If you don’t think you need it, you haven’t seen greatness

One thing I can hear with some regularity from a small founding team is something like “we don’t think we need a marketing person” or “we’re not going to hire a product manager”. Those aren’t the only positions I hear that statement for. I hear it for PR, marketing, HR and sometimes BD.

What I think is going on here and what my guidance in general is, “if you don’t think you need a position and that position has a well-known title (like product manager, product marketer, etc), it’s far more likely that you’ve just never seen or worked with *greatness* at that position”.

I have my own example that I remember vividly. When I was co-founding Excite (how could that have been 19 years ago?), I knew we needed a lawyer. Being 21, I had my own visions of what a lawyer was and what they did. In my mind, a lawyer was someone who took a business situation, married that business understanding to a legal perspective to it and gave you a single course of action as a recommendation.

My first experience with a lawyer was very different. I worked with a very reputable firm but what I was getting was not a single recommendation, but rather a set of 3 or 4 options for every situation I presented. Not helpful. I felt like I was having to apply judgement in an area where (1) I had no knowledge or grounding and (2) what I wanted was to pay someone else for their expert judgement not throw options back at me.

I was really unhappy and thought that this just must be what lawyering was actually like instead of my fantasy view of what the field was about.

When we got funding from Kleiner Perkins, our partner Vinod Khosla recommended we switch to a different partner at the same firm. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference given my newly lowered expectations of what a lawyer did.

I was wrong. Our new partner, Mark Stevens, was exactly what I originally thought a lawyer should be and much more. He was a business partner first. He worked to deeply understand our business and then dispense legal advice. He was a tremendous negotiator. He thought well ahead of us in critical areas of IP, sales and BD.

In short, he opened my eyes to *greatness* at the position of legal counsel.

It made me wonder. How many other positions was I de-valuing because I hadn’t worked with someone who was amazing at their craft?

Product marketing was the next one to fall for me. Early in my career, I thought of product marketing as the person or function you brought in *at the end* of building a product to figure out how to position it, sell it, describe it, etc. Given who I was working with early on in my career, that just seemed like how it worked. Product Managers, Engineers and Designers worked together to gain insight. But, Product Marketers were there to put it into “non-nerd” language once the thing was mostly built.

About 4 years in, I met a fantastic product marketer who helped me realize that Product Marketing, done right, is actually a huge part of the design process. They taught me the exercise of ‘writing the ideal press release’ first, before you even write a line of code. They taught me some of the principles of picking one, max two, things you can describe about your product (and allowing the rest to be discovered).

In essence, they showed me greatness at the position and opened my eyes to how valuable the role is (in the right hands).

So, if you find yourself saying that you don’t need a {product manager, product marketer, pr person, marketing person, etc}, ask yourself the question first if you’ve ever seen greatness in that position before you really make that decision.

We’re creating a culture of distraction

A few weeks ago I gave this rough presentation on a topic called “SlowTech”. I wanted to cover three things

  1. We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.
  2. We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our “gap” time with stimulation. And we inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over our the people right in front of us.
  3. What can we do about it? Is this path inevitable or can balance be restored?

I’ve pasted the text of the speech below (sorry, it’s a bit rough). Alternatively, you can watch the video someone shot of it.

 

 

Remarks for SlowTech talk – CONSTANT CULTURE OF DISTRACTION

I want to start with some imagery of the way we live today. See you if you see yourself in this.

SHOW VIDEO

I want to talk three things tonight

  1. As a culture, we’ve got a crisis of attention. We’re becoming a distracted culture… one that is disconnected from one another. And I want to talk about what’s causing it.
  2. What are we losing – of ourselves, of our relationships to one another, of what in many ways, I would say, our humanity.
  3. What can we do about it. If we all feel it, is there anything we can do to stop it. Or, is it out of our control.

 

Part 1. A crisis of attention

I want to ask people a simple question: are you happy with your relationship with your phone. Do you think it’s a healthy one?

I don’t think I have a healthy relationship with mine. I feel a constant need to pull it out – to check email, to text, to see if there is something interesting happening RIGHT NOW. It’s constantly pulling on my attention. [show the 2 slides on ‘phone addiction’ and ‘35% look before getting out of bed’]. Do you do this? I do.

If I let it, it easily fills up those gaps in my day—some gaps of boredom, some of solitude.

Look at how internet access has changed since smart phones came into being (and this data is a year old, so I’m certain it’s even more in this direction). In the pre-smartphone era we accessed the internet roughly five times per day, in longer chunks. Today, with smartphones, we’re accessing it 27 times a day.

The effect of all of this is that we’re increasingly distracted. Less and less able to pay attention to anything for what used to be reasonable length of times.

The funny part about distraction is that it’s a worsening condition. The more distracted we are, the more likely we are to get distracted.

Some people call switching our attention between things that vie for it “multi-tasking”. Like were a computer with dual cores running two simultaneous processes.

Except that we’re not. Numerous brain imaging studies have shown that what we call “multi-tasking” in humans, is not multi-tasking at all. Your brain is merely trying to rapidly switch it’s attention between two tasks. Back and forth, as quickly as it can.

It’s shown not only that we’re dumber when we do this (an average of 10 IQ points dumber – that’s the same as pulling an all-nighter.), but that we’re also 40% less efficient at whatever it is we’re doing.

But, my favorite part about multi-tasking is that it’s proven that the more you do it, the worse you are at it. Check that out. It’s one of the only things where the more you practice it, the worse you get at it.

The reason why that’s the case is that when you practice distraction (which is what multi-tasking really is – paying attention to something that distracted you from what you were originally paying attention to), you’re training your brain. You’re training your brain to pay attention to distracting things. The more you train your brain to pay attention to distractions, the more you get distracted and the less able you are to even focus for brief periods of time on the two or three things you were trying to get done in your ‘multi-tasking’ in the first place.

How’s that for self-defeating.

So, what have I said so far?

  1. all of us have a device in our pockets that is a very potent, addictive distractor
  2. the more we train our brain to pay attention to this distractor, the more distracted we become.

So, why can’t we look away? Why do most all of us seem to fall prey to these devices even as we know they’re causing a real problem for us? Two reasons, I think.

The first is that we’re perfectly mal-adapted, biologically speaking, to these devices. When our ancestors, the Geico guys, were sitting out on the savanna and the tree next to them rustled. The ones that didn’t look over and see the lion coming to eat them are NOT our ancestors. The ones that did look, only to see it was a harmless bird, are. We’re wired to pay attention to new stimulation.

The second reason is something casinos have known for a long time. To illustrate, let me ask you if you know what the most profitable part of a casino gaming floor is? Slot machines. Slot machines are extremely powerful earners because they employ a principle called “random payout”. Turns out if you pull a handle and it pays out predictably, you very quickly figure it out and stop pulling. But, make the reward random and people have a very hard time stopping. Some pulls are nothing, some pulls give you a little, and occasionally, you get a jackpot.

Think about text messages or email alerts from your phone in this context. Some aren’t important. Some are. And occasionally, something very urgent comes in. its random payout in your pocket.

The amazing part to me is that we all look around at each other and see ourselves, as adults, failing and then we give these devices to kids and expect them to do better. Well, they don’t. In fact, as parents of teenagers know, they fare far worse…

Do you know what the average # of text messages a 13-17 year old teenage girl sends and receives every month? The Average? 4000. That’s one every six minutes that she’s awake. Boys aren’t much better at 3000.

Think about that. You’re interrupted once every 7 minutes.

What kind of culture is that creating? What kind of mind training is that doing?

I’d argue that what’s happening is that we’re becoming like the mal-formed weight lifter who trains only their upper body and has tiny little legs. We’re radically over-developing the parts of quick thinking, distractable brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them. And, to me, that’s both sad and dangerous.

 

Part II – What are we losing as a result of our short attention span and easy distractability?

My favorite summary line on this whole topic comes from Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies technology and society.  “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other”.

At the most basic level, we’re losing manners. At the heart of manners is a consideration of others. An acknowledgement of each other.

How many times, guys, have you been barked at by your wife because instead of giving full attention to what she was saying, you were looking at your phone. What’s the message that’s getting sent? “There is something more important than you and it’s not here in this room.”

The second thing I think we’re losing is creativity and insight. Think about your own examples when you felt at your most creative or your best performance. Maybe it was your best round of golf, maybe it was solving a tricky computer science problem. Whatever it was, likely, you were LOST IN THE MOMENT, completely absorbed in what you were doing. It was long-form, not quick twitch. You were in the zone. Your attention was fixed, calm, present.

Once people experience the zone, most of us want to get back there. It’s a feeling of peek performance, peek creativity, peek aliveness.

Where’s the #1 reported place where people get insight? The shower. Why the shower? In the shower, there’s not much else to do. We’re relaxed. Our mind wanders but it’s not constantly being bombarded with new information (at least until we can take our phones in the shower which I’m sure is being worked on…). The shower time is GAP time. Time for our minds to make subtle connections and insights. Creativity REQUIRES gap time.

Gaps used to happen all the time. Now they’re disappearing. You’re eating lunch with a friend and they excuse themselves to the restroom. A gap. Now, you pull our your phone because being unstimulated makes you feel anxious. Waiting time in a line at the bank? Used to be a gap. Now it’s an opportunity to send an email or a text.

We didn’t think gap time and “boredom” were valuable. Now that we’re losing it, we get a sense of just how valuable it was.

Simply put, at the heart of creativity, insight, imagination and humaneness is an ability to pay attention to ANYTHING – our ideas, our line of thinking, each other. And that is what’s most threatened.

So, hopefully, by this point I’ve convinced you of a few things

  1. we’ve got a crisis of attention, mostly caused by these devices which are with us everywhere and it’s going to get worse unless we become conscious about it
  2. there are real costs to allowing our attention and consciousness to be constantly fragmented – costs to our relationships and costs to society and creativity

 

Part III – what can we do.

It would be so nice if I could just say that the solution is to stop using your devices. But that’s got two problems

  1.  these devices do have real value – they put information at our fingertips that no one could have ever dreamed of even 30 years ago
  2. it would be like telling that over-developed upper-body bodybuilder to stop working out. Make your chest and back scrawny so that it’s in balance with your legs…

No, I think the solution is to balance the DISTRACTING brain training you’re doing every single day with training that strengthens long-form ATTENTION.  We want to OVERCOME OUR FEAR OF BOREDOM, OUR ANXIETY OF BEING UNSTIMULATED recognize the value of gap time and not have anxiety about it.

In the workout analogy, we don’t want to stop working out our upper body, we want to start working out our legs.

So how might we do those things?

One step, I think, is to take a weekly holiday from your devices. Take a break from distraction. I’ve started it. From sunup Sunday to when I put the kids to bed I do no phone, no email, no TV, no radio. Books are fine, but not on my kindle. I want to be open the possibility of gap time.

Here’s what I’ve noticed.

  1. it’s hard. It’s actually hard. Your mind craves constant information flow given what you’ve been feeding it. When you deny it, it feels a bit desperate for it.
  2. BUT more interesting than my withdrawal symptoms, was the fact that when I did get back on line to do work, I could actually and noteably pay attention better to what I was doing. I could concentrate better.

Besides taking a break from distraction, another step is to ACTIVELY TRAIN your long-form attention and mindfullness. For some that means leaving the phone and going for a 15 minute walk. For others it means meditating. For others it means attending church or temple. Whatever form it takes, make it a DAILY practice of slowing down. Train that part of your brain.

Perhaps the most interesting or provocative approach to solving it, harkens back to that line at the end of the Microsoft commercial – ‘we need a phone to save us from our phones’. But, not in the way Microsoft is pitching it.

There is a small academic movement called SlowTech. The primary insight of the SlowTech folks is quite interesting. They note that the primary way we’ve used technology over the last 50 years has been in the workplace. And, as a result, its whole focus has been on creating productivity, efficiency and speed.

But, with smartphones, we aren’t looking at a work device, we’re looking at a lifestyle device. A device that is always with us, in our pockets. But, all the hardware, all the software, all the UI it has, carries with it 50 years of underyling assumptions – that the purpose of it’s existence is to make us more productive and more efficient.

The SlowTech folks ask the question – can we alter the purpose of lifestyle technologies to focus on alternative aims? Perhaps aims that are about making real connections with the people around us, fostering real understanding and deepening relationships with one another. Can our technology actually help us slow down and see each other as opposed to only transporting us and our attention away from each other?

I hope so.

 

Conclusion

Imagine the world 10 years from now. My third grader will be graduating high school. What does that world look like? I’d guess that it’s going to be more fast paced than ever. That people are going to be even more distracted, even more unable to pay attention to things for any length of time. Even less able to tolerate boredom. Even less able to pay attention to one another.

Now imagine your own child in stark contrast to that culture of distraction. Technically literate, but also balanced. A calmer presence. Not distracted. Not constantly seeking out mindless stimulation. An ability to make real human connection by not signaling that there might be something better on his smartphone to look at. An ability to pay attention to a problem for a long time.

I believe that the biggest gift we can impart on our kids is the ability to be mindful – to pay attention to the things and to the people that are actually around them. In 10 years, that’s going to feel VERY VERY different than the norm.

 

Your Product: Describe vs. Discover

As a founder, I was in love with my products. Head over heels. There was nothing better.

As an investor, I see founders who are in love with their products too. They’ve poured hours and hours into thinking deeply about them and crafting them. I’d argue it’s a prerequisite for a founder to be in love with their products. How else will they sustain the inevitable downturns that nearly all startups face?

But here’s the challenge. As a founder, you spend your waking life thinking about your products. But your potential customers spend five seconds. And therein lies the problem.

Founders who are in love have the hardest time reducing. Ask them to crisply describe the value proposition of their product and you get a five minute discussion. Ask them to describe the most important feature and you get a half dozen. Anytime you ask a founder to reduce the description of the product, they feel boxed in. “But, it’s sooo much more than that!”, they’ll say.

And it is… But it doesn’t matter.

Your customers cannot digest the full scope of your product in one shot. There is no way. They have neither the interest nor the ability to get the new future that you envision in a single gulp.

You have to introduce it to them – one step at a time.

The way I think about this dilemma is that you need to divide your product into one (maximum two) features/benefits you describe and let the user discover the remaining beauty and scope and breadth of your product.

The describe/discover framework, I’ve found, helps founders through the knothole of reductionism. They aren’t limiting the product in their minds, they’re limiting and staging how it’s presented.

Before you launch your product, ideally before you even start developing your product, ask yourself the question, “what’s the one benefit we’re going to describe?” If you can’t answer that question, you’re not ready for launch. Once you answer it, orient your UI, marketing, PR and sales around that.

In my next post I want to talk about how do you pick what feature you describe vs. what ones users discover.

Create Your Series B Deck Right After Closing Your Series A

 

One of the things I wish I had done in both of my companies (Excite.com and JotSpot) was to take a piece of advice that I now give most entrepreneurs I meet. That advice is: “right after you sign your term sheet for your Series A, write the fantasy deck for your Series B (complete with whatever metrics, graphs and customer lists you would love to have).”

 

I say this because of the way I’ve both done fundraising and seen it done. Whether we like to admit it or not, the way it’s usually done tends to be very haphazard and bottom’s up. It starts with…

 

“We have about 4 months of cash left, it’s time to raise money”.

 

With that statement, companies go about trying to weave together a narrative from the various facts that are true at the time. You look at your metrics, your sales, your customer lists and you try and create something cohesive. The problem is that it’s a bottoms up story; it’s composed of whatever facts are lying around. You didn’t set out twelve months before to create a intentional story. Your pitch deck ends up feeling a bit underpowered, a bit awkward. You try and emphasize the facts that look good and gloss over the ones that aren’t so hot.

 

At the heart of the problem is that startups often get trapped being busy and making general “progress” instead of driving, intentionally, down a path toward a fundable story.

 

A better approach is to use all the feedback you’re getting during your current fundraising process to create the ideal story for your next round. In the process of raising money (be it seed, series A or B), you hear from potential investors what they’re excited about and what they’re worried about. At the end of the process, you’re in a perfect position to create the fundraising pitch that would be absolute music to any investor’s ears.

 

So, do it. Write your Series B deck immediately after signing the term sheet for your Series A.

 

THEN, use this as your plan for how you spend that round of money. Use that presentation as the goal posts for the next 18 months. Begin with that end in mind and that presentation becomes your operating plan. Even if you don’t hit all of it, you will have a story and a company that holds together so much better than if you just run as fast as you can and try to create a story from the random assortment of facts that are lying around when you’re coming close to running out of money.