Reprinted from FOXBusiness, November 15, 2011
Hewlett-Packard was founded amidst the depression of 1939, and FedEx delivered its first packages in the recession of 1973. Tough times force a young business to focus on delivering real value to its customers as efficiently as possible and to remain persistently optimistic about the future.
But staying upbeat in this current economic climate is tough. As my business continues to expand, we have encountered some growing pains that have caused us to get creative and improvise. One major source of frustration for us is hiring.
Hiring should be easy in a recession, right? Employers put an ad in the local newspaper, people stand in line, and they hire someone. Easy! It’s not quite that simple: When it comes to the hiring process, our Internet-based world makes the procedure chaotic.
In this anemic job market, a few online job postings will bring in hundreds of barely-relevant resumes from applicants sending the same resume everywhere imaginable. If you figure it takes one minute to review a resume the sorting process could take hours or even days, which is why much less is spent on each resume. In that short a look, I’ve learned to scan a resume from the bottom up and look for a story with no jarring transitions, and that working for us makes a logical next step.
Most inbound resumes fail this test–usually because something is being covered up, or because the kitchen sink was dumped on the resume in hopes that something would stick. Job seekers, here’s a tip: I’m fine with you not having a college degree. I’m fine with taking a break. I’m fine with you having a tough time finding a finance job on Wall Street in 2011. Just own it, and your resume will clear the first hurdle. Forthrightness is key; if there’s a whiff of dishonesty or a feeling that something is being hidden then you won’t clear the first hurdle.
Many employers are using recruiters to help with fill open positions by filtering through the high volume of candidates and to reach out to qualified candidates. Believe it or not, more than 50% of resumes come from outbound reach outs to people inside our “friends” network. The process is excruciatingly time consuming and research intensive, until finally, the list is knocked down to a few dozen great candidates for a single job.
Working from the top of the list, we’ve learned to schedule a quick 15-minute prescreen interview to hear candidates tell the story of their career. I personally listen less to what’s said, and more to what’s not said. What’s the undertone about their successes and failures? Is there humility, forthrightness, passion and pride? After this chat, the list quickly gets shorter. Tip for job candidates: practice describing your work experience and focusing on two to three relevant work-related themes. Few people have a perfect resume, but good ones have a solid theme. Your ability to deliver a concise, directed theme speaks volumes.
Once the phone screen is complete, we invite the best of the bunch for an in-person interview to tell the same 15-minute story. Believe it or not, the story rarely gets better when told in person, it often gets way worse. What do you do when you’re holding their resume, they’re sitting in front of you, and they can’t remember their first job after college, or what they focused on two jobs ago? You don’t really want to give them a hint. Tip for candidates: do your homework. Come to this step with a plan on how you would approach doing the job and questions you need answered to do the job well Engage us, and challenge us with portions of your work history we may have missed.
After this step, the list is much shorter and the real interviews can finally begin. These meetings require structure and preparation by the candidate. We tell candidates how we want them to prepare for the interview. More often than not, we ask them to solve a specific problem we’re currently facing, or do a detailed walk through of specific problems they’ve solved in the past. This gives the candidate a chance to be a real thought partner to the hiring team. We often ask candidates to present their materials at the beginning of the interview day. This provides a shared baseline, and then each individual interview can build on the next, as team members focus on their particular overlap or need for the position. This process takes time and effort, and it helps nobody if an unqualified candidate gets to this step. Tip for candidates: Consider your job interview a pitch for consulting work. This promotes a really meaningful Q&A approach. It’s a bit too obvious when candidates don’t prepare, or don’t care enough about the position, and we often need to stop these interviews to avoid wasting everybody’s time.
Remember, all this work is just for one position. Often times, we’re hiring for many positions. But the work usually pays off, and about two to four weeks in we get that amazing feeling of privilege to have that person on track to join our team. Unless of course, this is a technical role, in which case, after all that work, too often the candidate will suddenly disappear, or accept an offer elsewhere.
And then there are the rejections. We always start with appreciating that, for all the hard work on our side, the candidate probably put in a lot more effort and experienced more frustration. That’s why we’re big believers in long-term relationships, and that if there isn’t a short-term opportunity to work with someone, good karma comes from staying connected. The ones that get this are the best candidates later, or get full credit for helping their friends during a future outbound reach out to our network. We’re also big believers in giving candid real-time feedback and tell candidates why they aren’t moving forward. We also receive feedback; we’re by no means perfect, and feedback hopefully makes us a little bit better each day. Those that most appreciate sharing feedback tend to become the most meaningful members of our network. And I’m most proud of those that we haven’t hired have become our friends.
There’s no rest for the weary, when it comes to growing in a recession.
Reprinted from Business Insider, June 1, 2011
As a company founder who has grown into a CEO and manager, I’m constantly adding to my team people with different backgrounds and skill sets, and trying to keep them connected, productive and guided toward a common goal.
It’s like herding cats through a maze.
To help manage this, the first thing I learned was the importance of one-on-one meetings.
When the company and team were new, I went so far as to have 30 minute one-on-one’s each day with each of my new executives.
It killed half of every day for me, but helped me build a culture of trust, drive everyone to a single vision and taught me the power of delegating. The team was coming from different backgrounds, and we learned together how to steer the ship.
Then, over time, one by one, we moved the daily check-ins to a weekly schedule.
Eventually, the check-ins started slipping to every two or three weeks, and I could see the disconnect build. Weekly check ins became the norm, and mandatory.
The next challenge was getting my executive team to have one-on-one meetings with each other, weekly. Anytime there is tension brewing between two members of my team, I ask, “When was the last time the two of you had a one-on-one?” I’m paraphrasing, but the response is usually something to the effect of, “Well, we’ve had trouble finding time to meet for the last 2 or 3 weeks.”
They then have the meeting, and the problem invariably goes away. When it doesn’t, my solution is a bit more aggressive, such as moving them into offices next to each other.
What a surprise, that the closer they are the more communication they have, and more communication leads to better cooperation.
My next pursuit was the perfect staff check in, bringing my executives together for an hour or two each week, or every other week.
Over time, we’ve tried a multitude of formats for this meeting. Going longer than two weeks between meetings, I see the team get disconnected. Going around the room and giving status updates, eyes glaze over when others speak. Having a group brainstorm, there is a fear of work being created and assigned or priorities adjusted adhoc. Having everyone distribute a status beforehand, everyone brings their computers and types away during the check-in.
Reviewing performance metrics over a lunch, the team builds resentment about losing their personal time.
Running a great staff meeting is a scavenger hunt of sorts for me, constantly searching for new bits and pieces that make it more productive, and giving the team’s cooperation and purpose a regular shot in the arm. With how much time we all spend at work, I believe the executive staff meeting time should feel sacred.
To this end, I recently surveyed all my employees, asking them to post on a Wikipage what they’ve liked and disliked about staff meetings, over their entire careers.
After a week, there were pages of anonymous feedback. Their experiences stemmed from the Googles and Yahoos from whence they came, as well as many years of experience on the front lines of rapidly paced startups here in Silicon Valley.
Some of my favorite postings included, “No meetings for the sake of meetings (i.e. meetingitis),” and, “solid start and stop times.”
I also surveyed fellow CEOs, who manage anywhere from a dozen on up to thousands of employees. One of my favorites was Bill Coleman, the famed founder and CEO of companies such as BEA Systems, which was ultimately acquired by Oracle for $8.5B.
He startled me with this bit of wisdom: “Staff meetings aren’t for making decisions, they’re for ratifying decisions.”
Another favorite came from Larry Baer, President of the San Francisco Giants, who said, “Instead of calling them staff meetings, it’s a small but important thing to call them what they really are, which is leadership meetings.”
With that introduction, and with thanks to the dozens of folks that participated, here is my prototype of the ideal staff meeting, …er, leadership meeting.
Clearly defined objectives
Most well run staff meetings do seem to address a clearly defined need, such as the need for team members to know what’s going on with each other. Some go so far as to write down a concise purpose, to ensure that every member of the team remembers, e.g. cross-departmental information sharing.
Regularly scheduled meetings
As for frequency, it goes without saying, that everyone is adverse to meetings for the sake of meetings (hence the invention of the term “meetingitis”).
However, I found it extremely common for teams to have weekly or bi-weekly meetings, with Monday afternoons and Wednesday mornings being the most typical. Counter to my initial hunch, lunchtime is the least-appreciated time for meetings. Lunch is personal time, and should be respected as such.
If salespeople are involved, then any time that would interfere with them reaching customers is off limits, particularly in the mornings. Meetings seem to range from about 1 to 2.5 hours, with an occasional exception in either direction.
Depending on the team, a standing time is important, or it can be flexible and scheduled only one week in advance at a time.
In addition to the core weekly or bi-weekly meeting, some teams have supplemental meetings, on a daily, monthly or quarterly rhythm.
But the law of meetingitis says to avoid meetings that could just as easily be handled through more electronic forms of communication, like Google Apps or the company Wiki. When appropriate, a daily meeting tends to be no more than a 15-minute morning huddle (or “rugby scrum”). Standing room only.
Types of meetings
Monthly meetings are typically an extension of the core meeting, with more time allotted, say up to 5 hours.
Quarterly meetings are considered critical, to bring everyone together as a team. One suggestion for quarterlies is to do a group risk management session, and color code each key area as red, yellow, or green. This type of meeting is less data driven, and more intentionally interpersonal, to get each member of the team out of their silo.
Most people with whom I spoke felt that showing up by Skype or phone is okay, but that everyone should strive to be together in person at least once a month. “Seeing” each other is extremely important. Also, one of my more detail-oriented employees asked that we only use speakerphones that are full-duplex. I learned that a non-full-duplex phone is one where the listener can’t hear you asking them to stop talking!
I was reminded of the adage that time is money; it emphasizes that starting and stopping a meeting on time is imperative. And that it’s a matter of respect for each other that attendees show up on time, meetings start on time, and small talk at the outset is kept to a minimum.
And that failing to show up, with no emissary, and no notification, is a major faux pas.
When scheduling a meeting, Gmail Calendar is a favorite. And for any off-site meetings, another of my more detail oriented employees asked that the physical address be pre-populated, so any smartphone can automatically bring up a map.
I also learned the importance of putting any dial-in numbers in the body, since not all smartphones can call directly from the title or location fields. And the newest common courtesy is pasting in any notes or attachments, rather than referencing a separate email. Services like Dropbox can create a public link to a file, when attachments are too difficult.
Even with thousands of employees, I never heard more than a dozen or so people being invited to a staff meeting.
The exception is the occasion of a whole team coming together, to talk more openly. There were stories of danger lurking when too many people were invited, or the wrong people were invited. If a department head can’t make it, then the next person in line is expected to come in their place.
There is a standing expectation for every department to be represented.
Before the meeting
The most successful meeting leaders have quite a few things in common, most notably information sharing happening prior to the meeting, preferably in an online, version-controlled repository, such as Google Sites.
And especially when team members are remote, it’s important to respect any deadlines for distribution of information. Taking a step back, I heard three main types of pre-meeting information.
- Key Indicator Report: A summary snapshot of the group or business’s core metrics. For example, for a Monday afternoon meeting, by noon, a 1-page key indicator report may be uploaded to a Google Sites page.
- Team Member Updates: I really like the one colleague’s approach to team member updates. He uses a Google Sites page, and on it he puts links to personal pages for each team member, where they write their personal updates by a noon deadline every week. Over time, their personal pages become matters of record, that can be rolled up and reviewed quarterly.
- Deep Dive Suggestions: Before a meeting, there really should be a bottomless “suggestion box,” for what are rightfully called deep dives. I’ll talk about this more below.
No good meeting lacks structure. With this in mind, here is a “best of” buffet of structure for running your next meeting.
1. Leader overview: 2-30 minutes
The leader should start the meeting, for anywhere from 2-30 minutes. He or she should start (and end) with something inspirational, such as a good or bad letter from customer service.
Then, trust me, try a warm-up exercise, such as going around the room and having everyone grade how they feel about their job on a scale from 1 to 10, and then saying one word that describes how they feel. The more foreign this sounds to you, the more surprised you will be about how effective this is at “leading” your team. It’s been working for me.
Then try a short review of recent success stories and process improvements, to pat everyone on the back. Next, state a clear timeline for the meeting, with ample time allocated for each part, including wrapping up. Another piece of wisdom I heard, was that having a clear timeline is more important than having a specific agenda.
2. Team member round robin: 15-30 minutes
In a round robin fashion, each team member should do one of the following two things:
Inform people (2 minutes)
Informing people is about looking back, and looking forward. Look back, by sharing key achievements, disappointments, issues, and concerns. Issues are facts. Concerns are judgments. Look forward, by sharing what you hope to accomplish. This forces you to say what you’re going to do, and hold yourself accountable. Start or end with a recent story or letter that inspired you.
The meeting is for sharing information, not showing off. No one should be going through the 30 things on their plate. Rather, they should just go through the few things that others need to know now, or that move the needle forward. It’s reasonable for a third of attendees to say, “we’re good.” No one should take it as anything bad. It’s fine to pass, and there should be no stigma attached to it. If you don’t have something to say, then your silence should be appreciated.
3. Customer focus: 10 minutes
As a group, talk about the customer at every meeting. Try to highlight one customer, and ask, “What are we going to do differently?” Everyone on the team wants to know, that every other member of the team has gone out to talk to customers.
4. Deep dive: up to 90 minutes (optional)
A deep dive is a problem solving session, that leverages the power of the team. Those that suggested deep dives ahead of time go first. Strategic topics are at the leader’s discretion. Deep dives need the right participants, and the right data, to avoid generating follow-up meetingitis and homework. Here are examples of deep dives:
Seek input (up to 30 minutes)
Seek ratification of a decision (up to 30 minutes, with info distributed 4 days before)
Brainstorm (up to 90 minutes)
Strategic topic: Over the course of the year, rotate through reviews of vision, strategy, business plan, and financial plan.
Topics can range from productivity of sales, to operational controls, to the P&L. Give significant advance notice, so the team can pre-think on the issue, do homework and come prepared. These sessions should clarify working priorities, as well as challenge participants to deliver to their commitments (per assigned action items).
To have a good structure, there needs to be a clear meeting leader. I heard a plethora of advice for the person courageous enough to take on this role.
- Rename staff meetings to reflect their purpose: leadership meetings.
- Be the embodiment of the vision, value proposition for customers, and values of the company.
- Do not make decisions in a leadership meeting. Only ratify decisions made outside the meeting. Ensure there is a clear process for making decisions outside the meeting.
- Be brutal about keeping to a schedule. Maintain hard start and stop times.
- If you need to schedule a deep dive outside the meeting, consider just moving the meeting to accommodate.
- Enforce accountability. Pressure team members to stretch, and learn from their mistakes. Don’t sugar coat failures.
- Mix up the agenda; invite guests; take field trips.
- Have a “parking lot” for deep dive suggestions.
- Consider banning mobile devices and laptops, particularly for the leader overview and team member round robin.
- Once there is a good foundation for the meeting, let go of it and let the participants evolve it from there.
Team members’ responsibilities
Team members have responsibilities too. We’ve all been in a meeting that went sideways because one or more participants came into the meeting in the wrong state of mind. The tidbits I heard on this topic were a bit more pointed.
- When you speak, clearly separate out facts & issues versus judgments.
- When you listen, give compliments on the good info you hear, and voice your opinion on areas of which you want to see more next time.
In closing, I’d like to thank the multitude of employees and fellow CEOs that contributed to this article, and who also appreciated the purpose enough to ask for a copy when this was done. Please help continue the discussion, by putting your favorite meeting wisdom in the comments.
Reprinted from FOXBusiness “Entrepreneur Diary,” May 26, 2010
Over the past few week weeks, there has been quite a bit of road construction down the street from Shipwire. Though I’ve needed to find an alternative route to the office, I can’t help but smile at the thought of the construction. The reason is that it reminds me of an amazing piece of advice given to me by one of our Shipwire board of advisors, Ivan Hoffman, who built Fedex Ground. Ivan told me that our job as founders and early employees is to “build the road.”
Before I go into what that means I need to make a quick aside. If you are starting a business that you hope to build into a multi-million or billion dollar company, you should form a team of advisors around you that have “been there, and done that.” I think Shipwire is very fortunate to have a board with long-term vision that can help us to weather the short-term speed bumps.
Ivan comes into the Shipwire offices on a semi-regular basis to meet with us, coach our growth and ask questions … ones that occasionally make us squirm. During one of his first visits, he told us about a mistake that he had made in one of his early companies that had cost him dearly. He said, “Early stage employees need to invest in the road and not the people.”
As you can imagine, this made us scratch our heads. I value each of my employees and we do invest in them. However, Ivan was not saying: “don’t invest in your people.” Rather, what he wanted us to understand was that the early-stage employees need to build the processes and procedures that will help the business scale and grow. Ivan told me a story about hiring a solid team of people for one of his startups where he invested in the people and built the company around them. But when his employees moved on, the company struggled because the original employees took all their knowledge of the business and processes with them, leaving the company in bad shape as it tried to move forward.
“Build the Road” is a mantra for my core startup team. We constantly ask ourselves what steps we need to take on a daily basis to help the business scale. When we crack the code on a particular problem, we document the steps taken to solve it to ensure that the next group of employees doesn’t have to resolve the same problem. For instance, we use internal wikis for projects and processes. Just as with Wikipedia, every Shipwire employee is both a reader and creator of the content. The team is motivated to build our processes as they overcome each roadblock.
To find out if your team is taking the time to build the road, ask yourself: “What would happen if a core-team member were no longer available?” Would you be able to recover and keep the business moving forward?
ByBox is a smart locker business in the UK that hasn’t made many inroads in the US, and doesn’t really exist anywhere else yet. This is fascinating new logistics technology.
Unfortunately this also seems like a case study of excellent logistics technology with a questionable business model. Founded in 2000, the business was bought in 2018 by Francisco Partners for about US $280M. I’m going to venture out on a limb and hope these poor founders achieved $280M in revenue after 18 years.
For perspective, Shopify announced the acquisition of 6Rivers warehouse robots in September 2019 for $450M, which they expect to achieve $30M revenue in 2020. That’s 15x revenue, for a company that is 4 years old.
I’m not dissing ByBox. 6Rivers raised almost $50M in those 4 years, while ByBox appears to have done little more than a seed round back in 2003. Rather, I’m trying to put in perspective that if ByBox had greater revenues than $280M, it would have sold for less than 1x revenue, which is unlikely for such an attractive business. And if ByBox were, say, less than $50M in revenue, it would have taken 18 years to get there, and I would have recommended they give up a while ago.
Hence we’re likely looking at a 1x sale, which is frankly typical of an old school, low margin logistics business.
Which is to say, ByBox is a fancy looking logistics technology, that I’m assuming had pretty great entrepreneurs, that couldn’t get a major software line into their financial statement.
So if I think about their financial statement, and assume $280M in revenue, then I’m going to guess 90% is pure warehouse-like low-margin logistics services and land leases ($252M), and 10% is recurring software revenue ($28M).
To anyone thinking of emulating this business in a new market, my challenge is for you to build just the software portion of this business, and bypass the physical logistics entirely. Outsource it. Recruit an old school logistics business to make a killing off your efforts.
Then make a list of 10 industries where you think the software can apply, and go interview field managers in each industry and see if they agree. Let them educate you on the unit economics, and pros and cons of your business for their use case. Then pick the top 3 best industries, and buy sushi lunch for the field managers in exchange for them letting you “duck tape” together a test of your idea on their watch. By duck tape, I mean DON’T BUILD ANY SOFTWARE. For example, go to Costco, buy a locker, put inventory in it, and go stand by the locker with a clipboard. If the unit economics are good, the manager will love that you’re doing this for him, and he’ll support you in presenting your case to his manager. If you can’t fight your way through this test, then why would you waste time building the software first?
And if this path doesn’t make sense to you, consider that you might be more of the technology guy, and that you need a partner who is the customer acquisition guy. He’ll eat this up.
And we’re here for you every step of the way. We live for this. Before funding you, we would want to see you do a rough and tumble test like we describe above. We could then help you recruit a rockstar partner, if needed. Please visit my office hours and continue this conversation.