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.

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.

We, the audience

audience (1)Being at a company that derives its primary economic model through advertising, you hear the word “audience” incessantly.  Audience targeting.  Audience data.  Audience reach. My audience. Their audience.  Our audience. Audience Audience Audience.

It turns out WE are the audience.  We buy the toothpaste.  We take the vacations.  We check out the new ‘whatever’ it is we want to buy.  We are the people that get marketed to.  And we are the people that the entire advertising industry is based upon.  Basically, to sell us something.

Only thing is, we are an tricky to capture bunch.  And its only getting  trickier.

It used to be that media (and our attention) was controlled by the distribution channel.  The media told us when we could consume news, or entertainment.  We had to dictate our schedules (and give our attention) to the media bosses.  Our attention could then be packaged, sold, and monetized through relatively straightforward advertising means.

That control is changing.  We, the audience, now get to say how, when, and where we consume information and entertainment.  We get to choose and we’re never giving that control back.  Ever.

Fragmentation of websites, mobile access, twitter streams, facebook updates, smartphones, tablets, satellite radio, DVRs, iPods, netflix, all are causing YOU the media company big problems, but not us the audience.  We love it.  We own our “eyeballs” and we’re calling the shots now.

What we want? 

  • We want authentic voices that know what they’re talking about. 
  • We want quality of content as much in its information quality as in its entertainment quality. 
  • We want creative ways of consuming.
  • We want it whenever we decide.
  • Oh, and we want it from people we trust.

We don’t mind advertising. Just the opposite, we actually like advertising.  It helps us find things.  Things that are meaningful and relevant – maybe even important – to us.  Except when its none of those things.  Then advertising just sucks.

I’m excited to work in the market I’m in.  Its almost like its not work, but more of an interesting opportunity to solve for.  I love being the audience.

Startup America comes to Boulder

A few days ago I drove over to the CU campus and participated in the Obama administration’s Startup America roadshow. To be honest, I didn’t come with very high expectations, but I did keep an open mind.

What I saw and heard confirmed (2) things. I’m a skeptical optimist; and the government isn’t wired to be a business partner to anyone.

funding-business-startup-1.3-800x800The event started with a big “panel”, except it really wasn’t a panel per-se, it was a lot of talking about what they each did and not much of it meant anything to me or my business. The final panelist to speak (a high-profile VC) led off with a pretty simple question: “raise your hand in the audience if you are either a startup entrepreneur or an investor in startups.” – 150 hands out of 150 went up. Next question: “Did you learn anything that would help your business over the past hour of listening to what the panel had to say?” – maybe 3 hands went up.

The point isn’t that the information wasn’t interesting; it just wasn’t useful or valuable to the majority of the audience.

I learned a lot later that afternoon in the breakout session. Mostly what I learned is that there are a lot of smart and passionate people that are building interesting companies that employ lots of people. What I also learned is that in every case, they’ve been successful in spite of regulatory or procedural headwinds.

It strikes me that the strong and resourceful always seem to figure it out. They put their shoulder into raising capital, finding good people, and navigating competitive markets. There were some real, tangible, and near-term ideas that came out which ought to make these start-up companies progress smoother or perhaps a bit easier and less burdensome… but my hunch is the strong entrepreneurs were going to succeed anyway.

I’m generally skeptical, but optimistic. I don’t believe the government should be your business partner – ever. Nor do I believe that you can hang your hat on reduced governmental burdens or breaks. Reducing barriers would be great, but I’m not feeling any real market pain that I can attribute to the US government.

I’m sure that the folks driving Startup America mean well and I applaud them for it. It’s not a job I’d want to have. I’d prefer to keep doing what I do and figure out how to build a great company, regardless of the obstacles that might exist. I’m pretty sure the folks in the audience are going to do the same.

Like the pig

Like the pig = committed.  At breakfast the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

happy-pigLots of people take on challenges.  Losing weight, running a marathon, climbing a rock, starting and building a profitable business.  It all seems to get easier once you get past the point of no return and you’re committed to being committed. 

Its fine to have moments of self-doubt and concern.  That’s a normal human emotion and it happens to everyone.  Imagine investing a ton of other people’s money into a company and then not being involved in the day to day execution, but being accountable for the results.  Or maybe you took on responsibility for an important job at the office, but you don’t have absolute control over all the variables.  In either case, the difference comes down to commitment and conviction. Do you believe? and are you 100% engaged in attaining success – no matter what.

Start with who is on the bus.  Even if its just you, and the who is just your internal thoughts and emotions.  Make sure you have the right who (you) on-board.

Machete-wielding entrepreneurs

Great things happen when you’re on a roll. Coming up with a smart idea usually kicks off more smart ideas; more smart ideas lead to innovations. Being confident in what you know and what your doing has a positive reinforcement in making you feel more confident, more creative, more in control, more effective and more resourceful. It builds on itself. Speed bumps don’t get you down as much. Obstacles get tackled quickly and resolved creatively. You’re in a great mood, and life is good.

264_machete3The opposite can also be true if you’re not careful – and it can really go off the rails by well-meaning, but misdirected people around you.

I wrote a post some time ago called “smart people can ratfuck you”. What I wrote in that post was the idea that smart people feel compelled to “help” and sometimes their “help” is in advice, opinion, direction, or counsel that to them feels justified, but in reality has the effect of squashing your momentum or pointing you in the wrong direction. Smart people also tend to be powerful and this power  can create a vacuum that tamps down the creativity and momentum that’s necessary to overcome the real obstacles you’re facing.

Building a company is fraught with peril. You’re in a constant state of new challenges, new hurdles, and new dynamics. These challenges are different at every phase of the company’s evolution. You have to be on your game in order to win.  Positive momentum has to be shaped and focused, but never squashed.  Its far too easy to point out the stuff that’s wrong and way harder to constructively focus the momentum.

Entrepreneurs succeed by being bushwhackers. Resourceful, creative, machete-wielding, fearless bushwhackers. Ready to charge the hill without hesitation. Anything that constrains that drive, enthusiasm, and behavior detracts from the likelihood of success.

Fun start to the season

Couple weeks ago I rode in my first road cycling race.  I’ve raced mountain bikes and cyclocross for a number of years and it turns out road riding is just as hard + you have to pay mental attention the entire time.  People tell me the Mead Roubaix wasn’t really a road race; I guess because it has 33% dirt roads to break up the pavement stretches.  Seemed like a road race to me… 

I raced in the first wave.  2 laps of about 20 miles each for about 2 hours total.  The start line had 70+ riders in my group and the whole first lap was nervous and sketchy.  The shots below are from 303cycling in the Cat-3 race later that day. It shows what carnage can happen at 30mph on dirt roads when you’re riding in a pack!  I heard a couple of bikes got destroyed and a few riders were pretty banged-up.

mead crash

mead roubaix_2011

I made it through the first lap unscathed, although I did miss the break and learned a valuable lesson about being attentive to the mood of the group.  Next time I plan not to be caught off guard when the leading riders decide to hit the gas…

This is me coming through the start/finish.  You can tell I’m riding my old stand-by 7-cycles.  Nothing like titanium to smooth out the nasty dirt and washboard sections of the course.

 

 

Last week I checked out the Strava app for my iPhone.  It has to be one of the coolest apps I’ve used recently and its free.  Below are a couple of screen shots I pulled off my phone after I got back from a loop up and around Carter lake.

strava_1 strava_2 strava 3

Very fun start to the season here in Colorado.  Next tune-up event I have coming is the Front Range 60.  Which used to be the Front Range 50, but I guess they wanted to make the 5-lap race a 6-lap race.  Longer and more boring than before!  Regardless, it’s a great kickoff to my mountain bike riding for the year.