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Pursuing Passion Projects: Interview with Darren Tong

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 15: Startup Attitude

This time around, instead of having a traditional guest interview, we have an in-house one. Darren has been an unstoppable force behind Alpha Efficiency and as such deserves to be recognized. I decided to probe him on his startup mentality and how Alpha Efficiency made an impact on him as a person and as an entrepreneur.

For those readers who haven’t yet got to know you, tell us a little about yourself.

I’m 33, British, married with two boys, aged 2 and 4. For most of my waking life, I work for a large UK bank (which I try to keep reasonably separate from my internet pursuits for professional reasons). Because working in a fast-paced profession and raising two fiercely independent little buggers in demanding enough, I also like to think and write about living purposefully (in a productivity meme, but it’s hard to avoid the cliches there) which is why I’m hanging around with you…

Remind me, how the hell did I get you into doing this magazine in the first place?

Hah, that’s a good question! About two years ago you and I were saying similar things in different places…then an exchange of views over GTD lead to some conversations about how we could collaborate, and before long you’d pitched me on the idea of turning Alpha Efficiency into a joint venture.

It must have been several months after that when you first proposed the idea of writing a magazine. I didn’t see it at first; You were passionate about what Type Engine were doing (they hadn’t even launched at this point) and the potential of the magazine as a richer format than a simple blog. Like so many of our discussions, I took some persuading but eventually your passion won through and we decided to give it a go.

As I look back on the decision and why we decided to leap into this, I think what tipped it was that we had something to say that nobody else seemed to be saying, and a digital publication has a certain substance to it that’s difficult to achieve with a simple web presence.

What are the highlights of your work on Alpha Efficiency? What has made you the proudest?

I’m proud of pretty much everything we’ve done on this publication. We’ve had to learn quickly to understand the quirks of the medium and the trials of productionizing a publication. Those who haven’t tried publishing in some format might think that 12 issues might not be a big achievement, but the fact we’ve stuck at it and are now into our third season is a huge point of pride for me.

Looking back at the early issues is a bit like rifling through a time capsule; It’s clear to me even just a year on that our writing style has evolved, along with our vision for the magazine. What Type Engine enables us to do has also changed, and I like to think Alpha Efficiency has grown and improved over that time.

On a personal note, I’ve benefited greatly from the rigor and regimen that writing and editing monthly brings. I think my writing has improved significantly through practice and I’ve learnt a lot from our guest contributors, as well as some professional help from Jason Rehmus over at Sweating Commas. One skill I didn’t expect to be honing was that of an editor, but as I’ve become accustomed to editing pretty much every article that goes into our magazine, I’m proud of how I’ve been able to work with others to get the very best out of their writing and I’m always humbled when they say nice things about me!

In your opinion what is your craziest hack you’ve done that saved the day?

I lead a pretty sedentary life, but there have been a few occasions where I feel like I’ve had to find “unconventional” solutions. A few years ago, during a period where I was working insane hours – night shifts, weekend work, the whole shooting match – I was leading a team that was responsible for tracking and reporting 5,000 separate scheduled tasks that took place over an IT implementation weekend. Through the course of a number of “dry runs” that involved thousands of people, it became clear that our Excel tracker was woefully inadequate. Fuelled by Red Bull and Coffee, I spent several quiet night shifts completely reworking it to provide real-time prompts, validation, error-reporting and other snazzy features. It shaved off hours of keying and checking and significantly reduced our error margin. The crazy thing was, most of the enhancements were just formula-driven conditional formatting. It was nerdy, but simple, and the whole team thought it was amazing!

How do you think bootstrapped projects compare to funded ones?

I guess by definition Alpha Efficiency is a bootstrapped project, and I think that worked out pretty well. It probably all depends on your risk/reward appetite and the scale of your ambition. Last week I was talking to someone who took a new technology venture to market with just £50,000 ($80,000) of funding – that included technology, marketing, everything. In startup terms, that’s nothing, but the project is gaining huge popularity and commanding impressive revenues even though it only has one full-time employee. Contrast that to a high-profile funded venture, such as, which received $3m in seed funding but failed to meet its commercial objectives and whose founders have (for the most part) moved on to other interests. Eye-watering budgets are no guarantee of success, and even the most financially-challenged venture can achieve great things.

Coming back to bootstrap, it’s always going to be a challenge getting the right resources – equipment, technology, people – without some kind of up-front funding. I’m not convinced it’s ever a good idea to invest more than you can afford to lose, putting your home on the line for example, but you have to be prepared to invest more personally, either in terms of money or time. Some projects, particularly those you’re happy to push along in your spare time, are better suited to this approach than those where you need a spark to ignite your idea and bring it to scale quickly.

Eye-watering budgets are no guarantee of success, and even the most financially-challenged venture can achieve great things.

What startup mentality did you apply into your personal life?

When I was a lot younger, one of my superiors said something to me that’s stuck with me ever since. To paraphrase, they said there are two kinds of people: those for whom the traditional “5-year plan” approach is appropriate; You set out your goal, plan for it and then proceed on your chosen path. For the second kind of person, this approach doesn’t fit. These individuals have a more entrepreneurial mindset and prefer to make more intuitive decisions as opportunities present themselves. I fit into this second category, and as I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve consistently tried to make career choices that maximize the number of future opportunities, rather than ones that set me down a particular career path.

I’ve also had the experience of setting up my own company, which taught me a lot about getting along in business even though that company ultimately failed. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a “working the books” person – I have plenty of creative input and a flair for people, but my ideal business partner (or team of partners) would need to bring some business discipline into the equation.

How much time do you devote to Alpha Efficiency in a month?

It’s difficult to say because I tend to work on Alpha Efficiency in my “time pockets” – those moments where I see a window of time and seize it to get things done. In this way, I tend to have lots of little pockets of time spent on Alpha Efficiency, rather than big discrete chunks. I don’t track my time, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d estimate I spend maybe 7-10 hours per week across a combination of writing, editing, and researching. As an issue comes up for publication, this can increase to up to 20 hours, which can become quite demanding when you add it on top of my 50-70 hour work week and the all-essential time with family.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle preventing people from applying Startup mentality in their personal lives?

I think there are two main factors: ignorance and fear. Many people just haven’t considered the ways in which they could take a more entrepreneurial approach to their lives: The opportunities they should be seizing and how to run at them with pace and conviction. Some of this is environmental; It’s not always obvious what you could be doing differently until you see it. But there’s an element of personality in there too – those individuals who are open to finding new ways of going about things are more likely to find the inspiration to do so, in a “make your own luck” kind of way.

those individuals who are open to finding new ways of going about things are more likely to find the inspiration to do so, in a “make your own luck” kind of way.

But even those who are aware of the opportunities, of what they could be doing differently, sometimes lack the courage or conviction to make the leap. Jumping into something different, or pouring your heart and soul into something to give it passion and pace, can be scary things to contemplate. Not everyone finds that impetus to strike out, and for some the comfort zone, or “furry rut” as my friends used to call it, is too compelling.

What is your secret hack that, which you couldn’t live without?

I’m not sure I have any “secret hacks.” In traditional productivity terms, I have plenty of “hacks” that make my life just that little bit easier, with 1Password the most obvious everyday shortcut but Alfred, Hazel and Evernote featuring heavily amongst the others.

The other “hack” that I made to my life that has paid huge personal dividends is negotiating one “non-working day” per month with my boss. My 9-to-5 job can be pretty demanding in terms of my time, and having one weekday each month that I can devote to family time goes a long way in restoring the balance and maintaining my psychological contract with my work.

Can you share your iPhone’s home screen?

I thought I’d go a little off-script with this one and share my last screen as well, seeing as my home screen is quite minimal. For some reason, I like having only two rows of apps, and this is how I’ve set up three out of four of my screens. Everything else gets ‘dumped’ into groups and is accessed either using Spotlight or Launch Center Pro.

My home screen does change up from time to time, but I try and put my “top apps” up there. Dispatch lives on my dock – I do not know what I would do without this amazing email app…so easy, so intuitive and with phenomenal integrations. I use Launch Center Pro to launch actions rather than apps, so it’s mostly used for SMS messages and calls to contacts. I tend to swap between Calendars 5, which has a silly name but a beautiful UI, and Fantastical 2 which I find ugly but has the best natural-language-processing syntax I’ve used. Trello helps me keep track of all our Alpha Efficiency tasks now that we’ve moved away from Asana, and Blinkist and Unread keep me entertained when I’ve got a few minutes to kill and I need something to read.

I find my home screen quite zen – it’s a calm, minimalist place…in stark contrast to my final screen, which is like that drawer in your house where all the random crap gets thrown! A poetic juxtaposition of approaches, you might say!

Thank you very much for participating in the interview for our own magazine. It’s been a pleasure working with you for the past 2 years 🙂

Brian Djordjevic
About The Author

Brian Dordevic

Bojan is Marketing Strategic Planner with a passion for all things digital. Feel free to follow him on Twitter or schedule a consultation call with him.

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