The Past 10 Years: The Top 10 Things I Would Have Done Differently
Have you noticed that your friends constantly complain about their jobs, but never take action to fix them?
If you haven’t seen this behavior yet, just give it a few years.
By your 30s, at least 50% of conversations will revolve around job complaints.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, engineers in San Francisco take action to quit their jobs and start new companies…
…and then, when these new companies fail, the engineers write “post-mortem” posts on Medium about why their startups failed.
But most businesses don’t “fail” – they keep operating year in and year out and change gradually over time.
And while complaining can be cathartic for the complainer, it’s not useful to anyone else.
So, this article is neither a complaint nor a post-mortem – it’s a pre-mortem.
It is a direct extension of last month’s article on the top 10 red-pill truths I’ve learned over the past 10 years.
It will explain what I’m changing to avoid a post-mortem.
It will also explain why I should have taken a 30-40% pay cut over the past decade.
And if you think I was blunt last time around, that was just a warm-up:
1) Drop All Business Activities Other Than Content and Product Creation
Everyone tends to think they are above-average-to-great at everything.
I thought the same way a long time ago, which is why I decided to hire guest writers, offer coaching services, set up partnerships with other companies, introduce complicated marketing strategies, and even create a web series.
But the truth is that most people, myself included, can perform at a high level only in a handful of areas.
Even large companies struggle to do more than 1-2 things well.
I am above average in only two areas:
- Writing articles and creating videos that generate a lot of search engine traffic.
- Creating products with Excel files and videos that people want to buy.
I should have spent 95% of my time on these tasks and cut everything else: Guest writers, coaching, partnerships, complex email marketing, paid advertising, and my attempts at creative writing.
These activities delivered some benefits, but not enough to justify the time and money invested.
For example, occasionally a promotional partner would propose an interesting product or marketing idea.
But a benefit like that wasn’t worth ongoing drama, disagreements over terms, partners turning into “frenemies,” and sales cannibalization.
2) Make Trips to Other Countries Short or Long, But Nothing In Between
In 2009, I left California, where I had studied and worked for almost a decade, and moved to South Korea. And then I lived in a lot of other places afterward.
I have mixed feelings about that.
On the one hand, I lost a lot of my university network by leaving the area.
On the other hand, SF has become a depressingly awful place (LA is better), and since I am not attempting to create a billion-dollar company, I do not fit in with the culture there.
So, I think the idea to leave was probably correct.
But my execution of the “overseas travel and living” part came up short because I often went to a place, stayed for a few weeks to a few months, and then went somewhere else.
That’s too much time to do tourist-only things, but it’s too little time to make friends or live like a real human.
It would have been smarter to commit to living somewhere for 1-2 years, and if I didn’t like it, move on, with the eventual goal of settling down in one specific city.
If I wanted to scout a new place, I should have gone for 4-5 days and minimized my workload during that time.
3) Don’t Set Deadlines – Set Targets Based on Consumption Time Instead
Many productivity experts say that “nothing happens without a deadline.”
If you procrastinate and have legitimate problems finishing work, that advice is helpful.
But if you’re like me – a Type A, obsessive-compulsive workaholic – it could easily backfire.
For example, I frequently aimed to finish products by arbitrary deadlines, such as May 31 or November 30 or the day before a group trip to China.
Then, I would spend every waking hour until the deadline finishing the project.
It made for an unbalanced life, where I went from non-stop work to doing nothing to non-stop work to doing nothing.
I should have skipped the deadlines and set targets based on consumption time instead.
In 2010, I gave myself from July 20 to August 31 to learn about banks and insurance companies and create an entire course on the topic.
Not only was this a stupid idea – it’s impossible to learn a complex technical topic in that amount of time – but it also led to 80, 90, and 100-hour workweeks as the deadline approached.
I should have set a limit of 15 hours of student completion time for the course and made the deadline “Whenever it is done.”
Targeting consumption time rather than deadlines would have forced me to cut the fluff and avoid doing crazy things just to finish on-time.
4) Drop “Lifetime Access and Unlimited Support” and Offer 3 or 5-Year Course Access with Limited Support
“Lifetime access and unlimited support” is way out of line with the terms for online courses in any market.
Many students don’t even believe this claim; a common question is “When does my course access expire?”
I first extended these terms in 2009 because I thought we needed an offer that was “too good to be true.”
I was completely wrong.
It was more than enough to offer a discounted price, simple bonus, and free updates to anyone who signed up early.
Offering such generous terms might have even hurt sales because someone could have said, “Hmm… what’s the catch? Maybe this product is awful if they’re giving away so much.”
And providing “unlimited support” was a terrible idea because it attracted people who needed help tying their shoelaces.
Finally, these terms put more pressure on me to update content and respond to questions constantly, even though 99% of users didn’t care.
I should have offered generous but limited course access, such as 3-5 years, along with support only for specific content-related questions (and no Excel file fixes).
5) Participate in At Least One Group/Team Activity
On paper, I have “hobbies and interests”: Travel, running/weight-lifting, reading, learning languages, creative writing, and whiskey.
But there’s one glaring problem: They’re all individual or pair activities.
If I had a normal job where I went into the office each day and had co-workers, that wouldn’t matter.
But since I work online, I have to go out of my way to meet new people and get in-person interaction during the day.
Almost everyone I’ve stayed in touch with and occasionally see in real life falls into one of two categories:
- Lived with the person before – Either in the same apartment/house/dorm or the same city.
- Did an extended group activity with the person – Such as a study-abroad program or student/volunteer group with heavy involvement.
I have ~4,000 connections on LinkedIn because I am Internet-famous, but my real-life network is quite small.
And it’s largely because I didn’t do many group activities after graduation, and I stopped living in single places for long periods.
I did meet people at networking events, happy hours, and other one-offs, but it was less useful because we had less in common and I was less likely to see them again.
Even if I had still moved around a lot, a single group or team activity would have been a huge help in developing a better network.
6) Target a 10-15% Refund Rate
A long time ago, I was explaining my business to a marketing consultant.
I mentioned that our refund rate was only 2% at the time, and he immediately stopped me:
“If your refund rate is 2%, you’re losing money. A rate that low means that your prices are too low. Many businesses make more money when their refund rates go up.”
The second-most-useful comment about refunds came from Jerry when we both lived in Korea:
“Dude, if people complain, ask too many questions, or have other problems, just refund them.”
If I had targeted a much higher refund rate from the start, that would have solved many problems:
- Less time wasted arguing with angry people online.
- Less time spent selling underpriced products.
- Less temptation to create courses that take 515,189,432 hours to complete.
Some business owners get emotionally invested in refunds and want to curl up and die when customers are unhappy.
But the refund rate is just another lever in the gears of a business.
Pull it correctly, and the gears will operate even more efficiently.
Apply too little force, and those gears will stop turning.
7) Quit Bad Relationships Quickly, But Take a More Measured Approach with Friends
If I ever had to go in for a real job interview, I already know what I would say for the “weakness” question:
“I make the right decisions, but I often wait too long to make those decisions.”
But I should have followed a very simple protocol: If it wasn’t great within the first month, drop it.
The process should have been more like a search for an employee, with screening criteria, rounds of interviews, and quick decision-making.
I made the opposite mistake with friendships: I often lost touch with friends for nonsensical or nonexistent reasons.
For example, I drifted out of contact with a group of university friends in the first few years of this business because I assumed that they wouldn’t approve of my chosen career path.
Students from top universities can be surprisingly narrow-minded, so that wasn’t completely wrong, but I went a bit overboard in my assumptions.
I can think of 5-10 solid friendships I could have maintained if I had put in more effort and ignored imagined problems.
8) Reduce Publication of Free Articles, Videos, and Newsletters to 1-2x per Month
You may not realize it, but writing articles for this site takes a lot of time.
For example, the article you’re reading right now took 13 hours and 17 minutes to research, outline, write, and edit.
Each year, I spend 400-500 hours creating free content for this site and our YouTube channel.
And most of that is a waste of time.
Many students and professionals who sign up for the BIWS courses have not even read anything on this site – most sales now come from search engines and direct traffic.
M&I was a great launchpad for the paid courses, but it has become less important than BIWS over time.
I enjoy writing, but at 400-500 hours per year, it’s a huge time commitment that no longer delivers many benefits.
I should have shifted the frequency to 1-2 new articles per month starting in 2012.
Periodic updates do help with search engine traffic and longer-term conversions, but I could have captured those benefits in 100-150 hours of work instead of 400-500 hours.
And instead of delving into obscure topics that only 10-15 people are interested in, I should have updated the core content that attracts most of the traffic.
The top 100 articles here account for almost 60% of total traffic, and the top 200 generate almost 80% of all traffic.
The remaining hundreds of articles don’t do much of anything, so they should be consolidated or deleted.
9) Simplify the Advanced and Industry-Specific Courses Down to 15 Hours of Completion Time
The obvious problem with “advanced” courses is that the demand for advanced material is low.
From 2012 through 2017, the Advanced Modeling, Bank Modeling, and Oil & Gas Modeling courses together accounted for less than 10% of sales.
The Real Estate course has performed better because the audience is broader, but it still contributes a low percentage of sales next to the core products (Excel, general financial modeling, and the Interview Guide).
Beyond the small market size, there’s another problem: Advanced concepts take more time to teach, but advanced users have less time to learn.
Also, advanced users are often looking for one specific topic, and if the course does not happen to cover it, it’s useless to them.
Currently, these courses are useful mostly because they encourage upgrades to package deals, such as the BIWS Platinum membership for everything on the site.
Those package deals make a big difference, so I don’t think I should have skipped the advanced courses altogether.
But I should have focused on breadth over depth.
For example, instead of a 40-hour course based on a single company or deal, I should have made a 15-hour version with 5-6 separate case studies that each take 2-3 hours to complete.
If people staged an online rebellion because there wasn’t enough content, I could have dropped the prices and positioned the courses as “interview prep” instead.
10) Set a Hard Cap of ~5 Hours per Week on Online Interactions
I’ve spent an astounding amount of time interacting with readers, customers, and random people online – easily 5x as much time as I’ve spent talking to people in real life.
In the first few years of the site, these interactions were important because I was establishing the brand and building a reputation.
But their usefulness fell off a cliff as the business matured.
No online interaction has ever affected my offline life, and most online discussions have made a marginal difference in business results: 95%+ of comments, emails, and LinkedIn messages come from non-customers.
I’m also quite skeptical that “research” via Reddit, message boards, and comment threads is useful; discussions there tend to amplify extreme opinions and hide the average case.
I’ve collected data from four main channels over the past decade:
- What people say in comments and emails.
- What people say on the phone.
- What people say in-person.
- How people spend their time and money.
If you want to figure out a market or a person, #4 is all that matters.
Look at a person’s bank and credit card statements and a weekly time log of his/her activities, and you’ll learn more than you would in a week of conversation with that person.
Numbers don’t lie, but people do – in-person, on the phone, and especially online.
I should have cut my time spent on online interactions starting in 2010-2011 and focused on usage and purchase data to make decisions.
So, What Would This Have Looked Like?
If I had implemented all the changes above, I would have created a simpler and more straightforward business and personal life.
I would have created far less content and worked fewer hours, and I would have made more real-life friends and fewer Internet friends.
The obvious downside is that I would have earned less money.
I estimate a 30-40% cumulative drop in gross sales from all these changes, which adds up to several million dollars.
That sounds like a lot, but it’s over 10 years, and “gross sales” is much different from after-tax profits.
This list of changes may seem dramatic, but I made most of the big decisions correctly.
It was the right move to quit my job, avoid private equity, and start this business in 2007-2008.
And it was the right move to launch BIWS at the bottom of the recession in 2009 and keep expanding it over time.
I did make some business mistakes, but they are fixable.
I made more serious mistakes on the personal/social side, and those are the ones I regret the most.
A Pre-Mortem or a Post-Mortem?
Since this is a pre-mortem, I can make many of these changes.
In fact, I’ve already started.
I’ve also been reducing the frequency of free content in some channels, and I’ve been cutting many side activities.
I learned my lesson with relationships years ago, and I finally found the right person last year.
I won’t follow through on everything above, but I don’t have to.
I just need to change enough to avoid getting to the point where I write a post-mortem.
And since I’m not an engineer in San Francisco, that one’s within reach.
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