Categories
Covid 19

I used to be great at my job… then I founded a startup

Usually, I’d hit my groove in a job when I was about 6 months in. At that point, all the little things that had confused me at first started making sense and my performance started to reflect that. But during the whirlwind last 6 months of launching my own startup with another first-timer — I’ve realized I’ll never experience that again.

So herein lies the memoir of a relatively new founder (or flounder?), which will explain why you’ll never be ‘great at your job’ again after starting your own company.

Sweet safety of being given goals

I used to be great at my job. I solved problems. I got shit done. I did more than what was expected of me. At a relatively young age, I touched down in Europe with what I considered to be my dream job.

My job description was flexible, and as I moved across the continent, I knew what I had to do when I touched down in each of the markets, from Norway to Portugal, the UK to Israel. And I got it done reliably. 

Within 6 months of that job, I was getting really good at what I did. People started coming to me to solve their local challenges in a way that made me feel like they only trusted me to fix them. I was the oddball in my team, but I quickly became known as the multi-use jack-of-all-trades (master of only a couple). 

I brought with me an entrepreneurial attitude to the work I did in my team. I built quickly, iterated often, constantly questioned focus, strategy, and priority to ensure the best work was being devoted where it needed to be. 

I was presented with problems, I solved them, and my superiors were happy.

Needing a bigger challenge

After doing that for a few years, I felt as though I was somehow treading water. Personally, I wasn’t developing at the pace I set for myself, and my projects were getting cycled through the business so quickly that I felt the opportunity to build momentum had completely vanished. 

So I bailed. I joined a good friend full-time on a startup. Our first foray into business ownership, tech platforms, software sales, content creation, you name it. It was all new.

We were green… and still are. 

Building a business from the ground up meant everything changed. My ‘jack-of-all-trades’ skillsets suddenly accounted for nothing — because I suddenly had to take everything from A to Z on my own.

I anticipated this to a large degree and flooded my bookshelf with the kinds of wisdom I knew I would need. My bookshelf is still totally out of control, but I’m getting through it.

I started building relationships with people who I knew I could learn from. I saw this change in many ways as going back to school. It turned out I was right. But I forgot how brutal school can be. 

What makes me a good employee now?

As I got more settled in my new role as founder, I realized the common metrics I was chasing down before didn’t mean shit anymore — especially the ones I used to determine if I was ‘great at my job.’ In the startup world, there is an endless sea of tasks to do, people to talk to, and things to learn. It still overwhelms me frequently.

Without colleagues or superiors, it can be incredibly difficult to know where to focus your attention at times. What makes this particular task more important than the other? Who decides if you’re ‘great’ at your job?

I had to get comfortable with multitasking on a level I didn’t quite know how to handle at first. The biggest challenge has been focusing on a supremely small, extremely important set of tasks, and protecting the time you need to get it done.

This includes the time you need for yourself to eat, sleep, relax, do things you love, and be around the people dear to you. Don’t skimp on this.

So if you’re planning on jumping from a corporate monster into your own startup. Absolutely do it. Or don’t. It’s impossible for anyone to tell you if you’ll love it, hate it, or anything in between.

But if you do make the jump, be prepared to kiss being a good employee goodbye — those days are officially gone.

Instead, you’re finally just… you.

So whether my startup journey turns out to be a raging success or an embarrassing flop that takes me straight into the therapist’s chair, I wouldn’t change this experience for anything.

I’m having fun, I’m challenging myself, I’m finding my feet in a sea of toes that I try not to step on too often. I’m finding more and more ways to do what I’m great at as time goes by. I’m no longer a good employee, but I’m finally me.

Categories
Covid 19

Here’s why you should quit

Quitters never prosper. Never give up. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.

There are so many sayings with the same basic message: quitting is bad. This idea is instilled in kids, internalized by adults, and generally just considered common sense.

It’s also often wrong.

I once had a job that, in retrospect, I should have quit earlier. I stuck around two years longer than made sense, all because I thought giving up would be a personal failure on my part. That was wrong. When I finally left, I was happier, more productive, and better off.

I quit, and then I prospered.

Why did I keep doing a job that wasn’t working for so long—even when I had other options? Because of the prevailing cultural norm that quitting is bad. I felt like walking away would be a failure on my part, so I put off doing it.

This idea — that quitting is bad — deserves to be questioned.

The sunk cost fallacy is real

Let’s lower the stakes a little. My Zapier coworker Katie recently told me that she used to force herself to finish books she hated. That’s relatable. If you spent money on a book, then spent a bunch of time reading it, it feels like you have to finish it. Wouldn’t that time and money be wasted otherwise?

It sounds logical, but it isn’t. It’s an example of the sunk cost fallacy, a cognitive bias that causes us to commit to continuing to do something we’ve already invested in.

It’s easy to think that, by not finishing a book you started, you’re somehow losing all the time you put into the book so far. That’s not true: your time is already gone, regardless of how you spend it going forward. Finishing the book won’t retroactively justify the bad time you’ve had reading it so far — it just means you’ll have more of a bad time.

Ask yourself: is reading more of a book that you hate the best thing you could be spending your time on going forward? Because that’s what you can control. You can’t change how you spent time in the past, but you can decide what you want to do going forward. You could spend time reading something you actually enjoy but only if you quit reading the thing you hate.

It’s also not true that the time you spent reading the book was wasted if you stop reading. You learned something about the kinds of books you don’t like, which is a good thing to know. You also tried something new, which is valuable in and of itself. And you now have the opportunity to write a scathing review on Goodreads or make jokes with your friends about the terrible book you never finished. These results apply regardless of whether you finish the book.

Quit. You’ll be better off.

It’s also true in business

All of this same logic applies to work, or running a company. It’s easy if you’ve put many hours into a project or career path, to think that you should continue working on that indefinitely — even if it’s not working out. After all, quitting means admitting that something isn’t working, and that’s a really hard line to cross.

The thinking here is exactly the same: if you stop now, all of the time you spent on the project or opportunity is wasted. It’s way too easy for this mentality to lead to spinning your wheels on something that’s not working.

Cortney, executive assistant here at Zapier, told me she had to do this before finding her current profession:

I thought because I got a degree in marketing, and because my first few jobs were in marketing, that I had to stick with it, even though it was making me really unhappy. I quit, and I am much better for it now! Very happy and my current role is much more aligned with my interests and skill set.

In some cases, you can salvage a project if you put more time into it — and some books have twist endings that retroactively justify how hard the beginning was to read. But not every time.

I’m not going to pretend I can tell you how to know which situation you’re in, but it’s important to consider the possibility that quitting is the best option.

Sometimes you have to move on — and learn from it

I already threw out a bunch of cliches, so here’s another one: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Einstein never said this, but someone did, at some point, and people attribute it to Einstein because they think it’s smart.

There’s no sense in continuing to do something that’s not working for you, and quitting is the easiest way to not continue. Another Zapier colleague Breetel put it well in a message she sent me:

To quit means you have to honor your instincts and the desire for something else, but it also demands that you take a leap of faith. It requires you to trust yourself and the world enough to believe you will be ok without whatever membership, credential, activity, situation, or person you are walking away from.

This isn’t just true when it comes to reading books or doing your job. It’s true in every aspect of your life. Sometimes you’re going to put work into something — a hobby, say, or even a relationship — only to realize it’s not working. Knowing when to walk away is an essential life skill.

This isn’t to say that everyone reading this should quit their jobs if they don’t like them — there are good reasons to keep doing something that’s not perfect, or even far from ideal. But it’s too easy to keep on doing things that aren’t working, and our culture’s emphasis on not giving up only plays into this.

Keep this in mind, and maybe be a little less afraid of quitting in the future.

This article by Justin Pot was originally published on the Zapier blog and is republished here with permission. You can read the original article here.

Categories
Covid 19

What separates a good manager from a bad one? Bullshitting

You should be continually outsmarted by the people you manage. If you’re not, you’ve hired the wrong people — or you’re just a bad manager.

The downside of hiring people more brilliant than you is they’ll be challenging to manage or argue with. The people you hire are the experts — not you — so what’s the point of having them around if you’re not going to listen? But you still have a role as a manager and, very often, it is about more than just the facts of the case.

So how do I deal with this? Bullshitting.

I know this sounds awful… but it was the first step towards developing a pretty solid work skill. Let me set the scene:

You’ve got one team member who might argue a convincing case with a lot of factual information that’s pretty impossible to refute, but another member vehemently arguing against it. You then sense that perhaps the frustration is about a different topic altogether.

Your responsibility in these cases is not to have more facts, but look at how they are presented — and act on that.

I’ve been in discussions like these where the topic was way over my head, but I still managed to understand what the underlying message was — despite not having the technical expertise — and then develop a solution that made it seem like I knew what I was talking about.

That’s partly bluffing, part psychology, a pinch of experience, and some diplomacy — but mostly it’s about making use of context clues. The risk, however, is that you start believing your own bullshit and think you’re an expert on anything… and I unfortunately do think I’m an expert in pretty much anything. Which I’m not.

People will often shy away from a topic because they don’t feel like they’re experts or worry they’ll be exposed. In those cases, ‘bullshitting’ can help you take the initial step.

Over my career, I built up the confidence to comment on things that are ‘over my head’ by believing I can have something sensible to contribute if I take the time to objectively and logically think about a subject.

My most recent achievement in using this skill, while not over-believing in my own bullshit, wasn’t in the boardroom though — it was when I was getting a manicure with my daughter.

Skills in action

My daughter is 19 now, and I cherish any time I can still spend with her before she ventures out into the world and permanently forgets I exist. So if she invites me to tag along to get a manicure, I’m game.

Anyway, we’re there and her manicurist asks her if she wants her fingernails filed squared or rounded. I think she enjoys putting me on the spot, as she turned around and said, “dad, rounded nails or more squared off?”

Now, despite my huge ego, I’m no expert in fingernail design or manicure techniques, but I’ve conditioned myself to think logically and come up with an answer to anything — even if it’s just my best guess.

I thought about the question for a few seconds, pulling at every scrap of info and context I had in my brain, and then said: “Well, you’re trying to stop biting your fingernails, and they’re kinda short, so if you go for rounded, they’ll look longer, and you’ll be less inclined to bite them because there are no sharp corners on them.”

I said it loud enough to hopefully impress whoever was listening, and it worked: both her and my manicurist looked up from their work in surprise and agreed this was good advice.

Now again, I was simply scrambling for a logical answer to a question I have no knowledge or experience of — but I managed to make the best assumption based on knowing what the people involved really meant.

Instead of mansplaining manicuring and pretending to be an actual expert, I gave a thoughtful opinion on something I took the time to think about — one that would hopefully charm and impress one that would hopefully charm and impress people. And it worked.

So what’s the big lesson? Based on this story, we can conclude a few things:

  • My hands (and my daughter’s) look great now.
  • It’s possible to logically take part in any discussion, even if you’re not an expert, by thinking logically and having empathy.
  • You should never start believing your own bullshit and think you know better than the experts.

Now excuse me, I’ve got a pedicurist to wow.

Published April 9, 2021 — 14:13 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Future-proofing your business isn’t about tech — it’s about these 3 key elements

2020 offered valuable lessons about how and why technology business leaders need to future-proof their business models — whether we liked it or not. The pandemic sent normal operations out the window and forced companies to take huge leaps forward in adopting and advancing new technology.

Now, it’s time to harness the lessons learned from this pivotal year to create lasting changes to strategies and infrastructure.

During the pandemic, I worked closely with chief nursing officers and healthcare technologists to implement virtual care solutions. As hospitals scrambled to keep up with an unprecedented number of patients and medical staff tried to protect themselves and others from a virus we knew very little about, I watched leaders implement new solutions in a high-stakes environment.

As I’ve observed, I’ve gleaned several lessons about how organizations can look forward and leverage technology to set themselves up for success in the future — whatever it might hold.

Here’s what you, as a technology business leader, need to know to create a truly future-proof business model:

1. Future-proofing doesn’t have to be complicated

The idea of future-proofing might sound intimidating to many because it’s wrapped in troubling notions about long-term commitments. Many leaders hear “future-proof” and envision committing to an entire suite of technology that they’ll have to keep around forever. They think they won’t be able to change the tech to accommodate new business needs, but that simply isn’t true.

There’s really no such thing as a future-proof piece of hardware or software. (Does anyone still own a PalmPilot?) All tech eventually becomes obsolete, which is one reason only about 30% of digital transformations are actually successful.

So what is future-proofing really? Future-proofing is not about adopting any specific piece of technology. It’s about creating an evergreen business model supported by infrastructure that will not need to be changed significantly as the technology advances.

Thankfully, the basis of a future-proof platform only has two requirements: power and a high-speed internet connection in every room.

Once you have that, you don’t have to be stuck with any specific piece of tech forever. The software should be a service that can evolve, and the hardware shouldn’t be so expensive that it can’t be updated, upgraded, or replaced over time.

2. You’re subscribing to a strategy — not a piece of technology

When organizations set their sights on digital transformation, too often, they become fixated on point solutions rather than platforms or strategies. A point solution is a device; a platform has the ability to add on other components as necessary. This is where I find many organizations falter.

During the pandemic, for instance, I saw healthcare organizations using iPads for virtual care to minimize patient contact. While iPads work great as a stopgap measure, consumer technologies have limitations in a hospital setting.

FaceTime on an iPad is a point solution. What hospitals really need is a virtual-care strategy and a care delivery platform that addresses the entire continuum of healthcare. Deploying iPads is like installing a Ring doorbell when you really need a comprehensive, integrated security system.

If hospitals want virtual clinical services to be a permanent component of bedside care, they have to invest in strategies that drive permanent change. In addition to perfecting their virtual bedside care, they have to be the best place for their nurses to work, they must be the hospital of choice for patients, and all improvements must help them outperform their financial goals. Then they need the platform that best supports that strategy.

These concepts have direct parallels in the wider technology business space. Future-proofing efforts must make work more efficient for employees. The company must be an attractive home for top talent, and business innovations must help the company become more competitive.

3. Future-proofing business strategies must revolve around employee concerns

The two most important stakeholders in any organization are your employees and your customers — in that order. In a world of online reviews, it’s easy to become fixated on your customers and forget about your people. But if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.

The situation in healthcare is a little different, of course. Nurses will take care of patients no matter what. I’ve seen that they will make the best of whatever tools they’re given to provide the highest possible level of care, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to burnout or stress. No one is.

In a recent study, Gartner found that moderately stressed employees underperform by about 5%. This costs the average company tens of millions each year. In 2019, employees saw, on average, 12 changes in their day-to-day work. Now consider how many changes they saw in 2020 and the massive amount of stress essential workers experienced.

Change fatigue can create stress, so any future-proofing efforts should answer the question, “What’s in it for my employees?” Addressing their concerns goes a long way toward building trust and cohesion, which are two key factors in combating employee fatigue and paving the way for change.

The new way of doing things has to be better than the old way — for your employees and your customers. One trend I’m seeing in hospitals and tech companies is a move toward using a combination of in-person and virtual staff. This is effective because employees and customers are better off with a hybrid of physical and virtual services.

Now that more than a year has passed since the beginning of the pandemic, you’ve hopefully had a chance to catch your breath and reevaluate. This is the year when you take what you learned through hard times and use those lessons to create lasting change in your organization.

At its core, future-proofing your business model means laying the groundwork for adaptability. It means improving operations for your employees and your customers — now and in the future.

Published April 7, 2021 — 08:46 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Want to scale fast? Make developer productivity your top priority

One of the hardest processes for business leaders to control, encountered by every growing organization, is how to scale successfully. I’ve found this is even harder when scaling tech teams. Investing in the right places at the right time can be pivotal to the future of the business, as time and again these teams are the nucleus of value creation. 

I’ve heard it said — seen it attempted — that building larger teams is an easy fix, but for every order of magnitude increase, a new layer of management needs to be designed to operate the system. This becomes even more difficult if your team isn’t equipped with the right tech.

In my experience working with leading European tech companies, the most successful have flourished when their leaders do a resource balancing act. To support this, it is important that they empower their developers and engineering teams with both freedom to work in the best way for them, and well-suited tooling early in the lifecycle.

Building an effective team with a well-matched stack is the stuff of startup CEO dreams, but not all manage to achieve it. 

Productive developers make your dreams come true

The performance level of a software engineering team has become a key indicator of a company’s future success. It may sound obvious, but if you’re a startup founder or working for a startup that’s looking to scale confidently, having highly productive engineering teams goes a long way in bringing your products to market faster.

If you find you have more limited resources than you hoped for, being deliberate and efficient with funds and operations is key to drive that growth. Using your developers’ time in the most effective way possible is just as important as having the right product to begin with.

For context, the cost of a developer minute is roughly $1.65, and the cost of a compute minute for automating an otherwise manual process is only around $0.006. Your developer efficiency can have a huge impact on the profitability.

Team structure and insights can be a vehicle for increased growth 

When you take a step back and consider how to facilitate positive communication by design you help contribute to your business’ growth environment. A lightbulb goes off when you realize that team size is an important factor in your operational efficiency.

I’ve always found groups of between four and eight people are optimal, but when the number exceeds 10, it becomes challenging to communicate well enough on a weekly basis to get everything done on time.

So it’s crucial to empower your developers to make decisions and implement changes on their own, using timely platform data and insights — and that’s where the business leader makes their mark.

When operating at scale, your empowered and efficient engineering team will be the difference between hitting a plateau in growth and reaching clear market leadership.

Make sure you scale effectively with the right tech

While empowering your teams with the right mindset is one part of the puzzle, doing the same with the tools they want to use to get the job done is the other.

As a leader, a key part of building a positive environment for your engineers is enabling them to work in their own way so they are happy and productive.

As the people on the front-line of the tech teams, they are equipped with the unique combination of business and technical information for what tool will work best for the job at hand. They often know what works better than you! This empowerment not only contributes to their output but also their talent retention and in attracting more top talent.

Working with technologies that scale well, rather than always adopting the newest up and coming solutions, provides the stability you want. With this, the tools can become a competitive differentiator and create success throughout the business.

Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), for example, is used to better understand the software development requirements and expected strain on the growing team.

When scaling at speed, priorities can change daily, so having a clear view of what is required and being able to automate as much as possible can allow teams to be flexible in their approach and adapt to shifting demands.

As you grow, keep an eye on these factors, and look ahead to when strains may become fractures, and ensure your teams and your technologies will adapt before that time comes around.

Published April 6, 2021 — 08:32 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Italy messed up its startup ecosystem this week — here’s how we can fix it

Earlier this week, Italian startups lost their right to register and incorporate online after the country’s lobby of notaries won its claim to have it removed. The news has understandably left the Italian startup ecosystem in a bit of a shock. 

This decision is literally a step backward, as startups have been able to register online since 2016, so I’m afraid this will be a detriment to the economic development of the country and the development of its startup ecosystem. If Italy wants to step up its innovation game, it has to facilitate entrepreneurs… well… getting started!

As an Italian startup advocate, the news left me deeply worried. Even though I’ve been living abroad for many years, I still keep a close eye on the development of the startup ecosystem back home. And from what I can gather, we really can’t afford to create any more hindrances for founders. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good news coming from innovative startups and cities in Italy that are developing an infrastructure to support innovation. But the fact remains that Italy has yet to produce a diverse startup ecosystem and the amount of investments collected so far by its biggest startups is very far from what we see in other European countries. 

The worst thing about this latest development is that it not only doesn’t help Italy’s startup ecosystem to grow — it does the exact opposite and slows down the establishment of a flourishing startup scene.

But don’t just take my word for it, I’ve asked around in my network to see how people feel about it, and to identify what could be the next steps for Italy to turn this around.

The problem in a nutshell

Nicola Mei, CEO and co-founder of ticketing startup Tocket, finds himself in this limbo, having submitted his registration on March 22, an application that has not yet been approved — and has gotten no clear answers about the future of his application. 

“Evidently the legislation was poor and not well-conceived since its beginning,” says Mei. “But with this latest ruling, many startup founders, including myself, are now paying for other people’s errors. Starting a company in Italy is already a difficult venture, and after the problems the pandemic has brought, this is something I would have preferred to avoid.”

Because of the new ruling, startups will need to get the assistance of a notary when they want to officially register their business. That means unnecessary extra costs and a longer process — depending on how savvy the notary is when it comes to startups — and these are all things that pre-revenue bootstrapping companies don’t have the time or the resources to deal with.

Federico Mattia Dolci, CEO of BOOM — a Tech5 company and one of Italy’s most promising startups — says this decision was a lost opportunity.

“It could have been a step forward for an ecosystem that has been waiting for its country’s support for too long. A ‘NO,’ accompanied by many rigidities contrary to the innovative DNA that our country needs. However, this doesn’t mean that we’re losing confidence in the future and in Italian companies.”

So it’s clear that most people are as disappointed as I am, but also share my hope for the future. But there’s still a big question that remains…

How do we fix it?

Ok, the news was disappointing to hear, but I decided not to be too angry about the situation. So after the first wave of disappointment had settled, I rolled up my sleeves and decided it was time to reflect and look at ways to move forward from this.  

Let’s first look at where Italy is now. According to data from the Ministry for Economic Development (MISE), there are 12,000 startups in Italy at the moment. They employ more than 70,000 people and generate €1.4 billion in revenue. It’s behind other ecosystems in Europe, but still, it’s an impressive number that’s always growing.  

So, how do we go forward from there?

As a start — in my humble opinion — the risk-averse position Italy has taken towards startups needs to change, so what’s needed is a truly disruptive mindset change. 

Even though SMEs and entrepreneurial family businesses are the backbone of the country’s GDP, students and young people are not encouraged to try, learn, and fail — essential steps in the development of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. This can be done in numerous ways, whether financial incentives to get started, access to a proper network of mentors and experts, or university level programs.

Create safe spaces for failure

During my time at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I saw this first hand when I managed the Get Started Startup Program. It’s a 10-week pressure cooker where professors and serial entrepreneurs try to prepare students for the brave career choice of entrepreneurship, as opposed to the more ‘comfortable’ corporate lifestyle. 

Of course, many students who entered the program dropped their idea halfway through — while others pushed it to the very end, only to see their idea fail. But there were also some who made businesses out of it, and a few even successful ones. The failures were also not for nothing. 

Many students who failed the first time, tried again, and this time managed to set up growing businesses — using the assets and knowledge they had acquired during their first try. 

There’s of course no magic formula, but I believe in the basic principle of growing the pool of possible talent and founders eventually lead to foreign investment — making the ecosystem as a whole more attractive. And to grow the pool, you need to give people the chance to experiment as soon as possible, allowing them to fail and gain experience, and provide founders with connections to experts in the community. 

More people create more opportunities, which can eventually lead to a self-sustained framework for growing the ecosystem. But this only addresses the very first step, if Italy wants to catch up with the rest of Europe, it needs to have a holistic legislative approach that thinks about all the stages of a startup’s journey.

Legislation that works for everyone

Gianmarco Carnovale, tech founder and chairman of Roma Startup, tells me it’s important to find the right balance between lowering the barriers for starting entrepreneurs and creating a control system to avoid abuses of such dispositions. 

“We need to develop a legislative ladder in which starting entrepreneurs can avoid bureaucracy and agency costs up until they have validated their product/market fit, reached a defined amount of revenue, or collected a minimum level of investment,” Carnovale explains.

“This approach would solve the problem at all stages: allowing startups to grow with flexibility, and allocating the right amount of bureaucracy when the company can afford them, and contribute to the country’s growth.”

I couldn’t agree more, but what have the Italian authorities actually said about the new notary ruling? Nothing. Zilch. Niente.

However, I think we can expect something in the coming days, given that the startup founders in the registration limbo are banding together to force a reaction from the Ministry of Economic Development.

I strongly believe that Italy is a country that can give much more to its ambitious entrepreneurs, from creative ghost kitchen startups, automotive-of-the-future enthusiasts, and AI wizards, and that perhaps, in the haste of the moment, tried to provide a platform that had more flaws than perks. 

Even more, I believe that unity and open feedback is Italy’s strength — so I’d like the government to offer the tech ecosystem a seat at the table. The best way forward is for the government, along with the community, to draw up the next steps for startups in Italy. 

That way it’ll be able to create a system that can compete with other countries within Europe — like France, Germany, and the Netherlands — where the legislators have endorsed the growth of startups, and that now see the first unicorns taking off and conquering the world of tech. 

So yeah, the notary ruling is a setback, but I’m confident we’ll be able to turn things around.

Published April 2, 2021 — 11:56 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Empathy is not pity

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

When organizations grow too big, you can feel the empathy dissipate. This is more clear from the outside than the inside. On the inside are people who mean well, but are also a part of the system. That’s why they have trouble realizing the influence and effect this system has on the world around it. But if you’re on the outside and experience the full force of its meat-grinding impact, it becomes painfully clear.

A great example of this is the oil company that researched the effects of their business dealings on the environment back in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Their own research concluded that, yes, they were indeed destroying the world and the ozone layer. They were causing climate change and rising sea levels that would wipe out whole countries and devastate millions of people’s lives.

So what did the oil company do? They did the logical thing and made all their drilling rigs a few meters taller. You know, because sea levels were going to rise.

[Read: Company culture is built on actions — not declarations]

I love this story because it really happened (and is still happening), but also because the results are just so damning. Whenever I tell this story, the audience gasps and says, ‘how can someone be this evil?’ After which, we all shrug and get back into our gasoline cars and drive home. But I digress… back to the rest of the story.

For me, the highlight of this story is that I feel I can explain what happened and why it makes sense that this was the story’s logical outcome — without an overly simple ‘they’re all evil’ explanation.

The research at this oil company was probably started by a manager, who left before the report was finished and was then replaced by a different manager. By the time the research was done, nobody remembered why it was started in the first place, and it landed on someone’s desk.

That person took one look at the report and decided, ‘this looks awful and complicated.’ So they did what they were taught to do: if it’s complicated, chop it up, and push it onto someone else’s desk so they can figure it out.

The report then promptly got chopped up, and the part about rising sea levels ended up in engineering. The manager there skipped straight to the page that said ‘conclusion.’

As any responsible manager would, they came to the conclusion that if sea levels were going to rise, it would be in the company’s best interest to make their drilling platforms a little bit higher.

Not a single person in this whole chain of events is guilty of destroying the world, hiding the evidence, or doing something incredibly obscene and unethical. They all focused on doing their best in making the machine run, unaware that their machine was a world-destroying beast.

Now, back to empathy: we’ve all had the experience of feeling dehumanized after dealing with a large company. It can be your cable company when you’re trying to fix a problem. Or an ecommerce platform you can’t access on your phone to check your order. Or the bank that hides behind policy and rules when all you want is for one person to put themselves in your position and see things from your perspective.

You don’t want pity, you want empathy.

Unfortunately, I don’t think having empathy is a skill that is taught at business school. In my experience, doing business is seen as something you should approach with as little emotion as possible and with as little consideration as possible. Saying things like ‘it’s not personal, just business’ isn’t frowned upon in the boardroom.

I guess these people think that empathy is too similar to pity and that showing pity is a form of weakness and should be avoided. But empathy literally just means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ And that’s a fantastic skill to have.

Suppose you can put yourself into your client’s and audience’s position and really envision how they feel? You could make products and sell services that would make them feel happy and appreciated. And yes, it might also help you see the bigger picture of what you’re doing.

And who knows, you might find out that the system you work in is really just destroying the world. So I guess that’s one of the downsides.

Can’t get enough of Boris? Check out his older stories here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

Published April 1, 2021 — 15:12 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Deprioritization is the real key to productivity

You can’t have more than one top priority. You just can’t.

Deciding to prioritize one thing means, by definition, deciding not to prioritize something else. This is as self-evident as it is easy to ignore — which is why it’s important to be intentional about it. The alternative is trying to do everything, which defeats the whole purpose of setting priorities.

You can’t dedicate forty hours to five different projects next week — at least, not without some kind of Hermione Granger-type time travel. We all know this, in the abstract, but fail to keep it in mind while planning. It’s easy to make every project the top priority, but that actually means that we have no priorities.

I’ve been burnt out enough — and confused by time travel plots enough — to know what that leads to: getting nothing done. That’s why it’s a good idea to be explicit about which projects aren’t a priority, not just which ones are.

A weekly list of deprioritized projects

We’ve been thinking a lot about priorities at Zapier this year. Everyone here writes a weekly Friday update, which until recently was more-or-less a weekly list of completed tasks.

However, that approach lacked focus, so we changed things up: now everyone outlines what their top priority was in the past week and what their top priority will be in the week to come. This exercise forces us to think about which project is most important and commit to making progress on it.

But, like I said, there’s a flip side to deciding on a priority, and that’s deciding what’s not a priority. Michael Shen, Director of Advertising and Paid Media here at Zapier, decided to make this explicit every week. In a recent Friday update, he wrote:

We have resultslogs, changelogs, and researchlogs: we don’t really have deprioritized-logs; didn’t-get-to-it-logs; something-came-up-logs. To combat this, I’m taking time in each Friday update for the foreseeable future to talk about a few things that I didn’t get to.

And so he has, using his weekly update to catalog not only the things he prioritized, but also the things he intentionally didn’t prioritize.

“Deprioritization is normal, but we don’t yet do a great job of it at Zapier,” Michael told me, adding that making this change has given him both clarity and balance. “Since making this change, my work-life balance has been so good that I feel pretty guilty about it.”

He shouldn’t feel bad — he set a priority and stuck to it. For Steph Donily, Head of Content and Communications at Zapier, publicly admitting to deprioritizing projects is, in part, about setting a good example when it comes to work-life balance.

“It’s not comfortable admitting that I can’t do everything myself,” said Steph. “But I have to deprioritize projects because I want to make it clear that it’s ok for my team to do the same thing.”

It’s important to note that deprioritizing something doesn’t mean not doing it — it means not doing it now. Both Steph and Michael are explicit about this in their updates, stating that these are projects they will get to eventually. They just weren’t the most important thing to invest time in at the moment.

Decide how you will, and won’t, invest your time

You only have so many hours in a week, so make sure you’re using them for the things that matter most right now. Pick one priority every week and stick to it.

You might be able to finish five projects next week. That doesn’t mean all five projects are your top priority. Prioritization is about figuring out which things you will invest your time in, in the short term. Deprioritization is about figuring out which things you need to put off until later.

Prioritizing one project means deprioritizing something else. That’s just how it is. You can ignore this reality, or you can be intentional about addressing it.

This article by Justin Pot was originally published on the Zapier blog and is republished here with permission. You can read the original article here.

Published March 26, 2021 — 09:46 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Marketers! ‘Zero-click’ SERPs will force us to get more creative

Interested in digital marketing for branding and growth? Then check out Boost.

Google’s attempts at returning answers to queries online in a quicker, easier manner has made the job of SEO more challenging for marketers. With the rise of ‘zero-click’ searches, is there any way for us marketers to stay competitive?

I definitely found zero-click SERPs a difficult pill to swallow as a marketer. However, as an internet user… I see it as a highly useful innovation. 

Searching Google for information about the weather, when my favorite sports team is playing next, or the net worth of Paul McCartney, the answers I’m looking for are likely to be displayed instantly at the top of the page — meaning that the information I need is right under my nose without the need for a click.

While this is definitely a convenient development, it makes my SEO much harder because I rely on attracting traffic to website pages via search engines. 

Now that the majority of searches on Google end without a single click taking place, can marketers enjoy the same level of SEO success as they had prior to the release of zero-click?

What is zero-click search?

Although the implementation of zero-click searching from Google has been a relatively recent development, the practice has quickly become the dominant form of search among users. So let’s begin by defining what exactly is; because it’s important to know our enemy.

Credit: SparkToro

As SparkToro highlights, the summer of 2019 saw the first time that zero-click searches overtook organic click and ad click searches. But how exactly does no-click work?

Zero-click is precisely what the name suggests: a search that results in the users having their query answered without having to make a click on to a website to find their desired information.

This means no clicking on any site featured on the SERP and having an answer displayed in a snippet at the top of the screen. 

The impact on PPC

It’s perfectly natural for marketers to experience jitters about jumping both feet first into a PPC campaign while such significant changes are taking place. Paid advertising can be our lifeblood when it comes to lead generation, but we need a strong indication that money won’t be thrown away on campaigns with a diminishing ROI. 

Speaking to Search Engine Land, Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro, said that he believes paid search CTR will fall in the wake of zero-click SERPs.

“I think paid search CTR will probably decline over the next few months,” he explained. “Each time Google changes how paid ads appear in the search results, ad CTR rises then slowly declines as more searchers get familiar with the ad format and develop ad blindness.”

As people begin to learn about how paid ads manifest themselves on Google’s results pages, we may see more searchers figuring out how to bypass paid placements. However, we also shouldn’t rule out Google adapting its SERPs in order to better accommodate paid advertisers and leverage more clicks for them. 

Given that Google earned $146.92 billion from advertising revenue in 2020 alone, it’s likely that that the search engine giants will act to ensure that its users continue to find value in its advertising platform — although the way in which the corporation can update its UX model to suit both those browsing and the needs of marketers remains to be seen. 

The battle for adaptation

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the wide world of SEO, it’s that Google is that it’s impossible to fight Google and come out unscathed. Sadly, in this game, it’s best to just adapt to its whims as quickly as you can to avoid disruption. 

This mantra is also true of zero-click; it’s worth working on ways for you to adapt your SEO to accommodate the new technology rather than looking for ways to beat the system. 

What do users expect from the web content that they navigate to? Zero-click searches mean that there’s an increasingly miniature market available for bite-sized informative content. Google has that base covered. 

As marketers, the landscape that we operate in is Darwinian to say the least. Our battles to adapt and evolve our methods of reaching customers are essential in leveraging growth. How can we evolve accordingly to work in a market that’s being gobbled up by zero-click? The answer may lie in shooting for high-quality, in-depth content

This approach to content could refer to data, analytics, or emerging trends. It may offer a deep dive into a specific topic or the sharing of first-hand experience of a subject that your website can offer an authoritative voice on.

The greatest marketers thrive on creativity, and zero-click challenges us to innovate and create content that captures the imaginations of an audience that craves more than a one-word answer. 

In the image above, we can see that Google has its bases covered when it comes to questions that many users will be looking for a straightforward answer for, such as ‘what’s the best word count for SEO.’ 

If Google is offering surface-level content, turn your attention towards offering in-depth content that brings substance to the table. 

It’s worth getting creative to outmaneuver Google’s algorithm. Marketers could even work to exploit the search engine’s SERP in creating video content that can be positioned higher within the results pages of Google. 

Revising your keyword insights

Strategic keyword selection can be an important part of caring for your SEO in the age of zero-click SERPs. 

While this process can be an expensive and time-consuming task when undertaken manually, you can utilize automated services like SEMRush or Ahrefs to target long-tail keywords at scale, review your competition and make more data-driven decisions to protect traffic flows.  

Here, the term ‘good seo’ appears to be difficult to rank for, with Ahrefs claiming that it would take backlinks from around 291 websites for you to even think about entering the top 10 SERPs. 

However, long-tail keywords require little-to-no backlinks to rank on Google and they’re capable of playing a key role in generating traffic towards your website.

It’s also important to monitor your progress in creating valuable, discoverable content to bring more value to Google’s SERPs. By utilizing analytical engines like Google Analytics or Finteza, you can tap into comprehensive visual breakdowns of the traffic your website receives.

While your content is designed to offer value to your audience, it’s not worth much if Google isn’t rewarding you with traffic because of users finding snippets of information in zero-click searches. 

By getting creative and adding more in-depth value to the content you create, you can put your website in a strong position to bypass the quantitative snippets that Google’s zero-click SERPs look to exploit and offer some rich, high-quality copy for your visitors to enjoy. 

Want to know more about digital marketing for branding and growth? Then secure your free ticket to Boost now!

Published March 25, 2021 — 10:27 UTC

Categories
Covid 19

Pixar, YouTube, and Google TV made me an ‘intrapreneur’ — here’s what I learned

An entrepreneur is defined as “an individual who creates a new business, bearing most of the risks and enjoying most of the rewards…an innovator, a source of new ideas.” In comparison, an intrapreneur is a leader who promotes innovative product development and marketing within the domain of a larger company.

Both terms elicit a profile of a person who is willing to take risks to promote ground-breaking product development. Their motivations vary, but both typically possess deep insights into emerging domains and a passion for their vision of the future. Our culture reveres such visionaries, and for good reason.

Think how a venture capitalist’s intuitive understanding of recombinant DNA technology drove him to found Genentech. Though less flashy, intrapreneurs make waves, too, as we saw with Paul Buchheit starting Gmail at Google via its famous 20% project

Intrapreneurs receive a little less limelight in the press, and for that reason, guidance and best practices for those on this path are limited. Here are five lessons from my career, spent working from the inside of several of the world’s most innovative tech companies.

1. Choose your own adventure

Whether you start a company or join one depends in large part on how much you believe in the founders’ vision versus how much you’re driven to champion your own. Both choices have pros and cons, but neither is for the faint of heart. 

Recognize your own flashes of insight and explore synergies with people already in the domain. Has anyone put forth a compelling vision? Have these organizations received promising funding, or are they on a path towards it? 

If someone else’s idea has momentum and their vision is aligned with yours, intrapreneurship may be the way. People underestimate the power of teams — whether you are a founder or not is immaterial if the journey is strengthened for all.

Early in my career, I had a vision that computer animation would be the way movies would get made in the future. I was fortunate to find a burgeoning organization of people who shared that vision at Pixar. I joined the company when the team was just 50 people, and I got to ride its momentum. 

Credit: Disney
Toy Story changed the course of animated filmmaking to infinity and beyond.

In my early days, we worked on short films and commercials but soon landed a deal with Disney, where we got funded to work on the world’s first full-length CG film. That film was Toy Story, and it became a stellar hit.

The innovation it landed was such that today, all animated movies are now CG-driven. I chose to join a team that shared my passion, and as a result, I made a higher contribution than I ever could’ve had I started my own animation studio. 

2. Look beyond the status quo

Intrapreneurs are always challenging the this-is-how-it’s-done thinking. However, they do so in a manner that is more acceptable within an existing company culture. Throughout your career, you will encounter organizations with entrenched processes and politics. Most people want to play it safe and will pressure you to do the same. 

Remember that your disruptor mindset is your greatest asset — but how you apply it needs to respect existing paradigms. Choose an approach that will expand and enhance existing structures as opposed to competing with them. 

My disruptor mindset led me to join YouTube. The company had started to showcase a way of distributing videos that was catching on with a younger demographic, but it had plenty of challenges to get beyond Nyan Cat

Having worked in media production at Pixar, I had a strong instinct that creators of all sizes would embrace the democratic nature of distribution via the web as opposed to waiting for gatekeepers. I joined the team in charge of helping creators distribute and get mindshare for their videos — a team of just three people at that time! 

We worked closely with our engineering counterparts, constantly pushing the boundaries of what we could deliver to serve our customers best. We used techniques and processes that were well ingrained within the company, such as Objectives and Key Results and a user-focused mindset. Also, we worked to ensure that the business models we doubled-down on were in line with the company’s larger plans.

YouTube has changed the way we interact with video forever. Remember that saying “we can do better” is often the first step in unlocking pivotal career opportunities and business success.

3. Cultivate breadth and depth of knowledge

Deep expertise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it enables you to delve into a specific field and affect substantive change, such as what we saw with Genentech. On the other, we become so narrowly focused on our experiences that we often fail to see the broader trends. 

Disney was slow to adopt computer graphics because they were so focused on creating traditional animations — a field in which they had deep expertise. Meanwhile, the Pixar team observed that the CG animation behind short films like Tin Toy made amazingly immersive full-length films. Several decades later, Disney would acquire Pixar.

As an intrapreneur, the company relies on you to understand your domain deeply. But it’s also up to you to keep the rest of the team aware of trends and to anticipate how those trends could impact the company’s business down the line.

4. Be your own best advocate

Intrapreneurs are not exempt from the task of selling their vision and getting internal support. It’s your job to lead your team, do your research, and advocate for your ideas.

When I first started working on the TV team at Google, TV was viewed as an antiquated concept. The model had existed for nearly 100 years, and we had to figure out how to embrace the future. 

Credit: Google
TV is far from being over.

Our team created a vision and knew we needed to bring around our internal stakeholders to succeed. We did this by showing them how TV was changing, identifying the key trends of streaming media and home-based viewership, and showing how we could adapt to address these shifts. 

We were thoughtful in our approach and provided context and ample research that would resonate. At every step of the way, our team executed key milestones that helped garner confidence in our vision and enabled the team to get to the next level. Today, our Google TV product is recognized as a leading streaming platform. 

Never fear the road of advocacy. Your role is to help showcase the path within your domain. An intrapreneur usually starts with very few resources, no matter how big the company is. You work as a team, gain support from your stakeholders, and showcase proof points to unlock every funding round — just like an entrepreneur has to do with VCs. 

5. Reframe conventional success

Intrapreneurs tend to thrive in environments that demand abstract creative thinking. Testing ideas and taking risks are part of the game. Of course, that mindset has trade-offs: success is neither linear nor guaranteed. It’s important to realize that sometimes you will experience setbacks and even failure. 

Meanwhile, you may see colleagues making more conventional choices climb the corporate ladder. Similar success may take longer for you, in part because resources will not always be at your disposal or because your market doesn’t grow as you expect. 

In my career, I’ve had many moments when initiatives failed due to a lack of resources and support, making me feel the path was hopeless. But solving complex problems and creating something new excites me. These became my metrics of success.

Intrapreneurship is an opportunity to shape history, and that’s its own reward. And having the safety net of a larger company can help mitigate some (but not all) risks.

Remember: there will be times when intrapreneurship feels lonely, but it’s also incredibly gratifying! In my opinion, a career spent challenging the status quo, contributing your perspective, and creating something new out of nothing is infinitely rewarding. If you have a similar mindset — just DO IT!

Published March 24, 2021 — 10:00 UTC