Category: culture

Posts

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14 June / culture
Earlier this week, I spoke at 2U’s annual employee conference. Redpoint partnered with 2U at the Series A, and they are now a $2B publicly traded education company that powers online degree programs for Georgetown, USC, Syracuse, Berkeley, and Yale, among others. It was an inspirational moment for me because I observed the intense power of developing strong company culture. I’ve never read the list of core company values or spoken to the executive team about them.
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12 September / culture
Like many others, English is my second language. As I learned over time, there’s a particular way of ordering adjectives in English to make yourself understood. Opinion. Size. Shape. Condition. Age. Color. Pattern. Origin. Material. Purpose. Noun. That’s the order most of the time. When I say a unique large curvaceous second-hand modern orange checked Italian carbon fiber racing car, it rolls right off the tongue and you imagine a sleek, if garish, Lamborghini.
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10 March / culture
We all recognize great leadership when we see it. But what characterizes great leadership? Is it an inspirational speaker articulating a goosebump-inducing vision? Or an executive with the five universally praised characteristics Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeiffer identified: modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and selflessness? Or is it a great manager of people, someone who understands the aspirations of each report, charts a career path, assigns meaningful work along that path, and champions their promotion?
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04 March / culture / startups
In “How People Learn to Become Resilient” Maria Konnikova retells the story of Norman Garmezy and George Bonnano, the first developmental psychologists to study grit and resilience. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?…One of the central elements of resilience, Bonnano has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow?
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04 December / culture / startups
After a startup attains product market fit and begins to exceed the first breaking point of the startup management structure around 10 employees, it’s time to codify the company’s values. The values of the company are the most concrete way for a business to determine whether candidates might make good employees. At two separate SaaS Office Hours recently, we heard similar stories from Maia at Greenhouse and Pete at Optimizely.
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26 September / startups / culture / best practices
The startups that build and retain the best teams develop a huge competitive advantage. It’s no surprise that managers are the most important influencers of team development and retention. The most frequent and consequently most powerful tool for managers to coach, develop and lead their teams are one-on-ones, weekly meetings between a manager and his or her individual reports. Most one-on-ones are ad-hoc, loosely structured 15-30 minute meetings. While extemporaneous meetings can work, leaders who manage their teams this way forgo an important opportunity to further their team’s success.
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13 May / startups / culture
Startups are in a state of perpetual change. During a startup’s first few years of establishing product market and winning the first set of customers, this state of change is obvious. But as a startup scales, the company must adapt by learning and reinventing. Whether it’s building the processes to grow the team, creating new sales and marketing initiatives to pursue adjacent customers, developing customer success teams or handling an unforseen crisis, this process of reacting to the market and evolving the company happens at every level in each function.
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Imagine a city council meeting with three agenda items: a $100M power plant zoning approval, a request to build a $10,000 bike rack for city sidewalks and and a $100 proposal to buy refreshments for the annual picnic. The power plant discussion takes all of 3 minutes to reach approval, as does the refreshment budget. But the $1000 bike rack debate drags on for hours as council members debate the right materials, the best color scheme and the right way to announce the project.
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27 February / startups / best practices / culture
The process of creating the right culture in a startup has always been mysterious to me. Each company’s culture evolves in its own way. I’ve wondered whether the culture is set by the personalities of the founders, or prominently displayed value statements and mission, or biases purposely imposed in the hiring processes like Google’s googliness filter. Or is understanding the psychological forces at play among employees the most important element?
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31 January / startups / best practices / culture
OODA was a technique coined by John Boyd, one of the leading military thinkers of the last 100 years, based on the German’s Blitzkrieg-style warfare which prioritized speed and surprise over the traditional win, hold and grind attrition techniques of trench warfare. After @pmarca tweeted about the concept, I read one of the books on the topic called Certain to Win. Boyd’s thesis is that leaders of successful teams have to enable their organization to move rapidly, which means empowering people at all levels to make decisions.
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22 January / startups / culture / best practices
When I worked as an engineer, I loved crafting code and feeling the satisfaction of having built something each day. But there was one thing about coding I never grew to love, despite its importance: forecasting my coding time. Every two weeks, I trudged into a planning meeting that exposed my incompetent forecasting. During these meetings, each person in turn would review their commitments for the last two weeks and provide an update.
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03 January / startups / culture
Earlier this week, Zappos declared they will abandon traditional management structure for holacracy, a management ethos that eschews pyramids and hierarchy in favor of self-organizing groups, called holons. It’s not a structure without management, but one of distributed authority and management. Below is a schematic describing holacracy at a high level. Holacracy has been adopted by a handful of other companies including David Allen’s company, the blogging platform Medium and some non-profits.
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02 January / startups / best practices / culture
Like many others, during my work day I fall into the firefighting trap, a time mis-allocation problem that leaves me focusing on urgent, but not necessarily important tasks. Firefighting is addictive because it’s fast-paced, nonstop and fun. But firefighting is exhausting and leaves me feeling as if I haven’t made progress toward my goals. In addition, firefighting inhibits effective time allocation. A week can pass and I find that the non-urgent but important projects like preparing for a board meeting and researching a new sector like Bitcoin have been starved for time.
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20 December / startups / best practices / culture
You’re walking down the hallway at work from one meeting to the next. A colleague or report stops you en route, asks for a minute and presents an important problem. It’s easy to respond with “let me think about it” and duck into the meeting. In that half-second, all the responsibility of the decision has been transferred. Unlike a minute ago, you have the monkey on your back. The challenge with these situations is two-fold.
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A key component in a startup’s formula for success is educating customers about the product and driving sales. The sales and marketing teams of a startup are responsible for this. There are many ways to structure sales and marketing teams. The diagram above outlines a sales and marketing team structure that I’ve observed across many startups. It is consistent with the organizational design Salesforce used to drive revenue from $0 to $100M, described Aaron Ross’s book, Predictable Revenue.
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20 November / startups / best practices / culture
At its core, a startup’s advantage in the market is the speed created by focus. When a team is well orchestrated, they can accomplish amazing things. Creating an environment that fosters communication best is therefore an essential part of startup management. But how best to do it? Founders have to balance span-of-control with span-of-managerial-responsibility. In an article this week’s New Yorker, Amazon’s founder/CEO Jeff Bezos is quoted on the subject with a contrarian point of view:
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15 November / startups / best practices / culture
In response to yesterday’s post on management design patterns, many readers asked for examples of best practices. So I’m going to write about the management best practices I have been taught and I have observed in startups. This is the first post of that series. The first management technique is called Situational Management, one that my wife, a terrific manager at Google, taught me. A manager’s most important function in a startup is to motivate employees to accomplish the business’s goal.
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21 October / startups / best practices / culture
At all hands meetings on Tuesday afternoons, our 75 person AdSense Ops team reviewed the most important metrics for the business: top-two box customer satisfaction scores, revenue growth and customer churn. But unlike every other all hands meeting I attended, these meetings ended with a monkey and a dog. Our director, Kim Malone, would stand up and call for two stuffed animals, first, Whoops the Monkey and Second, Duke the Dog, both of whom employees had carried to the meeting.
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03 October / culture
Deserve is a toxic word. During my junior year in college, I trained like crazy to make the varsity boat on the crew team. Two workouts per day for six days a week during the four week Christmas holiday and on through winter training. That winter, I set a personal record for a 2000m sprint. In April, we left for Georgia and Augusta River for spring training where our coach seat raced the team to decide the varsity lineup.
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12 September / startups / culture
One of the hardest but least spoken about transitions in a startup’s life is crossing people management chasm. At the outset of the startup, there might be three people, then eight, then fifteen. As they grow, startups often create ad hoc managers I call team leads. Team leads manage 3 to 5 people. They work alongside their team, whether engineering, sales or marketing and contribute actively to achieving the goals of that team team.
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05 September / best practices / culture
I have never worked for a company that was dogmatic about project postmortems but I have always wished I had. After all, project postmortems teach us so much. Learning from the mistakes and experiences of others constitutes the better part of our business education. It’s why we ask successful entrepreneurs to coffee and hang on every word when they speak at conferences. All those stories are postmortems. Postmortems condense all the experience and learning into a nugget of shared wisdom.
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30 August / culture
At Google, the director of my team repeated a management mantra to us quite often. “Manage yourself out of a job; make yourself redundant”, she would say. “Empower your people and then get out of the way.” Our director was a terrific team builder. Before Google, she founded a startup where she learned to build a company. When she told us her mantra, she was sharing her learnings with us.
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21 August / culture
A team of founders who had just made their first their first hire asked me about culture and on boarding. How do they go about managing people? How do they maintain the values of the business? The underlying question of successful management is: How can founders lead and learn at the same time? I think a bastardized version Tolstoy’s well-worn refrain is apt: Happy teams are all alike; every unhappy team is unhappy in its own way.
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This week, I visited a startup whose office had a very unusual feature: a usability lab. There I was in a soundproofed room with a table in the center flanked by two chairs, one for a user and one product manager or UX researcher. On the table, a constellation of web cams record a user’s facial expressions and interactions with a mobile phone or laptop while a microphone captures the user’s voice.
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12 June / culture
In the center of Google’s campus lie a cluster of four buildings: 40, 41, 42 and 43. Contained within building 42 was the epicenter of product management: Jonathan Rosenberg’s office. Immediately next to his office stood a collection of three bookcases containing a library of different books on various topics that JR curated. I used to pass that library every day on my way to meetings and each time I walked past, I would pause to see which new volumes had arrived.
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The reason most startups go out of business is they run out of money. The CEO bears the responsibility for raising money, managing those assets and growing the business into profitability and ultimate sustainability. But the CEO shouldn’t bear this load alone. To help defray that critical responsibility, the CEO ought to have a consigliere, an advisor who helps plan, allocate resources, and illuminate the trade-offs between decisions. That consigliere is the head of finance and the most under-appreciated startup team member.
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10 May / culture
In the summer of 2008, a crisis evolved on my team at Google: social networks had grown exponentially. The AdSense network was flooded with social network page impressions whose poor performance challenged advertisers and Google alike. During that summer, we formed a tiger team of about four or five key people. We shed our daily responsibilities, relocated our desks to a conference room in a deserted building on the edge of campus where we brainstormed and debated and wrote patents and developed a plan of action.
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30 April / culture
Andrew Dumont wrote about his grueling schedule at a startup and the lessons on “Avoiding Burnout” which spurred a torrent of comments on HackerNews. For me, the most interesting comment is this one by Daniel Ribeiro who quotes Isaac Yonemoto: Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail…You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure… The best way to prevent burnout is to follow up a serious failure with doing small things that you know are going to work.
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25 April / culture
“What’s the difference between a string and a String?” I asked on the first day of my engineering internship at a startup. That comment drew some sighs from the other engineers in the cube. The pit in my stomach confirmed what I already knew - I was out of my depth. I had never programmed in Java before that day. And there I was, a Java engineering intern at this startup.
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18 April / best practices / culture
Feedback loops are essential components of every person’s role within a startup. The most recent and celebrated feedback loop is the viral coefficient or k-factor which Facebook applications optimize to grow their user bases. The [k-factor](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K-factor_(marketing), a borrowed concept from the study of biological viruses, measures the rate at which an application spreads through the network. But feedback loops don’t solely exist within marketing. For product teams, there is consumer feedback and user engagement metrics.
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12 April / culture
Sitting on a bench overlooking the South Beach marina, I asked an entrepreneur how he had been since he founded his company. He replied with a conundrum: Looking back I can’t believe it’s only been a year but if I think about every day, it’s taken forever. That’s a really succinct way of communicating how it feels to grind. Cementing each brick, each hire, each line of code, each product feature seems like just an incremental step, just another day.
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07 April / culture
When the core teams of a startup work in harmony, they create tremendous leverage for a business. I saw this last week with one startup I work with, Axial, a New York based company enabling private companies to access debt, equity capital and strategic acquirers. First, the marketing team created a powerful blog post and infographic, just top-notch content marketing. This campaign creates awareness among potential target customers who become curious about the service.
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Steve Sinofsky, executive at Microsoft for 24 years penned an insightful post on the five data biases plaguing product decisions. It can be easy for any founder, product manager, marketer or engineer accept a data point at face value as the rationale behind a decision. But understanding the nuances and biases of the data, questioning the data, is often just as important as the result. The corollary point argued in his post is data isn’t strategy - data can’t be blindly used to inform product design and decision making because the data might be “lies, damned lies and statistics”.
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25 February / culture
“Blades square,” the coach yelled from the Boston Whaler as he increased the speed on his outboard motor, pursuing the eight man boat as we gained speed. I sat in four-seat, right in the middle of the engine room, the place for the taller, heavier rowers. The eight man team reluctantly complied with the coach’s order and rowed across the Long Island Sound, NYAC jerseys on our backs and the muggy, humid early summer morning sun reflecting in the water, practicing for national championships.
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08 February / culture
When interviewing product managers at Google, we ranked candidates on four metrics: technical ability, communication skills, intellect and Googliness. A Googley person embodies the values of the company - a willingness to help others, an upbeat attitude, a passion for the company, and the most important, humility. In the past week, I asked two heads of engineering to identify the most important characteristic in new hires. Both responded, “humility”. For one startup ascertaining humility is so important, it is the first filter in the interview process.
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03 February / culture
Even the greatest minds fear missing out. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, contributed substantial advances to quantum mechanics and particle physics, discovered the cause of the Challenger Shuttle disaster and popularized science as a witty and successful author, faced this fear when confronted with a menu. How many different dishes should he order from a menu before settling upon a favorite? Feynman used probability theory to solve the problem.
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14 January / strategy / startups / culture
Photo: flickr/nemabix I don’t remember much of junior year chemistry class except the lab experiment in which we made fireworks. My lab partner and I doubled and tripled the amounts of strontium, potassium, calcium and other explosives specified in the instructions. Our firecracker dwarfed our classmates' in size and when we lit them after two unbearable weeks of baking, there was no question we misunderstood chemistry. We expected an inferno and were rewarded with a pathetic fizzle and a C-.
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13 December / culture
Great teams accomplish amazing things. But it’s rare for any founding team to have all the constituent parts on the day they start the company. Most startups will need to build a strong management team whose strengths and knowledge complement the founding team. Finding the right people to help starts with being honest. As Swizec of Zemanta wrote yesterday, there simply isn’t enough time in the day for founders to manage all the key parts of a startup: BD, hiring, fundraising, goal setting, product management and company management in addition to coding.
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06 December / culture
Jeff Bezos appeared on Charlie rose two weeks ago and spoke about Amazon’s history, future and best of all, its culture. In the interview, Bezos discussed Amazon’s core values: We are willing to be misunderstood We are obsessed with customers, not competitors. We are long term thinkers While all of them are critical to Amazon’s success, my favorite is the first because it combines three critical concepts for startups.
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05 December / culture
I rowed crew in college. I walked on to the team and fell in love with the sport the very first time we pushed the boat from the dock and took a stroke. Looking back on those four years, I often draw parallels between rowing and entrepreneurship. My freshman year, Joe Holland, who had raced for the national team in the eighties had taken a sabbatical to coach the freshmen team.
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12 November / culture / startups / best practices
This morning NPR profiled an education researcher comparing and contrasting the way different cultures approach intelligence and learning in schools. Though the debate about education methodologies is fascinating, I found the one of the stories in the report reminded me of the importance of transparent cultures in startups. In 1979, Jim Stigler, a researcher from UMich went to study education in Japan. Sitting in the back of a fourth grade math class, he watched as the teacher asked the class to draw cubes.
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12 November / culture
This morning NPR profiled an education researcher comparing and contrasting the way different cultures approach intelligence and learning in schools. Though the debate about education methodologies is fascinating, I found the one of the stories in the report reminded me of the importance of transparent cultures in startups. In 1979, Jim Stigler, a researcher from UMich went to study education in Japan. Sitting in the back of a fourth grade math class, he watched as the teacher asked the class to draw cubes.
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18 October / startups / product / culture
Every social service aims to achieve massive growth and deep engagement. But if forced to choose just one of these attributes, I would pick engagement every time. An active user base implies product/user fit for a social service. Aside from the core functionality of social services, which is a solved problem (profiles, messaging, feed), the essence of a social startup is culture - the values of the community, the mores, the manners of interaction.