It began simply enough.
A post in my Facebook feed that was interesting enough that I wanted to click on it. After all, who doesn’t want to learn more about Satan worship and its effect on housing pricing?
Link says “latimes.com” but instead of going to the article, it launches the App Store and lands you on the page to download the Digg Reader app.
Respect for being douchey. I get it. Me going to the LA Times makes you no money. Downloading your app gets me closer to ringing the cash register.
Except it didn’t. I will never use the Digg Reader, and am now writing a post telling everyone that I won’t.
This is not a post about Digg. I met the guys. Good guys, hard working guys. Focused on driving news, engagement and proving traction. Cool. High five.
But as “Growth Hacking” has gotten more competitive and difficult, it has started to move into “Growth Hawking,” a disease that crushed search engine optimization and later social media marketing, and is fast working its horrible magic on app store optimization and all the other optimizations that are soon to come (can I get a Snapchat on that!?)
I was an early SEO guy. Early enough to remember taking photos of Google gift cards to get free Adwords and counting the characters in a page title to ensure a proper density of keywords. I was early enough to see it go to hell as the hawks moved in. In the drive to make a buck, they destroyed a perfectly good practice, and I was happy as hell to see Google fight back with Panda.
Now that SEO is dead, the hawks moved on to social media. First came the experts, then the gurus, now the hawks. For $40, I can add 10,000 twitter followers. What the fuck?
The conversation about the importance of delighting customers is not quite complete bullshit. Yet.
Perhaps I am overly senstive to customer experience. Perhaps I am expecting too much. But, when it takes 25 minutes between making a decision to buy a product and actually clicking the buy button, something is terribly wrong. When I decide to cancel service, and you keep me on the phone (you forced me to call? Really?) artificially for more than 10 minutes hoping that remorse will find its way into my heart and I will dramatically, perhaps even tearfully, bemoan my mistake and take your offer for 25% off my bill?
In the drive to derive value from each customer, we are forgetting that our goal as entrepreneurs is to solve problems for life, not for the first $10.
The hawks are driving the creation of low-value apps that exist solely to drive large customer numbers to simulate traction so that large investment rounds can be procured. (No, I don’t see Snapchat as one such company. They are creating real value in the exploration of changing communication patterns among millenials.)
We need to take a stand. Refocus on delighting users in every tactic and strategy we employ. To start believing again that our companies will be around for a long time, and build as if we aren’t chasing founder liquify, and tell the hawks to stick it.
A link in a Facebook post may seem like a small thing, and I assume it was an oversight, but it destroyed my experience. Same with TiVo and their stupidity around allowing me, a customer for more than 10 years, to cancel service simply, and Microsoft and their moronic hoops that they force users through to spend money. And a dozen other companies that have amazing design and it takes me minutes to figure out how to do simple things…
Decide what kind of company you are creating. Decide what kind of customer you want. And be unflinching in your conviction to protect that user and their experience with your product.
Don’t fuck it up because you decide (or your investors tell you) that rapidly driving numbers is more important. Or be respectful, and don’t lie to me if you don’t care.
Last night, as I do most Sunday nights, I was catching up with all the shows I like to watch on Hulu. I wont bore you with the list, but lets just say that at least one includes a talking rabbit, another a talking robot, and yet another a barely talking human.
In between pseudo-Sorkin quips, I, as I often also do, was zooming through twitter. Most of the time, Sunday night twitter is full of football, random links to articles and really bad jokes (still not sure why Sunday is so devoid of humor). And in the midst of all of the noise was this tweet by John Meada:
Now John, who I have never met, is the type of person that you tell people you once ate breakfast in the next room, and were too afraid to ask a very good friend for an introduction (Scott Belsky, it was not me when we ran into each other at the Ace in NYC. Just saying.)
Former head of RISD, now a design partner at Kleiner Perkins and something big at eBay, John drives a lot of the thought in the design community. As a “product guy,” I tend to really think about the things he writes and says.
It hit me that John was not describing just visual designers. Yes, a great designer can take all the pieces of the product and the needs of the customer and bring them together in fantastic ways, but the product team needs to do the same with the needs of the customer and the elements of the feature set, and the engineers need to do the same with the underlying technology and the needs of the customer.
And, if that is true, that not just the visual elements are considered design, then the line between Product, Engineering and Design becomes thinner to the point of completely blurring.
When I stepped down as CEO to focus on product, I fully intended to build a traditional product/engineering/design organization.
Product makes; design creates and engineering builds.
But as we dove into it, it was clear that construct creates an imbalance of power reducing the necessary feelings of ownership and empowerment across the organization. Not to mention no longer reflect the realty of the internet itself.
While it is easy to simply dismiss this as the need for cross-training and whatever terms the MBAs of the world would dismiss this concept with, it’s deeper than that. For a product guy, the making of the product is sacrosanct. The battles I have had with product folks around features, customer research and the like have been seared into my brain. Designers and their distinct need to care about the curve of the letters, and engineers are no angels when debating frameworks, languages or button placement.
Traditionally, the PRD (product requirements document) was the document that ruled all. It clearly outlined each and every button and each and every action that would occur when that button was clicked. The designer would take that PRD and outline to the pixel where that button should live and to the shade the colors in each button state.
The engineers would often grumble about the difficulty of putting that button in that location and having it do that one thing, but they would do it, and lo and behold that feature would launch, and everyone was, well if not happy, at least satisfied.
But an interesting thing has happened. The weight of the product fell on the product team. Want to move the button? Ask product. Want it to look different? Ask product. Want to remove it? Don’t ask product. They will probably kill you.
Over the past month, I have tested the idea of not having product own, well, the product. What if instead of having one group own the product, we spread ownership across engineering, design and product, and empowered each to make product decisions. Want to move the button? Move the fucking button. But have a damn good reason.
Initially, it was an absolute clusterfuck. Engineers worked on what they wanted to. Design had little direction and product (well me), was getting crushed with managing product versus making product. But, suddenly over the last few weeks, things have started to gel.
The first thing I did was break the product down into clear components. The primary value was to allow management to understand how their decisions around sales and company direction affected the product and engineering effort. Want to close that deal? Cool, but then this wont get built. Want to drive in that direction? Alright, but then we need to spend time on building this.
(I understand thats standard product effort — but the difference was to break it into logical components, not features.)
Then once we made decisions around company direction, I sat down with the engineering and design team, and we worked through the prioritized product “pieces” to develop features and frameworks. From that we built a six month roadmap, and broke it into two week sprints. (Yeah, that stuff is all pretty standard.)
How do we deviate? If engineering wants to build a feature, they just build it. Product provides as much or as little direction as the engineer who is working on the feature needs. Same with design. Engineering becomes the leaders in product development. Product and Design are supportive.
What was the outcome? Well, there are features in the product I would have never thought of, and they are better than I would have ever come up with. There is certainly a bit more protective activity around key features and functions by the engineering team, but I’m ok with that. Design is able to work on future products and features, and Product (me) gets to be much more collaborative than I have ever been.
And, I don’t write PRDs (thank god). But, our engineers are evil overlords who force me to prove that a customer or potential customer wants the feature before they will add it to the roadmap. Damn them for making me do my job.
In today’s world, the products we build are organic. They cannot be built in silos, regardless of scale.
We must all be able to make product decisions that are substantial in order to build something significant.
Every year as the Newly Minted VCs begin to settle in and blog/tweet, there is a bevy of posts about how venture capital as it stands today is broken, and they, with their new insights and operational histories are going to fix it.
Of course, most of them become what they rail against over the course of the next few years.
As I have started to think more and more about jumping the fence full force into the investing side of the entrepreneurial equation I keep asking myself two questions:
What makes up the perfect VC, and can I be that.
For many, it seems that for founder/CEOs the answer has been distilled into three key components:
- Keep money in the bank.
- Recruit amazing talent.
- Articulate the vision.
These three things are codependent. You can’t have one. You have to have all three. And each one requires the other two to exist.
- If you can’t keep money in the bank then you have not recruited the right people, or articulated the right vision.
- If you can’t articulate your vision, you can’t recruit or generate financial opportunities
- If you can’t recruit, then you haven’t articulated a compelling vision and most likely can’t get money in the bank.
There is no option that allows for one to drive to success. You must do all three.
Is there a similar list for VCs?
And while I asked many of my founder friends, I couldn’t seem to get a good answer.
Return phone calls; operational experience; network and rolodex. These seemed to be the most common. But these aren’t required traits. Very successful VCs tend to be horrible at returning phone calls. Mike Moritz and others have zero operational experience. And newer VCs, who might be great at helping you understand how to run your business, may have a limited rolodex.
More interestingly, the Newly Minted VC doesn’t hit on any of these as traits for how they are going to fix venture.
- Rapid Feedback
- Resource Access
- Greater Expenditure of Time
Yet these are about how the VC is going to work with the founder, not how the VC will help the founder reduce his chance for failure. It still puts that responsibility directly on the shoulders of the entrepreneur, which in a portfolio strategy is where it should be…right?
When I think about the type of VC I would be, it matches closely to the type of investor/advisor I am. One of my heroes is Bill Walsh, the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers. At one point something like a 1/3 of all coaches in the NFL had coached under him. His legacy wasn’t the Super Bowl championships that he won with the 49ers, but the dozens and dozens of coaches that he imbued with a love for the game and the desire to succeed. I am not into investing/advising because of the short-term potential. I am in it to cultivate entrepreneurs that love their part in the ecosystem and see their contribution as larger than just the company that they are building.
Not surprisingly, the VCs that hold a similar belief are some of the most successful. Even those with huge followings and brand recognition lose the long-term game, when that brand outpaces the importance of growing the ecosystem.
Given that venture capital is a highly competitive profession that requires a high level of cooperation for success it creates the unique dynamic that the best VCs give before they take. And, most of the time, the people getting don’t realize it because its natural and organic.
so it seems that are a couple of clear components to a successful VC.
- Recognize that an ecosystem exists, and they look to improve that ecosystem through coaching, education and support. By backing the best and expecting nothing less from those around them.
Give more than they take. Know that getting is just a byproduct of success, not the root cause.
And while that might seem a lot to ask of a busy VC, there is a final component that probably matters most.
In a world dominated by numbers and math….By charts and graphs….By acronyms and short hand…we forget that it is run by people. Of often those people are young and inexperienced. We like to invest in the young because the possibility of them having multiple successes is higher than investing in an older entrepreneur.
But regardless of age, being an entrepreneur is a tough job. It grates on your emotions in a way that no other job does. And the best investors are the ones that stop, if even for just a moment, and ask their founders how they are doing. That reach out just to say hi. That empathize with the difficult road chosen by that (often unprepared) founder.
This is the one trait that so many VCs lack. Perhaps its the profession. Perhaps its the money. Perhaps its watching so many founders fail. I dunno.
But it’s a clear difference between the great and the good.
As I get closer to jumping the fence to the investor side of our world I think a lot about the challenges I would face to be great. And for me, I focus on three key things:
- Be part of the ecosystem.
I exist because of it, not the other way around. Which means I must do my best to help it grow.
Give more than I take.
And do it both publicly and privately. But give because it is the right thing to do, not because I benefit from it.
Be proactive with the happiness of the entrepreneurs I work with. Understand that startups are driven first by people; and people are driven first by how they feel.
NOTE: I should say that I am not minimizing the key skill sets of a great VC: ability to spot talent early, understand financial models, see a clear path to the future, negotiate deals effectively, etc.