Mind Blown

The power of perspective, an overlooked basic process tool

A couple of months back, I did a workshop for a group of senior engineers in Western Denmark who build big projects in the North Sea. The North Sea is rough, so the things they build are tough, but now their job is mutating in a way seen by countless others. Their customers want digital services to go with the steel and concrete. My engineers needed help.

I showed up from the big city with my scarf and my sneakers and I did my magic. Engineers and I generally get along well and we had a good afternoon. As we wrapped up, we did a round of lessons learned and their main take-away brought a smile to my lips. The big revelation for them was the need to look at their product from their customers’ point of view.

Your obvious is not everyone’s obvious

Startup people tend to shake their heads at stories like this, but the engineers’ lack of awareness is much closer to the norm than the opposite. Customer focus is a hard thing to create across an organization. We hire specialists for specialized tasks, but we rarely give them KPIs that ask them to judge their work by the customer’s standards.

It’s easy to imagine that rust prevention is a major issue in the North Sea. It’s just as easy to imagine an engineer over-engineering 100 years of rust prevention into something only meant to last for ten. Managing the expectations of both the customer and the product development team can be a challenge.

Make that challenge your product differentiator

An ounce of prevention can fix a lot of things. We can all look at our products from the customer’s point of view. From designers to developers to sales to HR, the whole team can contribute to a product’s development by looking from the outside in. This is a tool for everyone – and it ain’t complicated.

Look at your work the way the customer would

Have your whole team to look at your product from your customer’s point of view. Your experts can play the customers’ experts as well, so follow the first question with a second: “If you did what you do for our customer, how would look at our product?” The more complex something becomes, the greater the risk that we lose sight of the details. Your experts can help catch those missed details.

Don’t miss the obvious, just because you can’t see it

In college, a friend of mine edited the school newspaper, which came out twice a week. One night, something about a big photo on the sports page of two football players leaping for a header didn’t look right. Everyone seemed to notice it, but no one could put a finger on it.

It remained a mystery until someone’s girlfriend came by with pizza. She asked why there was a picture on the sports page of a guy with his penis hanging out of his shorts. The photo was edited promptly. She had looked at the newspaper as a reader, not a journalist.

Dealing With All-Male Panels in Tech

I ask male panelists to share how their fashion choices have affected their careers

One of my bugbears is how we treat women in tech. The issue is especially infuriating given that I work mostly in the Nordics. We lead the world in equality of all kinds. So why do we keep seeing all-male panels at events? It drives me completely nuts.

Speak up, and don’t worry about looking stupid

A couple of months ago I found an appropriate stock photo on the always amazing unsplash.com and posted the following on LinkedIn:

“The next time I’m asked to moderate an all-male panel, I’m going to ask the questions we all really want answered:

– How have your fashion choices affected your career?

– How do you feel your decision to work full-time has affected your ability to be a father to your children?”

As luck would have it, barely a month later, I hosted an event in Sweden and, you guessed it, there was an all-male panel.

Anger has its place

There are plenty of reasons to shout about the unfairness and inappropriateness of this happening in 2018 and they’re all good reasons. To my enormous irriation, I had help arrange this event and so part of the responsibility was mine. I had to react, but shouting is not always the most effective tool.

Try humor

My panelists all accepted that we had to do something. They were game, so we went with the above. The subject of the conference was low power, a topic that is absolutely, definitely geek central. Lowering power consumption to the absolute minimum is a key factor in making modern tech devices perform better, last longer, and do more – even if it doesn’t make the most exciting conference title.

Recognize and apologize

I opened the panel by apologizing for the all-male line-up. The panelists were mostly Swedes, who, to their credit, are pretty good at laughing at themselves. They tackled the fashion question with a smile and didn’t try to apologize for the fact that we had dropped the ball. We addressed the issue without getting sanctimonious.

Pappa Ledig

The Swedes take paternity leave seriously. It’s an integrated part of the culture. Men about to go on paternity leave get high-fives, not frowns. Jokes about men being bad at changing diapers fall flat. After all, what’s complicated about cleaning an infant’s backside? And what’s hard about asking your LinkedIn network for help finding female panelists? We can fix this.

Don’t pretend there isn’t a problem

Don’t accept all male panels. When they happen, address the fact and apologize. As luck would have it, the final speaker was the CEO of a hardware spin-out. Her presentation was the best of the day. Rock on. Let’s make the change we want happen now.

Finding Zlatan

Nordic founders can take underselling to unnecessary extremes

Our region spawns an outsized number of unicorns. What’s even more impressive is that we do it despite, to put it politely, a limited ability to pitch. There are a handful of natural showmen amongst us, but most Nordic founders have to work hard to learn to communicate effectively. When we do, we excel.

We don’t do “Show-and-Tell” at school

For many Nordic founders, pitching is our first taste of public speaking. Schools in the English-speaking world seem to start teaching presentation in kindergarten. Tiny tots bring favorite toys to present at “Show and Tell”. “This is my teddy bear. I like him very much. Etc.” This is unknown in the Nordics.

Nordic Founders can drive you nuts

We seldom brag, even when we have plenty about which to brag. Take the pair of game developers I met two years ago in Malmö. They planned to launch their game on Steam, the dominant platform for indy games. When I asked how they would stand out amongst the dozens of games launched every day on Steam, they were disconcertingly vague.

Who did you say they were?

Imagine my surprise when, moments after our meeting, I was told they had been on the team that built Mindcraft. And that one of them had 400,000+ followers on Twitter. “Hey, you! Come ‘ere!” I yelled, channeling my very un-Nordic inner New Yorker. I was polite, but made myself very clear.

More Zlatan, less…

I’m glad to report that they now introduce themselves as part of the original Mindcraft team. Their pitch has more Zlatan Ibrahimovic “how do you like me now?” swagger and less Swedish modesty. Saying that you built Mindcraft and now you have a new game is also relevant information your audience needs to know.

Sometimes it’s the setting

I met a raw bar startup at a pitch workshop I held in Malmö back when raw bars were strictly for vegans and crossfit enthusiasts. The half dozen other firms in the workshop were all early stage and many were pre-sales. My workshops are hands on, so they were all creating or rewriting their actual pitches. As we went along, the raw bar people struggled to explain their traction.

The challenge of consideration for others

The Nordics are famous for our consensus and it relies in great part on not making other people feel ill at ease. It took me most of the day to figure out that they didn’t want to make the other workshop participants feel bad. They had plenty of traction. They had sold hundreds of thousands of bars and just landed a contract with 7-Eleven. Today they’re huge.

Modesty can almost be dishonesty

You don’t want a Boy Scout trying to save your life, just because the trauma surgeon next to him is too modest to intervene. It may sound harsh, but pitching is serious business. Being modest or overly considerate can be very counterproductive.

Nordic founders can be modest to a fault. Our lack of public speaking experience can confuse or even misinform. Once Nordic founders understand how much pitching matters and we have the tools to learn how to do it well, we tend to do great things.

Fear and Shame Kills Corporate Innovation

How well do your people deal with failure?

Most corporate innovators I meet happily point to the Apples and Ubers of the world when they talk innovation. They don’t mean the Apple that launched the Newton or the Uber that treated female engineering staff scandalously.

To talk of success without discussing failure misses a vital ingredient in creating innovation. It almost guarantees they will fail in their attempt to innovate. How do you treat failure? I’ve met it and I know. Do you? Do your people?

Luck can be fickle

We don’t like to admit how much we owe to luck. It’s uncomfortable to think that we might be where we are because of who our parents knew or that we were at the right spot at the right time. Fortune isn’t always random, but sometimes it is.

We embrace failure for a reason

Some see our embrace of failure in startups as arrogance, but this completely misunderstands the case. We understand failure is unavoidable. No amount of analysis can predict the future perfectly. We believe that experimentation is necessary to prove or disprove a business hypothesis. We think real arrogance is believing that proper attention to detail can separate good prediction from bad.

Look to Fuckup Nights

One of my all time favorite event series is “Fuckup Nights”, where startup people retell some of their biggest failures. I’ve spoken at the Copenhagen event twice. Last time it was within an hour of admitting my latest project wouldn’t make it. We do it in part to share the lessons learned, but just as importantly to take the sting out of failure, so we can use the failure to build what we do next.

Startups learn with childlike fearlesness

I have a theory that little kids are great at learning because they’re rubbish at everything. They consequently don’t stress perfection. My four-year is more interested in playing with his monolingual English-speaking cousins than in correctly conjugating their verbs. His mission is to play with them and at this he succeeds wildly. My eight-year old can be a shy English-speaker, but with her cousins, she’s more eager to play than she is shy, so she chatters away.

Guess who the self-conscious teenagers are?

Startups are fearless little kids and corporates are cautious teenagers. When young kids learn to speak a second language, their grammar is just as imperfect in the new language as it is in their mother tongue. Teenagers are self-conscious in all things and struggle with foreign languages, especially because their peers laugh at their mistakes.

Mistakes get you fired

A teenager’s fear of ridicule is real, because the pain of social exclusion is acute. The cost of a mistake in a corporate is just as real. You don’t get hired to make mistakes. You get fired for making mistakes. Couple this with the fact that most corporates hire very selectively, and the fact is that very few corporate employees have ever made a mistake.

If you want your corporate warriors to think innovation, teach them to manage the shame and embarrassment that comes with making mistakes. Teach them how to fail.

Innovation Theater People

Don’t get sucked into someone else’s ’dog and pony show’

The tinfoil hat segment of the innovation business has always existed. The new crazies that I see in the innovation business work at corporates. They may lack the wild-eyed look, but many hold equally improbable beliefs – and create just as little value. Beware of becoming too entangled with them unless you have a clear value proposition like, for example, they’re paying for the drinks.

Innovation is a big tent and we give away a lot of love, including to some who may not deserve it. I have a hard time figuring out how lots of these people add value. There may be method to their madness though, and I am straight up envious of much of it. They seem have a ball, make good money, and not be judged too hard on results. Respect.

The Hipster

Everyone’s got a Director of Innovation these days. The young-ish, sneaker-clad corporate head of innovation is on stage everywhere, talking about their company’s digital transformation. When pressed, they struggle to name anything specific that’s been implemented or sold, but the sneakers look good and, hey, their employer is embracing disruption. Mind the gap between the slideshow and reality.

The Dealmaker

The dealmaker is looking for startups that have product-market fit, a great team, billion-dollar potential, and a good cultural fit with their company. On a personal level, their preferred mate is a supermodel with a Stanford PhD, who, in the immortal words of  the boy band One Direction, “doesn’t know she’s beautiful”. Beware of the long distance and many cups of coffee between meeting them and cutting a deal.

The Community… Something

This person doesn’t exactly have a seven-word description of how they create value. Despite this, I’ll admit to anyone that cares to ask that this job sounds awesome. The KPIs seem to be ‘keynotes given’, ‘cups of coffee drunk at conferences’, and ‘LinkedIn connections added’. It looks like fun, but beware of anything they’re giving away for free.

The Garage Boss

Apart from workshops and events, I haven’t quite figured out what these people do, but garages are hot. The crowds trekking through Silicon Valley on innovation tours have seen the Hewlett-Packard garage and decided they need one too. “Innovation labs” and ”creator spaces” are also garages and a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

The architecture is a key identifier. Look for plywood walls, primary colors, cool light bulbs, and bookshelves full of work by the right authors. The garage boss seems to hold a lot of workshops and those books don’t read themselves. Beware of panel invitations to be the ‘fun startup person’ aka the only person not in a suit.

Slide on up to the bar

The Innovation Theater Crowd can steal a lot of your time, if you’re not clear about how they can add value to you. Don’t be an extra in someone else’s show. Once you can see the value, however, make sure they’re paying for the drinks – and enjoy!

”All Your Bases Are Belonging to Us”

Relationships fail. Breaking up can be ugly. Get a pre-nup.

I recently went through a founder bust-up of my own. As a mentor, I’ve seen hundreds, and I disagree with Tolstoy. He famously said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is different. I think founder bust-ups are banal in their similarity.

Founding a company requires faith and founder alignment. No amount of preparation, however, can predict or replace the experience gained from events. Some relationships survive events. Some relationships grow. Other relationships do neither. Be prepared.

Dating vs. Being Engaged vs. Being Married

Everyone needs to be clear on which status applies. I’m an enthusiast. This can be dangerous, so I have a partner, Peder, who keeps me on the straight and narrow. Peder made sure we all were just dating. We talked a lot about what it would take for us to tie the knot with the other guy and how to quantify the decision. KPIs work the same way that the concept of breaking distance does, so you can stop or change direction in time to avoid a crash.

“Get a pre-nup”

We advise founders to write pre-nups. Like Peder, one of my recurring concerns with the project was probably always that we saw the business differently from the other guy. In this, we were completely normal. It’s utterly common for one person to be more invested in a relationship than the other. The trick is ensuring that there isn’t a major imbalance.

Things didn’t work out

It didn’t go the way we hoped. The concept we had hoped to map from the other guy’s city to ours proved to need a lot of adjustments. The list of compromises both sides had to make got longer and longer. The other guy started handing out ultimatums.

We all want to be respectful and mature, but…

Founder bust-ups are usually emotional, much like romantic bust-ups. We said something along the lines of “it’s not you, it’s me” and “let’s just be friends”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over so well.

Game over

Our friend was furious. He immediately blocked our email and social media accounts. He demanded all the assets. The situation was just like founder bust-ups everywhere. It could have been a big mess. The fallout has been minor, however, because we kept our breaking distance.

Lessons learned

As a mentor, it’s good to have first hand experience and to occasionally renew old lessons learned. It was interesting to be in the middle of something we see startups wrestle with all the time. We never reached the pre-nup stage, because we never became full-fledged co-founders. There was plenty in the break up, however, to remind us why an agreement on how you manage a founder-split is a really good idea. It’s good advice to take and to give.

Give Me Three Good Reasons

Scaling things is hard and ideas matter less than execution

”By the end of dinner, I want you to give me three good reasons why you’re building someone else’s brand instead of your own.”

The challenge came from Mikkel as we walked to a late dinner at Tommi’s Burger Joint. It was one of those questions. The kind you knew had been on the way for a long time and that once asked really needed no answer. We all need friends like Mikkel.

“I can’t think of a single one.”

I launched my last business in a niche that I knew well, tech and startup events, doing a variation of something I’ve done for years. I decided to work with a guy who developed a concept I really liked. I’d open it in my city and together we would see how far we could scale the concept. Over coffee, it looked like a great plan, but everyone knows the proof is in the execution.

Execution is hard

For years, I’ve told startups that execution has value, but concepts are worthless. A patent is only one piece of a business model for turning an idea into money. There are a lot of good reasons why repeatable success is so highly valued and one is it’s really, really hard. What works in one place often doesn’t work in another.

Don’t love your idea, love the results

Things didn’t work out. Mapping the concept to Copenhagen took a lot of adjusting. This took time and effort that we couldn’t spend on things like sales. I loved the idea, but making it happen sucked up huge amounts of time. The more we had to invent solutions that didn’t exist to deal with situations that didn’t exist, the less it looked like the original concept.

Franchising looks simple. So does golf.

Franchising only looks simple to those who’ve never tried it. It’s really hard if the concept is new and the product is new. It’s harder still, if the brand is new to the market as well. It takes a lot of support, great tools, great marketing, and a really clear road map to roll out a new franchise. As a mentor, I now give much more specific feedback on franchising.

The concept is dead. Long live the concept.

Eventually, I realized we were working in parallel instead of together. The synergies we had hoped for didn’t appear. Discussions turned into criticism and the criticism got personal. Cultural note: if a Swede curses at you, things are really, really bad.

Sometimes you need a push

I know I do. Hindsight is a clear, but distorted lens. Some things you know at the time and some things you don’t. I’m not going to beat myself up about the mistakes I made. I’m trying to learn from them. I overlooked things I shouldn’t have. Luckily my friends pushed me.