October 22, 2012

Business is triage

Any idiot can run any project well.

Hire experienced professionals. Staff every project completely. Get the best tools. Use the highest quality materials. Have independent consultants and auditors verify everything. Take the time to do things right, and never settle for second-best.

If leadership is the art of delegation, then everyone can lead a product launch, a construction project, or a rocket launch.

All you need to succeed is a pile of clichés (“Never settle for second best,” “Quality is job one,” “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” etc.) and an even bigger pile of cash.

Fast Company had a great article years ago about software development for the Space Shuttle. There are some interesting and even useful lessons about the process that kept software errors to 1 in 420,000 lines of code.

The problem with applying these lessons to my business: at that point they’d been working on the code for 22 years and were still spending $35 million a year on maintaining it. I can’t afford government-level quality. (And I mean that in every way it can be interpreted…)

Business is triage. Resources are limited and competition is intense, and the never-ending job of a business leader is deciding what we can get along without and how good something has to be before we ship it.

Sometimes a well-meaning employee asks when we’re going to “get through this phase” — stop changing direction quickly, stop taking on big projects with small teams, stop shipping things as soon as they are market-viable, etc.

The answer is “never, I hope.” Because a business that isn’t in triage mode is a business on its way out of business.


October 12, 2012

Profit Is Why You Are in Business

Does your business have a noble mission? Mine does, too. But making a profit is what enables a business to accomplish its mission. Profit needs to be the first priority or you will not have a chance to pursue any others.

It is easy to fall into the trap of labeling things “strategic” as an excuse for unprofitable work. I know, I have done it.

Chapter 10 of Fire Someone Today is now online, and summarized in these slides:

October 3, 2012

The four-word employee handbook

Everything I want from myself and others at work (and in life!) can be summed up in four words:

Honor God. Love others.

When we started Logos Bible Software twenty years ago, I used a software program to generate a boilerplate “attorney approved” employee handbook. When employees asked “What’s our policy on…?” I might refer them to the handbook, since I couldn’t always remember what it said. But more often I would just approve their special request, or tell them to use their best judgment.

Then I took the Zappos tour, and read the Netflix culture slides. And I realized that we already employed awesome, smart people who trust each other. What did we need a butt-covering book of legalese for?

So that’s it: Honor God. Love others. Our new employee handbook in a nutshell, and the primary measure we weigh decisions against.

To complement the nutshell-handbook we developed a set of slides that expound on the theme, meet the letter of the law, introduce our corporate values, and explain the culture. We even decided on two actual rules: no smoking, and no open flames.

It can be scary to work with so few guidelines. Managers wonder if employees will abuse the un-tracked vacation time; employees wonder if they’re embracing too much or too little freedom. It requires trust and openness and conversation. But after 18 months it is working well.

September 18, 2012

Getting ahead

Thoughts on getting ahead, specifically in your career and earnings.

This is the blunt, direct advice I give employees one-on-one, and what I’m sharing with my kids as they head off to college.


August 6, 2012

Venture Deals explains it all

Venture Deals, by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, is a highly useful, and highly readable, overview of how venture capital works, with lots of very-specific examples and descriptions.

This isn’t a high-concept book full of abstractions; it’s a detailed explanation of the people and vocabulary you’ll encounter in the VC world. And it’s more than definitions: it also explains the reasoning and motivations.

I have been building a startup for twenty years, have been involved in several acquisitions and funding events, and I learned a lot from this book. It got me thinking about my business in a new way. If you’re at all interested in raising money for a business, or even if you just want to understand how this important part of our economy works, I highly recommend it.

Nota bene: This isn’t any kind of coded message about Logos. It’s just a book I read and really liked.

October 19, 2011

If you’re learning a lot in class, you’re doing it wrong.

I recently spoke with a student majoring in Computer Science who was interested in working for my company. When I asked if he understood a particular concept, he told me he hadn’t taken that class yet.

I understand learning about English composition in a class on that subject, or even picking up some physics in Physics 101. But learning about the subject you’re majoring in, and the field in which you hope to make a living, in a classroom? There is a better way.

You only get a few hours a week in the classroom. Don’t waste them trying to understand something new. You have the textbook, the syllabus, the library, and the Internet. Read ahead! Use the precious little time with a professor to have something explained a second way and to ask the questions that remain after you’ve already absorbed the basics. Understand the big picture, be familiar with the vocabulary, and impress your instructor with your advanced comprehension and thirst for knowledge.

Better yet, skip the first batch of classes in your major. The first few classes are designed for people who know nothing about the subject. They’re easy to test out of, and a waste of your tuition dollars to take. Every slot you free up at the front end is a more advanced class or elective you can take on the back end, increasing the value of your tuition and distinguishing your otherwise predictable transcript.

“Everything in software changes every three years,” the student told me in the course of our conversation.

True. So why would I hire someone whose primary education was in a classroom? Three years out of school they’ll be out of date. I want to hire people who have demonstrated that they can learn and grow on their own, who used their classroom time not to be introduced to new subjects, but to consult an expert and to supplement their self-education.

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