No expense spared!

Do More With Less

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Do More With Less”

Howto repair the best phone in the world
Howto repair the best phone in the world

Well, I’m an incredibly humble, world class expert shopper at Lidl – where your money buys more for less!

I should be more serious: But this is a fun one to talk about. This is basically about hacking, scrimping, making ends meet – lots of doing.

A few years ago, I used to use a Nokia 3310. Almost indestructible, but yet I managed to destruct one and crack the screen. I had another broken 3310 that wouldn’t turn on – though the screen looked alright. I set about to see if I could replace the broken screen. Unfortunately, Nokia 3310’s use torx screws, and I only had philips and flat head screwdrivers. So, using a trick learned from my dad, I sawed a groove into the top of each screw with a hacksaw – and simply them used the flathead screwdriver to unscrew them.

From that point on, it’s a trivial task of swapping the internal circuit boards around, and doing the screws back up. I got pretty good at repairing them in the end. I can’t remember exactly when I finally retired them, but I was still seen with a Nokia 3310 in 2010.

The stairway with an improvised handrail
The stairway with an improvised handrail

Finding a way through things, is just what I do. I mean, it doesn’t really occur to me that I’ve some cupboards build with scrap wood from an old bed, or that I turned the rubbish filled cellar of the house I live in, into a home office by salvaging a table, dropping several extension cords down, and setting up clip spot lamps. It’s just standard problem solving.

I guess one thing that I’m aware is less normal is a piece of functional interior design. The cellar leads down a number of uneven steps, and the bannister was long gone. Replacing the bannister looked like a real faff, so instead, I got two big loops, and screwed them securely at the top and bottom of the stairs, and hung a thick, knotted rope between them – so that people walking down the stairs can steady themselves with a hand on an overhead rope.

Flawless? Certainly not.

Functional? Definitely.

Characterful? I’d say so.

There’s a bunch of other things like this in this blog post about growing up without a TV.

When it comes to tech, the easiest way you can do more with less is just to use slightly older hardware and open source. I’m pretty good at that. Apparently the company laptop I’m writing this blog post on was made in 2011 – but I don’t care – to me it is pretty fantastic and does all I want from a laptop. It runs Debian with awesomewm, and the concept of buying software I can’t just install with a sudo apt-get install is foreign to me. I self-host a lot of things (like this blog!), but there are also services I pay to have managed for me. There’s a pragmatic line to tread.

I guess some people might arguing that getting a job without a degree is doing more with less. I think I dispute that – the degree was never the requirement – just the maturity, knowledge of area, and attitude.

One of the pragmatic lines I tread relates to travel. I cycle round Manchester most of the time, but occasionally I take a taxi or a train. I still find that to cheaper (and more comfortable) than owning and insuring a car.

Lots of things are about tradeoffs between different things – travelling is a good example. Hitchhiking is certainly the cheapest form of transport, but often the least reliable. Flying is often the fastest, but probably most expensive. It’s good to always be aware of the options because sometimes you find that, the cheaper options can be the most fun, or something be advertised at an unbeatable price.

In business, being able to hack the way around problems is great trait. Especially if the problem is “limited funds”. We might be talking something as simple as sleeping on a friends floor whilst you go to a conference, or just watching lots of conference talks on youtube rather than paying for a conference ticket. It might be about working from your bedroom, sharing office space, skimping on furniture, reading second hand books. There’s an almost endless stream of options.

In sysadmin, this probably means automation. One well known digital rights commentator whose website once hit the reddit frontpage 3 times at once, told me that he hosted the site’s server at home on the balcony of his flat to keep it cool, with the site served behind a CDN.

I like doing more with less. It often can be a fun challenge – though it’s often wise to take a pragmatic view – weigh up a range of options and take the option that’s best for you. Doing more with less doesn’t always mean spending the smallest amount of money.

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

Listen First, Then Listen More

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Listen First, Then Listen More”

Everyday we hear things, TV, people talking to us, but how much do we listen?

Sometimes, it’s quite easy to talk – if someone tells you about their recent holiday, sometimes it’s tempting to talk to them about your recent holiday the moment you get a chance. But that’s not always what you should do.

Lots of people, starved of good listeners, find actually actively being listened to a very powerful thing. You can gain respect, make friends,  simply by listening to people.

When I tried to do politics, and stood in the 2010 general election for the Pirate Party, we learnt this the hard way.

If you ever get involved in a political campaign in the UK, you’ll find that the best way of engaging with voters, is knocking on their door. This is kind of scary the first 2-300 times, but to some degree the fear subsides.

What we came to learn was that it was much easier, and much more effective to knock on people’s door and ask them what problems they had in the neighbourhood, than knock on the door and try and get them to vote Pirate.

A couple of weeks ago, I read How to Win Friends and Influence People which pretty much codifies, and expands upon what we learnt on the streets: people like being listened to.

During a council election campaign, there was this one council house that we knocked on, and asked if they had any problems with the council. At first they said “nope, we have no problems here”, and then “well there is just one thing” and showed us an uncollected recycling bin, and then “oh well there is one more thing”, and showed a half-smashed window, and another bit where the council hadn’t made a correct modification to accommodate one disabled resident, and a string of other things. When we got back to our base, we had huge wad of issues we knew we could help them with, and we knew their life stories.

In contrast, I remember a lovely lady, I once tried to persuade to vote for me. She’d lived in the area for ~30 years, and I’d lived there for ~2, and in the nicest possible way, she batted questions at me to try and get me to justify myself. I suspect I talked myself out of her vote, simply by answering honestly. It was around then, that I decided that trying to influence politics was less enjoyable than I’d hoped, even at the best of times.

My girlfriend once described me as an extroverted introvert, and I sort of agree:

When you first meet new people, sparing using your words, and encouraging them to do the talking can help you to understand where they’re coming from and how to help them relate to you.

It’s easier this way too – you don’t have to say much, and can get a feel for what they’re interested in, and how best to respond to them.

It can even help over email.

One theoretical problem I’ve often thought about is, “if you meet someone very well known, who you respect the work of, but have little to say to, what should you say?”  What should you say if you met Tom Cruise, or Katy Perry or David Beckham or someone?

It’s complicated, but, my feeling is that relying on pieces of wisdom like these can help:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something.”


“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

-Abraham Lincoln

When it comes to customers, and business, encouraging customers to talk about things that they care about can make a great deal of difference. I like rock climbing, and I was looking over this customer’s website, and I noticed the person I was talking to was also a climber, so I asked them where they’d been recently. It was as if I’d opened a floodgate – suddenly they were recommending me places to go to develop my climbing, and suddenly it felt like we were communicating on a friend-to-friend basis, rather than a business-to-business.

Another memorable moment is once when I went to a customer site to work out how we could help them. Talking about the tech they were building, where they were, where they were going, what their challenges were made a real impression on them. I thought I was just sort of gathering information, somehow, by being interested and asking them questions about how they planned to do things, they were delighted to have someone to explain it to. They took me through these details, those plans – and by the time we left, I understood a great deal about their system. The customer was so happy, they broadcasted on social media about it, and still remembered it a few years afterwards.

I think it’s also relevant if someone has some criticism aimed at you, or something you’re in control of. Going and giving them your full attention, and saying “you’re absolutely right, this does sound serious – thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’d like you to tell me all about it”, can make someone feel a lot more valued, and pacified. Do that with enough passion, and it’s completely possible to turn their relationship with your business from frustration to love.

Listening is more difficult than it sounds, but you can learn to do it, and it makes people happy. :)

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
Pokebook public stream

Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Create Fun and A Little Weirdness”?

This is an unusual value, but I like it a lot. It kind of has the effect of celebrating diversity and, in an organisational context, highlights that it’s an organisation of real people.

One of the things I like most about this, is the message it sends out – everyone is a bit special an unique – and you should celebrate that and have fun!

Pokebook public stream
Pokebook public stream

Back in the day, my friend Ben Webb and I came up with a social network(before YO!) that simply allowed people to poke each other. There were no other features. We even came up with a slidedeck pitching it for business users.

A hundred or so people signed up, and with the API, a few people built API apps.

We were about to roll out version “2.0” (for the third time), with a new feature which allowed users to upload profile picture, so you poked them by clicking it – a feature we were going to call “poke-her-face“. But by that point we figured we had sunk enough time into a joke…

One of the great things about Ben is that he completely ‘gets’ this value, and good natured pranks are something he does well. :)

Most of my forays into music are a little weird. A rapidly produced rap song to celebrate a young people’s hackday (Thanks Maria, Kerodean!), the worlds first (and only?) hike-hop video - satisfying that unfilled niche of hip-hop songs about hiking (thanks Dan, Bethesda!), and then there’s the love song to Nano, the unix text editor

I guess it business contexts, it’s often easy to confuse seriousness with being solemness. John Cleese nails it when he says that you can laugh about serious things things (“the future of our children’s education”) without detracting from the seriousness of what’s being said:

It’s not even that being slightly weird and creating fun is hard… or disruptive. One of the easier ways to create fun in a relatively consequence-free way is simply by giving internal documents entertaining names – one might title a strategy document “The One Plan to Rule Them All“, or reply to an email asking “Does anyone else think this a good idea?” with a Star Trek, Captain Picard “Make it so” gif (or currently, my favourite thing is using OpenArena voiceover soundfiles!)

I guess the value also aligns well with this blog post that funny press releases and pranks aren’t just for April Fools day. 

Endorsed for high availability sarcasm
Endorsed for high availability sarcasm

My feeling is that we spend most of our working life at work. We’re all somewhat weird in our own way.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of trying to compress our people into the a sort of average-centric predictable mush, we just celebrated our weirdness and created some smiles along the way?

I think it produces a harder working, more creative, happier environment. :)

Create Fun and A Little Weirdness - Zappos Values

My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

Two companies whom I feel have very positive company cultures are Zappos and Buffer.

Because these organisations go out of their way to embody a high purpose, I’ve a feel a great deal of respect and awe towards these them.

The thing is, the values all seem relatively familiar, and I’m interested to see how many of these values are things I already feel aligned to.

One of the way Dave Logan and friends recommend finding your core values in Tribal Leadership (buy it, read it, reread it), is by writing a story about how you learnt something from an experience. A specific given example in the book is about honesty, when an 8yro is caught stealing in a shop, and the painful memory sticks hard into their values from that point onwards.

For the next 20 days, I’m going to try and release a blog post a day, each dealing with a mixed up list of Zappos and Buffer’s core values, and seeing how much it is aligned with me and whether I can relate to it.

The aim is simply to understand more about myself, whilst also probably being a nice opportunity to tell stories.

The Values I’ll be investigating:

  1. Be Passionate and Determined
  2. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  3. Do the Right Thing
  4. Always Choose Positivity and Happiness
  5. Show Gratitude
  6. Listen First, Then Listen More
  7. Embrace and Drive Change
  8. Be Humble
  9. Pursue Growth and Learning
  10. Make Time to Reflect
  11. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  12. Do More With Less
  13. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  14. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  15. Live Smarter, Not Harder
  16. Be a “no-ego” Doer
  17. Have a Bias Towards Clarity
  18. Deliver WOW Through Service
  19. Have a Focus on Self Improvement
  20. Default to Transparency
Lol Relic

How not to cold call people! (Recording)

Earlier today, I took an interesting call to my 0800 number from an Irish number:

I should note, that I’ve never:

  • Used New Relic
  • Intentionally provided New Relic with my details
  • Conversed with any of their reps before
  • Hidden my 0800 number

Clearly, what’s gone on here is that:

  1. they’ve sifted through the internet
  2. they’ve found my blog/twitter
  3. added me to their CRM
  4. mis-labelled me, and called me chasing the deal, rather than introducing themselves.

I’m most annoyed about Point 3.

The public availability of my number does not indicate my availability to critique their sales operation (or apparently therelackof).

I can tell anyone now: I will never buy from someone who cold calls me. :)

Ah well, hopefully something they’ll learn from!

Data Protection Act note: If you call 0800 112 6000, before it rings my phone, it announces “all calls are recorded”. I’ve beeped out the poor guys name.


YCombinator? I’ll do it

Stanford University
Stanford University

One day last November, I was sitting in the student cafeteria, at Stanford University in California with Josh catching up with Paul, an old friend of mine who was studying there.

We’d had just ordered a coffee from Starbucks, naively answering telling the barista, “yes, we would like cream”, so now we were eyeing up these containers filled with half-coffee, half-squirty-cream monstrosities.

We complaining there was “too much cream in your coffee”, in Starbucks, at Stanford, must be the pinnacle of “first world problems“…

Then Josh checked his email, and we found that the past 3 weeks of blood sweat and tears had been for nothing.

We were wrong. This was the epitome of first world problems.

On April 1st, 2011, I posted on my facebook wall that I was imminently moving to California.

I didn’t actually think anyone would believe me, but somehow, a few people did:

April Fools!
April Fools!

In October 2013, I was having a beer with Josh whom I’d known from the YRS2010 days where he’d done cool stuff along with everyone else. :)

Over the course of the evening, he explained that he’d recently been working on a side project to help people to save money:

Lots of people (even in the UK & US) live paycheck to paycheck. When they want something expensive, they either buy it on finance/a long contract or they drop an entire paycheck on it, and struggle to eat for a month. It’s not ideal. Saving is one of those things that people know they should do (like getting more exercise, eating more healthily) but struggle to do. The application he was developing, Dripfeed, helped people visualise what they were saving for and develop a healthier financial approach to buying things.

Josh told me he’d been accepted to interview at YCombinator – the most prestigious Startup Accelerator in Silicon Valley. The interview was two weeks away.

(A startup accelerator is a programme or boot camp of sorts, often aimed at high tech, high growth new businesses. It’s a strange world.Wikipedia explains more.

YCombinator is *the* best of the best – if you’ve heard of Dropbox, AirBnB, Scribd, reddit, or Disqus – then you’ve heard of a successful company that’s come out of the other end.

If you apply successfully, you gain a (relatively small but not insignificant) amount of cash, you & your team moves to San Francisco for the 3 months, whilst you work on your thing are introduced to, and given advice by mentors, investors and listen to seminars from people who know what they’re talking about and a bunch of other stuff. In short, it’s a good place to be.)

Josh had a problem – YCombinator don’t like accepting companies with single person teams – and so he asked if I wanted to come to San Francisco with him to interview with him. If we were accepted, we’d go 50/50 on it, if not, we wouldn’t. The caveats: the interview was in less than 15 days, and I’d need to pay for my own flight.


So for the second time that autumn, I booked a holiday from work and some trans-continental flights at less than 2 weeks notice, and prepared to go to yet another place I’d not been before.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge... and me.
The Bay… and me.

YC’s interviews are are tough.

No matter how much cramming of interview techniques, no matter how much brainstorming of possible questions you could be asked, no much how much you read up about which federal US authority governs which the financial laws you care about, they’re still tough.

Inside the YCombinator's "secret layer"
Inside the YCombinator’s “secret layer”

Firstly, you’re being interviewed by about 5 or 6 people at the same time, all of whom likely know a great deal about building something new “things” with the internet. You’re trying to impress them by showing that you’ve with a slightly offbeat idea, you’ve thought about everything, and that you know how to execute it.

Secondly, the interviews are only 10 minutes long. This means every second counts for quite a lot, being eloquent, concise, knowledgeable counts. Qualifications are worthless. Knowing your area and know the idea kick ass idea, counts.

On top of that, you’re thinking – these next ten minutes influence the next three months of my life and the path I take from here. Will I have to spend three months (probably more), working my arse off, thousands of miles away from my friends and girlfriend? Will this be a big step into a stage of perpetual uncertainty in my life?

I don’t remember exactly who interviewed us, I know Paul Graham was not there though the new head of YC, Sam Altman was in our interview.

The good thing about the interviews, is that you find out if you got in, later on the day of the interview.

Stanford University Memorial Church
Stanford University Memorial Church

We didn’t get in.

As we said bye to my friend Paul in the Stanford University cafeteria, we knew we probably weren’t going to return anytime in the near future.

And then the self-evaluation kicked in.

“Which bit did they not like?”, “Could we have done better there?”, “What if things had been different?”.

Two questions stuck in my mind – probably the two we had the poorest answer to:

  • Q: What’s your plan to promote this thing?
    • A: Reddit Ads – Tim has experience with social media ads.
    • [Response from interviewers: no that’s not the answer]!
  • Q: You’re both experienced hackers – why this? Why not work on something more exciting?
    • A: “errr, it’s not easy – it’s a hard thing to do… etc.”

There are good answers you could give to both of those. We didn’t.

San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay

As I spent the rest of my time in San Francisco touristing, I reflected that actually, I wasn’t as sad or disappointed as I’d expected I might be.

I’d been hit by more culture shock than I’d imagined. I found that it was hard for me to accept parts of US culture as the status quo, despite finding similar differences straightforward in non-English speaking countries. Urban areas generally don’t excite me much, and I’m sad I didn’t get out to Yosemite. Despite Silicon Valley and San Francisco being nice places they didn’t really feel where I wanted to be right then.

I realised that whilst the experience had been good, and I’d learnt a lot from it (particularly, what I didn’t know!), perhaps not all the variables had lined up 100% that time, and that actually, I was probably happier as a result.

Returning to the UK was easy…. not that the weather helped! It was 24C and sunny in California and 5C and raining in the UK! But I knew what I was returning to and I could plan parts of my future again. I also knew where I could improve myself, what areas I was weak on, and more about what makes me tick.

And the April Fools day joke on Facebook?

My parents aren’t massive April Fools day fans. Fortunately, they’re not on Facebook so I’d made sure it was just a private prank on my close friends.

Unfortunately, my sister had phoned my mum that day, and just casually asked remarked she hadn’t heard about my emigration until that day…

Well neither had my mum!

In the end, it was all resolved with phone call, leaving just an amusing lesson about how hoaxes go viral.

Maybe that was the scale of first world problems, I enjoyed having… ;)

Happy Late April Fools day! :)

Also see: DripFeed.

Value offerings of Generic Festival Food Retailers vs "The Carrot Soup Company"

A Blue Ocean business plan for you: The Carrot Soup Company

I’ve been reading Blue Ocean Strategy over the past week. I’ll write up my thoughts on the book in due course – I’ve not quite finished it yet.

Clara & I were throwing around the main premise of the book – about how to create Blue Ocean markets – and break away from the existing competition by compete in a market devoid of major competitors.

Festival Food Problems

Clara was explaining how Festival Food Retailers at major music festivals like Glastonbury work and how they’re characterised by:

  • largely high quality
  • low portion sizes
  • high price (most dishes more than £5 )
  • lots of choice per stall
  • slow delivery / long queues

This is partly because the stalls must deal with some festival-specific considerations:

  • limited onsite refrigeration space
  • limited ability to resupply during the day
  • large peaks in demand (eg rush for food when a band finishes)
  • constantly ready / readily available food

A Blue Ocean?

This creates an environment that could be shaken up – just by not benchmarking oneself against the competition, and creating something that attracts people who might give a festival food stand a miss (and maybe just skip a meal!).

If one was thinking of shaking things up, you’d have to have a quality product. I’m not qualified to talk about this, but I suspect the problems in catering are not whether it’s possible to create mouthwatering food, but whether you can sell it for a profit.

An Orange Ocean!

I suggest an ultra-cutback, ultra-simple, no-frills, offering nothing but::

  • A polystyrene cup of delicious Carrot (and Curried Apple/and Roast Parsnip/etc) Soup
  • An “Artisan” Bread Roll in a paper napkin
  • For £3
  • Served as fast as possible
  • With a Smile

In Blue Ocean Strategy’s [questionable] value diagrams style, you’d compare “The Carrot Soup Company”‘s offering with the Generic Festival Food Retailers like this:

Value offerings of Generic Festival Food Retailers vs "The Carrot Soup Company"
Value offerings of Generic Festival Food Retailers vs “The Carrot Soup Company”

Cost savings

In addition to the obvious changes in value to the customer – reducing price, increasing(?) portion sizes and increasing speed of deliver, you’re also able to cut backend costs:

  • Your inventory is much narrower (Soup, Bread, Polystyrene Cups, Paper Napkins)
  • You can make rolls & soup offsite (or purchase them from a third party!)
  • You can store the soup in large ‘tea’ urns/vats, allowing for constantly ready, quickly dispensable food (and no other equipment)

Customer Service

One way that Generic Festival Food Retailers cut staffing costs is making use of part time workers who will work several shifts, and get to spend some spare time seeing the festival. My suspicion is that one might be able to provide a better experience to customers by seeking out the superstars of the fast food industry who are extremely adept at rapidly making personal connections with a smile for long shifts, and seeing whether they’re interested in moonlighting for significantly above average wages. This point is moot, as I suspect that great customer service isn’t necessary to make it a success, but in my mind, great customer service is one part of a great customer experience – no matter how simple the experience.

You’d want to be able to cope with peaks in demand where the team could serve 100 customers in 10 minutes – that’s a customer every 6 seconds, and so you’d want to be able to work with your team to be able to specialise roles (collect £3, give orange ticket/collect orange ticket, give soup/give roll & shoe them away from the stall to avoid traffic jams) but them adapt if someone needed to step away to refill the soup urn, etc. My feeling is that you’re more likely to get this level of reliability from a close-knit paid team with experience and the right mindset.


A neat marketing thing you could do is make all your polystyrene cups very distinctive – maybe a distinctive bright orange (carrot!) colour? When your customers are walking around the festival, people may wonder – “what’s in those orange cups?” and then if/when they link them to your Carrot Soup Company stand, every time they see one, it’ll be a trigger for your brand.

A more traditional marketing thing you could do, if you proved the previous idea worked as intended, would be to do a twitter giveaway just as a major act was finishing – so the mass of people walk into the food area, to see a preseeded diminishing queue of people, and nearby people with orange cups.

It’s also worth pointing out that your product could probably be Vegan, Vegetarian, Halal, Kosher, nut-free etc with relative ease. Advertising this clearly would reduce questions (time-consuming) and objections (costs you a customer).

The finances

You’d have to sell a lot of soup. But not an unrealistic amount.

Glastonbury festival has 135,000 attendees, and a small, off-the-mainstream patch might cost ~£2-3k (and a better location, many times that – maybe ~£32k!)

But let’s suggest you start small, and after a successful MVP at a country fair or car boot sale, you try a small festival of ~10,000 attendees where I’d guess a catering pitch might be got for ~£750.

Your breakeven point on materials would probably be around 300 units? Not unachievable I’d say, with the right product fit.

Why is this online? Why don’t you do this?

  • I don’t know anything about catering
  • I don’t want to know anything about catering
  • Crowds are not my natural environment
  • Maybe someone I know, likes the idea of this
  • I reckon the net returns over 3 years are only something like £50k-75k
  • I reckon returns will drop off in the 3rd year as other traders emulate you
  • Opportunity cost – if Clara & I thought this up in 10 minutes, imagine what an hour would bring!
  • It’s fun to throw ideas around – sharing is caring!

Notes on a Book: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis

I recently finished reading Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis (professor in business administration) and Patricia Ward Biederman (journalist).

Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis
Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis

Notably, the reason I picked it up is because in Tribal Leadership – David Logan mentions Warren as mentor, and his work in this book as a predecessor to the Tribal Leadership book.

It’s easy to see why, yet they are very different books. In contrast to Tribal Leadership, Organizing Genius is a collection of stories (some might say case studies) of famous “Great Groups” (or in Tribal Leadership language, Stage 5 groups).

Some notes:

  • I have a greater appreciation for Disney films. I’ve never been a fan of Disney… until now – reading about the start of the Disney corporation, I have a much stronger insight into how it was created as elegantly oiled machine. I’m still not a fan of the films, but the effort, and the organisation are impressive.
    • When Disney was getting started, they were the only animation studio – and since animation was such a new thing, hiring was a big point – so Disney hired lots of Architects and industrial artists, and gave the the freedom to study art in greater detail – later setting up a faculty to do so.
  • In Disney, like in other Great Groups, there was often an insane amount of specialisation – “I mainly draw rabbit’s feet”- but in a large organisation where they are actually very good at drawing rabbits feet, and they enjoy it, this makes sense.
  • In many of the Great Groups, weekly meetings were a foundation of the group – in the Xerox PARC for instance, they were the only time of the week one had to be there. In almost all examples, they were used as opportunities for the group to share knowledge – what they were working on, what they had been working on, what they were going to be working on next.
  • I found the description of Bill Clinton’s initial election campaign very interesting. I guess partly because I’ve ‘done’ election campaigns myself, albeit on a different scale. What I noted from that especially was how even a “very serious” thing like an election campaign had a esoteric custom of giving “staffer of the week” award, every week, that was a bottle of sauce!
    • In other places, in-jokes were also a big thing – the Skunkworks was named after a practical joke (when someone answered the phone “Hello, Skonkworks!”.
  • Leaders in great groups appear to be multiheaded, multithreaded expert generalists – the ability to provide creative and technical direction, see where and how people work best, and herd cats in the right direction are characteristics of a one of these people. Interestingly, leaders in great groups often seem to find these strengths inside them during the collaboration, yet may not display them at other times.
    • In large organisations, the role of the leader may also be the role of the organisational buffer person – the one who intereacts with the parent organisation, and makes sure both parties get what they need, whilst insulating the language and cultural differences between the child & parents groups.
  • In the chapter about Xerox PARC, the book describes how Taylor mediated disagreements in the group by trying to get people from (what he called) a Stage 1 disagreement – where the parties couldn’t describe each other’s positions, to a Stage 2 disagreement – where both parties still disagreed, but could eloquently explain each other’s positions. I think this a basic representation of various Non Violent Communication mediation techniques – I should read more into that again.
  • The final chapter sums up a lot of Warren’s thoughts about great groups – that’s the distilled knowledge in essence – if you found the stories dull, you could just read that. But don’t do that – if you find the stories dull, just read Tribal Leadership instead.
  • The book is organized into chapters (first we talk about this group, then in the next chapter, we talk about this group) – however right from the first chapter, the book makes comparisons between the group dynamics of what’s happening in this group, with a group in a future chapter. I found that without proper introduction, these moments were a bit unhelpful – I hadn’t read ahead, so I didn’t know about the things being compared to.
  • One thing about the book that struck me was how often in the groups there was conflict and interpersonal drama that I think I’d find quite stressful. Interestingly, the collaborations often lasted through these moments – so much did people feel drawn to their mission, but I think it might be interesting to look at Great Groups that also have stated aims of being nice to each other.

I wouldn’t say this book is “as good” as Tribal Leadership for actually explaining what is going on, but it does explain give a lot more examples of Stage 5 groups, and consequently is useful for understanding more about those. It’s an enjoyable read if you like stories, but for many people will have limited practical use. You should read it to understand more, and to enjoy understand more.

If that appeals, grab yourself a copy!

Notes on a book: Remote: Office Not Required by 37signals

I first heard about Remote: Office Not Required when my friend, John Leach, mentioned on social media he’d been interviewed for it.

Remote: Office not Required
Remote: Office Not Required

Interested enough to see what it was he was interviewed about, I ordered a copy, and finally finished reading it yesterday.

In short, the book is a persuasive set of mini-essays about why teleworking works well for 37signals, and various of their friends.

Written by Jason Fried (co-founder of 37signals) and David Heinemeier Hansson (author of Ruby on Rails & 37signals person), the book basically assumes that you aren’t already remote working, and perhaps, are seeking to convince your boss/management or your workforce, it then goes on to explain various different advantages of remote working, and techniques 37signals (and friends) have used to work effectively.

Personally, I already work from home… (at the very least, one morning a week), and many of the people I work with are geographically dispersed, so online collaboration and chat is something I’m used to.

Even in my personal life, as I write this, I’m watching my girlfriend makes silly faces in a different city on my second monitor, through the power of web:rtc video chat.

Reading the book, I had various thoughts:

  • There’s a chapter called “The New Luxury” which contrasts the luxury perks of “old” companies in days gone by with the perks of “new” large tech companies:
      • Old:  “a nice company car, an office on the top floor of a high rise and a secretary”
      • New “fancy chef & free meals, rooms of arcade machines, free laundry, massages”
    • The chapter goes on to say they’re both ways to make you trade hours at home/doing your hobbies/with your family, for time at work.
    • I think there’s a lot to be said for this – whatever you think of free food etc (I think it’d jolly nice – I <3 free food!) if you have hobbies you can’t take part in, because of work, or family, friends, you rarely see or you’re prevented from living the lifestyle you dream of living because you’re forced to live within commuting distance of a specific office building, then remote work may work for you.
  • When they talk about talent not being bound to hubs, I’m reminded that one of the strong drawing points (after friends/family) that means I remain in Manchester – rather than say, London – is the proximity to mountains of an interesting nature.
  • I was intrigued to read about their 6 monthly retreats – it seems like a sensible way to get their whole organisation in one place for some time, and intensely do all the face to face collaboration, team building and strategy setting, and then dissipate back to their different parts of the world refreshed with enthusiasm and socialisation
  • Thinking about their hiring process, clearly, they have a problem with having to sift through a great deal of talent to find the person they want, but I feel their approach of giving people 1-2 week paid breakable projects to demonstrate themselves on, is a good way to let a candidate’s personality show through.
  • Their idea of a check-in – speaking to every employee every 1-2 weeks (outside the pattern of any project-based communication) and this seems very wise – in their words: “These quick calls prevent issues and concerns from piling up wiithout being addressed…. Waiting six months or a year for the next formal review is too long”.
  • They talk a great deal about tools – Basecamp their self-written workflow product, email, IM, etc. but the most important tool they talk about is the ability to communicate clearly through written language – the largest proportion of their debate and conversation is text based, so it makes sense that this is actually the most important skill for any of their employees to have, and to develop.
  • It’s somewhat unfair to mention, but I was struck (as I often am) by the cultural differences between UK & US companies. 37signals is a very progressive US based company, no question, but even their ‘unlimited’ vacation policy would probably make me feel self-conscious about taking the minimum statutory UK holiday time.
  • I like their idea of semi-digital nomads – and I raised my eyebrows hearing how many of their employees had relocated around their countries or the world, whilst working for 37signals – that seemed very appealing. (Other people are also doing this)
  • For an occasional remote worker like myself, I found their suggestions of external co-working spaces, coffee shops, and libraries as a way of sustaining motivation and getting a change of scenario, provoked various thoughts – I should probably give it a try.
  • One of the really cool things they did, was that every week, they created a thread on the company forum/mailing list and wrote a few sentences about what they’d been up to that week – so everyone knew what their colleagues (remotely distributed) were up to, even if they were in different parts of company, and the world!

I didn’t find the book groundbreaking. Lots of it, like their evangelism of 40 hour work weeks, giving a shit about staff, online collaboration and in essence remote working, is stuff I already agree with and (to some degree) know about.

I think, if you’re considering trialing remote working in your organisation, or you want to start a globally distributed company, or you’re interested in how remote working might practically work, then this is the book for you.

If you already remote work, or allow teleworking, you may like to read it to understand how 37signals do things, and how 37signals deal with problems you’re familiar with – it seems like the book speaks lots of common sense – yet no knowledge is common until is shared – so grab a copy and familiarise yourself with their approach.

So if that appeals, grab yourself a copy!

Founders at Work

Notes on a book: Founders at Work

Yesterday, I finally completed Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

Founders at Work
Founders at Work

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Jessica Livingston of YCombinator with cofounders and key people of a great deal of well known (and in some cases, less well known, but notable) companies.

Because each chapter is a different interview with a different person, about a different product, company or service, it’s very easy to read small amounts at a time.

There’s quite big variety of products and services that are discussed, but the chapters I particuarly enjoyed were:

  • Max Levchin/PayPal: I hadn’t realised PayPal had originally been a PDA based crypto-system.
  • Craigslist is always somewhat fascinating, and Craig Newark as always seems like a sensible and straightforward sort of person you’d like to work with.
    • Their “softly, softly, BAN, reconcile” approach with rogue apartment real estate agents in New York seems to work well for them.
    • In the long term, I’m concerned that Ebay’s influence on them, will mean they’re unable to compete in new markets because of Gumtree.
  • Charles Geschke/Adobe – I hadn’t realised Adobe developed PostScript for Apple to solve the problem of printer/computer communication.
    • Apple’s present day support for CUPS makes more sense.
  • James Hong/HOT or NOT and Joshua Schachter/ – I found these chapters interesting as they were essentially developing “somewhat trivial” web services, that no-one would have said they would have needed.
    • HOT or NOT had the interesting ‘luck’ of being an instant, unexpected hit, with scaling problems associated with that, whilst was able to grow relatively smoothly and organically whilst its founder was still a programmer for an investment bank.
    • I found James Hong’s description of getting his uptight asian  parents to do the initial moderation for HOT or NOT (and when he decided it was time to get someone else to do it), exceptionally amusing.
  • In contrast, James Currier‘s (which I hated i 2007!) set out with a serious aim in mind (and arguably sold itself to Monster on its original ‘serious’ premise) but quickly realised it had to lighten up to make themselves appeal much more.
    • I’d say that HOT or NOT and probably had a much easier and less stressful growing experience, because they solved their growth problems and got their users first, and worried about everything else after that.
  • Most interestingly, none of them (and you can include Caterina Fake/Flickr in this), said “we going to set out to do a startup to dothis relatively trivial thing” – they all built things as a joke/side project/personal project – that only became the product of a startup, once they had lots of users.
  • Probably controversially, I didn’t actually find the Steve Wozniak/Apple Computers chapter very interesting, accessible or useful. I don’t doubt his mastery of his field (using as few chips as possible, to do as much as possible), but the detail just lost me.
  • Having said that, it was very interesting to contrast him with the Ron Gruner and what he had to say of his time at Alliant Computer Systems.
    • I think I’d definitely prefer to work with Wozniak than someone whose hiring process involves refusing to tell candidates what the process is, telling them they’re working every other Saturday and fostering what came across as an exceptionally competitive working environment (based on his background).
  • It was interesting read David Heinemeier Hansson‘s experiences at 37signals of writing the MVP of Basecamp – I’ve heard of agencies trying to build products on various occasions, but some of the reasons Basecamp succeeded.
    • (37signals already were well known, and widely looked up to by the people who [initially] were likely to find it most useful, and be most likely to consider adopting something new.)
  • In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to Joel Spolsky‘s Fog Creek Software – Joel was widely regarded via his blog, and then put out a product (FogBugz) that appealed directly to the people who were his blog’s audience.
    • On a sort of note, I’d be interested to know how much GitHub was slaughtering FogBugz’s market. I can see Fog Creek Software have git/hg products now, but when I was reading the interview – I sort of felt that the debates mentioned in the book about whether integrated wiki’s were what consumers wanted missed the point.
    • I suspect they’ll have legacy renewals, but I worry for the product’s future growth prospects – I’d suggest that perhaps that that product is now yesterday’s posterchild.
    • Today I learned he went on to create Stack Overflow… so I guess FogBugz worries may not be a personal concern so much.
  • I really liked the three interviews with Dan Bricklin/Software Arts, Michell Kapor/Lotus Development and Ray Ozzie/Iris Associates.
    • Being a child of the 00s, Lotus Notes wasn’t really a thing when I started playing with computers. I knew it existed from the Save As dialog that let you save in a format that it might accept, but I never understood anything about the background to the concept of spreadsheets (Visicalc) or the unusual development setup that Lotus Notes was produced under.
  • It’s quite hilarious to read (in 2014) about WebTV and how they managed to cause so much of a stir (to the point that Microsoft bought them) when that category of device was still (somewhat) trying to break through in 2014.
    • (Set top boxes are really the conceptual children, and whilst it’s easy to understand why Microsoft were probably being visionary in realising their significance, it’s most interesting that Microsoft didn’t succeed in the smartTV, setop box, PVR sector, even when the original XBOX was released)
  • Compared to the story of TiVo a few years later, it seems to me, that WebTV open people’s minds, but TiVO actually produced an MVP (and later real-life-actual-product) that people really wanted, once they realised it was possible – Mike Ramsay‘s description of demo’ing ‘pausing’ live TV – to people for the first time is a great example of how consumers should react when they’re presented with a feature that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they needed in their life.
  • Given the majority of people were at least somewhat technical, it was interesting to read about Lycos which was effectively founded by non-techies (the technology was sold to them by a university, and Bob Davis – previously a salesman – was positioned as CEO, which is somewhat unusual).
    • Financially, Lycos looks like a success in hindsight – it was sold to Telefonica -, but I struggle to associate it was much to sing about. I simply can’t help feeling that Telefonica was just getting a bad deal buying it (and indeed, they were!).
  • I particularly liked the chapter about ArsDigita from Philip Greenspun‘s perspective.
    • There’s a lot about how he ran ArsDigita that seemed to make sense from my point of view – for example, recruitment, working quality of life, technology stacks, small self-managed groups with responsibility for their own P/L and where everyone had some common responsibilities for key things.
    • His adventures with Venture Capital sound like a farcical nightmare, almost worthy of a sitcom. However, it does re-enforce – “if it ain’t totally broke” – don’t take someone else’s money in exchange for arguing with their people about how to do things – the distraction is never going to work out for you.
  • Firefox’s non-profit ‘intrapreneur’ development within Mozilla is quite interesting.
    • We forget the days when Firefox was the edgy browser that was up and coming, but Blake Ross did a good job in his interview of explaining how he took the Mozilla browser project as it stood, focused on things that users would want, simplified things, then managed to develop the community of raving users who (for example) took out a full page advert in the New York Times to shout about how awesome Firefox was.
  • Similarly, we forget that less than 10 years ago, Google was just a search company, and their first branch out, was Gmail.
    • Created by Paul Buchheit, at the time, Gmail radically changed the way people looked at email, and radically changed the way people looked at Google. He encountered quite a lot of organisational hurdles and technical hurdles (fun fact: an early [internal prototype] version of Gmail was stored on a single harddisk with no backups, Paul transplanted the hard disk platter into another housing and was able to recover all the data)

There’s many more interesting stories – the story of Hotmail, the story of all the blogging platforms – Moveable Type, Blogger, the story of WAIS, Alexa rankings, toolbars, the Internet Archive, etc but honestly, if you want to read about them, you may as well grab a copy of the book and read through them yourself.

I also feel it worth noting that there were a few moments in the book where I felt people were talking out of their arse/commenting on things they didn’t seem to know about. It’s fact of life when taking advice from anyone, and I’m happy they weren’t edited out – you need to consider things people say, and decide for yourself whether it’s actually what you should do, or whether it simply was what once worked well for the person suggesting it.

The book feels slightly dated – as a 7 year old book of startup stories is likely to feel. In 2007, the recent memories were of the dotcom crash, and the post dotcom successes – the boom in consumer social or mobile startups isn’t really addressed at all (the iPhone was barely released when the book came out).

Jessica has said that she’d like to write another volume, if/when she gets time, and I certainly think, there’s scope for it. There are many new stories from the past 7 years, and many existing stories with new chapters to be told, as well as many other stories from times gone by that deserve page space.

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.