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I saw an email from a CEO the other day. In it, he said “I” over and over again. There were numerous places where he referred to “my company”, “my team”, “my product”, and “my plan.”
It bummed me out. I know the people on “his team” and they are working their asses off. The company is an awesome company and the CEO is a great leader. But there was a huge amount of “we” in the effort and when I read the note, all I could think about was how demotivated I would be if I was on “his team” and heard “I I I.”
Several years ago, my partners at Foundry Group had an intervention with me where they asked me, as politely as they could, to stop using the word “I” when I referred to Foundry Group. I asked them why. Their response was simple – we were a team and every time I talked in public and said “I” instead of “we” it was demotivating. While we each have our own distinct personalities and behavior, Foundry Group is a team effort (Becky, Dave, Jason, Jill, Kelly, Ken, Melissa, Ross, Ryan, Seth, Tracie, and me) and by saying “I” my speech and actions were undermining this.
They were completely, 100% correct.
Since that moment I’ve been very sensitized to this. I’m sure I fuck up occasionally, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better at saying “we.” Every now and then something really bizarre happens, like a national newscast where the interviewer cuts off the intro (e.g. “I’m one of the four partners at Foundry Group”) and then does a first person interview where it’s impossible not to say “I”, but I’m still trying.
If you are the CEO, recognize that there is a lot of “we” that is enabling you to be successful. Don’t get caught up in the “I” – it’s a trap that will only backfire on you over time. It’s often tough to get it right, but there’s so much power in the team dynamic when you do.
I love Paul Graham’s Maker vs. Manager schedule concept. At Feld Technologies, we used to call this “programmer time vs. phone/meeting time” and my partner Dave Jilk and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it work since we each had programming work throughout the life of the business but an increasing amount of phone/meeting time as our business scaled up. Near the end I was in almost 100% phone/meeting time, which I hated, but at least I knew why.
As a VC, I’ve created a very tight approach to dealing with my manager schedule. I get up a 5am every morning, read/write online until Amy wakes up (usually between 630am and 7am), go for a run, and then switch into manager mode until 6pm. I try to schedule everything (including phone calls) – I use 30 minute increments so I have lots of “air” in my schedule since many things never take more than 10 minutes. At 6pm, I either go out to a business-related dinner, hang out with Amy, or lay on the couch and catch up on email and other random stuff.
For the points in time when I need to be on a maker schedule, I go away for a week or two. To the outside world it often doesn’t seem different, except I’m not available to get together physically and I’m not traveling anywhere. But I still blog, do email, and spend time on the phone with companies we’ve invested in. However, I control the schedule tightly, usually giving myself a several hour block of time in the afternoon for this.
I’ve decided to spend the entire summer in maker mode. The first five months of the year have been intense – tons of travel, lots and lots of stuff going on, and very little time for me. I fucked myself up by doing the 50 mile run so I was more emotionally drained than normal and I didn’t really give myself time and space to recover from it. On top of it, I don’t feel like I’ve spent enough time with Amy the first half of this year, nor do I feel like I’ve had enough me time as I feel like I’ve been spending too much time doing things for other people rather than spending time on things I want to spend time on.
Through labor day, I’m not going to travel at all, except for a few marathon weekends and a few trips to Boulder for a few days. Amy and I are holed up at our place in Keystone and I’ve decided to only have a manager schedule between 1pm and 4pm each day. That leaves me from when I wake up until 1pm to be on maker time, followed by 4pm until when I go to bed.
This rhythm starts tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see if I can hold it for the full summer given all of the other pressures on my time. It’ll also be interesting to see the external perception of my responsiveness changes at all.
Either way, I think the only real way to learn about this type of thing is to experiment, so the experiment begins now.
I get to work with a lot of great CEOs. When I reflect on what makes them great, one thing sticks out – they are always building their muscles. All of them.
As a marathon runner, I’ve got massive legs. Marathoner legs. They’ll look familiar to anyone who runs a lot. In contrast, I have a wimpy upper body. I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights. So I don’t spend any time on it.
I’d be a much better marathon runner if I worked on a bunch of other muscles as well. I’m starting to get into a swimming regimen, I’m riding my new bike around town and this summer I’ve got pilates three days a week as a goal of making it a habit. By the end of summer I hope to have a bunch of other muscles developing and a set of habits that enables me to finally maintain them.
The key phrase above is “I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights.” When asked, I say I’m bad at it. Or that I simply don’t like it. Or, when I’m feeling punchy, that jews don’t lift weights.
Of course, these are just excuses for not working on another set of muscles. If I don’t like lifting weights, surely there are things I like doing instead. I’ve always been a good swimmer – why don’t I have the discipline to go to the pool three days a week and swim? Most hotels I stay in have a swimming pool or have a health club nearby. Swimming is as easy as running – you just get in the pool and go.
“I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” That’s what runs through my head when I lift weights. For a while, I used this narrative with swimming. But when I really think about swimming, the narrative should be “I’m ok at it and I like it.”
So why don’t I do it? I don’t really know, but I think it’s because the particular muscles I use when I swim are intellectually linked to the weight lifting muscles, which gets me into a loop of “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” So rather than break the cycle, I let my muscles atrophy.
Yoga is the same way. I struggle with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It’s too fast for me, I struggle to remember the poses, and my glasses constantly fall off, and I can’t follow what’s going on. So I say “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” and then don’t do it. But I do like Bikram Yoga. It’s slower, there are the same 26 poses, and I like the heat. So why don’t I do it? Once again, the narrative gets confused in my mind and it turns into “I don’t like yoga.”
All of this is incredibly self-limiting. Rather than fight with “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” how about changing it to “I’m not good at it but I’m going to try new approaches and find something I like.” There are many different approaches to building a particular muscle so rather than use a one-size fits all approach (e.g. I must go lift weights, which I hate), search for a different approach that you like.
If you want to be a great CEO, you need to be constantly building all of your muscles. There are going to be a lot of areas you think you aren’t good at. Rather than avoid them, or decide you don’t like them, figure out another way to work on these muscles. You’ll be a better, and much more effective CEO as a result.
I’m sitting on my balcony on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking Miami Beach thinking about motivation. Specifically, mine. I’m deep into writing the first draft of Startup Communities and – with Amy – decided to plant myself in a warm place for two weeks as I finished up this draft.
We got here late Monday night. Today is the first day I wrote any words on the book. I procrastinated as long as I could and finally opened up the doc in Scrivener and started writing after my run today. I pounded out a solid hour of writing before shifting gears, responding to some email, and writing a few blog posts. I know that I can only productively write for a max of four hours a day before my writing turns into total crap so I’ll be happy with another hour today. I’ll then consider myself fully in gear for four hours tomorrow.
While I was on my run, my mind drifted to motivation. I kept repeating one of my favorite lines – “you can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.” I’m pretty sure I heard that for the first time from Dan Grace when we were both working with the Kauffman Foundation in the 1990′s and it has stuck with me.
It felt particularly relevant today. There is no external force “motivating me” to write this book. I’m doing it because I want to, find it interesting, challenging, and think it’ll be a useful thing for the world. It’s a cop-out to say I’m “self-motivated” especially since my run on the beach capped off two full days of procrastination where I kept very busy on other work, but didn’t do the specific thing I came here to do. After two days in the environment that I needed to be motivated, I finally settled down and started doing the real work I had come here to do.
If you generalize this, it plays out over and over again every day. The great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating. They don’t pound away at the specific task of “motivating people”, rather they pay attention to creating context, removing barriers, being supportive, putting the right people in the room, and leading by doing. All of these things create a context in which people are motivated.
It could be as simple as a warm day on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking the beach, which I know is an ideal place for me to write. Or it could be an awesome office environment with incredibly challenging problems. Or it could be a set of people who are amazing to spend time with. In any case, the context is the driver of motivation.
Ponder that the next time someone asks “what do I need to do to motivate you?” Or, more importantly, consider it the next time you are about to ask someone “what do I need to do to motivate you?” The answer might surprise you.
Every company I’m involved in keeps track of numbers. Daily numbers, weekly numbers, monthly numbers. Ultimately, all the numbers translate into three financial statements – the P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Statement. While these numbers are sacrosanct in the accounting and finance professions, they are lagging indicators for most startup companies. Important, but they tell the story of the past, not what is going on right now.
I’ve formed a view that every young company should be obsessed about three magic numbers. Not two, not five, but three. Before I explain what those numbers are, I need to tell a story of how I got to this point.
My brain works better with numbers than graphs, so over the years I’ve conditioned most people I work with to send me numbers on a regular basis. Words are good also, but I love numbers. Early in the life of the company I request numbers daily. Some of this is for me; most of it is to try to help the entrepreneurs build some muscles around understanding the data and how to use it.
Recently, I’ve noticed a cambrian explosion of data among several of the companies I work with. The number of different numbers being tracked daily is massive. When you walk into their office there are screens full of graphs on the wall. Everyone in the company has access to the trends over time across a number of dimensions. These graphs are pretty, the numbers are dynamic, and there are often blinking lights to go along as a bonus.
A few months ago I stood in the middle of the office of a 30 person company and stared at the flat screen TVs hanging from the ceiling showing an array of graphs. I’m sure my mouth was open as I tried to process the data and make sense of it. I knew this particular company well and could reduce the number of different data points to a small set, but I was completely overwhelmed by the visual display. As I systematically looked at each of the graphs, I realized very few of them mattered much, nor where they particularly helpful in understanding what was going on in the business.
At the moment I realized these were no longer magic numbers. Instead, I was looking at wallpaper. Data porn. The entrepreneurial aeron chair equivalent of 2012. Pretty, but a bad allocation of resources. The 30 people in the room might be looking at the graphs. They might be looking at one of the graphs. But they probably weren’t seeing anything.
This particular company runs off of three numbers. Daily active users (DAU). Live publishers. Trial publishers. That’s it for now. In the future, there will be a daily transaction metric (Daily transaction revenue) that replaces trial clients. But that’s probably a quarter or two away.
I then started thinking about each company I’m on the board of. This rule of three applies. For many of the companies, DAU is one of the numbers. In others it’s daily orders. Or daily revenue. Or daily activations. Or total publishers. Or new publishers. But in every case I could reduce it to three numbers that I felt were the most important to pay attention to.
The absolute number is what matters. The trend is driven by day over day changes. If during the week (assume the week starts on Sunday) the numbers are 47, 67, 69, 72, 174, 80, 53 this prompts the question “what happened on Thursday to drive the number to 174?” If the next week the numbers are 53, 75, 214, 83, 80, 73, 45 this prompts two questions: “what caused the spike on Tuesday” and “why is the week over week trend downward?” Clearly there is seasonality within the week and there is a new high, but the overall trend going into the weekend is negative.
My brain can focus intensely on three variables like this in a business. Once I add a fourth, I have trouble figuring out the relationship between them. This doesn’t mean that the leadership and functional managers shouldn’t track and analyze the detailed data. They should. But they should realize that when they show this to everyone in the company, no one knows what to care about.
Instead, my new approach is to focus on three numbers. These three numbers should reflect “what’s going on right now in the business” and the trend of the numbers should be a predictor of what’s going on. As I think about the companies I’m involved in, I can define these three numbers in 60 seconds – they are almost always painfully obvious. Sometimes I do end up with four and have to make a choice, but I rarely end up with five.
The technology for displaying these three numbers is remarkably simple. They make this thing called a whiteboard that you can write them on. An email can go out to everyone in the company with the three numbers. That’s it.
What are your three magic numbers?