This advice applies to at least 30% of articles on HN
For anyone curious, http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3555237. Post compliments of Redditor 'aceex'.
Also, we can infer from that: "if you're on HN now, take the rest of day off (and don't feel guilty) because its lost anyway" and surprinsingly this tends to be true for me.
This curiousity is what, in my mind, makes the community so interesting. Unfortunately it's also what leaves so many of us stuck in the mud, obsessively reading articles from each and every frontier of our hacker world.
Then there are those entrepreneurs who have read nothing yet stumble their way to success. The code is atrocious, their algorithms mind boggling, but they're the ones with the customers. The customers might be complaining, yes, but there's almost always time to fix the product, especially when you have both the motivation and money from those customers pushing you.
Edit: Yes, yes, yes, my mind took a brief vacation and decided to reignite a decade old tag line from elsewhere. Skip the one small issue and pay attention to the content of my post -- I don't think a single error warrants downvoting.
I've stopped reading articles or watching screencasts which, although interesting, is not immediately actionable. Instead, I'll bookmark it so I feel that I can get back to it when needed and I move on (in practice, though, I rarely go back through old bookmarks but its psychologically soothing to bookmark them).
So why am I reading your article, swombat? It has no specific advice about startups that I can determine. Perhaps the topic is "how to stop wasting time"? If so, haven't you written exactly the kind of generic article you're railing against?
That was a bit of a cheap shot, but I love the recursion involved so I took it anyway. :) Now on to the substance.
The problem as I see it is twofold: first, the person consuming the content they enjoy never sees it as something that's self-indulgent. There's always some kind of reason they can come up with to justify it. Many times it can be an upcoming task. The mind is a wonderful thing. This is one of many reasons why it's good to have somebody to report to.
Second, and more to the point, you make a delineation between things that have "...concrete and obvious value to you..." and "...randomly reading all sorts of articles..."
I'm not so sure that such a delineation actually easily exists. What I've found is that I pick up material on problem X I want to solve and once I get to the meat of the answer -- which sometimes takes many hours -- it either ends up being a sales pitch or so tied in with some particular method of doing business as to make it unusable.
Startup advice is contextual. It's very difficult to do generically. So if I want people to love me on Facebook, I pick up an expert's guide to Facebook marketing. He talks about his business of making CDs for indie bands and how on Fridays he started giving out free CDs as part of a contest. This drove up likes and engagement 100-fold.
Great idea -- if I had a product. Or if I had a product people would enjoy and talk about if it were a contest prize. Not so good if I'm offering a service.
Or let's say I want the SEO rating of my business blog and landing page to increase. So I pick up a few books and lectures -- specifically tailored to my concrete problem -- and consume them.
I can tell you how that story ends. a) don't be a sleazebag, b) make sure the technical details of your site are dialed in, and c) do things like write great content to make your business popular! Then people will come and share by word-of-mouth! Popular businesses get lots of traffic! mirabile dictu.
You can spend tens of thousands of dollars for that advice and end up pretty much where you started. All they're really saying, which is completely true, is that if you can make your business popular, people will talk about it. True, but useless.
Perhaps a technical example will help. Let's talk building systems than can handle huge amounts of traffic. So let's assume, without an idea of what my business does, that I want to make sure it fits on a stack that can grow massively and easily as my customer base grows. So I go out and buy some books or listen to podcasts on building huge systems. (By the way, there's a huge number of people doing just this. Why they are preparing to run at Google-scale without any product at all is a very interesting question).
But you know where that road ends? It ends with something like "once you have a business model, you'll know which architectural pieces you need, so then you'll be able to start designing your system". There is no easy or one-size-fits-all answer. It's all contextually-dependent.
Yes, if I had some kind of static, atomic problem that I needed advice on -- perhaps building an HTML5-enabled website -- buying little bits of atomic solutions would work. We programmers are used to buying information like this. "I need a book on AWS provisioning using Puppet" or "I need some help on typed exception handling in Java" But when you finally come up with something that is so stand-alone, it has absolutely zero business value. It's just technical information to assimilate.
So yes, I enjoy reading "How I got a billion people watching my YouTube videos which created a steady stream of income to my self-help site" But it's been my experience that, unless it's just me and I'm just impervious to absorbing information, after I finish I'm going to be left feeling something along the lines of "Wow. If I only had a business that allowed people to groom their pets with power tools, I could use every one of those pieces of advice!"
That doesn't make consuming such content useless. It just makes it a hell of a difficult thing to do. In my opinion, in order to be useful, you have to have content tailored to some long discussion you're having about a business hypothesis you're testing. It's extremely difficult to get that in itty-bitty mass-produced chunks of interviews. Not impossible, but extremely difficult.
Peer-to-peer, ad-hoc, informal communication is a million times more effective than publish-subscribe interviews or presentations. Especially in areas where the information is nuanced or highly context-dependent. In my opinion the reasons you're seeing people shell out money to all kinds of startup-assistance services and sites is NOT because they are receiving some terrific value from them, although I'm sure each has its fans. It's because there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people desperately trying to do exactly what you suggest: get immediately applicable help. But they're not finding it.
How many articles that we read and bookmark do we ever go back to?
Until I started using Diigo and actively annotating each link to create a searchable feed based on my links... not quite sure how else anyone gets value of an article if they can't action it in the short term and have to come back to read it anyways.
Being in a state of 'building', we can look at the front page of hn and see what % of that on average could be a fit to help solve problems, maybe a different 15-20% for everyone? Now, which percentage of the 15-20% will hit what you're facing right now?
Even engaging this discussion wasn't one that solved a problem for making or saving money, or towards a startup. Why am I responding? Reinforcing my belief that I know the difference between reading something that truly helps me be productive in the now.
I like learning random things like anyone, but I find for me it's best done like an exercise, controlled, scheduled, focussed.
Edit: Encompassing idea: Viral sales based business plan: Build something in a field that a lot of people talk and argue about, so people suggest your product during heated debates. Has this been done?
Other tools might have similar features but it's what found me first.
"In my opinion the reasons you're seeing people shell out money to all kinds of startup-assistance services and sites is NOT because they are receiving some terrific value from them"
I think you have to also look at the entertainment factor. People are spending money because they enjoy reading this the same way they might watch a sports game or go to a movie. I guess the only issue is that (like education, religion or health) they feel the time (wasted?) is more justified because the intentions are somehow of a higher level than what is traditionally considered entertainment.
Do you really expect all the useful information to be custom tailored to exactly your requirements? If so, you might want to look into hiring expert consultants for thousands of dollars per day, not books for $10, mixergy for $25, or free blogs.
You do get what you pay for.
If you can't get something useful about tool X out of listening to how someone else used tool X in a different but related context, then I'd say you need to work on your ability to learn from incomplete information - not blame the informational medium.
"...Do you really expect all the useful information to be custom tailored to exactly your requirements?..."
No, I do not. The discussion here was about best expenditures for startup help, not about what my expectations are. In fact, my conclusion is that such advice cannot exist, why would I expect it?
And there's no blaming of the medium going on, just an acknowledgment of its limitations. It's a great medium for entertainment, and 25 bucks or whatever is a fine price to pay to be entertained. With enough listeners, odds are that somebody somewhere will get that spark they need from each podcast, so it's definitely worth it as an exercise from the publisher's standpoint. The math works out completely different for the consumer, however.
The question you should have asked me is this: okay smarty-pants, how would YOU go about doing this?
I don't have a firm answer, but I've been encouraged watching experts politely argue over real-world problems. So a startup approaches with problem X and two people who have been around the block take up contradictory positions and have at it, with the petitioner playing the role of questioner. As the discussion progresses, the audience can interject questions (many times using IM or whatnot) and those help pin each position down.
What happens here is that during the process of challenging the answers, a broader argument and discussion happens around whatever the problem to be solved is. This increases the "surface area" of the piece of advice and help; it is described in various scenarios and under various edge-conditions. The places where it might fit more exactly in a reader's situation greatly increases.
That's just one idea. There are others. Outlining a problem like this is a great way to start figuring out ways forward. Apologies if I only sounded unfairly negative.
Perhaps all startup advice is entertainment, i.e. entreporn, for you, but my response to that is that you need to work on how you seek out and absorb that advice, because that's not the case for everyone, so if you feel this way you're missing a trick somewhere.
Do you also think Peepcode screencasts and programming books are worthless? And yet, they never offer personalised advice. All they promise is "I will try to teach you how to do this stuff, and use a contrived example to show you how I might do it, and hopefully it's of some use to you."
Business advice is no different - if you want it customised to your situation, hire a consultant, don't read a book...
A distinction needs to be made between talking to someone knowledgeable (about anything) and reading about it. Having a conversation is interactive. The person can dial in give exact advice which takes into account your exact situation and specifics. Things that would take much much more time if you had to read about every possible scenario (which you wouldn't necessarily understand the nuance of anyway) can be covered and discussed in a conversation.
That's one of the problems that I have with advice that people read on the net about anything. It doesn't (and can't) cover all the possibilities that apply to one's particular situation.
In general you might be able to find advice regarding startups that says summarizes something in this way "young people can take the chance with a startup because they have less to loose and more time available than a middle age person who has a secure job with a big corporation, a family, and will loose seniority and possibly not be able to find a new job". So that might be a generality that sticks. Otoh change one factor in the older person's situation (say they have a trust fund) and that info is no longer as valid. A conversation allows you more easily to uncover the dozens if not hundreds of specifics that apply to an individual and what is important to them. It also allows someone to clear up misconceptions ("medical school is tough be prepared to work hard") that might not be entirely correct.
2) Sometimes you haven't even framed the problem yet. Maybe you are still exploring the idea space, trying to figure out what is valuable or not. Getting broad exposure to other ideas and technologies may help you crystalize what your venture is going to focus on. And of course there is diminishing returns here too, usual analysis paralysis warnings, etc. But a little bit of exposure every day to subjects you are not familiar with may just spark that creative bolt.
One thing I found useful was reading a set of books called 'The Naked Leader'. It essentially reduces an entire business book into a small chapter of 2 or 3 pages. I came to realise that many business books are these core points (that can be summarised in 2 or 3 pages) spread out over a couple of hundred pages.
I can't say I've never read a business book again. But it has made me very selective.
Perhaps we over rate serendipity in the vague hope something will come along and solve a current problem, or more truthfully we're looking for distraction and legitimise it by linking it to work in some way.
Either way - it's given me a new perspective. Thank you Daniel, I always find your articles insightful.
If it belongs to category 1 it is entertainment/waste of time. Else (and if good content) it is actionable, valuable resource.
If this answer gets 6 hours old without me replying with a link to such a writeup, feel free to mock me in replies.
You just need to set a very tough limit of how much time you spend reading this stuff. (During an initial week or two it should be zero, because you have to learn to fight the urge - and make sure it's not an addiction.)
Also, you should be honest with yourself - this is not real work, so don't start your day with surfing for inspiration (don't start your meal with a desert). Leave that for the evening, when you're done with work and also in a more reflective mood, so that your mind will make a better use of all the inspiration.
Its sort of lik the difference between going to class, listening to the lectures but never doing any of the homework, as opposed to going to the class, and doing the homework each night.