Every time you say a yes, you are saying no. Opportunity cost – a simple concept in theory.

One of the best practitioners of opportunity cost that I know of is Seth Godin. There are 2 examples that I think about from time to time.

The first was when I emailed Seth asking him if he would be willing to do an interview. His response, as is the norm, was quick and straight to the point. He said “Sorry, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.” I loved the words – “I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.” Exquisitely chosen. Clearly, he’s had a lot of practice at this.

The second example was when I thought about Seth’s approach to blogging. He just shows up, posts, and leaves. I think he’s got an automated script that shares his posts on Twitter and Facebook. He doesn’t engage on either platform and has turned off comments on his blog. And, yet, his blog is as successful as it gets. It’s not that Seth doesn’t engage – he’s as approachable as anybody. It’s just that he takes a clear stand on where he will and won’t engage.

Both of these examples are representative of Seth’s approach to time and work. This may not work for you and me because his priorities and approach is likely to be different from ours. But, his approach is telling. I learnt 3 things from the exchanges I had with Seth –

1. When you are saying yes, you are always saying no. Always. You can’t do everything. You will piss a few people off. And you just need to accept that.

2. Understand your priorities. If you want to make a positive difference in the world, then cultivate the discipline to say no to projects that don’t contribute to that. It begins with your priorities. Always.

3. Before you say yes, ask yourself if you will truly be able to do it justice. If the answer is no, don’t say it. It might seem like you’re making the other person happy. But, that’s just the short term. It’s not going to end well.

And, one last thing – if it helps at all, find people who do this well and take inspiration from them. Whenever I think of priorities and saying no, I think of Seth.

Thanks Seth.

 Pricing Amazon Web Services – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from The Everything Store by Brad Stone.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) allows entrepreneurs to plug into Amazons Servers and use it’s computing infrastructure. The AWS team wanted to price it with a traditional monthly/yearly rental system.

 But, CEO Jeff Bezos shifted the focus completely –

1. He decided to create an electric grid model where you pay 10c/hour of use. This was ridiculously cheap but he knew companies like Microsoft and Google wouldn’t want to play this game as it would constrict their generally high profit margins

2. He thus played to Amazon’s greatest strength – building large scale low margin businesses that attracted customers. He actively avoided what he considered Steve Jobs’ biggest mistake – making the iPhone so fantastically profitable that it attracted so much competition that ended up eating its market share. He believed high margins attracted competition while low margins attracted customers.

 When moving into a new territory/project, let’s channel Bezos and remember to play to our strengths.

 PS: The graph below illustrates this beautifully. Despite increasing revenues, has almost never made a profit – intentionally.

(If you look very closely, you can see that in 2010 the company accidentally made a profit. )
Source and thanks to: Benedict Evans’ blog

 ‘One thing is easy to agree on, though: competing directly with a company like this is very hard. ‘ | Benedict Evans on Amazon’s profit graph

Making your own agenda

When Viktor Frankl and hundreds of others were taken to a concentration camp, the Nazis had a clear plan for them – inhuman pain and perhaps painful death. Viktor Frankl, however, had different plans. He had his own agenda – understand human behavior by observing the behavior of his fellow prisoners.

There were hundreds of Nazi soldiers bent on making sure their plans were executed but Viktor Frankl’s clarity of thought and strength of will saw his through. As we know, it not only “just” saw him through but it lead his immense contribution to the world of psychology and the science behind happiness.

We are often pulled into events that weren’t part of our plans. Sometimes, like Frankl, we don’t have full control of these things. But, like Frankl, we do have a have a choice to make sure we think about and stay true to our agenda. Most experiences are what we make of it. It is perhaps no coincidence that we talk about “making” a difference.

Of course, it starts by making your own agenda.

Integrity in action

Follow up is integrity in action.

In that instance when you and I promise to follow up, we begin a test of our integrity. We’ve made a commitment. The big question – will we keep it?

This follow up promise may be to ourselves or to others, may be light or serious – it doesn’t matter. The nature of the promise doesn’t matter either. It could be a first draft of a presentation to the CEO, a commitment to study, a promise to clean the house before your spouse gets in, or your word to join friends for a trip to the bowling alley.

As far as integrity goes, it’s all the same. We’ve made a commitment and the question hasn’t changed. Are we going to keep it?

Follow up is integrity in action. Take your own word seriously or you will stop doing so over time and everyone you know will follow your lead.

Is failure bad?

Nikki Durkin, founder of 99dresses,  had a great post up today on the failure of her start-up. She describes the crazy journey in great detail and talks about her emotions following the failure.

“Most startups fail, and yet this industry doesn’t talk about failure nearly enough. I’d encourage anyone who has failed to write about how it felt, as I can’t tell you how much that would have helped me in those final months & weeks. I just wanted someone to relate to. Instead, I was left feeling isolated and ashamed.”

I was thinking about failure this morning as a few people had commented to one of my teammates on the Real Leaders Project that our “yeah, we quit” post felt negative. That is the exact opposite emotion I felt as I posted that. Somehow, the feeling was one of relief. We tried something, we screwed up, and we felt it was time to move on. Ours was only a weekend project in the grand scheme of things and yet, there was negativity associated with our failure to make it work.

In some ways, I can empathize with how Nikki must feel after 4 years of investment of sweat and tears. I can’t say I understand completely as I haven’t gone through the same experience myself – certainly not nearly at the intensity and magnitude of her experience. I have failed a fair bit though and can feel a part of her pain.

So, is failure good or bad? I think it is neither. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, it just is. It is an event. It happens to most of us and to some a lot more than to others. Many pay the idea of celebrating failure lip service. They only celebrate failure if/when it leads to eventual success. That’s when you are lauded and celebrated for having persisted.

Me? I take a different view. I think an event can only be termed as a failure if you didn’t grow through the experience. Yes, Nikki’s start-up may have failed but I would term her experience a success – she’s grown through it, learnt a heck of a lot more about herself than many would over a lifetime, and has set herself up for a lot of happiness in the years to come. Joy wouldn’t feel good if it wasn’t for pain after all and it takes a few hard experience to really understand how good a life we lead. It also takes one to know one and I’m sure she’ll be a source of great encouragement and support to entrepreneurs all over the world.

Nikki, thanks for your heartfelt post. It matters. It made me think. And, as you might tell from this slightly scattered collection of thoughts, I’m still thinking. This blog has been built on the belief that you don’t fail, you only learn. And, in that spirit, you’ve made a big difference sharing your story for us all to learn from. And that’s success in my book.

It matters!

The time and effort you put in to make the world a better place? The time you spend volunteering, being positive, giving back, creating something that others can benefit from, inspiring others, and just being of help? We know you had to fight hard to vanquish the resistance’s claims that it doesn’t matter and that it isn’t work worth doing. It is the best of you.

We need more of the best of you.

And, it matters.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Yeah, we quit – Shutting the doors on the Real Leaders Project

As of yesterday, the Real Leaders Project is officially closed. I’d like to share our closing post. Real Leaders

Dear friends,

We’d like to share the news – the Real Leaders Project will be shutting down as of today. After a long heart-to-heart discussion, we decided that it was time to call it quits. We’re big believers in the importance of persistence and building projects for the long run. So, this was a hard decision for us. However, we believe it is for the best. We’d like to share with you the reasons for calling it quits as well as our learnings from the project.

So, why are we shutting down?

1. We screwed up on our culture. Every team has a culture. We would never have believed it if you told us that a team of 3 friends who had worked with each  other before could really screw up on our culture. But, it is true. We made it a habit to avoid discussing and taking action on the hard issues, we hid under “iteration,” we never focused on the end goal, we weren’t values driven and we were consistently tardy. This wasn’t a pleasant mix and these habits stayed. We are reminded of the quote – “If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.” We did end up somewhere else and we didn’t like it. It ended up creating a lot of baggage and negativity. The alarm bells rang when we realized that our behaviour was very different on a new project with a stronger and intentional culture.

2.  What got us here won’t get us there. We did okay on this project but we also realized along the way that we weren’t going to be able to produce a world class product with our current method of operation (Skype calls). We wanted to be world class and quality technology felt beyond us for the near future. When we asked ourselves if we saw ourselves shipping a better in the near future, we heard “no.” This was a great experience over the past 3 years. However, we’d like to spend this time and energy on creating better things.

3. Other areas of focus. We also became very deeply engaged in a new charitable trust – We have limited time and our attention was being dispersed. This was a smaller contributor but a contributor nevertheless. The good news is that we’ve not screwed up things so bad that we don’t want to work with each other. We’re just focusing this attention on a different project.

Aside from the learnings from the process of thinking about shutting down and then reflecting on what contributed to that, we all took away many lessons from our journey on They were –


“1) Know your ‘why’: My personal “why” affects how much I contribute especially to a project. Unless I buy into the project spiritually, I don’t give my 100%. It helps to clarify periodically why I am here.

2) Be comfortable letting go: There are certain things that I’m not excited about and I’ve grown a bit more comfortable being okay about it. The Real Leaders experience was an eye opener about being focused on getting the priorities right.

3) All happy families are alike: Most of our ‘Real Leaders’ were obsessive about what they did, were clear about their whys, had healthy routines, their priorities and defining moments were their family, and most importantly were pleasant people to talk to.

Learning aside, I’m most thankful to Rohan and Dhanya for letting me be a part of the Real Leader journey. Both of them were always there to cover for my mistakes and my inabilities. I will always cherish the 1 hour calls that we had as a team every Saturday. I’ve learnt a great deal from you both and I look forward to working to many other projects.”


1) The world belongs to those who try and reachout – I learnt that I could talk to anyone in the world, anyone at all! The world is out there. With social communication and the internet world – anyone is reachable, anything is doable. You can sit in Singapore and help kids go to school in India. You would’ve never set foot outside Japan, but you can talk to a man in Canada – both of you could be sharing the same opinion on world economics! You have to reach out and ASK!

2) Persistence – Reaching out once is something – reaching out till you get what you want is another. The second is what we went for. Rohan was my role model – I learnt an important lesson in persistence these 2.5 years.

3) Great people are nice first – We’ve met many people – our website is the proof of their variety and experience. And we’ve seen many common trends amongst the opinion they shared. But one thing stayed true – great people are nice people. I remind myself at work every single day about this learning.”


“1) You can reach and have conversations with anyone. Literally anyone. I never imagined I’d be able to have conversations with my favourite authors (Dan Ariely, Dan Pink, Cal Newport, Bill Bernstein, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Roy Baumeister, Jonathan Haidt), meet amazing venture capitalists (Bijan Sabet, Albert Wenger, Brad Feld), and all the other incredible people I had the good fortune to meet. This idea will live on – I hope to continue to do this on my blog.

2) This was a leadership experiment that didn’t work. I experimented with a detached style on We started this at a time when I had doubts about whether my strength of personality was a deterrent to relationships and teams. It may not work across all situations but leading a team without being myself is a recipe for disaster. I’ve grown up a bit since then and learnt to be comfortable in my own skin. The learning came at a price though. Leadership is lonely and the teams you build when you lead mirror your strengths and weaknesses. I think I began building real leaders when I was doubtful and tentative and, in many ways, the team we built moved with a lack of cohesive purpose and intent.

3) Culture matters – be intentional about it. Take a stand on what sort of team you want to build and build that. The worst thing that can happen to you is when you spend years build a team and then realize you don’t feel inspired to work with each other. Luckily, we are still great friends.. but I definitely screwed this up.”

We started this project to spread great ideas, meet great people and learn. It turned out to be a tremendous learning experience and we know we couldn’t have made it happen without all your support and encouragement along the way. We know we will never be able to thank you enough and, in many ways, this post is our thank you. We wanted to end it by sharing what we learnt – hopefully there’s a great idea in our closing act too. :-)

Thank you for your support and wishing you the best!
Dhanya, EB, Rohan – The Real Leaders Team

As some of the long-time regulars here would know, this project was born on this blog and started with an interview of my mom here. It was a tough decision to call it quits. But, that was a learning in itself. Thank you to all of you for having shared your support and encouragement for the project via your comments, likes, and emails. It wouldn’t have possible without your encouragement.

The Pratfall Effect – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Give and Take by Adam Grant

In an experiment where people were asked to listen to candidates make an argument over the phone, they typically listened more carefully to the superior candidates over the average candidates. This wasn’t surprising of course.

But, when each candidate was asked to say – “Gosh, I spilt some coffee on my suit,” the persuasiveness of the superstar candidates increased while that of the average candidates decreased. The researchers call this “the Pratfall effect” – where a top candidate is liked when they feel more human.

Hence, superstar performers in fields that require them to work with and move people are those who give themselves completely to their teams/audience and are thus willing to be vulnerable and human. People who are too obsessed either with being perfect or with getting something from the people they work with forget that it is necessary to be a prat.

PS: don’t try this if you are average! :-)


Source and thanks to:

‘Everybody is scared of looking silly or looking like they don’t quite know. The truth is that we don’t mind if someone doesn’t have the perfect answer if they’re natural and honest. Much more important than getting it right is being real.’ | Patricia Ryan Madson