Got this email from a CEO I respect. Struggling with one of the essential issues for any working person.
Respect went up 2x when I got it:
Team — Now that some of the chaos is over, I need to focus a bit more on the family — or at least give them the time they deserve. To that, I am going to try the below schedule. Of course, doesn’t apply to emergencies/time sensitive things but if you could help me out (remove my anxiety) I would be incredibly grateful.8am - 5pm — 100% available5pm - 8:30pm — radio silent (going to try no electronics)8:30 onward — will catch up on emails/texts/calls, etc.I’m just trying to be present with the family. There will be occasions when we have a meeting run late or a call which is totally fine. I can communicate this so it’s ok if we have a meeting that starts late — this is just a general guideline.Feel free to ping me with any concerns about the above — obviously when I’m traveling I’m always available and again call with emergencies.
The “parallel entrepreneur” idea has been around for a long time — since at least Edison. Even in technology, it’s been around since the beginning of the commercial Internet and even before.
But it seems to be intensifying now.
With betaworks, Science, Obvious, and others, some great entrepreneurs are making more than one thing at a time. They’re also investing while they build, and being flexible on the ownership and corporate structure for the products and companies they count as affiliates. Why?
The obvious: finding a new product’s market keeps getting less expensive. No need to commit to a single instantiation of how your product must be if you can try dozens of meaningfully different variations and get real user data. The Lean Startup movement has only accelerated this. Now, I’m side-stepping a lot of valid questions (some discussed in this wonderful Branch thread) about how to balance focus with the create-lots-of-things-in-parallel world.
Maybe less obvious:
The lines between products and companies are blurring. It used to be a product was owned by a company, and a company had one or more products — that was it. Now, with APIs, open source tools, products being launched before companies are formed, this rigid one-to-many mapping has broken, in a good way. The company itself is an old institution, it works well for many things (clarifying ownership and accountability) and less so for others (shepherding the messiness of new creation).
The professional divide between “operator” and “investor” is dissolving. Most entrepreneurs I know also invest in startups. Most full-time investors I know were previously operators. Many great talents I respect now have some-of-this-some-of-that professions (a fund that also builds startups, a side gig as a partner in a venture fund, etc.). Big venture firms now have substantial operating practices that recruit, market, design and do other day-to-day tasks once reserved for their portfolio companies. I do sometimes hear people saying “being an investor is a truly different set of skills from being an entrepreneur” — that may be true, but it is becoming less so every day.
There are natural reasons why both investing and operating is a good thing to do. Great operators allocate resources to different tasks — one of the most important resources being capital. Great investors have a deep understanding of the fabric of how stuffs get built.
Talent is getting more sophisticated, so companies can now recruit on messages other than “here’s our product vision.” A single emotionally (or financially) compelling hypothesis is still a great recruiting tool, especially for drawing the talent that likes to work on things where they feel a sense of purpose (the best talent!). But there are other recruiting tools: force of personality (or better, reputation) of an entrepreneur can really work now. And the evolving notion of a career — as a portfolio of activities vs. a succession of full-time jobs — means that talent is happy to pop in and pop out on projects in different and uncertain phases. This blurriness of professional affiliation is a real positive for parallel entrepreneurs.
The cost of specialists — and their value — keeps rising. Whether its A/B testing, acquisition marketing, SEO, not to mention software engineering — there are now phenomenally wise experts in each of these areas (and plenty of snake oil salespeople, of course). The right expert is worth it, but expensive, and may not be needed full time — so much easier to justify across multiple products. (This is a point Mike Jones of Science made in that Branch thread.)
Early-stage consumer products have become so competitive, that the “lottery” effect of finding a winner is becoming more pronounced. It’s just so hard to find a new vein that isn’t yet tapped. Early stage products, today, are a Plinko game.
That said, as with anything, true greatness may require that focus thing. I’ll leave that debate to… others, another time, something other than right now. Can’t focus enough to write that part up :)
For longer than I worked anywhere else, I worked at News Corp. — and, with so much ink and so many pixels spilled saying this and that about the company, I thought I’d just add one closing note on my experience there. It was wonderful. At the risk of getting flamed, I was grateful to work there, and learned a tremendous amount.
The company gives its people room to do what they think best. I ran IGN for five years, and in that time felt my team had complete freedom to launch the products we thought best, kill the products we thought needed to die, partner with anyone we chose, and so on. We felt on the hook for our financial performance, but free to decide our own plans on how to achieve that performance. This was especially true for taking risky bets — zero feeling that one shouldn’t, praise when bets worked.
There wasn’t much nonsense. Whatever one part of the company might have been experiencing (and there was always something popping somewhere), we continued our work. I spent relatively little time making files ending in .PPT, I don’t think I ever got invited to serve on any committee, and generally my time was spent doing real work. Communication was informal and trusting.
There’s a sense of building to something more. It’s really hard to describe this one, but I never felt it was “just a job” or “just a company.” I also never felt any pressure to confirm, ideologically or politically, or in any other way — just to do my best work, and try to help our audiences understand and enjoy their world. A collegiality emerged out of those of us working for News, across different countries and industries, some with the company for five weeks and some for fifty years.
Rupert. Could write a whole book here, and others have. I won’t say more other than that I so appreciated seeing him in action.
It wasn’t perfect, and of course all big organizations develop nutty dysfunctions, but it worked well most of the time.
I don’t think I’m the only one who felt this way. Just in the world of digital, look at all the people who took a step forward after working at News or are still there: Jeff Berman who just joined the (no-relation) BermanBraun today, Mike Jones and Peter Pham of Science, Twitter’s Adam Bain, Gravity’s Steve Pearman and Amit Kapur, Gogobot’s Travis Katz, Bleacher Report’s Brian Grey, Rovio’s Andrew Stalbow, Jorge Espinel, Jason Hirschhorn, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson of course, Jon Miller, Jeremy Philips, and I’m sure many more will occur to me and they’ll email me to say I left them out. Yeah, you too.
Since the end of summer, I have been blessed to be “doing nothing.” I left my day job at IGN, and have had the modern luxury of choosing how to spend my time. I am grateful for that.
This is what I learned. Mostly about myself. I think it will apply (at least to me) whether I have a day job or not.
1. Hang a “beware of dogs” sign.
Tell everyone, straight up, how you spend your time and why. “Can we have coffee, since you’re Doing Nothing these days?” “No, I’m trying to spend more time with my family and on my own stuff — sorry. Talk again in three months?” That works. People don’t mind. (I even set an autoreply that said “I’m only checking email once a day for the foreseeable future…” and I only turned it off because Gmail kept re-sending it, annoyingly, to the people who email me most.)
2. You are how you spend your time. Corollary: you are not who you think you are.
All those “I’ll do that when I have time” stuff on the side project list? Nonsense.
When I started the “Doing Nothing” phase, I thought I’d spend my days with family, puttering around the house. Fixing stuff? Doing the magical side projects. Learning to code. I didn’t know what, really. And, for a few weeks, I did just that. I spent afternoon after afternoon with my kids, a couple of date nights a week with my wife. I turned down basically all the inbound “let’s hang” asks, much as I like meeting good people.
Those few weeks were great. Then, things evolved. I started spending more time on one work-y thing or another. And these days, I basically leave the house in the morning, come back at the end of the afternoon (though I often pick my son up from school), have meetings all day more or less, and jump on email late at night. Why? Because…
3. I must really love what I do. Proof: Given the freedom to spend my time any way I like, I keep doing it.
A big part of it is OUYA, the open Android game console where I’m now chairman — I just <3 it. I’ve spent much more time on it than I expected. The team there makes it a joy.
But the bigger part is I love the things I get to do in my profession — talk to entrepreneurs, think about how to make the world a bit better, and sometimes much better, learn new ideas and skills, and watch (or sometimes make!) invention happen. The action junkie in me is in heaven.
My behavior mystifies some people around me: I have no day job and yet, there I am, “working.”
This said, I feel a much greater sense of balance and self-control than I ever did when I had a day job. I’m the one deciding when to work and on what terms. I appreciate my life (including work) so much more when I’m anchored by being present with my family and enjoying myself.
4. Ruts are good.
The word “routine” is almost an insult. We say you’re “stuck in a rut.” What I learned about myself is that, without a daily pattern, I falter. I don’t take care of my health as well, I’m not as productive, I waste time hand-wringing on “what’s my plan for today.” It’s helps me to have a skeleton routine. (I wish I were disciplined enough to create my own routine, but I’m not.)
All those vehicles stuck in a rut? They know where they are going and can go pretty fast. Embrace the rut.
I wrote this all mostly for me, but maybe others find it useful. Soon, I’ll start a new day job, and I actually think most of these lessons will still apply.
Samsung pop-up store in Tokyo. Notice, zero Samsung branding
I’m learning to code. Slowly. I can make a simple app that does something just for me, like scheduling text message reminders or displaying all the covers of digital books I’ve bought (gonna need that “virtual bookshelf” or I’ll forget everything I’ve read). I entered one of my old company’s hack days just to see if I could, and was the novelty entrant (“look, he coded on an iPad!”).
For a few years now, I’ve believed that coding could be the next mass profession — and is certainly a general skill, like writing, that almost every role will require to some degree. It’s a good, good thing this coding. So I’ve gotten involved with organizations that teach coding in one way or another. (For example, I’m on the board of CodeNow, a nonprofit that teaches underprivileged kids to code.)
One of the questions I’ve been thinking about is whether you can learn to code entirely from online tools, or if you need some human teaching. Fact is, there are many self-taught coders who learned from books and websites. And now, with new and better online services like Codecademy that make it a joy to take your first steps toward learning to code, maybe you can just do it all by your lonesome, or with an online community — no “warm bodies” required.
In my own experience, that got me part of the way, but I’ve needed a mentor. I was lucky to find a talented tutor who screenshares with me once every week or two and guides me. It’s invaluable to have that gentle encouragement, someone to cut through all the Googling of a syntax issue, help me think out loud on how I’m approaching something, or invent the right sized project to teach me some new skills without overwhelming me. If I were putting in more time on my own, my tutor’s mentorship would be even more useful, since I’d be getting stuck even more often.
I now can’t imagine how people walk the full path from “hey, maybe I can learn to code” to “I can work successfully as a developer” without learning from other human beings, live and in person. I’m sure it’s possible, but I just don’t see how.
So then I turned the question around: if you maximized your access to incredible mentors, how much faster could you learn?
Much faster. I’ve been following one program here in the Bay Area called Dev Bootcamp, a nine-week code immersion program that produces “world class beginners” who can (and do!) get hired as developers. They focus on putting their students in a state of learning flow for as much of the time as possible, and in-person mentorship is one of the most important ingredients. I’ve spoken with their students a few times and the environment is always electric.
Dev Bootcamp’s methods have been so successful, they’ve spawned a number of programs operating in a similar vein — Hackbright Academy, Catalyst, and App Academy among others I’m sure. Dev Bootcamp is the grandparent to them all. (And there are similar programs in other cities, like The Starter League in Chicago, though I haven’t had a chance to visit them yet.)
The full-time, in-person programs give students an enormous advantage: students have committed mentors, are free from distractions, and (maybe most important) they have each other. They’ve been selected for, among other qualities, motivation. And motivation is a contagion. So it’s no surprise they can go from zero to hire-able in just a few weeks — though of course they are still beginners and have much to learn. (Don’t we all.)
I’m looking forward to seeing how these programs unfold in the coming years. Meanwhile, if you’re hiring Rails developers and your organization wants to embrace world class beginners, send someone to Dev Bootcamp’s next hiring day — it happens to be this Friday.
A few weeks ago, I read Jordan Mechner’s journal he wrote while creating Prince of Persia, from 1985-1993. Of course I remember loving the finished product, so reading his thoughts as a maker deepened that.
The thought that kept nagging at me: in some ways, things haven’t changed that much. Or, maybe, Jordan was ahead of his time. A few themes:
His life wasn’t singularly focused, it was a portfolio. We tend to think that inventing something brilliant is about dropping everything else in your life. In Jordan’s case, he was torn about how much effort to devote to his game vs. his film, how much time to devote to work, and his use of time ebbed and flowed. Of course, there were periods where he went into crunch mode, but that seemed to be the exception not the rule.
The agony! He worried. He was doubtful. He was unsure how to handle situations. He was at the mercy, at times, of others. But he kept going, made his best choices, persevered — and it worked. As is now well known, many successes spring from just that agony. (That said, he also had an ability to not take himself too too seriously — and seemed to be able to get some distance from time to time.)
Incredible things can be accomplished alone. Working as a solo creator, he was able to bring characters and stories to life that a team might not have been as capable of doing. He invented new animation techniques for (what we then called) computer games, and the finished work showed master craftsmanship.
A great game is a study in pacing. He balances big themes (the length and difficulty of levels) with minute details (how an enemy should fall when pushed off a ledge). He worries about whether the story has a flow to it.
Elegance — make every detail count. He obsesses over a mouse (not the kind plugged into a keyboard). Every element of the game does work to advance the experience. (I’m not sure if he edited his journal, but it seems there are few if any ideas that hit the cutting room floor.)
All that said, some things do seem to have changed… Jordan complains about “big” 40-hour weeks. Maybe 2012 is a little different… anyway, I’m looking forward to his remake of another Bahat family childhood favorite, Karateka.
Power to the makers. Today, Larry King launched his new direct-to-the-audience show online with his new company with Jon Housman, Ora TV. (Larry’s first interview is with Seth MacFarlane…)
Larry joins Louis CK, Radiohead, and others who have taken their gig direct to the people…
Larry is already an established brand. He could have exclusively gone to his fans from his own website (as Louis CK did), but he chose something new. He’s distributing on Hulu. There are noteworthy aspects to that choice, which may be the best of both worlds of “going solo” and working with a gatekeeper.
This should make, over time, for a more authentic experience where the content adapts to the flexibility of the web. But also one that’s instantly been exposed to millions — maybe millions more than he could have reached on his own. (And there seem to be more comments flowing to Hulu than to Larry’s own site.)
I’m a big fan of freedom for creators to choose distribution partners, when it suits them (and the distribution partner). I see the full range of choices in games: some, like Notch, choose to go direct to gamers. And then eventually they move their games to other platforms (like Xbox), once they have proof of a phenomenal product. Some, like Blizzard, remain exclusively on open platforms like the PC. Some, like Team Meat, choose the benefit of launching with a console distribution partner.
Over time, the openness of distribution means more creative experimentation for the makers. Will Larry’s show be better on Ora than it was on CNN? Maybe, time will tell. Was Louis CK funnier when he went direct? Dunno. But I’m a big believer that over time, more maker = more better. (It’s one of the reasons I invested in OUYA, a game console that gives gamemakers more choice over where they put their content…)
I’m excited to see, in TV, where Larry takes it. Congratulations on shipping your first direct-to-the-people show, Larry.
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