Category Archives: Goby

So you’re thinking about a “things to do” app

AKA “events”, AKA “local discovery”, aka “help me find things to do in my free time”.

TL/DR. Just Don’t. Please, I’m begging you.

As one of the founders (and CEO) of goby, a local “recommendation engine for things to do”, I get approached fairly frequently (seems like every few weeks) by entrepreneurs who want to work on this problem. In the interests of saving both of us time, I decided to write down the high level reasons why this is a really bad idea. Read this first, then we can chat if you still want to try.

Before we get started, a few caveats. This advice assumes you’re trying to doa venture-backed unicorn, need to raise money to pay your salary, and hence need to scale. If you’re doing a bootstrapped personal project where you make a few bucks, much of this may not apply. Second, I don’t really even want to hear about your product. Even if your product is amazing, it doesn’t matter. You won’t make it. The problem in this market isn’t the product, it’s the market.

The challenge here is not to make a great product, it’s to get scale of users. If you’re doing a venture-backed startup, you need MILLIONS of users for this to work. Here’s why you won’t get them:

  1. It’s not a daily use case
  2. Most people don’t actually have free time
  3. You need to scale geographically as well as topically
  4. It’s hard to get good data
  5. Competition (I have a Graveyard of ~200 companies who’ve tried).
  6. No clear path to monetization

If you’re unconvinced, you can read a bit more detail below about these various factors. But trust me, I’m right.

Is this a real problem for people? Yes. Are experiences valuable? Yes. Is this problem worth solving? Yes. It just won’t be a startup.

In a previous generation, this problem was solved by Newspapers. They had a “metro” section that highlighted cool things going on. They already had an audience, they had local knowledge, they just delivered some extra value. The future version of this problem will be solved by a brand that already has an audience. Maybe a platform like Facebook (already the biggest events database on the planet), or a Yahoo/AOL/some other portal, or by a brand working in a bigger associated space (Foursquare? Twitter? AirBnB? Uber?).


OK, so you’re unconvinced. Keep reading.

It’s not a daily use case.

I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but because of the way people discover, test, and re-use new apps, unless you have a near-daily use case, people just forget about you before they need you. A similar take from Ben Yoskowitz.

Most People don’t actually have free time

Who is your demographic for this? Young urban singles have free time, they like to go out at night. Married people with kids — their weekends are spoken for. Mow the grass. Go to the soccer game. Run errands. Get up Monday morning. It’s tempting to think there’s millions of people sitting around bored, because it happens to all of us at some point. But most of the time, most of the people don’t have this problem. It happens once a month if you’re lucky. And then, many people will just decide to stay in and watch Game of Thrones.

You need to scale geographically as well as topically.

In order to get millions of users, you can’t just do one city. Not enough audience. So, that means you need data for New York, Boston, LA, Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, Moab, …. and you need to cover different topics for different demographics (nightclubs vs family-friendly events)…unless you have some serious tech (we had semantic web crawling from MIT @ goby and still struggled), you won’t be able to get this data easily. Which leads to:

It’s hard to get good data.

Unfortunately the data is distributed — Facebook events, Wine tastings on location restaurant websites, concerts on Ticketmaster,….it’s all really spread around. There’s no centralized place to get it. Not only do you have to cover lots of geographies, you have to cover lots of topics. Jazz, Hiking Trails, beaches, Comedy, Family Friendly book readings, the list goes on and on and on. If all you do is aggregate some events from Ticketmaster, nobody needs you — they already have Ticketmaster! Which leads to….

Competition

You started work on this because you think it’s a problem nobody’s working on or solved. Guess what: I keep a list. I call it The Graveyard. There’s HUNDREDS of startups who’ve tried and failed to solve this problem. Some really great services: goby, Sosh, SCVNGR, Diddit, Hotlist, Banjo, Sonar, Whrrl, Spindle, Schemer by Google, Eventful, Zvents, Upcoming (now returning, believe it or not!!). This runs everything from one person in his/her basement to apps from biggies like Google. Nobody lasts more than a few years. When that happens, it means something’s wrong with the market, not the companies. Can you explain why you’ll succeed when all these other good folks failed?

Now, in some specific big areas there’s players: Ticketmaster for music, EventBrite for professional events, and some others. But they are the exception, and worse, if your app is great at music, then you have to swim upstream against a brand like Ticketmaster.

(and, you’d better have a web site, an IOS app, an Android App, and soon, a chat bot interface :)

Monetization

Finally, it’s very unclear how to monetize this space. Ads? Forget it. Until you have 2 or 3 million monthly uniques, you’re not getting anywhere with ads. Affiliate revenue? Most of the things that are purchasable are being sold by the Ticketmasters of the world — and people would rather buy from them than you.


A lot of big problems you have to solve.

Here’s some required reading of some post mortems and other folks’ thoughts on this:

(goby) http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2015/07/09/consumer-startup-customer-acquisition-find-a-daily-use-case/

(Plancast) http://techcrunch.com/2012/01/22/post-mortem-for-plancast/

(Sonar) https://medium.com/@brett1211/postmortem-of-a-venture-backed-startup-72c6f8bec7df#.um9es7s7z

(RiotVine) https://riotvine.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/post-mortem/

(HugeCity) http://www.hughmalkin.com/blogwriter/2015/9/23/why-no-one-has-solved-event-discovery

Facebook finally gets serious about events.

Facebook finally gets serious about events

One of the consistently repeated startup “attempts” is the so-called “Things to Do” app. “Hey, what can I do this weekend?”. My company goby was one of the earlier attempts. After a pretty good run we failed to get enough traction to get to critical mass, and sold the company to Telenav.

I’ve kept a “graveyard” list of companies who’ve tried (drop me a note if you want a copy). It’s over 150 companies. Seriously. If you’re thinking about trying to create this company….don’t. Just don’t. I’ve written about why elsewhere, but in a nutshell: it’s a feature, not a product. It’s too hard to build a brand and a company around a use case that only happens every month or so.

Now, a big brand can do it. Say, Facebook. Whose events product has sucked for years, even as they amassed the single largest repository of events anywhere. It looks like, finally, they are starting to get serious about it, with a major update to their IOS app that lets you browse for events by category, just like a big kid. And with their database of your interests, expect pretty good personalization on top of that, sooner or later.

(BTW. Looking for something to do this weekend? Try reading a great book via The Hawaii Project)!

Doing a consumer startup? You won’t make it without a daily use case.

(this first appeared as a guest post on BostInno)

Common startup stories go something like this: the founder has a problem in their life, and creates a product to address it. Maybe they had trouble planning their vacation or couldn’t find a vegan restaurant. An example I encounter a lot is the so-called “things to do” problem. “I’m bored, I want to find something to do this weekend.” It’s alluring and sexy to tackle problems like this. They’re fun.

Here’s the harsh reality: Unless your product has a daily use case, you won’t make it.

I learned this the hard way. I was the co-founder of goby, a moderately successful “things to do” app. (Note: Consumer startups are “winner take all” – you either have tens of millions of users or you run out of money. A “moderately successful” consumer startup is one that doesn’t make it.) I’d like to share a bit of our path in hopes others can learn from it.

Goby started life at MIT with serious tech that produced highly structured, semantic data from the unstructured jungle that is the web. We set out to build a travel startup with a focus on events and activities – from concerts to beaches to hot air balloon rides. Events and activities is a multi-billion dollar market with no brand owning it. Our economic case was built on the affiliate/lead-gen model – we’d refer people to providers, be they hotels or tour operators, and take a 5-10 percent cut of the booking. And maybe run some ads.

We launched the company and had solid early success – press from Robert Scoble, TechCrunch, theNew York Times, you name it. We raised a reasonable amount of funding, and grew our audience to over one million monthly app/web visits. Not bad. Not enough. Even at that scale we couldn’t generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining, or to raise financing to keep the company going. Eventually we were acquired by Telenav, a publicly traded GPS Navigation company. It was a great run, but ultimately not a success.

The biggest challenge for a consumer company isn’t building a great product, it’s acquiring users.

A full post-mortem of those years is outside the scope of this article. I want to focus on one topic: the customer/product adoption lifecycle and what it means for your startup.

The biggest challenge for a consumer company isn’t building a great product, it’s acquiring users. Product, as hard as it seems, is the easy part. It’s hard to overstate how difficult it is to get a million people using your product. To get a consumer A round done, you need millions (plural) of users (or have proven monetization).

This is how early adopters experience your product: they read about it on, say, a BostInno article, or hear about it from an enthusiastic friend, and try it out. In our case, they’d say, “Oh, a cool new travel planner!” They try it out, then say to themselves, “next time I plan a trip, I’ll use that.” Here’s what we encountered: People travel twice a year (often to a place they already know). So when they had a need for goby, it’s been six months since they heard about us and they’ve forgotten!

Watching our analytics we saw people were searching for things to do in their local area, not travel destinations. So, we pivoted out of travel and into a local “weekend recommendations” angle. Our use case became more frequent, but still not daily. In principle people have free time every weekend. In practice, it’s often time spoken for – housework, family obligations and so on.

People are busy. They have a problem and want a solution quickly. If you’re top of mind when they have that need, you stand a chance. If your use case is twice a year, or even once a month or every other week, they’ll have forgotten about you by the time they need you. Ben Yoskovitz captured this “attention economy” admirably in his post Grabbing Attention and Holding Onto It.

If you’re doing a consumer startup with no clear revenue model and without a daily use case, just stop.

Look at the “unicorn” consumer companies; there’s a common thread. Snapchat? I communicate with my friends every day. Instagram? I take photos all the time. Dropbox? I save files every day. Pinterest? I bookmark things every day. Foursquare & Yelp? Yes I eat every day, and go places every day. Concerts? I go to a lot of concerts, but it’s still one every other month or so. By the time I want that information, I’ve forgotten about that cool new concert finder …

Are there exceptions? Yes. Do you have a clear and proven monetization path? You might be able to arbitrage (buy) your way to success, if your cost of acquisition is less than your revenue per customer.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re doing a consumer startup with no clear revenue model and without a daily use case, just stop. Pick a new problem, or find a way to convert your problem into something closer to daily. My new startup, The Hawaii Project, discovers great books for you to read. I know people don’t pick new books every day. So I’m focusing on providing topical, interest-driven news on a daily basis driven by your reading interests, to stay top-of-mind until that time comes. Find an angle where you have a reason to be in touch with your customer every day.

More broadly, it’s common to think of your product as your mobile app or website. In today’s context-driven world, this is the wrong way to think about it. Your real product is your first-time user experience and your contextual notifications and alerts. That is how people will engage with you and remember your app.

Deliver real value on a first time visit, proactively re-engage with them and you’ll earn their attention.

Leadership lessons from the ancient Greeks (Part II of II)

Gates of FireThis post is a continuation of a previous post, Leadership lessons from ancient Greece. You’ll want to read that first if you have not already. Let’s pick up our discussion on leadership tactics, this time inspired by Tides of War, the story of the mercurial leader of Athens and Sparta, Alcibiades.

1. Challenge your team members

When he [Alcibiades] wished to honor a man of the fleet, he dispatched meat or wine with his compliments to that officer’s mess. He distinguished others by inclusion at his table.  But to those he wished most to esteem, he sent not boons but trials. He singled them out for the most perilous duties, for in these, he said, he sent out lieutenants and got back captains. [Tides of War, p. 258]

When you have tasks to be done, as a leader, don’t think “how quickly can I get this done?”, think, “can I use this opportunity to develop someone?”. The corollary to “challenge your team members” is “teach, don’t do”. When times get busy, there’s a natural tendency to want to move quickly and just “get things done”. Fight it. The second implication of this rule is that you have to let people do things their own way, and possibly make mistakes you could have prevented. The CEO of my first company, Dave Evans of Evans & Sutherland, had a great saying. He’d say: “There’s two ways to do things, my way, and the wrong way.” And then he’d pause, his eyes would twinkle, and he’d say: “And if you want to get anything done, you have to let people do things the wrong way.”.

The next two rules go together hand and glove.

2. Don’t give orders; make suggestions or ask questions.

[Alcibiades speaking]:  …if force must be employed with a subordinate, take care that it be minimal. If I command you, “pick up that bowl”, and set a swordpoint to your back, you will obey but no part will own the action. You will exculpate yourself, accounting, “He made me do it, I had no choice.” But if I only suggest and you comply, then you must own your compliance and, owning it, stand by it. [Tides of War, p. 258.]

Your goal as a leader is to get people to own problems and not rest until they’ve cracked it. The more you give orders, the more you own the problem and the less they do. Further, you deny them the growth and plain fun of figuring out the right thing for themselves.

3. Assign the goals, not the means.

Corollary to the principle of minimal force was that of minimal supervision. When Alcibiades issued a combat assignment, he imparted the objective only, leaving the means to the officer himself. The more daunting the chore, the more informally he commanded it….

Always assign a man more than he believes himself capable of. Make him rise to the occasion. In this way you compel him to discover fresh resources, both in himself and others of his command, thus enlarging the capacity of each, while binding all beneath the exigencies of risk and glory. [Tides of War, p. 259]

A common refrain I’ve heard (and said!) is “let me do my job!” – the best people want to be free to choose the best means at hand to accomplish the objective, and not have it all presented to them. And the more you make a particular kind of decision, the more you’ll have to continue to make those decisions. When Alcibiades is offered the kingship of Athens, he replies, “Tyranny is a splendid roost, but there is no step down from it.”. Once you start deciding things, even trivial things like what pizza is for lunch, people will expect you’re going to continue to make those decisions. Don’t make decisions you don’t want to keep having to make.

4. Don’t hoard your person.

As he chastened men with banishment from himself, so he rewarded them with access. He loved to have his officers about him, particularly late at night as he worked. “Bear in mind, my friends, that access to your person is a mighty incentive to those in station beneath you. A smile, a kind word, a nickname spoken with affection…Don’t hoard your person, gentlemen. Money cannot buy the prize of your attention, and the men know it.” [Tides of War, p. 260]

In the fray of conferences, meetings, financings and customer visits, it’s easy to get caught up in “working”, and not spend time with people. Particularly if you have introverted tendencies, as many software people do, there’s a natural tendency when time gets short or events overwhelming, to retreat a bit and need “alone time”. Fight this urge. Spend less time doing things (delegate that), and more time working and talking with people. Don’t be that CEO that nobody ever sees, but is “off doing things”. People don’t follow ghosts.

5. Command emulation (and by the way, drink!).

Three and half years later, before Byzantium, I attended a nightlong drinking bout. Someone had put the query “How does one lead free men?”. “By being better than they,” Alcibiades responded at once. The symposiasts laughed at this, even Thrasybulus and Theramenes, our generals. “By being better”, Alcibiades continued, “and thus commanding their emulation”. He was drunk, but on him it accounted nothing, save to liberate those holdings nearest to his heart. “When I was not yet twenty, I served in the infantry. Among my mates was Socrates the son of Sophoroniscus. In a fight the enemy had routed us and were swarming upon our position. I was terrified and loaded up to flee. Yet when I beheld him, my friend with the grey in his beard, plant his feet on the earth and seat his shoulder within the great bowl of his shield, a species of eros, life-will, arose within me like a tide. I discovered myself compelled, absent all prudence, to stand beside him. A commander’s role is to model arete, excellence, before his men. One need not thrash them to greatness, only hold it out before them. They will be compelled by their own nature to emulate it.” [Tides of War, p. 250]

Now, does this mean that every software CEO should be writing software on a day to day basis? No. But people should believe that you *could*, if you needed to. And at the same time as you can discuss the ideas behind a key algorithm, if you can talk about market dynamics or business techniques, your best people will be inspired to seek a similar breadth of knowledge. If you can’t do those things, your team should at least believe you are interested in the details [and to paraphrase my good friend Mike Troiano’s comment on establishing warmth [http://scalableintimacy.com/how-to-sell/], if you want people to think you are interested, it helps to be interested]. Model those traits you wish people to exhibit, and they will as well (or at least, most of them).

And by the way, drinking with your team or with particular individuals is a time-honored way of really getting to know them, what they care about, and what they really think (and vice versa). That kind of bond, and that kind of knowledge, isn’t gotten in meetings.

6. Build leaders; don’t hire them.

Alcibiades: As we seek to make our enemies own their defeats at our hands, so we must make our friends own their victories. The less you give a man, and have him succeed, the more he draws his achievement to his heart. Remember we may elevate the fleet in two ways only. By acquiring better men or making those we have better. Even were the former practicable I would disdain it, for a hired man may hire out to another master, but a man who makes himself master stays loyal forever. [Tides of War, p. 259]

and

When Panegyris and Atalanta were mauled at the Nine-Mile Cove and their trierarchs blaming themselves had made their spirits disconsolate, he called the pair to his tent and, stripping before them, commanded them to regard the many wounds upon his body. “I’d rather have a man who has closed with the foe and bears the scars than all the bronze-and-brightwork of the regatta. I can find unscathed captains anywhere. But where will I get brave men like you and your crews?” [Tides of War, p. 260]

As you are growing your company or team and hiring, it’s tempting to look for the senior people who have all the answers and all the experience, and bring them in to leadership positions. And in fact, sometimes that is the right or necessary thing to do. But wherever you can, hire smart, passionate people early in their careers and have them led by the team that’s gotten you to where you are.

7. Write to people (real writing, not emails) – and include families where you can.

Correspondence. He [Alcibiades] posted a hundred letters a day. Entire watches were consumed with this, amid rotating shifts of secretaries, often through night and morn and into the next night….To him these letters were not chores but men. There were other missives, the main in truth, whose lines he dictated late or scrawled in his own hands. These were the widow letters, the commendations for the maimed or fallen – then, twenty, thirty a day. He directed these personally to the recipient himself if he were still alive, but often as well he had the rolls dispatched to the father or mother or wife without the honored man’s knowledge. [Tides of War, p. 257]

Email is impersonal. Words are cheap. But a handwritten note – you don’t get many of those. And it means the person who wrote it took the time to sit and write it. If someone has been through a tough project, or achieved something impressive, write them a note. Ideally, mail it to their house so family members might see it. At Endeca we had one particularly grueling project (we had the customer disaster and the project wouldn’t die and every day there was a new showstopper bug and….you get the picture). The “all-hands-on-deck” phase lasted months. When we finally drove the stake through the heart of the release, I took the team out to dinner, and gave them a copy of Gates of Fire (which seemed symbolically appropriate), along with a personal note recognizing the particular part that person had played in making the release happen. Two years later one of them mentioned how much that meant to them, and how great the book was. Email doesn’t work like that.

Also, families are important – they’re your support infrastructure, and after all your team is working to support them. Find ways to include them at dinners or parties, and to recognize people in front of them.

Last: Laugh.

It is that peculiar soldier’s humor which springs from the experience of shared misery and often translates poorly to those not on the spot and enduring the same hardship…..The more miserable the conditions, the more convulsing the jokes become, or at least that’s how it seems. [Gates of Fire, p. 68]

Find ways to laugh a lot. There’s a certain kind of black humor that soldiers have, and you see variations of it in software companies too. I encourage it. The main thing is to laugh and have a bit of fun. In the end we’re not fighting a war, we’re doing something we love and it should be fun! A little bit of laughter solves a lot of issues. If you don’t have a sense of humor, hire somebody with one. 8)


I’ve lived with these rules informally for some time, and more recently have tried to approach them in a thoughtful, planned manner. Here’s a few last things I’ve learned.

These rules work best if you hire the right kind of people. In the end, a lot of being successful boils down to hiring well. Soldiers can be ordered around; employees don’t take so well to it, at least for long. Hire people who have demonstrated initiative, achievement and curiosity, and the skills (for example what programming languages they know) will take care of themselves.

Remember you are optimizing for the long run. Following many of these principles means accepting suboptimal execution in the short run for the longer term gain of higher performing teams. Trust that it will pay off down the road. If you are trying to adopt some of these principles and you are in middle management, make sure your manager understands what you are doing and why you are doing it. I once had one of managers prepare and perform a high stakes presentation as part of their growth strategy. I later learned that my (new) manager at the time thought I was either lazy or lacked vision myself, as I had one of my managers do it. Communicate upwards, especially when you’re taking risks.

Fictional characters make a tough bar to live up to; aspire to that level of performance, even if you can’t actually do it, and one day you’ll wake up realizing you are that thing you aspire to.

These last two posts wouldn’t have been possible without a few people. Thomas Jensen introduced me to these books, and has been a friend and mentor for 25 years, and reviewed a first draft. Jim Fell and Ed O’Donnell also reviewed an early draft. Thanks also to Jim Baum, Steve Papa and Andy Palmer for teaching me a lot on the subject over the years. Thanks all!!

Leadership lessons from the ancient Greeks – Part I of II

Gates of FireI am a huge fan of the novelist Steven Pressfield. His novels bring the people and events of Ancient Greece to life in a way few others have. He has a particular talent for capturing the essence of war and military life, both its leaders and foot soldiers. His two best novels are Gates of Fire, which tells the story of 300 Spartan warriors sent to defend the pass of Thermopylae, knowing full well they will all perish fighting the Persian invaders, and Tides of War, chronicling the battle between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. Each book has an array of memorable characters and has much to teach about discipline, courage under fire, sacrifice and the deep bonds formed between people sharing difficult circumstances.

I want to focus on the two leaders in the books. Leonidas is King of the Spartans and the leader of the band of 300 in Gates of Fire. Alcibiades is the mercurial leader of Athens in Tides of War, until he becomes too powerful and flees to Sparta to avoid being arrested and killed – whereupon he becomes a leader of the Spartans and attempts to retake Athens.  Each is a study of the nature of leadership, its demands, requirements and practices. The chapter in Tides of War entitled “The Intersection of Necessity and Free Will” alone is like a mini-MBA in leadership tactics.

I’ve lived with these books for more than a decade.  They’ve taught me a number of things that have become part of my framework for approaching leadership and management. It’s tough to live up to fictional characters: startups are not war, and companies are not the military. But they share enough key ingredients that they can inform a management style.

I’ve distilled some key leadership principles from the novels.  I share them below, along with some examples of how I’ve put them into practice. There are as many ways to manage as there are managers; these reflect my personal style and underlying value system.  They may not be for you, and I sometimes forget them myself. Some of these work better in larger organizations; some of them are mandatory in startups but harder to make work in a bigger company. In this first post, we’ll look at Gates of Fire and see what it has to tell us; in the second post, Tides of War.

1. Lead by serving.

They could see their king [Leonidas], at nearly sixty, enduring every bit of misery they did. And they knew that when the battle came, he would take his place not safely at the rear, but in the front rank, at the hottest and most perilous spot on the field. [Gates of Fire, p. 69]

I will tell his Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the hardest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him. [Gates of Fire, p. 350]

What might this mean in “real life”? People will give you more in effort than you can ever compel, if they believe you care about them and a shared mission. The leader’s job, in the end, is to make sure the objective is clear, and that the team is as productive as possible. This means clearing roadblocks instead of doing “fun stuff”. There are a million menial tasks to getting a startup off the ground and keeping it running. At goby, we keep a pretty good stock of food, drink, snacks, and office supplies. These are my responsibility; every other weekend or so, I drive to a nearby BJs warehouse store, load up on low cost drinks and snacks, and stock the kitchen with them. In this way, I send a message that no task is beneath me, and it shouldn’t be beneath anyone else either. In addition, people who do the real work of building things can spend their time on that, rather than on errands assigned out by the CEO.

2. First to rise, last to bed.

It was the standing order of my master on campaign that he be woken two hours before dawn, an hour prior to the men of his platoon. He insisted that these never behold him prone upon the earth, but awake always to the sight of their enomotarch on his feet and armed. [Gates of Fire, p. 228]

Your team should believe you are as or more dedicated than they are (and you should be!). They should never have reason to question your effort or work ethic – you are a model for them to emulate. While simply being in the office doesn’t guarantee anything gets done, there’s no substitute for your team to see you, day in and day out, working as hard or harder than they are. This is a place where the demands of modern life and the “real world” can clash with fictional or heroic stamina. The demands (and joys) of family, friends, and outside interests can prevent you from being the first one in the office and the last one to leave every day. If you can’t do both, you should pick either the beginning or the end of the day, and consistently be first (or last). My practice is to be first in the office.

And don’t leave your team alone during the tough times. If your people are working weekends, so are you. Long nights too. There may not be anything for you to do, but be there. Do QA, bring food, do busywork, clean the coffee machine. Whatever. You may think this isn’t noticed. It is. At one of my previous roles we were completely redoing the user interface of a ten year old product. It was a massive undertaking and something of a “death march” project. At one point someone came to me to resign; he couldn’t take the demands of the project. But he told me that he really appreciated how I didn’t ask anything of people that I wasn’t willing to do myself. [Note: this isn’t really the way you want to run projects – death marches are to be avoided – but if your team is on one, you better be there 8)].

3. Lead by example.

Simultaneously, work was begun on rebuilding the ancient Phokian Wall which blocked the Narrows. This fortification, when the allies arrived, was little more than a pile of rubble….A wry scene ensured as various engineers and  draughtsmen of the allied militias assembled in solemn council to survey the site and propose architectural alternatives….Leonidas simply picked up a boulder and marched to a spot. There he set the stone in place. He lifted a second, and placed it beside the first. The men looked on dumbly as their commander in chief, whom all could see was well past sixty, stooped to seize a third boulder…With a cheer the troops fell to. Nor did Leonidas cease from his exertions….”Nothing fancy brothers”, the King guided the construction. “For a wall of stone will not preserve Hellas, but a wall of men”. [Gates of Fire, p. 219]

It sounds trite, but really, it’s important, and not that hard. Lead by example – even (especially!) in the mundane things. It’s easy for an organization to become cynical. One of the quickest ways is to have an organization where “the rules don’t apply” to the leaders.

It’s important that your team do things together, and not just fun things. At goby we do the usual, go out for drinks etc. But there’s nothing like handing everyone a hammer and a hex wrench and having everyone assemble their own desks from IKEA on the first day you open a new office. The sore backs, the bitching, the busted knuckles, builds a team like no round of drinks can do. Find ways for your team to share hardship as well as fun, even if it’s mild hardship.

4. Stay in control – your team will react to adverse circumstances the way you do.

This I realized now watching Dienekes rally and tend to his men, was the role of the officer: to prevent those under his command, at all stages of the battle – before, during and after – from becoming “possessed”. To fire their valor when it flagged and rein in their fury when it threatened to take them out of hand…..His was not, I could see now, the heroism of an Achilles….He was just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attribute was self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for those whom he led by his example. A job whose objective could be boiled down to a single understatement, as he did at the Hot Gates on the morning he died, of “performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions”. [Gates of Fire, p. 112]

If you’ve been managing for long, or been in software for any period of time, you’ve seen the train wrecks. The customer disaster, the release that you can’t seem to finish, the big product launch that’s gone sideways because your site keeps crashing because that big TechCr­­­­unch article keeps driving people to your site. You’ve seen these, and you know you’ll get through it. It doesn’t lessen the urgency, but you know you’ll get through it. That calmness will prevent worse problems. If you’re working with a younger team, they may not have seen these disasters before, or know how to act or react. You need to stay in control, and be seen staying in control. Bark if you need to, but stay in control.

[Leonidas speaking] “You are the elect of Hellas officers and commanders of Lakedaemon, chosen by the Isthmaian Congress to strike the first blow in defense of our homeland. Remember that our allies will take their cue from you. If you show fear, they will be afraid. If you project courage, they will match it in kind….above all, the little things. Maintain your men’s training schedule without alteration. Omit no sacrifice to the gods. Continue your gymnastics and drills-at-arms. Take time to dress your hair, as always. If anything, take more time. [Gates of Fire, p. 225]

In times of stress, it’s important to stick with your patterns. In sports, they say “you play the way you practice”. You should have repeatable, established ways of doing what you do. At goby, it’s agile development, short development sprints followed by a product release. One of the things I was most proud of as goby came to a close was that even as we were weeks away from running out of cash, we were doing our two week sprints followed by product releases. “Performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions” indeed.

5. Equal pain for all.

The army was at the Oaks…on an eight-nighter…[the army] had marched out into the high valleys and drilled in darkness for four nights…drilling day and night. No amenities whatever were brought. Conditions are shared by all. [A joke amongst the men]: “What’s the difference between a Spartan king and a mid-ranker?”. “The king sleeps in that shithole over there, we sleep in this shithole over here”. The purpose of the eight-nighter is to drive the individuals of the division, and the unit itself, behind the point of humor. It is when the jokes stop, they say, that the real lessons are learned and each man, and the mora as a whole, make those incremental advances which pay off in the ultimate crucible. The hardship of the exercises is intended less to strengthen the back than to toughen the mind. [Gates of Fire, p. 67]

There is nothing more corrosive to team spirit than a nasty task that only half the company is working on. There’s a particular kind of task that sometimes arises when you are converting legacy code for example, or test cases, where there’s really no way to automate things, or substitute for doing things by hand. In those kinds of situations, it’s tempting to assign those tasks to “QA”, or “junior people” or some similar subset of the team. Don’t. Everybody helps. In one of my former roles, we were converting to a new user interface paradigm. We had literally thousands of automated tests and no way to convert them. Every single person in a very large team (hundreds) was assigned some tests to rebuild or convert (including me). Everybody bitched; but the work got done and done well. Bitching and Camaraderie are two sides of the same coin, if everyone is bitching about the same work.

6. Sometimes you lose; give it everything you’ve got and do it with class.

As the Spartans go to battle with the Persians on the day they will all perish, Leonidas gives a speech. Here’s the end of it:

A thousand years from now, Leonidas declared, two thousand, three thousand years hence, men a hundred generations yet unborn may for their private purposes make journey to our country. They will come, scholars perhaps, or travelers from beyond the sea, prompted by curiosity regarding the past or appetite for knowledge of the ancients. They will peer out across our plain and probe among the stone and rubble of our nation. What will they learn of us? Their shovels will unearth neither brilliant palaces nor temples; their picks prize forth no everlasting architecture or art. What will remain of the Spartans? Not monuments of marble or bronze, but this, what we do here today. [Gates of Fire, p. 356]

Projects fail; startups fail; established companies fail. When we fail, people are watching; our coworkers, potential future hires, potential future investors, business partners, and they are learning as they watch. Unlike the Spartans, when it happens to us, we have the chance to get up and do it again. You’ll be remembered as much or more, for how you fought the fight, than whether you won or lost.

In the next post, I’ll dive into Tides of War, and its treasure trove of leadership strategies. You can find it here.