An interview I did with Idea Mensch on Praxis, entrepreneurship, and an assortment of other things.
Where did the idea for Praxis come from? What does your typical day look like?
Praxis is really the culmination of a lot of ideas and experiences, beginning with my time in college when I felt like given the time and money, I wasn’t learning nearly as much as I wanted to and I was getting better experience working than in school. Through many ups and downs and steps in my career path over the past decade, I finally pulled the pieces together and created the kind of educational experience I wished I’d had. The idea of work with entrepreneurs, the best of liberal arts, business, and hard skills training, and a largely self-directed program packed into ten months for net-zero cost was the realization of a long held dream and the answer to my own and many other students’ frustrations.
A typical day for me begins with a swim, breakfast, shower, and then a half hour or so of reading a few blogs and catching up on social media. Then I dive into my to-do list, which involves a lot of phone calls, emails, and Skype meetings with entrepreneurs in the Praxis business partner network, interviews with applicants, catch-up calls with participants, programmatic stuff with our Education Director, marketing plans and tactics (which are highly variable) with our Marketing Director, reviews and updates to financials, and many other interactions with many other people. I plow through a lot of emails, as I have a zero inbox policy and respond to just about every serious email I get.
I like to get outside for at least half an hour each day to break things up, sometimes just to walk, sometimes while making phone calls. I also work in at least thirty minutes to write pretty much every day, and time to read whatever book I’m on. I find that if I don’t make time for writing and reading, my mind begins to feel empty, and my energy soon follows. I need to feed on new ideas constantly to stay charged.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Action. I am heavily action biased, which can certainly get me in to trouble, but I find that any idea I analyze for too long without moving forward in some way inevitably dies an ignoble death. I need to see progress, so I push things and move them, even if just a little bit every day. From the moment the idea for Praxis came together in my mind, I began hashing and rehashing it, contacting people I’d need to help build it, buying domain names, doing informal market research, and anything I could to keep moving the inertia. If I do at least one thing every single day to get an idea closer to life, it has a far higher likelihood of success than if I wait around for a time when I can make one big move. I see it like exercising. If the idea is a healthy body, you’re better off doing one thing every day, even if it’s just twenty push-ups, then waiting for the perfect day to spend two hours in an elaborate workout at the gym.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The massive reduction in transaction costs due to technology. There are so many underutilized resources out there – both people and goods – because traditionally it’s been really hard to gather the right information at the right time to make the right connections. Smartphones, location services, massive amounts of digital data and other technology have made valuable information readily accessible and seamless. We’re just seeing the beginning of the efficiencies and opportunities this creates with things like Uber, AirBnB, and other ways people can find what they need in places previously unavailable to them because of prohibitive transaction and information costs. Everything from specialized skills and knowledge from experts, to the best brunch joint in town can be accessed instantly, where you once had to know a trivia king or read a phonebook.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Delete, shred, destroy. I am a minimalist. I try to clear out any and everything that is nonessential. I condense and combine wherever I can. I go paperless with everything, and if important things are sent to me in physical form, I snap a picture and store it in the cloud so I can throw out the paper copy. I keep my desk, my inbox, and my life in general as clutter free as possible. I used to collect things I thought would someday be useful, but I found the mental space required to have so much stuff around (both physical things and facts and tasks in my head) was immense, and reduced my productivity. I now record crucial info and to-do’s and rely on my calendar and list to remind me so I don’t have to remember, and I purge all that is not needed, and even some things that are if they’re easily replicable!
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Bagging groceries when I was 14-15. I hate to even call it the worst, because I actually enjoyed it and have enjoyed every job I’ve had, but compared to all the rest, it was definitely the least pleasant and rewarding. I learned several valuable things. First, that time moves really slowly when you’re not in “flow”. When we were humming and lines were long, hours passed like minutes as I frantically bagged and carried groceries out. It was actually a rush and I’d give myself challenges to see how fast I could bag the groceries without damaging them. When we were slow, the minutes crept by slower than anything I’ve ever experienced. This is why I actually loved working busy holidays.
Another powerful lesson was just how hard good help is to find. Nearly all of my colleagues stole items from the store. I even had a book stolen from the break room. Many were fun to talk to, but not at all trustworthy or hard working. Just by showing up on time for every shift, I quickly become one of the most valued employees even though the youngest. It was a sad dose of reality, but helped me temper my expectations for a working world in which most people simply aren’t that good as employees.
Finally, I learned that those who hated their jobs did worse and were less happy than those who didn’t, and that it was largely a choice. Some of my coworkers and managers were always unhappy clock-watchers. They didn’t perform well and didn’t value their own work. Some took pride in it. It wasn’t a difference in ability or position, but a difference in outlook. Some had fun with work and treated it like a playful experience and one they could always improve in. They excelled and were generally happy. Others saw it as a necessary burden and did the bare minimum. They had little pride in themselves and were generally unhappy. It became clear that belief trumped external circumstance when it came to fulfillment.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Take bigger risks sooner. It took me too long to realize that what everyone else says, does, and believes is not as important as my gut. I may fail more going that route, but failure is the best way forward, and it took me too long to not be afraid of it. I would try to get some of my earlier, crazier ideas of the ground instead of waiting for validation.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Constantly force yourself to put into words – written and spoken – your vision and value proposition as concisely as possible. Whether for your company or product, or just for your life in general. What are you trying to build? Why does it matter? What will be the outcome? It’s incredibly hard to understand and articulate, even for those in the middle of successful ventures! But it’s crucial self-knowledge and it brings about crucial self-honesty.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Our business is brand new, so the only growth we’ve experienced this far is going from zero to one and getting our first class off the ground. The biggest aid to that was probably cashing in tons of accumulated social capital. I’d spent ten years doing favors for people, making connections, sharing information, ideas, and feedback generously, mentoring, and generally trying to be kind, helpful, responsive, and someone who gets things done. This built up a lot of goodwill with a wide network. When Praxis get going we needed as much as we could get, because there are some things you can’t do with money, time, or individual effort alone. We needed expertise, media exposure, connections, and much more, and it was only by cashing in on that accumulated social capital that we were able to grow from seed to sapling.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My original business plan for Praxis was essentially a work for free arrangement that I felt was really groundbreaking and beneficial to all parties. I was quite far along in the process when it dawned on me to check into current labor laws and regulations, only to discover that what I had in mind was basically illegal. You can’t work for free unless you actually destroy value at a company, according to current regulations. My initial reaction was resigned indignation. I was ready to give up on the whole idea altogether until my brother, a seasoned and successful entrepreneur and a close friend and mentor, just laughed when I shared it with him. He said, “That’s great! That’s what’s kept everyone else with this idea from moving forward, so it means less competition for you!” He assured me there’s always another way to get at the same end goal, and with some creative thought and effort, we found one.
I will never forget that phone conversation, or the non-threatened, playful approach my brother brought to the situation. He had been through things like this and had internalized the lesson that there are no obstacles that a good idea can’t overcome somehow. That was huge for me.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Rental everything. I don’t want to have to own and maintain a weed Wacker, lawnmower, suits for formal occasions, golf clubs I seldom use, a boat, camping gear, etc. But I do want to have access to these things, either regularly or infrequently, and in quality and quantity it wouldn’t make sense for me to buy and maintain myself. A combination of businesses and individual owners on a one-stop peer-to-peer platform where prices, location, ratings and availability were open and accessible could make my life a lot easier and make use of a lot of underutilized assets sitting in garages, warehouses, or stores. Sure, it’s a logistical challenge, but you figure that out and you’ve got at least one customer for life!
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I can clap with one hand. On both hands.
What software and web services do you use?
It’s simple, clean, has tons of storage space, and intuitive search function, and it’s the industry standard. I have no particular brand loyalty, so as soon as I use something I like a lot better, I’m happy to switch. Right now, nothing comes close.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Act of Creation, by Arthur Koestler. This lesser known gem is quite an amazing book, jam packed with insight about what human creativity looks like and how it happens. It’s a powerful reminder of the value of daydreaming and subconscious activity. It’s empowering and humbling at the same time, like all great truths.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
In terms of contemporaries, I like to read Fred Wilson’s blog AVC.com, I enjoy Seth Godin’s blog as well, and I love consuming nerdy economics stuff from Econlog, Econtalk, and The Freeman. If we’re talking all time, I’ve always appreciated deep insights on the human condition from Mark Twain, Albert Jay Nock, C.S. Lewis, Frederic Bastiat, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, and Socrates.