Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lesson II: Propagate those Whys

Now this is something that is difficult to do. To build strong companies, you need strong personalities but so often strong personalities overwhelm the company, and create auras of their own. I see this in many large companies, and even in Google. People in positions with strong personalities become gatekeepers of important processes in the firm. This, in turn undermines the same entrepreneurial nature that brought the company to where it is today.

Be a visionary, but don't become a cult-head. There is a fine difference between the two and the trick is to know where to exercise your power. This does not mean cult-heads do not work. Apple's CEO is probably the nearest one gets to being one. However, using the power to initiate significant shifts in the industry is one thing. I have seen many instances of amazing ideas not going anywhere because the gatekeeper did not like it. This can be exacerbated if the gatekeeper is not in tune with the trends especially if this is a fast moving Internet services industry.

One thing a startup needs to do if it has to survive in today's age, is to avoid the culture of fear. People should be able to question everything and feel like they have a say in things. This obviously should be balanced with not getting muddled in chaos. But there is a way to do things that makes it more transparent and empowers people and yet does not sacrifice efficiency.

In a previous company that I worked for, our projects would get shut down seemingly arbitrarily by the VP. As an engineer, this was incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. I am sure there was a sane reason to shut down the project, but it is as important to convey why the project was shut down as to shut it down. The action of shutting down ensured that the company did well fiscally (or whatever the business reason was). The why (and the true why not the business gobbledegook) is what ensures that the creativity and morale stays high.

Google is sliding from the startup scale towards the large company scale. As time goes by, the whys will becoming harder to discern, and things will look increasingly arbitrary. However, this place is still way more transparent than most places of its scale. And this brings us to the most important tasks of a Product Manager: ensuring that the why of any action that impacts the team is known, and conveyed truthfully and sincerely.

In a startup, the CEO is the Product Manager. And s(he) needs to ensure that the whys are propagated.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Lessons for a new age startup I - Subverting the Order

There are some interesting lessons to be learnt from the success of Google and some other up and coming companies in the valley these days. In this series I will put together a list of lessons that wannabe entrepreneurs like me cannot afford to discount.

There is no hierarchy, the old hierarchy is dead

In a period of 6-8 years, the old way of doing things has been completely subverted, and has been replaced by a new, egalitarian, non-hierarchical system which is revolutionizing the way people work these days. Having spent a month at Google, I have had the opportunity to experience this new way first-hand. I am not saying Google is the perfect example of this new order, but it sure it is nearer to this model than most other companies regardless of industry, location and sector.

Nothing is more evident in the new order than the lack of hierarchy. Sure, there are directors, Senior execs, VPs etc, but they are there to provide direction, a way to massage the processes so as to create efficiency which in turn helps scale the company. No one orders others about what to do. Hence, no one is beholden to anyone else. Work is accomplished through influence. In this new order, accounting, finance, marketing take a backseat to the most important MBA course one can take - "Managing People at Work" ( Hat tip to my Wharton professor, Mike Useem).

There is no bar for age or experience. You are respected for your work which may be a factor of your age and experience (and then maybe not). So we have high flying, young, out-of-school Associates doing wonderful things because they are allowed to, nay, because they just can. You are only held back by your ambition (and luck). Try telling others what to do, and you will be relegated to the back. The old school of Silicon Valley companies will have to change because the new age tech companies are empowering their employees and in turn, attracting the best ones to their folds.

Is this a mirage or is this really happening? My thesis is that this is what is going on around you right now in the Silicon Valley. The whole basis of the technologies that these companies are producing is empowerment of consumers.
Products like social networks, blogs, p2p, are harvesting the long tail and leveraging an individual's power to create an interesting era of techno-egalitarianism. How can they peddle these wares if they did not, to paraphrase Google, "eat their own dogfood", and implement the same thought-process and concept in their own internal systems?

Anyone who wants to be connected to this coming generation of companies whether as a VC, or an entrepreneur or an executive will need to learn how to work with this new flat order.

Look out for Lesson 2.