by Tim Jahn on February 1, 2011
Paul Singh says that 85% of all businesses are the same, and it’s the remaining 15% that make each one unique. He has a knack for asking the questions that get businesses focused on what matters. As Paul says, he’s “smart but lazy”. He’s founded, co-founded, advised and/or consulted over 15 companies over the years.
I interviewed Paul to learn some of the techniques he uses to help businesses and how he finds the good questions to ask.
Tim Jahn: But as I mentioned so Jared Goralnick from Awayfind introduced me to you and he was telling me that you build up businesses to sell them. You kind of just have some sort of magic with startups and companies. And I don’t know if that’s exactly what you do because that’s not what it says in your site. But why don’t you explain to me what Jared meant and what it is you kind of do with companies.
Paul Singh: Yeah, so first of all, thanks for having me Tim.
Tim Jahn: Absolutely.
Paul Singh: I think like what it really all boils down to is that just I learned that asking a bunch of questions and is really the best way to kind of figure all this out. What I mean by that is I think for any of my web apps or for any of the companies that I’ve helped my friends build their own companies, really what it boils down to is like me walking in and asking questions of them about what they do.
Asking questions about their customers or their users, about what they want, and then, kind of going from there. I mean, that’s the base of everything. And like there’s no magic to it, it’s very unsexy and like the way I would just describe myself to anybody else is just that like, I’d like to think that I’m just a straight up hustler and I just — there’s no magic, there’s just absolutely no magic. So like if anybody things there is, you’re like completely wrong or you probably should tell me because I have no idea what kind of magic it is.
Tim Jahn: How do you know what — so what you’re saying is you walk into companies and you’re kind of a third party unbiased party and you ask the right questions that hopefully get them on track to becoming a better company?
Paul Singh: I wish I could, like I don’t want to say that their the right questions because like that sort of implies that I sort of know everything and that’s not the case at all. I think that for example, I met with a small business just outside of DC last week and I asked, I probably in hindsight anyways, so we did figure out some tactical mix steps after that session was over. But in hindsight, 90% plus of the questions I asked were probably not relevant to what we ended up deciding next steps for that business.
And that is actually is not uncommon right, because like for example, going back to the person that introduced us, Jared, I don’t pretend to know anything about the inbox or the email inbox ecosystem or anything. I don’t pretend to know anything about that. But I having known Jared, I just learn by asking him what I think sometimes are kind of naïve questions and using that to kind of figure things out. And thankfully it’s worked.
Tim Jahn: On your site, you say that no matter how big or small, how popular, unpopular your company is, that 85% of every business is the same. And that everyone says that my business is a little bit different and then you realized over time that it’s only really that 15% that’s different. Why don’t you explain how you came about realizing that and what you mean?
Paul Singh: Yeah, so my background actually — like what I’m actually personally really interested in is infrastructure. And what I mean by that is like, so when you think about a typical company, you think about things like sales and marketing and right, and product development and that. And those are really good. You need those absolutely. But like what — for some reason what I get drawn to is that whole back end thing. Like how does it all work together?
And so what I mean by that is, is like when the sales guy does his job and closes the deal, how do you actually take the money, take it from that person, how does the accountant get to see it, how does it get recorded, how does the provisioning process start and how does then customer support — like how does it all just fit together. And so I would call all that back office stuff infrastructure. And so like I just naturally get drawn to that and it just turns out that like the 85, 15% thing that I, those numbers are really arbitrary, but you know, the point is that the vast majority of what you do for Beyond the Pedway is probably the same as like what I do for a company that I walk into. In a sense that like, it’s the same as like what you do is the same as like what IBM does or what Freshbooks does or what you know, any company, you name any company, at the end of the day, they’re all thinking about invoicing, payments, customer support, you know, benefits for you. It’s just unsexy stuff but it has to happen because that’s how businesses work, right.
Businesses are all about people anyways and people can be employees or customers or users or whatever. And I just, I just think that if you’re going to innovate, you don’t want to innovate in those areas, not unless that’s your core business, right to like innovate how HR works. You should just kind of go with best practices, get those out of the way, and then lets the focus the majority of our time on that 15% that really has to do with, what are you actually making for your customers, and how do you get, how do you extract, how do you create more value so you can extract more money out of that whole thing? So —
Tim Jahn: In your experience, have you found that most companies are actually concentrating too much on kind of the infrastructure that’s pretty standard?
Paul Singh: So I —
Tim Jahn: And not enough of the product?
Paul Singh: Yeah, short answer is yes. I found that they do spend more time. But it’s usually not on purpose. It usually kind of snowballed out of control because they weren’t thinking about it from a longer term perspective. So what I mean by that is for example like accounting is a really good example where people just, they hate accounting, I hate accounting.
Tim Jahn: I hate accounting.
Paul Singh: Yeah. And so like they — it’s like — but they’ll spend time on it anyways. Like they’ll do their books but they they won’t realize that you know, you could just go down to — like for me to do my bookkeeping and my taxes for the year, it costs me about $500.00 and that’s because like I’m not going with H&R Block, but there’s a nice — I hope I don’t offend anybody. There’s a nice Cambodian man down the street that you know really knows his stuff, he’s a CPA and he just does it. And I don’t have to worry about.
He knows how to get my statements from Navy Federal and he takes care of it. And if he has any questions I get an email. And the net result of that is is that I get four hours a month back to hopefully make more money. I mean, because that’s what it is, right. We’re all in business. And so the point is, is that I think people, the — coming back to your question, yes people do end up concentrating on the wrong things but it’s usually not on purpose. And as all — just getting those things out of the way is enough to like — the goal of that is to just get them out of the way and then let us get more time to focus on what that 15% is. And fundamentally that should hopefully make the revenue rise or whatever your metric is, whether its engagement or visitors to the site or whatever. Get rid of all the administrative crap and focus on that.
Tim Jahn: So it sounds to me like you’re kind of playing this off as this is a very simple idea. Like you said, it’s very unsexy, this isn’t rocket science. I think it even says that on your site, this isn’t rocket science. Then, for example people watching this, they have their own companies, I bet half them probably have the same problem as companies you address they’re, maybe somebody’s not doing their accounting, maybe their spending too much on invoicing. If it’s so simple, how come no one’s fixed it? That’s the wrong question. How come the companies themselves haven’t fixed it?
Paul Singh: So, you know, I don’t know why they haven’t fixed it but I’ll use — so I don’t know a whole lot about how you actually operate Beyond the Pedway. But what I would say is like I bet that you wouldn’t disagree with me if I said the reason that you’ve been successful is because you’ve hustled and you’ve actually taken the initiative to actually email and make connections with like, with the people you want to interview.
Tim Jahn: Sure.
Paul Singh: And that’s inherently unsexy. I mean, really what that boils down to for you is you’re networking. And whether it’s email or going places or asking for introductions. And I just say that because that’s hard work, right. That’s hard work. It’s not like you can just wake up one day and say, “You know, I’m just going to mass email all these really smart people and then they’re all going to want to be on my show.” And so like I think if you would agree with that, then I think that we can probably also agree that like the vast majority of what I believe are the most simple, are the most successful businesses at their core are really about simple, simple ideas, right.
So for example like my dad when he was building patios, like ran a masonry construction company. And you know, yes we could talk about how complicated that is in terms of where you get the materials, how do you handle, like how do you find bricklayers, how do you do sales, right? But at his core, all he was really doing was selling people, his customers a lifestyle right. When you come home from work, why don’t you have a beautiful outdoor area to hang out on? When you walk into your house, why don’t you have a beautiful patio or a beautiful stoop to walk up to? Like he was selling a dream, he was selling something very simple. And I think that, I think there’s a lot of parallels we can use with a lot of different businesses, right.
So like the main one we can probably figure out like if there’s a core idea. But I think that sometimes the simplest ideas are the hardest ones to kind of find because you just — like if you’re anything like me I remember — so I was a computer engineer at George Mason and I remember a lot of the mistakes I made in school had to do with the fact that I over thought the problem. And one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that you know, simplicity is really valuable. And I was having a conversation with somebody yesterday that what I’ve learned about like for example engineers — so this is just my hypoth — this is what I’ve seen so feel free to disagree with me.
What I found is is that early — so let’s just say engineers that — by engineers I mean people that build like the code at startups and even at big companies. What I found anyways as a trend is that the more complicated you make your programs out to be, your probably more junior on the scale. So like so an engineer coming out of school, if you were to say, “Hey I want to build this thing.” they’re going to come back with this like crazy diagram with arrows everywhere and then they’re going to be super proud of it and they’re going to be like, “God this is so awesome, we’re going to go build it, it’s going to be great.” Right. But then if you were to pose that same idea to grey haired guy that’s been there, done it, seen it all, what he’s going to say is like, “What’s really simple? How do I simplify this and make the smallest thing? Like how do I make this elegant?” That’s the word, right. Elegance is what engineers use, the most senior guys.
And so I use that as example like just point out that simplicity is something that people I don’t think realize is important until later on when they realize that complexity is not — like a complex result is not as sexy or not as fun really as like a simple one. And you just overlook that right, because I don’t know, maybe it’s from a philosophical standpoint. Maybe it’s because when we were in grade school, at least when I was in grade school and we were taught to write papers that were seven pages long or your — like I remember in sixth grade my teacher Mrs. Evans would say, “okay, you have a 1,000 word report to do.” And so being the kid that I was, it was like how much fluff do I put in here to get to 1,001 words so that I —
Tim Jahn: I was the same way. I just naturally am a very succinct communicator. Like I just to the point. I mean I — there’s no need for anything else and I’m just the same way.
Paul Singh: I have no shame in telling you that I’m just lazy. And I would just, I would try to fill words until I got to 1,001 because then I could make, I could pass the minimum bar. And I — just philosophically I wonder if maybe that that — like I suspect that that, that my experience was not uncommon. Sort of like you know, I think what you were just, what you were kind of saying is well I just think that maybe as people that’s what we’re conditioned to do that we’re, we’re conditioned to believe that complexity is the way to go. And that’s what, that’s the mark of like intelligence or something like that. And maybe it’s my mission to stop that.
Tim Jahn: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I never viewed it from that way but your 100% right. I mean, from the early school days your taught that you have to write seven page papers and that you have to get ready for college where you write 20 page research papers. And I think you’re right, I think that’s a big problem.
Paul Singh: But —
Tim Jahn: How did you even get into this, I’m curious. Because you said your last real job was rpabably about ten years ago. Were you in a bunch of companies where you just realized that they could be streamlined or how did you even get into this?
Paul Singh: No. I — so you mean how did I get into like, how did I start thinking about these ideas or how did I —
Tim Jahn: Well, I guess let me back up. So I was reading your website. So you consult with a half dozen companies or so a year, right? Is that your main kind of what you do?
Paul Singh: Yeah.
Tim Jahn: Okay, so, how did you get into the consulting then?
Paul Singh: So I, so over the last few years I just found that like I hate repetitive actions so like for example, I remember — so I don’t want to throw any companies under the bus. But my job was at a large company that we probably all know. And it was like that was engineers did you — as part of your internship or whatever you would go and work at these large companies. And I remember when I was an intern there, the manager would say, like I could be two minutes late and I would be get my ass handed to me.
And I’m like, “Okay, fine I was late. But why did we just spend a half hour on this when we actually move the needle forward on any of the goals or anything else you said was important?” And so like, I think that was maybe like those kind of events were like the seeds for me. Because I was just thinking, “god this is what’s wrong with so many businesses today is that they focus on all these asinine things that don’t actually like mean the companies going to be successful or not.” Like, if your goal is to create seven widgets and I’m in a production job and on the factory line, then yes, me being two minutes late probably directly correlates to —
Tim Jahn: Sure.
Paul Singh: Yeah. But I was, I would argue that at least from all the interviews that I’ve seen on your site, they’re most — these are all usually knowledge workers, right. And knowledge workers, it doesn’t really matter if you show up two minutes late because how do you actually quantify that.
I mean it’s just — so anyways I — these were all seeds for me and I think that like the way I think about myself or at least I’d like to think about myself how ever conceded this might sound is that I’d like to think that I’m smart but lazy. Meaning if I, if you asked me to do something, I’m looking for a pattern, I’m looking for — when I do that one thing, I’m asking myself, “How do I make sure I only have to do this once?” Like how do I automate it the next time?
Tim Jahn: But see, you say that sounds conceited. But in that instance I think smart but lazy is a very positive thing. Because the way your talking is that being lazy is actually better because it will streamline the process, automate and actually provide in the end more profit.
Paul Singh: Absolutely. Yeah. I just added that little qualifier at the beginning just to make sure that it didn’t come across as a —
Tim Jahn: No, I just think that’s — again, I never looked at it that way being lazy — you know it’s such a negative term but the way your describing it is —
Paul Singh: Now that I think about it, one of the other things that shaped my thoughts over the years in hindsight anyways is that my parents were immigrants from India and they moved here probably close to 40 years ago now. But they, they’re generation, right — and I’m just going to, I’m going to lump them into a stereotype here for a moment. But they’re generation came from an era where your value was directly tied to the number of hours that you worked.
Meaning that the more you worked, the more successful you must be. Right. And like the generation I grew up in and the generation you grew up in, the extreme is the whole Tim Farris four hour workweek. But I think that if we leave aside that, I think that this idea of smart but lazy, that’s the reality of our generation. Like never before have we had access to so many tools to help make things easier for ourselves. And you can interpret that however you want whether it’s open sourced software and how it’s kind of leveled the playing field for technology startups.
Or crowdsourcing which has leveled the field for a lot of information based startups, right. I mean, like never before have we had this. And anyway, I just remember when I was growing up by parents would — if I was watching TV, they would just be like, “well, you must not be learning anything so we’re going to yell at you now.” I say that in a very good way, I love my parents, I just —
Tim Jahn: I know what you mean.
Paul Singh: I just remember growing up thinking like why does it have to be that way. And I just think that shaped my, a lot of my thoughts. And so a lot of times when I see people talk about what they do for the day, during the day, I just can’t help ask myself, like why does it have to be that way.
Tim Jahn: Absolutely.
Paul Singh: So —
Tim Jahn: No, I completely agree. Out of all your experience and all the companies you’ve, I don’t want to say observe. But all the companies you’ve worked with, for people watching this, what would you say is the number one problem you’ve seen from just kind of a not stereotypical small startup but just someone starting something, they got their own company going now. What’s the one problem that you’ve seen they’re probably going to run into that they should straight-line?
Paul Singh: So tell me if you want me to be more specific but I think it really, if I had to boil it down to one specific thing no matter how big or small you are, it’s really focusing on the wrong thing. Like focusing on the wrong thing. So like a typical, a good example on the small side, on the blue collar side might be a guy that wants to start a plumbing business, he’ll say, “I need a website.” I don’t know if you actually need a website. You probably ought to think about getting a wrench and just starting to go put some flyers out, right.
And on the, on the larger side, I’ve actually worked with a Fortune 500, there’s one in particular that comes to mind as a Fortune 500 company that wanted to build this new product which I thought was really fascinating, really innovative, but they wanted to start with like this huge marketing thing, this, like a nine month marketing program where they were going to do all these tests. And I’m like, how — why don’t we just build a little prototype, just I think we can agree the first version could take us three days, maybe a week. But why don’t we just build it and go call one of your customers because you are a Fortune 500 and you’ve got millions of them. You can probably go find one of them that will actually say, “This is useful.” And I’ll tell you that that’s a bill — that, what I’m actually talking about is now a billion dollar business unit at that company.
Tim Jahn: Really?
Paul Singh: Yep, it’s a billion dollar business unit.
Tim Jahn: From simply building the idea of building a prototype, getting feedback and then integrating?
Paul Singh: I wish I — in that example the prototype actually — even though I said three or seven days, it turned out it took four months to build. But that was the fastest prototype that that company had ever built in its life and —
Tim Jahn: I was going to say, it’s all relative.
Paul Singh: Yeah, it’s all relative.
Tim Jahn: If you’re a Fortune 500 company that usually spends three years on something, four months is a godsend.
Paul Singh: Exactly. In that four months when they build this minimum product and it was you know, it was buggy but it was minimum, it was designed to solve one core need for their enterprise customers, I’m not telling you any names so I guess I’m not breaking any ideas but the first day the beta went to out to like 15 or 20 customers, they had the equivalent of like 48 million dollars of preorders by the end of that day.
Tim Jahn: Wow.
Paul Singh: It was a lot. And it was like this is coming from a company that was used to taking like three or five years to build products or they would go out and acquire other companies and I will admit, maybe this is not repeatable but all I’m suggesting is that like big or small a lot of companies just focus on the wrong things and it doesn’t have to be that way.
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