Within the first 6 months of being in the startup world, I went to an event called The Lean Startup Machine.
Under the guidance of mentors, groups of aspiring entrepreneurs spent an entire weekend validating their ideas. Of all things, the idea I worked on was a digital wedding inspiration board…wtf?
In today’s episode, Hiten provides some amazing advise for anyone looking to start a business, maximize learning on a daily basis, and better understand everyone they interact with.
This is a goodie. Tune in below…
*I’ve watched plenty of content on Growth Hacker TV and the content is the real deal. These interviews are meaty and highly actionable
Scott: Okay, welcome everyone to another episode of The Competitive Edge. I want to welcome our guest today, Hiten Shah and if you don’t know Hiten, he’s the founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg, an advisor to startups and someone who’s just been a real leader in the startup community because of his willingness to give back to others. Hiten, how are you man?
Hiten Shah: I’m good, it’s Monday morning, can’t complain.
Scott: [Laughter] Nice, I like it. We were talking a little bit before the show but the first time that I found out about Hiten and met him was actually at a lean startup machine. And I remember, we were in this group and we had just a ton of different ideas, that we were so excited about potentially bringing to the world. And you came in and started doing something that nobody else was doing and that was asking us some really tough questions to figure out. People actually wanted this business idea that we had. So today Hiten, I thought we could do the same thing for our audience by talking about some of the ways that you think about things in the context of starting and building businesses.
Hiten Shah: Sounds good.
Scott: Awesome. So I know that there’s probably a lot of people out there listening who have ideas and have never actually started something; whether that be a company or even a project. What would you say to these people about the value of just starting something?
Hiten Shah Interview: Yeah, I think it’s very difficult to start something new; just because there’s so many different ideas, there’s a million places you could start, a million things that you might think you need to learn or need to do and so the value in just starting something or anything — I don’t care even if it is starting to write something. It’s just that spark, that motivation to just do something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be the final thing; it doesn’t have to be that thing that makes you rich, if that’s what you’re going for or makes you successful.
I think there’s just a lot of value in thinking about not worrying about anything beyond just starting. Like, for example, lot of us are procrastinators and so I think it’s really easy to like figure out all these reasons why you shouldn’t get started. But I don’t have enough time or I have a day job, or this and that. But when you really think about it and when you really look at all the people that have had any level of success, they just got started and that’s probably the biggest difference between them and you.
Scott: Absolutely, what are some of the typical myths or limiting beliefs that people, that you encounter, have — that prevent them from actually getting started on a business?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I think one limiting belief that I have seen is that people believe they need an idea first and then it’s like ‘I don’t have a good idea’. So that’s a limiting belief to me; just pick something, anything and get started because it’s going to take a while for you to take sometimes few tries in most cases, for you to actually figure out something that starts working. And so, just the fact of practice of getting started and thinking about what you can work on. So solutions to that are, think about customers you want, think about problems that you have in the world, there’s some limits to that kind of thinking but those are the kind of ideas to get around this thing of like ‘I need an idea’.
Another one would be the fact that they think that need money and so a lot of people — and over time, I think this is getting to be less true, but lot of people do believe they think they need money first before they can get started. So then they think about — go through this whole process of raising money and things like that and try to learn how to do that in making a pitch deck and all that kind of stuff. These days it’s like if you haven’t gotten started, it’s very unlikely that some one is going to give you money unless you have already had something that you started and either failed or succeeded before so there’s enough proof that you do start stuff.
And also, you have to compare that to all the different kinds of things that these investors are seeing which most of them are pretty far along in the progress from getting started to having a product; potentially even having customers or users. So, I think that’s another one belief, which is like I need money. And I think the third one has to do with time; kind of hinted at it earlier but lot of people think they don’t have the time and usually the time just means that you have to start smaller. And in fact, most of the time, starting small is probably a better idea anyways, even if you do have a lot of time.
Scott: Hiten, is there a particular framework that you use or you help people with when they don’t have an idea or they have 20 different ideas and they don’t know which one to choose? You alluded to the idea of picking a customer; is there kind of a hierarchy of questions that you tell people to ask themselves when they go through this process?
Hiten Shah Interview: Yeah, generally one of the first questions I ask is most of the people have worked at a job or in a services industry like a lawyer or somebody. I just actually first start by saying like, what area or type of customer do you believe you have some advantage at? Either reaching like — and this is not just marketing, this is reaching, to talk to them or have a better understanding just because of your experience which can be a good and a bad thing.
But in general it’s like, if you have an understanding of a market or a space, you have a shorter ramp-up time to understanding the terminology and how people think about it as long as you don’t use that as a way to limit yourself on what’s possible. Because a lot of times, you’ll see people that aren’t from the industry [Inaudible 00:06:14] disrupt an institute just because they thought about it differently. So, my questions usually have to do with what is it that you have depth in or who is that you can reach and usually that meets a lot of interesting things. Sometimes people just say, I thought ‘I hate my industry’ or ‘I hate being a lawyer’ and I generally tend to tell them, well, if you hate it so much, you should try to make it better.
Scott: I love that; I love the idea too of just taking advantage of the access that you have to really understand people’s problems and even that could even be early adopters for a particular product if you decide to go after that industry.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, totally right.
Scott: What types of questions do you ask somebody when you approach an industry that, lets say, that you have access to figure out where there is a pain that you might be able to help solve?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of material online about customer development and you know, learning from your customer and there’s a few other concepts out there such as jobs to be done and an online friend of mine, named Amy [Inaudible 00:07:22] she has this concept called — she calls it online sales safari. It’s what she has online and tries to figure out what the pain and needs are. And so I think the truth is, all those different tactics are meant for different styles, depending on what’s your style. So some people prefer online and want to do things on the computer, don’t even want to have — pick up the phone and talk to people.
And I think that’s okay because a lot of people are expressing the opinions online and you can learn a lot if you know how to look at the forums and things like that. So, I did one to add that but if you have access to people and you can talk to them, generally the framework that I use is that I like to get stories out of them. And if I have — if I talk to like 10 or 20 people and I get these stories, then I can for myself, if I have recorded them or written them down, I can find, what I call ‘pattern of pain’ which is basically, what’s that core problem, what’s that core of pain that you hear in everyone’s voice.
Whether it’s about a specific piece of their daily or weekly workflow or workflow trying to do something or something that they really are frustrated with at their job or some tool that they hate to use but they have to use it; that’s another good one. So, I usually just get these stories and I try to really understand more about the person in their day-to-day job and what they are doing. That helps them early on to pick an area that kind of doubled down and focus on and then do a lot more of these other tactics.
Scott: I really like that and the one thing that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily talk about as much and I’m kind of excited to get your opinion on is this idea of — people get really excited about potentially starting something, they start talking to customers and then things get hard and they decide that they don’t want to do it anymore. And I am curious to hear from you, how important you think it is for people to be passionate about the mission or even have a mission? I mean I’m interested to know just beyond like the pure opportunity that exists there; what other questions people should be asking themselves when it comes to potentially starting a business?
Hiten Shah: I think one of the most important questions is ‘why are you doing it?’ So, why do you want to start your business? And the easiest answer is, ‘I want to change the world’. Okay, I understand that, I mean that’s the easiest answer to the question and one that people like, all right, that’s fine. But to me, it’s literally really thinking deeply about yourself or your selves if you have a few people working on it. Why are you guys starting, what’s your motivation, do you really want to see this industry upside-down and make a shift because they are frustrated with it and you think you can make it better?
Do you — are you just trying to make this so you don’t have to work for anybody else and depend on their income? Are you doing it because you have a special skill set like a certain type of program? And you kind of have some expertise that you can deliver to other people? So there’s a lot of really good reasons why people start things and I think they just forget to ask themselves these questions at first.
Scott: What’s been the driving motivation for yourself with both KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg?
Hiten Shah: That’s a good question and so for me — I mean again, I think a lot of people say that you have to be passionate about something and things like that. A lot of the time, I don’t think passion is really why people do things; if that makes any sense? They’re just looking for their passion. For me, I just want to grow, I want to learn, I want to constantly improve and I happened to be — all the companies that I have started have basically targeted marketers and/or people trying to improve the conversion rate on the Internet. Sometimes designers, in the case of Crazy Egg, it’s marketers and designers.
So it accidentally fell into that based on the first company I started which was a consulting company doing marketing and consultancy or marketing and consulting work, services stuff for other companies, primarily online companies. So, in my experience, I just sort of happened to land on it and my co-founder had a customer who was paying like $3500 a month for SEO and it looked like we could turn that into a business. He was barely out of high school and so he needed all the help that he could get, I was barely out of college and I didn’t really have anything that I really fell into doing except, I didn’t want to go work for anybody.
Scott: I love this idea of kind of optimizing for learning that you talk about and it seems like for you, the driving motivation is always been growth. I love that but it seems like at times, when the going gets tough, it can be hard to keep that on the top of your mind and just think about like, ‘my mission is just to get better and just to learn’. Is there things that you have internalized or you tell yourself every single day or even frequently when you think about why you’re doing what you’re doing if it’s just for growth?
Hiten Shah: I think one of the most powerful things in the world is the fact that you can do whatever you want to do. I think whatever you put your mind to, you can literally do whatever you want to do in today’s world. There’s less restrictions than ever around you, there’s more rules being broken by companies, by individuals, by even large businesses than ever before. And so, to me, I think it’s — couple that with this other idea; it’s this idea that like if you ever look in hindsight and you start thinking about when did I learn the most, you start realizing that you probably learn the most when you made — and this has been my experience, when in hindsight, you should have made a different decision.
So, that’s one time when I have learnt the most; another time when you learn the most is when you’ve struggled the most. Sometimes it is because of a bad decision or sometimes it is just, like the saying goes, ‘life throws you lemons, what do you do? You make lemonade'; I’d say, I mean there’s always other answers to this question about lemons and lemonade and stuff but to me, it’s like — and if you optimize your life yourself, your world around you for learning then the people around you are like that too which means, they are growing as fast as they possibly can in terms of their personal growth.
And I think today, it’s like every day is a new challenge, sometimes every hour is a new challenge and this is why you see a lot of people try to beat their own like sort of scores around running a mile and things like that. Or climbing the biggest mountain they can when they do rock climbing. To me, it’s very much the same thing but to me it’s like I can do this every day as an entrepreneurs I can do it every day. There’s no ceiling on me, there’s nobody telling me what to do unless I want them to tell me what to do, I’m in control and that control enables me to learn and grow as fast as I can.
So this whole thing about learning as fast as you can and optimizing through learning is really about how do you — it’s really about answering the question, ‘how do you grow personally as fast as you can?’ And I think that some of the most fulfilling things — and I’ve seen it in other people too, is when they personally feel like they have grown, even like a month, or two months or even a year. So it’s just about looking back and thinking about when did you learn the most or when did you grow the most. And you’ll see that it usually has to do with taking the times in your life when things were the worst because you had no choice. And that’s kind of what it boils down to.
Scott: I love that, is there any other things that you have done to increase the rate at which you have learnt?
Hiten Shah: I think one of the biggest things is, I’m trying to optimize everyday around being able to deliberately know what I learn from every interaction I have. And so, sometimes it’s like — I read some blog post recently and it was actually pretty good; I don’t really do this but it’s a really good tactic which is like, after every meeting or every interaction or conversation, for 30 seconds just right down what you learnt or write down any thoughts that you have related to it. And don’t think too much about what you write down and that habit allows you to sort of learn faster and really be more deliberate and ask better questions in your conversations.
I think it was a really good tactic. For me, the tactic that I personally use is you know, I think of my brain as a sponge and I never want to wring it out. I always want to just keep filling it because it is infinite and then I can sort of use parts of it; parts of knowledge I have gained through every interaction and every other conversation which makes it so that no matter what you want to talk about, if it’s about business, I can talk about it. I don’t care what kind of business it is, I don’t care what kind of problem you have, I don’t care what kind of department and the way I have done is just by meeting as many people as I possibly can that are trying to do things.
And usually that tends to be an entrepreneur or people that are working inside of companies and just trying to literally be with them and try to help them. And that usually tends to help me learn like for example, we met at a lean machine; the lean machine is like a couple of day things where people learnt really fast about how to validate their ideas and come up with better ideas that — and sometimes there are some businesses created out of that and honestly in that period of time, it is usually anywhere from five to ten teams that end up interacting with. I learn a lot, I learn about how they think about things, I learn about what I would consider the hardest piece of starting something new which is what’s the idea and is that idea something that actually solves the problem for people. So that’s how I think about it and some of the practices that I have put in place.
Scott: That’s really cool and I’m really glad you bring this up, because I think there’s this tendency for us when we are doing things online to kind of think about it like within the funnel and think about — do a post mortem maybe an ab test or some copy changes and try to figure out what we learnt. But so rarely do we take this type of intentional post mortem and iteration to the interactions that we have with others and try to figure out what takeaways we can have to better prepare ourselves for the future. And just love that this is something you take to conversations in the real world because I don’t think a ton of people do that.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, it’s clear based on the questions a lot of people ask and I think that over time you just learn that if you want to have meaningful conversations and make an impact in someone’s life even in like ten minutes, you have to start asking good questions and also not assuming things. I think another thing that I tell that, partly it’s just something I think about is that I don’t try to assume I know the answer to a question I’m asking; or I try to make little assumptions as possible about somebody else without really understanding and knowing what their opinion is or what their answer is.
Scott: How do you avoid that voice in your head that sometimes wants to come up with the answer to a question when you are prospecting potential ideas, when you are trying to get to know somebody for the first time; I think — and I heard in a past interview, you called it like an unbiased disposition or something or curious — like unbiased curiosity.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I mean I think it’s always been easy to go look at something or somebody and form an opinion without actually have an understanding and I think the things that I have noticed is that people tend to have an opinion and make a judgment on somebody without actually understanding the context and understanding more about the person. So, what I tend to do is that if someone does something that most people think is idiotic, I really try to think about what led that person to be that idiotic and why would they do that and what is lacking in their understanding of the world, I guess, to not understand how their actions would sort of — or the words or whatever it may be, would sort of affect other people.
So, I think that’s another thing we tend to not do very well, which is we don’t really, on average understand how when we say something or we do something how it impacts other people or how other people feel about it. And I don’t mean just other people like one person, I mean like many people that can help you understand how your actions actually impact others and to me like that’s a lot of what’s really interesting about kind of the time we live in today and how there are so many people out there trying to do really awesome things and try to — for lack of a better word, probably the easiest way to explain this is ‘to change the world’ or to make an impact or make a dent.
Scott: Yeah, one thing I wanted to talk about while we were on this topic is just being a good person as an entrepreneur and I know that is something that you prioritize and you make an effort to really give back to the community. And I think there’s a lot of people that get caught up in — I’m too focused on trying to build my business and they don’t make time for these type of activities, is this something that you have always done?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I grew up with a father who would just — was giving and couldn’t help himself. So, he just helped others without really thinking about himself and he constantly did that and still does it to this day. And so I grew up with that around me and then on top of that it just felt right and I think honestly as an entrepreneur, I think it’s actually one of the hardest things to do. And the reason is, there are a lot of situations where it’s like, it is you or the other person and or you could — depending on your disposition, you could feel bad for doing something that someone else might not feel bad for.
And thus you kind of lose it a little bit as a result of it and so I think a lot of times it has to do with competition, it has to do with issues like friends and [Inaudible 00:22:12] and things like that. So there’s a lot to unpack in trying to be a good human being than being an entrepreneur that’s trying to change things or make things better.
Scott: Is there any decision-making frameworks that you use when you’re facing these decisions or questions that you ask yourself when you encounter a situation that it would be easy not to be a good person?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, you know, the way I think about it has a lot to do with just like how am I impacting the world, how am I impacting the other people around me or the people are going to be impacted by my decision. And so one of the ways I look at that is — it’s one thing like, I had this similar way of thinking about it which is, it’s one thing to — what they say is like walk in someone else’s shoes. I think when you walk in someone else’s shoes, you still have your own brain attached to yourself so that only allows you to see from their perspective. But when you can find a way to actually think the way they think and walk in their shoes, then you’ll have a much better understanding —
And this has been my experience of exactly how they think and how they will react to something that you are doing or not doing. This has to do with customers, this has to do with team members in your company, this has to do with any human being or in any interaction. Because honestly, there is a lot of interactions, there is a lot of things that you end up having to do as an entrepreneur that you might not want to do but you just need to do it and that’s what your job is; to do the things nobody else will do or nobody else is thinking about or wants to think about. And for me I really try to think about how am I impacting other people and that’s probably the simplest framework I would give you.
Scott: Got it. I’m curious about this idea of really thinking the way that somebody else thinks and removing your own brain from the situation, is there — I mean how does one accomplish that?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, it’s a difficult one. I think it’s just practice like anything else. I love being able to meet somebody and have them say a few words and then be able to predict what their next action is going to be or being able to repeat that to them something and then be like 90% to 100% accurate and so I think it’s just testing yourself. If you care to do it, test yourself and see if you can do it. And another thing is, it’s pretty easy to eavesdrop on a conversation like in passing just around you from somebody you don’t know.
So one thing that I like to do is, and I’ve talked about this a little bit before but I just — I would just try to hear a conversation that someone is having on the phone in public, and it’s sort of eavesdropping, and just be able to predict the next word that the person on our end — on the end I can hear is going to say. Because that would mean that I’m not hearing the other end of it, but I’m pretty good at getting a better understanding of what the person that I can hear, what they are going to say next. And that means that I have a strong understanding of what’s happening in the conversation without hearing the other side.
Scott: It’s a really cool idea just to kind of try to build this muscle of getting in the proper disposition to understand people and I like this idea of listening to conversations and trying to predict what is going to happen as a way to exercise that muscle. It’s really cool. One of the other things that I have heard you talk about in previous interviews is this idea of leveraging your time and I’m curious, because as entrepreneurs, as people who like you said, might not be starting something because they don’t have enough time. What are the ways that you think about how you can get the most out of your time to accomplish all the things that you want to?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I think that’s what I mean by the leverage thing that you brought up. I mean I have said it in a lot of different frameworks or frames before, but on a high level, it’s simply like what — I’m sure that there are a lot of jobs that happen inside of a company that I’m not the best at. So that’s just inevitable. But, I pride myself in being able to help other people think better or smarter, I like to tell my team and people I work with, when you have a hard problem, the hardest problems, come to me; even if you don’t think I’ll understand it. Because it’s like I’m going to ask you the right questions or I’m just going to help you think about it and if nothing else, I’m going to make them less stressed on it so they can find the right solution. That’s the truth.
And so generally, it’s the whole leverage thing that I came up with and the way I think about it is that you always want to be doing the highest leverage activity if you can and you don’t want to be doing anything that takes up too much time or someone else can do better than you. And so, I’m constantly thinking about that, like I’m working on something, can I do it any better? So for example, and I’m not even one to outsource a lot of stuff if you want to call it that or I don’t even have a virtual assistant.
For example, my calendar, I’m the best one to manage my calendar, nobody else unless they know me so well that they are in my head which is very difficult. Second thing would be like, if I make presentations, like I’m speaking at a conference this weekend, actually next week and I make my own presentations. I don’t really think I can have someone else do but I do know other people that do that. Things like that; there’s better sales people than me, for example, there’s better people that can do paid acquisitions and marketing than me. But that being said, I generally try to understand and have my way to understand things faster than most people.
So if you go ask me about how you guys are doing paid acquisitions for any of my companies, I can give you the whole spiel and I can tell you exactly how we are doing and I can tell you some of the ads that are winning and stuff like that. But you know what, I didn’t create any of those ads. I barely even look at the data but I have a core understanding of how that function of my company works. So, I don’t know, I just like to understand things, but at the same time, I hate having them micro-manage anybody or anything. And I’d rather make it so that when they are having troubles, they come to me. In designing my life and systems, my ways of communication around that.
Scott: I guess, it’s a challenge that a lot of people face is that although they maybe the best person to do a particular task, try and understand the return on that particular activity. There is no question that I’m the best at managing my calendar but is spending an extra 20 minutes over the course of the week, being the person who has set the appointments in my calendar are the best use of that 20 minutes?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I mean, let’s look at it this way, this one’s actually really good, I’m glad you brought that one up and I’m glad I said it. But let’s think of that one just for one second. Basically, if I’m not managing my own calendar and I’m pushing everybody off to an assistant, that assistant better be able to do that job a hundred times better than I can. What that means is that they need enough access to be able to know where I am pretty much in like 10-20 minute intervals so that I’m not basically making anyone else feel like they can’t get in contact with me or they don’t know what’s going on or if I’m going to be late and things like that.
And so, very few assistants that I have met and I have even interacted with can do that kind of job really well. And so to me, it’s like stepping into someone else’s shoes which is the person on the other end that I’m meeting with or trying to schedule something with, how do they feel if I go out with somebody else and say ‘hey, go deal with my assistant’?
Hiten Shah: Unless that assistant’s literally amazing, I think it’s very difficult to get them to take that task over from me and I can just do a better job, and honestly I can’t do it faster and I’ll save the other person a lot of headache by doing so; and make them feel like I actually care about them, which I do. And so, I guess that’s kind of the high-level way I think about, I think it’s really important to be the person that manages my schedule in this case.
Scott: You have me rethinking my calendar system right now [Laughter] but I think it makes total sense and I think it’s important in a lot of instances that personal touch, that showing that you care about other people that we have alluded to earlier is what set you apart. Especially, when you are a person running multiple companies who has a lot of things going on like yourself.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I mean another angle of that is like if you email me, it’s very likely I’m going to respond — there’s like a 50% to 70% chance I’ll respond literally within minutes and that is just hard to do if you have an assistant and someone else getting in the way. And that is something that people don’t expect and that is something that I personally have been a little addicted to. I actually pride myself in being able to answer that email fast. A lot of people hate emails, lot of people bitch and moan about it; me? I think it’s our way of life; it’s the way we communicate. Send me more emails, that’s would be my answer to a lot of those types of things.
Obviously, if it’s a completely cold email, it probably takes me a little bit longer but in general, people that I have already have interacted with, they get email responses really fast. And it makes them feel good, makes me feel good.
Scott: Yeah, and I think there’s also an element of delight in there that you’re getting back to somebody really quickly and that they didn’t expect it and that’s a nice thing to do and it makes people think highly of you that you are attentive, that you are hard-working and that you’re diligent. I heard a story of somebody emailing Mark [Inaudible 00:32:51] and him getting back in like two minutes. And they said, ‘well, I can’t believe you got back to me that fast’, and he said, ‘old habits die hard’ or something along those lines, which I liked.
Hiten Shah: Yes. I definitely share that same habit.
Scott: Awesome man, well, this has been super-valuable for me and it has given me a lot of different things to think about in terms of what types of questions I should ask myself in terms of creating something, my interactions with people — I have learnt a lot from this and I really appreciate you sharing this insight with us today. I want to finish with just one question that I always like to ask people that come on the show, and that’s if you could just give one or two pieces of advice for people that are looking to get an edge in accomplishing the things that they want to for their life, what would that be?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I have one word, it’s five letters and it’s called ‘focus’. And I think that some people will tell you hey, you don’t need a focus, you should do a lot of different things; I basically disagree with them. I think the one tip is that if you can figure out what you should be focused on right now, that’s going to help you with whatever your goal is. You’re just going to make progress on that. And if you don’t, then you’re just going to dilly-dally and it’ll take you longer to make progress on that thing that you should be making progress on. So it’s a simple trick, focus, but super-hard to do in today’s world with all this email, a very powerful computer in your pocket and no shortage of things you could be doing with your time.
Scott: How do you pick which thing you’re going to focus on?
Hiten Shah: I think it’s really just important to think about that, just think about the question of what like what should I focus on and what maters to you. For me, learning matters to me the most and growth and so I focus on what’s going to give me that all the time and give me the most of that. And again, all the concepts that you talked about leverage, and some of the other things about being able to understand people really fast, all those things help me cut through the thick and actually focus.
Scott: Such valuable advice; Hiten, thank you so much for your time today. If people want to find out more information about you, about KISSmetrics, about Crazy Egg, what are the best places for them to go?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, I tweet a lot so following me on Twitter it’s Hnshah on Twitter. It’s probably the best place to find me these days.
Scott: Awesome, well thank you so much and I appreciate you coming on this show.
Hiten Shah: Glad to be here.
[End of interview 00:35:34]