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The Best Leadership Is Having The Right Person At The Right Time

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Choosing the best leadership should not be just a discrete decision that is made without a key reference point. It is a relative choice about having the right person for the particular times.

Unfortunately, we often don’t think of the relationship between choice and situation as being an important skewing factor, because we tend to get uniquely fixated on the person instead.

With the United States election coming to a crescendo, the US voters are making a choice on November 8th 2016. But that choice should not be just about the right candidate. The choice should be about the “right candidate at this particular time”, because when the right leadership is matched with the current needs, then the best outcomes typically emerge. And that can make a big difference.

I’m not taking a public position on the US presidential election, because I am not a US voter, and don’t believe in cross-border political interference, out of principle. But the point of this post is that matching leadership to the current situation applies not just in the context of politics, but also to companies, startups and technology ecosystems.

That said, Obama might have been a better peace-time president than what he has been in the last 8 years during a time when we saw an increase in global conflicts and issues, none of which he was good at solving.

Let’s look at more examples on the business side. Startups typically begin by being led by their founders, but sometimes the founder doesn’t grow their capabilities commensurably with the evolution of their company. In essence, they stop being the right leader for the right time. Twitter is having a crisis of sorts, and one could question if they currently have the right leadership for the situation they are experiencing. If Twitter had the right leadership, rumors of its sale wouldn’t be buzzing, and many of its issues would have started to get resolved. When Jack was chosen over a year ago, I recall he was touted as being the right leader for Twitter at that time. Sadly, the evidence doesn’t validate that, today. Either his time has passed, or he wasn’t the right leader to begin with.

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer didn’t move the needle much during her reign at Yahoo, so one could argue that maybe she wasn’t the perfect CEO for the stage Yahoo was at.

In contrast, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook has exhibited a continuous leadership evolution, and clearly, there is no mismatch between Facebook’s needs and what its leadership is doing. Maybe he was aided by Sheryl Sandberg, other coaches and self-help based on self-awareness, but that’s OK.

Ethereum, as an ecosystem has had a good balance between internal and external leadership, resulting in a vibrant flow of innovation and influence over its future. External leadership is distributed and decentralized (as expected), and it manifests itself via an abundant contribution by its ecosystem. Internal leadership by the Ethereum Foundation has allowed it to properly navigate organizational and legal challenges.

Bitcoin’s internal leadership has been (recently) mostly steered by the Blockstream related core developers, but their strong handed (and headed) stances have stifled external software applications innovation, especially when ideas didn’t fit their direction. In sum, the internal vs. external leadership of that ecosystem isn’t as vibrant as it could be, despite the rise in Bitcoin’s currency price.

Leadership is about evolution. If leaders don’t evolve or adjust, the mismatch between their capabilities and their environment’s needs will result in lower performance outcomes; and that’s true in politics and in business. But the tough part is that much of this is more visible in hindsight than in foresight.


The Universe Will Try to Stop you from Building a Great Product. Don't let it.

IMG_20150827_193444_HDRThat quote, by Simon Vallee, product manager at Slack resonated with me at the Product Hunt One Year Anniversary event last Thursday Aug 27th in Toronto. That event was organized by Daryna Kuyla of Deloitte’s Digital Innovation Lab, and attended by over 450 people.

I tweeted that statement along with its corollary that Simon echoed:

If you stop being relentless, you’re screwed.

It is true that most startups initially face a tremendous amount of skepticism about their product, to the point of being often ridiculed, because they are seen as going against all odds. That’s normal, and that is a common starting point. And I would add to the statement that it’s not just building a great product that’s difficult. It’s about getting out into the market.

If everything in a startup was so obvious, the business would look more like a franchise, and not a startup. In a franchise, they hand you the book and processes on how to operate the business, and they supply you with what you need. They even choose your location based on optimal traffic. You just show-up and operate the business.

When bringing a truly innovative product into a new market that doesn’t exist yet, or is ill defined, you are not always competing with other products. Rather, you’re competing with user habits, their time, and whether they believe in your ideas or not. And if you are targeting businesses with your product, companies have already engrained processes that are old, and take time to change.

Even established companies need to continue being relentless. Imagine if UBER caved in to the local cities and taxi cartels objections. Instead, they continued plugging away, and have been relentless in pushing and propagating their agenda and services worldwide, into every area that justified their business case, even if the cities objected to it.

Every year, thousands of new tech startups are founded. Several hundreds will make headlines, a few hundreds will acquire significant users and customers. But only a few dozens will make a lasting difference and stick with our habits, have us either buy their product/service or use their App.

You are fighting the universe, because the universe is complicated and doesn’t want to change. And there will be several barriers and challenges along the way.

As a startup, you are lifting a lot of weight in order to get noticed, to continue plugging and to win. Being relentless means that you never stop, even if you stumble and fall along the way.

What is important is to have the determination to finish. To join these two metaphors, you need to watch this incredible video of athlete Heather Dorniden Kampf who takes a terrible fall during a 600 meters race. Nonetheless, she gets up even more energized and determined to finish the race. How she ends the race is nothing short from spectacular. Trust me and click on this short 2:48 minutes video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjejTQdK5OI&feature=youtu.be]]>

Revisiting Mentorship: Diversify your Mentors as you Grow your Startup

mentorshipIt’s a generally accepted common practice that startups benefit from mentoring, especially while in their early stages of development. There is no shortage of mentors in startup communities and mentor networks among accelerators who pride themselves on such value-added, and it is a good thing during these startup stages.

In this post, I’d like to first segment the types of potential mentors, then suggest evolutionary mentorship sources for more mature startups.

So where do mentors come from?

  • Peer entrepreneurs
  • Role models
  • Corporate employees
  • VCs
  • Angel investors
  • Board members
  • Advisors
  • Accelerators program managers
  • Expert consultants
  • Pundits
  Each one of these segments has their strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are typically obvious and they depend on how much the mentors know about your particular situations, and their own experience in the mentoring process. [The Techstars Mentor Manifesto is a good refresher.]

But their weaknesses are more invisible, and they are the kinds of things that a startup CEO needs to either discount, or be aware of.

Peer entrepreneurs may not have experienced what you are going through.

Role models sometimes have a better image than substance.

Corporate employees may be unrealistic about startup realities.

VCs will most often see things according to their own thesis and agendas, and if you are getting mentored by VCs who have invested in you, they can be too emotionally attached, and more forgiving.

Not all angel investors have had broad operational experience.

Sometimes you end-up with the wrong Board member, and that creates tension when listening to them.

The advisors you pick initially may be useful then, but if they don’t evolve with you, their value may diminish over time.

Program managers in accelerators are typically junior and don’t have depth or breadth.

Expert consultants will tilt on advising you more than mentor you.

Pundits may be more visionary, and sometimes not so relevant to your immediate priorities.

This diversity in mentorship choices is a good thing for early stage startups, but as a startup matures, I suggest they should re-think who their mentors are.

As a startup grows and finds product/market fit, there is less and less ambiguity about their business. With less ambiguity,  you need less ambiguous mentoring and support. The mad, fast and furious moments of early stages gradually becomes less mad, less furious and more measured and structured, as the startup grows. Therefore, the type of mentoring required becomes more prescriptive and less suggestive because several situations and issues will have more clarity to them.

I recently advised a startup to consider vesting an advisor package to 1-2 years, not 4 years, because you can’t really predict the value of the same advisor over 4 years. If they are great, renew them yearly.

Take a page from Brian Chesky who expanded his mentorship horizons, and went really high by picking some legendary role models and asked them for specific mentorship and learning advice. It is a bold move, and I’m not suggesting that any startup CEO could have easy access to these types of people, but the point is to aim high and try to go out-of-the-box when it comes to mentoring support.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 6.30.07 PMSource: The Education of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky (Fortune).

What’s so interesting about getting advice from successful CEOs of bigger corporations or larger startups? They have honed in their execution capabilities, and know well how to manage people and objectives. And they know how to be strategic while at the same being operational, so you can learn from them how they manage that balance. Each seasoned CEO has a few unique tricks and rituals, and maybe one them will click with your needs or personality. I wrote a blog post titled Managing a Startup Isn’t Different – Don’t Re-invent Everything, because I saw first-time startup CEOs trying to reinvent management in their own ways. My suggestion is to go back to first principles of management, and read a couple of old-fashioned books on being a first time CEO, then discount what doesn’t apply, but take what applies. But don’t discount the basic principles of managing people. Or read Matt Blumberg’s Startup CEO book.

So, my advice is to think about re-evaluating your mentors, role models and advisors at every successive funding round or stage of growth that you reach.

Your needs are changing, so why not change who you are being surrounding with and influenced by?


The Biggest Blindspot of a Startup CEO is Ignoring Their Brand

Ceo leadershipI’ve been critical of startup CEO’s whose startup has traction, but they can’t seem to rise-up to make their company great by recognizing that elevating their company’s brand is their job, not the marketing department’s.

Traction, users and early revenue is a God’s gift to a startup, and it is a fuel that lets you go to the next level. How you take advantage of that is a key question.

It was heartening to read that Brian Chesky, one of my favorite startup CEO’s has 3 priorities he passionately focuses on: Product, Brand, Culture. It is no coincidence that these 3 areas represent the 3 poles of a company’s structure: its users (product), its market (brand), and its employees (culture).

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 12.57.33 PM

In addition to the confirmatory point that Brian Chesky is pro-active at being the bearer of the Airbnb brand, it is not a coincidence either that Airbnb’s valuation ranks as one of the highest among startups, on a per employee basis, with a respectable #4 position in private companies (behind off-the-charts Snapchat, then WeWork and Pinterest, and ahead of UBER). This confirms pretty much what I have recently written in my post, Why a Strong Brand Means Higher Growth and Better Valuation for your Startup.

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The Fortune article that chronicled The Education of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky is a fascinating read, offering an insightful roadmap and inspiration to any young startup CEO who needs to rise-up, and has a calling to become a leader. In my opinion, Brian’s self-aware roundedness is the new Tech CEO archetype, not someone who came from product management necessarily.

Brian Chesky self-educated himself at age 33, as a first-time CEO, as he became obsessed with figuring how what he needed to learn. I know that exact feeling, because at 27, when I became a young manager at HP, I started devouring every management and leadership book I could find, and got help from other more senior managers. As a manager, if you don’t obsess with mastering Management, then I’m not sure what is more important than that.

The other key thing about the Fortune article is that Brian Chesky decided to take his mentorship up, not sideways. I see a lot of emphasis in startups on peer groups for support and learnings, and although peer groups are great, you won’t learn something if your peers haven’t yet experienced it, and you certainly won’t get the depth and breadth of knowledge from more seasoned mentors. Brian Chesky went to Warren Buffett, George Tenet, Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Disney and Jony Ive chief design officer at Apple.

Back to Chesky’s 3 priorities (Product, Brand, Culture), it is not unusual to see Product and Culture on the list of other startup CEO’s priorities. But it is less likely to see Brand on it. “Brand” is that blindspot that many startup CEO’s have if they don’t value its importance. Brand pulls you forward and it helps you grow. It is the CEO’s responsibility to be the brand ambassador. If they can’t, they have a problem. It is not just up to the marketing department. At some point in time, when your product/market fit is helping you grow, it is time to Focus Your Startup Marketing on the Mind, not the Product.

To all tech startup CEOs, my archetype is Brian Chesky. I previously lauded Airbnb for consciously working on their brand as they positioned themselves to be in the Hospitality business, and not in the spare room or sleeping-on-the-couch service. I am now impressed to see how Brian Chesky has become an original, self-taught, rounded leader that values the importance of his brand.

I will end this post with my favorite Brian Chesky quote from that Fortune article:

“Usually in a crisis you have to go left or right, and everyone wants to go middle. And middle is the storm…and they’re usually the worst decisions.”

Marketing is the same. You don’t get to it by consensus. You take bold positions with bold statements, and you forge your own path in the marketplace.

I hear a red flag when I ask a startup CEO about their marketing, and the answer I get is “my team will figure it out, they are working on it”, or “my team did a great job with the website”, as if they have outsourced their marketing. Well, as a CEO, if you are leaving marketing and your market perceptions to the marketing department, you are failing to rise up and be your own, authentic brand’s ambassador.

No one else but the CEO can be the standard bearer for their brand. Don’t let it be your blindspot.


The New Startup Management Tag Page

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 1.56.05 PMIn this brief post, I’d like to feature the new Tag page on Startup Management, and review what it means and how you can use it.

About two years ago, when I started to curate articles into Startup Management, I was obsessed by the classification and organization of the content. I believed that categorizing content like a library brings clarity to, and increases the usability of that content.

So, I started with an A-Z alphabetical Lexicon concept, and produced a number of topic pages with chronological entries, and a small narrative for each, similar to what Tom Eisenmann used to do on his blog when he compiled his terrific annual list of the best blog posts of the year, like this last one: Managing Startups: Best Blog Posts of 2013.

My general rule is that if an article doesn’t add to the existing body of knowledge in the world of managing and growing startups, it doesn’t get added. Posts that I reject include ones that rehash existing knowledge, don’t add anything concrete that an entrepreneur can act on, or sometimes they are simply too shallow and ranting oriented. Of course, sometimes I miss some good ones, and I will add them later.

My topic criteria has always been oriented towards growing, managing or scaling a tech startup, but I try to avoid very basic start-up stuff.

In the past two years, I have already curated about 2,000 articles (that’s an average of 3 per day), so I’m very selective, estimating that I reject 97% of the content I see daily.

Concurrently, I have been diligently tagging each article added to Startup Management according to an ad-hoc taxonomy that grew to about 1,100 tags.

Basically, I treat Startup Management like a public library for whom I’m the custodian.

The need for this page was obvious to me, because I’m often asked to recommend reading suggesting on such and such topic. So, I decided to put all these tags on one page. Here’s the full Tag page http://startupmanagement.org/tag, and it is sortable by Tag frequency or randomly,

How about the Weekly Roundup I used to email?

Some readers have been asking me about the weekly newsletter when I used to highlight 20-25 articles, and send them via an email. Sadly, I haven’t had the time to do this on a weekly basis anymore, but in consolation, since I’ve become even more strict with the quality of articles, the number of curated articles has dropped to about 20 per week. This means that each one of them is a recommended read, so all you have to do is to follow the site’s content regularly.

How do you stay updated?

Web: Hit the River format page at http://startupmanagement.org/river/

RSS Feed: Subscribe with http://feeds.feedburner.com/StartupManagement

Twitter: Follow https://twitter.com/startupmanage

Email: Subscribe here, and I’ll start sending a weekly summary again.

How can you use the Tags?

The tags value is not so much for the daily keep-up of content that I’m curating. Rather, it’s a good jumping point resource if you’d like to see at a glance a handful of well curated articles covering a specific topic, all in one place, and without having to wade through Google results.

For e.g., if you’re interested in Mobile Marketing, here the Tag page for that, http://startupmanagement.org/tag/mobile-marketing-2/. If you’d like to see the latest on Produt Management, it’s here: http://startupmanagement.org/tag/product-management-4/. Or here’s a page on User Conversion: http://startupmanagement.org/tag/user-conversion/.

 I hope you will find this Tag page useful. I think every website should have one. It’s like an index of content.

(Special thanks to Bill Soistmann for his work on customizing the Tag page beyond what WordPress provided)]]>

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