A couple of thoughts about interviews

I interview and talk with a lot of people.  Its part of my job and I take it seriously.  I always think I can learn something, convince a skeptic, find a great employee, or make another introduction.  Over the last year we’ve more than doubled the size of the company, had a handful of dismissals, and churned through a few independent contractors.  I insist on meeting and talking with each and every one of them regardless of their role.  We have a great culture, a great team and great market potential, it has everything to do with the people.

I ask lots of questions.  In addition to all the ones trying to understand your background, skills, experience, education, etc., here are a couple that I ask every time.

1. Do you have a blog and if so, have you installed Lijit?

It’s almost criminal when someone comes in for an interview with the COO and doesn’t take 10 minutes (literally) to understand what we do.  Creating a blog is free, installing Lijit is free.  Both tasks take less than 10 minutes to complete.  What does it say about someone unwilling to take 10 minutes to properly prep for an interview?

2. What do you want to do?

I know why you’re here and we’re talking..  What I want to know what you’re passionate about doing. Amazingly, this question catches lots of people off-guard.  Even very early in my career I could articulate what I eventually wanted to do and what I thought were the skills, knowledge, experience, whatever, required to get there.  The trick was being self-aware enough to know what I didn’t know.  Mentors are critical in getting this one right, so is being realistic with yourself.  Not every job needs to be the end-all be-all, but it absolutely can and should be a building block towards something.

3. What are people’s misconceptions of you?

This is almost a trick question.  It’s not intended as a trick, but nearly everyone gets stumped by it.  I think its a critical competency for any successful executive to have a good degree of self-awareness in how others perceive them and what their own tendencies are.  The only way to authentically answer this one is to actually know the answer.

One last point: this one is mainly a pet peeve of mine..  Send a thank you note.  It doesn’t have to be long-winded and email is just fine.  Just do it.  It takes 5 minutes (or less) and shows you have polish.

Will the real realist please stand up? please stand up.

Over the last 2 weeks I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to listen, talk with, and participate in a number of discussions with really smart people about the current economic crisis.  Some of these discussions have been at formal events (CxO conference, and a Panel at CU’s business school) as well as informal chats with very smart and well-credentialed folks.

Maybe its me, and I certainly don’t want to come across as the optimistic Pollyanna, but haven’t we seen this movie before?  In the early 80’s, in the early 90’s, in the early 00’s..  We live in a world of cycles.  This time, really smart people that were motivated (paid) on stretching the boundaries, pushed the envelope too far.  Now we’re paying the price.  Note the “we” not “they” – but that’s a different story.

Where this starts to go sideways with me is the pervasive pessimism and fear that I keep hearing.  I don’t deny that things are bad and very likely to get worse.  Many of the problems are systemic and massive on any scale.  That said, I don’t feel like every area of the economy is in the shitter.  Financials, yes 100% agree, that sucks and if I were a structured finance guy I’d probably douse myself in gasoline and light a match.

I’ve witnessed CEOs of big companies say that every company that is venture-backed and not yet profitable should cut 25% of its staff now.  That strikes me as irrational.  Doesn’t it depend on what market you’re in?  What problems you’re solving? Where you are in your company’s lifecycle?  I also heard an equity trader at a $80B firm say that they were looking forward to a little socialism (?!) WTF?  equity trader = capitalist in its purest form, right?  On the flip side, I spoke with a good friend who happens to run one of the largest distressed debt funds in the world.  He’s a nervous guy by nature (how the hell else do you do distressed debt?) and the distinct feeling I got was a really smart investor that saw huge opportunities in the current market turmoil.

Typically things decline faster than one ever imagines, and they take longer to recover than people predict.  Is it a “V” or a “U” or a “W” recovery? No one wants (or should) try and catch the falling knife and try to time the market’s bottom.  Most people invest high and sell low.  Its done that way because we are infallibly human.

The view from where I sit..

The key to weathering this storm for any business is to create more value for your customers than their money is worth to them.  Couple that with a fiscally conservative stance on your own spending.  Keep your focus on execution to plan.  Adjust as necessary to do the above.

We recently raised a good amount of money.  We’re targeting a multi-billion dollar market that is still growing.  We have plenty of money in the bank and yet we take a conservative stance on spending.  Our focus is adding tremendous value to publishers and advertisers that want to reach people in a targeted and performance-driven way.  I think that makes sense.

What if..?

I recently read an interesting article in the New York Times..  A start-up in Silicon Valley has apparently concocted an expert system “the predictor” that can tell if a start-up will succeed or fail.

Interestingly they’ve already raised some seed venture capital (apparently there’s no limit to what some folks will do to hedge their bets..)

The best quote from the article:

So the question arises: Has YouNoodle used the predictor to determine if it will itself succeed?

“So far, we haven’t run ourselves through it,” Mr. Goodson said, adding that the results could prove baffling. “If it says we’ll fail, and it’s right, that’s something of a paradox.”

Are headhunters descending on Yahoo!

Interesting piece in the San Jose Mercury News last evening noting that the recruiters were scouring the Yahoo! campus for “fresh meat”.

Also – I saw a good post from Marc Andreessen on the impact this deal will have on start-ups.  I agree with Marc’s take.  Good companies, that are built well, have a clear value proposition to the market, and create something worthwhile for a large customer-base will always be in high demand.

Innovation is a greased pig

Being back in a start-up is an interesting place from an innovation point of view.  When I was with Novell in the SuSE Linux business, we struggled to innovate as a company for all the familiar "dilemma" reasons.  Now, at Lijit, we’re innovating everyday (sometimes more than we probably should).  I think we’ve so far successfully struck a good balance of innovation and focus.

The question I have is how one can effectively continue to innovate as a company grows and begins to get entrenched in its own success.  Is this a function of the right people?  Outside catalysts? Autonomous units? Innovation teams (yikes)? Or is it a "process" that can be defined?

I had an email exchange with a good friend of mine, Ben Rafter, the other day.  Ben has a fantastic background as both a big company executive and as a successful entrepreneur (not an easy task).  He pointed out that when you’re entrenched in running the business day-to-day its incredibly difficult to separate yourself from the business of today and look to the business of tomorrow.  It seems like this is directly at the point of my innovation question.

It strikes me that in order to be innovative as an organization you have to set up a framework and a culture that encourages entrepreneurial deconstruction.  This deconstruction is required in order to find new ways, methods, partnerships, markets, and opportunities.  You also need to hire business "athletes" and make sure they work alongside subject matter experts.  Moreover, as a leader, you need to spend the time and energy to network both inside and outside your focus industry or market.

One of the things I hear a lot when I spend time with other executives is how hard we all find it to network effectively.  Its time-consuming and takes us away from our number one priority: running the business.  On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times I also hear (often in the same breath),that it sure would be nice to talk to others that are facing similar challenges but not directly connected to our respective businesses.

I think of the innovation question as analogous to mountain biking.  In order to go really fast and stay on the trail, you have to constantly be looking right in front of you and way down the trail at the same time..  easier said than done.

** a day after I wrote this post, I came across this podcast from Wharton on Innovation.  The recording and transcript is here.

Whitespace matters

Over the course of my career I’ve been fortunate to work for a number of really interesting companies.  What I’ve found to particularly interesting is the degree to which the "whitespace" in each of the businesses contributes to or takes away from the ability of that particular business to innovate, compete, or generally just to get the right shit done.

I define "whitespace" as the freedom during the normal course of business that is not otherwise dominated by responsibilities, activities, reports, meetings, or other formal business requirements.

I first really recognized the whitespace phenomenon when I was with Cambridge Technology Partners.  I joined in 1998 as a Client Partner.  We were swamped with business and most days were 12 to 17 hours of fixed time/fixed price consulting and systems integration.  The culture fostered at CTP was one that encouraged people to collaborate, try out ideas, and not get your hand slapped if it didn’t work out.  The company gave us a good "end point" goals and then said get there however YOU see the best way to get there..  We were absolutely held accountable for delivery and we worked our asses off, BUT we found plenty of whitespace to try out creative new solutions.  We wrote up new business ideas, figured out new ways to solve thorny problems, and we had a great time – all while still achieving the "end point" goals. 

CTP was a huge success and spawned a number of incredibly successful firms, the latest being Optaros, a really interesting OpenSource Systems Integration and Consulting firm founded and led by Bob Gett.  CTP eventually crashed and burned, with a fire-sale to Novell in 2001.  It had everything to do with the culture change and people brought in to "fix" it.

I’ve seen the lack of whitespace, and the corporate culture that goes with it, choke off exactly the kind of innovation, attitude, and enthusiasm that companies depend on to succeed.  When companies begin to fall behind the market and pressure to succeed gets in the executives’ heads, too often the response is a cultural "clamp-down" that squeezes out the whitespace.  When this happens, the smart people leave first. 

The key to effective whitespace, I think, is in the balance between setting the goal and then establishing a culture that allows for the people to achieve that goal, without prescription.