It would be an understatement to say that being a founder forces you to critically examine your own philosophy. Most other humans do this over a period of decades (if at all), and starting a company reverses this in exactly the way you would think.
You're forced to examine it fast, and everyone has a confident opinion of where you should end up.
What's particularly scary about this discovery process is that it masquerades itself as things other than you just tuning your psyche. We usually refer these other things as product development prioritizations, hiring decisions, "big vision" planning, or team construction and motivation, but under the hood they're just exercises in something different. They're exercises in nailing down what you believe about the world and the type of world you wish to participate in.
Kevin Rose interviewed Elon Musk a little while back, and Musk had a pretty gripping answer to the age-old question of "what would you tell an entrepenur who's first starting out". The first part about negative feedback is great product advice, but pay particular attention to the 1:55 mark.
This clip is somewhat subtle. There's nuance been analogy-driven and first-principle-driven thought frameworks, but he forgets one glaring detail...
...where does this examination and construction of first principles happen?
One would be remiss to think that such constructions of first principles can happen in the vacuum setting of a classroom or in the authoring of an essay. Surely axioms come and go as reality disproves the incorrect ones and paves way for a new breed of possibly correct ones. So goes the discovery of first principles - they must be battle tested and put through fire before they are hardened and given credence of value.
For the entrepreneur, first principles have a special battle ground. Foreign it will seem at first to experience such cognitive dissonance over whether or not to raise money, but foreign nonetheless because that's not exactly the question you're missing the answer to. The question you're really trying to answer is "what type of company do I want to build?", and, in turn, "what really makes me happy in life?".
It goes deeper. "What kind of comp and benefits should we offer?" is just "Who do I want to spend time with? At what tradeoffs?". "How fast should we hire?" is "How okay am I with my life being a little out of control?" and then subsequently "What does control represent for me and my character? For my self esteem?". Have an acquisition offer? You better have an answer to "What do I want the next 5 years to look like?", or the potential acquirer will answer it for you. All of these examples are present simply to point out that building a company is not just dev, sales, and marketing.
Whereas Lean Startup fostered this strange concept of doing customer dev AND product dev at the same time, it seems the case that founders need to start embracing company dev as being concurrent with philosophy dev.
We're made out by the media to be these stalwart vessels of character, but fuck them and their sensationalism. Sitting through dinner after dinner at YC this summer cast a new light on founder doubt and how prevalent this phenomenon really is - it sinks deeper when it's coming from people who run some of the fastest growing companies in the valley.
Paul Graham recently wrote about how startups were so hard because it is just a different kind of hard. For founders, that different kind of hard is really a story of personal development and figuring out the world and what you believe. If startups are defined by their insane growth, founders are defined by their insane personal development as they try to make sense of the world around them. The growth vehicle in the latter case just happens to be piloting and navigating your startup.
One of the things that I firmly believe made my time at ReverbNation successful was that I picked up so much information about the business side of the house. It was one of the big drivers of the acquisition in our minds - get access to 2 Fuqua grads that ran the ship there and we'll pick up a ton of business and product experience during our time. This crash course wasn't thrust upon me, however, and I had to stick my neck out over the line on many occasions to push for information that wouldn't otherwise be freely offered.
To many people, I was "that guy". You know him, the guy that wants to be in every meeting and every discussion. Most of the time I wasn't interested in talking, just listening. I'd stay hours later if I had to, it didn't matter. These people had information that I didn't - information that sometimes took a whole career to learn - and I very much wanted to be opportunistic in obtaining it.
Experience is, in a sense, bound by how fast time passes. Assuming you obtain no information from your peers, there certainly is a cap on your learning potential. The other side of the coin is to be the obnoxious, needy junior developer/sales/finance/whatever guy. You're young and not getting paid near what the senior guys are getting paid, so you should seek to close that delta in other ways. Namely, your quest for knowledge.
Ask questions, lots of them. Ask for sensitive information, even if it's personal at times. Understand that you're going to cross the line - apologize accordingly. If you're worth your weight in your job role, you've earned the ears of your superiors and should use them accordingly. Talk to the CFO, the guys in support, and the other developers. Ask about fundraising and bizdev deals that you see happening behind closed doors. Auditors getting paid $400/hr for accounting stuff? Fair game if you can catch them in the break room. How did they get to where they are now? What advice to they have for young founders that will eventually need to pay for their services?
To be clear, I specifically went out of my functional area to ask questions. As a developer, I soaked in a lot of things through osmosis and working with the code base. If your company is very walled garden in terms of responsibilities you'll need to make the extra effort to get at the other departments. In the end, people like talking about their own jobs and their lives. Their successes and struggles, how awesome/terrible their customers/coworkers are.
Startups are often born out of struggles inside the building. Keep your ears peeled and your brain open.
answer: remind me what you do
I spend most of my day checking hacker news for the latest startupy and techy stuff, and quite frequently come across new companies launching what are seemingly awesome products. I click most of them, and sign up for almost all of the mailing lists and "beta invites", only to be left in the dark until the company is finally ready for the world to see it's product.
<monster-truck-voice>SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY WIDGET COMPANY X IS NOW OPEN FOR PAID BETA FOR THE FIRST 1000 USERS. ONLY $25/month STARTING RIGHT NOW</monster-truck-voice>
Excitement abounds, and then quickly fades as I can't remember what the hell you do. Especially if you have an eccentric name that doesn't quite jive with your product - Balsamiq, for example, great name - I really won't have a clue. Alas, I still may follow the invite link only to be further wondering what you do. The beta invite landing page gives me no clues. Just a logo and other logistics stuff.
And then...Ctrl+w and back to hacker news front page to see if Arrington has officially been fired yet. You've lost me, and I won't be back for a while until I see your company name pop up again a few times (remember, I don't know what you do).
- Please, at least tell me in the paid beta email WHAT YOU DO.
- Please, at least tell me when I get to the paid beta landing page WHAT YOUR PRODUCT DOES.
As PG says, optimize for the back button. Beta invite emails and landing pages are not exempted.
Came across something nasty yesterday as we were looking into automating the building of iPhone apps with a dedicated mac mini. Anyone familiar with the certificate process of building and deploying iOS apps knows how much of a nightmare it can be.
Specifically, the first time codesign calls on a distribution certificate the user must authorize access for codesign to access the keychain. We have a headless mac mini and really don't want to have to babysit it. After some tinkering and and googling for the last 6 hours or so, I finally was able to contrive an applescript that I put in a 1 second loop to just continually click "Always Allow" each time it popped up for access.
#!/usr/bin/osascript tell application "System Events" if (exists process "SecurityAgent") then tell window 1 of process "SecurityAgent" click button "Always Allow" of group 1 end tell end if end tell
Today's news was quite baffling, and starkly resembled Twitter's purchase of Tweetie so that it can push it as the official Twitter app. Long story short, you can't deny Apple's App Store success has been due to major media subscription titles flowing into the app store at a good clip - Pandora, Netflix, Dropbox, Kindle, NYTimes and WSJ, etc - and now Apple is basically saying "we want half the bread". Many of these are unmetered SaaS solutions with equally unmetered mobile app access. I think the solution going forward is very cut and dry.
Mobile access is no longer free, and will cost you 30% more than the base subscription offered over the web.
There's an easy business case to be made that mobile traffic incurs development and infrastructure costs (roughly 30% worth =D) and that you want to recoup that through a premium on top of the normal SaaS offering.
As far as I can tell, this won't violate any of the provisions set forth in the new terms as long as the publisher is marketing the subscription as "Pandora + Mobile" instead of "Pandora" and has the same mobile addition on top of the base service on their website.
What this will force, though, is the consumer wondering why mobile costs more - a teachable moment where the vendors can describe in detail that Apple has levied a 30% tax, much akin to state sales tax, that they're passing through directly to the consumer. My cell phone and utility bills put it straight on the line item list as if to vilify the government powers without shame; why shouldn't these trusted brands shed a little light on the scene?
I've been thinking a lot recently about cognitive overhead (ironic, I know), and for a while now have been slowly eliminating things out of my immediate view that distract me from engaging in a solid flow of work by which I can effortlessly continue for a long period of time uninterrupted before being sufficiently distracted as to break my thought process:
- Gchat notifications / Growl popups
- Unread email count
- New twitter items available (tweets, mentions, DMs)
- Facebook chats
- Tiny dock (as much full screen as I can for code)
- iPhone push notifications
- One-click bookmarks (all of mine are in some sort offolder)
Last week I eliminated one item that wasn't so obvious, and it has worked wonders for my flow while coding and planning.
Turn the clock off from your menu bar.
It may sound strange, but think about how accustomed we are to having clocks around. Everything on that list above is purely digital, but clocks also have a physical manifestation everywhere in our life. It wasn't obvious to me at first, but my inclination for how it could help seems to have held up true. Consider the following...
What happens every time you look at your clock? If you're like me, you immediately begin to calculate how long you have before all of the major events in the day (lunch, meeting at 2, home, hacker meetup, etc). This is non-trivial overhead for sure, but what's paralyzing is all of the possible thought processes that can stem from your mind parsing the reality that you have 4 or 5 distinct events about to come up - if only one of these takes hold you've lost your focus. The focus is usually regained in a seemingly normal amount of time, but the break in concentration, momentum, and flow is in fact prohibitive on your work efficiency and concentration.
The idea for this started when I was watching The Social Network for the first time last week. For obvious reasons, I got pretty into the movie. I was so consumed, in fact, that I felt as if I was embodying a different consciousness state that didn't afford for active notice and attention to the day of week or time of day. It was a Tuesday night, and I usually am worried about getting to bed on time and what I need to get done the next day at work. It was a strange feeling for sure, and it intrigued me that it may be beneficial for me to purposefully remove these distractions and stressors in order to focus more intensely on the current moment and task at hand. So the next day, I took my clock off of my menu bar.
The past week has often left me mentally exhausted at work from 60-90 minute sprints of pure flow before I just need to get up and walk around to let my mind recoup. I find myself losing track of time and not caring one bit. There are moments when I realize I don't know what time it is, but the effort required to bring up the dashboard on my computer is enough to refocus me before the wandering thought can do any damage. For anything that is important, I have 2 or 3 reminder mechanisms to let me know when it's time to break and move onto something that I'm scheduled for. Whenever I want to check the time during a mental break, I just hit my dashboard key and check a clock widget there.
What has been the most interesting is how skewed my sense of time is. Getting lost in code completely warps your natural sense of how much time has passed based on N number of memory events you can recall at a slight cognitive glance. Watching a movie or doing social activities is different, because the recording of physical events passing by is much different than staring at a screen and being physically inactive - the memories just don't seem to get recorded in the same way.
I'd love to see if other people would try this out and see what results they get. Please comment back if you do.
Last year in January, Steve and I started Sound Around. It was a part time gig as I finished up school and Steve was wading deep into his junior year of a business degree in marketing. The following summer we launched, however, was very much full time. Poised with the option to take a term off of school to focus full time on the startup, the advice was a resounding "no" from everyone we solicited feedback from. I purposely removed myself from the conversation because I was sitting, obviously, in the most biased seat available. After much conversation and thought, I think it's time to get the thoughts out on paper. This post isn't about Steve in particular, but about a lot of individuals I have observed since getting involved in software startups almost a year ago. Let's call this character Sven.
To set the scene, I should note that Sven has the following characteristics:
- No intent to work at a large company (let's call large anything > 50 people)
- More focused on design/UI/UX or web programming than he ever will be on his marketing degree
- Would work in startups for the remainder of his career if given the choice
Additionally, Sven was given the following reasons as to why it would be a bad idea to take time off of school:
- "Just work on the startup part time until it starts making money."
- "What if your startup fails and you need a job?"
- "You'll never go back to school."
- "You won't get any respect when you're in a room of people that have degrees."
Let's address each one of these individually.
"Just work on your startup part time until it starts making money"
The horse goes before the cart, right? From the standpoint of hours you may have a case; however, a startup is much more than hours. It is emotion, life balance, stress, extreme joy, extreme despair, and, most of all, mindshare. It's not something you can just turn off when you're doing other things in your life. Showering? You're thinking about startup. Talking with the girlfriend? You're thinking about startup. Sleeping? You're thinking about startup. Doing a startup part time almost assures that both items will turn out less than satisfactory (job, school, etc).
"What if your startup fails and you need a job?"
People say this as if they'll certainly be able to get a job if they lose their current "safe" one, but that failed startup founders won't. Getting laid off/fired is no different than winding down a startup: you're still going to be subject to current "market" forces for job availability if thats the route you wish to go. The advantage of doing a startup is that you're used to ramen and dumpster diving, and as such will not experience much change (if any at all) in lifestyle. Plus, there's never a shortage of student loans if you want to go back to school to finish your degree.
"You'll never go back to school"
The statistics don't lie on this one: people who take terms off are disproportionately unlikely to finish up, even if its only a couple classes. I find it humorous, however, that most individuals are incredibly supportive of peoples' decisions to take the leap and start a company when they have failure rates comparable to that of returning to school after time off. Even with the previous statement, what's to say that school is the best use of your time? Higher education is arguably not worth the investment these days, let alone the opportunity cost of sitting idly in mandated classes (and often mandated internships!). Startups, on the other hand, could provide a litany of lessons that may never fully materialize in a classroom setting. Don't exclude failed startups, either.
"You won't get any respect when you're in a room full of people that have degrees"
Somebody I know recently had his class ring purchased by his parents (against his will I might add) for the sole purpose that "when you go to shake hands with somebody, they're going to notice that ring". I'm going to chock this parental sentiment up to a generational difference, but I would lean heavily toward giving somebody a couple minutes of my day as opposed to trusting a class ring flash if I'm really interested in their education level. That also goes without saying what a psychological anchor a class ring would serve as in the first place. As for those still giving less respect to dropouts due to lack of certification from an arguably antiquated education system, well I just feel sorry for you. Furthermore, I have no interest in doing business with you. We would do much better as a society to meet such observed snap judgements with light encouragement that our initial perceptions often deceive us, and that such bold psychological anchors can bring both pain and missed experiences as we shape our behavior and decisions based on our perception of their education and intelligence.
I write this in confidence that I would feel the same had Sound Around not turned out to have some degree of success. The lessons would still have been the same, the college education equally as questionable in its value - the only real difference is that now we have an acquisition to talk about and a paycheck twice a month. My lack of anecdotal evidence toward the contrary does leave room for improvement, however. Use the comments box judiciously if you've been in this situation or are thinking about making the jump.
Back in November, I was privileged enough to do a "working vacation" to go spend a couple weeks with my girlfriend in South Dakota. While we were visiting Rapid City and the Black Hills area, we settled for the night at a quaint little tourist town - Hill City, SD - that was all but dead due to the cold weather and it being November (a lot of little cities around Mt. Rushmore are funded in large part by tourist dollars). The place we stayed at was a restaurant on the bottom and 8 rooms up top for people to sleep in.
I should note that this was one of the only restaurants in town. They very easily could have been the Cheesecake Factory type of menu where everyone can get something they are interested in but nothing really jumps out as a "signature" or "identifying" meal. After all, that would attract more patrons, right?
After being seated without given any menus, the waitress approached and opened with the following: "Hello, just want to let you know before you start its cash only. We have 2 items on the menu, a 6 ounce bacon-wrapped filet mignon or a 9 ounce bacon-wrapped filet mignon. Both come with loaded baked potato and texas toast and lettuce wedge."
5 seconds of silence ensued. She stared at us blankly as we had only 1 decision to make.
This inn existed not to give everyone a mediocre experience, but rather to give you a dining experience so memorable that it is worth driving through that city just to have the privilege of eating there again. They were the best filet-potato-toast-lettuce meal in 100 miles, and they knew it. The hostess, the waitress, the cooks, and the tables and chairs and drapes knew it. This place oozed with greatness, and it laughed at the prospect of degrading its offering to try to serve a wider audience.
I have no doubt that they make a hefty margin on their meal offering. Additionally, they're properly insulated from competition moving in should the city start to grow and flourish. Years of doing something so incredibly well has positioned them with an insurmountable competitive advantage against anybody else trying to move into their space.