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Archive for the ‘founders’ tag

Culture is Vocabulary

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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.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

April 10th, 2011 at 10:15 am

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You Can’t Get There from Here

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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.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

January 9th, 2011 at 6:27 pm

The Scene Will Kill You

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If you’ve taken a deep dive into tech startups, you know about the scene. The scene is the siren song of the innovation community. The scene will kill you.

The scene is building sexy things that gain the approval of a certain (small) group of people. Sexy things get lauded, and celebrities coalesce out of the blogosphere’s protoplasm. The scene builds and sells a dream. Skip to the beginning of the line; pass go; collect $200 and a DUMBO loft. Get in SAI 100, speak at conferences and spend your Friday nights at launch parties. The scene lends these things great importance. The scene assigns value to popular acknowledgement of value rather than actual value. The scene is all these things – it is at once a state of mind as well as a loose community of people in any city with a large startup community.

I will spend this weekend’s post on a warning: the scene will kill you. It will misdirect your efforts and focus your attention on the cool and the shiny rather than the substantive. Your product will be driven by the spotlight rather than the user or the dollar. It will inspire envy of your co-founders, your friends and your colleagues.

People in the scene don’t say nice things about other people when they aren’t around. They’re too political, too strategic for that. Don’t expect these people to watch your back. If you’re in the trenches building a product or raising money, you must surround yourself with people you trust. You cannot tolerate politics and political people.

Building a startup requires blinders. Fred Wilson is right — being agnostic to the zigs and zags of competitors is critical. But it’s not just about ignoring competitors; it’s about identifying fads and unproductive behaviors and mercilessly cutting them out of an organization. And if you don’t do it, someone else will — and they’ll have a competitive advantage, whether for market share, talent or financing.

The scene provides a useful disguise for wannabes and dilettantes. The back-biting and politics of the scene enable B- and C-level players to skip from venture to venture, destroying value and poisoning relationships.

The scene is why I enjoy hanging out with developers. Developers/engineers tend to be grounded by a sense of the inherent usefulness and value of products. In a city like New York that is swimming with smart, non-technical entrepreneurs, it’s surprisingly easy for an entire community to be distracted from building meaningful things that tackle real problems. The webutante is dying, but not quickly enough.

The scene will kill you and your company. That’s as clear as I can make it. The scene is the antithesis of innovation and collaboration. Avoid political people and cut them out of your organization wherever you find them. This won’t necessarily make you successful, but it will let you be happy with yourself regardless of how things turn out.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

November 7th, 2010 at 9:54 am

Martyrs, or How to be Miserable and Inefficient

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Most of the truly miserable people you meet in life aren’t stupid or unambitious, traits we’ve been taught to associate with an unhappy life. Rather, the unhappiest people I know are also some of the smartest and hardest-working. But they’re also martyrs, a dangerous and under-appreciated workplace pathology.

Approximately every tenth highly intelligent person I meet is a martyr. Martyrs have an addiction to making themselves miserable for the sake of others. It’s not necessary for this misery to be for anyone’s benefit — it simply needs to be understood by the martyr that they are performing a sacrifice at the feet of another person or group.Many smart people are martyrs, like these guys

Paul Graham’s How to Lose Time and Money makes a great corollary point — specifically, that driven people rarely waste time by sitting on the couch watching TV, but by doing useless work. I’d like to take that a step further. A number of smart people are Martyrs, who draw their willpower from Sisyphean quests, enjoying difficult and painful situations for the sake of the pain endured. Their equivalent of praise is the feeling of deep guilt they can inspire in others.

Martyrdom is chronic and can impact someone’s strategic decisions. I’ve seen martyrs join organizations doomed to fail simply to have a steady stream of martyr-ready situations. Playing the martyr role is addictive, and situations in which a martryr can work extreme hours, take the blame for far-reaching problems, and prostrate themselves at the feet of bosses are their crack cocaine.

Martyrs paralyze organizations. I’ve written about the huge influence guilt has on communication, but it deserves restating. The guilt that martyrs inspire among their peers and superiors destroy organizational structure and productivity. When a colleague is going to fall on any sword within eyesight, there’s a natural disincentive within a team to hide the swords — that is, to cover up the issues and problems that arise in any organization. Martyrs inspire guilt, and guilt is a terrible emotion to inspire in a group. Guilt saps enthusiasm, sweeps problems under the rug and eliminates any willingness to take risks.

Everyone avoids the dull, the lazy and the untrustworthy. By their very definition, martyrs are none of these things — yet they should be avoided to the same degree. Martyrdom is at best saddening and at worst contagious and destructive.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

October 3rd, 2010 at 1:31 pm