Michelle Sun San Francisco

// Making Improvement the Centerpiece //


WIth summer just around the corner, wedding season is kicking into full gear.  My best friend, busy preparing for her sister’s wedding, was telling me about the exquisite centerpiece in great enthusiasm.  A centerpiece, I quickly learned, is the most important item in the middle of the dining table.


On the table, a centerpiece is a large central object which serves a decorative purpose.  Centerpieces set the theme of the decorations and bring extra decorations to the room […] However, centrepieces should not be too large, to avoid difficulty with visibility around the table and to allow for the easier serving of dishes.” - Wikipedia


That reminded me of a word cloud last week that was circulated within our team - in the prominent center, it was not the company name, but one of the values that have been top of mind for most of us.  


Yes, improvement is the centerpiece in Buffer's 'dining table'. 


"The most important item, in the middle of the dining table."

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” - Benjamin Franklin 

Everyday at the end of the work day, our team writes down a ‘done’ list of the day using and share it on IDoneThis. In addition to tasks, we include a section of improvement. Writing the improvement segment often requires a moment of pause and reflection. 

If there was one theme in Ben Franklin’s life, it is probably the focus on self improvement.  His daily routine has been a huge inspiration to me; it involves early rising, learning and most importantly, beginning and ending with two questions: “What good shall I do this day?” and “What good have I done today?”

Writing out improvement items each day has helped me focus on both the learning aspect and the ‘good’ I wanted to do. 



Keep it small

"A centerpiece should not obstruct the serving of dishes and visibility among guests."  Similarly, daily improvement has worked best for me when it is bite-sized.  It is easier to focus on no more than two improvements at any given day.  Being too ambitious can run into the risk of disappointing oneself.  


Setting the theme and bringing extra goodness to everyday routine

Like a centerpiece does to the party, improvements set the tone of the day.  Like anything related to building or changing a habit, it takes time to solidify.  Setting a theme for each week allows time for experimentation and failing.  

At the end of each week, think of one thing that can be carried over to the subsequent week.  That helps moving from actively working on an improvement, to going onto maintenance mode and working on another area of improvement.  Two weeks ago, I began the week with the intention to improve my focus.  Then throughout the week, I became aware of bad habits like keeping too many tabs open.  Wrapping up the week, I installed Fluid and Chrome Extension that limit my tabs automatically.  By the middle of the following week, even though I was not actively trying to improve on my focus, the times I hit the limit have gradually decreased to 1-2 times each day. 



Ask for help 

There is something incredibly powerful in being open about improvements.  Showing imperfection requires humility and confidence.  Once I broadcast the intention to improve within the team, the accountability helps propel me to follow through with it.  

Being vulnerable and asking for help can also open up others and build trust.  When one of our teammates brought up an improvement about stopping nail-biting, it spurred a series of confession among a few other coworkers about the same bad habit!  In the same vein, my two amazing coworkers Carolyn and Andy have suggested the two apps mentioned above that limit multiple browser tabs. 


Being good vs. getting better

Everybody likes to do stuff they’re good at. When we’re doing the types of tasks and projects we’ve already mastered, we feel in control and confident. But settling into our sweet spots – and avoiding new experiences that require us to “stretch” – comes with consequences. 

Getting Better vs. Being Good 

Being good involves proving you have ability and showing you know and are good at something, while getting better emphasizes on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.

In a hectic startup life, it is easy to be lost in the hustle and get consumed by work.  Finding improvement as the centerpiece has helped me set a tone and stay mindful in a busy schedule.  What is your centerpiece? 


Photo Credit : Centerpiece from MarthaStewart.com, Benjamin Franklin routine from DailyRoutines

// Problem-focused versus Solution-focused//

Last week I had coffee with a serial entrepreneur, who started and sold two companies and currently on his third venture.  His journey was very inspiring to me.  Amidst a good conversation, he asked, “What is your dream company?” For a moment, I could not articulate an answer. 

Later that night, I reflected upon his question and realized the fundamental disconnect between my belief and his question.  I realize my mindset has shifted from building a dream product, to solving a problem. 

Focus on solving a painful problem.  One key learning I had at my previous startup, was that, if the customer would not pay for the product, the problem is usually not painful enough.  While there are many things that could have been done more, such as better sales, in hindsight, the product was too ingrained into the team’s mindset that we failed to recognize the fundamental issue - the problem was not painful enough. 

Products are usually a specific solution to a problem.  However, given a painful problem, there are countless approaches to solve that.  Focusing too much on the solution reduces resilience of the team to pivot later.  By focusing on the problem - becoming passionate about solving an unmet need - each product is viewed as an experiment to solve that problem.  If one experiment fails, move on to another one.  

Maximize learning early on.  The problem-focused mindset calls for designing small experiments to solve problems; build fast, fail fast.  Instagram started as Burbn, a location-based service.  If your product is consumer facing, use the “bar test”.  Founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger validated their idea in social settings; figure out how to pitch an app to a stranger in 20 seconds, in a noisy bar.  In the case of Burbn, the lack of intuitive understanding and interest from the early testers prompted the founders to re-work the idea.  Groupon started as ThePoint, which allows users start a campaign asking people to give money or do something as a group.  The learnings from the earlier products laid foundation to the successes of the ones that followed. 

Be creative in getting the problem solved.  Many great startups survived not because of the quick reception from their target market.  Instead it was because of the conviction that there is an unmet need, they were able to be creative and use different methods to get through to their users.  To generate seed capital for their startup, the founders of Airbnb bought bulk supply of generic cheerios and created presidential election themed boxes to sell at the Democratic Convention in Denver.  Their founder Joe Gebbia described: 

We made 500 of each (Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains). They were a numbered edition on the top of each box, and sold for $40 each. The Obama O’s sold out, netting the funds we needed to keep Airbnb alive. The Cap’n McCains… they didn’t sell quite as well, and we ended up eating them to save money on food.

Go from me-focused to market-focused.  

Marry the problem  - Dane Maxwell

The problem-focused mindset allows for more flexibility in developing a solution.  Dane Maxwell said it well in his podcast, entrepreneurs should go from “me-focused” - from going after passion, skills - and shift to “what the pain of the customer and become passionate about improving their life”.  

When asked the same question again, I will say, “to solve a painful problem well”. 

Photo credit: BubbyMakesThree

// 2012 in review//


2012 has been a huge year in terms of personal and professional growth.  On the professional front, I progressed significantly in pursuing my passion in products, from defining and building a product from scratch and selling it to real customers, to getting hands on with code.  On the personal front, I moved from my hometown Hong Kong to the Bay Area in Jun and have been meeting many amazing people.  

As the year draws to a close, I can’t be more thankful for a fruitful year that was made possible only by amazing people that surround me, in all parts of my life and in different parts of the world.  


Spotick was a company that I cofounded with two other partners.  It uses receipts as a platform to promote marketing messages of merchants.  Due to lack of funding and full time commitment from more than one founder, I left the company after spending a year of work on the project.  It was an extremely fun and enriching experience wearing many hats especially customer development, sales, lean product development and front end coding.  Everything from dealing with customers, learning both software and hardware development technologies, to managing team expectations, exposed me to a myriad of situations that resulted in great personal growth.  

One thing I learned from my first entrepreneurial experience, would be to spend more time cultivating relationships.  While I was actively making sales contacts for the project, I would place more emphasis in connecting with the startup community.  One of the best takeaways from my startup experience was the people I’ve met, including the inspiring Buffer team. 


It was not easy to leave my own baby, but out goes the old, in comes the new.  Hackbright was a pivotal episode of my professional life that happened in the least expected moment; when I was checking my Twitter stream one morning in late May, a tweet by Women2 came up about a program that teaches women to code.  It just clicked.   

I have always been passionate about building products, and having been in a startup and built my own, I have always felt half-blind when it comes to the technical side.  I became even more curious when Spotick’s product touches upon hardware development as well.  During my time at Spotick which I had been doing some front-end coding, I picked up Ruby on Rails on the weekends, by reading Michael Hartl’s Rails Tutorial and Peter Cooper’s Beginning Ruby.  After getting my first Twitter clone working, I was hooked.  

Hackbright helped jumpstart me from a hobbyist to a web developer.  The program teaches python, django, javascript etc, but most importantly, it teaches me how to fish; I love the ability to create something I conceive of, knowing if I don’t know something yet I will be perfectly capable to figure it out.  It is a very empowering feeling.

Aside from learning loads, I also appreciated the founders Christian and David, my fellow Hackbright classmates, who are amazing and smart individuals that made the summer a fun, challenging one.  From pair programming, to hackathons, to coding challenges, the 11 ladies and the founders have created the best environment to learn and explore.  I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the inaugural class of this amazing program. 

Bump Technologies

Since graduating from Hackbright, I have been working on data at Bump Technologies.  With over 100million downloads, it is an ideal playground for a data enthusiast.  I spend most of the work days using Python, and libraries like numpy, pandas come in handy everyday.  There are also wonderful tools like d3Gephi that makes data visualization delightfully easy and elegant.  

Having worked with data my whole career so far, it is an amazing feeling to use data to learn more about a product that I care about.  That is definitely a combination of passion and skills, and I feel very blessed to be able to do so.

As I spend more time on exploring data, I also became more interested and involved in the user experience and strategy aspect of a product.  A big part of data mining / data science relies on asking the right questions, and asking the right questions requires understanding the core values of the product.  For example, when looking at retention, the value proposition of the product plays a significant role in deciding a goal to pursue.  A social product may focus more on retention, as the network effect is sustained not only by user acquisition but also by active users, a utility application (like a Flash light app) may focus more on acquiring new users. 

Goals for 2013

Blog: In the new year, I look forward to sharing more often on this blog.  In particular, I focus on growth and product strategy.  

Coding: I’d like to pick up a functional language, to stretch my programming muscles after an intense year of ramping up with python and ruby on rails. 

I also want to invest more time on data visualization and user interface design. 

Startups: A few friends have approached me to advise on their startups, and given my transition from Spotick to Hackbright and moving to California, I have put those on hold.  I want to get involved in a project or two in the coming year. 

Project: I plan to create a software product in the new year that produces an income stream. 

A personal note

One really special gift to myself this year as I turned 25 is to find the time to get certified as a yoga instructor.  The 200-hour, 4-week teacher training was an intensive challenge and worthwhile pursuit.  While I do not intend to teach professionally full time in the near future, the training has launched my fitness level, and my awareness of such, to a new high.  That has definitely had a positive spillover effect on other aspects of my life.  

Yoga has allowed me to fill my days with energy and mindfulness.  I hope to take every opportunity in the new year to deepen my practice, on and off the mat.  

What did you learn in 2012?  What are your goals in 2013?  I’d love to hear about you in the comments.

Which means, strangely enough, that coming up with startup ideas is a question of seeing the obvious. That suggests how weird this process is: you’re trying to see things that are obvious, and yet that you hadn’t seen.

Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Work on hard problems, driven mainly by curiousity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies.

Like technology, your life is a story of one-time events.

By their nature, singular events are hard to teach or generalize about. But the big secret is that there are many secrets left to uncover. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them.

Kickstarter projects to inspire kids in STEM


There’s been a lot of talk lately about kickstarter as the harbinger of an electronics revolution. Normal people can now get the funding they need to turn their prototypes into products. For some this means creating new and awesome toys that will inspire kids to explore the fun parts of…

// 3 Learnings From My Past Year in Tech Startups //

Last year, I left the financial industry to join the world of startups.  A year flew by, I have developed a new sense of belonging and responsibility to this community, drawing me more closely to this industry that I’ve long been fascinated with.

Having worked in a startup and founded one, I’m now at crossroads on next steps and taking this vantage point for reflection.  A few things have helped me tremendously in my journey in the past year.

1) People to hold you accountable. 
Looking back, my path in startups has been marked with awesome people - my first stint in Beijing startup scene and subsequently starting my first venture with two seasoned entrepreneurs in Hong Kong were all through mutual friends introduction. 

Currently as I transition into a new path, I’ve found the startup community, tremendously resourceful and inspirational.  There’s no formula for the success of startups.  Yet I believe the key to the knowledge is in the connected group of people, or someone calls it the “information equity”.  

The startup mentality of “pay it forward” and giving back is what makes this community unique. Through office hours, blogging, or talking to other people in different stages in their startup experience, it can evolve into a virtuous cycle in maintaining a sense of accountability through a network of like minded individuals.

2) Focus on the why, be agile in the how. 
As Steve Jobs famously says, you can only connect the dots by looking back.  On one hand, I find it important to trust that what you are doing now will connect in the future to a bigger picture or path that makes sense.  On the other hand, it is as crucial to know why you are doing this to begin with.  
Startup world is chaotic and can be distracting if the why is not clear.  Some people work in startups with a clear goal to found their own company some day, some are for the ability to sell things they love.  For me, it boils down to the love of sheer leverage and connecting people by technology and to be part of something that makes a big splash to the world.

Once the why is set, be flexible in how to achieve the goal.  Moving from the finance industry where career paths are pretty much set (3 years of analysts then promoted to 3 years of associate, etc), I found it daunting initially to be faced with a complete blank canvas.  Yet the more I have made decisions from my own “why”, the more comfortable and intuitive the decision-making process becomes.   Getting used to working and failing fast is like a muscle, the more you flex it, the better it develops. 

3) Stay in motion. 
Working on a startup is a marathon with many short sprints.  That means it requires explosive energy and endurance.  It is up to the team to define a pace, but one thing I have learned is that, staying in motion is the key. 

No matter it is your company or yourself, there will be days that things are getting rough and getting out of bed seems more difficult by day.  One mindhack I find useful is to cut down the tasks into smaller ones, say achievable within 1-2 hour.  By the end of each day, it simply feels awesome to cross off 7-8 items compared to half of a two-day task. 

For bigger decisions, I’m also abiding to this.  After departing the recent startup, I’m standing at a cross road looking for new opportunities, hopefully something related to product and helping a US startup expand to international markets.  As I actively explore next steps, I enrolled in the Hackbright Academy this summer in San Francisco and will learn Python amongst 15 other aspiring hackers.  Coming from an Econ background, I have a limited technical knowhow of HTML/CSS, basic JavaScript and Ruby on Rails, and am very excited about coding and shipping Monday through Friday in the next ten weeks. 

And I look forward to sharing my journey on this blog. 


David Shrigley, It’s All Going Very …, 2010

this explains startup life so well

// 110 days, 1 moment to celebrate//

Have never felt so excited from finishing work at 8am on a Saturday. 

// CNN looks to expand, may purchase Mashable for $200m//


There are a few tech sites that I frequent the most, with Mashable being one of them. Some others are TechCrunch of course, Engadget, Wired, ArsTechnica, The Next Web and well, many more. Mashable is a big one, widely known in particular for breaking tech and social news, but recently has expanded to entertainment and political news, just like how Buzzfeed is now doing.

Read More

Congratulations to Mashable! 

(Source: bitshare)

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I work at Buffer on metrics/growth. Here I share about startups, personal improvement and wellness.
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