Category: Management

Ask For Help

Some people (including me at one point) are too proud to ask for help. They think success will come if they sit for hours trying to do everything themselves and getting assistance is a sign of weakness. Today, I’d like to squash that theory.

Ask for help. It is one of the smartest moves you can make: getting something done better and faster because you asked someone else to help you make it happen. Even the most legit “experts” are only experts because they asked a lot of people for a lot of help along the way to learn what they learned.

I ask a lot of people for help. When I don’t know how to code something, I gchat Kirill Klimuk. When I have an operations challenge, I call Ryan Durkin. And if I can’t get the P&L statement to look right, I shoot Ed Jaworski an email. If you’re smart, you should compile a list of people like this and ask them for a lot of help. Each time you do, you learn a little bit more and get smarter.

At the same time, you should take every opportunity you can to give help. I talk to Jacob Mulligan about his career options and Phoebe Farber about how much forming an LLC should cost. Do this – and do it a lot. The more people you help, the smarter they become and the smarter you become from teaching.

The Little Details

How fast do you think I can bike from my house to the influencers@ office? Turns out it’s 8 minutes and 51 seconds. I started the timer while standing in front of the house and stopped it when arriving in front of the office. However, that time doesn’t tell the whole story.

Sure, it did take me 8:51 to go from door to door, but is that the time that I care about? Probably not, because we need to take into account turning off the lights, picking up my bike, putting on my helmet, locking the door and going down the stairs.

These are the “little details” that we often overlook, yet they play a key role in making decisions. If I based when to leave on 8:51, I’d be late every day. If I was getting paid for my time and I overlooked those details, I’d lose money. When it comes to business operations, it is critical that we look at the details and account for them in our cost and time projections. In a real business, the small intricacies compound and have a magnified effect.

The People Roadmap

Every product needs a roadmap: that cool chart that CTOs and Product Managers use to explain how a technology will get to market, complete with important features and timelines. What if we take this roadmap concept and apply it to people?

A few weeks ago, I locked myself in the conference room at influencers@ and created a “People Roadmap” for each of the members of my team. Each Roadmap outlines:

  • Goals: What do they need to accomplish and when? This is how their success is measured.
  • Core Responsibilities: What are the most important things they should be working on?
  • Daily Focus Areas: What should they be thinking about outside of their core responsibilities? 
  • Skills to Develop: What should they learn and improve on? Hard skills (PHP) or soft skills (writing).
  • Strengths and Areas for Improvement: Where are they strongest versus where are there opportunities for improvement?
  • Progression: What are their next steps in our business? Ex: Designer > Creative Director > Chief Creative Officer.
  • Notes: What else is worth noting about the teammate? Qualitative description of what they do best, how they work most effectively, etc.

Creating these Roadmaps takes a lot of thought – it forces you as a leader to analyze your team and gain a deeper understanding of your people’s abilities. Once the Roadmaps are created, the next step is to schedule meetings with each team member to walk through the document, get their insight on it and collaboratively edit it (this ensures that both you and your teammate feel ownership for the process). 

Every team member should keep their Roadmap close and reference it often. This allows everyone to always be on the same page with what their goals are, what they should be focusing on, and how their success is being measured. 

For full transparency, take a look at my Roadmap here.

Ultra Reliability

There is a certain breed of people who are what I call “ultra-reliable.” They have an innate knack for getting things done, and when you assign them something, you can sleep well knowing that it’ll be complete on-time and with the utmost quality. As I sat in a meeting last week with Mike Irvine, COO of PXT Payments, I was reminded of how valuable these people are to work with.

“We’ll need the app done by August 15th to meet the outlined deadlines, and development must start now” declared Mike as we reviewed the detailed schedule of an exciting update to PXT’s mobile payment app. Mike was organizing a team of developers and was sharing a meticulously designed Gannt chart as he discussed how each department needed to provide deliverables for the complex development process.

When you’re running a real business, there is an immense amount of intertwined moving parts that depend on each other. Development needs input from finance and marketing. Project Management has to talk to sales and vice versa. Things start to get very complex, very quickly. The technology world demands people who can handle engaging with a multitude of stakeholders of different disciplines, and coordinating between those people is challenging. 

As Mike explained his timeline and how he was rallying the team, it become clear that he is a member of that rare group of people who get it done. As a COO, he needs to be communicating with everyone in the business and constantly stepping into every department, even when it isn’t his expertise, to ensure deliverables are completed the right way. I see the exact same thing on a smaller level as COO of my start-up company. Mike and I are pulled in every direction to assist members of our teams and are relied on to deliver every time. 

There are a few other people I know that I can always rely on to get things done. Matt Bilotti is one of them. So is Cory Bolotsky. These folks are the ones that are destined for senior leadership positions like Mike has… because at the end of the day large teams can rely on them to make it happen under pressure. 

Business Assassins

“Every business should have a team whose entire purpose is to destroy the business”

Sounds a bit insane, but it actually might be one of the more brilliant pieces of advice I’ve heard as I sat at dinner with PXT Payments Chief Marketing Officer Rivka Tadjer (an influencers@ client) last week. Considering the fast pace of today’s business climate (especially in technology and entrepreneurship), if we want to survive, we need to innovate and find new ways to delight our customers before our competitors do. However, many businesses don’t do that. They get comfortable with products or services that people liked last year, and assume they will continue to work in the future. Consider Blockbuster’s bust – when Netflix first came out, Blockbuster management didn’t think much of them.

Now suppose Blockbuster had a crazy internal destruction team. Let’s call them the assassins. When brainstorming “what might mess up our physical retail locations?” online streaming might have made its way into the conversation. The thing that could “destroy” your current business might actually be your next product or service release. 

Even for earlier stage start-ups, we need to constantly be thinking about how our business model and product can evolve. We start early be leveraging lean principals to continuously user test and iterate rapidly (Jason Evanish is my go-to expert there). While it might not be feasable (especially at the early stages with limited capital) to have an actual team dedicated to “business destruction”, you might consider implementing the following at your venture:

1. Make it part of the culture

Everyone on the team should always be thinking about innovating and identifying potential threats to the business. Consider encouraging openness and collaboration where people are comfortable enough to say “look what this other company is doing… this might hurt us, how can we beat them and do it ourselves?”

2. Apply pressure

Blockbuster must have not felt much pressure or anxiety to address Netflix’s entrance and rise in the market. We need to apply pressure that says to teammates “while we are doing a good job now, this won’t be enough to last forever. Lets push harder.”

One thing is for sure, I will be taking Rivka’s advice and making it a part of my regular brainstorming meetings at influencers@. We will always consider what might destroy our business, and align ourselves so potential destruction becomes profit.

The Importance of Pressure

The best learning takes place under pressure. While you can observe someone making a mistake and learn from it, it is not nearly as effective as making the mistake yourself. Consider the following challenge I encountered back when I was a 14 year old computer repair technician:

I can’t believe this thing won’t turn on” I said to Jeremy Blum, my business partner. We had built our first computer for a customer that wanted a custom gaming desktop and it wasn’t working too well… in fact it wouldn’t even turn on. The sleek red case glistened under the glow of the florescent lights in our office as Jeremy and I hovered over the desktop with the side of the case ripped open. “It might be the CPU, we can try that again” suggested Jeremy. “We’ve done that like 3 times now… I honestly just don’t know how to fix this. What are we going to do? It costs $1,300!”

This was one of the biggest challenges we had in our computer repair business: a customer had a problem and we didn’t know how to fix it. In fact, sometimes we broke it more. We were only 14, so $1,300 was a small fortune back then. There was tremendous pressure to perform… there was nobody to bail us out if we did not. In the end, Jeremy and I sat in that office and tried part after part until we eventually got the machine up and running.

If we had a boss that was ultimately responsible for servicing the customer and fixing the computer, Jeremy and I would not have felt that massive pit in our stomachs. It is that feeling though that forced us to learn so much. This is the essence of the learning process – pressure forces you to figure it out.

This is why I am a big believer in responsibility – if you want to learn, you need ownership and pressure. Whether you succeed or make mistakes, you are held accountable. This philosophy is the cornerstone of the culture I was proud to build at the NU Entrepreneurs Club and now at influencers@. It makes things harder and scarier – but pressure is an absolute must if you want to truly learn.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Like many recent college graduates, as I finished my last semester this past May I felt like I was on top of the world and qualified for anything. After all, I had a great GPA, led a massive student club – the real world felt as though it would be in the palm of my hand.

Here’s a realization I’ve come to over the last 3 months: college DOES NOT translate too well to the real world. In fact, college graduates, you’ll be shocked at how unqualified you are for the real world. Unlike school, there are no grades which means it isn’t immediately clear how you are performing. If you mess up on a report, you don’t just get a scowl from your professor but instead could face getting fired. The expectations are enormously higher because generally you are dealing with someone else’s money while in college, you are dealing with your own since you pay to attend.

Especially if you are in the entrepreneurial world, the fact is that taking on jobs at businesses with REAL responsibility is, well, really hard. I was quickly humbled my COO role at influencers@ because I came in thinking it would be a lot easier than it actually is. Don’t mistake the sexiness of a title or company for relaxing… any real business that makes money every month will be challenging and also rewarding.

Schools like Northeastern take a good first step in preparing their students for the real world with co-op. For kids that are currently still in school, consider these pointers to prevent the real world from smacking you in the face when you graduate:

1. Get an internship. Right now.

Students have to do internships. I don’t care if it means taking hours out of your social life or having to work an on-campus job as well. You need to be in real companies that give you real responsibilities. I’m biased, but I recommend interning at a start-up where your desk is close by to the company leaders.

2. Student clubs are good, but not the real world.

Taking on leadership roles in clubs is a great first step for students – highly encouraged. Work your way up to a top position: it will give you confidence and great experience. However, it is not the same as the real world because there isn’t as much pressure. You need to compliment student group leadership experience with real world, revenue-generating, internships with a boss.

3. Talk to everyone.

The more people you meet, the more insight you will get on what the real world is like. Cold email senior executives at start-ups if that is your thing, or your favorite musician if that is your thing.

4. Start something.

Work on a software project or start a non-profit. Entrepreneurial ventures like this give you real world experience with minimal risk and not much to lose.

Finally, this stuff has to start FRESHMEN year. Not junior or senior year. Get started now, you’ll be glad you did.

Why You Have to Hire People

My first business was fixing computers. Jeremy Blum and I founded the company when we were 14 years old and worked on it all throughout high school. For the most part, it was always just the two of us fixing computers. We repaired as many as we could while balancing school and were pleased with the profit we were pulling in. As I am getting exposed to larger and growing organizations like influencers@, it’s becoming clear why the CEO can’t fix computers.

If we break down a business, it is essentially made up of:

  • Getting customers: selling, engaging with people and keeping them happy.
  • Servicing customers: building or providing a product or service that customers are willing to pay for. 
  • Operations: making the business run smoothly, accounting, people, logistics, office space, internal stuff, culture.

Each of these responsibilities is pretty intense and requires somebody’s focus. One of the reasons why a startup is so challenging is because usually everyone focuses on everything. In the early days, that’s ok. From being a part of a 9 month old profitable business, I am beginning to realize that this system starts to break down for more mature ventures. The executive and founding team has to start moving away from the “computer fixing” and more towards a focus on growing the business. That might mean overseeing sales that bring in more computers to fix, recruiting awesome new computer technicians and providing an environment that makes fixing computers as efficient and profitable as possible. This is when we begin hiring people.

Hiring people is scary because you are suddenly entrusting someone else with what you believe you do best. You need cash or equity to pay them with and you suddenly have to think about a slew of challenges that were non existant in my high school business: payroll, human resources, people liability, complex scheduling and other people’s human emotions in your business. That stuff is tough!

To scratch the surface on hiring, here are a few guidelines to consider when you are making the first hires in your organization:

1. Hire slowly

Spend a reasonable amount of time interviewing, testing and hanging out with a person before you give them an offer. Some hires are easier than others, but this person is going to be a part of the company culture and responsibile for some aspect of your business. That means that he or she is pretty darn important! 

2. Look for people you know

Start with the lowest barrier to entry when looking for hires: people you know. I’ve hired a ton of folks that were involved in the Entrepreneurs Club for influencers@. I already knew them and their capabilities.

3. Seek passion, not skills

I’m a big believer in hiring people that are passionate about the job and the business over someone who is a so-called “expert” in a specific skillset. You can read more about that here

4. Be a mentor to them

The stronger your hires become, the stronger your business becomes. That means you should invest considerable time, esspecially in the early days, mentoring and staying close with these people. I take every opportunity I can to show Dave Fields better ways to phrase emails and organize schedules.

Hiring is a big and exciting move in any start-up business. Sometimes it works out, other times it might not. Either way, the founders and leaders will eventually have to move away from service delivery and towards even greater company challenges, and hiring smart people is the first step in making that possible.

Being One Brained

Have you ever went into a meeting with your business partner and he started to say something that was totally different from what you were thinking? Maybe even something you didn’t agree with? It would be pretty awkward, esspecially if you are sitting in front of a customer or new recruit. Luckily, there is a great way to avoid this: we call it “being one brained.”

My CEO Spencer Bramson coined the term at our company, and what it means for us is that before we go into a meeting, make a decision, talk to an employee about something important, etc we first sit down, say it outloud to each other and confirm “are we one brained on this?” It means that we are thinking the same thing and are in agreement. It’s an extra safety mechanism to ensure that one of us doesn’t accidently do something that the other isn’t on the same page with.

This is so important because, obviously, multiple people are not one brained. On the contrary, everyone has their own thought process, opinions, agendas, etc. But just like making sure your laptop calendar is synced with your smartphone, people working together need to sync their thoughts, quickly debate and get to a place where they are on the same page and thinking in agreement. If not, hard feelings, mistakes and troubles will likely occur.

Being one brained is actually pretty simple. Consider the following:

1. Have a word

We like the word “one brained” and feel free to use it as well. However, any word/phrase that immediately identifies that you and your colleagues are syncing up on ideas is important to let people know what’s going on and let them get in the zone for it.

2. Make it quick

Being one brained can’t be a 2 hour process each time you are reviewing a decision, meeting or agenda. Get to the point and keep it simple. Remember, people are inherently lazy and busy, so adding lots of time to anything is a failure point. Keep it quick.

3. Get it on paper

Making agendas or “logistics schedules” as I call them for events is a great way to make everyone brained. When it’s written out on paper it becomes more clear and easy to understand. It eliminates the failure point of an oral miscommunication.

Dynamite Delegation

Delegation is a wonderful thing. For my first few weeks as COO of influeners@, I didn’t do any of it. Instead, I did everything personally. From cleaning the office to passing out free products on college campuses to developing company wide KPIs, my responsibilities stacked up as high as the Eiffel tower.

Last week, I made a new hire and Dave Fields, a rising junior at BU, joined our team to focus on operations with me. During his first few days he was timid, and I was constantly worried I was giving him too much to figure out. Sure enough though, Dave began taking the responsibilities I delegated to him and absolutely kicking ass with them. He re-engineered our hourly payroll tracking form, quadrupled the amount of successful executions of a daily client marketing campaign, interviewed and hired a new brand ambassador… and this was all in his first 7 days! As a manager, it felt so incredible to delegate to someone I have true confidence in that will get the job done. 

The big lessons to learn from succesfully delegating to an awesome teammate are:

1. You cannot do it all

It’s important to start with a lot so you can learn the ins and outs of your business. But once you have the hang of it, you have to delegate in order to focus and take on other more critical responsibilities.

2. Start slowly and progressively delegate more

There’s no need to share all of your work at once. Start with less important tasks, see how the people you delegate them to handle them, tweak and train them and then add more.

3. Have clear, measurable goals and metrics for delegated work

You need a way to measure how well a task is being done and how the result compares to what you would have produced yourself. That means you must define metrics for what a “successful” completion of a task is. For example, if I delegate scheduling responsibilities for brand promoters at influencers@, I’d measure it’s success by having all schedule slots filled 3 days in advance of a marketing campaign.

4. Give lots of constructively critical feedback

The teammates that take on a delegated responsibility will want to know how they are performing and more importantly how they can improve. Regular and clear feedback complimented by action items is essential for a successful delegation. This can be as simple as keeping the manager cc-ed on early emails or doing a weekly check in meeting.

In the mean time, I sure am grateful to have people like Dave on the team that I can rely on, delegate a task to and sleep soundly knowing it will get done as well or better than if I did it myself. Business bliss right there.