Get an online personal assistant, it will make your life easier

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The shorter version:
Checkout Online Personal Assistant. I recommend it, it’s saved me time and made my life easier. Best part is you can use it from wherever…
Try it, tell Ed you got there from here, and he’ll treat you nice ;-)

The longer version:
OK, so I’m the first to admit that I often find myself with too many balls to juggle. I find that having more to do actually makes me more productive and when I get in the zone, things happen and it feels good.

However, when you’re starting a business, or working on something important to you, and you decide that it is the highest priority in your life, then other things slip down the priority order, and they simply don’t get done.

Cases in point:

  1. I’ve needed to get a UK drivers license for at least 3 years now
  2. I’ve needed to renew my South African passport for over a year now
  3. I’ve been serious about taking up Kendo, or a Japanese Sword Art, for at least 18 months
  4. I’ve needed to sort out health insurance for a long long long time
  5. I wanted to organise a birthday bash for myself this year, for precisely the reason why it didn’t happen last year

I think you get the picture…. Basically you keep your life together somehow until something threatens to break, then you mend it so it doesn’t break in the short term, then you go back to being focussed. I know not everyone is like that, but I am, hence this post! ;-)

Anyways, I’m not really into recommending or plugging services that I don’t have a lot of exposure to, mainly ‘cos I get too many emails so it’s hard to decide whom to spend an hour for getting to know a service, and also ‘cos people don’t really read my blog for that reason ;-) I’m not Scoble or Arrington or Kirkpatrick, and neither do I want to be.

Back to the point – a while ago my friend Ed setup a service called Online Personal Assistant, and after a bit of nudging I decided to give it a try. My @Inbox was overflowing, and I really just needed to clear some stuff that was important, but not that important it could go above Kindo.

So I sent a list of stuff to my personal assistant Kevin:

  1. Book Geek BBQ venue for summer in London
  2. Book karting venue for my birthday delebration
  3. Book bowling venue for my birthday celebration
  4. Find me health insurance
  5. Find me Tai Chi schools close to where I live
  6. Find me Kendo schools close to where I live

As you can see, they’re all time intensive tasks that would mean me spending a few hours online for each one, at some point, getting to a place where I can make a decision and then do some actions… Getting my passport and drivers license require me to be somewhere in person, so I needed to do that.

Where we are now is that Ed’s team (thanks Kevin!) has spent about 9 hours doing all that stuff for me, for which I’ll pay an hourly rate. Everything is documented and tracked in an online workspace (not Basecamp), and I’m happy with the results. I have a few things to tie down now, but basically all the research is done, and all it requires is another booking, or an action on my part.

Bottom line – I’ve saved 9 hours of my time (which I value more than what I’ll pay for it), thereby enabling me to focus on things more important to me now, so as far as I’m concerned I’m a happy biologist.

I happily recommend the service, and am going to continue to use it.

Building a Startup You Love is Hard (BaSYLiH) – Final Draft

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OK, so this has become somewhat of a labour of love the last month or so, where I’ve snuck bits of time here and there to get this to a point where I’m happy it makes sense, and there’s not much more I can add to it now…

Please check it out, let me know what you think, comment on this post for feedback (or email me), and send me typos!

Once I’ve done one more pass of it and I’m happy it’s ready for consumption, I’m gonna create a page for it to live at (while other plans get rolling – thanks Ed!).

Here it is: Building a Startup You Love is Hard (BaSYLiH) – Final Draft.

Edit: If you’d rather read on Scribd, here it is – thanks to David for putting it there.

Enjoy ;-)

Building a startup you love is hard (BaSYLiH) – First Draft

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This is the first draft of the content from the core conversation panel I did at SxSW earlier this year. When it’s done it will go up as a PDF and a blog post. I’m posting here so that I can start getting feedback if possible; and have kept things numbered for easier reference – feel free to comment to this post… ;-)
Once it’s final I’ll format it better too…

Dustin took some great photos on the day, so you might want to check them out on Flickr.

A short disclaimer:
These are obviously all my own opinions and as such I cannot take responsibility for anything that happens once you’ve read this document. Whilst I would think that the following are things that I have learnt over the last few years, I don’t profess to be anything more than someone who is trying to learn and apply these learnings – I’m certainly not going to say I’m on top of all of them!

Some questions to ask yourself before starting:
Are you a business owner?
Do you want to be a business owner?
What’s your age?
Do you mind hard work?
Do you have savings in the bank?
Are you a coder, a business person, an ideas person, or a generalist?
If you have a business, do you have a business partner?
If you have a business, is it a product or service business?
If you have a business, are you cashflow positive?
If you have a business, are you profitable or in debt?

I’ve tried to keep the content as short and easily digestible as possible, erring on the side of using point form. I’ve also tried to group things so that chunks digest together. If you’d like some elaboration then please feel free to ask.

Without further ado, here’s the content:

1.Ask yourself what kind of business you’ll love. Then start.
(a)Set SMART goals to make sure you know if you’re reaching them. Use the internet to learn more about SMART goals.

2.Your life won’t be normal, accept it.
(a)Dont use your “normal” friends as your benchmark, they’re generally not working under the same conditions you’ll be.

3.Embrace your fears, they are only fears.
(a)It’s the only way to start and make progress. There’s never a “right” time to get started, so just do it and work things out as you go.

4.Roll the snowball uphill, this is not an avalanche.
(a)I’ve seen very few people succeed without consistent effort. In the long run, persistence and continued effort pays off more.

5.Business is won in inches, just like in sports.
(a)Things seldom take as long as you hope they will, often twice as long.
(b)Doing small things first wins trust, and leads to bigger things when trust is earned.
(c)A sales cycle will typically take anything from 1 to 6 months to bear fruit, probably with a 10 to 20% success rate. Prioritise the small things that will help you to close a deal.

6.Build processes wherever you can to give yourself more time to do the things you’re good at.
(a)Processes you can generally optimise on or find services for are around invoicing, banking, timesheets, sales cycle documentation, proposals, quotes and your daily routine!

7.Abstract and automate wherever you can, you’re not an ISP.
(a)Use 3rd party service providers to make your life and administration easy.
(b)Don’t ever re-invent the wheel unless it makes sense to. Evaluate cost and cost of time against periodic or once off service costs.
(c)Examples are email, calendar (Google Hosted apps), customer support (eSupport), Project management (Basecamp), invoicing (Freshbooks)

8.Cashflow is King, always, without question.
(a)You should always always always have an eye on your cashflow, which literally means how much cash you have in the bank. When you lose sight of this, you will come unstuck and have to go to emergency measures. Knowing what cash you have frees you up to focus on bringing it in and to set your goals.
(b)Know what your cashflow needs are at the beginning of the month; then re-assess at around the 10 or 12 of that month. Start collecting or making arrangements for what you need from then.

9.Learn to leverage debt. Don’t let debt ruin your business.
(a)I categorically don’t recommend you get into debt if you can avoid it, as it’s a big risk. However, if you can bear the risk, and can manage it well, it can serve you without you having to find other less economical sources.
(b)I prefer credit cards as they don’t lock you into overly long payment terms, and you can squash the debt when you’re able to.
(c)Make sure you make your interest payments every month so you don’t affect your credit rating; know where you are within your limit at all time; revolve credit from one provider to another to get better interest rate deals.

10.Learn to network. Become good at it.
(a)I can’t stress enough how important this is. Learning to do this well is a lifelong skill that will always benefit you in business.
(b)Always be genuine, start relationships you aim to maintain, never abuse peoples trust, and always remember that you have two ears and one mouth which should be telling you to use them in equal proportion!

11.Define what success looks like for you, don’t fumble around and be wishy washy.
(a)Everyone has their own ideas and parameters for what success is, so you need to know what yours are before you find your success.
(b)Some good places to start are:
i.What kind of cashflow will you be happy with?
ii.What kind of people do you want to work with?
iii.Are you looking for industry or regional kudos that will indicate some level of personal and professional achievement?

12.Good people are your most important asset, absolutely. They’re generally the largest business cost, but more important than pretty much everything else.
(a)Will you invite them to lunch with your team?
(b)Would you introduce them to your Mom and Dad?
(c)Would you go into battle with them?

13.Learn the difference between “bread and butter” and “icing on the cake” work.
(a)There will always be work that is less exciting, more repetitive and which generates a lower profit. It’s called bread and butter ‘cos it’s likely that although it’s not great or ideal work, it puts bread and butter on the table and keeps the wolf from the kitchen door. More specifically, it’s likely to keep your business running, but not generate great returns or much profit. Generally it’s 60 to 90% of your workload.
(b)Conversely, if you can find it there will also be more ideal work, or “icing on the cake” which makes you happier, presents more of a challenge, is more rewarding both professionally and will probably generate more profit.
(c)You should aim to reduce the bread and butter and increase the ideal work.

14.Strive to find a work/life balance. Everyone will find the balance in different ways.
(a)Clearly define what your balance is; check-in weekly or monthly (or what makes sense for you) to make sure you’re getting there.
(b)Often your most important or rewarding work comes when you’re subconsciously working on it in your “off” time. A good example is the coder that finds the solution to his problem while in the shower (buy Crayola shower pens!).

15.Learn to push; learn to relax.
(a)Despite thinking that a work/life balance is necessary, I also believe that there are times when it’s just not going to happen for you for whatever reason. Learn to recognise these times and make sure you come out of them.
(b)Similarly, when you’re not in “push” mode, make sure you wind down and re-charge so that you don’t run your internal personal battery down.

16.Know what your role in the business is. Recruit around that. Play to your strengths.
(a)This seems obvious but many people end up doing stuff they didn’t intend to from the start. It’s natural to try to retain control by doing everything, but you’ll soon reach a point where you just can’t do it all. The best thing you can do is to find people that compliment you in other areas.

17.Read, apply and continually practise the following principles in your life:
(a)The 80/20 (or Pareto) Principle
(b)Kaizen
(c)Getting Things Done (GTD)
(d)The 7 Habits of Highly effective people
(e)… and, don’t forget to eat your own dogfood.

18.Become a Jedi Master at getting things done. Start now.
(a)Most successful people I know have some sort of system they use to keep the stuff in their head from exploding. I’ve found that GTD with a few mods is a good system for keeping me sane and on top of things.

19.Know your limits
(a)Know how much sleep you need to function effectively.
(b)Know your skills around dealing with people so you can get help when you need it.
(c)Know how good you are at negotiating so you can improve or hire someone better than you at it.
(d)Know what you’re good at so you can keep doing it. Don’t assume you’re best at everything.

20.Save for a rainy day & for Vat or Tax (whichever your country uses)
(a)Having a few months cash under the mattress is a good way to get around your fears and to help you to focus.
(b)Saving cash to pay your government is a sure way to prevent you from having to dip into profit/loans/credit/salaries/growth funds when you need to pay up.
(c)I’ve found creating two separate bank accounts for each and putting money in them every month is a great way of consciously simplifying and managing.

21.Focus on your important relationships, don’t worry about the rest for now.
(a)Make sure you keep in touch with your family, good friends, accountant, bank manager, and partners.

22.There are only 3 ways to make more money. Do something in your business to optimise for each way.
(a)To make more money you can:
i.gain new customers
ii.get more money from existing customers
iii.raise your prices
iv.Start with one that works for you, and move onto the next as soon as you can.

23.Spread your bets, scale up if your bets pay off.
(a)Make sure you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, to mitigate your risks.
(b)If a bet does pay off, then scale it up quickly to get as much out of it as possible.

24.Charge more than you think you should. Go on, try it.
(a)It’s easier to earn more from less projects, then earn more from more projects. The inference is that you charge more, have less things to manage, but still earn more.
(b)You’re more than likely charging less then you should. Decide whether you think you’re worth more. If so, start charging more until people stop asking you to do work for them.

25.Get a good accountant. Then educate them about your business and market so they can give better advice.
(a)I can’t overstate the importance of a good, proactive, helpful, accountant, who knows that helping to make you successful will also make them more successful.
(b)Don’t be afraid to interview your prospective accountant – I would advise it’s always a 2 way relationship.

26.If you can at all, implement systems before you start. It WILL save you time and money.
(a)A system can be:
i.as simple as a checklist of things to do for a specific outcome, like SEO items or setting up a new client on your server;
ii.more detailed like creating document templates which will support your business processes (RFP, costing, quotes, spec docs, resourcing, timesheets, invoices, manuals etc etc);
iii.or more involved like setting up Salesforce.com specifically to suit your business, to setting up an accounting or banking package that gives you the reports you need to assess financial situation
(b)Of course, in the heat of a start-up you might never get to it in advance, so this may be called wishful thinking. But the week or so doing this will pay off in the long run – you’ll sleep more, get more real work done, and you’ll feel like you’re keeping the ship in the right course.
(c)Always err on the side of simplicity; abstract the system so it can be used in as many scenarios as possible; use spreadsheets before buying expensive packages; and do backups!!!

27.Do one thing well at a time. It will revolutionise your productivity.
(a)Learn to tell the difference between distractions, actions, projects and priority. Learn to focus on one thing at a time and to do it well. Learn to say no.

28.Understand why you’re good at what you do. Then learn to communicate it to your parents, then your grandparents.
(a)If you don’t understand what you’re good at, and why, then how are you going to get someone to see it for themselves? Buyers buy for themselves, mitigating against their fears – they don’t buy for a skillset or go for acronyms.
(b)If you can explain this to someone so it’s easily digestible and easy to remember, then you’re onto something.
i.For example:
A.“I specialise in building CMS solutions that are well structured, portable on most any server, properly documented, easily maintainable and futureproof”; is better than “I’m a php coder that does CMS solutions”.
B.“I’ve worked on large scale LAMP community sites, building out code and infrastructure to manage Alexa 5000 ranking traffic”, is better than “I’ve worked on some cool stuff for community sites”.

29.Find, create, develop an outstanding elevator pitch. Then practice it until it’s second nature.
(a)You should be able to explain to someone what you do in about 20 seconds, and it should be interesting and unique enough for them to remember you and it. If it doesn’t do that, go back to the drawing board. Practise on people who do not work in tech.

30.Keep learning. Keep moving.
(a)I’ve always believed that individual stagnation is the killer of personal progress. Continually learning is one way not to stagnate, and IMO no one has nothing to learn. Similarly, staying in one place too long breeds comfort zones and complacency.
(b)If you’re in a comfort zone, ask yourself how long you’ve been there for, and why? If you’re complacent, then you need to ask yourself where that will get you?

31.Shave more. Invest in good shirts and shoes. Wear shirts to meetings. It works.
(a)I’m the last one to do the above willingly. I’m far happier barefoot and in the bush, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Problem is I’m now in London.
(b)In my experience, people give you more credibility if you look the part relative to them, so learning how to clean up and present yourself is a lifelong skill that will help you more than you estimate.

32.You’ll need to work insane hours sometimes. Get regular sleep when you don’t.
(a)I’ve not yet met a business owner who did not work until the wee hours either regularly or often enough for it to show physically.
(b)So, like the soldier, practice and be strict about getting regular sleep when you can because at some stage you’re going to need to dip into your “sleep bank account” and use it to help you get through stressful and sleepless nights.

33.Tequila isn’t good for Mondays; but it is good on Fridays.
(a)This is really just a nice way of saying that you need to be able to let your hair down and have fun from time to time; but that shouldn’t come at the expense of your ability to perform the next week.
(b)So hit the tequila on a Friday, rest up on the weekend, then hit the ground running on Monday.

34.Exercise. You’ll handle stress much better.
(a)What is important is that you exercise regularly. What’s not important is what you do. Just make sure you sweat and do it often enough to make you sleep well at night.
(b)You can also use exercise to break up work periods, so you come back fresh.
(c)Aim for 3 x weekly, build up to 5 x weekly.

35.Get your bank manager to send you wine once a year.
(a)My father once said that you should know two people really well in your life; your wife, and your bank manager…
(b)My experience of this is that if you have a good relationship with your bank manager you’re more likely to be able to get out of cashflow scrapes if you need to, as well as get access to other banking facilities that you wouldn’t if your bank manager wasn’t your fan.
(c)Make sure it’s good wine, not cheap rubbish!!

36.Understand P/L statements & Balance sheets. If you do, you’ll make less mistakes.
(a)Accountants, bankers and financial people generally think in terms of Profit and Loss (P/L) and Balance sheets. At a high level, they’re health indicators for your business, and summaries of the way things are going.
(b)If you can understand them, your ability to communicate with financial people will be better, the benefits of which are pretty obvious.

37.Model your time, productivity and billing. You’ll be more productive and you’ll end up making more money.
(a)Your job as a business owner is to reduce inefficiency and optimise efficiency. If you’re able to model accurately what your time is worth with respect to your business and cashflow, then model that against productivity and your billing, you’ll be able to spot and rationalise weak spots much faster than if you let them hit you in the face. Promise.
(b)The simplest thing you can do is ask yourself the following questions, then answer them as honestly as possible:
i.How much time do I spend working on average per day?
ii.How much of that time do I spend doing something that will benefit my business?
iii.How much of that time can I directly attribute to revenue? [ service business ]
iv.How much of that time is making an effect on my product? [ product business ]
(c)Use spreadsheets to model resources against billing as far in advance as possible, so that you can predict cashflow and resource fluctuations in advance, and plan to mitigate them.

38.Get a life and / or business coach. Get advisors. Find a mentor who you respect.
(a)The best thing you can do for yourself is to acknowledge that you’re not perfect. Everyone can improve in some way.
(b)With that comes the realisation that other people who are perhaps older and more experienced than you, might also be willing to share their knowledge with you.
(c)Having trusted people on the outside of your situation might also help you to see things clearer.
(d)Most local successful businessmen will happily give up a lunch every month to 6 weeks or so, to help someone who is proactive and willing to learn. Find those people!

39.Reward yourself. You deserve it.
(a)One of my deepest regrets is that I haven’t given myself permission to reward myself for all the work I’ve put in. I’ve lived for a long time in a state of delayed gratification “I’ll go on that holiday to Greece when X happens”; “I’ll buy that camera I’ve had my eye on for two years when I have no debt”; “I’ll buy myself that TV for Christmas next year” – sound familiar?
(b)So, my recent learning is to let go and reward myself sometimes. I’m happier and more content, even though I may have spent more money this month that I wanted to. In the short term, being happier and content affects your life in so many other ways it’s worth it.

SA: Run for the hills, the country is falling apart

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Great post from Peter about what’s going on in SA… recommended reading.
_ Run for the hills, the country is falling apart

Going to have a good old rant, it has been a while. For all the new people – this happens every now and then, I have a really good self-righteous rant about something. Don’t be scared and always remember that I always have one aim for all my emails – to make you think. (And apologies to everyone overseas, this is addressed to the local South Africans)

And what better to rant about than the recent load-shedding and Jacob Zuma as the next president. People keep telling me that the country is in big trouble, that Eskom’s woes are a major problem and will spell the end of our economy, and that when Zuma becomes president he is going to run the country further into the ground. Time to leave, time to get out while you can! Do I agree that South Africa is in big trouble? Yes, I do absolutely. We have major issues that threaten our stability, happiness and future prospects. Complicated issues that will take a very long time to solve. These issues however are NOT Eskom or Zuma. They are not new issues either.

Peter Nixon joins the web again, long live Peter Nixon

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My good friend Peter has just gotten off his arse and done his blog up all nice and proper, with content and all. Of course it took me ages to get the server sorted out, install the blog engine, and theme and some photos, but who’s counting? I humbly recommend reading him if you’re interested in SA, my opinion is that in 10 years he’ll be better known, but don’t wan to put any pressure on him… ;-)

_ About

Peter Nixon is a professional accountant who grew a conscience and has now dedicated his life to changing the world for the better. He was born in South Africa in 1976 and lived in England from 1988 to 1991 before returning to South Africa. Initially he studied to become an accountant, registering as a Chartered Accountant in 2003. However this did not fill him with a sense of purpose and fulfilment and he went back to study, completing an honours degree in International Relations in 2006. Africa is where his heart lies and he wants more than anything to see Africa succeed in the world.

In the guise of the Mercenary Chef he mercilessly invades kitchens in order to cook dinner, see his friends, meet new people and discuss weighty topics.

Anything he says on this website is his own partially informed opinion and you rely on what he says at your own peril. He also accepts no responsibility for plagiarism or stolen ideas – credit will be given where possible, but he reads a lot of stuff and it is difficult to keep track of everything. This is just what he is currently thinking about, and what he thinks about and believes is subject to change without notice.

South African bandwidth at ‘fraction of today’s cost’?

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From Tim (he who has no blog or site or anything to point to):
_ Business Day – News Worth Knowing

THE price of international bandwidth will plummet 80% when the Seacom undersea cable goes live on June 17 next year.

Seacom will be the first of several proposed cables to finally reach African shores and local universities have already been promised international bandwidth for just 2,5% of the fee they currently pay.

Seacom president Brian Herlihy said the $600m, 17000km cable running up Africa’s east coast, then on to India and France, was on track for a “dead-certain delivery date”.

Its bandwidth will cost as little as R267 a month per 1MB, compared to between R3500 and R11000 to use Telkom’s bandwidth on the existing Sat-3 cable, or a punishing R231000 for satellite connectivity.

So, is this good news or what?? Thoughts? Will SA people based in SA be able to take over the world now? ;-)

Population size of the Earth now vs population size over history

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If you’re interested in population ecology or population dynamics or just sustainability, then you might find this interesting…

_ Population size of the Earth now vs population size over history

If you add up the total number of humans who have ever lived and compare that total to the number of people walking around on the planet today, you’ll find that there are more people alive now than the sum total of all humans who have ever lived in the entire history of humanity.

If you’re just a geek, you’re probably going to mention this at some stage anyways ;-)

Seriously though, this is not a nice or encouraging graph to look at (which are these days?), and totally makes you wonder how the hell we’re going to support such a large human population in years to come…. ;-(

Thanks to Jeff for pointing me to this.