

The downside of the Big Lie is that of failure. Failure? That won’t happen if we hustle. If we find product-market fit. No. Failure happens. Most funded startups lose money. Most companies do shut down.

I was chasing this impossible dream. I paid myself roughly half what I’d make selling my product elsewhere. My family was deprived half of the money that it should have had had I just taken a sales job. The “growth” fantasy was what I told myself to justify not bringing it home. It multiplied by zero the good things we were doing.

I was less free. I didn’t really take a proper vacation. My body was at the point where I literally couldn’t bend over. I had a case of pneumonia that lingered for a month.

Ultimately I paid the freight for my mistakes. My reputation took a hit, but I cleaned up the busienss. All my work was basically used on a “lesson.” Worth it if I learn. I used the grit that I had. And so I landed the business mostly smoothly and decided to move on. We still do some work for our past clients, and we’re doing good work again. But our plans, long-term don’t include that business.

What I’ve Learned Since

Starting a business often creates a “worst of all worlds” situation where you’ve got more responsibility than any employee and more risk than you can imagine. Intertwine that with a paternal instinct (this is my baby) and you’ve got a recipe for an unbalanced life and a litany of excuses.

With all of that said, however, there are many things that I’ve gotten clear on as I graduate towards my next venture.

  1. The business exists to serve you, not vice versa. You built this business to serve your family. To build value, and store value in the form of wealth. There are times that it makes sense to take outside money. But that money doesn’t mean that you have to take a vow of poverty. You should have as much money outside of the business as inside.
  2. Delusion Will Kill You I talk to entrepreneurs and they tell me that they don’t work “that much” or their hours aren’t that terrible. Or that they only had one “off” month (when that month was bracketed by two “meh” months). All of this delusion is truly lethal.
  3. Make Sure it’s Worth It We are all told to worship at the church of hustle. But the best and most sweet moments in my life were times when I laughed with people I love. They were across kitchen tables, and not conference room tables. To spend money on a business that doesn’t properly
  4. Make Your Numbers Chase You Figure out what you want to earn and what you need to keep and make it into a game. Have your accounting team leverage the automated reporting features of your accounting software. Know when you’re REALLY working, KINDA working and NOT working. Know what you’re earning per hour. Pay attention to clock hours and calendar. (A suggestion: read the 12-Week Year, install RescueTime).
  5. Profit Must Be Baked Into Every Phase Of Every Project It’s easy to let weeks or months go by and say that you’ll be profitable down the road. Every account must be profitable. Doing deals for influencers or friends or family to become someone someday are mostly a ruse. Don’t do them.

I am giving it another go. I’ll have a business that will take 3-4 clients initially, and then I’ll grow from there. I don’t know what “scale” means in this context. I know that if I run my business with sobriety that growth will be welcomed when it happens. it’ll be about a week before I begin to sell. But I do know that with some discipline and reality in place that I’ll have a better chance than ever.

I’ll need less luck, and we’ll be able to learn a lot about what I’m here to give.

[As a postscript, a lot more detail is in the book Profit First by Mike Michalowicz. That book supplies the detail needed to execute a business system that matters.]

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