Archive for April 2009
I’m examining some of the lessons I’ve learned from working at other companies – trying to figure out how experience matters when you’re running your own business.
Digital Equipment Corporation – I started as an engineer at this behemoth when it was already in it’s decline; down from a high of 100,000 employees to 60,000. Huge, and mired in it’s own weight.
I remember the moment I knew I was going to quit: I was making a change to a test program being used to qualify a new chip. The process was to have a formal review – so far so good. But the process grew because various managers wanted to grow their turf – for me to get my program approved, I had to get 7 signatures, from within several departments.
Of course, outside of my own manager and another engineer in my department, nobody really understood the technical details, so there was a document describing the intent of the change. After two days of walking the document around to various desks, one of the managers told me he wouldn’t approve the program because my document had spelling mistakes.
The outcome was that I had to rewrite the document, and start the approval process again. And I wrote my resume at the same time. The company lost an eager engineer, because had a system that valued the process over any contribution. Long-term, losing sight of the goal is probably what killed that company. They were so excited about the process they forgot they were in it to make great products… and ultimately money.
I’m really intrigued by the Y Combinator approach to starting companies, but I wonder if that works for most people. I think you need to experience failure and frustration before you know how to make things better.
My own experience is in working for progressively smaller companies… finally resulting in a startup. Each of my previous jobs has given me a lesson that would have been incredibly expensive to learn in a small company. A $100,000 mistake is rounding error for a Fortune-500 company, but when that money is coming out of your own pocket it can destroy your business, not to mention your personal finances.
There have been specific technical lessons that I’ve learned, and I feel like I’ve gotten better at communication and organization because of other people I’ve learned from. Even more than that, have been some big-picture lessons that I’ve learned. The conclusions I’ve drawn are part of what’s led me to be happy in a small company, but we’ve made conscious choices at Moraware to ensure that we don’t repeat past mistakes that we’ve seen other places.
Here are four of the lessons I’ve learned.
- Lesson #1: Don’t have process without thought.
- Lesson #2: Small teams work.
- Lesson #3: If you see a bad situation, get out fast.
- Lesson #4: It’s never as good (or bad) as you think it is.
I’m going to add more details about each of those lessons in separate blog posts.
This week, after working a trade show, we ended up an Irish pub in Chicago (O’Callahans) and were greeted by something that I didn’t expect. A good-looking woman wearing Guinness-branded clothes was just inside the door with a simple question:
Q: Do you like Guinness?
Q: As part of celebrating our 250th anniversary, we’d like to give you a pint.
That was it – they didn’t ask for any information, didn’t want me to sign up for anything, and I was free to enjoy my beer. I overheard a few other people answer the question the same way – everyone’s voice had an edge of skepticism, but once it turned out that it was truly a free beer… well, there was no more skepticism.
About halfway through the drink, the same woman came through the bar asking “Are you enjoying your beer?”. Yes, end of story.
But I don’t understand what they were trying to accomplish – selling Irish beer at an Irish pub in a city with a large group of Irish-Americans hardly seems like they’re testing new markets. As far as I know, there’s not a lot of competition for the palates of stout-drinking Americans, and I don’t think I changed my drinking preferences after a free beer.
Maybe they’re hoping that people will tell their friends. But I’m not sure how that works – other than a free beer, there’s nothing remarkable about the story. So does our marketing have a chance? If a company that has made a great product for the past 250 years still needs to give out free samples, will it be different for us in a year or two…or hundreds?
I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way, and it probably explains why things like “Getting Things Done” are so popular.
While having a really long to-do list isn’t inherently bad, it leads to a problem of not knowing what to focus on. As a business owner, much of my time (and Ted’s, too) is spent doing the undefined, unpleasant, or unrewarding work. But for me, a lot of this is self-inflicted by having a short attention span.
Was writing a buyer persona a waste of time, or did it it lead to a discussion and some ideas that might be valuable? How about the time I’ve spent creating demo and help videos? Writing a blog? Volunteering to help out with a niche-industry professional organization? The problem with all of these is that we never know the impact until much later.
Several times, Ted and I have discussed features, support, marketing, or the company while going on a walk or having a beer – and had specific, useful tasks to go back to work with. Maybe it means we should spend more time hiking and drinking beer.
So, how do I prioritize? First, I try to rely on my gut feel. My gut usually tells me to prioritize in the following way:
- Questions a customer is waiting for.
- Decisions that I strongly believe will have an impact on our business.
- Calls and visits to happy customers, and other things I enjoy.
- Questions or problems a co-worker needs me for.
- Everything else… aka 90% of my work.
But even with a rough idea of the priority, it’s still incredibly hard to answer, “Which is more important?”
- Testing a new release or coming up with new pricing?
- Trying to find new lead sources or writing a help article?
- Clarifying a commission plan or documenting board meeting notes?
- …and the list goes on.
Comparing these totally unrelated items usually comes back to my gut. Maybe I need to make a spreadsheet of all of the items, and list who cares, when I need to get it done, and how much time I expect to spend.
I liked the process of writing out my first buyer persona for skedsheet. That persona was a composite of people I’ve run into while we’re marketing JobTracker and overlaps with hundreds of our customers for that product. There are still a lot of holes, but later I will work through each persona in a little more detail. I have no idea why this feels right as a post – probably because I want to invite commentary or criticism. If you have any, please lay it on.
Persona two is Denise.
Denise is a 27-year-old senior recruiter at a Fortune 5000 retail company. This is her second job out of college, and she believes it’s the one that will propel her career. Although she’s not technically a supervisor yet, she is taking on the role of managing her two peers in the department.
Denise’s ambition and organizational ability have already added a little more sanity to the process of bringing in the executive hires that she has helped recruit. Because the economy is a little shaky, she’s also extending her skills beyond recruiting by helping to document and standardize the whole process that happens after someone has accepted her job offer – something they internally call “on-boarding”.
Both because of her outgoing personality and the nature of the job, Denise is incredibly involved with networking – both online and offline. She’s got got accounts on facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace, as well as a number of other smaller social networking sites. She’s in constant contact through her blackberry via IM and SMS throughout the day, and usually once per week goes to an event for one of professional organizations she’s involved in.
About the same time we starting writing the skedsheet blog, we also created a blog for our JobTracker customers. It’s barely a blog, other than the fact that we’re posting individual articles using wordpress. It’s actually just a library of xml files with a screenshot, short description, and some tags about which versions of our software it works with.
For the JobTracker forms blog, I’ve done nothing to publicize it, there’s about a third less content than on this blog, and it’s growing at a much slower rate – only posting weekly.
Yet, surprisingly, the other blog generates consistent traffic purely from search results, and has more traffic than this one. In the skedsheet blog, I’m intentionally trying to stir up enthusiasm for our company, our product, and scheduling in general and over there, I’m just trying to distribute some files.
How can this be? Here’s what I think is working.
- Solving a specific, real problem.
- Keyword-rich posts.
- Not trying to sell.
- Keeping each post short.
- Posting regularly, not necessarily frequently.
But, just because lots of people end up at the other blog, it doesn’t mean that we actually inform them, help them, or provide any kind of value. Instead, we should occasionally post some skedsheets here…examples or templates that you can use to get started and get an idea of what’s possible. That should get more folks reading, and actually provide something useful to them at the same time.
I’ve seen lots of examples of management, both my firsthand experience and watching how our customers companies work. Some managers and business owners give their employees lots of power to manage themselves, while others distrust their employees and micro-manage at a level that surprises me.
I’ve found that my own style needed work – I was in denial about even being a manager, and instead I was actually being a bad manager. I wasn’t listening or providing useful feedback.
Instead of just criticizing and not giving positive feedback, I make an effort to be more useful as a manager. I feel very lucky that I got some coaching on how to do this in an effective way, with simple framework that I can stick to.
Every week, and sometimes more frequently, I spend up to an hour with three questions. When I’m being a sales manager, these questions are typically centered around the sales calls of the week.
- What’s the best call that you had this week?
- What part of the call was the best?
- What part would you do over if you could?
The whole point is to concentrate on the positive – making the best calls even better. I still fall back on my old ways, no doubt about it. But, trying to frame the conversation in a way that everyone benefits is much more useful.