Author Archive

Aug 07

top 10 myths of silicon valley

This summer I visited Russia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico to see different markets and entrepreneurial perspectives. While I learned what it’s like to be a tech entrepreneur in other markets, I also realized I was frequently dispelling a lot of myths about Silicon Valley, the VC ecosystem, and the American tech industry. With the summer wrapping up, here are my top ten myths and counter-arguments from those recent travels:

myth #1. technology makes it possible to start a company overnight

Technology is cheaper and more pervasive than ever. However, launching a product is just the beginning. Though you can build a product overnight, it takes about 18 months to become a market player — finding a problem worth solving, educating users, building traction, developing a viable business strategy, training a sales team, and securing long-term funding takes time. We started Meebo in 2003 and spent 18 months building entirely different products (online backup, document sharing) before we built the online instant messenger that launched in 2005.

Meebo’s story is far from unique. Twitter, PayPal, Instagram, and Pinterest were once Odeo, Confinity, Burbn, and Tote and required an average of 17 months of development to become today’s recognizable products. It always takes longer than anticipated. Though technology has become far more accessible and though there are countless 48-hour hackathons, company’s just aren’t built overnight.

myth #2. you only pivot when your idea is bad

A fast-paced market means there are more opportunities but it also means that the race doesn’t end once you launch. The Internet reinvents itself every two years. Even if you are successful today, technology changes so quickly that you can lose success just as quickly as you gained it. You may need to pivot proactively to stay relevant.

One of the hardest aspects of a startup is thinking long-term. There are so few resources that the bugs, meetings, and people issues tend to overshadow long-term innovation. It’s easy to seduce yourself into believing that explosive success is just one feature push away instead of surveying the market and developing a broader plan of attack for the future. Even when long-term innovation is a priority, you can conversely fall into the trap of pivoting, pivoting, pivoting until the funding runs out without giving any single pivot a long, hard, fair shot.

CEOs are defined by their long-term strategy. Is a CEO focused upon a singular vision and stubborn to a fault? Or is the CEO forever inventive, swinging on a whim between industries and praying something sticks? The average startup CEO’s tenure is only five years which means that most CEOs only get 2-3 market plays to find out.

myth #3. being a founder is glamorous

From HBO’s Silicon Valley, you’d think that being a founder entails VCs fawning over you and brogrammers over-thinking their dating odds. I haven’t seen the entire season but most of what I have seen rings true except that it omits what founders do most — hiring.

A VC once told me that most founders spend 40% of their time hiring. Looking back, that was conservative. Hiring is the cornerstone of culture. Founders dedicate absurd amounts of time to mundane interviews because they aren’t just building a team, they’re architecting a culture. During the hiring process founders tune the recruiting process, double-check how managers identify talent, articulate the organization’s values, detail how the team operates, and defend the company vision. Even once they’ve hired new team members, it takes the new folks 6-12 months to become dependable interviewers. Realistically, founders can’t loosen the reins until they’ve hired and trained the first 50 team members. Team-building takes a lot of time and as I’m sure HBO would agree, job interviews make really boring television.

myth #4: founders don’t have bosses

Who doesn’t dream of living free of a boss by their own rules? Surely an entrepreneur gets to make the calls! Sadly, it’s just not true. My co-founder and CEO asked me for my annual self-review out of the blue and my dreams of never again penning a resume or performance review were crushed. Even outside the founding team, entrepreneurs are also accountable to the Board of Directors who determine whether the founders are fulfilling their roles.

More importantly, there’s one boss that trumps everything that no one can escape. Founders are always accountable to the market and the market is the craziest, most irrational, and unfair boss of them all. The market tells you when an earnest team member’s skillset is out of date. The market dictates when a downturn in the economy makes it difficult to give your team deserved raises. The market prefers your competitor for the most fickle reason. Even if entrepreneurs don’t have a traditional boss, they are still pawns of the market. That’s not fun.

myth #5. the best product wins

Peanut, the winner of the 2014 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma on Friday, June 20, 2014. (Rachel Simpson/For the Argus-Courier/Press Democrat)

Product design can be a formidable advantage. But if you introduce something people really want, you can get away with product murder. Twitter’s fail whale initially eclipsed its bird logo. Facebook’s photo uploader & tagging features are still iffy. And when was the last time that Apple launched a major product without an antenna, map, or battery snafu? If you’re in second place, you have to do everything right and more to catch up. But if you’re #1 with product-market fit, users are surprisingly tolerant and excited to be part of the new, shiny thing.

So why focus on product? First, there are different types of companies. Companies that differentiate primarily on product are usually higher-end companies like Apple, BMW, Square, Nest, or Dandelion Chocolate (<– yup, shameless name-dropping). Getting the product right is an essential part of these brands and customers expect a curated experience. But these companies are the minority. Most companies excel at experimentation rather than product execution. For instance, Rovio, the creators of Angry Birds, recently expanded into book publishing. Other gaming companies have a strategy of immediately copying popular games and letting others do the product experimentation. And then there’s Amazon who does everything from MyHabit to Kindle to AWS to Amazon.com. Amazon does an amazing job stretching themselves across different genres and while they have good UX, it’s not their core differentiator. The product can’t be neglected all together however. If you dominate the market with a half-hearted product, users will eventually feel exploited. Though their usage might continue, it’s only because there’s no alternative, not due to loyalty. Users are savvy enough to pick up on exploitive monopolies and to know when innovation is overdue. Why were Uber and Lyft able to gain traction so quickly? How long had it been since users felt any Yellow Cab love? Yelp, OpenTable, LinkedIn, and other companies built a decade ago by locking in the market — watch out! When network effect companies crumble, they crumble fast!

myth #6. vcs throw money at you

Image courtesy flickr: Cayusa.

Even in a frothy environment, you have to break a sweat fundraising. VCs differentiate themselves through investing strategies such as big markets, strong founding teams, product execution, technological innovation, and industry genres. When there are more VCs, there are more meetings to identify the VC where your startup fits their strategy.

Entrepreneurs outside the U.S. envision VCs sprinkling money on American entrepreneurs like fairy dust. But the average American startup team reaches out to approximately 60-120 VCs and angels to raise the first $1M. That’s work! There’s no doubt that it’s harder to raise capital outside of the United States but some VCs also look abroad to emerging markets where they don’t face such stiff competition.

myth #7. an acquisition means you’re a multi-millionaire

Founders don’t pocket the incredible dollar figures in headlines. It’s possible for an acquisition in the hundreds of millions to leave nothing for the founders depending upon how much has been raised, how much was allotted to employees, the number of founders, whether the exit included stock or cash, and the liquidation preferences.

Given how important they are, it’s surprising that liquidation preferences aren’t discussed more. Liquidation preferences have two variables: 1) the multiple and 2) the preference type (preferred, non-preferred, and capped). When a company folds or is acquired, liquidation preferences protect the investors’ investment. At minimum, a liquidation preference simply specifies that the investors receive their money back (1x non-participating). At the other extreme, investors might have a 2x multiple (meaning that investors want double back) and if there’s anything left over, they are also entitled to a cut of the remainder based upon their ownership (2x participating).

With a 2x participating liquidation preference, it’s possible for a company that raised a total of $50M for 50% ownership to sell for $100M and for the team to have nothing. Participating also means that the investors always get more than just 50%. When the exit is huge, the liquidation preference matters less. But huge exits are rarer. Sometimes headlines will speculate on the company’s valuation but news reports never mention the liquidation preference.

As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get squeezed: work hard, have a modest exit, have no substantial upside, and lose the loyalty of a team that you might have worked with again.

myth #8. raise as much money as you can

Any business can succeed if given enough time. Why wouldn’t you raise as much money as possible to stay afloat as long as possible?

When you raise money, you’re expected to spend it. VCs want to put cash infusions behind companies with potential reoccurring revenue, not to pay for a company’s rainy day fund or creative projects. If you haven’t vetted a product or figured out a core business model before taking funding, you’re trading flexibility for cash. Meebo’s first product in 2003 tackled online backup. After spending a year building the product, we realized how much capital we’d need to raise to build out an untested idea. We switched to document collaboration and another year later, to online instant messaging. If we’d taken cash upfront, we wouldn’t have had that kind of flexibility or we would have been diluted later. It’s easier to change a strategy and experiment when you’re smaller and don’t have promises to keep.

Second, a big bank account changes the way you operate. When your team knows that you have money to spend, they ask for more. When contractors know you have funding, they don’t grant favors. When patent trolls look for companies to target, they sniff out money trails. Frugality is frequently a characteristic of great businesses. The easiest way to be frugal is to only take the money you need (with some cushion) to prove the next stage of your business.

myth #9. if you do everything right, you will be successful

Web 2.0 companies that are alive or have exited as of today
There is no magic formula. Many smart startups will fail and many foolish ones will somehow succeed. Luck plays a huge hand in a startup’s ultimate outcome. What determines whether a company has a billion-dollar exit or a modest success frequently falls far outside the company’s purview to timing, perceived competitive threats, even executive vacation schedules. When companies exit for huge figures, folks flock to reverse engineer the acquiring company’s process and then extrapolate what they need to change to bolster their own acquisition odds. It’s an interesting thought-exercise but many companies just get lucky. It’s far better to continuously plan for the long-term and if the stars magically align for a favorable acquisition, consider yourself very lucky (not necessarily gifted).

In 2013, 37 out of 511 YCombinator companies were worth more than $40 Million. That suggests a 93% failure rate. Within a startup, instead of hoping for success, you are constantly mitigating potential failure. There are a few practices that help (great team, frugality, strong brand) but the most important factor is sheer resilience.

myth #10. we’ll always have these opportunities

Desert Bus, a reality-based driving mini-game circa 1995
Technology changes. It means computing today but it meant steam engines, Hollywood films, agriculture, industrialization, and printing presses in the past. While I’m optimistic that technology will continue to present more opportunities for everyday folks to change the world, I don’t take it for granted. The economy, government regulations, access to capital, and what society needs will evolve. Who knows whether a new wave of robotics, biotech, 3d printing presses, or new energy storage mechanisms will be nearly as democratic as computer programming?

Even when the odds are stacked against the entrepreneur, I can’t imagine a better time in history to be alive and to have the chance to change the world at such scale. Even if it may not last forever, it’d be such a shame not to try.

final bonus myth! only crazy people do startups

Tricked you! This is absolutely true. Most entrepreneurs are a little (or a lot) crazy. And sometimes that prerequisite craziness makes it especially hard for entrepreneurs abroad to garner support from their communities. Some Asian cultures ask family members to support their elder’s later years. Taking a financial risk to be an entrepreneur can seem disrespectful to their family. And some European communities aren’t terribly forgiving of failure. Being an entrepreneur is a tough slog and doing it without a support network is absolutely brutal. I cringe a little when VCs and entrepreneurs assume that entrepreneurs abroad are lacking know-how or bravado. It’s far more complex. The entrepreneurs I see abroad may not be as loud and boastful but they’re plenty talented and self-assured.

Albert Einstein coined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results.” For me, that’s the definition of a startup. You’re continuously adapting to a mercurial market with no promise of a successful outcome — that’s a little insane. There are thousands of better ways to make a more dependable income. If anyone embarks on a startup solely for monetary gain, they’ll quit when they realize what a crazy, unpredictable journey it is. You have to be an entrepreneur because you believe that if you don’t solve a problem, no one else will.

Oct 12

follow-up

My recent WSJ Accelerators essay struck a nerve and after seeing a few comments posted, I want to clarify a few things — especially about Meebo’s culture and any perceived ill-will. I think some nuance may have been lost in the editing process and I want to make it clear that I love my team, Meebo, and what we built together. This is a personal story about a trying time in my professional life and I wanted to share a boots-on-the-ground perspective. So let me set the record straight:

* Meebo’s culture was as good as it gets and was undoubtedly female-friendly — I’ll never work with another group with so much talent, kindness, and commitment to being inclusive and for making the world a better place. You learn a lot about people after co-founding a company and I can’t say enough good things about my two co-founders, Seth and Sandy. Seth has the keenest strategic nose that you’ll ever encounter and Sandy will out-execute and out-charm anyone in the Valley.

Our first ten employees represented eight universities, three countries, and a 70/30 male/female ratio. Among our senior exec team, we had three women reporting to our CEO and co-founder. Our team’s multiple perspectives led to a stronger and more authentic product. This was an isolated incident that occurred outside of Meebo’s usual business. If anything, I think this shows that building an inclusive environment is hard and you always need to be willing to rethink your own personal views and assumptions. If these issues can arise during my time at Meebo, then I am no longer as quick to judge others either.

* There’s more work to do — Even within an amazing culture, I realize that these issues can just arise organically and subconsciously — in this case, during the hiring process. The most vivid part of this story for me is my coach’s feedback. We talked through a lot of possibilities about why someone would not join last-minute including considering gender, feeling out negotiating strategies, and of course, my own behavior. It’s entirely possible this was just a hard negotiation tactic or that any one of my many, many shortcomings played into this, but I’ll always be struck by the matter-of-fact “this is how the real world works” conversation. It’s the first time I had even the slightest idea that gender was top-of-mind for anyone and that I needed to be more aware of this part of my identity. Whether or not this ended up being the true root cause, I’ve learned to tread more carefully and not assume that people who come from other corporate cultures will inherently share my values and working style.

May 30

what i learned as an oompa loompa


Engineer (left) going Oompa Loompa (right)

Last fall, I heard the spousal call of duty, “Elaine, help me get these doors open.”

My husband, Todd, and his co-founder, Cam, had spent the last few years building chocolate machines and scouting the world for great cocoa beans in an effort to open a micro-batch chocolate factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. The construction crew finished converting the brick automotive garage to a food-safe bean-to-bar workshop and it was time to figure out the nitty gritty details like moving, merchandising, and designing the café & retail space. Todd needed all the help he could get and I was happy to pitch in during those critical months. Now that I’ve come up for air and returned to tech projects, I’ve had time to reflect on what I learned from brick-and-mortar operations:


Even the welds break

  1. For loops are a veritable miracle — At the chocolate factory, something breaks every single flippin’ day. Each morning I gave my evil eye to the roasters, melangers, temperers, wrapping machine, dishwasher, or anything with a screw, fuse, gear, glue, belt, or oil level and asked, “Okay, which one of you little buggers is going today?”

    In comparison, code brings tears to my eyes. If that for loop worked yesterday, then barring catastrophic hardware failures or someone checking in code they shouldn’t, it’ll likely work today. That type of, “if you don’t touch it, it’ll keep working” certainty seems divine. I’ve always loved the Web but I have renewed appreciation for redundancy, unit testing, and monitoring now.


    Lots of chocolate; no email.

  2. Want to release faster? Don’t cut features; cut email. Dandelion’s chocolate makers don’t check email throughout the day (the execs aren’t so lucky). If you can depend upon eight hours of focused time each day, then goals magically happen. With just a back of the napkin estimation, if the team says they’ll make 1000 bars, stop worrying — they’ve got it.

    There are still complications and distractions (e.g. tours, businesses with supply emergencies, daily check-in meetings, and see #1) but there are no late nights catch-up email marathons, no pleas for Agile-enabled predictability, no emergency requests to add two more weeks to the schedule, and no unsustainable sprints to a goal followed by “whoa, let’s never do that again” post-mortem analyses.

    Conservatively, I think that at least 30% of Meebo’s productivity was lost to folks staying current with voluminous Inboxes. Startups want to be hyper-communicative and transparent but those cc’s and long winding email threads add up. However, the first startup that balances getting stuff done despite an ever-expanding Inbox will have a formidable advantage.


    From left to right: future Pulitzer prize winner, Fulbright scholar, and Stanford grad

  3. Tech people, get over yourselves — Dandelion Chocolate has two Fulbright scholars, a Harvard law school grad, Ivy Leaguers, and even outside of formal academic pedigrees, is one of the most talented teams I’ve seen. Tech recruiters spend a lot of time bending over backwards looking for niche skillsets and as a result, we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the talent universe. However, if the folks at Dandelion Chocolate learned to code or design, they’d whoop most of our startup tooshes. Other industries are teeming with extraordinary, passionate people and it doesn’t take an army of recruiters and hundreds of LinkedIn emails to find them. The next time I build a team, I’ll look beyond industry borders.


    Brandon analyzing bean sorting efficiency

  4. Engineering principles provide arbitrage opportunities — When I tell tech people I’ve been pitching in at a chocolate factory, I spot the concerned eyebrows, “Elaine, what about intellectual stimulation?” or a VC will wander to another networking table presumably thinking, “Oy, small potatoes.” Fermentation processes, tempering crystallization structures, and modeling roasting & melanging profiles provide lots of mental fodder. Chocolate making isn’t a traditional startup but engineering principles like small achievable goals, metrics, and A/B testing are very applicable, opening new opportunities in existing markets. The tech world is a fantastic training ground for non-tech industries where there aren’t support networks of meetups, workspaces, and mentors.


    The #1 troublemaker at Dandelion Chocolate

  5. HCI is a digital thing — A little backstory… the women’s bathroom door at Dandelion Chocolate constantly breaks (see #1). From the mezzanine, I can hear the frustrated click-click-click when guests jigger the finicky door lock. At the beginning of the day, I paused when I heard the metal clicking to make sure the bathroom seeker didn’t need help. But by noon, the high-pitched metal-on-metal screeching made my hair stand on end, my stomach churn, and I was ready to do anything… anything… even standing vigilant outside the bathroom to personally escort patrons in and out of the loo… to prevent that irksome sound again.

    When I initially told my parents that I was interested in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), they didn’t get it. And now I understand why. Technology is so virtual that it takes logging, data mining, insightful researchers, and persuasive experts to convince a team there’s a problem on the Internet worth fixing.

    However, when you’re working with tangibles, you are walking and breathing your own User Experience experiment. You see the half-drunk cups when you take out the trash. You can’t help but overhear under breath comments on the street. And if something is broken, you don’t have to do a cost-benefit analysis to figure out whether fixing the bathroom door is a priority. Someone’s going to fix the bathroom door or they’ll go crazy.


    Chocolate for sale

  6. Simple business models solve so many problems — With Meebo, our business model went something like this: we built a product that people like. We monetized a fraction of those eyeballs with brand advertising. We tracked the percentage of users who clicked an ad and logged their engagement times. However, since correlating brand advertising with bottom line revenue is nearly impossible online, we also monitored ad partnership renewals. If all of those metrics were healthy, we were happy. (~60 words)

    At Dandelion Chocolate, the business model is: we make and sell chocolate. (5 words)

    It’s so much easier to build a sustainable organization around a simple revenue model. There are no tensions between ad partners, distribution sites, engineering, and sales teams. There are fewer points of failure. Instead, everyone is aligned towards a simple goal: make something people want.


    The Dandelion Chocolate team goes to Hawaii after hitting a big goal

  7. Equity isn’t a great long-term motivator — In tech, salary is only one component of your compensation package. If your company does well, your stock options can be worth far more than all of your combined paychecks. Equity is “skin in the game.”

    However, the compensation at Dandelion Chocolate is traditional — wages and salaries. And when things get tough (e.g. the temperer breaks during the December rush — see #1), employees’ visions of becoming overnight millionaires aren’t shattered. Instead, it’s an even-keeled, “Okay, what do we need to do to get through this?” What motivates the team is working with interesting people, more opportunities to travel and grow, and building something pride-worthy.

    As a startup leader, you fear an employee exodus at the first sign of trouble. For engineers with lots of options, trouble means it’s time to diversify your equity portfolio and seek greener pastures elsewhere. In some cases, equity can have the opposite effect and even encourage short-term thinking.


    Valencia St crowded with café experts
    (Photo courtesy of Flickr:tofuart via Creative Commons)

  8. The real world has tougher critics — Startups can shield themselves behind a slow beta roll-out. Your mom and dad might follow your company blog but they probably didn’t critique last Friday’s release.

    In contrast, almost everyone in the world is a café expert. On his day off Todd gets calls and texts, “Todd, the bathroom door seems to slide funny…” or “I drove all the way from Sausalito and you just ran out of marshmallows!”

    The feedback is always, always, always appreciated. But your skin thickens a bit. The chocolate factory is a public venue of our closest friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and supporters — the people you want to make most proud. Every one of those visitor has seen hundreds of cafés and everyone has opinions about how they’d make it better. Unlike tech, you’re very exposed. And if we have an off day, we can’t follow-up with an email newsletter or pop-up notification, “We listened to your feedback! Here’s version 1.2 just for you!”


    Customers in the face blind retail mode

  9. Retail face blindness (i.e. prosopagnosia) — Hopefully there’s a psychology student searching for their next phD thesis among this blog’s readers.

    Either I’m very bland looking (totally plausible) or there’s an undocumented psychologic phenomenon for how people mentally categorize service professionals…

    As a door greeter, cashier, or farmer’s market volunteer, I love talking with visitors. A quick exchange can expand into an intimate 10-minute conversation about our families, our personal food preferences, frequently an exchange of names, and sometimes even promises to follow-up via email.

    Afterwards, I’ll say goodbye and walk next door for a sandwich where I coincidentally spot them again. They look at me when I join them in line, look back, and order a croissant. Nothing. Not even a spark of recognition. I’m a total stranger! This has happened frequently enough that I’m now fascinated by the brain’s ability to immediately delete people information — especially people we don’t think we’ll see again. If you end up researching this further or know anything about this, let me know!


    The chocolate chip cookie — a reliable favorite for seventy-five years and likely to be popular for decades to come

  10. Tech is still harder — It’s easier than ever to start a tech company. The food industry is envious of tech’s lack of permits and regulations, workspaces, meetups, access to capital, and the built-in network of angels & mentors. If you have a good idea, the entrepreneurial community will bend over backwards to help you.

    However, it’s much harder to keep that tech company going. The Internet reinvents itself every two years making longterm planning difficult. It’s safe to assume that people will probably eat chocolate in ten, twenty years. It’s hard to guarantee that any burgeoning startup will be relevant in six months. Building a longterm Internet business within a mercurial market is extraordinarily stressful. In addition to the normal trials of starting a business, you have to be hyper-aware of trends and prepared to pivot tomorrow. It’s likely that the team you hired 18 months ago signed up for a different vision that what you’re working on now and that requires further management. Years 0-2 are easier but years 2-8 are harder.

I’m winding down my Oompa Loompa days with more appreciation for brick-and-mortar businesses. If the toilet paper’s out at a restaurant, I’ll try to change it myself. I tip more and curse the evil people who steal tip jars and iPhones (grrrr)! When the Giants make it to the World Series, I tune in to the police radio chatter and listen for riots. I can add “skilled in the Tiffany bow tying method” to my resume.

Above all, I am grateful to have been a part of the Dandelion Chocolate story and to have learned so much from the team. Thank you again!

And of course, feel free to drop by Dandelion Chocolate at 740 Valencia St (at 18th) in San Francisco.


Dandelion Chocolate Door

Apr 27

100 Mistakes

As a startup founder, I wore a lot of hats and I made a ton of mistakes. I was a typical first-time, 20-something entrepreneur with tremendous pressure to scale with the team and business.

At night, I found myself awake agonizing over the mistakes I could see myself making — not letting go of ideas that I liked but that weren’t good for the business, not presenting my ideas effectively in group meetings, or not saying no to projects when I was already overwhelmed. However, I found that if I wrote down my mistakes in a bedside journal, I could return to sleep and revisit my mistakes in the daytime.

The journal grew and grew. And when I started hiring a team, I saw my team members make the exact same missteps. At first, I was relieved. I no longer felt like I was the worst contributor, manager, director, or VP! But I also wanted to compile my mistakes and share my perspective with them.

At first, I tried giving new managers and directors my bulleted list. However, that was horribly ineffective. No one wants to be handed a list from their manager of all the ways they’ll inevitably fail!

So instead, I started focusing on telling stories and setting the scenes for these mistakes. I sketched the scenes of all of the mistakes and started weaving them into a story that showed the professional journey that everyone makes from their first day on the job as a fresh grad to leading the company as a C-level executive.

It’s an illustrated story that I’ve been narrating and sharing with other startups and organizations. I presented the story at South by Southwest a few months ago. Since then, it’s been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and this morning, I presented a few of the mistakes on the CBS Morning Show.

Originally, this was a fun side project that I enjoyed sharing with other startups and the feedback that I’ve heard is that it should be a book. I’ve just started considering that in earnest. If you want to know where you can get a copy of 100 Mistakes, please bear with me — you’ll need to wait a little bit longer!

And at the end of the journey, I’m just grateful to have been a part of a team that allowed each other to grow and to learn from our mistakes. With a little bit more perspective, I am overwhelmed by how much everyone genuinely wants to do well by others and to create something meaningful together. However, old habits, misplaced exuberance, and role ambiguity sometimes get in the way.

Looking forward to sharing more soon!

Dec 09

Five UX Research Pitfalls

I wrote this for UX Mag a while ago and it remains one of my all-time favorite writing projects. However, I never posted it in its entirety on my blog so here it is now. Enjoy!

More and more organizations view UX as a key contributor to successful products, connecting teams with end-users and guiding product innovation within the organization. Though it’s fantastic to see this transition happen, there are growing pains associated with becoming a user-driven organization. These are the pitfalls that I see organizations grappling with most often.

Pitfall 1: It’s easier to evaluate a completed, pixel-perfect product so new products don’t get vetted or tested until they’re nearly out the door.

Months into a development cycle and just days before the release date, you realize that the UI has serious flaws or missing logic. If you’re lucky, there is enough flexibility in the schedule to allow grumbling engineers to re-architect the product. More likely, though, the PM will push to meet the original deadline with the intent to fix the UI issues later. However, “later” rarely happens. Regardless, everyone wonders: how could these issues have been caught earlier?

The UI is typically built after the essential architectural elements are in place and it can be hard to test unreleased products with users until the very last moment. However, you can gather feedback early in the process:

  • Don’t describe the product and ask users if they would use it. In this case, you are more likely testing your sales pitch rather than the idea itself. If you ask users if they want a new feature, 90% of the time they’ll say yes.
  • Test with the users you want, not the users you already have. If you want to grow your audience with a new product, you should recruit users outside your current community.
  • Validate that the problem you are solving actually exists. Early in the design cycle, find your future users and research whether your product will solve their real-world problems. Look for places where users are overcoming a problem via work-around solutions (e.g., emailing links to themselves to keep an archive of favorite sites) or other ineffective practices (e.g., storing credentials in a text file because they can’t remember their online usernames and passwords).
  • Verify your mental models. Make sure that the way you think about the product is the same as your user. For instance, if you’ve been pitching your product idea to your coworkers as “conversational email” but your actual users are teenagers who primarily use text messaging, then your email metaphor probably won’t translate to your younger users. Even if you don’t intend to say “conversational email” in your product, you will unconsciously make subtle design choices that will limit your product’s success until you find a mental model that fits that of your users, not of your coworkers.
  • Prototype early. Create a Flash or patched-together prototype internally as soon as possible. Even if your prototype doesn’t resemble a finished product, you’ll uncover and develop confidence in the major issues to wrestle down in the design process. You’ll also have an easier time seeing the areas of the product that need animations or on-the-fly suggestions which often go unscoped when the product is only explored in wireframes and design specs but can require significant engineering time.
  • Plan through v2. If you intend to launch a product with minimal vetting or testing, make sure you’ve written down and talked about what you intend for the subsequent version. One of the downsides of the “release early, release often” philosophy is that it’s easy to get distracted or discouraged if your beta product doesn’t immediately succeed. Or upon launch you might find your users pulling you in a direction you hadn’t intended because the product wasn’t fully fleshed out or dealing with weeks of bug-fixing and losing sight of the big picture. Once the first version is out the door, keep your team focused on the big picture and dedicated to that second version.

Pitfall 2: Users click on things that are different, not always things they like. Curious trial users skew the usage statistics for a new feature.

Upon adding a “Join now!” button to your site, you cheer when you see an unprecedented 35% click-through rate. Weeks later, registration rates are abysmal and you have to reset expectations with crestfallen teams. So you experiment with the appearance of your “Join now!” button by changing its color from orange to green, and your click rates shoot up again. But a few days later, your green button is again performing at an all-time low.

It’s easy for an initial number spike to obscure a serious issue. Launching a new feature into an existing product is especially nerve-wracking because you only have one chance to make a good first impression. If your users don’t like it the first time, they likely won’t try it again and you’ve squandered your best opportunity. Continuously making changes to artificially boost numbers leads to feature-blindness and distrustful users. Given all of this, how and when can you determine if a product is successful?

  • Instrument the entire product flow. Don’t log just one number. If you’re adding a new feature, you most likely want to know at least three stats: 1) what percentage of your users click on the feature, 2) what percentage complete the action, and 3) what percentage repeat the action again on a different day. By logging the smaller steps in your product flow, you can trace the usage statistics within all of these points to look for significant drop-offs.
  • Test in sub-communities. If you are launching a significant new feature, launch the feature in another country or in a small bucket and monitor your stats before launching more widely.
  • Dark-launch features. If you are worried that your feature could impact site performance, launch the feature silently without any visible UI and look for changes in uniques, visit times, or reports of users complaining about a slow site. You’ll minimize the number of issues you might have to potentially debug upon the actual launch.
  • Anticipate a rest period. Don’t promise statistics the day after a release. You’ll most likely want to see a week of usage before your numbers begin leveling.
  • Test the discoverability of your real estate. Most pieces of your UI will have certain natural discoverability rates. For instance, consider adding a new temporarily link to your menu header for a very small percentage of your users just to understand the discoverability rates for different parts of your UI. You can use these numbers as a baseline for evaluating future features.

Pitfall 3: Users give conflicting feedback.

You are running a usability study and evaluating whether users prefer to delete album pictures using a delete keystroke, a remove button, a drag-to-trash gesture, or a right-click context menu. After testing a dozen participants, your results are split among all four potential solutions. Maybe you should just recommend implementing all of them?

It’s unrealistic to expect users to understand the full context of our design decisions. A user might suggest adding “Apply” and “Save” buttons to a font preference dialog. However, you might know that an instant-effect dialog where the settings are applied immediately without clicking a button or dismissing the dialog allows the user to preview their font changes immediately and saves the user from opening up the dialog repeatedly to make small font style tweaks. With user research, it’s temptingly easy to create surveys or design our experiments so study participants simply vote on what they perceive as the right solution. However, the user is giving you data, not an expert opinion. If you interpret user feedback at face value, you typically end up with a split vote and little data to make an informed decision.

  • Ask why. Asking users for their preference is not nearly as informative as asking users why they have a preference. Perhaps they are basing their opinion upon a real-world situation that you don’t think is applicable to the majority of your users (e.g., “I like this new mouse preference option because I live next to a train track and my mouse shakes and wakes up my screen saver”).
  • Develop your organization’s sense of UI values. Know what UI paradigms (e.g. Mac vs. Windows, Web vs. Desktop, etc) and UI values (e.g. strong defaults or lots of customization, transparency or progressive disclosure) your team values. When you need to decipher conflicting data, you’ll have this list for guidance.
  • Make a judgment call. It’s not often helpful to users to have multiple forms of the same UI. In most cases it adds ambiguity or compensates for a poorly designed UI. When the user feedback is conflicting, you have to make a judgment call based upon what you know about the product and what you think makes sense for the user. Only in rare cases will all users have the same feedback or opinion in a research study. Making intelligent recommendations based upon conflicting data is what you are paid to do.
  • Don’t aim for the middle ground. If you have a legitimate case for building multiple implementations of the same UI (e.g., language differences, accessibility, corporate vs. consumer backgrounds, etc.), don’t fabricate a hodgepodge persona (”Everyone speaks a little bit of English!”). Instead, do your best to dynamically detect the type of user situation upfront, automate your UI for that user, and offer your user an easy way to switch.

Pitfall 4: Any data is better than no data, right?

You are debating whether to put a search box at the top or the bottom of a content section. While talking about the issue over lunch, your BD buddy suggests that you try making the top search box “Search across the Web” and the bottom search box “Search this article” to compare the results between the two. You can’t seem to place your finger on why this idea seems fishy though you can see why this would be more efficient than getting your rusty A/B testing system up and running again. Sensing your skepticism, your teammate adds, “I know it’s not perfect, but we’ll learn something about search boxes, right? I don’t see a reason not to put it in the next release if it’s easy?”

The human mind’s ability to fabricate stories to fill in the gaps in one’s knowledge is absolutely astounding. Given two or three data points, our minds can construct an alternate reality in which all of those data points make flawless sense. Whether it’s an A/B test, a usability study, or a survey, if your exploration provides limited or skewed results, you’ll most likely end up in a meeting room discussing everyone’s different interpretations of the data. This meeting won’t be productive and you’ll either agree with the most persuasive viewpoint or you’ll realize that you need a follow-up study to reconcile the potential interpretations of your study.

  • Push for requirements. When talking with your colleagues, try to figure out what you are trying to learn. What is the success metric you’re looking for? What will the numbers actually tell you? What are the different scenarios? This will help you determine the study you should run while also anticipating future interpretations of the data before running the study (e.g., if the top search bar performs better, did you learn that the top placement is better or just that users look for site search in the upper left area of a page?).
  • Recognize when a proposed solution is actually a problem statement. Sometimes someone will propose an idea that doesn’t seem to make sense. While your initial reaction may be to be defensive or to point out the flaws in the proposed A/B study, you should consider that your buddy is responding to something outside your view and that you don’t have all of the data. In this scenario, perhaps your teammate is proposing running the search box study because he has a meeting early next week and needs to work on a quicker timeline. From his perspective, he’s being polite by leading with a suggestion without realizing that you don’t have the context for his suggestion. However, after pushing him for what problem the above study will resolve, you can also help him think through alternative ways of getting the data he needs faster.
  • Avoid using UX to resolve debates. UX might seem like a fantastic way to avoid personal confrontation (especially with managers and execs!). After all, it’s far easier to debate UX results rather than personal viewpoints. However, data is rarely as definitive as we’d like. Conducting needless studies runs the risk of slowing down your execution speed and perhaps leaving deeper philosophical issues unresolved that will probably resurface again. Sometimes we agree to a study because we aren’t thinking fast enough to weigh the pros and cons of the approach, and it seems easier to simply agree. However, you do have the option of occasionally saying, “You’ve raised some really good points. I’d like to spend a few hours researching this issue more before we commit to this study. Can we talk in a few hours?” And when you do ask for this time, be absolutely certain to proactively follow-up with some alternative proposals or questions, not just reasons why you think it won’t work. You should approach your next conversation with, “I think we can apply previous research to this problem,” or “Thinking about this more, I realized I didn’t understand why it was strategically important to focus on this branding element. Can you walk me through your thinking?” or “After today’s conversation, I realized that we were both trying to decrease churn but in different ways. If we do this study, I think we’re going to be overlooking the more serious issue, which is…”

Pitfall 5: By human nature, you trust the numbers going in the right direction and distrust the numbers going in the wrong direction.

Hours after a release, you hear the PM shout, “Look! Our error rates just decreased from .5% to .0001%. Way to go engineering team! Huh, but our registration numbers are down. Are we sure we’re logging that right?”

Even with well-maintained scripts, the most talented stats team, and the best intentions, your usage statistics will never be 100% accurate. Because double-checking every number is unrealistic, you naturally tend to optimize along two paths: 1) distrust the numbers that are going in the wrong direction and, more dangerously, 2) trust the numbers that are heading in the right direction. To make matters worse, data logging is amazingly error-prone. If you spot a significant change in a newly introduced user activity metric, 9 times out of 10 it’s due to a bug rather than a meaningful behavior. As a result, five minutes of logging can result in five days of data analyzing, fixing, and verifying.

  • Hold off on the champagne. Everyone wants to be the first to relay good news so it’s hard to resist saying, “We’re still verifying things and it’s really early, but I think registration numbers went up ten-fold in the last release!” Train yourself to be skeptical and to sanity-check the good news and the bad news.
  • QA your logging numbers. Data logging typically gets inserted when the code is about to be frozen. Since data logging shouldn’t interfere with the user experience, it tends not to be tested. Write test cases for your important data logging numbers and include testing them in the QA process.
  • Establish a crisp data vocabulary. Engagement, activity, and session can mean entirely different things between teams. Make sure that your data gatekeeper has made it clear how numbers are calculated on your dashboards to help avoid false alarms or overlooked issues.

One of the main tenets of user research is to constantly test the assumptions that we develop from working on a product on a daily basis. It takes time to develop the skills to know how to apply our UX techniques, when our professional expertise should trump the user’s voice, or when to distrust user data. As a researcher, you are trained to keep an open mind and to keep asking questions until you understand the user’s entire mental picture. However, it’s that same open-mindedness and willingness to understand the user’s perspective that makes it easy to assume that because their perspective can make sense, that it should also justify changes within our product design. Or, because we are so comfortable with a particular type of UX research, we tend to over-apply it to our team’s questions.

While by no means a complete list, I hope these five pitfalls from my personal experience will be relevant to your professional lives and perhaps, provide some food for thought as we all strive to become better researchers and designers.

 

Oct 27

geeky guide to halloween


Via annedela at istockphoto.com

It’s likely that Halloween can be explained by two tiny almond-sized regions deep in your brain. By researching neuropsychology and history, a primal code appears that describes 5-6 specific stories that terrify our brain senseless. Once you know them, you can design a truly scary Halloween costume or outline many horror books and screenplays.

the floating eyeball that wouldn’t go away


Evil eyeball via moddb.com

When I was eight, I awoke to a bloodshot eyeball the size of a softball glaring down on me. I closed and opened my eyes — expecting it to be gone — but it wouldn’t go away and terrorized the space above my bed for half an hour.

The experience was petrifying. When my politely concerned parents suggested that the eyeball was a dream or a bird, I was aghast, “Dang it – now I have to risk my life catching that blasted, deathly eyeball before you’ll believe me?!”

The mystery unraveled in college when I learned about the brain’s amygdala. I went on a research deep-dive and realized, “Wait a second — this is the secret to a great Halloween costume or horror film!”

the culprit amygdala


Courtesy of Creative Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amygdala.png

The amygdala, a small low-level region of the brain a few inches behind each eye, seems perfectly wired for Halloween. It is responsible for the fight or flight response, keeping a library of what is scary in the world, detecting fearful facial expressions, and waking its dreamer when something goes bump in the night.

Hyperactive amygdalas (generally from stress, sickness, food reactions, poor sleep habits, or genetics) can trigger hallucinations and paralysis while we pass in and out of sleep. The experience isn’t always negative but when it is, it becomes a “night terror.” This is very different from a nightmare. Only 6% of the general population is believed to ever experience the prerequisite sleep paralysis [1] and a full-blown hallucinatory “night terror” (also referred to as pavor nocturnus, hypnagogia, or hypnopompia) is far rarer.

But what’s astounding is that most night terror hallucinations, spanning nearly all cultures and over thousands of years, are remarkably similar!

This suggests that some experiences are universally scary. Interviewing your amygdala is impossible and designing a psychological experiment to scare subjects is unethical. However, night terror accounts provide a convenient glimpse into that hidden psyche.

how a night terror happens


The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)

A few things must misfire for a night terror to occur. First, the amygdala must be in deep REM sleep where it has the most vivid, fanciful dream activity. But before the amygdala runs and flies into wild REM sleep stories, it warns the brainstem to immobilize the body so that the dreamer remains safe and still instead of thrashing about in their sleep.

However, occasionally the amygdala and motor shut-off signals fall out of sync before or after REM sleep. If our mind becomes conscious before the body, we can wake up paralyzed or numb. Sudden-onset paralysis is already frightening but being frozen while a fear-obsessed amygdala is in overdrive can turn terrifying!

Once frozen but conscious, the amygdala hallucinates within the bedroom scene. Suddenly ghostly apparitions appear to crawl out of closets and emerge from shadows while the dreamer remains helpless. The dreamer can even feel their intruder’s cold touch or painful pinches. Night terrors are frequently accompanied by shortness of breath and chest compressions so strong that one account describes them as “a ton of rocks upon my chest.” However, dreamers are unaware of these mechanics and attribute the sensation to the intruder crawling upon their body and riding them to near suffocation. The experience is so real that it is often hard to convince the victim that the terror didn’t actually happen.

Though night terrors vary, all night terrors exploit one fear — an intense and overpowering anxiety that something is “out to get you.” Our amygdala’s worst fear is not public speaking or the dentist but being chased or pursued with the intent to kill.


“Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving.” William J. Wilgus (1819 – 1853)
The headless horseman chasing Ichabod Crane


the 6 night terrors

Here are sure-fire ways to scare the beejezus out of your Halloween buddies. Academic research and historical accounts typically identify the old hag, incubus/succubus, and vestibular motor sensations (dizziness, vibrations). Outside of research, contemporary accounts also include alien abductions and vermin.

1. The Old Hag


Snow White, Frankenstein, Wizard of Oz, Tales from the Crypt, and Night of the Living Dead

Example: Your ghoulish deceased grandmother appears in your bedroom, slowly approaches, crawls upon your chest, and proceeds to suffocate you with her weight.

The old hag night terror refers to an old or deceased woman who appears at night and crawls upon the dreamer’s chest to choke, assault, or suffocate them. Though it’s called an “old hag,” a ghoulish male equivalent exists too. Witches, mummies, and zombies are an embodiment of this terror. With skeletons, the dreamer sometimes awakens to find the skeleton sleeping beside them. And more recently, online forums are filled with accounts of creepy children who crawl into the room to attack the dreamer.

Interestingly, Mary Shelley supposedly developed the vision for Frankenstein based upon a “dream vision” and it’s worth nothing that Dorothy’s interactions with the Wicked Witch of the West occur while she is sleeping. On Halloween, the old hag is represented by the classic pointy hat witch costume.


2. Evil Species


Engraving from Charles Nodier’s “Tales” (probably inspired by Henry Fuseli) (1846), King Kong, Gremlins, Terminator, Aliens,
and Forbidden Planet (1956)

Example: A giant expressionist monster with glowing eyes enters your room through a crack in the window, immobilizes you telepathically, and proceeds to suck the life out of you with its super powers.

Sometimes the menacing presence is not entirely human but a demon, gremlin, monster, or animal. In research, these are typically classified as types of old hag hallucinations and the overall intent is the same — to physically assault the dreamer. However, there’s a subtle distinction that I think makes it worthy of it’s own category. Unlike deceased human corpses, the amygdala appears to invent a threatening superior species. In history, this has been a stronger demon, a monster laden with teeth, or a creature with supernatural powers like a werewolf at full moon. Today, there are fewer accounts of these demons. However, alien abduction stories are rampant and many researchers believe that these are modern night terrors exposing a deep fear of a technologically superior species.


3. Femme Fatale & Ladykiller


Medieval woodcut of lustful Pan from Darrah Anderson with 3:AM Magazine, Snow White (1937), La Chiesa, Dracula (1931),
Phantom of the Opera, Lilith by John Collier (1892), and Basic Instinct

Example: The devil appears in your bedroom and wants to impregnate you with his spawn.

Though it’s controversial to mention, history is riddled with accounts of the incubus (male) and succubus (female) — evil lustful spirits that use their sexual wiles to seduce and assault their dreamers. This is the classic tale behind Rosemary’s Baby.

In the Medieval period, these reports were so pervasive that if a woman unexpectedly became pregnant while her husband was away, the demonic incubus was suspected before infidelity or rape. The male form is controversial and many suspect that historical accounts of incubi have been scape-goats for history’s sexual offenders. However, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rosemary’s Baby, and the Phantom of the Opera are almost certainly of incubus folklore.

The female equivalent, a femme fatale, generally takes the shape of a demonic angel (she-devil) with pronounced sexual features like large breasts, long hair, and sometimes wings. In some cases, the female form attacks the children of the dreamer. Most cultures have a Lilith/Eve temptress within their folklore – some dating back thousands of years. It’s not at all far-fetched to suggest that religion may have taken a cue from a hyperactive amygdala!


4. Vibrations & Noise


Alice in Wonderland (1951), Vertigo (1958), Exorcist (1973), haunted house via clker.com

Example: You wake up to paralysis. You strain to open your eyes or sit up in bed but even the smallest movement is impossible. You’re trapped in your head’s darkness growing dizzier by the second. A buzzing noise joins your darkness and gets louder and louder, closer and closer. You try screaming for help but you are still paralyzed. The buzzing noise is overwhelming and all-consuming. The darkness has become a whirlpool and the buzzing is so loud your head is shaking. At any moment, you’re afraid that your head might explode.

Night terrors do not always include a living intruder. Sometimes dreamers find themselves shaking uncontrollably, falling, dizzy, or just experience the world off-kilter — like a whirlpool appearing within the room, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the heartbeat beneath the floorboards in Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, or violent shaking that cracks bedroom walls.

Some night terror victims have an experience more akin to a noise. The “exploding head syndrome” refers to a noise trapped in the dreamer’s head that spins around getting louder and louder until the dreamer fears their head will explode.

Other noises include explosive door slams, gunshots, or explosions that immediately wake the dreamer. Or, the dreamer is paralyzed but hears far-away noises like screams, laughter, ringing, or wind getting louder and louder foreshadowing something ominous. This explains haunted house noises and perhaps why shaky hand-held camera effects elicit scary spine tingles.

As an aside, it might not be a Halloween costume, but if you’re going to write a horror film, the vibration category is my bet. Pop culture has desensitized us to vampires and zombies but the “exploding head syndrome” is rife with opportunities.


5. Vermin


Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Invasion of the Vampires (1963), rats in ceiling via darksidedisplays.com,
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Birds (1963)

Example: The wallpaper shifts, squirms, and starts crawling with hundreds of rats. The rats crawl from the walls to the ceiling above your bed and then fall into your bedsheets. They keep coming. Soon you are swimming in rats that want to overtake you.

Creepy crawly apparitions vary by culture — one culture’s cockroach is another culture’s chameleon. However, spiders, bats, lizards, cockroaches, snakes, and rats appear frequently on English-speaking forums. If the beady-eyed intruder is alone, it is typically over-sized, flying, and potentially baring teeth. Swarms of critters tend to crawl up ceilings and drop on the bedsheets of their dreamer.

After reading many vermin night terror accounts, I suspect that patterned wallpaper, curtains, and carpets provide the perfect canvas for the amygdala to go nuts. A significant number of vermin stories start with the wallpaper shifting into squirming snakes and spiders. Personally, I love fantastic wallpaper in horror films (like The Shining’s hotel) but I’d be in favor of banning wall and floor patterns in hospitals. Sickness and fever is a predictor for night terrors and the hospital is a place where I definitely want my amygdala shielded!


6. Fear of the Unknown


Repulsion (1965), Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), evil eyeball via moddb.com, monster under bed via monster.wikia.com/

Example: You wake up with a sense of overwhelming dread. You know something is in the room. It is very cold and you feel more alone than you ever have before. Whatever it is has already taken everyone else in the house and is now coming after you. You are petrified with fear. Each second the presence doesn’t reveal itself just leaves you in greater suspense.

Many visual hallucinations are incomplete or semi-transparent versions of themes 1-5: teethy jaws, ghosts, shadowy figures, faceless spirits, floating heads, arms emerging from walls or closets, and countless variations of evil eye hallucinations — floating eyeballs, red glowing eyes, or white eyes with no iris. In some cases, there is no intruder at all but just an unbearable presence that is perhaps worse than if the hallucination took full shape. This could be the monster that lives under the bed or the still shadow who keeps the dreamer in terror-filled suspense.

Within Halloween, the jack-o-lantern approximates a dismembered floating head and it’s easy to see why the ghost costume is so popular. However, if you’re looking for a great Halloween costume, the faceless shadowy figure wearing a brimmed hat and business suit (or trenchcoat) is one of today’s most common night terror hallucinations.


Conclusion

If you’re thinking, “Now I have to fall asleep after reading about the old hag. Thanks a lot Elaine.” I have good news. The more you know about night terrors the less likely you are to have them. And in fact, this may be the reason that Halloween exists at all – the more we reconcile our worst fears the less likely our amygdala goes ballistic when we’re deep asleep.

However, if you freeze with sleep paralysis tonight, many reoccurring night terror victims say that thinking positive thoughts and willing yourself to spin out of bed from your side instead of sitting straight up will break the paralyzing spell.

Happy Halloween!


Via annedela at istockphoto.com

Oct 02

preserving awesomeness: why metrics aren’t enough

I love, love, love numbers. If I am ever trapped on a deserted island, please just give me data and a scripting language and I’ll live out my remaining days content. After graduating, I spent four years in quant heaven conducting hundreds upon hundreds of Human Factors studies and reducing the world to performance indices and error rates. When we started Meebo, it took me no time to instrument every conceivable performance metric including whose blog posts were most read, emoticon preferences, and average time to open the first IM conversation. If it moved or clicked, *bam* — I logged it.

But with time, touchy-feely neurons sprouted within my data brain. Minimum viable products, “release early, release often” philosophies, feedback loops, and A/B testing help optimization and decision-making but they can’t guarantee that a product is awesome. Quantitative rigor is a requirement but what kills startups is not lack of data. What kills startups is when the 2-3 year strategy gets murky, when a product loses its pizzazz, or when management is no longer confidently aligned. It’s the fuzzy, intangible stuff.

I met with a CEO & friend last week who, after over a decade in business and millions of users, was considering layoffs. He’d spent the previous days sifting through years of decks with the question, “What went wrong?” haunting him. We were contemplating a front page redesign and I kicked off our creative session with, “Okay, let’s define awesome — why did you start this company?” but his response was surprisingly mournful, “I think that’s the problem. I think there have been times when I’ve forgotten that too.”

That spark that ignites founders is unfathomably huge. “Awesome” seems obvious initially and losing that passion seems absurd. However, business partnerships with big checks will tempt you from your strategy, late products will demand you shave features, a pivot will fling you into new industries and revenue models, a “go big vs. stay nimble” debate will divide meeting rooms, flashy headlines will make you question whether you’re a fad or a trend, and your significant other will ask, “Wait, why is this worth it again?” as you curtail your vacation for yet another supposed emergency. Very rarely will the answer be waiting on the internal dashboard.

The mission statement is supposed to be the company compass that cuts through the data clutter but it’s insufficient. The mission statement is merely a 12-24 month hypothesis of how the current business will be most successful. It does not define the unbeatable x-factor that perseveres the inevitable ups and downs. And when you lose grasp of that essence, the entrepreneurial experience starts to feel inauthentic, the passion dies, and years later you try to remember why you set down this path initially.

So the surprising advice from a data-head gone slightly soft is simple but I promise it will save you hundreds, if not thousands, of stressful hours. Before you hire your first employee or launch your first prototype, take a two-hour lunch to do a three-word exercise to define your founder awesomeness: who you are, what you do, and how you do it. At Meebo, our three words were, “simple, elegant, friendly.” Public companies’ three words can be approximated from their s-1s — Facebook’s might be “fast, bold, open” whereas Google might be “data, big, visionary.”

Logic-loving counterparts, I can see you skeptically furrowing, “Words? Wha? Elaine, I have 109 bugs to fix, I just ran out of coffee, and your blogs aren’t exactly short.” But wait, let me prove this is more than a touchy-feeling bonding exercise:

THE RATIONALE

  1. Nip it in the bud. Whatever debates surface over this informal exercise are likely to be repeated countless times in the future: when to launch, how large an office to lease, whether to throw a party, what types of revenue models are palatable, whether your email tone is formal or informal… these debates are really about values and identity. Plus, these issues are likely to surface when you’re under stress and under-rested.
  2. Everyone does their part. By making this a team exercise, you spread the responsibility for upholding awesomeness across all founders — it’s not one founder representing fantastic user experience while the alter-ego founder battles for margins. These words become your shared playbook instead of divided territories.
  3. It’s inevitable. As you grow and build out teams like Product, Engineering, UX, HR, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Support, those team members will need to understand “awesomeness” so they can do their job: how to interact with customers, how to reward employees, how to pitch the vision, how to pace development, how to design the product, etc. What they are really trying to do is articulate the founders’ DNA. If it’s not readily apparent, those teams will define their own version of “awesome” and then that function will feel inauthentic and be ineffective.

STEP #1 – BRAINSTORMING

Digging into fuzzy stuff isn’t easy so before the two-hour lunch, here are four homework questions to prep:

  1. Who are your competitors? From a perspective, how are you different?
  2. Who are your enemies? A common enemy is galvanizing — what are you against? Loneliness, boredom, waste, mean people?
  3. Who are you akin to? If your company were < music, an animal, a car, or even a Disney character, etc>, what would you be and why?
  4. What’s your magic wish? If you could wave a magic wand and change absolutely anything (the crazier the better), what would be different in the world because of you?

When you share, pay attention to the words and themes that reappear. The why is more important than whether you 100% agree on specific Pokemon characters.

STEP #2 – SELECTION

Cull and clump common themes and words together. Get it down to three. Here are 575 words to start and some tips:

  1. Stick with three. You might think more words = more awesome. However, the more words you have, the more watered-down your essence is and the harder it is to prioritize later. Designing a front page with three words is a thousand times easier than with four words which is likely to feel incoherent. 99.999% of the teams I’ve worked with want to stop with four. However, your future teams will be enormously grateful that you took an ice cream break and whittled it down to three.
  2. Aim for tension. Your awesome words have more personality and power when they conflict with each other. For instance, “honest, open, transparent” is less effective than “honest, irreverent, idealistic.”
  3. Avoid negative words. Be positive. This is your awesomeness! Think pep-talk motivator instead of “thou shall not” downer.
  4. Think big. Make at least one word aspirational — “simple” was Meebo’s aspirational word. We wanted to design products whose technical complexity was hidden within a streamlined user interface. Our aspirational was centered around the product but your aspirational word might refer to your identity, “largest, unbiased, champion, leader” or execution: “fearless, fast, risky.” That aspirational word keeps you reaching towards something instead of just defining your current status quo.
  5. Anticipate double meanings. “Bright” could mean smart or vibrant. “Together” could mean solidarity or buttoned-up. Those particulars matter.
  6. Choose words that will endure. You might be an “underdog” now but what about at 10,000 employees?
  7. Be suspicious of hollow pick-me-ups. “Excellence, nice, original, trustworthy, different, innovative” — are these words specific enough to help with decision-making? Why are you excellent? Why are you trustworthy?
  8. Focus on you — not the market. Every bank wants to be “honest, secure.” Every startup wants to be “social, open.” But what is it about your particular startup that is different?

Remembering what you didn’t choose and why will be important later so find a shoebox (or camera) and archive this somewhere safe. A Marketing person in your not-so-distant future is weeping for joy right now.

STEP #3 – VALIDATE

There might be one word that doesn’t sit quite right with you — that’s normal. The words will grow with you. But to gain a little bit of confidence before immortalizing these words forever, here are a few questions to think through as a team:

  1. Hiring: What skills and experiences do you look for based upon your three words? How is the recruiting process conducted so that your three words are self-evident to candidates?
  2. Team-building: What team behaviors are encouraged and discouraged based upon your three words? Decorated desks, heated debates, meetings that run long, swearing — are these acceptable or unacceptable behaviors?
  3. Leadership: What should leadership pay attention to the most? Consumers? Market? Team? Investors?
  4. Innovation: Where do ideas come from most often? How do you develop and validate insights? How does this scale?
  5. Decision-making: What is the appropriate response when two employees reach an impasse: hierarchy, escalate, gather more data, test and see, pick one arbitrarily and run?
  6. Tone: What language do you use to address your users? How frequently? What information do you share and hide? Which users do you prioritize and how?
  7. Sales & Marketing: How do you sell your story and product? Testimonials, demos, field expert influence, data, price, product speaks for itself?
  8. Development: What’s more important: development quality or development pace? How do you reconcile the two?
  9. Design: What expertise (i.e. typography, color, interaction, editorial) do you value most because of your three words? What other products embody one of your three words and why?
  10. Recovery: When you make a mistake with your (release a buggy feature, miss a promised deadline), how do you recover?
  11. Accountability: Who is ultimately accountable for goals? The manager, the employee, the founders? What are the repercussions for not meeting those goals? How are disappointed employees, investors, managers, etc reassured?
  12. Celebrations: How do you celebrate individual, team, and company achievements? Is reward solely salary, titles, equity, and bonuses?

Your words might not address all of these questions. That’s okay. At Meebo, we didn’t have an execution word and looking back, I can see how that generated a strong product brand but a more organic development philosophy. Had we tried answering these questions, we might have ferreted out those issues earlier and better realized our potential weaknesses.

SUMMARY

But here’s the surprise — now that you’ve articulated your awesomeness, your metrics will make a lot more sense. You might realize that to be a “leader,” you need to prioritize market metrics. If your goal is to be “fast,” you might track release cycles and product stability. For “friendly,” your outreach, interaction, and reputation with users is key.

I once believed that data was pure and incontestable. However, in a business context, data is interpreted by people with unconscious agendas, is most frequently a trailing indicator that can only be gathered once a prototype has been built, and can never quite quantify “awesomeness.” No one sets out to build a lackluster product, hire an unexceptional team, or present substandard returns to their investors. While awesomeness cannot be quantified, it can be articulated and the earlier that’s done in a company’s history, the better.

Sep 11

dear elaine

time travel

Dear Elaine circa 2005,

If you’re reading this, it’s because time travel becomes possible and someone has been kind enough to relay this message to you. Please thank them for me too.

First, it’s Elaine from 2012. In 2005, you are enjoying team walks to Peet’s each morning, realizing that your London and Italian cohorts are right – MSN is huge internationally, and maybe you’re even backing down from your stubborn use of camel case thanks to your friends knocking some sense into you. You’re a motley, passionate start-up crew and that crazy clash of perspectives has made Meebo’s product and team stronger. There are very few occasions where I’d confidently stop time to experience a moment indefinitely. However, that oh-so-short walk to Peet’s is one of them.

I’m not going to spoil your Meebo journey. I wouldn’t want to ruin the exhilarating surprises and nothing I could say, unfortunately, could prevent the occasional soul-crushing despair. Fortunately, the good days will definitely outnumber the bad. However, time travel is an extraordinarily rare opportunity and I know you’d be disappointed if I didn’t offer you any advice.

But please be patient, I want to recount a story from our autobiography…

In an airport between flights, your future Elaine meets a retired psychologist and after some social banter, you casually ask, “So at what age do most people become self-aware — demonstrate an understanding of their strengths & weaknesses and some idea of how they fit into their social context?”

This is a set-up. You’re already thinking about follow-up questions. Does self-awareness gradually increase with age? Is there a time when it peaks? What happens when someone becomes self-aware at the age of 80 – is that even heard of?” You’ve been dying to ask these questions forever.

But what he says stops you, “Elaine, I can’t answer that question because less than 5% of people get there… ever.”

To my 2005 existence, I’m so sorry – I know this is a shock. When you were in middle school, your mother reassured you that your classmates might grow up and surprise you some day — she was right. You half-expect a similar right-of-passage transformation to happen with your peer group — it’s unlikely.

Second, it’s not clear what this means for societies coexisting at a larger scale — I can’t speculate on that either.

And lastly, everyone probably harbors some secret, selfish hope that those who’ve wronged us might one day develop some future self-awareness and regret their clumsy missteps — oy, this rarely, rarely happens either. You have to keep doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing.

You already know that you aren’t self-aware. It makes you a little uncomfortable but boy, how you’d really like to join that 5%!

So the advice. I know you’re hoping for a top ten list with easily digestible bullets and actionable tidbits. But, actually, my single piece of advice to you is philosophical and just three words…

“Don’t be self-aware.”

I know this runs contrary to everything within you — your desire for truth, to do well by others, and for self-efficacy. However, when you are self-aware, you can’t dance without feeling ridiculous, talk without freezing mid-sentence, learn at any reasonable speed, or help but blame yourself for not getting along with everyone. The start-up pace is so relentless that if you commit yourself to self-awareness now, you will spend too many hours replaying events in your mind and crushing yourself under the weight of self-criticism. It’s hard to balance the humility of self-awareness with the confidence it takes to run a start-up. Self-awareness is a destination you need to know how to get to but it’s no place to linger.

It’s also refreshing to have people who are woefully un-self-aware in an organization — those are usually the folks who have a lot of perspective to offer, who don’t bow to an organization’s normalizing pressure, and who keep that spark alive. Your team will be a happier, stronger place if you postpone your quest for self-awareness, focus on just being comfortable with your own skin no matter what you learn about yourself, and keep Meebo a kind environment for everyone.

I know what you’re thinking, “Elaine, you came back all the way in time just to tell me this?!!!” Sigh… yes. And from one perfectionist to another, you know I wouldn’t do it without a ton of reflection and consideration. Perhaps your favorite quote will help:

“There are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised; for the question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.” — Oscar Wilde

Love,
-Elaine

P.S. And spend more time with your future husband too!

Aug 07

the best recruiters – followup

the best recruiters

Of the 530 emails directed to Pete London, there were a few standouts. Thirty-seven emails contained personalization, role, and company information but within that group, just 5 recruiters went beyond an occasional detail and spent a minimum of three paragraphs explaining the team’s priorities, charting the company’s trajectory, and describing why Pete’s background set the perfect stage for a new opportunity.

The best recruiters

According to these metrics, the extraordinary recruiting folks who represent that top 1% are:


Andrea Canova

Bill
Umoff

Brad Fuellenbach

Ronda Woodcox

Tony Lindley

what’s their secret?

I’ve re-read Pete’s emails multiple times and analyzed the best recruiters’ tips and tricks. Here’s my attempt to articulate the unspoken rules of a fantastic recruiter email:

2nd person

Tip #1. You, your, and yours

The most common mistake a recruiter makes is framing the opportunity from their perspective instead of the candidate’s: “Hi, I’m a recruiter, I’ve got a great position for you. We’re doing amazing things. Call me!”.

Ronda and Brad’s brilliant emails stood out for one simple thing — the predominant use of the second person. Instead of selling the company and listing its virtues in “I, me, we” language, they paint the position from Pete’s perspective with “you, your, yours” language:

“This opportunity would take you more in the direction of new media… it would give you the opportunity to really stretch your skills… you’ll have the chance to learn SproutCore directly from the guy who developed it…”Ronda Woodcox

“Specifically I have you in mind as Software Engineer for our Application Development team which is responsible for building and scaling innovative features for <company&#62. You’d be responsible for seeing projects through from inception to development, production, and rapid post-production iteration. You’d be working on UI to the meaty challenges in back-end scalability, optimization, and performance primarily in Javascript and PHP…”Brad Fuellenbach

By adopting the second person, the potential benefits to Pete are more apparent and the recruiters become a storyteller instead of a salesman.

robots

Tip #2. First impressions…

Though everyone wants their emails to stand out, most email openers fall into one of three categories: 1) 35% “Hi, I am a recruiter” 2) 22% “I came across your profile and was impressed, and 3) 7% “Sorry to bother you but…”

None of these greetings is ideal. The most common introduction, “Hi, I’m a recruiter, ” or “Hi, my name is and I work with…,” seems like a harmless and polite opener, but it’s not necessary (your name is already in the to header) and it immediately puts the focus on your status as a recruiter instead of the candidate’s potential opportunity.

The second category, “I came across your profile and was impressed,” isn’t specific and once you’ve received 100 recruiter emails that are similarly impressed, the flattery falls flat.

And finally, the apology. There’s no reason to apologize for being a recruiter or for a cold email. An organization is nothing without its people and your role is to leave no stone unturned on your quest to match an opportunity with an ideal candidate. If your email is strong and well-written, there’s no need to start your outreach from a weak and tentative position.

For contrast, consider these approaches:


1) “I’m reaching out to you given your strong front-end development experience, particularly with Javascript.”
2) “Your unique mix of front-end and back-end knowledge and experience really caught the attention of our current Web Developer manager.”
3) “I see that you have experience with large scale software development involving distributed systems that lines up nicely with the work being done in our Cloud Technology Team”

In all three cases, the author’s recruiter role is implied, the flattery is specific, and the critical opening sentence is not wasted on frivolous social niceties.

Of the five top emails, only one began with a “I saw your profile and was impressed.” The other four began with a specific compliment or a non-standard opener.

follow-up don't spam

Tip #3. Follow up; don’t spam

Within the 172 organizations who reached out to Pete, 44% of those emails could have referenced a previous email or colleague, “Pete, I wanted to reach out again…” However, the actual number was much lower – just 12%.

When recruiters reference previous emails, they maintain the conversation and history. When a subsequent email is sent without referencing the previous outreach, it’s worse than starting over. The ignored history implies that regardless of what the recruiter says, the candidate is unmemorable and the recruiter’s words read insincere.

And beyond mentioning a personal follow-up, just 1 recruiter picked up the torch for their team member by name, “It’s been a few month since my colleague, Thomas, reached out to you.” Teamwork brownie points go to: Ryan Eriksson (Expanxion).

blah blah blah

Tip #4: The limelight belongs to the candidate

External recruiting firms and VC’s are especially likely to justify their outreach by talking about their firm, their firm’s specialty, years of experience, previous LinkedIn testimonials, etc. A laundry list of credentials doesn’t prove you are a great recruiter — the proof is in the email where the focus should be on the candidate’s qualifications, not your own.

The top five recruiters take a different tact and show a friendly, insatiable curiosity to learn more about Pete while never mentioning anything about their role or title:

“From what I gather, you’re a JavaScript and front-end expert, having worked on web applications that scale to millions.  I also noted, however, that your skills go beyond front-end work, demonstrated by your experience at Plaxo in C/C++ (and even violin!).  What I take from this is that you are really an engineering generalist, although maybe having some obvious strengths and likes, with a clear understanding of the web.  I thought I would get in touch with you in hopes of learning about your situation and sharing some info from my end.”Bill Umoff

“…I am extremely impressed with the experience you’ve gained from Meebo, Plaxo and Disney … but primarily your passion of “scaling applications to millions, and pushing the bounds of what’s possible on the Web” … Well, I’d love to learn some more about you and your interests and am curious if you’d be open to having a chat with us here at <company? either tomorrow or Wednesday…”Brad Fuellenbach

summary

One last tidbit, recruiters don’t read blogs. Surprisingly, Pete’s inbox has continued flowing since the initial honeypot email post — roughly one ping every 31 hours — with no signs of dwindling. While the field attracts a wide range of talent, this shouldn’t detract from the amazing recruiters who are getting recruiting right.

A special thanks to Bill Umoff, Brad Fuellenbach, and Ronda Woodcox for allowing their non-anonymized emails to be reprinted.

Happy team-building,
-Elaine

Jun 26

the recruiter honeypot

In late 2009, I created an online persona named Pete London – a self-described JavaScript ninja – to help attract and hire the best JavaScript recruiters. While I never hired a recruiter from the experiment, I learned a ton about how to compete in today’s Silicon Valley talent war. Based upon two years of non-scientific research, here’s what you should know…

The Recruiting Crisis

In late 2009, my desk was piled with JavaScript resumes. Our homegrown JavaScript framework edged us over competitors but maintaining our technical advantage meant carefully crafting a lean, delta-force Web team. Though I averaged two interviews a day, we had only grown the team by three-four engineers each year.

However, in 2010, that had to change. It was our first year with a real revenue target and also the first time we planned to pivot from our original IM product. We charted our end-of-year goals, quarterly milestones, and eventually backtracked to our team and hiring priorities. To meet our 2010 goals, I needed to double the JavaScript team in just one quarter. If I didn’t, innovation would stall and without revenue, our business would be in serious jeopardy.

I had very little more to give. Over the previous four years, I had already spent my personal networks, seeded every nook of the Web with job descriptions, and experimented with guerilla recruiting tactics like hosting JavaScript meetups across the country, planting hand-written congratulatory notes on the seats of CS Stanford students who’d just finished their finals, coding a spidering engine to find online JavaScript resumes, and even buying Google AdWords for relevant terms like xmlhttp, opendatabase, and localstorage.

But then my recruiting problem went from serious to heart-stopping dire. In the final months of 2009, every female on Meebo’s recruiting team became pregnant within a month of each other. Our expectant mothers were searching for contract replacements but as winter crept closer, finding someone who could temporarily step up to our extraordinary JavaScript challenges during our most critical hiring quarter looked unlikely. I was truly on my own.

PETE LONDON IS BORN

I needed amazing recruiters desperately. After the third expectant mother relayed her good news, I sunk into to my chair overwhelmed with urgency and stared blankly at my monitor thinking over and over, “Oh my god, what do I do now?” My first impulse was to look at the recruiters in my Inbox – specifically those who had pinged me for a Javascript role and presumably had prior Javascript recruiting experience. However, I also needed a recruiter who was smart enough not to poach a founder.

The honeypot idea emerged slowly, “If only I weren’t a founder! Which recruiters would have contacted me as an engineer?” I stewed on the idea of posting my resume online with a fictitious name for days and then one sleepless night, without telling anyone, I woke up and posted a small three-page website with an about page, resume, and blog for a supposed Pete London whose interests and engineering persona mirrored my own except he wasn’t a founder. I swapped out my post-graduate experience with my husband so it wouldn’t be too easy to trace back to me. I returned to bed with a small glimmer of hope – I had been hunting for recruiters for months but now the recruiters would come to me!

LAST RESORT – LINKEDIN

My hopes sank pretty quickly. PeteLondon.com sat alone in Internet ether for weeks with absolutely nada activity. I was about to pull down the entire site when I thought – I’ll just post the resume on LinkedIn as a last resort.

Bam. It was as if I’d finally stumbled upon the door to the party.

On December 10th, 2009, the first LinkedIn message arrived from Google. Mozilla followed on December 15th. Ning and Facebook followed in January. Since then, Pete averaged a recruiter ping every 40 hours and saw 530 emails from 382 recruiters across 172 organizations.

* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10th, 2009 and ended June 1, 2012

WHAT I LEARNED

After two and a half years, I learned less about recruiting recruiters and more about recruiting engineers. Here are my eight biggest take-aways to finding the best talent online…

Lesson 1: Recruiters rely exclusively upon LinkedIn

You might be thinking, “Really? This is obvious!” But understand the context. I was interviewing tech recruiters who said they had “moved beyond LinkedIn.” LinkedIn was a “crutch for everyone else” but them. When I asked what techniques they used to fulfill JavaScript roles, they’d describe complex Boolean queries, highway 101 billboards, and obscure search engines. I ate it up! But at the same time, I wondered, “Wait, if this is all true, why hasn’t anyone found Pete London yet?”

To further my confusion, LinkedIn wasn’t how Meebo found its initial superstar JavaScript team. From 2005-20011, only one JavaScript team member was hired via LinkedIn – the rest came from personal networking, meetups, blog scouting, and other guerilla recruiting approaches.

I also assumed that a professional who made their living from recruiting, would want to optimize their response rate and would seek out ways to contact Pete London beyond LinkedIn. Though Pete London’s website and personal email address were just one click from his LinkedIn profile page, the majority of emails still arrived via LinkedIn – especially from larger companies.

Surprisingly, very few recruiters tried more than one communication channel.

TIP #1: If you’re a start-up who always feels like you’re scraping the bottom of the LinkedIn barrel, you’re probably right – LinkedIn is incredibly competitive. Recruit latent talent off the grid.

TIP #2: Recruiters flock to LinkedIn first, if not always. To increase your personal opportunities, join LinkedIn.

Lesson 2: Fear the Silicon Valley long tail

When I wrote to potential engineers, I always imagined my email landing next to recruiting giants like Google or Facebook. As a result, I was careful to emphasize Meebo’s unique start-up learning opportunities, amazing culture, and the opportunity to make impact.

However, my strategy was misguided. The Silicon Valley companies that drew TechCrunch headlines from 2010-2012 (i.e. Adobe, Amazon, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Microsoft, Mozilla, Skype, Twitter, Yahoo, Zynga) only represented 15% of the landscape.

But I should have been more scared than I was – the emails from start-ups and mid-sized companies sounded nearly identical (my own included), “We’re a fast-growing start-up disrupting a lucrative space where your talents will shine and your efforts will be amply rewarded.” By emphasizing the classic start-up experience, everyone sounded exactly the same:

Start-up in Mountain View: “We’ve assembled a world class team. Our monthly uniques have already exceeded [###] million and continue to trend higher at a rapid pace. We’ve reached an inflection point where we’re looking to scale, and with your background I wanted to speak with you about our engineering hiring.”
Start-up in San Francisco: “There are a variety of interesting technical challenges in front of us including scaling for millions of users, developing applications, building a sophisticated data platform, securing user data and, most importantly, ensuring an incredible experience for our users. Aside from our plethora of awesome technical projects, this is also a great place to work. Everyone on the team benefits from free meals and tremendous organizational transparency (weekly all hands, daily stand ups, etc.)”

Larger companies employed an entirely different strategy and anecdotally, I saw more terse, canned emails from larger companies than start-ups. To quantitatively compare strategies, I went through all emails and noted whether the recruiter included role details, company information, or if the email was personalized specifically to Pete. I was incredibly lenient and gave points whenever I could. By almost every metric, the larger companies performed weakest: smallest word count (114 vs. 148 words per email), least likely to describe the company mission or personalize email, and least likely to use a personal email address. However, large companies hired triple the number of recruiters and made up for their shortcomings in volume. Pete heard from an average of 1.4 recruiters at each start-up and 4.6 recruiters at each large company.

You might assume that with more internal recruiters, big companies would do better than start-ups who depend more upon external recruiters. After all, big companies have had more time, resources, infrastructure to make this a key strategic asset. But it turns out you don’t want to emulate the big guys and you also don’t want to assume they are your stiffest competition.

TIP #3: Your real recruiting nemesis is the start-up down the street. Pitch your job opportunities with more specificity than “fast-paced, innovative startup.”

Lesson 3: The recruiting landscape isn’t just filled with recruiters

Only 97% of the recruiting emails can be attributed to traditional recruiting. So who represents the remaining 3%?

Surprise! VCs – specifically early-stage angel investors.

* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10th, 2009 and ended June 1, 2012

Though they are a small lot, they are a super lethal bunch with an eye on your jugular artery – your revered first engineers who built your system from scratch. The charming VCs know that your prized engineers could fulfill a similar role at their future portfolio companies and set their hooks early. In most cases they don’t have a specific company or role in mind but are just proactively networking and hoping to be top-of-mind in the future. Given how interconnected and fast-moving the start-up world is, this might be inevitable but woah! good to know.

“I’m with [a VC firm] and my charter is to build out their talent services capabilities. What that means is we are looking for high caliber individuals that would be interested in potentially exploring opportunities with our portfolio companies.

Your experience is exceptional and you have the type of background that should be apart of the network. If you are interested in learning more I would love the opportunity to speak with you in more detail. What we are looking to establish is a “go to” network of top notch individuals that would be a value add to our portfolio of companies. I hope to hear from you soon.”

TIP #4: Keep your engineers happy (i.e. free food, great people, & amazing challenges). When the VCs come knocking, make sure your MVP’s are glued in.

Lesson 4: Can a start-up rely upon external recruiting?

As a start-up, you are inevitably resource-starved. When you have the good fortune to gain traction, you have the setback of suffering infrastructure growing pains while realizing the only way to get ahead is to find time to recruit, interview, and close candidates. In the early days, external recruiters appeared on Meebo’s doorstep and promised to screen and pass along qualified candidates so I could turn my attention back to Friday’s release – it seemed like a dream come true!

However, the first people you hire set your engineering and cultural DNA for the lifetime of the organization and while you desperately need to hire well, can you depend upon external recruiters to step up to the task? Once the scaling challenges strike, does it make more sense to proactively hire a superstar in-house recruiter or to rely upon external recruiters to scale the engineering team?

The answer is surprising – external and internal recruiters perform similarly in start-up environments. Internal recruiters are 14% more likely to describe the position but 14% less likely to personalize the email.

However, larger companies don’t have a viable external recruiting option. External recruiters at the top companies were much weaker overall – 340% less likely to include a description of the role, 140% less likely to personalize their email, and 88% less likely to include detailed company information. Though larger company recruiters were relatively weak overall, in-house recruiters are their only viable option.

Given this significant performance difference, it’s no surprise that larger companies also employ far more internal recruiters than start-ups.

TIP #5: As a start-up, you can sleep easier knowing that external recruiters are a fantastic resource. Find your superstar engineers first and your superstar in-house recruiters second.

TIP #6: Contingency recruiting farms are financially incentivized to hire for less selective companies. For difficult roles, a dedicated contract recruiter may be your only realistic option.

However, before you get too excited about external recruiters, read further…

Lesson 5: Be careful whom you invite into your house

Unfortunately, it’s not all about the numbers. Though external recruiters perform well for start-ups, there’s another side to this story. It pains me to write this but I think it’s important to share…

Meebo employed lots of external recruiters when we were getting off the ground. We had standard 18-month no-poach restrictions with all of our contractors that specified that those recruiters were not allowed to contact Meebo employees within 18 months of our contract expiring. Most of those contracts expired in 2008-2009.

However, every recruiter and firm we’d worked with who was still in the recruiting business tried to poach Pete London.

Every single one!

It’s impossible to know whether our former recruiters were pinging employees during the no-poach period prior to 2009 but I wouldn’t be surprised. However, I doubt they were being malicious – it’s more likely they were just disorganized and didn’t communicate an off-limits list to their staff.

In addition to pings from too-familiar recruiters, there were two cases that left me especially uneasy. In the first case, a former recruiting agency tried to poach Pete London and then 15 minutes later, wrote to me offering recruiting services! I was being pulled on both ends! When I didn’t respond, they repeated the stunt again six weeks later. I got wind that they’d sent recruiting emails to everyone on our Engineering teams and I called them on it (without referencing Pete London). I never heard from them again.

May 13th, 2:20pm

“Hi Peter,

I am a recruiter who works with high-growth, top-tier start ups and industry leaders. I came across your information and was impressed with your background. I’m guessing you may not be actively looking for a new job right now, but I’m sure you plan on continuing to advance your career in the long term, and would be open to hear about opportunities that may accelerate that advancement.

I’d like to get a better idea of your interests and goals, so that I can identify and present to you a few of the most attractive opportunities in the market both now and in the future. You may be pleasantly surprised at what is out there for you. Let me know a good time and number to call you…”

May 13th, 2:35pm (15 minutes later)

“Hi Elaine,

I’m a recruiter… We specialize in the placement of technology professionals. I’ve been working with many excellent candidates from the space and researching companies for them. meebo came up in my search as a good company to consider, so I’d like to present some of these candidates to you for interviews.

Please call me or email me a good time and # to reach you…

Thanks and I look forward to working with you!”

The second case that made me uneasy involved a contractor recruiter who worked from Meebo’s office for nearly a year. During this time, the recruiter went to lunch with the team, participated in hackdays, and became close with many folks. Two years later, that recruiter poached Pete London and a few hours later, showed up at Meebo’s informal Friday happy hour! I was definitely in a queasy gray zone where there wasn’t a strong divide between our personal and professional relationship. Technically, it was hard to nail down any real grievances, but I was certainly aware that our teams were constantly under former recruiter attack.

External recruiters are an inevitable necessity for start-ups. But after seeing all of the emails that those external recruiters generated in subsequent years, I wish Meebo had switched to in-house recruiting sooner.

The external recruiters you work with today are good but they will learn your strengths, your team, and you’ll probably be uncomfortably top of mind later on.

TIP #7: External recruiters are a mixed blessing – be selective and switch to internal recruiters as soon as you can.

TIP #8: Push for at least 18-month no-poach policies with external recruiters.

Lesson #6: The most common little white lie is…

With very few exceptions, recruiter emails were well-written, smarmy-free, and didn’t smell of phishing. I expected far worse. However, if a little white lie is going to sneak into an email, it’s going to look like this…

“I was referred to you as a possible source for a position I am working on here” – Large company
“I previously worked with [Bob] & [Andrew] and have heard great things about you and feel you’d be a great fit…” – Startup
“I understand that you may not be actively looking at this point, but we have heard that you are very good and wanted to see if you might consider looking into a position with [us]” – Startup
“I’m reaching out to you because I’ve been an admirer of your work at Meebo and believe you could be the perfect founding engineer to lead front-end engineering for our product.” – Startup

Little white lies appeared across all recruiting groups and generally took the form, “I was referred to you” or “I’ve heard very good things.” While even unfounded flattery feels good, I learned to be suspicious of vague recruiter compliments.

TIP #9: Flattery will get you everywhere! Take recruiter praises with a healthy pinch of salt.

Lesson #7: It’s time to buy more hoodies

If you are a JavaScript engineer, you know that the talent market is increasingly competitive and you are inevitably feeling the pull of San Francisco. The demand for engineers has intensified over the last two years and recruiting activity has exploded in the foggy north.

* Q1 2009 and Q2 2012 data are not complete. Data collection began December 10th, 2009 and stopped on June 1, 2012

It’s impossible to ignore the momentum that is growing in San Francisco. If I were a start-up getting off the ground today, I would start in San Francisco. In 2011, Meebo saw more of its JavaScript engineers hailing from SF than from Mountain View for the first time. While it’s exciting that there are more geographic options to start a tech company, it’s also time to recognize that companies need strategies for geographically dispersed teams and for recruiting from different areas of the Peninsula.

TIP #10: As the city of Palo Alto or Mountain View, I would make sure that resident tech companies are happy and that public transportation is a top priority.

TIP #11: When writing to candidates, specify where your office is located – it’s no longer assumed that an opportunity is south of San Mateo unless otherwise specified.

TIP #12: The entrepreneurial epicenter is no longer Palo Alto. If you’re south of San Mateo, figure out your SF strategy now.

Lesson #8: Who’s the best in the valley?

You are.

There were 19 emails from managers, execs, founders, and board members who presumably had no professional background in recruiting. However, those non-recruiters collectively outperformed every other professional recruiting segment – scoring just as high or higher by every metric: email quality, outreach technique, and word count. No matter how many recruiters you hire, there is no substitute for a heart-felt note from a future manager.

However, managers have responsibilities beyond recruiting and it’s not realistic to spend eight hours a day reading resumes and penning candidate emails – professional recruiters are a necessity. However, most managers probably hope to hire a recruiter who does the job better than themselves. Of all of the emails Pete received, only 40% of the recruiter emails scored better than the average manager who actively sought out Pete London. And within this top 40%, there were proportionately more start-up recruiters than any other segment.

TIP #13: Look for recruiters with start-up backgrounds rather than large companies.

TIP #14: Hire the best recruiters and treat them like gold. If a product is only as good as its team, then the product is only as good as its recruiting team.

SUMMARY

Of the 382 recruiters, there was only one recruiter who actually figured it out. To do so, he did one thing that no other recruiter did – picked up the phone and called someone who should have been connected to Pete to ask for an introduction. And that’s where the ruse unraveled. If there were one recruiter I would have partnered with during my toughest hiring crunch ever, it would have been him.

However, that recruiter had also recruited for Meebo the prior year and he shouldn’t have been poaching Pete London from our team. He apologized. In the end, the honeypot ended up identifying the one amazing recruiter I already knew about but couldn’t justify working with again.

Ultimately, our recruiting challenge was solved by hiring more JavaScript managers who could help recruit too.

In the next blog post, I’ll examine the “best recruiters of silicon valley” more. With their permission, I’ll list the top five recruiters and a few email snippets.

Stay tuned!