Starting Greatness

How Tim Ferriss found product-market fit for “The Four Hour Workweek”

Episode Summary

From literal product placement at a bookstore to courting bloggers, Tim Ferris shares with Mike Maples of Floodgate the tactics he used to find product-market fit for his book “The Four Hour Workweek,” as well as how to build a world-class advisory board that moves the needle for your startup. Check out Mike’s interviews with Steve Blank for more learnings on product-market fit.

Episode Notes

(2:47) - Tim looks back at the origins of the 4-Hour Workweek and early incarnations of the book


(9:30) - Mike and Tim discuss the idea of talking to real customers and of “getting real” to increase the chances of your startup’s success


(12:41)  - Tim offers his thoughts on category design and the importance of creating a category, as well as working in categories where there were few competitors


(18:02) - Tim discusses the marketing ideas behind the 4-Hour Workweek and finding product-market fit, and offers ideas for book promotion


(31:05) - Mike and Tim share their ideas on the role of a startup advisor, and how to pick the right advisor for your company


(36:44) - Mike and Tim discuss the risks of negotiating with high-conflict people, and Tim reflects on his failures as a startup advisor


(40:27) - Tim stresses the importance of a quality product over public relations and personal brand

Episode Transcription

Tim Ferriss:

Don't spend time on personal branding. It's a bias of mine, but the biggest risk to your startup is your distraction. So, focus.

Mike Maples:

Tim Ferriss really makes me smile. It's hard to believe we met when he was a Princeton student in 2000. Seven years before he published The 4-Hour Workweek. I reviewed his early book drafts, as what I thought was a favor to him. Little did I know. Tim's book, The 4-Hour Workweek tapped into a set of tectonic shifts that are only now becoming better understood 13 years after it was published. He did me the favor by exposing me to these changes way ahead of most people.


We can learn a lot from Tim, and not just about books and podcasts or getting a following on social media. Tim has some of the best instincts and actionable approaches for finding product market fit and designing new categories on the planet. To those who think he is the master of personal branding and seek to learn how he does it, you'll be in for a surprise when we get real in our conversation. Let's talk to him.


Tim Ferriss, welcome to the podcast.

Tim Ferriss:

Thanks for having me on, Mike. It's great to see you again.

Mike Maples:

The place I want to start is before the beginning, before there was a "Tim Ferriss." Or at least as most people know you today. Because with The 4-Hour Workweek, gosh, it's almost 15 years ago now. It wasn't just a book. In many ways, you started a whole movement around lifestyle hacking and essential to startups is starting a movement, right? You can't just be right about the future. You can't just have the right idea. You have to move people to that future of your design, so I thought that founders could learn a lot from your experience and what did you figure out versus what did you stumble through? What caused you to do The 4-Hour Workweek? What were you thinking when you wrote that book?

Tim Ferriss:

Well, I should say as context, if it didn't come up in some other intro already, that you and I have known each other for a very long time. It's got to be 20 years or so at this point. Longer, actually. A bit over 20 years. And I never had any intention coming out of college to become a writer. I ended up in the Bay Area because I didn't get a job at Trilogy Software in Austin where I actually wanted to move. I've made my way back to the Republic of Texas 20 years later. Better late than never.


But the objective was never to write a book. The book came about organically because I was asked to go back to Princeton to a class called High Tech Entrepreneurship and give a lecture 2-3 hours long, twice a year, under Professor Ed Zschau, to talk about my experience bootstrapping this first sports nutrition company that I'd started. Those lectures over time, morphed to reflect the dreams, aspirations, successes, failures, and setbacks in my own entrepreneurial journey.


There was this comment in one of the feedback forms, or I should say emails, I would always ask for feedback, which asked, and it wasn't a real question, it was rhetorical. "In effect, you're teaching a class to 20 or 30 students. Why don't you just write a book and be done with it?" I had really bad insomnia at the time. I also had all of these notes from these various classes, and I started having ideas for chapters, ideas for how to organize the information for potential titles.


I would write these things down to get to sleep, because they would bounce around and ricochet in my head otherwise. That's how it came about. The original title was Lifestyle Hustling which was terrible. Actually, the very original title was Drug Dealing For Fun And Profit. The publisher nixed that one very quickly, because there are lots of retailers who wouldn't carry such a book. And then Lifestyle Hustling, which was terrible, but in different ways. And ultimately The 4-Hour Workweek, the title came out of testing maybe 10-20 titles and subtitles on Google AdWords to see what would have the highest click-through rate, and that's where we landed.


This might be a good illustration of something that you and I have both witnessed over and over and over again, in startups, whether they're in technology or elsewhere, and that is what I was doing was scratching my own itch, and then describing it in some type of arena. In this case, lectures, where I got immediate feedback, I knew what stuck and what didn't, I knew what was clear and what was unclear, and only later on did that become a product. But I did not initially start out trying to productize and I think that led to stacking the deck in my favor when it came to put it out into the public.

Mike Maples:

And when you started writing the book, I guess part of it was people are like, "Why don't you just go write something?" But was there a sense in your mind yet that, "I want to change the world somehow" or, "I want to have an impact on the culture" or, "I want to inspire people in some way?" Or, was it more just like, "Hey, it's the next step of the path here?" What were you hoping to accomplish by writing this book, other than being done with it?

Tim Ferriss:

It did go from notion to obsession and I wish I could tell you that I had this grand 10-20 year vision of shaping the culture and creating a movement and so on and so forth. But that would be patently completely untrue. I got paid 75k in four installments for this book. It was turned down by everyone, violently, except for one. The initial print run was 10,000 copies. I knew that it was going to have low expectations associated with it. The only way I could write the book and not sound like a stilted, pompous Ivy League grad, was to envision writing it for two friends of mine.


One friend who was trapped in his own startup, so very similar to my situation a few years earlier, and then another friend who had taken an investment banking job, who was kind of seduced and trapped by his own bloating lifestyle, if that makes sense. And I wrote the book for two friends. And I felt like it was a very personal book and ultimately I was very happy to simply have a book contract and have some degree of confidence that if I gave them something that wasn't a complete pile of dog shit, that I would be a published author.


I was proud of the work, even though my expectations were low, my hopes were high. Does that make any sense? My high hopes took the form of looking at the best seller lists, talking to and interviewing friends or anyone I could get introduced to who had hit the New York Times Best Seller list, who was willing to talk about book marketing. I did the same thing with best writing authors in the beginning. Before I started writing, I talked to best writing authors about their best practices, mistakes, advice they would give, terrible advice they hear in their profession.

And then I did the same thing with the best marketing authors in a sense, and aimed for hitting the New York Times Best Seller list with the assumption that I would probably not fail completely, right? Even if I failed partially, it would still help propel the book more so than in its absence. I was very thoughtful about the launch. I was very thoughtful about marketing. I was very thoughtful about positioning and category creation, more than category domination if that makes sense at all, which we could talk about. I think it's one of the things that I've practiced a lot, is how to create categories so that you're in a blue ocean as opposed to a red, bloody, competitive ocean.

Mike Maples:

And there's some great lessons in that, I think, for founders of any type of enterprise, right? You were launching a book but I have this saying when I work with founders, I call it getting real about customers. When I used to sell enterprise software, we'd be in a product team and somebody would say people rolling out SAP want this feature. I'd say, "Oh, we're talking about people rolling out SAP. I wonder what Oskar Klavins at Nova Gas thinks because he's rolling out SAP in the next 60 days. Let's call him and ask him."


Whenever I talk to founders in the early days of, "Okay, we want to nail this early niche of customers," I'm like, "Great, let's have a list of exactly their names." Jason Fried has always inspired me in this front, as well, this notion of getting real. Real is not what's on the whiteboard. It's not what's in the document. It's not what's in the briefing. That's fake real, right? Real is having an interaction, a dialogue, and building something for someone for real.


If you connect with someone real, you connect with humanity more likely, than if you just try to design it for some abstract persona that you don't really know, that you don't have any empathy for.

Tim Ferriss:

Yeah, 100%. To give you a couple of examples, and I can't recall the attribution on this, maybe it's Steven Blank, he's kind of like the Abraham Lincoln of startup quotes, but I suppose the notion that no product survives its first encounter with real customers. That was true if you think about my headline and subtitle testing. I tested it on Google AdWords, even though I didn't know these people directly. Those were real humans, and by the way, I was bidding on terms related to content in the book. So, round the world ticket, retirement, early retirement, how to start a company, et cetera. These types of terms.


And then the titles and subtitles would be automatically split tested or more of a multivariate test, which I didn't have to handle, that's the Google Borg handling it, and so for 200 bucks, at the end of a week with real statistical significance, I knew which title and subtitle combination were most promising. They just went to under construction pages. I didn't need to have websites for all these. I just needed domains and then the ability to click-through, but I did that also with, for instance, book covers. I went to the Borders in Palo Alto on University Ave, may they rest in peace, at the time and I found a book that would be of the same size as The 4-Hour Workweek when it was published.


I had multiple mock-ups of covers printed out and I sat there, I would wrap the book in different covers, put it on the shelf in the same place, in the new arrivals, and I would watch how many people picked it up during the busiest periods at Borders, right? These are real people, I'm observing and counting, and I did the same thing with the editing process. This is what you just said I think is so critically important, right?

Mike Maples:

Yeah. So let's get to the category design piece then. How do you think about category design and when did it occur to you that you were creating a category and what did that entail in your mind?

Tim Ferriss:

In the case of The 4-Hour Workweek, I spent a lot of time thinking about what terms to use that could be easily shared, that would for instance, in one example, be an alternative to career planning. This is very common in startups, right? There is an incumbent technology or an incumbent approach or a company, and they have the leading position in X. Whatever X might be. If you want to be the anti-X, you need to come up for a word for it that is not just anti-X.


Looking at say traditional career planning with retirement, which I nicknamed the deferred life plan, the alternative to that after brainstorming and vetting and discussing many options with friends was lifestyle design, which took on a life of its own afterwards. There were other terms also embedded in that book which people may have used. I'm not familiar with anyone who used this exact term, but it's not a new idea, and that is geoarbitrage. Geographic arbitrage, the idea, at least with currencies, of say having virtual assistants in India, living in Argentina, as I did at the time in 2004-2005, and earning in dollars, right?


You're earning in dollars, your life expenses are in pesos, and your expenses in business are in rupees to some of these virtual contractors. So geoarbitrage, or geoarb, was another term. There were probably 10 of these terms. I'm pulling that number out of a hat, but embedded in The 4-Hour Workweek. I didn't expect all of them to catch but I suspected that at least one or two would catch, and that anytime or often times when people used those words, especially in the first year or two, there would be the attribution to me or the book.


Eventually it would become like Kleenex, it would be indefensible and a generic term, if you just look at the life cycle of these types of new labels. But I anticipated that I would, if it worked, if I were able to plant a flag and enable it to get noticed, that there'd probably be two years of very high traction. Those were a few of the approaches and frameworks if I could call them that, that I used when thinking about The 4-Hour Workweek, and that I've used for every book since. And every product since. And every startup I've worked with since. It's a lens through which I view competition, because the best way to compete if you can, is to avoid competition all together.

Mike Maples:

So then if I get this straight then, part of your approach to category design is understanding the specific big ideas that can be easily repeated to spread, almost like a meme, but not quite. And then, "Oh, Tim Ferriss is the guy who came up with that." It becomes a shorthand for people wanting to drill deeper into, "Oh, geoarb, that sounds interesting. I want to understand that better." "Oh, lifestyle design, interesting." Or am I missing something in the equation there?

Tim Ferriss:

I think you got the gist of it. I mean, you're establishing terms that provide you or your company or your product or fill in a blank with a toehold in the minds and conversations of other people. I view the hierarchy of priorities as number one, solving a clear pain point with some type of elegant solution or solution that's better than what's available, right? The 4-Hour Workweek is a good example of that, because you had on one hand, books about how to become the next Jack Welch and run a Fortune 500 company and then on the other end of the spectrum, you had books on why money wasn't important and how you could live some austere, monastic lifestyle and be perfectly happy.


I, as a reader, looked for something in the middle and just couldn't find the hybrid. I could not find the hybrid. So I wrote it. And I think that that's step number one, and once you have a solution of some type, if you're filling a gap in the market, then you can think of positioning. There's the solving of problems, there's the labeling of those solutions, as to create categories of one, or just new, catchy terms that will get used and then attributed. And there's also the picking of your targets and identification of trends.

Mike Maples:

Did The 4-Hour Workweek just take off and get product market fit right away, or, okay, so you release this book, it's out there, then what happens?

Tim Ferriss:

Well, let's back up. Perhaps the question that I get most frequently about books and publishing is how do I market my book? Product market fit for books, and this is in some respects different for startups, but as you and I know, Mike, and you're so much more the pro here, and I want to give you public credit, I've done it before, but you really took me under your wing and mentored me and educated this fool off the street in angel investing and venture capital when I was first becoming interested. It was our lunches at Hobies back in the day, for the old timers who are listening, that really catalyzed my interest in startups and startup investing. I want to give you a thank you for that.


There are many approaches to building startups, right? Some startups begin with excellent product, really clear roadmap and vision, and while they will change in how they implement certain things, the product from the beginning to the end remains largely the same, right? You have Uber, Duolingo, Shopify, certainly they add bells and whistles and they modify and refine, but you have that type of startup where from inception to current day, things are pretty similar at the high level.


Then you have companies that pivot all over the place, right? They're like a squirrel dodging someone with a 22 or something. It's like they're all over the place, but they ultimately get to the finish line, it's a huge success. In the case of books, you sell a nonfiction book with a book proposal but you can think of it as a business plan. It's like a startup deck. You share a couple of sample chapters and you sell your platform, your ability to sell books, why this will be a success, market analysis, et cetera, to publishers.


They pay a tiny pittance upfront, and then you have to write the book. And by the time you publish the book, the feedback cycle is so slow, especially pre-Kindle, that you cannot iterate. So, you need product market fit before you publish. In the case of The 4-Hour Workweek, product market fit was found through talking to students at these lectures twice a year. And getting feedback, eliciting feedback, looking at their eyes, looking at what they're doing. Are they looking down at a laptop and clearly spacing out? Are they leaning forward and paying attention?


Which is as a side note, how quite a few books that have later become successful were ultimately refined, how they found product market fit. Yuval Noah Harari and Sapiens is a very good example of this. And there are many others. I mean, Zero To One would be another example, right? These were all refined in real time with students, or audiences of some type. And I always tested my material, my chapters on proof readers, and I would give them very specific instructions, so that I could remove the weakest, cull the weakest of the herd, reinforced and make exceptionally clear the strongest parts, and to do that type of measure twice, cut once thinking on the frontend.


I knew I had product market fit in the sense that if I could get someone to read this damn book, who was in the right demographic, I knew that there were hooks in there that should catch them, and that the techniques and approaches were replicable. I knew that. Then there was the question of fine, you have product market fit, but then how do you get it to your market? How do you get your market to pay attention to this thing? And that is where the launch approach became important and the launch approach was really simple.


I've done this for every book launch. I often advise startups to do this, and that is to look for uncrowded, undervalued channels. They can be both uncrowded and undervalued, or both. And I'll give you an example. So, I interviewed these best selling/best marketing authors and one of the questions I asked them was, and this has been true for every book launch, "In your launch, Mr. or Mrs. Author, from six months ago, what had a disproportionately huge impact that surprised you? What channels or platforms are becoming more important? What were you disappointed with? What are the things you thought would work that didn't work?"


For The 4-Hour Workweek, it became clear that television was already waning in impact, and that radio was a stable player, especially NPR, for books, and that these things called blogs were incredibly powerful, but the publishers didn't seem to be paying much attention to them. And for that reason, as soon as ... I remember this. Right around Christmas, 2006, I knew I had to figure out a launch strategy, because it was going to be largely my responsible as it often is for authors, especially new authors, and so I looked at the world of blogs. At the time I looked at Technorati, remember Technorati?


And looked at the ranking of blogs, identified these single author blogs, so those that had a clear, singular author or primary author associated, and then I began doing homework on how to potentially contact these bloggers. I had a number of assumptions going into it, as we often do, so we always do, and that was that email was going to be the most crowded channel for these bloggers, and the least likely for me to crack through in terms of signal to noise.


Least crowded channel I assumed was probably going to be in person. I began to look at events where there would be congregations of highly influential bloggers, where I could hopefully insert myself somehow from the periphery and have conversations with these people. That's exactly what I did. I spent almost my entire budget, my launch budget that I had, which I think was 10k or something, which not everyone's going to have, but in the grand scheme of things, if you look back over the arc of everything that I've done, 10k at that time was non-trivial but also very small investment as far as product launches go.


I spent almost all of that flying to places like BlogWorld Expo and others, and buying drinks for bloggers, and one of my hits, someone who ended up being very generous and really helping to catalyze things was Robert Scoble who at the time was like the Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson-

Mike Maples:

One of the biggest bloggers in the world, yeah.

Tim Ferriss:

Yeah. And he's like, "I'm going on vacation, I'm reading this book." Something like that. It was a quick post and things started to go bonkers. Once that started to happen, I had already pre-identified say the five or six outlets online at the time, and I'm not sure I'm getting the chronology exactly right here because these things live and die, sometimes the lifespan is short. But at the time I think you had TechCrunch, maybe Techmeme, Gizmodo, you had a number of Gawker properties.


And if I could in some fashion, 43 Folders, appear on these websites, I would appear to be everywhere, to a small audience, but definable and reachable audience, affordably reachable audience, of let's just say a few hundred thousand tech savvy males between the ages of 25 and 40. That was my initial target in a handful of cities. There's an expression, I'm borrowing it from somebody else, but the expression is the target is not the market. So, people might cringe hearing that, like 25-40 year old tech savvy male, they might cringe, but I would encourage them to withhold judgment, because that is your first really strong handhold.


It's like a climbing gym. You want that bucket to hold onto for your first handhold, and that's the first domino. Once you achieve surround sound effect with that group, because I knew my target for the best seller list was 10-20,000 copies per week for two consecutive weeks, which is very hard to do when your initial print run is 10,000, which is why it took me a while to get there, but it did.


The tech savvy males in these following places are then going to ... That targeting will very quickly then move to female of the same psychographic demographic, and then the ages bleed out in both directions. So, if you want to conquer the world, so to speak, don't try to conquer the world. It's like you just can't do it at once, right? Which is why I caution people against trying to change the world out of the gate if they haven't really sharpened their skills with something specific.


But approaching it in this way, I mean, let's just call that April, 2017. Within the first two weeks, it had hit the extended New York Times Best Seller list. by August it was number one New York Times on the business list, and then it stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for four and a half years, and very quickly was translated into 30+ languages. And that all started with writing for two people. And ultimately I have to underscore this, it depended on having a product that could stand on its own two feet, and weather the storm of skepticism and criticism that would come along with anything that gets a lot of public exposure.

Mike Maples:

What you're saying totally resonates from my experience with startups, as well. You want to nail your niche before you go big. I like to say not only you want to be more than a big fish in a small pond, you want to be an alligator in a puddle. The reason for that is Peter Thiel, right? Who we both know talks about how you want to be a monopoly, but I think sometimes in Zero To One, people don't internalize it quite right. What I think I've learned is that you want to have a highly targeted effort because for the people that you care about, it's like you want to monopolize their mind share, right?


You want to be the only example of something they care about that they just saw, that they can't get out of their mind, so they tell all their friends, and that's what cause the idea virus to spread, right? That's what causes word of mouth buzz and exponential organic growth. And it's the lack of the exponential organic growth that causes people to fail way more often than, "Was my initial target market big enough?" Right?

Tim Ferriss:


Mike Maples:

It's the minimum viable market, if you will, right? The minimum effective dose market that will cause your idea to spread rapidly. And then it takes a life of its own, and now you've got something. Now you can spread it, now you can do more things, but now the momentum's going with you rather than against you.

Tim Ferriss:

Yeah, totally. I mean, you look at, just to underscore what you're saying here because it's so important, I mean, you look at Shopify as an example. I mean, I know these guys super, super well, became their first advisor whenever it was, 2008-2009, when they had 8-10, 8-12 employees. This started out with Tobi and the guys trying to solve a problem they had related to snowboards. Buying and selling snowboards online. That's how it started. And it was in the initial stages certainly, I mean, razor thin in terms of its focus. Look at them now.

Mike Maples:

Yeah, and I guess from a meta perspective, I guess if you're a founder looking for advisors I found so often they go for folks who have a big name and they feel like they have to woo those people. And those people end up, maybe they help some, but they don't usually move the needle. The people I've seen do the best just authentically love the mission of the company, right? Sort of like you had a prepared mind to know that Shopify mattered because it lived in your world. You were part of that world, and so it's like love conquers all in a startup, right?


It's so impossible, there's so many insurmountable hurdles that everybody involved with a startup just has to decide, will it into existence and overcome whatever's in front of it, and that's what I found is just the love that the advisor has for the startup is so much more important than any other factor.

Tim Ferriss:

It's a huge prereq and I will add to that and just say that it is necessary but not sufficient. I say that only because I'm not in the advising game anymore, because I have less ... I'm turning into an old man. I have less energy than capital right now, so I'm just not doing advising, but one of the mistakes I sometimes see founders making is they'll give less thought to some of their investors. They'll give a lot of thought to the term sheets and the numbers of a deal, but they won't give as much thought to the long term pros and cons of certain investors on their cap table, but they will really want to nickel and dime on advisors.


I don't have a dog in this fight right now, because I'm not negotiating any of these advisory deals, but if you are a founder, you want your startup to be a priority for your advisors, which to your point on celebrities is one of the challenges. If you're giving them enough equity through one of their entourage, through their business partner who has to go through an agent, who goes through a manager, then it's like number 567 on their potential sources of income for the next 10 years, of course they're not going to do anything.


I mean, they're just not going to be incentivized to do very much. Also, they're just so far removed as a direct line of communication, they're probably not going to be available. You want your startup to matter. I think the product love and infatuation for me comes first. And then ensuring that these are people that you would want to have a couple of beers or dinner with, no matter what, three years later, five years later, 10 years later, because these things often take a really long time.


I mean, most startup relationships last longer in my experience, than the majority of marriages in the US. Make sure you can not just tolerate, but enjoy spending time with these people. Then the incentives need to be aligned. I would just encourage people to think about that, and the startups almost without exception, I think without exception, that have been the home runs in my portfolio, who have used me as an advisor, have been ultra surgical and precise in their use of me and my time.


Their questions are very clear, their requests are very targeted, and have premeditated outcomes they want to see. It's not just, "Hey, retweet everything I put on Twitter" which drives me nuts, and it I think reflects a lack of planning, and a lack of pre-targeted outcomes, right? The startups who have used me best are really specific. None of those companies would say, "Hey, can we hop on the phone to talk about improving our PR?" That would be so general that it's almost inevitable that call is going to be complete garbage, right? It's just going to be undirected.


I would say before you sign on an advisor, as a thought exercise, if you're contemplating who you might have as an advisor for your company, ask yourself, "If I could only write one email to this person, but get a few paragraphs in each answer to 5-10 questions," that's it, you get to ask them 5-10 hyper specific questions, which means their answer can't be more than two paragraphs for each of them, right? Not, "How would you market this company to investors?" Nope. Answer's going to be too long. Refine, refine, refine.


You get to ask 5-10 questions, their answers can be no longer than two paragraphs each, and for that, you would give them half a point in your company. If that still makes sense to you, consider bringing that person on as an advisor. And if you can't do that, it means either it's not a fit, or you are not ready to bring on anyone as an advisor, because you're unclear on how you would best utilize them.

Mike Maples:

And so many bad decisions we'll make in life, and I think this will help with the founders as well, is when you let the pressure of the moment force you to decide, or you buy into the other person's desire to get you to decide right then and there, and so the only way I've figured out around that is just to have a hard and fast rule. It's like talking to the manager. It's sort of like, "Look, I just have a habit. I never decide in the moment. I just never do. I'll give you my thoughts in 24 hours, and I appreciate that you really want me to do this, but I just don't do that." It's not even a choice for me, there's no cognitive load, there's no me getting somebody pulling a fast one on me and getting me to decide right then and there.

Tim Ferriss:

Totally. We both know Naval Ravikant, and I'm going to butcher one of his short lines of wisdom, but if you want a low conflict life, rule number one is don't associate with high conflict people. If someone is manufacturing emergencies during the honeymoon period, trying to get you to say yes, they are going to manufacture and have emergencies later. And likely it's going to be returned upon you sevenfold if you say yes and not in a good way. That's been my experience, and I had this funny experience recently, Mike, where I found a bunch of boxes that were from this storage unit in San Francisco that I hadn't opened, and a couple of packages.


I opened up one, it was full of physical stock certificates. In many of the instances, I would look at these startups that died and I was like, "I knew this was fucking not going to work. I knew it." But I said yes, anyway. Because there was a peer pressure or FOMO. I said yes, and if I had just checked in, "Is this a whole body yes? Head, heart, gut," it would have been a no. But I said yes, and I should have known better.


I'll just throw out another maybe clichéd expression, I think it's true. If a founder or an investor, right? This goes both ways. Is going through something that is high pressure, adversity doesn't necessarily build character, but it always reveals character. So, if you see bad behavior, especially during the good times, right? When someone is the hottest girl at the dance, you can bet that when the shit hits the fan and they have to layoff 20% of their employees, or go through something really excruciating, it's not going to be a pretty sight. You're going to be within the blast perimeter. Something to consider.


Advice I give to founders also is if you're considering investors, do not just talk to the people they give you as references from their huge successes. Look at their portfolio, find a company that didn't do well, and see how those investors navigated and assisted. Did they provide any direction or did they just take their hands off the wheel and let it crash into a wall? Were they good at any type of conciliation? Were they advocates? Paired with that, not just did this person always take the founder's side? Were they also willing to not be a sycophant, and to provide tough love, right?


Were they willing to say, "Hey look, that's a terrible idea?" Talk to the people who have been in the trenches during the tough times, not just the shining billboard success stories that they might give you as reference checks, if you're vetting investors.

Mike Maples:

Are there any other topics that you just think would be useful for founders to know about?

Tim Ferriss:

I would say don't spend anytime thinking about personal brand. I just think it's such a distraction. Focus on solving your own problems and in lieu of that, because not everyone who starts a company is going to be the target customer, talk to your customers incessantly, and if your customers, for whatever reason, say everything is great, everything is great, do not let them off the phone or email chain before getting something in terms of feedback that you can get to improve.


Focus on solving problems and make your product as strong as possible. The companies that I've been involved with after 70-100 now, who have just been the smashing breakout successes, have all been product, product, product, product, for like 100 iterations before really caring or paying much attention to PR. They might think about positioning of their product within the minds of their users as their users use their product, so it's embedded in that sense, in the signup flow, in the onboarding, in the orientation flow, in the product itself. But they're not pitching themselves and the company to media outlets, typically for a really long time.


Don't spend time on personal branding. It's a bias of mine, but I just ... There's so much charlatanism and bad behavior and so many empty promises by people who haven't actually done what they are purporting to teach. It drives me completely bananas. Not saying that that's what everyone does, but the personal branding I think in most cases, there are ... Look, if you're a musician, different story, right? But if we're talking about startups, I would say the biggest risk to your startup is your distraction. So, focus. If you don't know what the most important thing is to do on your to-do list, it's usually the one that you least want to do. Just go down the list. Whichever one makes you the most uncomfortable is probably the one that you should be focused on.

Mike Maples:

Tim, thanks for taking the time.

Tim Ferriss:

My pleasure, Mike. It's always good to see you. Maybe some day we'll get back to some kind of brunch together.

Mike Maples:

I like it. I like it. Let's do that.

Tim Ferriss:

All right.