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A startup is a constant struggle for existence. Every day you face new challenges to the very survival of the company whether it be customers leaving, missed launch dates, hackers extorting you, dwindling cash, key employees leaving, or regulators passing new laws to shut you down.

Survival normally trumps all other considerations in the animal kingdom but perhaps what makes humans unique is moral reasoning and rational thought. Now, people obviously still do a lot to survive and who knows what anyone will do in a desperate situation, but it’s interesting to think about how a group of people put in a situation of moral conflict balances their firm’s survival and the consequences of poor decisions. I can see the arguments for survival at all (legal) costs, but it’s perhaps more interesting to think about the cases where it isn’t absolute live or die but rather thrive or starve. 

Here is an example:

Elon Musk said he lost a multi-billion-dollar contract when SpaceX didn’t hire an Air Force official. That corrupt individual then ended up giving the contract to the competing firm and went to go work for that firm. I can believe that happened because I see it all the time. PaperG has been offered on two different occasions to hire a key decision maker behind a potential multi-million dollar contract and when we didn’t, the deal went to someone else. These contracts could have ensured the survival, if not success of the respective companies for some time.

Now, is it illegal to hire that person? Possibly for the case of SpaceX since that person is in public office, but for many other private players it isn’t. I wouldn’t because my thinking is that if you end up hiring someone in that situation even if he/she is qualified, everyone else in the organization will question the judgment and realize that positions are rewarded based on leverage and benefit to the firm rather than the merits of the individual. It can quickly destroy the whole culture of the company and demoralize individuals who want to work their way up. It also puts someone in your organization who clearly disregards the organization’s interests relative to his or her own.

That said, I can see how a firm reaches such a decision to hire an individual. Is it wrong? If you believe you have the best product already and just want to make sure the right decision is reached, I can see how a person might rationalize that it would be okay. But what are the downstream impacts? Do you want to normalize for your team the idea that agents can act at odds with their organization? 

It’s all icky. It’s all messy. That’s why it’s a dilemma and so interesting. It’s why startup life is interesting to me. 

In some ways, grasping at these issues makes me think that sometimes to be a leader of a startup you in fact need to have strong values and thought out positions and not simply a great innovator. It makes me think that Steve Job may be right that “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” 

You can certainly have a financially successful company that not only survives but thrives by ignoring values but it’s hard to say it’s a place that people will be overjoyed to be part of or doing business with. In the end, what are you trying to make? money? or a better place in the world? or the world a better place? Your goal likely will determine your ideals.

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I often get asked for help by recent grads looking to break into the tech world. They come from technical and non-technical backgrounds but don’t have any context of where they should begin. I generally recommend these folks join companies well past the Series A funding (where startups have raised $3MM+ or have 25+ people) which are entering “growth stage” typically associated with (Series B-C) rounds. Seed stage (some capital in or <25 people) or companies that just raised their Series A are just too early. Here’s my reasoning:

1. Most people looking for jobs and not making jobs don’t have enough initiative to thrive in seed stage startups.

They generally want something fast paced compared to the corporate world but they aren’t really ready to be left alone and expected to just deliver results. At the seed stage, no one really has the time to explain things to you since they may be figuring things out too or they are too resource strapped to add another to-do their list. 

2. Most recent grads still want some level of stability but are willing to take some risks

Recent grads rarely have the financial security to work for nothing but they want to have the chance to make a lot. Mid-stage startups approaching Series B or C are more proven opportunities with plenty of upside left. They also aren’t going anywhere so the grads don’t have to worry about being out of a job in a year.

3. Most recent grads want to wide exposure

They don’t know yet what they’re capable of or will enjoy so they want to try a lot of things. Unless you join a huge multinational company with a rotational program, you don’t have much opportunity as companies get bigger to try a lot of things and have a lot of responsibilities. You start specializing quickly at larger entities, generally post Series C or pre-IPO (120+ employees). Companies post Series A but pre Series C are in the sweet spot because so much still needs to get done and there just aren’t enough people to do it all so you can just step up or volunteer.

I also may be biased since I’m running such a company transitioning to growth stage and we’ve been hiring a lot of new talent. However, I do think when we hired young talent in our seed stage, we may have been a little bit early to best utilize them and I’ve seen many recent grads end up being poor fits for startups that are too early. If you’re a recent grad hungry for opportunity, I encourage you to apply to PaperG.

 

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I recently came across this anecdote about how 1% marginal gains add up:

In 2010, Dave Brailsford faced a tough job.

No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, but as the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team), that’s what Brailsford was asked to do.

His approach was simple.

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as the “1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

In 2012, Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. That same year, Brailsford coached the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games and dominated the competition by winning 70 percent of the gold medals available.

The story and graph illustrates a simple but powerful point — success or failure isn’t a single event but an accumulation of small gains and losses. It reminds me of my favorite Al Pacino’s monologue as a football coach on how we fight for those inches to win:  

To win as a startup team or sports team, those inches or 1% gains are what will make the difference between winning or losing. 

Recently traveling through Bali, Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I was reminded why we travel:

When you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example, where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet and a “one world order” grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.

Traveling reminds me of how technology transforms how we experience life (how much more convenient or safe it can make it) but also how technology can subtract or at least disintermediate us from our experiences. I forget that much of the world isn’t a beautiful Instagram-worthy picture and at the same time, much of the world doesn’t need a filter to be enjoyed. 

Even if the Internet is available in places I visit, how people largely use it and interact with it can be completely different. I didn’t see any local instagramming photos but instead they were largely using it to sell their services to global consumers. For some in the world, the Internet is more recreation and leisure and for others it’s more work and opportunity.

In the same sense of how one piece of technology can be viewed so differently, several other objects stood out in my travels:

  • motorcycles and bicycles are rare and almost leisure modes of transportation in developed countries but common and necessary for most people in developing countries
  • GPS navigation is seen as accurate in developed countries thanks to postal address systems but seen as useless compared to landmark navigation in developing countries 

These differences reminds me every time I travel what a friend once wrote:

I cannot help but wonder: If even our perception of a common bicycle can differ so dramatically, then how differently must we perceive more complex issues? This gives me a greater appreciation of the difficulties that must be overcome in getting people to come together to solve larger problems such as pollution, poverty, energy, and peace. 

A passport really can be a diploma in understanding the world.

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