Strategic Partners Turn Your Vision Into Reality Faster Than You Can

A few months ago, Wattpad announced a partnership with Anvil Publishing in the Philippines. Together, we’re launching Bliss Books, a new Young Adult imprint that’ll bring some of the biggest Wattpad stories and authors to bookshelves across the country. 

The news means Wattpad can realize the vision I laid out in the Master Plan much, much faster. But really, speed is just one of the values a strategic partner brings to the table.

Anvil also has deeper insights into local purchasing habits and consumer behaviour than we do. The first part of the Master Plan is to “Discover more great stories,” and we do this by leveraging our Story DNA machine learning technology and a passionate community to find unique voices and amazing stories that are validated in Tagalog. With their local insights, Anvil can corroborate our insights using their local knowledge to guarantee a successful adaptation. 

The best strategic partners also have a reputation you can piggy-back off of. Another element of the Master Plan is ‘Turn these stories into great movies, TV shows, print books, etc.,” Anvil has a reputation for publishing high-quality books, and that’s exactly what we want to do. 

Anvil is the publishing arm of the National Book Store with hundreds of bookstores. It’s established presence means we – through NBS – have the ability to distribute Wattpad books to every practically every part of the country tying into another key part of the Master Plan to “Distribute and monetize content on and off Wattpad and earn money for storytellers.” 

The Philippines is one of Wattpad’s largest markets and a very important one since its home to some of our most passionate users. Plus, when you factor in the expertise and reach of Anvil, it was an easy decision to partner with this local company who can help us continue to celebrate and reward Filipino authors and their fans. 

Entrepreneurs: if you have the ability to form a partnership with another complementary company, seize it. The strategic upside is great and may help you realize your vision faster than you ever could alone.  

How to make meetings suck less

About a year ago I read an article about Jeff Bezos’ approach to meetings at Amazon that really resonated with me. Specifically, there were three things that make meetings more effective and efficient that really stood out to me.

  1. The Two-Pizza Team Rule – According to Jeff Bezos, Amazon tries to “create teams that are no larger than can be fed by two pizzas”
  2. No PowerPoint – “No PowerPoints are used inside of Amazon,” Bezos proudly declares. “Somebody for the meeting has prepared a six-page…narratively structured memo. It has real sentences, and topic sentences, and verbs, and nouns–it’s not just bullet points.”
  3. Start with Silence – “We read those memos, silently, during the meeting,” says Bezos. “It’s like a study hall. Everybody sits around the table, and we read silently, for usually about half an hour, however long it takes us to read the document. And then we discuss it.”

Like Bezos, I’m a big believer in small group meetings. Based on my experience, it’s too difficult to have a conversation that’s relevant to most if there are more than eight people in the room.

I don’t necessarily 100% agree with no PowerPoint, though. Yes, there are times when having a narrative works better, but in some cases, bullet points can be more effective. One can’t replace the other. Use the right tool at the right time for the right people.

What I found really interesting is the study hall format. Since learning about, I’ve tried it out in multiple meetings by allocating the first 5-10 minutes (not 30 minutes as Bezos suggests) so everyone can go through the document or deck and add their questions and comments in advance of the discussion. Here’s what I observed:

The Pros

  • It ensures everyone has read the materials and the context is fresh in people’s mind (and yes, I know meeting organizers can always send materials in advance as pre-reading, but people still have to carve out time in their schedule to get it done. This is especially difficult for people who attend lots of back-to-back meetings).
  • It provides dedicated time for pre-reading that is already built into the meeting (similar to the point above)
  • It helps reduce the amount of context switching so the quality of the conversation goes up noticeably because the context is so fresh in everyone’s mind.
  • The quality of the questions improves because people don’t have to multi-task in the meeting, i.e. listen, read, absorb AND ask at the same time.

The Cons

  • It means less time to talk, especially when meetings are only 30 minutes long (but IMO, we get this time back in a way because we might have wasted those 5-10 minutes getting attendees up to speed anyway).

As you can tell, I become a fan of the study hall format, and while I recognize it doesn’t work for every type of meeting, it’s helpful when teams need to be on the same page with specific background information. That’s when spending 5-10 minutes to make sure everyone is “in the zone” is well worth it.

Incorporating the Study Hall format to your next meeting gives you time: Time for understanding; Time for extended reflection; Time for focused thinking; All of which leads to better and more effective meetings.

Attitude > Skill

The Wattpad team is growing and we’re hiring for many roles. Recently, the team was in the position of having to choose between two highly qualified candidates for a single role (a great problem to have). One applicant had more experience or skill but the other one had a better attitude.

So who did we pick? Well here’s what I told the team:

“All things equal, always choose attitude over skill and experience. Skills can be learned, but it is hard to change one’s attitude.”

Of course, all candidates need to meet certain skill-based criteria, whatever that may be. It’s hard to hire someone in finance if ‘spreadsheet’ is an unfamiliar term. It doesn’t make sense to hire an engineer who has never written a line of code before. These are somewhat facetious examples and IRL the bar would be set much, much higher, but you get the point.

Hiring a person who may be less experienced but possess the right attitude can be a worthwhile investment and a risk worth taking if you believe you can get the candidate 80% up to speed in 3 months and 100% up to speed in 6 months.

With the right attitude one can overcome any obstacles, but when people have the wrong attitude, getting them to fit into the company can be mission impossible because of the inevitable cultural clashes and teamwork disruption. It can drag down the performance of the entire team. People with positive attitudes can solve problems proactively rather than reactively. While it’s hard to quantify, they can greatly increase business velocity and team performance.

Choosing attitude over skill is a guiding principle that I have been using for many years and has served me really well!

The next time a candidate walks through your door and doesn’t exactly have the right skills or experience, ask yourself if they have the right attitude.

Your iteration rate is the key to finding product-market fit for your app

For any entrepreneur launching an app finding product-market fit is a lot like finding the Golden Ticket; it’s rare, but when it happens it’s life-changing.

Unlike an enterprise business, when you build a consumer app your end-user can’t easily tell you what they want (vs. enterprise apps that are focused on solving a known problem or a pain point for clients). Think about it this way: Before the iPhone launched, no consumer research would point out the need for a touchscreen, keyboardless device. Before Snapchat, no consumer would say they wanted the ability to send ephemeral messages.

Consumers aren’t able to tell you what they want; this makes consumer products a shot in the dark. There is no guarantee if or when product-market fit can be found. It’s usually a long journey of continuous iteration.

And ongoing iteration is what gets you to product-market fit. Each iteration gives you one extra at-bat. Hitting a home run is easy if you can strike out 10o times instead of 3. Y Combinator’s Sam Altman said it best in this tweet:

Screen Shot 2019-04-01 at 4.14.45 PM

Finding product-market fit is hard. Look at how many consumer products Facebook and Google shut down even with their massive resources (remember FB Paper, FB Groups app, Google+ app?) Massive resources can help, but it’s not the most critical.

In the early days of Wattpad, despite only having a handful of employees, every day the product looked a bit different. We implemented new concepts in the morning, checked in the afternoon, measured overnight and killed it the next morning if it didn’t work out. That’s how we found product-market fit in many things. And that’s how we left our competitors in the dust.

Although finding product-market fit is freaking hard, it is also very fun and rewarding once you have figured it out.

Keep on iterating!

It’s Your Decision, Don’t Dodge

When you work at a startup, seeking advice and gaining buy-in from the broader team can help you move faster … until it becomes a crutch.

Recently, I bumped into an entrepreneur I invested in. He’s making some changes to the direction of his company and after explaining them to me I pointed out some of the potential issues. He immediately asked me: “So, do you want me to revert to the old plan?”

It was the wrong question to ask.

I explained to him that it doesn’t matter what I want. As CEO with all the context, he’s the only one who can make the decision. As an investor, I’m not thinking about his business 24/7 but he is. It’s his company and it’s his decision what he does with it (and only his decision). Investors should share their experiences and opinions but they shouldn’t make decisions that affect the business.

Not long after, I had an investor friend contact me about one of his portfolio companies that’s going through a pretty rough patch. My friend said: “The CEO now blames the board of directors for making the wrong decision.” My ears perked up. This was a red flag and I told my friend as much.

A company’s board of directors only has one decision to make: Hire and fire the CEO. Inexperienced CEOs have a tendency to defer difficult decisions to the board or even other people in the company. It’s not uncommon to hear a newbie (or unconfident) CEO say something like “My recommendation to the board is …” This isn’t helpful. All this does is enable inexperienced board members to jump in and make decisions out of context. It’s tragic really.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that there is no value to be gained from consulting with your board: Every CEO has blind spots and can benefit from another perspective. But in the end, what happens in the business is always the CEOs call.

And it doesn’t always have to be the CEO who holds the ultimate decision making ability (nor should it). I remember speaking with a senior leader at Wattpad and the person said: “I would advise we do this …” I quickly reminded this person that they are the head of the business unit and the only person accountable for it. It was an important decision with huge implications across the company, so of course, I expected this person would engage with the broader team to think through the different scenarios and make sure all the bases were covered, but at the end of the day, the person was the leader, not an advisor.

These three conversations illustrate one critical point. Whether you’re a co-founder, CEO, technical lead, department manager or even individual contributor, you are the presumed expert in your role so don’t dodge making tough decisions. Remember: You are not an advisor to your own job.

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.