Looking back on 2016 and seeing what I accomplished last year, I realize that all of my successes last year were due to challenging assumptions I had about myself. So this year, I’m doing it again. One belief about myself that I am challenging is my long held assumptions about my artistic ability.
My whole life, I’ve been a very analytical, algorithmic person. In college I majored in biology. My hobby-turned-profession is web development, which I use to build and maintain a website where I teach science and logic. Simply put, STEM has been my entire life. This year, I am finally going to embrace art and design.
It is the type of goal that is really hard to measure with some well-defined endpoint, which has been a cornerstone of the goal tracking system that worked so well for me last year. But maybe that is fitting. I might never reach the same skill level as some of the top designers out there, but that’s fine. Perhaps the greatest benefit of art is precisely that there is no endpoint.
If you really think about it, art has a certain kind of Zen to it. How do you master a subject with no definition of what “mastery” actually means? Which, interestingly, is a metaphor for success. Like art, success has no endpoint, so it becomes a lifelong endeavor. But by making it a lifelong pursuit, you remove the upper limit that prevents most people from reaching the highest skill levels. So to reach mastery in art or success in life requires one to acknowledge the fact that there is no mastery. In other words, to break through your limits, you have to realize that those limits never existed.
I’ve slowly been losing interest in Twitter. It has become a pool of hatred and bigotry, and I find it to be an unfulfilling experience. Even my best tweets ever have given me no more than a shot of dopamine that makes me feel good for a few minutes. But then what?
Last year was awesome for me, and in hindsight I realize that it was because I challenged a lot of my personal views and habits. As a result, I learned a lot about myself and broke out of my boundaries. So along those same lines, I’ve decided to challenge a lot of my habits again this year. One of those habits is my obsession with Twitter.
When I step back and ask myself why I use Twitter, I really can’t come up with a great reason. I don’t have a ton of followers. I use it to get news, but there are other places to get news that are far less time consuming. Sites like Twitter are designed to keep you engaged, not to save you time. A far more efficient way to get my news is through something like Feedly, which keeps everything organized by topic but without the distractions of Twitter. And I certainly do not feel educated or enlightened when I look back at my Twitter activity each day.
So, I’m going a week without Twitter for personal use. I still need to use Twitter for business use, because I have an account for Lernabit. But my personal usage of Twitter has come to an end. I’ll post here each day with updates.
I removed Twitter from my phone.
I signed into Feedly to get my news. There was a story that caught my eye. I was stunned when the first thought that came to my mind, before I even clicked on the link, was, “Hey, this would get some likes on Twitter.” I think a common sign of an addiction is not realizing that you are addicted. I never realized how much of an addiction Twitter actually was for me.
I clicked on a link that took me to twitter. Because I was still logged in to twitter, I noticed that I had some notifications. After a moment of hesitation, I clicked on the button to see what they were about. A few new followers (probably bots), a few likes, but they feel less important than they once did. Already, after just one day without Twitter, it is starting to sink in just how pointless it is.
After almost a week without Twitter, I’ve realized something very surprising. I have found that I am more informed of news events than I was when I was getting my news from Twitter. I was surprised by this, because Twitter has become the go-to source of news for a lot of people to announce new events, stories, blog posts, and more.
After thinking about why I feel more informed, I realized that the reason is because Twitter is too fast. While it is true that most news is announced via Twitter these days, it is also true that the same news event is tweeted, retweeted, and multiplied thousands of times. But despite that, any single news event still gets buried very quickly. So to stay informed using Twitter requires you to check in as often as once per hour, which is not very productive.
Since giving up Twitter, I’ve started using Feedly to get my news. I check it just a few times per day, and I can easily work back to review any news I’ve missed. Good old fashioned RSS feeds are still more productive than Twitter.
Today Medium announced that they will be laying off 50 people to refocus on their mission. That mission, they say, is to make publishing more accessible to everyone, and to allow the highest quality content to get noticed even if it comes from someone without many followers.
I can totally get behind that mission. But at the same time, this announcement demonstrates the importance of controlling your own platform and owning your content by actually publishing on your own website. Over the last year or so, some pretty big publishing outlets have migrated entirely over to publishing on Medium. Today’s announcement by Medium underscores why that is a bad idea.
Now, I won’t say that the sky is falling for Medium. As noted in the announcement, the last year has been the best for Medium so far as far as key metrics are concerned, and I see no reason to doubt that. Anecdotally, I have seen more people using it and I’ve noticed it appearing in search results more often. They will probably work out whatever problems they are having and move forward.
With that said, it does demonstrate the problem of relying on another platform. There was a time when the best publishing platform was Livejournal. Then there was Blogspot. And Tumblr. Now there is Medium. So while this is not the end for Medium, what happens when the next great publishing platform comes along? It is trivial for readers to leave and start reading somewhere else, but it is a much larger task for the publishers to migrate to the next great platform.
The solution is to maintain complete ownership of your content, on your own site, on your own domain name. Then use those publishing platforms to help promote your content. That’s the approach I am taking with my blog over on Lernabit. It works great, and I don’t worry about the next Medium coming along and ruining it.
Author’s Note:This was my winning entry for a HeroX challenge to find the root causes of financial illiteracy and propose a solution. I’ve reposted it here to gauge interest in me moving forward with the idea by developing it into a personal finance course. Visit BiteSizedFinance.com to join the email list and show your support for an entirely new way to think about financial literacy.
Note that the essay was written and submitted in spring 2016, so some of the statistics like unemployment data might be a bit outdated, but the general point of the article is still valid.
What is money? Almost everyone thinks they know the answer to this question, but usually they are wrong. The truth is, the majority of people don’t truly grasp the concept of money at a basic, fundamental level. To most people, money is just something you use to buy stuff, whether it is food, housing, or a new car. They don’t realize that money is something more abstract than that. This misunderstanding about money is the root cause of financial illiteracy, which is a problem of great importance in the United States and globally. But to fully analyze the extent and implications of this problem, it is worth backing up to define what is meant by the term “financial literacy.”
Financial literacy is often defined in terms of basic personal finance skills like budgeting, saving, and diversification. Thus, the usual advice to solve the problem of financial illiteracy almost always consists of teaching those skills to people at an early age so that they can “start while they are young” in order to have a reasonable shot at retiring some day. But while teaching those skills is important, it does not impart true financial literacy.
True financial literacy is an ability to increase one’s net worth regardless of the economic climate. With that definition, it starts to become clear why those basic skills mentioned earlier are not sufficient. Saving, budgeting, and diversifying are only useful to the extent that you actually have money to save, budget, and diversify. It does not address the issue of how to create that money in the first place. That piece of the puzzle requires a deeper understanding of money.
At an abstract level, money is just a carrier of value. If a plumber fixes my water heater, he has created value for me by doing something I don’t know how to do. In exchange, I give him some money that he can exchange elsewhere for other valuable goods and services. Money is a way to simplify the exchange of value throughout a very complicated network of individuals, businesses, and governments. But despite the complexity of the overall network, every single connection consists of a very simple exchange of value. Thus, the process of making money can be summed up into two words: find value.
In practical terms, that means money can be acquired by one of three primary methods:
Get a job – By helping a business make money, you have created value for them. In exchange, you get money.
Invest – By noticing price discrepancies between various forms of value, you get a bargain price on your exchange, resulting in profit.
Own a business – You deliver a valuable product or service in exchange for money.
Of these three basic methods of income creation, the first two have shortcomings. A job is a very reactive approach to generating income. Of the three methods, it is the one most subject to economic fluctuations. In addition, it is limited by the amount of time in a day. When working for an hourly wage, even if you could work every hour of every day, there is an upper limit to how much you can make.
Investing also has problems of its own. Specifically, to make any substantial amount of money from investing requires either a lot of money up front or decades of patience. This is a great way to grow wealth, but not a very realistic way of creating wealth.
This leads us to the third option: owning a business. By starting a business, you are building a machine that creates value for others in exchange for payment, and that machine continues to become more valuable over time as the product improves and it develops stronger relationships with customers. In addition, the initial startup cost can be greatly reduced by leveraging your existing skill set, reaching out to your network, and structuring creative deals that aren’t reliant on money. This makes it more effective than jobs and investing as a means to create initial wealth.
These facts are supported by evidence. By looking at the most recent list of people on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, we can see how the most successful and financially literate people in America go about creating wealth.
Of the top 10 people on the list, six of them built their fortunes from starting businesses, while one person did so by investing and three inherited their wealth. Of those who inherited it, all of them inherited from their parents who themselves created businesses. So of the 10 richest people in America, nine of them are rich as a result of entrepreneurship.
A common counter argument to this is that those people created their fortunes decades ago when the economy was much different than it is today. That is true, but further data shows that to be irrelevant. Of all the people on the list, 17 of them are under the age of 40. By looking at only those young people, we can see how people have created vast wealth in more recent decades.
By looking at that subset, the argument still holds up. Of the 17 billionaires under the age of 40, 13 of them built businesses. The remaining four all inherited their wealth from parents who built businesses. (Note that Mark Zuckerberg was on both the top 10 list and the under-40 list, so there is some overlap). Not a single person on either list built their fortune from having a job, and only one (Warren Buffett) became rich primarily as a result of investing.
The data clearly indicates the power of entrepreneurship to build wealth. But what has not been shown is the distinct lack of any organized effort to teach entrepreneurship in schools. To demonstrate that problem, we have to look no further than the levels of unemployment around the world.
Presented in table 1 is a chart showing the unemployment rates of over 200 countries. Of the 200 countries included in the chart, nearly half of them (45%) have unemployment rates of at least 10%, while over two thirds (69%) have unemployment rates over 5%. Currently, the U.S. unemployment rate is about 5%. However, the most recent Gallup poll shows that the underemployment rate is a more discouraging 14%. The implications of this data become even more startling when viewed in light of the student debt crisis.
Currently, student debt in the United States alone is over $1 trillion. That debt is not removed by bankruptcy and it damages the financial growth of young people for the rest of their lives. Even worse, that money is being borrowed by young people in the hopes of improving their job prospects. But as the unemployment data demonstrates, those jobs simply aren’t there. There are too many people looking for jobs because they don’t know any other way to create income. The data clearly illustrates the need for a complete change in what we teach kids about money. By looking at the data, we can develop an entirely new paradigm of financial education. That new approach to teaching would involve a few key components.
First, let’s teach young people about the basic fundamentals of how money works. By teaching them the most basic concepts of money, they will understand the need to be creators of value. This will be the “why” of entrepreneurship.
Second, we need to teach them the skills required to start businesses. It is not enough to teach them why they should start businesses. They also need to learn the technical skills required to generate income, such as product design, sales, and marketing. This would be the “how” of entrepreneurship.
Third, this new way of teaching should come at an early age, ideally before high school. On one hand, we need to encourage young people to stop defaulting to the same recipe of going to college to get a job, which only results in an imbalance of value consumers vs. value creators. But at the same time, college will still be the right choice for some people. Thus, this change needs to occur at early grade levels so young people have at least a few years to decide whether or not college is appropriate.
Financial illiteracy is the result of not understanding money at a fundamental level. By teaching those basic concepts of money with a focus on entrepreneurship, we can get young people to create new value and generate income while giving them the confidence to skip college altogether. The outcome of this would be an end to the student debt problem and the unemployment problem in one fell swoop. That would be a truly revolutionary approach to financial education.
Every business needs a logo. It is the symbol that defines your brand and creates consistency across all of the different marketing channels you use. For my own business– Lernabit— I recently finished a contest on 99Designs to have a logo designed.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had a logo made. For previous projects, I’ve had logos designed from a variety of different places, including hiring a designer directly from a freelancing website, hiring a friend of a friend, and even hiring a designer on Fiverr. So I’d like to tell you what I’ve learned about the pros and cons of each method, plus some tips that can help get an awesome logo for your business or project.
First, let me outline the pros and cons of all of the different ways you can get a logo. I’ve used all of these methods myself at some point, so I speak from experience.
Hiring a designer from a freelancing website
The first time I ever hired a designer was for my first business idea. It was a product review website called RevPlace. (It was a miserable failure). To get the logo, I went to a freelancing website. I don’t remember if it was Freelancer, or Upwork, or eLance, or whatever it was. I think I paid about $100 for the logo, and I got some decent results out of it, but it wasn’t stellar. They worked one on with me to go through multiple revisions and tweak it as needed. Here is what I got:
Keep in mind that this was a long time ago when the glossy style was “in”, so it looked a lot better then than it does now. So not too bad.
Pros: Decent work at a good price. $100 is pretty cheap for a logo. One-on-one work helps get exactly what you want.
Cons: Limited number of concepts. Once you commit to working with a designer, you are stuck working with them.
Best for: I recommend this if you already know what you want and just need a good designer to put it on paper, and perhaps offer some new ideas to build on your idea.
Hiring a friend
Back when Google Reader shutdown, I built a replacement of my own called FeedFiend. When it came time get a logo, I went to a friend of a friend who was trying to get started in the freelancing business. He offered to do it for free, and I was flat broke at the time, so I accepted his offered. This was a bad idea.
A few days later he came back to me with a sketch of his idea, and it had an icon that looked a lot like a sperm. It was supposed to be a computer mouse with a cord, which itself was a bad concept. This was in 2013, when most computer mice were cordless anyway, so most people wouldn’t even know what they were looking at. Not to mention the fact that a computer mouse had nothing to do with a news reader app to begin with. It was just a sketch on paper, so I don’t have a digital copy to show you, but suffice to say, it was ugly.
The worst part about this was not only “firing” him from the job, but having a hard talk in which I told him that he probably didn’t have the skills for being a freelance designer. It damaged our friendship too, and we’ve gradually lost contact since then.
Pros: It was free.
Cons: Everything except the price.
Best for: If you know for a fact that your friend is a skilled designer, go for it. Otherwise, don’t do it. For that matter, don’t mix friendship and business at all.
Hiring a designer on Fiverr
Like many website developers, I often launch small mini-projects for fun. They are a great way to learn new programming skills that can be of value to your main project or job. For many of these projects, I go to Fiverr to get cheap logos. Fiverr is a site that lets you hire people to do things for $5, and there are tons of designers on there. But you get what you pay for, and you usually have to pay extra if you want the Photoshop design files to edit your logo later. Nevertheless, if you just need a cheap logo for a hobby project, this works.
After the fiasco around my logo for FeedFiend, I went to Fiverr for a quick placeholder logo. Here is what I got:
Something like this might be fine for a side project, but not for a business.
Pros: Wide selection of designers. Dirt cheap.
Cons: As stated, you get what you pay for. Some of the work is surprisingly good for $5. But in general, a $5 logo is going to look like a $5 logo.
Best for: This option is good if you just want a cheap logo for a hobby project. Don’t use it for a business though.
Hiring on 99Designs
My most recent logo was designed for Lernabit using a site called 99Designs. The cool thing about this site is that you just post a contest, and different designers can submit ideas. You choose the ones you like to move on to the next round, and they start tweaking their ideas based on feedback from you. Then you choose the one designer you like best and work one-on-one with them to fine tune your logo and make it perfect. At the end, the winning designer gets the prize money.
Here is the logo I got for Lernabit:
This is one of many concepts that received, and I love it. In case you didn’t know, Lernabit is a site that offers free educational audio lectures, so this logo has some nice subtlety to it. The bars can be interpreted as audio waves or books on a shelf shaped like an “L”. The font is mature but no too serious. Plus the designer gave me files in multiple different color schemes so I have one for any use case. Finally, I also have the Photoshop files for further editing, so I was able to crop out the icon myself and just use that where space is limited. In all, I’m very happy with it. I spent about $300 to get this.
Pros: You get a wide selection of ideas, then you can get one-on-one work with the one you like most. You get very nice work. This was my favorite method.
Cons: It’s exhausting. You have 30+ designers submitting ideas and asking for feedback all at the same time. Also, it’s slow. The other methods got me a logo in a day or two, this method took me a few weeks. Finally, it costs a lot more than the other methods, at about $300-$700 depending on the plan you choose.
Best for: If you are starting a serious business and need to build your brand identity, use this method. It’s worth the money. But it’s overkill and takes too long if you just need a logo for a fun weekend project.
Tips for hiring a designer
So that’s what you get at each price point. Regardless of which method you choose to get your logo, there are some general tips that can help you out a lot.
Know some design basics
First, it helps to know some basic design principles yourself. Even though you are hiring someone to do it, a basic knowledge of design is still helpful. You don’t need to be an expert. I can’t name a font just by looking at it, and I don’t have hex codes memorized by heart. But just being able to put your finger on what’s wrong with a design is useful. If something doesn’t look right, what’s wrong with it? Is it the slant of the letters? The letter spacing? The serifs? Just knowing those basics can help you give very useful feedback to the designer.
Notice logos around you
As soon as you know you will need a logo, make a habit of stopping to notice logos all around you every day. The benefit here is two-fold.
First of all, it helps you notice cheats and knock-offs. Even when I was using the most expensive option– 99Designs– it’s surprising how many concepts I got that were just knock-offs of other logos. If you are aware of other logos you’ve seen, you are more likely to spot copycat designers. (Tip: Even if those designers offer a different concept, don’t work with them. They might just be offering a copy of a different logo you’ve never seen).
Second, logo-spotting can give you inspiration for what you are looking for. Do you want something that looks strong, like the logos used by security companies? Fun, like the Google logo? Intellectual? Hip-hop? Look at logos from a lot of different industries to get a feel for what will best convey your brand.
Study the designers
Most hiring websites let freelancers create a bio. Make sure you read them and look at their previous work. When I was running my contest on 99Designs, one designer had as her own logo a swastika. To be fair, I think she was using it in it’s original context as a symbol of peace, which is still common in some Eastern religions. But still, if they don’t understand the other cultural implications of that symbol, especially in America and Europe, I don’t think I want them touching my logo. Keep in mind that your logo will be online and people around the world will see it. You need to work with someone who understands that people in different cultures might have their own interpretation of your logo.
As I studied the designers, I also found some designers who designed every logo almost exactly the same. Don’t work with those people either. They might even be using one of the many online logo generators to spit out generic logos.
Don’t give too much feedback
This mostly applies to 99Designs or other scenarios where you get input from multiple designers. It is counterintuitive and perhaps surprising, but there is such thing as too much feedback, at least in the beginning. On 99Designs, all of the designers can see the concepts submitted by other designers. So what I noticed was that if I offered feedback on a design during the concept phase, everybody else zoomed in on that concept and started doing offshoots of that. That’s a problem. In that initial phase, you want people to work in silos. If they don’t know which one you like the best, they keep submitting a wide variety of different ideas.
Once you leave the concept phase and focus on a handful of designs that you like, then you should start giving a lot of feedback to help the designers perfect their ideas. But only after you have narrowed it down to a few good ideas. During the brainstorming phase, focus on quantity of ideas, not so much on quality. Just let them throw stuff out in the open to spark creativity.
The bottom line with hiring a designer is that you get what you pay for. But in any case, get the best logo you can afford. Funds are often cheap during the startup phase, but don’t cut corners on your logo. It’s the identity of your company and sets the first impression when introducing people to your brand.
Quite some time ago, I set up this blog with the intention of having it as some sort of brain dump for all of the things I enjoy writing about. Despite having many different interests, I haven’t created any content because I can’t find what to write about. In fact, the breadth of my curiosity has been precisely why I can’t find a topic.
This dilemma reminds me of the famous (and excellent) TED talk about the paradox of choice.
The interesting thing about that is that the paradox is often discussed in the context of consumers, but the problem also exists for creators.
I have been very busy lately building Lernabit, and that will always take priority over blogging. But my inability to blog has mostly been the result of being faced with so many topics that I’ve ended up not writing about any of them. I have interests ranging from business and entrepreneurship, to science, to programming and web development, skepticism and critical thinking, and even news items and opinions. Not to mention that I could also create a blog in which I cover any two of those topics and how they overlap. For example, a blog looking at the world of business technology would be exciting to me. With all of these possible blog topics available and interesting to me, I didn’t cover any of them.
I don’t think I’m the only one who has this problem. As creators, builders, and tinkerers, we often have many ideas running through our head like a fire hose that is sometimes hard to turn off. It gets very difficult to just focus on one topic, or one project, or one business idea. Instead, we work on one thing for a few weeks or months, fail to get traction, and move on to something else. This is damaging in so many ways.
From a business perspective, it is bad because it often leads to us giving up on something that is fundamentally a good idea that just needs a little bit of tweaking.
As builders, it limits depth of knowledge. We cover a topic briefly, obtain a surface-level understanding of it, and quit. One thing I have learned from web development is the importance of building and maintaining a long term project, because it teaches a very different skill set than just hacking together a weekend project. When you maintain something over months or years, you learn a lot about good code structure, correct database design, building for scale, and so many other potential problems that aren’t noticeable after just a few weeks. A lack of focus can cause builders to miss out on those learning experiences.
I have been thinking about some possible solutions to this problem. For really big projects, it is helpful to think about it as a series of numerous small projects. For example, on Lernabit, I wanted to find a way to optimize the audio streaming to use fewer system resources. I took that on as a project of its own. Instead of saying, “How can I make Lernabit use fewer resources?”, I asked myself, “What is the most efficient method of audio streaming in general.” I turned into a more abstract problem that ended up teaching me a lot more about how audio streaming works. And instead of just tweaking some code, I set out to make some rather substantial changes to the basic infrastructure that will make the site scale better in the long run. The whole project was like a game as I tried to squeeze more juice out of the system.
Another approach I use to overcome paralysis is to give myself some free time to just… tinker. It is very similar to Google’s “20% time” for employees (which I don’t think they do anymore), or more recently, their Google X Lab, which is a space to just experiment without any expectation of profit. This time is very valuable to me. I use it to explore new programming languages, tools, and just learn random things that may or may not end up being relevant to building my business.. This is how I have learned about Grunt, AngularJS, React, Bower, Java, TypeScript, and countless other tools. I’m only using a few of those on Lernabit, but all of them taught me something new and made me see programming from a different perspective.
Whether you are a writer, or a programmer, or a builder of businesses, it is important to find one thing and focus on it. But don’t be afraid to experiment, tinker, and just let your mind run. It’s better than doing nothing.