The Startup Religion

A long time ago, a very green boss of mine had the bright idea that he would help his people self-improve.  And when I say help, I mean use his authority to force us to self-improve.  It was frustrating to him that we were not improving as fast as he was, so one can hardly blame him.  He was improving so fast that by now he’s probably gone through perfect and come back around to being kind of a jackass.  I think you see the problem here.

robbinsBereft of social skills, his first foray into other-improvement was to hand us each a book and say “read this and do what it says”.  It was a self-help thing, pretty standard issue for those days with a heavy dose of self-hypnosis.  A quick glance made clear that this book was not about helping us in our work.  This Tony Robbins wannabe and his disciple were trying to tell us how to live.

I had no intention of reading the damned thing.  Twelve years of Catholic schools earned me a permanent pass on that stuff.  If you want to tell me how to live, you need to take a number and stand in line behind dozens of nuns, priests, brothers and of course The Holy Father himself who seems to have increasingly weird ideas about life.  Still, this guy was the boss and that made it a problem.  Fortunately for me, another guy publicly blew a gasket about it before I even got back from lunch and the self-help book club died “aborning in the cradle” as they used to say.  We, his troops, remained the sandpaper that smoothed this guy’s rough edges.

The surprisingly short-tempered colleague who spiked the whole thing, it turned out years later, was, unbeknownst to any of us, a member of a secretive religion small enough and weird enough that most of us would call it a cult, as the national press eventually did, and it all turned out badly for him in the end.  He could have used a new religion at that moment.  For my part, I was (and remain) a horrible employee and probably could have used some self-help.  But that’s really, really, really not the point.  Work and life are different things.  There is a line between them.

I read lots of startup blogs, mostly the VCs but also some of the entrepreneurs and occasionally hacks like myself.   I read these things for the war stories, and maybe a bit of insight on how to score me some of that sweet, sweet exit payout – Facebook style please.  There’s a trend in these things, especially among the entrepreneurs and hacks to tell people how to live.  “Work hard, play hard” and all that bullshit.  Admirably, 90+% of these bloggers have done something, and beyond that they usually simply say things like “this is how I do it” or “this is how I’ve seen other people do it”.

And then there are the others.  I flashed back to that long ago episode reading a blog post by a guy (no I won’t give the link) who is obviously very ambitious, probably very bright and achingly startup-y.  If you’ve read this far you’d probably like him.  But he’s also literally unaccomplished.  He hasn’t done anything yet beyond figuring out how to use WordPress.  I looked him up, and he has no business telling anyone how to tie their shoes, let alone how to live.  But that didn’t stop him from throwing a post out there telling his readers how to live. And that pisses me off.

Startups are not a religion, you are not a priest and we are not initiates in a transcendent new meritocracy.  There’s a damned good chance this whole thing is nothing more than a replay of the auto industry from the early 1900’s – that it, and we ourselves, will all turn out to have been nothing special.  No more special than the foam on top of a big wave.

So even if you’re part of a weird and secretive cult, I’ll try not to tell you how to live but here and now I will tell you what to say if I ever do.  “Fuck off”.

Networking for Dummies

When you’re in the swirling cauldron of a seed stage startup you pull out all the stops.  No hour of the day goes unworked, no dirty coding trick goes uncoded, no rock remains unturned.  Just Do It is a reflex, not a tactic.  JFDI is dangerous and fun and “living on the edge” and that’s why we do it.  There is one area of startup life though where I wish that I had Just Not Done It and that’s handing over connections to non-technical co-founders to help the business.

I have had some version of the following happen at nearly every startup I’ve worked at, with at least two striking examples that still sting years later.

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Me: Hey Mr. CEO, I talked to my buddy, Mr. X and his good friend, Mr. Y is a VP of BizDev at <major player in our industry>.  I told him what we’re doing (without including the fact that we’re out of money and missing payroll), he told Mr. Y about us and he’s really interested.  Here’s his number, he’s expecting your call.

Mr. CEO: Great. Thanks.

Two weeks later.

Me: Hey – did you talk to Mr. Y?

Mr. CEO: Who?

Congratulations!  You just burned a whole branch of your network.  And I say you did it, not your CEO because, guess what, your network is your responsibility not his.

Sometimes it’s even worse when they do make the call.  I’ve actually had a connection ping me back after meeting my CEO and say, literally “Hey, good luck to you guys, but oh my god you’re going to need it.”  My guy might’ve worn the wrong color tie, or he might have peed on the rug like an overexcited shih tzu.  I never found out because I wasn’t there.

This is the downside to what is usually A Good Thing for a CEO – the lack of a conscience. I use that term conscience in both the usual Webster’s sense of not taking other’s feelings into account, and in the sports-metaphor sense of a basketball point guard who can throw up a string of airballs and still keep shooting as if he were God’s gift to the sport.  Think about Jack Dorsey and Square.  When Square launched he gave three consecutive interviews where he told different stories about what the Square business model was.  Each time, he stepped up and told a new story as if the previous interview had never happened.  That’s “no conscience”.  For you old-timers out there, think Andrew Toney.

How does this lack of conscience affect your relationship to Mr. CEO? Well, it means that your feelings, your life outside the shared venture and more pointedly your life after the shared venture mean nothing to him.  On balance, that is A Good Thing.  At worst, it’s Not A Big Deal.  You’re in this for the money.  But on a strictly personal level your connections are not as valuable to him as they are to you. To him, it’s found-money. If he burns that connection it’s no loss to him.

Knowing what I do today, here’s what I’d do differently in those situations:

  • Make the contact myself, alone, in person (i.e. face-to-face or by phone).  Your network is valuable to you, and this person is a valuable part of that network.  Treat him that way.
  • Own the relationship.  Don’t make the intro and then forget about it.  Follow up with both sides and if somebody’s feeling burned, fix it.

The chance to “do business together” even if it’s just a chance for him to help you is an opportunity for you to strengthen your connection to this guy and thus, strengthen your network.  And, in the not-inconceivable event of your CEO treating this connection like dirt, the blowback will be against him, not you.  The worst case you want coming out of this is your connection thinking “Jeez, Jack’s a nice guy, I hope he wakes up and joins a company that doesn’t have a fool for a CEO”.

Personally, I wouldn’t do it at all – hand over bizdev contacts to a non-technical co-founder.   Think about it.  If my connections are the difference between life and death for our venture, we’re fucked.  At the very least, we have the wrong CEO.  And that’s A Bad Thing.

Talking to myself

Startups are cool. You already knew that, of course. Oddly enough, the word has gotten around. Don’t believe me?

This is problematic for those of us who were never cool and actively avoided things that were. We’re startup people and suddenly startups are cool. This brings up a host of uncomfortable questions, the biggest one being:

Do I have to talk to these people?

The short answer is yes.

Most of us haven’t invented the next sliced bread. We think of ourselves as problem solvers who have picked a problem and decided to solve it. But if all you do is solve that problem you’ll be looking for a job in three years because someone else came along and built a company while they solved the same problem.  And how do you build a company?  With people – advisors, investors, co-founders and employees.  And you don’t find people sitting in your cube reading Fred Wilson’s blog or sifting resumes from craigslist.  Ask me how I know that.  You do it by getting out and getting people like that to believe in you and your idea.  You have to lead.

To all the engineers out there who have stepped outside their comfort zone and started their own thing I say this. You’ve stuck your neck out and convinced someone – angels, VCs, customers, co-founders – that you have what it takes to make This happen. You’re leading, and leadership is cool. Deal with it.

The J Word

I have two young children.  Every now and then, one of them will say something like:

Daddy, I just want one more minute of TV time!

And the other one will chime in, more than a bit maliciously:

Daddy, she said the J word!

When they started in on that just crappe I was ready for them because I was a startup guy and I’d been dealing with startup CEOs for years.  In fact, long before either of my kids were born, I used to have a sign in my office that looked like this:


There is no just anything.  Everything takes work.  I didn’t just whip out this post.  I sat down, fired up wordpress reached back into my experience and told the best story I could.  Sure it’s just 500 words, but it took work and I’m proud of the result.  If it were just anything, just anyone would have written it, but they didn’t, I did.

The origin of the J-word ban was months of bad CEO behavior on the order of:

  • Just add a screen that takes the address and verifies it against the USPS database.  Oh, and it needs to present the user with the choice of using the corrected address or the original.  And it has to popup a dialog if they choose the original and the ship-to address is Illinois.  And there’s some other rules too – call this guy (that I met yesterday at a trade show) – he knows all the rules.  I want to show it at the VC thing this afternoon.
  • Just hack up the xyz product – no I don’t want a demo, just hack it into the product.  We can sell this if I can show it to them tonight.
  • I just want a shippable prototype that cures cancer, violates the laws of physics and can be shown at CTIA on Thursday.

I would sit there glumly under the no-just sign waiting for the lights to go on in CEO-land.  They never did.

But just abuse isn’t limited to the business types.  My favorite example of J-word abuse was when one of my teams sat down to do sprint planning for the first time.  We’d been running cowboy forever and finally got sick of the feature misses (where were you when I needed you Customer Development?) and schedule overruns, so we started with scrum and at our first ever planning poker, one of our guys can’t contain himself.

Story 1 – 8s and 13s around the table, except for The Lone Ranger.

That’s just a stored proc!

Story 2 – more 5s and 8s, except for The Lone Ranger.

That’s just a web page!

Story 3 – The Lone Ranger realizes he has better things to do than learn how to make software in an organized fashion and disappears from sprint planning never to return.

I used to think that this was just the way technical groups worked, that minimizing perceived effort was a necessary fiction people told themselves and each other because … whatever.  Then I worked with a group where the J-word was non-existent.  Every item of work stood out in plain view, clear and unshrouded by value judgments like just.  Every interaction felt crisp and professional.  It was refreshing, a cool drink of water.  Talking to these guys made me feel smarter.  It actually did make me smarter.

Just is glib, sloppy thinking.  There is no just anything, so stop saying it.

Talk to this guy

I’ve worked with, and for, a handful of founder/CEOs as technical co-founder. One of the scenes that played itself out over and over went something like this.

Mr. Senior Technologist (me) is sitting in his office, beating his brains out on the problem of the moment, and Mr.CEO pops by with a random in tow.

Mr. CEO: Hey John, this is Mr. Random.
Me: Hi Mr. Random
Mr Random: Hi John
Mr. CEO: Let’s go to the conference room, I want you to talk to this guy.
Me: Sure
Group proceeds to the conference room, plunks down, says something about the weather and then the key moment arrives.
Mr. CEO: Mr. Random works for RandomCo. You guys talk, I have to make a call.
Exit Mr. CEO stage left, leaving Mr. Technical Cofounder, aka the guy who does not “talk to people” for a living, sitting slackjawed at a table with a guy he just met for the first time thinking “talk about what?”
RandomCo could be the biggest player in our industry, or they could be the guys who do Mr. CEO’s lawn.  I wouldn’t know because 1) Mr. CEO didn’t tell me and 2) I spend all my time, you know, building the product.
This was always most fun when the random was a non-native English speaker who was as flummoxed at getting ditched as I was at being left with him.
Me: So, ummmm, Carlos. You’re from Spain … that’s a nice place.
Carlos: Que?
 Good times.

never open your mouth until you know what the shot is

That’s one of the great lines from a movie full of great lines – Glenngary Glen Ross. Ricky Roma is berating Williamson the sales manager for blundering into a pitch and scaring the prospect away. As CEO you are Ricky Roma, you sell. Everyone you talk to, you’re selling yourself and your company to them. Employees, investors, customers, business partners, hell – even your wife or girlfriend, every time you bring her through the door you’re trying to convince her this isn’t a stupid waste of time and money. You’re selling.

Now in our scene above, what did Mr. CEO do? He plunked a prospect in front of me and invited me to fuck up the shot. Actually, he insisted that I fuck up the shot. Whatever shot he was taking with this guy, I’m obligated to talk until I fuck it up or he returns.

why is this wrong?

The simple (i.e. wrong) answer is that it’s just plain rude to leave two people who’ve never met before alone to entertain themselves. But starting a company is an exercise in rudeness and startup CEOs are rude by nature. Might as well tell them to stop breathing.

Fucking up the shot is a slightly better answer, but not quite right. After all, even a great CEO will only close a tiny fraction of the hundreds of people he brings through the door. One more random who thinks we’re idiots doesn’t mean much.

The real answer has more to do with team-building than with the immediate scoring opportunity. What makes a great point guard in basketball? He’s a guy who passes me the ball when I’m in a position to make a shot and doesn’t give it to me when I’m not.  A bad point guard passes me the ball as I’m lumbering across the half-court line saying “Hey John – talk to this guy!”.

When Mr. CEO dumps me in a conference room with Mr. Random he’s doing it not because I have a shot, but because he doesn’t.

Don’t be that guy.