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Startup CEO New Years Resolutions January 6, 2011

Posted by jeremyliew in 2011, culture, growth, HR, new years resolutions, product management.
2 comments

I asked the CEO’s of the companies that I work with,  “What are your company related new years resolutions?”. Each had a different spin, but they mostly fell into a few themes of:

  • Great people
  • Improve the product
  • Stay Lean
  • Grow fast
  • Internalize culture and values

Lisa Marino of RockYou,  a leading developer of social games and advertising solutions for social media, is focused on building a great team with more gaming DNA to improve the quality of the games it publishes:

Make RockYou the place talent wants to be.

Many of the companies had resolutions focused on their product management and development. From the social gaming companies, Will Harbin of Casual Collective, which publishers the popular game Backyard Monsters, said simply:

Mo’ money, mo’ fun

As games like CityVille have shown,  mo’ fun usually leads to mo’ money! [And congrats to Alex Le, cofounder of a prior investment, Serious Business, whose first game since the Zynga acquisition is CityVille.]

Scott Albro of Focus, a knowledge sharing community for business people, has fully embraced the idea of constant iteration for 2011, taking the best practices of social media to the business media world.

Plan big, increment small. Meaning: set big, audacious goals for the year, but understand how the little things you do every day link together so you can achieve those big goals.

Ed Baker of Friend.ly, a fun way to meet new people, is focused on driving innovation:
Encourage more product suggestions from our engineering team. Our engineers often come up with great ideas, and they are the most productive when they work on these ideas. in 2011, I’d like to encourage a culture where this happens as much as possible.

Shawn Gupta of OhLife, a personal journaling tool over email, has similar sentiments in using metrics to drive product innovation:

Make metrics a core part of our product development. It will be a lot easier for us to make improvements to our product when we have data-driven discussions and decisions.

Although the industry is in much better shape than the dark days of 2008 and 2009, many CEOs have fully embraced the continue to internalize the lean startup principles that came out of those years. Joe Greenstein of Flixster, the leading movies app on all social and mobile platforms, wants to take big risks with small dollars.

Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Steve Semprevivo of RetireEasy, a  company helping baby boomers manage their retirement, is also focused on staying lean:
Pursue our passion, build lasting strategic relationships and most importantly use our cash wisely.
Other companies are fully focused on growth. Tim O’Shaughnessy of Living Social, a local deals site, says simply:

Put the pedal through the floor.

Glenn Rogers of CarDomain, a community of auto enthusiasts, concurs:
Traffic,traffic,traffic! For media sites like ours you are either growing traffic or or you are dying. Our whole focus this year will be on finding new users, improving the user experience and increasing their engagement with our sites.

Two ecommerce companies that have seen tremendous growth are paying attention to their core values and culture to keep their organizations coherent as they dramatically increase in size. Andy Dunn of Bonobos, a vertical web retailer, will be driving attention to one of their core values in 2011:

Focus on self-awareness, the core trait of leaders, both people and firms.

We will measure our traction in three ways:

1. Knowing we are becoming self-aware as a team. Measure of success: 360 degree reviews done smartly (meaning efficiently and not dreaded by all involved).

2. Marketing who we are, not who we may want to be one day. Measure of success: more than doubling our customer base without doubling our cost per acquisition.

3. Developing products based on knowledge of our strengths and curating products based on knowledge of our weaknesses. Measure of success: sales growth and gross margin return on investment.

Brian Lee of Shoedazzle, a personalized fashion etailer for women, is also focused on one of their core values, great customer service:

Treat every client like they are part of your family.

Scott Brady of Project Slice, a stealth company helping to simplify online shopping, also has cultural values core to his new years resolutions:
Simplify – Challenge ourselves to simplify, we can strive for perfection in the next version.
Celebrate – Take the time to celebrate small wins in all areas of the company, and do it every day as they happen.
Feedback – Continue to foster an environment where everybody on the team communicates feedback, good and bad, in an open and honest way.

What are your new years resolutions?

How to do a layoff January 26, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in HR, layoffs, management.
9 comments

It’s never easy to do a layoff. If you have to do it, Professor Bob Sutton from Stanford business schools gives good advice via Wired (oddly not on their website, but in their print edition). I’ve repeated the advice below with my annotations italicized.

Predictability: (If it is clear that cuts will happen) Warn your staff exactly when cuts will happen. Secrecy breeds stress.

Understanding: Humans always want to know why. Give reasonable justification for termination. (Note that with layoffs personal performance is not a factor – layoffs are to do with positions being eliminated. Explain why the company cannot afford to keep the position.)

Empowerment: Let them have some control over their exit. A package with options – say, a choice between extended health coverage or cash up front – reduces anxiety.

Compassion: A little humanity goes a long way. This can include things like having surviving staff out of the office so that affected employees can pack up their desks without people watching them.


What other advice do readers have
?

How to interview key hires II: Behavioral interviewing September 10, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in hiring, HR, interviewing, start-up, startup, startups.
2 comments

Recently I posted about how to interview key hires, focusing on the three areas to test a potential hire on:

1. Technical Skills
2. Cultural Fit
3. Performance Skills

Technical skills and cultural fit are relatively easy to interview for (although you may need to borrow advisers or friends with the technical skills of the function that you are hiring for to help you with the interviewing).

Performance skills tell you how well they can do a job. These include characteristics such as attention to detail, problem solving, initiative, leadership and team work. I have found that behavioral interviewing is the best way to test for performance skills. From SUNY Brockport:

Behavioral interviewing is a style of interviewing that was developed in the 1970’s by industrial psychologists. Behavioral interviewing asserts that “the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in a similar situation.”… Behavioral interviewing emphasizes past performance and behaviors.

First and foremost, it is important that you and your co-founders and other key leaders in the company agree on what performance skills you are testing for. While ideally you would like all your key hires to be great at everything, there are likely a set of 3-5 performance skills that are critical. For example, someone in a sales role might need to have a strong customer focus, an ability to influence and persuade, experience negotiating and good relationship management skills. A product manager might need to have high attention to detail, product vision, skills in working across functions and expertise at planning and prioritizing. Agree on what performance skills are important in advance.

Once a short list of performance skills has been created, each interviewer should develop a different question to ask the candidate about this performance skill. These questions should focus on asking about specific past experiences and outcomes. For example, if the performance skill being tested was initiative, questions [and interpretive guides] could include (with a credit to Novation’s SkilAnalyzer):

Tell me about a situation in which you aggressively capitalized on an opportunity and converted something ordinary into something special. [Did the candidate put a unique twist on a routine situation to yield positive results? Was there an accomplishment of little magnitude or that should have been expected of anyone in that situation?]

Describe something you’ve done that shows how you can respond to situations as they arise without supervision. [Did the candidate take reasonable and quick action with an appropriate amount of information or research, warranting the independence? Was there use of authority inappropriately, excess procrastination, or a bad decision?]

Think of a slim sales lead that you converted into a big sale. How did you do it? [Did the candidate follow up on a lead that offered little chance of success, and move it to a success level that justified the effort? Was there a trivial effort, possibly with insignificant rewards?]

Described a time when you voluntarily undertook a special project above and beyond your normal responsibilities. [Did the candidate volunteer for a task despite an already full workload and succeed without undue compromise to other responsibilities? Was there an insignificant addition, or sacrifice of other areas?]

Many people have good ideas, but few act on them. Tell me how you’ve transformed a good idea into a productive business outcome. [Did the candidate generate a meaningful action plan to bring the idea to reality? Was there a haphazard, unrealistic, unproductive transformation?]

Tell me about a time when you anticipated an opportunity or problem and were ready for it when it happened. [Did the candidate prepare an approach that would be ready to launch upon the event’s occurrence? Was there a slow trial-and-error response to the event, and resulting in only modest benefits?]

For these or any other questions that you ask, make sure that you keep the candidate talking about a single, specific instance that occurred in the past. Don’t let a candidate talk about generalities (“I always like to …”), or about how they would react (“If I got a sales lead like that I would…”). You are looking for a simple structure: Situation; Action; Outcome. Make sure that you get all three in detail.

Probe carefully to understand who was involved in decisions and what was the candidates work versus the work of people around them. Press on any instance of “we” to see what exactly the candidate did, versus what her team mates, reports or boss did. And make sure you know what impact their actions had, whether positive or negative, major or minor.

It is hard to make up stories about past experiences. That is why behavioral interviewing works so well. You’ll be surprised just how much a candidate will tell you, and how much it tells you about them, when you follow this approach.

How to interview key hires August 25, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in hiring, HR, interviewing, start-up, startup, startups.
6 comments

Startup founders often need to hire people into areas that they don’t know anything about. This can be a technical founder hiring a VP marketing, a business development founder hiring a VP Engineering, or a product management founder hiring a VP Ad Sales. Often these hires are some of the most importantthat a company makes as they fill the holes in a founding management team.

There are three things that you should test a potential hire for:

1. Technical Skills
2. Cultural Fit
3. Performance Skills

Technical Skills: These are the skills strictly required to do the job. They are typically based on training or past experience. Examples include ability to program in Ruby on Rails, ability to run an Search Engine Marketing campaign, ability to sell 6 figure ad deals to movie studios etc. Resumes provide a good first screen for technical skills.

If you do not know anything about the field of the candidate that you’re hiring, your ability to discern their level of technical skills is limited. You should have a domain expert (who does not need to be an employee of the company – advisers, investors and friends can fill this role) interview your candidate to make sure that their expertise matches their resume. Having more junior employees within that function interview the candidate (ie having the team interview the boss) can be helpful but is not always enough. Often more junior employees don’t fully appreciate the full scope of their bosses’ jobs.

Cultural Fit: Companies are groups of people, and all groups of people have culture. This can include styles and modes of communication, work norms, modes of decision making and many other elements that can be difficult to define. Any team members can interview a candidate for cultural fit.

You have to be careful not to let “cultural fit” become a code word for suppressing diversity. The key question to ask is not, “Is this person different from the norms of our company culture?”, but “Could this person be effective in their job given the norms of our company culture?”. For example, consider a startup comprised only of recent engineering graduates with a norm of getting to work around noon and working until 3am, that is considering hiring a VP of Marketing who has to leave the office at 5pm to pick up her kids from daycare. It isn’t reasonable to ask if the VP Marketing will be in the office at midnight. It is reasonable to ask if the VP Marketing will be able to do all the required communication and coordination with the engineering team during the five hours that they will both be in the office together.

Performance Skills: Whereas Technical skills tell you if a person can do a job, Performance skills tell you how well they can do a job. These include characteristics such as attention to detail, problem solving, initiative, leadership and team work. Anybody can interview a candidate for these characteristics. However, there is a trick to doing this effectively. Asking someone “how tolerant are you of ambiguity?” is not a good differentiator. One of the most effective techniques I have come across is called behavioral interviewing. When I was GM of Netscape I put my entire team through the Skill Analyzer training from Novations to learn this technique of interviewing. I thought it was extremely helpful in creating a structured, standardized interviewing process.

Later I’ll talk about some of the key elements of Behavioral Interviewing.