One of the hidden joys of being an entrepreneur is that people are very curious about my profession and what it is like to work at a startup. People have a ton of questions around my industry – robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) and often ask me “exactly what is the difference between them?”Read More
Recently a young woman walked through the door. Big smile, quick handshake, a spark of energy. Minutes later, after handing her off to our engineers to interview her, I whispered to my co-founder “I’m optimistic. I think she could be the one!”
It has been a long search for us. For four months I have reviewed over a hundred resumes, made dozens of calls and interviewed many of them in person. I was feeling increasing pressure to get a Mechanical Engineer in the door as a FT employee ASAP. Hiring takes a lot of time, but taking the time to find the RIGHT person will ultimately benefit our company. I know this, but it is something that is extremely hard to remember with work piling up around me.
I wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel for candidates. I was rejecting people with pedigrees from Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Google, and Apple. In fact, upon passing some standouts, I sent them over to a fellow entrepreneur who snapped them all up. He called me after they had been working at his company for a few weeks. "I can't understand why you didn't hire them; they are wonderful! They are stars!"
Am I crazy? Too picky? Should I settle and get someone in here plugging away since we’ve already had to mitigate this issue by hiring expensive consultants?
We have only 4 employees in our company and this next hire is a critical add. Putting together a team is a balancing act, pairing different skill sets and personalities together to achieve greatness. Our current few are AWESOME, and I want to preserve our level of camaraderie and aptitude.
At my first startup, the culture was a mess. People HATED working there. This is still a disappointment to me; I wanted to create an environment of hardworking people who really liked each other and our work, but I was not able to. People generally liked the problem they were solving and found it interesting and inspiring, yet, invariably, part of every day there I spent working to convince someone not to quit or mediating some interpersonal grievance. I even hired a “Queen of Culture” to spread joy around, without success. I learned a lot through all of it.
In the end, I turned hiring into my superpower. At my next few startups, I decided who I hired would be the top priority, and now I am referred to by others as the “Glue that holds everything together”.
When you have a small team, it isn’t only a matter of getting folks who are capable. One outlier, bad fit, can wreak havoc. You can spend an enormous amount of time trying to prevent constant disruption during meetings and general personality issues instead of focusing on the business.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
- Trust your gut. There are some people I meet that I immediately know will work out incredibly well. I can’t fully explain this sense I get. Part of it is a mixture of confidence, intelligence and friendliness that they exude. But if I don’t feel it, and there are any questions about the hire, try before you buy. Hire the person as a consultant so you can assess team fit, quality of work, and where the person will excel best. Or you can let them go.
- Network. My best referrals all have come from someone I knew. When you are a tiny company, it is way less risky to hire people whose work has been pre-vetted by a colleague or former co-worker, and starts the relationship off with a level of trust that would otherwise take time to build.
- Diversity. Generally, like attracts like. Given this, it would be easy to end up with team of people who are the same gender, ethnicity and age with overlapping skill sets. I actively work to target folks who will bring something different to the table. I like a mix of personalities on board - the professor (the person that studies the problem and loves research), the cowboy (the hacker), the police (to enforce the rules), and the cheerleader (to drive up the energy).
And the woman who walked through the door? We gave her an offer ☺!
I write this post from under luxurious white bedding that is pure bliss. Pillows nestle my head gently as morning light streams softly through a window. It’s the best kind of magic… and then I’m reminded of someone.
Earlier this week I had lunch with Michelle, an entrepreneur I advise. She is the CEO/Co-Founder of a SaaS startup. She had just launched the beta of her platform with a well-known retailer. The launch had gone well, yet she looked more exhausted than excited. I asked her how she was doing and, not surprisingly, she said, “I’m tired!”
She is not alone. As part of a team of four working round the clock to accomplish the herculean task of a product launch, she has had to accomplish an incredible, a near-impossible task. And due to the company’s small size and scrappy funding, she’s had time for nothing else. The strain is apparent throughout the team. The technical co-founder’s new bride complains about the lack of quality time with her new husband. The sales co-founder’s girlfriend has even threatened to move out. And let’s not forget the basics, like eating and sleeping—or lack thereof. These functions tend to go out the door when a start-up’s ramping up.
Poor sleep is a common problem among entrepreneurs; trust me, I know! Even if lights go out by 10pm, I’ll often wake up in the middle of the night, roused by some problem, and proceed to answer emails till 4am. I can relate to what Michelle is going through, yet experience (I’m now on my fourth startup) has taught me if you work all the time, don’t eat well and don’t exercise, both you and your startup will pay the price!
That means you have to fight to gain some “me” time, with the same vigor as you fight for your business. So go on a date! Spend time with your family. Go cycling or hiking or out to dinner or play with your dogs--do something completely unrelated to your startup. Splitting your time between work and your life will result in higher productivity. And don’t assume leaving the office won’t benefit the work, either. There is always going to be a mountain of tasks to do, 24-hrs/day 7 days/week. Taking a couple of hours for yourself and your family can actually help you tackle it. Distance from business issues can help you gain clarity; you’ll likely get a new perspective on a problem, all while recharging your batteries. Both you and your team will be happier for it.
So at your next party or function, ask an entrepreneur to describe the best sleep they ever had. And you'll see. They’ll readily recount—in almost lascivious detail—how amazing it was! The pillow’s plaint softness, the mattress’ comfortable support, the blanket’s enfolding warmth… they’ll probably wax poetic on air quality and location, too.
That’s right, to the ambitious entrepreneur, sleep is the new sex. So go get some.
Recently, I went to pitch a few investors about my new startup, a stealth robotic venture. I was pumped. We have a dream team, a large market opportunity, and are tackling a problem that is tailor made for my background and skill set.
We start pitching. I launch into a brief overview of my work history, confident in the story since my first startup, Neato Robotics , is a great achievement from both a technical and sales perspective. The pitches went well and we closed a round of funding quickly, but I discovered something odd—whenever I mentioned Neato, blank looks would stare back at me from around the meeting table.
Seriously? You don’t know…? Neato Robotics is the number two player in the robotic vacuum cleaning market. So why doesn’t anyone I meet ever know about it?
Neato makes an awesome product, the Botvac, a superior product to the leading autonomous vacuum, iRobot’s Roomba (as attested to here and here and here). Neato vacs sell at Best Buy, Costco, Target, and can be found on Amazon and many other stores all over the world.
Okay, iRobot was already a Goliath when I co-founded Neato, but I wasn’t deterred; I’d be the roboDavid to this Goliath. I was inspired by the flaws I saw in the Roomba to form a company that would develop a superior product through superior technology - a vacuum that would know where it had cleaned in a room and where it still needed to travel to complete its job - compared to the Roomba which did not contain this intelligence. iRobot was first to market, sure, but I was certain we could crush them. Our product could self navigate a room, had a bigger dustbin, could maneuver into corners and travel closely along baseboards; our product also had more suction and vacuum power than a Roomba. How could we not win over the Roomba, which just bounced around randomly and whose round shape kept it from sucking up those pesky dust bunnies in the corners of the room? Sure, iRobot had deeper pockets, an exponentially larger team and a hefty TV advertising budget, but Neato was a superior product. Shouldn’t this be enough?
Here’s what I’ve learned: Nope, it wasn’t enough. It’s actually really hard to overtake the first to market. iRobot created a perception in consumer minds that proved hard to break. Consumers tend to believe that the market leader is the superior brand. Learn from this. Get into your customer’s minds as hard and fast as you can, preferably before the competition does. And make sure you build a kick-ass technology while doing so. You’ll have a lot of extra work to do on the back end if you miss this golden opportunity. And hey, you might come in silver anyway… but silver isn’t gold.
I haven’t forgotten this lesson. My stealth robotics venture has no rivals that I can see. It will be first on the market, if I can help it.
Several months ago I read a comment on twitter by a female entrepreneur about how she was beta testing the outfits she would wear when pitching to VCs. She was methodically working her way through a rigorous matrix of choices: Skirt? Slacks? Oxford? Dress? Did black perform better than bright colors? Which was the optimal combination?
This kind of thing makes me crazy! It makes me want to reach out through my smart phone and throttle the entrepreneur, shouting, “Forget your wardrobe! Is your idea good enough? Stop fiddling with your outfits; focus your energies on your company!“
To date, I raised funding for four startups, including $12 million for Neato Robotics at a time when hardware was less than popular to venture capitalists. It’s a given that you shouldn’t smell bad or be dirty at a pitch (or anytime, for that matter). But smelling good isn’t going to seal the deal. Getting funding comes down to three things: team (can the VC can work with this entrepreneur and his/her team, especially if times are rough?), market (is this entrepreneur’s idea at the cusp of a large opportunity?), and fit (will this company/idea integrate with the fund’s ethos?). If you have these three ingredients, it won’t matter if you have no make-up on and are wearing jeans and a tee instead of a dress and heels--the investor will engage.
By all means wear what makes you confident. Spiff yourself up if that’s what you need to get the job done. Most importantly, be yourself, but make sure you’ve got the tools you need to properly engage those VCs interested in your ideas and vision. The VC isn’t investing in your clothes, or your appearance; they’re investing in you.
My favorite place to eat is in restaurant kitchens. If I can score a seat at the chef’s table, it’s two thumbs up for me. I’d always eat back there if I could. I’d like kitchens to have a “standing room only” option at a table somewhere in the back of the house, the way theaters do.
A restaurant’s back of the house is analogous to theater in other ways, too. A well run-kitchen operates almost like a ballet—a precision dance of preparing, plating, and pushing food through the line. I love watching the choreography of it, hearing the music blasting and the occasional “FUCK! Where did they put the spoons!” from a disgruntled manager trying to keep everything on track.
The front of the house is all about a quiet, tasteful experience. You rarely hear the staff grumble or curse. It’s so much more real and present back where things are coming together.
In the back, I can also see my food being prepared before I eat it—another plus! This raises my expectations. When you eat in the front of the house, particularly if you order a tasting menu, you have no idea what is about to come to your plate. My way, watching each course being prepared, you get to salivate in anticipation .
I love the whole busy, time-tested, hectic but regimented show. As a former operations person who has spent a lot of time on manufacturing house floors, I am fascinated by how restaurant kitchens feel similar to the way I think a 1950’s factory floor would be. Not much has changed in the kitchen from that time, either. Pop a WWII-era chef into one of today’s kitchens, and I bet he would know exactly what to do and how to operate most of the equipment. A microwave or a sous-vide might puzzle him, and he’d likely admit that a robot-coupe would benefit from an update, but the rest would suit him perfectly. But that’s all secondary to any skilled chef julienning vegetables or searing a steak to perfection. That is the timeless spectacle, and like any good piece of theater, something not to miss.