Max Ogles is a product leader, entrepreneur, behavior designer, and writer focused on the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He is the author of Boost: Create Good Habits Using Psychology and Technology and has been published on TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, The NextWeb, and more. Max obtained an MBA from the University of Oxford. In this interview he shares insights on relationship and habit building, getting published, and lots more. Here’s his story!
Tell us who you are and what you’re currently working on.
I’m Max Ogles and my background is in startups. I also really enjoy psychology, and what some people might call behavior design. My career has been startup focused–I’ve worked for multiple startups as an early employee or executive in marketing and product specifically. That interest in marketing and product is closely tied to my personal interest in psychology. A lot of the ways that I’ve gone about pursuing that is through storytelling and publishing in different places.
I’m currently exploring whether or not I want to pursue a full-time opportunity, either starting a company or joining an existing startup. I’m very focused on early-stage things. Like many people, I’m a fan of the independent entrepreneur lifestyle, and I’m interested in growing my blog and building a personal business that way too. In the last few months, I’ve been really focused on thinking about how people connect online.
Tell us about your journey from the end of high school to now.
A couple of years ago, I had this experience applying to MBA programs where I was doing a similar exercise, trying to trace the thread of my life and understand what my experiences were and how they’d led to where I was then. For me, there are two threads that have been consistent in my life, even from my elementary school days. The first is that I have a unique interest and ability for writing. I think when you’re good at something, you naturally get even better at it because you enjoy it—and therefore do it more. So growing up, I even wrote little essays for contests because I was just naturally good at it. The second thread is my interest in psychology. It’s kind of hard to escape the fact that my dad is a clinical psychologist and a professor. That’s been his whole career, so I have this embedded, almost genetic interest in psychology.
Coming out of high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, or where I wanted to be. I went to college at Brigham Young University and that went really well. I also took a break to do a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I spent two years living in Brazil and it was a really transformative experience where I was exposed to different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of thinking. Having the opportunity to live alone abroad and learn a new language was very impactful.
I came back to BYU, and thought I wanted to be involved in organizational behavior. There’s an interesting intersection of psychology, business, and behavior, and I found that in a couple of classes I was taking. But, I ended up majoring in English because I felt like I was really good at it, and as I mentioned before, I really enjoy writing. I knew that whatever I did with my career, in business or wherever, being a great writer and communicator could help me.
While at BYU, I found a best selling author named Kerry Patterson, who wrote a book called Crucial Conversations. They sold millions and millions of copies of this book, and I decided I wanted to work with him. I met him and told him I wanted a job, to which he replied, “Okay. Well, we just funded a start-up, and maybe you could be useful to that start-up.” So indirectly, I ended up working for a startup within an organizational behavior focused company called VitalSmarts. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I really loved working for a start-up and that I didn’t really enjoy organizational behavior as much, and that’s how I ended up in startups.
A few years later, I did an MBA program at the University of Oxford. Post-MBA I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but knew that I would likely be in tech, in a product or marketing role. I found a really good fit at Banyan. At the time, they were really thinking about how they could transform healthcare through technology to create a really phenomenal patient experience. So I went to Banyan in a marketing role and then ended up joining the executive leadership team as the head of marketing.
What was the biggest thing you learned about company-building from having that organizational behavior background?
In my experience, a company almost always takes on the personality of the founder. It’s inescapable. What that means is that if the founder is aggressive, then the company will be aggressive. That could be good or bad. If that company’s founder is kind, then they tend to hire other people that are kind. Even when the founder is funny or sort of quirky, that shows up in the culture of the company. I don’t personally know the founders of MailChimp, but for a long time, I’ve been familiar with the MailChimp branding and the quirky humor that they use. I would be willing to bet that one or more of the founders has a sense of humor that is very representative of where that comes from. On the other hand, if your founder has questionable morals, then that, unfortunately, can appear in the culture as well.
What can we learn from your book, Boost: Create Good Habits Using Psychology and Technology?
There’s a lot of psychology to support this simplistic understanding of how behaviors work. The basis is that when we do a behavior, there are influences of motivation and there are influences that pertain to ability. Whenever certain behaviors are desired, you need to exert motivation, or exert ability. Any habit that you are trying to adopt, you should examine in your life: Am I motivated to do this? And am I able to do this? Then you should look at all the factors that might be affecting those two questions, and you can implement a solution.
For example, I was a runner in the past, and recently I’ve been wanting to restart it. So for me, there’s a question of, am I able? In my case, that translates to, do I have time? That’s been the biggest barrier for me, because I work all day, and I haven’t carved out that time to dedicate to go running. But lo and behold, Coronavirus hits, and I find myself with a lot more time than I used to, even if it’s just the time I save not driving into the office. All of a sudden I’m able to go running. One thing I have done to make it significantly easier for me to do is to lower the bar tremendously. My goal is just to go running. That’s it. So the very first day I went running, I ran around the block. It was about half a mile and I only ran as long as I wanted to run. I didn’t even push myself to run hard. When I got done, I asked myself if I wanted to run another time around the block. The answer was no, so I just stopped the run right there. That was a big mind shift for me, where I was self-motivated because I knew there was nothing forcing it. I’m just running because I want to and because it’s healthy for me.
How do you go about building relationships with really successful people?
Two examples of people I’ve built relationships with are Nir Eyal and Kerry Patterson. In both instances, I was drawn to them, because I could see what they were writing, and I thought it was fantastic. As for connecting with them, in part, it was just expressing pure appreciation. I think everybody loves to have fans, but they don’t want them to be fanatical. Being a thoughtful, deliberate fan, expressing enthusiasm and admiration in a way that’s meaningful and helpful, can be really beneficial to people.
I’ll give you an example with Kerry Patterson. I had never met him, but I knew he was teaching a class at BYU, and I knew the classroom. So all I did was show up early and I said, “Hey, nice to meet you. My name is Max Ogles. I’m a big fan of your books. I’d love to audit your classes if you think I could.” And we actually just started talking. He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was interested in business and majoring in English. When I mentioned that I was a writer, that was what won him over. He told me to keep writing and storytelling. There was an instant connection.
With Nir, it was a completely different experience. At the time, he was based in Silicon Valley and writing online on TechCrunch. I read one of his articles and realized that he was writing really interesting stuff that I liked. I started following him on Twitter, and I happened to see that he said, “Hey, if anybody’s interested in editing, I’m looking for help editing my blog posts.” It was this perfect intersection. I had done a lot of editing working as a tutor and an editor during my undergraduate degree, and I love psychology and business. So I just reached out to him and offered my help, and he agreed to do a trial run and sent me some of his work.
Nir found my editing to be really helpful, so I ended up editing for him for about a year and a half. I did it for free, and that was really helpful and valuable to him. We worked well together, despite the fact that we worked entirely online for almost a year.
How do you think about self-care and the role that it plays in success and happiness in life?
There’s an obvious component to self-care that is physical. You want to be eating healthy and be active. I don’t think that either of those two things are easy. There’s a lot of crap that you can eat that tastes good. And the laws of physics make it easier for us to stay put than stay active. So for me, those are both challenging things. I try to work hard at them. I mentioned earlier that I’ve been developing a running habit, and that’s worked well. It seems simplistic but I believe strongly that you’ve got to work your heart, because that’s what keeps you alive.
There’s another dimension which is mental health. When I think of mental health, there’s a great book that I highly recommend called Lost Connections. The book goes into detail about the author’s personal journey with mental health and dealing with depression and anxiety. I would encourage anybody to read it regardless of your current relationship to mental health, and regardless of whether you’re experiencing depression or things like that. It’s a really useful book. It takes on a lot of what I understand about psychology and personal connection. It goes through how we as humans connect with different facets of our life, including aspects like our social connections and a connection to nature.
To sum it up my own thoughts about self-care, if you want to be successful, I think it’s critical that you maintain good physical and mental health. You want to be well-balanced and level-headed.
How do you overcome obstacles?
When I’m struggling with something, I’ve found that there are different points of reference that are affecting my perspective. Let’s say, for example, that maybe my career isn’t progressing the way that I want it to. When you’re connected to the world on Twitter and LinkedIn, you see people around you that have been successful, and it’s incredibly difficult not to compare your success to theirs in a broad variety of ways. Because of that, I have a constant ongoing goal to distance myself from those comparisons. I think it’s healthy to be excited for other people and to know who they are and what they’re doing, but I don’t think it’s particularly useful to benchmark yourself against other people, especially when you’re missing significant context.
Another aspect of that is how I view myself. When you’re in a difficult situation, you can be proactive or reactive. Unfortunately, a lot of times, when we are in these fight or flight situations where we feel helpless or endangered, the instinct is to be more reactive when that’s exactly the time to be proactive. I spend a lot of time reminding myself of what I’m good at, trying to double down on the things that I both enjoy and am good at. I know those will be the pathways to the new opportunities that I’m seeking, and when I don’t do that, it can be a negative cycle where I doubt myself, I start to compare myself to other people, and I feel trapped. That’s exactly the time to take a step back and say “No. I am good at some things. I do know how to do things well. Let’s do what I’m really good at and what I really enjoy.”
What have you learned about writing through your experiences getting published on TechCrunch and Entrepreneur and writing your book?
Any person, regardless of their background or their experience, can write something interesting. Because the way they see the world and the way they interact with the world is 100% unique from every other person that’s ever existed in the world. So if they can capture that and share it, it can be interesting to other people.
At one point, I was thinking about how to get published in different places. I felt like if you want to publish in TechCrunch or something similar, you needed to have sold a company or have raised a $5 million seed round or something that would give you credibility. That isn’t true at all. All the credibility you really need is something interesting to say, and that’s actually a lot harder to come by. People might read a whole article that you’ve written and not even notice in your byline that you went to Oxford or whatever. They mostly don’t really care about that. They care about the substance.
Most publications are desperate for new ideas to share with their audiences. The appetite for new content is insatiable. If you can write interesting stuff, you can get it published, especially if you’re willing to do it for free. It’s not just writing interesting stuff, but actually writing in a clear way. But if you pair those two things, you can basically publish wherever you want.
Of course, credibility can help you. I’ll admit that when I approach TechCrunch or other publications, I definitely mention that I’ve also been published in other places. But above all, the question that really matters is: do you have a clearly written, interesting take on something?
If you had to give a one minute keynote to our audience of builders, what would you tell them?
I really believe everybody has a unique skill and that they’re good at something. I would encourage people to find a thing that they’re really good at–that they enjoy– and then become exceptional at it. In addition to that, be very conscientious about interacting with as many people as possible, because there are billions of people in the world and we have access to all of them. They can be friends, thoughtful partners to interact with, mentors to help you advance in your career, or whatever is important to you. And you can be mentors to other people as well. With that combination of connections, you’ll be successful in whatever you choose to do. If you want to make money or have an audience, you can do that. Whatever other ambitions you have, you can find help by connecting with other people.
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