It is common knowledge among startup founders and CEOs that there is a distinct need to build a company culture. But most people in early stage companies have no idea what this means. We figure it means things like asking your co-workers how their weekend went, going out to dinners as a team and supporting your co-workers during rough times. And certainly all of that is important.
But I’ve come to realize one thing in particular over the past several months. Culture is vocabulary. Culture is built through the small choices of words you make on a day-to-day basis in a team’s everyday conversation. Culture is how a CEO structures his or her sentences and how problems and questions are verbally addressed. While spending time away from work with your team is important, the vast majority of a company’s culture is set in the tone and word choices that all team members make in their daily dialogues.
Here’s a simple example: Culture is beginning a counterargument with “I hear you, and” instead of “I hear you, but”. Improv comedians are trained to do this to keep a conversation flowing and avoid the perception of error and/or conflict by the audience. Think of this (obviously oversimplified) construction, which allows Comedian A to bounce back without apparent conflict:
Comedian A: The sky is yellow!
Comedian B: Yes, and much of it is blue!
Comedian A: Oh, and what a pretty blue it is!
Compare that to the following, in which Comedian B directly negates Comedian A’s point. Unlike in the last construction, here Comedian A is left in an awkward position, and the audience will typically notice the discontinuity:
Comedian A: The sky is yellow!
Comedian B: No, it is blue!
Comedian A: Oh, I guess you’re right!
And in a team, it’s just as important — nothing builds a culture of defensiveness, politics and anxiety like the frequent use of phrases that are heard as accusatory and conflict-oriented. Avoiding that linguistic trap is where positive culture is built.
This could be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of corporate culture. That is, the way your employees view your company and their role in it is defined by the structure of the language that is used in day-to-day conversation. The concept, of course, can expand beyond culture to things like roles, team hierarchy, company values and strategy. If a specific team member always addresses his or her peers as a CEO would, an “assumed leadership” may be developed — for better or worse. That is, it’s not always the official titles or recognition that drives vocabulary and tone, but the other way around. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but it should be recognized for what it is.
Understanding the impact of vocabulary isn’t always the easiest thing for folks in a startup culture that often looks more like investment banking than a bunch of small teams of people pursuing their dreams. Unfortunately, a male-heavy culture with a deep lore built around exceptionalism, independent brilliance and long hours isn’t always conducive to driving happiness. But I’m betting that many of us got into this startup game to avoid bad cultures and bosses, not replace them with equally bad situations due to our lack of understanding of the words we use.
This post owes no small debt of gratitude to Jerry Colonna for inspiration.
Hackathons are the new hot thing. We’ve done a few at General Assembly, and we’re planning to host more — such as Lean Startup Machine this April.
But there’s a gap in our hackanthology. Specifically, almost all of these hackathons employ “lean” or “agile” development tactics, a vague and unproven yet trendy fad. Thus, I make a modest proposal: that we may have a Waterfall Model hackathon, showcasing the best that 1960s-era manufacturing process theory has to offer.
Getting it together is simple enough. All you need is a group of consultants to come up with business ideas, a handful of business-oriented “product people” to design specs, a bunch of developers — but only for a few hours given our constrained development timeline — and an expert QA team. Here’s my proposed schedule:
Friday 6PM: Consultants assemble to brainstorm project ideas. Ideas are evaluated on size of market and apparent complexity of the end product. Consultants must have no prior relationship with anyone participating at any other stage in the process and only a rough, high-level understanding of the industry behind “hacked”.
Saturday 8AM: Business teams assemble. Projects are assigned to business teams through a process of drawing straws. For the next 12 hours, the business teams will begin the grueling process of writing and assembling spec docs. As with the consultants, business teams must have no prior relationships with the people involved at any other stage in the process, especially the previous day’s consultants. Preference is given to MBAs.
Saturday 8PM: Developer recruiting dinner. Business teams sit down with hackers over wine at a pricey yet mediocre Midtown steakhouse.
Saturday 11PM: Implementation phase unofficially begins. Although developers have five hours on Sunday (plenty of time) to complete the projects defined earlier in the weekend, no one will complain if they start work a bit early.
Sunday 9AM: Implementation phase officially begins.
Sunday 2PM: QA Handoff. Developers hand off their completed work to a crack QA team assembled of NYU students and the homeless.
Sunday 8PM: The main event! Final products are judged on the following criteria:
– Adherence to the spec document
– Apparent time it took to develop from the perspective of a non-technical person
– Number of lines of code
– Resumes of consultants who came up with the original idea
So who’s with me?
I was having drinks with a few entrepreneurs last week, and the topic of business plan competitions came up. I ran Yale’s competition for a year while I was a student there — a sobering experience. Ostensibly, the winners of the contest were the best potential entrepreneurs. In reality, the top awards were often swept by Yale MBA candidates who spent the entire year perfecting a 30-40 page business plan with little intention of starting a real business. They’d take the award money alongside their McKinsey or Goldman signing bonus.
Most experienced entrepreneurs — or at least most of us around the table that night — agree that business plan competitions suck. But is there a way to improve them? One CEO in attendance suggested that business plan competitions be revised to focus on the real tools of a VC pitch — that is, a slide deck and in-person presentation. It’s certainly a better basis than a business plan, but I don’t think it solves the problem. Rather, it still perpetuates a false and harmful archetype of how venture money is raised.
In reality, raising capital is a long game — a process to be measured across years and companies, not weeks and pitches. The people who “win” the real venture capital game are those entrepreneurs who spend years — if not decades — building their reputation and their relationships with investors. This doesn’t mean that first-time entrepreneurs can’t raise money, but that they’re far better off spending their time setting metrics-driven goals and hitting those goals in order to build trust in the investor community than writing a business plan or shopping a deck.
Business plan competitions can’t build a comparable experience, so they’ve created a generation of first-time entrepreneurs who falsely believe that money is raised in front of a Powerpoint rather than series of coffees and beers.
If you made me redesign the business plan competition, I’d do something pretty nontraditional: a unit economics competition. The contest would be in-person and just takes five minutes per contestant: explain your business concept in 1-2 minutes and walk through one Excel worksheet presenting the unit economics in the next 2-3 minutes. No long-form writing or slides, just the basic math that explains the core cost and revenue drivers and assumptions of your company. And no 3-5 year projections, either. While it might be beneficial for entrepreneurs to fully think through their company by spending 150 hours writing a business plan, modeling out your unit economics will provide 90% of the value at a fraction of the time.
Furthermore, the winners of a unit economics contest would be more likely to build successful companies. Unlike a business plan, with a 3-5 year projection at its core, a unit economic model tends to focus the entrepreneur on the near-term opportunities with the highest likelihood of success: the kind of things that will create grounded and focused businesses rather than speculative, multi-threaded companies. And if you’re a broke student hoping to start a business straight out of a university-sponsored competition, which would you rather have?
General Assembly is an urban campus for technology, design and entrepreneurship. I founded it last year along with Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz and Matthew Brimer.
As you go deeper into the technology community, it gets harder to remind yourself that the global economy is struggling. Every startup in New York and the Valley has open positions that go unfilled for months. Salaries for developers and designers continue to rise, and entrepreneurs are creating real businesses with real revenue.
It’s all too easy to forget that our nation still has the highest unemployment rate many of us have ever seen, especially among young adults. Over 15% of people aged 20-24 are without a job, the highest in more than a generation. Students graduate from college and often times spend their days fruitlessly emailing their resumés to deaf corporations. Clearly, there is a mismatch between what we are teaching our newest citizens and what they need to succeed.
Critical courses are absent from the state curriculum and given only token acknowledgment in higher education. Design and software development, two of the most relevant 21st century skills, are glossed over throughout our educational system. It’s in this context that we’re launching General Assembly, a new kind of campus to educate designers, engineers and entrepreneurs.
That said, an education is only meaningful in the context of an environment that reinforces its message and provides a community to stimulate ideas and growth. This is why we built General Assembly on the model of a campus. We’re crafting a curriculum and have created a physical space in the heart of Manhattan for hackers and designers to work, collaborate and learn. We’re trying to tackle a big problem, and we certainly can’t solve it alone. But we have to try, and I hope you can join us.
I wrote several months ago that everyone should get funded, and the growth of philanthropy-driven angel funding will fuel it. A few things I’ve seen over the past week have taken my thinking to the next level.
It has become extraordinarily difficult to change culture through pure art. New forms of art are no longer shocking to mainstream culture as Pointillism was to the late 19th century or Cubism to the early 20th. Few know this better than Carter Cleveland of Art.sy, who made a powerful point to me last week: Those who wish to fundamentally change culture in the 21st century — and those who wish to fund those changes — must look toward entrepreneurship.
Over the past fifteen years, startups have been catalyzing global cultural changes that had previously been the realm of artists. Facebook is the perfect example, a company nominally driven by a desire to “change the way people interact”, a phrase that could just as easily be spoken by a conceptual artist. And Facebook has succeeded in changing the way over five hundred million people interact, whereas an artist with a similar goal would be lucky to be featured in a design magazine or score a cameo on the evening news. One could argue that it’s all art, but the medium has shifted from canvas to Delaware C Corporations. Fifty years ago, repressive regimes banned books and modern art. Today they ban Facebook and Twitter.
This thought has been stewing in my head for a while, and Yuri Milner’s commitment to YCombinator drove it home. Yuri has fantastic returns — his three investments thus far are Facebook, Zynga and Groupon — but I’m convinced he’s playing by a different set of rules. Arrington first wrote about US startups as a vanity purchase for wealthy Russians more than a year ago, and there are surely enough wealthy Russians to fill DST’s coffers without forcing a strict focus on returns. But I don’t think DST is an oddball clique — rather, I see them as the model for the future a venture capital. A future in which super-wealthy individual limited partners are driving a fund that is based on equal parts vanity, philanthropy and financial returns.
This is a self-reinforcing trend: as more investors look to startups as a “Broadway-like” investment — that is, something that is just as much about status and cultural change as financial profitability — ever-adapting entrepreneurs will build companies that emphasize these kinds of “softer” returns. As the positive feedback cycle accelerates, we’re likely to see an entire class of investors and entrepreneurs styling themselves as patrons and interactive artists, respectively. This isn’t to say that these entrepreneurs will be building nonprofits; rather, supernormal returns are an integrated piece of the startups’ aesthetic appeal to culturally and financially savvy investors.
This is as long of a prediction as I’ll make here. I don’t think this is a trend we’ll see culminate in the next 5 or even 10 years — this one is going to take thirty years to fully play out and the effects will be felt for decades if not centuries. Entrepreneurship is the new art, and it is a Good Thing — both for entrepreneurs and our society as a whole.
I love seeing people join startups, and it usually makes a lot of sense for everyone. Young tech companies tend to have great cultures and incredibly smart people from which to learn. And lots of startups are very generous with salaries and options — in many cases, enough that an employee can maintain a close-to-market salary and keep the lottery ticket too. But there’s one situation in which it doesn’t make sense to join an established startup: you actually want to start your own company.
As I’ve written in the past, many people who go into startups aren’t necessarily looking for the salary, lottery ticket and cool culture, as much as they may publicly say so. They’re looking to gain independence, establish themselves as leaders and self-actualize. They’re looking for the things you get from founding your own company and believe that joining a startup as an employee will be the quickest way there. But that’s a poor strategy, especially for non-developers.
That tactic mistakenly applies a corporate model of advancement — in which one starts in low-level jobs and wiggles into a management position over the years — to entrepreneurship. You aren’t going to get promoted to founder by spending a lot of time working for founders. You become a founder by starting your own company. Yet over the past year I’ve seen a number of people fall into “the non-founder trap”, which goes something like this:
1) You decide you want to get into a startup. You don’t feel that you have enough [intelligence/confidence/experience/money/ideas] to start your own company, so you search for a job within an established startup.
2) After several months of searching, you take a job in the business development / marketing department of a 10-person company. While your last job paid you $100,000 per year, you accept $60,000 and 0.3% in options.
3) While you occasionally advise on high-level decisions, 95% of your job is emailing potential clients and taking sales meetings — the same stuff you were doing at your last job. The fundraising, investor relations, and personnel management is done by the CEO.
4) After a year or two you would like to leave, but unfortunately your $60K per year salary hasn’t let you save up enough to quit your job and start something of your own. You also don’t feel that you have a good sense of how to raise money or manage the earliest days of a startup. So you begin searching for another job at a small company and return to step (1).
There are plenty of counter-examples. I know a number of people who fell in love with startup life and founded their own companies after working as an employee of a startup. But it’s not a great path for people who really want to be founders, who will struggle to be happy at their jobs and fail to save enough to go out and build their own business. If you want to be a founder, go out and start something. The inspiration, confidence and experience will come.
There was an interesting New Year’s Day post on TechCrunch about something we’ve all noticed: for certain keyword phrases, Google is entirely spam. A search for a high-value keyword like “online degrees”, for instance, turns up little more than affiliate directories run by spammers with a solid grasp of SEO. So many people are gaming Google that it has lost much of its value.
But — contrary to Wadhwa’s implication — this isn’t a special failure on the part of Google’s engineers. Rather, it’s a fundamental characteristic of dominant technologies. Through market dominance, a technology can become the sole target of those who wish to exploit: an easy ROI for scammers, marketers and anyone else out to make a buck. Rather than building and optimizing for multiple competitive technologies, system gamers must only target one.
This is of particular concern for monopoly technologies, or borderline monopolies. Microsoft ran into the same problems fifteen years ago and continues to suffer the fallout. Hackers and virus creators knew that they only had to optimize for one operating system — Windows — and could target a massive share of the market. They ignored Unix and Mac OSes, giving those systems a reputation of relative security and safety against viruses and hackers. But have no doubt that if, say, Mac OS gained sufficient market share and corporate adoption, malware creators would see a new opportunity and begin writing viruses and malware for Macs. Suddenly, finding exploits in OS X would become orders of magnitude more important than it is today.
And thus Wadhwa’s conculsion (“We need a new Google”), makes no sense. We don’t need a new Google, an overwhelming search monopoly. We need a diversity of competitive search engines. Blekko’s engineers are no better than Google’s. And even if they were better, creating a search engine that is immune to gaming is fundamentally impossible, with increasing difficulty as the search engine’s market share increases. Blekko is simply not spammed because it’s not worth the spammers’ time to figure it out.
Display advertising is a great counter-example of a market with diverse technologies, protocols and big players. While display isn’t totally immune to gaming — click arb and ads that launch malware, for instance — it doesn’t fundamentally challenge the value of the technology as overzealous SEO does to search.
When a technology is in a constant arms race with competitors, users win. When it is a black box inside a giant monopoly, the internet’s underbelly rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.
When someone at a tech event pitches me on a nonprofit, I have a tendency to tune out. It’s not because I’m a terrible person. It’s because small nonprofits often combine the professionalism and scale of early-stage startups with the stakeholder motivation and agility of Fortune 500 companies.
The nonprofit model has its place. The structure works for charities, for instance, where the entity doesn’t need to do much beyond raising and distributing money. But it’s a poor fit for entrepreneurs who are trying to scalably effect social change by building a socially-motivated enterprise.
It shouldn’t be this way — after all, most founders who structure their companies as 501(c)(3) nonprofits are simply trying to change the way something works for the better. Usually they have backgrounds in large corporations or academia rather than startups. Thus, they don’t necessarily think about economic incentive — one of the most critical aspects of starting a successful company. The 501(c)(3) model removes economic incentives by eliminating stock and setting market-driven salary caps for employees and board members, preventing anyone associated with the organization from earning meaningful returns.
Sure, people are motivated by things other than money — such as the potential to do good in the world. But successful businesses are able to quantify success, and most measures of social good are difficult to quantify. The social enterprises I have seen accomplish the most are able to align their profitability with social good, which gives them a far more tangible target. They can also give their employees financial incentives for hitting targets that are aligned with the organization’s social goals, a double whammy of motivation to get things done.
Combine all this, and the nonprofit model makes it difficult for companies to recruit top-tier talent. Unlike top-quartile workers ten years ago, employees today understand equity, options and other incentives. They know the value of their time. An all-star developer might volunteer on the weekends for a nonprofit but is unlikely to choose it as a full-time job over a position at a startup or big company. The inability to score top talent is a positive feedback cycle, as a new potential hire is unlikely to want to join an organization filled with mediocre, unmotivated people.
Ultimately, companies are measured by the social good they accomplish, not their tax structure. It makes no sense for a social enterprise to let the latter limit the former.
There’s a common misconception about why people become entrepreneurs. In my chats with founders, I’ve seen that the most common driver — ahead of earning fantastic returns, working flexible hours or learning new things — is simply getting away from a bad boss, or bosses at all.
To those on the outside looking in, the world of startups looks like a boss-free paradise. After all, you can name yourself the CEO, or at the very least have control of a menagerie of roles in your business. Unfortunately, it’s usually not. That’s because someone — perhaps an investor, a customer or a partner — is almost always playing the boss role.
Truly bossless businesses are tough to find; they have to follow a few major constraints. First, they need to hit cash flow positive almost immediately. Without that, you’ll either need to keep your day job (and your boss) or take investment (and investors, which are a different kind of boss). With cash flow, you’re only responsible to yourself and your business. Second, they need to have tons of customers, even at an early stage. That way, each customer isn’t important enough to justify appeasing them. Ideally, each customer is spending such a small amount that their process of dealing with you is automated (in B2B) or your business supports high churn (in B2C). Finally, executing the concept shouldn’t require more than perhaps one or two trusted partners.
There are a few broad categories of businesses that meet these constraints, and I’m fascinated by each of them:
Affiliate Marketing / Lead Gen: This is probably the easiest vertical to get into, as it doesn’t necessarily require any technical skills. Anyone with some marketing smarts and a WordPress install can start generating affiliate revenue, and it doesn’t really come with any obligation to anyone — affiliate program managers are often at least one level removed from the publisher (you), and it’s trivially easy to switch from one affiliate program to another.
One of the beautiful things about many affiliate businesses is that the entrepreneur is also building long-term value — typically, in a targeted email list or site that ranks high in search engines on certain keywords. In that way, affiliate and lead gen businesses are also fundamentally different from (say) consulting, in which it’s tough to argue that the consultant is building long-term value in their business.
Arbitrage: An extremely broad category, “Arb” is big umbrella that could include online advertising arbitrage, proprietary equity trading or perhaps even certain types of e-commerce. But it’s probably the most common of all bossless trades, with a huge number of independent prop traders making essentially bossless livelihoods. The downside of any arbitrage-based business, of course, is that the opportunity can (and will) disappear — of all the businesses discussed here, arbs are building the least long-term value in their enterprise.
Software Sales: To fit the criteria listed above, software business require some engineering skills. But if you’re a hacker, there are few better bossless businesses. This is especially true on the B2C side, with gaming as a prime example.
Note that in some of these businesses — especially B2B software sales — there’s a fine line that prevents customers from becoming bosses, and many entrepreneurs accidentally cross over that line by doing custom work, failing to automate sales processes or relying too much on a few large buyers.
This stuff isn’t for everyone, but I think there is some inherent (particularly American) desire for freedom from people looking over you shoulder, setting deadlines and making demands. And to many of us, that freedom is being a founder. Just be careful what you choose to found.
Say what you want to about law firms, but some of them have nailed a great branding hack: they have taken a stodgy service provider offering and “startupized” it by customizing and branding their work to appeal to founders. Of course, this isn’t just a branding task, there’s often real substance behind it — a solid startup-savvy lawyer can be one of the most critical partnership decisions a CEO makes. But the mere fact that so many first-time founders understand the value of a great law firm is pretty remarkable. 83(b) elections, for instance, are now common knowledge in the startup community, and it doesn’t take most CEOs more than five minutes to track down some publicly-released template seed funding documents.
These firms aren’t simply generous — cultivating a client pool of top seed-stage startups can be a huge win down the road for a service provider when those companies get bigger and pay bigger fees. But as far as I can tell, the path that startup-friendly law firms blazed hasn’t been followed by other service providers, even ones with a similar relationship to entrepreneurs. Who is the Wilson Sonsini or Gunderson of the accounting world, for instance? There isn’t one, but funded startups still pay for outside tax and bookkeeping work. I’ve spoken with several VCs who believe that the lack of startup-savvy accounting and CFO expertise is a talent crisis only exceeded by the deficit of hackers.
This is a branding problem that certain law firms have solved and other service providers haven’t. Because some firms have established thought leadership, savvy founders –even first-time founders — know what law firm they want, and they find an intro to that firm. The discovery process for (say) accountants is totally different, as there aren’t any branded, aspirational accounting firms that appeal to founders. Rather, many founders simply use a friend of a friend or family member to do their tax and accounting work or get a poorly-researched referral from another entrepreneur. This is a huge missed opportunity for everyone, especially the service providers.
Accounting firms aren’t the only ones missing the boat. Here are a few others, although I’m sure there are more:
PEOs and Payroll Providers: I’ve never met a founder who has enjoyed working with a PEO or payroll provider. Dealing with payroll, workers’ comp, insurance, taxes, health coverage and similar headaches is a huge pain, and the PEOs and payroll providers I’ve seen have punted on every opportunity to make it easier. Rather than crafting a unique value prop for startups and charging appropriately, these firms make the mistake of treating startups as “small versions of large companies”, assume that every startup has a dozen departments, charge too little and deliver way too little.
Wealth Management: I’m writing in more detail on this topic in this week’s letter.ly. But in brief, I think wealth management organizations — despite their traditional sales-heavy tactics — are missing a huge opportunity by not developing a savvier brand that can appeal to founders. Of all the wealth management groups, I figure at least one of them would acknowledge the lessons of the Bay Area finance revolution and focus their specialization on risk mitigation and alternative asset classes like P2P lending and real estate.
Office Hardware: The traditional office copier leasing process is miserable for entrepreneurs — which is a shame, because there are a lot of benefits to leasing a machine rather than maintaining your own. Have an office with a mix of Macs and PCs or fewer than two years of tax returns? Good luck.
All of these industries are ripe to be disrupted by savvy service providers that are willing to craft brands and offerings that appeal directly to founders. It’s easier than ever to start a company, and there are far more startups and founders today than there ever have been. So who will tackle the new market?
I had the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving week in Costa Rica, which was a welcome change in scenery from Manhattan. I’m not much for hanging out at the beach, so I found some time to talk to a few people involved in Costa Rican real estate and finance while I was traveling around the country. I was particularly curious about the startup community, which seemed to be totally absent throughout the country.
The difficulty I heard from everyone in Costa Rica was the same: while the country is one of the world’s oldest democracies and most stable Latin American nations, its legal system is frustratingly unfair and unpredictable. Property laws are Byzantine, and squatters have powerful — albeit vague — rights. Costa Rican citizens are explicitly favored in all legal disputes. Tax law is complicated and seems to be made up as you go along. Despite Costa Rica being the most developed country in Latin America, the uncertainty injected into the system by needless legal complications has made technology innovation extremely difficult.
Reports of the United States’ death as the startup capital of the world are greatly exaggerated. Our embarrassing lack of startup visas, bureaucratic burdens and high cost of labor are small inconveniences in comparison to the quality of the States’s legal system, which is largely fair and — most importantly — consistent. In the United States, I have a pretty good idea of what will happen in almost any legal situation. If my company goes bankrupt, there are centuries of precedent governing what creditors can and cannot do. If I want to sue someone, I know the costs and risks. Insurance is available for everything imaginable — mostly because our legal system is so sound.
Consistency is the most underappreciated driver of success in a product or service. This isn’t just about legal structures. Great brands are built through the delivery of consistent and predictable experiences as much as PR, pricing and growth strategy. As a consumer, Apple, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and dozens of other successful brands will each give me exactly what I’m expecting to get from them. I simply don’t have to worry about the risk of getting something different or unexpected. Humans are naturally risk-averse creatures, and we’d much rather take something guaranteed than something that might be 25% better or 25% worse.
By removing the uncertainty around business law, the state of Delaware has prospered, generating over $750 million in revenue in 2009 from corporate services alone. The majority of entrepreneurs I know send Delaware a sizable check every year for doing nothing other than having less uncertainty around corporate law than other states — and anywhere else in the world. If this isn’t an example of a brilliant hack, I’m not sure what is. For doing something without any fundamental cost — providing a consistent legal framework — Delaware has created a massively successful business.
Ironically, having a stable, un-disruptable legal system around our entrepreneurs gives them the power to disrupt industries and aging business models. Until other countries develop the kind of legal infrastructure that will give innovators the certainty to know that their creations and profits are protected from corrupt officials, greedy politicians, populists and nativists, the United States will continue to produce and host the vast majority of innovative, billion-dollar companies and entrepreneurs.