Tag Archives: startups

The Worst Product Meeting Ever

The title might be some hyperbole but a while ago I listened in on a product meeting that was eye opening in the sense that the bureaucracy explains why the product is in the state it is in after investing substantial amount of time in developing it. It was also a cautionary tale for every product and company I’m involved with going forward.

The meeting was a state of the union on the status of a project that had been in development for about a year but been talked about for a few. It also happened to be one that I think is the future of the business.

I pictured the product as having seven different sails all pointing in a different direction. Not making any progress anywhere but eventually one might get a big enough gust of wind that the only outcome will be capsizing.

This is a product that the high level management wants done so a lot of people are hitching their wagons to it. They hope it succeeds so they can get the feather in their cap but nobody is taking responsibility for its success. There is not a true, single project lead as everybody wants to have a say in every decision but the project is not the primary focus for anybody.

Without proper delegation nothing will get done.

The technical guys explained their choice of platform (there had been no discussion or due diligence done on this prior to development) not in terms of advantages but one which would result in the least amount of work for them when somebody wanted a report ran.

One person was not interested in what the product did only that they were able to harvest data from it for sales pitches.

It was very, very briefly acknowledged that in its current state there is no reason for anybody to use the product (one single user had logged in and used it in the lifetime of the product) but that was not deemed to be important enough for more discussion.

At no time were the actual needs of the users brought up.

As far as I can tell nobody ever asked, “What problem are we aiming to solve by building this product?”

I have no idea what the official takeaways were from the meeting. However some of my takeaways were:

  • Software is not a collection of features but a vision. Every decision that is made must contribute to and support that vision.
  • For users software is a tool used to achieve something. They do not care about any features that do not help them achieve their goal.
  • You cannot design a great product by committee. While many people may contribute, at the end of the day there needs to be a single, specific person who is the keeper of the vision and the arbitrator of all product decision.
  • When company leadership creates a product directive there are going to be many people trying to get the feather in their cap for moving it forward. Progress will drown in meetings and any that is made will be questioned and likely abandoned.
  • A meeting must have a specific, and written, agenda. When something comes up that isn’t on the agenda make a note of it and put it on the agenda for the next meeting.
  • A culture of open feedback is important. Every employee who touches the software or interacts with users is responsible for reporting bugs and passing on feature suggestions.
  • Always think of the user. If you cannot put yourself in their shoes with every decision then you’re going to lose them by creating something that does not address their needs.

There are many reasons a project can fail but if bureaucracy is unavoidable then it needs to be carefully managed otherwise an even worse fate can occur. That being a failed project that continues to consume resources as nobody will let it die.

Learn by Doing

Learn by DoingWhile people learn different things in different ways, business is one activity that I firmly believe is best learned while engaging in the activity. In fact I feel that most people learn more in one year on the job than they do in multiple years of school as so many facets and nuances of business really cannot be taught in books or a classroom setting with fictional stakes. The rubber meets the road when working with real people (who have real families), real clients, a real balance sheet, and a real income statement.

It is with that in mind that I picked Learn by Doing as the title of my latest (10th!) collection of notes from Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lectures.

The book contains a wealth of insight from startup founders and business owners such as Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz), John Collison (Stripe), and Joshua Reeves (ZenPayroll). While it is free do not let that influence your thoughts on the value. These lectures have provided me tons of inspiration as well as great career advice. I urge you to give it a read and then follow up by listening to any lectures that strike you for even more insight.

Best of luck.

We Can All Change the World

We Can All Change the WorldChanging the world is something that should be a goal for all but not all set out to do it. It sounds like the dreams of a college student that people either politely nod at or not so politely scoff at. But it is something that is attainable for all of us.

The world can be changed at a personal, local, national, or global level. The thing about change is that it begets more change and thus ripples of it spread near and far. You can build a business, start a charity, be a big brother or sister, or smile to somebody at the grocery store. All can make at least one person’s day a bit better.

We Can All Change the World is the ninth volume of my notes on Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series. You can download it here for free. Hopefully it will inspire you to listen to the talks that have inspired me so much.

Eight Things Your Employees Would Like You To Do

While your employees might appreciate free lunches, massages, and half-day Fridays during the summer (though I would really appreciate this one) the things that really provide them job satisfaction are not material in nature or quick fix management techniques.

The things your employees would like you to do require caring, trust, and respect.

Ask for their opinion

Once a month ask your employees if they have ideas that could help the business. Use those open lines of communication to provide you extra sets of eyes, ears, and brains.

Do not dismiss ideas from employees that venture outside of their department or skill set. In fact those might end up being some of the ideas to give the most consideration to. True disruption has to come from outside of the system. To get radically different results you have to do things radically different.

Death to the Stock Photo desk

Provide them good tools to do their job

It can be incredibly frustrating to try to complete work in a timely fashion when using a slow computer or proprietary software that is decades old. Tools that make them more efficient which will allow them to respond to you and your customers’ needs faster as well as give them more time to work on the larger projects that push your company forward.

Unleash them from constraints

Just because a task has always been done in one fashion does not mean that is the best way to do it. Let them find their own ways to get the results you require.

Further, always be asking the question of what tasks actually need to be done and what can you do without. Your business is an ever evolving body made up of people, processes, and products. Sometimes you will find an appendix that you do not need anymore.

Provide avenues to grow

Continuing education (though nobody really like the mandatory kind), conferences, certifications, and other ways for your employee to be a lifelong learner will be beneficial for them and you. They will learn methods to improve your business as well as have numerous networking opportunities to tell people about it.

A book budget is one of the nicer perks I’ve heard about recently. Baremetrics awesomely gives each employee a Kindle Paperwhite with unlimited Kindle books. If your employees might benefit from programming, design, or other books that don’t really work in the Kindle format than a budget for paper books would be better.

Respect their time

Yes, you are paying them for their time. But do not take that for granted. It is the one thing they cannot make more of.

This is really a combination of the other things on this list. Do whatever you can to make them more efficient, keep the busy work to a minimum, forgo useless meetings and conference calls, and do not ask them to work nights and weekends.Death to the Stock Photo rowing

Give them a real work/life balance

Really make an effort not to give people projects late in the afternoon and respect their nights and weekends. Being able to put work out of their mind will help them avoid burnout.

This is a real area where you can lead by example. Your employees are going to take your cue. If you stay at the office late every day then subtly that is going to imply that they should. Same goes for email outside of work hours. So, give yourself some work/life balance. You deserve it.

Be honest about the state of the company

Your employees are probably more perceptive about the state of your business than you imagine. In fact, some of them might be more in tune to it than you are. They will know if you are hiding the truth and might resent you for it. If the company is struggling a bit be optimistic but do not whitewash it. Lack of communication leads to rumors and anxiety.

Show an interest in them

They are people first–employees second.

Show an interest in their personal lives, families, and interests/hobbies. They feel good when you ask. You might even find shared interests or ways that their outside the work activities could benefit the company.

At the end of the day your employees have likely spent more time working for you than they did with their family. Treating them right is best for everybody.

Do What Makes Your Soul Sing

Do What Makes Your Soul SingSometimes we all need to be reminded to pursue our passions both personally and professionally. Doing what you love was the theme I picked out for my latest collection of notes from the inspirational lecture series “Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders“. Read advice from 24 different lectures including leaders such as Tim Draper (DFJ), Stephen Cohen (Palantir), Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly), and Nassim Taleb (Author).

You can download Do What Makes Your Soul Sing for free here.

Business Podcasts I Love

Podcasting has been around for a decade but I believe only recently has really become something that the general public has started to take notice of. Podcasts hosts come from all walks of life and topics cover almost everything imaginable. For business owners there is a wealth of great shows that provide inspirational and actionable information. It can be tough to find shows that aren’t in the top ten lists in iTunes so here are some of my favorite.

All of these podcasts, with the exception of one, have been around for many years.

EconTalk

EconTalk was one of the first podcasts I listened to and, with my education background in economics, fell in love with. It takes many topics and looks at them through an economics lense. Many great and distinguished guests.

While politics can often enter discussions about economics I believe the host, Russ Roberts, does a great job in asking questions without any agenda and simplifying complex topics into terms that the listener can understand.

Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders

Stanford seems to be the epicenter for the technological disruption that has changed industry after industry. Many great companies have been founded by their alumni. Luckily for those of us that didn’t attend they provide some of the classes online for free. Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders is my favorite.

Because of the location in Silicon Valley they have amazing speakers from the tech industry (though the speakers aren’t exclusively from the tech industry) that give talks that I’ve found informative as well as very inspirational.

Here is a link to my eight favorite talks and you can find notes I have taken about each of the over two hundred talks here.

HBR IdeaCast

The Harvard Business Review is a great, though expensive, magazine that I’ll often get at the airport for flights. The podcast provides a lot of the same content in audio format. I don’t know if it is as actionable for small businesses as other podcasts on the list but should be a must listen for anybody in corporate America.

Manager Tools

I used to listen to this podcast religiously but that has fallen off since I no longer having any direct reports. Still I often find the podcast to have information that is useful to me now when I outsource tasks or will be later when I am able to hire somebody full or part-time.

The New Business Podcast

The primary focus on this podcast is marketing a business on the Internet. Shows cover topics such as blogs, mailing lists, webinars, social media, podcasting and other ways to reach an audience. The host, Chris Ducker moved to the Philippines and started an outsourcing company that provides virtual assistants to many entrepreneurs.

You can read my notes from this podcast here.

The Smart Passive Income Podcast

By definition this podcast is about creating passive income streams (though in practice it is a lot of work to create something that is passive) which the host, Pat Flynn, has done multiple times. Really though this podcast has a wide variety of guests that discuss an equally wide variety of topics from business topics to personal topics such as success and family.

You can read my notes from this podcast here.

StartUp Podcast

This is the newest podcast on this list and the format is a bit different than the others. This is a podcast about the host building a podcasting business. That isn’t too dissimilar than some of the others but the host, who previously worked on This American Life and Planet Money, records many of his conversations with investors, coworkers, and, most entertainingly, his wife. He uses those along with his narration to tell a compelling story about the journey of an entrepreneur and his startup.

Startups For the Rest of Us

This was the first podcast about smaller startups (or lifestyle businesses) that I listened to and it actually introduced me to the next one when they swapped shows as an April fool’s joke. The two hosts are actively creating SaaS businesses so a lot of the advice provided is applicable to me as I build StartOpz as both a product and a business.

One of the hosts, Rob Walling, also wrote a great book titled Start Small Stay Small for developers looking to do their own startups without trying to raise outside capital.

You can read my notes from this podcast here.

Tropical MBA

This is a show about creating a location independent business, where freedom and time are as valuable as money, the challenges involved with that, and, most interestingly, what day to day life is like on the road.

I’ve listened to hundreds of shows that these guys have done and, while some things they cover are relevant to me and some things aren’t, what they are doing is very inspirational for me though it doesn’t help when I can’t currently scratch the travel itch. I find comfort in hearing their intro music every week.

You can read my notes from this podcast here.

Business Books: Zero to One

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel was a quick read and a worthwhile one for any entrepreneur. I also think it would be a good read for any investors. At times while reading the book I found I was learning as much about an investing philosophy as about building a business.

Innovation

Zero to OneTo innovate you need look at the past, question ideas, rethink business. Secrets of nature (undiscovered aspects of the physical world) and secrets about people (things they don’t know about themselves or hide) are what great businesses are built on. Look for those where no one else is looking.

The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.

When you have your idea you need to focus on it as long as you think it will be valuable long term. Long term thinking is important for all aspects of your business.

Your product should not be an undifferentiated commodity. It is very difficult to create a monopoly around a commodity. If you are creating a product exactly like or very similar to an existing product your product should be ten times better than what is currently available.

Once you have a product that creates value you need to start capturing that value. Creating a company is the next step.

Startups

Startups operate on the principle that you need to work with other people to get stuff done, but you also need to stay small enough so that you actually can.

The most crucial decision you’ll make for your startup is who to found it with. You should start your company with people that you already know otherwise you’re rolling the dice on whether it will be a good fit. Thiel does not believe that you can fix a startup that is messed up at its foundation.

Monopolies

Your startup should start with a small market. Niche down until you are in a market that is small enough that you are able to dominate it. Large markets are very competitive.

The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.

Every business should aim to be a monopoly. Companies fail because they can’t escape the competition. Monopolies result in profits for the creator. Competition results in no profits for anybody.

Every monopoly is unique, but they usually share some combination of the following characteristics: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.

Become a monopoly in your small market first before expanding into adjacent markets. And when you do expand avoid competition as much as possible.

You will not have a successful company if you have a great product with no distribution channel. Even if you have a commodity product sales and distribution can create a monopoly. Sales is hard work and finding a great distribution channel is important.

The Future

Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

Working From Home vs. Working From Home as a Parent

In the summer of 2008 my company ran out of space at my office so my boss asked me if I would mind working from home. I said no though I would miss the amazing view of the Pacific Ocean just feet from the window.

Santa Monica Bay RainbowI had already setup a Windows Terminal Server for the people that spent a lot of time travelling to clients. I had access to everything at the office so there were no challenges technology wise. I forwarded calls to my cell phone and was set.

i loved it. I was more productive than ever. I was also more relaxed due to not having a commute as well as having the physical buffer from the bit of office politics that every company has. I enjoyed it so much that I kept working from home after we downsized a bit in November of 2008. (That was an interesting time. I took a trip to India that month with a new assistant in line to start when I returned and when I did not only was that off but a few other people had been let go. I think they all rebounded quickly though.)

I’ve continued working from home since even as my home life has changed with getting married, having two kids, and moving from my rent-controlled apartment to a house half the country away. Of those changes the only one that has had any effect on my daily routine is the kids.

Working from home is completely different than working from home with kids.

That is true whether or not the kids are physically at home with you. When you have children they are ever present in your home. They can be loud, demanding, and sweet as candy (which they might be demanding). And for the most part they can’t be ignored. They are always in the back of your mind even if they are playing quietly in the next room.

Another way they leave their presence is, as soon as they can walk, leaving a wake of toys and crumbs (good practice for venturing into forests). Without having a separate office with the door closed I would feel compelled to clean all of that up before starting work as physical clutter (a polite term for mess) makes it hard for me to concentrate.

Clean Desk

I’ve always worked more than the forty hours a week required of me (sometimes a lot more) and one thing working from home enabled me to do was to make sure that my best waking hours were spent on productive tasks (the morning commute killed that). Now getting the kids up, dressed, fed, and driving them to daycare has undone that. I love dropping the older one off though.

Working with the kids in the house can be even more challenging. Before my wife went back to work full time after the birth of our second child the older child only went to daycare two days a week. My favorite part of the day was when he came into my office to say hello following his naps. My least favorite part was the six to ten times he got up and came in after he was put down for his nap but before he fell asleep. (I’m becoming convinced that the bedtime story where the child falls right asleep is a Hollywood fantasy.)

On the other hand I did get to see them when I took a break for some food and was able to look out the window to see the older one playing in the backyard (at which point I would give anything to go out and play with him rather than return to my spreadsheet).

I’m learning that organization and adaptation are some of the key traits of being a busy parent. Your obligation to work comes after your obligation to your family and it is a difficult juggling act. Both under one roof has unique challenges and rewards.

I still love working from home and wouldn’t voluntarily return to office life.

Innovation is the Only Way Out

Innovation is the Only Way OutTo round out the year I’m happy to announce the release of Innovation is the Only Way Out which is the seventh volume of notes on Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders. It contains advice from 23 lectures including talks by Phil Libin (Evernote), Brad Feld (Foundry Group), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Daniel Elk (Spotify), and Drew Houston (Dropbox).

Innovation is the only sustainable competitive advantage any company can have. – David Friedberg (The Climate Corporation)

Happy New Year! May 2015 be a great year for you and your business.

Define Success

Define SuccessFor advice of both the inspirational and practical nature I’ve found no resource better than Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture series. The speakers come from all backgrounds and their insights into business, entrepreneurship, and life have had a profound effect on my outlook. I’ve recommended it to others countless times.

Define Success, my sixth volume of notes on the lectures, is now available for free download.