Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How to Idea? Be a Hunter.

I don't know about you but I've spent more years than I care to admit waiting for that 'great idea'.  Starting out, I figured I'd help my friends with their ideas until I had my own epiphany.  I worked my tail off and time passed.  I waited.  Ten years and several exits later I had a great resume and several wealthy friends, but still no idea of my own.  That wasn't the plan.  I was a smart guy.  I gave it a lot of thought and realized I had been like a hunter waiting for my quarry to shoot itself.  But that isn't how it works.

Now what?

"Ideas are easy" has become a mantra these days.  Execution is king.  It's true.  But the difference between a serviceable idea and a bad idea is like the difference between hitting the edge of the target and shooting in the opposite direction.  We've got to start somewhere so we should aim as wisely as we can.  For those of us for whom ideas do not immediately spring wholly formed like Athena from Zeus' forehead, what are we to do?  Take Athena's lead.  Be a hunter.

Look for the signs

Wait.  Watch.  Eventually you'll get the feeling you should look for.  Inconvenience.  You can notice it in someone else, but for passion/product fit it's a sensation that should be your own.  Inconvenience makes an excellent compass.  When you feel it head in that direction.  Ask "why?"  Ask that often enough and you'll get a glimpse of the beast you're looking to snare.  The idea won't yet be clear but the general outline of the problem should be apparent.

Be patient.  Understand before acting.

So you've been on the hunt for some time.  You've spotted something of interest.  Do you immediately spring into action?  Sure - if you haven't a care for the cost.  Tackling something as soon as we spot it often feels right because our instincts evolved on the savanna.  Hackathons and the like encourage this mentality.  The projects that emerge are often novel but are risky as the foundation of a business.  Attempting to build a solution before you have a deep understanding of a problem is like a hunter leaping on the back of the first thing that moves.  If you're lucky it's dinner but it could just as easily make dinner of you.  Be patient.  After that first hint you are on to something give yourself time to explore the problem you have discovered.  Like the hunters of old it may be necessary to track your prey for some time before finding just the right way to move in for the kill.

When to move?

At this stage some let analysis paralysis stop them dead in their tracks.  Don't panic.  You've cornered your prey so press the advantage.  But when to strike?  When you have validation.  Your passion for the problem is a good gauge.  If you can't stop thinking about the problem you're on to something.  You can also validate your choice by checking to make sure other players are attempting a solution but where you feel your idea solves the problem significantly better, faster, cheaper, etc.  If nobody else is trying to solve your problem you're either a clever first mover or a fool.  So tread carefully.  There are many ways to come at this, but it's important to validate.  Be creative, but find something that works.

In my case I chose to validate my approach to the process instead.   I started making predictions.  I figured if I could write one elevator pitch per week, if the ideas were any good sooner or later I should see them show up as funded companies. It was hard at first, but it got easier.  I started having more than one idea per week and could sift through the rubbish.  I watched and waited.  I was busy with another startup so the waiting was easy.  It didn't take long.  In six months I got my first hit. It was an article announcing a seed round funding one of the first ideas I'd logged.  Eighteen months passed and three quarters of the ideas hit as seeded companies.  I felt foolish for not doing this sooner.  I'd been having big ideas all along.  I just didn't bother to catch them.


Everybody has great ideas but few stop to take them seriously.  When inspiration strikes and an idea appears in the mind, they dismiss it as unattainable or trivial.  To quote Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, "Be sure to 'notice' ideas when you have them.  Stop.  Take the time to consider them seriously." Set aside the time and make it happen.  Once you've got the idea do your research.  Track your prey.  Understand it thoroughly.  Then validate your approach.  If the idea still has its hooks in you, pounce on it.

Make a choice.  It's time to act.  The next big idea is out there and it's yours for the taking.  Ready your bow and let Athena's arrow fly.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Remote Control

Twenty years ago the internet was still a research project where most people didn't have email and the idea of real-time video was the fantasy of porn addicts wishing for something better than usenet. Now gigabit fiber to your home is a thing and we all have wireless supercomputers masquerading as cellphones on our hips. It should come as no surprise then that the nature of work and how it gets done is changing. Remote work is a viable option for many despite the resistance of some. I'm not here to insist that you use remotes but I am saying, if you adapt your processes and how you communicate so remotes could work well, you'll outperform companies that can't. Here's why...

Better onboarding

On-boarding is where a lot of companies drop the ball. With everyone under one roof you get a lot of it for free so it's easy to convince yourself you're doing it right. If you have gaps in your onboarding or have no formal process at all, your remotes will be culturally disengaged, and much slower to learn your architecture. You might also have trouble gauging their progress ramping up and it's likely they'll feel lost to some degree. Reality check. Your in-office new hires have the same problems but are able to mitigate your lack of support through osmosis. It's a coincidence of geography that your in-office hires aren't performing as badly.  With remotes you have to be deliberate because your deficiencies are exaggerated. Get it together.

Better processes

Do the developers on your team have to tug at someone's elbow to get code reviewed? To have the code tested? To coordinate a build? To publish a release? If your development and deployment processes require your communication to be synchronous you're going to end up with a thousand little inefficiencies with frequent blocking as people wrestle for each others time. Because the waiting is brief this is easy to overlook. Each interruption also disrupts flow causing you to lose at least half an hour per day in lost productivity. With everybody in the same space, interrupting Bob once a day to do x may not seem like a big deal, but multiply that across each work day all year long. Add in remotes and watch the problem explode.  

We did the math at our own company. Manual pushes to production were costing us three man-weeks per year on a four person Dev team. That's an enormous opportunity cost. But there was hope. The initial estimate to fully automate our test and deploy process was only four man-weeks. Given that we'd gain what we lost in the first year alone it was a no-brainer. But we didn't stop there. We found the guys at sprint.ly had some great posts on Asynchronous development. It's a natural progression from the branch-per-feature approach. We didn't go completely asynchronous, but we did cut out most everything else: meetings and hand-off-wise, saving additional weeks of Dev time annually.

Better communication

The biggest challenge is making sure people are talking.  This isn't unique to remote working but it's the one challenge managing people that is the most exaggerated by it.  Worst case, a remote could spend weeks wasting the company's time surfing Youtube for cat videos. Conversely they could be a rockstar and you'd have no idea.  

Communication should be easy, often, and light weight - stand-ups are a good start, but make as much of it asynchronous as possible.  Make your expectations clear so you both know what success and failure look like.  You can establish these collaboratively but they should be documented and clearly defined.  Is the remote under performing?  They should know without having to ask you.  Are they excelling and the business is pleased with their performance? This should be crystal clear, not in some distant quarterly review, but continuously, because of the team's definition of success. 

I’m not a fan of meetings - I prefer to maximize flow - but I like to make sure we’re having the meetings we need to have.  About now you should be thinking, hey, those things sound good regardless of whether we have remotes.  Good.  That's the point.

Test, test, and then test again

If you're a business that is interested in trying remotes for the first time, run a few tests with existing employees. Tweak the knobs and experiment to see what works. I would suggest that for anything new you are trying whether it's a business process, remotes, a new product, whatever. You want to give yourself an opportunity to try things out in short runs so you can change things quickly if they don't work.

Why do people resist remote working? Because nobody got fired for not allowing it. It’s easy to say no because there’s no perceived risk in it. It feels safe. I would argue, though, that if you aren't able to support remotes, your company isn't as healthy as one who can. And that is a problem. If this describes your organization, explore why. I guarantee you you'll find something you can improve.  

For a full interview with me on the topic check out this link here. You can also check out more material from my interviewer Lisette Sutherland here as well. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Spot me

If you've ever done any weight training you understand the importance of a spotter. You're slinging heavy weights around and to get the reps in without dropping dumbbells on your face you need someone to keep an eye on you. You can ask some stranger nearby for some help. That will at least keep you out of the hospital, but what do you do when you want validation that your approach is sound? What do you do when you plateau and need advice? What do you do when you're frustrated and need encouragement?

You need more than a spotter. You need a coach.

Professional development is no different. There have been many articles written about the need for coaches, mentors and accountability partners. Call them what you will. We'll stick with the term coach for the sake of the metaphor. If you haven't got one already. Stop now. Read this, this, this, and this. Then come back here. My point is to challenge you to get more out of this relationship than you already have.  

Now you've found a coach. Maybe you talk once a week. Maybe you get some advice that occasionally makes a difference. If that's how it feels, you can do better. Much better.  Based on my own experience as well as conversations with serial entrepreneurs I can say this with certainty - If you're starting a company or are involved with a start-up the urgency to get high performance feedback cannot be overstated.  

If you want to achieve growth whether it's personal or professional you should be having "Aha!" moments. If you're on the same level with your coach the exchange can go both ways. The point is you should view your sessions like exercises for a body builder. They should push you outside of your comfort zone. They should challenge you. Not sometimes, but most of the time. Also, read. A lot. Talks with your partner don't have to be like a book club but if you aren't regularly exposing yourself to new ideas, you're denying yourself the leaps in perspective that approach can provide.

It's also possible that you were once excited but things have waned. It's tough when you've had a long stretch of success with someone and that shared history makes it hard to let go. Don't be afraid to find another coach if the fire has gone out. This is a mentor or accountability partner, not a marriage. If your coach isn't regularly challenging you and pushing you toward your career and life goals it's time to move on. Don't delay. Keep moving. Your career will thank you.

Lastly, the two of you should be measuring and recognizing progress. This is easiest if you're running a startup or a business unit because there are usually textbook metrics to consider. It gets more challenging the further afield you get from those roles, but don't think that means you can ignore their importance. Just like reps in a workout, if you're not measuring anything there is no way to gauge progress and the whole effort devolves into an exercise in vanity.

If your mentor is just a spotter find another. When you choose well they can help you manage your weak spots so you can push yourself harder and farther than you thought possible. They help keep you consistent. They challenge you, but also act as a safety net.  You don't want to spend time with someone that isn't proactively working with you to help you achieve your goals. You should dig until you find someone that excites you; that changes you. The time spent with them shouldn't just be rewarding. It should be transformative.