Posted On May 3rd, 2017 by Crowded Ocean
In his annual letter to shareholders, tech titan Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and founder, described his practice of “high velocity decision-making” that help sustain the growth and competitiveness of his company. The article published last week by Quartz summarized Jeff’s guidelines (including the unusual observation that “many decisions are reversible”).
Decision-making style shapes long-term success
One of the major predictors of long-term success is this: how decisions are made and communicated to the company. Not only are these initial decisions critical from a business and technology perspective, they establish a cultural tone at the same time.
Ask any employee and he or she will say that they not only want to be involved in these early decisions, but due to their investments in the company—time, reduced salary and quality of life issues—they deserve to be involved in these decisions.
Startups are always on, always moving: it’s a pace and environment not given to deliberation or self-analysis. It’s an over-used analogy with startups but making decisions is like changing a tire on a moving car—it would be better to pull off the road and do it right, but who has the time?
Disagree and commit
In his letter, Jeff Bezos emphasized the value he places on the phrase “disagree and commit” to propel swift action by his team (and to overcome any bias for consensus.) In the spirit of Jeff’s focus, we would emphasize the following tenets to make your style of decision-making a strong component of your startup culture:
- Get as much diverse input as possible. It’s been proven that the more diverse your group—in background, ethnicity, and gender—the better the output. If you’re smart, you’ve already got a diverse team; now is the time to reap the benefits.
- Instill “ownership” across the entire team to motivate employee engagement. Ownership is a trait that startup leaders need to foster and reward, but only if it’s genuine. Even if a CEO is seriously top-down in his/her decision-making, we encourage them to find areas of genuine ownership, however narrow, for each employee.
- Over-communicate to the entire team what you’ve learned in customer forums or open forums (even team lunches or celebrations) with all employees. Be sure to communicate back to the company in another open forum–creating the sense that employees been active participants in the process all along. It’s the founders who have to be active communicators to glue their team together.
Posted On March 28th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean
Your startup must have a few chiefs already: chief executive officer, chief technology officer, chief marketing officer…and maybe now you’re considering hiring a Chief of Staff which is a role that’s becoming popular in larger startups. (See our recent blog on this trend.)
But it turns out there is a veritable explosion of chiefs out there: everything from Chief Customer Officer to Chief Wonk to Chief Algorithms Officer. After a quick tour through LinkedIn, we found a bunch of noteworthy titles listed below. Title inflation? Hard to say. But as a watcher of trends, both good and bad, we caution all startup teams to go easy on handing out the title “chief” (primarily because higher equity expectations come with that title).
Taking a bit of editorial license here: remember that too many chiefs in the kitchen spoil the MVP…
Chief Revenue Officer
Chief Algorithms Officer
Chief Innovation Officer
Chief Data Scientist
Chief People Officer
Chief Network Architect
Chief Product Officer
Chief Culture and Talent Officer
Chief Customer Officer
And they’re hiring:
Chief Merchandising Officer
Chief Impact Officer
Posted On March 21st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean
Incidental collection: in case you missed this tantalizing term brought to you by the House Intelligence Committee hearings, when the NSA wire-taps a foreigner or U.S. citizen suspected of terrorist activities, they can sometimes collect other communications. That’s NSA-speak now entering the mainstream.
Explainable AI: a field of research that, according to the Wall Street Journal, can explain in natural language how a machine learning model arrives at a logical decision.
Filter bubble: According to the New York Times, “the filter bubble describes the tendency of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to lock users into personalized feedback loops, each with its own news sources, cultural touchstones and political inclinations.”
Echo boomer: Census data indicates that there are more 26-year-olds in the U.S. than people of any other age. Like the baby boomer generation, the economic, retail and labor force of that large number of our population are expected to “echo” the influence of the prior, very large baby boomer generation.
Gaymoji: No explanation required. But if you must, check out this New York Times profile.
Posted On September 13th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean
This is our list of some of the attributes of startups that are “in” and others that are just, well, “meh”….
* for more on the bold claim, see our earlier blog post
Posted On August 23rd, 2016 by Crowded Ocean
Before Tom went into the technology industry, I was an historian—specifically, a Lecturer in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (happy guy, I know). And one of the things that we History dweebs would do when we got together was wonder, out loud, what events of today are going to be ‘history-altering’ and which of them, though seemingly important at the moment, are going to be quickly forgotten (see: Trump, Donald).
History is a matter of perspective: the later you come along, the more perspective you have.
For example, it’s hard to image Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, over a glass of wine in Florence in the early 1500’s, musing to each other: ‘Isn’t it great to be alive during the Renaissance?’ Why? Because they were caught up in something so new that it didn’t have a name. In short, they lacked the perspective to appreciate how unique their situation was.
Why all this historical musing? Because we have an opportunity that those who have come before us haven’t. We’re living in a time that is easily the equal of the Renaissance (or Industrial Revolution) in terms of its impact—and we should appreciate it now, not in our dotage. Just as the printing press and steam engine dramatically changed the world, so, too, have the internet and the PC/smartphone. And these tools are only a couple of decades old: think what the world will be like as they mature and their availability extends to every corner of the globe.
At Crowded Ocean, given the wide range of companies and industries we work with, we have a ringside seat to a variety of new technologies. Are any of them as potentially impactful as the internet or the PC/smartphone? Probably not (though we’re just scratching the surface of what Artificial Intelligence can do), but it’s important for all of us—not just those of us in the business—to stand back every now and then and marvel at the world we’re living in today and speculate on what tomorrow will bring.
Posted On June 15th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean
Virtually every startup that we’ve worked with in the past three years has gone exclusively to the open bullpen office layout, with hardly a wall in sight. At first glance it’s collegial, it’s democratic in its lack of hierarchy and it’s cost-effective.
But is it good business? Is it good for your employees’ frame of mind and productivity? The open floor plan has now been in place long enough that there are studies, not just anecdotes, about its role in business. And the findings are almost all in favor of some kind of return to ‘personal space’. Here are some stats to consider as you plan your next workplace:
- Open office noise results in an increase in epinephrine (adrenaline)—great for a short burst of activity, bad for the long run.
- Workers in open offices took 62% more sick leave than workers in single offices.
- A University of Sydney study found that loss of productivity due to noise distraction doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.
We’re not productivity experts: we’re just reporting what we see and hear in our experiences with multiple startups. And the only positive spike we’ve seen—and the most collegial conversations we’ve overheard—are new employees asking the veterans which high-end headphones they should invest in.
Posted On November 24th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean
In our travels in startup-land, we meet a lot of different kinds of startups with a variety of cultural norms and business practices.
Here are two unusual best practices that stood out for us:
Doughnuts for the new guy. At data transformation startup Trifacta, one of the ways that the team helps welcome and acclimate a new employee is they buy a box of doughnuts or bagels for the team and place it on the desk of new employee on their first day. That way, anyone who wants free food will have an easy way to approach the new employee and welcome them on board.
Blog competition over lunch. At machine data analytics platform Sumo Logic, the team used a weekly all-hands meeting over lunch to evangelize the company blog. The internal blog champion with overall responsibility for maintaining the blog shared a calendar of proposed topics and authors online so it was easy to see the pipeline. By using the lunch meeting to review the blog schedule, however, it was easy to give kudos to the author of the blogs that were most popular or that received the most comments. And by incorporating potential blog topics into a weekly social ritual at the company, it was a lot easier to make content marketing through the blog a priority for the entire team.
Posted On November 3rd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean
The Crowded Ocean model is for us to join our companies as initial VPs of Marketing, do a positioning/messaging workshop, then implement the resulting marketing plan using our ecosystem of vendors: PR, web, content, demand generation, events, SEO, etc. These marketing partners speak startup, learn the company and its culture, and work with the founders to provide best practices and all the tools for a great launch.
Rip and replace?
Another part of our model is hiring our replacement and exiting the account. As you might guess, an incoming VP of Marketing (or CMO) wants to start contributing as soon as possible. Which is great. Unfortunately, we often find that, either out of convenience or ego, our successors often replace all of our vendors in one fell swoop. Which is just plain bad business. The last thing an incoming VP of Marketing needs, as he or she is learning the technology and business workings of the company they just joined, is to also have to educate a new team of vendors as well.
Our recommendation: leave whatever team you inherit in place for at least three months. Test them out—they may be better than your old team. But at least you won’t be trying to orient and educate them while you’re orienting and educating yourself.
Posted On October 20th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean
We’ve written before about the importance of concise, articulate writing skills in the world of startup marketing. This article in the Sunday New York Times explains that while there is a slowdown in growth of high-skills jobs today, the jobs that combine technical skills with social skills have experienced rapid growth. In other words, social skills are becoming more highly valued but are also difficult to find in selected job categories.
We place a high value on communication skills – especially in marketing and in leadership roles – but we agree with the NYT feature that it’s the so-called softer skills of cooperation, empathy, and flexibility that are highly prized and that can help a talented startup team excel.
There are a number of related soft skills that we would add to the list, but we’re not quite sure how to sum each one of them up with a handy label. Here’s our expanded list of wished-for skills:
- The ability to admit what you don’t know;
- The ability to listen to another point of view, as well as give and receive constructive feedback without getting defensive or resentful;
- A willingness to change your point of view without a fight;
- Whenever there’s a decision put up for a vote, the willingness to “lose” and not be resentful of the proponents of the winning vote;
- The ability to foster an environment where new ideas can be offered and where the best idea can carry the day, regardless of who comes up with it.
If this sounds like a Boy Scout manual or a checklist for a vague employee review, it’s because it’s a tough set of skills to articulate. But if you establish the above—or something like them—for building your culture, you’ll see the difference.
Posted On October 6th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean
Startups cultures are delicate creatures. We know, we’ve been part, as Crowded Ocean or as startup VPs of Marketing, of over 40 startups. Part of making your way through the cultural shoals of any startup is discovering certain cultural markers:
- Do they communicate primarily through text, phone or email?
- What cultures are represented and how much do you need to respect them (outside of ordering the bring-in lunches)?
- Are they a direct company (confrontations and expressing emotions okay, if not specifically encouraged) or an indirect company?
But even with all of the above discovered and in place, we’ve found two inadvertent areas that can do a lot of damage:
- We had one account where the 4 founders couldn’t agree on a key subject. One of the founders, summarizing the matter, said there were ‘certin’ members of the team that didn’t agree. Spellchecker helpfully changed ‘certin’ to ‘cretin’ (a stupid, obtuse or mentally defective person). Another of the founders thought the ‘cretin’ was directed at him and sabotaged two meetings before we were able to get him to explain why he had a bug up his ass. Lesson: either turn spellcheck off or proof your messages before sending.
- Even before cell phones introduced their own short-hand into our vocabulary, the high-tech world was enamored of TLAs (three-letter acronyms). We had another client who was working with a young vendor on the website. The client kept trying to make a change that was technically difficult, if not impossible. The younger vendor finally summarized his position as ‘IDK. See if someone on site can help.’ The client, showing either his age or spelling ignorance, fired back: “Well, I Do Care! And I’ll find someone who does too and work with them!” No real lesson here, other than if you’re going to use acronyms, make sure your client was born in the past 30 years.