Learning is not the same as Failing

I hear this alot, particularly in the start-up world: "fail fast".  I’m not exactly sure who popularized it, perhaps it was my friend Brad Feld.  I’m pretty sure Brad didn’t mean that failure – and doing it quickly – was the best path to success.  I think he meant learning in the name of expert mastery was the goal.

What really seperates great entrepreneurs from everyone else is the ability to constantly move through a series of uncomfortable learning stages.  The cycle then repeats itself as they climb the learning curve and eventually master something.  Never have I seen a great entrepreneur stop wanting to know the answer.  That means that in the search for the answer, they have no problem falling down occasionally and skinning thier knee with failure.

  1. It starts with wanting to know something that you don’t already know.
  2. Next is the learning curve phase, where most failing occurs.  Scientific method rules.  Hypothesize and test – relentlessly.  Getting to an answer is the goal – as quickly as possible.
  3. Once you have an answer, test and test to make sure its "the" answer.  More testing, more failing.  Fast "no’s" are life savers.  Iteration happens here.  Learning at this phase evolves into expertise and eventually, mastery.
  4. The final phase is now to take it up a notch, which is mostly starting over at #1. Except you’ve meaningfully moved the ball and your building on a solid foundation.  Each piece builds on the next.

The Chart below I really like.  Credit: http://buytaert.net/creating-passionate-users

Smart is as Smart does

Venture capitalists are “meta” smart.

Lots of people are deeply smart about very particular things.  Niches that they dig into and become experts in.  They become masters of their domain.  They understand their ecosystem of a particular economy of a business. It’s this hard-earned knowledge that they willingly summarize and impart on VC’s, top business executives, angel investors, “celebrity” entrepreneurs and the like that make their audience “meta” smart.

Ever wonder why the VC’s you meet are so damn smart?  Because they constantly have really really smart successful or aspiring entrepreneurs educating them all the time about all sorts of interesting things.  They get to listen and learn from these experts,  operators, and people on the front lines.

A lot of times I reach out to people I don’t know.  I titled this blog firstnamedotlastname for a reason.  Mostly because IT departments will create an alias email of the firstnamedotlastname@xyzcompany.com for everyone in the company – and I use this trick all the time to contact people I don’t know, but want to.

But why do I have to sleuth out someone’s email address?  To me, it’s silly that people and companies don’t just make their email address available publicly.  I can reach anyone with a little digging, a few google searches, a message through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Why make me go that extra mile?  Why not hang out an “open for business” sign?

I can’t afford not to let people easily and directly contact me.

Like most people I get spam emails and dumb solicitations all the time.  But those are easily deleted and/or filtered.  What I can’t afford to do is limit my exposure to new ideas, new people, or new ways of looking at things.  We live and work in an environment today that requires constant learning.  We can’t do it all ourselves and we need other really smart people to help. 

I aspire to be “meta” smart.

Get the Truth

I’ve written on this blog before about my affinity for Peter Drucker.  Anyone that is a student of management theory and genuinely interested in building kick-ass businesses needs to read the Essential Drucker.

This morning I read an article on the Harvard Business Review site: Why Peter Drucker Distrusted Facts

Drucker provides several theses supporting this broad assertion:

  1. If we do not make opinions clear, we will simply find confirmatory facts. “No one has ever failed to find the facts they are looking for.”
  2. An opinion provides an untested hypothesis. Once we have clarified the hypothesis, we can test it rather than argue it. “The effective person…insists that people who voice an opinion also take responsibility for defining what factual findings can be expected and should be looked for.”
  3. Decisions are judgments, not a choice between right and wrong. Oftentimes they are “a choice between two courses of action neither of which is probably more right than the other.” So we must understand the alternatives fully.
  4. Big decisions may require new criteria. “Whenever one analyzes the way a truly great, a truly right, decision has been reached, one finds that a great deal of work and thought went into finding the appropriate measurement. The effective decision-maker assumes that the traditional measurement is not the right measurement…The traditional measurement reflects yesterday’s decision. That there is a need for a new one normally indicates that the measure is no longer relevant.”
  5. Ironically, opinions break executives free of pre-conceptions and poor imagination. Disagreement is a safeguard against being a prisoner of the organization and seeing an issue just as underlings want. Drucker quotes the famed General Motors boss Alfred P. Sloan, who after hearing executives unanimously support a decision reportedly said, “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give us time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

If you’re like me, then you and your business are in the timezone known as “planning season”.  That time every year when corporate managers ask their people to come up with designs on how they’re going to grow the business next year.  I’ve been doing these drills for years and years and with companies of all shapes and sizes both public and private.  The sad truth is that nearly everyone does it wrong.  And the odd part is nearly everyone has all the facts and figures they would ever need.  Problem is that the facts and figures can be used to manipulate nearly whatever outcome the person manipulating them wants to occur.  The opportunity for missteps and miscalcuations is everywhere.

Its a few brave souls that really dig down, way past the surface and really get underneath the issues.  They actually can feel the motivations in the market.  Understand what creates the customers of thier offerings.  These people are the ones that we need to listen to.  They aren’t always the most articulate.  They aren’t always the most senior.  And they don’t always see the greater nuances of the strategy or mission.  That’s where the work of the corporate managers should come in.

Perhaps its weird, or sadistic, but I really like the planning process.  Its the time when I get to see just how much people really know about the environment they operate in.

I’m too busy

No matter what company, job, industry, time of year, state of the economy, one’s age, or position in life – the words are always the same “I’m too busy”.  Of course the words themselves vary from person to person, but the meaning is the same: I’m simply too freekin’ swamped and that’s why I can’t do it, or didn’t get to it, or whatever excuse of why I didn’t do something I said I was going to do.  Bullshit.

No one is ever too busy.  They simply don’t prioritize you or whatever it is your asking  high enough.  That’s not in and of itself a bad thing.  But how about a little honesty?  Just simply say something like: “sorry, but I’ve got other things right now that are commanding my attention”.  Sometime their priorities are outside work and that’s ok, but I hate it when they fein like work is so demanding and then I see them tweet out that they just finished a 50 mile ride at lunch on a Tuesday.

Second point: never lead someone along, particularly an entrepreneur.  Time is your enemy when building anything.  You only have so many hours in the day.  Those get consumed by market research, customer/client interactions, employee development, communicating with investors, honing a marketing message, etc., it never (ever) ends.  Not to mention the importance of spending quality time with your family or significant other.  If you race bikes like I do, then you need to figure out how to squeeze in a workout here or there too.  The worst thing anyone can do to me is string me along.  Punt; and tell me why.  I’ll get over it.  In fact, I’ll appreciate the honesty.

A word about email.  I see and read every one of them and like you, I get a lot of them.  I don’t respond to all of them.  If I’m cc’d then likely I won’t respond.  I also hate bcc’s its transparent in a bad way.  If I don’t respond to an email its because I don’t prioritze my interaction on that particular thread very high.  Its not personal.  Sometimes I don’t know an answer I’m asked and I need more time to formulate a response or the issue being articulated is complicated and requires more thought.  In those cases I may take a couple of days to respond – but I do respond.

I hate when people tell me they’re too busy.  They’re just simply too busy for me.

Some stuff I Learned at Web2.0 Summit

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Web2.0 Summit – The Data Frame.  Its a benefit of John Battelle being my new boss’s boss that I get the chance to attend these things.  Since the Lijit/FM merger my time has been scarce, so I only was able to attend a handful of the sessions.  I really enjoyed the things I saw and heard.  John puts on a hell of a show and I’d reccommend anyone interested in current thinking and top level networking to attend future summit events.

Stuff I learned:

1. Sean Parker is a smart mo-fo.  He even looks a little like Justin Timberlake.  I thought Sean’s session being interviewed by Battelle was fantastic.  That guy has a pragmatic and insightful grasp on social networks, the music industry and what motivates the younger generation’s content consumption.  His analysis of the uphill battle faced by Google+ in the battle for social networking vs. Facebook was both simple and to the point.  Punchline: it would take BOTH a colassal fuck up by Facebook AND brilliant product development/marketing execution by Google to unseat me, my friends, my friends friends, etc. in order for me to move from Facebook to Google+.

2. Steve Ballmer still has it.  He’s a crazy, loud, passionate son of a bitch and its that personal conviction that keeps MSFT rockin their numbers.  Shortly after the conference MSFT announced quarterly earnings – up across the board with 10% or better growth in several divisions.  I aslo learned the windows phone is for dweebs (not Adnroid loving dweebs – that is still reserved for linux types).  I learned to hang onto my MSFT stock for a bit longer and see how all this plays out.

3. Lots of big name execs, iconic founders, and established CEOs were milling around and none of them seemed overly pretentious.  Mostly they were there to listen, network and participate.  Refreshing.  And it turns out they do put their pants on one leg at a time.

4. Everyone loves Mary Meeker.  She gives a hell of a data presentation and people love that.  She doesn’t take sides, but she does present the data in order to make a point.  I learned that the data is interesting and helpful, but not the entire story.  The trends are real and substantial, but in and of themselves the trends don’t predict success or failure – execution and good management still do.  I leared to take even the best data presentations with a grain of salt.

5. MC Hammer is a really nice guy.

When in Doubt

When in doubt – talk to a customer.

It happens that I get to work in a fascinating, quickly evolving, and super-fun market.  Doing what we do is constantly entertaining and we get a “ring-side seat” to watch this enormous shift in how brands interact with publishers and more directly converse with consumers.  The innovation and creativity of the people and companies in our market can be awesome and sometimes overwhelming.  Even the most in-tune people can get confused and its tough to separate the signal from the noise.  Uncertainty is everywhere, which is a good thing.  It’s a good thing because it creates opportunity.

If you really listen to the market – and smart with your filter – its easy to hear the answer.  Conversations (with customers, clients, partners, competitors) cut through all bullshit.  No matter how much rhetoric and how much b.s. is out there, its all pretty easy to slice through when you talk to the customer.  I think at the end of the day there’s reality and stuff that actually works, and then there’s everything else.  If it sounds more complicated than it needs to be, it is.

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.

Underground Competition

Human nature is to compete. Especially among motivated and high-performing people competition is always “on”. Its tempting to value collaboration over competition, but I think that misses the point. One is a consequence and the other is a cause of being successful.

Brad-Pitt-Fight-club-WorkoutHuman’s compete. Compete for resources, dates, money, power, influence, and notoriety. Without an outlet for competition it doesn’t mean that the competition goes away, it means it goes underground. It becomes political and potentially insidious; cancerous even.

I’ve worked at both very large public companies and very small start-up companies. Good ones and bad ones on both sides. Reflecting back on my time at the bad ones, there was this forced collaboration and “lets all get along” corporate culture exercise that, now in retrospect, I think caused a lot of the problems that made the company bad to begin with. The bad companies simply forgot how to win. Then they pushed the remaining employee “winners” out to door with a culture that tamped down competition.

Competition is healthy, and it doesn’t have to be overt or “in-your-face”. It does have to be open and honest, with the goal of winning individually aligned to the team goal of winning as an organization. A great team to me is full of highly competitive people. Their collaboration and “gelling” as a team comes from a sense of winning.