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Be a Founder

Be a founder, even if you’re not the one who started the company. Do not be an employee. Why? Being a founder creates a more fulfilled work life for you and turns you into a high performer.

What do I mean by being a founder? It means you take ownership of your role. Do not just do what you’re told, but rather understand why you’re doing your work and why it matters to the organization. How is your impact being measured? Why is that important? What board-level initiative are you advancing? Understand the challenge or opportunity your work is addressing. If you understand this, then you can inform the solution you are delivering.

An employee shows up and does what she’s told. She doesn’t take the time to understand how her work advances the mission. She does her assignment and waits for the next. An employee is a victim of circumstance. An employee owns nothing and optimizes for minimal accountability. “I did what I was told.”

How many times have you witnessed an employee complete a project to the letter requested and completely miss the intent of the mission? A founder would never do this because founders take ownership.

There are two types of people. Those who float at sea and those who swim toward a goal. Obviously, the founder is in the latter group. Swimming toward a goal while always course correcting for the water’s currents.

How to be a founder:

  1. Choose to be one.
  2. Act like it.

How do you know that you’re acting as a founder?

You know the mission, your “managers intent,” and you’re actively tuning your actions to maximize impact.

You care less about what your work colleagues think about your importance and more about the impact you have on the mission.

You understand how your efforts compliment and fit with others, even those in other departments and teams.

You take risks and fail more than the employees.

Being a boring success

I met Ed Viesturs, heard him speak, and had dinner with him. Ed summited Everest seven times (eleven attempts). He’s an incredible human who climbed the world’s fourteen tallest mountains — all over 8,000 meters, or 26,000 feet. He also created the highest grossing IMAX film in history ($300M). If you’ve read “Into Thin Air”, you know Ed. He also has several great books of his own.

Ed approached his expeditions as an exercise in risk management. He was hyper-focused and passionate about the process of climbing the mountain and getting back down. He learned that his successes were a “boring success” because he was able to consistently perform without tragedy and drama due to his focus on planning, preparation, and an ego-free approach to the expedition. When the conditions did not permit summiting, he didn’t perceive it as a failure. Failure was dying. He says: “it’s not a failure; it’s a non-success.” Where can you apply this concept in your life? Your business? Try it, it will liberate you.

Ed summited K2 with Scott Fisher and climbed with Rob Hall. Ed has accomplished what only five other people in the world have achieved (the fourteen tallest peaks), and he did this without supplemental oxygen! Ed racked up a more consistent record (two-thirds success rate compared to one out five) than the average mountain climber. However, because he has been a “boring success” story free of tragedy and drama, he’s lesser known. He’s what Brad Feld has called a “Silent Killer“.

Would you rather be a “boring success” or a well-known tragedy? I know which I prefer and this informs how I approach business and life.

Ed’s approach reminds me of a core value I hold dear: zanshin. James Clear does a terrific job explaining this Zen Buddhist concept, and I recommend the book “Zen in the Art of Archery“. Also, here’s a great summary of Zanshin: http://www.zen-buddhism.net/zen-concepts/zanshin.html 

Another inspiring statement Ed shared that pierced me to my core was:

“Impossible is good an excuse not to try. Think ‘barely possible’.”

Man, I love this guy!

I want to thank Eric Otterson of Silicon Valley Bank for organizing this event and dinner. Eric might be the most connected, and influential people in the tech industry in San Diego and SoCal. He’s also a great human.

Finally, here are choice quotes from Ed that I jotted down because they were just too good to forget. Ed, forgive me if I’ve inadvertently reworded some of these.

Don’t let ego or sunk costs kill you.

Summiting is only half the journey. #zanshin

People who succeed are those willing to pay the currency of toil.

It’s mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Plan. Prepare. Do it well. Do it without ego. It’s what I call boring success.

If you don’t want to try something, impossible is a good excuse. We thought barely impossible.

Once you and your team make a decision, stick with it. Don’t be influenced by others’ group think.

Patience pays off.

Listen to the mountain.

The number one ingredient for success is passion. Because then you’re willing to be patient, persistent, and suffer.

Don’t regret your decisions. You can’t change it; so, there is no point in regretting.

It’s not a failure; it’s a non-success.

Talent is Bullsh** and You’re not Special

NO TALENT

There’s no talent here, this is hard work

Americans believe too much in talent. We are the “Michael Jordan Generation”. People think Jordan was inherently talented, but what most don’t realize is that Jordan simply WORKED HARDER than anyone else. Everyone is looking for an excuse or a shortcut.

Of course she’s better at that than me, it’s “genetics” or raw talent. The flipside of that coin is: I’m inherently talented, reward me because I showed up and wrote some sh** on the whiteboard.

Bullsh**. They’re better than you because they worked harder than you. It’s tough to realize you’re not special, I know, but it’s true. Moreover, just showing up and thinking you’re talented doesn’t earn you a ribbon. You have to actually work. And if you want a ribbon, you have to work harder than anyone else.

Ideas and “whiteboarding” aren’t work. That’s direction finding. Thinking about a route west is not the same thing as pioneering a path through the wilds to the goldfields of California. You have to actually put in the work and take the risks. You have to actually make the arduous journey. And when you arrive, you’ve just begun. That’s when the real work begins.

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Two books that will change how you think about humans and the world

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I love to read. Mostly I use Audible.com because my travel and exercise schedule make it easy for me to squeeze in as many books as possible. Every year I have a couple stand out books that I enjoy gifting to key advisors and mentors as a token of my gratitude for their help and advice over the year. 2015 was a great year for reading and there were so many great books that I had a tough time making my selection. While there were many stand-outs last year the two that topped my list were:

Excellent reads! Both were mind bending. These books changed how I think about human nature, the nature of “progress” and the macroeconomics of business empires.

Here are some other great books from last year that stand out in my memory:

I hope you enjoy the reads. Please let me know your best reads of 2015 too.

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The Important And Valuable Stuff

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.

Aaron Fulkerson in 2010We 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.

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Don’t get comfortable

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 (Greekἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.[1] The term may also mean “moral virtue”.[1] 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.

Have a creed

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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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A New WordPress

Oh my. It’s a new WordPress with OSX app. Hello World!

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Aaron Fulkerson

Happy Summer.

From Tijuana to Mount Laguna

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.

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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.