The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center asked me to write a post for their “Business Brief” column, where they ask CEOs “What key lesson have you learned in business that would help others?” I’m cross-posting my answer below, but you can read the original on their website.
I have learned a lot since starting Mindsense, and another company before that. I’ve learned I need to trust my gut more; we’ve made some bad moves by following the advice of those that are high up in our industry (partners at Apple, prominent investors in our niche, etc.), where looking back on it, my gut would have been the right way to go. I’ve learned that maintaining strong relationships with journalists and bloggers can give far better results than paying for ads (we don’t spend a dime on advertising). I’ve learned that we don’t need to fear copycats long-term (a team that ripped off our first product sold to Dropbox within a month, but was ultimately shut down). I’ve learned that, as my in-office team grows, my most focused work gets done before I get to the office. I’ve learned that you can totally bootstrap a company like ours (we started on Kickstarter and have operated on product revenues since).
But I don’t think that I have enough experience to deem any of these lessons I’ve learned as universal truths to give as advice to others. They’re interesting experiences that I’m happy to share, but the lessons themselves are fairly one-off.
However, I think there is one lesson that I can share, and to me, it’s a big one. It’s how I’ve naturally always approached starting a company, forming a team, and driving after big goals; but after chatting with folks at similar companies, I’ve learned that some of our approach can be unique.
At Mindsense, everything is centered around people: our purpose is to solve unsolved problems to improve people’s lives; our mission is to improve the lives of the people that use our software, work on our team, and live in our communities.
The wrong people with the right idea won’t be able to execute on it. The right people going after the wrong idea will get there; they will figure it out.
Our team is small (4 people), so the lesson is exponentially real for us. We need to have the right people on our team. I presume, but cannot prove, that at a larger company, it’s equally true of your executive team. It’s all about the people.
The most important thing I need to do is make sure we have the right people, that they are properly supported and resourced, that they are motivated and fulfilled by the work they have, and that the team is well balanced and covers all the strengths we need.
Having the right people is the most important thing for our success.
Often, I am asked to share some of our biggest challenges. I realized, over the years, that our biggest one was right at our inception: we didn’t have all of the strengths we needed on our founding team. Particularly, while I am a good software developer, I am not a great one; it’s not intrinsically motivating to me, so I will inherently do a poorer job than someone else who is deeply passionate about software development, and therefore more thorough with it.
Yet, for the first 2.5 years of Mindsense, I wrote all of our software (barring our first summer when a co-founder from a previous startup volunteered his time on nights and weekends to help out). I was our only software developer, and not only was I only good and not great, but I didn’t even get to be full-time on development; I’m also our only designer, our only marketer, etc. While we were able to launch our products from that time eventually to 50,000 customers, since they were technically inferior, we incurred a lot of time debt on maintenance and support.
We ended up with mediocre execution on top of publicly touted “ingenious” (David Pogue, in the New York Times) ideas. This was a big stumbling block for us when we were just coming out of the gate.
After 2.5 years, our first full-time software developer, Jeb Schiefer, joined the team. He is the exact opposite of me as a developer: he is meticulous and detailed; he isn’t finished until he has written unit tests, and what keeps him up at night is our software stability. He is passionate about software development, and it makes him a great software developer. We hired him to have him lead engineering on our next big project: Throttle. And the difference could not have been more evident over the last few months as we’ve launched Throttle: we’ve brought on 10,000 registrations, but never had a difficult or stressful launch, there were no show-stopping bugs that popped up, and customer support has been easier than ever. This had never been the case with previous launches.
Having the right people on the team makes all the difference. It’s what moves us from good to great. One way we ensure a balanced team is by thoroughly using Strengths Finder. Every new team member at Mindsense gets the book as a gift, takes the online test, and has their strengths on a plaque on their desks. You’ll notice, as you look around the room, strong complements between our strengths. Not only do we learn more about ourselves through our strengths, but we learn how better to work together; how to communicate with each other more effectively, when to lean on another team member to navigate around one of our own weaknesses, etc.
But because each person is so important to the overall mission, caring for and supporting the people on our team is my number one job.
We promote personal autonomy quite a bit (if you haven’t read Daniel Pink’s Drive, it’s fantastic). We have no core hours at Mindsense. Instead, at the beginning of the week, we outline what we all need to get done. At the end of the week, we demo what we’ve worked on. If anything didn’t get done, we have to take responsibility for why. But as long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter if a team member needs to leave Wednesday at noon to run errands, or doesn’t come into the office until 10. We’ve had team members that are more productive in the afternoon come in and stay later, and team members that are more productive in the morning come in and leave earlier. We even have a minimum vacation policy, rather than a maximum.
This doesn’t work for everyone — some people can’t manage themselves, so not everyone has lasted. But on such a small team, we don’t have the time to manage people anyway, so if someone needs a manager to be held accountable, it’s a mis-match from the start. With such an extreme level of autonomy, people self-select quickly.
Instead of spending time managing people, I’m freed up to support and motivate people. Rather than leading from above, I lead from behind; instilling in team members our core identity as a team, and our envisioned future, and I support them as we all carry our flag forward in the direction that we see fit. We first huddle; aligning onto a common purpose and goal, then the entire team works together to get us there. I’m not the head coach; I’m the team captain.
We push hard toward extreme goals, so we’re high-energy, but we’re also high-purpose. This is one way we ensure team members are motivated and fulfilled: with a strong sense of purpose (if you haven’t read Jim Collins’ Built to Last, that’s another must-read). Mindsense exists to improve people’s lives by solving unsolved problems in human-centered, innovative ways. We write this purpose on the whiteboard before every big brainstorm or meeting. It’s the first thing you see when you log in to our team intranet. Every major decision we make after first asking if it moves us closer to our core purpose.
It’s the unsolved problems that intrigue us; these are the problems that get us up and motivated to get to work each day. They’re an addicting challenge. They’re so ambiguous that they require deep empathy, thinking from many different perspectives, and a-game brainstorming; but with all three, we can invent incredible new human-centered solutions that really knock it out of the park.
My role is not to light a fire under people. My role is to light a fire in people — to paint a picture of the future, and fight alongside my team members to get us there.
By doing all these things, we’ve found that we can foster an environment that motivates people to get up in the morning to come to work, and leaves people feeling fulfilled at the end of the day.
When I was preparing a keynote for the Virginia Tech Leadership in Engineering Conference, I asked Jeb a little about that. He put it this way:
“The environment we’ve created at Mindsense where I can use exciting technology to build useful software for other people makes me look forward to coming into work every day… I had always felt like I was a part of something bigger than just a 9–5 job.”
Notice he said “the environment we’ve created” — it’s something that he has a sense of ownership over; his input matters, and he can mold Mindsense into the company that he, along with the rest of his team members, feels should exist in the world. This level of personal buy-in is incredibly fulfilling.
He also said “for other people” which has strong ties to our purpose. You can immediately see the effect that has in his last sentence, “I was a part of something bigger than just a 9–5 job.”
Mindsense is made up of people. Great people make a great Mindsense. My number one job is to find and support great people.
Originally published at www.vtcrc.com.
Enjoyed this article? See some others I’ve written on running a young company:
Your Startup Needs a Coxswain
On a small team, everyone’s rowing. There are no “managers” — there’s only room for rowers.
Your Company’s “Casual” Dress Code is Just as Bad
Years ago, I was interviewing at a startup-turned-Fortune 500. To show my respect, I wore a tie and nice slacks.
How We Handle Time Off
In a year, you get 10 days off. You accrue more days at a specific hour to hour ratio, and they will roll over at 50…