Category: Management

The All Hands Meeting

Every startup has rituals, from chiming a gong when a sale is made to the CEO writing a weekly email newsletter to the team. An important part of a startup’s weekly routine should be the All Hands Meeting. This is the primary staff meeting and likely the only time that the entire group (especially as we grow) is together, focused on the same thing in one room. It is an incredibly important opportunity for leadership to communicate directly with the team in order to:

  1. Share important updates from each functional area
  2. Praise successes, highlight individual achievements and areas to improve
  3. Get the team excited about the mission, vision and strategy

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Leadership Team Structure

tumblr_inline_nviv7dBKCq1qf1f17_540 (1)In the very early days of a startup, there are typically two founding roles: technology and business. The technology founder is architecting and building the product. He is essentially serving as the head of product and engineering. At the same time, the business founder is selling and supporting the product. She is essentially serving as the head of sales, marketing and customer success. Both founders are likely contributing to administration, fundraising and hiring, so they are both essentially serving as head of operations and in some cases, sharing CEO responsibilities.

There is a specific moment in a startup’s growth when it becomes clear: the founders can’t do everything anymore. This is a pivotal point in a startup’s lifecycle because it mandates some structure and organization to scale. Specifically, it requires hiring a functional leader for each operating area of the business. While the founders had to be generalists and constantly context switch between areas of the business, functional leaders (often Director, VP or Head of X) are domain experts that are highly specialized in making one area of the startup crank. Most technology startups have the following functions:

  • Product
  • Engineering
  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Customer Success
  • Operations

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The Startup Operations Gap

5850.WorkingSocialThe startup world is full of visionary and often technical founders. We can stay up all night cranking on code, quickly bring a minimum viable product to market, and passionately pitch to customers and investors, fueling early traction.

Suppose all of that early stuff actually works: we have a product, people want it, we raised some money, and we hired our first few employees. The challenges of building the product, fixing bugs, going through the lean process with early customers and quickly iterating are overwhelming. However, I’ve noticed that the most painful problems for early stage startups more often include:

  • Team misalignment
  • Unclear goals and metrics
  • Confusion over who to hire first
  • Unclear timelines
  • Unstable engineering priorities
  • Miscommunication amongst the team

As I dug into the root causes of these most common issues, two quickly bubbled up to the surface: lack of organizational structure and poor focus.

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A Matter of Attitude

“Is the pizza here yet?!?” I sputtered at the new girl as I ran in and out of 150 Dodge Hall at Northeastern University, preparing for another packed room at the Entrepreneurs Club in the winter of 2012. It was Eileen Han’s first club meeting, and she had emailed me several times before to confirm her attendance. It was obvious that she was nervous; as an international student from Korea, Eileen rarely went to big events with mostly American students, always shy about her beginner English skills. It wasn’t until Eileen sent me the most appreciative follow up email I had ever received, that I even began to comprehend how her attitude enabled her to be so special.

Eileen began to send more emails to members of the Entrepreneurs Club’s leadership team, and before we knew it, everyone knew her name. She would post status after status on her Facebook page, recapping her genuine excitement and gratitude for becoming a part of our community at Northeastern. Truth be told, I had never seen anything quite like it: someone so incredibly excited about EVERYTHING, so visibly thankful for each opportunity she earned – Eileen quickly went from a stranger to a centerpiece in our group. By the end of the year, she was the only member invited to our management team’s BBQ and she received an award for her contributions.

After I graduated and took the helm as COO of influencers@, I knew I wanted the continued privilege of working with Eileen. Thanks to recruiting efforts from Matt Bilotti, Eileen joined our team there as an intern last fall. Similar to the Entrepreneurs Club, she started doing simple things like data entry. She was hungry for more, and quickly took on our accounting, bookkeeping, payroll and bank reconciliation responsibilities. She learned fast and just like at the Entrepreneurs Club, went from stranger to expert overnight. Eileen became known as the “rock” of our team – she would bake a cake when we were struggling with a tough week, and always be there with well articulated words of encouragement, which she called an #Eileenism. Once again, I had never experienced an attitude quite like hers.

Eileen’s success so far can be summed up with one word: attitude. Eileen always, and I mean ALWAYS, has the most optimistic, encouraging, positive attitude. When I am depressed, she is upbeat. She’ll pick you up when you fall and carry you to the finish line. It is that attitude that will enable her to succeed beyond most people’s wildest dreams. Similar to Orit Gadiesh, Eileen’s persistence, genuine positive attitude and caring for others will propel her to the top. Make no mistake – that great attitude will be coupled with a tremendous amount of hard work, staying up after everyone else is asleep to study more english. We can all learn an important lesson from Eileen: if you have the right attitude, you can start with nothing, knowing nobody, and quickly take yourself to a position of importance, where you are respected and valued by all. I’m excited to see all of the great things she does in the future, and I’m proud to call her a friend.

How to Fire Someone

Strategy, accounting, coding… nothing is as tough as firing someone. This is probably the most dreaded activity for most managers. It was also one of the haziest subject areas when I first started my role as a COO; I had no clue how to deal with it. After conferring with some great mentors and having to deal with firing a couple of times, I’ve learned some points on how to handle it properly. It certainly does not get easier, but here are some of the tips that I learned:

1. Make it expected

When you need to end a teammate’s relationship with the company, it should not be a surprise. That is because before getting to that point, you should:

  • Meet with the teammate and discuss the issues they are having
  • Clearly lay out the objectives they must meet to improve and stay on the team
  • Explain that if these objectives are not met, they will not be able to remain on the team

Keep in mind, if this person is definitely not the right fit for the team, you can provide objectives that they will not likely meet, such as major changes in attitude and personality. When they inevitably do not change, you can point to the warning and have a clear reason for getting to the point of termination.

2. Have specifics

You need to have highly specific reasons for terminating the business relationship, not just “you have been doing bad work.” Instead the reasons should be “You have been 20 minute late 5 times in the past month” or “your sales numbers are 30% below our targets.” This is why it is so important to have clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)… you know exactly where you want to be, and if performance is not there, you have a clear reason to make changes.

3. Schedule a time & place

Try to do any terminations at the end of a pay period (usually at the end or middle of the month) and have the teammate’s final paycheck ready at the meeting. It is best to have the meeting in a private setting first thing in the morning. The office conference room is a solid spot, and remember that you and a colleague should be present at the meeting… don’t do it alone.

4. Be honest & get to the point

When you sit down for the meeting, you will be incredibly nervous. The hardest part is the first sentence, so you must get to it immediately. No beating around the bush or small talk, it just makes the whole thing more difficult. I’d recommend saying (credit to Kevin Wang for helping adjust this sentence):

“Unfortunately, things just aren’t working out, and we have to let you go.”

5. End it quickly

If the person starts to argue or ask questions, you respond with:

“I understand that this is unfortunate. However at this point the decision is not reversible.”

6. Finishing up

At that point, you should stand up, shake their hand and escort them out of the building. At the same time, you should have someone standing by to immediately cut their access to company email, files, etc. Any passwords they have should be changed immediately as well. Ensure you ask for their key to the building if they have one, and watch them walk out the door.

This process should be done with courtesy, respect and professionalism. It is highly unpleasant for both you and the person who is being let go. The best defense is hiring slowly (to find the best people) and firing quickly (when it is clear someone is not a fit after all).

Feel free to shoot me an email if you’re struggling with needing to end someone’s role at your company, it always feels good to talk it out. Good luck!

Billing 101

Considering that the lifeline of any business is money, it is pretty important to ensure you bill your customers properly and get paid for the work you do. When I first arrived at influencers@, I had no clue how to do billing properly and my invoices got a snicker or two from customers. Through trial and error, I’ve pinpointed some best practices for billing. For new business owners and operators, feel free to leverage these and make your billing rock.

1. Be plain and clear

I remember when I sent an invoice to Ryan Durkin at Dailybreak and he said something along the lines of “Yeah, my invoices used to look like this too.” It turns out, lots of colors and a sleek design are NOT appropriate for invoices. On the contrary, accountants and operators want the bare minimum: just clear information like the date, invoice #, services rendered and amount due. Skip the fluff.  

2. Bill in regular intervals

Most companies pay their bills in regular intervals, so match that with your billing cycle. Sending an invoice weekly can be extra work for your customers, and many of them will only pay once or twice per month. To find a balance between managing cash flow and making my customer’s lives easy, I bill on the 15th and 30th of each month.

3. Set your terms: net 15

Invoices should specify how long a customer has to pay, and potentially offer a small discount for paying early. I usually set my invoices at a term of net 15, which means that my customers are expected to pay within 15 days of the date of the invoice.

4. Gather the tools: Quickbooks

I started with making invoices by hand in Google Docs and Adobe Indesign. Please do not ever do this! Instead, turn to accounting software like Quickbooks Online that manage your invoices, expenses and payroll under one roof. Quickbooks makes it easy to create and send invoices straight to your customers.

5. Deliver electronically

In today’s day and age, invoices should be delivered via email to your customer’s Accounts Payable department, while also CCing your primary contact at the company so they are kept in the loop. I send these invoices from my own email account so customers can reply directly if they have any questions regarding the charges.

6. Allow customers to pay via check & electronically

Most customers will pay invoices via a check. However, for convenience, consider leveraging an online payment system that enables your customers to pay via a bank transfer or credit card. Intuit has one of these systems that integrates right into Quickbooks, and it costs only $0.50 per transaction (no % fee, for real!)

7. Follow up when bills are not paid

Occasionally, a customer might lose your invoice or forget to pay. If so, a friendly reminder via email or call can be used to remind them and ensure that the payment is processed. Quickbooks shows a list of all unpaid invoices and the amount of days outstanding for each, so this can be used as a checklist for which customers need to be followed up with.

5 Software Products You Need

Thanks to a world full of eager developers and creative entrepreneurs constantly building new things, businesses have a mountain of low-cost web software products that we can leverage to make our organizations run more efficiently. Since I started as COO of influencers@, I’ve been on the hunt for the best mix of these products to implement for our team. Here are the findings… I hope you can use them for your team as well!

1. Google Apps

This system has become the lifeline of our business. Our email, calendar, contacts and documents all work around the Google Apps system. The only documents, spreadsheets and presentations we make are done via Google Docs, and all other files like photos and videos are stored on Google Drive. Everything syncs to the cloud from my team’s local computers, so it’s effortless to share files, change permissions and collaborate.

2. Producteev

When it comes to social collaboration, Producteev owns it by making it easy to assign tasks, follow up on to-do items and share information throughout the team. Producteev lets us tag different tasks and track what areas of the business are keeping us busy. It also enables us to prioritize what we need to focus on across all of our different business units.

3. Quickbooks Online

All of our financials are run through Quickbooks Online – it is an incredible tool to track expenses, invoice customers, pay employees and more. Everytime we write a check it is logged in Quickbooks, and when our team wants to get a pulse on how our business is doing financially, it’s as simple as clicking “Run Report” in our online control panel.

4. Toggl

Most teams are constantly moving from one task to another. Especially if you are doing those tasks for customers, you’ll want to track time. Toggl is both a web and mobile app that allows us to easily track the time we spend on certain tasks for certain customers. It allows us to effortlessly figure out how much time to bill for when we do design work and more. Here is an in-depth review of Toggl.

5. Pipedrive

If you are selling anything, you need to track the interactions you have with customers in a CRM. Pipedrive makes it simple to track leads, see our sales pipeline and remember who to follow up with. It enables us to have different sales pipelines for different products, compare performance of sales reps and much more.

So, if you are starting a new business and thinking about what software solutions might help you move faster and work smarter, try these out and let me know what you think!

Punctual Payments

imageThere are few things that cause us more paranoia than money. Where is it? How do I get it? Is anyone taking it? When a business provides services and sends its customers an invoice, the expectation is to be paid the proper amount in a timely manner. For some businesses, the timing of payments is a critical component because they need that cash to buy more raw materials to make more products to sell.

One of my responsibilities as COO of influencers@ is to manage all of our vendor relationships, in addition to handling all billing of our customers. Sitting on both sides of the table as a vendor and a customer, I quickly learned the importance of paying on time. Similar to being a good neighbor and not blasting music at 2am, being a good customer and paying your bills on time signals to your vendors that you are honest, trustworthy and value their relationship.

Sometimes, paying on time is not so simple because your customers are waiting for their own invoices to be paid so they can pay you. Consider the follow guidelines to ensure you are a good customer for your vendors by making punctual payments:

1. Organize invoices properly

Whenever a vendor sends you an invoice, be sure to organize it properly so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I work with Eileen Han on our team to log each invoice in an expense form and check that form at the time of each payment period to make sure we don’t forget anything.

2. Keep vendors updated on payment status

Knowledge is power and comfort. Let your vendors know when you have received their invoice and when a check has been sent. If they send you the invoice on the 7th of the month and your company policy is to pay invoices on the 15th, simply let them know that you’ll be sending a check on the 15th.

3. Be brutally honest

If there is ever an issue with paying an invoice, the best course of action is to be completely honest with your vendor. They are business owners too and will likely understand. They might be willing to work out a payment plan or write off a part of the invoice. After all, they want to keep you as a customer and help your business grow so you’ll continue to buy more from them.

4. Treat vendors the way you want customers to treat you

This one is simple – just remember that you are to your vendors as your customers are to you. You would hate it if your customer didn’t pay you on time, so give your vendors the same courtesy that you expect from your customers.

One Goal a Day

“Alright class, settle down!” boomed Chris Walsh, my 9th grade science teacher. As the high school freshmen entered the classroom, the first thing each student did was dart to the right side of the blackboard to look at the day’s agenda. Each morning, Mr. Walsh would write the objective for the day, the specific topics the class would be covering, and that evening’s homework assignment. I headed to my desk, confident I could attack the day’s challenging astronomy curriculum because I knew what to expect.

The daily agenda was one of the most effective strategies I saw a teacher use because it kept the entire class on the same page. Everyone knew what was going on and what was expected of them. Both the teacher and students were held accountable for accomplishing the clear task outlined on the blackboard.

As I thought about ways to use this strategy for my team at influencers@, we ended up trying a new idea deemed One Goal a Day. With the help of Eileen Han and Devon Grodkiewicz, we drew a big chart on the whiteboard next to the door with every team member’s name on it. Next to each name is a spot to write one goal that they want to accomplish each day. As everyone walks into HQ, they go to the chart and write one concrete goal that they want to accomplish by end of day.

What is so great about this system? 

1. It keeps people organized

Occasionally, we will get to the end of a day and think to ourselves, “What the heck did we accomplish today?” Writing a goal keeps us on track with a clear path towards exactly what we need to complete.

2. It keeps people accountable

When we proclaim publicly on the One Goal a Day chart that we are going to accomplish something, the rest of the team now knows about it. That social pressure holds us accountable to ensure the task is completed.

3. It forces people to think in the morning

Since writing the goal is the first thing that we do in the morning, it forces us to think about how the business day is going to be a great one before arriving at the office. This way, people are already coming in with a mission, ready to attack it.

What kind of tactics do you use to keep people in your organization on track, organized and accountable?

No More Spreadsheets

image“Damn, this thing is tough to look at” I thought to myself as I stared at the Campaign Tracker spreadsheet during my first day as COO of influencers@. This master spreadsheet contained all of the information about the marketing campaigns we were working on and was used to keep track of who is working when, locations, payroll and everything in between. As I scrolled through the seemingly endless spreadsheet I could see lists of campaigns we worked on months ago, stacked next to the ones we had scheduled for the next day. Thinking aloud, I mutter “there has to be another way to do this… it may have worked in the early days, but if we want to scale this business we need something better.”

Part of the job of a COO is to analyze business processes and craft solutions to make them more efficient. Our campaign tracking process was a prime example of one in need of serious improvement. In order to improve, I knew that we needed an:

  • Appealing view of what marketing campaigns we need to focus on at a given time
  • Easy way to track which student Brand Influencers are working on a campaign
  • Automation of the time-consuming billing and payroll process
  • Effortless reminders for staff regarding when they are working and where to go
  • Access to rich data and intelligence on what is effective and not so effective on our campaigns

I quickly realized the best way to improve this process was to leverage technology and software, and thus I decided to code my second back-end PHP project, a web app called Campaign Tracker that has left our old spreadsheet collecting dust in the corner and given our team access to unparalleled insight and efficiency for our service business.

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The software takes the same data about our marketing campaigns that was initially entered into the spreadsheet and instead stores it in a database. The simple value of this is that we can pull that data out in a variety of different ways and use it to make better business decisions. Using Campaign Tracker, our Service staff can instantly find out which Brand Influencers are the most effective through ratings on each campaign, how much payroll needs to be issued and a wealth of other vital business statistics. Our senior leaders can use Campaign Tracker to get a quick pulse on our Service division’s performance.

I learned a ton from this project, and am proud of how beneficial it has been for our business. I’m understanding more and more how valuable it is to be a technical operator” – one who gets both the business side of things and how to use technology to work smarter. I’m excited to continue to learn about how to grow a business and develop great software. 

Special thanks to Kirill Klimuk, Drew D’Agostino and David Thor for their selfless assistance on the many code questions I asked them throughout developing Campaign Tracker.