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Entrepreneurs: Deleting the Rose-colored Glasses

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/virtualsugar/357908606

Entrepreneurs come in all forms, but most aren’t from the golden circle—right race, right gender, right families, right schools, right friends—although that’s who the media tends to focus on.

I don’t know what the actual breakdown is, but for convenience I’ll call it 10% golden circle and 90% the rest (probably not far off).

While the 90% are just as creative and talented as the 10% they usually have a very different entrepreneurial experience.

One that is far more difficult and fraught and, as a result, more often fails and with more catastrophic repercussions.

An article in The Economist takes an unbiased look at entrepreneurship in terms of the effort and cost, not just in money, but in physical and mental health, sans the magic of the golden circle.

I’ve known entrepreneurs from both groups and although the words used to describe the experience are similar the actuality is not.

It is one thing to work 80 hour weeks in a well-resourced environment with similarly-minded people and another to spend those 80 hours alone, using a café internet connection, living on ramen and peanut butter, with no support network or cheering section rooting for you.

Yes, people from the 90% succeed and some of the 10% fail.

The importance of the article is to debunk the stupid, inaccurate romanticism with which popular culture has imbued and colored the startup world and those who dwell there.

Flickr image credit: John Martinez Pavliga

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Ducks in a Row: Google and Bias

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/12139780184

Just as people are hard wired to respond to attractiveness they harbor other biases.

And just as the bias for attractiveness is anthropological, not biological, so are other biases.

Biases are fueled by assumptions, which are rarely logical—or conscious.

Google, along with most of tech, is rife with biases—both pro and con.

The idea of unconscious bias came to the attention of Google HR boss Laszlo Bock via a story in the New York Times about the biases among American university science professors regarding the difference in competency between female and male students (the women were ranked as less competent).

Unconscious bias, the sometimes useful tendency to make snap judgments (that subway car is empty for a reason), guides us into unexamined bigotry (she’s a woman, not a leader). 

Google being Google they approached the situation using a combination of education—not just for executives and managers, but for everybody

plus four specific steps to identify and deal with unconscious bias;

  • Gather facts.
  • Create a structure for making decisions.
  • Be mindful of subtle cues.
  • Foster awareness. Hold yourself — and your colleagues — accountable.

Google’s efforts are driven by competitiveness, as opposed to political correctness.

“If we have an employee base that reflects our user base, we are going to better understand the needs of people all over the world,” said Brian Welle, the researcher in charge of Google’s diversity training workshops. “Having people with a different worldview and different ways of solving problems gives you the raw materials to be more innovative and to be able to solve problems that nobody has asked before.”

Flickr credit: Don Graham | YouTube credit: Life at Google

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Ducks in a Row: Cognizant of Cultures

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/foxypar4/2168375264

Erin Meyer is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business and teach cross-cultural management at the international business school Insead, in Paris.

His article explaining how he learned to identify seminar participants with questions by looking for “bright eyes” is something every manager should read—whether or not they are managing an international team.

Why? Because different cultures are more than a function of Japanese vs. Russian vs. British.

Just as culture differs from country to country it differs by areas within each country.

In the US it’s beyond the difference between Massachusetts and Texas or Nevada and Colorado.

The cultural differences between Northern and Southern California are considerable, as are the differences between New York City and Rochester.

Cultural differences can be even finer; think of the differences between the various Burroughs in NYC starting with attitude all the way to language and almost everything in-between.

Beyond that different cultures can exist next door to each other, passed on through families, friends and social media.

Some cultural differences are obvious, while others are extremely subtle.

But they all have one thing in common.

To succeed, a boss needs to recognize the obvious, tease out the subtle and address them all.

Flickr image credit: John Haslam

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Comeuppance

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cheezepix/4933836639Tech currently has a high profile for arrogance, not to mention chauvinism and bigotry, with Google, Apple and Facebook are its most public whipping boys.

However, their comeuppance came with the intense media focus that will likely force them to at least put some effort into cleaning up their respective acts.

Not like their psychological brethren on Wall Street.

And while tech has a modicum of excuse that stems from age—its frat house culture has gotten worse as entrepreneurs have gotten younger—proven by the numbers, i.e., more women entered tech in the 1980s than do today—Wall Street has none.

The investment banking world has always been a bastion of white, male elitists; and hardcore harassment—an old boys group that didn’t give a damn what anybody thought.

Arrogance has been synonymous with investment bankers for decades, so seeing it kicked in the teeth by upstart tech arrogance was exhilarating.

Google’s Larry Page created his own acquisition yard stick,

The toothbrush test: Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better? …The esoteric criterion shuns traditional measures of valuing a company like earnings, discounted cash flow or even sales.

Page, for example, is looking for “usefulness above profitability, and long-term potential over near-term financial gain.”

Potential and usefulness are esoteric concepts to most bankers and “long-term” isn’t even in their vocabulary.

Bankers are fine with the hard stuff revolving around money, but are often useless on human side.

But often, when big tech companies are looking to grow through acquisitions, it is the culture and vision, not the earnings and revenue, that are of paramount importance.

Of course, investment banks need to lose a lot for it to really start mattering, but it looks like they are.

The acquiring company did not use an investment bank in 69 percent of American technology acquisitions worth more than $100 million this year, according to Dealogic.

All I can say is that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of guys—their comeuppance was a long time coming and it’s hitting the only place they might notice—their bank balance.

Flickr image credit: Chris Hartman

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If the Shoe Fits: Seeing the Forrest, but not the Trees

Friday, August 15th, 2014

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mSince Spring the media has been sharing stories and statistics about the rampant sexism, ageism and general bigotry in tech, its self-proclaimed “meritocracy” and the amazing male hyperopia (farsightedness) that seems almost incapable of recognizing bigotry in themselves or those close to them.

Y Combinator President Sam Altman and founder Paul Graham are a good example.

Last month Altman posted the importance of eliminating the gender bias in tech and Silicon Valley in particular, and that people need to stop pretending.

“One of the most insidious things happening in the debate is people claiming versions of ‘other industries may have problems with sexism, but our industry doesn’t.’”

He cited Y Combinator’s track record of accepting women founders into the incubator as proof that it isn’t sexist.

He did not, however, explain Graham’s statements in May that he doesn’t fund founders with strong accents or women who have/want kids.

Altman thinks HR can be a solution.

“Our sense is that many will benefit by doing it [human resources infrastructure] earlier. Traditionally, startups have thought of HR as a drag on moving fast and openness, but a well-running team is one of the best assets a company can ever have.”

However, the dozens of women who work for established companies with plenty of human resource infrastructure and have shared horrific stories on platforms from Whisper to Fortune are proof that rules don’t work.

The real solution in any company, from startup to Fortune 50 is a founder/CEO who backs a culture that is blind to gender, age and color and, most importantly, walks the talk, both professionally and personally.

This puts you, as a founder, in a position to truly change the working world.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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The More Things Change…

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/wfryer/11347987415The more they stay the some.

Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Both of these go a long way to explaining the unchanging culture that fosters gender harassment in the workplace, most prominently in STEM fields.

…666 responses, three quarters of them from women, from 32 disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, biology and geology. Almost two-thirds of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed in the field. More than 20 percent reported being sexually assaulted. Students or postdoctoral scholars, and women were most likely to report being victimized by superiors.

Does a woman or minority in a leadership role actually have more ability to help level the playing field? Not hardly…

…when minorities and women behave in a way that calls attention to their race or gender characteristics — i.e. by advancing others like them — it separates them from other white male leaders, causing them to be devalued by their peers.

Schmoozing and small talk are considered lubricant in business negotiations, but they don’t work for women.

Men who engaged in small talk were likely to get positive ratings on questions about trust, overall impressions and solid foundations for a future relationship, (…)  When it came down to final offers, they were willing to give the men who chit-chatted nearly 8% more than they offered women who engaged in small talk.

Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz, has a new book about startups and the Valley called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. There are exactly four women mentioned in the book and one is his wife.

In the first 90 percent of the book, I counted three females: a human resource staffer, a woman whose husband ran NetLabs, and Horowitz’s wife Felicia, a woman with “award-winning green eyes” whose focus seems to be family and her husband’s success. He doesn’t present a real-life female peer until four pages from the end, when he hires Margit Wennmachers, a marketing guru-turned-venture capitalist whom he dubs “the Babe Ruth of PR” and “Sultan of Swat.”

There are many anecdotal stories from women founders on the varied ways they are hit upon by potential investors, but this one in Forbes is first person sourced.

I met the author several months ago and was floored by the stories she had to tell about her dealings with mostly male investors. Like many men (as she writes), I knew women in tech faced a certain degree of chauvinism and harassment, but I’d had no idea it was so barefaced and routine, in an industry that thinks of itself as egalitarian and forward-looking.

In the real world, however, it seems that traction is the best way to stop investors from hitting on you.

Payal Kadakia, the founder of ClassPass, thinks it’s the fact that her startup has started to gain significant traction and now investors who once had an upper hand actually want a piece of her business. And they don’t want to say or do something that could mess up their chances.

In a 2009 post about repentance I wrote, “Repeating the behavior makes it obvious that there is no real remorse and that you see getting caught as the true offense.”

Or, in the words of Friedich Nietzsche,

“The consequences of our actions take hold of us, quite indifferent to our claim that meanwhile we may have ‘improved’.”

Flickr image credit: Wesley Fryer

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Ducks in a Row: Gossip as Sexual Harassment

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/foxypar4/1876303769

As the women on Whisper say, and American Apparel’s Dov Charney proves, sexual harassment is alive and flourishing.

I mention that in case you are from off-planet.

But sexual harassment comes in another package; one that’s strictly hands-off.

It’s called gossip.

Because gossip usually revolves around looks, shape, weight and body characteristics, along with who someone is seeing and what they are doing.

Discussion of any of these subjects in the workplace will create a hostile environment.

Hostile environments lower worker focus, engagement and productivity.

Which many bosses don’t seem too concerned about, since they are often active/passive gossip participants.

They would care more if they had the ability to understand cause and effect, which seems to be a disappearing brain function (but that’s another post).

So in the name of better workplaces I’ll spell it out in easily understandable terms.

Gossip contributes to hostile, as well as just plain crappy, work environments.

Bosses who participate, facilitate or benignly neglect gossip will see the effect in employee turnover.

They will feel the effect in their own lowered compensation.

And they definitely deserve both.

Flickr image credit: John Haslam 

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Entrepreneurs: Does Investor Homogeny Reduce Success?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

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Spending time with entrepreneurs is always enlightening.

I was at lunch with a group of them when talk turned to the current “media bashing,” as one person called it, tech was getting over the lack of diversity.

“Jason” said focus was critical in a startup and it was achieved best when the founders hired their friends and friends of friends.

He went on to say that while he understood the importance of diversity in a large company, focus was rarely a byproduct of diversity.

I asked if he considered focus to be as important for investors.

He said of course and went on (and on) explaining why it was even more important with investors, since they usually comprise the startup’s board.

Most hung on his words, since Jason was the big name that day (personally, I found him arrogant and patronizing).

I asked Jason if he would be surprised that research showed the greater the similarities between investors the less likely the success of their portfolio companies—success being an IPO.

They found that the probability of success decreased by 17 percent if two co-investors had previously worked at the same company—even if they hadn’t worked there at the same time. In cases where investors had attended the same undergraduate school, the success rate dropped by 19 percent. And, overall, investors who were members of the same ethnic minority were 20 percent less successful than investors with different ethnic backgrounds.

Conversation more or less died after I shared the URL with them.

They were too busy reading and then we were out of time.

Flickr image credit: Steve Voght

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It’s the Culture, Stupid

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/91262622@N02/12677057645

There is a great deal of handwringing from business leaders, tech moguls, politicians and various pundits on the lack of women programmers and the dire consequences as a result.

As a result, along with their own atrocious diversity showing, Google just announced they will offer vouchers to women and minorities who want to learn to code.

Gregg Pollack, CEO of the Code School, Google is paying for three free months for any women and minorities interested in tech to expand their skills.

But knowing how doesn’t translate into wanting to do something.

And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of techie women, whether from startups, large enterprise or corporate IT, who have changed careers.

Why?

Simple. People get tired of going where they aren’t wanted.

There’s been a great deal of media ink recently documenting just how uninviting the tech culture is to women.

But if you aren’t up on the subject read the story of why the female co-founder of Tinder is suing for extreme sexual harassment (with plenty of proof).

At one point, at a company party, Mateen [Wolfe’s boss, hired after her] allegedly called Wolfe [Tinder co-founder] a “gold digger,” a “disease” and “disgusting”—in front of other people, including Sean Rad [Tinder CEO]. When Wolfe headed for the exit, a guest of Rad’s went after her and spit in her face. (…)

Mateen stripped Wolfe of her co-founder status, arguing that “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders, it just makes it look like Tinder was some accident.” The company had already been absenting Wolfe from the co-founder team when they spoke with traditional business publications like Forbes.

Read the article and the next time you hear “girls don’t like math/computers” mention that they may not like the atmosphere in which they would be forced to work.

And, cynical as it may sound, it’s not going to change any time soon.

After all, the worst examples are being inflicted by (supposedly) more enlightened Millennials as opposed to their big brothers.

Although the big brothers are nothing to write home about, as witnessed by 45 year-old Dov Charney’s actions that got him fired.

While it wasn’t his reprehensible actions, which have been ongoing for years, but rather that American Apparel’s financial performance is down.

If performance wasn’t down Charney would probably still be CEO and those same actions would be considered “eccentric,” instead of inexcusable.

Flickr image credit: jseliger2

 

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Entrepreneurs: Are Investors Watering Down Innovation?

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/hikingartist/3514537597/Innovation isn’t nearly as mind-boggling today when compared to what startups were doing in the late Seventies/early Eighties when I started working with them.

That’s not surprising when you consider who gets funded these days.

A recent Reuters report found that the majority of Silicon Valley startup founders that receive Series A funding come from the same pedigreed cohort: either they previously worked at a large, well-known tech firm, a well-connected smaller tech company, they previously created a successful startup, or they come from one of three universities—Stanford, Harvard, or MIT.

Not surprising when you consider the attitude of Valley stalwarts like Paul Graham of Y Combinator, who publically stated that he would be unlikely to fund someone with a strong accent or a woman.

It’s been 15 years since I first wrote about the proclivity of managers to hire people like themselves and more over the years showing it leads to homophily and the negative impact that has on a company.

It seems it’s no different for investors.

They are funding people like themselves who were raised, educated and worked along paths similar to their own who they either know or are introduced to them by a friend.

“Like a lot of the investments [Instacart] that have come our way, a friend of a friend talked to us about it, and told us about it, and encouraged the founder and the CEO to come and chat with us. One thing led to another.” –Sequoia partner Mike Moritz

When you fund from a homogenous group, no matter where they are, creativity and innovation are watered down, because those groups tend to be insular and badly interbred talking mostly to each other.

If you’re fishing from a pond of rich white guys, you’re only going to get ideas that address the needs of rich white guys.

AKA, people like themselves.

Flickr image credit: HikingArtist

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