What do most company founders dream that they’ll be doing in 27 years time? I’ll be 64… Will you still need me, will you still feed me?
I imagine most dream they’ll either be running their business in some fantabulously successful form, or having exited for some stupendously pocket-bulging amount of money and lying on a yacht in the sun somewhere.
Neither interest me.
Before my investors do a run on my company’s piggy bank, I’m not suggesting that I don’t want Wholi to be successful. Instead I really, really want to use what we’re building in 27 years time. I sincerely hope we (or someone else) has built it.
My team sometimes call me ‘Customer Zero’ at Wholi when we’re trying to design the product – and I make no apologies about focusing the company on building something I really want. Maybe CEO is just short form for CustomerzErO anyhow?! As Paul Graham states, the key to success is to ‘build something people want’. This isn’t an ego thing, but instead our hope is that if I want it, others will too. It’s how Google and Apple started and they’re doing OK.
People search has fascinated me for a long time. The reason is that all the best things I’ve experienced – from the boardroom to the bedroom – have happened as a result of meeting amazing people. I believe that when two of the ‘right’ extraordinary people find each other at the right time, the outcome can be a million times better than when two of the ‘wrong’ people find each other, when there’s a mismatch, or even then there’s a sub-optimal match. Think Larry and Sergei, Steve and Woz to use the companies above – examples of what can happen when two amazing people meet. Universities or communities are a useful proxy for bringing the right people together, but I believe it can be done oh so much better.
We’ve taken a few twists and turns along the people search journey and, no doubt we’ll have a few to come. Yet the essence remains true, which is that Wholi is focused on trying to enable the right people to find each other.
So what do I want, when I’m 64?
My dream is to be able connect the right people… lazily.
Said another way, I would like the people I know who have a problem or opportunity to feel totally comfortable and easily be able to ask me for help. Then I would like to be able to connect them with another person I know who would be able to help them. Preferably the best person possible to help them. And I’d like to be able to do this in seconds.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think LinkedIn can achieve this vision any more, even though that’s what they set out to achieve. Yet it’s founder Reid Hoffman is a role model for this mode of being. I read somewhere that he aims to sit at the intersection of networks, being helpful to people in order to get stuff done. I paraphrase from my memory as I’m writing this on a plane, so I hope this isn’t a total misquote or misattribution, but I believe he does this supremely well.
As for me, I’d like to be able to be somewhere far away – say Kenya (perhaps my favourite place) and yet be able to connect 10 people who should meet each day and create significant value by bringing them together. I want to do this in a short period of time, so that I can get on with doing more introductions, or do something else like kitesurfing (hopefully I’ll still be going aged 64). I don’t want technology that forces me to look at a screen for longer please! I don’t care too much if I get something out of these connections. Some people paint, some write music – for me this is a form of creativity that gets me out of bed each morning.
It’s not wholly altruistic, by knowing who to ask for help, I hope to also get things done, come across new exciting opportunities meet amazing people. It would be a reason to meet new people and to continue to network, rather than the vanity networks we have today.
Whether someone in need is looking for a new therapist, kiting buddy, or an entrepreneur has an idea for a company, or a friend needs help with a legal issue – to be able to direct them to the right person to help them would, for me, be wholly fulfilling.
In the next 50 days, I am going to go a bit bananas and go on a helping spree. My aim is to solve professional problems people have, by introducing them to someone I know that might help. My aim is to do this as much as I can in the 50 days.
See my previous article – ‘Just Ask’, which explains why I’m doing this.
Here’s how it works:
Don’t be shy – PLEASE DO ASK or I can’t be as helpful as I’d like to be…
It should be a professional problem you have that could be solved, or helped by one person in my network – so I should be able to help in <10 mins.
Email me at tom at wholi (if you can’t guess the rest, I’m not sure I can solve your problems!) with a simple, “Know anyone who XXX in order to solve YYY”.
I want to be able to determine who’s best to connect you to, so don’t ask for specific people
I will only intro you to someone if I think they want to hear from you!
– Know anyone who knows about ‘transparent salary’ schemes?
– Do you know a good business coach in London or Bristol, I want to learn X?
– Know any angel investors in London who are interested in AI, we’re looking to raise X?
– Do you know anyone who might be willing to sit on our board, specifically someone with X skill?
– Know a good product consultant to solve X?
I won’t help with things like, “I need a software engineer”, or “do you know anyone who wants to buy my product”. It should be something that one person in my network can help with.
…and some guidelines:
This isn’t about achieving a maximum score. I want to focus on quality, not quantity. I’m not going to stay up all night, take class A substances to keep me awake or skip holidays. I am going to try my best to be helpful within ‘normal working hours’, where I can.
Don’t ask me to connect you with specific people e.g. I see you know X, can you connect me.
I’m not going to sell stuff on your behalf, or persuade someone to join your company. Use your judgement.
If I don’t respond, I probably can’t help. I will do my best!
The aim of the experiment is to maximise the help I can give. If it ends up being shared, we get press, or people want to sign up to Wholi because they want to help more – so be it, but that’s not the aim. The reason why we want to expose this campaign is simply to maximise the help.
I’ll do my best to share the journey as well my findings/learnings and thoughts as I go.
Being an entrepreneur is hard. Really hard. Or, in the words of Elon Musk, “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” If that’s what it’s like when it’s working, given Elon is one of the most successful entrepreneurs alive, what hope do the rest of us have of enjoying it? Ouch.
I’ve spent a lot of my career recommending people become entrepreneurs, but sometimes I hesitate. At times I’ve coveted a 9-5, well-paid, corporate job. Admitting that, I feel a bit like a traitor to my vocation. Like David Attenborough suggesting he’d rather be an endangered species taxidermist. But the more I learn and talk to others, the more I learn that this is normal.
In this article, I want to address some of the things that I wish I’d known, or learned, sooner on the entrepreneurial journey. I believe there are ways to be happy as an entrepreneur, yet very few of us are and it requires even more work and focus to become one.
Entrepreneurship is, in many ways, amazing. There’s something captivating about it; it’s empowering, creative, exciting and addictive. It’s a powerful, if not revolutionary, force in the modern world; with an intoxicating Schumpeterian ‘Creative Destruction’ occurring at rapid place in the music, media, hotel and taxi industries, to name just a few. As parodied in HBO’s fantastic Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs aim to “make the world a better place,” (and sometimes they even do)!
Despite how hard it is, it’s rare that people go back to a corporate job once they’ve tasted life in a startup. Yet for all of the media glamorisation, it’s often deeply unhealthy, stressful and – particularly in the tech sector – entrepreneurs have an extraordinarily low probability of success.
Probabilities and Hardship
By way of example, Google has 56,000 employees and more resources and freedom than perhaps any other company in terms of innovation. In 15 years it has come up with just one monetisation technique that contributes to ~95% of its revenues. Just one.
At the other end of the spectrum, 80-90% of startup founders that receive venture funding don’t exit with more than their (usually dramatically reduced) salaries. Just 0.1% of pre-funded tech startups ‘succeed’. That’s a terrible compensation for the stress and impact on their lives. The resulting psychological impact can be extreme, as these articles demonstrate:
Given the difficulty and unlikely success, it’s important to try not to base all of one’s happiness on a result. One of our values at Wholi is enjoying ‘the journey’ – meaning that we want to enjoy the process and the day-to-day – regardless of the destination. Our values are aspirational as much as actual, a recognition of the things we want to be rather than necessarily the things we are. When things don’t go well – which they often don’t in a startup, it serves as an important reminder.
Mostly speaking, I have not been good at enjoying the journey, (Wholi’s journey is captured here on our Facebook page). I am beginning, slowly, to listen and act – to stress less and enjoy it more – with help from my team, peers and investors.
I am not transformed. The gulf between my ideal and actual self will always be there, but I am in the process of making some changes and I find writing one of the best ways to process, to understand and to set intention.
What follows is a (non-exhaustive) list of some things I’m working on and things I wish I’d done earlier, in an attempt to help others, or those starting out:
Find out what you’re good at. Leave the rest.
I’ve only recently started coaching, so I can’t claim any Damascene moments just yet, but I am seeing glimmers. My coach tells me that his role is to find what people are naturally amazing at and help them find ways to focus those talents and leave the rest.
If there was a single piece of advice I could transmit to my teenage self it would, I believe, be this.
The issue is that what we’re good at often comes naturally, therefore we don’t identify it as a skill – we think it’s just ’normal’ – and as a result we don’t harness and enhance these skills into a super power.
One of my skills is empathy. I can often read a room, or a person, and am highly attuned to small cues, feelings, sensations and the emotions around me. Yet for many years – particularly throughout school – that empathy, or sensitivity was a weakness to be covered up, not a skill to be harnessed. I’ve spent far more energy trying to be tough than I have nurturing that skill and turning it into a superpower. Time to listen.
The ‘leave the rest’ bit is vital for entrepreneurs. The role often forces us to do a bit of everything. For me, I believe that has been destructive. Trying to be good at, or forcing the things that aren’t skills, has consumed a huge amount of energy in my life. Entrepreneurs often focusing attention on and believing that we must tackle every challenge. This is a mistake.
A initial closer analysis of my own ‘work’ has uncovered that many of the things that I’m best at, I don’t consider work and therefore I regularly feel guilty that I’m not working enough – even though by some measures I’m working a lot harder than I realise.
Certainly entrepreneurs will have to do things they’re not good at, but I believe that it is only by harnessing our natural strengths, focusing on them and recognising them – sometimes to the detriment of other ‘important’ things, or harnessing other people’s strengths to cover these – that we can truly be successful and happy; both in entrepreneurship and in life.
Energy & Putting your own oxygen mask on first
Follow the advice about finding what you’re good at will transform (at least in my limited experience) one’s energy. If you harness a natural momentum, it’s easier to make progress.
If there was one measurement that would correlate with my being a happy entrepreneur (and therefore more likely to be successful), I believe it’s ‘energy’. Meaning how you feel on an energetic level — read this excellent HBR article for a better understand of what this means.
A friend (who’s also a coach) sent me this, claiming it’s one of the most important articles she has read when it comes to helping entrepreneurs. I agree. ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’.
Entrepreneurs should be incredibly sensitive to their energy and foster it wherever possible. If you need to justify free weekends and evenings, just look at the HBR article in some more detail.
I’ve read a collection of articles recently about founder confidence and how often the brazen pitches and networking displays mask deeper, destructive insecurities that plague many founders.
Again, these tie into the previous two sections. If we find what we’re good at and leave rest, then focus on maximising our energy, we build confidence. Confidence is key. Entrepreneurs need to continually make decisions and hope they’re right. Often they won’t be. Yet we must have confidence. Study leading entrepreneurs – Elon Musk (despite how hard he claims it is), Steve Jobs and others and you’ll hear of a boundless confidence. I believe that confidence can be cultivated.
Entrepreneurship is a lonely game, compounded by the need to present a positive, upbeat face to customers and your stakeholders. This exacerbates a failure to seek and ask for support.
Entrepreneurs need, desperately at times, to set up support mechanisms to help them. In my case a quarterly meeting with fellow CEOs where we ‘lift the kimono’ and describe what’s actually happening, provides some solace. Coaching, friends, team members, fellow entrepreneurs, networks, articles and other sources have too, but they need to be cultivated. Get over the issue of worrying that people will judge you because you have problems and ask for help.Lots.
Entrepreneurship is hard. So we put up with lots of hard things that don’t need to be so. A fellow entrepreneur I know gets up at the crack of dawn to catch early flights in order to ‘seize the day’. I believe it’s a huge drain on his energy and negatively affects his work. Another pulls an all-nighter once a fortnight, again, I believe, creating more of a deficit than a gain. As entrepreneurs, we should be looking for ways to make life easier, not harder.
I don’t schedule in early meetings, or fly late at night, or on weekends – even with an office in Romania. I spent a year carrying things to and from that office, before deciding to invest in two pairs of running shoes, two yoga mats, two sets of toiletries and so on. A small change, but my travel burden is a little easier. I try to ‘work like it’s the weekend’. I worked from home for almost 2 years, before I realised it was much more costly to one’s emotional health than the expense of renting an office. My own battle with balance was the topic of my TEDx.
At Wholi, we have some role models who have found a semblance of balance. We love Richard Semler of Semco – his TED is here.Yvon Chouinard.37 Signals, and Buffer. Whilst we at Wholi are in pre-product market fit phase, these companies have managed to grow into significant businesses whilst maintaining some balance and doing things differently. That’s truly inspirational.
If your life depended on it
There is a lot here, so much so that many of the topics could be an article – a book even – in their own right. Depression, stress, energy and so many solutions from meditation, sleep, diet exercise, therapy, coaching, holidays, avoiding things you’re not good at, mindfulness.
To sum up, if you were going on a polar expedition, you would be fastidious about your energy, your equipment and your health. While being an entrepreneur involves a lower risk of frostbite, it’s often a longer, harder journey.
If you’re an entrepreneur, treat getting this right as if your life depended on it. It does.
In the previous post, I talked about ‘the search’ process when it comes to finding new people here at wholi. In this, I’ll look at the next steps – initiating discussions with candidates and using your networks.
Stage Two – Discussions
1) Once you’re at ~process 3) in the previous post, you should also start trying to reach out to the best candidates and begin talking to them. Go slowly at first, you want to learn as you go.
2) We wrote a template email, in Romanian, from my co-founder Raz (who’d won 2x medals in international olympics, got a PhD in AI etc) and then personalised the email in specific places for everyone we wrote to. We were careful to include things that were attractive, and also said that we know ‘you’re probably not looking but it’s always good to make a great connection’. The email is worth spending some time on and, given the investment in time it has taken to find those candidates.
3) We sent small batches of emails, monitoring the response rate and tried to learn what would increase the likelihood of getting a response. We followed on with people who hadn’t responded after a week or so, sometimes finding alternative emails for people if possible. In our case, we received a ~30-50% response rate, perhaps higher later on in the process once word got round. Be careful at this stage – if you’re emailing lots of people who might know one another then you want to make sure they understand that this is part of a process to find the right people. There’s a fine line between spamming and sending emails that are of value to people – in our enthusiasm, we’ve got this wrong before.
4) When my co-founder got a response, he passed it on to me and I set up a call with the person for 30 minutes. I also suggested they see our presentation at 500 Startups (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GPIiMrSTB4) to show them what we were about (and to try to further pique their interest). I suggested a quick call even if the person wasn’t willing to look for a new role or said they’re happy where they are. Most great people aren’t looking for something – this is the beginning of the relationship and often conversations that start at this stage can take years to turn into a successful hire. As I write this, I’m sitting opposite a colleague who initially wasn’t interested. I suggested a call and slowly but surely, when we talked more and more he became more excited about wholi and eventually joined us.
5) During the conversation, I tried to: a) give a good pitch, tell them about the culture we were trying to create and that we’re only hiring the most amazing people, b) take notes on every conversation so I knew what they’d said and c) make sure to ask them who they think the best developers they’d worked with. c) is vital as the more conversations I had, the more often I heard the same names, which enabled me to know exactly who to target. This list of people regularly mentioned became our ‘dream team’ list. If they were friends with other people I was talking to, I’d also ask if they knew that person – no more than that, and monitor reactions (LinkedIn connections are useful for this). These names, if new, were fed back into the spreadsheet and also recorded and sometimes the ranking adapted if people were regularly recommended. As I mentioned at the beginning of the last article, if you already have or know of amazing people ask them who they would work with if they could hire anyone, this can save you a lot of time.
6) If the person was good and interested, I passed them over to Raz for another, more technical conversation and also tried to follow on with some more juicy pieces about the company, to keep them keen. Even if they weren’t interested, I’d recommend they drop into the office sometime for a chat, just so we can at least put a face to the name (this often sparked interest) and sent them materials/reading etc and tried to keep up with them. By the time you’ve got to this stage, you’ve invested a lot to find these gems, so treat them carefully. We keep emailing people until they’ve dropped by to visit us – once they see/get a feel for the office/team, it often changes people’s minds.
7) If after review with Raz there was mutual interest, I would have another longer talk and we’d also schedule in some time to work together, preferably for a half-day or more. There’s nothing quite like spending time working on actual problems with someone to know what they’re really like. Even after following the process above, about 50% of all people who have come for a working day are not hired. On the day itself we’d once again we’d ask for recommendations. Deciding what tests to do (and should be set by your expert in that field) is up to you, but point to the key features you want. Its worth investing time in this process. We also give detailed feedback for every candidate who comes to a working day – if they’ve made the effort to spend a half day with us, we want to be clear what didn’t work constructively so that the candidate gets something out of the process. That’s very important to us – we want the people not selected to leave feeling sad they didn’t get the role, but that the opportunity and team at wholi made the process the best it could be. Make sure you continue to take notes, so that someone else can understand where you are in the process, and what to look for in a candidate. Especially if there are a number of people hiring, but also be careful not to bias decision-making with opinions. I often ask very different questions from Raz (I’m a gut feeling, emotional, EQ person, whereas Raz is a logical, IQ, quantitative brain). Often the two of us will spot different patterns, which can be valuable.
8) If you decide you do want to hire someone, one of the most importantparts of the process is checking references. Use your notes to ask difficult questions of the referees about specific things that are of concern. Also check references with anyone you know who the candidate has not volunteered, to see if there’s a bias (although be careful, given candidates might not want people to know they’re leaving). Get as many references as you can (I went for 5/6 for most people). In addition to checking references, referees can shortcut your ability to learn how best to work with someone. It can take months to ‘discover’ what motivates someone and how to work with them. By asking referees how they would manage that person, or what to look out for, you learn a lot about speeding your process of building an effective working relationship.
9) If people are not interested for whatever reason but are on your ‘dream team’ list, keep in touch with them rolling forward and update them as to the progress of the business, as you would investors. We have a list of 25 or so people we stay in touch with every few months. I add them on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. I post cheeky messages on our Facebook pages with them tagged in ‘future employees’ section (see below). Basically I stalk them and send a continual stream of abuse until they join us 😉
After a while, if you’ve built the right team, these folks start to let you know when they’re free/interested and what’s happening in the market.
10) I ask my team to keep in touch with these folks (all the best people know each other) We’ve built a Facebook page in which we record some of our company history (and some photos in Wholistory – forgive me) and some of the team trips we’ve been on. We’ve been lucky enough as a company to go on trips to Malta, Sicily, Skiing and to Kenya – these have been amazing fun, excellent bonding experiences and helped us to take time out of the office to set values, assess what’s working and what’s not, etc. This year we’re off to the Romanian countryside, Montenegro and are planning our return to Kenya next Spring.
Stage Three – Networks
1) In addition to the above techniques you want to find people who can spot great talent for you. Email and try to develop relationships with key players like university professors, other entrepreneurs and people who will see the kind of candidates you’re after. Try to keep in touch with them every so often.
2) Now that we have an amazing team, our focus has shifted to using the team members to help us with referrals. Again, this is something we’ve built into the wholi product so that we can make finding the right people much easier for us, and we hope you too. We experimented with this and managed to build a list of 100+ people we wanted to hire in the space of about an hour, by asking each of our team to add people from their contacts.
The process is hard and takes a lot of time… but it’s worth it. I hope this helps.
Good luck, happy hunting. Let me know in the comments if you’ve any further thoughts…
I believe there are two rules to building a successful business: i) Hire amazing people ii) See i)
Well, there might be a tiny touch more to it than that, but I can’t emphasise enough how much it improves one’s chances. By many multiples. More, I think, than any other thing you can do with your business. A successful business is as much about who you do it with, as about what you do. Think about the extraordinary teams that formed Google, Apple, Tesla and so on.
Which is why it is so peculiar that entrepreneurs and managers tend to spend so little time and resource figuring out who they need to succeed.
In this article, I will share my recipe for recruiting an amazing team (a ‘dream team’), from scratch – building on my experience running an executive search business in two countries, as well as here at Wholi, where I believe we’ve recruited a pretty awesome team from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Adobe and beyond.
I’m tempted to put a megaphone to our lips and holler about one of the quiver of exciting things that have happened to us recently. That’s what we’re meant to do on a company blog, right?
“We’re awesome because of X or Y”. “This is why you should listen to us.” “The mysteries of cold fusion are history due to the inspirational discoveries we’ve made through breathtaking innovation and slavish work…” etc.
I’m not so sure. I rarely learn from people for whom their blog is the icing on the cake. I want to know what people felt and did when making their first pudding. The one that exploded, or when someone accidentally set the oven to C rather than F. That’s where businesses and entrepreneurs truly are forged – and where blogs are most interesting, rather than just decoration.