Friday, October 18, 2013

Life is a craft, not a job

I try to view the things I do in life as a craft, not as a job.

The key difference between a craft and a job is the pride and care you take in your work.

For example, four days a week, I make a sandwich for my daughter Marissa to take to lunch (on Thursdays, her school offers pizza).

Her standard sandwich consists of a slice of potato bread, smeared with a chocolate almond spread (the Trader Joe's alternative to Nutella), with the crusts removed.

I could just slap down a slice of bread, quickly smear on some spread, then make a quick fold to make the sandwich.

I could also aggressively slice off the crust, accepting the waste of bread and spread.

If I were doing a job, maybe that's what I'd do.

But it's not a job, it's a craft.

Instead, I carefully slice the crusts off the bread.  First I trim the bottom of the slice.  Then I trim the sides--usually, I'm trimming so that the side trimmings split in two along the curve of the bread.  Finally, I trim off the rounded top, usually with one slice on either side, though I sometimes add a third slice if necessary.

Next, I carefully slice the crustless bread into two roughly equal pieces.  I'm trying to get the pieces to fit together as neatly as possible.

Next, I smear a scoop of chocolate almond spread on each slice, then go back and carefully spread it to the edges of the bread.  After the second half slice, I carefully scrape off the knife with the side of that slice, so that I waste as little spread as possible.  I then clean the butter knife off with a swipe of paper towel, so that the spread doesn't congeal and make later washing difficult.

Finally, I assemble the sandwich, wrap it in plastic wrap, and give it to Marissa to pack.

It takes more care to do it this way, but it doesn't take much more time, especially in the grand scheme of things.

But taking care is what makes it a craft, not a job.

If you can add meaning to something as mundane as making a sandwich four days a week, you can apply a sense of craft to the important work of your life.

Your startup is a craft, not a job.  Your life is a craft, not a job.

The Power Of Being Trusted

I work hard to be trustworthy.  Partly, this is because it's the right thing to do (darn my inconvenient morality!), but partly this is because it has real business benefits.

When most of us think about the value of being trustworthy, we think that the key driver of value is that people believe us.

In other words, trust is valuable because it allows you to persuade others.

I think this is naive.  First of all, there are many persuasion techniques that rely on deception, rather than trustworthiness.  Just think of all the pick up artists that have arisen over the past decade.  (Or don't.  Ugh.)  Second, if you earn people's trust through your honesty, then you're not going to try to persuade others to do the wrong thing.  If you're trying to get people to do the right thing, presenting clear evidence is more important than trustworthiness.

The real business benefit of being trusted comes from speed.  If you have to prove everything to everyone, you might end up persuading everyone in the end, but at the cost of a lot of time and effort.

If, on the other hand, you're considered trustworthy, people are willing to act on your recommendation, knowing that while they are going to check the evidence later, it will almost certainly support that recommendation.

The end result is the same, but the speed with which you reach it is much greater.

In the startup world, small teams are nimble, not just because of size, but because of the high degree of trust between founders.  This is also why a team of founders that don't trust each other are likely to go nowhere fast (with the apparent exception of Facebook, of course).

Confidence Is Only Valuable When Accompanied By Credibility

Confidence is widely seen as a positive virtue.  We like people who are confident, especially here in America, especially here in Silicon Valley.  (Some might even call us arrogant)

Yet in my own experience, confidence doesn't always win you points with me.

Confidence is a dual-edged sword--it can cut both ways.  The key is credibility.

If you're confident and credible, I'll find your confidence infectious.

If you're confident but lack credibility, I'll find your confidence delusional.

Credibility generally comes from relevant past experiences and achievements.  This is why when Steve Jobs did things, he was a genius, and when a first-time entrepreneur who hasn't done anything yet tries the same tactics, he's an asshole.

What this means is that you should only act confident when you have credible reasons to feel that way.  Not only will this maximize your ability to persuade others, it also happens to be the right way to act!

The Underrated Power of Warmth

Silicon Valley worships the intellect.

How many times have you read entrepreneurs bragging about hiring rockstar programmers?

How many times have you heard investors describe their entrepreneurs as geniuses?

For that matter, how many times have you heard investors or entrepreneurs describe *themselves* as geniuses?

Intelligence does matter, and not just for coding.  Being able to learn quickly, express yourself clearly, and see hidden patterns are all helpful for achieving entrepreneurial success.

But in our mania for mental acuity, we often underrate the power of warmth.

Silicon Valley is unusual in this respect.  Other industries and activities place a lot of value on warmth.

In sports, veteran players are often praised for being "good clubhouse guys," and players who lack warmth are called "clubhouse cancers," despite their athletic ability.

In politics, we tend to gravitate towards leaders who can project warmth, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, rather than technocrats like Al Gore and Mitt Romney.  (President Obama is a noted exception; Leonard Nimoy would be jealous of his preternatural calm)

But when's the last time you heard of any famous Silicon Valley leaders being praised for their warmth?  Jobs?  Ellison?  Zuckerberg?  Larry and Sergey?

Once upon a time, this wasn't the case.  Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were wicked smart geniuses, but they were also known for developing a warm and compassionate management style, the HP Way.

By failing to appreciate the power of warmth, we've lost something important.  A workplace without warmth leads to higher turnover and lower productivity, no matter how smart the individual contributors.

As you assess your job candidates for mental horsepower and "cultural fit," spare a few moments to consider their warmth.  It may be an old fashioned virtue, but it has great power to help your startup.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Humor is about Superiority...and Inferiority

I read a recent IO9 blog post about the superiority theory of laughter with some interest:
"The most dominant theory about why people laugh at each other also happens to be the meanest theory. It's called the superiority theory of humor, and it goes all the way back to the classical Greeks. (Everyone knows they were a laugh riot.) 

Aristotle insisted that we laugh at the ugly or the stupid to express the joy we feel that we're better than them. Socrates added that we also laugh at those who are delusional about their own abilities, because we flatter ourselves that we're more clear-sighted. Thomas Hobbes claimed that laughter was a moment of "glory," in which we feel ourselves to be above other people."
There's definitely a ring of truth to it.  As Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I get a paper cut.  Comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die."

But I don't feel comfortable endorsing this theory.  Perhaps its because I frequently make jokes and try to laugh as much as I can...I'd rather not believe I do so because I'm a snooty egomaniac.

A bigger issue for me is that it doesn't fit with the standup comedians I've read about.  Without fail, every standup comedian who has ever lived has both a superiority and an inferiority complex.  The superiority complex allows them to mock others, and help us feel better about themselves.  But the superiority complex isn't enough.

For example, how many famous comedians came from millionaire families?  Jerry Seinfeld, for example, was the son of a sign-maker and grew up on Long Island.  Adam Sandler's parents were an electrical engineer and a kindergarten teacher.

How many famous comedians were star quarterbacks or head cheerleaders?  (I did find one comedian, Anjelah Johnson, who had been an NFL cheerleader, but she was clearly the exception)

It is their inferiority complex, the need for approval and attention, that drives standup comedians to tackle their terrifying, exhausting, and largely unremunerative calling.

The truly superior shouldn't feel the need to flaunt it; it's their secret sense of inferiority that drives them to do so.

"Deep growth can’t be hacked"

Another great lesson from the KISSmetrics blog and GrowthHackerTV:

"5. Deep growth can’t be hacked

You can do things to drive traffic. You can do things to retain users. You can do things to hack growth at a surface level, but deep growth cannot be manipulated. Great products – the ones that are woven into the fabric of our lives and become habits and addictions – tap into something buried within the human psyche. Twitter-esque, Facebook-esque, and LinkedIn-esque growth cannot be hacked. There is something deeper at play."

Far too many entrepreneurs think that growth hacking is a way to sprinkle magical marketing dust over a startup.  A/B test this, optimize that, and soon, Facebook is buying you for $1 billion.

Growth hacking is enormously valuable; and there's no reason not to optimize your startup to maximize your growth.  But the wise growth hacker deploys his or her skills on behalf of a deeply compelling product.

Ultimately, human beings can only handle so much cognitive load; that's why you only use about a half-dozen of the hundreds of apps on your phone, and you only visit about a half-dozen key websites on a regular basis.

You don't get to be one of the hallowed half-dozen through growth hacking; you earn that position by impacting lives.

"Leaky buckets don't need more water."

The recent post on the KISSmetrics blog, "13 Critically Important Lessons from over 50 Growth Hackers" is incredibly informative:

What I love about this post is that it focuses on helping readers avoid common mistakes and misunderstandings about marketing.  It's so good, I'm going to break out a couple of the principles listed and add my own commentary.

"Leaky buckets don’t need more water, they need their holes fixed."

I cannot possibly emphasize this point enough.  I frequently run into entrepreneurs who are convinced that they can grow their way to success, despite poor retention.

While there are rare cases of entrepreneurs being able to hack enough short-term growth to trick another company into a bad acquisition, the fact is that a leaky bucket is a fundamental, long-term problem that requires a true fix.

If you have a consumer app, and you're not seeing enthusiastic usage from your use base, getting TechCrunched isn't going to provide any lasting boost.

Marketing generally takes money and helps you get to your final destination faster.  If you're going nowhere, getting there faster is of limited utility.

Monday, October 14, 2013

"You Look Good"

One of the first things women often say to each other when they meet is, "You look good."

It's so common, you've probably never thought about it.

But isn't it kind of strange, that the default pleasantry is to praise a woman's appearance?

I've even found myself doing it, though that messes up the standard response, "Thanks, you look good too."

Men don't great each other that way.  Can you imagine it?  "Dude, you look really sexy!"

I can't even think of an analog.  Men don't start conversations by praising each other.  It's more like, "What's up," or if it's a really emotional reunion after one of them has escaped after 10
years being tortured in an enemy prison camp, "It's good to see you."

I wonder if it's an American thing; how do women in more egalitarian societies like Sweden greet each other?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why You Can't Rush Management

One of the most important things for entrepreneurs learning to be managers and leaders is to learn not to rush.

It's always tempting to rush, especially in a startup setting.  There's always too much to do, not enough time to do it, and taking the time to thrash through management issues can seem like a waste of time.

You might be thinking, "How do I end this meeting as quickly as possible and get people back to work?  The clock is ticking!"  But while this mindset might make sense for individual contributors, it's disastrous for a manager.

Always make sure that you leave enough time for management.  Don't overschedule.  Don't rush.  It may seem like a waste of time in the short term, but in the long run, it's actually more efficient.

Let's say that you're meeting with your team, and you don't schedule enough time to resolve the issues facing you.  As time runs out, you'll probably say something like, "Good discussion folks, but we're out of time.  Here's what we're going to do."

The immediate effect is that your team gets back to work with specific instructions.

But the long-term effect can be fatal.  What you've done is to train both you and your people that talking about issues is a waste of time, because in the end, you'll just make the call, and people will have to do what you say.

Management is not about getting things done.  Management is about helping others get things done.  The only way to do that is to give it the time it deserves.

Management and the Martial Arts

Over breakfast, a young entrepreneur asked me for my advice on how to become a better manager.  "I think I'm pretty good," he said, "I'm really clear about what people need to do, and if they're not sure what to do, I lead them through it.  But it's really frustrating.  I told a team member what he needed to do, and when I checked back two hours later, he had barely made any progress."

I instantly had flashbacks to my days as a brash, young, impatient entrepreneur.

Here's how I explained it to him:

Me: "Have you ever practiced the martial arts?"

Him: "Yes, Tae Kwon Do."

Me: "Do you remember learning your forms [sequences of 15-20 moves used for practice]?  Was it easy or hard?"

Him: "It was really hard."

Me: "You see, you couldn't possibly learn your forms just from listening to your sensei talk, no matter how good the explanation.  Your sensei probably had you practice your forms, a few steps at a time.  When you erred, he'd correct you, then have you practice the same couple of steps again.  To help someone learn, you need to help them practice, and then give them immediate feedback.  When you gave your instructions, then went away, you took away any chance for your team member to benefit from your feedback."

My young friend saw the point.

It's hard for the brilliant and capable to become good managers.  It's the reason why great athletes don't always make great coaches--things come too easily for them, which means they have a hard time explaining them to mere mortals.

Focus on teaching just a couple of steps at a time, and provide constant feedback.  It works for the martial arts, and it works for management.

How To Win A Hackathon (or an Oscar)

I had breakfast with a young entrepreneur who was upset that he hadn't won a hackathon, despite finishing an original, working product with a high degree of difficulty.  I asked him to describe what his team had built.

"We built an app that lets you annotate equations.  Clicking on any of the factors in the equation brings up explanations and background materials.  It could be a huge aid to teaching."

Meanwhile, the prize went to a simple, almost trivial app that allowed people to watch funny YouTube videos and provide feedback that would help find other relevant videos.

My entrepreneurial friend had made a classic mistake--he thought that winning a judged competition is about producing the best work, rather than winning the most votes.

The analogy I use is the Oscars; the Oscars are actually a popularity contest.  Winners are determined by counting the votes of Academy members.  That's how travesties like "Forrest Gump" winning Best Picture over "Pulp Fiction" happen.

Here's what I told my friend.  "The key to winning a hackathon isn't producing the best app.  It's making the judges feel good about voting for you.  Here's how I would introduce your app:

The biggest problem facing America today is STEM education. We can't get kids to love math and science.  This endangers Silicon Valley, and it endangers the country.

Our product is Rap Genius for teaching math.  We let teachers and professors annotate equations so that kids can figure out these principles at their own pace.  Not only does this free up lecture time, let teachers flip the classroom and focus on 1:1 coaching, but it leverages a format that today's kids are proven to use and enjoy.

But in the long run, we're not just limited to math.  There's also science, engineering, and a whole world of STEM subjects, all essential and all much easier to teach when using our product."

By showing the broader context, and providing a simple analogy, I was able to frame his product in a way that a) made it important and b) made judges feel good about voting for it.