The dot-com bubble and burst taught us a lot about what one should look for in successful companies. Ever since the burst, two trends have arisen when venture capitalists and entrepreneurs speak about their success.
The first trend revolves around people.
Silicon Valley is known as the hotbed for entrepreneurship and innovation. At the center of this ecosystem sits Ron Conway. Conway has been referred to as “the most important man” in the silicon valley by more than just a handful of entrepreneurs and celebrities. He invests in a variety of startups, many of which end up changing the technology space forever. His investments include: Google, Ask Jeeves, Paypal and Brightmail. Ron has spent time advising the following companies: Twitter, Digg, Bright Mail, Ask Jeeves, Facebook, RockYou, Zappos, Trulia, StumbleUpon, Plaxo (acquired by Comcast), Photobucket (acquired by Fox), and many more.
When asked by the LA Times what he looks for in a startup, Conway responded, “We invest in people. We don’t invest in ideas. Ideas can morph. But great people end up building great companies.”
Investors and venture capitalists tout that people are the most critical component to startup success; yet, when you talk to the actual people that were successful in the space, they claim that “Focus” was their key to success.
In a series of interviews about success and failures, the following entrepreneurs discussed what went wrong.
We focused too much on specific skills, and too little on fundamental abilities, raw talent, and passion for our business. A couple of years thereafter, we went thru some gut-wrenching people changes as a result of that. In retrospect, hiring rapidly was too easy and it should have been a giant red flag to me. I’ve learned that in good or bad times, hiring should always be difficult. – Alex Algard, successful entrepreneur and founder of whitepages.com
The lesson I learned was to keep laser focused on your core service until your core service does not provide for enough growth. If your core service is still growing at a good pace, keep focused on it. All the other partnerships, new verticals, new products, etc are meaningless if you don’t build a very solid foundation of your core first. – Brian Lee; Founder of Legalzoom
To summarize, their focus was off.
To summarize, if you ask venture capitalists what they look for in successful startups, they say, “great people.” If you ask the great people within successful startups what their key for success is, they say, “focus.”
The right people, combined with focus, determines the success of an organization. In this chapter we’re going to concentrate on the specifics ingrained within the concept of focus and the workplace. We’ll outline how you can get more productive at work, get more done, and in turn, work less.
The lessons that I outline in this chapter will gear itself towards startups and entrepreneurial organizations. I’m not going to pretend that all of these lessons will translate smoothly into any organization. You can only do so much in an environment that frowns upon innovation, and smiles upon process. Becoming an intrapreneur (an entrepreneur within a large corporate or government organization) will only take you so far. Yet I am absolutely convinced that at least one of these ideas can be applied to your organization no matter what the environment is like.
7 Characteristics of a Productive Work Environment:
Below, we’ll cover seven characteristics of focused companies. We’ll identify how to adopt focused principles within your organization. Implementing these principles will allow you to get more done in less time; thus, allowing you to work less.
Successful project management systems revolve around people, not Gantt charts. I’ve tried almost every project management system, customer relationship management system and planning system. Even the ones that claim to be unique have failed when put to the test of actual use. Most of them touted features as their competitive edge. You’ll see a long chart with check-boxes next to features like RSS Feeds, iPhone Synching and dashboards. Every organization I’ve been a part of progresses through the same stage. We try a new, “innovative” project management tool (usually one that I find and get all excited about), we try it out for three months, and then ditch it for the old, reliable white-board. I’m a fan of whiteboards because they’re open, free and are usually used with a group. It’s the ultimate collaborative tool. It’s a tool that relies on people, not of features. For one to create a focused work environment, you must adopt tools that are simple, people-centered and invite collaboration. In my experience, nothing beats the whiteboard.
Yet, there’s a sad occurrence that takes place in many organizations. After a certain period, sophisticated project management tools replace whiteboards. “Whiteboards don’t scale,” someone will say. It is within these transitions that the focus of your organization may deteriorate. Yet, after a certain period of testing out the latest, greatest feature-rich project software, they’ll likely go back to the old reliable whiteboard.
The whiteboard drives focus and collaboration due to three primary characteristics:
- Face-to-face: When you’re setting tasks and to-do items on a whiteboard, you’re in the presence of people. Getting an item assigned to you while talking about items on a whiteboard is much better than opening up your email and seeing that you’ve been assigned an item.
- Natural: The whiteboard conforms to the person; the person doesn’t conform to the whiteboard. There’s no learning curve. The whiteboard is a natural project management tool.
- Batching: Depending on the whiteboard you use, there will be limited space. This is a good thing. The whiteboard has limits, meaning you can’t write down 100 items that need to be done and then forecast them. When you see a sheet that has 100 to-do items on it, it’s both overwhelming and daunting. This usually results in nothing getting done, or half-assed work getting done. You forget that there’s a starting point. The whiteboard allows you to batch your projects into chunks. I highly recommend pruning your projects so that there’s only 10-15 items total (for a group of up to 5 people). This encourages small victories, not a long, drawn out war. That not only gets old, it becomes tiresome for your team.
In brief, I highly suggest using a whiteboard for your team. It encourages focus, collaboration and effectiveness due to the constraints it presents (limited space).
2. Open Space Is Overrated
Openness is overrated. I know what you’re thinking. “You just preached openness in the section above on whiteboards, now you’re saying it’s overrated?” Yes. Well, sort of. Open office environments are overrated (i.e. those environments where everyone’s sitting next to one another and there’s no personal offices). In our era of open-source technology and transparency, startups have shifted towards office spaces that espouse openness. You’ll find desks stacked immediately next to one another, and a proud CEO will proclaim that this drives collaboration and innovation. However if you look closer, or if you’ve worked in such an environment, you know what this really engenders: distraction.
I’m not a proponent of work environments where people work immediately next to one another in a cramped space. I believe that you should plan with people, and execute without them. A focused environment provides each employee with their own desk and own personal space. In the middle of your entire office floor, it’s excellent to have open space and places for people to collaborate on white-boards, pool tables or whatever. But it’s critical to have at least some space that allows you to shut the door and get work done in an environment that rids itself of noise, distraction and people. My belief in private, distraction-free workspace is not just driven by personal experience. In Scott Belsky’s book on productivity, “Making Ideas Happen,” he outlines the findings of a study by Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. She discovered that the nature of your workspace has a direct effect on the end result of your work-product. Working in small-ceiling, confined spaces allows you to focus more on critical details; whereas working in open, high-ceiling spaces fosters a big-picture, collaborative style of thinking.
Bottom line: collaborate with people, work without people.
3. Shake-up Your Workspace
The section on focused goals revolves around setting one three-word goal and carrying it out within three months. In order to avoid a slump, I’ve found it helpful to rearrange your workspace every three months, as well. Likely, it’s been a while since you’ve carried out some office-space spring cleaning. One day, on a late Friday afternoon or whenever there’s down-time, stop everything, shut your door, and rearrange your workspace. If you have an insanely-heavy desk, just rearrange easy-to move items like your monitor or some other easy-to-arrange objects. I’ve found that this simple act re-energizes me. It acts almost like a reset button in how you work. I’ll cover what types of personal work-environments you should strive for next.
4. Seek Rags, Not Riches
The success stories we see on Oprah have a very similar storyline. A person is poor, starting from nothing, then hits it big, and becomes rich. The world loves rags to riches stories. It feels right, it feels natural and it feels fair. We’re so accustomed to seeing riches emanate from rags that it’s actually beneficial to put yourself in rags to reach success. What I mean is that you should strive for constraints in your work environment. You must put yourself in a position of hunger. If you’re a startup, this means being lean, and not fat with venture capital. If you’re a government organization, it means doing something incredible with a small budget.
The projects that always fail are those with an endless budget and an undefined date. The successful undertakings, the ones that hit it out of the park, are those that have constraints. For instance, “We need to reach 40,000 people on a $10,000 budget within three weeks.” Those projects tend to do better than, “Let’s reach as many people as possible, in however long it takes us, on an endless budget.”
Within your personal workspace, seeking constraints means creating a simple, minimalistic environment to get work done. So often I see pictures of work-spaces that have plants, bonsai trees, comfy chairs, food, snacks, couches and televisions. What they’ve done is transformed workspace into a bedroom. This is dangerous and hurts one’s ability to focus. Instead, put yourself in an uncomfortable, small, windowless environment. Knock out your work in a couple hours, and then get out and collaborate!
Bottom line: Seek constraints. Seek rags, not riches. This philosophy will lead you to riches.
5. Ditch Robert’s Rules
Meetings can be cancerous to your organization. Not only that, they can kill morale. Yet even those that proclaim that they hate meetings, too, end up holding them. Why? There are a number of reasons: insecurity (is everything OK, let’s hold a meeting to find out), boredom (what else am I going to do with my time?) or simply because they think they should hold meetings because other companies do. If you’re heading to a meeting without a clear agenda, and a clear goal, boycott the meeting or bring a book–because nothing important will get done.
In order to maintain focus and effectiveness, always set an agenda and a time limit if you’re holding a meeting. Do this by meeting thirty minutes before you have a phone call. Give yourself a reason to keep things swift, quick and action-oriented. Additionally, keep the meeting small (3 people or less), and have only one problem to solve. I’ve also found it helpful to not hold any regular meetings. Make meetings impromptu. Meet because something needs to get done, not for the sake of meeting.
Robert’s Rules is a book that tells you how you should meet. This is fine, and actually effective for government-run organizations. But if you’re trying to implement it within a startup, or innovative environment, you’ve just let out a toxic bomb. Put the fire out immediately and throw Robert’s Rules out the window. Don’t talk about “Old business forever.” Don’t assign a Corresponding Secretary to take notes about the meeting. Nobody reads them anyways. Decide on something that needs to be solved. Bring your planner, and write down the next action of how to solve it.
Adopting flexible, action-oriented meeting principles will allow your organization to not get distracted and maintain focus on its main goal. Speaking of which, we’ll cover organizational goals next.
6. Building an Organization Built on Meaning
The worst thing you can do to your startup, team or organization is be secretive. Obviously, there’s details that not everyone should know. However, if you’ve got people at the top making plans, and having others carry out those plans without understanding why they’re carrying out their daily activities, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. And more, you’re killing your organization’s culture.
Focus-driven organizations are those that are working towards something. They’re organizations that have a clear-cut goal that is not only communicated, the goal is understood. Just as you should set focused goals for yourself personally to carry out in three months, so too should your company.
Set one company-wide goal every three months and communicate it with your employees. Make sure everyone understands exactly why they’re working towards this goal. This is critical, as understanding why you’re working towards something translates to meaning, which converts to purpose (and, of course, focus). If someone interviews your company’s CEO and an employee in a separate room, their answers should be completely the same. If asked the question, “What’s your purpose, what’s your plan and what are you guys working towards?” Their answers should literally mirror one another. If you’ve got a mission statement, and nobody can recall or recite it, ditch it. Replace it by setting a focused goal every quarter, and communicating the meaning behind the goal to each employee. This simple practice will lead to a focused organization. And according to successful startups, focusing on the right things is critical to success.
7. Don’t Get Fat at Work
The last element that you should consider when at work is not to get fat. In brief, don’t eat a massive lunch. When I say, ‘seek rags, not riches,’ I mean it. You’ll find that there’s two types of organizations: fat ones, and lean ones. You can tell which one is which by their cafeteria (if they even have one).
I know of two organizations that exemplify fat vs. lean quite clearly. One organization has raised millions in venture capital and they have lunch catered to their offices everyday. These aren’t just lunches. These are Thanksgiving dinner-style lunches. At 2pm, it’s game-over. Everyone’s in a food coma. They hit that point where no more work gets done.
The other office has a personal cook that arrives everyday and cooks them lean, light, healthy lunches.
After 365 days of this, which work environment do you think gets more done? Which one do you think is more productive?
Bottom line: Don’t get fat at work.
In conclusion, venture capitalists look for great people. Great people create an environment that is filled with focus.
Creating a focused environment can be embodied within six characteristics and practices:
- Implementing natural, people-centered tools (whiteboard)
- Creating a focused work environment (one that prevents distraction)
- Shaking-up your workspace every three months
- Seeking rags, not riches (constraints)
- Holding focused meetings (brief and to the point)
- Setting focused goals (make sure everyone at your organization understands the why behind their actions)
- Don’t eat a lot at work
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