Founders at Work

foundersatworkAm currently reading, and very much enjoying Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator.

It’s basically lots of interviews with founders of companies that were once startups about what life was like in the early days.

The book’s blurb sells it well:

Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders…tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company.

It’s an impressive list of people, too, including:

There loads more too. What I like is the mix of new digital startups and some stories from earlier in the story of the technology based startup, particularly around the time of the birth of the personal computer and software industry.

Funnily enough, as I started typing this post, I got notification that Tim Dobson had written a book review post of this very tome! It’s well worth a read through his detailed notes, but his concluding paragraph sums the whole book up well:

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.

What is always interesting to think about when reading this type of material is what those of us working in larger organisations can learn from startup culture and the way these scrappy little companies work.

A common theme of Founders at Work is the role that luck can play in the success of a startup. However, equally important is determination – a refusal to accept failure – and linked to that, flexibility – so when one route looks like it won’t work, pick another and have another go.

Making remote work work

SONY DSCA key part of working smarter is the idea of flexible or remote working. One neat way of describing it is that work isn’t a place you go to, it’s what you do.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding though about this concept, with it often being seen as a perk for an individual employee, say, rather than an organisational approach to work and how it should be done.

Here’s some success factors in making remote work succeed on your team.

Right location for the right work

Remote working doesn’t automatically mean home working. It means going to the right place for the particular work that is being undertaken.

Potential locations include:

  • Home
  • Cafes
  • Libraries
  • Co-working spaces
  • Other people’s offices
  • Your office

What’s more, a remote worker doesn’t just work in one of these locations but should use a range of them depending on what they are trying to achieve.

No single comms channel

Don’t pick one channel for communicating amongst remote workers. Again, as with work locations, it depends.

Some of the options include:

  • Instant messaging
  • Email
  • Group chat
  • Status updates
  • Collaborative editing
  • Video chat
  • The phone

The temptation is often to try and pick a single winner (and losers) for communications in a team. We’ll do everything through Yammer! Never use email – it sucks!

There are a range of variables that will affect which channel you might use for a particular comms task but the most important are: what are you trying to achieve; and what are your colleagues most comfortable with?

It’s always good to have a range of options available that everyone is familiar with so that no matter what the task is, you’ll have the tools to do the job to hand.

Keep communicating

In an office environment, it could be argued that over communicating is possible. Not so for a team that works remotely.

Part of the point of remote working of course is to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy office. In which case, an individual worker could just step back, switch off, and find a quiet space to concentrate in.

The rest of the time though, it ought to be possible to get hold of people individually or as part of a group. So find a way of doing group chat and encourage people to be present in it most of the time. Or ensure there is a way of privately instant messaging individuals to quickly check on the status of an action or project.

This means it’s important not to get into the habit of thinking that as someone is working outside the office, they shouldn’t be disturbed. In fact, because they aren’t physically present, disturb them more!

Meet up

Remote work really doesn’t mean never actually meeting your colleagues. What it does mean is that these get togethers become even more important to get right.

This means not meeting up for the sake of it, but ensuring you have some objectives for a get together. So, only meet when there is a need to, and not just because it hasn’t happened for a month.

Consider having a project for a meetup, with a specific deliverable to come out of it. Having everyone in the same room might not happen often, so consider whether it’s possible to run a micro project in that time.

Whole team or organisation approach – everyone adapts

Remote working only works when everyone buys into it – even (especially!) those who don’t work remotely themselves.

The important parts to remember are:

  • Remote work is not a privilege for an individual, it’s a better way of getting work done for the whole team
  • Remote work is not just home working, it’s finding the best place for an activity to happen, which could be any one of a number of locations
  • Remote work requires a shift in focus on measuring performance by qualitative outcomes and not quantitative outputs or time spent in the office

Without this wider development of working culture and acceptance of remote working and what it means for an organisation, it will always be seen as a bolt on, and many of the opportunities it presents will be missed out on.

What do you think? What are your experiences of remote working, and what helps and hinders its success?

Should every member of staff do a stint in customer service?

customer-serviceI’m loving Scott Berkun‘s The Year Without Pants – an account of the time he spent in startup land working with Automattic, the company behind

I’m going to do a full write up at some point, but some bits of the book are so good I can’t wait to share them.

Here’s one. Every new hire at Automattic spends time working in customer service, answering user questions and queries and solving their problems. No matter what their position in the company – everyone has to do it.

The reasons are clear. It helps that new starter understand the customer’s needs above everything else – what their pain points are, what they are trying to achieve and so on.

It is also the best way to learn about how any kind of system or process works, by hearing from those who are using it every day, and running into problems. Fixing those problems is a fantastic way to learn how something works.

So perhaps this is something other organisations could take up? Perhaps when a new chief executive takes over at a local authority, they should spend a week or two on the phones at the customer contact centre, learning directly from the people who depend on the services provided by the organisation.

What do you think?

Business reimagined

business-reimaginedI was chatting the other day to my pal Dave Coplin from Microsoft who told me he was deep into writing a new book. Awesome!

It made me go and look back at his previous one, Business Reimagined (free on Kindle!), that was published last year. A delightfully short read at just under a hundred pages*, it’s pretty much the WorkSmart bible, what with its subtitle of Why work isn’t working, and what you can do about it.

Dave describes  the book as

…simply a view of the potential that technology could bring the modern work environment and some recognition of the barriers that will prevent us from being successful.

It’s made up of five sections. The first explores what the problem is, and why business might be broken. Then we move into potential fixes. In chapter two, flexible working; in chapter three it’s social under the microscope; chapter four covers changes to organisation structures and culture that are needed to succeed. Then in the fifth and final chapter, Dave looks at bringing it all together and what individuals need to do to ensure their organisations adapt to the future of work.

For a fantastic summary of the arguments Dave makes, check out this RSA Animate video:

Here are some slides from a talk Dave gave around the themes of the book. They are rather good, even without the talk itself.

* don’t you find that a lot of these business books could usually be an awful lot shorter than they are? Most are just the same point being made over and over again. I commend Dave for his brevity.

Fail better

BECKETTAs Samuel Beckett wrote, in Worstward Ho:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Acknowledging the fact that we surely don’t really want our project to fail, what does failing better actually mean?

It’s surely about openness – in other words, admitting that things didn’t go to plan, and having a frank discussion about what went wrong – so that everyone can learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Often projects that don’t quite succeed are brushed under the carpet and never mentioned again, or worse, spun to pretend that everything was hunky dory.

Here’s a lovely example of openness around failure from Chris Poole, the legendary moot of 4chan fame, discussing what went wrong with his company that made the Drawquest app:

With that said, life goes on, and the best path forward is not a wounded one, but a more learned and motivated one. I’m definitely not itching to start another company any time soon—it will take time to decompress and reflect on the events of the past four years—but I hope that if I do some day decide to pursue a new dream, I’ll be in a much better position to. After all, I did just receive a highly selective, four-year education for a mere $3.6 million dollars! (I find humor helps as well.)

So when reviewing a project which perhaps didn’t turn out as expected, rather than covering things up, or apportioning blame, try to fail a bit better. Identity what went wrong, and how it could have been avoided – and tell people about it.


Donald Barthelme, in See the Moon?, in 1968:

Fragments are the only forms I trust.

Italo Calvino, in If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller, in 1979:

…the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears.

Gordon Burn, in Born Yesterday from 2008, writing about the erstwhile Eastenders actress Susan Tully:

A colleague had logged her onto YouTube for the first time that very afternoon, and the fact that just tapping the words ‘Michelle Fowler’ into the thing could back so many moment of the past crowding back – a pandemonium of fragments (an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now)…

Jaron Lanier, in You are not a Gadget in 2010:

Instead of people being treated as the sources of their own creativity, commercial aggregation and abstraction sites presented anonymized fragments of creativity as products that might have fallen from the sty or been dug up from the ground, obscuring the true sources.

Digital lit.

It strikes me that digital literacy is becoming more and more important, as more and more of the things we do in life are digitalised.

It helps to understand how computers work if you want to buy some music these days, or watch a film, or read a book.

Not just the physcial act of downloading, and paying, and pressing the buttons to get it to display. But also some kind of knowledge of the companies providing the service, on what terms, and with what motivations.


Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart outlines five key skills needed for digital success:

  • Attention
  • Crap detection
  • Participation
  • Collaboration
  • Network smarts

I dare say all those five are required for existing at all in the digital world we are increasingly finding ourselves in, and not just when we are doing what is apparently digital stuff. Even when you’re offline, you need to be thinking through these things.


I’ve been reading a bit of Jaron Lanier‘s stuff lately, which resonate with a few of the folk that read here. He’s a digital visionary, who these days isn’t sure we are headed in the right direction… This from a recent interview with John Naughton (who himself has some interesting perspectives on these issues):

The thing to remember about HTML, though, is that Tim [Berners-Lee] was not trying to redesign the world. He was trying to do a quick thing for a very particular context – a physics lab. The beauty of HTML was that one-way linking made it very simple to spread because you could put something up and take no responsibility whatsoever. And that creates a society in which people display no responsibility whatsoever. That’s the problem…

Societies and cultures become locked on to ideas. The “open culture” idea – which was really just an experimental thought in the 1980s – has now become an orthodoxy with its cadres of adherents. I dearly wish I could make them realise how experimental it was and how we should not treat it as anything sacrosanct.

The idea that there is philosophy behind the tools we are using in an interesting one, and that those philosophies may come to define and change our behaviour because of the tools we decide to use. I do believe that the ability we all have to publish the things we create is incredibly affirming and powerful, and a good thing. But other stuff worries me, such as the fragmentation of culture and identity into tiny pieces, and the way our culture is being handed over to Silicon Valley companies that don’t necessarily have our or society’s best interests at the forefront of their priorities.

Currently this most affects those that create and publish content, although in the near future, as gardens get walls built around them, it will become a bigger and bigger issue for those that consume culture: whether text, books, music, video, whatever. Oftentimes it is making a value judgement between convenience and control – which often correlates to closed and open, respectively.

However, we are where we are. If we are to shape where we will go next, we need the skills and understanding to make the right choices, to protect ourselves both as individuals and as communities. We need to keep our wits about us and our eyes open. But how many people can we really say do, right now?

The networked public servant

** Update – if you want to know how to network well, Mary has a great guide **

One of the most popular books about the social media powered digital revolution is Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Published in 2008, it took a private sector view of the benefits of listening to customers and engaging with them in online spaces. It’s a worthwhile read.

The two authors have subsequently published new books, though not together. What I find interesting is the fact that the follow ups (Li’s Open Leadership, and Bernoff’s Empowered) both took on the next logical step – how do you fix your organisation’s culture to make the most of the lessons of Groundswell? Again, both are a good read.

Both Li and Bernoff come to similar conclusions: an enlightened form of management is required, one which assumes competence in staff and provides them with access to the tools to do their jobs. More than anything staff need to have confidence that they are trusted by management to do their jobs.

It’s intriguing the way that both authors end up at a similar conclusion via slightly differing routes – Li focuses on leadership while Bernoff really puts staff at the centre of his book. The end result is pretty much the same, but the two books do complement one another quite nicely, and confirms my view that just a top-down or a bottom-up approach isn’t enough to change culture – you need both, in tandem.

This links in nicely with another train of thought I’ve had recently around the changing nature of work and professionalism, particularly in relation to public services. The way people work is definitely changing – both as a result of technology plus wider changes in society.

What effect does this have on the general role of the public servant? Does the traditional skill set still equip people with the abilities they need to both do their jobs well, and enhance their careers?

Two blog posts definitely worth reading around this topic are from Louise and Carl, who write about their careers in local government and how they ended up where they are.

I won’t bore you with my own backstory, but when I worked within local government it involved changing jobs regularly, not being afraid to move from authority to authority in search of promotion and new challenges, and putting a lot of after work hours into building relationships with people and being helpful through my blog.

I started making some notes on what the networked public servant looks like. It’s by no means definitive (or indeed correct!) but is a start and I would value feedback on this stuff – including what use it is and how it might be developed.

  1. Be networked – be comfortable meeting new people and cultivating relationships. Be happy to connect with folk online and off. Concentrate on networking with people outside your organisation as well as inside it. Get to know people, what they are good at, and connect them with others.
  2. Be entrepreneurial – have a strong commercial sense of value and opportunity. Be creative with the budgets you have and find new ways of improving them.
  3. Be inspirational – through your actions and words, be able to enthuse and motivate people to go outside their comfort zones.
  4. Be collaborative – understand the value of involving others in what you are doing. Be aware of your own skills and the gaps, and welcome people who can help fill them for you.
  5. Be creative – don’t just look to what other people have done and replicate it, but come up with your own solutions and ideas – and don’t be afraid to share them with others.
  6. Be risky – understand risk and how to manage it. Don’t see risk as an excuse for inactivity but as a challenge to be met head-on.
  7. Be bold – if you are convinced an approach is the right one to take, do so with confidence and encourage others to support you. Don’t be fearful of what others may think.
  8. Be human – don’t be a corporate drone. What makes you different to everyone else? Emphasise it, and make the most of it. Be someone people outside your organisation don’t mind talking to.
  9. Be studious – always be learning and looking out for new things to understand. Never stop looking round the corner to see what the next new thing is going to be.
  10. Be generous – with your knowledge and your time. Having a reputation for helpfulness is a wonderful asset.
  11. Be open – accept when you’re wrong, or when you aren’t sure about something. If you have half an idea, share it, and let others help out and finish it.
  12. Be innovative – always be on the lookout for new, better ways of doing things. Be open to new ideas, no matter where they emerge from. Develop systems and workflows for testing and implementing new ideas to ensure the best ones succeed.