Culture + Hiring: A Positive Feedback Loop of Buenoness

If you want to build a company that is going to endure for decades, start with culture and people.  Without these things nothing else matters

If you want to build a company that is going to endure for decades, start with culture and people. Without these things nothing else matters

 

For the remainder of 2013 I am dedicating the majority of my time at GiveForward to focus on just two things: culture and hiring.  In my view, culture and people are two of the most critical elements to a successful company, and often the elements that get overlooked when you are in be on fire mode and trying to go million miles an hour.  My goal over the next eight months is to slow down to go faster.

Culture Does Not = Ping Pong

I hear all the time these batshit crazy ideas as to what culture means. It drives me nuts. So let’s start with an anti-definition.  Culture is NOT ping pong.  It’s not about nerf guns. It’s not about having beers in the fridge. And god forbid if you’ve ever had employer tell you their company has a “work hard, play hard”  culture, they are a total asshat and haven’t the foggiest idea what culture actually means. I suggest you run away from this company.  And run away fast.

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Nerf guns ≠ culture

So What Is Culture And Why Is It Important?

Culture is just a fancy word for giving people something to believe in.  It means clearly articulating what you stand for as a company (your purpose and your values) and then creating the infrastructure that empowers your team to believe in the same ideas.

One of the things I’ve come to realize in the five years since we launched GiveForward is that the key to building a strong culture is dependent upon understanding that people are attracted to ideas, not to things.  No one cares about what you do.  They care about why you do it. (H/T Simon Sinek). What’s under the hood?  What is your purpose? At your very core, what drives you to get up every morning and go to work?

The tangible result of giving people something to believe in ist that it creates the strongest and most enduring competitive advantage that’s ever existed: passion.  

Passion is the force that drives the world forward.  And once you have a tribe of passionate people all working for the same purpose , there is no limit to what your company can do.  Once you can articulate with clarity what your company’s purpose is, you’re well on your way to building a strong culture.

But having a clearly defined purpose is not enough.  It’s equally important to have clearly defined values.  Your values serve as the framework through which you and your team make decisions.  They inform your policies and procedures and make it easy for you to choose the right path when faced with difficult decisions.  The end result is strong organizational health and a team that all moves forward at a very fast pace because analysis paralysis no longer exists.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  At GiveForward, getting into the press is incredibly important to our business.  It creates brand awareness and helps us generate new customers.  The best way for us to get into the press is to share the stories of the people raising money on our site.  The challenge is that some of the stories are sensitive and people don’t always want to be in the spotlight.  In other words, what’s good for GiveForward isn’t always good for our customers.

So what do we do?  We rely on our values to lead us down the right path.

Our #1 value at GiveForward is compassion. This is how we treat our customers, our co-workers, our vendors and everyone we interact with. The policies we create must be in line with this value.  In this particular case, the policy we’ve created mandates that we will not push a story in the media unless we are certain that the customer whose story we are sharing will benefit more than we do.  GiveForward can benefit, but we cannot be the primary beneficiary.

Our rule is:  customer first; GiveForward second. Always.

Because of our value of compassion, creating a customer-first policy was a no-brainer.

Hiring

The second item I am focusing on is hiring.  Hiring is one of the most visible externalities of culture.  If your culture sucks, it’s easy to tell.  You’ll have a high turnover rate and it will be impossibly difficult to attract great people who want to work at your company.  If you’re culture is great, you’ll have people lined up out the door trying to get in.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the reason hiring right is so critically important to your business is because the company with the best people wins.  ALWAYS*

*unless (a) you manage to screw it up through shitty office politics; or (b) you’re the Los Angeles Lakers, in which case refer back to point (a).

We’ve been lucky enough to recruit some incredible talent to our team over the last few years, so I thought it might be helpful to share a few guidelines we try to follow in hiring.

(1) Hire For Values First

This is the most important rule.  It doesn’t matter how great someone looks on paper, if they don’t share your company values, they’re either going to quit or you’re going to have to fire them.  This happened to us three times in 2012. And it stung.  We had never had anyone quit on us before and had never really had to fire anyone either so when this happened multiple times within a short period, it shook us. It made us look in the mirror and what we realized is we were not making culture fit our #1 priority in our hiring process.  We changed this, and now values are our #1 priority in hiring.

(2) Hire Entrepreneurs

When I was a kid, my soccer coach often used to say “good idea, poor execution” whenever we’d botch a set play or free kick.  The same thing can be said for most startups.  Startups are great at coming up with ideas, but inexperienced and fairly crappy when it comes to managing people.  The result is stressed out employees and unfinished products that never ship.

So how do you solve for this?  Well, I try to take the part we’re not good at (managing people) out of the equation.  For me, this means hiring entrepreneurs because you don’t have to manage entrepreneurs.  They are naturally self-starters who want to solve problems. You can bring them in and then get the hell out of their way.  Tell them what the goal is and then let them take the ball and run with it.  My advice is to find as many of entrepreneurs as you can and recruit them to your company.  These are the people that end up making you look good.

(3) Hire People Who Are Smarter Than You.

Your ultimate objective should be to become the dumbest person in the company.  If/when you can pull that off.  Game over.  You’e just won the game.

As a general rule of thumb, I always look to hire people who can do my job at least five times better than I can.  The beauty of hiring smart people is that smart people want to work with other smart people. So bringing one smart person often leads to attracting another.  The caveat here is don’t just hire smart people. Hire the smartest people you can find who also believe in what you are doing.

I Need Your Help. 

I wrote this blog post in part because I wanted to share these ideas and in part because I wanted to to publicly state these intentions and ask that you all hold me accountable.

I’m hoping that over the next eight months culture and hiring will go hand in hand.  As we continue to improve and refine our culture at GiveForward, we’ll continue to attract great people to our company.  And as we bring in more great people, they will bring with them new ideas that continually improve the culture.  Hopefully, this creates a positive feedback loop of buenoness.

The tricky part for me is always staying focused.  And that’s where you all can help.  If you see me around town over the next eight months, please ask me what we are doing to work on our culture and how our hiring is coming along.  This will keep me accountable for what I need to do.  Gracias

Culture + Hiring FTW!

GiveForward is Hiring an Art Director

UPDATE:  THIS POSITION HAS BEEN FILLED AND WE ARE NO LONGER ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS.  THANK YOU ALL FOR SHARING THIS POST.  TWO LUCKY WINNERS WILL BE RECEIVING BURRITOS AND CA$H MONEY SHORTLY. 
GiveForward is hiring an art director. (Bueno!)  And we’re giving away $1500 or free burritos for a year to anyone who refers us the person we hire (Super-Bueno!)   Please share this job description with the person who inspires you the most in the world.  That’s who we want on our team.
To apply yourself email ethan [at] GiveForward [dot] com.
Dear Mr. or Ms. Potential Art Director:
 
If you are reading this blog post, in all likelihood one of our good friends forwarded it to you, which means they think that on a scale of one to awesome you rank somewhere between bacon and sex. Hooray for you! 
 
In recognition of said awesomeness, I propose we kick off our burgeoning  Internet relationship with a celebratory Virtual High Five.  Great!! Now that we’ve got all the awkwardness of Internet salutations out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks.
 
We (GiveForward) are putting together an all-star team of inspiringly smart and creative individuals hell-bent on changing the world.  As part of this team, we’re looking for a world-class art director.  
 
As the art director, your mission can be summed up in three words.  

Create Unexpected Joy is our mantra at GiveForward It is everything we believe in. It is the reason we exist as a company. It is the reason we rise out of bed each morning. It is the reason we feel fulfilled every night.
Put your mantra on the wall so you are forced to think about it every day.

We thrive on creating unexpected joy for people.  That and wolf clocks.

The problem is we do a pretty mediocre job at conveying this mantra to the millions of people that visit our site and come in contact with our brand every month.  Instead of seeing joy, people see this.  
Frankly, it’s uninspiring.  We know we can do better.  And that’s where you come in.
 
We need a brilliant (yes, brilliant) art director to help us tell our story to the world through visual art. We are looking for someone who can make the concept of CREATE UNEXPECTED JOY come to life the instant people see it.  In short, we are looking for a visionary who can help us transform our brand from bland to breathtaking.  
Is this you?

II.  The Nitty Gritty 
El Director de Art will be responsible for working with our creative director to establish and create all visual elements of the GiveForward brand. We need someone who has experience creating strong brand concepts from the ground up, and the technical chops both to do the design themselves, and/or oversee execution teams.  Specifically you will:

  • Work with the creative director to establish all visual elements of the encompassing GiveForward story, making sure every brand touchpoint clearly demonstrates who we are and what we believe
  • Work with our chief of product to set the design standard for all things Product starting with the GiveForward.com homepage and moving down and across from there.
  • Create, maintain, apply and monitor the official brand styleguide
  • Design all marketing collateral for the moment (certainly visual, not necessarily coding): GiveForward website top-down | Create Unexpected Joy website top-down | impactful microsites, landing pages, or large-format advertisements |  informational brochures or PDFs | display ads for paid search | visual/industrial design for physical objects (booths, kiosks, etc) | app design
  • Eventually lead a design team of full-time staff, interns, and/or direct outside agency work
 
 
Requirements
  • First and foremost, you share our core values.  These are muy importante!
  • You have the desire to build something meaningful that will last for decades
  • At your core, you consider yourself a great storyteller
  • You share in the belief that WEIRD = GOOD
  • You loathe mediocrity   
 
Bonus Points if:
  • You surprise us by showing up to your interview in a tuxedo or figure out how some other clever way to make us laugh.
 
What we need from you:
Send to ethan [at] GiveForward [dot] com 
  • Your current portfolio
  • 2 paragraphs about why you are the best person in the world for this job 
  • 1 paragraph about the last time you created unexpected joy for someone
  • A list of your 5 favorite things
  • Your resume (we look at resumes but place much more weight on cover letters)
 
 
III.  The Obligatory (Yet Hopefully Interest Piquing) “About Us” Section.
  • We’ve helped 25,000+ families raise more than $35,000,000 for life saving medical treatments
  • The book Hug Your Customers is our bible.  Seth Godin’s Linchpin is a close second. 
  • We have a Net Promoter Score of 83. Our users think we are pretty awesome
  • We love team members who are compassionate, authentic, self-starters that can laugh at themselves and occasionally tell a good joke.
  • We feel like we are the the luckiest people on earth because we get paid to do a job we would totally do for free.
  • If you can’t tell by now, we’re a bit weird.  We hope you are too. 
 
IV. The Goodbye
 
Okay, so granted there is a fair amount of goofiness in this job description.  Clearly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  That said, we do want to stress that we take our work very seriously, and we can promise you that we are on the verge of something very, very big here. With the right team on board, GiveForward is going to take off very soon and it’s going to be a magical journey that will change millions of lives for people all around the world.  But don’t take our word for it.  In the last year over 80 publications like the NY Times, Fast Company and CNN wrote about us and we won just about every fancy schmancy industry award possible including the Moxie Award for best consumer startup in Chicago, The Chicago Innovation Award for Best Newcomer Startup, the Empact 100 Award for the top 100 startups in the nation, the INC 30 under 30 Award, and we even won the Edison Gold Award for Best Social Innovation in the country (other Edison winners included Apple, IBM, Seth Godin, TED, and SpaceX). 
 
If there is one thing we are sure about, it’s that exciting times lie ahead.  We hope you’ll be part of the journey. 
 
Sincerely,
The GiveForward Team
 
 

I Am Moving Back to Chicago

This spring I will be moving back to Chicago after spending the last year  in my home state of California.  It’s exciting to get back to Chicago and I wanted to share a little bit about the decision to come back.

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Why I left Chicago in the First Place

When I was growing up in Southern California, my friend Jason used to call me the Family Guy because whenever he asked if I wanted to go out I was always busy doing something with my family. For me, family is and always has been priority numero uno. So when my uncle passed away a few years back and my grandma Elsie was living by herself in Massachusetts, we decided it was time for her to move back to California where she had had lived for the previous 30 years of her life.  After months of trying to convince a 93-year-old woman to move across country, she finally said, “Ethan, I’ll move back when you move back.”  I said, “Sold!”  And that was that.  We moved back to California towards the end of 2011 and I have spent the last year and change living in the state where I spent the first 18 years of my life.

My time in California has been wonderful and I am very grateful for it.  Living closer to my family, I was able to do things I hadn’t done in years.  I visited my sister on her birthday for the first time in a decade.  I was able to surprise my best friend Ned for his 30th birthday and later attend his engagement party.  I even got to celebrate Hannukah this year with my family for the first time since probably high school. Most importantly, I got to visit my Grandma Elsie 15-20 times in the past year and was even able to make this biography about her.  She’s in hospice now and we’re not sure how much longer she’ll be with us, so I’m insanely grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend with her and the rest of my family.  It’s truly been a gift.

As Much as I love being close to my family and friends, I’ve decided it’s more important for me right now to be back in Chicago.   

First and foremost, I’ve come to the conclusion that my decision to live in California was hurting my business partner, Desiree.  During my time away, we went from a six person team to a 20+ person company. While this growth is exciting and mucho, mucho awesome, in this same period, we had our merchant account fire us as customers, we moved offices twice, we had an employee go AWOL for a week, and we had to lay off folks that felt like family.  None of these things are fun.  All of them are difficult and stressful and emotionally taxing.  My being out of the office has meant that Desiree has had to shoulder way more of the crud that partners are supposed to share together.  And that just sucks.  I don’t want to make her do that anymore.

Second, it dawned on me recently that there is a big distinction between managing and leading.  My being in California hasn’t necessarily hurt us from a revenue standpoint (we tripled our revenue in 2012), but it is starting to hurt us from a leadership standpoint.  As we begin to scale our company and develop a culture and identity, founders need to be leaders, not managers.   And while I’ve found that managing from afar is difficult yet doable.  Leading from afar is nearly impossible.

Third, I have been blessed with an opportunity at GiveForward to work with an incredibly passionate and inspiring team of people doing something we believe is going to change the world.  Opportunities like this don’t often come around twice in a lifetime, so I don’t want to take this one for granted.  I’ve heard stories from so many entrepreneurs who after getting lucky with their first venture, spent the rest of their lives trying to recreate that magic only to find that the stars never aligned again in just the right way.  When you have something that you truly believe can make a dent in the universe, and you’ve been lucky enough to catch all the right breaks along the way, you need to grab on tight with both hands, go after it with all your heart and remove any hurdles that can hold you back from achieving what you know is possible.

Lastly, it’s always about family.  Most people are lucky if they have one, loving and supportive family.  I am lucky enough to have two.  I get to work at a company where co-workers genuinely care about each other and feel more like family than cubicle mates. So while saying goodbye to my California family is really hard to do, it’s a lot easier knowing that when I return to Chicago, my GiveForward family will be there to welcome me back.





The Six Stages of the Startup Lifecycle

As far as I can tell there are six stages to a startup lifecycle.  What is super-convenient for this blog post is the fact that all somehow end in the same three letters: I-R-E.

STAGE 1:  DESIRE

If there is one thing that all great founders share, it’s that they have an insanely strong desire to solve problems and make a dent in the universe.

People like Jeff Bezos (Amazon) or Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) started their companies because they ran up against problems that ate at them day in and day out, consuming their every thought until they had no choice but to quit their job, put everything else aside and solve these problems.

Don’t start a company  because you watched the Social Network and you think it would be cool to be the next Zuckerberg. If you start a company with the goal of becoming rich and famous, I can tell you two things:  (1) you are likely going to fail; and (2) you are a giant turd sandwich.  In all fairness, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get rich, but if your main motivation is accumulating wealth, there are many  less circuitous paths toward this end.

Challenge:  Next time you give your elevator pitch, spend  the first 15 seconds explaining the problem before you start pitching them on the solution.  If the person is not moved by the significance of the problem, chances are you’ve created a solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Image stolen from the mucho-awesome Happy Startup School

STAGE 2:  INQUIRE

Once you’ve discovered a problem you are passionate about fixing, it is up to you to inquire and learn as much as possible from people who have been in your shoes. Go to meetups, listen to speakers at StartupGrind, volunteer at events like Startup Weekend or Lean Startup Machine.  Get engaged with the local startup community.  During this period, share your idea with everyone you meet (don’t worry about them stealing your idea) and seek out a mentor or two who is willing to coach you along this journey. No one succeeds without receiving help from others. Smart founders make use of the resources around them.

Challenge:  Find the email address of a successful entrepreneur you admire and email her.  Start a dialog by asking a succinct, one sentence question that she can answer in one minute or less.

STAGE 3:  BE ON FIRE

As my dino friend @FAKEGRIMLOCK says:

YOU MUST BURN

EVERYONE THINK WAY TO STARTUP IS TALENT + IDEA + MONEY.

EVERYONE WRONG.

STARTUP NOT ABOUT MAKE THING, SELL THING. STARTUP ABOUT CHANGE WORLD.

WORLD IS COLD. YOU MUST LIGHT WORLD ON FIRE.

YOUR FIRE.

YOU. MUST. BURN.

If you expect to change the world, you need to be on fire.  Passion is the fuel that feeds this fire.  Your startup is your baby.  And like a real baby, it WILL consume every waking minute of your day.  If you are not obsessed with your startup 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, your fire is not burning bright enough.

The flip side of being on fire is that everything else in your life takes a backseat to your startup.  There is simply no physical or emotional energy left over for anything else.  In the first few years of your startup, you end up sacrificing relationships with friends and people you love.   You stop exercising.  You have no regular paycheck so you start eating junk food because it’s all you can afford.  The idea of a normal dating life goes completely out the window.  Basically, the well-rounded, interesting person you once were ceases to exist. For better or worse, the new you is a stressed out, unhealthy, emotionally unstable robot with a single track mind to change the world.

Challenge:  For the next 30 days, don’t call or hang out with your friends or family, and spend no more than $10 per day on food, transportation, and entertainment.   This is what life will be like for the first twelve to twenty-four months of your startup.

BE ONFIRE

STAGE 4:  HIRE

The company with the smartest people  wins.

At a certain point, you will have found product-market fit (hooray!) and  it will be time to scale your company.  From here on out, everything comes down to execution execution execution.  Execution starts with finding the best talent.

The common refrain when it comes to hiriing is that smart founders always hire people that are smarter and more capable than themselves. As someone who is admittedly not very smart, I absolutely, 1000% agree with this statement.  But recruiting smart people is not enough. It’s equally important to recruit people who think differently than you do and who are going to challenge your ideas.  This raises the bar for the whole company and pushes everyone in the company  to achieve at a higher level.

Challenge: Before hiring anyone, ask yourself, do I believe this person can take X responsibility off my plate and do it ten times better than I could do it myself?  If the answer is no, they are not the right person for the job.

STAGE 5:  INSPIRE

Once you have great people on your team that you trust completely, you stop shouldering as much of the day-to-day work and your main role shifts to inspiring your team to produce at a level beyond what they thought was possible.

To use a sports analogy, your goal is to move from player to coach.  More specifically, you need to become Phil Jackson.  Jackson won 11 NBA championship rings as the coach of the Bulls and the Lakers.   Of course his championship teams started with an incredibly strong core of talent (Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, Kobe), but they didn’t win on talent alone.  And they certainly didn’t win because Phil was calling all the shots from a tactical standpoint (Jackson was notorious for not calling timeouts when his team was going through a rough patch, but instead trusting his players to figure it out).  Rather, the secret to Jackson’s 11 championships was able to get the most out of his players.  He knew how to get inside his players heads.  He inspired them and empowered  them to be the best players that they could be.

Challenge:  Are you more Phil Jackson or more Michael Jordan?  Do you trust people to take the big shots or do you feel the need to take all the shots in order for your team to win?  If you still feel the need to take all the shots, you may have hired the wrong people.

STAGE 6:  GET ACQUIRED

When you’re raising capital, one of the common questions you get from VCs is “who is going to acquire you?”  The answer everyone gives is “Google, Facebook, (maybe AOL if this was 1996).”  The real answer, of course, is “who the f*ck knows?”

Getting acquired is partly outside of your control and focusing on it too much at the early stage may be putting the cart before the horse.  The best piece of advice I’ve ever received from someone who has sold their company is: build a company that solves a real problem, delights your customers, and has a strong P&L.  If you do these things someone will want to purchase you.

circle of life

The alternate route is stage 6B: the Acqui-hire. At this stage, your Startup dies and your engineers go back into the startup ecosystem to be reincarnated as a killer photo-sharing app.

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Dinner with Tony Hsieh

I won a contest and get to have dinner tonight in Vegas with one of my all-time role models, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.  I’m super-excited about the opportunity but could use some help.  If I can only ask him one question, what should I ask?  

The Accidental Entrepreneur

Innate desire to make a dent in the universe + repeatedly getting punched in the face by a problem + decision to stop getting punched in the face = entrepreneur. 

I just came back from the Dublin Web Summit, where 3000 Internet entrepreneurs in all shapes, sizes colors, religions and nationalities gathered to geek out for a few days in Ireland.   With so much diversity of ideas, cultures and belief systems floating around, it made me wonder if there are any common traits that make up an entrepreneur.

As far I as can tell the only common theme that runs through all leaders (be it political, business, educational, humanitarian) is an innate desire to do cool shit — to make a dent in the universe  and leave the planet a tiny bit better than they found it.

I think entrepreneurs share this same desire.  I don’t know any entrepreneurs who started off their career seeking entrepreneurship as an end unto itself.  Rather, I’ve found that almost all good entrepreneurs tend to be accidental entrepreneurs.  That is – they didn’t choose entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurship chose them.

Accidental entrepreneurs are often people who were making a dent in the universe in all sorts of professions before they were ever entrepreneurs.  They might have been teachers (like Daphne Koller of Coursera), or film producers (like Jim Gilliam of Nation Builder) or consultants (like Ryan Howard of Practice Fusion), but then one day they encountered a problem that punched them square in the face. And this problem kept punching them in the face day in and day out, consuming their every thought, until they had no choice but to put everything else aside and start punching back. At this moment in time, whether it was their intention or not, they become an entrepreneur.  This is just one definition.  In the comments, I’d love to hear how you guys define an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is getting punched in the face by a problem enough times that you finally decide to punch back

 

 

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Jedi Max

What happens when a community rallies together to help a stranger?  This summer I witnessed something that totally blew my mind and warmed my heart.

Last May Brad Feld decided he was going to raise money on GiveForward for someone he didn’t know, a 17-year-old named Justin who was battling stage 4 testicular cancer.  I asked the Startups and Burritos community to support Brad’s efforts by sending Justin virtual hugs to his GiveForward page.  The outpouring of support was nothing short of amazing. You all sent hundreds of virtual hugs and gave Justin a critical boost during the most difficult of times.  If you have 4 minutes, stop what you’re doing and watch this video that shows how you all helped change a life. It gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.

Now, Brad’s at it again. He’s running the Detroit Marathon on October 21st and has chosen another person on GiveForward to help.  His name is Jedi Max. Max is eight-years-old and LOVES Star Wars.  When he grows up, he wants to be a pizza chef.  (yeah, I know, Jedi-Pizza Chef = most awesome job EVER!).

Max also happens to have a very aggressive form of brain cancer called Glioblastoma Multiforming.  But Max is the toughest Jedi fighter/pizza chef in the galaxy so he’s obviously going to beat this.  That said, even the strongest Jedi-pizza chefs can use some extra help.  If you feel like doing something awesome today,  I encourage you to go to his GiveForward page and leave him a HUG to let him know he’s going to kick cancer’s butt.

May the Force be with Max!

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The Evolutionary Convergence of Ideas

The other morning I read a blog post from one of my business role models, Seth Godin.

He wrote:

Instead of outthinking the competition it’s worth trying to outlove them.”

When I read his post, I couldn’t believe it. “How cool is this?”, I thought. The idea of out-CARING the competition  is the business philosophy that has driven my  decisions for several years. I’ve written about out-caring the competition in the past on my blog, and now, uber-smart business guy, Seth Godin is writing about the same idea. Neat-o.

Seth and I are not unique though.  When I googled the phrase “out-care the competition” at least a dozen other people have written about this same concept.  Across the Interwebz, people had converged on this idea independently of each other.  This phenomenon happens all the time in the startup world (two companies in different parts of the world will start the same business at the same time without knowledge that the other company exists).

I recently learned that a similar phenomenon happens in nature as well.  It’s what is known in biological terms as evolutionary convergence.  (the acquisition of the same biological trait in different lineages). The wing is the classic example of evolutionary convergence.   In the survival of the fittest, flight is a pretty  useful characteristic to have. Because of this, birds, bats and insects have all evolved wings and the capacity to fly even though none of these animals are even closely related.  Birds, bats and insects have all converged on this useful trait.

Convergent evolution of the fin.

 

The lesson as applied to startups is that if you have an idea, don’t sit on it.  TAKE ACTION.   No matter how novel you think your idea is, chances are about one hundred other people are thinking of the same idea.  The ones who win are the ones who act on it.

 

 

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Is Blogging Dead?

There has been a lot of scuttlebutt in the blogosphere * over the past year that BLOGGING IS DEAD.   In fact if you Google the words “blogging is dead” you will find over 60 pages filled (ironically) with blog posts using the exact same, hyperbolic, attention grabbing, headline I chose  for this post.

*Disclosure: I don’t actually know what (or where?) the blogosphere really is.  I just thought it would be fun to use the words scuttlebutt and blogosphere in the same sentence.

So, is this true?  Is blogging really dead?  Cause if so, well that kind of sucks, man!  I mean I just started this damn blog a year ago and now I find out that the whole industry is dead.  Double Turds!!!!

Sadly, for me and my stupid blog filled with words, the data seems to back up this apocalyptic prognostication.  Today’s blogger is no longer writing long form blogs in WordPress (or god forbid Typepad or Blogspot).  Instead, they’re using blog-lite websites like Tumblr to share interesting photos with snarky captions.   In fact, Mashable recently posted that by the end of 2012 the word Tumblr will actually overtake the word blog in Google searches.

The reason Tumblr is spanking long-form blogs is pretty simple.   Tumblr = pictures.  Blogs = words.  Pictures > Words.  :. Tumblr Wins.  End of Story.

 

 

 

I just have to look at my own blog analytics on Startups and Burritos to see that this is true.  For example.  The longest post I’ve written (Why Weird is Good) is 1241 words. It got a whopping 102 views. The shortest post I’ve written (Best Job Interview Follow Up Ever) is 56 words but includes a funny video. It had over 3261 views.  The post with the video did 32 times better.  Was the content really 32 times better? Perhaps it was, but more likely the reason the video post did so much better is because people simply prefer to consume information through video rather than long, boring prose.

Okay, so if blogs are in fact dying, what does this actually mean?

Truthfully, the growing distaste for written blogs is merely a symptom of a bigger trend.  As we become ever more addicted to the constant fire hose of information that is social media, most people (myself included) sadly don’t have the attention span anymore to read anything that requires more than 20 seconds of brain power.  In other words, the death of blogs is probably just the canary in the coal mine.

Instead of words, we want pictures. Lots of them.

MORE PICTURES.  LESS WORDS.  This is the trend  –> Instagram: $1 Billion exit //  Encyclopedia Britannica: out of print

Take for example, these two e-commerce sites, Sears and FAB.com. Which one do you think will still be around in 20 years.  I’ll give you a hint.  It doesn’t rhyme with beers.

 

So here’s my takeaway to my fellow Startuppers:

Your content needs to be visual or it will perish!!!

This trend isn’t just with blogs. It’s your website, your mobile app, your emails, your monthly newsletters, your everything.  Visual is the way of the web in 2012 and I don’t think we’ll see a reversal anytime soon. The trend towards a more visual web has been upon us for years, and the growth of mobile devices, whose small screen sizes mandate we use even fewer words, will only accelerate the visual web’s dominance. if you’re is not moving towards a more visual content delivery system, you’re dead in the water.

 

 

* Holy mackerel! This non-visual blog post is whopping 564words.  And yes, in case you were wondering, it would probably generate a lot more more traffic if I simply replaced 560 of these words with an awesome animated GIF of keyboard cat.

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Idea Assassins

“Do few things but do them well. What doesn’t work, kill quickly.”

This is not a quote from Sun Tzu. It’s from Simon Rothman, who is probably just as smart. Simon was one of the very early guys at eBay and was responsible for starting eBay Motors, which ended up becoming a $14 billion-a-year global business and generating about one-third of all of eBay’s merchandise sales. He later became a board member at Tesla and is now executive-in-residence at Greylock Venture Partners.

I had a chance to meet with Simon last week. The advice he gave me about marketing strategy was just too good not to pass along, so I thought I’d share it. Here are Simon’s four rules on marketing:

1. Place only a handful of bets.

Startups rarely fail for a lack of ideas; they fail for a lack of focus. As a founder, your job isn’t to come up with a million marketing ideas but instead to prioritize the top three. So many startups fail because they try to boil the ocean. Instead of trying to tackle a million different marketing ideas, keep in mind that 80 percent of your revenue will likely come from your top 20 percent of customers. Try to figure out the common characteristics behind these top-producing customers, and then focus on the channels that are bringing them in.

2. Put enough time, money, and resources into each strategy to give it chance to succeed.

If you place too many bets, you spread yourself too thin and set yourself up for failure. Some of your bets will fail, not because they were bad ideas but because they were undercapitalized and never even had a real opportunity to succeed. The key is to put more money into fewer bets.

Take display ads, for example. You might be losing money for three months on your display ads, but then on the fourth month, you make a small tweak in the ad copy and your ads turn into a huge moneymaker. But if you only had enough budget to run the ads for one month, you never would have figured this out and just would have thrown money down the drain. Marketing is all about iterating and making as many tweaks as possible in the time frame that you have allotted. The more money you budget for a particular channel, the longer you can stay in the game and the better your odds are of figuring out a formula that works.

3. Test your hypotheses in any way you can — including your instincts.

There’s an old saying in marketing, “What you can’t measure, you can’t improve.” This saying is absolutely true — except when it’s not. Try to test as much as you can, but realize that you can’t measure everything. One of the things that worked well to drive growth early at eBay was PR, one of the most notoriously difficult tactics to measure. Simon said that even though they couldn’t really measure it, they just knew it was working. In other words, sometimes, as a founder, you have stop being a nerd, put down your copy of The Lean Startup, and just trust your instincts.

4. Add fuel to the fire, or kill it quickly and move on to the next idea.

Once you’ve tested a strategy, you have two options. If the strategy is knocking it out of the park, pour more time, money, and energy into it in order to make it scale. If the strategy is not working, kill it immediately. As Simon said, ”If you have to ask yourself repeatedly whether a strategy is working, then the strategy is NOT working.” The harder question arises when a strategy is working pretty well but is not really knocking it out of the park. The tendency in most startups is to keep it going, because they have already put significant time and money into it and want to see it all the way through. This is the wrong choice!

Instead, recognize that the resources you put in are sunk costs, and kill the idea. When you only have enough money and bandwidth to execute on two or three ideas really well, the opportunity cost of putting resources into anything but the best performing strategies is too high.

Marketing is a crap shoot; no one really knows which ideas will work until they let them loose in the wild. The more ideas you test, the greater your chances are of finding the one that works. But don’t test them all at the same time. That won’t work. If you do that, they’ll all fail because you’ll be stretched too thin to execute any of them well. The key is to prioritize.

Lastly, be an idea assassin. Don’t get emotionally attached to your ideas. Be ruthless about killing off the medium performing ideas and just keep the absolute best. Because if you don’t make it a practice to kill off your ideas, your ideas will end up killing off your startup.

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