The youngest guy in the room

I used to be that guy.  For a long time I wished I were older.  Had some gray hair.  I wanted to have longer tenure and more credentials on my resume.  All my career I’ve been the youngest guy in the room.  Obviously that’s changed as I’m in my 40’s now… but the lessons I continue to learn along the way frame how I think about experience, tenure, resumes and moving up through the ranks in any organization.

1. Know what you don’t know

This one is tricky mostly because you have to be very self-aware.  No matter how much you think you know, there is always someone that sees something you don’t or a blind spot you didn’t anticipate.  Knowing what you know and what you don’t is what I often refer to as "spidey sense".  Looking back at nearly every situation I always in hindsight see things I didn’t at the time.

2. Be a market driven machine

Customers can be wrong.  Technology can give a false sense of confidence.  The market rules.  This is the "why" I refer to in previous post.  Answering a market need and clearly articulating why is the winning combination.

3. Get as close as you can to the revenue engine

People that don’t steer into revenue by nature aren’t company leaders.  I learn more when on a sales call than at any other time during the day.  For me, being close to the revenue is like oxygen in business.

4. Don’t get in your own way

This one was tough for me to learn.  Luckily I had great mentors throughout my career and they coached me (and sometimes backhanded me) about staying out of my own way.  This is another way of saying: "stop doing stupid shit".

5. Arm yourself with research

Knowing more is better, always.  Its never ending and the only way to do it is to truly be interested in the subject.  I can’t not know something.  That isn’t the same thing as knowing everything, which is obviously impossible.  Its more about constantly researching, learning, googling, wikipedia-ing, talking with people smarter than me, etc. etc. etc.  Be obsessed with knowing more and learning more.

6. Be decisive and course-correct as necessary

Its impossible to be right about every decision.  Its also not ok to always push things off until the answer is obvious.  Make the decision and then course-correct as necessary.  Forward momentum wins.

7. Partner well

To me this hits on multiple levels.  I’ve never seen anything succeed that isn’t a partnership.  Inside your company, outside the company,  in building and leading an organization, even in my marraige, it all comes back to building a true, trusted and successful partnership between people.  By partnering well you’re better and can do more than you ever could by yourself, besides its also way more fun to build something together.

A number of the people at Lijit are incredible talents.  Many of them are the "youngest guys or gals in the room".  I assume many of them are going to go out eventually and start, run and/or lead very successful orgnaizations.  The points above are stuff I’ve learned and still working on to be better at.  My hunch is many of them will do the same.

The “product guy”

Thinking about the people I admire most in business, they are all "product guys" (or gals).  It doesn’t matter if they’re the CEO or the Director of Marketing or if the company is 3 people or 3,000.  The bottom line is that they think and act on the "why" of the business.  What the business does and how it does it are important, but its the why that defines the direction.

Why we do what we do isn’t about building this thing or that thing.  Its not really about figuring out the economic model for something, or desiging an org structure for something.  The why we do what we do is about answering a market opportunity.  And market opportunities create customers.  I think its also the hardest thing for companies to articulate – I get what it is your building, but explain to me why you’re building it.  The why rules.

At Lijit, Todd and I talk a lot about the motivations of an online publisher.  We start with the motivations because it helps uncover market opportunities.  Those opportunities get distilled into the why.  Its not easy, unfortunately.  I think the trick is you have to really get inside the shoes (head?) of the publisher.  As our business has expanded so has the publisher diversity which makes the job of getting to the why even trickier.  We’re constantly pecking on refinements that all trace back to the why.

The why of what we do makes for a never-ending product cycle.  Its also the reason that its so hard to build and publish a traditional corporate marketing copy that is largely static and therefore old and behind the day its released.

Every great company leader I know is also a great "product guy".  They constantly think about why the company’s products look and feel the way they do.  They think about the services the companies offers and how they’re delivered.  They are obsessed with making things better, easier to use, more intuitive, and generally more helpful.  Its not easy and it doesn’t get any easier over time.

I have a hunch this is why great company leaders are so obviously better than their peers.  They obsess over the why.

Nocal vs. Socal

Today I did a north – south trip here in California.  Started the day in San Francisco, ended it in L.A. and am headed back to Boulder tonight.

I grew up in Northern California, so maybe I’m biased.  I’m pretty sure we were taught in grade school to hate Southern California.  After all we got the wine, culture, water, mountains, multiple climates, mountain biking and hippies.  They got sushi, the porn industry, Hollywood and palm trees.

Its not that I’m anti-Socal, its just that I don’t really like it all that much.  I had great meetings here, and for the first time I don’t think the companies I met with are somehow involved in the porn industry like most L.A. companies seem to be.  Its more that I just don’t understand the culture down here.

I can’t really put my finger on it.  I like most areas of the country.  Like NY, even though I’d never want to live there.  Lived in Boston and like the provincial people there just fine.  Spent time in Texas where my wife’s family is from, good people.  Have relatives in the south and although its flat, hot, and nowhere I would ever live, I can get along there just fine.  Except of course Disneyworld which is just plain freakish.

I guess I’m just not a big fan of L.A.  I like San Diego, so maybe its not a Southern California thing after all.  I also like Santa Barbara, but that seems like Central California to me.  I like sushi too.  Weird.

I have good friends that live here in L.A.  They must like it, or they’re in the porn industry somehow.  I’ll ask them why they like living here so much.

Strong Foundations

It took us a while at Lijit to hone our story in the market. When I joined nearly 4 years ago, the company was well-regarded among the social media mafia elite as a fantastic on-site search technology. A trusted search technology that any publisher (bloggers mostly) could implement on his site that would index and return results for the site, the site publisher’s content sources (Twitter stream, Facebook updates, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, etc.) and it would even include results from the site publisher’s trusted network of other “trusted” sites (e.g., Blogroll).

We grew the network and spent more and more time with the folks that used our services. Over time we began to see the market more holistically. That constant dialog with publishers and authors helped us to build a broad a strong foundation.

At its core the foundation for Lijit is at the same time simple and powerful. It doesn’t carry any extra baggage or bullshit. Its broad enough to build a huge business, but focused enough to make execution manageable. It’s all the things that a high-growth company has to have as critical ingredients to success.

We are a business partner to online publishers.

We help them:
• Engage their readers more
• Understand their readers better
• Profit from their audience of readers

As key part of our developed understanding of the market, we took a hard look at the economic model not only for our business, but for the publishers’ businesses. In many ways we started and focused on understanding what drove the economics of online publishers, particularly in the mid- and long-tail. Our learnings here shaped how we designed Lijit’s economic model.

• Everything we do is free for the publisher
• Base everything on performance
• Unburden publishers with no restrictive or exclusive contracts
• Pay them faster than anyone else

In other words: orient our model to be a partner to helping them build their business.

Too many companies start with the product, even a great product, but they miss the fundamental step of understanding their market well enough to build a business foundation. It took us a few turns and course-corrections to get it right, but we listened incessantly to our core market. A solid foundation of any business is hard. Once you get it right, you can build something really big on top of it.