Breaking Away



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Guest Post By Tony Conrad True Ventures (Partner) - about.me (Founder/CEO)

There are lots of people (brilliant, high-achieving, incredibly successful people) who regularly turn off their phones, close their iPads and let their minds recover from the effects of an ever-increasing tendency to always be plugged in, tuned in and turned on. Call it meditation or simply being in the moment, the time these people take to disconnect from technology is rumored to lead to longer, healthier, happier and more productive lives, as well as increasing familial bonds and personal satisfaction.

Unfortunately, I’m not that guy. Most of the founders/entrepreneurs I know are not that person.

As a founder/entrepreneur, you live a life where you are always “on.” Even before our age of connectivity, the original American founders—people like Rowland Macy, Henry Ford—succeeded in large part because they made their companies their entire lives to put things in motion, envisioning at their company’s inception a way of life that doesn’t exist yet. That’s what you have to give to it. You have to make tons of sacrifices. Sometimes that includes your family. Sometime yourself.

It’s not all bad. There’s a lot of flexibility that happens as a result of being constantly plugged in. It’s what enables me to slip out in the middle of the day and go to a parent-teacher conference. It’s why I can wake up in the morning and work out before I go into the office. But at the end of the day—if I’m being honest—being turned on and tuned in all day long has at times reduced my capacity for real connection. It’s easy to turn my phone off for 30 minutes to sit down and have dinner, but while I’m physically separated from my device, I’m not turned off. Often, to be honest, I’m sitting at dinner with my family and I’m thinking about what emails I have to reply to when we’re done. And, to be clear, I’m very much in love with my family.

So many of us go through the motions, but we’re not connecting in a meaningful way. And frankly, that has characterized a lot of my interactions with people over the past 20 years. More often than not, I’m not really able to be totally in the moment. As much as I want to believe I am, I’m not. I think it’s true for a lot of founders/entrepreneurs, especially those who are trying to turn their idea into a habit.

And then an extraordinary thing happened to me. In August, I took my family to Ladakh, India. And, for the first time in my life, I was forced into the moment. And it was amazing.

Ladakh (located between Kashmir and Tibet) is one of the most sparsely populated regions in India, renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture and sometimes called “Little Tibet,” as it has been strongly influenced by Tibetan culture. Ladakh also has a very spotty network, limited cell coverage and no Internet in the mountains. The most “technology” I saw in Ladakh was a few hours of electricity each afternoon that allowed me to recharge my phone so I could take photos. That was it.

 Breaking Away

My first day off the grid was liberating, but I was still dialed in. I was still thinking about what was going on at work, and even non-core stuff like which photos I wanted to share on Twitter and Instagram. But by day three or four, I just stopped thinking about all that stuff. And once I realized that I wasn’t thinking about all that stuff, I was incredibly surprised. It might have been the altitude of Ladakh (12,500 – 21,000 feet), which requires you to move slowly, but I felt like everything slowed down to a pace at which I could really experience it. I enjoyed my family at a depth I haven’t felt in a long time. I was present with them. I have never felt more in the moment.

 Breaking Away

It got me thinking that I hadn’t probably been truly present like that since I was around 10 years old. Like a lot of founders/entrepreneurs, my entire life has been spent pushing forward, and I’ve leveraged stress and motivation and goals and achievements (that virtuous cycle) in a way I’m really proud of. But it comes at a cost.

The power of experiencing a few days of living completely present, completely disconnected from technology, was that I returned from Ladakh exceedingly energized and focused.

From a work perspective, it created the space in my mind to enable me to see the forest instead of the trees. On the flight back, it became crystal clear to me what I felt needed to be done for about.me’s next product evolution: it had to be the feed in our new web dashboard and mobile app. As a team, while we were working on these projects, we were also working on a lot of other stuff that seemed important, but in reality, didn’t have the same ability to impact our trajectory. By taking a step back, and in this case, a step outside, the day-to-day grind, I walked back in the office from my vacation and was empowered to have a conversation with our team about stopping everything and focusing 100% of our energy on the feed in our web dashboard and mobile app. In my opinion, disconnecting is what enabled that clarity to focus on areas that will impact our trajectory in a meaningful way.

And it has. Since we launched our new dashboard and app earlier this month, our engagement and retention has grown to record numbers. The number of users logging in and interacting with other users is at an all-time high. Traffic, time on site, page views and visits are up. Daily active and monthly active users are at an all-time high and growing. Early mobile data is super promising, we’re averaging 20+ profile views/sessions and people are coming back to the app at 3x the rate of our previous app. And the qualitative inputs are super encouraging and flattering.

Yes, I came back to work full-speed ahead, but my time spent unplugged allowed me to come back and have a clear conscience for the first time in a long time. Before this trip, I would never be the guy to say “you need to disconnect; go off the grid,” because until now, I considered it a bit selfish and unproductive. And while it is something you do for yourself, it’s such a gift to everyone and everything you come in contact with and it resets you in a way that enables clarity around what really needs done. That’s the power of it. That’s why it matters. It’s an incredibly powerful experience and a habit I think we can integrate into our lives as founders and entrepreneurs.


Tony Conrad Breaking Away

Founder about.me & Sphere. Partner True Ventures(WordPress, MakerBot, Blue Bottle Coffee).
Animal Whisperer, Triathlete, holder of Serious Parking Karma & Pour-Over Drip Coffee Skills. I’m an unfortunate Cubs fan, lover of Languages, Art, Architecture and a T40 National Co-Chair of Technology for Obama. I grew up in a small Indiana farming community. Since, l’ve lived in San Francisco, New Delhi, Jakarta, Chicago, New York and Paris.

 Breaking Away

  • Paul

    Awesome perspective on unplugging not only being a selfish thing to refresh your brain, but how it is a gift to everybody you come in contact with. I have enjoyed an analogous perspective twice before. The first instance, was having my first full time job at the age of 25 being a big-lawfirm business litigation attorney. Instead of letting my identity be tied to my job as an attorney, I decided that I was not a lawyer. Rather, I was a surfer, snowboarder, friend, and music and food enthusiast – my job as a lawyer simply helped me accomplish those things that I enjoyed as my identity. The second instance, was when I recently quit my job as a securities litigation attorney to found a startup tech company solving a problem that my clients’ and i encountered in nearly every case. Now, I will have to unplug occasionally for me and those around me.

    Great post.

    Increasing communication, transparency, and accountability in contracts: http://www.contractcloudinc.com

  • http://RogerEllman.com/ Roger Ellman

    Valuable insight and relation of your own personal realization. Your writing here, illustrates that this, disconnecting, is not just theory but is highly valuable. So many times this leads to or massively helps keep companies focused on their biggest end goals. Hopefully it often means greater clarity as to how to serve the customer and thus ServingExperience above all else, before all else!

    Wishing you a chance to do this again soon!
    Best,
    Roger