Life

Commentary on an HBR article about Start-ups & Entrepreneurship

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A friend posted this article on LinkedIn.com. Due to character limitations for comments, I decided to post my response here. Below is a link to the article referenced: https://hbr.org/2019/07/building-a-startup-that-will-last

The article is interesting, but the emphasis on “second and third acts” assumes that the start-up will successfully navigate the first act. Even with addressing what the author views as key points this is still a very big assumption. The reasons for Longevity and Success are far more complex and multi-dimensional, but it does place a spotlight on some of the more important areas of focus.

Long-term success requires several things: The right combination of having a unique goal that has the potential to make a big impact (think “No software” from Salesforce.com); Innovative ideas to achieve that goal; A diverse team to build the product (a mix of visionaries, insightful “translators,” technical experts, designers, planners, adept doers, etc.); Very good sales / business development / marketing to describe a better way of doing things and converting that to new business; and ultimately a management team focused on sustainable and scalable growth.

The point made about the need to, “Articulate a value framework oriented toward societal impact, not just financial achievement” seems a bit superficial and too tactical in nature.

First, there are unintended consequences to most new technologies. Social Media is a recent example, but Genetic Editing and AI are two areas that are likely to provide more examples over the next decade. Not every societal impact will be positive, and having a negative impact could very well lead to the untimely demise of that company.

Second, the two ideas (societal impact and financial achievement) are not mutually exclusive. When I owned my consulting company we had a goal of funding $1M worth of medical research that would find a cure for Arthritis. We allocated half of our net profits for this goal. Every employee was on-board with this because there was a tangible example of why it mattered (my daughter). We invested $500K, helped launch a few careers for some brilliant MD/Ph.Ds and at least one national protocol came out of their research.

Mission and Vision are so important to a company, yet so many companies fail to view this as anything more than a marketing effort. Those companies fail to realize that this is as much to motivate and inspire their employees, as it is to grab the attention of a prospective customer. These should be both inspirational and aspirational, such as the “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) that Collins and Porras wrote about 25 years ago.

Image of globe with network of connected dots in the space above it.

Regarding Endurance and the assertion that “…the best businesses are intrinsically aligned with the long-term interests of society,” my take is slightly different. The best businesses are always looking for trends and opportunities in an ever-changing global competitive landscape – as opposed to looking to their competitors and trying to ride on their coattails. Companies with a culture of fostering innovation as a way to learn and grow (Amazon and Google are two great examples) are able to find that intersection of “good business” and “positive societal impact.” It is much more complex than a simple one-dimensional outlook.

But, it was a good article to help reframe ideas and assumptions around growth.

Good Article on Being an Entrepreneur

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Nearly every morning I start the day out by reviewing news on business, technology, and finance / markets. Occasionally there is a general interest article that I stumble across. Today it was a short article about Curt Culver, Co-Founder of Culver’s restaurants.

There are several great points that seem like common sense in hindsight, but are often well out of focus during the “heat of the battle” as you are building your business. Mr. Culver touches several of them:

  1. The Importance of having the proper Work / Life Balance
    • For me personally, this was one of the toughest aspects of growing my business. I was working 100+ hours a week, traveling a minimum of 50% of the time, and was often “not there,” even when I was spending time with my family.
      • My habits also set the expectations for others on the team, and I later realized that this created some strife at home for them as well.
    • The turning point for me was when my youngest daughter, then 4 years old, was telling her twin brother and her older sister that, “Daddy really does love us, he just works all the time so that we can live here and have all of this stuff.” It was painful enough to hear that, but was a wake-up call about what is really important in life – people (especially family and friends), not “stuff.”
  2. The Need to Develop others on your Team
    • From past experiences I understood the need to hire the best people who you could afford – people with complementary skills (not just clones of yourself), and who were better than you in at least one aspect. That diversity added value while the similarities made it easier to “get on the same page” quickly. From there it was important to understand their goals and work together to on career planning early – something that adds value to both parties.
    • One of my goals around developing my team was to have everyone understand the big picture, and then empower them to make good decisions for the business. 
      • While most of this occurred, my goal was to have each and every person think and act like owners of the business. That level of engagement and accountability only happened with my most senior person, who was also my first hire and actually did own a small part of the company.
    • The moment when I recognized success was during a mission-critical ERP system upgrade for our largest customer – a multi-billion dollar semiconductor reseller. I sat-in on project and team meetings, reviewed reports, and asked a few questions, but that was it. It was a very proud and empowering moment for me.
      • The weekend of the pre-migration test I received a call telling me that everything had been successful and that the migration was going forward the next weekend.
      • The following weekend I received a nightly summary email, and on Sunday afternoon received a call telling me that the new system was operational and supporting production with ease.
  3. Culture
    • Mr. Culver states that, “Culture is all about people.” From my perspective that is mostly true, but there are other important dimensions of culture based on my experiences.
    • To me, the Cultural Identity of your company starts out as something aspirational, and later grows into the glue that bonds each and every member on your team. It helps bring out the best in everyone, including the camaraderie and support that comes from working with people who you like and trust.
      • There were two unexpected consequences of actively focusing on culture, which were:
        1. We quickly transformed into a High Performance Organization. Everyone pushed to continuously “raise the bar.” There was healthy competition between people, but each member of the team was there as a “safety net” for others. Having the team win was far more important that winning as an individual.
        2. New Hires that were not a good fit recognized that very quickly and usually quit within the first 2-3 weeks. I only had to terminate one person during the probationary period who wasn’t a good fit.
  4. Having a Support System
    • Mr. Culver addresses failure and the importance of family to help support you in times of need.
    • One of the biggest lessons learned for me personally was nothing that I did or accomplished with my company would have been possible without the support of my wife, children, parents and in-laws (the later two providing financial support during the early years in times of need).
      • With understanding comes humility.

These are lessons learned that can be applied to any size organization, and in my opinion are a great investment in the future growth, value, and longevity of your company.

Here is the link to the article referenced

Occam’s razor, our Maxima, and the Sage Mechanic

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My wife has a Nissan Maxima and loves her car. Over the past 9 months there has been a persistent but seemingly random problem where the radio is used for a few minutes while the car is off and then the battery dies when she goes to start the car. This has happened more than a dozen times over the past 3 1/2 years, and it has been seen by two dealerships a for a total of three times recently with no success – the most recent visit being one day before this problem occurred.

Saturday morning I was running errands when my wife called and let me know that this problem happened again (second time this week and she was very frustrated). I was pretty excited because this time the problem occurred at home, not at some parking lot like usual, so I had the luxury of time to try to make a root cause determination. I’m somewhat mechanical but certainly no professional, so I followed my own consulting advice and contacted a professional.

Dave T. is a mechanical guru, and has an uncanny ability to offer sage advice with only a modicum of information. He is an incredibly busy guy, but is always willing to spend a few minutes and give helpful advice. It helps that he is a great guy, but it also helps him generate business (leads and referrals). It is an approach that helps create a constant backlog of work and very loyal clientele, which is good business.

I called Dave, described the problem, mentioned what I had read on various forums (i.e., similar electrical problems observed after some arbitrary mileage). Next, I mentioned that this had just been to the dealership and they did not find anything wrong. Dave laughed, stated that, “There is a 99%+ likelihood that alternator is bad, and possibly both the alternator and battery.” He sounded very confident.

There was a pause, and then he asked, “What’s more likely – that there is some completely random problem that only happens when your wife is out and your son stays in the car and listens to music for a few minutes, which by the way only happens to Maximas after X number of miles, or that there are issues with the alternators where they tend to fail after a certain amount of use, which causes them not to charge the battery properly and leads to a condition where there is not enough of a charge to start the car?”

battery-cell-testing

When Dave explained it like that I felt kind of stupid, consoled only by the fact that other professional mechanics had not resolved the problem before me. He then added, “Anything that would be able to drain a battery within a few minutes would be noticeable. It would start a fire or melt wires, and smoke or smell as a result. You haven’t seen or smelled anything like that, have you?”

I described my plan to troubleshoot the problem, and Dave suggested that in addition I test the alternator and the specific gravity of the individual battery cells. So, in less than five minutes into that call I had a plan and was off and running.

alternator-test-shot

Yesterday afternoon I spent several hours using a very methodical approach to troubleshooting, documenting everything with pictures and videos to help me recall both details and sequence if needed. Sure enough, Dave’s knowledge and intuition led to the correct conclusion.

I gave him a call to thank him, and while talking I wondered aloud why the dealership could not figure this out? Dave replied, “It’s not that they couldn’t have done what you did, but instead they focused on the symptoms you described. The mechanic probably sat there for 10-15 minutes with the lights and radio on while the car was off. After that the car started so they assumed that everything was fine. I listened to what you said, ignored the randomness and speculation, and honed-in on the problem. The fact that this happened again so soon also made sense because now your battery was run down from the testing performed by the dealership.” He added, “In my business I get paid for results, so I can’t get away with taking the easy way out.” 

I’m big on lessons learned, wanting to make the most of each and every experience because I have learned that skills and knowledge are often very transferrable. As I thought about this I realized that Dave’s analysis was the perfect practical application of Occam’s razor. It’s a skill that is very helpful as a Consultant, but more importantly, it is something that can help when problem solving in any line of work. 

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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Picture of a Suzuki motorcycle

As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10, I spent one winter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ. Beginners luck?

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote, and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

Picture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design!

A few fruitless Google searches later I was more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. Salespeople would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi Electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create validation processes and a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration.

Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. Despite that, they expected immediate rewards and having their submissions rejected apparently created more frustration than incentive.

So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system, as well as how you could identify patterns to more quickly identify that type of activity. By the third month the system was trouble free.

It was a great learning experience from beginning to end. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives). This reflection also made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template.

We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and maximize performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with the technology used out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy.

  • My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell.
  • Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two.
  • People are willing to try things that they may not have if getting started would not have been so easy.

But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continuous improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 25, 50, or 100 years and see the full impact of emerging technologies, but my guess is that I will see many of the effects in my own lifetime.

Discussions that Seed the Roots of Creativity

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A few months ago I purchased Fitbit watches for my children and myself. My goals were twofold. First, I was hoping that they would motivate all of us to be more active. Second, I wanted to foster a sense of competition (including fair play and winning) within my children. Much of their pre-High School experiences focused on “participation,” as many schools feel that competition is bad. Unfortunately, competition is everywhere in life, so if don’t play to win you may not get the opportunity to play at all.

It is fun seeing them push to be the high achiever for the day, and to continually push themselves to do better week-by-week and month-by-month. I believe this creates a wonderful mindset that makes you want to do more, learn more, achieve more, and make an overall greater impact with everything they do. People who do that are also more interesting to spend time with, so that is a bonus.

Recently my 14 year-old son and I went for a long walk at night. It was a cold, windy, and fairly dark night. We live in fairly rural area so it is not uncommon to see and hear various wild animals on a 3-4 mile walk. I’m always looking for opportunities to teach my kids things in a way that is fun and memorable, and in a way that they don’t realize they are being taught. Retention of the concepts is very high when I am able to make it relevant to something we are doing.

That night we started talking about the wind. It was steady with occasional gusts, and at times it changed direction slightly. I pointed out the movement on bushes and taller grass on the side of the road. We discussed direction, and I told him to think about the wind like an invisible arrow, and then explained how those arrows traveled in straight lines or vectors until they met some other object. We discussed which object would “win,” and how the force of one object could impact another object. My plan was to discuss Newton’s three laws of motion.

My son asked if that is why airplanes sometimes appear to be flying at an angle but are going straight. He seemed to be grasping the concept. He then asked me if drones would be smart enough to make those adjustments, which quickly led to me discussing the use potential future of “intelligent” AI-based drones by the military. When he was 9 he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, but once he saw how much work that was he decided that he would rather be Transformer (which I explained was not a real thing). My plan was to use this example to discuss robotics and how you might program a robot to do various tasks, and then move to how it could learn from the past tasks and outcomes. I wanted him to logically break down the actions and think about managing complexity. But, no such luck that night.

His mind jumped to “Terminator” and “I, Robot.” I pointed out that Science Fiction does occasionally become Science Fact, which makes this type of discussion even more interesting. I also pointed out that there is spectrum between the best possible outcome – Utopia, and the worst possible outcome – Dystopia, and asked him what he thought could happen if machines could learn and become smarter on their own.

His response was that things would probably fall somewhere in the middle, but that there would be people at each end trying to pull the technology in their direction. That seemed like a very enlightened estimation. He asked me what I thought and I replied that I agreed with him. I then noted how some really intelligent guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are worried about the dystopian future and recently published a letter to express their concerns about potential pitfalls of AI (artificial intelligence). This is where the discussion became really interesting…

We discussed why you would want a program or a robot to learn and improve – so that it could continue to become better and more efficient, just like a person. We discussed good and bad, and how difficult it could be to control something that doesn’t have morals or understand social mores (which he felt if this robot was smart enough to learn on its own that it would also learn those things based on observations and interactions). That was an interesting perspective.

I told him about my discussions with his older sister, who wants to become a Physician, about how I believe that robotics, nanotechnology, and pharmacology will become the future of medicine. He and I took the logical next step and thought about a generic but intelligent medicine that identified and fixed problems independently, and then sent the data and lessons learned for others to learn from.

I’m sure that we will have an Internet of Things (IoT) discussion later, but for now I will tie this back to our discussion and Fitbit wearable technology.

After the walk I was thinking about what just happened, and was pleased because it seemed to spark some genuine interest in him. I’m always looking for that perfect recipe for innovation, but it is elusive and so far lacks repeatability. It may be possible to list many of the “ingredients” (intelligence, creativity, curiosity, confidence (to try and accept and learn from failure), multi-disciplinary experiences and expertise) and “measurements” (such as a mix of complementary skills, a mix of roles, and a special environment (i.e., strives to learn and improve, rewards both learning and success but doesn’t penalize failure, and creates a competitive environment that understands that in most cases the team is more important than any one individual)).

That type of environment is magical when you can create it, but it takes so much more than just having people and a place that seem to match the recipe. A critical “activation” component or two is missing. Things like curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, and a bit of fearlessness.

Salvador_Dali_Three_Sphinxes_of_Bikini
Salvador Dali’s “The Three Sphinxes of Bikini”

I tend to visualize things, so while I was thinking about this I pictured a tree with multiple “brains” (my mental image looked somewhat like broccoli) that had visible roots. Those roots were creative ideas that went off in various directions. Trees with more roots that were bigger and went deeper would stand out in a forest of regular trees.

Each major branch (brain/person) would have a certain degree of independence, but ultimately everything on the tree worked as a system. To me, this description makes so much more sense than the idea of a recipe, but it still doesn’t bring me closer to being able map the DNA of this imaginary tree.

At the end of our long walk it seemed that I probably learned as much as my son did. We made a connection that will likely lead to more walks and more discussions.

And in a strange way, I can thank the purchase of these Fitbit watches for being the motivation for an activity that led to this amazing discussion. From that perspective alone this was money well spent.