I knew as soon as I hung up the phone on Sunday afternoon exactly what she was expecting me to say and what I actually just told her. No, this has nothing to do with dating, but it's remarkable how close the metaphor is to building a company.
My friend simply called me for an update on how things were going with me and our company and seemed completely unsatisfied with the boring answer I gave her: "Things are great, just plugging away on some new products and getting ready for the school year in August".
No "We just raised several million dollars in funding."
No "We just locked up a massive new customer."
No "We're about to do a press release announcing a big partnership."
I think she realized then that the daily life of an entrepreneur can be quite mundane. You can't literally be talking to an investor, courting major customers, and releasing a new product every single day. Sure, there are times throughout the year when we see a flurry of exciting activity after presenting at a big conference or closing a major round of funding, but Sunday on a hot Washington afternoon in the middle of June? Yea, I'm at home watching golf in my mom's basement waiting for the Papa John's delivery guy to bring me my lunch. Sure, I spent four hours at the Starbucks earlier doing some roadmap planning, shooting off a couple emails and getting myself prepared for the week, but most days at a start-up may actually seem kind of boring to someone who only read's about the billion dollar exits in Silicon Valley.
The programmers will program, the marketers will market, the designers will design and sales guys will make endless calls pitching our latest invention. That's how most days go in a start-up, very much like any other job. The only difference is the flexibility to act on a moment of inspiration on a new project without worrying about the number of Power Points you need to prepare in order to get your idea to market three-quarters from now. The Boss man is also usually flexible about when people come to work, how they dress, or when they leave as long as deadlines are met and progress can be seen on a regular basis. So if the picture I'm painting is a less stuffy office with Ikea furniture instead of cubicles as far as the eye can see -- that's basically what most start-up environments look like (throw in the occasional ping-pong or foosball table). And no, Google, Facebook and Apple are NOT good examples of what the typical start-up is like. Remember, they are some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world with effectively unlimited money. Not only are most of us irrelevant when we start, but we have a very limited budget. I love my mom, but at nearly 28 years old, there's a reason I'm still living in her basement.
So when my friend called and I explained to her that we were simply building new product and getting ready for the upcoming school year over the next two months -- she was definitely bored and uninspired. There's really no glitz or glamour to the work we're doing now, no impending press releases, no expectations of a million teachers joining our platform overnight -- nada. It's going to be a lot of wake up, go to work, build, come home, eat, sleep, repeat.
This is where intangible leadership skills take over. How do you keep your highly talented team motivated beyond the expected enthusiasm that comes from working at a start-up? How do you keep them from falling into a rut and losing their creativity as the company grows and the product release cycles naturally increase? How do you keep up morale when everyone is acutely aware that most start-ups lack revenue and the money clock is winding down every minute of the day? These are just some of the anxieties start-up CEO's face when everyone else is heads down focused on the task at hand, until, you know, someone eventually snaps. Here are a couple of things I constantly do in order to master the mundane and keep the flow of the business going like we just raised a million bucks.
1) Manage momentum: Good CEO's understand momentum is everything, but you can't always have it or it defeats the purpose. Maximize the spikes whenever you can and always keep your team focused on achieving the next bump. I don't know of any force greater in building a business (or life) than momentum.
2) Never set goals that are 100 percent achievable: I was reminded of how important it is to create stretch goals for yourself and your team recently in a wonderful talk by Google Start-up Labs. Apparently, Googlers aim for a 60 percent-70 percent achieve rate. The thinking behind this is simple: if you're creating goals you achieve 100 percent of the time, you aren't pushing yourself hard enough. If you are achieving only 40 percent-50 percent of your goals, you're a poor planner. You want to push yourself and your team, without breaking them.
3) Don't provide the same old gestures of gratitude: Rewarding your employees with happy hour or a yoga class for doing a great job may seem like a good idea on the surface, but the reality is if you hired properly, they'll LOVE their jobs and will have no desire to leave at five to do something only half your team will probably enjoy doing anyways. Honestly, if you want to reward people regularly, give them money. In all my years, nothing puts a smile on someone's face more than a pre-paid visa or a small bonus. It's amazing what a couple hundred bucks will mean at the end of a project to a guy making a hundred grand a year. Go figure.
4) Speaker phone everything: Unless it's a really private conversation, my phone is always on speaker. When I talk to new investors, teachers, partners, heck -- even when my mom calls to make sure I'll be home for dinner -- I'm always on speaker phone. The point of this isn't for everyone to pry. I want my tight-knit team I've decided to go to battle with during the "survive at all costs" stage of this business to feel what I feel, hear what I hear, and really understand we are a family and there are no secrets. Sometimes they'll hear me get yelled at by a customer, sometimes a partner will call with a sweet deal no one was expecting, but they'll know exactly what's up -- and nothing is more important for a leader than to display transparency to his team.
5) Give them the unexpected: This is another way to keep people moving at maximum output and creativity. Give your team an extended weekend from time to time with a requirement they aren't allowed near a computer for work purposes. A lot of start-ups fail because people get burned out and they bring the rest of their teammates with them. It's better to lose three days every couple of months than to lose it all.
These are just a couple of lessons from my experience over the course of three start-ups that I know will keep our company blood flowing at peak speed. I've heard other wonderful measures taken by CEO's and leaders at various stages of a company to make sure they are primed for success. I hope the next time a friend calls asking me for an update, they recognize that press releases and million dollar valuations aren't the only ways to keep things interesting at a start-up.
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