What to Do When You’re Stuck

Focus: A Mixergy Event

When building a company, taking action is key. It’s the only thing that generates outcomes.

But when there are a million things you could do, the key is knowing what to focus on. Paul Graham has said that for early-stage companies, there is usually one most important thing on which the fate of the entire enterprise depends. Discerning that one thing at each stage becomes the mission.

Also, important: being able to perceive when you’ve lost focus.

Yesterday evening, I attended a Mixergy Live Event on Focus put on by Andrew Warner. The discussion continued over a breakfast meet-up this morning.

This was a fantastic event and my mind is still racing. But one take-away really stood out:

Learn to Notice When You’re Stuck

You are stuck when you’ve decided to take an action, yet find yourself resisting for emotional reasons.

A great way to perceive this is when you have an item on your to-do list because you believe it will help you achieve your one most important outcome, yet you keep putting it off. (This is different than procrastination, which happens when you put off all your work.)

When you’re stuck like this, there is likely some fear or limiting belief holding you back, but which you haven’t specifically perceived. Andrew spoke about thoughts that “fly around like butterflies” in his head yet never rise to the level of conscious perception unless deliberately examined.

Unfortunately, whether or not you examine them, they still exert influence.

Getting Unstuck

Once you notice what’s going on, journal on the questions, “Why am I not taking this action? What am I afraid will happen?”

It’s possible that examining these questions will expose an issue worth addressing. Sometimes your subconscious mind uses fear to tug at your sleeve and bring genuine risks to your attention. (Like, “I’m afraid the numbers in my projections are off … oh wait, here’s an error. I better fix it.”)

But also possible, you might find there is an unreasonable fear or limiting belief at work.

When that’s the case, the act of identifying it is the most crucial step to examining and overcoming it. You can’t consider and modify a belief until you first perceive it.

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

There are myriad resources for overcoming limiting beliefs, including the fantastic framework provided by The Foundation. Find the one that works for you and apply it.

Increasing the Cycle Time

The great insight here though is that there’s a cycle:

Stuck > Notice > Examine > Overcome

The key to moving through the cycle and getting to “Overcome” and all the progress that follows is moving quickly to Step 2: “Notice.”

How fast can you make this happen?

Could you trim this time down from weeks, to days, to maybe even just hours?

Get good at spotting “Stuck” because the fate of your company depends on it.

Number of U.S. Firms by Industry Type

Industry in ActionIn doing research on industry segments, I came across some useful data on the US Census website.

After a bit of clean-up, what’s left is a spreadsheet that shows the number of firms by industry segment with total employment headcount and payroll for each industry.

Download the spreadsheet here:

Or, grab the original with all the data before my modifications.

A quick note: some of the industry lists and NAICS codes seem redundant, in that there are large categories with further sub-divisions. As a result, it appears as though some industries appear more than once. However, I think this is because the list includes all the levels of the hierarchy.

In doing a scan of the data, it looks like the shorter the NAICS code, the higher up in the hierarchy it is. So to eliminate the redundancy, hide any groups where the NAICS code is fewer than six digits.

Here’s detailed information on the structure of NAICS codes.

Launch of Toolray, Inc.


I’m pleased to announce the launch of Toolray, Inc., my new software as a Service (SaaS) start-up.

Why Toolray? It’s a riff on the idea of shining a light on tools. Because work gets much easier with the right tools.

The company is in the very early stages; right now I’m speaking with people about frustrations they face in their day-to-day work. It’s an exciting way to launch because I get to do one of my favorite things—brainstorming to help solve problems.

Over the years, I’ve discovered this is both a talent of mine and something I really enjoy. In fact, when I’m in a conversation, trying to iron out a knotty problem and the ideas are flying, I am fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. This is of course the flow state, which is always a great place to be.

I also think this is the right approach to build a company. By focusing on real problems people are actually facing, I expect to uncover a real market need, which is an important component of success.

In the short-term though, before building anything, I’m having as many conversations as I can about challenging problems. So, if you’re struggling with some issue in your business, or even if you just feel like you could be doing better, let’s find a time to talk.

Sometimes of course, the biggest challenges are those we’ve lived with for so long that we don’t even see them anymore. So, if you’d like to talk about your business and workflow just to see what shakes out, let’s do it.

Using Excel to Combine Data from Different Sources

eBook cover image: How to Combine Data from Different Sources Using ExcelI’m happy to announce the publication of my new eBook, “How to Combine Data from Different Sources Using Excel.”

This tutorial covers one of my favorite functions in Excel, VLOOKUP. I have found over the years that a strong understanding of this command enabled me to work with data much more effectively. Now, when doing analysis, I’m not limited to just information from a single source because I use Excel to pull in and integrate data from other sources. I love this because I can look at more factors and answer more questions.

I felt there would be some value in putting out a tutorial that focused on the business process rather than just the software commands. Many of the tutorials currently available for Excel are fairly technical in the way they approach the material. This can make it hard to understand how or especially why you might use a particular command.

Instead of digging right into the technical details, “How to Combine Data from Different Sources Using Excel” presents one straightforward example from start to finish. Of course, it fully covers all the parameters of the commands referenced along the way, but this approach puts the technical information in context, making it is easier to understand.

There are also a number of sections devoted to trouble-shooting, which will enable most readers to get up and running quickly.

This project is being released exclusive to Kindle through the Amazon KDP Select publishing platform. If data analysis is your kind of thing, check it out and please leave a review on Amazon as well.

Unlocking the Secrets of the World’s Most Powerful Tool

ExcelOK, I’ll admit it: I’m a business geek.

It started at an early age.

Growing up the son of a marketing-exec father and CPA mom, I heard a lot of business talk around the dinner table. I didn’t understand much of it, but it all seeped in anyway. A few years down the road, in Accounting 101, the teacher introduced accounts receivables and payables. While the rest of the class fought off sleep, my reaction was intensely emotional–“So that’s what they were talking about!

Today my passion centers around the creative elements of business–building cool products and marketing them well, assembling great teams, forging a distinctive culture. But I love the numbers too. Because they tell the unvarnished truth about what’s really happening–out there, where the rubber meets the road. They reveal … is the sales campaign working? Is the new product finding traction? Are we achieving? or failing?

So in contemplating ideas for building passive income, I’m drawn to the idea of writing about Excel. Of helping people harness it’s extreme potential.

I have worked in Excel for years and I am continually amazed at it’s depth, it’s breadth. It might well be the most powerful tool the world has ever seen. I’m open to feedback on this, but I can’t think of any other tool, software or physical, that has had such an impact on the world we live in today.

Can you?

So while I consider myself more Excel admirer than expert, I know that’s a great place to start. I get excited at the idea of digging in and learning more about this amazing tool.

For years, I’ve had a “philosophy of Excel” that has served me well: spending 30 minutes once to learn how to save five minutes over-and-over is time well spent.

So in contemplating product ideas, I plan to focus on a new angle. Not just a how-to approach, but a why approach. Maybe even a little, “finding love, happiness and personal fulfillment with Excel.”

Is that promising too much? I guess we’ll find out.

Building Passive Income

falling moneyPersonal development blogger Steve Pavlina is writing a series of articles on generating passive income.

I originally saw the first article announcing the series but didn’t check back for a couple of months. I looked the other day and WOW — there are now more than 20 articles on the topic. For my own benefit, I gathered them into an ebook, which you can download if you’d like.

This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while. When we launched Dealhack in 2005, the first month’s earnings were just $21. In 2010, when we sold the site, monthly earnings were several orders of magnitude greater. So, I have direct experience with the concept that big things can come of side projects that start small.

Steve points out that there is great value in committing publicly to a goal. It’s a way of creating consequences for failure, of staying focused to do the work. “If there’s no negative consequence for quitting, it will be easy to quit … Quite often people will find the avoidance of the negative consequences more motivating than the positive benefits they’ll achieve.”

So, in the spirit of Steve’s suggestion, I’m stating my own goal for creating passive income:

I have achieved passive income of $100 per month by November 1, 2012; this source will last 5 years.

Roughly speaking, this gives me a month to conceive of an idea, and a month to implement. Plenty of time!

Stay tuned–I’ll keep you posted as I progress.


Tips for Using Excel to Communicate

MS Excel spreadsheet showing 3-Year Projections for Newco

Without a doubt, Microsoft Excel is a powerful tool for performing calculations. But it’s more than that. Once you share your work, it also becomes a tool for communicating. Unfortunately though, many people who are quite adept at calculating in Excel utterly fail to present their work clearly so others can understand it. This is a shame because when used well, there’s no better way to convey data, calculations, or business projections than with a powerfully-prepared spreadsheet.

Here are a few guidelines that will drastically improve how your work is received.

Every Spreadsheet Needs a Title

Nothing says “I’m a sloppy amateur” quite like passing out a spreadsheet with no title on it. Why? The title defines the context for the entire presentation. It tells the reader what they are looking at.

Without a title, rows and columns of data mean nothing. Is your chart a table of low and high tides? Train times? Girl scout cookie sales? Inmate counts in Folsom Prison? Who knows … it’s a mystery.

Use Descriptive Captions to Define Columns and Rows

Just like your document needs a title, so do your rows and columns. As obvious as this might sound, I see spreadsheets every day without these simple but important labels. Another frustrating variation that fails to communicate are labels that are abbreviated beyond all recognition.

It is easy to forget that the person reading your document, doesn’t know the content like you do. These headers and descriptions are the key to helping your readers understand what they are looking at. Don’t leave them out.

Keep Related Data in a Single Row

A key concept in spreadsheet design is to display data in batches, where a row represents a single group of related content. For example, if you are tracking variables about different NBA players, you’d list each player’s name on the far left, and then list each bit of data in a single cell moving across the right. You’d use your column headers to identify each bit of data. So for example, you might list the name, height, weight, position, games played, field goals, field goal percentage, etc.

You wouldn’t want to display data for a single player split onto two lines. There are some situations where you might have to do this for space considerations, but generally, it’s best to avoid this.

Tag Variations by Adding Columns, Rather than by Separating the Data Unnecessarily

Lets say you run two accounts receivable reports. One for accounts that have an ongoing relationship (i.e., “open” customers) and another for accounts no longer placing new orders (i.e., “closed” customers). Should you display this data in two reports or one? My vote it to combine all the data into a single report, but then add a column labeled, “Account Status.” You could then indicate either, “open” or “closed,” depending on which original report the specific account entry originated. The value is that the data can be displayed in one consolidated report, rather than in two.

Life is a Highway

When it comes to improving your communications skills, whether via Excel or in any other format, recognize that there is a process. You won’t get there overnight. But if you are attentive to the issue, if you strive to improve and importantly, observe how your presentations are received, you will get there.

How to Create a Jagged Text Banner Image

I slapped the michaelbell.cc banner image together rather quickly, mostly using the PhotoFilter app on the iPad. The goal was to create a low-rez image, reminiscent of a hand-made zine.

Logo for michaelbell.cc

A close-up of the “m” shows the effect nicely:

Close-up "m"

I’m happy with the outcome, but regrettably, didn’t track my steps. Since then, I’ve attempted to recreate the process but can’t seem to figure out all the details. Here’s what I do remember:

  1. creating a basic red-on-white Helvetica image in Illustrator
  2. posting it as a 940px × 100px banner image on my sandbox site
  3. doing a screengrab of the image from the website in Safari on the iPad
  4. cropping it on the iPad using PhotoForge
  5. opening the image in PhotoFilter, and resizing it, making it 2-3 times larger–at this point, the red in the lettering had gone from solid to splotchy
  6. selecting the Oil Paint in PhotoFilter and processing the image, causing the borders of the letters to blur and saturating the splotchy spots further
  7. but now, here’s where it gets hazy …

I recall applying one or more filters that made the text very dark and then using the undo slider to back off, but not fully eliminate, the effect. (PhotoForge’s slider is a cool approach to undo because it allows you to merge the original starting-point image with the processed image, rather than choose between the two.) I might have applied the Auto Gamma feature twice. Or maybe it was Stipple? Maybe a combination of the two, or perhaps something else entirely? I remember that once I got the text looking really cool, there were some blue artifacts in the white portion of the image, so my final step was removing them using the paint bucket in Photoshop.

Since attempting to recreate the image, I haven’t been able to figure out what combination of filters gave me the dark jagged edge while keeping the interior bright red. This is unfortunate since it’s  what I like most about the image. If you figure it out let me know–I’d love to be able to create more images like this in the future.

Hello World: The Launch of Michaelbell.cc

Today marks the launch of michaelbell.cc and the shutting down of michaeslbell.com. I had just a few articles posted there, so I moved them here, mostly to have something in place to help visualize the layout while I was tweaking it.

The site was designed using the Headway Theme running on WordPress.

Tipping the Scale for Good over Evil

A few weeks ago I listened to the podcast version of a lecture from University of Toronto Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson on TVO’s Big Ideas series.

Based on the opening of this talk, I didn’t think I was going to like it yet as it progressed, I found it more and more intriguing. As an academician, Professor Peterson has devoted his career to the study of evil, which he notes is distinctly separate from tragedy. He is a great speaker and he weaves in a wide range of content throughout the lecture to end with a very specific message–that each person has an obligation to build their character on a foundation of truth, not deception. He illustrates with examples of how single individuals have had great impact for good in the world. But he also talks about the dangers of relying on belief as a proxy for truth.

His message is powerful and articulately delivered. He speaks about how great the human spirit can be when a person is willing to take on the obligation to develop a truly integrated personal character based on rigorous inquiry.

The lecture is 40+ minutes long, so it’s a bit of a commitment even just to check it out. But the first time I listened to it, I had a classic “NPR driveway moment.” I had arrived home but didn’t want to get out of the car because I had to hear what he was saying.

How to Remember Just About Anything

Here’s a memory hack I discovered a couple years ago. Whenever you think of something that you’ll need to remember, take a moment to visualize yourself in that future situation, doing or remembering that thing at that time. For example, if it’s a rainy day and you’re driving with your headlights on, picture yourself arriving at your destination and turning them off. If there’s something you want to take into the office tomorrow, picture yourself leaving in the morning with that specific item in hand.

This method works really well for me–I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the verge of blissfully forgetting something when I find myself in the situation that I previously visualized and the memory just sort of drops into my mind right when I need it.

I wouldn’t recommend this as a substitute for pen and paper, but if something important comes to you while you’re on the go and you’re afraid you’ll otherwise forget, give it a try.

Whatever You Are, Be a Good One

There are infinite paths in life and we each make our choices, whether deliberately or by default.  So this website will chronicle my efforts to choose well.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”