We do startups because we can’t not do startups.

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathoov/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathoov/

This essay is written in collaboration with Startup Edition – find this week’s essays here.

The startup life seems glamorous from afar, and sometimes from up close. There are rebels, pirates, and ninjas here. There are rags-to-riches stories and others who fall from grace after flying too close to the sun. In short, there are all of the archetypes you wish to see in the startup world. So how do you get a job here?

The short version of this answer is: we do startups because we can’t not do startups. Startups are the fastest way to level up personally and professionally. Startups make powerful friendships and lifetime bonds among teammates. And startups are a place where people do amazing things and learn how to do things they’ve never done before.

Startups are also emotional roller coasters that demand the routine of a monk to fight the continual randomness of change. Startups give you the opportunity to make bigger mistakes than you’ve ever made before. And startups are the place where you can’t hide behind a meeting or a title to avoid doing work. You must own your problems, and your successes.

So, Why should you work for a startup?

You should work for a startup if you like challenges. You should work for a startup if you like the idea of lifelong learning. You should work for a startup if you’re a person who is resilient and doesn’t want to know what they are going to do day after day. And you should work for a startup if you want to push yourself to do more than you ever thought possible and only realize it when you look back and see what’s happened.

Ok, I’m good – how do I get started?

Startups need doers. They also need people who can seamlessly shift between strategy and tactics. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves and do whatever is necessary to ship your product, make your launch date, and finish your code. You also need to remember that you have a life – and to make space for yourself and the things that you believe it – or you will be consumed rather than tempered in the startup fire.

Start by doing, and with a beginner’s mind. That doesn’t mean that you need to do things at a beginner’s level, but rather to find the thing you know and can do better than anyone else. Now, find a way to present that skill as a benefit for a business. Next, find the business that need that benefit.

Finally, never think that you’re done learning. We’re all wired to think that life is static. In fact, there’s change happening all of the time. So if you want to survive in startups – and elsewhere – you need to be resilient and practice improving the way you respond to change.

This essay is written in collaboration with Startup Edition – find this week’s essays here.


What tools and skills do you value in your startup?

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mondayne/8090010193
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mondayne/8090010193

This post is a contribution to Startup Edition.

Tools are a Commodity

We could talk all day about the tools we use. Agile is Best! Pomodoro is Best! Pen and Paper is Best! Getting everyone in a room is Best! (You get the idea.) Because everything in a startup changes ALL THE TIME, it’s also important to consider the conceptual tools you should be using in your startup.

You might pronounce them as Empathy, Resilience, Learning, and Persistence. Doubtless there are other conceptual tools that people find useful and beneficial, but these are the ones I use most often.

What should you reinforce?

Empathy means understanding what it feels like when you are a customer. It also means literally walking a mile in the customer’s shoes. If you are not shaking your fist at the screen when your code does something stupid that customers experience every day, you are not modeling empathy. To get more empathy, stop being a smarty-pants startup person, and think more like a customer. (And get out of the building.)

Resilience is the ability to rebound when bad stuff happens. Because startups do not act according to Standard Operating Procedure. If you are resilient you’ll be better able to pick new paths, to take care of yourself and your teammates, and to invent new ways of solving problems in the course of doing business. You also won’t really know that you’re being resilient until you look back and see the obstacles you’ve overcome. So trust in yourself, do the right thing for you and for your teammates and the people you care about, and you’ll get more resilient. You can always have more work and money. You cannot have more time with the people you care about and you cannot get your bad decisions back. Embrace sunk costs and don’t let them become an anchor that prevents change.

Learning is the most important tool you can use in a startup and generally in life. Learning ensures that you can test ideas and decide when they are wrong and when they are right. Learning also gives you the ability to adapt to a new environment and add new skills. And learning changes you without you even realizing it. So you should keep on learning everywhere. I keep a stack of books on my bedside table and read one or two books per week.

Persistence is the glue that allows you to respond when you are not feeling empathetic, when you are not very resilient, and when you feel that the learning you should be doing is stalled. Persistence is getting up in the morning and understanding the 20% of the work that you absolutely must do that will deliver 80% of the reward. When you are persistent, you are doing the hard practice that makes many other things possible. And when you can’t be persistent (this happens too) you should embrace the sunk cost and go outside. Meet people. Exercise. And above all, embrace the Cult of Done. Perfect is the enemy of Done.

Why Focus on Portable Tools?

Why are these the tools that I use in a startup? I use these tools because they are portable, I can share them with other people, and they are additive. There are many tools and services that people could be using in their startups, and they are all dependent upon the people in these startups to use them well. Start with the tools that reinforce empathy, resilience, learning, and persistence and your startup will prosper.

This post is a contribution to Startup Edition.

“Spot it, got it!” – Begin with the answer in mind

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/edgeplot

This is the 11th in a series of posts on Agile Marketing – the working definition of which is to “Create, communicate and deliver unique value to an always-changing consumer (or business) in an always-changing market with an always-changing product.” (See the the original post here.) One of the main tenets of the Agile philosophy is the idea of knocking down barriers that exist around the project – and that the knocking down of barriers alone can often be the difference between an unsuccessful project and a successful one. You can get better at identfying and removing barriers by adopting a mindset affectionately nicknamed “spot it, got it.”

“Spot it, got it” – begin with the Answer in Mind

Quick – what’s the difference between a successful team and one that flounders when faced with a challenge? It’s likely that the successful team contains people with a “spot it, got it” mentality who are willing to identify the tasks that need to get done, determine what needs to be done to solve them, and then just knocks those tasks out. Notice that I didn’t say “the best team” but “a successful team.” It’s hard to know what the best team is going to be before they become the best team, but a successful team has a good shot at being “the best team”

What does it mean to “spot it, got it”? Let’s start by thinking about what it doesn’t mean. “Spot it, got it” doesn’t mean pointing out all of the problems that the team has and never will have time to solve. It also doesn’t mean dumping the laundry list on your boss’s doorstep without a solution. And “spot it, got it” doesn’t mean pointing out a problem and then stepping away.

“Spot it, got it” means making yourself a valuable member of the successful team by identifying an issue, clarifying what it means and how important it is to solve, and then proposing a solution for the issue. If nobody responds, then Just Do It and let people know what you did and why. You might get yelled at but – as my ex-military friends often say – it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Identify some barrier, explain to the team why you’re knocking them down, and then go and do it and you’ve created a blueprint for everyone on the team to be the CEO of their own job.

“Spot it, got it” also means clearing the decks for the rest of your team by clearly communicating ownership and resolution of an issue. If you reassure your teammate that you are going to solve her problem, it’s also your responsibility to go do it and to tell her at the appointed time that you are ready to deliver what you promised. And there’s an important corollary here: sometimes you can’t just do it. So when you hit roadblocks you’ll do much better if you inform your co-workers and your boss that you need help. The daily scrum (if you run one of these) is a great place to say what you’re doing, what you’ve done, and where you need help. And a phone call or IM to your team can also uncover the help you need.

What’s the takeaway for the “Spot it, got it” idea? You can make life better for your team by suggesting a solution, not just pointing out a problem. Your guess is as good as anyone’e on the team, and provides a “straw answer” for everyone else to test. So get cracking – find the things that bug you about your workflow and the work you’re doing, propose and broadcast a solution, JFDI, and then tell people you did it. You’ll be happy you did.

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