One of the things Josh covered was what should happen during the first 100 days (14 weeks) of a high-tech startup.
Week 1 — Research and choose business
Week 2 — Build financial model and development plan
Week 3 — Build pitch with screenshots and practice
Week 4 — Interview law firm, staff and advisers
Week 5 — Incorporate and setup shop with office space and equipment
Week 6 — Initial documents, books, hires and cap table
Week 7 — Create website and logo (do a trademark search)
Week 8 — Identify 10 to 20 potential investors and study who else they invest in
Week 9 — Practice the pitch and setup meeting with the least important investor
Week 10 — Interview, build product, pitch again
Week 11 — Interview, build product, pitch again
Week 12 — Interview, build product, pitch again
Week 13 — Interview, build product, pitch again
Week 14 — Interview, build product, pitch again
He recommended interviewing one potential employee every day. Pitching to the least important investor first lets you have a chance to practice in a situation where making a mistake isn’t as damaging.
I first met Josh just after publication of an article he wrote on how many angel investors in Utah were doing it wrong. The article, entitled “Poison in the Well”, in addition to having a great title, was direct and clear in its criticism. It was one of the reasons I later applied to work at Mozy.
For anyone who knows him, I think “direct and clear criticism” is a good phrase to describe what it’s like to work for Josh. His class was no exception. It was a great chance to learn from someone who’s been there and done it successfully.
Seth Godin says there are four stages to every “game” that we play in life. These are projects and activities in which we are involved. We even use game-like labels for some of these: the dating game, the corporate ladder, the rat race. I’d never before thought of them directly as games that could be played.
- You don’t even realize there’s a game.
- You start getting involved and it feels like a matter of life or death.
- You realize that it’s a game and you play it with strategy.
- You get bored with the game, because you’ve seen it before.
I’ve read Seth’s short article several times and wondered about myself. I’ve started to recognize these stages in the games that I “play” at work and home. Looking back, I see myself mostly in stage two: caring a lot about the outcome and stressing that things aren’t going well.
More recently, I see myself being able to step into stage three at times: not taking things so personally, being willing to change my behavior and conversation to be more effective. Stage three is certainly less stressful.
Occasionally, I’ve hit stage four and moved on. I felt like I’d learned all that I would and lost interest in continuing. Not giving up in frustration. More like losing interest in continuing to do something at which I already excelled.
Mostly, I wish for more than this. I’d love the passion and enthusiasm of stage two with the lower stress of stage three in a game that avoids the boredom of stage four. Marriage and family can be this way. Work has the potential as well, though the nature of corporations seems to work against it at times.
The first thing I noticed about Raving Fans was how short it is. 132 pages of large fonts and lots of whitespace makes the book appear longer than it is. Many pages are more than half blank. The authors use a parable to help explain their suggestions and, without it, the book could probably be condensed to just a few pages.
That said, the content of the book is good. The basic outline is:
- Decide what you want.
- Discover what the customer wants.
- Deliver the vision plus one percent.
Alliteration aside, I would rephrase these points as:
- Envision the perfect customer experience and compare it to reality.
- Ask customers for feedback and adjust the vision as appropriate.
- Promise only what can be consistently delivered and then make slow, stead improvements.
The most helpful part of the book was the point about envisioning the completed picture before talking with customers, and then using their feedback to make refinements. This idea meshes well with other things I’ve read. It is very hard for normal people (those who don’t spend all day thinking about your product or service) to imagine what is possible. So giving them a context within which to make comments is very helpful.
One bad thing is the examples and situations in the book often seem contrived or unrealistic. I would have liked to see an appendix with references upon which the situations in the book are based. Otherwise, it feels like the authors took their theory and just made up examples to help explain it without any supporting evidence from a real company where their theory had been put into practice.
Overall, I don’t think I’ll be rereading Raving Fans. It’s light on content and most of what I learned can be summarized in one or two short paragraphs.
A few months ago, I joined a company called Imagine Learning that makes software to teach kids English. One thing I love about the company (it’s my second time working for them — yeah, long story :-) is that they choose a book each year, purchase a copy for every employee, and encourage them to read it. Last year’s book was Good To Great by Jim Collins which I was asked to read during my first few weeks on the job.
In short, the book is really good. The principles can be applied in non-work settings, to any group of people working toward a shared objective. The biggest downside is that, to be useful, those principles must be adopted by the leader of the group. The CEO of Imagine Learning is an advocate, which is one of things I like best about the company.
The principles, in the order in which they need to be applied, are:
- Leaders who are ambitious for the success of the company over themselves.
- Getting the right people into the company (and the wrong ones out) before making other decisions.
- Honest assessment of the present combined with optimism about the eventual future.
- Exclusive focus on a single idea at the intersection of passion, economics and being the best.
- Freedom and responsibility within a disciplined system.
- Selective use of technology to accelerate success.
Some excerpts should help illustrate why I like the book so much.
You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. (p13)
The purpose of compensation is not to ‘motivate’ the right behaviors from the wrong people but to get and keep the right people in the first place. (p50)
Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems. (p58)
The entire management team would lay itself open to searing questions and challenges from [people] who dealt directly with customers. (p72)
Focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization is the only path to greatness. (p100)
The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline. (p121)
Mediocrity results first and foremost from management failure, not technological failure. (p156)
If you want to build an enduring and financially successful company, I don’t know of a better place to start than Good To Great.
My friend and former co-worker Matt Ryan recently commented on the impending death of Novell Forge. A message on the Novell Forge site confirms that Novell will be shutting things down soon. I can corroborate some of Matt’s story as I was on the Forge team for about a year during its heyday.
But what really interests me about the situation are the implied instructions on how to neglect a successful product into a slow death that can be blamed on the product itself.
- Avoid rewarding or recognizing any of the people involved. Even better, reward someone else.
- Do not feed its success. Withhold funding, staffing and career growth opportunities.
- Provide poor support. Delay fixing problems.
- Set unrealistic goals and expectations. Blame the product or team for failure.
- Find excuses to kill the project. Focus on the negative in all meetings with executives.
This was a particular worry at Mozy when it was acquired by EMC. They promised that EMC did not want to be the lumbering elephant that accidentally squashed its shiny new purchase. And it was true. But we worried about accidental squashing anyway.
It has been two years, and I have seen projects and executives come and go. Though I do not believe it was intentional, at times it felt like Mozy was being neglected. But the core of Mozy has remained strong and continues to grow.
Based on my experience, here is what to do to keep a successful product moving forward:
- Execute anyway. Deliver a quality product in the face of neglect.
There is precious little a neglected production team can do other than produce. I heard something once I have always remembered: nothing succeeds like success. It is much harder to produce in the face of neglect, but it is also nearly impossible to ignore or argue with.
Mozy is clearly not perfect, but despite occasional neglect it continues to provides a valuable, profitable service. Working with smart people helps. Working for smart people helps. Working with people you like helps. Working on something you care about helps. Working with cool technology helps. But over time, delivering a useful, profitable product is what matters.