Recently I was talking to an entrepreneur about his journey. Early on in the conversation, I asked one of my favorite questions: what were some of your major milestones and lessons learned? Then, he recounted how one of his more important lessons learned was giving up control of the day-to-day operations so that he could work on the most important and strategic issues. Less tactical involvement turned into more results.
Thinking back on it, I was an immature micro-manager for the first several years of my entrepreneurial journey. I wanted to control and monitor every piece of the business including every customer support ticket and every line of new code in the product. I didn’t know any other way. The startup was so small and fragile I felt I had to smother it to make it successful.
Only, once we had achieved some level of success, I wasn’t self-aware enough to change my ways. After hitting a wall with our growth, scalability, and culture, I finally started the journey to unwind from the business and fully empower other team members. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
What else? Have you gone through the process of trying to control everything only to realize that giving up control was necessary to get to the next level?
Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, has a new company called Medium where there are no managers. This idea of a leaderless organization isn’t new but it’s also far from commonplace. Perhaps the best known organization without managers is Valve Software, which published an amazing employee handbook that describes how it works. FRC Review has a new post up where they outline how it works at Medium without managers using this idea of a Holacracy approach to corporate structure.
Here are some of the key takeaways for Holacracy from the FRC Review article:
- No people managers. Maximum autonomy.
- Organic expansion. When a job gets too big, hire another person.
- Tension resolution. Identify issues people are facing, write them down, and resolve them systematically.
- Make everything explicit – from vacation policies to decision makers in each area.
- Distribute decision-making power and discourage consensus seeking.
- Eliminate all the extraneous factors that worry people so they can focus on work.
Instead of top-down, command-and-control structure, everything is composed of nested circles. A circle can be one person that owns some aspect of the business or it can be a group of people that own it. If a Holacratic organization sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a blend of two things I’m a big believer in: results only work environments (ROWE) and the value of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Only, it takes it one step further and gets rid of the concept of a traditional hierarchy and instead makes it so that circles, composed of one or more people, make any and all decisions.
Holacracy is a great idea and I’m looking forward to watching it evolve.
What else? What are your thoughts on Holacracy as a corporate structure?
One leadership lesson that took me entirely too long to learn was that different communications require different mediums. The idea is that communication mediums like face-to-face, video chat, phone, and email make it easy to share words but the context and nuance varies wildly. As an example, if people are upset or any sort of miscommunication is going on, face-to-face is significantly better than email or text message.
Let’s look at some of the different mediums and communication circumstances:
- Face-to-face – Best for anything emotional (good or bad), alignment-oriented, or difficult
- Video chat – Not as good as face-to-face but still auditory and visual, especially for staying connected to someone in a different physical location
- Phone – For exchange and dialogue on a complicated subject as well as times when emotion and relationship are an important part of the equation
- Email – Simple, fast, and effective for basic information exchange, tasks, and clarification
Chat and text message are similar to email in that they’re digital but have a greater sense of immediacy and two-way communication about them. Regardless, it’s important to choose the right medium for the communication.
What else? What are your thoughts on choosing the right medium for the communication?
We’re working on ironing out the Atlanta Tech Village mission, vision, and core values to be a guiding force for the next 20+ years. Each item builds on itself with mission being the next five years, vision the next 20 years, and core values forever. Thinking about the next 20+ years seems strange, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do to make a huge impact.
Be the #1 hub for tech companies and startups in the Southeast
Make Atlanta one of the top 10 tech and startup cities in the country
- Be nice
- Dream big
- Pay it forward
- Work hard, play hard
Note: we’re debating between “dream big” and “dream bigger” as one of our core values (more info from Johnson on it).
What else? What are your thoughts on the Atlanta Tech Village’s mission, vision, and core values?
One of the challenges we always had with software engineering was finding the balance between strict deadlines and time to get it right. Software development is still more art than science, especially when innovating and working on major changes. Different constituents like customers, prospects, analysts, sales, support, and engineering have things they’d like to see, and want visibility into when the features will be delivered. Naturally, the market changes so fast that as an entrepreneur or product manager, there’s a desire to push back on too many fixed deadlines as that limits flexibility to adapt to new information.
Here are a few considerations with balancing software engineering deadlines:
- Work off short deadlines, like two week sprints, and use that to keep up a good pace of progress (don’t allow any to do items longer than two weeks such that something that might take two months is broken down into two week chunks)
- For longer range considerations and road maps, try painting broader strokes for areas that will be addressed instead of specific improvements
- Find a level of accountability for the engineering team such that there’s ownership over delivering on time while also making sure it’s fully baked (don’t let the balance of influence sway too much such that deadlines and deliverables aren’t met while still being realistic)
The best thing to do is to build a really strong engineering culture that views code as craft and has peer-to-peer accountability.
What else? What are some other considerations for maintaining a software engineering balance between strict deadlines and time to get it right?
Recently I was meeting with an executive from a startup talking about lessons learned. She recounted the story of a startup she joined that was doing was well and kept raising more and more money. After a substantial series D round, the bar was set so high for revenue growth by the investors that the executive team knew it wasn’t attainable. Against the odds, the startup was able to deliver and meet the expectations for a short period of time.
There was one major problem.
She described their meeting revenue growth targets as requiring “unnatural acts” meaning the team was working 80 hours per week and rapidly approaching burnout. It wasn’t sustainable. Unfortunately, the entrepreneur had promised the investors they could achieve certain results. After two quarters of hitting the numbers, the wheels fell off. The startup’s growth slowed considerably, the market shifted, most of the executive team left, including the entrepreneur, and the venture-back startup is in zombie mode now.
Beware of unnatural acts leading to startup team burnout as it isn’t sustainable.
What else? What are your thoughts on unnatural acts resulting in burnout?
One of the questions I get from entrepreneurs is “how has your day-to-day changed going from a seed stage startup to a growth stage startup?” The three core responsibilities of a CEO never change: make sure there’s enough cash to keep going, help set the vision, and get the right employees on board. For my first year as a seed stage CEO, I spent most of my time writing code (~40 hours/week) and the rest of the time doing whatever it takes to be successful (20 – 30 hours/week). Now, five years later, things are much different.
Here’s what a typical day looks like:
- 10 minute daily check-in with the executive team
- One or two one hour catch ups with a department head (meet with each department head bi-weekly)
- One to two hours working on strategic projects (usually juggling 2-3 strategic projects at any one time)
- One hour reading blog posts and books (usually read one business book per month)
- Miscellaneous meetings, email, and other work
As you can see, the ratio of doing front-line work to managing people changes dramatically as the startup gets larger. Days go quickly and are very productive.
What else? What does a day in the life of your startup look like?
Recently I started reading the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The authors are a research team at Harvard working on the Harvard Negotiation Project, which has been in the works for several decades. In all aspect of life, and especially the startup world, as with any fast-paced leadership situation, there are a number of difficult conversations with team members, customers, investors, and more.
One of the areas that resonated with me was around why we each see the world differently and how to better understand another person. From the book, here are three reasons why we see the world differently:
- We have different information
- We notice different things
- We each know ourselves better than anyone else case
- We have different interpretations
- We are influenced by past experiences
- We apply different implicit rules
- Our conclusions reflect self interest
If you’re looking for advice and guidance on being a better leader and communicator, this book is for you.
What else? What were some other takeaways from the book for you?
Warren Buffet is one of the most celebrated and successful investors of all time. Many of his musing has been recorded in books, articles, and posts over the years, especially content taken from his annual shareholder letter. Several of his essays were compiled into the book The Essays of Warren Buffet: Lessons for Corporate America several years ago, providing tremendous content for entrepreneurs.
Warren Buffet has three commands for CEOs at Berkshire’s operating companies, which are especially pertinent for all startup CEOs. The commands, according to the book, are for the CEO to run the business as if:
- They are its sole owner
- It is the only asset they hold
- They can never sell or merge it for a hundred years
Vinod Khosla drove this home yesterday with his post in the NY Times — Vinod Khosla: Maintain the Silicon Valley Vision. The Silicon Vally Vision, according to Khosla, and Buffet’s three commands for CEOs go hand-in-hand with long-term, big picture thinking and actions.
What else? What are your thoughts on Warren Buffett’s three commands for CEOs?
One of the most popular self-help and professional development books available is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. Amazingly, the book was published in 1936 and is still supremely relevant today. As part of our leadership development program, we’re doing a book club with this being the next book on our list.
For leaders, the book is a must read. Yes, it is commonsense but commonsense that needs to be thought through and digested on a regular basis. Leaders are more effective when they are liked and respected — team members generally want to work for, and with, people they like.
From the book, here are six ways to get people to like you:
- Become genuinely interested in other people
- Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
- Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.
How to Win Friends & Influence People should be on the list for all entrepreneurs and leaders looking to get better at what they do and how they do it.
What else? What are some other ways to get people to like you?