October 10, 2007
Tim Ferriss has the best selling business book on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers lists. “The 4-Hour Workweek" is creating an undeniable stir in the business world. Ferriss speaks six languages, runs a multinational sports supplement firm from wireless locations worldwide and holds a Guiness World Record in tango. He's also a National Chinese kickboxing champion and a Princeton Guest Lecturer. With SAP INFO online, Ferriss talks about how to make informed decisions and why companies that define their core competencies excel. And by the way, he is only 29 years old.
With all of the talents you have amassed what do you consider your profession?
Ferriss: The cocktail party answer would be writer, just to avoid lots of debate. But if people were to ask me, “What do you do?” I would say I experiment and test assumptions, with all manner of things, and I use writing primarily as a way to capture the results of that. But exploring my own thought processes, testing assumptions and experimenting has been my focus for the last few years; whether that’s related to business processes, product selection, exercise science or dating. So, I am constantly testing assumptions because very seldom is the most common way, the best way.
In the title of your latest book you propose a 4 hour workweek. Be honest, how many hours a week do you work?
Ferriss: The minimal amount needed to move the needle. I spend less than two hours per week on my income-driven businesses.
Usually people work 40 hours and more. In large corporations what do you feel like is the biggest time drain and how can it be changed?
Ferriss: E-mail, without a doubt. But the broader answer is − the biggest time wasters are things that aren’t quantified. So, in other words, something like E-mail is very insidious because it simulates forward motion without making any forward progress. It’s very important to define the desired outcome. This is perhaps the most important and universally neglected first step for accomplishing anything. Having measurable milestones and metrics for each person in a company is a necessity and will increasingly become a prerequisite to compete on a global scale.
One of your proposals is outsourcing things which aren’t your core competencies. How can global operations balance outsourcing and keeping things in-house?
Ferriss: I think that outsourcing − and when I say outsourcing, I don’t necessarily mean outsourcing to Bangalore or Estonia, but rather outsourcing from ‘within’ a company will become a necessity, rather than an option. This is not just about outsourcing, but about removing non-core competencies. As outsourcing gains mainstream acceptance, especially as new industries develop services and products just to provide that support infrastructure, the more these issues are brought into public awareness, creating more infrastructure globally. The more infrastructure that exists, the more options your competitors will have. And the more options your competitors have, the more you’ll need to focus on your own core competencies. So, the more virtual an enterprise becomes, the more results-driven versus activity-driven the enterprise has to be.
What is the best way to avoid information burnout?
Ferriss: Writing “The 4-Hour Workweek” was the result of unsustainable exhaustion. It’s fairly simple to cut away the clutter, but our default mode is to, out of guilt, strive to be in movement and that oftentimes covers up a lack of priorities. One of the most important things is determining this: which activity is the one activity, if completed, would leave you satisfied with your output for the day?
If you’re overwhelmed, it’s because you’ve not prioritized precisely enough, and it’s a continual process of prioritization. The people who are going be the highest performers are those who can multiply the effects of their core competencies by prioritizing and eliminating the time consumed by non-core competencies by outsourcing them. So, in other words by reducing your information intake, you can focus on execution.
What role does technology play in your day-to-day life?
Ferriss: Technology allows me to do a few things. First and foremost, it allows me to measure and monitor metrics like; revenue per employee, cost per order, average order size, and projected lifetime value of customers. So, I can get hourly, daily, weekly or monthly work reports from the various departments in my virtual infrastructure. It provides measurement and it applies measurement to things that otherwise would be very difficult to understand and make decisions about.
What is the nature of innovation, and is it more technology-driven or people-driven?
Ferriss: Innovation is always people-driven. It’s important to realize that technology is really just a tool for solving a practical problem. So, it doesn’t necessarily need to be smaller, faster, or with more features to be an effective solution. And in a world of this increased specialization, it will be the people and businesses that can connect the dots from different disciplines who will capitalize on the efficiencies and opportunities.
The general principles of innovation are not industry specific. For example, software engineers can learn just as much from the design firms Ideo and Frog Design just as Frog Design and Ideo could learn a lot from a book like “The Pragmatic Programmer”. In innovation and decision-making, there’s a lot of cross-pollination that can happen across industries and that is still very uncommon, which is surprising to me.
How does risk factor into decision-making?
Ferriss: I don’t take risks. People look at me and they might assume, based on some of the hobbies that I have, or some of the things that I do, that I’m a risk taker. But I really view risk as the potential for an irreversible negative outcome. Being that I’m highly quantitative and analytical I almost always make decisions based on some set of data. I very rarely make decisions without information and almost never make decisions in spite of information. That’s why I don’t gamble.
Your ideas are quite original in business world. Who is your biggest inspiration?
Ferriss: John Buxton my high school wrestling coach. He forever inspired me because of his ability to emphasize principles over technique. In other words, he was very good at deconstructing complex subjects. He focused on over-arching principles that provided his students the ability to improvise in unfamiliar situations, versus amassing a large volume of technique or tactics. So among other things, I would say he’s been one of my key inspirations for many of the things I’ve done. Outside of science and law, all rules can be bent or broken, and it doesn’t require being unethical.