Don’t Be a Parasite If You Want To Be A Disruptor

I spoke with an entrepreneur whose company is building a new, disruptive product for the education sector. One of the challenges he’s facing is that none of the company’s co-founders have worked in the education sector before. He wondered if he should hire someone with some relevant experience.

Another entrepreneur friend of mine is building a tool that is catered to the public sector. The company is struggling to scale as a business. The sales process is too slow. The product is becoming too specific for one sector.

In both cases when these entrepreneurs asked for my advice, I told them: Don’t be a parasite if you want to be a disruptor.

There are so many verticals out there that still have not been fully transformed by the Internet — education, public sector, book publishing, the list goes one. But it’s extremely hard to transform any industry if you have a lot of dependencies with the old systems. You can’t think out of the box. Your sales cycle is too long. And often you end up with a product or a service that is incremental at best rather than revolutionary.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a lot of people have built great businesses by providing incremental solutions like consulting services to the government. But, if you want to build something truly transformative and net-native, then you have to stay as far away from the traditional systems as possible and draw closer to your end users or customers.

If you want to create something truly game-changing and be a disruptor, you can’t begin the journey as a parasite.

Embrace tension to move even faster

As a startup scales, it’s natural for tension to creep up among different teams who are working on disparate objectives. Either of these conversations sound familiar?

Showing users more ads can help generate more revenue, but it could also hurt engagement. Do we optimize for revenue or engagement?

We have a limited budget. If we spend it on A, B, and C we won’t be able to pay for X, Y, Z. What should we choose?

The best way entrepreneurs can embrace and then ease tension among their teams is to establish a set of principles. Principles can help teams avoid indecision and move fast.

In the example above about serving ads at the expense of user engagement for instance, if the team has previously established that ad experiments can’t impact engagement by more than X%, it becomes easier for them to test different combinations of ads to drive the most revenue without negatively impacting engagement.

Establishing principles streamlines decision making, eliminates unnecessary meetings and propels the company forward. Everyone knows what to do and understands how much (or how little) leeway the team has.

Of course, there will be times when you may not have a principle to fall back on. That’s when the teams representing the conflicting priorities need to escalate the matter further and involve an arbitrator. Most times decisions are reversible and having an arbitrator can resolve issues quickly. In the world of startups, a quick decision always trumps a slow decision (or worse, no decision at all).  

Tension is natural and a sign your company is growing. But as your business grows and becomes more complex, decisions aren’t as straightforward as they used to. Creating a set of ground rules that inform your team’s priorities and outcomes can help avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict.

The other thing managers should remember

When I first became a manager, one thing that was extremely difficult for me to get used to was delegation. When an employee gets promoted to manager, and even after they realize they now have a different and distinct role, it can be hard to let go of the day-to-day work.

Why? In many cases, the person who gets promoted to a leadership or a manager position is someone who is an awesome individual contributor. To be an awesome IC, you need to be very good at getting stuff done.

But as a leader or a manager, you need to focus on asking other people to get stuff done.

You need to make sure your team is working on the right stuff to achieve desired outcomes. As a manager, you can’t do the work of other ICs – it no longer in your job description.

This is counter-intuitive and crazy hard because it is the polar opposite of what awesome ICs know so well.

Speaking from experience, when a leader does the work of an IC it can be very demotivating and become counterproductive. On the other hand, when a manager delegates the work and trusts individuals to get the job done it can be very motivating.

As a leader, you should remember that it is far better for you to focus on figuring out what your ICs should do (and why), and let the ICs figure out how to get the job done (and then, do it).

The one thing new managers forget

I first started managing people when I was 26. Four years later, I was managing a team of 30 developers. On paper, I was fantastically successful; in reality I should have fired myself.

At the time, I thought that in order to lead a team of awesome developers, I had to be an even more awesome developer. I worked frantically to write more code than anyone else not realizing that I accepted a new job the moment I was promoted – and writing code wasn’t it.

It’s something that almost all new managers forget. Being a manager isn’t a glorified version of your old job: it’s a brand new and completely different role. It requires a different skill set and attitude. As a manager, your responsibility is to ensure your team works on the right things at the right pace to deliver the right outcomes.

In my 30s, without any management or leadership training under my belt, I didn’t have a clue how to direct such a sizeable team. As a newbie manager I made mistakes and added further complexity to an already chaotic organization. It was only years later when I truly realized how my lack of leadership contributed to the chaos. I still cringe thinking about it.

I’m not proud of those mistakes, but I learned a lot from them. My biggest takeaway was that being a manager isn’t about rolling up your sleeves and working alongside your team (although there are times when this matters); it’s about understanding where your organization wants to go and deploying your team and resources to get you there.

If you’re a new manager who’s still doing the same work as before, step back and delegate. And, congratulations on your new job.

Out with the old (product features)

The new year means a fresh start. With that in mind, I urge product managers, designers, engineers and developers – anyone who helps develop a product, really – to think critically about the features they are designing. Have you thought about what features you’ll say goodbye to in January? Because killing features now means better business velocity for the rest of 2019.

As a product and its codebase grows, it is not uncommon to see an increase in technical debt. This debt may be because usage of a feature has scaled beyond its original design (you can’t expect a Toyota Corolla to reach 300 km/h no matter how many turbochargers you add) or because a feature, and subsequently it’s code, is used in more ways than originally intended (like a lawn mower turned into a snow blower – it works, but it shouldn’t). Often, technical debt accumulates because old or infrequently-used features aren’t retired.

There is a cost of removing these old features, of course, but removing features is significantly cheaper in the long-run than maintaining relic code. When you support outdated or unused features you’re also allowing security, performance and backwards compatibility issues to arise.

I remember reading an article about Evernote that claimed 90% of their features (and they have thousands of them) are used by less than 1% of their users. Eventually, the company’s velocity grounded to a halt because every simple feature update required numerous discussions across the company before the change could be implemented.

So make no mistake, it is desirable and even essential to purge old product features. Here’s how in three steps:  

  1. First identify a feature that you think should be retired. Then measure the usage of that feature. The data won’t lie. If usage is low, proceed to step two.
  2. The numbers may not tell you the whole story. Talk to some of the old-timers who have more context than you and understand why the feature existed in the first place. In many cases, you’ll be surprised by the reasons.
  3. Decide to purge, modernize or maintain the status quo. Make a decision and then execute your action plan.

Years ago, I was part of a team that dedicated six months to find bugs and purge unused features. On the surface, it seemed we were spending an inordinate amount of time and effort ‘looking in the rear-view mirror’ and not working on things that took the product forward. In reality though, those six months pushed the product much, much further ahead. By the end of it the product ran faster, the UI was cleaner because many unused features were gone, and annoying glitches were finally addressed. The app went from 1-star to 5-star in a few months without adding anything new.

It’s a good reminder: Less is more. Simple is good.

Storytelling for change

Before we rung in the new year, Wattpad released its Year in Review, highlighting the trends and community movements that defined the year on the global entertainment platform. In a year when people around the world were pushing for progressive social change, Wattpad’s community of 70 million users broke new ground in literary representation and created a safe space online for marginalized voices and their stories.

From #MuslimRomance to Mental Health Awareness, Wattpad stories celebrate inclusivity across characters and genres. Check out the full Year in Review below:

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 11.09.51 AMScreen Shot 2019-01-02 at 11.10.10 AMScreen Shot 2019-01-02 at 11.10.19 AMScreen Shot 2019-01-02 at 11.10.42 AMScreen Shot 2019-01-02 at 11.10.52 AM

 

When tech giants move next door

A slew of international tech companies – Google, Uber, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon – have committed to or expressed interest in setting up shop in Toronto. If you’re a homegrown startup or scaleup you can’t help but think about the implications of having these giants in your backyard.

Companies often expand their footprint to lower costs, access specialized talent or for a host of other reasons. It’s not new. They aren’t the first international companies who want to set up shop in Toronto, and won’t be the last.

And why not? Toronto is a world-class city with some of the best universities in the world producing some of the finest technical and business talents. We’re home to an incredibly diverse community who have the perspective and understanding to solve global issues and build products and services that work for the world.  

Colleagues and friends have recently been asking me for my take on these moves. Are they helpful or harmful to the city and the local tech ecosystem?

In my opinion, we should welcome these moves – but be wary of them.

When a few foreign companies decide to move to a burgeoning city, they can help build a critical mass that directly supports homegrown companies by spurring interest in the region. They attract high caliber talent and then provide opportunities for these employees to hone their skills and learn new ones so they can further develop into well-rounded and in-demand workers.

But too many foreign companies in a single locale can make it seem like they’ve colonized the area, leaving little room for local businesses. It gets too difficult to compete, too expensive to stay in your backyard. Think about this: If data is the new oil, do you really want all the ‘oil companies’ to be foreign-owned?

So it’s not a choice of either-or. Having zero international companies who operate locally won’t stimulate the ecosystem. With too many foreign companies, locals lose the ability to control their our own destiny,  and eventually, ideas and innovation become stifled.

For now, I welcome these new companies into our backyard but make no mistake, it can never replace building our own homegrown giants. I’m certain that the incredible Toronto tech ecosystem will continue to make waves regardless of who moves next door.