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Stay Away from Workaholics

workaholicI find writing this post a bit ironic and I am, without a doubt, a workaholic. Between the rapid growth of KidoZen, leading the strategy side of TelIago and some third-party projects I work around 16 hours during weekdays and another 8-10 hours during the weekend. I don’t complain about it. I have the privilege to be at a point in my life on which I enjoy what I am doing more than at any other time in my career and I am convinced that it takes that kind of effort to make a difference in this highly competitive market.

Having said that, I tried very hard to not encourage that type of behavior within our team. At KidoZen, our teams work fairly regular 8-10 hour days and although, occasionally, we end up putting insane hours at the end of each release cycle, we never encourage or reward that type of behavior. At this point in my career, as I am convinced most workaholics are damaging to the team dynamics.

My reasoning here is very simple: If you are going to regularly work insane hours you need a structure to sustain that rhythm and most people don’t even think about. I can work long hours because I meticulously divide my focus during the day on different aspects that help keep me fresh. Contrary to that thinking, I found that most workaholic behaviors are completely triggered as a continuous and disproportioned response to short-term needs with little strategy or structure around it.

Here are some of the reasons why, I think, you should stay away from workaholics:

  • Workaholism is contagious: When someone regularly work insane hours to accelerate certain delivery, their colleagues feel compelled to do the same even if they are not equipped to do so
  • Competitiveness: Related to the previous point, workaholism indirectly foment a level of competitiveness within a team that can be detrimental to the long term goals of a specific project.
  • Long term performance degradation: Unless you take the time to structure a method that allows you to regularly work long hours, your performance will degrade over time as an inevitable consequence of exhaustion.
  • Burnout factor: Being burnout as a consequence of working long hours ends of affecting the overall performance and attitude of the team.
  • Short-term focus: If you are constantly burning hours focusing on short term objectives, it becomes really hard to keep thinking and contributing to the long term strategic vision of a product or company.
  • Working hard for the wrong reasons: Ultimately, I can live with workaholics as long as they are driven for the right reasons but I found out that, more often than not, you encounter people whose only objective with working long hours is not passion or motivation but a selfish desire to score some points with their management team.

Those are just some of the elements why I fundamentally try to not encourage workaholic-type behaviors within our team. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about it. More about this topic in a future post….

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Is Your Market Position Defensible?

This is a hard but necessary question every founder should think hard about. We all create products that we think are fairly innovative and better than the competition. However, if you are playing in a big market, you are likely to face competitors with stronger financial resources that will be going after your same customer base. In those situations, a startup has to understand the different strategies to defend its market position. Even though you might think that you can always out-innovate your competitors, that’s can rarely be consider a strategy to defend your value proposition

Based on the characteristics of your product and market, there might be different product sustainability models that can be consider to create a defensive and solid market position

IP

IP-based sustainability is the most traditional product sustainability model. If your product provides a very unique IP that is relevant to your customers and target market, that could translate into a very solid market position that will make it hard for your competitors to capture. Contrary to what you might think, IP-based sustainability is really hard to achieve in big markets.

Strong Alliances

Establishing strong strategic alliances and partnerships could result in a very clear product sustainability strategy. A healthy partner ecosystem will not only help to improve your product market presence but it will also make it harder for your other companies to compete in the space.

Stickiness

Is your product or service is able to retain customers once they purchase it? Are they able to switch to a different solution without a significant investment? Sticky solutions with high customer retention levels are more defensible in the long term that solutions without those characteristics.

Solid Exit Strategy

Even If you are not thinking in a short term exit you need to accordingly determine the potential exit strategies for your product and company. Understanding the exit dynamic is important in case you can’t sustain your competitive advantage as a standalone company.

What do you think? What else makes the position product or startup defensible?

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Experts Are Experts Because They Can Advise Not Because They Can Create

Last week I was chatting with a good friend that is working in a super cool idea in a very challenging industry. As a great developer, my friend tends to initially look at problems from the technical standpoint. However, in this case, he has been smart enough to search for advice of different experts in the domain he is targeting. Even though the idea seems to have great potential, my friend was a bit concerned about how to proceed in case the feedback from the experts wasn’t that positive.

After listening to his argument and convinced of the technical quality and disruptive nature of the product I gave him a very simple advice: keep listening to as many experts as you can, do as much market research as you can but know that, at the end, you might be in a position on which you have to ignore the expert advice and pursue your dream. My reasoning here is very simple; experts are experts because they can advise but not necessarily because they can create.

By definition, if someone has developed a great level of expertise in a particular domain it means that they have been able to acquire a large amount of knowledge in the current stage of that domain. That level of insight in a specific domain can sometimes become the greatest obstacle when comes to envision disruptive solutions in that same space. Think about it, Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly an expert in the music industry, Dropbox’s creator Drew Houston didn’t have any background on building large scalable synchronization systems and Elon Musk hadn’t built any cars before he created Tesla.

Domain experts can certainly become disruptors in a specific space but, to do so, they need to rely on different qualities not necessarily related to their expertise. While knowledge and expertise is certainly required, disrupting a specific domain requires the ability of looking at a problem from brand new perspectives and a strong perseverance to believe that the current solutions in the space, those that are recommended by the experts, are NOT GOOD ENOUGH. In that sense, you can see why these characteristics can, most of the time, don’t go hand-in-hand with subject-matter expertise.

If you are working on a disruptive idea on a new field and are looking for validation from domain experts, my suggestion would be to use the expert-advice to improve and adapt your idea to better address the market/domain. However, I would also recommend to never let the advice of experts be the determining factor on whether you decide to pursue a disruptive idea or not. If experts can understand and feel comfortable with your disruptive idea then, by definition, it might not be that disruptive ;)

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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How Much Focus is Enough Focus?

Focus is one of the most important characteristics of successful founders and companies. The ability to stay focused despite the constant distractions of the startup life can very well make the difference between success and failure in a startup. Steve Jobs’ famous “Focus is about saying no” quote has set the tone for every founder that aspires to do remarkable things in life. As a founder, you are constantly reminded by advisors, , investors and even customers about the importance of staying focus on your product in order to achieve success.

However, lately I have been questioning the right level of focus that, as a founder CEO, you need to devote to a specific product or idea.

Here is my reasoning….

I put quite a big deal of effort on making sure my team stays focused every day on the task at hand. I spent a good part of my day getting rid of possible distractions that might affect our attention and focus. However, I’ve realized that, by staying to focus on a single product or problem, founders tend to shorten their perspectives about other alternatives to their product or services which, sometimes, results on missing opportunities that can make their products and company better. It is absolutely true that when you are too close to a specific problem or too deep into a specific execution path it gets really hard to look outside your world for creative alternatives.

Finding the right level of focus is an interesting dilemma that every founder should face. By not staying focus on your product you are certainly affecting your chances of being successful; however, staying exclusively focused on a specific product or idea might cause you to miss interesting opportunities to make your product even better.

What’s the right answer then?

There is no magic formula about the right level of focus a company or founder should have but I can think of a couple of tips that have worked for me. If I have to assign numbers to it, I firmly believe that a company should  stay 110% focused on the execution of their products and services but, as a founder CEO, maybe your level focus should be around 90%.

As a startup founder or CEO, your primary job is to set the vision and strategy for the company and make sure your team can stay completely focused on executing on that vision. However, in order to setup the right strategies, I would advise to give yourself the time to get a “little distracted” by looking outside your window for interesting ideas or projects. In my opinion, a controlled level of distraction will help broaden your perspective in order to make your company better.

What do you think? How much focus is enough focus?

 

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Get Off the Bitch Train: Selecting the Right Idea for your Product

Few days ago I was having a conversation with a co-founder of a very promising software startup on which she was explaining a few ideas they have been working on. One of the things that truly impressed me was the obsession that this founding team put into selecting the right idea to work on. After having a fairly successful career as a technology consultant, my friends keeps telling how she doesn’t want to work on mediocre “shit” anymore and wants to focus on problems that can have some impact in a specific industry.

“Selecting the right idea for your product is like finding the right guy to date”, jokingly she said. I wish it was that simple, I responded ;)

The conversation with my friend reminded of some ideas that I wrote on a previous blog post that I thought it might be good to present it to the newer audience of this blog :)

If you are any good in your space, whether you are a programmer, artist or any other profession, you are going to have a lot of ideas about how to improve that space. As an entrepreneur, you need to discriminate the ideas that are worth pursuing from the ones that might not be so good. The answer sometimes is far from as trivial as it seems.

Here are a few tips that might help you with the process of selecting the right idea for your product.

Doubt Yourself

Most of the time, people will tell you to trust yourself and your ideas. I am advocating the opposite; doubt and question your ideas every step of the way. Doubting and questioning the viability of a specific idea is not only the responsible thing to do in terms of the people that depend on you but it will keep you incredibly sharp and innovating. The trick is to NEVER LET THE DOUBTS PARALIZE YOU but, instead, use them as a way to refine and improve your ideas.

Believe in your Idea

Always try to pick an idea that you believe in. Sometimes being passionate about an idea is more important in the long run than the idea itself.  Building disruptive companies is a painful journey. You are going to face a lot of skepticism, criticism, and disappointments. The he worst part is that those challenges will extend to your loved ones as well. At any point, your passion and belief in your ideas will keep you going.

Walt Disney would occasionally present some unbelievable, extensive dream he was entertaining. Almost without exception, the members of his board would gulp, blink, and stare back at him in disbelief, resisting even the thought of such a thing. But unless every member resisted the idea, Disney usually didn’t pursue it. The challenge wasn’t big enough to merit his time and creative energy unless they were unanimously in disagreement!

Take Criticisms

I am very blunt about this one, PEOPLE WHO CAN’T TAKE CRITICISMS OR ARE VERY SLOW ASSIMILATING THEM WILL NEVER MAKE GOOD ENTREPENEURS. If you are over sensitive about criticisms you won’t be able to improve and you will let emotions get in the way of your company’s success. My advice here is to trust the intention of the people criticizing your idea, filter the smart criticisms from the stupid ones and MOVE ON.

When Michelangelo was finishing The David, along came Piero Soderini, the town mayor or boss, to have a look. Michelangelo had put a canvas around the scaffolding so no one could watch him work. Piero Soderini put on the show of the art connoisseur, walking around under the huge figure. “It’s coming along wonderfully,” said Piero Soderini. “But do you know what? The nose is too thick.”

He knew that from where Soderini was standing it was impossible to judge whether the nose or anything else was right. “Well, we’ll fix that right now,” he said; and quickly grabbing a hammer and chisel, climbed up the scaffold like a monkey. Clink, clink—Soderini heard the hammer against the chisel and saw marble dust fall. Clink some more. “How’s that?” Michelangelo called down from the scaffold. Of course he hadn’t touched the figure at all but only pretended to be altering the nose.
“Oh, that’s much better!” exclaimed the mayor. “Now you’ve really put life into it.”

Be Knowledgeable

I cannot stress this enough, having deep knowledge about the industry you are playing in, the history of companies in the space, and the market in general, will be key to making the right strategic decisions about your product. I will go a bit further to say that your knowledge of history, science, philosophy, art, or social dynamics will also shape the way your company evolves. In my experience, exceptional entrepreneurs are very often knowledgeable in a lot of these subjects and are able to incorporate ideas and drive inspiration from those subjects into their products.

Larry Ellison is a great admirer and a deep connoisseur of Japanese history and culture. That passion has influenced a lot of aspects of Oracle like aggressive sales and acquisition tactics and the permanent goal of achieving 100% market domination.

If You Like Your Idea, Try To Break It

If you think you have a great idea then try to break it. Spend time and energy exploring every possible reason that could make your product fail and set the passions aside. If you can easily point flaws in your idea then you can expect others will as well.

Evaluate the Risk

Ultimately, you need to evaluate the risk of failing to come up with some strategies to recover from failure if it happens. There are some ideas that are worth trying simply because there are minimum risks in case of a failure.

When the podcasting company Odeo realized that they had little chance against ITunes, Jack Dorsey presented an idea to the team that could help reinvent the company. The idea didn’t have the best reception but, realizing that they had little to lose; Evan Williams gave Jack and Biz Stone two weeks to work on it. Have you heard about Twitter…..? J

Make Others Believe

The degree to which your core team believes in your vision, dreams and capability will directly impact the type of company you are building. Software startups can’t be seen as a factory anymore in which the bosses dictate and the developers follow well defined recipes. Disruptive products need vision, passion, team-collaboration and are typically painfully hard to build. If you are able to inspire your team to share your dreams and passion, they will make your company, product and team better every day.

Can You Execute?

Your capacity to execute is as important as the quality of the idea. As an entrepreneur you should obsess about the execution of your team, you need to spend less time doing the fun stuff and more taking on the painful things and making others execute better.

The French invasion of Russia in 1812 was considered a great idea from any military standpoint but Napoleon totally underestimated their capability to survive the crude Russian winter. If the Russian campaign turned out to be successful, it would have been the end of years of European wars and would have granted France one of the biggest empires in human history. Instead, the failure of the execution forced the French troops to retire from Russia in December 1812 marking the beginning of the decline of the Napoleonic empire.

Stop Sketching and Start Executing

Execution is the best way to validate and improve your ideas. Don’t try to answer every question before you start executing. Most likely, you won’t be able to. Without executing on an idea you are unlikely to find out its true potential. Remember that failure is rarely the worse outcome, mediocrity is.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The Most Undervalued Quality of an Entrepreneur: Courage

When we think about successful entrepreneurs and companies we often talk about a number of qualities that, we think, have been the cornerstone to their success. Talent, passion, work ethics, resiliency, confidence are just me of the common characteristics that are often cited at the core DNA of great entrepreneurs, teams and companies. Even though all those qualities are definitely required in order to build a great company, I feel that quite often we (I’ve been guilty about this as well) tend to undermine one the most important qualities of any successful entrepreneur: courage.

When I was a teenager, I came across what has become my all-time favorite quote about courage and one that I think has been present at any important moment in my life. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle once said:

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”

Think about it, when hiring people, we tend to get obsessed trying to find great talent, passion, honesty and, sometimes, we don’t realize that most of those qualities never surfaced in important situation unless they are driven by a courageous act.

Honesty and transparency are some of the noblest qualities you can nurture in your team or company but most people will have a hard time staying honest when that honesty can cost them their job, their marriage, a friendship. Leadership and passion can be the cornerstone of any successful company; however, most people will have a difficult time leading when they know that any mistakes can destroy the entire company. Convictions and values will certainly shape the culture of the company but it takes true courage to stay loyal to your values when the entire world is telling you you are wrong. Without courage, most of the other qualities in your team r company will only surface during the “better times”.

As a founder CEO, my advice is to value and nurture courage as one of the main qualities of your team. When interviewing people for leadership positions, try to identify how they will react in difficult situations. Test them out, are they going to panic ? are they going to paralyze and be unable to make any important decisions ? or are they going to stay calm and be a hero? ;)

To wrap it up, I will leave you with another one of my favorite quotes about courage:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” Steve Jobs

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Focus on One Thing but Learn About Many

Focus is one of the most remarkable capabilities of an entrepreneur. With remarkable examples like Steve Jobs, we all have learned that staying focus on our core competencies will ultimately translate into better product execution and better companies in general. As a founder CEO, part of our job is to keep our company focus on driving towards a discrete number of goals and not derailing our attention with non-important aspects.

Even though CEOs can get extremely good at that level of execution focus, they often get so caught up in the specific subject related to their company that they forget to expand their knowledge onto different areas. As a founder CEO, it is as important to keep your team focus on the tasks at hand as it is to keep yourself defocus learning about every other subject you can. Way too often I talk to company operators that can only sustain an intelligent dialog related to their specific area of work. Great CEOs have the ability to rapidly learn about different subjects and are always hunger for expanding their knowledge. Having a broad knowledge on different areas always translates onto broaden perspective comes to make important decisions.

As I mentioned in a previous post, perspective is one of the rarest qualities to find in an entrepreneur. A broad perspective neither comes from talent nor from experience but is rather related to deep knowledge base on diverse subjects. Knowledge is important when making important decisions, when pivoting a company, when designing strategies to beat a competitor, when designing a product. During the lifetime of a company, you will be surprise how many parallels you can trace to different events in politics, sports, art, history and many other “apparently” unrelated subjects. Twitter is one of the most notable examples of how broad knowledge and perspective can help to change the world. As far as the story goes, Jack Dorsey got the inspiration for Twitter from New York City’s dispatch management systems that track the relevant events throughout the city including trains, taxis, ambulances, etc.

In addition to mastering knowledge about diverse subjects, I think technical founders and CEOs should obsess about learning as many technology subjects as possible. 70-80% of designing effective products comes from leveraging principles of existing products of technologies. There is no universal recipe for acquiring knowledge, some people read massive numbers of books (that’s me), some people prefer to meet and constantly interact with subject matter experts, some people prefer to travel. In my case I love to read; I read a ridiculous number of books every year that can range from a cheesy novel to a political science analysis.

After spending some time trying to figure out what learning methods were more effective for me, long time ago I settled for mastering subjects on a yearly basics. In that sense, every year I try to learn as much as I can about two subjects that has little to do with my work. This year I am obsessed learning about Silicon Valley history: iconic founders, VCs, etc and cognitive science. In terms of technology, every 2 weeks I try to learn about a new technology subject: right now I am focused on mastering Appcelerator. Whatever is your winning formula to learn and expand your areas of knowledge, you should obsess about staying as defocus about learning as you are focus on executing on your company goals.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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