Archive for the ‘Success’ Category

There is no “career path,” just a network of relationships

March 30, 2018

And how you get from one adventure to the next

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Business and Economics, on the subject of career paths. And the title of my talk was “There Is No Career Path.”

I wasn’t all that that creative. Steve Jobs made this point in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2011, six years before he died. His point was that a career path is only visible in hindsight. The “path” is produced by following your interests and talents. But I want to take that a step further.

My observation is that your career is a product of the relationships you develop along the way in your job along with following your interests and your talents. Notice I didn’t say college alumni networks. One of the points I made to the UWW students was I attended two of the top five universities in the world (Berkeley and MIT), and my alumni networks have produced zero jobs for me.

Networking

But the relationships I developed at LSI Logic, at C-Cube Microsystems, at RealNetworks, and as a venture capitalist at Frazier Technology Ventures have produced six incredible jobs, and have formed the foundation of my career.

When you unpack “relationships” there’s a lot to examine. For me, relationships are formed by establishing trust and credibility with the people you work with and for. And you do that by doing what you said you would do. By speaking your mind. By being honest. By acting with integrity. By being in a culture that aligns with your values.

Your network of relationships is fundamentally about about your personal brand.

That’s right, your personal brand is made up of the people you work with. How well you communicate to them. How well you support others. And that all involves . How you treat them. Those experiences, those memories persist. They’re your personal brand.

Finding the next adventure

And here I am, at another juncture where I am about to move to my next adventure. I left my role as CMO at SPS Commerce in early January, to return to Seattle. Family reasons draw us there, and I really wanted to get back to my roots – building category-creating technology companies.

And it’s this network of relationships that is guiding me. Which made me think of another set of conversations I’ve been having with folks I know – about how instrumental these relationships are to discovering your next adventure.

I’ve been employing the method that has propelled me to where I am now, and which I know will get me to where I want to be next. It involves four activities:

Hone your story – What this means is having clarity about what it is you want to do and what you’ve done to prepare you for this, and it’s being sober and humble about what you’re really good at. And finally, it’s about being compelling about why this next adventure is right for the role and for you – and for whoever it is you will work for.

“Your story” is what you say after you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, and there’s a pause. You then tell the story. Why you’re there with them, why there is context, and you paint a picture of your future that they might be able to help you with.

Lots of conversations – This is the foundation of the process. This is where you start speaking to lots of people who might be able to help sharpen your focus, sharpen your story (you’ll be telling that to them), and who might know someone else who you might meet. But fundamentally you are asking someone to spend time with you. To help you.

It’s awesome your contact will meet with you, so be considerate of their time. Thank them. And make sure you see if there’s anything you can do to help them. It will make you feel less bashful about asking for feedback, or to be connected to someone else.

Considerate networking – Expect and insist on “double opt-in introductions” – this means the person connecting you someone needs to check with that person to confirm they’re interested BEFORE making the introduction . Only after that person agrees to be introduced, then expect the introduction. This means there’s mutual interest in the conversation.

This also introduces an obligation to responsiveness on your part. That means as soon as you see that email connecting you to the other party, respond promptly – before the other party has to. Your contact is doing you a favor, so demonstrate grace by making it easy for them for them to find a time and place to meet. And while you’re at it, be considerate of the person who made the introduction. In your reply, move that person to the bcc line of the email. That way they will see that the connection has been made, but they are not burdened with seeing the 7+ email exchanges that went into finding a date and place to meet.

Let go of the outcome – This is the hardest part. The only part of this process you can control is your ability to meet with people, tell your story, and explore where this all takes you. What it won’t do is provide a linear path to an awesome next role for you. But enough of these sincere conversations, where you’ve been considerate and forthcoming, will produce a conversation, at some point, that will point to a person or a role, that is exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s that simple. I can tell you every one of the awesome opportunities I am exploring right now have followed these four steps. And it has had nothing to do with where I went to school.

And like with you career – there is no deterministic path you can see stretching forward. Just a network of relationships guiding you down the road.

 

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Why video games are awesome preparation for life, and careers. By Peter Zaballos

March 23, 2018

And why adults get video games wrong

Recently, my world has been totally rocked with the multi-player game “7 Days to Die” which is a zombie apocalypse game that my children and I play together, even when scattered across the country. Sunday at 7 is our time, and we generally play with me in one city, each of our kids in other cities, and some of their friends in other cities as well.

7DTD is a game where every seven nights (in game) a zombie horde attacks, and the rhythm of the game is to spend your time between hordes preparing. It’s all about cooperating, and dividing up the work – where the work can be scavenging supplies, making building materials and tools, crafting weapons and ammunition. And developing a plan to defend ourselves. We all log on, and setup a group phone call, and there’s a constant stream of updates, suggestions, and help.

Here’s the base we’ve created. My main skill is converting rocks and sand into concrete. You can see how we put that to use. BTW, this base was shredded later that night (horde night). We survived, but the base took tremendous damage. Which caused us to assess what had gone right, wrong, and what our next defense setup would need to look like. We figure out what’s working, what’s not, and adapt. This is what I do at work every day. Except for the zombie horde. At work it’s competitors.

7DTD base

It’s an easy way to spend five hours without even realizing it. And it is a rock solid environment to hone the kinds of skills any of us needs to get through life, and succeed in our careers.

But every week it’s the same focus. We develop a plan to build defenses, a plan for how we’ll cooperate and support each other because we all have different skills and resources. And like all plans, they become obsolete the moment the zombie horde arrives. Here we are at night, my avatar’s name is RaceCondition (inside computing joke there) and the view is from one of my son’s avatar. We’re all so relaxed because since hordes swarm every seven days, and it’s day 58, we can more easily gather like this at night (in this shot we’re at an abandoned city looting).

7DTD crew

But before going on, let me tell you about how my children (and their friends) and I got here.

It may be that our family is unique, but I really doubt it. Our kids grew up playing video games. Freddi Fish was a big hit when they were little. They played them on the desktop computer we had way back then.

But even then the play had a strong social component to it, since we had four kids in five years, there was lots of group play involved. Two or three of our kids would be crowded around the monitor watching the other play, and there’d be banter throughout the game.

When the subject of getting a video game console came up, my wife and I proceeded cautiously. We’d “heard” so many scary stories about them. About how people’s kids would disappear for hours/days/weeks into a basement TV room and waste away there, living this solitary existence staring into a screen.

What we got wrong about video games is how incredibly social they are. And how much the games foster problem solving and collaboration.

We started slowly, with a Nintendo Wii. And it was fun. Mostly family fun. And soon the topic of an Xbox surfaced. Their friends had them, and over time we reluctantly agreed. There we some conditions, the biggest was that the kids would need to pay for it themselves, along with the games they wanted. So they saved, and did.

What ended up happening totally surprised us. This was full-on social pandemonium. There’d be upwards of a dozen kids at time in our basement – some playing – but most watching the others play. And the conversations, laughter, and screams of delight that grew and grew as the games progressed could be heard throughout the house.

We also witnessed our kids spending so many hours playing with all their friends and spending those hours talking…about the game, about life, about anything and everything. And there’s a growing amount of research showing video game play does create better career skills.

Which is why I was so touched when our youngest child, four years ago, suggested I learn to play Halo. He was patient, it took me literally almost a year before I didn’t feel completely incompetent. But we played through Halo 2, then Halo Reach (as far as our children are concerned, the franchise effectively stopped there). Eventually I would even get invited down when all the other friends were there and play with them, and hold my own.

I went on from that to play through Portal, Portal 2, and Bioshock Infinite. All three of these are phenomenal problem solving games with awesome story lines. Portal 2 is worth playing just to experience Stephen Merchant as the voice and personality of Wheatley – likely the single best voice performance in a video game, ever..

The more I observed how our kids played these games with their friends the more it looked like the environment I like to foster on my teams at work: goal-focused, team-oriented, sharing data to make better decisions. The more it looked like the environment I strive to live up to in my User Manual.

So of the many good decisions my wife and I made as parents, one was being open minded about video games, and trusting our children to make good decisions about how to embrace video games. We learned a lot as a family there, that has helped prepare our children for career success.

Category creating – it’s as easy and hard as it looks. By Peter Zaballos

February 9, 2018

Part One: Bold vision is everything

I’ve been thinking about categories recently. A lot.

I’ve been fortunate to have been in three companies who had that bold vision, who could see that structural opportunity, and who zeroed in on the audience that was affected. At LSI Logic, we saw the opportunity to enable new categories of computing devices – personal computers and mobile devices. At C-Cube Microsystems we envisioned the impact that digital television and film could have on the broadcast and entertainment industries. And at RealNetworks it was as simple as enabling internet-delivered audio and video – developing the breakthroughs making Netflix and Spotify a reality.

Creating a category is easy to say and so hard to do. Or rather, it’s easy to see a company who has created a category and it sure looks obvious in hindsight. But in the early days, even in the middle phase, it’s nothing short of a free-for-all.

Table stakes are having a bold vision for what you think could be dramatically different for the customers you serve. Not better, but different. Not a little different. Fundamentally, earth shatteringly different. And with those words and the belief in them, you then need to have the audacity to live up to them.

The creators of categories dominate the market they create. Because they see a future their competitors don’t. Their competitors chase what the category creator makes visible. They will always be steps behind the category creator.

Creating a new category in the market begins and ends with a bold vision for what’s possible. A clarity of the mission of the company and more importantly, for the customers you serve. This is about getting precise about the words. The words matter.

But defining the category is more than words and sentences of a paragraph. And bringing a category vision to life is more than a marketing campaign. It is precisely where the company’s strategy and strategic intent are mobilized across the organization. Category creating is a holistic commitment of the business. It is the CEO’s personal obligation. If the CEO doesn’t personally own this ambition, no amount of over-functioning executives can make up for that. At some point the conversation gets shrill.

BRING THE CATEGORY TO LIFE

With the CEO owning the category vision, they don’t need to  develop the framework that will enable the company to take advantage of and define the category. That can be handled by a member of their team. It has to be someone senior enough in the organization to have visibility and perspective, and also be someone who can work across teams, across execs, and orchestrate engagement. This includes:

  • Identifying the people, processes, and products required to fulfill the category potential.
  • Specifying how you will get from today to that future potential. The solution you have today and what you will build in the future to address  the category problem
  • Identifying the ecosystem that will validate and accelerate the development of the category, and squeeze out your competitors

To bring a category to life depends on this strategic alignment first and foremost with the product strategy. The product needs to deliver this category promise to the users. Their experience validates the category potential, and literally brings it to life in the market. And this product alignment needs to be fully aligned with how these products are taken to market. The words that are literally used to attract prospects, engage them in learning more, and choosing the solution all have to map back to the category vision and definition.

In an age where essentially every sale is driven through some form of digital interaction, the good news is that search performance provides and awesome data-driven laboratory to ensure you get all of this right. You’ll know. The data will scream the results at you.

STEP UP AND LIVE YOUR AMBITION

This is where so many companies get scared. Especially once a company is in the midst of category creation. It’s easy to get frightened, chasing near term revenue and investments in the face of the riskier long term commitments that need to be made. Remember, you’re bringing to market something fundamentally different than what exists today. For the meek, that means there will be some pretty powerful forces pulling you back to…today. Today is familiar. It is safe.

Creating a category is lonely. Especially for the leadership of the company. The CEO and their team are the custodians of this vision, and for a long, long time, they may be the only true believers.That’s why it’s easy to get scared. Why it’s easy to back off. To retreat to the goals and tactics that produced the recent past, and not make the bolder choices to bet on the future.Bringing a category to life is a fully focused go-to-market campaign. Externally and Internally.

That internal part is key. Employees need to have clarity on what that different future will be and how to explain in an appropriate context, whey this journey is important. Customer Success needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Sales needs to be trained and fluent spokespeople. Everyone inside the company is on a mission. To fundamentally transform the lives of their customers.

INVIGORATE THE COMPANY

The day-to-day work of creating a category is the essential job of every employee. They need to be trained, to be fluent in, and have internalized the same understanding of the structural opportunity and the role the business has in realizing this opportunity.That’s why RealNetworks had a palpable intensity – every day – that employees were energized and motivated by.

It’s why my friend and RN colleague Dave Cotter remarked “I was probably young enough to believe it, but there really was a sense that we were fundamentally changing the world, and, actually, for a period of time we were.”Bringing a vision to life for customers and prospects goes hand in hand with bringing that vision to life for employees.

This is why the obligation for defining the category rests with the CEO, but how important it is that every employee is enlisted making the vision real to prospects and customers, every day.Category creation is not a board topic, it’s not an exec staff meeting topic.

It’s the CEO’s life mission. It’s internalized by every employee. It’s the lifeblood, the daily obsession, of everyone.

I am a feminist because of my sons

November 27, 2016

I think I was part of the problem for longer than I realized.

As a man, I simply assumed everyone got treated the same. Got paid the same. Was listened to equally – because I sure was listened to. And they paid me well for what I did and said.

And then I started to feel naïve. At first it was noticing that the women on my teams seemed to be paid less than the men, for the same positions. Then I began to notice women get talked over. I began to see women apologize for voicing an opinion in a meeting. I saw men look right past women’s ideas and contributions. Rarely out of malice. Worse — out of blindness.

womens-equality

I’ve come to realize that women do have a more difficult journey in society today, if they want to have the journey of opportunity and acceptance that men do. Society treats women differently, has different expectations of them.

And generally speaking the ones who notice this are women. Men mostly glide through their careers, like I used to. Thinking everyone is treated the same, with the same access to opportunity.

And I grew up in an era where the term “feminist” was synonymous with “radical” — a fringe viewpoint. A crazy, minority voice. But the more I noticed, the more it became urgently clear to me that “feminist” is not a fringe response to how women are treated in our society, it’s a sane, measured, reasonable response.

The more women outnumber men in education, the more they aspire to secure leadership positions and positions of authority, “Feminist” describes the moment of truth in society as it makes room for them. Learns to respect them, adjusts to following their lead. So yes, I am a feminist.

When I look back on the journey to this realization, it’s punctuated with some specific experiences. Sources of inspiration and heartbreak. But they share a common theme: an injustice.

THAT’S NOT MY IDEA

I was on a volunteer board almost a decade ago. It was for a public/private partnership where the other board members were the city manager, the chancellor of the local university, the head of the local community development authority, and others — staff from the city and university, local business leaders. The tone set by the city manager and chancellor was open and welcoming.

We were focused on building a business incubator facility. At the time we were in the early stages of site selection, budget sizing, and developing fundraising strategies.

There was one meeting I will always remember. We were in the midst of a fairly strident discussion of two different site alternatives and approaching an impasse. One of the city staff members spoke up and proposed a novel, creative third alternative. No one picked up on it. She suggested it again, no one picked up.

I spoke up, and said “Susan (not her real name) has a really good alternative” and I summarized it. Engaged conversation ensued. I was more than taken aback. When more than one person said “Let’s go with Pete’s idea,”  I had to stop the conversation to remind everyone that it was not my idea. It was Susan’s.

I was flabbergasted. Susan and I exchanged glances. Hers one of hurt and appreciation. She was a thoughtful, insightful human. Well versed on the pragmatics of city mechanics and finances. This was the first time I’d personally witnessed what I now know to be a common experience for women.

TRUE-ING UP SALARIES

In every role I have had as a manager, I’ve had to tackle the same problem. The women on my teams were generally not paid the same as the men. And I’ve worked for some of the most progressive and technologically advanced companies in the world. I know there were no overt intentions to pay women less than men for the same jobs, but it happened. Every time.

I coined a term for this: “true-ing up salaries.”

Today I am fortunate to work for a company that shares my values and vigilance. We do examine pay by role and gender to ensure people are paid the same regardless of gender. And I am fortunate to have a role as a senior executive to be able to set a tone and effect policies to ensure we have equal pay for equal roles, that regardless of gender your career path is based on the merits of your contributions. Making this real requires both awareness and action.

SHERYL SANDBERG, ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, AND THE MISTAKES I’VE MADE

When my wife and I met we both had career-track jobs. Me in technology marketing, and she in textbook editing. Within two years of getting married, we had the first of our four children (we would have four children in five years), and without either of us really thinking through the implications, my wife decided to quit her job and become a full-time mother — trading a professional job for a 100+ hour per week job with no pay while also squeezing in 5-10 hours a week of freelance editing.

It’s not so much that we talked much about it, it’s just it was the easier, more obvious choice. I made a lot more money than she could. It just made sense. It was expected. And no one at my office ever asked me if I was coming back to work after the births of any of our children. But that question gets asked of pretty much every pregnant woman. It’s this unspoken societal set of norms that make it easy to not question assumptions. To not think through the alternatives, and the consequences. That’s what we did.

It wasn’t until almost fifteen years later, when during the Great Recession my wife needed to go back to a full-time job, that we realized how much a price that decision had cost her. She was able to resume her editing career — right where she had left it. Meanwhile, I had continued to progress far ahead in mine, further exacerbating the gap between our careers and earning potential. And the fifteen years were spent. She couldn’t get those back.

Some years later, reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was a revelation to me. Here was a woman brave enough to share her personal journey through this landscape, to call out just how hard it is for women to travel the same path men do. Social pressure, income inequality.

I read Lean In with equal measures of excitement and shame. How could I have been an enabler to the outcome of my wife’s career path? How could I have not done more to think through the implications, to be a better partner? We both made decisions informed by culture, momentum and inertia. Easy at the time, costly in hindsight.

lean-in

And when Anne-Marie Slaughter penned “Women Can’t Have It All,” it felt like I’d read something written by a soul looking over my shoulder during those decision moments — someone looking over both my wife and my shoulders.

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As a husband, I let my wife and our family down by not taking a more active role in questioning assumptions, understanding the need to think about consequences of choices — whether intentional or choices made by a lack of an act.

DREAMFORCE EQUALITY SUMMIT

This past October I attended the huge Salesforce.com conference, Dreamforce, and witnessed a session in the Women and Equality Leadership Summit. It was phenomenal Leyla Seka moderated the session where Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sarah Kate Ellis (CEO of GLAAD) spent more than an hour discussing the challenges (and opportunities) women have pursuing leadership roles in business and society. Frank, honest conversation. I found it illuminating, inspiring, and urgent.

df-equality-summit-2016dreamforce-equality-summit

But in a room of about 1,000 people, I was one of maybe 100 men. That was profoundly disappointing and frustrating. Women already know about the challenges they face. While it surely was valuable for them to be there together, where were the men? Men need to be actively engaged in this conversation. A disproportionate number of them in the very positions that can effect change, and they’re not even participating in the conversations.

I HAVE THREE SONS

My wife and I have four children: three sons and a daughter. I am so tired of hearing men called out for gender discrimination verbalizing platitudes of support for women and bringing out the “well of course I’m opposed to discrimination, I have a wife and daughter(s).”

That so, so disgustingly misses the point. You should be vigilant because you have sons. The behavior and values you live inform your sons about what equality looks like and feels like, because inequality affects them, not just your daughter(s) and your wife.

WHY I AM A FEMINIST

I am a feminist because I want to create an environment where women and men get judged equally on their merits, and I want my sons to be fully engaged in creating that world. Where men and women have their ideas heard. Where men and women get paid equally for the same roles.

I am a feminist because I don’t ever want another woman to have her idea appropriated.

I am a feminist because I don’t want to “true-up” salaries for the rest of my professional life. I am a feminist because I want women to have the same opportunities as men.

I am a feminist so that society encourages and makes it possible for men, and women, to be equal care givers. So that either men and women get asked “are you going to stay home after the birth of your child?” or better, the questions stops getting asked, of anyone.

I am a feminist because I want my sons to be active and engaged in creating the environment and “normal” I strive for. A ‘normal” where men and women have their ideas heard.

And I am a feminist because I want my daughter and my sons to see how men can be a part of the change, become leaders, and be blind to gender in the decisions they make and the actions they take, as they live their lives.

The high cost of winning

November 17, 2016

It’s been a little over a week since Donald Trump won the US presidential election, and this is playing out as expected. Republicans are the “winners” and Democrats are the “losers.” The obsession with winning at all costs – and the Republicans paid quite a price for this win – is what has polarized our nation, and gridlocked our government.

But with Trump it was different. Let’s not look at his policies – politics is about differing policies, and democracy is supporting the President whether you agree with his/her policies.

This election was different. The words Trump used during his campaign were breathtaking, Shocking. His words revealed him to be a racist. They revealed him to be sexist. They revealed him to mock the disabled. They revealed him to dishonor our servicemen.

And throughout the campaign, the keen observers were reminding us “Trump is not the issue, it’s that so many people support him – that’s the real issue.”

trump-and-his-supporters

True story. As shocking as it is to confront a country led by a racist, sexist bully, it’s even more horrifying to contemplate that people chose that kind of a leader.

So don’t fear Trump. Fear his supporters.

And “his supporters” are people in your community.

The people you shop with, you go to school events with, that you socialize with. For them racism and sexism were not deal breakers. That’s the alarming part of this election.

And there is real fear. In the days after the election our high school age son came home from school sharing with us that his friends and their families are worried about their safety and security. These are naturalized American citizen families of Vietnamese origin, Sri Lankan origin, Mexican origin, middle eastern origin. They are living in fear today.

What they fear is what might happen to them in their community because of the color of their skin, their gender, or their religious beliefs. They certainly don’t fear that Trump will personally discriminate against them, or threaten their safety or well being. It’s that the people they live in this community might. The people who at some point decided that racism and sexism were not deal breakers.

I live in a community with a national reputation for supporting disabled students. The university campus here has sent numerous disabled athletes to the Special Olympics. How should they feel in their community when they see the leader their community members vote for is someone who openly mocks the disabled?

I don’t believe that the people in our communities that supported Trump believe they’re racists or sexists. But the moment of choosing Trump is the moment of truth.

I honestly struggle to imagine an explanation from parent to a daughter explaining why they voted for Trump yet somehow are not in some way endorsing sexism. Would it go like this?: “I’ve decided to vote for Trump, but even though he has repeatedly demeaned women and admitted to groping them, you should feel safe in a society with him as a leader.” Really? How safe can you feel as a woman today, with the Commander-in-Chief setting a tone of blatant sexism?

When you talk to really effective leaders they will tell you the most significant aspect of leadership is setting the tone of the organization. Setting the tone of what your expectations and standards are. Setting the tone for how work will get done, how decisions will get made, how people will treat each other.

A tone is being set that racism and sexism are ok. That it’s ok to make fun of the disabled. That it’s ok to pass judgment on the men and women in the military because of their race, creed, or national origin.

Put another way, if someone on one of my teams said what Trump has said about women, I would have fired him. And I wouldn’t have deliberated whether or not his ideas and plans about his role in the business had merit. Because none of that would have mattered. I don’t tolerate discrimination on my teams. Zero.

If someone said what he said in a job interview, I wouldn’t has thought “maybe he has better ideas than another candidate?” or “I dislike the other candidates more than this one” – that’s the last I would have seen of them.

Generally speaking, I can’t imagine an ethical corporation that would hire someone who demonstrated the behavior Trump did during the election cycle – regardless of how well they might do the job.

You can like Trump for his policies, but unless you’ve rejected his racist, sexist, mocking of the disabled, dishonoring of our military men and women – then you are enabling racism, you are enabling sexism, you are enabling the diminishing of the disabled and military. Because you can’t say “I support the disabled” and support someone who does this:

trump-disabled

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. What do we do when we live in communities made up of people who through their vote for Trump seemed to say “Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination were not deal breakers.”

It seems to me the obligation for reconciliation lies with them. The responsibility for explaining to the people they see in their community how they could support a candidate like Trump and yet be intolerant of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. They bear the responsibility of safeguarding the members of their community who are of different races, creeds, and colors. And the rest of the community will need to hold them accountable for their actions.

Greg Popovich couldn’t have framed this any better. It’s not about politics. It’s about behavior and our communities.

A life of generosity lived with an open heart. I will miss you, Ken Myszkewicz.

October 31, 2016

A friend of mine was murdered six days ago. He was 43 years old and left behind a wonderful wife and son. And amidst the heartbreak and the tears, my friend left life as he lived it – focusing all of us who knew him on the capacity each of us has to make life better.
ken-myscewic

We first came to live in our town in 2001 – my wife’s grandmother was nearly 90 years old, and we decided to move close to her so if she passed away we wouldn’t wish we had been with her – we would have actually been with her. This was prescient, as she did pass away six months after our fateful decision to be with her.
I’ve always been a big fan of cycling, and I brought my bike with me when we moved – an “exotic” Pinarello I bought with part of my signing bonus when I got out of business school in 1990. One of the first things I did once we got settled in our new home was to go out for a bike ride – Southeastern Wisconsin is an awesome place to ride a bike – miles and miles of country roads and beautiful scenic farmland.

So there I was, I’d just finished one of my first rides and I went to a convenience store in town to get something to drink. I was sitting on my bike and noticed a guy across the street walking by, see me, do a double-take, and then make a beeline for me. He introduced himself, and then proceeded to ask about the bike and offered a load of suggestions about routes as well as let me know there were Tuesday/Thursday “no drop” rides leaving from the Trek factory in town. Before I knew it we’d exchanged contact info. My wife remembers me coming back from that chance meeting excited to have had such a warm welcome to the cycling community.

That guy was Ken Myszkewicz.

Those “no drop” rides in hindsight are where Ken’s character were revealed, time and again. I’m a bike nut, but I’m not a cycling athlete. I love riding bikes, and I did show up on more than a few of these rides. The group would head out for two hours of riding, and the pace would pick up along the way. I would generally be at the back of the group, my eyes focused on the hub of the rider in front of me. As the pace increased and as I got tired, tunnel vision would develop, and about all I could see was that hub.

Cycling is a surprisingly mental sport. When you’re tired, and all you can see is that hub, staying “on the wheel” of that person in front of you becomes your mental obsession. It’s your lifeline to the group. Fall back too far and you won’t be able to speed up enough to get back on the wheel, and you’ll be riding by yourself.

There’s even a term for this – “yo-yo-ing” off the back of the pack. Fall behind, work your way back up. Fall behind again, work your way back up again.

And “no drop” rides are where the pack keeps its speed to the point where no one falls off the back. It’s humane to the less capable, justifiably annoying to the better cyclists.

On my first group ride there I was, 20 miles in, and at the back. Yo-yo-ing. And as hard as I tried, I was starting to fall back. With my tunnel vision I didn’t notice a rider look back, and then slow down and move up behind me. Moments later I felt a firm hand on my lower back, and it pushed me forward. Right up behind the wheel of the rider at the back.

That was Ken. No words. Just help. And while he had a legendary reputation for being able to set a pace for a ride that would leave the entire group scattered and exhausted, he chose to take his abilities, and his heart, and direct it to helping others stay in the group. It was a choice.

Ken was a legendarily competitive cyclist, who founded more than a few cycling teams and who raced and won just about every kind of cycling race that exists: road, cyclocross, endurance, mountain biking. He worked at Trek – how much better does a job get if you’re a cyclist?

When he found out I was nuts about cycling and that Greg Lemond is a hero of mine, Ken made sure to get Greg to sign a photo when he stopped by the Trek factory.

At the service I met people he made better by helping them keep up. The people he made better by setting a pace on competitive rides that caused them to dig deeper for strength and mental toughness than they could have on their own. He made people better by simply showing up, at races, at rides, at school events. When I spoke with others who knew Ken this generosity of spirit is what each and every person I spoke with remarked on.

Ken was both a man of few words, and amazingly skilled at conversation. He could remain silent in a group, and offer one-word answers and what one might describe as even grunts if he thought the subject was mundane or frivolous. Yet he could also engage you in a conversation for hours if the topic was worthy and you were game.

When we first moved to our town, for about five years we would host a holiday party. At the first year the party ended at about 9, and everyone left, except Ken. He grabbed a beer and continued talking for the next two hours. It was a good, thoughtful conversation. If it had been anyone else we would have thought “why won’t this guy leave” – but this is where Ken was at his best. We took it as a compliment, that this was Ken’s way of letting us know he was comfortable and felt welcome. With the crowd gone, it was just him and you. For the next few years we would plan these parties knowing there would be the time we told guests the party would end, and then there would be the time when Ken would leave. We’d plan for at least an hour. This paid dividends. We got to know Ken’s wife, Kim really well, and this cemented the friendship our children had with their son, Tyler.

ken-and-family

Of the hundreds of photos we saw yesterday, every single one had Ken, his wife Kim, and their son Tyley with big, beaming smiles. Every one.

These weren’t forced. They were genuine reflections of the hearts that produced them.

The searing loss for me is that it’s precisely too late to let Ken know how much I valued who he was. And yesterday at the service I saw hundreds of people who Ken had made a difference in their lives, and they couldn’t let Ken know either. Because making a difference in someone’s life most often is done in a way that neither party notices at the time. Ken changed lives because of who he was on a daily basis and he never helped people to be noticed. There were no heroics involved.

And my life was changed by Ken in ways I only see and appreciate through the pain of his loss and a broken heart.

At Ken’s service yesterday the most telling, awe inspiring moment happened when another cyclist stood up and asked “How many of you have had Ken show up and push you back up to the group?”

And more than 100 hands went up.

Ken was an awesomely accomplished cyclist, won more than his share of races. He was a fiercely competitive person. But the difference he made with his life was not what he won, but the choices he made to help. 1000s of times. The choices he made to live his life.

The very wise and kind pastor who oversaw the service yesterday closed it reminding us that the daily generosity Ken practiced is what we should focus on in our own lives. How we can  do more, every day.

For me, I will look more generously to find those who are”yo-yo-ing” in life and be that person who shows up with a firm hand, to help push them forward.

Ken is gone now. But he left us all an example about how to live a life.

I’m done with Uber – The moral cost is too high

November 29, 2014

I was one one of Uber’s best fans – I must have recruited a dozen friends and colleagues to the service, because it fundamentally is just so much better than taxis or car services. Wonderfully inspired idea, and at the street level, brilliantly executed. I loved it.

And I use the past tense because I did love it. But not anymore. The trickle of moral lapses by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, have become a roaring torrent. Uber has an ethics problem, but most importantly it has an ethical leadership problem.

Peter Thiel summed it up succinctly: “Uber is the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”

Which is why the details of the plan to smear journalists who create unflattering views of the service pushed me to the point of being all done with the service.  So, on November 25 I sent my request to Uber to cancel my account, as “the moral cost to me of doing business with your firm is more than I can afford, and I have happily created my first accounts at Lyft and Curb.”

And in efficient Uber fashion, I received this confirmation of my account cancellation, which is sad. The service and drivers are great. But that’s not enough today. You have to believe in and trust the people at the top. And I can do neither with Uber the way it is being run right now. Travis – until you show some leadership and I won’t be back.Uber Cancellation

Personal Heroes

October 21, 2013

I have personal heroes – folks who have lived their lives in ways that give me inspiration and a vocabulary to name my own ambitions. People who are unafraid to say what they believe, regardless of what it will cost them.

David Walsh is one of my personal heroes

Few people outside of professional cycling know who this man is, but he’s the journalist who first suspected Lance Armstrong of cheating, and spent 13 years doing the difficult work of uncovering the evidence and speaking the truth. And he became the target of all Armstrong could throw at him.

This Sunday Times article says it all:

When Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, David Walsh wrote in The Sunday Times that he watched the race in sadness. Armstrong’s astonishing exploits, just three years after his successful battle with cancer, did not make sense to him. Rather than joining the unquestioning journalists who lauded the American’s achievements, Walsh called for an inquiry into the Tour de France in July 1999,….”

CTWThink about the context. In 1999 – the first year of Armstrong’s comeback – Walsh calls this out. And for the next 13 years  pretty much everyone else tells him he’s wrong. It costs him his job, professional and personal relationships. How lonely it must have been for him.

I’m not going to re-hash the whole Armstrong crime, but if you want to dig in, look here, and here, and here for a start. David’s books are “Seven Deadly Sins” and “From Lance to Landis”.

I am a huge cycling fan, and my family and I spent five  vacations in the French Alps to watch the race in person. In 2006 through a journalist friend, we struck up a dialogue with David to encourage him to write what became “From Lance to Landis” – his first english language book that laid out the evidence Armstrong was cheating.

David flew to France and spent the weekend with us. I was awestruck at the simplicity of his motivation: to expose a lie. It wasn’t personal, it was about values. This was a man of principle outraged at the crime he clearly saw but was incredibly inconvenient and unpopular to expose.

Over dinner long into the night, and then again at breakfast the next morning, the talk centered on the crime that was happening in plain sight. Incredibly we were sitting with him at that dinner when his phone rang – another journalist  calling him with the news that Floyd Landis had tested positive at the just completed Tour de France. Talk about being at ground-zero at a pivotal moment.

Looking back I can’t believe that weekend actually happened. What brought us together? I would like to think a sense of shared values.

This is a man whose humility, values, and sense of purpose we can all learn from. A true hero. I’ve got a few other people who serve this kind of inspiration, I’ll write about them later. For now, thank you, David.

My User Manual

October 12, 2013

A little over a year ago I started a new job, and a big component of my role was to help the company bring a lot of scale to their marketing, and bring a higher tempo and user focus to the company’s product development. This meant taking three groups of already high performing teams, and leading them into territories unfamiliar to them, while also helping them develop skills and capabilities new to many.

This is the kind of job that comes around in your career rarely. Tremendous, tremendous fun, and the best part is it’s only just beginning. We’re growing like crazy, and are about to enter that phase of the market where we have the right offering at the right time, and are about to see some pretty breathtaking expansion.

transparency

And I found myself explaining how I work, how I manage, and many of my core values as a manager, but also as a person. A lot.

So much of creating the opportunity for the rapid experimentation, fast failure, “iterate to excellence” team performance is based on how you work as a team, not what you work on as a team.

I mentioned this to my wife in a text message while on a train headed to work, and she pointed me to an interview with a CEO about his “user manual” – a one page document that lays out how anyone in the company can easily understand how to work with him. I LOVED it. A combination of approaches, philosophy, and personal values.

By the time I got off the train I had a complete draft of my User Manual. Check it out, I’m on v4.0

By the time I’d plugged in at the office I published it to  everyone on my teams via Chatter, as well as my counterparts on the exec team and a bunch of others I work with frequently.

Folks on my team appreciated the transparency, and it’s made it so much easier to engage with other teams and get to a place of trust and performance that much more quickly.

But the best part was for me. Any time you have to be intentional about something, and write it down, you learn something about yourself.

The Unfamiliar State of Funding a Startup

March 8, 2012

I work with a lot of startup companies, and am currently involved with three that share the same characteristics: pre-product, pre-revenue, and at the very beginning of fundraising. And I’m having the same conversation with all three. It goes like this:

  1. The cost of getting a company to scale and even to profitability has dropped dramatically in the past ten years.
  2. The nature of venture capital has shifted from an early stage focus to late stage or even growth equity investing.
  3. Angels and experienced high net worth folks have stepped in to fill the role VCs served for early stage investing.
  4. A viable fundraising strategy can default to a path that doesn’t assume VCs participate at all, or perhaps only towards the end.

Let me expand on each of these points.

COST OF GETTING TO SCALE – THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

There are a lot of factors at work here, to the benefit of entrepreneurs. The rise in cloud computing means that fixed infrastructure expense has largely been eliminated from the business plan, and this will only get better (Amazon just announced it’s 19th price decrease in six years). Virtual teams + Google Docs drive OPEX down even further unburdening you from lease costs.

The shift to “inbound marketing” – social media, blogs, SEO, viral – can drive large volumes of traffic at significantly lower costs (60% less or more) than traditional “outbound methods – and at higher conversion and retention rates. It takes a lot less of your marketing budget to reach and acquire users. With the shift to freemium and subscription business models you can also let your most active users decide for themselves to pay for your services through in-app messaging and offers – significantly reducing the cost of sales.

I call this the “Rise of the Machines” because metrics and machine-driven resources/methods do much of the heavy lifting at a fraction of the cost of human-intensive alternatives. Josh Kopleman surveyed his portfolio and found “…that companies today are 3 times more likely to get to $250K in revenue during an eighteen month period than they were six years ago. ”

VENTURE CAPITAL IS DEAD – LONG LIVE VENTURE CAPITAL

The money that VCs invest comes from “institutional investors” – pension funds, endowments, insurance companies – and these institutions allocate their investments across a wide range of “asset classes” to manage and diversify risk. They tend to make these allocations based on ten year return performance averages, and beginning in 2009 (as my partners and I found out with unfortunate timing) the ten year return for the VC asset class went negative.

That’s for tough the VC industry overall, but if you look at the top 20-25 firms, the ten year return is quite good. So what institutions did was stop putting money in general into the VC asset class, and only put money into the big, established firms. This caused fund sizes to swell (Accel’s most recent fund was $1.35B+ comprised of $475M “early stage” + $875M “growth equity” funds), which incents those firms to put larger and larger investments to work in each deal (to justify their partners’ time).

So at a macro level, investment into VC funds dried up for all but the top firms (reducing the total number of VC funds) and poured into the top firms, shifting their focus to larger investments in later stage firms.

ANGELS BECOME ANGELS ALMOST LITERALLY

At the same time early stage VCs moved out of the market, a wave of experienced tech executives who had made fortunes building internet companies became very active investors. They brought more than deep pockets, they brought valuable insight and experience and even better – intensive, engaged roles with the companies they funded.

And along the way, incubators emerged as mini-factories where angels could become involved with lots of companies and let the law of large numbers help them there. Overall, angels are investing 40% more than they were even a year ago – now over $700K per round, and there are concerns there’s a bubble happening with incubators. But the headlines are, angels have stepped into early stage investing at a scale and role traditionally reserved for VCs.

STARTUP FUNDRAISING HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER, AND WORSE

What this means for startups is you can get your business to scale with ten times less money that you needed 10-15 years ago. $3M – $5M. If you plan well and are well connected you can do this with individual investors who add a ton of value and will roll up their sleeves to help out. The real benefit is you can also find individuals who share the same expectations you have for the outcome of the business. A 5X return on $3M may be the right outcome for the business and for investors who define success as a financial return coupled with a durable business that solves a problem they care about.

It also means you can liberate yourself from having to map your business and outcome to the trajectory that many of the larger VC firms need their investments to align with – they need billion dollar exits to generate the billion dollar returns they committed to their institutional investors.

Don’t get me wrong here. VCs are an important and valuable catalyst to the technology sector and the economy – and many are out there doing what they’ve always done to identify the next great disruptive business. And for your business, a VC can be the exact right fit either at the beginning or once you’ve gotten to scale.

It’s just that now VCs are playing a different role than they have in the past, and for startups this means it’s a brand new, unfamiliar, day out there.