Stacking the Bricks Podcast EP37 - The stuff they don't teach you in school, with Mayur and Shahzada
26 min

In this episode…

Over the last few weeks, I have been visiting podcasts all across the internet, talking with entrepreneurs and creative people, just like you.

And this time, I took a virtual trip to India to visit to my friends Mayur and Shai-zada on the Remote Explorers Podcast where they talk about remote work and more generally, the culture of work.

In the full episode that you can find on their podcast feed, we talked a lot about the current and future state of coworking, but here on Stacking the Bricks I pulled out some of the highlights about business, entrepreneurship, and education that are most relevant to you, including:

  • The three most valuable parts of a college education, and why it might be more valuable for some people than others
  • Where the "Tiny" in Tiny MBA came from
  • And since this is a podcast about remote work, a few of my best tips for adapting to remote work (hint: it's got nothing to do with software)

So with that, I hope you enjoy this very special presentation from the Mayur and Shaizada, the Remote Explorers. Here we go!

Transcript

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What is up brick stackers! Welcome back to a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks. As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and this is another edition of The Tiny MBA Podcast Tour.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been visiting with podcasts all across the internet, talking with entrepreneurs and creative people, just like you.

This time I took a virtual trip all the way to India, to visit with my friends, Mayur and Shahzada of the Remote Explorers Podcast, where they talk about remote work – and more generally – the culture of work. In the full episode that you can find on their podcast feed, at remoteexplorers.com, we talked a lot about the current and future state of coworking, but here in Stacking the Bricks, I pulled out some of the highlights about business, entrepreneurship and education that are going to be most relevant to you.

Some of them include the three most valuable parts of a college education and why it might be more valuable for some people than others; where the ‘tiny’ in Tiny MBA came from; and since this is a podcast about remote work, I shared a few of my best tips for adapting to remote work and the hint that I want to give now is that it’s got nothing to do with what software you use.

So, with that, I hope you enjoy this very special conversation with Mayur and Shahzada on the Remote Explorers Podcast. Here we go!

Mayur: So Alex, I feel that remote work in the West and remote work in the East are two different things. Right? So, taking the case of India, a lot of people are struggling with the transition to remote work because they’re in tiny houses. They have kids that are around, or they just don’t know about coworking for that matter. They feel lonely. So, what sort of advice would you give to people who are getting into remote work for the first time?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Ooh, I’m going to be honest. I don’t know if I’ve got good advice. I’m really bad at remote work, that’s why I started a coworking space! Yeah. I mean, and your point about kids. I don’t have kids and my friends who do I think are the most amazing human beings right now, because they’re doing their job or at least trying, they’re helping take care of the house and they’re taking care of a kid, and a lot of the infrastructure people are used to having to make that possible – not just comfortable – but possible, has gone.

I don’t know. This is one where I’m comfortable saying, I don’t know. I think the best thing you can do is do a little bit of introspection maybe, and figure out when you’re doing good work, what does that look like? What does that need to feel like? If you can’t do that at home, a) recognize that that is totally normal. Like I said, I’m really bad at it, but then maybe try and find some other people who have a similar challenge and then solve that problem together. That’s my playbook. Right?

I haven’t seen great answers, great solutions, especially because depending on your situation, you can’t just leave home to go work from another place if you’ve got kids at home who aren’t going to school, because the schools are closed, things like that. Everybody’s situation is different. I think I’m going to echo something I said before about don’t pay attention to what other people are doing in the context of comparing yourself to them. Try and learn from what other people are doing but stop there. If there are people who are doing something that seems useful, is there a way of doing it together that is better for everybody?

I get the sense that it might be more common in the East, just because of the more communal nature of cultures and society is people families coming together to share responsibilities beyond what one family can take care of.

I think that the West is, in some cases going to have to reckon with, there’s a reason that we used to do that and there are some really maybe silly and dumb reasons that we stopped and we may have to get back to it. That’s like the most, to me, obvious, practical solution is recognize you can’t do this by yourself. So, find some people who you can trust or with whom you can build trust, who are in a similar situation and figure out what your resources are that you have between you to create something that you couldn’t create on your own. You may come up with a solution that is something that already exists in the world. You might come up with something new. I don’t know. We’re all figuring this one out together.

Remote work was already a challenge, especially for people who are forced into it. That’s one thing to choose it. It’s another thing to have it chosen for you. Nobody likes that feeling and to add another layer to that is like, depending on your work and if you’re working for somebody else and working remote, if you’re a full time employee for another company working remote, how they handle remote is not always entirely in your control.

I think recognizing that that is common – it’s not good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s bad and that needs to change and improve. People that run remote companies need to learn how to run remote companies and not just run an offline company using online tools. They’re different, but we are very, very much at the bottom of the bell curve in terms of that learning experience.

There are so few companies - there’s a lot of companies that are fully remote - a growing number, but there are so few of them that have a) done a really good job and of the ones who have done a really good job there are even fewer who have written down the process and share it with other people. There’s lots of people sharing how to do it, but all they’re doing is regurgitating “best practices” and stuff like that in terms of like firsthand experience, I did it. Here’s what we did. Here’s what broke. Here’s how we fix it. Here’s how we learned all those kinds of things. Very, very little firsthand documentation and there’s a reason for that. Right? If you’re busy running a company, the last thing on your mind is writing it down for another company to benefit from. I get it.

Maybe an opportunity to just figure out where that fits into your business model or into your own intentionality for making the world of work better, if you care about that at all. If you don’t, that’s cool too. Maybe find an easy way to dump that knowledge. If you’ve got something that’s working really well.

When you’re on the learning side of things, don’t assume that what’s working well for somebody else will work for you. Treat it as information, experiment, try it, evolve it, see what works. There is no single solution here, in the same way that there’s no single solution for a physical workplace either. We’re just being thrown in the deep end without a lot of time to learn how to swim. So, if you’re anxious, you are not alone.

Mayur: Yeah. So, the point that you made about managing remote companies, the two common greats that come repeatedly in your conversations of trust and communication. Those are very important when managing remote company, remote teams and I think even the management leadership teams, they need to learn looking at teams more as human connections than human resources.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. The team is not a machine. The team is a group of human people who work individually and together to create some result. And that result might be output. That result might be other things.

One of my favorite examples of this very effective, fully remote team that has gone from fully remote to hybrid in-person remote, to a new version of hybrid in-person remote is a company called Wildbit. They’re based here in Philadelphia, they run some software products, one that most people might know is called Postmark as an email delivery tool and a few others.

I’m friends with the founders. Actually, Chris and his now wife, Natalie were some of the first people that I met in that early days of finding people at Indy Hall. The way they view their company is their job is to make an amazing team possible. The team’s job is to make products. The company exists to create an amazing team. The products are a by-product, not the reason for the company to exist. That is a very unique perspective and one that I think is really, really valuable. You see it in the choices they make, you see it in the way they’ve always run their team. I actually worked with the company more closely as a consultant for a few years, around 2009, 2010, and I got to see it from the inside. In 2009, 2010, to see how they ran that and to see inside a lot of other places now, they’ve got something special and they’ve written a lot about what they do. I think that a lot of folks don’t necessarily believe them, or maybe more commonly, they believe them, but they’re not willing to put in the amount of work that they do.

I would encourage folks if you’re interested in this sort of thing to do some research on WildFit specifically, Natalie Nagle is their CEO. Natalie’s been on a number of podcasts in the last couple of years, most recently on I think the Indie Hackers podcast with DHH from Basecamp, it was a really interesting, wonderful debate, to really smart people. People I admire, people I look up to and people I think are worth actually listening closely to and taking to heart. I wish Natalie was on more podcasts. She’s wonderful and is a great business leader and a great person to be learning from.

Shahzada: So Alex, I would like to tell you my take on what I felt after reading Tiny MBA. My take on the book is that Alex went through so many experiences, learned how to run businesses, became an entrepreneur by himself. Once he started climbing up that ladder, he realized, “Whoa, the way management is set in the society, it’s very different and very simple from that. It’s not rocket science, it’s just about how you communicate with people, how trustworthy you are before you expect things for yourself. How much are you ready to give to other people?”

This is what my major understanding of your book was, and it blew me because I’m a graduation dropout and I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last few years and somewhere down the line, I had this inferiority complex that I did not go to high school to study how to run a business, but that just reading that book for 40 minutes gave me that confidence.

So, my question to you right now is in 2020, is it required for young high school pass outs to go to college, to study management, to become an entrepreneur or to study entrepreneurship or other alternate ways, according to you?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So there are definitely alternate ways, but I want to tread carefully here because this is a nuanced conversation for a variety of reasons. A lot of this is also dependent on region.

So, I’ll speak for first and I’d say most from my perspective, here in the US which is that I also have the advantage, if you’re listening, you can’t see this, but you might be able to guess. I’m a white guy. I have some inherent advantages in in the world, but also in business, that whether I knew it or not at the time made it easier for me, which also meant that if I were to take away a tool like a credential, depending on the environment, for me, that not having that credential might not make a difference, but for somebody else, a young black person, for instance, or a young immigrant, that’s potentially a very different environment. So, I think you have to consider the entire environment and the entire person in answering this question, which is not exactly what your question is.

Is it possible? The answer is yes. Do you potentially have other advantages that you will need to build in order to succeed completely? Also, yes. Depending on who you are, where you are. So,for me, I think the advantage of higher education experience is still going to be, so there’s three, depending on who you are, these three may be more or less valuable.

One I already talked about is the credential, right? For some people, in some environments, depending on the combination, that credential is still maybe useful.

Number two is the social network. The people that you meet. I’m not friends with many people that I went to college with, but I can also track the network that I built while I was in college, which included some jobs that I had, to success that I had later.

The third is learning how to learn. I will go one step deeper, which is learning how YOU learn. There is more than one way to learn, there is more than one way to get knowledge in your head. There’s more than one way to be good at learning. One of the stories that I told in the preface of the book is being deeply bored in the fundamentals of macro-economics class and many of the classes that I took when I was in college, but being deeply enthralled and excited to learn during my co-ops, which were work opportunities presented by the college experience, in an environment that I might not have been able to get to, even with my vendors probably would not have been able to get into these jobs at that age level and at that level of experience, had it not been for the express decision of that company to hire somebody who is in school to mentor them, to teach them as a very junior person.

Those benefits still exist. I think the thing where things go haywire is people who view college, as I go in and it’s a set of railroad tracks. I start and so long as I take the train to the destination, that I get what I came here for. I think the key to college, like most things, is you need to constantly be kind of evaluating it and going, is this working for me? And if it’s not working for me, are there parts of it that are working for me? Can I use just those parts until I don’t need them anymore?

College is a lot of things; at its heart it’s a tool for building these advantages. So, expecting the advantages to be granted to you because you completed four years and all the coursework they told you to, is where I think people often end up disappointed.

I think if you do that, and you end up with the credentials and relationships, and you tried some things you wouldn’t have before, because you were afraid to, or because you didn’t have access to them. I think in order to get what you need out of college, you kind of need to be a more active player. And that’s hard for a lot of people that it’s not the expectation that’s set up, and worse, depending on the college, the administration doesn’t want you to be an active player. They want you to be a quiet recipient of your education and get your degree at the end. That’s a very real problem of the university industrial complex, so to speak.

So, so I think you, you need to be prepared to be an active player and not just do the schoolwork but do the work-work. So, all that meta-work, which is a lot.

Now the last piece of that is really sort of like the societal stigma of dropping out. You mentioned you dropped out, you felt self-conscious of that and saying, “well, maybe I don’t have something I’m supposed to”…drop out. Dropping out comes with a stigma. I always viewed it as like, I got out before I got the rest of the debt. I won, I got what I wanted and I don’t have to pay the other $100,000!

Shahzada: That’s what I mean, somebody who chooses to drop out from a college, that there might be a reason. I’m really grateful that I took that decision, but you know, sometimes down the line one, while you are doing things, it just stays on your head that. What if, what if…whenever there are blockages on your path, but you know, when you connect the bigger dots together, it makes sense and you learn what you needed to learn, but maybe it’s not through a conventional way, through other ways, but the learning anyway comes to you, if you are ready for it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. I think that’s the key is whether you’re learning at school or on the job or in a mentorship - I’m a big fan of apprenticeships, I think we should have more of those, more companies of all sizes. If you’re a solo business owner consider bringing on an apprentice as your first employee is a drum I’ve been beating for the last year and treat learning as an act of exploration.

I dropped out of school 15 years ago. I have never stopped learning. Every day I’m figuring out something new to learn, something new to do. Again, I figured out how to self-publish a book, no one taught me how to do that. I had to pick a destination, do some research, find some experts, talk to them, set up some experiments, figure it out.

That’s how you do a successful anything. And I don’t think they really teach that in school. Although school provides a brilliant environment for doing it, if you do it, if you approach it that way. So yeah, that is the big lesson – lifelong learning. Even if you’ve got a college degree, you get into a field.

If you’re in a field. I mean I used to say if you’re in a field like technology, you have to keep learning because things are constantly changing, but that’s no longer limited to technology because technology touches everything. You’re in a new world right now where if you’ve been able to avoid learning new tools, new technology, new skills. I did an intro to Zoom for like later in their career executives, early on in quarantine. A friend of mine runs this founders over 40 group. And she’s like, “a lot of them are just totally scared off by Zoom”. I was like, “let’s figure out exactly what freaks them out about it.”

A lot of it comes down to, these are people who are very comfortable standing in front of a room of their peers, their employees, whatever it is, and delivering a sales presentation or a leadership meeting, but Zoom freaks them out?! That’s interesting, don’t you think? I had to think about, well, what is the psychology of a person that is comfortable in person, but anxious on Zoom? Well, in person, they have a sense of control over the room, right? They know where things are. They know where they put things. They can’t just randomly not be heard, if you’re speaking, if people in the room, people can hear you.

Whereas online, if they don’t know the tool, they don’t like the way they show up on camera. So, if you show up to work, dressed a certain way, you appear a certain way. If you don’t know how to appear on camera, or you have crappy camera, it’s going to lower your confidence. So, it was a combination of comfort with the tool – not just how to use it, but if something goes wrong, how do you fix it? And comfort with being on camera. In 10 minutes, I covered three or four foundations of each of those and a bunch of these folks who were previously totally scared, not of the tool, but to learn – because nobody wants to feel stupid – and the longer you’ve been good at something, the harder it is to deal with feeling stupid.

You’ve got these people who are used to being really good at what they do. I had to help them realize like, “yeah, you’re learning something new. It’s not going to feel great at first, but if you get a little practice then it’ll feel better quickly, here’s a few things to practice that’ll give you that feedback loop a little bit faster.”

So it ties into one of the lessons in The Tiny MBA about passion. I’m not passionate about getting on a Zoom call – I don’t really give a shit. I am passionate about the feedback loop of being able to connect with somebody quickly, easily, get the work done, get a result. If I can’t get to that, because I’m having a battle with the technology, that’s going to slow down the feedback loop and I’m going to be less than passionate about the technology – I’m going to hate the technology, I’m going to think the technology is working against me, in some cases it is, but if you can learn the most likely things to go wrong, and know how to prevent them before they happen or fix them when they do, then you can just focus on the thing that you are there for, and hopefully get the real work done.

Shahzada: So, Alex, I’m really curious to know why the title Tiny MBA?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: When I first shared that I was going to be taking this collection of lessons and ideas and turning it into a book, I was thinking about – I knew it was a business book – that was pretty clear, but also have to look at it from a perspective of what would people sign up to read? You know what I mean? If I was like, a hundred short lessons on how to understand human psychology…no one’s going to read that! So, I was thinking what would be kind of cheeky and fun. Actually, the first idea was the Bite Sized MBA, a hundred bite sized, bite sized, bite sized. And I was like, “ah, I don’t know about that.”

I started Googling the variants around that with MBA because people know what an MBA is, or at least they think they know what an MBA is. I was like, if I can anchor it to that, even though I know it’s got very little to do with an MBA, if anything, it’s a compliment to a traditional MBA program, I think. It’s not a replacement for…and I have a couple of conversations coming up with people who have MBAs. So I’m excited to hear their reflections on it. Nilofer Merchant who wrote the foreword is an MBA and she’s a very successful MBA, she is well known in the MBA circles. So I was excited to get her take on it as well.

In Googling around to try and find, you know, I think there was another Bite Sized MBA, and then I got to Mini MBA and I was like, Mini MBA – that’s taken too. And I was like Tiny MBA, that just sounds kind of adorable, I think I want that!

As soon as I thought it, I was like, yeah, that’s definitely the one! It was totally available, nobody else had it. Another fun story about the name, apparently when I had that thought, I was also figuring it and domain names and stuff like that. Apparently when searching for it realized that there was a .MBA domain, and so I bought Tiny.MBA and then promptly forgot about it. So, when it was about two weeks before launch and I was setting up the website and things like that, I was like, “Oh shoot, I got to go buy a domain. Oh shoot, there’s a .MBA domain. That’s awesome. I wonder if there’s Tiny.MBA? Ah, darn somebody already has it. I wonder who has it? Oh, it’s me. I bought, I just forgot it!”

Shahzada: So for a book like yours, I read a quote yesterday, which is, “Bigger isn’t better. Better is better.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That’s one of my favorite quotes from the book and a line that I’ve referred to often over the years.

I think the other thing was, I mean, you read a digital copy of the book - for folks who get a physical copy of the book and I’ll hold it up for you guys. Unfortunately, the folks won’t be able to hear this on the audio, but it’s like physically pretty tiny too. It fits in the palm of your hand. That was another factor in really kind of solidifying the name as every page in the book is kind of self-contained and tiny. The book itself is kind of self-contained and tiny. The amount of time it takes to read is kind of tiny, although it can be used in a handful of different ways.

It’s been cool, and it’s got me thinking, I mean, folks have been responding to this really well. I think we have an opportunity to create other tiny products.

Well, that’s another thing, one of our most popular articles is called Why You Should Do a Tiny Product First? So a lot of folks go find our website or sign up for a mailing list because they want to create a Software as a Service or something big and complicated, you know? Or the online equivalent of a coworking space, something big and complicated. We always tell people there’s nothing saying you can’t do that, but it is hard to do that first. So, starting with a tiny product – and we call it a tiny product because in part a lot of time the thing that you can create, that is a tiny product is even smaller than you think is reasonable.

So, we encourage people to start with the smallest thing that actually solves a problem for the person it’s intended to solve that problem for. It doesn’t have to solve all of the problems. It doesn’t even have to solve everything related to that problem, one small thing. That gives you the ability to – just like this book – start and finish faster, which means you get a result faster, which means you get a little bit of experience faster, which means you get a little bit of confidence faster. You make a little bit of money faster. You earn the trust of the person who bought it faster. So, it’s not exclusively about speed, but it’s about feedback, right? It’s not about doing it faster. It’s about getting to the result to know whether or not it even worked.

If you enjoyed that episode, and I hope you did, I’ve got a couple of quick things before you go. The first of course is making sure that you have your very own copy of The Tiny MBA. If you haven’t ordered it, I’d love it if you did, and you can grab a paperback or ebook at Tiny.MBA.

I also hope you’re subscribed to this show. We’re going to be releasing more episodes like this one with other creators and entrepreneurs, just like you and I’m going to be talking with them about their favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, learning what’s going on in their world and sharing it all with you. You can search for that by looking for Stacking the Bricks wherever you get podcasts.

And one last thing, check out the Stacking the Bricks website, we’ve got a great newsletter with new articles coming out every week or two following a lot of the same topics and themes that we talk about right here on the show. You can do that by going to StackingtheBricks.com.

I hope you have a great rest of your day and don’t forget to keep on stacking those bricks!

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