Six Tips for Transitioning into Full-Time Remote Work

How I stay productive and connected with my team as a remote worker 

I’ve worked at Astro for over two years now and I love my job. It’s fast-paced, I have a ton of responsibility, and we’re always working on something new. But when my boyfriend started a new grad program, I was faced with the possibility of moving from Minneapolis to the Los Angeles area.

Because Astro is designed to be a remote company, I thankfully didn’t have to choose between being with my boyfriend or keeping my job. I can essentially work from anywhere — so I just packed up my car, drove across the country, and continued to work remotely for Astro from California.

One of the biggest adjustments in this move was making the shift to 100% remote work. There are many pros and cons to this lifestyle, and it’s definitely not for everyone. While the flexibility can be nice, it can also be quite lonely sometimes. Here are six things I’ve done to make my transition to the remote lifestyle a little bit smoother:

1. Over-communicate online

People always say that communication is key… and well, they’re not wrong. Working remote means that you are extra accountable for keeping your teammates up to speed on what you’re working on and how it fits in with the bigger company goals. If there are gaps in communication, over time you might start to feel siloed and disconnected from the rest of the company. Like many other teams of our size, we rely on Slack for the majority of our communication.

Within Slack, we’ve also integrated tools like Geekbot and Donut. Geekbot is a replacement for daily standup meetings that helps the team keep everyone updated on what they’re focusing on for the day. Donut is another bot that randomly pairs team members for a weekly meeting with the purpose of getting to know each other over a video call. It’s the digital equivalent to grabbing a coffee with someone at the office that you’d like to get to know better.

Geekbot
Each team member shares a daily “Status Update” with Geekbot

We also rely heavily on Zoom video calls for longer conversations that can’t be properly discussed over Slack. In addition to our company-wide meeting each Monday, I regularly check in with my boss twice a week over Zoom.

2. Compromise on time zones 

There’s a two-hour time difference between Minneapolis and Los Angeles. But because the majority of the people that I work with are back in the midwest, I’ve found that it makes things easier if I stick as closely to their work schedule as possible. That means starting my work day a bit earlier and ending it a bit earlier than most people on the west coast. This ensures that there’s enough overlap with my team members in case I have any questions or need to hop on a quick call. Plus, it helps me to avoid LA rush hour traffic, which I can’t complain about. 😉

3. Create a daily routine

If you’ve never worked remote before, you might be under the impression that remote workers just sit on their couch all day and take video calls in their underwear. Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not the case! At least for me it isn’t. You’ll learn quickly that it’s extremely hard to get work done if you’re too comfy.

A trick that’s helpful for me is to get ready as if I’m going into the office. I do my makeup, get dressed, and have a cup of coffee all before I sit down at my computer. Weirdly enough, putting my shoes on makes a big difference in my productivity too. It’s all about tricking yourself into being in a productive mindset. Much like you have a nighttime routine to signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep (wash your face, brush your teeth, put on pajamas), you can build a morning routine that signals that it’s time to get to work.

I also like to schedule breaks into my routine. It’s easy to just sit at your computer and eat lunch, but instead I like to take a deliberate pause for lunch and spend time away from my computer. Sometimes I’ll go for a midday run to help clear my mind and think about work in a different light.

4. Join a coworking space

If you’re like me, you’ll probably get sick of working from home after a few weeks. I’d go days where I didn’t leave the house except to go to the gym, and after awhile it starts to take a toll on your morale. So, I joined a coworking space! It’s an open office space with a big mix of remote workers, freelancers, artists, and small startups — with coffee, beer, and kombucha on tap. I got a flexible membership so I can come and go as I please. I typically work from my coworking space three days each week, and I spend the other days working from home.

Not only is the coworking space a great way to switch up my work environment, but it’s also an awesome way to meet people. Since I’m new to the state, it can be hard to make friends when you’re a remote worker — but coworking has offered me opportunities to get to know other people in my situation.

5. Have the right tools for your workspace

Just because you’re not working out of an office doesn’t mean you don’t need the proper tools to do your job. I personally have three must-have tools for my setup — strong WiFi, a standing desk, and Luna Display.

A strong WiFi connection is a no-brainer. Since most of my collaboration with my teammates is done over Zoom video calls, I don’t want to deal with video issues due to a poor connection.

Having a standing desk in my home office is more of a personal preference. So much of my day is spent on the computer, so I like to offset that by standing and working.

Finally, I use Luna Display every day to turn my iPad into a second display for my Mac.  Part of the reason that we built Luna was because as a company, we understand the pain points of a remote workflow. I love it because it’s easy to travel with and super simple to set up — whether I’m at my coworking space, a coffee shop, or on an airplane.

Luna Display
My coworking space setup with Luna Display
My standing desk at home

6. Schedule time to hang out with your team IRL 

Even with the slickest remote setup, nothing can fully replace the value of face-to-face time with your team. Something I’m very grateful for is the two years that I spent working in the same city as my boss before going fully remote. During that time, if I had a question or a new idea, I could just turn to him and have a quick conversation right there. It was casual and effortless. That time really helped to give me and my boss a solid understanding of our working styles, so by the time I went remote, there were minimal opportunities for misunderstandings.

As a team, we also have biannual “Astro-weeks,” where everyone flies into Minneapolis for a week to work side by side. These weeks are less about being productive, and more about hanging out. We go to a lot of happy hours, share meals, and just spend time getting to know each other. Our Astro-weeks are what makes the rest of our remote collaboration much more genuine and smooth.

. . .

If you’re thinking about making the switch to full-time remote work, remember to approach it as an iterative process. You and your team should always be striving for ways to make the experience more natural. It might feel awkward and frustrating for awhile, but it will get easier over time.

Interested in joining the Astro team? We’re hiring! View our open positions here.

Astropad’s Breakup with Third-Party Styluses

Third-party styluses: we need to talk.

When we launched Astropad back in 2015 — software that turns your iPad into a graphics tablet for Mac — we wanted to give artists tools to create high-quality digital art anywhere they liked, however they liked. At the time, the Apple Pencil didn’t exist, so our only choice was to ensure compatibility with nearly every major third-party stylus on the market, such as Wacom, Adonit, Pogo, Hex, and FiftyThree — in total, over twenty different models! But despite extensive stylus testing, we found that there wasn’t a single stylus that met our quality standards for Astropad.

And then everything changed in the fall of 2015 with Apple’s announcement of the Apple Pencil. Finally, we had a stylus that was made specifically for the iPad and guaranteed pixel-perfect precision. The Apple Pencil just worked, and it felt like a dream come true for digital artists.

As we refined the Astropad experience over the next few years, we found ourselves in a fundamental dilemma: We wanted our users to have the freedom to work with the tools they wanted. But were we willing to compromise the quality of their Astropad experience for that freedom? To get to the bottom of this, we took a hard look at stylus performance and user analytics to understand how third-party styluses were stacking up against the Apple Pencil.

An early screenshot from Astropad’s website

Third-party styluses have fundamental performance issues and engineering complexities

If the stylus you’re using has performance shortcomings, your overall experience in Astropad isn’t going to be as smooth as we built it to be. In our extensive QA testing, we’ve found that pressure sensitivity in third-party styluses is not as refined as the Apple Pencil. Malyse McKinnon, Astropad’s Director of Artist Relations, notes that these styluses “generally offer limited pressure range, requiring artists to apply far more force than what feels natural for illustration and painting.” Other shortcomings include inconsistent palm rejection and difficulty pairing with the iPad.

A clear example of these performance issues can be seen with Wacom’s Bamboo Sketch and Bamboo Fineline styluses. In Wacom’s iOS Stylus SDK Release Notes earlier this year, Wacom shared the results of an update that “greatly improves line waviness issues” when using the Bamboo styluses on iPhones. Below are Wacom’s “Before” and “After” shots of their improvements for the iPhone X. You can see that even after the improvements, there is still significant line waviness — an unacceptable flaw for pro digital artists.

Taken from Wacom’s iOS Stylus SDK 2.1.6 Release Notes

From a development perspective, Astropad code interacts differently with each third-party stylus brand, presenting unique engineering challenges. Adam Mika, Astropad’s Senior iOS Engineer, explains his frustration that whenever there’s a new iPad or iOS update, “an artist may find that their stylus is completely incompatible with Astropad until the stylus brand updates the stylus SDK. In these situations, it feels like the quality of an Astropad user’s experience is out of our control.”

It was clear on our end that third-party styluses delivered poor performance and extra engineering hurdles for Astropad. But before we did anything drastic, we wanted to know: were digital artists still using these styluses? We dug into our app analytics to look for answers.

The proof is in the app analytics

First, we took a birds-eye view of our stylus history since Astropad’s inception. We’d like to note that we only collect anonymous data in aggregate, and we do not track information from individual users.

In the graph below, you can see a quarterly breakdown of stylus activityeach moment a stylus interacts with the iPad in Astropad from January 2016 through March 2018. It’s clear from this graph that third-party stylus activity has stagnated compared to the Apple Pencil.

So we know that the number of third-party stylus activity has fallen far behind the Apple Pencil. But we still wanted to know — are die-hard third-party stylus users actually working effectively in Astropad? To find out, we compared stylus pairings versus stylus activity in Astropad. Stylus pairings indicates styluses that have been initially connected to the iPad and Astropad each month. For example, someone may have paired a Wacom stylus months ago, but if they’re dissatisfied with performance, they might not use the stylus (triggering stylus activity) in Astropad every month.

Non-Apple Pencil users aren’t very active!

In the month of May 2018, 21% of new styluses paired with Astropad were third-party styluses, but third-party styluses make up a mere 2% of stylus events for the month. So even though people continue to pair their third-party styluses with Astropad, there is an overwhelming preference for Apple Pencil.

Discontinuing Astropad Support for Third-Party Styluses

So when we lay out the evidence, here’s what we know: Third-party styluses deliver poor performance and create added engineering complexities. On top of that, Astropad users are reaching for the Apple Pencil more and more to create art. Third-party styluses may have once been a cheap way in the door for new digital artists — but they no longer make the cut when it comes to quality tools for serious digital artists.

As a company, we’re committed to ensuring the highest-quality experience for Astropad users — and with that commitment, we can no longer honestly recommend third-party styluses for artists. After careful consideration, we have decided to discontinue support for third-party styluses and optimize Astropad for the Apple Pencil.

This change will be rolled out gradually over the coming months, and we plan to completely remove support for these styluses in Astropad Standard by the end of 2018. That being said, we will remain open to supporting future third-party stylus models if they meet our high standards of quality.

We’re excited about this change because it means that we can focus on building the smoothest Astropad experience — so that our users can focus on making great art.

Why We Value Our Phones: The Human Impulse for Social Connection

A Psychiatrist’s Perspective on Humans, Our Devices, and Our Distant Past

How do you feel when you realize you’ve forgotten your phone? Anxious? On edge? It’s a state of mind that interests Dr. Katharine J. Nelson, a board-certified psychiatrist and Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota. She’s worked with people who, when their phones are placed in an adjacent room, report feelings of grief, loss and distress. 

Why do we have such intense feelings about our devices? There are many explanations, though a recent conversation with Nelson brought two to light that, interestingly, date back to our earliest days as human beings. 

1. We associate connectivity with survival

“In our early days,” says Nelson, “at the beginning of our species, we worked together to survive. Hunting, gathering, sharing caves. Our social connections kept us safe. They were literally a matter of life and death.” 

In other words, we are a species primed to value social connections because our underlying self-preservation mechanisms believe these relationships are key to our survival. So when our phones—devices that today facilitate a sizeable amount of our overall social connections—are out of reach, we may feel that our access to the social connections that keep us safe are out of reach as well. This can, in turn, lead to distress, says Nelson. 

 How much distress? It varies. “There’s definitely a bell curve,” says Nelson, noting that some of us will feel this distress more acutely than others.  The point is that, for many of us today, our phones provide the social connectivity that we are primed to feel we cannot live without. 

2. We’re afraid of not contributing 

Just as we have a primal desire to connect with others, we are also driven to contribute to groups, says Nelson. This explains, in part, why it’s so difficult for us to ignore alerts on our phones. 

“When you get a text or notification, there is a tension to check it—to be connected, to fulfill your role in the conversation,” says Nelson. “Your body can actually experience the risk of not responding immediately as a potential threat.” 

Why are we threatened by the idea of not responding? “We don’t want to offend ‘the tribe’,” says Nelson, “because primal brain regions fear this could be associated with a reduced chance of survival. We don’t want to hunt or gather alone. We don’t want to be ‘kicked out of the cave’.” 

Our desire to protect ourselves via group contributions can manifests itself online in a variety of ways, says Nelson. For example, in an effort to contribute to the group, some people will post a lot, feeling that the more they post, they more they’ve done for the group. Others will contribute via feedback, liking everything that needs to be liked, commenting on everything they feel they should. “It’s all a way of maintaining safety,” says Nelson, “of doing what you feel you can.”  

If we have, as a species, come to view our phones as tools that help us act on our deeply held impulses to connect and contribute socially, then it’s easy to see why so many of us keep them close and use them as much as we do. 

At the same time, it becomes difficult to imagine what might motivate us to use our phones less. Perhaps the solution may be found through the intentional use of our higher-level, more evolved thinking—a mindful cultivation of awareness of the irony at play—which is that our frequent use of our phones to connect socially actually often diminishes our capacity to connect socially with those standing right next to us.  

Building Your Startup’s Social Media Strategy From Scratch

Using social media to communicate brand values, not just to sell a product

Social media marketing has only recently begun filtering into academia. During my time in business school and reading marketing textbooks, it was only ever discussed in an abstruse manner — as if professors weren’t confident they knew more about it than the millennial students, a generation which is presumed to be consummate social media experts.

I find this belief to be only partially correct. Millennials are certainly experts of consuming social media, but that doesn’t equate to being experts at crafting social media. I’ve come to find that creating a meaningful brand is a far cry from the mindless consumption that characterizes typical social media perusal.

So when I started as a social media intern at Astro HQ, I had little education or experience to lean on. I was tasked with building the social media presence for the startup’s new product Luna Display that had recently launched on Kickstarter. Startups move fast, so I needed to learn a lot in a short amount of time. And while I would never profess to be an expert on social media marketing, here’s what I’ve learned along my journey:

1. Be creative with your resources 

Most startups do not have the luxury of a large marketing budget. Big ad-campaigns, professional photo shoots, and sleek videos usually aren’t an option. This can make crafting original content really difficult—which is where user-generated content (UGC) comes in. UGC, which is simply content created by consumers or end-users, is an excellent way to build your social media (Instagram in particular).

If consumers are genuinely enthusiastic about your product, they will be thrilled to have the opportunity to be featured on your social media page. The Instagram for our other product, Astropad (@astropadapp), has been built entirely by forming a symbiotic relationship with our customers: they give us great UGC and we give them a platform to show their work. Other great examples of using UGC can be found on (@away), (@kickstarter), and (@themelt).

2. Define your brand values

Perhaps the central tenet to marketing is defining your brand. Without a well-defined brand identity, it’s nearly impossible to build a successful marketing strategy. Before building your social media strategy, you must carefully construct the message you wish to send, and use this as a lens for all content you post. One of the best examples is Patagonia, which has an extremely well-established message of outdoor adventure. Every picture, video, or story they post imparts an adventurous feel.

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment 

Because Luna had just launched, we didn’t have a good baseline on what types of content resonated with customers. Initially, I was hesitant to try anything new because I was scared that it would perform poorly. However, I came to realize that poor performance can be a good thing; it helps to refine your strategy, giving you a better idea of what your followers want to see. Building a successful social media page requires an iterative approach, which is also more formally known as A/B testing — comparing two variants against each other to see which performs better. 

The simplest example of A/B testing is sharing the same piece of content multiple times, each with different captions. This can help to gauge what your audience best responds to: shorter vs. longer captions; more clickbait-ey vs. more sophisticated captions; call-to-action vs. no call-to-action. Through our A/B testing, for both Luna and Astropad, we found that showing the product in use elicits the best engagement.

Toxic Rick 🙃 Made @by_nick with #Astropad and Adobe Illustrator

A post shared by Astropad (@astropadapp) on

4. Forget about traditional marketing

The mission of marketing is to sell a product or service, so the idea of voluntarily limiting promotion seems counterintuitive. However, this underscores the difference between traditional marketing and social media: traditional marketing tells you about the product, while social media marketing tells you what you can do and who you can be by using the product. People don’t follow brands’ social media to be inundated with direct advertisements; they are choosing to follow brands to obtain content curated to their interests. It’s important to be cognizant of this difference, and always be cautious and conservative in the degree of self-promotion in your social media.

Squarespace, a self-service website-building company, exemplifies this idea in their marketing: instead of promoting their product directly, they promote inspiring stories of photographers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, and basically any person or business that does intriguing work — all of which use the Squarespace platform to help run their business. On Instagram, they routinely post beautiful pictures of everything from nature to restaurant interiors, which have no obvious connection to their brand. Only through the captions is it revealed that these pictures relate to a business that is a Squarespace customer.

In a similarly oblique way, on Twitter and Facebook, the company shares content that only indirectly relates to their product. For example, over the Tribeca Film Festival weekend, Squarespace shared a City Guide of the best places to grab a bite to eat in NYC, with all the restaurants included being Squarespace customers. 

5. Engage with your followers

The integration of UGC into your strategy is perhaps the best opportunity to engage with customers, but it goes much deeper. For most startups, social media is the company’s customer service department. When a customer has a problem with their product, the first place they turn to is social media. For this reason, it is imperative to have an established social media presence for customers to turn to when in need of help. And, of course, it is necessary to ensure all social media accounts are regularly monitored to provide customers with the help they seek.

Aside from support, social media also gives you the opportunity to interact with your customers and show you care. It’s as simple as liking pictures they tag you in, replying to comments, and generally showing that there is a human behind the account. A big part of the allure of startups is that they are not a faceless, monolithic corporation.

6. Patience, patience, patience

It’s important to remember that building a brand takes time. Even if everything is done perfectly, the follower count does not materialize overnight. It can be extraordinarily frustrating to see your follower count increase by only a single user at a time; it may feel like you’re going nowhere. The key is to be patient. As long as the following number is going up, however slowly it may be, then you are not failing. It is not until your follower count completely stagnates that it is time to consider a different approach.

What I’ve come to find is that all of the things I wish I had known coalesce to form a single, overarching idea: the companies with successful social media are not selling a product, but rather, are selling an idea. This concept is nothing new: “don’t sell the steak — sell the sizzle” goes back nearly a century. However, I find that social media capitalizes on this idea in a way traditional marketing rarely does, and for this reason, social media marketing has in many measures surpassed traditional marketing.

Startups can leverage this to achieve extraordinary success; examples such as GoPro, AirBnB, Kickstarter, and Squarespace are a testament to the power of coupling a great offering with social media content that inspires customers to do. So, to craft a successful social media platform for your brand, keeping this lens locked in is crucial.

The Style Problem for Artists: Why Variety is the Spice of My Professional Life

Guest author Kyle T Webster discusses the benefits of portfolio variety. Kyle is a member of the Adobe Design Team, an artist for The New Yorker, TIME, and the NY Times, and the creator of those Photoshop brushes you like.

I have been fortunate enough to support my family as a freelance illustrator for the past decade and I have seen my business grow with each passing year. But when I stop to think about one of the biggest secrets for my staying power in a famously shaky business, I am frequently wary of sharing it with students or new artists in my profession. Why? Because it goes against what nearly every working artist or teacher advises young artists to do, if they want to be ‘successful.’ I’m talking about style consistency.

I strongly believe that my illustration business thrives on offering clients a range of visual styles in which I can work confidently. In school, through books, and at illustration conferences, I was instructed to create a portfolio in a singular style and with a consistent “voice” so that art directors could easily understand how I would approach an assignment. This makes perfect sense, and I see the logic in this instruction. However, I was never happy drawing only one way, and I suspect most artists feel the same. Sometimes you want to be quick and messy, and sometimes you want to be slow and steady. Sometimes it’s all about shapes, and other times, it’s about line, or perhaps texture or color. Or sometimes, and perhaps most importantly, you just get incredibly bored with the same old thing.

So when I was ready to start my own business, I created a website for my illustration work and put stylistically varied images in the gallery, against the advice of peers and instructors. At first, there were only three distinctly different looks to the samples of work I shared. However, given what I had been told about the importance of style consistency, this already felt daring and dangerous. Would art directors decide that I was reckless and not dependable? Or fickle? Flighty?

No. Calls and emails came in from new clients and it was never a problem. Not once. These clients simply referenced whichever piece(s) they liked in my portfolio and asked for something similar. And that was that.

Emboldened, I started adding everything I liked to the gallery, whether or not it bared any resemblance to my other work. Now, I sometimes think my portfolio reads like that of an illustration agency that represents a dozen artists. And though some might disagree, I think this is a really good thing.

So, why all the hubbub about style? It could be that we are confusing it with quality. Certainly, if you work well in one style, but are not as confident working in another, then it makes sense to leave that less confident work out of your portfolio. Showing good work is, without a doubt, a top priority. But many artists I know do many things well; some ping pong comfortably back and forth between completely different techniques with ease. And yet, they only focus on presenting one of these techniques to the masses. This is a tragic missed opportunity. If the potential is there to accept twice as many commissions, then why not take advantage of this? Last year, I illustrated three advertising campaigns (with excellent budgets, it should be mentioned) in three completely different styles. Had I only presented one style on my website, I would have only had the opportunity to produce one of these campaigns. The other two would have gone to different artists.

I am well aware that many commercial artists have built strong, lasting careers on a single way of working. This model is proven and it can certainly be done. I just don’t think it’s the only way, and I think educators and institutions do aspiring artists a disservice by insisting that it is.

Three benefits of working in more than one style:

1. More jobs.  

If an art director works on several different magazines and knows you work comfortably in different styles, then you have just made their job easier by allowing them, in a pinch, to assign multiple jobs to you in a single week for different titles. Additionally, you increase the chances of an art director liking your work by giving them a menu, rather than a single dish. Not everybody likes beef.

2. New markets. 

Is your current style working well for spot illustrations in magazines, but useless for book covers? Create some new art samples in a completely new style and bust down the doors of the illustrated book cover market. Or, how about opening up some passive revenue streams with the art that just doesn’t “fit” into your portfolio? Make prints, make shirts, make comics, make wallpaper, make stickers …

3. Play. 

Allowing yourself the freedom to try new mediums and approaches will not only open up new business opportunities, but it will allow you to grow faster as an artist and have a lot more fun in the studio.

If it were not for the enjoyment I get out of experimenting with new looks and new ways of making marks, I never would have created my Photoshop brush business. It was born out of my love of mixing media, but having little time to break out the paints, especially with deadlines looming. Now, that business accounts for a considerable portion of my annual income. I think this case alone is a testament to the value of playing with style.

Artists: have a look around your studio. Are there sketches or experiments that you love madly, but have never thought about sharing publicly because they are so inconsistent with the work you are known for, as a professional? Take a leap and share them now. Somewhere out there is a person who wants to pay you for it. And if your regular clients don’t like it, what harm can come of this? They already know you can work beautifully in a style they like, and they will still hire you.

Growing Your Team Starts with Knowing Your Weaknesses As a Founder

Startup Hiring Practices, Inspired by Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself

One of the personal challenges I’ve faced in growing Astro HQ has been making the mental shift from being a developer to a business person. Other technical founders often bring on a “business person” to lead the day-to-day business operations. But for Astro HQ this was a role that I wanted to challenge myself to grow into.

To help myself with that growth, I’ve been picking up business and management books. One book which has stuck with me is Managing Oneself by the great Peter Drucker. Here are a few thoughts inspired by Managing Oneself and how I’m applying them to my own company.

Acknowledge the downside of every strength

Ask yourself — what do people compliment you on? What do others say you are good at? Those are your strengths. This requires a level of self-awareness and a willingness to accept your weaknesses.

Typically, your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. For example, I’m good at seeing the big picture, the forest for the trees. But that also means I can miss the details. On the other hand, someone who is great with details will also get lost in them and fail to see the larger goal.

I’m also good at starting new things, but I’m terrible at following up. I’ll get something like a new blog started, but I’m not disciplined at making sure posts get written on a regular basis. I’m good at getting a new product shipped, but I’m not so good at making sure bug fixes ship on a regular basis. I’m good at building new things; I’m bad at operations.

Focus on refining your strengths, not improving your weaknesses

Conventional wisdom says that you should be a well-rounded person. If you’re weak in some  areas, you should focus on improving those soft spots.

But Drucker doesn’t like conventional wisdom. He argues that if you focus on improving your weaknesses, even with lots of effort you can only improve to be average or competent in that area. But instead, if you focus on understanding your unique strengths and refining them, you can become a superstar.

Intuitively this makes sense: focus on what you have a natural inclination for and you can go well beyond average. If you focus on improving weak areas, you’ll have a lot of “debt” to pay off before you’ll even “break even” with average level abilities.

Choose a cofounder who balances you out

Once you know your strengths, it’s time to double down and work on improving them. But what do you do about your weaknesses? Drucker doesn’t address this directly, but I’ve got my own take: Surround yourself with people that round out your skill set.

For example, no matter how many to-do lists, reminders and schedules I set, I will never be exceptional at details and operations. That’s where my cofounder Giovanni and I really balance each other out. While I’m stuck looking at the big picture, Giovanni easily dives into the details.

One way this plays out is when we’re scheduling big project timelines. I’m usually too optimistic and will estimate a six month timeline, but Giovanni will account for every detail and estimate the project will take a year. More often than not, it ends up taking nine months, somewhere in between our estimates. Giovanni’s perspective helps me have a more realistic expectation when we’re making business decisions.

Hire to offset your weaknesses

Most founders make the mistake of hiring people just like them. But when it comes to growing your team, you should continue to be aware of how you are balancing your strengths.

Our very first hire, Malyse, is another example of how I offset my weaknesses. Malyse is great at spotting the details that I would never pick up on. She’s the perfect person to do our QA testing because she can dive deep into a software issue and narrow down its source.

As Giovanni and I continued to add more personalities to our team, we also realized that we shared weaknesses as co-founders. We’ve both always disliked structure and tend to thrive in chaos and ambiguity. But our next two employees, Adam and Savannah, craved a sense of structure that we hadn’t established yet. They pushed us to build processes around how we worked as a team, which has helped us to run more smoothly and efficiently as we’ve continued to grow.

Build a team that’s better together

Working with people that excel where you are weak creates a symbiotic relationship. You compensate for each other so you can focus on refining your strengths. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s like complementary colors — more powerful together than apart. So when you think about hiring, pay special attention to how that person will round out your team and play off of your weaknesses. You’ll know you’ve achieved this when everyone on your team is better than you in at least one area. 

Capturing Productivity Flow: Secrets from Three Senior Engineers

Some days, we accomplish very little at work. Some days, we accomplish a lot. On our productive days, we are likely experiencing what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow—a juicy, somewhat mysterious, highly focused mental state wherein we are completely absorbed in and effectively completing a task.

Can flow be invoked? What can we do to experience it more often? I asked three highly productive senior engineers how they maximize flow. Here are the top takeaways from those conversations.  

1. Seize the good days 

Matt Ronge is the CEO and co-founder of Astro HQ, makers of Astropad and Luna Display. He describes his experiences with flow as inconsistent. For example, he wrote the majority of the Astropad code in intense highly-productive periods, but he’s also no stranger to dry spells.  “I’m very up and down,” he says. “I have periods of high production, then nothing.” 

Because Matt has learned to expect these flow irregularities, he has in turn learned that, when he is in a state of flow, he needs to stay there as long as possible. “I try to really take advantage of those times,” he says. “I try to stay in that state as long as I can, because it’s not a place I can always kick myself back into.”

2. Know thy self  

Andy Rahn, molecular biologist and senior developer at Iconfactory, has identified the times of day when he can expect good work, or flow, to occur. “I usually have three blocks of good work in me each day,” he says. “There’s one in the morning, one after lunch, and then one that wraps up around 7:00 P.M.”

Armed with this awareness, Andy is able to plan for and accommodate his personal patterns. For example, these patterns impact when he walks his dogs and his evening plans at home. “That evening block drives my wife nuts sometimes,” Andy says. “We work through it. The point is that you need to experiment with yourself and pay attention to what works.”

3. “Mise en place” 

Zach Johnson is a game developer and co-founder of Space Mace. For Zach, flow demands a certain level of preparation, and he believes that many of us are quick to undervalue this prep work. “It’s an easy place to beat yourself up,” he says, “thinking the only real work is the flow work. When you do that, you’re not honoring yourself and giving yourself credit for all the work that has to happen before you can have flow.”

Matt agrees. “Think of it like cooking,” he says. “A lot happens before you actually start cooking. There’s all this time where you are just preparing. Making a plan, chopping up the onions, chopping up the carrots, putting it all in little bowls. Then all of the sudden, you are cooking.” 

4. Flip your hourglass

It seems that flow, or the inspiration needed to get into flow, appears during or after some sort of physical or mental reset. For Andy, this reset occurs on Sundays when he plays music with friends. “It’s totally different than my job,” he says. “It just flips the hourglass.”

These “flips” of the hourglass can take many different forms. Einstein’s flip, for example, was shaving. For Matt, it’s a shower. “I go through these periods where I have no ideas,” he says. “Then I’ll be in the shower one day and have eight great ideas. It’s strange.”

Perhaps the simplest flip, the one you have no doubt heard before, is to just walk away from the task for a while. “Sometimes, your awareness of your inability to accomplish something is actually feeding into your inability to do it,” Andy says. “That’s when you need to walk away, relax, believe in your ability to accomplish the task later, and give yourself a chance to reset.”

5. Respect your mental health

Is there a link between flow and mental health? Andy thinks there is. He says that he is “almost always happy,” and he feels that this makes flow relatively easy for him to achieve. “I should be counting my lucky stars for that,” he says. Still, on some days, flow eludes him too. “Some days, you just have to recognize that your brain can be unwell in various ways,” he says. “It just happens. It’s like getting a cold.” 

Zach also feels that mental health and flow are connected. When asked what tip about flow he’d give a younger version of himself, he said this: “Honestly, I would tell my younger self to get into therapy. There is an emotional experience to flow. You have to stop judging yourself. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and emotions. That is how you get into flow more easily.” 

6. Have clear goals

Csikszentmihalyi identified “clarity of goals” as a key component of flow. For Zach, this is central. “You have to keep asking yourself, ‘What is the goal? Why am I here?’ If you can’t answer those questions, you’re not going to find flow.”

Flow is goal oriented for Andy too. It fact, he feels that his periods of flow begin with the visualization of a solution. “You’re constructing this mental model, and you’re trying to imagine how to get through it,” he says. “Once you visualize the solution in your mind, you are driven to execute on that mental plan before it evaporates. If you can build up that desire, you’ll find flow. At that point, it’s almost insatiable.”

How do we find flow on projects with foggy objectives? Zach suggests inventing a deadline. “When the goal is unclear, time often becomes the constraint that forces you to invent the goals,” he says, “because then you actually have to get shit done.”

7. Try short intervals

As senior-level talent, Andy, Matt and Zach have all experienced the effect that increased responsibilities have on flow. “The more responsibilities I have, the less time I have for flow,” Zach says.

The remedy? Finding flow in short intervals of work time. Zach says that these days, flow only lasts 15 or 30 minutes; when he was younger, it lasted longer. “Flow, like everything else, evolves,” he says. 

Flow for Matt has changed a great deal too. “I used to think that I needed a five-hour block to get into flow,” he says. “I think I may have thought that because when you are in flow, you lose track of time, and it feels like you’re there a long time. But if you timed it, it’s probably not that long. I’ve learned that I can actually get a tremendous amount done in a much shorter period of time.”  •

 

Finding Your “Product-Market Fit” as a Creative Freelancer

Settling into a sweet spot as a freelancer isn’t easy. There are so many tricky elements to navigate — finding clients, determining your rate, managing a new workflow. But perhaps the most overlooked element is finding your place in the market. How can you be sure that potential clients are looking for your skill set? Do you have what the market wants?

To get to the bottom of these questions, I sat down with Andy Miller (aka Dr. Pizza). Andy’s a freelance illustrator and the host of Creative Pep Talk — an award-winning podcast designed to help you make a good living, making great art. In my interview with Andy, we’ll take a closer look at why finding the sweet spot in your career starts with self-awareness.

Your podcast helps creative freelancers apply business theory to their careers. When did you realize that freelancers need help with this?

I had a lot of positive momentum in my career right after I graduated from college. But a few years into the working world, I lost the momentum and fell flat on my face. I was so frustrated with my creative career that it felt like rock bottom.

While some people turn to drugs or dark vices during their rock bottom, I turned to business books and marketing podcasts. That was the stuff that didn’t come naturally to me. I dove really deep into business theory, and spent a good four years figuring out how to apply those concepts to my own creative career. It was a ton of work — almost like translating a foreign language.

I felt a huge hole in the market for this sort of business theory “translation” for creatives — but it just didn’t exist at the time. I realized that if I was wishing for this content, then lots of other people were probably wishing for it too. I decided to start Creative Pep Talk so I could help other freelance creatives make a living making art.

How did you start a podcast without any podcasting experience?

Tim Ferris always says that if you have a grand idea you want to pursue, what would it look like if it was easy? You start by cutting out all of the parts that are stopping you from doing it.

The thing stopping me from starting a podcast was that I didn’t want to figure out the complicated technical elements. When I stripped it all down, the core thing that I wanted to deliver was a short pep talk about creative strategy. So I bootstrapped the whole thing — I didn’t invest in a microphone, I just recorded it right on my iPhone.

My first episodes of Creative Pep Talk were super rough. But I started off really minimally and learned how to make it better over time. Twenty episodes in, I bought a real microphone. One hundred episodes in, I had a sound engineer take over the editing. It was a very gradual process to get to where the podcast is today.

When did you know you were on to something? Did you see gradual or sudden growth in your audience?

I always used to think that when I found “it” — that thing I had that people really wanted — that it would come with a quantity of response. I expected it’d go viral, there’d be millions of views, and that’s how I’d know that I’d found “the thing.” But the truth is that the quality of feedback trumps quantity of feedback.

Growing my podcast listenership was always very gradual. When I first started my podcast, I was making one episode very week. After ten weeks, I only had 100 people listening to the podcast. And after one year of 50 episodes I still only had 500 people listening to it.

The only reason that I kept going was because the quality of the feedback was better than anything else I’ve ever done. I had never before had a creative endeavor where people would regularly send me emails saying “I cried my eyes out to this episode” or “this episode changed my life.” I’d never made any art that had that quality of feedback. So I took that as a sign that even though the “quantity” wasn’t there yet, it was worth going after.

What advice do you have for creators who are struggling to get their work noticed?

In your creative journey, you’re always trying to answer the question: what do I have that people want? What are you doing that people are responding positively to? It’s tricky to figure out because it requires an enormous amount of testing and self-awareness.

The business term for this is product-market fit. It means figuring out what you’ve got and tailoring it so that people actually want it. You have to come to the market with something that people actually need. When people wonder why their work isn’t catching on, it’s because nobody needs it!

There’s a Picasso quote that says “the meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away.” So much “business talk” focuses on giving away the gift. But it’s equally important to spend time figuring out what your gift is.

How do you approach finding your “gift”?

I like to see my life in seasons. If you’re a farmer, then there’s a time to harvest  and a time to plant. I try to be keenly aware of the season that I’m in.

It’s important to have seasons where you take a guess at what your gift is and where you think you fit in the market. Give it everything you’ve got for a season of your life. Then, gather the feedback and “data” and look at what worked well and what didn’t work well. From there you can decide whether you’re going to press on in that direction or pivot.

Finding your “gift” means actively pivoting through your career and constantly looking for that sweet spot. Approaching my career like an ongoing science experiment is the thing that’s gotten me closer and closer to the sweet spot of doing what I love and people loving what I do.

What does it look like to be in a “season” of refining your passion?

I’m going to use “the ring” from The Lord of the Rings as an analogy. The ring symbolizes your romance and dedication to your craft — it’s the essence of your passion. You put on the ring when you’re going to focus in on one specific thing.

For example, let’s say you want to be a book cover artist. When you put on that ring, you dedicate yourself to making tons of book cover art, you market yourself as a book cover artist, and you do everything in your power to help you achieve that dream. You wear that ring for six months or a year, and you go all in.

But you can’t keep “the ring” on forever?

There are definitely seasons to take the ring off. Some people have the mindset that if they keep doing the same thing over and over, eventually they’ll get where they want to go. But being on either side of the ring for too long can be detrimental.

If you keep that ring on for too long, you’re going to lose yourself — like Gollum. Before you know it, you may have wasted years of your life going down a path without ever stopping to reassess if it’s working or not.

There’s a time to have the romance, dedication, passion, delusion, and focus — and there are other times when you need to step back and evaluate if it’s time to change course.

It sounds like a theme to your success is having self-awareness.

Absolutely! Finding your gift, settling into a sweet spot with the market, and staying productive — they all come from an obsession with self-awareness. It’s understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are, and being open to changing course. •

. . .

Check out more of Dr. Pizza’s artwork here or listen to his podcast here.

 

 

7 Design Portfolio Tips From a Hiring Manager

We’re currently on the hunt for our first full-time designer at Astro HQ. After combing through hundreds of applicants, I’ve noticed a few mistakes that designers make over and over again when they submit their work. Leaving a solid first impression is everything when it comes to making it to the interview roundHere are a few tips to polish your portfolio and stand out as a designer: 

1. Make sure your portfolio is easy to access

It’s surprising how many portfolio links I’ve clicked that have lead me to a “host not found” error. Double check that your site is up and it isn’t password protected. And if I have to contact you first to get a portfolio link, chances are you’ll get skipped over instead. It might sound like a minor inconvenience, but when you’re one of 500 applications, I don’t have time to hunt down your portfolio.

2. Break up your work by category

I love it when a candidate’s work is broken up into categories, such as — mobile, web, illustrations, branding, etc. It makes it much easier for me to hone in on the skills I’m looking for. For example, at Astro HQ we care a lot about mobile UI/UX design, but branding skills aren’t as high of a priority. So it’s great if I don’t have to wade through dozens of branding pieces to find the mobile UI/UX work you’ve done.

3. Highlight what you’re most proud of

Many portfolios I check out are HUGE, and it can be overwhelming. Instead, choose some of your favorites in each category and make those the first pieces of work I see. That puts your best foot forward and doesn’t require me to find the gems among dozens or even hundreds of portfolio pieces.

4. Show less process, more design

Many portfolios bury the final design under pages of research, user interviews, and wireframes. While it’s nice to see some of the design process, let’s be honest — I’m mostly interested in the final result. When working with a visual designer, what counts is the effectiveness and appearance of the final design. Understanding your process is something that I’d rather learn more about during an interview with you. At a minimum, put your final design at the beginning so I can choose whether or not I want to delve into your process.

5. Use high quality assets

It’s tough to judge a portfolio piece when it’s highly compressed and pixelated. It also doesn’t reflect well on a designer’s attention to detail. It’s hard to tell — is that part of the design or is it a JPEG artifact? Please save your image assets as high quality JPEGs or PNGs. Better yet, make it so that I can click on it to get a super high resolution copy for when I want to inspect a pixel perfect mockup.

6. Get rid of the dated stuff

Your portfolio doesn’t have to contain everything you’ve ever worked on. It’s best if it’s a highly curated selection of your favorite and recent work. Some portfolios I’ve encountered have work dating back to the early 2000s with heavy shadows, gradients and skeuomorphic elements that look really dated today. It leaves the impression that you haven’t done much recent work and I’ll wonder if you’re keeping up with design trends. Don’t get me wrong, the best designers know when to break from the trend — but that also requires working within what’s current.

7. Include a stretch piece

The problem with design trends is after looking at hundreds of portfolios, they all start to look the same. I see the same bright colors, with the same translucency and gradients over and over again. That shows me you can produce (or copy) designs that look modern and trendy, but it doesn’t show me your range. I want to see your creativity come through. After all, designers are called creative professionals for a reason! Show me something wild and crazy, and that you’re capable of innovative design that could be the next trend.

. . .

We’re looking for a talented Visual Designer to join our team. You can read more about the position here.

 

What Ten Years Can Do: Patterns of Artistic Success

I am 36 years old. I believe this makes me just old enough to be in a position where I am presently bearing witness to the recently achieved, artistic success of a handful of friends. I believe I am witnessing what I am witnessing among these select colleagues because it takes roughly ten years to really make it, and so those colleagues of mine who are 1) roughly my age and 2) got started in their mid 20s are now just ripening.

It has been inspiring — to observe these creatives, to watch their stories play out over the years. It’s also revealed some patterns. When I look at their trajectories, from their very first days in their field to their very first, real validations of success, here is what I see: an ordinary, unassuming start; a rather uneventful first five years; a tipping point, followed by a snowball effect wherein impactful things start happening with greater and greater frequency; and then, right around the ten-year mark, something really positive happens that marks the arrival of that person’s artistic success.  

My friend Susan McKinney’s ceramics career follows this pattern; I was lucky enough to have had a front row seat to most of it. Her first ten years are chronicled briefly below. It’s her hope and mine that this at-a-glance peek at her first decade in ceramics will inspire you to launch your own artistic career—and to stick to it for the seemingly very necessary span of at least ten years.

An At-a-Glance Look at One Ceramicist’s First Decade

Years 1-2: Ceramics Classes at a Community Studio

An Oklahoma native, Susan McKinney gets her first job out of industrial design school and moves to San Diego. She loves the beaches but, as the months pass by, she starts feeling unhappy at work. She doesn’t like designing cell phones. She doesn’t like sitting at a computer all day. So she signs up for a ceramics class at a local community studio. “Ceramics has this long history of having therapeutic qualities,” Susan says. “That’s why so many people do it as a hobby. I had no idea it would be an influential part of my life, like it is now. I just did it because I got good feelings from it.” And so she continues at the community studio, for roughly one day a week, on and off, making little pots on a kick wheel, for the next two years.

Susan’s early ceramic work
Years 3-5: Weekend Pottery Classes in San Francisco

In 2010, Susan gets a new job at an industrial design firm in San Francisco. “You know how it is when you move,” she says. “It’s stressful. I knew I needed to sign up for a pottery class. I knew it was a way that I could be grounded—a way for me to keep my shit together even if it was just for a few hours at a time. So I just kind of continued. It was never all that serious. It was just a way to relax on the weekends. I’d go for months without doing it. But I always knew I should keep doing it.” 

Year 6: The Hand Building Discovery

In 2013, Susan starts rolling out clay, just like cookie dough, on her dining room table. She cuts patterns and pieces out of it. She starts twisting and braiding the pieces together, curling them, blending them together by hand. No longer does she need a classroom and access to a wheel. With hand building, she can work from home when she has time, then fire the pieces at the studio later. “On week nights, after work, I’d get a burrito on the way home, eat half of it, then get to making stuff,” she says. The flexibility helps Susan work on ceramics more often and more deeply. “I felt free when I was doing it,” she says. “Once I started hand building, I dove in a lot deeper. I got more and more into it.” 

Hand building ceramics at the dinner table
Year 7: Elaborating on a Technique

Susan keeps hand building at home, then firing her work at the studio. The pieces are small—mostly jewelry—but she’s always trying new things. One day, she starts weaving the clay. “I was already using twisting and braiding techniques to make jewelry,” Susan says. “I really just took those basic ideas and expanded them—doing things with clay that are usually done with fabric.” Around this time, Susan sees an old, beautiful basket at her grandmother’s house. She decides she wants to weave a basket out of clay. 

Experimenting with weaving clay ribbons
Year 8: A Breaking Point

When it comes to ceramics, Susan has ideas and techniques that excite her. But she has no time. Her day job in San Francisco is stressful. She works long hours. “I reached a breaking point,” she says. “I wanted time. I wanted time to focus on the thing that makes me happy.” What if she took a few months off of work? She saves money and starts applying for residencies. She is accepted to two: one in Greece and one in Denmark. She takes a 3-month sabbatical from work and packs her bags.

Year 9: The Sabbatical

In both Greece and Denmark, Susan’s accommodations are in quiet, rural communities. She has access to materials and a kiln. And, she has time. For three months, she works on nothing but ceramics. Increasingly, her work becomes more three dimensional. “In Greece, I made a basket every day,” she says. “In Denmark, I saw these beautiful flowers, and I started weaving petals together.” Abroad, Susan realizes two important things: the first is that, with dedicated time and facilities to make things, her work is progressing quickly. The second? That she is very happy. She writes a letter to her boyfriend: “If I’m this happy doing this, then I would be stupid not to keep doing it when I get home, right?” 

Select finished baskets from Susan’s time abroad
Year 10: Making Time, Making Space, Making It Big

Back in the States, Susan returns to work. For six months, she works while hunting down contract work. When she has enough, she quits her day job. With more control over her schedule, she’s able to split her time between paying work and her ceramics pieces, which are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to transport. “You can only do this at your dinner table for so long,” she says. Susan becomes a member at a new studio where she can both work and fire; her work continues to evolve. A short time later, a friend shares Susan’s work with her connections at a high-end home goods manufacturer and retailer. The result? The retailer commissions Susan to work on a housewares series.

“It sounds so cheesy,” Susan says, “but it feels like my dream has come true. It took time—I think that’s where people get frustrated, when things don’t happen right away—but you just keep making little, deliberate choices. And you have to keep making them. And then everything will come.” •

One of Susan’s 2018 pieces

Lean more about Susan’s work here.