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Entrepreneurs: Startups — 4000 Years Ago

September 3rd, 2015 by Miki Saxon


It’s funny how things we read decades after a minor happening will bring that memory to the fore.

In the 1990s, when I was a tech recruiter and the original net was booming with startups, a young man asked me if I worked with startups, because he wanted to join one. I told him that startups had been my main market since the late Seventies (when I went to work for MRI).

He scornfully informed me that was impossible, since there weren’t any startups before the Internet and he wanted a recruiter who understood what he was looking for.

I was grateful, since I didn’t have any clients interested in his combination of arrogance and ignorance.

That memory was triggered when I read The VCs of BC and learned just how wrong he was — entrepreneurs were alive and well 4000 years ago; I think anyone who toils anywhere in the startup ecosystem will also enjoy reading it.

These letters survive as part of a stunning, nearly miraculous window into ancient economics. (…)  during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal.

And the parallels of today, including a vibrant entrepreneurial approach complete with venture capital, Wall Street-style players, esoteric financial instruments and risky deals.

The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses.

There are a lot more fun details and interesting stories — the kind that are great to share over a few beers or a bottle of wine.

Hopefully it will encourage you to enjoy a bit of downtime — you’ll be more creative and productive for doing it.


Flickr image credit: Carole Raddato

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2 Simple Strategies to Avoid Bad Hires

September 2nd, 2015 by Miki Saxon


I often say that I’m successful now because I’ve made every mistake in the book. The key is I’ve learned from those mistakes and it’s rare — if ever — that I make the same one twice. –Robert Herjavec

Herjavec wrote a good post on hiring that covers many bases, but ignores two critically important factors.

  1. The most common reason for a bad hire is charm and the best way to guard against it is preparation.
  2. The most common interviewing  error to avoid can be summed up this way: don’t lead the candidate and don’t follow where the candidate leads.

In fact, if you do nothing other than what is described in 1 and 2 your hires will improve significantly.

Flickr image credit: qthomasbower

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Ducks in a Row: the Dark Side of Adam Smith

September 1st, 2015 by Miki Saxon

https://www.flickr.com/photos/24874528@N04/17187535692/Gallup regularly polls workers around the world to find out. Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from their jobs. Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

Pretty sad, but what happened to bring us to this sorry state?

Not what, but who.

Disengagement was born in 1776 with Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, became the father of industrial capitalism, and gave birth to the belief that “people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay.

The more that philosophy was embraced over the centuries the more it became a self-fulfilling prophecy — in other words, people live up or down to expectations.

An excellent essay by Barry Schwartzauga, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, provides great insight to how much damage has been done by this one assumption.

When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things.

To be sure, people should be adequately compensated for their work. (…) But in securing such victories for working people, we should not lose sight of the aspiration to make work the kind of activity people embrace, rather than the kind of activity they shun.

For decades, study after study and survey after survey have placed money (assuming a living wage) around number five on what’s important to workers.

How can we do this? By giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs. By making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow. And by encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.

Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good. But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.

Autonomy. Challenge. Learning and growth. The chance to make a difference. Compensation.

If you want your people engaged then provide them reasons to engage.

If not, just pay them and don’t complain.

Flickr image credit: Airwolfhound

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If the Shoe Fits: 5 Instantly Useful Links

August 28th, 2015 by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI found several useful/interesting reads yesterday and thought I’d share them with you.

If you’re wondering what’s hot (security) and what’s not (social and dating apps) take a look at the thoughts of Sequoia Capital’s Mike Moritz after recently listening to 146 pitches in a row.

Investing in startups is like bird-watching, (…) For venture capitalists, Moritz advises not to look at the flock, but at each individual startup. “Each one is different, and I try to find an interestingly complected bird in a flock rather than try to make an observation about an entire flock,” Moritz has said.

That said, some trends appear when the looking at the group as a whole.

Moritz is also the PayPal board member whose penny-pinching advice saved the company in 2008 and every founder should be following it now.

“That focus was instrumental in PayPal’s survival,” Roelof Botha said. “We could have been spending money willy-nilly and fallen by the wayside by accident.”

Tenacity is lauded in the startup world; the idea is that passion and never quitting are the hallmark of successful founders, but the story of François Reichelt proves that Kenny Rogers offers a more common sense approach.

“Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.”

Last are two links that provide useful tools for you.

First is a way to find company emails when you have the name.

Oleg Campbell has automated the process of hunting for someone’s corporate email with a nifty new Chrome extension built on top of Gmail. It’s called, descriptively, Name2Email.

Second is tech lawyer David Tollen’s Tech Contracts book and website, with helpful information and free forms for SaaS, software licensing, and other IT agreements.

It’s a plain-English how-to guide on IT contracts for lawyers, contract managers, salespeople, IT staffers, and executives.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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A Sea Change for Annual Reviews

August 26th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Years ago I wrote about how to make annual reviews painless and effective — more a review of the the year’s accomplishments and setting goals for the coming year than a critique of work past.

It worked because mini-reviews, coaching and conversations during the year were frequent.

Typical annual reviews were fraught with fear and loathing.

For decades, General Electric practiced (and proselytized) a rigid system, championed by then-CEO Jack Welch, of ranking employees. Formally known as the “vitality curve” but frequently called “rank and yank,” the system hinged on the annual performance review, and boiled the employees’ performance down to a number on which they were judged and ranked against peers. A bottom percentage (10% in GE’s case) of underperformers were then fired.

Jack Welch championed a lot of very bad stuff (e.g., work/life balance, HR), but the negativity of rank and yank is near the top, if not number one.

(As for GE’s stellar results keep under Welch keep in mind that businesses like GE Financial practically printed money until it all blew up.)

But times are changing.

According to Raghu Krishnamoorthy, the longtime GE exec in charge of Crotonville (GE’s in-house management school) “Command and control is what Jack was famous for. Now it’s about connection and inspiration.

And to that end, GE has developed a new in-house app that basically does what I and others evangelized a decade and more ago.

The new app is called “PD@GE” for “performance development at GE”  There’s an emphasis on coaching throughout, and the tone is unrelentingly positive. The app forces users to categorize feedback in one of two forms: To continue doing something, or to consider changing something.

If you don’t have the luxury of an app you can simplify it even further.

  • Care about your people.
  • Interact with your people.
  • Talk with your people.
  • Challenge your people.
  • Help them grow and advance — even when that means they leave for a better opportunity that you can’t provide.

Read what GE is doing and adapt it to your own group — whether your company does of not.

Flickr image credit: Mark

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Ducks in a Row: Same Questions/Same Answers

August 25th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Different generations, but bosses are asking the same questions.

How do I implement cultural and other intangible changes and, more importantly, encourage (or, if necessary, coerce) their adoption?

I responded nine years ago and the answer hasn’t really changed.

The most successful method is as simple as one, two, three.

  1. Carefully define, in a quantifiable manner, what you want done (not “increase retention,” but “reduce turnover by X%”).
  2. Include these well quantified goals in the managers’ annual objectives.
  3. Make it clear to your managers that they will be evaluated on these goals and that the evaluation will impact their annual reviews and compensation.

Vested self-interest will do the rest.

Flickr image credit: Martin Cooper

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If the Shoe Fits: the Edge of Non-tech Founders

August 21st, 2015 by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mFounders who can’t code are often brushed off as bringing little to the table in comparison to their often tech co-founder.

Which is really stupid, considering that the majority of moving parts in any company aren’t technical.

Steve Jobs once said, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

Additionally, it’s all the items that are labeled “business” — finance, marketing, design, sales, customer service and more — that make investors write checks.

Which is why non-tech executives are brought in by investors.

That’s something worth keeping squarely in mind.

The coolest tech leaves investors cold without a healthy market

Your friends and other techie’s care about the technology.

Investors care about the market.

‘Market’ translates to customers.

‘Customers’ translates to revenue.

Great code not does a market make; it is a tool used to make something that fills a market need.


Image credit: HikingArtist

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Tough or Toxic?

August 19th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


Everybody is talking about the NY Times article detailing little-known aspects and actions of Amazon’s culture.

There is a plethora of discussion, commentary, vehement agreement/disagreement on the information presented in the article and I don’t plan to add more.

What is important is knowing when your workplace crosses the line from tough to toxic.

While the fluidity of the line is a function of the individual, that is only true when there is choice.

And fear, whether real (no new job prospects), instilled (abuse resulting in an “it’s my fault” mentality) or imagined, precludes choice.

Without choice it’s toxic.

Flickr image credit: eek the cat

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Ducks in a Row: Politically Correct is a False Positive

August 18th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


I sent an article about the “frat house” (AKA, sexist) culture prevalent in ZocDoc’s sales department to “Kevin”, a good friend who works in sales.

While agreeing about problematic sales cultures, he had a different take on culture in general.

His viewpoint, from someone who has been there/done that, may not be socially acceptable and could probably get him in trouble if posted on social media, but I can share it here — anonymously

Whether you’re a nigger or a bitch, this is the shit you have to deal with. I prefer environments where it’s obvious what the culture is, like this, than politically correct cultures where bigotry is the norm but you never onto why you won’t get the bonus, promotion or accolade with superior performance. Screw political correctness!

I believe it’s important to know where you stand, because then you can make informed choices. Give me this culture anytime – when I enter, I will know what the rules are. If I stay, it’s to accomplish a particular personal goal. When I leave (if not immediately), I will know why I stayed, left, and what I gained. I’m richer, they are poorer.

There is no such thing as “politically correct”. The term itself is an oxymoron that implies consensus building, popular sentiment or sinister machinations. Politics is about popularity — we never let others know where we stand or what we stand for in order to win a popularity contest. It is giving in to the tyranny of the mob, not daring to have unpopular opinions or stances, because one will not be popular.

Being a black man, I prefer a racist that’s honest about who he is and what he is. I prefer working for such a person because I know what to expect. I presume it would be the same for you as a woman regarding sexists. These days no one is a racist, we just have “unconscious biases” that prevent us from taking unpopular positions and that ensure that the powerful can continue to exclude the less powerful. 

Politically correct environments rob me of information, choice, and the ability to navigate astutely to attain my objectives.

I agree with Kevin, even in those instances where bias has its basis in neuroscience, it’s better to know.

Flickr image credit: Zaskoda

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The Gender Pay Gap

August 17th, 2015 by Miki Saxon


In bygone days the ‘my father can beat up your father’ was a favorite taunt.

These days it’s more often ‘my father earns more than your mother’.

So goes the gender pay gap and has since women entered the workforce.

Much has been written and many hands have been wrung over the disparity of pay between men and women doing the same job.

But the bias isn’t always intentional.

A vast majority of them are fair-minded guys who want women to succeed. They’re absolutely certain that they don’t have a gender problem themselves; it must be some other guys who do. Yet they’re leaders of companies that pay men more than women for the same jobs.

Now an intriguing idea has surfaced playing off the SEC’s new rule forcing companies to publish comparisons of how much chief executive officers take home compared with ordinary employees

The idea is to do the same between males/females within each company.

This would be especially interesting in tech, which admits that diversity may be a great goal, but won’t happen any time soon, even in companies which have made it a priority, such as Apple.

In the event the idea gains any traction you can assume enterprise will fight it as passionately — probably more — as it fought the CEO comparison, which took five years to become reality.

Without the force of law, how likely that the comparison could become a reality?

There are two ways that come to mind.

  • The first is to have a company step forward and offer the information voluntarily.
  • The second is that an internal whistleblower will publish the information anonymously on social media.

The second is far more likely, especially in the data-driven world in which today’s companies must operate.

Flickr image credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

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