Ending employee relationships should take longer than the hiring process
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I’ve been involved in many hirings, both getting hired myself, and hiring other developers. Unfortunately, I’ve also been around numerous layoffs, and had to watch great people be let go. I’ve also had a few contracts not renewed, and was even let go once myself. No doubt it’s a painful process for the person being let go. Throughout all these situations, one thing has stood out to me above all else: more time is spent on the hiring process than on the process to decide to let someone go.

If you’ve gone through the interview process for any major tech company, you know just how involved it can be. When I interviewed for GitHub, I had four video interviews, and was then flown out to San Francisco for a full day of interviews. During that day, I interviewed with seven different people. The policy at GitHub is the majority must agree the person is a fit before they are brought on.

Recently, I went through a very similar process with The Iron Yard. I had phone interviews with three of the four founders, and met with one instructor in Durham, before I was flown to Atlanta to meet the entire staff there. I was asked to speak in front of the two classes at that campus, and spent two whole days with the team. It was a wonderful experience, and to be honest, was one of the least stressful interview process I’ve ever been through. Note: I think that’s a good sign you’ve found a fit.

These are both examples of a very typical interview process for major tech companies these days, and the process itself can take several months, from first contact to offer. Companies want to be as sure as possible that you are a great fit before adding you to the team, and considering how important an employee is to a team, and how much one bad apple can effect the entire bunch, it makes perfect sense.

What troubles me is the very short process that goes into letting someone go who you previously thought was a great fit. No matter how hard you try as a company, you won’t always be right when you hire. Often, you will have been right to make the hire, based on what the candidate communicated to you, but it may simply be the candidate didn’t understand the situation enough to realize they weren’t a great fit. Or, out of desperation to be employed, they may have oversold themselves. As well, it may simply be a case of bad timing. I’ve seen great hires go bad because the employee is having personal troubles at the time and can’t focus and do what is necessary to become a productive member of the team.

If you, as a tech company, decide to hire someone to your team, and then go through another lengthy investment of time during the on boarding process, surely it’s worth it to nurture that employee and protect them at even more considerable cost. It sends an unhealthy message to the rest of the team, when a teammate is so quickly shown the door, with no obvious process to help them grow.

If you are planting a garden, and you spend all the time to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, feed and water them, surely you would not rip it out of the ground at the first sign of leaf damage or failure to grow as quickly as you had hoped. We don’t do that with students either. They struggle at times and grow at different rates, yet we don’t toss them out of the class at the first sign they aren’t a good fit. No, if we care about them, we work to get them to the point where they can be their best.

Unfortunately, that is not the case right now in most IT companies. Most are so protective of their culture they will pull a slow growing plant as if it were a filthy, virus laden weed. This is both cruel and short-sighted, and sends a message to the remaining teammates: no matter how much you feel like part of this company you are only a few struggles away from being tossed to the curb. In other words, though you might feel like a cherished part of our team, so did this person before we threw them out. This leads employees to live in fear. That mentality will crush your precious culture faster than anything else.

The lesson? You must be as protective of your employees as you are of your culture. Your culture is nothing without those people. Once you let them in, accept them for who they are, and understand that no two will be alike; no two will grow at the same pace; no two will contribute in exactly the same manner. Get to know each of them, and care more about helping them become a fit than you did in trying to determine the fit.

Yes, there will still be times when you need to let an employee go. Both because of lack of funds, and because they aren’t working out. But the latter should be determined only after just as many people worked to help them succeed as you had interview them in the beginning. If their spot on the team is worthy of ten personal interviews, then isn’t that person themselves worthy of more than one or two people deciding they aren’t working out? If it takes you three months to decide to hire someone, shouldn’t it take exponentially longer to decide they aren’t the fit you thought they were?

The next time you decide to hire someone to your team, be sure you’re ready to help the person succeed when you hire them. If you can’t commit to a lengthy process when things don’t seem to be working out, then don’t bother to bring them through a lengthy process in the beginning. To spend the time protecting your business and not spend the time protecting your employees demonstrates one simple principle: you care more about your culture and bottom line than you do about the humans who are making your business work.

PeepNote: The Rumble, the Startup, and now…the Conclusion
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The Team and the Challenge

I first launched PeepNote, a contact and relationship management tool for Twitter, in 2009, during the Rails Rumble. I was interested in participating in the 48 hour development competition, both for the challenge of creating an app in that short amount of time, and for the focused opportunity to launch a startup. Launching a startup can be a difficult thing to do when you are working a full time job, but focusing on this competition provided a specific deadline for motivation, a team of four to get the work done, and a set aside time with extra incentive to do the work.

At the time, I already had my best friend since age 7, Steven Pothoven, as a co-developer, but needed a designer. I had decided that unless I could find a top designer for the project, I would pull out of the competition. For me, design is a crucial part of any functional app. It’s not the most important part, but I believe its important enough for the success of an online service, that I would never consider launching one without a design expert on the team.

It was not easy to find someone. I attended the Front End Design Conference in 2009 in St. Petersburg and put the word out that I was looking for a designer. I wanted one from Tampa, but sadly, there just weren’t many in this area at the time who had experience with applications.

It was coming down to the wire and I was getting nervous, but then I met a fantastic designer online: Josh Hemsley. We chatted online, and not only did he accept the challenge to be on the team, but he ended up participating on my team in the 2010 Rumble as well for Commendable Kids and also designed the original We Are Tampa Bay and my personal blog. After adding Josh to the team, I also asked Linda Olson, (we were working together on Wombeat.com at the time) to assist with testing, content writing, and the creation of a demo video. The team was set, and there would be many long hours to prepare prior to the actual 48 hour competition.

Why PeepNote?

At the time, Twitter was still in the early adopter stage, and I was struggling to keep track of the new people I was meeting online. I wanted to be able to take notes on those I followed, remember why I followed them, where I first met them, etc, and to tag them for easy sorting. I also wanted to be able to search my notes and their bios, and create Twitter lists from those tags. It was out of this personal need that the PeepNote idea originated. The team was set, the idea formed, and we spent the next month planning out how we would go about building it in just 48 hours.

The Competition

At the time, I had years of experience managing the creation of online software services in Java and for large multi-million dollar companies, as well as a few years as a Ruby on Rails developer for the Miley Cyrus web sites. I had been an amateur entrepreneur since I was a child, but had never launched a small “startup”, and particularly not in such a short time frame. It was a fun challenge to complete so much work in such a little time. My number one goal wasn’t to win, but was to illustrate just how much could be accomplished with proper planning, a strong team, a competent product development manager, and the Ruby on Rails web development framework.

237 teams competed worldwide, with only 137 actually finishing on time and able to submit their entry. Of those, 22 were selected by an expert panel to enter the final round of public voting. PeepNote was selected as one of the finalists and after public voting finished, we were 8th. It was also picked as one of the best by Mashable. We were tired after 48 hours of building, but it was well worth the effort, and the experience was priceless both in memory and in the experience gained.

In the end, the majority of comments both from voters and from judges was that they could not believe how much we had accomplished in just 48 hours. Mission Accomplished.

To Startup or Not to Startup?

After the Rumble we were flying high. The judges comments, finishing in the top ten, the numerous write ups online, all encouraged us to continue with PeepNote post-Rumble. At first we were polishing things we had to skip during the Rumble, changing some things we were forced into by the time constraints. Then we began adding other functionality to make the app more enticing. As time went on, our designer had to move on to other things, and my co-developer could not spend the extra time in the evenings that I was able to. I spent the majority of nights for the next year improving PeepNote. The catch was, however, that at even 10 hrs a week of extra time, beyond my family obligations and more-than-full-time job, it would take me 16 weeks to duplicate the time spent during the Rumble from 4 full time people. It was slow, and I was only product building at this point.

As time went on, I lost site of the big picture. I was heads down building, but so busy with everything else that I wasn’t paying attention to what customers wanted, or even more importantly, to who my customers actually were. I continued to be emboldened by users comments, and even comments from some other successful founders and investors. I knew I had something, but the time burn was intrusive in life, and yet was resulting in very slow progress, and certainly no money.

We finally released the pro plan. It was the first attempt to make money from all these people that loved the service. But no one converted, at least not for a long time. As I began interacting more with potential customers I realized that my target audience was not what I thought it was. It wasn’t people like me who were heavily using Twitter for career networking and wanted to keep track of how I met people and what I knew about them. Instead, the only people that would pay for the service were companies. Companies that wanted to use it to track potential customers; a CRM.

At this point I began to pivot but the functionality set this new target audience wanted was drastically different from what I’d just spent the last year working on and I was burned out. We had some larger companies interested in using it, “if only we could add…”. At 10-15 hrs a week at most, that wasn’t easy to do. I realized the only way to turn this into a real business would be to invest money; substantial money. I needed more developers and a designer in order to respond to what what could make money. Then, to make matters worse, Twitter changed the API, and all the features of the Pro plan stopped working. I was faced with the need to rewrite a huge portion of the functionality in order to continue.

At this point, I reviewed the numbers and they didn’t look good. At what I thought I could charge, combined with a smaller niche audience, it didn’t give me confidence that the return on investment would be worth it. Even more importantly, the entire project was missing a crucial element: my passion. The passion was gone. For months I had no idea why. This was what I had wanted wasn’t? I built a product that users loved and were using. I was proud of it. In the end though, that just isn’t enough. I had no free time to do what I wanted, and since the 2009 Rumble I now had other applications I wanted to work on (like Commendable Kids). I also had no passion for working with it as a CRM and with the new target audience. That wasn’t why I had gotten into it in the first place, and the pivot had turned it into something I could no longer find easy motivation to do. I had to fight to make myself work on it.

In the end, PeepNote was never a startup. It was a side project, a fun challenge, and I learned more from the experience than from any conference I ever attended, any book I’ve ever read or any class I’ve ever taken. But it was never a startup. That word gets thrown around so easily these days as if every side project in IT is automatically a startup. Long before the Internet ever made anyone a penny there were hundreds of thousands of IT side projects. No one ever referred to them as a startup. For some reason today, almost everyone labels their side projects a startup. To me, its not a startup unless the primary goal is the making of money and you are attempting to do so. As well, you must be investing not just your time but your money. If you aren’t willing to take out a loan to invest into it, and you aren’t actively attempting to convert people to paying customers, you are just having fun with a side project. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more honest you can be with yourself, the more heartache you will save and the less time you will waste.

I know its not sexy to have a side project. I know having a “startup” sounds so cool, particularly when you can put it on your blog, tweet about it, and attend conferences where you can identify yourself as a founder. But if you aren’t building it with sound business principles, you’re a fraud. I say that, not to crush your dreams, but to free you from using it as a crutch. Today, its become accepted that everyone has a startup and no one expects any of them to actually make money. But when we do this, we do a disservice to the entire startup community and we lower our own expectations. It would be far better if we all started with side projects, powered by passion. Build it, share it, tweak it, and gather feedback. If you have aspirations to make money from it, interact with the early adopters and ask them straight up, if they would pay for the service and how much they would pay for it.

You’ll have to go all in if you want to make the move from side project to startup. You’ll have to sacrifice your hobbies, any other fun projects, and certainly your own money. As well, beware, the bulk of time needed to be spent for a startup, vs. a side project, will be customer acquisition and communication. If you love to build projects first and foremost, you probably aren’t going to have great success turning it into a profitable startup. Most people I talk to, developers and designers a like, believe that 90% of the work is building the product. I would say that 90% of the work of a startup comes post build, which is why building the smallest possible product is crucial. You must get to that 90% of work as soon as possible to save you a long year of sleepless nights building something no one is ever going to pay for. Don’t do like I did and spend a full year building before you find out who is willing to pay for it and what they are going to want it to do in order to spend their money.

The Conclusion

As a side project, PeepNote was a complete success. It worked, it looked good, it was usable, and people have used it since 2009. I have aspirations, however, far beyond that. I’m a builder and a creator by nature, but also a business man who wants the things I create to profit. For me, the two have to go hand in hand. I have another venture or two that I’d like to focus all of my time on, and so because of that, PeepNote will be closing next month. The journey for this side project has come to an end. If you have data on the site, you will need to make a copy of it within the next 30 days, before we shutdown the service. It’s been a great ride, with a lot of great memories. We appreciate all the support and kind words we’ve received and I will never regret any of it, even the mistakes. The entire experience was invaluable and will make my next venture far more likely to transition from side project to a startup.

AT & T New Data Plans: Listening, Ignoring and Observing Your Customers
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Earlier this week AT & T announced a controversial change to their data plan rates and usage limits. The net has been buzzing with complaints from users who feel they need higher caps on their data usage, not lower ones. But according to AT & T, “Currently, 98 percent of AT&T smartphone customers use less than 2 GB of data a month on average.

I have to wonder how many complaining customers are being impacted in any other way than saving $5 a month? I use my iPad a lot, probably way too much. While on a week’s vacation recently, I watched several TV shows (while working), over 3g. I was really impressed with how well it worked considering I was on 3g. I also surfed the web a bunch, kept up with my email and social networks. I downloaded apps, watched other video, and took a bunch of notes. The week before I did the same on a 3 day trip to Atlanta, and the week before that another 3 day trip to Sarasota, FL.

I keep my wifi turned OFF on the iPad, and use 3g even when wifi is available, because often the wifi my iPad picks up is actually worse (probably due to distance) than the 3g. In all, since I received my iPad over a month ago, I’ve used under 2 gigs of data. I also have no doubt that as time goes on, that monthly number will drop. I used it a ton when I first got it because it was new. I’ll never purchase as many apps in a month as I did this month. Usage will level off, and I certainly won’t always travel for half an entire month either. And if I did get close on data usage, I would start using wifi when available.

I think this is a perfect example of what I often tell clients and startups, that you must both listen to and ignore your customers all at the same time. The trick is knowing when to do each. And as always, observing your customers actual usage of your product provides far more info than asking them their opinion. There’s nothing wrong with asking of course. PeepNote is doing that right now with a survey (we are giving away a few Pro Plan year memberships in the process too), but you can’t assume that your customers are always right. I used to spend hours watching people use web sites in UI focus groups. Their behavior rarely ever matched up with what they thought their behavior was. We as humans simply aren’t always aware how inaccurate our perceptions can be when compared with reality, particularly when not in our area of expertise.

Customers can’t know where you are coming from, where you are going as a company/product/service, what your expenses are, what your limitations are, nor what you are actually seeing vs hearing. With AT & T, they saw the the majority of users didn’t need more than 2g a month, but that a tiny percentage where ruining it for everyone by using far more than the rest. So, instead of listening to your demands, they ignored you, and in the process, lowered your monthly bill, reduced strain on their network, and stopped forcing YOU to pay for someone else’s usage.

Consumers have to remember, that while a company needs to make its customers happy, it also has to make money. You can’t do one without the other. AT & T seems to have done the right thing here, and ignored the talk while observing the behavior. Hopefully for them, customers will see over the first few months, that there is no impact on them at all. Remember too, with this change came tethering, something consumers have been asking for, for years.

What do you think and how much data have you used on your iPad or iPhone over the last month?

Learn how Wufoo went from concept to launch
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I recently had a very detailed interview with Kevin Hale from Wufoo. We went over some helpful information for startups, as Kevin detailed how Wufoo went from original concept to eventual launch. We discuss his lessons learned and his recommendations to other startup teams. You can read the discussion at the Fuel Venture blog.

LessConf: Diversity and Discrimination. Where is Our Focus?
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I’ve been watching the “conversation” of outrage unfold on Twitter the last few days and finally decided it was time to say something. I know its a minority of people that are making a stir and on the one hand, it’s probably best not to respond and simply let it go away, but on the other, I’ve seen this happen now for so many other conferences too that I felt it was time to try and put things in perspective. It seems that every time a conference is announced and the speaker lineup listed, somebody pours over the list to determine if its racially and sexually diverse enough. It’s almost as if we should appoint an official committee to approve or disapprove every conference’s lineup. Enough is enough.

I find a number of things about this outcry to be contradictory and quite frankly, dishonest.

True Diversity and Representation

The center of this debate is whether or not conferences like LessConf are using an unbalanced and unfair, even racist and sexist representation of the industry demographic by lining up a bunch of Caucasian male’s for all the speaking. The demands have been for more women and more “people of color”.

But let’s use some facts to cut through the heated emotions. Considering that the largest portion of our population, 15%, are descendants of Germans, it would only be fair if 15% of all speakers at all US based conferences are also of German descent. Irish is next at almost 11%. Then we get to African American, English, American, Mexican, Italian, Polish, French, and the list goes on. As for White Americans as a group, regardless of ancestry, the ones who “unfairly” dominate the speaking roles, the percentage is 80. My question to you who want so desperately for every conference to be “diverse”, how do we pull that off without having 50 speakers? And we haven’t even discussed gender yet.

Next I went through Scobleizer’s Twitter list of founders; 500 in total. Want to guess what I found (at least judging by the avatar?) 36 of the 500 were women. That’s 1 in every 14. So to be fair, how about a new rule of thumb for conference lineups? For every 14 males you invite, you have to invite 1 woman? As for African American’s I saw 1. Yes, just 1. There were certainly many from other countries, but very few could easily be determined by their skin color. Maybe 20 – 40 or so who were identifiable by their avatars as non-caucasian male. So if being statistically representative of the demographic is the goal, its going to have to be all caucasian males at the conferences. Sorry folks.

What does it mean to discriminate?

Here’s the thing about racism and sexism, you can’t determine if someone, like a conference organizer, is a racist/sexist by the makeup of the speaker lineup. You are seeing the outcome of a lot of work, a lot of phone calls and emails; a whole lot of networking. The result cannot logically indicate what is in the heart of the organizer. Perhaps if the person in question were making racist or sexist comments, or mistreating people of the opposite gender and race, then you’d have some grounds to make a case.

As for discrimination, I think its time for a refresher on what discrimination actually is. So from dictionary.com, here’s the definition:

treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit

In other words, if you look at a group of speakers and think to yourself, I wish the makeup of race and gender where different in order to be fair, you are practicing discrimination. You see, the conference organizers who pick the best 9 speakers, from the circle of whom they know or are able to come in contact with, and who is willing, and who is available and who is popular enough to draw attendees willing to fly across country and pay almost $1000 after flight, hotel, and ticket, may not have been discriminating in any way. It may never have even crossed their minds as to what color, ethnicity or sex any of them were. If they selected based on merit and availability, then by definition they did not discriminate. However, if after they saw their lineup and thought, “uh oh, no women, African Americans, Germans, Indians, etc, we have to fix this,” they would then very much be guilty of discrimination.

Who has the right to determine the goal and message of a conference?

I’ve read some outlandish opinions on this one during the debate. Some believe the conference is there to give the audience what they want, but that is only half the story. In selecting speakers, a conference organizer generally has a message or a goal they feel is an important one to provide to the audience. While they certainly want the audience to connect and to be enticed by it, they also are doing it because they themselves feel its important to share. It’s not a shotgun of hopes and wishes for success. A lot of thought goes into who the speakers will be and what their message will be. If conference organizers have to be worried about the physical appearance of the speakers, I wonder how many conferences we will even have in coming years and certainly I wonder what the quality of them will be. Not because women and non-caucasian men aren’t wise and experienced (is there really anyone who feels this way anymore? I see no evidence of it), but simply because the focus will no longer be on who the person is and what their message is, but instead on what gender and race they are. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It seems that no matter how hard we try to move on from racism and sexism and have true equality, the very people who vocally champion such a cause, are the ones keeping racial and sexual differences at the forefront, making sure we never forget to see the color of a persons skin when we look at them.

You know what I want to focus on? Building kick-ass startups; creating awesome web sites, solving peoples problems by using our wonderful new technology, and meeting people like Steve Bristol, Allan Branch, Dan Martell, Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, etc. Just like last year I got to meet Gary Vaynerchuk in person and have lunch with him, and then meet David Hauser, who I’d never heard of, but now have great respect for and have learned a lot from, I fully expect to learn from and meet many great people at this year’s LessConf.

Where is our focus?

In the end, the good news is this: those who attend LessConf and other beneficial conferences, will gain new wisdom from the experiences of the speakers and will learn and grow from meeting other like minded folk, regardless of gender, sexual preference, age, or race. They will come away from LessConf enriched, refreshed, and wiser, with new friends, wider networks, and possibly a whole new outlook on their endeavors. Those that stay away because LessConf didn’t put enough effort into purposeful discrimination, will continue to feel bitter and miserable; will continue to shake their head that this world is still so focused on race and gender…even though they themselves are the only ones who still notice the color of a person’s skin, the origin of their birthplace, or the specific mix of X/Y chromosomes.

I hope the offended can one day bring themselves to see past the perceived discrimination to what is being offered here: the opportunity to hear from some truly successful and wise people, and attend one of the best organized conferences in the country, run by two people who really care about everyone who attends, and really care about sharing the wisdom of the speakers to the attendees. This conference puts you close to the speakers, it involves you, it brings you together, not separates. I recommend you attend and leave your discrimination concerns at home. There’s no room for it in this community, and there isn’t near as much of it, if any, as some would have us believe. What there is, is a whole lot of opportunity for us to learn from each other, put our differences aside and build some really great things.

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