A couple of months ago the good folks at Hypepotamus asked if if I would participate in their "How I Work" series in which people share their daily routines. I was flattered and of course accepted. I am republishing the full text here with their permission. You can see the original article here.
Three highlights of your career (so far): 1) Well, the biggest career highlight so far has to be joining MindSpring when it was a startup, going through the IPO process, and growing it into a great company for a period of time. I scaled pretty well with the company and ended up running sales and marketing there. It was a special company at a special time and many people that I worked with there remain my closest friends today.
2) Another thing that I am proud of is to see people that I have helped along the way have some success. When I look around Atlanta I see people that I taught a little something to go on to bigger and better things. To know I played an important role in someone’s career development makes me very happy.
3) The third thing has not happened yet. I don’t know what it is but the best is yet to come.
What’s your current venture? nCrowd, Inc. We operate online local commerce marketplaces that connects merchants to consumers by offering goods and services at a discount.
What’s your current role? I am the COO. I have been with the company for about two and a half years. I came in as part of a $7 million venture capital round in 2011. During my time at nCrowd I have directly managed sales, marketing, product development, and technical operations. I joined to grow the business and in terms of sales we are about four times the size of when I started.
What time do you typically wake up? Depending on what is going on the product development front some time between 4:00 and 6:00am. Much of development is overseas and if we have something big going on I get up and help out with the development/deployment effort.
Describe your typical morning routine: I wake up before my family, grab some coffee and head straight to the computer. I work for a bit and then gather with the rest of the family to get ready for our day and the kids (I have a 15 and 13 year old) off to school. It is a special day when I get to take them to school and we get a treat. Then off to the office for a dev meeting and more work on that front. Around 11:00 am I start to shift my focus from development to sales and marketing activities.
Is lunch a time for solace or socializing? Why? A little of both. I try to stay connected with my network in Atlanta and lunch is a good time to do that. If I don’t have that type of meeting I typically spend lunch at my desk working.
How often do you check email? Too much. I make a habit not to let email take over my day. IM is even worse than that. Just because something beeps or bounces at you does not mean it deserves your attention.
How often do you check social media? These days about three times a day. Morning. Early afternoon.Night. And when I am waiting for someone/something.
Describe your typical afternoon routine: Afternoons are spent more with the sales team addressing their issues and meetings with outsiders.
What time do you go home?
Either before or after rush hour. If before I work at home for a period of time before returning my attention to family.
Describe your typical evening routine: A little exercise (I play a lot of tennis these days), dinner with the family, and some down time with them as well. More often than not I return to the computer before I go to bed. The last is a bad habit I want to break.
What daily habits fuel your success? Just showing up, putting in a good effort, and doing just a little more than the next guy is a big part of the battle. I try to stay up to speed on industry trends and opportunities to find the intersections of success.
What daily habits hinder your success? I love the Internet but it can sure send you down some rabbit holes.
What tools/tech are essential to you? iPhone, Macbook Air, and of course the Internet. That is everything you need. You have those three things you can do just about anything.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you could go back in time and give to your younger self? It is easy to say now but was hard to do then. Life is too short to spend time doing things that you don’t want to do with people that you don’t like. Do what you love with people that you like. I am very fortunate to be able to follow my own advice.
"The problem with business is that the #1 goal taught is to maximize shareholder wealth. This can't be done without first focusing on maximizing employee, customer and corporate health first. Shareholder wealth is an outdated and shortsighted metric."
I agree with Dave 100%.
Being all about the money does not equal maximizing profit or short-term shareholder wealth. It does not mean putting the money first. The money is a single leg of a four legged chair.
First and foremost a company has to focus on doing an excellent job of serving customers. It all starts with customers. Customers are what create value.
Secondly a company must provide meaningful work for its employees. It must do this for no other reason than without providing such work for employees it will not be able to retain them. If a company can not retain employees it can not do an excellent job of serving customers. Moreover, customers can tell when the employees that they communicate with are not provided meaningful work. They can hear it in their words and see it in their actions. Employees are the brand. Treat them well.
Third, a company has to be a force for good in its communities. It has to be a good corporate citizen. It must do so to provide meaningful holistic work for its employees. Which is required to do an excellent job of serving customers.
Fourth, a company must deliver (or make a reasonable promise to deliver) exceptional returns to investors. Without doing so the company can not be an force for good in its communities, provide meaningful work for its employees, or do an excellent job of serving customers.
So being all about the money is really being all about the community, the employees, and the customers. It all starts with an intense focus and passion for the customer.
The customer comes first. The money comes last.
I would be remiss not to mention that this point of view is heavily derived from the written misison of MindSpring Enterprises, Inc. and the beliefs that I developed during my time with the same company.
Given his position and popularity I am sure that Fred gets quite a bit of email, much more then me. But I was feeling a bit overwhelmed myself back in November as Black Friday approached and the marketing emails were on the rise. Back then I made a simple decision. I was going to unsubscribe from all emails. If it did not come from a real person I did not want to see it.
I am about seven weeks into this experiment. What a difference it makes. Instead of spending my first 20 minutes every day wading through mail I have about 10 fresh messages in the morning.
I do not have so much incoming mail that I need to do the nuclear option like Fred. Most likely either do you. Try the unsubscribe option. It worked wonders for me.
Planning at a startup, like most things, is hard. Conditions are rapidly changing and the amount of real information that you have is smaller than in larger more established companies. One tool to use to help in planning is the creation of strategic priorities. It is kinda like a big company three year plan. But due to the rate of change and unknowns startup strategic priorities need to be set about every six months.
Not sure if Charles Brewer or Mike McQuary came up with this strategic priority scheme. Perhaps they came up with it together. All I know is that it works. Here it is listicle style.
1. Assemble the team off site. You need to gather up the senior team and get them off site for a day or so to focus. Depending on the stage of the company this could include board members, investors, advisors, co-founders, or senior management. Plan on a day and a half. You need some time to think about things overnight.
2. State of the company address. The girl or guy in change opens the meeting with the state of the company and the purpose of the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to come up with a set of three to five overarching objectives for the company to meet over the course of the next six months. It's a team effort, the guy and the girl should not get too deep into the below at this stage. It would taint the outcome.
3. Review past strategic priorities. If this is not your first time at the rodeo, doing a post-mortem on the previous set of strategic priorities is a must. Grade the results just like in school. A - F. Talk about the why. There are both good and not good reasons for not achieving an objective. Know which type is at work. If it is a not good type discuss how to improve the cause of failure going forward. Have a scribe to capture this and all other discussions at the off site.
4. Macro environment discussion. Have a discussion about the big environmental factors potentially effecting your business. The economy, politics, change/potential change in government regulations, the financial markets, other technology areas to name a few. These are not really things that the company can control but discussing what everyone is thinking about concerning the wider landscape helps to provide some perspective as the team starts drilling down.
5. SWOT analysis. Have a SWOT analysis discussion. Or if you prefer a Porter five forces analysis discussion. Once you do this, combined with steps 2 through 4 above it is time to determine the strategic priorities.
6. Strategic priority selection. Have everyone present the three things that they feel the company needs to focus on during the next six months. By the second or third person themes will start to emerge. Combine them into some smaller number. Have the team debate what is really the most important areas for the company to operationally focus on during the next six months. Pick five give or take one or two. Have no more than seven. For each strategic priority appoint an individual at the meeting that is accountable for its delivery. More often than not strategic priorities are focused on customer experience, product development, and revenue generation.
7. Set strategic priority measurement criteria. The last thing before getting back to the work of the day to day is setting measurement criteria for the strategic priorities selected. These metrics will be used in the weekly progress report and to grade the work toward the objectives at your next strategic priority meeting. The person directly responsible for delivery of the strategic objective should lead the discussion on the appropriate metrics.
8. Create drill down objectives for every employee. Every employee needs to understand the strategic priorities and how their actions contribute to it every day. Explain the priorities to those (if any) that were not at the off site. Jointly come up with goals and measurements for each and every employee. Either one on one or in teams.
9. Discuss progress every week. Every week as part of an internal team meeting set aside time to discuss progress against the strategic priorities and what adjustments need to be taken to meet the objectives. In my experience sharing this with the entire company during company meetings is very powerful. Having the person accountable for achieving the strategic priority provide these updates works best.
10. Rinse and repeat. Managing via strategic priorities is a great tool. Do it once then rinse and repeat. Adjust as necessary for your company.
Everybody wants to raise money and talk about it. One of the things that does not get talked about quite so much is the overhead of taking someone else's money. More often than not one of your investors joins your newly created board and you start having board meetings. And every time I have been advising an entrepreneur on such a thing and the first board meeting comes up panic generally sets in. "How do I prep for the meeting?"
It's a fair question for a first time entrepreneur and it goes something like this.
1. Ask the board members what they would like to see at the meeting. They typically will share with you some board meeting materials from their more advanced stage companies that you will find completely overwhelming. "They want to see what?" you and your team will exclaim. The panic will deepen. Don't fret.
2. Ask the CEOs of the investors other portfolio companies what they provide to the board for their meetings. If you were smart and did your investor diligence before you accepted that term sheet you will already have established a relationship with these folks and they will be more than happy to help. What you will find is that what they are providing to their boards is a little bit less than what the board gives to you as examples.
3. Plan ahead. The first time you prep for a board meeting it will consume quite a bit of time. It's well over a two week planning process. This process shrinks over time. I prepare the board materials for nCrowd and I can literally get them together in less then 48 hours after a few years of doing so.
4. Set a schedule. Our board meetings are the third Tuesday of every even numbered month at 2:00pm and last for 90 to 120 minutes.
5. Get the board the materials out early. At least 48 hours before the meeting. With our Tuesday board meetings my aim is to get them the materials on Friday and if I lapse they go out on Saturday morning. While the materials may change in scope and size they generally include the following.
Board meeting minutes
A cap table
KPIs and operational overview
An organzational chart including planned hires (if you have enough folks to warrant one)
Special departmental or strategic presentations
6. No surprises. Each board member should know what is going to be discussed at the meeting and the CEO needs to understand each board member's point of view on important topics of discussion.
My number one rule on board meetings is to get in and get out quick and nobody gets hurt. Proper preparation will ensure this happens for you.
Not too long ago I was searching around the Internet for the text of MindSpring's Core Values and Beliefs. If you do that and include the guy, Charles Brewer, who wrote them in the search string you are sure to come across an article by Kyle Porter. Charles Brewer & the CV&B's, which to be frank I found somewhat shocking. Some guy, whom I happen to know, who was most likely in elementary school when Charles wrote the CV&B's, extolling their virtues and asking everyone to read a speech cause it was so enlightening it gave him chills.
And I am sharing the text of the speech as Kyle requested.
If you take the time to read the speech you may find it worthwhile. As someone who was there and heard this stuff and preached this stuff I have a unique perspective. An insider view. And I am going to tell you the most important sentence in the entire doc is on page four. It is a single word.
That is really it.
To quote from the original MindSpring business plan:
One other factor we need to mention is not exactly a
core value or belief, but is a necessary ingredient for our leadership
philosophy to be effective. That final
all important ingredient is authenticity. If the leaders of the company do not practice
what they preach, and if they do not truly in their hearts believe those things
which they profess to be important, they will be ineffective. The Core Values and Beliefs will ring hollow,
and will become an object of ridicule rather than a source of guidance and
motivation. People have incredibly
accurate bullshit meters. A false
attempt at values based leadership is doomed to horrible failure.
Implementing a core values approach to business requires three things. Communicating the values, selecting people who share the values, and building the values into the structure of the organization. This requires authentic managment commitment. And that comes from the CEO.
And implementing a core values management approach starts at the beginning of a venture. And that comes from the CEO as well. Charles actually came up with the CV&B's before he started MindSpring. He just happened to stumble across the concept of offering Internet service when he had an issue getting online to research business concepts to apply the CV&B's.
To lead with values you have to start early and and you have to be authentic. You can build a nice company without those things. You just can't expect it to be purposefully values based and the end result most likely is a culture that was not intended.
So two of the largest advertising giants, Omnicom and Publicis are getting together to form a company with $23 billion in revenue to fight off the inroads from digital competition. Might be a losing battle, data based marketing is growing fast.
A long time ago I was involved with a merger of equals. EarthLink and MindSpring. A guy named Stan worked for me at MindSpring. He led our retail distribution effort. Shortly after the deal closed Stan got on a plane to meet his EarthLink counterpart. After his meeting he called me from LAX. "Lance, I'm outta here, I resign." Stan then proceeded to tell me this, and I am of course paraphrasing.
"I was involved with the merger of Babbage's Inc. and Software Etc. Never again. One merger of equals is all anyone should go through in their lifetime. What you guys should do is go to a football stadium, get all the EarthLink employees on one side and all the MindSpring employees on the other side, and get your leaders at the center of the field. Flip a coin. Winners stay and run the company, losers go home."
Stan quit. Could not talk him out of it.
As for my experience in a merger of equals I have to say that perhaps Stan and The WSJ are right. Mergers of equals have a unique set of challenges. In my mind it's better when one company acquires the other. At least that way everyone knows who is in charge.
It's interesting situation. I was given a project that required my undivided attention. None of the team that I am working with is in our Atlanta office. They are literally spread across the globe. Remove me from the office, remove distractions.
I have been doing this for a week or so and my typical day looks like this. Get up in the 3:45 - 5:30am time frame and communicate with my Eastern Europe comrades. Work til 8:30 then help my teenagers get off to their summers camps/jobs for 30 minutes. Turn my attention domestically then and perhaps a little exercise or a meeting for lunch. Then back to task with the USA Eastern time zone cohorts. Wrap that up around 5, set tasks for those whose workday begins at 1:00am Eastern time, and communicate with contractors on the West Coast or those with full time gigs between 7 and 11pm. The latter which I just wrapped up before writing this post.
Not sure if it is an actual lifestyle improvement or not. I will say this, I am not getting much sleep but I put on long pants for the first time in about a week today.
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The opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone (with the exception of comments by others of course). They do not represent the opinion or position of any other person or entity. All postings adhere to my personal values.