One of our investors asked me an interesting question recently:
If you had to do it over again, how would you describe the background that you would have loved to have coming in as the technical co-founder of Modcloth? What technical skills as well as soft skills do you think would be helpful to have in the initial stages and as you scale as you have done?
This got me to thinking. If I was looking for a technical co-founder today, what would I look for? I think it’s a timely question considering the startup environment right now, and it’s possible (maybe even likely) that some of you are asking yourselves this question right now. So hopefully you can benefit from some of the experience I’ve gained over the years.
Doing things the right way technically (I’ve always liked using the term ‘better practices’, not ‘best practices’) takes a lot of time and effort. When you’re young and a founder you want to do everything the right away and have working code in the morning. You want people who understand how to make those investments/tradeoffs the right way – they understand there is such a thing as overegineering and going too fast. Someone who knows from feeling the pain – who’s done it both right and wrong and has a good alignment between the two.
In the real world, the pendulum swings. One time you might overengineer and then know you need to cut back next time and vice versa. In addition to the characteristics in my wish list, for a co-founder I’d want someone with a balanced background in reality who can settle into a healthy middle ground.
I think employee recognition is an area that’s grossly undervalued, both by managers and by people in general – especially when it comes to knowledge workers.
Knowledge workers get paid reasonably well. If not, they know they can go somewhere else and make good money. I find that engineers, as a rule, are very good at crafting a world that works for themselves. Maybe because it’s easy to do. But crafting a world that works for others – not just yourself – is much more difficult.
In my experience, when it comes to work happiness has everything to do with WANTING to go to work each day. I never WANTED to got to school, but I put that life behind me 12 years ago when I started my first company and I’ve never looked back or given it another thought since.
Do your employees find themselves in a place where they WANT to go to work? Beyond money, an important way to make people WANT to come to work for you is to recognize them when it’s warranted and make recognition a systematic part of what you do so it actually gets done.
To some degree, in order to put other people in the spotlight, you have to step out of it, which entrepreneurs have a terrible time doing. For some people it’s a zero-sum game – they care too much about themselves. But those are not the type of people you want. You want people who feel good about making others feel good.
It’s very easy to follow the path of least resistance and recognize only those near to you, while forgetting everyone else. It’s also very easy to put off or completely forget to recognize exceptional people without a conscious, ongoing effort. Keeping a spreadsheet or other system where you can record when someone does exceptionally well that also includes your ideas on what you plan to do for them works really well. Otherwise, its too easy to forget and go about your day.
To get employee recognition right, it needs to be an integral part of your regular routine. You need to hold yourself accountable for recognizing your employees in some structured way and make time for it. Otherwise it won’t happen. And, when your top performer turns in his or her resignation, your day will be about to get a lot busier. Then it will be too late.
I saw an interesting article recently titled “What is the Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology” by Ben Horowitz on TechCrunch. In it, Horowitz talks about the stressful aspects of being a CEO (there are many) and shares some techniques he uses to calm his nerves.
The startup environment is frothy now. Money’s coming back into play and investors are looking for the next big thing in tech. Sound familiar? When the market heats up, so does the pressure. So I got to thinking about stress, how it can impact the quality of life and some of the things I do to help manage it. Stress is important. 90% is self imposed or imposed by other people and it doesn’t help you. So why are we so bad at dealing with it?
I’ve yet to to see any truth that stress does anything good for people. Sure, there are those out there who claim, “I perform well under pressure.” That’s just a total load of bull to me. I’ve never seen anyone under stress perform better. In my mind, people who say that are either going to perform well anyway, or they’re constantly putting themselves in a position where their backs are against the wall. To me, anyone who says they’re only good under pressure is sending out a big, bright red flag.
Naps. If you know me at all, you know I’m a fan of taking naps. I’ve even written about why you should insist on taking naps and if you can’t nap, meditate. I take naps every day if I can because I find it’s a HUGE stress reliever. I’ve never woken up from 15 minutes or more of napping and still felt stressed. Most times, I can’t even remember what was stressing me. I consider taking naps a form of cheating life – an “unfair advantage” of sorts.
Journaling and talking to myself. I also do an insane amount of journaling using Evernote. At last count I think I had 11,000 Evernotes. I talk to myself at every possible opportunity – or type to myself if I’m not in an open setting where someone might think I’ve lost my mind. I use a digital voice recorder and talk about whatever things are starting to interest me at that moment. I think these habits are compatible with two techniques Horowitz mentions in his article: “Make friends” and “Get it out of your head and onto paper.” Oftentimes people need someone to talk to. You’re probably most compatible with yourself, so talking to yourself out loud and journaling makes perfect sense to me.
Getting into student mode. I find I’m most productive and least stressed when I’m in what I call “student mode.” When I’m in student mode, my attitude is “I’m here to learn, it’s okay to be wrong.” In student mode you can meta think – what’s the best way to solve this problem?
Student mode entails asking ourselves things we might have asked when we were in school but don’t ask ourselves in real life. In school, you don’t really think so much about the fact you have a problem. Instead, you’re thinking, “How do I solve this in the best way?” – or “How do I handle this to get the best grade?” Mentally, student mode has been a huge win for me. I tell myself, “Don’t forget you’re a student of entrepreneurship. This is your life in the classroom. Let’s think through the current challenge and potential solution options and then work through it”. Student mode mentally/emotionally removes me from the situation. It’s like I’m someone else looking at my life.
I feel like I’m pretty chill most of the time. I see flying off the handle as a sign of weakness; a character flaw. If you can’t control yourself, you need to go back to square one. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200. We all need ways that work for us to relieve stress so we can stay calm under pressure. It’s just (an important) part of life.
In an earlier post, I offered some thoughts on rapid prototyping. I mentioned my preference for the “high-fidelity prototype”, which leaves very little room to the imagination and provides users and stakeholders with a realistic sense of the user experience of the product.
I’ve been using a couple of different rapid prototyping tools and thought I’d offer some opinions on their limitations and what looks promising as I see it.
I’ve been using Balsamiq and Axure a fair bit. I think they’re both pretty good tools, but the problem is prototyping and design are subsets of communication and these two tools don’t seem to get that.
You don’t come up with a design in isolation, you need to validate it with users and other stakeholders. For the most part, these tools make it easy to put UIs together, but they have issues when it comes time to send out your work for feedback. The biggest problem I see with both is managing workflows in the review process.
Because they’re desktop based, you need to make all supporting files accessible to your reviewers and provide instructions to them for getting the prototype to look and act like it’s supposed to.
In reality, by the time someone gets to the review, you’ve already made changes. Every time you send out a new iteration, you need to include lots of attachments and send everything out all over again. Getting timely feedback can get so aggravating that you reach a point where you don’t want to bother doing it at all. Major pain.
I got to thinking, “There must be a better solution, even if I have to build it myself”. Then I discovered ProtoShare.
There are several things I really like and admire about ProtoShare – both the company and the tool, including:
The shortcomings I see with ProtoShare center mostly around pricing.