How to Destroy a Tech Startup in 3 Easy Steps
"I mean, essentially it's a command line interface with a wonky input method, no?"
This is precisely the feedback we got from salespeople, when we were working on a Natural Language Programming interface for Salesforce. Initially, I got angry and denied the comparison. But after several people made the same comparison, I came to appreciate how true it was. Unless NLP is perfect, it is really just a Command Line Interface with an awkward input device. I talk about this a little towards the end of this story:
When you have a bad project manager, good software will not save you. This is my personal story of how things can go wrong:
At 2 PM we had a meeting scheduled to go over all of the tasks in PivotalTracker. John had promised Milburn that we would execute our work according to a project-management philosophy that the tech industry called agile. Agile software development, among many other aspects, focuses on the delivery of small, incremental improvements to software. It encourages self-organizing teams, evolving and continuous progress, and rapid response to challenges faced. The Celolot team would work two-week sprints, checking in at the end of each period to see where everyone was at.
Unfortunately, vague definitions of “done” haunted our progress. John read through a long list of tasks that had been assigned to Sital.
“Find all possible variations of ‘Close Date,’” John read from the screen. “Is this done?”
“Yeah,” muttered Sital. “Sure.”
His assurance meant nothing to me. Sital would never lie, indeed I was often surprised by his childlike honesty, but he lacked an appreciation for the many ways that software could break.
“How many variations have been tested?” I asked.
“Two,” replied Sital.
“That’s not enough,” I said.
“That’s enough,” countered John. “‘Close Date’ and ‘Contract.’ That’s all we need.”
“What about ‘Close’?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” John thought aloud. “What about ‘Close’?”
“I’ll see,” Sital responded somewhat robotically.
John marked it as done.
“Wait,” I objected. “That is not done.”
John turned back to Sital. “Do you think you can finish today?”
“Absolutely,” Sital assured us.
“Then I’ll mark it as done,” said John, returning to his screen.
“But it’s not done till it’s done,” I argued.
John pondered this for a brief moment. “It’ll be done today,” he shrugged. He marked it as done.
In my view, John’s casual use of the word “done” to refer to items that were nowhere near done meant that this whole effort to track tasks was a useless ceremony. But John felt good about it. He could tell Milburn that we were following a two-week sprint, just like an authentic agile team.
It was true we had the accoutrements of an agile team. We used PivotalTracker. We broke down goals into fine-grained tasks. We reviewed the task list once a week, and we added more tasks every two weeks. But the whole thing was mockery of what the Agile Process was supposed to accomplish. If you have programmers who cannot finish assignments, then there is no point in pretending to be making progress.
related to here:
Every industry has certain euphemisms for the least savory aspects of its business. In sales, there is the secretly ugly phrase, “goal-oriented.” That sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? If I point at a woman and I say, “That entrepreneur is goal-oriented,” then you probably think I am complimenting her. But if I point at her and say, “That entrepreneur is a lying, manipulative, soulless psychopath who brutally exploits labor from the eleven-year-olds she employs in her sweatshops in Indonesia,” then you probably think I am insulting her, unless you are a libertarian. And yet both statements mean about the same thing: that she is someone who is willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure the success of her business.
When I read about Milburn online, I’d seen testimonials from his colleagues in which he was often described as a goal-oriented salesperson. That probably meant that he was a master of manipulating other people’s emotions. He knew all the tricks: praise, shame, laughter, anger, promises, guilt, threats.
Whether his use of these tools was conscious or unconscious is, of course, unknowable. But it doesn’t matter much. A lifetime as a sales professional left him with an arsenal of psychological ploys that had become second nature to him.
...Milburn truly had a genius for the strategic use of anger. If he sensed the risk of losing control of the conversation, he would indulge in another outburst. If I were to ever switch over to the Dark Side, I would want to study with him. His techniques were fundamentally dishonest and manipulative, but that is probably what made him so good at sales. And his tactics were probably an effective way to drive a sales team, but I sincerely believed that such tactics were the wrong way to run a software development team. Especially when doing something cutting-edge original, like we were doing, I think open and honest communications were extremely important. (I have worked with many companies where the sales team was both friendly and successful. One does not need to use abusive tactics to have success in sales. Indeed, the sales manager who relies on abuse is typically more interested in aggrandizing their own success, rather than the success of the company they work for.)
Recently, I exchanged some email with my friend Colin Steele, currently CTO of TypeZero and formerly CTO of RoomKey.com. We discussed another startup that had failed, and he wrote:
It’s sad and disheartening. I think few people understand how amazingly difficult it is to start a new business, and run it successfully. Drama, people, and personalities, seem to have an outsized role in how these things crash and burn. There needs to be some codification of best internal practices for creating startups, like Steve Blank’s book “4 Steps To The Epiphany,” but for the culture; a co-routine that runs alongside “customer development” — call it “culture development” or something.
I agree wholeheartedly, and would also add that more public discussion of the difficulties would help startup culture. I would make an analogy to the history of divorce in the United States. The divorce rate rose for much of the twentieth century, and it peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then there has been more public discussion about what makes marriages strong. You can see the trend reflected on television shows: neither Leave It To Beaver nor the Brady Bunch mentioned the difficulties of marriage, and that was the era when the divorce rate was rising the most. Modern sitcoms talk endlessly about the difficulties of marriage. Couples still face drama and conflict and personality, but the public discussion seems to have granted people the vocabulary they need to address their problems, and the divorce rate has come down. Popular awareness helps. At the very least, books and movies can help explore the important reality that startups are not easy.
For those interested, I've written about this elsewhere:
We might hope that those in leadership positions possess strength and resilience, but vanity and fragile egos have sabotaged many of the businesses that I’ve worked with. Defeat is always a possibility, and not everyone finds healthy ways to deal with the stress.
Each person matters. Established firms will have a bureaucracy that can ensure some stability, even when an eccentric individual is in a leadership position, but when a company consists of just two or three people, and one of them reacts neurotically to challenges, the company is doomed.
From 2002 to 2008 I worked with an entrepreneur who had inherited a few million dollars when he was twenty-five. He admired musicians and considered the music industry glamorous, so he built a sound studio. It never made money. The bands that stopped by were broke. Those few who came up with a hit song mostly signed with a major label which, typically, had its own recording studio.
I met him in 2002 when his focus was shifting to the Web. I had developed some software that allowed people to create weblogs. Typepad, which fostered something similar to what I’d built, had just raised $23 million in funding. Surely we could do the same?
Our difficulties were self-imposed. We might go like maniacs on some project for four months, and when we were on the brink of unveiling it to the public, he would grow bored with it and move on to something else. The first time this happened, and I asked him his reasons, he improvised some arguments that sounded plausible; there were already too many startups doing the same thing. But this pattern, where he walked away from a project just when we were ready to introduce it to the public, repeated itself.
What led to this self-sabotage? As I met his whole family over the years I got to see the sad dynamics that ate at him. A modest business success would not be enough, in fact, it would leave him embarrassed. Only the creation of something as big as Google would suffice. But to grow that big, we would first need to be small, and that was the step he had no patience for.
As the years went by and he burned away all the money he’d inherited, the stress wrecked him. His self-image became increasingly grandiose. He told people that he was a visionary, someone who was able to tell what the future would look like. Late at night he would smoke weed and read articles on Slashdot and TechCrunch and then put together an amalgam of words that seemed full of the bright hopes of humanity, which he offered up as our marketing: “The Universe is fundamentally electromagnetic yet non-sentient, and we are sentient but only partly electromagnetic; the Internet is the ultimate harnessing of sentience to the fundamental forces of the Universe. Therefore our software will put you, our customer, in the driver’s seat of real-time conscious human evolution.” Later, when he wrote up our business plan, he put these two sentences in the executive summary. I’m not joking.
We had one modest success, in 2007. His girlfriend, a yoga instructor, suggested we build an online marketplace where yoga instructors could sell videos, as well as other health advice. This site was an immediate success. Within the first month it was profitable. We were written up in all of the major yoga magazines. It seemed obvious to me that we should use the same technology to build a series of similar sites. We could do a site devoted to cooking videos, another devoted to tennis, another devoted to golf. Indeed, just a few years later, the team behind Revolutiongolf.com did exactly what we could have done.
My business partner, however, was enraged by the success of the yoga site. He had burned through several million dollars chasing ideas that he felt were “visionary” and then his girlfriend came up with a simple idea that turned into our one true hit. To this day, it remains a popular yoga site. We could have built an empire around that site, but instead his girlfriend’s success left him bitter.
Tuesday, June 9th, 2015
John told me that the board of directors had drawn up monthly sales goals for him. Starting in August, he would be expected to hit his quota. I thought this was insane. Once a product exists and is stable, then a company can draw up a sales schedule. How can one reasonably do that when the product does not even exist yet? Especially if the product is a cutting-edge technology which carries a lot of unknowns? For a stable company with an existing product, deadlines need to be more than mere aspirational goals, but when building truly original technology, then the entire company is aspirational — until the technology is working, there is no proof that the technology can work.
Even if the glorious day arrived when we would finally have an app customers could install on their iPhones, that would only be the beginning of a long process. Customers are an endless surprise. I’ve worked with startups for sixteen years; I know this well. Whenever I have shown people new software, the features that seemed intuitive to me were counterintuitive to them. Real-life needs that seemed intuitive to them seemed strange to me. If John thought that we could create our apps and have them working by mid-August, and he could immediately go out and start making tons of money, then he was sadly mistaken. If the board of directors thought that, then they were being badly misled.