The not telling people “I am busy” plan.

I’ve been working on this plan for a while now. I just added it to my daily Lift habits so I thought I would write about it.

When I first started working in tech I regularly worked 10 to 14 hour days. I’d be home by midnight, sleep, get up, shower, and drive back into work. I had the energy to do it, and it seemed like a good use of my time, even though I was being paid for the same number of hours of the day as my friends in HR or accounting.

It felt like I was doing critical, valuable work. I had been made to feel like it was critical, valuable work.

Everything was an emergency. I had a high-strung boss who would alternate between panic that everything was going wrong and panic that something was about to go wrong. We’d set unrealistic deadlines for ourselves. We would congratulate ourselves on shipping 90% of the product only a week or so late. Go us.

But the truth is: nothing we did was all that important. Had we really been doing critical work we would have taken more breaks, spent more time sleeping, resting, and thinking. Instead we burned ourselves out because everyone else was burning themselves out. We “heroically” pulled all-nighters and then spent the next couple of days recovering physically and dealing with whatever dumb decisions we made at 2am while hopped up on Coke.

When I left Federated Media and started my own company I decided I wanted to try working a bit slower and with more focus. Since I could control the number of meetings I would have in a day (zero) and I could (mostly) control the flow of work, I decided on doing a few things differently.

I work until 6pm. I leave my work computer locked up in my office and make time to walk to work (with just my keys, phone, and wallet). We often take an hour for lunch and we talk and think a lot about what we’re building rather than just building.

During the six months we were making MLKSHK we shipped like crazy. When I look at the code now it makes me smile to see all the many things it does. That three four people were able to very quickly and thoughtfully get that much stuff out the door in such a short time makes me really happy.

So the final piece I have been working on is never telling people I am busy. Because no, I am not busy. Yes, I have a lot of stuff to do, but I leave it at the office after work and on the weekends. I have many things I am interested in, but I can always make room for something if it is worth doing.

Rather than say: “I am too busy, I don’t have any time for X.” I realize I can be honest and say I am not interested enough in X to do it.

EVERYONE has a lot of stuff to do because there IS a lot of stuff to do. Some of it is work. Some of it is hanging out with your family. Some of it is just laying on the couch reading a book.

When I lived in Los Angeles, and was much poorer, I took many odd jobs. One of those jobs required me to drive around the city collecting money from those acrylic, honor-boxes typically found next to cash registers at liquor stores.

I’m sure you have seen them, but if not they look something like this. You put money in the top (coins or bills) and take a candy from the bottom. The paper usually has a picture of a sick child or equally sad graphic asking for your donations.

This was a scam.

At least the guy I worked for was running a scam. When I first replied to the ad I didn’t know it was a scam. When I drove to every liquor store and nail salon on the list I didn’t know it was a scam. When people who ran the establishments saw me that first day and excitedly told me we had a “good haul” that week, I still didn’t know it was a scam.

I felt good doing it. I was collecting tons of money. (Literally, I had to go to the bank twice a day to deposit the coins that I rolled by hand.) I liked meeting people and there was a bit of camaraderie as I went about my job behind the counter of their business.

Over the weeks when I had to meet my boss (who was a lawyer by day) to hand him deposit slips or get checks to buy more mints he slowly revealed how the whole thing worked. It wasn’t a scam in the way you might be thinking. The boxes were legitimately rented to my boss from a charity. I cannot remember the name, but it was one I remember recognizing at the time.

The price for renting a box was $2.50 per month. The mints were purchased through the charity for (I think) $15 a box which contained hundreds of mints. Like I said, he’d give me a check to swing by the charity and get more mints when we ran low.

So where was the money I was depositing going? I don’t know. But after I got to know him I certainly had my ideas. When I would drop the box rental checks and checks for mints off at the charity I did notice on the form I was supposed to mark whether they were for mints, boxes, or simply donations. I never dropped off a donation.

I often think about this experience when I think about how seemingly simple situations and businesses can be far more complex when you actually dive into them.

The charity received money for the box rentals and mints. My boss made a terrific amount of money. People felt good for donating their spare change or dollar. They also got a mint. It was actually a pretty good mint.

And me? I made minimum wage plus a few dollars more. And I will admit I probably ate more mints than I was supposed to.

If you haven’t seen this talk yet, I wanted to make sure you did. One thing though: as you watch it remember it is not about a text editor or a new way to write code. There is a much larger statement being made so don’t get caught up in the “ain’t that cool” factor.

Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

I wasn’t sure if I should post this on our Simpleform blog or here. I have this blog post coming about my new life as a small business owner and how differently I carry myself these days. The work is similar, but different. We still ship code, solve problems, and have a good time, but there is much more concern about planning and our future than there was with MLKSHK.

This talk arrived at a very good time.

I’ll have an announcement to make tomorrow if we can find a printer to print this contract

Please follow our new weblog using the RSS feed or the Tumblr widget. Yeah, my first actual Tumblr blog, what the what?

Ugh, Nick’s post linking to 37 Signal’s post about not using puzzles and and riddles to hire people reminded me of the time I interviewed at [redacted].

I was awful. Embarrassingly awful. I can’t even describe how ridiculously bad I was at talking through a problem on paper. Looking back I probably should have just said, “Oh hey, can we try something else?” But I wanted to prove I could do it and just ended up getting it all so wrong I wanted to just get up and walk out of the room.

A friend went through the gauntlet of hiring and he was hit with all the puzzles and algorithms you hear about. He studied really hard for them and did really well; he had his pick of jobs to take. But talking to him now it seems that he ended up at a company lacking any culture and a few odd people he doesn’t care to interact with.

I think I do pretty good hiring people. I tend to do much more talking and challenging ideas than I think most people do. Yes, reading their code is probably the most important thing you can do before hiring, but if you can’t hold a conversation with someone and can’t see having lunch with them, then why even get to that point?

Occasionally I will be writing this year about progress on Simpleform’s transparent books.

Last week I learned how to retrieve and parse my bank account’s transactions. They’re in a format called OFX which sounds awful but is actually pretty straightforward. If you ignore 95% of it, in the end it is a list of transactions identified by GUIDs which I am stuffing in a MySQL database.

My goal is first to collect it, then clean it up locally by adding better descriptions and categories, and then push reports to a server that we can all see.

I will share this code.

“The object of the game is to hit the pig with the bird.” — Angry, Productive Birds by Mike at Stamen is a great look at designing a system to help everyone on the team to learn from their project scheduling and time usage.

Simpleform, the company I started with my wife, is entering its third year. We built some stuff for clients, we built some stuff for ourselves, and now we’re back to building things for clients and I think we might be doing this for a while. In the past two years I have learned a lot: some about startups, but way more about businesses and running them.


This idea of building business systems started clicking in my head about six months ago as we were returning to consulting. When we were 100% dedicated to MLKSHK we were shipping daily, processing bugs as fast as people could find them, working through features, and had between the three (or four) of us developed a tight development relationship. It was a fantastic system for shipping code for our users.

When that ended I felt a bit lost. We had systems for deploying and determining where to focus, but working for clients is a different thing. So…why not develop systems for client work?

For year three of Simpleform I am trying out three things:

  1. Open books. Anyone who works here can see what we’re earning and how much we’re spending. If you can push code to the servers you should be able to see how healthy the business is. These things are related and should be signals for making decisions.
  2. Meticulous project scheduling. The purpose of our business is first to make money and second enjoy what we’re working on. This does that. I can’t enjoy my time at Simpleform if I don’t know how the business is doing and I don’t think anyone else who works here would either.
  3. Continuous business development. We probably never should have switched to MLKSHK full-time. It was a gamble, but looking back I see we should have kept looking for work. It was too optimistic. From now on we will try out ideas but keep the business going.

Another good post by a co-founder of AngelList called Why You Can’t Hire is the other reason I’ve been thinking about a transparent business. I don’t have ten million dollars in the bank and melting servers. I can’t compete for people who want to work at Facebook or the next Facebook. We don’t have perks, we have a water cooler and a nice plant.

What I do have is an offer to be more than just an employee with a half-of-a-half-of a percent of a business and no real connection to it other than a hope for a quick sale and a free hoodie. Everyone who works here is a partner and will have access and a vote for where we go and what we do. We get to tinker and toy with the business—as long as we are successful—and use what we learned to make our business even better.

I’m currently working through my network to find Python engineers to join us. The profile I’m using is someone with enough experience in startups and non-startups to know this is a good deal. I have one person I think is perfect and a few ideas on some other people, but if I missed you pleased get in touch.

While having lunch today with rodbegbie we talked a bit about companies we like that we pay to use and are happy to pay to use. I can think of four right off the bat, but I'd love to hear if you have any you particularly like.

These companies are of course a huge influence on my thinking in this post about Simpleform and mlkshk, and absolutely what I am trying to emulate.

@ me on Twitter, I'm torrez.

Update: Some nice companies sent in via Twitter:

As we get Simpleform going one thing I think I've absolutely settled on is that I don't want to take any investment money from anyone. We have earned (old fashioned LOL!) enough this year while consulting to not have to think about it as we set out to build our product, and I think we'll be fine for next year too, so we have some running room. Plus I can sell a guitar or something if things get crazy.


Dear Friends,

I've been away for a while, but now I'm back. Here is what happened:

  1. I left my job at Federated Media.
  2. I started doing client work.
  3. I realized I dislike client work. The "client" part of client work.
  4. I worked on a secret project for someone else to be announced in a month. Kind of like client work but without jerky clients.
  5. Made enough money the past few months to take a stab at a real-live start up with my wife.

PLEASE sign up for the Friends of Simpleform list. I promise there is very good news coming soon (like tomorrow).