Posts by "daniel clough"

Goal Setting is overrated: an alternative

I’m not big on New Year resolutions, but the start of a new year is a good time to do some thinking. I like to reflect on the previous year and think about where I want to focus for the year ahead.

I’ve drifted away from goal-setting over the last few years. I was super hardcore for a long time, but eventually admitted that I found it more harmful than useful. I found myself frustratingly re-writing my goals each month as my motivations changed.

I felt like a failure each month, even though I was actually getting good stuff done.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Steve Jobs.

I couldn’t agree with this more. Most of the best things I have done in my life didn’t have a very specific plan in advance. Some of them were the result of me having general intentions, and in fact some of them were entirely random.

I now settle on a few principles which guide how I choose to spend my time each week, and day.

I keep these things in a document, which I look at each morning.

So what’s in the document? There are 3 sections:

  1. Focuses for the year
  2. A current monthly challenge
  3. Areas of my life

Focuses for the year

I try to stick to a handful of focuses that guide my overall actions for the year. I intentionally make them as non-specific as I can, because I want them to serve only as direction. They give me nudge on a weekly and daily basis, so I can think about what action I might want to take.

Here are mine for 2016:

  • be adventurous — set monthly adventure challenges; make friends with adventurous people
  • move forward financially — earn, be frugal, stick to budgets and save
  • find work I enjoy, is meaningful and will challenge me
  • spend lovely time with ella and fearne
  • be active — do crossfit classes and some light stuff around it
  • improve mobility — stick to a basic routine in mornings and evenings
  • eat paleo — start 50/50, eventually work up to 80/20

When I used to goal set, I would be very specific. I.e have 2 nice evenings out a month with friends. Deadlift x weight, for y reps. Grow net worth by x amount etc.

I now just have focuses for the year, leaving a lot of room for what I will actually do. Maybe the ‘adventure’ focus will see me doing more interesting stuff on the weekend. Maybe I will commit to a big event. Maybe our holiday for this year will have an adventure theme. Who knows.

What’s more important is that I continually think about being adventurous and make friends with adventurous people throughout the year. Whatever action I take will be what feels right at the time. I’ll have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in my future.

Monthly challenges

I started doing monthly challenges in 2015 and enjoyed it. I pick something to start doing, or give up each month.

For January I’ve decided not to check email or social networks until midday. It’s a habit that’s intrigued me for ages and I want to finally give it a try.

I like monthly challenges because 30 days is a good period of time to create or destroy a habit. Sure, not every challenge will stick afterwards, but even if only a couple do a year — that’s pretty good going.

Even when they don’t stick for good, they tend to influence my future behaviour in some way. For example, when I gave up alcohol for a month, I decided to have a wine on the very first day of the next month!

But, giving it up for 30 days changed my relationship with alcohol for good. I drink less wine in the evenings now. I also control my drinking way better on nights out. All because of what I learnt in the 30 days I gave up alcohol. I liked sleeping better and waking up fresher on weekday mornings. Not having a hangover from a big night out for a whole 30 days felt awesome too.

Areas of my life

I have picked a handful of areas which my life tends to get divided up into — family, friends, health, work, learning etc. I actually have seven of them.

Under each one I have a few notes which help remind me where my heads at with that particular area at the moment.

Heres how my ‘learning’ area looks at the moment:

  • read
  • write
  • listen to podcasts
  • seek out and speak to smart and interesting people
  • take time away to switch off, be quiet and think

As I review my areas, I will often delete, edit or add some stuff, depending on how my thinking is changing. It’s basically an up-to-date set of notes on what’s important to me right now for that area.

So, when I read through it, it helps guide what I may decide to do that day.

When I skimmed my document earlier this morning, I decided that today I would push forward with my current book for half an hour or so, and also spent some time writing (this article). Tomorrow and the next day it might be nothing. The following day I might make a note to take the afternoon off to just go for a long walk and switch off.

As you can see, it’s not a set list. I edit, delete and add to it regularly depending on how what’s important to me changes. I don’t have to do all, or any of it. It’s just there as a nudge.

So to re-cap.

  • I have a handful of focuses for the year, which will mostly stay the same throughout (they are big and vague enough, that I doubt I will change my mind on them).
  • I set myself a challenge of some type each month — something to start doing or give up.
  • I have a handful of areas which are important to my life (again, they rarely change through the years). Within each is a set of notes which represent what’s important to me right now.

Weekly and daily planning

This is what brings it together.

Weekly — On a Sunday evening, I try to block out half an hour to think about the week ahead. Roughly, where do I want to spend my energy?

Some weeks I might decide I want to almost exclusively focus on my health. Other weeks I might tread water on my health and decide to put more focus on work stuff.

Daily — Every morning, I review the document and plan out my day in detail. The document guides that planning. It influences what I spend my day doing.

In a nutshell, the big document allows me to get my big thoughts down on paper. I guess the yearly focuses are similiar to a strategy. The rest is the plans and execution part (notes within the areas of focus and the weekly / daily planning).

I find that this gives a good balance between having some things to focus on, yet remaining flexible.

Here are some other good reads on this subject that have helped shaped my thinking over the years. All three writers have similiar views on goal setting.

Achieving Without Goals by Leo Babauta

Living with no goals by The Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead by James Clear.

Investing, simply

I realised the best and simplest way to invest recently. As with most things, it’s been a journey of learning and mistakes. I wanted to share those, along with where I have ended up.

I started getting interested in investing towards the end of 2014.

My knowledge was limited. I knew roughly what the stock market was, but not how it worked. My only experience in building wealth was to save as hard as I could and leave it in bank accounts.

My friend Barry was always pestering me to invest it for higher returns. I resisted for a while because I’m risk-adverse. One day I finally gave in and decided to see if I could get my savings to work harder.

Now that I look back, I can see my investing journey falls into 3 phases.

Phase 1 — Shiny Tech Stocks

The first thing I did was put some money into the most popular tech stocks (after all, that’s what I know). Google, Facebook, Twitter, Arm, Apple and Tesla. I used Hargreaves Lansdown as the investment platform.

It started off well and soon my money was up a few percent. Nice. That’s about what you get from the bank — but for the entire year. I could be onto a winner here.

I was soon to learn how volatile technology stocks are. A few weeks later, I was down on a few of them. My portfolio was down a few percent. Damn, I was losing money.

I hadn’t quite learned that you needed to invest with a long-term view yet, hence my concern.

It was around late December 2014 that I stumbled across The Naked Trader. It kicked off the next phase of my investing journey.

Phase 2- A Stock Picking Strategy

I read The Naked Trader book and starting reading the archives on his site. I was getting excited. He talked in plain english and his approach to investing was clear and simple. He was transparent about his own investing. I liked that. He was also critical of things and people he felt were bad ways to invest, which was refreshing.

I went on a Naked Trader Seminar in late December and it was excellent. I got a much better understanding of how the market worked and how shares were bought and sold. I also liked his investing strategy. I was excited to get started.

The strategy was to invest in small and mid cap companies on the UK stock market, with a mid to long-term view (3 months +). Companies with strong fundamentals (good earnings to market cap ratio, history of dividends rising, good last few reports, holding cash or with an appropriate amount of debt etc.). Companies which looked to be doing well and expected to continue doing well. Companies which had a low risk of going bust.

I sold my technology shares and started investing in small / mid cap UK companies.

For each share I bought, I set a target price (where I wanted it to at least get to, usually +30%). I also set a stop (where you will sell if it drops, usually -10%).

The idea is that you would only need a couple out of every 10 to be winners. It would offset the loss from the others — and then some.

I was disciplined about selling at the stop (celebrating small losses was emphasised on the Naked Trader course). It was set to automatically trigger to ensure my emotions wouldn’t cause me to make a decision to keep it.

I stuck with this strategy for about 9 months (through to September 2015). I learned some great stuff. The importance of having an investment strategy. How to find, evaluate and pick companies. The costs involved in investing. Tracking my performance. The need to have discipline.

August 2015 was a rough month for the market. It was getting hammered and being irrational. My stop losses started to kick in and many of my stocks were sold. Many of the stocks sold didn’t even have any negative news around them — in fact quite the opposite!

Around this period, I took some time out to evaluate my performance compared to the market. I was slightly ahead due to some early winners (30–40% gains), which was good news. But earlier in the year I was down, and it wouldn’t have taken much to pull me down again.

One thing, kept bugging me. The time and energy I spent picking and monitoring stocks, didn’t feel worth it — to only be slightly ahead of the market.

If I’m honest, I started to get a sense of this around June. I tend to have an obsessive personality, so I would find myself checking movements many times a day. I knew it wasn’t necessary, but did it anyway.

I started to investigate passive forms of investing. I actually experimented with a FTSE all-share index tracker and a couple of funds earlier in the year (Woodford Equity Income and Woodford Patient Capital). So, I began looking at this type of stuff as a primary investment strategy.

This all come together in November 2015. My entire investing approach changed, marking phase 3.

Phase 3 — Index Investing

A seed was planted for index investing earlier in the year, when I came across these two articles:

Buffett’s $1m bet pays off as index tracker beats hedge funds

Warren Buffett’s advice to LeBron James

Surprisingly, Warren Buffett’s most common investment advice is to invest primarily in an inexpensive S&P 500 index fund. He’s convinced it will make you more money than managed funds or picking stocks yourself.

An index fund seeks to follow the performance of a particular index (FTSE 100, S&P 500 etc.). It does that by buying shares in the same weight that the index holds them.

If you want to learn more about indices and how tracker funds work, check out An inside look at indexing.

Tracker funds aren’t a 100% match to the indices, but they get close, as you can see below:

trackers

The more I started to read, two things kept jumping out.

  • The evidence is clear that index trackers beat the majority of managed funds over the long term.

The below graph makes it clear how fee’s impact your returns:

fees

As I started to become more interested in index funds, I was drawn towards two great sites — 1500days and thinksaveretire.

These people have a clear goal of retiring early, and they document it every step of the way. It’s not complicated. Live frugal. Save as much as you can. Invest in index funds.

I was inspired and three things clicked for me.

  • Investing in index funds, works over the long-term (see their net worth progress).
  • I too, wanted to retire early like these folks.
  • I was being rubbish when it came to my own income, spending and saving.

Where I’ve ended up

The last year has been an interesting journey on the path to being a smart investor. I feel good about where I’ve ended up.

I’ve been reminded that living frugally and saving aggressively is the cornerstone of building wealth. It needs to be a lifestyle. I’ve strayed from this in the last couple of years and intend to get back to it.

I’ve also learned that investing in index funds with a long term view gives you the best chance of returns. The passive nature of it also suits my personality.

As a result, I’m doubling down on indexes. I’ve topped up my FTSE All Share Index tracker and invested quite a bit of my savings in a S&P 500 index tracker.

I’m going to keep the Woodford Equity Income Fund and the Woodford Patient Capital Trust for now. I have less in these two funds than the indexes anyway.

The Equity Income fund is up 6.6 % since I invested in it (Apr 8, 2015). Compare that to the FTSE All Share Index being down 7.18% and you can see why I’m not going to mess about with it.

The Woodford Patient fund has been all over the place since it launched in April. It was up 20% at one point, but it’s now back to about it’s launch price.

I like the strategy of the Patient fund. It focuses on early-stage and early-growth companies together with blue-chip. Woodford has a good track record as an investor too. Also, the fee’s are unconventional and mostly only kick in when a profit of 10% has been achieved. I’ll leave it for a year and see how it compares to the market — and make a call then.

All my future savings will go into FTSE & S&P 500 indexes, with a long-term view.

Note: Whilst not stock market related, I think having a mix of stocks and property is sensible. It helps to balance exposure. I’d like to get a few rentals up and running at some point.

A thank you: I want to thank Barry for being patient whilst I peppered him with investing questions. He’s been a big influence on my learning and shifting my appetite for risk.

The last year has been an interesting journey on the path to being a smart investor. I feel good about where I’ve ended up.

I’ve been reminded that living frugally and saving aggressively is the cornerstone of building wealth. It needs to be a lifestyle. I’ve strayed from this in the last couple of years and intend to get back to it.

I’ve also learned that investing in index funds with a long term view gives you the best chance of returns. The passive nature of it also suits my personality.

As a result, I’m doubling down on indexes. I’ve topped up my FTSE All Share Index tracker and invested quite a bit of my savings in a S&P 500 index tracker.

I’m going to keep the Woodford Equity Income Fund and the Woodford Patient Capital Trust for now. I have less in these two funds than the indexes anyway.

The Equity Income fund is up 6.6 % since I invested in it (Apr 8, 2015). Compare that to the FTSE All Share Index being down 7.18% and you can see why I’m not going to mess about with it.

The Woodford Patient fund has been all over the place since it launched in April. It was up 20% at one point, but it’s now back to about it’s launch price.

I like the strategy of the Patient fund. It focuses on early-stage and early-growth companies together with blue-chip. Woodford has a good track record as an investor too. Also, the fee’s are unconventional and mostly only kick in when a profit of 10% has been achieved. I’ll leave it for a year and see how it compares to the market — and make a call then.

All my future savings will go into FTSE & S&P 500 indexes, with a long-term view.

Note: Whilst not stock market related, I think having a mix of stocks and property is sensible. It helps to balance exposure. I’d like to get a few rentals up and running at some point.

A thank you: I want to thank Barry for being patient whilst I peppered him with investing questions. He’s been a big influence on my learning and shifting my appetite for risk.

Feature phones aren’t just for hipsters

Yesterday I overheard someone saying feature phones are popular amongst hipsters.

Recently, I ditched my iPhone 6 for a Nokia 130. I guess that makes me look like I was trying to be cool, which I definitely wasn’t. In fact, I think I look less cool — and I wasn’t cool to start with!

I did it because I was tired of being constantly connected.

The computer we carry around in our pocket is amazing. We have the world at our fingertips, but that was my problem. I was addicted to checking things — twitter, medium, public markets, email, news, instagram, bank balance etc.

I did it when I woke, when I was with people, or when I was bored by myself. Reaching for my phone to check things, that didn’t need to be checked had become a habit.

Maybe I’m more obsessive than most. Or maybe I’m more aware of my addiction. Either way, it was getting in the way of life.

I wasn’t being present and was feeling drained by being constantly connected. It was distracting me from things I wanted to do.

I tried to curb it in a few ways. I tried turning off all notifications. Then I tried removing the worst offending apps from my phone. I tried Jake Knapp’s disabling safari trick. But, I couldn’t resist checking things and always found a way around it.

I decided to try something extreme. Ditch the smart phone for a feature phone. The Nokia 130 seemed perfect. It was 20 quid. No apps. No camera. Just phone calls and texts.

Nokia 130 — Just look at this beauty!

Nokia 130 — Just look at this beauty!

I’m 10 days in and it’s been one of the best things I’ve done this year.

I had the same urges to check things in the first week, but had no way of acting on it. They became less frequent in the second week, and now I hardly get them at all.

I feel so much better. I’m more present and my mind feels less cluttered.

I also now enjoy the things I used to check too frequently more. Take Twitter for example. I used to check it 20 times a day for a few minutes. Now it’s two or three times a day for 5–10 mins. I look forward to sitting down and browsing it properly

I thought I would miss apps that are exclusive to the phone, but I don’t. The only thing I’ve found inconvenient is needing to google something on the move. But how great I feel without a smartphone far outweighs that.

The only time I pull the iPhone 6 out of the cupboard is when I run or bike. I like to use Strava and Nike + to track things and I listen to music whilst I’m exercising. But I put it straight back into the cupboard afterwards. I can use the laptop for most other things and can live without the rest.

One surprising benefit of a feature phone is the battery life. My first full charge lasted eight days. You wouldn’t think charging your phone is such a pain in the ass until you rarely need to do it.

Right, I’m off to stay with family for 3 days on the South coast. And I don’t need to pack a charger.


What I’ve Learned About Product Roadmaps in the Last 6 Months

I’ve been involved with product roadmaps for the last fifteen years. Yet I’ve probably learnt the most in the last 6 months.

Most of my experience has been working on multiplayer games (RuneScape, FightMyMonster, Moshi Monsters) with either a subscription or hybrid payment model.

Product roadmaps for subscription games are normally planned out well into the future — often a year ahead. This is necessary for a few reasons.

Firstly, large updates can often take 6+ months to build, so you’re literally forced to think that far ahead.

You normally have to publish a steady flow of varied content. The only way to be consistent with that, is to be super organised and plan well ahead.

Lastly, players expect to know what content is around the corner. Giving them visibility of a strong pipeline of content ahead also helps retain subscriptions.

For RuneScape, I had the following rules:

  • months 0–3 — weekly updates should be locked down and unlikely to change (most are being worked on, or ready to go).
  • months 3–9 — each week should have a specific update planned, but it’s ok if things move around a bit. Not too much though.
  • months 9–15 — super fuzzy. Often working titles and things will move around and disappear a lot.

The above allows for there to be some thought and structure to how the months and quarters hang together. This helps ensure whatever a players taste, there is good value each month and quarter.

The only other rule was there should be at least a four week backlog of completed work at the front of the roadmap. Finishing things at the eleventh hour = stuff going wrong.

Building a product from scratch

The above approach works well for a big, well established MMO with a development team of well over a 100 people.

Earlier this year, I got stuck into building a product from scratch (Rescover). I was soon to learn that my usual approach to product roadmaps would be challenged.

Now that I look back to when we started Rescover, I can connect the dots and they make a lot of sense. In fact, I’m proud of what we’ve tackled, and in what order we tackled it. We’ve been very focused.

I don’t think I would have been able to imagine and plan out that journey at the start. When you’re building something from scratch, you need to be more flexible and have a shorter-term view. You learn a lot as you do things and that often influences what you focus on, or build next.

I’ve had to let go of the desire to plan so far ahead.

That said, on the flip side, it’s dangerous to just do what you feel like doing at any given moment. There needs to be some logic and structure to how you move forward in the short to medium term.

How do you balance having a plan and taking things a feature at a time?

Looking back, our roadmap was always guided by a phase or an area of focus. Whilst we had a flexible approach to what features we built, they always fell into the best things to do, for whatever the focus at the time was.

We tended to focus on a product build at a time (we shipped a release about every 3–4 weeks).

Once we felt we had done enough for a particular phase, we would then naturally shift on to another phase.

With hindsight, everything we have done so far has been guided by three clear phases. We’re now embarking on the fourth.

The three phases we’ve worked on so far are:

1. Build first version of product

We had an idea and to realise it, we needed to build a bunch of things which would form the core of the Rescover app.

They were the content feed, release detail, following, my releases, search, settings, analytics, admin system and last, but definitely not least — content.

Upon reflection we could have built less and shipped Rescover earlier. But I couldn’t be more proud of what we released. It looked nicer and worked better than what most funded start ups with full time teams are able to achieve.

1

Release detail page (left) and my releases (right)

2. Retention / engagement

Now that we had the basics in place, and some numbers to look at, we decided to double down on retention.

What it boiled down to was, we needed people to follow things. If people followed things, it meant they got what the point of the product was. It meant they got some early usefulness out of it. Only after a follow does the product start to deliver its core value. (my releases gets populated, notifications about when things come out etc.).

Working backwards, it was obvious to us that follows are driven by being able to find things you like. Either things they already knew about and liked — or new things that they didn’t know about, but might like.

So, the focus became one of discovery. We had to make it WAY easier to find things you like. Once you found something you liked, this would turn into a follow. And then the product would deliver it’s value.

So we decided to build collections, tags and completely re-worked the navigation (ditching the ‘hard to grasp’ filters with it).

An example of how we feature collections within a content feed (Hot in August)

An example of how we feature collections within a content feed (Hot in August)

Whilst not tying directly into making it easier to find things, we were also feeling an itch to improve our notifications. They are such an important part of what comes after a follow.

Quite frankly, we supercharged the shit out of them. We went further than most normal people would.

We went from notifying users only about when something came out, to when new trailers arrived, dates had changed and new releases for things you’re following are announced (sequels etc.).

We also built a system to be able to customise the push notifications that went out. So our pushes went from being automated to personalised and finely crafted. This took quite a bit of dev and content work to pull off and maintain, but we thought it was worth it.

Lastly, during this phase, we picked one metric to measure our results. We decided on how many releases people followed in their first 7 days.

This is similar to Facebooks 7 friends in 10 days metric in the early days. This helped keep us focused on only building features which would impact this metric.

3. New user retention

This overlaps with the previous phase, but with a more intense focus on the first 1–3 days of a new users experience.
We stumbled into this focus from reading Andrew Chen’s article New data shows losing 80% of mobile users is normal, and why the best apps do better. It definitely planted a seed for us.

What really did it was a conversation with a very smart friend, who drove a specific point home.

The main difference between the top 10 and next 5000 apps D30 and D90 rates, was their D1 rate.

Everyone needs a few smart friends like this. Most conversations I have with Chia Chin, I tend to feel stupid at several points. But that’s ok, because it means I’m being taught something each time!

It’s astonishing to see the D1 and D30 relationship on a graph:

image borrowed from Andrew Chen’s great article

image borrowed from Andrew Chen’s great article

So, we decided to focus on improving our D1 > D3 rates.

We felt our best shot at making a dent in the D1 > D3 rates was to proactively reach out to users in the first few days.

But with what?

A content suggestion seemed the most obvious and useful notification. It also neatly tied into our goal of encouraging people to follow things.

So, we set about building a system which would build a taste profile of a new user, based on their initial following behaviour.

We would then reach out to a user on D1, D2 and D3 with (hopefully) interesting and personalised content recommendations.

I’ll expand on how we did this exactly in a future post. There is some pretty interesting and clever stuff going on behind the scenes.

This feature is actually going live today which is exciting!

So what is the next phase / focus?

If we reflect, to date, we’ve built a damn fine looking and useful app. We have a bunch of power users and pretty good retention on the whole.

The next stage is organic growth.

We’ve always focused on growing by at least 8% each week. We took this lesson from Paul Grahams excellent article on Growth — Startup = Growth. We also made sure to avoid vanity metrics, so we chose weekly active users to measure growth.

We’ve bought a lot of that growth with paid installs. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve also seen some nice organic growth, the two combined allowing us to keep up with the 8%.

However, it recently hit home that if we are to sustain this level of growth and support an advertising business model, we need to be VERY big.

And you can’t buy your way to VERY big.

We always knew this, and to our credit we stayed focused on the right things to date. Building out a core product and doubling down on engagement and retention.

It was working on a growth model, that made it super clear we had to grow more quickly, and specifically through organic channels. If we were to get into the millions of active users, we absolutely had to have a certain level of organic growth.

(Note: I might write about how we developed our growth model in a future post — and even share it if people are interested?)

So, with that, the next stage for us is growth — specifically organic growth.

We’re going to initially focus on making sharing more obvious and slicker (we have some pretty awesome ideas on this).

We also want to curate news and tweets for items you’re following. We plan to provide that in a dedicated ‘buzz / news’ type of feed.

The curated news is actually a retention / daily engagement piece we’ve been itching to get round to. It’s a first step to creating a daily habit in Rescover, something we’re missing. Until now, it hasn’t quite got into the highest priority bucket.

The reason we want to tackle it as part of the organic growth focus, is we think curated news for items you’re following is very shareable.

The daily habit is a double win for us, hence our decision to prioritise this immediately after our first set of sharing improvements.

Ok, so what am I saying with all of this?

This post has been a bit of a stream of consciousness. But, I think it points out some good lessons for how to think about and manage roadmaps, which I had better summarise before I wrap up.

  1. Let your roadmap be driven by a phase or focus at any given time. The phase or focus should drive decisions for what to build and in what order. Make sure everyone working on the product knows what it is and is bought in.
  2. Lock down a product build at a time and then intensely focus on that. Avoid getting dragged into talking too much about other things. Definitely avoid tinkering around and building other things.
  3. Have a review period after each product build. Nothing formal, just take a breather to reflect on where you are. Do you need to build more features for the phase you’re in and if so what should they be? Or is it time to shift focus?

I’ll finish with an observation that just came to me.

Don’t worry too much about what or when the next focus is. When you need to shift focus, you’ll always feel a pull to some place else. It will usually slowly build over a number of weeks.

This can be sparked by a conversation, an article, seeing some numbers or maybe just a growing feeling. When it happens, you’ll find yourself starting to think about the best point to wrap up the current focus. And then, what the first product build for the next focus should be.