Selling to friends (and telling crushes you like them)

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, who remarked:

I’ve got a question for you… I’m working at this company where I get a referral bonus for new hires or new customers, and when I told some of my coworkers that I was friends with the CEO of [Company], they said that I should try to get them to sign up.

…and I was like “whoa, that feels really aversive”. So I was wondering if you have any tips on selling to your friends.

Turned out this is a question I had pondered before, myself. Specifically, last October I found myself puzzling over the question:

“Why was it easy to ask friends for money when I was starting Complice, but not now?”

Fortunately, most of the conversations in which that had happened were recorded in the form of chat logs, so I was relatively easily able to investigate the question framed as such. First, I made a list of relevant factors that were different at the nascent stages of my company versus several years in:

  • in 2013 it was kind of an exclusive offer: you couldn’t just decide to sign up without me contacting you… and I was only looking for ~10 people to start. Not only that, but if I hadn’t messaged them, they probably wouldn’t have even known that it was happening… so there was a sense in which I was giving them valuable information. Whereas now, many of my friends have heard of Complice already.
  • » read the rest of this entry »

A laptop employed as a nightlight

This post is kind of from two years ago. I got thinking about it again last night when I was reading Wait But Why’s The Cook and the Chef, an article describing how Elon Musk does what he does, which is a lot. The author, Tim Urban, is using an analogy of chefs as those who actually do something original and cooks who just follow recipes. He remarks that most people think that most people are chefs and then some chefs are just better than others… but that a better model is that most people are cooks (some better than others) and then the main difference between most people and Elon Musk isn’t quantitative (“he’s smarter”) but rather qualitative (“he does things differently”).

It’s like a bunch of typewriters looking at a computer and saying, “Man, that is one talented typewriter.”

Imagine a laptop.
What can you use it for?
That laptop can be used as a paperweight.
It is, in fact, better than some objects (such as a pen) at being a paperweight.
But that’s probably a waste of the laptop.
What else can you use it for?
It can also be used as a nightlight.
It has quite a lot of comparative advantage at being a nightlight—most objects don’t emit light, so a laptop works pretty well there.
However, it’s still a huge waste.
And, if you’re a human, not a computer, it feels terrible to be wasted: to not be used for your full range of capabilities.
» read the rest of this entry »

Just Do A Thing (that nobody’s expecting you to do)

This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.

Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented.  How do we make more people like you?”

It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:

“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”

Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once.  I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.

I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour.  Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch.  I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.

These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs.  My advice to pretty much everyone:

» read the rest of this entry »

Deciding to make things happen

Last Thursday—after my last day of classes ever—one of my classmates, Sung Cheul Hong and I found ourselves in an interesting conversation at a local craftbeer bar. At one point I asked him, “What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree? Not necessarily from school, though it could be.”

He thought for a moment, then answered: (this is from memory, a beer and 3 days later)

I think it was… that you can just kind of decide to make things happen. I wanted to make a positive impact on campus, and I had this idea for a Product Vision Club to educate students about product management, with companies giving talks and students building and executing on their visions.

I didn’t have anyone on board, I just wrote a one pager, like what this club is about and what we are going to do this term, and made a facebook group and a public announcement… and people rolled in! An exec team, guest speakers, and of course members.

I just had an idea and a high-level plan, then I publicly announced the plan as if it were happening regardless, and… Bam!

What Sung said probably wouldn’t’ve been my answer if someone had asked me the question, but this is a thing I’ve been learning. I wrote last year in my post about self-authorship, about how I realized I had no birthday plans, and just decided that I would have a cuddle party, announced it, and it happened. This year, I one-upped my past self and » read the rest of this entry »

The 40-Hour Work Weekend

I’ve experimented with focus blocks before, where I’m working a large percentage of the time and when I’m not working I’m only engaging in distractions that are centering, rather than divergent. Following in the footsteps of some other entrepreneurs that I admire, I decided to make this entire weekend a focus block. I closed out my email inbox friday afternoon, and didn’t open it again until sunday. And I got a lot done.

The video!

Like the others, I made a timelapse video. I’m kicking myself now, because I didn’t confirm that I had a functional system on Linux for recording my webcam and then turning it into a timelapse. Meaning it took me way longer (read: several hours today pulling my hair out while staring at my screen) to create this video than would have been reasonable, and it’s not even sync’d the whole time. But I know how to do it better next time, and can probably push out a video with 30mins at most of post-processing, provided I set things up well at the start. I learned a bunch about the ffmpeg and sed tools though, which was helpful. I’ll post my scripts once I fix the aforementioned problem.

The stats!


An app that pings you at totally random intervals and gets you to tag what you’re doing. The pings are on average every 45 minutes, but sometimes will be within seconds, or hours apart, so you never know. »

Complice: My goal-progress-tracking business, 75 days

My aforementioned business now has a name: Complice. I’m sure I’ll write more about the name-choosing process later. This post is about various things I’ve learned in 73 days of business.

75 days

75 days. 11 weeks. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. I definitely had the sense of being at an earlier stage. But I guess I spent awhile going fairly slowly while I only had 1 user… which I didn’t even get stable until mid-October. So that’s half of the time right there, before I’d… done much of anything.


I was already using a proto-Complice system at the time, so I can look up exactly what I did in there… Oh. I actually was spending a fair bit of necessary time on customer acquisition… plus walking my alpha user through things. I was also tweaking the planning questions a lot, which is funny given that I’ve basically ditched them for now. Oops. Well, learning. It’s not obvious how I would have realized their lesser importance at that point, esp since my single alpha user was doing them. Slowly though. Oh and blogging. I counted a lot of blogging. And here I go again! It’s important though, I think.

Once I’m actually loading this stuff into databases, I’ll be able to generate graphs and word clouds and other metrics about how much progress people are making over time.

User-visible Improvements

Paul Graham writes “Startups rarely die in mid keystroke. So keep typing!” User-visible improvements are a commitment not to stop typing: that every day, some improvement to your product will be made available to your users.

It comes from Beeminder, who’ve just recently blogged about their thousandth UVI. My graph is much less grand, but it’s coming along. I’m tweeting my UVIs out at @compluvi. (My main Complice twitter account is @complicegoals)

The very system of Complice itself (which I’ve been dogfooding since before it existed) has been already keeping me making progress, but publicly committing to UVIs has the further benefits of communicating to users and potential users that I’m actively improving this, and ensuring that my progress is felt by my users, so I don’t spend most of my time on things like “answer their questions” and “read business book X”. Those are important, but I need to be actively improving things as well.

Having public commitment is really important. Early on, I would sometimes tell my idea to friends and they’d say “but how are you going to compete with X, Y, and Z?” and I would feel really discouraged, but I already had a half-dozen users who’d paid me to help them. I couldn’t just give up that easily. UVIs are kind of like saying “well, maybe I don’t have to make it to 20 pushups, but I can at least do 1 more… okay, and maybe 1 more”.

Blogging about Complice counts as a UVI because it’s definitely user-visible, and because a business with blog posts is better than one without. Of course, I have to do more than write blog posts, but bugfixes count too and they’re not sufficient to have a successful business either.


In the process of starting to work with my beta users, I continually experienced having my assumptions thrown out the window. I had assumed that: (time to realize; how I realized)

  • users would respond to my emails within at most 48h, from the start (2 days; they didn’t)
  • users would respond remotely well to long emails (2 weeks; they didn’t)
  • users would have more time for this stuff on weekends (4 days; I asked about this)
  • keeping users at the same stage would make any sense at all (2 weeks; the ones moving faster were getting impatient and some people had barely done step 1, so )
  • it’s important to start with the planning before jumping into daily outcome-tracking (3 weeks; including several days of waffling about whether or not the switch of focus actually made sense)
  • users would understand all of my instructions perfectly (I’ve been doing this sort of thing for so long that I’m getting hit really bad with illusion of transparency.

The first few assumptions were kind of silly, but other . I’ve been reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, and it talks a lot about having explicit experiments with stated hypotheses. This helps iteration/innovation proceed much faster and more nimbly because it doesn’t rely on falsifying data to hit you in the face: instead, you’re actively looking for it. I’ve been trying to add more explicit experiments to my validation process.

Stay in the loop

If you’re interested in joining Complice when it becomes more widely available, head over to and enter your email address. My goal right now is to have something ready for New Year’s Resolution season, but given that I’m going to be busy with family stuff over the holidays, that’s going to be challenging!

This post adapted from the first entry into my business journal. I decided just today that it would be valuable, for myself and potentially others someday, to write for a few minutes at the end of most days with how things are going with my business. The intention is to capture the nuances and feelings that don’t show up in the list of things I did.

I’m Starting a Business: Planning and Achieving Goals

I write a lot about goals. Sometimes big meaty well-defined goals like the album I recorded last year or the polyphasic experiences I had this summer. Other times the goal is just a 30-day challenge to do something daily or give something up. Sometimes it’s more abstract, like my aspirations to become more aware of my own mental processes. In the past few weeks, I’ve started taking things to the next level in a few ways. First, I’ve started doing not just evening reviews but also morning solo-standups where I plan my day. Second…

I’ve started a business to help other people with their goals.

I’m running this business incredibly lean:

About 2 weeks ago, I was reflecting to my friend Dan from Beeminder about how I thought I might be able to create something to play a kind of complementary role to his product. While Beeminder helps you keep track of numeric goals, I found I needed another system to help me keep track of my progress on more abstract and nuanced goals. As I noted during my end-of-2012 reflection, last year I started using the Pick Four system by Seth Godin and Zig Ziglar. Naturally, of course, as a tinkerer, I was constantly tweaking it, and developed a more robust system. I also found myself wishing I had better software to help me keep track of everything.

Handdrawn graphics showing four goals around a stylize Pick Four cover (ripples in water)

This summer I tried doing sketchnote style goal planning. Really pretty but didn’t actually help much.

However, I figured, it probably wouldn’t be worth it to build that kind of software just for myself. Would it be valuable to others too? Dan recommended starting just the way he started Beeminder: by helping one friend, manually. By chance, later that day I found such a friend, and so after talking with him briefly about his goals, we started going through the steps of the system. I would email him questions and prompts inspired by Pick Four, and he would respond. Meanwhile, I was also pitching the idea to other friends and getting them to sign on for my beta, which I’m hoping to start with about a dozen people in November.

about a dozen people, who have some goals they seriously want to achieve, and are feeling frustrated because they feel like they aren’t making as much progress towards them as they’d like. If this sounds like you, let me know! If you’re not sure if it’d be a good fit, get in touch and we’ll have a quick Skype chat. [EDIT 2013-11-05: the beta cohort is now closed, but feel free to email me and I’ll keep you posted]

So far the November beta cohort is about half-filled. At that point, things will be a bit more streamlined, although people will still be interfacing with me regularly—once this really gets running, in 2014, it’s going to be mostly automated, so if you want the chance to have a really cheap personal goals coach (me!) then now’s the time. The beta is going to be $10/month; after that the service is probably going to be at least twice as much. While I charge separately for full-on consulting, it’s super important to me that my system is helping you, so if you’re stuck then I’ll gladly help troubleshoot things with you. My business doesn’t have a name yet, but I think it will be valuable for people. Full refund offered if it isn’t—I want my customers to be satisfied.

I’m spending this upcoming weekend mentoring at the October CFAR workshop, where I hope to pick up some new ideas for what kinds of questions will help people most with staying on track, and to have more chances to pitch my business to smart, ambitious people.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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