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I had a fun email exchange with an investor I’ve worked with for almost 20 years in response to something a CEO send out from a board we are both on. I said “fucking awesome.” He said “that’s an understatement.” I said “CEO is such a delight.” He said “CEO is negative maintenance.”
I loved this. So I’m going to use this post to think through the idea out loud and I’d love your feedback since it’s still a messy / blurry concept in my mind.
My hypothesis is that the opposite of high maintenance is not zero maintenance but rather it’s negative maintenance.
There are days that I’m high maintenance. Everyone is. But if you subscribe to my “give before you get”, or #givefirst, philosophy, you are constantly contributing more than you are consuming. I’ve talked about this often in the context of Startup Communities, but I haven’t really had the right words for this in the context of leadership, management, and employees in a fast growing company.
Suddenly I do. When I think about my role as an investor and board member, I’m often tangled up in complicated situations. I’ve often said that every day something new in my world gets fucked up somewhere. This used to be distressing to me, but after 20 years of it, if I don’t know what the new fucked up thing is by 4pm, I start to get curious about what it’s going to be.
We all know that creating companies from nothing is extremely difficult. The problems that arise come from all angles. Some are exogenous and some are directly under your control. Some are random and some are obvious. Some are compounded by other problems and mistakes, resulting in what my father taught me at a young age was the worst kind of mistake – one that was a mistake compounded on a mistake compounded on a mistake – which he called “a complicated mistake.”
Personally, when I find myself in a complicated mistake, I stop. I step back and pause and reflect. And then I try to figure out how I can change the dynamic into something positive, not continuing to build on my complicated mistake, but instead getting clarity on what the right thing is to do to get out of the ditch.
Negative maintenance people do this. I’ve seen, been involved in, and made some epic mistakes. The CEO I’m referring to above has a great company, but has also experienced some epic mistakes. How he handles them, works through them with his team, and his board, is exemplary. There is work involved by me and the other board members, but it’s not inappropriately emotional. It’s not high maintenance. It’s just work. Decisions have to be made and executed. And there are impacts from these decisions, which lead to more decisions. Ultimately this CEO is putting energy into the system as we work through the issue, which is where the negative maintenance (as opposed to high maintenance) behavior pattern arises.
I like this idea of negative maintenance people. I’m obviously trying to think it through out loud with this post, so weigh in and help me understand it better.
I have been to thousands of board meetings. Maybe tens of thousands. I’ve done them in person, on the phone, and on video conference. Most of the time I think I’m additive to the mix. Yesterday I had a board meeting (where I was remote on video) where on reflection I was a lousy participant and miserable contributor to the meeting.
I had a really nice dinner with a founder of a company that was recently acquired by a company I’m on the board of. I vented a little about the board meeting to him at the beginning of dinner and then he asked me questions about how I think a great board meeting should work. As I was talking and explaining, I realized the board meeting wasn’t crummy. Instead, I was lousy. So when I got home, I sent the following note to the CEO and the largest VC investor in on the board (who I view as the lead director for this company.)
Dear CEO, Lead Director:
Post dinner, I thought I’d drop you another note. Please feel free to share with the entire management team if you’d like.
I thought I was a shitty board member today.
1. I was late. My brother had surgery today so I had an excuse, but that set a crummy tone.
2. I was painfully bored by the first 90 minutes. I let myself get frustrated as you read us the board package. I know some board members like this and while I don’t, that’s my problem, not yours. You get to run the board meeting however you want.
3. I was annoyed with my lack of clarity on what you were looking for.
4. I let myself get distracted. Rather than pay attention, I drifted to email which I hadn’t been on all day. The mediocre audio wasn’t helpful here, but again that was my problem. I could have paid attention.
5. I then got very frustrated with what I thought was a “let’s go raise a bunch of money thread” which I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but I presumed that there was some positioning going on. I shouldn’t have. But I let that + my general annoyance derail me.
I’m sorry. I know I wasn’t helpful today.
So you are clear about where I’m at.
- I’m psyched about the progress you are making.
- I’m totally comfortable with you running hot at an $xxx net burn rate for the balance of the year. You’ve got plenty of money.
- When I’m bored in, or annoyed with, a board meeting, that’s my problem in the moment to deal with, not yours. You’ve got 14 people in the room / on the phone and that’s more than any human should have to try to process.
- You and <your COO> have my full, unambiguous support.
We all have off days – when you have one – own it.
In yesterday’s post Mentors 4/18: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard, Joah Spearman left a very powerful comment about empathy.
“The older I get the more I realize that truth is something that is best coupled with empathy. Ultimately, you have to seek to understand before you can be understood and part of telling the truth is knowing that you’ll never know someone else’s truth until you hear it directly from them rather than assuming you know what someone has experienced or what’s best for them.”
This made me think of a deeply held belief that I hold with my partners at Foundry Group – brutal honesty delivered kindly.
I especially keyed in on Transparent, Authentic, and Empathetic as these three are core personal values of mine. However, these three ideas often come into conflict. It’s hard to be transparent and empathetic at the same time. Consider the situation where you fire a person. Legally, you likely have some constraints on what you say, limiting your transparency. You want to be empathetic to the person you fired, so this again limits your transparency (or, if you are transparent, you likely aren’t being very empathetic.) And then, at a meta-level, you will have some internal struggles with your authenticity around this situation.
The tension between the concepts is helpful as it makes you think harder about how you comport yourself is difficult, challenging, or complex situations.
The solution between me, Seth, Jason, and Ryan is to be brutally honest at all times but deliver feedback kindly.
While I’m sure we hold back on occasion, especially when one of us is unclear on what is going on, we subscribe to the notion of brutal honesty. We try hard to be fair witnesses in the style of my wife Amy, saying what we believe to be the truth. When it’s a hypothesis, we frame it as such. When it’s an assertion, we state that. When it’s something we feel strongly about, we preface it appropriately. And when it’s a fact that we are certain of, we are unambiguous in what we say.
No matter how difficult, sharp, upsetting, or confrontational something is, we always deliver the message kindly. We are not decedents of the Stepford Wives and we each have our own personalities, so “delivered kindly” means something different for each of us. But we never mean malice, harm, or disrespect. We are quick to own our opinions, especially when we are wrong. And when on the receiving end, we listen, and try to understand the other person’s truth, as well as our own, and then reconcile them.
If you sat in a meeting with us, you’d see no yelling. No pounding on the table. No grandstanding. No aggressive body language. No passive aggressive behavior. But you would hear a lot of brutal honesty, And you’ll hear it delivered kindly.
I was sitting with the founders of a company we’ve funded the other day talking about their competition. I love this product and I use it every day. It doesn’t yet have widespread adoption, but it as extremely actively used by the early adopters.
This company has several competitors – long time incumbents with somewhat stale, but useful products, and several new competitors, including well-funded and noisy ones. I use several of these products regularly in different situations and have encouraged the founders to use them also.
During our conversation, we started off by talking about pricing and go-to-market strategies. As part of this, we were talking through a strategy to change the current game being played in the market, both from a product and pricing perspective. We had clarity on the product side (we have several fundamental architectural differences that enable a powerfully different approach at scale) but thrashed for a while on the pricing perspective.
I realized I wasn’t very clear on the pricing strategies of the competitors so we went through them on-line. While this was sort of useful, our knowledge of their products, how they work, and what the current limitations of them are was more enlightening. Ultimately the product differentiation drove the pricing differentiation discussion, which resulted in our hypothesis about how to change the game which we are now testing.
If we hadn’t all be active users of these competitors products, we would have had a stupid conversation. While we have limited visibility into the competitors’ product roadmaps, we know how hard it will be for them to change several dimensions of their products. Sure, we should assume they can and will do this, but as we enter the market in a serious way, I think we can carve out a unique and very significant position for ourselves by leading with the product differentiation and supporting it with a pricing strategy that undermines theirs. In the absence of the product information we have from our experience using their products, we wouldn’t have been able to tie these two constructs together, and our resulting approach would be weak.
My general approach to competition is to “obsess about their products while completely ignoring the company.” If you can identify competitors, use their products continually, if only to have that knowledge when the moment comes that you have the conversation about how you are going to change the game.
I recently received the following email.
I am in a bit of a dilemma and would really appreciate any insight you all have on what to do.
Last month, my team worked with a designer to create a new homepage for my startup. Yesterday, I saw that another company ripped off our entire site design. They have also just recently pivoted into doing exactly what we do.
You can compare the two sites here: Us Them a week ago Them now.
It doesn’t feel right that they can so brazenly steal someone else’s work like that. You would think they would have a reputation to uphold.
Anyway, my question for the group: How can we turn this negative into a positive for us?
My response was:
Welcome to the world. It sucks, but it happens all the time.
There are two approaches:
1. Ignore them and just kick their ass.
2. Make a big deal about it as a way to get more attention for you. Do this in a classy way. Don’t be whiny about it.
So you know, I generally choose option 1. I find that option 2 is very hard to execute and usually a distraction. But if you can do option 2 correctly, especially for a consumer service like yours, it can generate a lot of interest.
After a week or so, a draft blog post, and a little more back and forth the sender concluded:
For a quick update on this front, I think I did want the noise, to hopefully drive more awareness and because I was still kinda mad.
But, after putting it out of my mind for a few days and focusing on making progress on our product and marketing strategy, I feel calmer about the whole thing. Best case scenario we embarrass them – which doesn’t seem as fun anymore now that I’m not as actively mad – and get some sympathy and signups. Worst case scenario it backfires on us. Either way it’s a distraction and a lot of noise that isn’t really my style.
Our team is better, our technology more scalable, our wit sharper. They are right in some ways to make their site a cheap knockoff of ours – our site is great. But they’re fighting a losing battle. So I’m gonna go with option A of ignoring it and kicking their ass.
So yeah, your advice ended up being right on. Thanks for suggesting I sleep on it for a few days and again just for being responsive and helpful overall – it really did mean a lot.
I was proud of this person. The high road is always more fun, especially when you toss boulders down on the person on the low road and crush them before they make any progress toward the top of the mountain.