Archive for Human Resources

Activity does not always equal Accomplishment

Never confuse Activty 
By Tom Fedro
 
John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach of all time, said it best, “Never confuse Activity with Accomplishment.” One of the most difficult aspects of managing a start-up company is dealing with the excitement level of the new venture and essentially reining in the tendency to believe that constant activity for activity’s sake is critical at all times. 18 years ago, led by an almost euphoric market and the ability to tack “dot com” at the end of anything, one could watch stock prices soar as investment capital flew in and companies filled giant break rooms with ping pong tables, arcades, snack bars, and more. Everything was exciting and fun, but in many cases the activity wasn’t anything approaching good business. (This isn’t to say that amenities for employees can’t help attract and keep good staff, it just illustrates the frenetic pace of business in emerging markets.) A few years later, the tech “bubble” imploded, and the net result was a great loss of shareholder value, layoffs, and paper millionaires realizing they had non-paper debts.

Technology itself has enabled a single person to create a great deal. In the time it takes me to write and post these words, I will likely have also checked my email, sent correspondence via instant messaging, and arranged travel for a business conference. If the average businessperson accurately listed the tasks undergone in a particular day, the results would be surprising. At first glance, the sheer number of items completed will tend to create a sense of accomplishment. Who wouldn’t be proud of checking off thirty or forty items on a list? Dig a little deeper, though. Take a look at the tasks and determine which of them actually resulted in a benefit to the company? How many of them helped to fill a day but really meant less to the success of the venture than the time spent with them?

Now, multiply that activity by the number of employees working for you. There are certainly hundreds of activities happening every day that likely don’t offer anything in the way of accomplishment. This doesn’t mean your employees are bad or shirking duties. They probably go to bed at night just as tired and just as overworked as you do. It does mean, however, that every employee ought to learn what tasks impact the company. For example, I have known salespersons who spend hours “preparing” to make phone calls and others who stay on the phone constantly but somehow can’t consistently close business. I’ve known programmers who can write beautiful code but spend their time on features that have little benefit. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of management to take the best efforts of the employees and ensure that they are directed properly for maximum effect, to turn the activity into real accomplishment.

How much of what your company does is just activity?

The Value of Minor Failure

Value of Failure Oops

By Tom Fedro

Innovation is risky business.  Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be, “Innovation is messy.”  We come up with theoretical ideas we believe are brilliant and hold onto them, doing everything we can to transform the world until our brilliant idea is the standard.  Far too many of us hold to our idea no matter what the market or the industry tells us in response.

Mark Otero, the co-founder of KlickNation had a different idea.  He quit his job, cashed in on his retirement, sold his house, and opened a yogurt shop.  The frozen yogurt kept him alive while every dime of profit and every spare moment went into programming mobile game aps.  It seemed to do well for a while, but after thirty products and shrinking revenues, he had to change tack altogether. So, after thirty games that didn’t take off, he made game number thirty-one, this time for facebook.

By the end of 2009, Superhero City pulled in $5000 per day and KlickNation was an unmitigated success.  Then came a multimillion dollar deal with NBC Universal.  After that, a $35 million dollar sale to Electronic Arts.  Now, he heads up EA’s BioWare Social division.

What strikes me as truly brilliant is the way Otero responded to failure with adjustment and business plan modification.  He said in a presentation to the alumni department of his alma mater, UC Davis, “When you have thirty failures, you are either a madman or you are onto something.”  Is it any wonder, with that attitude, that he’s succeeded?

The idea of learning from failure isn’t new, but almost all that’s written on the subject focuses on catastrophic failures from which a battered entrepreneur pulls himself up to brush off his clothes and face another day with dreams intact.  Otero’s measured approach to regular postulating, testing, adjusting, and starting all over again isn’t about overcoming obstacles.  It’s about good business.  I recently wrote a post about my faith in the Shewhart Cycle and the impact of hypothesis testing in business.  Perhaps there’s no clearer example of a technology startup that followed that path to success than KlickNation.

What are you doing?  Are you actively testing assumptions and learning from minor failures?  Are you putting any of your assumptions to the test at all?  Do repeated failures crush your spirit or do they drive you to create new assumptions, new tests, and new paths?

Nobel Prize Winning Advice

Nobel Prize

William Faulkner, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature said this when interviewed by the Paris Review:

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.

It’s interesting to look at a quote from William Faulkner and think about it in terms of technology startups, but bear with me a moment.  I’ve been involved in multiple startups, and the one thing never lacking is advice.  I should rephrase that.  The one thing never lacking is advice filled with criticism and warning.  The business sections of bookstores are filled with it and filled with “revolutionary” solutions to every problem and issue one could face in business.

Before you get ready to leave me angry comments that we’re not writers in the technology startup world, I recognize that.  However, I think there are parallels that can be drawn.  I really want to focus on the part that begins with “Teach yourself…”  I think the one quality I find in all successful entrepreneurs is an absolute refusal to believe in the possibility of ultimate failure.  They recognize there will be minor failures along the way, but they refuse to believe those minor failures indicate the overall failure of the concept or the plan.  On the contrary, their mistakes are worn like a badge commemorating experiences that will lead to eventual success.

I’m not against receiving or asking for advice, and I think that’s probably the difference between being a writer and a businessman, but I have to confess to that supreme vanity Faulkner discusses.  What is more vain than believing you can take a business concept and turn it into profit?  What is more vain than believing your product can revolutionize an industry?  What is more vain than believing your grand plan will succeed where thousands before you have failed?

I suppose what it comes down to is one simple fact.  Entrepreneurialism requires at its very core a bit of a willful (to use a literary term) suspension of disbelief.  We take our doubts and those expressed by others  and drive them deep below the surface.  Sure, they’re there, but we act as though they aren’t and drive forward to make our dreams reality.

The Life Factor

worklife

By Tom Fedro

It’s amazing how crazy the world of startup development can sometimes get.  I think about it sometimes.  We live our lives trying desperately to create something so that we…well, so that we can begin living our lives.  I think about it often.  Are we putting the cart before the horse?  Are we counting our chickens before they hatch?  One of the advantages of this new economy is that we can tailor our world, in an entrepreneurial sense,  to the life we want. We spend so much time working for our future that we forget we have choices in the meantime.

I’m a fan of Michael Wolfe.  He describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and has had tremendous success building businesses over the past 15 years with several highly profitable exits.  What I find amazing is his ability to manage living a life with building companies.  He wrote an interesting blog piece about staying in shape while working long hours and has for a long time maintained that while a startup will consume a great deal of your life, it ought not consume all of your life.

It’s not really all that out of the box in terms of philosophy.  In fact, the term workaholic was created as a kind of a warning in this area.   However, we in the world of entrepreneurialism tend to idolize the men and women who work nineteen hour days every day and watch their relationships, their health, and their social lives disappear in the process.  Add to that mix the fact than almost every startup fails.  This advice comes from a man who’s successfully built five.

This Wolfe guy competes in Triathlons at world class times, Ultra-distance running, Biking etc…Okay, so are we looking at a man who’s already achieved the success that allows him to live?  I don’t believe so.  From the outset, Wolfe suggested the key to a startup wasn’t sacrificing your life but designing the business around the life you want to lead.   His advice?  “Pick where you want to live and the people you want to hang out with first.  Then find a career that lets you do that.” Very good advice and his thoughts on working out in the morning to make sure you are consistent – I am now a believer!

How are you balancing your life with your dream?