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12 Universal Lessons We’ve Learned


"Apply what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own."
– Bruce Lee

Monday, June 11, 2012 – Princeton, NJ 

School is over and so is an 18-year academic marathon that started on September 1, 1994 when I entered first grade. It’s time to start a new chapter that opens with building Dewey. According to the idea of time arbitrage, it’s better to spend mornings on creative tasks that require concentration and intensity and evenings on physical training or urgent tasks with low yield (email, paperwork, etc.). Defying this bit of rationality, I start the day with a refreshing morning jog around campus. This is followed by Dillon Gym for a quick 30-minute routine that includes martial arts, “6-minute abs,” splits, and pull-ups. This is how I began every day that hot summer in New Jersey. What did three friends do during the day? After breakfast blends into lunch, we would get to work on Dewey. Our office was a moving target. One day we’d work in the ribosome-shaped “cave” in the Genetics building; on other days we would visit the chemists in Frick, the mathematicians in Fine Hall, the normally empty Lewis Library, or sometimes Infini-T Café, known for its tea selection and eclectic atmosphere.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 – Mountain View, CA

A sunny day is conducive to self-reflection and looking over the last 6 months. We stopped working on Dewey in the second half of August, just weeks after its private-beta launch, not persisting and giving it the time and effort required to make it what we envisioned. Minqi joined Google, Peter – Venmo. I, on the other hand, joined a couple of friends – Tony & Jordan – who had just went through Y Combinator over the summer. We’re working on an app called Collections. We asked ourselves, “What would Mac Finder and Windows Explorer look like if Apple and Microsoft had created them today, rather than the 1980s?” Today – when our files are no longer confined to folders on a local disk, but scattered across countless services: photos on Facebook and Instagram, all sorts of files on Dropbox and Google Drive/Docs, notes on Evernote, interesting links on Twitter, liked videos on Youtube… and the list goes on.

What lessons can I take away from the last 6 months? What worked and what didn’t?

  1. It’s extremely hard to build a social network as a social network from the get-go. Most services don’t end up solving the infamous chicken-and-egg problem: it takes users to create interesting content, and it takes interesting content to attract users. One of the approaches founders take is to start with content and populate the site with what they perceive to be interesting and publishable. It worked (in some form) for Quora and Reddit [1], but we don’t hear about the thousands of startups where this method led to silent failure. It’s much more effective, to my mind, to build a service that can be useful in “single-player” mode such that you can derive value from it without depending on your friends/acquaintances/experts using it. What’s a good example? Truism alert: Instagram! Having registered back in the fall of 2010, for more than a year I was using the app merely to “post beautiful pictures fast” to Twitter and Facebook. The fact that not even one of my friends was using it at the time wasn’t an obstacle. If you wake up one day with a million “loners,” like me, voila – it’s time to build a network.
  2. Intense 9-to-7 work results in higher productivity than the endless grind that many Silicon Valley startups like to brag about. We start the day at 9:00am sharp with a quick 10-minute stand-up meeting where each of us briefly discusses what he plans to accomplish by 7. Every task is then attached as a post-it note on the glass door of our conference room under the “To-Do” column [2]. So as not to distract focused colleagues, most questions are resolved asynchronously using Campfire. At 7:00pm we finish the day with another quick stand-up meeting to recap what was accomplished. What follows is leisure time: some of us go to the gym, others prepare dinner or meet friends on Castro or in SF. Even under the pressure of deadlines, it’s important not to forget that very few things lead to better productivity than 7-8 hours of good sleep.
  3. Startup meetups, talks, and conferences are distractions that do not directly improve your product. However, if it’s a day off (Saturdays) or time after work then it’s important not to lose your connection with the outside world. You should therefore actively participate in everything you enjoy that takes you away from the narrow confines of the day-to-day.
  4. The most successful product-related decisions we’ve made grew out of a “zen mind, beginner’s mind” mentality. Decisions that resulted from long intellectual debates, complicated forward-looking arguments, or ornate over-intellectualizations rarely led to anything useful.
  5. The ability to produce “hard to build, easy to use” services is inversely proportional to the number of articles read on startups and productivity. The number of times I visited Hacker News and the like in the last 3 months can be counted on one hand [3].
  6. When working on the same problem for a long period of time, we need productive distractions: and when we’re in the middle of it, we’re blind to the bigger picture. To fight hyperopia, step away from the trees and take in the forest. A quick caveat: excessive distractions -> productivity deficit. How many of 8 hours are spent on actual work? 6 sessions one hour each produce more than 18 twenty-minute sessions spread over 8 hours of low-intensity work.
  7. Be happy, but not content. Whatever hardships you encounter, find time every day to feel gratitude and joy for where you are now. This need not inhibit inspiring dissatisfaction and one’s energy to continue the journey.
  8. Quite often, clearly figuring out what has to be done takes more time than actually doing it.
  9. You don’t get distracted when you’re enjoying the process. You enjoy the process when you’re sufficiently good at it. The sad conclusion is that there will be a distraction barrier when you’re just beginning to acquire a new skill that challenges your status-quo and pushes you into new terrain.
  10. In the beginning, thinking that you don’t need money and are only driven by the mission is presumptuous (I was a victim of this mentality). You can’t afford those statements until you’ve reached financial independence. We’re all watching Steve Jobs, Reid Hoffman, and Mark Zuckerberg talk about intrinsic passion and product drive as their main motivations. They’re truthful to the present, but not necessarily to the past.
  11. The best answer to “What do you think about competition?” is the following demonstration: start juggling two balls with one hand thinking about the opponent doing the same thing in one case, and in the other case be in a state of “no-mind” or at least complete focus on the balls. In which case do you drop a ball sooner?
  12. Ironically, when we work so hard and with such passion on perfecting our craft and producing output worth sharing, we often don’t find the time to share it.

Which of these lessons resonated with you?

Discuss this post at Hacker News

Arman (@suleimenov)
Engineering at Collections – Finder for the Cloud


Thanks to my friend and colleague Jordan Lee for editing the first draft of this post! 


[1] Reddit famously created an enormous amount of content with 10,000 fake accounts to give the appearance of popularity. Quora used a hybrid model: on one hand, founders invited their high-profile Silicon Valley friends. On the other, they themselves initially populated the site by giving high-quality answers to each other’s questions (after researching the topic on Wikipedia for 2-3 hours).

[2] We have the simplest of kanban boards, one with only three columns: “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” Some planning is good, but at the end of the day it’s important to remember that all of these tools are meta: they don’t directly improve your product.

[3] You can criticize this for its complete dismissal of the basic “correlation vs. causation” argument, but you’ve got the idea.

  1. cool-js reblogged this from collectionsapp and added:
    Here are some lessons on being productive and starting a company the team from the new OS X app “Collections” team has...
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