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The Important And Valuable Stuff

February 1, 2016

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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