Cycle speed

This was going to be a post about cadence – how fast you pedal. How choosing a low gear – exerting yourself against small tasks with low resistance – is the most efficient way to pedal and the best way to go fast. It turns out its not that simple. Sometimes the bigger, slower pushes work well. But often – and especially when you’ve got a hill to climb – choosing a low gear is the easiest and fastest way to go. And at other times, even it it only feels easier… well, it’s easier to do things that feel easy. Low gear. High Cadence. Go. Go. GO.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 4: Resist the urge to do average work for average people

This is the fourth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Be a “meaningful specific” rather than a “wandering generality” – it’s the principle of concentration of force and energy to get work done.

Rule 4 ties into Rules 1 and 3 – “real work for real clients” who are “eager to pay” – and if you work at a non-profit organisation it has implications for how you work with both clients and donors.

Rule 4 and clients

For your clients, it means your service is for them. Not for people in general, and it might help your clients… but a specific product or service for their specific needs.

Take education in Indonesia as an example. There’s a huge need for teacher training and resourcing. This is true across the age-range (from pre-school to university level), across different types of school (private and government-run schools), across the whole archipelago, and in any subject area. Within each of these ranges are groups of people with different needs, and trying to serve them all will get you no-where. Trying to produce something for the “average” teacher will dilute your energy and make it impossible to make something meaningful for any individual – and your clients are individuals.

Far, far better to concentrate on the needs of a specific group (helping pre-school teachers at small charity schools to teach reading more effectively) and do it well. If you’re good, you might end up with something that grows and can be made more widely applicable.

Rule 4 and donors

The same principle applies to your donors. It’s hard to go to the world and persuade them that your cause is important, and that they should give you money. It’s much easier to find people who already think what you do is important, and convince them that you do it well enough to be worth supporting.

Again, be specific – who are you helping? Why those people? Why this service? What difference is it making? Tell stories of change in the lives of specific people to explain the work that you do.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2 of 4)

This is the third-and-a-half in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2)

In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.

Eager to pay and scaling the non-profit

This is where the bootstrapping mindset comes into its own in the world of non-profits and social programs. If you can find clients who are not only eager to “pay” time, attention and effort to user your product or service, but to actually pay money… you know you not only have a product that they think is valuable, but one that can cover some of its own costs – or better, cover all of its own costs. Or better, cover its own costs, with a little left over.

We’ve pretty much reached this point at the literacy non-profit I work for in Indonesia, and the potential is huge. Instead of looking at our bank balance and asking how many groups we can help, we’re looking at ourselves and asking how we can get better at what we do so that we can serve more groups – because the growth is paying for itself.

Our program is far from polished and perfect, but it seems to be working. In the old days we had a list of people waiting for our program – waiting for us to find the money to be able to train them. Now the people on the waiting list are finding their own money – and the wait is a lot shorter.

In fact, doing it this way has allowed us to serve more groups as a gift – not ‘for free’ but ‘at our expense, as a gift, because we love what you do’ – than we did back in the day when it was free.

Finding the clients who are eager to pay might well help you get your product or service to more of the people who are eager, but can’t.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 1 of 4)

This is the third in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do

In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.

Eager to ‘pay’ and non-profit work

At first glance, talk of clients ‘paying’ – and ignoring the rest – might seem like the antithesis of non-profit or community-based work. But it isn’t, and here’s why.

People always have to pay.

If they don’t pay money, they pay time, or effort, or attention – all of which they could have spent elsewhere. So even if your product is free, you have to find people who are eager to use it. And if it’s free and no-one wants to use it… well, it’s just not good enough yet.

Don’t get me wrong, you might have something technically great – but you need to think of your product or service not just as the thing itself, but as the thing plus the ‘wrapper‘ (of good communication and relationships and trust, for example) that’s necessary to get your people to buy.

I’ve seen this repeatedly at non-profits I’ve worked for: we’d make something valuable available for free – a highly qualified doctor giving free consultations, the free English lessons that everyone in a community said they wanted, a course for mothers-to-be in a poor community that exactly fit their needs and was far better than they could get anywhere else… and almost no-one came, or they came a couple of times and drifted off. There were lots of factors at work, but at the end of the day, we simply weren’t good enough, and couldn’t build an audience. Really – it’s possible to fail to build an audience for a doctor in a poor community with no healthcare. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t done it.

As a wise man once said, 

If you know how to solve a problem but can’t communicate it to others in a way that actually results in it getting solved… you don’t actually have a full solution.

Driverlesscroc – rehashing an old Seth Godin blog post

And the times when we succeeded in building programs that got traction, were popular and impactful and in a couple of cases, became self-sustaining, we managed to find something small that stuck, and to grow a program that worked from there.

Start with the minimum viable product – the smallest and simplest thing you can offer that works – for the smallest possible audience, and build from there. Because if that group of people – the group most eager to pay – won’t pay, you need to go back to the drawing board.

If they will pay – then maybe you’re onto something. Now you’ve got clients, hopefully clients grateful enough and gracious enough to be patient as you work through all the implications of what you do, smooth off the rough edges and start learning to do it better. If and when it’s ready, your clients will tell their friends, and you’re off to the races.

Build, measure, learn

This post is a leap from Rule 2 of bootstrapping the non-profit: Do it Now.

This is such a key idea, and so interesting and relevant to Do it Now, that I thought I’d do something about it like, write now.

The idea is that when you’re developing a new business or organisation, there is so much that you don’t know that planning has less value – it will inevitably change when you know more.

Because of this, your focus needs to be on trying things out, working with what you do know – and your best guesses – and testing them out in the real world.

So we get the lean startup cycle:

The Lean Cycle
From Open Classrooms: The Learn Startup (this is supposed to be an embed but it isn’t working for me!)

The relationship between this and Do it Now is that the fastest way make progress – even if it’s only progress in knowing what not to do – is to go through this cycle quickly. One of the best ways of increasing your cycle speed is to take action – now!

Counter-intuitively, the more uncertain a situation it is, the more useful this approach – and cycle speed – can be:

When a project can be approached with a high degree of certainty, the best activity is to plan. As we have high confidence that the plan is likely to succeed, the best strategy is to execute what we know will work well. The focus can therefore be on executing the plan and monitoring progress.

When a project carries a high degree of uncertainty, the best activity is to learn. As any plan would make too many assumptions that would be hard to justify. The best strategy is to increase the speed at which we learn until we have discovered which plan would work the best. The focus must be on learning and discovery and checking any assumptions that we have.

Open Classrooms: The Learn Startup

The meat is on the street

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches, wasn’t renowned as a systematic religious teacher.

Apparently people would ask him “John, when are you going to teach us the deep and crucial stuff – where’s the meat?”

And he’d answer: “The meat is on the street.”

That is, “Go out into the world. You will learn the deep truths of faith by doing it.”

Books, podcasts, blogs are very useful in learning to make positive change in the world. Ideas are wonderful tools.

But we learn our most important lessons by doing – by taking action.

The meat is on the street.


A crappy bridge

I didn’t manage to photograph the bridge, but I’ll post one of a similar bridge next time I see one.

It was a pretty sorry affair over a murky stream, just wide enough for a motorbike. Bamboo slats, no siderails, a strangely drooping curve.

Crappy infrastructure.

But here’s the thing: that bridge is an act of will. It’s there because someone wanted to cross the river, and they made a bridge.

It’s easy to criticise crappy infrastructure in developing countries and not ask this question: who built it, for whose needs?

It’s easy to talk about cultutes of dependency, and there is often reason to. But ask yourself this question:

When was the last time you built a bridge?


The Indonesian proclamation of Independence is 25 words long.

We, the Indonesian people, proclaim our independence.

Details concerning the transfer of power etc. will be arranged with care, and in the shortest possible time.

Jakarta, 17th August 05.

On behalf of the Indonesian people.


*05 – Japanese Imperial year 2605

Soekarno and Hatta’s declaration is the nation-building equivalent of a Minimum Viable Product.

Like a lot of MVPs, a huge amount of groundwork had been done to make it possible, and there was still almost everything to do.

It’s short, and it leaves plenty of questions open, but once it was out in the world it was enough to see if anyone was buying.

73 years ago, a nation did.

Happy birthday Indonesia – Merdeka!