Last week, I flew up to Montreal for PyCon. I’m now home, without any new international incidents to add to my record. It was my first PyCon, but it won’t be my last.

If Python (or open source development in general) is your thing, all of the talks from this weekend appear to already be on YouTube. Since I mostly stuck to the hallway track, I’ll be watching a lot of these videos myself and don’t feel qualified to offer a review. However, the hallway track was fantastic and I would recommend it in future years.

I can review the swag I gathered at PyCon, though. Based on t-shirts alone, I’m pretty pleased. I found not one, not two, but three ladies tees that I liked enough to take home. Considering that booths at most other tech conferences only offer men’s shirts, the availability of ladies’ tees is a good indicator of an inclusive community.

Even better, though, there was plenty of non-shirt swag. Since I’m trying to make sure my wardrobe doesn’t entirely look like it came from a trade show hall, I’m always excited to see other swag that I’m actually interested in. I’m now stocked up on small notebooks for quite awhile, including a few that have a variety of pages for sketching different types of wireframes. I’m also up a beer glass, breath mints in reusable tins, and some pretty cool fake tattoos that I’ll actually wear.

I’d like to note that I’m totally cool with the booths that didn’t offer a whole lot of swag (or any at all) — I’m just as thrilled to just talk about cool products that I didn’t know about in advance and see some demos. I don’t have to have swag, but if it’s on offer, I like to see a variety that’s appealing to all sorts of conference attendees, rather than just to stereotypes.

And, as an added bonus, next year’s PyCon is here in Portland. If you’re interested in attending, keep an eye on the PyCon website. Just a head’s up, though: my couch is already booked for PyCon 2016 and tickets are guaranteed to sell out.

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Investing in an amazing startup is like buying the hot new gadget that’s just come on the market. Just being able to lay down your cash, either for an investment or a gadget is a good social signal, telling the rest of the herd that you’re cool.

But sometimes you get the iPod and sometimes you get the Microsoft Zune. (Here’s a Wikipedia link in case you don’t remember the Zune, the necessity of which may just drive home this particular point.) One tells the world that you have taste and money and one of them tells the world that, well, you bought a gadget that turned out to be not nearly as cool as something else on the market.

Venture Capital Works the Same Way

There’s not really a good way to predict precisely what investment opportunities are going to do better than others: putting your money into a company that has barely an idea of what they may offer customers, let alone any source of revenue, is risky. If it wasn’t risky, after all, we’d all be startup billionaires.

But that means that investors still have to make a decision to invest in this opportunity but to pass on that one.

Investors can weed out some of the options on the table. Details like potential audience size and the relative spending power of that audience can help an investor exclude anyone that can’t make the risk worthwhile. But there’s still far more startups looking for capital than there are investors ready to put money on the line.

That leaves gut instinct to guide an investor through choosing where to invest. Gut instinct, more often than not, takes you to the company you want to see in the world — the seriously cool offer.

The Cool Factor Minimizes Diversity

Choosing companies to invest in based mostly on what seems cool — on what will signal to your friends that you are awesome — limits investments dramatically. What’s cool right now? Well, that depends on your friends. If your friends each have their own bucket load of money and they all live in San Francisco, though, they’re going to define ‘cool’ very specifically. Buying things online is cool, hence all the Bitcoin startups. Being able to pay someone else to deal with the sucky parts of life is cool, hence the appeal of getting things done by Magic. Wine, beer, and whiskey are all cool, hence more startups around those beverages than non-alcoholic drinks.

What’s not cool? How many apps have you seen get funding for simplfying divorces? What about effective logistics management? What about anything for the unexotic underclass?

The lack of diversity isn’t just a question of picking startups with ideas that seem cool to the right people, either. What people are most likely to have ideas that you think are cool? People who are very similar to you across a spectrum of characteristics.

Is There a Solution?

The venture capital system is based, ultimately, on gut instinct. There’s no real way to predict that one startup will succeed or another will fail, which means that investors have to decide based on whatever criteria they choose. Coolness is no better and no worse than any other decision-making tool, especially when someone is deciding how to invest their own money.

Want to see a dramatic uptick in diversity among venture-backed startups? Get investors with a much wider collective definition of cool — more women, more people of color, more parents, more military veterans, and so on. Of coures, there’s a chicken and an egg problem that people who do not already match investors’ ideas of good founders are less likely to have money to invest. That’s a harder problem, though I can see some options (though all come with their own particular problems):

  • Figure out a way to encourage more people to bundle small investments together into startups
  • Add more diverse decision makers at investment firms
  • Use governments and non-profits to come up with investment capital

A more practical option may be to look for more opportunities to opt out of the venture capital system in general. There are plenty of arguments for other strategies: venture capital is likely creating another bubble, it’s creating businesses focused only on exits, and it’s definitely driving price wars.

Bootstrapping, or taking only a small round of investment from friends and family, is the fastest route away from venture capital. It won’t work for all companies — anything needing a big upfront investment in research or equipment is out — but bootstrapping is always worth considering. And the number of ideas that can be bootstrapped today is surprising; 3D printers, marketplaces offering time on expensive equipment, and amazingly cheap software tools have brought down the cost of building anything.

Image by Flickr user Got Credit

The 2014 Annual Report from Berkshire Hathaway came out recently. I always look forward to reading Warren Buffett’s letter to shareholders, but I found this year’s report especially worth reading.

2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of Buffett Partnership Ltd. taking control Berkshire Hathaway (then a faltering textile manufacturer). The textile manufacturing part of the business has been gone since the 1980s, but Buffett seems to be doing just fine.

A few points specifically stood out while I was reading.

  • Buffet doesn’t like a lot of the standard numbers used to calculate a company’s worth (even though the companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway tend to be successful by those metrics). He’s clearly comfortable with all sorts of financial metrics, but keeps score by his own numbers. That’s a set of characteristics well worth copying.
  • Berkshire Hathaway owns nine companies that, if those companies were independent, would be members of the Fortune 500. Berkshire Hathaway also owns BNSF, which transports about 15 percent of all intercity freight in the U.S. (more than any other company in the country).
  • Airbnb got a mention as a viable option for travelers to Omaha for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, which drew 39,000 people last year. I wonder just how much that mention is worth to Airbnb — and how many of Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders were willing to use Airbnb before that subtle endorsement.
  • Berkshire Hathaway’s federal income tax return runs 24,100 pages. The company files an additional 3,400 state income tax returns. Even more impressive? Those documents are prepared by the Berkshire Hathaway office in Omaha, which has a staff of 25. The same 25 people are responsible for setting up an annual meeting for 39,000 attendees and a few other minor matters.
  • That huge stack of paperwork, however, would be far larger if all of Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries operated independently. Buffett’s approach to running companies is as bare bones as possible. I expect that sort of lean leadership to be a major trend in years to come.

In honor of the 50th anniversary, Buffett wrote a more extended look at Berkshire Hathaway’s past then he normally does in these letters. He admitted a few crucial mistakes that he learned from, making this letter perhaps more valuable to read than most years. Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report from 1964 is also included at the end of this year’s.

If you’re an entrepreneur who hopes to grow your business beyond just covering your own expenses, read this year’s report — and maybe check into some of the past reports.

The Writer’s Bundle is back — for the next three days. I’m a fan of this bundle and you may remember me promoting it in the past. There’s always books or courses in here that I love or want for myself. Here’s a quick rundown of this year’s bundle:

  • Kindle Launch Plan: $1,400 in 30 Days & an Amazon Bestseller, from Nick Loper (retails for $99)
  • Content Strategy for Thought Leaders, from Sarah Kathleen Peck (retails for $300)
  • Learn Scrivener Fast, from Joseph Michael (retails for $179)
  • Book Proposal & Manuscript Template, from Joel Friedlander (retails for $27)
  • The Momentum Kickstarter Kit, from Charlie Gilkey (retails for $47)
  • Authority: A Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Publishing, from Nathan Barry (retails for $39)
  • Turn Your Side Hustle Into a Full-Time Business, from Alexis Grant (retails for $47)
  • Video Idiot Boot Camp, from Katie Davis (retails for $297)
  • Write for the Web, from James Chartrand (retails for $23)

Basically, if you’ve been thinking about buying any of these courses or ebooks, this is the time to do it. You’ll get nine courses for less than what several of these courses usually cost by themselves. It’s a great deal.

Click here to use my affiliate link to buy. You can also go to Google to find this bundle if the idea of affilaite links bother you on any level.

Either way, you’ve only got until Wednesday, March 11th, at 11:59 p.m. EST to make up your mind.

IFTTT released a new set of apps that have kept me pretty entertained lately as I’ve worked on figuring out just how to use them. The apps are:

  • Do Button
  • Do Camera
  • Do Note

All three are available for iOS and for Android. Each app allows you to set up a certain action that happens whenever you hit the Do Button, take a photo with the Do Camera, or write a Do Note. With IFTTT’s endless connections to other apps, as well as hardware, the possibilities are pretty near endless.

Sure, a lot of the connections you can make aren’t much more than streamlining tasks you can already do from your phone. Consider this Do Camera recipe that sends receipt photos to a specialized Evernote notebook:

IFTTT Recipe: Save Receipts to Evernote connects do-camera to evernote

You could open up the Evernote app on your phone and fiddle around with it. But if you’re just trying to capture a receipt as you’re winding up lunch or grabbing office supplies, the Do Camera integration is going to be a lot faster. For a busy entrepreneur, IFTTT just made it that more likely that all of your business receipts will be available when you go to do your taxes next year.

I get emotional about accounting. That’s probably a personal problem — some sort of deep-seated issue dating far back in my history as an entrepreneur. But the more time I spend thinking about accounting in general, and tax returns in specific, the more emotional I get.

The accounting industry is having a very good year as we’re all pushing to get our tax returns completed. As an industry, accountants tend to do well and can expect repeat business. But this year is something special, as we all scramble to figure out just what the Affordable Care Act means for our personal tax returns.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic to have a way of getting health insurance that doesn’t require a marriage or an employment contract. I’m willing to spend a little more time with my accountant in exchange. But the ripple effects really drive home just how much of an out-sized impact the US approach to health insurance has on our economy. With a presidential election next year, I’m sure that we’ll see even more unintended consequences in the near future.

I’ve been finding Hemingway surprisingly useful when working on ghost-writing projects lately. It’s a useful sort of a writing hack to get some quick insights when you’re trying to mimic someone else’s writing style.

Of course, Hemingway is fundamentally intended to help writers sound more like the man himself. But it does that by highlighting certain characteristics of writing:

  • passive voice
  • adverbs
  • vocabulary

By putting in writing samples from a client who I need to mimic, I can see pretty quickly how they use words. I can do that sort of analysis by hand, but it’s tedious enough that I don’t actually do so except on really well paying projects.

If you’re trying to mimic the style of someone’s writing, I suggest looking at several examples of someone’s writing through Hemingway’s lens, not just one. Getting the style right on a ghost writing project is hard enough when you’ve got multiple samples — getting style right off of just one sample is impossible.

Putting in several samples can be time-consuming, though. I do wish Hemingway had an API so that I could integrate it with some of my other writing tools, as well as automate the process of putting writing samples into the app. But I don’t absolutely need an API to keep finding new ways to use Hemingway — it’s just something that would be nice to have.

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Stagnation is a very real threat, especially when you do creative work every day. Clients are only ever interested in what you can already do and repeats of what you have already done. (While I can’t speak from experience, I assume the same is true of employers.)

Doing just what is expected of you is an option, I suppose. But if you’ve already decided to go out and read blog posts about creativity, you’re probably not the sort of person to be forever content with the status quo. You want to level up, preferably on a regular basis.

It’s certainly possible to force yourself to level up creatively. You need to invest some time and take some risks.

  • Force yourself to launch new personal projects on a regular basis.
  • Find a way to work on the projects above your pay grade, even if it means acting as an assistant to the primary creative on the job.
  • Tell people what you’re doing so that they’ll hold you accountable.
  • Do work that scares you (in the risk-taking sense of the word, not in the working-with-bad-clients category).

Right now, I’m gearing up to launch something that will stretch my abilities in whole new ways. It’s pretty intimidating. But I keep telling more and more people about the idea, so it will be a whole lot scarier for me if people think I’ve given up than to actually finish the work.

Image by Flickr user williamcho

Payment processing is something of a pet peeve for me. Getting paid through a site like PayPal is very convenient, but I have to give up 2.9 percent of my income (plus an added 30 cent fee) on every transaction. Consider what that means I’m paying:

Income Payment to PayPal
$100 $3.12
$1,000 $29.30
$10,000 $290.30

That amount doesn’t seem like all that much, but it only ever goes up even as the expense of having a bank account remains the same. I don’t feel like I get all that much for my money, especially since PayPal doesn’t always protect service providers from scams.

The real reason I still use PayPal at all is because all of my clients are familiar with the company. They mostly have accounts already and don’t have to think about the process of making a payment. I generally ask clients to pay with a check over sending a PayPal payment, though, or use Stripe’s integrations with invoicing tools to pay with a credit card.

In an ideal world where clients are willing to try new things, though, I would ask everyone to use Dwolla. Dwolla costs 25 cents per transaction (look at that adorable flat rate!) and has real humans in charge of customer service. Unlike both PayPal and banks (including my nice, local credit union), I’ve heard almost no stories of problems and even those seem to be either resolved to the customer’s satisfaction or be the results of misunderstandings. The main exception seems to involve using Dwolla to purchase Bitcoin, so I’m not too worried. About 35,000 businesses were using Dwolla as of June, along with several state governmental agencies.

Now I just need to convince some clients…

A few friends convinced me to join HabitRPG a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve become an enthusiastic convert!

The idea behind HabitRPG is that we can treat our to-do lists like a game. We can get points for knocking items off the list, level up, and even help friends defeat bigger monsters. HabitRPG offers a little motivation for the things we know we need to do.

For me, the biggest win is that I’m ‘playing’ in a group. If I let down my party — if I fail to complete my tasks, leading us to take damage as a group from whatever monster we’re currently fighting — I feel like a jerk. I definitely recommend playing with a group (preferably people you see regularly face-to-face), because the accountability HabitRPG offers is masterful. It’s even an improvement on traditional accountability models in some way, because no one else can see what your tasks are: you get the positive reinforcement from your friends without having to explain any embarrassing tasks you’re struggling with.

HabitRPG is not a task manager or a to-do list in and of itself, though. I’m using it alongside Asana (I’ve forced the rest of my household on to an Asana workspace and I won’t give that up). I would love to see an integration between the two, but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. And that’s okay: HabitRPG excels at adding a little bit of motivation, not at nagging you about a missed deadline. I’ve found it beneficial because some of my time-insensitive work would normally get ignored, but HabitRPG treats all tasks equally.

HabitRPG is available on a freemium basis and I’m currently on the free plan. So far, I’m not feeling any great push to move over, though I expect that I’ll pay for a plan in order to support the makers. Unfortunately, HabitRPG does seem to have a lot of downtime. However, the underlying software is open source, so you can go fix it if you’re emotionally invested enough.