Category: Management

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.

The Need to Network

Rewind to sophomore year of college, and I am a networking fanatic. I spent a ton of time hopping from event to event in Boston, piling up business cards in stacks across my desk. Looking back, this wasn’t the most effective strategy. Meetings lots of people and adding them on LinkedIn is a good first step but it needs to be solidified by building relationships. Instead of endless networking, consider the following approach I have since embraced:

1. Be specific

Going to networking events takes time and energy. If you are going to put off serving your customers or building your product to network, you better have a darn good strategy for who you want to meet and how you want to help each other. More specifically:

  • Who can teach you something and compliment your skillset?
  • What are you looking for… designer, developer, salesman, friends?
  • Do you want to find customers, mentors, partners? They might be in different places.

2. Be picky with events

Especially if you are in the entrepreneurship world, you will have your pick of many fantastic events to attend. Here in Boston, Paul Hlatky at GreenhornConnect.com makes that incredibly easy with the schedule and calendar that he manages online. Sort through the options and find what you believe to be the very best events for what you are looking for. If you try one and it isn’t what you thought, leave early.

3. Follow up meaningfully

Sending a quick email saying “it was nice to meet you” is a start but does not go nearly far enough. You must research each person you want to follow up with and share with them something meaningful – like feedback on their business or a recommendation of someone else to connect with. This is the start of building a relationship with them.

4. Build the relationship

Find reasons to talk to a person more. Maybe it is to ask their advice or opinion and offer your own for whatever they are working on. You don’t have to become best friends, but you should make an effort to keep up to date on what they are doing.

5. Be clear and abrupt

If you are courting a client through networking, don’t beat around the bush. Say, “It was awesome meeting you, I think your product is awesome, here is how I can help.” Now list precisely what value you would add.  

Remember, it should be fun and exciting to be meeting all of these new people. Enjoy it!

Weekly Team Check-in

When 3pm rolled around around this past Friday, I climbed up through the pile of papers on my desk at influencers@ and headed to the conference room, where every 20 minutes I met with a member of the team and checked in. I asked them how their week was going, what challenges they were facing and how I could assist. 

This weekly check in is simple, easy and so important. Per the recommendation of my go-to COO expert, Ryan Durkin, a team leader needs to check in regularly with everyone at the company (while size allows for it) and get a pulse on how the team is doing. Let’s face it – the business week is busy. At a start-up, it is borderline insane. As a result, personal issues and work-related challenges can get pushed aside while everyone scrambles to meet deadlines. The Friday afternoon check-in ensures that those issues don’t get missed and can get resolved going into the next week.

The check-in is super casual. Consider the following questions to ask your team:

  • How was your week?
  • What challenges did you run into?
  • Are you stuck on anything?
  • How is everyone else on your team – are you getting along?
  • How can I  help?

In addition to these questions, the key is to let each team member know what they did well and opportunities for improvement for the next week. These should be clear and actionable, ie “The design work on that flyer was fantastic! For next week lets work together on reducing the amount of verbiage that is used in copy for our marketing collateral.”

Super easy questions. 15-20 minutes for each person. Every week. Get it done.

Insatiable Initiative

I walk into the office on a warm Friday afternoon to find Freshmen Entrepreneurs Club member Nina Stapanov peering over a pile of boxes with tape in one hand and markers in another. “The closet is a mess so I’m cleaning it up!” declares Nina with a smile. She is right – the club’s closet in our Curry Student Center office is a disaster with old napkins and pens littering the shelves. Over 2 hours later, Nina is beaming in front of the closet and I cannot believe my eyes: all of our materials are in labeled boxes, the shirts are organized by size and a year’s worth of junk is discarded. “This is incredible Nina, thank you!” I say. What blows my mind is not how great the closet looks, but how Nina took initiative to do a mundane task without even being asked. Nobody assigned it to her and it isn’t in her job description; in fact, she doesn’t even start her role as Assistant Director of Marketing until next fall. Instead, Nina took it upon herself to clean out the closet because she is a team player who truly cares. She will do whatever she believes will better our organization, and the closet cleanup is just the most recent example. This exemplifies why Nina is such a great member of our team. I don’t need to delegate things to her; instead, she will take it upon herself to look for problems and fix them. 

Situations like this make me proud to be a leader of such a high performing team with people like Nina as a part of it. The absolute best case as a manager is when your people manage themselves. In other words, they do not need to wait for things to be delegated to them; instead, they are go-getters who seek out opportunities to add value. These are the teammates that are going to give the organization the highest ROI, and I’d hire them over and over again. While looking for character traits like passion, dedication and a “go-getter” attitude is key in recruiting, the organization must have a culture that backs up that attitude. The Entrepreneurs Club fosters an environment where we respect and reward people who go above and beyond. We take job descriptions very lightly – ultimately everybody is responsible for everything. As a result, our team members push to support every facet of the organization, even the cleanliness of the closet.

Crafting the Next Great Leader

I’m thrilled to announce that rising junior Matt Bilotti will be my successor as the next President of the Northeastern University Entrepreneurs Club. Our team’s executive board just voted him in, but that wasn’t a surprise for me; in fact, I knew Matt was going to be the next President since last October. This is the story of how a leadership development strategy crafted Matt from inexperienced sophomore to chief executive.

It is October 2011 when I walk in the door at an Entrepreneurs Club meeting. Sure enough, Director of Marketing sophomore Matt Bilotti is just a minute behind me, ready to get the room setup an hour before our 100+ person event. As I think back to recent events the club has put on, I come to an interesting realization: Matt is always “just a minute behind (or ahead) of me” when it comes to preparation. As President, I attend nearly every event the club puts on, which is usually about 6 weekly. There is only one other person that attends all of those with me: Matt. I never asked him to, he just shows up. He is at every meeting, every event and responds to every email. As a manager, this gives me a simple indicator: Matt cares. Matt’s passion for the organization can only rival mine. Needless to say, this was the first indicator that Matt has potential for the big job of President.

Once I discovered Matt’s passion, care and how it set him apart, I decided to spend more time with him. I invited him to more meetings and asked his opinion in more emails. Before we knew it, he was playing a Vice President role informally, taking on many of the tasks without the title or authority of VP. As Matt continued to add value in all that I threw at him, it hit me that he could be the next President. But at this point he is young and inexperienced. So what did we do? We created and executed the following leadership development strategy:

1. Critical Beyond Belief

When most people on my team make a mistake, I am generally pretty comforting, help them understand what they did wrong, and am lenient in letting it go. With Matt on the other hand, I was ruthless. I ripped apart his emails, comments and any written documents with a slew of constructive criticism on the weaknesses and specifically how he can improve them. When he made a silly comment in a meeting, I came down on him harder than anyone else.

This all got to him sometimes and I could feel his intense frustration. He might not have realized how much it burned me inside to see him agitated. But I knew I had to keep going. So I just pushed harder. I taught him how to send authoritative emails, engage with sponsors and motivate teammates to excel. 

2. Meetings Meetings Meetings

I pulled Matt into many management and recruiting meetings. He watched and soaked in how I handled on boarding new teammates and senior level management challenges. 

3. Expanding the Marketing Department

To give Matt more responsibility, we expanded the Marketing Department, created a new program called Marketing Marines which he manages and gave him responsibility for another brand new club program, Engineers for the Greater Good. Having oversight on these new programs gave Matt an opportunity to build his leadership skills in real life as opposed to just watching. 

4. Spending Time

Matt and I started spending a lot of time together. In the fall we would watch movies together on the weekends, and in the spring we started going to the gym together every morning. The gym was just an extended conference room – we discussed organizational successes and challenges, and used the time to brainstorm solutions. Matt was able to get a clear view of what the role of President was like because we interacted with each other so much.

5. Caring

Perhaps the most important element of this leadership development strategy is that I truly care about Matt. When he is struggling or upset, I want to help him and see him feel better. I want him to grow, learn and succeed, and over the past year I invested a lot of time into ensuring that he will. This element is why I was able to be so critical with Matt, and an important “secret sauce” in the leader development and mentor/mentee strategy. Below is an excerpt from an email I sent him in February when I sensed he was being challenged with the training:

“I know I am extremely critical and rough on you, more so than with anyone else. I know this can be challenging and aggravating at times. I call you out on stuff I’d never mention to most other people. While this is challenging to work through now, it will be immensely beneficial for you going forward. I am incredibly proud of you and all of your hard work so far this semester and your journey towards becoming the next great leader of our organization.

What I am doing now is a crash course to prepare you for that, which means that if it is to be done well it requires me to be hyper-critical. Most people won’t do that for you… they won’t call you out on things. Instead, they’ll let your weaknesses build up until you fall. That is a shameful disservice to you. Few people will have the guts to call you out… and those are the people you want to be surrounded by because they actually care about you.”

I joke that Matt was my biggest “project” this year; and all joking aside, it is pretty much accurate. Through all of the leadership development, meetings, constructive criticism and teaching, Matt has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. He is organized, forceful, insightful and can control a room. He knows how to identify talent and how to cultivate it. He still has a ton to learn, but I am confident that he is ready to take on the role of youngest President in the history of the club. Put bluntly, Matt will kick ass in his role and I cannot wait to watch him do it next fall.

Making People Feel Valued

I recently had the honor of being a judge at Northeastern’s Research, Innovation and Scholarship Expo, RISE:2012. The event was planned by the university’s new Center for Research Innovation (CRI). It was a large scale event with many moving parts: nearly 400 students exhibiting their research, dozens of judges and attention from all of the major eyes at the university, such as the President’s office

Being a judge was a time commitment – it required me to review and rate several posters before the event and then meet each researcher in person to hear their pitch and pose questions. Tracey and the CRI team understood that, and considered ways to show the judges their appreciation. One way that particularly impressed me was the name badges provided (see photo on the right). These are not just little name tags; instead they are well designed, laminated displays complete with a head shot photo and title.

It seems like a simple little detail, but getting this badge made me so excited. It created a feeling within me that went along the lines of “wow, I must be an important part of this event.” As a result, I was quite excited to jump right into judging and was glad to give more time and effort to make the event a success.

The important lesson to learn here is how important the little details can be and how much of a big impression they can make. The CRI team went above and beyond to make the people supporting them feel valued. This attitude should be mirrored in every organization’s culture – it is certainly something that I hold in high importance at the Entrepreneurs Club.