The Best Times of Your Life

In the last episode of The Office, Andy Bernard says, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ole’ days before you’ve actually left them.”

The Best Times of Your Life

Have you ever wondered if the best times of your life are behind you? How do you know when you’re in the best times of your life? How do you know if there are still good times to come?

I remember sitting with my best friend, eating pizza, and watching TV while laying back in our recliners. My friend turned to me and asked, “What if this is the best time of our lives and it’s all downhill from here?” The year was 2001 and shortly after we each lost our jobs, moved apart, and September 11th happened. Things change.

What if there isn’t one best time in your life, but “episodes of greatness” – pockets of time in different times of your life that can be considered the best times of that era?

While there are many years I cannot consider the best times of my life, I’ve had many periods I consider the best parts of my life. Those episodes always include the following factors:

  • Actively spending time with people I love
  • Basic needs are met (ie. secure job and location)
  • Working on a project or something bigger than myself

If you’re wondering if your best times are behind you, look at what made those times great and vehemently seek out those same conditions in the future. If your friends or family don’t have time for you, first make time for them, but seek out new experiences. Get out of your comfort zone. Eventually the new zone will become comfortable too.

If your basic needs aren’t being met, first make sure you are safe and that you have reliable housing and income. That’s easy to say and sometimes very hard to do. I understand. But realize that things do get better through incremental progress, even if it’s slow. Make one change a month and you’ll be a completely different person in a year.

If you aren’t working towards any big goals or are aren’t part of a team working on something bigger than yourself, it’s hard to feel fulfilled in life. Not everyone can find their purpose in life, but you can make an effort to work purposefully, and through that work, feel fulfilled and happy. It could be one of the best times of your life.

Seektivity – My First Failed Startup

This is a story about Seektivity, the idea I had for an activity and event locator app that I worked on, but never completed. While I did a lot of fun things growing up, I wouldn’t say I had a lot of fun. I grew up in an environment of scarcity. There was never money to play games or buy snacks. While I got to participate in bike rides, Boy Scouts, church activities, and the occasional trip to an amusement park, I didn’t go to as many movies, arcades, and social events as I would have liked to growing up. #firstworldproblems

Kids Park

The summer before I entered 3rd grade my parents moved to Indiana and by 5th grade I was walking with a neighborhood friend back from the store when we came up with the idea for an activity park for kids. It would have the “normal” stuff like arcade games and go-karts, but also weird and dangerous stuff like hot air balloons, hang gliding, bicycles that fly, recumbent bicycles, and a zip line. It would also have spa-like attractions such as a lounge, a pool, and an indoor eating area.

Kids Park

In August of 2012 I had an idea for an app that would “facilitate play”. The idea was born out of a desire for anyone to improve where they live (wherever they live) by communicating and facilitating activities in their community. I proposed an app called Seektivity or Outure or something else as a new business for me to run. I began looking for feedback and criticism of this idea (and whether or not they wanted to be a part of it). Initially nobody gave me any feedback at all and no one wanted to help. I began defining what the app would do:

  • It will allow people to create paths/routes for others to follow based on GPS tracking (gamification and/or nature trail creation from public streets and paths)
  • Incorporate geocaching element if wanted (again with the gamification element to outdoor activities)
  • Allow others to find and post activities to do (based on a Foursquare-like interface where users can add activities, set them to reoccur or occur once)
  • Facilitate the creation of activities/games (allow users to turn their life into a game, their town into a game, but basically just make their lives better/funner)
  • Allow users to upload/add what equipment they have (this allows users to find activities that match their equipment ie. pickup hockey games)
  • Monetized by selling equipment/things to upgrade/do activities (affiliate links or ads) or by selling app
  • Predict and announce upcoming activities based on likes/equipment/past history (push notifications / emails)

I didn’t know how to program and so I decided to create a minimally viable product (MVP) using an architecture I was already familiar with to begin building the app: WordPress. Although it would eventually be a mobile app also, I decided to first build it as a website (or web app). The thinking went that worst-case scenario the mobile app would simply be a ‘wrapper’ that displays the website’s content. This is similar to how Facebook’s app initially worked.

I was able to cobble together pre-existing parts in WordPress to create an MVP that did most of the things I was looking for the app to do. I experimented with several different plugins and custom post types, but settled on GEO my WP, which “Adds location to any post types, pages or members (using Buddypress) and creates an advance proximity search.” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but logged in users of the site could add locations and anyone could search for locations.

The primary benefit the application was supposed to provide over similar apps like Foursquare was the ability to add activities and events to a physical location. WordPress would allow users to add a location via a post and tag it using WordPress tags, but those who followed behind wouldn’t be able to add tags or events to that location without having editor permissions or by using the comments functionality of WordPress. This was enough to have users start to use and test it.

Seektivity

I loaded up the database with several places and activities so that there would be something to search for, but it didn’t survive the first interaction with a user. She typed in “tennis”, which wasn’t in the database anywhere so she saw little value in the application. Welcome to the chicken and egg problem. One way to get around this would be to attach this application onto Foursquare’s database and use it for locations, and then adding events and activities on top of that.

In January of 2013 I contacted a local iPhone app developer and said:

I am looking for a developer to code an app that is like Foursquare for activities and events rather than just places. It will need to store user account information on a web server and be able to use GPS mapping tech to locate the user in space. They should be able to browse activities and events around them or do custom searches without logging in. With an account they can add activities or events. Places should exist as close to once as possible in the database so an address lookup feature would be necessary. Each event should also have privacy settings and be able to invite and get checked into. Users should also be able to comment or add meta tags to an activity or event. Activities can occur based on a set of criteria I’ve come up with. I have tables and diagrams and wireframes on how all this works, I just need a developer to help code it up.

He said it would take at least 2 months at $10,000 a month to get to a MVP. I decided to wait, but that first user, Joy, thought the idea was good enough to urge me to keep working on it so I thought I’d take 2 months and learn Ruby on Rails, which I started to do in March. I was working through Michael Hartl’s Rails Tutorial, but I couldn’t even get through the first chapter. Even at the most beginning levels, it was still over my head.

Reflections on a Failed App

Joy thought it would be a good idea for me to document my thoughts on the development of Seektivity at this moment so that when people are writing a book about my future success they will be able to give a correct account of how the company and app got started. Even though this probably will not happen, I thought it would be a good exercise in figuring out what went wrong. Before that I’ll start by describing a little bit about our backgrounds, how we met, and what we have been up to lately.

Joy grew up around presidents, astronauts, and famous writers. Her father ran a large Christian organization in Colorado and is well connected. She helped friends make millions of dollars with one of her ideas and one of her friends ended up marrying a millionaire. She married an Air Force pilot and after having four kids, started her own interior design company. After dating a NFL player from Wisconsin, she ended up marrying a dentist in Indiana and that is how she met me.

I grew up around computers, the Internet, and farmers. My father worked for General Motors in Indiana and was well liked at his job. I helped friends start businesses and helped small business owners survive and thrive. One of these businesses was called Neighborhood Geeks, where I worked part time as a computer technician. After moving to Indiana, Joy called Neighborhood Geeks to help setup her children’s computers for school and that is how we met.

I worked for Joy off and on for several years at her home, until eventually also taking over the website management and marketing functions for her husband’s dental practice. Years later I would also take over the IT work at the office and then assist with a staff transition period when Dr. Reese was between managers. It was during this period of time working in the dentist office for 9 months when I first shared the idea of Seektivity with Joy.

Before I worked full time at the dental office I was a business analyst at a regional bank. During the day I would daydream about starting new business ventures all while running a side business of IT and web consulting at night. One of these ideas was a search engine called Seektivity. The idea didn’t get very far – just a search engine that used Google search to deliver Google Ads via search results, but I liked the name enough to hold onto the domain.

The summer I started working at the dental office as interim manager I would go on long walks through Tipton to exercise and think. It was during one of these walks that I decided that I should start an e-Commerce business – one that sold stuff to “facilitate play”. I thought I’d use my Outure™ brand to make an outdoor adventure company, but after doing some customer interviews found that there was more of a need for finding and sharing things to do, which brought me back to Seektivity.

Joy initially thought the idea was good and encouraged me to build it. I worked on the specifics and even created a web version as a prototype, but when faced with programming obstacles beyond my reach I dropped the project to focus on areas where my web design and IT skills could be better used: eCommerce. I began to work on building the original Outure idea and went looking for a partner. Joy was excited to help, but she couldn’t stop thinking about Seektivity.

Immediately after New Years 2013, while vacationing with her family in Hawaii, Joy finally had time to clear her head and it was through this clarity that Seektivity came back to mind. At the same time, back in Indiana, I was explaining the idea to a group of friends when one of them turned to him and said, “You know, I still think that’s a really good idea and even if you can’t build it yourself, you should try and pitch it to someone.”

When Joy came back she asked me to meet. I came to tell her that I couldn’t work with her anymore and that I was moving on. She understood, but wanted to share how she had come to think about Seektivity while on the beach in Hawaii. She said that a group of people wanted to go fishing, but had no way of finding someone to fish with. It was something that Seektivity would have fixed and this is how her interest was renewed.

Her interest in the project inspired me to ask her again if she’d like to be a part of making something great. She said she wanted to change the world and that she believed that the business had the capability of connecting people and creating experiences that simply would not occur without the app. She believed it would help bring people together and to be more active. It is in this way that Seektivity was born.

I AM thinking ALL THE TIME about possibilities with Seektivity…as I travel, ideas and options for the app become so evident!!! It is an Erich “DUH” moment — why it has taken us this long to capitalize on it is mind boggling!! -Joy

There’s nothing like doing something to realize what you need to do next. This happened to me when I was first developing Seektivity. When I actually could use the thing, my perspective changed a lot on what the product actually was. Design sure does matter a lot. Obviously Apple is a cliche example, but I’m thinking “Eventbrite” vs. “Foursquare”. Both allow user-generated content, but one is ‘cool’ and one is not. The difference? Design.

I considered making Seektivity using Foursquare’s API but even in the briefest of research I glimpsed that the idea violates their API terms. In other words, you can use their data like a data set and run analysis’ on it and make your own ‘pivot tables’ out of it or you can publish to it, but you can’t use it as a address database for a whole other service like I’m wanting to. I’m not sure I’d want to spend all that effort doing that either since one click would disconnect my whole app.

By February of 2013 somebody else made a Seektivity app called Shoutt. It wasn’t exactly the same but pretty neat and it actually worked. I signed up. I think my idea has more sticking power in the midwest where I live. My use cases are more practical I think than theirs. It’s all about the use cases. But use cases don’t matter if your app doesn’t work. As of this writing their app is still up and running. Meanwhile I’m writing this blog post.

Epilogue

By September of 2013 Joy and I had started an ecommerce company called SkinnyCoconutOil.com with her son. I was onboard as an SEO and IT advisor. My bio reflects what I was trying to accomplish at Seektivity:

I’d like to help people meet more people and do more things. I hear so many people say they don’t know what there is to do and don’t know who to do them with. I’m not talking about boyfriend/girflriend matchmaking – I’m talking about the question of how to make new friends and how to find new things to do. In a world with an overwhelming amount of information, people are more isolated than ever. I want to help fix that.

This problem is not from a lack of information, but from a lack of organization of that information. If Shoutt is not successful, someone else will be. In December of 2012 Foursquare added the ability to add events to a location. This problem is real and software like Foursquare, Shoutt, or Meetup can help bring people together and make the world a better, funner place. It’s all about #community.

How to Improve Your Stations in Life

While your “station in life” is a British phrase referencing your status in your community, I feel that it’s a negative term used to keep people in their place and so I’ve decided to commandeer it for a more positive use. The context of this article is about the different stations in your life. You do not have one station in life – you have many – and that’s a good thing. (Note: if you’re looking for how to improve your work life, try this article about how to work a life of purpose.)

I recently wrote about how the number of stations in your community (places you go regularly throughout your day) is directly linked to happiness. But what I didn’t mention was how to increase the number of stations in your life or how to improve the ones you already have. In this blog post I’ll share my ideas on how to get the most out of your community. The first step is to identify the community you already have. To do this I’ll give you three different examples.

My Brother’s Stations in Life

My brother lives in Bargersville and drives to Terre Haute most weekdays. It’s an hour and a half commute by car. In the morning he stops in the kitchen for breakfast with coffee (Station 1). There he’s greeted by one to three kids, depending on their sleeping schedule. When low on gas he stops by the local gas station (Station 2) where he recognizes the clerk, makes small talk, but feels uncomfortable calling them by name (even though he knows it). When he gets to work (Station 3) he’s greeted by his coworkers – some happy to see him. For lunch he goes out to the same restaurant where he talks to the same host and the same waiter. Again he knows their name, but doesn’t move beyond small talk. After he gets home he goes to his garage (Station 4) to get his mower and heads off to his first lawn client (Station 5). Occasionally he might go to our parents house (Station 6) for dinner or to drop off his kids so he can go to a nice restaurant (Station 7) with his wife.

My Friend’s Stations in Life

Erich on the Monon TrailMy friend lives in Nora. He lives five minutes by car from his work in a walkable neighborhood right next to the Monon Trail. In the morning he stops in the kitchen (Station 1) for coffee before sitting at his desk in the living room (Station 2) to read his email before heading off to work (to check his other email). He rarely stops at the gas station (Station 3) anymore and while he lives near two Starbucks (Station 4), doesn’t go there as often anymore. At work (Station 5) he’s greeted by several coworkers, but most days he goes home for lunch. When he does go out it’s usually with coworkers and he doesn’t take the time to learn more about the staff at the counter. He doesn’t know their names and they don’t know him. When he comes home at night he’s greeted by his neighbors as he drives by or when he goes for a walk with his family. On the weekends he might go to his local hardware store (Station 6) and on Sunday his local church (Station 7).

My Stations in Life

I live in Tipton, but work mostly in Carmel, but travel all around the Indianapolis area. It takes me about 45 minutes by car to get to my first job each day. My wife wakes me up, makes me coffee and breakfast with a side of water. I sit down at the kitchen table (Station 1) to eat. While I’m eating my wife makes my lunch. By the time I’m done eating she has packed my lunch in my car with coffee to go. My kids are now awake, wait by the door, and demand kisses before I leave. When I arrive at my first job (Station 2) I get a few nods. Afterwards I may go to my second job (Station 3), to Starbucks (Station 4), or to my friend’s house in Nora (Station 5). If my gas tank is at a quarter or below I’ll stop at the gas station in Tipton (Station 6) on my way home. When I walk in the door I sit down to dinner, then get up to go check on the garden (Station 7). On Sundays I go to church in Noblesville (Station 8). Some weekends I go to parent’s homes (Station 9).

How to Improve Your Station in Life

Appreciating what you have and be thankful first. If you’re not first happy where you are now, you won’t be happy ‘there’. The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, it’s greener where you water it. Your community is made up of your stations in life and it’s up to you to be thankful, appreciative, engaging, and involved in order to get the most out of it. By helping others and continually adding value to your relationships, you will build a stronger community and improve your stations in life. If you don’t live in a walkable neighborhood, walk around. It will become walkable. If you hate where you live, don’t move (yet), first find what you like about it and practice focusing on that. Be the change you want to see in your community. Start with yourself – the only thing you can change. Don’t try to change too much at a time – the longest journey begins with the smallest step. So get walking!