Archive for January, 2010

Do you notice the single mom in line?

I tweeted this an hour ago and thought it worthy of a blog post…

Do you notice the single mom in front of you in the grocery line who has to put back the mixed beans because she can’t afford them? If you can afford it, buy it for her. It’s really appreciated and it teaches a great lesson of unconditional giving.

Random acts of kindness are really cool, much better than (or at least a great augmentation of) official charities. It’s pretty easy to write a check or have an automatic debit for this or that charity and that’s a great idea. But personal & instant is really cool.

Just pay attention to your surroundings and you’ll see opportunities to help someone with a simple gesture. Those beans were like $2 or less, but the mom & her daughter & the checkout woman all really appreciated it. In turn, they’ll be in a better state of mind and will probably help someone else in the coming days.

I grew up in an economically poor household for a few years. I know we were occasionally helped by a stranger or someone who worked at a business we frequented, etc.

Pass it on.

Give the Policeman outside some Chocolate Almonds!

When I came home today from lunch, I saw a Sacramento Police car parked in front of my house. I’ve seen it before in the same area, so I presumed it was the same policeman. He usually looked like he was doing paperwork or taking a break or something.

I never looked closely.

Today, I parked a few spaces away and went inside my house. The thought crossed my mind to go say ‘hi’ or take him (or her) a small gift left over from Christmas. But I brushed off the thought as I took my shoes off and went up to my home office on the 3rd floor.

I got up to the 3rd floor and then thought, why not? There’s some weird thing that keeps us from doing simple, nice things sometimes. The upside would be to show generosity that’s unfortunately probably pretty unusual.

The downside would be… well, there is no downside.

So I went back downstairs and grabbed a bag of chocolate-covered almonds that were meant for someone else who never saw me over the holidays.

I wondered if the policeman outside would eat them or be suspicious. What a terrible thing to wonder, right? But I figured the package was sealed and new and I could always open it and eat some in front of him.

So I went outside, walked over to the police car, and said ‘hello’.

It was slightly odd, but it was pretty easy to say “Hey, I live right there, I think I’ve seen you around the area, and I thought it would be nice to give you some chocolate-covered almonds.” He was surprised but in a good way.

We ended up talking for maybe 10 minutes about the neighborhood and such.

I’m glad I did it.

It’s so easy to assume someone else will, or that it’s not my job, or it doesn’t matter, etc.

But I think if everyone does simple, little nice things for others every day or every week, it’s gotta add up to a better society for all of us.

And especially for a policeman – imagine the negativity he sees every day.

Pass it on!

Slow Down, Do Less!

The new year usually makes us think of long-term stuff.

In 2010, I strive to slow down, do less, and focus on what’s important.

I set a similar goal for myself in 2001 and life has been better ever since.

At the time, I decided not to be in a hurry and not to be late for things. Some friends chuckled at the idea of deciding not to be hurried. But it’s actually very doable if you just make the decision and change a few things in life.

I don’t mean being a slacker. Doing stuff feels good, especially if it’s some sort of accomplishment, and dilly-dallying gets boring pretty quickly.

I tossed out most of the noise and crap and focused on things that matter. The rest largely takes care of itself or drops by the wayside and wasn’t important, anyway.

I got a real reminder of this when clearing out my Aunt Dorothy’s apartment a few months ago after she passed away in her 80s.

Aunt Dorothy had 3 large file cabinets of pictures and letters and records of the last 4 generations of the whole extended family. The pics and letters told a great story of husbands and wives separated by WWII, of going to college and medical school, of moving out West, of rearing children, etc.

That huge collection of lives viewed from 2009 reminded me that the vast majority of details were incredibly irrelevant and very soon forgotten by the people living those lives. What was important were the overall directions and narratives of peoples’ lives.

So in day-to-day life, I strive to make fewer promises, fewer appointments. I can’t break promises I don’t make! Make only the ones that really matter. An appointment is a promise to be somewhere at a certain time. I try to make fewer appointments and put more time between them than I think I need. Between important or mentally taxing appointments, I make an appointment to have a mocha somewhere. That gives me breathing room and time to focus on the next thing.

I don’t take my laptop everywhere. I don’t always take it on short trips, either. It’s great going through airport security with just a small backpack and no laptop! Having an iPhone has helped a lot. I don’t always want to be connected, though.

Some of my best thinking is while driving or flying or walking with no electronics whatsoever (not even music). Silence, both audible and mental, really is golden.

(A beef about luggage on airplanes: don’t try to take so much crap! I recently traveled for 3 weeks across America and spent a week in Rome with 1 medium-sized backpack. Hotel laundry is the key. Just like this whole post: less really is more.)

I’m part of a startup again, so work is pretty much whenever I’m awake, so short naps and disconnection time become more important. For me, a 20-minute nap is really good for my brain.

I use as many focus-saving services as I can, like bill-paying services and once-a-month housekeeping (I’m pretty neat already and I can grab the vacuum if I need to). In business, I use services like Engine Yard and Basecamp. They cost a little and save a lot. I need to find more focus-saving services this year.

Incidentally, my new company, Chargify, is a HUGE focus-saving service for anyone running a recurring revenue business. Once you realize how much time & focus it saves, you’ll want to pay twice the price!

I mostly drive the speed limit or even more slowly because my beloved 10-year-old Jeep can’t go very fast. I stop completely at stop signs and look both ways twice. I use my turn signals 95% of the time.

Why do I focus on driving? Because most of us do a lot of it and doing it as I describe is nice to others, results in fewer accidents, AND forces me to slow down and be more deliberate. I want to get a bumper sticker that says, “Slow Down, Do Less.”

I swear if you do this driving thing for 2 weeks, you will start to realize that you were living in some sort of rat race Matrix. You will literally start to see yourself as outside the rat race just by de-stressing while driving. I dare you to try it! Drive 65 or 70 while everyone else is going 80. Get over toward the right, of course, and let the rat race pass you by.

Obviously, I don’t do any calling or texting while driving, not even to receive. Both are stressful and distracting, and are contrary to the aim of doing less unimportant crap! You can check the phone when you reach your destination, or at least wait until you get to a long red light.

I turn off email sometimes. That allows me to stay focused on something bigger and more important long-term. I don’t know about you, but I’m very distractible by communications, which is why I sometimes have to disconnect if I really want to get important stuff done.

So that’s tonight’s thought for 2010: slow down, do less, focus on what’s important. Remember Aunt Dorothy’s files!

Have a good (and slow) one 🙂

Fun Stuff & Business History



I co-founded Parallax in 1987 with my best friend. We were both fresh out of high school. We grew from a bedroom operation to a $3M/yr business.

I learned a TON at Parallax! We strugged for several years to find a market we fit, but once we did, were were able to "pivot" (today's term!) into that market and then execute on manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. We didn't even know the term "VC", so we *had* to make money! We took $20K from friends & family and had day jobs to bootstrap those early years.

As I left Parallax in Winter 1996, Radio Shack started carrying our BASIC Stamp computer.

I spent a few years trying to make money in the mobile-messaging space. Unfortunately, I learned lessons about how to spend all of my cash chasing a market that simply was not yet developed enough. I wish I had known about VC :-)! I closed up shop and put up a notice saying "goodbye" to my customers.

Which led to a San Francisco VC-funded startup in 1998. They were in the mobile-messaging space and were on the normal VC route as everyone else back then. Unfortunately, it didn't end pretty, but my friends and I learned a lot through the CEO, who was nice enough to tell us how things worked with his Board, the investors, etc.

I got laid off along with most other tech folks in SF in 2000. What does one do at a time like that? Start Quality Humans, Inc. as a way to offer my programming services to clients. QHI grew to employ 8 guys working around the USA.

My friend and QHI consultant, Tom Mornini, saw Ruby on Rails coming over the horizon, so we started offering Rails consulting. Within a few months, Tom noticed that Rails clients didn't want to worry about details; they just wanted to deploy their apps.

That led me to co-found Engine Yard in 2006 with Tom, Ezra Zygmuntowicz, and Jayson Vantuyl. We built a great business and then took VC after a year from Amazon, Benchmark, New Enterprise Associates, and others. I served as CEO until Jan, 2009, when we started building an executive team who can take EY up a few more notches.

I reflected on major pain points we experienced at EY, and recurring billing was one of them. That led me to Chargify.

In Chargify, I joined great folks from Grasshopper. It's been very cool working with the team as we grow Chargify in 2011.