Saturday, October 29, 2011

Real Authenticity Requires Negative Feedback

Right now you have a negative opinion of someone and they don't even know about it.

That's a pretty safe statement to make, because even if you think you don't, you probably do and just don't realize it. We all make small (and large) judgments about the people we meet and the friends we keep. Someone who knows more than I could probably trace it back to an ancient tribal survival instinct or some such thing.

Regardless of why we do it, I'm hoping we can do it better. I want people to be real with the good and the bad all the time. That's true authenticity and it leads to true, meaningful friendships.

Yesterday, I received an incredibly encouraging complement. You can read the whole thing if you want, but in summary it said some nice things about me being a servant and about my future as a successful entrepreneur. I was so encouraged, I wanted to celebrate that feeling with my friends so I tweeted about it. I wasn't claiming my own awesomeness, but genuinely excited about something significant that I will remember for a long time.

Two quick tangents: I love how Cal Evans did his Friday Follow. He started with the why. Please, emulate that. Don't just tweet a bunch of names. Secondly, I think it's interesting how we celebrate ourselves in some situations (wedding, graduation, birthday, etc) but at other times the same, "Hey look at me!" attitude is kind of sad and smells of insecurity. Hopefully I'll get a pass for my tweet (and this blog post).

So, back to my story... This complement was from a relatively new friendship so I could have written it off. Instead, I received it and was encouraged further by a retweet from Bill Lloyd, someone I deeply respect and have worked with for 6 years in both CA and TN. He added: "Couldn't agree more."

Needless to say, I was on cloud nine all day. I still am today. To be known as a person who serves means I'm not completely getting in the way of God using me to help others. It means some of the sharper edges in my personality are softening. It also means I need to be careful:
Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way. - Luke 6:26
If I only surround myself with people who speak well of me, how will I ever grow? If something about me offends people and I don't have a way to learn from them and change (if appropriate), how many people will I miss the opportunity to serve? (note: I'm talking from a be all things to all men perspective, not a reed blown in the wind perspective)

Here's where you come in.

I want you to click here and take an anonymous two-question survey. If I've ever done anything, said anything, tweeted or blogged anything that bothered you in the slightest, here's your chance to let me know about it with all the safety of anonymity. Go on a rant! It's OK. I asked you to do it.

I need your feedback because I always want to grow and change. I want to serve people who, right now, probably can't stand me and I'm not even sure why. I want to hold on to the encouragements I receive while seeking feedback on how to improve further still. I want connections, acquaintances and friendships that are real and authentic. Since my view is always skewed, I need outside observers.

I need your honest feedback.

If you're bold enough and want to dialogue directly, skip the form and just drop me an email. For more info on the value of trust, authenticity and accurate feedback, I highly recommend The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

So what do you think? Do you want constructive, honest feedback also? Instead of paying who-knows-how-much money on a 360° leadership assessment, you can be up and running with your own form rather quickly. Click documents from your Gmail account (it's 2011, you DO have a Gmail account, right?) and then click Create and select Form. It's really easy from there. Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Is He/She the One?

When I was single, I used to get so frustrated at married people who would answer my "How did you know?" question with, "You just know."

I resolved to never answer that way. Ever.

And then I met Corinne. We've been married 7 years now and it's been absolutely incredible. During our courtship (yes, we actually called it that), I struggled with my resolution because I really started to believe she was the one I would spend the rest of my life with and I didn't (at first) have a clear answer why. I knew I had to be sure for myself and in the past there were other girls, why was this one different?

I think I discovered something that might help you understand the, "You just know" answer. It's something I've thought a lot about over the years and after sharing it with a couple single guys last night, I thought it would be worth blogging about.

If you're a Christ follower, here's an exercise for you:

How do you know you're going to heaven?

How do you really, really know? The answer to that question is very similar to the answer about knowing who your spouse is. Your answer my vary, but here's mine:
  1. The Bible
  2. The Holy Spirit
  3. The input of family and friends I respect
  4. Wisdom from spiritual leaders (pastors, mentors, etc)
I trust in what the Bible says about my eternity based on my confession of faith and the fruit in my life (i.e. positive change to be more like Christ). I know the Holy Spirit is speaking to me and directing me, confirming my conviction of faith. The encouragement and perspective from family and friends who's lives I admire is also critical. Finally, input from people who have devoted their life to studying God's word and serving others is invaluable.

That's how I know I'm saved, but it's also how I knew Corinne was to be my wife.

Did I flip open the Bible one day and see our names etched together in a heart? No. But I did see Psalm 37:3-5:
Trust in the LORD and do good;
Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
When I read that verse, I knew Corinne was the desire of my heart. I had put in the time to cultivate faithfulness, to give up my desperate "is she the one?" search and trust God. I remember fasting and praying one Saturday before proposing. I had to be sure. The Holy Spirit was with me that day, encouraging me to move forward. It wasn't a deep emotion; I wasn't weeping or singing or anything like that. I just submitted my heart and my will to the Spirit and left everything open to correction. I remember talking with my parents, my family and friends and my pastors. By the time we started dating, no one could convince me otherwise. Corinne was going to be my wife.

I just knew.

If you're single, hopefully this information will help you know too. It's not about an emotion, it's about conviction, truth and faith. It's about you and your best friend and the plan God has for you both.

Single? Are you a mess of emotions looking for the one? Got any questions or comments you need to get out there? If so, leave them below.

Married? How did you "just know"? Did you follow a similar process?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don't Claim Your Own Awesomeness

No one likes a blowhard. That's not a revelation. It's well documented in the most published book in history:
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men;  it is better for him to say to you, 'Come up here,' than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman.
Proverbs 25:6-7

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.
Proverbs 27:2

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Luke 14:11
My business partner and I recently decided to use the "Co-Founder" title instead of "President" or "CEO." A lot of small companies use "C-level" titles but do they really need chiefs if they aren't yet leading a tribe? Some companies set up huge booths at conferences trying to appear bigger than they are. Others seem to expect more recognition than they receive. Don't get me started about the companies that do this and don't yet have any revenue, let alone profit.

We all seek recognition and significance, but what's the best way to go about it?

Don't pull a Ron Burgundy and expect people to know you're a "big deal." If you have to tell someone you're important, to them, you aren't yet. Let them figure it out on their own. They'll be super excited about the discovery. Same idea for retweeting compliments... a few here and there are fun for your friends to celebrate with you. If you overdo it, you come across as insecure.

As for your brand and your company, work your butt off to become known but do it with a phenomenal product and incredible customer service. Instead of expecting people to know who you are (and being disappointed to find out otherwise), see how good it feels to be pleasantly surprised. There have been numerous times over the last few years where I've been at a conference meeting new people and when I answer the "What do you do?" question, I get a super encouraging, "We love FoxyCart!" response.

Just yesterday, Brett and I were walking back to my car after BarCamp Nashville and someone in the parking lot stopped us as we walked up the stairs to say, "Do you guys work for FoxyCart?" (We were rocking our company t-shirts.) We got to meet and be encouraged by Chris from Site Mason. He had just parked and hadn't attended the conference we just sponsored. Brett and I felt like rock stars because we didn't have an expectation that our logo would be recognized by someone on the street.

In summary:
  1. Be humble.
  2. You're not Ron Burgundy. Don't try to convince someone you're a big deal.
  3. Given enough time (and excellent service), your brand will be known for its true value.
  4. Stay focused on serving others and improving your product, not on being recognized.
  5. Set your expectations to be regularly encouraged instead of frustrated. 
The tortoise always beats the hare. Take things slow and steady and by the time you're ready for the big stage, your character will (hopefully) have grown enough to handle it. To be clear: I don't have the answers. I struggle with pride, insecurity and man-pleasing, but I'm learning over time and as I do, I plan to share my thoughts here.

For more great posts on humility, check out Kenny Silva's blog:
How do you feel about humility, significance and building your brand? Please leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter or Google+ to start a conversation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are Your Running the Heat and the A/C at the Same Time?

I noticed this "for heating only" thermostat recently while attending Journey Church at the Factory in Franklin. It got me thinking, do they ever accidentally run the heater and the air conditioning at the same time?

There is another thermostat across the room (for some reason I took a picture of that also). Two separate systems that, if activated together, could battle each other to see which one could waste more energy and accomplish nothing.

A small inner voice seemed to whisper to me, "Haven't you done the same thing?" It's funny how hard we work to "provide for our family" while at the exact same time denying them the real provision they need: our time and attention. I was so convicted by that little control panel that I snapped a picture and decided to blog a reminder.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about focused intensity for short periods of time. One of Dave Ramsey's 7 baby steps is to get your debt snowball rolling and go after it. Corinne and I paid off a boat load of debt doing exactly that, but the key is focused intensity over a relatively short period of time (generally two years or less). Now I'm not going to go on and on about having "balance" in life, because, well, that's kind of a joke. We all do what we have to do to get things done. The important thing, I think, is to keep in mind the why. Why are we working so hard? Why do we choose to spend time doing the things we're doing?

Are we really living life on purpose?

Ensure your why makes sense and you're not working against yourself. If you build the business you've always dreamed of in the name of "providing for your family" only to find yourself divorced with kids who hate you then you've basically been running the A/C and the heat at the same time. All you'll have to show for it is the bill.

This idea is not only important for your family but also for your company. You have to start with the why and make sure everything else lines up. Simon Sinek has an excellent Ted Talk on starting with why that you should really watch.

What do you think? In what ways are you running the A/C and the heater at the same time?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

First Impressions Part 3: Have a Plan, for Planning's Sake

Five weeks ago, I took the plunge. I left the job I love and became a quitter. This is the last part of a series on my first impressions working for myself. If you haven't already, check out part 1 on working at home with kids and part 2 on managing your time.

This post is about having a plan. You do have a plan, right? Quitting your job and going on your own requires a plan. The thing is... it's not the plan that's important. As Eisenhower famously said, "I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable." Corinne and I went over the budget over and over again. Our income was about to be cut in half and we had to know what that would be like. So we maintained two budgets for a few months, running the numbers "as if."

Now that we're on the other side, it's been interesting. For one, I didn't plan on having so many lunch meetings (they rock!). Though a lot of great people have actually bought me lunch (you know who you are, thanks!), I had to adjust things a bit. Having spent more time recently in the budget, I was more familiar with it and knew what changes could be made (such as dropping our wine club... still a bit sad about that one).

Along with the finances, expectations have to be planned out. For example, my business partner knew I'd still be working in the mornings for Dave Ramsey. My wife expected me to spend Saturdays with the family. My son wanted more play time. My teammates needed more communication and feedback on development. Knowing in advance what expectations would exist has helped me adjust to meet them.

Finally, plan your calendar. I never had to use Google Calendar much because my calendar was pretty basic... come home, spend time with the family and get to work. If something else was going on, it was the exception, not the rule. Over the past five weeks I've jumped into all kinds of great events around this city and it's been incredible. I've started to build some new friendships and make some great connections. I had to convince my wife to ditch the day planner and go digital (hooray!), but I wish I had done that sooner. I wish I had planned out some events beforehand and let my wife know which nights she'd have to put the kids to bed by herself.

All in all, it's been fabulous. Probably one of the greatest things I've come to realize is that each night I can plan a different alarm clock time for the next day. I can adjust based on how I feel, how late it is and what my goals are for the next day. I have flexibility, a form of freedom you don't really appreciate until you have it. I'm so very blessed and I can't wait to see what else I have in front of me to learn.

In summary, make sure you have a plan for:
  • Your finances
  • Your expectations
  • Your calendar

Feel free to leave a comment below even if it's just to say hi. It always makes me smile.

If you have any questions about this or any other post here, please feel free to contact me on Twitter or at luke.stokes at

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

First Impressions Part 2: Where Did All My Time Go?

Four weeks ago, I took the plunge. I left the job I love and became a quitter. This is part 2 of a series on my first impressions working for myself. If you have kids, you'll probably enjoy part 1.

Go ahead and read it. I'll wait.

Cute, huh? I really like the video. Speaking of getting distracted by videos... this post is about figuring out what the hell happened to all that "extra" time I was supposed to gain by working for myself at home. After all, I was commuting a half hour each way, leading a team of developers, acting as a technical lead and the only store developer. And that was just my day job. After dinner and on Saturdays I'd work my tail off building FoxyCart and put in another 15-25 hours adding up to a 55-65 hour work week.

I should have plenty of extra time now, right? The answer isn't surprising... I still have 24 hours each day, just like I did before. Luckily I started early on tracking every minute of my time working. I use Harvest and I love their "time is money, track it wisely" tag line. This is so, so important. It helps you track progress and understand your strengths, weaknesses and areas where you should hire more help.

Track your time.

It only takes a second to tab over, click a button and move on. Here are some of the categories I use most:
  • Communication, INTERNAL: IM, Email, Project Management, etc.
  • Communication, EXTERNAL: Clients, existing partners, VIPs, emails, IMs, phone, etc.
  • Billing
  • Support: Email
  • Support: Forum
  • Programming
  • Product Management
  • Personal Development

Did you notice that last one? I track that as "non-billable" and found some of my time going there. When I'm being paid by someone else to get things done, I'm working. It's as simple as that. My time spent doing anything else is stealing. If that seems extreme to you, read Dave Ramsey's new book EntreLeadership and you might understand where I'm coming from. Working for myself has changed things, though. I feel liberated to stay connected to Twitter (probably too much) and read a few blogs here and there. I'm loving it!

It didn't take long to realize that my time clock often didn't hit 8 hours by the time I was ready to eat dinner. This confused me until I started taking stock of what really happened that day. Here are some things I learned:
  • Lunch meetings always take at least 2 hours. They take even longer if you're meeting with another entrepreneur who also isn't "on the clock" with a boss. I hadn't planned for that. I didn't factor in the drive time either. I've come out of my shell a bit more and been privileged to attend some great meetups like the Nashville PHP User Group, Geek Breakfast, NashBurger, NashCocktail, 1010, BarCamp's SpeakerUp, etc. not to mention some fantastic one-on-one meetings.
  • Sometimes I'm doing the really important things that I never allowed myself to do. For example, last week after a great lunch meeting downtown, I was able to visit some friends at Vanderbilt hospital whose brand new baby was sick. He's home now and doing much better, but that was an appointment that I was so, so blessed to make. Meetings like that not only build deeper friendships, but they improve my whole quality of life.
  • I was spending more quality time with my family. As I mentioned in part 1, wanting more time with family is probably the number one desire we'll have on our deathbed. Knowing that, let's make up for it now. Eating lunch with my family and putting my 2-year-old son down for his nap (after stories, lying down together, etc) was actually taking 1.5 to 2 hours on some days. As long as I'm willing to get up a little earlier to make up that time, it's well worth it. We also reclaimed our Saturdays and enjoyed a day at Cheeckwood, the zoo and a bunch of other free Mrs. Cheap events.
  • Sometimes life just happens. I've learned to embrace the craziness. For example, Monday and Tuesday of this week I was out with a head cold and my wife had a crazy muscle spasm in her neck (turned out to be something called torticollis). After a few meetings with the chiropractor, Corinne's doing much better but the result was two days of no work because I had to drive her around and take care of the kids (while blowing my nose non-stop). The team took up the slack and life goes on, but it's good to keep in mind these things happen.
So that's where my time went. If you're preparing to make the jump to being self-employed, don't assume you'll have a bunch of free time, you'll just choose to spend your time differently. Be prepared, have a plan and track your time.

Speaking of having a plan, that's what Part 3 is about. As Eisenhower famously said, "I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable." I hope you come back to check it out and leave your thoughts.

Where does your time go? Do you track it or am I a little crazy for doing so?

Sunday, October 02, 2011

First Impressions Part 1: Working from Home with Kids

Devon and Aria (July 2011)
Four weeks ago, I took the plunge. I left the job I love and became a quitter. Instead of giving advice as a tried-and-true work-from-home expert, I thought it would be fun to post my first impressions. What surprised me? What did I learn before I had a system in place? How stressful was the transition?

Hopefully this short "First Impressions" series will help others who are about to dive into full-time entrepreneurship and give them a raw perspective on what it's really like.

Devon (December 2010)
Part 1: What's it like working from home with kids?

I've heard different theories on this one. Some say if you have young ones you absolutely have to get an office outside of the house. Others told me to try and make it work for as long as possible. For myself, I grew up with my dad working from home since I was three, so I knew it could be done, I just didn't know what to expect.

Right now, I'm working out of a little desk set up in Aria's room. She's with mommy all day, so that works rather well. This past week, I even tried working in my "normal" place on the recliner in the living room. There's just something about "working" with my feet up that I totally love.

At first Devon couldn't understand why dad was home and not playing with him. Previously, though I was working two jobs, when I was home and he was awake, we were hanging out. Now he was throwing fits on his bad days and on his good days sticking his fingers under the door while saying "fingers? fingers?" over and over again to get my attention.

Someone suggested I get a sign to let him know when I'm in "work mode" and put it on the door. Great advice! I soon realized he already made up his own sign because he would often ask, "Glasses off?" Every time I'd stop working and roughhouse with him, I'd first take my glasses off. That's now his sign.

I could tell more stories, but listing out the things I've learned from my first four weeks may be more helpful to you:
Aria (September 2011)

Devon and Aria (September 2011)
  1. Have a sign to let your kids know when you're working and when you're available to play. This helps with expectations and creates a simple reason why daddy can't play: it's because his glasses are on.
  2. If possible, occasionally take a few minutes, clock out and give them some attention. They will be way happier (which means mom is happier) and you'll have an extra dose of joy to power you through the afternoon. At first they'll be really upset when it's time to go back to work, but that's where #1 can help.
  3. If your wife asks for help with something, take a break and help her. Corinne pretty much never needs any help, so this one is easy for me, but the few times I've pitched in have been well worth the interruption in my flow.
  4. Enjoy yourself! Don't ever feel guilty about taking a few minutes off to spend time with your family. This is why you are living the dream! On your deathbed, no matter what you accomplish, your family will be the only thing you wish you spent more time with.
  5. Keeping #4 in mind... Get to work! Your customers need you to be productive. You have to have a system that keeps you focused. Good headphones are a must, especially when the babies are crying. Sometimes this means you just have to be an ogre and tell your kids you can't play right now. Earlier I mentioned clocking in and out. I'm serious about that. I'll share more in part 2 of this series. If you didn't clock enough hours or reach your goals for the day, consider putting in a bit of time after the kids are down, and you've spent time with your wife. You can also get up earlier the next day and work while everyone is asleep.
I hope this gives you some ideas. Above all, have some fun! One of my great joys is eating lunch with my family and putting my son down for his nap. We read stories, lie down together for a few minutes and it's absolutely wonderful. Lunches take an hour and a half now, but I was losing an hour a day commuting, right? I quickly learned to be careful with that math because the time simply disappears.

Check out Part 2: Where did all my time go?

I'm only four weeks into this and I have a lot to learn. I may come to find some of the ideas above don't work in the long run. What has your experience been? If you know someone who works from home or if you've had the privilege to do so, what advice would you give?