Organizations focus too much on results. Revenue growth, acquiring customers, shipping new product features…these are the obsessions of companies, but these are the wrong things to obsess about.
It was sometime in late 2010 and I was really down. I felt like a huge failure. I had been feeling like a failure for a while. The business grew well in 2009, but it was a sugar high. We were burning money and we didn’t actually have a defensible business model. Many of the people at the company cared more about themselves than each other or our customers. It was all bullshit.
We were focused on all the wrong things. I was trying to drive others in new directions by force of will. Nothing was collaborative about what we were doing. At that time it really couldn’t be because everyone was pulling in different directions and our company was being ripped apart by it. Our culture was shit and I wasn’t sure we could fix it. I felt the most to blame and I probably was. I was the CEO and I wasn’t sure I should be.
We had some things going for us. We had a massive install base of our free (open source) software. We had a few million in cash coming in annually from customers paying for a commercial version of our software, but we were flatlining. Things were not good and everyone at the company knew it. We were burning cash and we only had months of runway left.
We were rushing to get launched a new product and we were hurriedly trying to figure out how to sell it. This time we were smarter about focusing on the product-market fit, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t many people at the company who actually believed in what we were doing. Why would they? We were jettisoning our old business that they had believed in. We were launching a new product that wasn’t proven and we weren’t sure yet how to take it to market. While most of the team didn’t understand it yet, this new product was our only hope because the old business was failing fast.
We sat down over a beer and started talking. Just us two founders. It was Steve’s idea and he wanted to make sure that when we failed, because it seemed pretty likely, that we could look back on our last attempt, perhaps a final fit of energy before our demise, and have something for which we could be proud. That was a critical meeting because we hashed out a couple guiding principles that were instrumental. Also, it got me thinking.
I don’t waste energy outside of work on people I don’t love and respect. Why would I hire people at work that I didn’t love and respect? Solely based on the idea they had experience or skill that might help us achieve results? In a moment of clarity I realized we’d made a huge mistake.
We spend more time with the people we work with than we do with our families. Do the math. We had hired people for their skill and experience in spite of not being fond of their values. I recall discussing this with a friend of mine when I was hiring the first of these people.
“I guess I have to resign myself to working with some people I don’t really like as we grow the company. Is this just a hard truth I have to accept? Sometimes I’m going to hire d-bags?”
My friend didn’t work with me, but he was a lot more experienced than me and I valued his opinion. I still do. He’s been at big companies, I never have, and his response was: “Yup. Sometimes you just have to work with d-bags because they’re good for business; because they’ll deliver results”.
Nope. That was a mistake. I had been focused on results. We were building an engine powered by sugar. You know what happens after that sugar rush? You crash soon after. It’s like walls with no foundation. It will collapse in on itself and that’s exactly where we were. Crashing. A poorly constructed house that was collapsing in on itself.
If you want to build something that matters don’t focus on results. Results are an obsession that may offer short term gain, but it will all fall in on you soon enough. Maybe you jump out before it falls apart, like in a Ponzi scheme, but what you built won’t matter. This was when I finally learned that the most important and valuable thing to any organization is the people it employs and the culture that attracts and retains them. It’s these people that service your clients and craft your products.
If you want to build something that matters, focus on hiring people you love and respect and maintaining a culture that attracts and retains them. When you hire people you love and respect it’s easy to invest everything you can in them. When you focus on your people being successful in their careers they focus with the same vigor on the client.
Every company’s goal should be to max out the success of their clients. To scale your business you need a team and you’ve got to instill this goal in your team. If your focus is on making the people you pay, your team, successful in their careers then naturally they will focus on making the people who pay you, your clients, successful. This creates a virtuous cycle that makes your work mean something.
Do what’s right for your people and your clients above all else. Sometimes it’s hard — especially when you’re struggling. Keep the faith though because this is what makes life fulfilling and your success in the results department becomes inevitable.
We continuously optimize our lives for comfort, but should we? Growth is uncomfortable. It hurts.
Excellence, or greatness, in any endeavor is born from pain and suffering. So too is life.
Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”. The term may also mean “moral virtue”. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.
An undeniable truth of existence is that once one ceases to grow, one is dying.
Do you wish to strive for greatness and life? Or do you wish to strive for comfort?
You cannot have both.
Having a creed creates a center or compass. It provides a true north for your efforts. There’s no point in working hard unless you know what you’re working for.
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I had planned to take the kids camping this weekend. However, the weather report called for rain and I decided to audible. I tossed a dozen ideas to Ashby, my daughter, that ranged from boring to crazy. She caught something in the middle and we journeyed to Tijuana yesterday. I mentioned there were painted donkeys we could see–or as I referred to these: zedonks. These are donkeys painted to resemble zebras. However, I had another experience in mind.
Exploring new perspectives creates a richer life and more sound opinions. No, I’m not referring to the painted donkeys. Once while crossing the border, Tara and I discussed the blight and poverty along the border as an experience we would like our kids to witness. It’s an interesting perspective coming from our home in San Diego. It was with this in mind I suggested Tijuana. The experience seemed to have an impact on the kids. Specifically, they noticed the children in poverty at a level and scale they’re unaccustomed to seeing. We discussed this and our privilege. Of course, they also enjoyed the zedonks and our adventure in Tijuana too.
With another day left that we could have been camping I wanted another unusual experience. I was thrilled to learn that snow was falling above 5,000 feet. So, we drove to Mount Laguna, 45 minutes from home, to see big fluffy flakes of snow falling from the sky.
Upon my suggestion to drive to the snow this morning, Roe responded: “One day we randomly go to Mexico, the next day a random trip to the snow. You’re crazy daddy!” Indeed son, indeed.
I’ll admit it, it’s true. I stink at email. It will often take me days to respond to an email. Important topics tend to bubble up in conversations, texts or phone calls…so, email can wait. Also, most emails just resolve themselves with enough time.
Once, I received an email response from Matt Mullenweg six years after I emailed him. I told him that his response was six years late. He told me “better late than never”. I thought that was pretty funny.
Another time I responded to an email from Bjorg, my partner at MindTouch, five years later on behalf of my colleague Damien. Damien and I still laugh about the content of that email. Bjorg didn’t seem to think it was as amusing as we did.
I’ve been content thinking it’s ok to respond slowly to email for the last several years. People like Brad Feld, Ron Huddleston and other obviously busy people screw this up for me. These guys respond quickly. Brad in particular usually responds within the hour! I have no idea how he does this. God I love the guy, but damnit he makes me feel bad about how I respond to email.
The problem with email is that it will consume hours of my day. Hours I should spend on more productive activities. Therefore, I typically find myself plowing through email in the evenings and weekends in an effort to not expend too much of my work day. This fritters away my most productive time. This is the time I’m away from the office and working without distractions after my family has retired for the evening. Everything about this paragraph is just wrong. Read it again and you’ll understand what I mean.
When I’m cranking through email I respond to those that require less than two minutes immediately. Those that deserve, or require, more than two minutes get a response later. This last week I’ve begun to respond to this class of emails with a short acknowledgement that I’ve received the email and I’ll respond ASAP. Does this improve my email manners?
When I was a teen I was fascinated by the I-Ching. It seemed mystical and important to me. A few years ago I found my old copy of “The Book of Change” in a dusty box along with my copy of the Zohar and similar books. At that moment I dismissed it as another silly mythology. Something that was probably useful thousands of years ago for imparting sage lessons or for Shaman to hold power over their flock.
As it turns out, the I-Ching is far more important than I thought it to be even as a naive and impressionable kid with a penchant for Asian philosophy and religion. Today while re-reading “You’re It” by Alan Watts I learned, Leibniz refined and popularized the binary number system because he was inspired by the I-Ching. I’m not sure how I missed this on my last reading ten+ years ago. This means that the yin and yang is at the very heart of the digital computer. I’ve always thought this about binary–the yin and yang as bits–but I did not know there is a literal connection.
In case you don’t idolize certain mathematicians like I do, allow me to make clear Leibniz sits on a very tall tower in the world of mathematics. As it turns out, Leibniz was a Sinophile and in his papers he makes reference to the I-Ching.
Leibniz > Boole > Shannon > Stibitz
This reminds me of something one of my college math professors said to me: “everything the white man thinks he invented was invented by the Chinese 2,000 years earlier.”
Today I asked the family who they would select if they could have lunch with anyone alive or dead. Other than Tara’s response there weren’t any real surprises here.
Ashby: Taylor Swift
Roe: a secret agent spy man or ninja
Tara: Johnny Depp.
Me: I went with the obvious and cliched Jesus. It was a toss up between him and Bodhidharma, but I figured Jesus could clear up a lot of questions for modern people about the Abrahamic religions.
What’s with the photo? Oh yeah, that’s Ashby after being whipped by Roe’s goggles. Sigh…
While putting Roe to bed I told him: “Stop eating your fingernails. It’s gross and you’ll get worms.”
I realize this is nonsense, but I’ve been trying to get my six year old to stop biting his nails and this scared me as a child when my Great Grandmother “Mango” told me it at about the same age Roe is currently.
Roe: “How would I get worms?”
Me: “Worm eggs.”
Roe: “Worms don’t lay eggs.”
Me: “Hard to argue with that.”
Roe returns to biting his nails while I read his book.
For the record, worms lay cocoons not eggs.