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.

This simple hack makes email introductions more effective

At some point in your career, someone you know will a) ask for an introduction to someone else in your network, or b) offer to make an introduction to someone they feel you should know.

Email introductions can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can be incredibly useful in connecting directly with an elusive executive. On the other hand, they can suck up a lot of time (and lead to bruised egos) if not done with tact.

The very worst email introductions automatically assume that the connection being made is appropriate and beneficial for involved parties. But the truth is unless you’ve explicitly asked in advance, this is just an assumption.

Here’s an example of an email I recently received:

Hey Allen,

I would like to introduce you to Cindy Lou (cc’ed). Cindy Lou is an expert in X, which you will find useful. I’m sure you would enjoy the meeting. I’ll let you two find the best time to meet next week!

Cheers,
Horton

The problem is, while Cindy Lou might be an expert in X, I don’t really care about X, it’s just not my thing. Naturally, I don’t want to spend even more time feigning interest in X. And I definitely don’t want to waste Cindy Lou’s time either. The other problem: Despite what Horton thinks, I’m mostly out of the office next month so can’t find a time to meet without a lot of calendar shuffling.

I used to accept blind introductions (and subsequent meetings) like these in the past out of politeness. It was an ineffective use of my time – and theirs. Even when I dared to say no, I had to spend time crafting a firm, yet polite email to decline the opportunity. Drafting the email didn’t take up nearly as much time as a meeting would, but it still took time out of my day that could be better spent on strategy or operational challenges. Eventually, it became too much.

Nowadays, when it comes to email introductions, I try to model the behavior I want to see. When people ask me to connect them with someone in my network, I make sure I have a double opt-in. This means I’ve asked for (and received) the permission of both parties before I send a note. Here’s what it looks like:

Pavel would like me to connect him with Uhura.

I’ll ask Pavel to send me a new, well-written email with the request (Pavel should NOT include our previous conversation i.e. the original request). It could look something like this.

Hey Allen,

As discussed, it will be great if you can introduce me to Uhura. Here is a summary of my ask: <insert awesome summary here>

Thanks in advance for your help.

Live long and prosper,
Pavel

Then, I would add a sentence or two before forwarding the note to Uhura (without including Pavel). My addition would provide further context and could be something along the lines of: “I don’t know Uhura well and I haven’t tried her products, but the elevator pitch sounds relevant to you” or “Uhura is brilliant and working on a super interesting project you might be interested in.” This context setting is important, but should only take 30 seconds of your time.

If Uhura agrees to the introduction, then I add Pavel to the thread. If she says no, I’ll let Pavel know that as well.

Double opt-in email introductions work well for a number of reasons.

  1. The onus is on the person requesting the introduction to write an awesome email detailing why the connection is valuable. It’s not the facilitator’s responsibility to make the case
  2. It avoids putting people in an awkward position of accepting a connection or meeting when there is zero interest in the product/service/pitch
  3. It encourages frank dialogue. If a person wants to decline an introduction, chances are he/she is more likely to provide a candid reason in a private one-on-one email with a trusted connection. It allows the facilitator to filter the information appropriately while still providing a truthful explanation to the requester
  4. It allows for brevity, without sounding cold. Since the facilitator has established relationships with both parties, a to-the-point email doesn’t come off as arrogant or rude

I make lots of introductions, and I am more than happy to do so. It’s great for community building. I hope the double opt-in method helps make introductions faster and a better experience for everyone!

The End of 8-Hour Days

Both my parents used to work for a bank. For them, the work day started at nine in the morning and ended at 5:00 pm sharp. Day in and day out, this was their routine. They never understood the concept of flexible hours. They questioned why I would bring “work” home. On the other hand, they were always amused that I never needed to take time off work to see the doctor or get the car fixed during office hours.

“Am I expected to work an 8-hour day?” I get this question from employees from time to time, but I believe this is the wrong question to ask. Employees are expected to get their work done, deliver on OKRs and contribute to a positive workplace culture. For the most part, I don’t (and neither should their direct manager) care where or how the work gets done. Of course, it goes without saying (but I’ll still say it), flexible work hours should never impact collaboration or attendance at critical meetings.

Startups are fast-paced, ever-changing environments filled with bright employees. They’re solving complex and fascinating problems and it’s all very exciting. Being a disruptor and part of a paradigm shift is thrilling and the work itself should compel employees to give 100%. Offering flexible hours instills trust in your team and gives employees a sense of ownership to execute on projects in the way that works for them.

That’s not to say there will be no instances when burning the midnight oil for a specific project or tight deadline is required. Make no mistake, there will be times when a critical security issue needs to be addressed after-hours or a client has an urgent need on the weekend. But there should also be opportunities to take it easy and spend a few weeks out of the country or deal with a family or health issue. It’s about flexibility.

Most startups offer flexible hours, and it makes sense. After all, tech is a creative industry unlike working at a bank or factory. As people head back to work after their relaxing summer vacations, my advice to founders and startup execs? Measure productivity by outcomes and results, not timecards.