“Life is struggle… Embrace the struggle.”
Ben tells the story of his struggles of founding, running and eventually selling a technology company that was on the brink of bankruptcy many times but eventually sold for $6.5 Billion.
Although business and entrepreneurship are fields I don’t normally delve into, I thought it was a good change from my usual reading topics.
The most important lesson about business I learnt from this book was:
“TAKE CARE OF THE PEOPLE, THE PRODUCTS AND THE PROFITS – IN THAT ORDER.”
Taking care of the people means your company is a good place to work. That important work doesn’t go unnoticed, that the hardest workers don’t get passed over by the best politicians and that bureaucratic processes don’t choke out the creativity and remove all the joy.
Other important lessons and quotes I’ve learnt from this book:
- “If you’re going to eat shit, don’t nibble”
- THE STRUGGLE
The importance of grit and having a mentality of never taking no for an answer – always belief that there is a solution for your problems out there. You just haven’t searched long or hard enough yet. Sometimes your ability to avoid failure really boils down to your willpower to not let yourself fail. At all costs.
Contrary to popular belief that as the head of the company, one should always put up a cheery front and act as if everything is going smooth and well in the company when it isn’t. Employees know when things are bad. Its better to act and tell it like it truly is. This builds trust, gets more brains involved in trying to solve the problem.
“A good culture is like the old RIP routing protocol: Bad news travels fast; good news travels slow.”
- LAYING PEOPLE OFF:
a) Focus on the future
b) Don’t delay
c) Be clear in your mind about why you are laying people off – The company failed, not the people. (e.g. “The company failed and in order to move forward, we have to lose some excellent people.)
d) Train your managers – Golden rule: Managers must lay off their own people.
e) Address the whole company and stay visible and present to let people know you care.
- LEAD BULLETS
If your product sucks, it sucks. Don’t waste time and effort trying to find that silver bullet. You’ll have to face reality and use a lot of lead bullets to figure out how to fix your performance issues and improve your product to be the best in the market.
- MARK CRANNEY
Don’t hire people based on stereotypes. Mark is a sales savant who was anything but the stereotypical sales executive and had many of his own flaws. Ben hired him despite many people telling him not to because he “wouldn’t fit in with the company”. Mark turned out to be Ben’s saving (sales) grace.
- WHY STARTUPS SHOULD TRAIN THEIR PEOPLE
b) Performance management
c) Product quality
d) Employee retention.
Most people think it will take too much time. However, the returns of investment from training your people especially when it comes to productivity will speak volumes.
- HOW TO MINIMIZE POLITICS IN YOUR COMPANY
a) Hire people with the right kind of ambition. “The right kind of ambition is ambition for the company’s success with the executive’s own success only coming as a by-product of the company’s victory. The wrong kind of ambition is ambition for the executive’s personal success regardless of the company’s outcome.”
b) Build strict processes for potentially political issues and do not deviate. Especially certain activities that attract political behaviour like: performance evaluation and compensation, organizational design and territory and promotions.
- THE IMPORTANCE OF ONE-ON-ONE MEETINGS
For managers, without one-on-on meetings, they may never be aware of certain issues and feedback happening within the company. Let the employee set the agenda and do 90% of the talking while the manager does 90% of the listening.
- PROGRAMMING YOUR COMPANY CULTURE
Dogs at work and yoga aren’t culture. Creating a company culture should be about designing a way of working that will:
a) Ensure that critical operating values persist such as delighting customers or making beautiful products
b) Distinguish you from competitors
c) Help you identify employees who fit with your mission
An example would be how Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com built frugality into his company culture by requiring all employee desks be built by buying cheap doors from Home Depot and nailing legs into them.
Another example – at Andressen Horowitz, Marc and Ben wanted the firm to treat entrepreneurs with great respect, especially with regards to respecting their time. Thus anyone late for a meeting with an entrepreneur would be charged $10/minute.
- TECHNIQUES TO CALM YOUR NERVES
a) Make some friends
b) Get it out of your head and onto paper
c) Focus on the road, not the wall – when someone learns to drive a race car and is going at 200mph around a bend, the first thing that he is taught is to focus on the road, not the wall. If he focuses on the wall, he will drive right into it. Focus on the road and he will follow the road. Running a company, a thousand things can go wrong and sink the ship. Focusing on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.
- FOLLOW THE LEADER
What makes people want to follow a leader?
a) Ability to articulate the vision: The Steve Jobs attribute. Can he articulate the vision in a way that’s interesting, dynamic and compelling? Especially so when things fall apart, can he do so in such a way that he retains his talented employees?
b) The right kind of ambition: The Bill Campbell attribute. Does the CEO make her employees feel like she cares for them more than she cares for herself? In this kind of environment, employees will feel like its their company and behave accordingly.
c) The ability to achieve the vision: The Andy Grove attribute. Competence. After buying into the vision and believing that the leader cares about her, does the employee think that the leader can actually achieve the vision? Will they trust her enough to lead them into a jungle with no map forward or back and get them out of there?
- ARE LEADERS BORN OR MADE?
Looking at the above 3 attributes, (a) and (c) can definitely be learned and trained.
(b) fits the bill “born not made.” So some attributes can be improved more than others and they complement each other. If people trust you, they will listen to your vision even if you cannot articulate it as well. If you are super-competent, they will trust and listen to you. If you know how to paint a brilliant picture, they will be patient as you learn the CEO skills and give you more leeway with respect to their interests. Leaders are made.
- GIVING FEEDBACK
One of the most important job for a CEO is being able to give feedback. Instead of always using the ‘Shit Sandwich’ (slice of bread 1 – compliment them, the shit – give them the difficult message, slice of bread 2 – close with how much you value their strengths), here are The Keys to being effective at giving feedback:
a) Be authentic: believe in the feedback you’re giving
b) Come from the right place: give feedback because you want them to succeed
c) Don’t get personal
d) Don’t clown people in front of their peers
e) Feedback is not one-size-fits-all
f) Be direct but not mean
g) Feedback is a dialogue, not a monologue
h) High frequency feedback: keep practising so that employees get used to getting feedback and that people become comfortable with discussing bad news.
In conclusion, I would recommend this book to startup founders, CEOs, entrepreneurs and basically anyone interested in reading about the hard truth and struggles of starting a business. Its also a great read on the topic of Management and human relations!