Spending time on the wrong stuff

I’ve worked at small, fast-growing companies, large, slowly dying companies, and monolithic ones so big that no one person knows anything.

At dying companies, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out why something ISN’T working.

  • Why is the revenue going down
  • Why are customers complaining
  • Why are employees leaving for other jobs
  • Why aren’t we growing

You run experiment after experiment, and nothing moves the needle. Then you spend the next four weeks optimizing the same failed experiment. Small, insignificant wins are celebrated and then, two weeks later, forgotten. Instead of working on new things, most of the time is spent protecting the status quo. All this busy work is like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic.

At fast growing companies, the bulk of your “data analysis” is spent trying to figure out why new features worked SO WELL.

  • Why did customer numbers double again
  • Why is revenue up again
  • Why are all the metrics up this month when it was flat this time last year
  • Why did we beat the budget again

At fast growing companies customers are your secret sales team as they refer your product to their friends. Happy customers also offer up great product ideas and they use your product in ways you never intended. It’s fun, exciting and fluid.

Take a breath, and ask yourself. Where are you spending your time at work? Is it busy work or are you holding on for dear life as the product grows.

Trust me; it doesn’t have to be that hard. I’ve seen a lot of brilliant people grind themselves down in slow-growth companies , while mediocre folks have found a winning growth company, buckled up, and been successful.

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More waves are on the way

I went surfing with a buddy on Saturday afternoon. Weekend sessions are always packed with all sorts, from weekend warriors to seasoned surf dogs, so I had low expectations when it came to catching many waves on a crowded beach break. I intended to surf with a friend, get wet, and maybe catch a few waves. 


I noticed another surfer picking up a lot of waves. He was relaxed and chatting with his friends in between sets. He was chill and always in the right place for a quick little wave, which meant his wave count was much higher. I ended up paddling next to him as a bigger set wave took shape in front of us. We both looked at each other, and then he smiled at me and told me to go for it. Based on where I was sitting in the lineup, it was my wave, but it was still a cool and casual gesture from someone confident enough to know that more waves were on the way. His bucket was full.

Make a point of hanging out with people who have a full bucket. They are the people who know when enough is enough and aren’t desperately trying to hold onto things and constantly taking. 


Companies can be a bit like this as well. In a tight job market, watch out for companies that will do anything to make you stay. Work with people who are quietly confident and happy to help, whether it’s working together or getting you set up for your next move. The top performers at the most exciting companies know there are more waves on the way. 

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Good Citizens and Mercenaries

Teddy Roosevelt said, “The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight.” A Good Citizen properly fulfills his or her role as a citizen. 

A mercenary takes part in a battle, but is not a national or a party to the conflict and is motivated to take part in the hostilities by the desire for private gain.

People, not product, will determine the success or failure of a company. You can have an excellent product and fail because you’ve assembled the wrong team. Building a business at scale is hard. It’s fraught with uncertainty, highs, lows, wins and losses. It’s an emotional roller coaster. Good citizens roll up their sleeves when there’s work to be done. They pitch up every day and are in service to each other. Mercenaries leave if it’s about anything but themselves.

The list of GC attributes I look for when building a team:

Compassionate

Collaborative

Curious

Comfortable with uncertainty and mystery. They feed off it and enjoy it

Cocky in a kind way

Gritty

Impatient

Kind

Loyal

Persistent

Pragmatic

Polite

Persuasive

Zen

Pointers for spotting a GC:

They use ‘we’ and “our” a lot when talking about solving problems

They laugh at themselves

Pedigree & degrees don’t matter. It’s about what you can offer now and in the future

They have a history of execution and getting things done

They listen more than they speak

They are self-aware

They are black belts in verbal judo. The best answer always wins the tussle

They ask for feedback, welcome it, and act on it

They have detractors. Probably a couple of bullies they’ve stood up to in the past

They respect the people they work with and are friends with them

They are rewarded and recognized by their peers

They offer up reference checks from peers and previous investors/partners

They treat interviews like a two-way street and ask questions about the team, motivations and product

They seek you out, vs. running away from their current role or company

They have hobbies outside of work

Ad hominem is not an option

They are comfortable making decisions with incomplete data

The understand the importance of luck, timing and preparedness

They are always learning, experimenting, tinkering & tweaking

Titles don’t matter

So what’s the opposite of a GC?

In my experience it’s the Mercenary. The are seductive, because they get things done, but don’t be fooled – when the going gets tough and it’s time to contribute to the greater good and sacrifice something…they leave.

Attributes that pop up time and time again:

Bully

Blamer

Bitter

Charming

“Lone wolf”

Poison dwarf

Rude

Short tenures and long stories

How to spot them:

They use “I” and “they” when describing their current role and company

They describe past and present colleagues as ninkanpoops/clueless/tone deaf/opaque/idiots/blind/wrong/lazy

They hold grudges

They “get things done” through coercion and intimidation

They stereotype people and roles

They don’t believe in luck and good timing. It’s all about talent & A players

They are “Remember whens” – “remember when” is the lowest form of conversation. They dwell on the past, live in the world of what was instead of understanding that things change and you need to move forward. (The Sopranos Season 6, Ep 15)

Listen for phrases like:

They don’t listen to me

It’s them not me

I don’t have the resources

It’s not my responsibility

You need me

I inherited that problem

My team wasn’t big enough

They wouldn’t promote me

I told them, but nobody listened

Give me people a chance to change

Everyone can change, and I’ve seen it happen many times. Sometimes Mercenaries become GCs and even inspiring presidents, but if it looks like a goat and sounds like a goat it normally is a goat.

Happy hiring!