How a strong, clear vision can help you focus


I find founders have a lot of trouble focusing. For one, on their target market. Everyone wants to boil the ocean; start by trying to boil a teaspoon! For another, startup founders often seem to think they can support two different products at the same time. No you can’t, as Scott MacNealy said, “Put all your wood behind one arrowhead.” As a founder you need to be ruthless and ruthlessly focused, that can mean killing your babies, as in backburning a pet product to put 100% of your focus on the product with the best chance of getting near term traction.

But like so much mentor advice, focusing is so much harder for the founder to enact than for the mentor to say.

Inc has a great Q & A on focus with Jeff Bezos, who has done an incredible job of first focusing on a single beachhead market, books, then moving to adjacent market, CDs; then another adjacent market, DVDs; and so on, as Amazon conquers the world of retail.

In a world that’s filled with more distraction than ever, how can you achieve greater focus?

That’s a question Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touched on in a recent interview in New York. At a private event for The Wings Club, a global society of aviation professionals, Bezos spoke primarily about his private aerospace company, Blue Origin, and its plans for the future.


Towards the end, the moderator asked Bezos how he manages to stay focused on such a tremendous, long-term vision, to which he replied with the following:

“Vision is absolutely important, but it doesn’t deserve your day-to-day attention. You need a vision, then, that’s a touchstone: It’s something you can always come back to if you ever get confused. But mostly, your time should be spent on things that are happening today, this year, maybe in the next 2 or 3 years.”

Bezos then concluded with these two powerful sentences:

“So I would always encourage people to hold, powerfully, [to] a vision and be so stubborn of it. Don’t let anybody move you off of your vision.”

So there you have it from one of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. I strongly recommend you read the entire article, by Justin Bariso entitled It Took Jeff Bezos Exactly 2 Sentences to Teach a Major Lesson in Achieving Great Focus subtitled Whether you’re running a company, working for yourself, or leading a team, there’s a lot to be learned from this simple advice.

You need a mission as well as a vision. And what’s the difference?

Your vision should be the overarching goal, the established purpose and objective of an organization (or an individual).

While vision could include a company’s mission, it goes further. Mission generally describes what you are currently doing; vision goes into the future and describes what you hope to accomplish.

For people buying a house or condo, what’s are the three most important factors to consider? Location, location, location, goes the old real estate saw. For startups, it’s focus, focus, and focus.


When it comes to building companies, Waste is good!


The common maxims of startups are that “cash is king” and you must “stretch the dollar.”  And that conventional wisdom is just that, conventional. But there’s another side to spending, as the editorial director of Conde Nast, Alexander Liberman, the mentor of the owner S.I. NewHouse, oversaw ballooning editorial budgets and the lavish image of Conde Naste.

You may recall Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street proclaiming in stentorian tones,”Greed is good!” Well he had nothing on Alexander Liberman, who summed up the company’s ethos when he said: “I believe in waste. Waste is very important to creativity.” And he should know something about creativity, as Liberman was a success in painting, sculpture, and photography before joining Conde Naste.

And as many music and film fans know, a single song or single scene may be redone dozens and dozens of times until the creative person in charge  – the record producer or the movie director – is satisfied. No one cared how many reels of tape were wasted by the Beatles in recording the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – it was a massive hit, just as no one was counting up the thousands of feet of film left on the cutting room floor by George Lucas, director of Star Wars.

I was taught by VCs that spending should be an investment in the company and should be carefully monitored by management for its ROI. But I was also told by an early investor and mentor after raising many millions of dollars from is firm that, “You’re going to waste a million dollars launching this company. You just don’t know which million.” That advice gave us the freedom to experiment, to fail, and then fail harder the next time, until we finally did get it right and the company became a hit.

As Apple Designer Director Jony Ive points out, problem solving is necessary in creating a great product, but it is creativity that’s the spark that ignites the development process and fuels the fire.

So does that mean founders should add a new line item to their budgets labelled, “Creativity” or “Waste”? Probably not, but I wouldn’t rule it out. What founders do need to do is to make creativity and problem solving the first duties of their staff, not toeing the line in a line item budget. I learned this lesson the hard way. I started Throughline, Inc. as a way to help founders save time and money on the necessary infrastructure of their companies: office space, furniture, servers, telephone systems, etc. I mistakenly thought VCs would love me and promote Throughline to their portfolio companies.  And one VC did buy the story and invested half a million dollars to start the company. And we did acquire a great strategic investor, Silicon Valley Bank – the go-to bank for founders.  But Throughline did not succeed. What I learned post-mortem, and should have learned pre-mortem through customer discovery, was that VCs could care less about operating expenses. What do they care about? Growth! Growth in eyeballs, users, customers, market share, brand, and a talented staff – the top line, not the bottom line.

Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things. Leave cash management to your bookkeeper or contractor CFO. As a founder, your first duty is not cash management it’s customer acquisition. Look no further than Uber, which is losing billions of dollars, but has grown faster in both customer acquisition and revenues than almost any other startup in history. As a result, even as a massive money-loser to the tune of one billion dollars a quarter!, Uber is valued at as much as $120 billion.

The true bottomline is that building companies and building products is an art, it’s a creative endeavor. Companies have announced this in their names: Software Arts, Electronic Arts. If you have a great idea, start building!


I’m a reformed workaholic and proud of it!




After I graduated from college I started a business providing sound reinforcement services to local bands. Building my own Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater loudspeaker cabinet introduced me what was to become a decades-long addiction, not to any drug, but to work. It wasn’t until years later that I came across the concept of flow, but I knew what it was like to be in the zone building stuff. Hours flew by like minutes and the body signals of both hunger and the need to for rest were shut down. That single project introduced me to the addictive nature of work and helped turn me into both a perfectionist and a workaholic. I wrote previously of The Dangers of Perfectionism, now it’s time to tackle the dangers of addiction to working.

As usual it was an article the spurred to write a blog post, this time The Wall Street Journal article by Jason Gray. I always look forward to Jason’s articles on sports in the Journal but the sports columnist tackled a serious business issue in his article Working Like Crazy May Actually Be, Well, Crazy, sub-titled Are you griping about working too much, or bragging about it? If you are too busy working to read the full articlewhich I  highly recommend – here’s my synopsis coupled with my some of my experiences.

Jason provides a great, and typically humorous, self-test for workaholism. Does any of this seem familiar?

I can’t believe how much of a time suck this project has been.

I feel like I’m living at the office.

I’ve forgotten my dog’s name.

I just returned 20 emails on a Sunday.

Peanut. I think the dog’s name is Peanut.

Jason introduces the concept of the workbrag – the element of pride embedded in our complaints about the long hours we work. The Apple team that built the Macintosh proudly wore T-shirts reading “Working 90 hours a week and loving it!” Workaholism seems part and parcel of working in technology and media. The advent of the Internet and mobile phones has enabled the always on 24 x 7 connection to work and the workplace. The two metrics that founders often tout – much to my dismay, as neither correlate positively with a venture’s success – are how many employees they have and how many hours a week they work.

But I fell into the trap of working crazy hours myself. Predating the internet, I remember having at-home access to Software Art‘s Prime minicomputer, enabling me to send and receive email, draft and review documents, and effectively work at home. For someone who ate, lived, and slept his job this was paradise by the VT100 terminal light. And I still remember that when I told my co-founder of my first startup that bought an early flip phone, the Motorola StarTAC, he responded with glee that he could now get in touch with me wherever I was, any time of the day!

At don’t recall exactly when it was that I discovered the downside of working crazy hours – that errors start creeping in when you are pushing past natural limits. Then when trying to correct those errors you end up creating new errors! It finally dawned on me that working past my limits was counter productive. I could actually deliver higher quality work by putting in less hours. That lead me to start monitoring my teams and not so subtly reminding them of our vacation policy, which we made “use it or lose” it to prod our staff to take needed time off. And we added personal days to the company’s benefits package so staff didn’t use up their vacation days or use their sick days when some type of personal obligation – like closing on buying a house – demanded their in-person attention. However, being a workaholic I hired people in my own image, so we had teams full of workaholics! And I was seeing their error rate rising when they exceeded a normal day’s work of eight to ten hours.

Jason’s article is based on a talk he hosted by the authors of a new book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier at a Wall Street Journal event in New York City.

The authors are co-founders of the workplace software company Basecamp, Fried and Hansson are successful entrepreneurs who pay their employees to take vacation—not vacation time but the actual vacation. Fried and Hansson’s company used to have one of those “limitless vacation” policies, until they realized that it made employees nervous about taking vacation. Now they insist on three weeks.

The concept of work-life balance hadn’t emerged until years after I did my last startup. Whether or not people actually do attempt to balance their work life with their personal life or just give the phrase lip service I don’t know.

But as a reformed workaholic I’ve learned how to turn off work and spend more time with my friends and family, though I’ve yet to learn how to actually stop thinking  about work when I’m not working!


Netflix unusual culture hits front page of The Wall Street Journal!


Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the culture of Netflix, which is described in lengthy detail on their jobs page. And I wrote that post before I read The Wall Street Journal that morning. A big mistake, because Netflix made the front page of the Journal yesterday!

Typically tech companies crow about getting coverage in the Journal as I did a few times, including one article about SmartWorlds that even included an original cartoon. Both my partner and I neglected to buy the original art, which I regret to this day.. But in the case of Netflix as you can tell from the title and subtitles of the Journal article by Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Flint that the coverage us far from positive: At Netflix, Radical Transparency and Blunt Firings Unsettle the Ranks, sub-titled Buzzwords and anxiety fill the hallways as Hollywood giant tries to maintain a winning culture amid breakneck growth; ‘sunshining’ the ‘N-word’ scandal, This is a very, very long article which I don’t recommend you reading unless you are stuck in airport with no Wi-Fi and nothing else to read – which contravenes one of my business practice of always having something worthwhile to read. Here are the highlights:

Incredible sensitivity to language

Mr. Hastings had recently fired his chief communications officer for saying the “N-word” in full form. The executive, who is white, was attempting to make an emphatic point during a meeting about offensive words in comedy programming and said the slur wasn’t directed at anyone.

Netflix culture, at its worst, can also be ruthless, demoralizing and transparent to the point of dysfunctional.

The keeper test

… asking themselves whether they would fight to keep a given employee—a mantra for firing people who don’t fit the culture and ensuring only the strongest survive. Some managers say they feel pressure to fire people or risk looking soft.

Culture is similar to Bridgewater Associates

Netflix’s culture shares traits with other workplaces that encourage openness, such as hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. Their CEO, Ray Dallo, has even written an entire book on Bridgewater’s culture and management style, Principles: Life and Work.

The culture can come off as being cutthroat

Netflix posted a YouTube video recently to address the company’s culture. “I think we’re transparent to a fault in our culture and that can come across as cutthroat,” said Walta Nemariam, an employee in talent acquisition at Netflix, in the video.

Fear as a driver of employee behavior

“I think some people felt it was a culture of fear,” said Barbie Brewer, a former Netflix vice president of talent who left last year.  “Good, because fear drives you,” Ms. Barragan said, according to people familiar with the meeting. The firings can be insensitive, several former employees said.

Once people are fired, Netflix believes in explaining the reasons. The emails about firings can reach hundreds of employees across multiple divisions and can be painfully specific, calling out an employee’s flaws, while inviting more questions and gossip, many employees say.

360 reviews

Anyone can review any other employee, from the administrative assistants all the way up to Mr. Hastings himself, and many senior executives choose to share the feedback they receive with everyone on their teams.

Brandon Welch, a Netflix talent executive who left in 2016, said that the pressure to give and receive feedback was the “hardest part about the culture.”

The Wall Street Journal spoke with more than 70 current and former employees for this article, which is peppered by stories exemplifying Netflix culture, both pro and con. But the article is not 100% stories, The Journal also provides some excellent benchmarking statistics on employee turnover and happiness. Take note of the caption to this graph:

happy but fearful

There are over a half dozen book about Netflix for sale on Amazon, as its unique culture, coupled with worldwide success, has attracted both authors and publishers. So starting with this Journal there is plenty read about if you find Netflix so fascinating you have to drop reading something that may be more germane to your venture. Keep in mind, your time is a fixed resource and thus what you read or watch or listen to is a zero-sum game. I suggest you allocate some percentage to reading about business and technology while leaving some time for reading as entertainment. And, by the way, Netflix’s vision is bringing entertainment to people, thought I doubt that they expected their own company to be found so entertaining.


Netflix Culture and Values


I’m a strong believer that corporate culture is the dominant parameter in the mix of what makes up a great company.  This blog devotes an entire category to posts about corporate culture. But I’ve never seen anything like the Netflix culture and values document, which is posted on their jobs site. The post is very long and you may not feel you have the time to read it all or maybe your culture is “all set.” While I’m going to excerpt it and annotate based on my own experience,  it I do encourage all founders, especially those at the startup stage, to not only read this document but to use it as a catalyst to document your company’s culture and values.

While Netflix doesn’t use the term mission, the first two sentences of the culture document read like a mission to me:

Entertainment, like friendship, is a fundamental human need; it changes how we feel and gives us common ground. Netflix is better entertainment at lower cost and greater scale than the world has ever seen. We want to entertain everyone, and make the world smile.

I find this very clear and concise, but one reason I subscribe to Netflix is for the wealth of documentaries they provide. Yet their mission is totally focused on entertainment; informing people is not part of it.

Mission and culture go hand-in-hand. Your mission is the purpose of your company and is the lodestar for employees and stakeholders.

Netflix sees itself as highly differentiated from other companies as they:

  1. encourage independent decision-making by employees
  2. share information openly, broadly, and deliberately
  3. are extraordinarily candid with each other
  4. keep only our highly effective people
  5. avoid rules

Before the document spells out the company’s values there’s a real tonesetter paragraph:

Many companies have value statements, but often these written values are vague and ignored. The real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go. Below are our real values, the specific behaviors and skills we care about most. The more these values sound like you, and describe people you want to work with, the more likely you will thrive at Netflix.

Thus values are actionable, unlike most companies: people get hired and fired dependent on their congruency with the company’s values. That’s the most powerful method I’ve seen for enforcing values throughout a company. However, the action lacks granularity. Reducing a company’s values to the binary “You keep your job or your fired” doesn’t help much with respect to day to day activities.

Here’s the list of the Netflix values. There’s a lot of them and a lot of text to read. I’m going to simply list them with annotations based on my experience, which ranges from startups to a company doing $7 billion/year in revenue. I do highly recommend you find the time to read this entire document and see how your company’s values stack up. Do you even have a written document delineating your values?


As I’ve written elsewhere, startups (and mature companies to a lesser extent) are decision machines. Making great decisions will cause your company to stand or fall. Unlike purely data-driven companies like Google, Netflix see data as only one component in the making of judgments.


One of my sayings that I convey to my founder mentees is that 90% of problems can be traced backed to poor communications. Of course, I don’t have any data to back this up and I exaggerate to make a point. But it’s obvious that Netflix sees both oral and written communications as mission-critical, as this value is number two in the list.


Curiosity is what drives people to learn. How a company and its staff learn is a sustainable competitive advantage. As a hiring manager I always looked for curious people. In fact I would judge job candidates on the number and quality of their questions to me. And I judge the success of presentations by the number and quality of the audience’s questions.


This one is interesting, as the article I read yesterday on Flipboard, but unfortunately didn’t save, about Netflix’s culture said that many people live in fear there, fear of losing their jobs, fear of appearing weak if they don’t fire anyone from their team. This may well be an unintended consequence of Netflix’s culture or perhaps Reed Hastings believes that fear is a good and effective motivator. Certainly there are many successful sports coaches who use fear of losing your job to motivate their teams.


I always looked for self-motivated people when I hired. And the trait I looked for was enthusiasm, enthusiasm for our company, enthusiasm for our products, enthusiasm for their work. Without passion or enthusiasm no one will be self-motivated.


This is the secret formula for winning sports teams, exemplified by the team I’ve rooted for since their inception: The New England Patriots pro football team. Players only care about one thing: winning. Unlike most other athletes they could care less about their individual statistics, wins vs. losses is the only statistic that matters. As Coach Bill Belichick says, “Statistics are for losers.”


While I find this word to be one of the most over-used in the English language, Netflix does a great job of spelling out what innovation means to them and how they judge it in their employees.


I’ve always looked for great collaborators, perhaps because I lack any individual skills or expertise and enjoy working with others.  But again Netflix spells out what inclusion means to them in six concise bullet points.


While this value is often assumed, it’s clear that Netflix makes few assumptions and spells out what they mean by integrity.


Last but surely not least (and worthiness imputed by position is one severe problem with lists such as this one).  The key point is focusing on results over process. That’s how to keep bureaucracy – the brewer of processes – at bay in every company.

The Netflix culture document goes on for many pages, touching on what makes a “Dream Team.” I would worry that every candidate and every hire actually reads and retains all this information. The values are single words, amplified by five or six short bullet points. But the Dream Team section is highly wordy, pure text unrelieved by any images or diagrams. And in my experience, people just don’t read. But I do encourage you to read this document. It is truly extraordinary.

I’ll end this annotation of the values and culture of Netflix with their excerpt from The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery, a book I read in French class but surely did not understand at the time:

If you want to build a ship,

don’t drum up the people

to gather wood, divide the

work, and give orders.

Instead, teach them to yearn

for the vast and endless sea.

Values => Intentions => Goals


Sometimes I come across an article that has a kernel of real value to founders even though the article itself may be lightweight. Such is the case with the Forbes article The Most Successful People Don’t Set Goals — They Do This Instead by Jennifer Cohen. The article follows a disturbing trend these days: making assertions without any evidence or data to back them up. I read this article twice and it totally lacks anything that supports the assertion in its title.

However, the key point of the article is of value to founders:  “setting objectives without intentions is a waste of time.” While you may or may not agree with the statement that follows, “Setting a goal is black and white—you either achieve it, or you don’t.” –  after all with a sales objective of $XXX,XXX/yr. you could exceed the objective by 10% or even fall short by 5%, either way it’s not black or white. Other goals, like selling your company before the end of the fiscal year, are black or white, binary goals. You either meet the goal or you don’t.

But behind every goal there should be an intention. Intention implies forethought, premeditation, planning, design, and deliberateness. These are all processes. If you are the one setting a goal you need to make clear to those who have to carry it out what is the intention. If you are asked to meet a goal you should ask what the intention of the goal is. Understanding how the goal fits into the larger plan for your venture will help you to meet that goal.

Equally important is that corporate goals should be rooted in your venture’s values. I’ve written about values in the blog post  Values: the bedrock of startups.

As a founder, one of your first orders of business should be defining, documenting, and communicating not just the vision of your venture but the values the company stands for. Alignment between intentions and values is critical to the success of your venture.

Another worthwhile concept in the article is the idea of responding rather than reacting.  The author quotes business writer Steven R. Covey, “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Far too often in startups I’ve seen people react rather than respond. This can lead to either conflict from an emotional reaction or the mishandling of an important issue. Being aware of your intentions can help you respond thoughtfully, rather than simply reacting, thoughtlessly.

Set your goals on a layer of intentions built on the foundation of your venture’s values. Like the author, I don’t have data to support this advice; but it’s advice from decades of experience as well as from my mentors.

Corporate culture rules



I’m a big fan of Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple executive, or more precisely a fan of his Monday Note Newsletter. (I was not a fan of his when he was at Apple running the Macintosh division, but that’s another story.)

JLG has been delivering his high tech bio on the installment plan via Monday Note. He worked for six years at Hewlett Packard, then moved on to become CEO of the French affiliate of Data General.

But by far the most interesting read for me as a mentor to founders was the story of JLG’s tenure as CEO of the French affiliate of Exxon Office Systems, entitled 50 Years InTech. Part 4: The Exxon Delusion.

Exxon hired the Boston Consulting Group, after two oil supply crises in the Middle East. BCG convinced them that Information Is the Oil of the 21st Century. That lead the execs of Exxon to form the Exxon Information Systems to lead the company into its post-oil future. And JLG was hired as the tech savvy CEO of Exxon Office Systems.

Exxon invested $2 billion in this new division, back when $2 billion was real money, not pocket change for the likes of Jeff Bezos et al. And in a typical BiGCo move the first thing they did was buy a disparate bunch of tech companies. Exxon ended up spending another $2 billion on Exxon Information Systems before realizing the error of its ways and going back to “oil is the oil of the 21st century.” You can get the painful details from JLG’s newsletter.

The important take away for JLG was the power of culture, and the negative power of disparate acquisitions.

It was an exciting time, but I soon saw Exxon for what it was: An out-of-its-depths organization that had no feel for the world of bits and bytes, hardware and software engineers, end-user sales and marketing. For Exxon leadership, these concepts were just that: Ideas without a reality. It was impossible for them to make the right choices.

To JLG Exxon, courtesy of Boston Consulting Group, actually had the right idea about information being the oil of the 21 century, but totally lacked the culture to execute. And in companies gigantic and tiny it’s all about execution.

JLG’s comments on corporate culture should be your take away from  this blog piece:

Culture isn’t a set of rational dicta. Culture works below our consciousness, processing, filtering, and labeling raw data before passing the result to our “waking” selves. That’s how we end up with Obvious Truths, that’s how we get to the powerful and destructive It’s How We Do Things Here.

Whether you are building a startup or joining one, the corporate culture will decide your fate. Everyone talks about product/market fit; no one seems to talk about idea/culture fit. But it’s just as important, if less obvious. A venture can recover far more easily from a product/market misfit than from an idea/culture misfit.


How to dissent gracefully & live to dissent another day


dissentMission statements are all the rage in startups and have been for many years. Every venture wants to change the world, or as Steve Jobs put it, “Put a dent in the universe.”

But according to the article in The Wall Street Journal there’s a downside to having an extremely strong and magnetic company mission that attracts and motivates employees. When You Fear Your Company Has Forgotten Its Principles, subtitled It could feel like you’re risking your job when you speak up, but there are ways to express dissent so that someone hears your concerns.

According to author Sue Shellenberger, ” … intense pursuit of a mission can foster groupthink and resistance to change.” She believes that companies need dissenters to combat these negative outcomes of a very strong mission. Whether or not you agree with this supposition, Sue Shellenberger has some good advice on how to dissent gracefully – and keep your job.

However, she profiles several people who gave up fighting the power of the corporate mission and quit to form their own companies, which tends to dilute her argument. If you are interested in these stories by all means read the full article, but I’m just going to extract the valuable advice how to dissent without losing your way:


  • Weigh the long-term consequences of keeping quiet against the risks of speaking up.
  • Volunteer for internal roles that confer the right to disagree, such as a committee on culture.
  • Seek out potential allies who will challenge your thinking.
  • Suggest solutions rather than just pointing out problems.
  • Frame suggestions as good for the entire company.
  • Acknowledge the limitations of your idea rather than arguing too hard.
  • Avoid judging or attacking those who disagree.
  • Earn others’ respect for your suggestions by performing well in your day-to-day work.

While you may need to think about the potential damage to your reputation and relationships there are even more tips on dissenting without being seen as an antagonist to the company who instead of being listened to, needs to be shown the door. This advice is worthwhile, be your venture a startup or a mature company.

  • Be careful not to argue too passionately for the changes you want
  • Show respect for others’ viewpoints
  • Acknowledge the flaws in your argument to show you’ve thought it through carefully.
  • Be open about your concerns. People who complain in secret are more likely to make enemies and be seen as disloyal.
  • Frame your proposals as benefiting the entire company, its employees and customers rather than just yourself

My belief is that you want a healthy level of dissent in your venture. “Yes people” will follow the leader right down the garden path to bankruptcy. Reasonable people will tend to disagree occasionally and that’s ok. An acquaintance of mine had a rubric with his wife about issues that they disagreed upon: whomever felt that the issue was of significantly more importance to them would get the deciding vote. Over time this tends to even itself out. Whether this is workable in a startup is another question. But a strong culture is built on strong values and guiding principles, not slogans disguised as missions. So when push comes to shove my advice is to revert back to those values and test people’s positions against the company’s guiding principles. Whichever faction’s position has the best values/position fit should prevail. You do have a written list of your company’s values or guiding principles, don’t you? If not you may want to take a look at my post Your company’s guiding principles.


Constructive criticism is the fuel for learning and improving



One of the things I try to do as a mentor and in writing this blog is to point founders, mentors, and their associates to material that is highly relevant to startups, even if it might not seem so from its source, author or title.

Today’s article The Rare Workers Who Thrive on Negative Feedback by Sue Shellenberger is a great example of how you can take advice aimed at corporate workers and apply it in your startup venture. As usual The Journal provides a great one-line summary in the article’s sub-title: Strivers seek out constructive criticism on the job, viewing it as a necessary way to shore up their weaknesses.

This article tends to reinforce two of my startup maxims: one, backpatters are your worst enemy, and two, I’ve never seen anyone improve from being praised. I learned both lessons the hard way. By not seeking out negative feedback or constructive criticism I let my friends and family, who naturally want to praise you, reinforced some of my startup ideas that objective criticism might have caused me to rethink at the least and abandon at the most. My natural tendency is to be hyper-critical, but I learned quickly that most people do not like being criticized and in fact it tends to depress their performance rather than to improve it.

To remodel the way I provide feedback I have delivered a method for delivering constructive criticism that makes it easier to tak. Instead of jumping immediately into my negative feedback, I look for what the person is doing right and lead with that. My feedback might be something like, “George, you are an excellent writer and you are making a great contribution to our marketing communications. But go back and take a look at your past documents. I think you may notice that they tend to be both somewhat wordy and all text. Here’s two ways you might try to solve both problems, try substituting images for some of the text and think of your text as a caption for the image. What do you think? Any other ideas you have on how to tighten up your pieces?”

It’s imperative that you do two things: one, check with the person getting the feedback for their reaction and be open to it, and two, involve them in how they can improve their performance. Don’t put it all on yourself. In fact you might not even provide any examples, just ask them to think about ways to improve. And they shouldn’t have to do that on the spot, perhaps suggest that they review their feedback with colleagues and come back to you in a couple of days – no longer – with ideas on how they can improve. Providing constructive criticism as a question rather than a flat statement reduces people’s tendency to be defensive and involves them in seeking to answer the question. That changes what may seem like an adversarial relationship into a collaborative one. We often are completely unaware of our flaws, as I was, until I was told by one of my manager that I was far too critical of her staff.

One thing I love about pro football players is that they strive to improve every day, and even the great ones, like Tom Brady, seek out constructive criticism. Not because they enjoy being criticized but because they see being coached up as a step toward their goal: being great.

The Journal cites recent research that those who actively seek out criticism and feedback tend to be strivers, as virtually all professional athletes need to be, as there’s always another recent draft pick looking to take their job. As Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and author of “Insight,” a book on self-awareness. says, “The difference between the highly self-aware and the rest of us is that they push through that discomfort and ask for feedback anyway,”

An excellent tip that the article provides is for venture leaders and managers to set an example for their teams by actively seek feedback on their own performance. We do that at MIT VMS mentoring sessions by checking in with the founders once or twice during the 90-minute sessions by asking questions like, “Are we being helpful? Should we be taking a different tack or focus? Are we successfully addressing the agenda you set for the meeting?” These questions not only give the mentee an opportunity to redirect the session, it also makes all the mentors – sometimes we have as many as four or five – ask themselves those same questions.

Mentors please keep the following quoted paragraph in mind, as many of our mentees are novices in both business and startups:

Experts in their fields tend to be motivated by criticism, and to see it as a sign of how well they’re progressing toward their goals, according to a 2011 study co-wrote by Dr. Finkelstein. Novices are more likely to seek praise, and to interpret it as a sign of whether to remain committed to the goals they’ve set, the study shows.

One thing I never did was to deliver any kind of criticism, even that softened by accompanying praise, on Fridays. I didn’t want my staff member to potentially be stewing all weekend over my feedback with no opportunity to ask me to clarify or amplify what I said until Monday. The Journal’s article adds a similar tip:

Giving appraisals early in the day, when employees’ self-control hasn’t been depleted by fatigue or stress, may improve the chances of their taking it well, according to a 2016 study led by Rachel Ruttan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto.

Feedback and criticism is a major element in learning and improving. Thus the one criticism I have of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service is that we mentors never get any feedback on our performance! But I was told that founders are regularly surveyed on how their mentors are helping them, or not. And we mentors are to assume we are doing a good job if we don’t hear anything from the VMS office to the contrary. What VMS does that I do to help mentors improve is regularly schedule mentoring best practices presentations by VMS staffer Michael Foster. And that’s a practice you might want to emulate in your own organization.

The dangers of perfectionism


It’s time to revisit this topic which I wrote about previously, Why perfectionism is a death trap for entrepreneurs. Sometimes you find good advice in places you might not expect to find it. That’s the case with The Wall Street Journal article The Perils of the Child Perfectionist by  Jennifer Breheny Wallace. If you substitute “founders” for “parents” in the sub-title you’ll  have some good advice: Founders can have high expectations without imposing rigid and unrealistic standards.

The reason it’s time to revisit this issue is all the press attention to superman Elon Musk and how he sets impossible standards for his workforce and at the same time seems to be suffering from burnout from working 120 hour work weeks and sleeping on the factory floor.

Steve Jobs set the legendary Silicon Valley story of “working 90-hour work weeks and loving it!” with his Macintosh team. In fact they even had tee shirts made up with that slogan on them. (But as I recall, most of the Mac team left Apple fairly soon after the shipment of the Mac.) Now we have another giant of entrepreneurship, Elon Musk, driving himself and his staff in similar ways. And it must be said, also delivering results that are simply amazing and far beyond what they themselves could even expect.

The the fascination of the media with these exceptional geniuses and their work and lifestyles is, I believe, dangerous for the new founder. So I feel as a long time mentor it’s my responsibility to offer some advice that runs counter to the popular idea that you have to drive yourself and your team unrelentingly if you are to succeed.

Sometimes you find data to support your gut instincts in unusual places, as I did with Ms. Wallace’s article. After all, she’s writing about children, not adults. But here are some quotes that are worth studying for the new founder or even experienced founders:

Unlike hardworking people who enjoy striving for lofty goals and cope well with setbacks, perfectionists aim for high standards in order to demonstrate their worth to others, and then are brutally critical of themselves when they fall short. “It’s like chasing a carrot that you never actually catch because what you achieve is never enough, there’s always something more—better grades, a bigger promotion, a higher salary—which leaves you with the feeling that who you are is never enough,” says Ann Marie Dobosz, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist.


Research suggests that being too hard on yourself can actually inhibit high achievement, says Ms. Dobosz. Perfectionism causes stress and can over-activate the sympathetic nervous system, which makes it harder to think clearly. A 2015 analysis of more than three dozen studies of students, athletes and employees found that those who had high levels of perfectionism were significantly more likely to burn out from stress.

There is no doubt that startups are hard, very hard, and to succeed requires extraordinary levels of effort on the part of not just founders but everyone in the venture. I don’t know what the turnover rate is at Tesla, perhaps it’s no more than any other big, successful startup. But The Journal reported yesterday that More than 50 vice presidents or higher have left the company in the past two years. Why they left they don’t say, but burnout may be a likely answer.

So yes there is a lot you can learn from genius, superstar founders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk – but you aren’t them. Odds are you aren’t even a genius. So as you develop your culture of course you should set high standards. As you should set “stretch goals” as the VCs like to say. But they also say that the one trait they most want in a founder is predictability, so your venture needs to be meeting those stretch goals the majority of the time. And it is so much harder to replace a world class engineer than to hire one in the first place, that as a founder it’s your job to not just hire world class talent, but to retain them, to protect your staff from burnout, not to drive them to burning out from constantly setting impossible goals. …Being too hard on yourself can actually inhibit high achievement, but being too hard on others can inhibit their high achievement as well, and it’s the job of the founder to help their staff to succeed, not to burnout.

One last note, in searching for the author on the web, in order to provide a useful link for readers, I found this tagline on her web site: Reporting research-backed advice for better living. That’s a great value proposition, as it clearly outlines not just the benefit of what she does, but what distinguishes her advice from that of many others – including myself – her advice is research-backed. (My advice and that of the many mentors I know and work with is experience-backed.)



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