Monday, September 09, 2013

Sexism in tech is a problem of the majority, and has to be solved by the majority

TechCrunch Disrupt is the most important conference for the early-stage startup scene in Silicon Valley.  Thanks to the combination of the biggest speakers, and the TechCrunch platform, it generates a huge media spotlight.  Which is why it's astonishing that the conference's main presentations kicked off with a completely inappropriate and offensive presentation about an app for looking at women's breasts, and later included simulated masturbation on stage:

To their credit, the folks at TechCrunch acted quickly to issue an apology, and make clear that a) the presentations were inappropriate, and b) the conference was taking steps to prevent a recurrence:
"Today’s issues resulted from a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear guidelines for these submissions.

Trust us, that changed as soon as we saw what happened at our show. Every presentation is getting a thorough screening from this hackathon onward. Any type of sexism or other discriminatory and/or derogatory speech will not be allowed.

You expect more from us, and we expect more from ourselves. We are sorry."
Improved screening is a good precaution, but the broader issue is that people in our industry still think it's a good idea to behave like they're inside a men's locker room, rather than in a professional setting.

Indeed, the Valleywag story reports that presentation actually got some laughter and cheering (I hope that's because the majority of folks in attendance were in shocked and silent disbelief).

Sexism in tech exists because it reflects at least some of the opinions of the majority.  If every entrepreneur and VC who said something inappropriate was universally criticized, the sexism would stop pretty quickly.  The issue is that any instance of sexism that is reported draws a near-instant response by critics who dismiss the issue and attack the accuser.  I'll bet that the entrepreneurs mentioned in the article above got plenty of emails and DMs telling them that what they did wasn't so bad.

It's good that brave people speak up, and it's even better that the official conference organizers take a clear stand.  But the sexism won't go away until the majority of people make it crystal clear that this kind of behavior is not okay.  Many of the offenders aren't bad people, just ignorant.  And the private support that they receive helps encourage them not to change.  That has to stop.

Sexism in tech is a problem of the majority, and has to be solved by the majority.  That means you.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Empathy is the most underrated startup virtue

If you ask folks in the startup community to name the most important virtues an entrepreneur can possess, you'll hear a lot of votes for intelligence and persistence.  Hopefully integrity will make an appearance as well.  But few, if any, will name empathy.  And that's a shame.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Google says so, so it must be true).  This ability is hugely valuable to founders because they need to consider the feelings of so many different constituencies.

1. Your Team
Being able to empathize with your team members helps you build a company for whom people want to work.  Understanding their feelings means you can know when you're pushing too hard, or when they need reassurance.

2. Your Customers/Users
The notion of the perfectly rational Homo Economicus has been thoroughly debunked; customers want to feel good about the goods and services they buy.  Apple has built their entire business around this.

3. Your Investors
Like your team and your customers, your investors are a key constituency.  But unlike your team and customers, your investors can fire you.  Far too many entrepreneurs fail to read their investors true feelings, seeing what they want to see.  If you empathize with your investors, you'll know what's worrying them and what you can do about it.  And you definitely don't want them worried.

Empathy is mostly about making the effort, but if you want a more systematic way to improve your skills, I recommend taking a peer counseling training class.

For Investors, No News Is Bad News

I often advise entrepreneurs to provide regular updates to all their investors.  You don't have to set up weekly one-on-one meetings--they're busy people too.  A simple email every two weeks, with an update and the latest numbers, is more than sufficient.

Entrepreneurs balk at this advice.  "Don't they trust me?" the incredulous founders ask.

To put it bluntly, no.

Every experienced entrepreneur understands that it's a very bad indicator when a founder goes radio silent.  There are three basic possibilities:

1) Business is so good that the founder is way too busy to send an update.  Fortunately, the next missive will be an acquisition announcement.

Sadly, this is pretty unlikely, given that the founder has already established a pattern of sending over the slightest item of good news.

2) Business is so bad that the founder is scared to send an update.  Alternately, the founder is in the hospital, which means that the business is in even worse trouble.

3) The founder doesn't give a damn about the investors.

Option 1 is vanishingly rare, which means that no news is bad news.

Now perhaps you are that rare exception--do you really want your investors thinking that either 2) or 3) are true?

Send the update.  Bad news is actually better than no news.

Why You Still Need To Talk On The Phone

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece on the decline of telephone usage among young professionals.  Their thesis (which actually has some data to back it up) is that young professionals approach the phone as a tool of last resort, behind email, chat, and texting:

"Stephanie Shih, 27, says phone calls are an interruption. The brand marketing manager at Paperless Post, a New York-based company that designs online and paper stationery, doesn't have a work phone. Nor do the majority of her co-workers. The company says that not having individual phone lines in open-plan areas protects people from unwanted calls, which can interrupt conversations.

Besides, says Ms. Shih, phones seem "outdated." She takes scheduled work calls once or twice a week. "Even my dentist's office texts me because they know phone calls can be burdensome," she wrote in an email.
Kevin Castle, a 32-year-old chief technology officer at Technossus, an Irvine, Calif.-based business software company, says calling someone without emailing first can make it seem as though you're prioritizing your needs over theirs. Technossus's staff relies mainly on email to communicate, which helps bridge the time difference between the company's offices in the U.S. and India, he says. He uses Microsoft Lync for instant messaging and video conferencing. Phone calls are his last resort."
I'll be the first to admit that I find the constant telemarketing calls annoying.  But I never resent a legitimate call from a member of my team--or a customer.

Properly used, the telephone can do a lot that email and IM cannot.  The current craze for terse written communication (thanks, Twitter!) favors transactional, rather than relational conversations.  Without the constant feedback of the open phone line, texters focus on quickly conveying their own position, rather than listening to their conversation partner.

A good phone call broadens and deepens a relationship in a way that chart cannot; part of this is the simple fact that you can tell when the person on the other line is actually giving you their full attention.

If you care about building strong relationships, and understand the other party, pick up the phone.  Just don't call during dinner.

"Cultural Fit" is only a valid hiring criteria if you can accurately define your culture

Fast Company recently ran an excellent interview with Shanley Kane, the author of "What Your Culture Really Says."

The entire interview is a good read, as is Kane's original piece, but I want to focus on a single passage:
"This idea that someone is not a culture fit functions both during the hiring process and when people are already in the company. I know a number of women who have been turned down from jobs because they “weren't a culture fit.” I know a lot of people, not just women, but it seems that women are disproportionally affected. “Not a culture fit” is used as a reason to turn people down for a job. Once they are there, it's a way of kicking them out of the culture.
People will say “not a culture fit” without having to define what that means. It's almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team. On the surface level it tends to mean “We just don't like you. You're different from us. We don't want to figure out how to work with you.” “Not a culture fit” gives us a really easy way to disregard your experience and you as a person."
I wholeheartedly agree.  Far too often, startup founders are like fish--they don't realize that they're underwater because they're always swimming in it.  I'll use an example from my own entrepreneurial career, because I don't feel guilty about embarrassing myself.

When I started my first Silicon Valley startup, I was still at HBS, which meant that I tried to cram as much as possible into my time at the office.  I didn't think anything of calling meetings at 7 PM at night, and peppering my team with calls at 9 PM or later.  On one particularly egregious occasion, I convened a strategy discussion for 9 AM on Sunday morning because it was the most convenient time for me.

If someone objected, I very well might have said, "I'm not sure you're a cultural fit," because the culture I was unknowingly creating was one of zero respect for work/life balance and family.

Only years later did I understand why some of my best employees had quit.  Oops.

Cultural fit is important, and a valid hiring criteria--but be honest about what constitutes your culture.

Excuses are useless in the startup world

Some entrepreneurs are in the bad habit of making excuses.  I should know, because I've certainly done it before.  But the simple fact is that excuses are useless in the startup world.

We learn about the power of excuses when we're kids.  A good excuse can keep our parents from punishing us, or get us an extension from our teachers.

Later, if you make your way into the corporate world, a good excuse can remain your friend.  I've never worked for a mega-company, but I have had managers and bonuses.  The key to getting a good bonus is the ability to manage upward, and excuses were a powerful tool in my arsenal.

Parents, teachers, and bosses all accept excuses because it's their job to help you.  Or more precisely, one of the main ways that they're judged is by their ability to get more out of you.

Once you become an entrepreneur, however, none of this matters.  You're going to be judged on results.  There's no such thing as getting partial credit or an "A for effort."

If an entrepreneur fails to deliver, the only reason I care why it happened is to make sure he or she has learned from the failure.  Don't waste your time coming up with excuses for your investors--all we want to hear is what you're going to do going forward.

This post was inspired in part by Dave Gooden's excellent post on 10 years of bootstrapping: