The Importance of 15 Minutes: Bootstrapping with Idle Villagers

Posted by Tarential on July 4th, 2014 at 12:52pm

Check in the startup world today and you'll inevitably find two groups of people who have polar opposite viewpoints when it comes to work hours.

One group feels that working over a certain number of hours is not more productive in the long term. Another group feels that more hours is better even to the point of getting less than the recommended amount sleep. I happen to know that for my own body the former is true, but I can't speak for anyone else.

What I can say with complete certainty is this: Whatever your optimum number of hours is for working each day, it is limited. If you're trying to start a business, and why else would you be reading this article, then you by definition have more work than you can handle. Since you can't bargain for any more time, you have to manage what you do have effectively.

You're stating the obvious. Get to the part about villagers.

Ok, I get it. You're here for the good stuff. Maybe you're an old-school Age of Empires player like I was. If so, you might remember that in the game there are two basic ways to go about winning. The first is to slow your opponent's economy by military force, and the second is to expand your own economy faster than they can.

Theoretically, the way to become the most powerful civilization is to put all your resources into economic growth. You can think of this economic growth as analogous to development of your product or in-house processes. It is cumulative in nature and the benefits are felt by all.

However, you can't spend all the resources on your economy. Your opponent is busy killing off all your villagers faster than you can produce them. Game over. You have to start fresh, only this time you'll make some military units to defend yourself.

Think of this military protection as the immediate jobs you need to keep the wolf from the door. That contract work you took to pay bills? Protection. That feature you pretend to have even though you're doing it manually just to make an important customer happy? Protection. If you don't do these things you don't make rent/payroll and you can no longer work on your product.

Armed with this additional knowledge you start a new game. You won't be caught undefended this time! You divert your precious resources to military power and find you can easily fend off your opponent's early raids. Soon, they aren't even a problem anymore.

Except, you notice something: Despite beating him on the field your opponent's score continues to rise above yours. Every time you try to expand to new resources you find the other player is already set up. Also, his units are getting stronger and coming more frequently.

Before you know it, you're completely overwhelmed by an army you couldn't possibly hope to throw back. Hold on, what happened? How did you lose this game?

This time you lost because your opponent grew their economy faster than you grew yours. In effect, you lost because you diverted too much of your resources into combat (and didn't cripple their economy in the process). What have we learned here?

There is a delicate balance that you must preserve in order to compete. If you spend all your time building your military, someone with a better economy will overtake you later. If you don't build enough military, someone who did will use it to stop you.

Similarly, while bootstrapping your business if you spend too much time on immediate-return projects, such as consulting, your competitors will make a better product and win the market. On the other hand, if you spend all your time on product development it won't matter that after a year your product will be the best on market; you only have enough cash on hand for three months worth of expenses.

"So?!" I can hear you asking again, possibly a bit more vehemently now. This is a fairly basic concept. Why am I bothering with the game analogy, and why haven't I even mentioned villagers yet? Ok, here they are.

In this game, the villager is the basic unit of your economy. They gather resources and construct buildings. You can create more of them at a cost, but only if you have enough resources and the proper buildings. Ergo, villagers are in limited supply, just as your time is.

When you first play the game, you tend to be careless with your villagers. "Go create this building," you'll say. Then you forget about it and do something else. Later on you find the villager, waiting patiently by the completed building. This is an idle villager, and he's hurting your economy more than you know.

When an expert plays the game, villagers never remain idle for long. There are two reasons an idle villager is toxic:

Economic improvements are cumulative. If that idle villager had been gathering food he might have produced enough to build another villager. Even small periods of time add up over the length of the game. That extra villager might have been just enough to get a new economic improvement faster, which in turn boosts your whole economy further.

Military costs are fixed. You have to spend enough on military to defend yourself, end of story. There is no way around it. If you don't, it will cost you even more as they kill your units. This means that any idle villager time is a direct cost to your cumulative economy, not to your immediate military.

This is the same as our analogous parts of your bootstrapped business. When the bills come in, they need to be paid. If it takes half of your time to cover the maintenance tasks, then you need to dedicate that half to maintenance. By process of elimination, this means that any time you spend being idle is deducted directly from your product development.

Do you spend 15 minutes after each meal relaxing and reading the news? Maybe not, but it used to be a habit of mine. At four meals per day, that was about an hour of relaxing time. A single hour out of twenty-four is only 4.2% of my time, and keeping up in the tech field is worthwhile, right?

Although, come to think of it, I actually do try to sleep for eight hours each night. I guess that makes it one out of sixteen hours. I also need to spend time preparing and actually eating the meals, so that's probably about another two hours. There are other daily chores to take care of, too. Personal hygiene, laundry, pets, dishes, and other cleaning. That takes up at least another hour each day.

Finally, I lift weights every other day and ride a stationary bike for cardio. This takes about an hour / day average, though to be fair I think this time is worthwhile due to the increased energy it gives me.

Ok, so one hour out of twelve. We're up to 8.4% of my time taken up by my after-meal relaxations now, and we haven't even covered the business related maintenance tasks.

I spend about an hour each day reading and replying to emails. Some of these are small tasks, others inquiries, others just updates. None of it gets any software development done, though. I spend about another hour on top of that setting up and importing new data for use with our campaigns, inputting criteria for new matches, arranging for any further scraping required, and sometimes just manually doing things for customers that the system won't do automatically yet.

In addition, there is approximately another hour on top of this lost to context switching between tasks, chatting with co-workers on HipChat, and the odd voice or video conference meeting.

This brings my remaining hours down to nine, which puts my leisurely after-meal relaxation at a whopping 11.1% of my available development time. That's almost three times as much as at the start. Bad enough as is, but it goes on.

As in the game, much of the product development that I do is cumulative. When I improve our software it often saves me time, which I can then use to do more development. That hour worth of setting up campaigns and importing data I previously mentioned? It used to take a full four hours of my day. Back then, a 15-minute after meal break would be 16.7% of my available development time!

All this is assuming I have absolutely no life outside of the company. Any of that time comes directly out of development. Want to see your family? That comes out of development time. An old friend is in town for the day and wants to hang out? Now you're two days behind schedule and playing catch-up on the maintenance tasks. Have a significant other? Deduct some more time. Have a commute? Deduct some more time.

In the end, that 15 minute after-meal break can very easily be a full quarter of your free development time. Seen in that light, it's much easier to convince myself that yes, it really is important to start right now.

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How to Fail Via Perfectionism

Posted by Tarential on May 25th, 2014 at 4:05pm

Pretend you're starting a blog. Which of the following methods is more likely to gain significant readership:

  1. Spend a year writing one perfect article.
  2. Write a series of 52 articles, one each week.

Ok, it's a trick question. I haven't actually tested it. Anecdotal stories online would suggest that one can attain quality through quantity (aka practice), but that's not what I'm here to write about.

I'm here to complain about the perfect part.

You see, I have a problem publishing my blog posts. I know my writing is far from perfect, and at times despite my best intentions I even get facts or code wrong too. My ideas are just "things I made up" in this crazy head of mine.

I've had my "next post" written since the very day it was due and haven't been able to convince myself that it is good enough to publish. I have similar thoughts about all my posts, and this one is no exception.

You see, I'm terribly afraid that people will think my writing is bad. More than that, I'm afraid they'll be right. Yet, is that any reason to not write?

All my life I've had different opinions than most of my peers and my teachers about what constitutes "good" when it comes to art. Since I didn't really understand art in the same way I could understand physics or computers, I just assumed that I must be wrong.

An interesting thing happened then. I stopped taking art courses because they were "hard". I even stopped practicing any sort of art. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I've heard about this happening to other kids, but usually in the math/science classes instead of art.

In elementary school my books were filled with doodles. Now I'm ashamed if I have to draw anything.

A few years ago during university I wrote a number of articles for high profile websites, mostly reviews of Linux distributions or other free software. It started out as an idea for a way to get my name "out there" and turned into a fairly well paying job. The problem is that when I look back now I see a different person writing those articles.

Could those opinions really all have been mine? Could I really have been so arrogant in my responses to commenters? It would seem so. Now that writing is memorialized until the end of days. It represents me in many ways. When you search for me online now you still find them, a decade after they were written.

Suddenly I find myself hesitant to post my writing in the open. It, too, becomes an everlasting part of me. I look to my words and wonder if they will age gracefully.

What will I think of my writing, now, in another decade? Will I be happy I wrote this blog post, or will I feel embarrassed for my former naiveté? Will I have conquered my fear that others might judge my writing poorly, or will this post only add to the anxiety?

I don't know the answers, but I do know that I'd rather be the guy who tries than the guy who lets his fear hold him back. That's why I'm posting this. Not for the readers this time, but for myself.

Nevertheless, I hope someone, somewhere enjoys this post and perhaps finds their own will to push forward. It shall be my constant reminder to step into the unknown, make mistakes, and learn from them.

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