Cleansing Your Information Diet Pt 2: Case Study

Avthar's Weekly Wisdom #56 (06/20/2021)

Welcome to edition #56 of Avthar's Weekly Wisdom!

🔥 This newsletter is where I share practical wisdom about self-mastery, entrepreneurship, health and happiness, all to help you live better. My guarantee is that you’ll discover one thing that will help you change your life every week.

Last week, I explored how to optimize your information diet for achievement, clarity and peace. This week, we’ll deepen our exploration of information diets and their effects by looking at a case study of how your information diet can affect your motives and thinking. I hope you enjoy it.

To your growth and success, 

Avthar

PS. How do you handle the barrage of information in your life? Do you have any secrets for curating a successful information diet? How do you read books, use Twitter/ Facebook or watch Youtube videos? I’d love to learn more -- do leave a comment or reply to this email.


Cleansing Your Information Diet: A Case Study

Information diets are paramount to success and happiness. The content we consume subtly reprograms our minds and changes our perception of what we consider important about ourselves and the world. And, by what I’ll call “the principle of exposure”, we become that which we are most exposed to.

To make the effects of an information diet more concrete, let’s look at a case study of how a budding entrepreneur’s information diet impacts their pursuit of creating a successful company.

Meet Ajay*. Ajay is a 23 year old college graduate in computer science. He’s passionate about technology and excited to make the world a better place via startups. Eager to blaze his own trail, Ajay moves to Silicon Valley with the goal of creating a successful company. Having read my previous essay, Ajay recognizes the importance of information diets and so he wants to curate his information diet to fuel him in his entrepreneurial pursuit.

(*Ajay is, of course, a fictional character.)

Ajay says to himself, “To help me become a successful entrepreneur, I will only read, watch and listen to content about entrepreneurship”. Ajay goes on to subscribe to popular tech publications like TechCrunch and The Information, and follows as many prominent VCs and founders as he can find on Twitter. 

Do you think this strategy will help Ajay reach his goal? Or do you think it’ll do more harm than good? 

Let’s find out...


1. Mimesis and Motives

Ajay proceeds to read tech Twitter, TechCrunch and even checks out the Forbes 30 under 30 list in the following weeks. He’s now more clued up about what fundraising deals happened, the details and valuations of the deals, and what investors believed about the latest world events. Ajay is now keen to raise money from prestigious investors and maybe even making it into the Under 30 list. However, he's learned very little about actually building a company and solving a problem for a customer he cares about and made little progress toward his goal.

You see, in the startup world, most journalism is hero-worshipping investors and founders -- it’s focused too much on fundraising rather than actual business or product building, and sometimes is just pontificating about technology and how it’ll save (or end) the world.

By consuming stories about fundraising and investors every day, they prime your brain to focus on the things you read about and elevate the importance of things like raising lots of money, who your investors are and your perception as a founder, beyond their proper levels. 

In his job at the startup accelerator at Y-Combinator, our friend from last week’s essay, Dalton Caldwell, has seen hundreds of startup founders and the effect that their information diet has on their success. Caldwell recounts how many founders he’s met who obsess about fundraising and deal structure, when they don’t even have an idea or a product yet!  This is an important reminder that your information diet will affect your motivations and Ajay is learning that lesson first hand.

Recognizing his lack of progress, Ajay abandons following tech vogue Twitter and wants to adjust his information diet. So what kind of information should Ajay be consuming? 

In this video, Caldwell recommends startup founders (like Ajay) to “consume information that encourages you to do more”. 

You want to really think about what kind of information you’re consuming, and you want to be very thoughtful that it's information that encourages you to do more and to actually work on the thing you’re aspiring to do, and that isn’t implicitly discouraging.

- Dalton Caldwell

Caldwell goes on to answer Ajay’s question and outline the sort of content he should actually be exposing himself to:

“...it'd be so much better for aspiring founders to be consuming media that inspires them to build things and to give things to other people and, and gives them more positive feedback on the things they're doing.”

This is the sort of information that will actually be useful and energize Ajay to engage in actions that will directly lead to his own and his company’s success (e.g work on the product, building a successful business, solving problems for his customers etc.), rather than being focused on how he’s being perceived because of his valuation or investors or if he’s working on the hottest trend.


2. Who are you trying to impress?

While re-calibrating his information diet, Ajay formulates an idea for a company (Uber, but for dog walking). Having read about the importance of feedback, he proceeds to meet with dozens of investors and ask them what they think about his idea. The investors give him mixed reviews, some aren’t convinced about the market size, while others worry about how he’s different from competition. Ajay leaves these meetings determined to think of the next billion dollar idea that will wow investors.

Ajay’s predicament highlights another side effect of consuming “general entrepreneurship” content focused on investors and fundraising: It leads to founders feeling like they need approval from investors more than you need approval from customers. Founders like Ajay spend hours getting feedback from investors rather than focusing on the one thing that truly matters: their customers.

In Caldwell’s words:

“You feel like you need approval from external parties or investors before you even begin, and that can’t be further from the truth.” 

In “What to read before starting a startup, I talked how I fell into this very trap and how I wish I learned to seek validation from customers, not investors, while working on my first startup, Afari:

“I fell into the trap of seeking validation from potential investors that our idea was good, rather than focus on the people who truly mattered: the user.

I was fortunate to have access to many angel investors and venture capitalists and so mistook their advice and enthusiasm for the product and team as signs that the market wanted what we were building.”

Michael Seibel, partner at Y-Combinator, shares his experience with this issue as an investor in this thread:

  • A lot of startups ask me for feedback on their startup idea. Most of the time I am not an expert in their field nor a potential user.

  • I believe founders do this because they think that investors are the gatekeepers of the startup world and they want me to "like their idea" and accept them into YC.

  • In reality customers are the gatekeepers of the startup world. If your product can get customers and retain customers, investors (including YC) will happily give you money.

  • So if you want investment, don't ask for product feedback - share your numbers and ask for money. If you want product feedback, try cold emailing potential users and founders who have tried and failed to solve a similar problem in the past.

Now this is not to say that all investors give bad advice, but the best ones (like Seibel above) know that the market will ultimately decide if you win or lose, and so talking to your users/ customers should be your priority. Perhaps the best question I was asked as a founder came from Sequoia Capital’s Bryan Schreier, who simply asked, “What are your users saying?”. This shows where your priorities as a founder should be. It also shows the humility of an investor who listens to the market rather than their own preconceived notions.

After chatting with his friends and some fellow entrepreneurs, Ajay realizes that his compass is oriented to seek validation from investors, rather than customers. He decides to read up on customer interview techniques and talk to prospective users (dog owners and walkers) instead.


3. Practitioners vs Arm Chair Professors

In conclusion, it’s important to notice the effects your information diet has on you: How does what you read, listen to and watch affect your motives? Who are you putting on a pedestal because of it? Who do you want validation from? These are all questions as relevant to budding entrepreneurs as they are to anyone else pursuing a goal and who wants their information diet to help them achieve it.

Moreover, it’s important to understand your goals and the true requirements to achieve them. In Ajay’s case, he needs to create a profitable product that people love and are willing to pay for in order to become a successful entrepreneur. Therefore, the information he consumes must help him reach that goal in some way, either through tactical knowledge or principles to live in such a way that increases his chances of achieving his goal. Everything else is noise that could adversely affect his chances of success.

Finally, be wary of consuming information from armchair professors - people who study practitioners, without doing it themselves - rather than practitioners - people who actually practice a craft and have experience in the domain they’re talking about. 

In “Skin in the Game”, I elaborate on this distinction:

“Skin in the Game is important because it shows that a teacher has tested their expert knowledge in an environment where there is accountability and consequences for being wrong. It helps us be wary of teachers that teach about things that they’ve never actually done. Unfortunately, we see these types of teachers all the time in the modern world  -- people teaching courses about business who’ve never run a successful business and people who’ve never worked as software engineers teaching people how to code in coding bootcamps.

Teachers with Skin in the Game have developed richer understanding and more complex mental models from their time as a practitioner. This helps us ensure that teachers we follow pass the Chauffeur Test, to see whether their knowledge is true or is just memorized with no underlying understanding.”

Journalists and other people who write about something but who’ve never experienced it often lack Skin in the Game and listening to them can cause you to focus on the wrong things, like we have seen with Ajay focusing on investors and fundraising, rather than solving a problem with a customer.


That’s the end of this series about Information Diets. Did you enjoy it? Would you like to learn more about any specific aspects? Do let me know in the comments or by replying to this email!

🙏 Thank you again for reading and for your support! I wish you a week of happiness, success and peace!

With gratitude, 

Avthar 

🌐 avthar.com

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