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.