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The Story Of Creating Business And Music

Category: entrepreneurship

Lessons Learned In 2017

Sometime early on this year, I decided to try to intentionally learn as much as I could from my experiences. In my mind, I dubbed this my “year or learning”, although “year of self-awareness” would probably be a more fitting title. This came in part from learning more about the fixed and growth mindsets, in part from a healthy dose of humility after being brazenly wrong, and in part from thinking about what it means to grow as a person.

Rather than just getting frustrated and trying to resolve or win whatever troublesome situation came my way, I approached it with an attitude of curiosity and humility, looking to crack the nugget of wisdom within.

Did I succeed? Not often; many times, I was pigheaded and fueled by ego. However, over time, I definitely took away a few lessons; observations about my own interactions and reactions to the world. I’d like to share these with you today.

I view these takeaways as beginnings of revelations – not lessons learned and shut away. I may have had an ‘aha’ moment, but changing my ways is a longer journey. You might also find that none of these learnings are revolutionary – you’ve probably read them somewhere before. However, until I learned these through experience, I they were just platitudes to me.

Anyway, here’s what I learned about myself in 2017:

1. Hard work produces results; talent doesn’t

Any achievement in my life I’m proud of (running 6 miles at a time, writing my best music, coding and launching big projects) came from repetitive hard work – a consistent decision to do what was necessary over what I wanted to do in the moment. However, whenever I tackle a new challenge, I often look for motivation and inspiration and inherent talent – and react to the inevitable failure along the way by questioning my abilities. This is a staple of the fixed mindset.

Especially with running, it was incredibly motivating to give up the idea of talent and put in repetitive hard work – and watch my numbers improve consistently as a result.

2. My mind will do whatever it takes to shut me down 

I learned this one over 80+ runs this year. I found that my first mile was often the most miserable, and was encouraged to learn that this was the case with other runners as well. Running is hard, and I noticed that my mind would try to tell me whatever it could to get me to stop.

My muscles are sore. This is my third hard run this week, I should ease up. It’s okay to quit just this one – everyone deserves a break. My last personal record was just a freak accident; I already peaked. Taking three days off has hampered my progress. Is my ankle sore or irreparably broken? I haven’t improved in weeks; I should go back and rethink my running strategy. 

After a while, I noticed zero correlation between good/bad runs and how I felt in the first mile. Aside from the obvious extremes – acute pain – I realized I couldn’t listen to my mind; that my brain was doing whatever it could to stop me from running. Then I realized that this applies just as much to anything else I try to do – running is just the easiest to conquer it in.

The  next step is figuring out how to overcome this. With running, it’s simple – lace up, run, don’t stop unless you feel sharp pain. With other endeavors – building and monetizing a project, for example – I’ve yet to figure it out.

3. Two good people could look at the same facts and see two different narratives

I’ve been in many arguments – some important and some petty, and always wanted the situation to be black and white. I was either right or wrong, and my goal was to figure out which as soon as I could, and then either apologize or wait for an apology.

Watching two good friends struggle to make sense of a high-stakes, emotionally-charged situation taught me otherwise. Both were good people trying to do the right thing, both had built a valid narrative from the same set of facts, and both felt hurt and disrespected. And, in the process of trying to resolve their differences, they spoke right past each other, almost as if in different languages. Parts of the argument seemed to have an objective right and a wrong – but surrounding this was a whole messy gray area of good intentions with bad outcomes and an increasing pattern of miscommunication.

Turning inward, I found this pattern in many of my own conflicts as well. Crucial Conversation taught me that in an argument, people tend to hyperfocus on being hurt, offended, or  validated. Our reptilian brains take over in an extended fight-or-flight response, and we miss the the complexity of the communication. Aiming to survive, we fail to see the opportunity to learn about the other person. I realized that this happened to me constantly; in the heat of an argument, I’d lose my empathy and ability for complex thinking, and reduce situations to win/lose.

There’s a lot of gray area, and stronger relationships are built when you explore this gray area, despite the discomfort.

4. How strongly I feel isn’t an indicator of how right I am

This one seemed painfully obvious once I saw it: the strength of my emotions is separate from the quality of my decision making. I thought these were the same thing – I got angry or hurt because my values were assaulted, so I’d need to defend my values, and an emotionally-charged response represented how right I felt. When I became upset, I never felt like I was lashing out,  I never said things just to hurt someone – I always felt like I was just telling the truth. I assumed that my emotionally-charged response was representative of the validity of my argument.

This is incorrect; they are two separate responses. Feeling angry, hurt, in embarrassed in the moment is not usually an indicator or how right or wrong I am, and it’s worth exploring why I feel the emotions that I do. I’ve found a number of weaknesses this way. For example…

5. Who I think I am is largely irrelevant

This is another “how could you not realize this??” obvious point, but only once you get it.

I think I’m an empathetic communicator and manager. But, there were a number of situations this year where I was neither. I think I’m a creative, motivated entrepreneur. But, I had a number of opportunities to come up with great ideas, or create cool products, and I failed.

If I’m a composer, where is the music I’ve written? If I’m a product manager, where are the products I launched?

This is another way of saying that talent – or my idea of what talents I might have – is irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter who I think I am (beyond motivating me) until I my results demonstrate this. Otherwise, I’m just lying to myself and the world, living on an over-inflated sense of self-confidence.

6. It’s easy to cut people out, but friends are not replaceable

I lost a very good friend this year. I lost the relationship years ago, actually, because I insisted on being right during a challenging situation. I regret this; whether I was right or wrong, I’ve now lost a universe of possibility in this relationship. I had an opportunity – but not the patience – to do better, to offer empathy, patience, and love. Instead, I chose to satisfy on my ego and prove myself right. I felt good about myself for a few weeks, but now, at multiple birthdays and gatherings, I miss my friend. It wasn’t worth it.

It’s okay to walk away after a long pattern of frustration and disappointment. However, while cutting people out is easy, it’s generally a bad idea. Great friends are not replacable.

7. Putting my cards on the table is usually a good thing

Both at work and in personal relationships, I’ve often avoided sharing my honest perspectives, frustrations, or fears. I did this out of a sense of vulnerability and sometimes ego – I wanted other people to figure things out themselves, or I was scared of sharing my honest thoughts due to fear of offending others. I’ve found that when I did finally have the difficult conversations, often out of a sense of desperation or having my back was against the wall, the outcomes were surprisingly positive. It was refreshing to lay my cards on the table and let the truth out – and then I could take honest, genuine steps towards improving the situation.

People around me were (generally) more receptive than I expected to helping me or understanding me once I opened up.

I then realized that this point extends back to myself. I have weaknesses I’ve avoided confronting myself on my, believing that I either can or can’t do something (again, deeply rooted in the fixed mindset). When I finally do come clean about failing at something, or being afraid of something, exciting possibilities emerge. I find that I can improve, that it’s okay to admit that I need help, that there is a path forward.



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What Is Your Personal Facebook Brand?

If you manage your Facebook, you’re building a brand. I’m not talking about your professional, job-getting brand. I’m not talking about a brand as a means of advertising. What I mean is this: the kind of posts you put out to your friends’ timelines define your online presence in their eyes. You are a columnist on their personal friend newspaper. What kind of column are you writing?

In my last job at a small social media advertising agency, I learned a lot about how small businesses create an online presence. However, the principles behind who you are online are just as relevant – perhaps even more so – if you’re just keeping a personal Facebook page. When a business puts out spam, its customers can just unlike the page and move on. When your friends see spam, they’re less likely to just unfriend you. Instead, you leave a lasting, unpleasant impression in their minds that may impact their “IRL” perception of you.

Because I spend a lot of time paying attention to which of my friends posts what, I’ve intuitively learned to anticipate what sorts of posts are coming from whom. There’s the “OMG look at my brand new TOTES ADORBZ relationship” person. There’s the inspirational quotes girl. There’s the vaguely-unsettling-song-lyrics guy. There are friends who only post news articles. There are friends who will repost any spreading piece of viral content.

So, what are you posting, and more importantly, why? Ask yourself that question before you hit the “share” button, because every piece of irrelevant content you put out there lowers your social media standing.  That may sound like a strong statement, because “dude, it’s just Facebook,” but think about it: we spend hours a day on FB, it’s how we keep up with our friends, and when we build trust in somebody who posts good things, we’re that much more likely to actually pay attention. When a friend posts a steady stream of trash, we treat him/her like the boy who cried wolf and ignore.

I keep talking about “spam,” “irrelevant content,” and “trash,” but what do I actually mean? While there’s no universal answer, think about who your audience is. What do your friends actually care to see? Surely, there’s a record-keeping, journal-like aspect to FB (pictures, videos, check-ins, etc.) but, if you’re posting a piece of content you are excited about, ask yourself: will your friends be? I had a friend who reposted every funny picture he found on 9GAG, Tickld, and other funny-pic websites. I couldn’t take it anymore. I unsubscribed. On the flipside, I have a young lawyer friend who posts cool articles captioned by his clever, witty thoughts on them. I’m excited to see his name in my newsfeed every time.

I encourage you to keep your Facebook clean, sparse, and relevant. Are you a bio-chem major? Find relevant articles written in layman terms that would be interesting to your friends. Do you play competitive tennis? Perhaps you can share content to help your friends improve their overall athleticism. Is bird-watching a hobby? This may be a generalization, but most people don’t care about exotic birds. Everyone loves a beautiful photo, though.

Remember, you’re writing a column to your friends’ newspapers. If your column is riddled with a mix of YouTube videos, baby pictures, inspirational quotes and “Share If You Agree” posts, they’ll stop reading. They might stop being friends with you, too.

So, what’s your Facebook brand?

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It’s All About Learning, and It’s Okay Not to Know

I’ve had a really incredible past few days, and I’m eager to share the few things I’ve learned. I’m very lucky to live in the (arguably) best city in the world – New York – where I (definitely) find myself in the midst of great things happening on a regular basis.  A few days ago, I got the opportunity to see Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of reddit, give a great presentation in support of his new book Without Their Permission. Alexis (who hates being called “Alex”) was an early Y Combinator grad and went on to do a number of awesome ventures, including  being a Y Combinator Ambassador in the East. So, when after the presentation I not only got to chat with him one-on-one during the book signing, but also got to go out to drink with Alexis an a number of other audience members, I was overjoyed. Alexis is a nicest, down-to-earth, just-nerdy-enough-to-be-awesome  guy and the thought of doing whiskey shots with him was as memorable as it was educational (who ever thought “whiskey” and “educational” would be in the same sentence?) Alexis has a truly contagious sense of enthusiasm and encouragement, and I definitely recommend his book. Even better, fellow Binghamton-ians (what do people actually call us?) – he’s scheduled to speak in Binghamton in February, and I see no reason for you not to be there.

As if my week weren’t already awesome enough, during the book signing I started chatting with Joseph, Alexis’s former classmate and current colleague-turned-book-tour-manager, who mentioned he also does community management for Pebble Watch. For those of you who don’t know, Pebble is a Y Combinator-funded hardware startup that is also known as the greatest Kickstarter success story ever, raising a whopping $10.2 million on a $100,000 target. In a way, Pebble is a hero company of mine specifically due of their pioneering of wearable electronics. So, when Joseph offered to join him, Eric (the founder of Pebble,) and a few friends in Williamsburg the following night, I was absolutely blown away.

We got together at a beer hall in Williamsburg, and I was surprised to see that only a few people came, given that the location and time were posted on Twitter, and Pebble has a lot of fans. We drank delicious German beer and shared sausages and latkes together around a small table, and sure enough there was Eric Migicovsky, the brilliant mastermind of Pebble of whom Paul Graham of Y Combinator said  “If I had to pick someone who will be the next Steve Jobs, it would be Eric.” Needless to say, I was both elated and nervous as hell. I’m normally pretty confident in chatting people up, but found myself at a loss for words throughout the night. We were joined by a pair of guys from Points Signs who spent the night chatting about the specifics of hardware. To be perfectly blunt, I felt like a complete idiot around these brilliant people, but if I had learned anything this week it was this: it’s okay. It’s okay not to know. In fact, as Alexis told me, having to learn massive new amounts of information is how you know you’re doing something right.

Despite feeling,, let’s say… humbled, I kept my ears perked up and absorbed everything I could. Eric was talking about the possible future directions for Pebble as well as his views on the product and other trends, and it was great to see his mind at work. I had a great conversation with Joseph about community management and possible future ventures. Most importantly, realizing just how little I know has made me more eager than ever to learn.  I was able to share some concepts with Eric, but I wish I had a prototype or at least a Photoshop mockup to show him. The more I meet entrepreneurs at all the different stages and learn their stories, the more I realize that with the tools we have at our disposal, almost anything is truly possible. More than that, age is no longer relevant. While the older generation often worries about entrepreneurship being a young man’s game, a lot of recent graduates, like myself, and kept back by our self-perception of inexperience. What did I really learn in college? Should I maybe work first? Given how many stories of 22-year-olds starting, heading and sometimes cashing out on successful, profitable ventures, the answer seems to be a resounding no. You can work in the meanwhile – bills need to be paid – but it’s never too early to start. Entrepreneurship is all about learning.

So, I got up today, and I’m proud to say that for the third or fourth day in a row, I worked for the majority of the day. I want to make things happen – I want to hold a physical product in my hand, and now I know that it’s okay to feel completely clueless. It’s the willingness to learn that counts.

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I’m currently learning how to 3D-model my prototype. What are you learning?

3 Things I Learned While Sourcing Material

A few days ago, I spent a day midtown NYC trying to find the kind of leather I want to use in my product. I have zero experience with leather, so this was a fun and somewhat stressful learning experience. Actually, that’s not completely true – it wasn’t my first time working with leather. I had my first crush on a girl in fifth grade, and she invited me to a leatherworking workshop. I, having read nothing but medieval romance novels at the time, obliged. Sadly, even after the class, she did not return my affections. But, I guess it wasn’t not my first experience with leather, then. Here are some things I learned in my recent day out:

1. Learn all you can about the material beforehand. I did some research before going out, and had a rough idea of the sorts of leather and fabric I’d be looking at. My research proved extremely useful, but also strikingly lacking. I got lucky, and the salespeople at some of the shops took the time to teach me. However, this was certainly above and beyond their job. Unlike a regular store where a salesperson can spend twenty minutes telling you why a particular watch is amazing, highly specialized material shops are by definition frequented by artisans and professionals. In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you. In fact, the last shop I visited demonstrated this. The saleslady, although nice, became increasingly annoyed with me as I asked basic questions. Normally I’d be frustrated, but in truth, I should have been more prepared. At some point, I remarked that a particular cowhide “felt cool to the fingers,” and in a heavy Russian accent she smirked that “everything feels cool” and walked away.

In short, you’re expected to know what you’re talking about, and it’s nobody’s job to teach you.

My initial thinking was that I could only learn so much at home, and would really get a feel for things out in the shops. This may be true for some of you and maybe for some shops, but in general, do your research. I could have learned more. I could have read a book on leatherworking, spent more time researching, and prepared better.

2. Be confident in what you’re building. I’ve pitched my business to lots of friends, family, and others at networking events, but this was the first time I’ve ever gone out into the world to work with people that have no particular interest in the product.   I had to sell with confidence. And – I somewhat expected this sooner or later – somewhere between the leather shops and the many stores I visited that sell similar products, I stopped and had my first real bout of self-doubt: “what am I even doing?” I know next to nothing about the product I’m working on (but I’m learning a million things,) I’m not sure if I can see myself staying with the product for many years, and more importantly, I’m just not sure if I can picture my success. These thoughts are common among entrepreneurs, and I was expecting for doubts to creep in as my initial enthusiasm waned (it hasn’t!) But, when you’re trying to sell – or in this case, buy –  you can’t afford for that to happen. Your personal bout of insecurity will need to wait till you get home. Or at least back to the car.

Have your pitch ready. Know what you’re building, and screw anybody that doesn’t love it. Your ultimate judge is the end consumer – you’re trying to satisfy him (or her!) and if your microprocessor salesperson thinks that the robot you’re building is the cooki-est thing since Easy Cheese spray, then he can go to hell, as long as he can offer you a decent price on the electronics. And finally – you’re a business; act like it. Exaggerate and fill in corners as necessary. Sometimes you need to embody where you’re going to get there. Wait, I’m actually going to insist you click on that last link – it’s okay if you skipped the first couple. Biz Stone’s story is way more interesting than mine at this point. So, go out there and sell! Coffee’s for closers only.

3. Forget the established way and learn, learn, learn. Steve Wozniak of Apple famously remarked: ” All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever. Every single thing that we came out with that was really great, I’d never once done that thing in my life.” So, while you should absolutely follow #1 and do as much research as you can, don’t let how things are dictate what your product will be. You’re an entrepreneur  – by definition, you’re making something new. If you follow step 1 correctly, you should be knowledgeable about the many available tools, but that’s only the starting line. Now, how can you do things differently, better?

All the best things that I did at Apple came from (a) not having money and (b) not having done it before, ever.

~ Steve Wozniak

I got the following advice from this brilliant book, which I can’t recommend enough: find a thread that’s common sense to a product, and question why that is so. “Building should have distinct walls and a roof.” Well, should they? Frank Gehry wasn’t ready to just accept that. If you see a material and think to yourself, hey, this would look awesome if my product were made of that – follow that thought, no matter how ridiculous it seems! It doesn’t mean you should just make it that way, but thinking outside of the proverbial box will help you find exciting new ideas. Although making TV remotes from hard jelly might not make the cut, questioning why 99% of remotes are rigid, plastic, and rectangular may just get you thinking in a good direction. Another useful technique is to look at how things are done in other fields and try to integrate – but we’ll save that thought for a later post.

All that aside, perhaps the most important advice is the unspoken #4: just go out and do it. Get out of the building. Even if you’re completely unprepared and neglect my previous thoughts completely, you’ll be worlds away from the dreamers that steam in their ideas for decades and never actually get anything done. What about you, fellow entrepreneurs? What experience have you have in sourcing and selecting materials for your product?

What Motivates Entrepreneurs

A small excerpt from ‘Founders at Work:’

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Why I Want To Be an Entrepreneur

Short and simple: I want to hold a product in my hands and know I’ve created it. Perhaps that’s what is motivating me towards hardware and away from websites. I don’t have a background in design or engineering, but I have spent most of my life around people who create: musicians, composers, artists, and people who calculate: mathematicians, analysts, other entrepreneurs, and financiers. The idea of working for a company I don’t believe in doesn’t just bother me – it terrifies me, and I have a natural urge to make new things.

My main motivation for working used to be money, but now I’m much more driven by the desire to innovate, contribute, and participate. Working on Explorchestra (the orchestra I co-founded in college) and with BizSaves (as startup I interned with) were the best and most productive experiences of my life. We’d get together in small, tight-knit teams, and spend hours upon hours brainstorming, designing, planning, arguing,  and ultimately bringing new ideas to life. Then, we’d go out into the wide world and visit places to fundraise; we’d cold-call, email, and research. The coolest and most terrifying thing about the process of creating something new is that it requires a radically different mindset. Getting the spark is the easy part: once you start paying attention to inefficiencies and needs, problems and solutions start popping up everywhere. The hard part comes next: now what? Unlike most experiences I’ve had thus far, nobody is asking concrete questions. In college, I’d be given problem sets with expected answers. At a job, I would be responsible for some small step of a financial production line: calculate the bottom line, create projections for next quarter, call 42 clients. Here, however, nobody at all is telling me what to do.

So, what do we have? Me at the starting line with a head full of ideas to solve a problem I’ve selected, and somewhere far off, a finished product. Along the way, vague benchmarks: a viable prototype, a business plan, a crowdsourcing campaign, manufacturing specs, and so on. In reality, all of this translates to me at my empty desk staring at a computer screen, unsure where to even begin. I always read about entrepreneurs working ridiculous hours, but my question as of now is: what the heck are you working on? Like the product I’m creating, I know the answer is there: everything. Sometime, I’m just overwhelmed with where to even begin. Self-discipline is another issue: I need to set concrete working hours and work them. I think that’ll be a great way to get on track.

I’m planning on keeping you updated throughout the process so that we can both learn from it if I’m fortunate enough to succeed. Whatever difficulties come my way, however, I know that when I read about the many aspects of product creation, from design to marketing to manufacturing to sales, I am inspired to follow. Without any guidelines, the words of the brilliant Jack Sparrow come to mind: “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Let’s see what I’m capable of.

Hello, June.

Tomorrow, I start work at the Maimonides Hospital. I’m working 8 – 6 PM, possibly to seven on Thursday, and I’m going to be moving about clinics throughout the coming weeks. Tomorrow, just for a day, I’m in pediatric oncology. Damn. For someone not accustomed or drawn to hospitals (is anyone?) this is a rough start. But, I just hope I can do my job. I really need the money, and this is a fantastic gig to have in the meanwhile, although it doesn’t do much to advance my career in the traditional sense. The idea is to save up some money to be able to work on my electronics bags business, release my album (my best friend Manar is pushing me, fortunately,) which is halfway done, and just be able to take a girl out once in a while. Moreover – and I know I’ll be hating myself in two weeks for saying this – but I need the routine. I’ve been roaming free for months, and it’s killing my productivity. Counterintuitive as it might be, exchanging a large portion of my day for money is going to force me to the kind of focus I desperately need.

Note to self: order new business cards for networking, not my music website (

I deactivated and blocked Facebook about four or five days ago. I keep coming back by nature, and everytime a huge “You should be working!” screen pops up, courtesy of the “No Procrastination” Chrome extension. I have no particular reason to stay off, aside from it being a giant time waster at the moment, and the fact that I get nothing positive from it. More than that, however, the fact that I keep coming back makes me want to see just how long I can keep away. I didn’t have a timeline in mind when I started, but now I’m eager to break the subtle addiction we all develop. Let’s see how long I can keep that going. The one major downside is my inability to keep up my music page; that’s frustrating. In lieu, I’ll gladly share a piece I just wrote with you guys right here:

Another note to self: I’m going to try and make it out to the beach a lot more this summer.