Sunday, April 8, 2018

Doubt, A Love Story

About five years ago, I started a technology company in the big data and analytics space, measuring this new thing called social media for businesses. I had never run a company before, I didn't know anything about venture capital or scaling, and I was (and still am) a Japanese, Croatian, Jewish, Australian woman living in New York with self-taught coding skills and self-built (read, not family) connections. Not much of a resume when it comes to tech CEO. In fact, when you google 'tech CEO', here are the images that show up:

Yet today, the company I founded employs over sixty people globally, boasts a fast growing client roster that includes many of the largest and most successful companies in the world, and are innovating in one of the most exciting and hotly contested spaces in tech - social performance data. 

But despite all this, at least every week, I look and then re-look at our plan, our business, our strategies, my life and my choices, and wonder if I'm doing all the right things in the right order, and what on earth I'm not seeing that might turn up one day to kill everything... the doubt never goes away, perhaps should never go away. Here are my thoughts on what to make of it...

Phase 1: “Doubt, I Hate You”
Doubt, you suck. You’re boring, draining. You contribute nothing. It’s not like you’re even funny, or beautiful. In fact, the only thing you help me create are future scenarios that will probably never play out, which get me hyperventilating (and therefore prepping) for armageddon, before breakfast.
So why do so many leaders get caught up with you?
Whether you’re building teams, art, businesses, nations or your personal career, doubt works hard to creep in. Doubt begins innocently enough, just a spare question left unanswered. Left unchecked, it grows quickly into an insistent, gnawing stomach ache, the kind that doesn’t come about for any physiological reason but as a result of the state that you’re in. As a result of something that you’re thinking, or telling yourself, based on the meshing together of (likely) unrelated, but stacked annoyances. A few good people flip out about this or that, and don’t understand your vision or what you’re building. A few others pass little poison pills of skepticism, because it’s their job or it’s just what they have inside of them. Someone else, moody about whatever. The perfect storm.
Phase 2: “Shut up and Don’t be Boring”
It’s hard to hear people question what you’re passionate about, and struggle to ‘get’ a vision that is so perfectly clear to you. It’s hard to hear people doubt what you believe in, and it’s easy to just want them to go away (and take their infectious doubt with them). Whether they’re informed or ignorant, eventually, the repetition of it all can stack enough to turn your head and fester. Enter self doubt, situational doubt, doubt in others.
Whatever flavor, lingering doubt is a luxury you can’t afford, not even for a moment. Listen to the underlying questions in case they’re helpful to you, but leave the struggle bus behind. When you let your head turn towards something that doesn’t serve you, something that’s the result of someone else’s worry you are quickly seduced down a boring, destructive path as you steer in the direction of your focus. And this state can make you boring and destructive, sucking minutes, days, years from you, and leave you with a view of the world and your situation from which it is no longer possible to reach for great things. And it can distract you from what you need to be focusing on, and start taking up real estate in your mind. Not to mention, making you the kind of person people avoid at cocktail parties.
Every leader goes through this, every single one. No matter how awesome your company is, what your traction has been, or how brilliant your team, things will go wrong, people will sit there poking holes, the world will change and there’s nothing you can do about it. Others will tell you not to take any of the lows personally, but good luck with that. It’s hard to have a soul about what you do, to love it with everything you have, and be able to simultaneously uncouple your feelings from the annoying stuff. Your feelings keep you engaged, compelling and passionate and I’ve yet to meet a great leader who can stay completely objective and detached under fire. But none of this can control you. It’s easy to forget that you are not your worrying mind.
The best advice I can give, that was given to me, is to fill up your war chest before you meet the world, and continuously fill it. Not just with money, but with all the reasons why you love what you’re building, and why you love your company. Lock yourself in a comfortable place where you get inspired, and write down everything you can think of - from the big lofty things like how you’re changing the world and making lives better, to the little specific moments when a client said something that made you happy, or proud. What you loved about the first time when someone really ‘got it’, or when you realized you were on to something bigger than you could have imagined. The excitement of it, the deep sense of purpose and contribution that brought.
Recall clearly, that first moment when you glanced up from all the chaos and realized your company was supporting families, and that this product you dreamed about in your living room would one day be putting kids through college, or paying for loved ones in faraway places to have better lives. Enumerate for yourself all the million tiny details that you wish everyone knew instantly about you and your team, without having to be skeptical first or to put you through some annoying ringer. How much you value diversity, how brilliant the people are, how you’ve never met people more fiercely competitive, and also so kind, authentic and creative.
The first time I went through this exercise (guided by numerous beautifully crafted, essay-length text messages from a dear friend of mine), I spent an hour alone on my rooftop and wrote down one hundred things, barely taking my pen from my journal. The unsolicited (but appreciated) texts came through in perfect time to bring me back to myself, just when I was starting to let other people’s doubt turn my head. It was the most invigorating thing ever and I felt instantly new again.
Focusing back on what I love, meant that I shifted my attention to all the good stuff. There was so much of it - my team, our fabulous clients, how awesome our product is, what I’m so proud of about our culture. When I read everything back (which I suggest you do often) it became so clear to me that in the end it all comes down to people. For every one thing I love about what we’ve built, there are at least ten things I love about our clients and the people who show up every day, and make our company a great place to work at.
I learned also, that the culture you’ve built is such a personal reflection - and this carries risk with it too. Because my good habits are the good habits of my company, but so too are my bad habits. Like not celebrating success, moving right on to the next milestone or the next challenge, and allowing all the juice of the journey to pass me by. Like not remembering how much I love and honor each and every messed up moment, because each new thing that happens makes us better, and stronger, and more equipped to tackle what is coming our way in the future. If we’re not changing faster on the inside than the world is changing on the outside, then we’re dead - and moving this quickly means screwing up routinely on all fronts and getting your ass handed to you on a regular basis. The opposite, complacency, is the true enemy.
Phase 3: Doubt- I love you, thank you
So, learning to love and embrace the doubt is all a part of this process. Doubt can keep you sharp, hungry, urgent. Love it, embrace it, thank it for sharing. But remember that it doesn’t own you, that it’s a mind-hack intended to serve you and your team but nothing more.
So when someone you respect is panicking around you or telling you the sky is falling, or if several bright people begin poking holes in your vision or what you’re building, breathe and (internally) thank them for keeping you sharp. Listen to the words, hear the meaning and hold them up for questioning, but don’t let this fester. Re-read a few of the things you wrote down about why you love your company, your product, your team. Allow yourself to feel good, remember that it’s all a part of the process. Remember why you’re here.
And then get back to work, because you don’t have time to dwell on anything that isn’t making your customers happier, your product better, or otherwise creating value in this world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Every Startup Should Ignore the Competition

(First published on the Huffington Post on May 31st, 2015)

I get asked a lot from budding entrepreneurs about how to handle "the competition" in a crowded or fast-growing market place, and I always respond with an answer that may seem counter-intuitive at first:
Ignore them.
That's right. Place as little energy, emphasis and creative capital as possible on your so-called "competition", because thinking about them takes up real estate in your mind that should be spent on strategy, taking care of your team and your customers, and to adding value to your market-space. It really comes down to three core concepts:
1. Second-Guessing Others is a Luxury you can no Longer Afford
As an entrepreneur, you have only a finite amount of time to spend obsessing about the details that will make your company truly great. Worrying about your competitors is an appealing, but low-value exercise, as it doesn't create value. If you're spending your time rolling around in the muck of every new company that claims to have your value prop (but likely doesn't), you're likely missing true blockers - lack of product/market fit, or the urgency and perceived value of the problem that your technology is solving. Or even worse, you're frittering away time that would otherwise be spent strategizing and thinking about the future.
Now I get that this is all easier said than done, and I'm not pretending to be above it all. I run a marketing tech company, and as with most fast growing spaces there is no shortage of companies trying to pretend they do what we do, and trying to steal our customers, prospects and to copy our messaging. Just this week, one such company launched a massive pay-per-click campaign on our brand name, which drove to a landing page that literally lifted words from our website!
This kind of tactic (although frustrating) should be seen for exactly what it is -a significant validation of your space, and a loud, pained declaration of the amount of hurt your success is putting on others in your market. Which should remind you to turn straight back to focus on your product, team and customers, because that's where value is created.
2. Success is not a Zero-sum game
You can spend all your time worrying about competitors, throw all your resources at out-manoeuvring them so as to crush them under the heel of your boot... and then, still lose! Neither your startup nor your marketplace is a zero sum game, and just because you beat someone else, doesn't mean you win. You win when you innovate in the right direction, have a great team, grow the right way and take care of your customers and make them successful.
I see many entrepreneurs become really obsessive about their competitors, and experiencing the highs of winning a customer from them, and then the debilitating, soul-destroying lows when a competitor puts out a press release or product announcement or - god forbid - wins a deal. So much energy can be expended on this kind of low-value obsessing, and this emotional roller-coaster can become a huge distraction. As an entrepreneur, you're already tapped out on many levels from dealing with all the moving parts of your business, it's best not to manufacture additional drama about something that is completely out of your control.
3. Know Enough not to be Blind-sided, then stop
So if you've read this far, then I've made my point and it's safe for me to take it down a notch and say - it's ok to be aware of who might be considered your competitors, but only so you won't be blindsided by their claims. This kind of information will help your sales team answer any "us versus them" questions that may come their way. But then, once you've checked this box, focus back on what's going to make your company great - product, people, and taking care of your customers. "The competition", whoever they might be on any given day, cannot consume more than ten percent of your time, ever - the barest minimum to be able to walk and talk about your competitive space and prevent your business from getting flanked and no more. Period.
If your competitors are spending their time obsessing about you, and you're spending your time obsessing about value creation, you're going to continue to be the better company. You have to keep your eye on the ball, and remember why you started the company in the first place.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

3 Things They Don't Teach you in School (But Perhaps Should)

(First published in the Huffington Post on June 19th, 2014)

In many ways, we are all entrepreneurs. Whether starting a company or building your own career inside a larger company, everyone is now arguably faced with the challenge of standing out, building a brand and creating value.
When I moved to America in the 2000's after just finishing college, I was given one piece of advice: Do what intrigues you and what you love. Don't worry about who you think you are, what you've studied and what you've been telling people that you're going to be. You'll naturally gravitate towards your strengths, and the rest will take care of itself. I had no idea what this person was talking about, but he was the only one dispensing advice, so I took it.
It turned out to be hugely helpful. Based on this, here are three things I wished I would have known when I first landed at JFK with my suitcase.
1. Chase What you Love
Most people won't know this about me, but I spent most of my childhood and teen years wanting to be an actor, and for a time right up until my early twenties, that was exactly what I did. I loved it -- it was the most fun thing you could possibly do at 16. In my time I have played many forgettable roles on Australian TV including The Nurse, the Handmaiden, the ex-girlfriend and the Japanese Surf Instructor. But after a few years I realized I wasn't in love with that world -- with the people, that life. So, when I graduated from college I realized I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out what I was going to be when I grew up. So far I have owned a small chain of vintage clothing stores in my hometown of Sydney, been a lawyer, developed online video content and once had a conversation with Harvey Keitel about an underpants sponsorship during the course of business.
Point being, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the one you love, and the same thing is true in business. You know it when you find it, and if you're not sure, keep looking. Years pass before you know it, and you don't want to be that person that we all know, who's always talking about leaving their job, but never does. Before you know it, the role you took that was meant to last you two years has gone on for five, then ten, and the life you expected to have, is no closer to you.
2. Jump Before You're Perfectly Ready
Andrew Carnegie once said, "the gods send thread for a web begun."
Jumping is probably the most important skill of all. It involves moving outside of your safety, and making a leap even if you don't have all the blanks filled in. I speak to a lot of budding entrepreneurs who tell me that they just need these few things to happen before they can bust out on their own. But the truth is, those things will never happen, as long as they stay in their current situation. You have to just have faith and jump.
I resigned from a great job to start Shareablee, and many of my friends thought I was insane. I probably was -- I had no idea how to raise money or how to scale a company on my own, but I knew that I would never learn those things if I kept on doing what I was already doing. And that first morning after I'd quit and I woke up and went downstairs with my coffee to work on my company, I wondered why I'd taken so long.
At that stage, my idea for the company was to post social content on behalf of small businesses, because I figured that the enterprise space must already have this social thing figured out. I was wrong on both counts. I learned quickly that I knew nothing about SMB's -- I didn't know how to sell to them, how to service them, even how to hire the right people who knew these things. And after a very emotional business owner called my cellphone at 1 a.m. to fire me for redirecting his customers from Facebook to this site called -- who he assumed was a competitor -- I accepted that we had to pivot.
The great thing about getting it wrong the first time was that in the process of trying to execute, I learned the marketplace needed. I learned how freakishly hard it was to decide what to write and how to tweak content, and how to do all that with a lens on your competition. So instead, we went out and built that product, that became the company that we have today.
Jumping also meant sharing the data, sample insights and really unpolished betas well before I thought it was my best work. I had to get comfortable with 'scrappy and functional,' and remind myself that building a business is not a school project that I was going to get graded on. As one of my investors told me, this is binary, ones and zeros. People would either buy it or they wouldn't, and that would be that. No pressure.
Luckily for us, they bought it, and we grew faster than we'd imagined. But none of that would have happened if I hadn't tried to sell a social media posting service to small businesses and got yelled at.
3. Tell Everyone Your Ideas
I often hear people say about their ideas or their new companies: "I can't talk about it yet." Usually, this person believes it's possible for someone else to steal an idea, as though there is anything intrinsically valuable in an idea worth stealing in the first place. I'm going to go out there on a limb and say that if your idea is so flimsy that someone can hear it once and go execute on it as well as you could have, it probably wasn't much chop to begin with. I know that can sound harsh, but I believe it to be true.
When I began Shareablee, I told everyone I knew about what I was doing. You never know who can help you, and it turned out that one of the people I told became our first client. Others ended up working for us, or referring us to great people who we since hired or consulted with, or went on to become clients too. People want to help, and talking openly enables that to happen.
The other benefit of telling everyone what you're doing is you get leverage on yourself to follow through. It can be scary to openly declare what you want to do because you're opening yourself up to judgment and very public failure. But that's a great motivator. No one wants to be that person who says they're going to do something and doesn't do it. So say what you're going to do, and make it really painful for yourself to go back on your word.