Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lessons in Year 1 at Jobster

As I wrap up my transition from Jobster, I continue to reflect on the experience. I recently found this entry, posted on my 1 year anniversary. Very valid points that echo some of what I have written recently:

Here are just a few of things that I have observed- things I think have distinguished the Jobster story and kept us on track:
1) There are no sacred cows. Always be willing to re-evaluate your plans, assertions, and strategies based on customer learning. Taking a business concept and iterating it over and over leaves room for "over iterated," a.k.a. loosing touch with the fundamentals of the opportunity at hand. Pride, ego, or the love of one's own ideas cannot get in the way of developing a sound business idea. Be okay with the fact that your business concept may iterate to a point of not being recognizable from its source.
2) Implement forcing functions. There are times when a team can get caught in quick sand and not seem to make much progress for a while. It may be a standstill in good ideas, it may be the discovery of a show stopping issue, etc. There are a lot of reasons for the onset of quick sand. A forcing function provides a milestone or deliverable that a team can coalesce around and focus on. Our CEO has been a master of forcing functions on a variety of occasions- maybe I will tell you a story about one some time.
3) Ideas are cheap, people are EVERYTHING. Jobster the concept and Jobster the company was built on this notion. Being in touch with entrepreneurship and the venture scene since the beginning of my career, I have come across many great ideas. In fact, I have stared at what I considered to be great ideas that were huge opportunities. Ultimately though, great ideas are nothing without great people to develop and execute the business plan. I think most opportunities are not beholden to just the first mover, but to the mover who has experience on their side.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Holy mobile widget, Batman!

This is by far the most interesting mix of mobile and GPS that I have seen. The simplicity of drag n drop onto your handset makes it super consumable - as GPS enabled phones become more prevalent, this service should really find itself.

They even have a Zillow Widget for instant home values based on your location. This is huge for investors, home appraisors, and real estate professionals.

The "yeah but" is that this is only enabled for a subset of mobile phones on the Sprint network, and is by no means open to the masses. Same old story there I guess. I am looking forward to a day when you can run these types of apps across handsets... but I won't hold my breath.

Onward to the next chapter

This week, after much deliberation, I have decided to move on to the next chapter in my career. This was a tough decision because Jobster has been a very personal journey for me. When I joined 3 years ago, I gave up a promising job at Microsoft, with a firstborn son of only 3 months, and took a leap into the world of a start-up.

At the time Jobster was a powerpoint presentation and a few whiteboard sketches; no employees, no funding, not even a legal entity yet. To be part of the Jobster journey from that moment until now has been rewarding and full of valuable experiences that will shape my perspectives when I decide to build my own company one day (yes, I said when). Sure, I leave the company with much more experience than when I joined, but the thing I leave here with that I treasure most are the relationships with the people that make Jobster go everyday. Some are still here, and some have gone on to other things, but I won't forget their contributions.

Jobster is blessed with a high concentration of really smart people that are continuing to evolve the company with the goal to provide the recruiting industry with valuables tools and resources. I have no doubt there are great things to come.

Many people have asked where I will land. Quite honestly, I am landing in no particular place. I will be doing some independent consulting for a few clients (large and small) over the next six months, as I evaluate my next adventure. I imagine it will be a new business venture, but who knows?

One thing I will continue to do is keep up my blog.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Part II: Push yourself to see the larger context

I don’t believe this to be a "must have" in order to be an effective contributor in a start-up environment. I do believe, however, that if you want to play a leadership role, that seeing the larger context must become a default perspective for you to take. For some it is a natural thing, while for others, they have to work at it.

When I think about the UW Business Plan Competition that I competed in 3 years running, I see how our team’s inability to see the larger picture was a pivotal part of not placing in the top 3. Being a person who gets excited about new products and services, I took the approach of thinking the larger picture was a generally accepted fact, and that focusing first on the product was the way to go. I understand now that you must get everyone on the same page about the broader context before you can properly convey how big a business opportunity really is.

The winning plans always started by convincing the panel of VC & technology judges that there was a market for their product or service. Some would illustrate a market gap, or an underserved segment of consumers; some would show an industry languishing from a lack of efficiency. Once you convince investors of a certain market dynamic, this paves the way nicely for telling them how your product/service is going to address this need.

When Jobster was a 5 person team working out of Ignition Partner offices, we actually spent much more time refining our view of the industry based on research, both primary and secondary. We understood that having a thorough & accurate snapshot of the market would help us make better decisions about how Jobster could effectively enter it and gain quick traction. Those learnings would set us up for the next 18 to 24 months.

If you don’t look at the larger context today, how can you start?

First, decide which industries you naturally follow. You should not only include markets you are interested in, but also the industry you are in today (whether you like that industry or not!). Stay informed about the current topics, news, trends, and debates going on in those industries. Include the industry in which you work today, so that you can draw connections to your daily work & priorities. For me, I follow social networking, real estate, mobile technology, the start-up scene, and the VC markets.

Secondly, leverage online tools & technologies like RSS readers and content subscriptions to deliver information directly to your desktop. Tools like bloglines or Google Reader will help. This will set you up for a daily routine of scanning current events. Set up some email alerts when certain keywords come up in search rankings.

Lastly, review your news & blog sources on a monthly basis; add newly discovered ones as you find them. Blogs inherently track back to their sources of information, so I oftentimes will follow the news or commentary back three or four layers to see if I can find another solid source of information. About 1/3rd of the time, I find another source to add. If the subject matter is riddled with debate, I will try to find multiple sources that talk about the issues from multiple sides.

Keeping a top level view of what’s going on is enjoyable once you have done it for a while, because you start to see connections or analogous situations across disparate industries, systems and processes. Once you are seeing those relationships, you can start making educated guesses about where are particular market might be going next. Your ability to spot a market gaps & opportunities will sharpen as well, because you will have seen similar conditions in another context.

Entrepreneurs are familiar with the concept of an elevator pitch. These are simply a very concise description of their business opportunity. These are used to easily convey a business idea to an investor roughly in the time it would take to ride the elevator with them. For practical purposes, this is a powerful, 2-3 minute summary of your business idea, plan, and need.

I have found elevator pitches are useful beyond fundraising as well. If you can describe the industries you follow in an elevator style summary, this can become very useful at work, business networking, as well as talking to investors. Not only does this prove to yourself that you are informed, but it easily demonstrates to others that you are a bigger thinker; this can do nothing but build your credibility and “personal stock price.”

Early in my career at Andersen Consulting(Now Accenture), I made a point to make sense of the larger business objectives of the projects I worked on. At the time, I merely wrote code for very small pieces of a much larger CRM system. I remember distinctly having dinner with my colleagues at the time, and casually discussing the project with them, talking about how this software project would positively impact customer experience & sat for the client (who at the time was being hammered in the press for poor customer service). Just months out of school like myself, my co-workers would give me the “deer in the headlights” look. They clearly were not pushing themselves to see the larger purpose of the code we were writing.

Monday, March 19, 2007

PLU Talk, Part I: Know Yourself

Standing on the outside of the Seattle start-up scene in 2000, I can honestly say that I considered a VC backed start-up as one of THE most exciting opportunities that I could ever hope to be a part of. It would have all of the elements I wanted: Developing a concept into a business plan, partnering with really smart investors, successfully raising funds toward the goal of building a business from scratch. Who would want to do anything else?! Oh yeah, and don't forget the bragging rights.

Now that I have been doing the start-up thing for a while, I have come to some serious realizations about the realities of starting a business. One of them is to KNOW YOURSELF. Be honest with yourself, peers, co-workers and investors about your strengths and weaknesses. Particularly in a funded venture, this is critical in that you have many more stakeholders that are depending on you do great things. This is a critical thing at the earliest of stages, as it will help define the skill sets and talents that you bring into your venture first.

I would say that there are many more people out there that want to do a start-up than there are people who should. Start-ups are not for everyone, despite all of the excitement and interest they draw.

One experience that underlined this truth for me is our hiring practices at Jobster. Being a company that built referral sourcing tools for recruiters, you can imagine that we took great pride in building our company based on referrals. In doing so, I believe that we uncovered and hired some of the most elusive Seattle talent, particularly in engineering, sales and business roles. We found superstars in large companies that would be great additions to the team – both on paper and in person; they had what it took to help drive Jobster’s growth.

What we did not anticipate was the dramatic impact that a person’s workplace environment played in their success or failure on the job. Someone who was a rock star in a large enterprise environment might not have the same success in a small start-up like Jobster, unless they could quickly adapt to their surroundings.

Others found that the infrastructure of a large company provided them with a sense of security, direction and role definition that they needed to sleep soundly at night. In larger companies, you may have a team of people to execute the strategies that you define. You also may have interesting political distractions and enjoy playing Survivor at work. Not so in a start-up.

In a start-up, it is up to each person to define and stay on course, and well as shift their role quickly when needed. Every person is also expected to pick up multiple roles and wear a variety of hats, while swimming in a sea of ambiguity. For some, that environment spells opportunity, while for others, it means waking up in cold sweats at night.


The days leading up to March 25, 2004 were tense for me. After giving notice at Microsoft (a company I had no plans on leaving) two weeks earlier, I was anxious about the unknown ahead of me. Would I make it? What if Jobster did not get funding? Was I comfortable being a contractor with no commitment by Ignition and Jobster? How would it feel to not be an employee anymore? These were all of the things that rang through my head as I walked into my exit interview in Building 6 on Microsoft’s Redmond Campus.

After an hour of chatting with a very attentive & sincere Microsoft HR manager, I surrendered my keycard, my badge, and my parking pass as I walked out the door. WAIT… The world did not implode as I secretly thought it would!! In fact, the world seemed to be the very same place as I walked down the path to my car. As the days/months passed working at Ignition, I realized that I was finding all the same security I had before, with one big exception: My security came not from the company that employed me, but rather from my own skills and abilities. This was an important realization that has empowered me with a great amount of professional freedom. Today, while I continue to contribute to the future of Jobster, I have confidence in myself that I can be a valuable part of any team. I think that the most successful and effective entrepreneurs have come to this realization, and are empowered to charge after their dreams without hesitation.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Thanks to the PLU MBA Class

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to the incoming MBA Class at Pacific Lutheran University, as part of the Executive Leadership Series. While there, I had the chance to meet MBA students from across industries and levels, which was great.

I wanted to have a more informal format, so I invited questions throughout the talk, hoping that this would steer the direction of the discussion to topics that interested the group most. We hit on some great discussion, mostly about starting a business, fundraising and building a team. Unfortunately I had prepared a number of discussion points to share, but time ran short.

As promised, I will be posting these topics on my blog over the next week or so. The areas include:
Part I: Know yourself
Part II: Push yourself to look at the larger context
Part III: Learn to Embrace change and ambiguity
Part IV: Relationships above all else
Part V: Early stage start-up advice

I will likely expand Part IV, as I understand there are many students getting involved in a business plan competition this Spring. Please let me know if there are any other topics your class might find useful.