Category Archives: Business

Internet business advice Baloney Detection Kit

Who this is for

This article is specifically for programmers who do some sort of business online. Some it applies to both product businesses and freelancing, but mostly I’m writing this article with freelance programming in mind.


In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan describes something he calls a “baloney detection kit“. The baloney detection kit (BDK) is basically a set of mental tools that can be used to apply skepticism to any particular claim or argument.

To share an example, one item in Carl Sagan’s BDK is the fallacious ad hominem argumentative strategy, i.e. attacking the arguer and not the argument. The example from the book of an ad hominem usage is: “The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously.” (There’s no reason why an argument on evolution from a Biblical fundamentalist should not be taken seriously since it’s the argument itself that needs to be evaluated, not the person producing the argument.)

My BDK takes a slightly different form from Carl Sagan’s but the principle is the same: a checklist that you can go through to help determine whether any particular thing is bullshit.


In my endeavor over the last ten years (and counting) to create a successful online business I’ve consumed a lot of business advice from books, blog posts, podcasts, etc. I think I can pretty safely say that more than half of the advice was either unhelpful or actively harmful. Sometimes the advice was good advice but it wasn’t the right advice for my particular situation at the time. Sometimes the advice was just plain bad advice.

In recent years I’ve had a somewhat close-up view of certain colleagues, particularly freelance programmers, falling for what I clearly see to be bad advice that will for the most part only waste their time and lead to disappointment. This makes me sad and I want to try to help stop it.

Sometimes I’m even a firsthand witness to the bad advice being given. On those occasions I desperately want to speak up and say, “Wait! That’s bad advice!” but a) I’m not always one hundred percent sure I’m right and b) it would obviously be super uncool for me to meddle in other people’s affairs that way anyway. What I do feel comfortable doing is to provide a framework for detecting bullshit freelancing advice.

Before I start I want to say that it is not my goal to personally attack anyone. If you read this and say, “I bet he’s talking about so-and-so!” Maybe I am, but saying “So-and-so has given bad advice” is different from saying “I think so-and-so sucks as a person.” We all make mistakes and all advice-givers, including me, have at one time given some really bad advice. In no case is my intention to say “Don’t listen to so-and-so,” but “Listen to so-and-so except when they give bad advice.”

The online business advice baloney detection kit: questions to ask yourself about any piece of business advice you encounter

Has the advice-giver actually done the thing he or she is advising on? This to me is the most important question to ask because if the answer is no then it’s highly likely that the advice is bullshit. There do exist advice-givers who give good advice despite not having direct experience doing what they advice (Ramit Sethi comes to mind) but most advice-givers are not nearly as sharp or as honest (with their audiences or with themselves) as Ramit is. And if the answer seems to be yes that the person as done the thing that they’re advising on, go deeper. Did they do the exact thing they’re advising or some variation on it? How significant is the variation?

Does the advice-giver have examples of success? Is there any empirical evidence that this works? If the advice-giver can’t produce at least a handful of people who have successfully followed their advice, then that’s a big red flag. If the advice-giver can’t even produce a single example of success, not even themselves, then that’s a screaming-loud alarm bell. And beware of examples that seem legit but really aren’t. Are the supposed success stories examples of people who followed a certain methodology to get where they are, or did the successes blindly stumble into the success they achieved and the advice-giver is retroactively laying a narrative on top of the story to make it look like the success was a result of the methodology? Also, if you’re a programmer, it matters whether the subject of the success story was a programmer or not. The laws of nature in the world of freelance design are different from the laws of nature in the world of freelance programming.

Are the testimonials instances of actual results or just anticipated results? Here’s a testimonial I found on a real sales page, paraphrased to protect the identity of the author: “This system is great. I know my business is going to change if I follow it!” This testimonial contains no evidence that the system actually works.


I want to re-emphasize that just because an advice-giver commits the (virtually unavoidable) sin of occasionally giving bad advice doesn’t automatically mean that that person is generally full of shit nor does it mean that I think you should start ignoring that person forever. It just means that that person gives bad advice once in a while. It’s obviously useful to be able to tell which advice is the good and which is the bad.

How I remembered the names of almost everyone I met at MicroConf

If you take five minutes right now to learn the skill of remembering people’s names, I promise it will be one of the highest-ROI activities you’ve ever carried out.

The reason I make this bold claim is that remembering a person’s name is one of the best ways to instantly make a deposit in that person’s Emotional Bank Account and to make that person like you. Conversely, a failure to remember a person’s name is an indicator to that person that you don’t consider him or her important. You’ll make a withdrawal from that person’s Emotional Bank Account before you’ve even made any deposits and you’ll damage the relationship right off the bat.

(By the way, I failed at remembering people’s names a couple times at MicroConf but not nearly as many times as I succeeded.)

You’ll instantly get better at remembering people’s names if you learn one simple fact: The problem isn’t that you forget a person’s name. The problem is that you never really learned the person’s name in the first place.

At conferences you’re often introduced to people in groups. As you greet each person in the group and hear each person’s name, there are a number of things you might be doing simultaneously, such as judging the other person’s appearance, thinking about your own behavior and how you’re coming off, continuing to digest whatever was said right before you heard the person’s name, having an unrelated thought pop into your head, or any number of other things. By the time you hear the third person’s name, you’ve already forgotten the first person’s name.

The solution to this problem is to pay very close attention to each person’s name as it’s said and to take a couple steps to deeply imprint the name in your mind. When I met my new friend Ed at the conference I said, “Ed? Nice to met you, Ed. So, Ed, what do you do?” It might sound slightly silly but it feels pretty natural. It’s really very difficult to overuse someone’s name. People love hearing their own names.

That takes care of hearing the name but how do you lock it down permanently? I do a few things. One is to come up with a concept to pair up with the person’s name. I met a guy named Dele at the conference. I’m a big Hieroglyphics fan so I immediately thought of Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, which was my mnemonic device for Dele. In college I met a girl at a party named Cate who I called “Cool, Awesome and Totally Excellent”. That was my (stupid) mnemonic device for her (but effective!). Another thing I sometimes do is to imagine the first letter of the person’s name imprinted on the person’s forehead as I’m talking to the person. Believe it or not, it works. Lastly, the simple repetition of the person’s name throughout the conversation is usually quite effective in permanently implanting that name in your brain. You can repeat the person’s name out loud or just in your head to yourself.

Put these into practice and you can avoid the embarrassment of forgetting people’s names. People will be impressed by your “good memory” and you’ll be more likable because you’re signaling to the other person that you like him or her and consider him or her important enough to remember.

If you were at MicroConf 2016 and you and I didn’t get to talk, I want to meet you. Please send me an email at and tell me what you do and we can be friends.

Million Dollar Consulting

I believe I first read Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss in 2011. I thought it sucked, and I thought most of it didn’t apply to me. I thought it only applied to fancy consultants who worked exclusively for huge companies.

Over the course of the next five years I kept hearing about it, so I decided to give it another look. This time around it seemed like an entirely different book. I was clearly just not ready for its advice the first time I read it. This is a wonderful example of the fact that what you get out of a book depends on more than just what’s in the book. A book’s value equals the book’s information multiplied by who you are at the time. If you gain knowledge or have additional experiences between two readings of the same book, you might see the book in a totally different light. You might grow “hooks” that catch parts of the book you didn’t catch the first time around.

One of the things that stuck out most for me on this reading of Million Dollar Consulting was the importance of relationships as it pertains to getting clients. The author said people don’t go googling for consultants and I think for the most part he’s right. There’s too much trust necessary in hiring a consultant to just find one online and hire him. My understanding is that people like this are usually sought out via referrals. This got me thinking about how to develop good relationships with high-caliber people. One way that I’m doing this now is through my BNI group. I’ve gotten one client via BNI so far, a really good one. Another way I’ve found to form good relationships is by attending conferences.

Another takeaway from the book was the idea of getting strong “conceptual agreement” to a project before presenting the proposal. My understanding of Alan’s sales process is that by the time they get to the proposal/contract, it’s just a formality. They’ve already talked enough about the project by that time that the client is already totally onboard with the project.

I also gained a new term from reading this book that I don’t know how I lived without before, and I don’t know how I missed it the first time. The term is market gravity which in my understanding is how easy it is for you to attract clients. I used to think that the way to smooth out the boom-and-bust cycle of freelancing was to work for a number of clients at a time. I tried working that way for a while and it’s fucking horrible. What I believe now is that it’s best to have one client at a time and to cultivate the ability to quickly and easily spin up a new client engagement at the time your current engagement ends.

I would definitely recommend this book to any freelancer. If it doesn’t seem good the first time around, maybe give it some time and read it again.

How to be a good mentee

  • Make the mentorship convenient for the mentor. As the mentee, you should handle scheduling any meetings. A good way to schedule meetings is not to ask “What time works for you?” but to ask “Would any of the following times work?” and then list the times. When you meet, come prepared with specific things to talk about.
  • Show the mentor you’re taking his or her advice. Busy, successful people are especially sensitive to wasting time. Nobody wants to invest time in giving advice to a loser who’s not actually going to put the advice to use. So when a mentor gives you advice, take the advice, and let the mentor know you did, and what happened as a result.
  • Have clear goals and a clear agenda which you share with your mentor. The purpose of a mentor, in my mind, is to help you achieve some particular thing. It will help the mentor help you if he or she knows what you’re trying to accomplish. So decide what your goals are and share those goals with your mentor.

Side note: when seeking out a mentor, don’t limit yourself. I’ve been surprised by some of the famous/wealthy/busy people who have agreed to mentor me.