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Driving, and the art of running a business

Learning to drive and learning to run a business are surprisingly similar endeavours.

When you learn to drive, you don’t know what you need to pay attention to. There are, seemingly, a million things going on, and some of them might kill you if you fail to heed them. This can cause a sense of panic in the beginner. When you know how to drive, you rely your experience to know what to pay attention to and what you can simply ignore or deal with without thinking about it.

Learning to run a business is similar. There are a million things that you could do, and some of them will kill your business if you fail to heed them. This can cause a sense of panic in the beginner. When you know how to run a business, you rely on your experience to tell you what you need to pay attention to and what you can simply ignore, delegate or outsource.

When you learn to drive, there are a lot of new habits that you need to build into automatisms. Learning to use the clutch to change gears rapidly while accelerating onto the motorway, surrounded by speeding cars, seems very difficult at first. But the more you do those things, the more they become automatic and unconscious. When you know how to drive, you don’t even really think about changing gears, you just do it.

Learning to run a business is similar. There are a lot of new habits that you need to build into automatisms. Learning to detect that the person in front of you is a lead, pitch them in the correct way, follow up, and close the sale, seems very difficult at first. But the more you do it, the more it becomes automatic and unconscious. When you know how to run a business, you don’t really think about pitching and closing sales, you just do it.

To learn to drive, you have to actually sit in a car and drive yourself. No amount of reading or talking about it will enable you to drive. You could study driving for years, and even watch someone else driving for years (most of us watch our parents driving for our entire childhood), and still it won’t replace the actual experience of driving. While it is possible to build car simulator, even that is a poor substitute for actual driving.

Learning to run a business is similar. You have to actually run a real business yourself. No amount of reading or talking about it will enable you to run a business. You can do all the MBAs you want, and study entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship for years, and still it won’t replace the actual experience of running a business. While it is theoretically possible to build a simulation of a business, it’s a poor substitute for actually running a business.

The best approach for learning to drive is to get an experienced driving instructor who will sit in the car with you and figure out what you know and what you need to learn, construct a teaching plan personalised to you, teach you those things, demonstrate them when it helps, and help you practice them over and over again in a safe environment, watching out for things that might kill you. Because this approach works, it is used throughout the world.

The best approach for learning to run a business is similar. You get an experienced mentor or coach or close advisor who will be lightly involved in the business, who will figure out what you really need to know next and point you in that direction, who helps you work through tricky business issues, and who watches out for things that might kill your business and that you haven’t spotted. This is much less widely used in business than indriving, perhaps because good business coaches are much more rare than good driving instructors. But driving schools for business are getting more common every day.

There is a difference between learning to drive and learning to run a business. In business, there is no such thing as a safe environment. You’re on the motorway from day one. And most people drive their first business without an instructor by their side.

Thoughts from 2018:

Not much to add to this article! I still think this is a good and useful analogy for learning to run businesses, and the best ways I have observed to train entrepreneurs are indeed experiential and based on working on a real business.

People, Processes and Tools

This article was originally posted on swombat.com on October 24th, 2011.

Some years ago, one of my managers used to repeat this “Accenture truism” (or so he designated it): to fix or improve something, first you need the right people, then you need the right processes to help those people work together, then finally you need the right tools to support those processes. People, processes, and tools – in that order.

This is even more true for tech startups than for corporations. As geeks, whenever we face a problem, we often start by looking for a tool to fix it. “Our team isn’t communicating properly – let’s set up Campfire.” “But I don’t like Campfire, why don’t we use Yammer?” “Yammer and Campfire are so lame, let’s just use good old IRC.”

This is the wrong approach. Tools by themselves rarely resolve problems in your business. If your team isn’t communicating, you need to solve that problem step by step.

First you need to figure out if that’s because of a “people” problem. Maybe one member of your team just doesn’t want to talk to the others. If that’s the case, no tools or processes are going to fix that. For example, many sales organisations try to get their salespeople to communicate everything they know about every client – but salespeople don’t want to do that, because it makes them more easily replaceable. Setting up a CRM tool doesn’t solve that problem, until you fix the people, by giving them the right incentives to do what you want (or, if that’s impossible, either changing what you want or changing the people).

Then, you need to look at the “processes” part of the problem. For example, assuming your team wants to communicate with each other, maybe they can’t because they tend to sleep at random schedules in different parts of the world. That’s a process problem that can be fixed by, for example, declaring a certain time each day “team time”. For example, you can anoint the period between 2pm and 4pm in some timezone as “team time”, and require everyone to be available to chat at that time every weekday.

Finally, once you’ve got the right people and they have the right processes in place to support them, then you can start looking for tools to support those processes. Depending on what you actually want “team time” to look like, you might choose campfire, GTalk, IRC, or any number of other tools. But by now, you can select the tool based on whether or not it supports your processes, rather than whether or not it’s the sexy SaaS app of the month.

Thoughts from 2017

The principle still feels true to me. If anything, it feels even more true. The biggest addition would be a much deeper and nuanced understanding of what working on the “people” and “process” problems can mean, and how they feed into each other. At GrantTree we’ve even adopted and developed a whole interview aimed towards figuring out how well people will be able to adapt to our complex processes (open culture makes significant demands on people’s abilities), so we try not to find ourselves hiring people who are perfectly fine individuals but not well suited to our environment.

As the years have passed, tools, however, have become less and less interesting in and of themselves.

Steve Jobs Lives On

This was originally posted on swombat.com on October 6th 2011.

I’m sure there’ll be thousands (probably tens of thousands) of blog posts, comments, and other forms of expression and eulogies about Steve Jobs. The man had that much influence over us. Maybe some, maybe all of them will repeat what I’m going to say here, but that’s not why I’m writing this. Fundamentally, it’s because I feel compelled. I can’t not write it.

I was sitting in a meeting about UK legislation throughout the morning, and found out, at the end, that Steve had died. Even though it was obvious that he was going to die sometime, it was still incredibly sudden and shocking. It’s amazing how personally and emotionally touched I feel by this.

1.

First, it seems amazing, unbelievable, that Steve Jobs could be dead so suddenly. His death at a young, young 56 is a brutal reminder that death takes us all.

Even if you’re a multi-billionaire, someone who’s changed the world twice over, loved by many, influential beyond measure, leading one of the world’s most powerful human organisations, living what was presumably a model life from a health perspective, even if you’re someone who literally has all the world at his disposal, still the great scythe will sweep and it will not miss. Taxes may not be certain. Death is.

2.

A second thought is of the empty “reserved” chair, visible in the front row at the Apple keynote just two days ago, was reserved for a man who was probably lying on his death bed at the time. The empty chair reminds us that Steve worked until the very end, resigning only when, presumably, his declining health made it impossible for him to work.

Like Freddy Mercury said (and did, working until June, dying in November): The Show Must Go On.

Steve died as the curtain fell. I’m not ashamed to say that it actually makes me cry a little, here in this coffee shop. Oh well, I’ve always been a sentimental.

3.

A third thought is about what a tragic, personal loss this is to, well, everyone who loves technology. You may have loved Steve Jobs or hated him, but what you can’t deny is that he was a force for the progress of technology.

Steve Jobs revolutionised the world of consumer computing with the Mac. He upended the music industry (and a few others), transformed consumer electronics, forced the mobile phone industry to leap kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and finally pushed forward a device which will possibly represent the future of computing. The shape of things to come – cue Battlestar Galactica music in the background.

Seen from the perspective of where technology was a mere 10 years ago, the iPhone and iPad are, quite simply, science fiction. No matter your emotional stance on Steve Jobs, it is impossible to deny that, on a technological level, he made a big dent in the world.

What a tragic, personal loss this is to all who love technology, and even to those who don’t. Here was a truly exceptional man, who made the world better in the way he could, and he is no longer with us. We have lost him – all of us. We’ll have to make do without him.

4.

A final thought occurs, a thought about life and death that I’ve been mulling over for some time.

I don’t have much experience of death, but here is my perspective. While we live, we influence the world around us, through our will (which led some philosophers to declare that will was the fundamental unit of reality). When we die, that will is extinguished.

How quickly it seems that the world erases all trace of most people. Some live on for some time, through great art or great acts, but eventually, it erases all, without fail, without exception. The broom follows the scythe and sweeps everything away. The well of the past is indeed bottomless and filled with the forgotten memories of those who came before us.

And so with Steve Jobs. One day he will be utterly forgotten, not even an atom of a memory will remain, even if humanity lives on. But for now, what Steve Jobs achieved in Apple, over a brief decade since he came back to it, was to create, in a medium other than art, an extension of himself. Apple is modelled after Steve’s vision, and it is fair to say that it is an extension of what he learned, through his life, and, more importantly, of what he willed. Apple is Steve’s will, externalised.

And Apple lives on. And Apple is, technically, immortal (as in, not subject to mortality – obviously it can go bankrupt). One day it will err and die, but its potential lifespan is considerable, given where it is now.

Certainly, Apple will change, but so would Steve, had he lived.

This is a poor form of immortality. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my works, I want to achieve immortality through not dying”. But whereas art, to a large extent, is static, a company is an entity – legally and in reality – capable of making decisions, of changing the world, capable, in short, of will.

It may not be a perfect proxy for Steve’s will, but it’s what we have left after this great man has passed away. That, and the science fiction he made real for us.

Thoughts from 2017

Most of the thoughts in this article still feel true, but as my articles about my ill-fated adventures with the new Macbook Pro have perhaps made clear, I suspect that the answer to the question of whether Steve Jobs’ will lives on in Apple is, sadly, no. But I might be wrong, who knows. Jobs made a few mistakes in his time too, though generally they didn’t lack vision. Time will tell.

Still, I wanted to preserve this article on danieltenner.com.

My life in Accenture before startups

This was originally posted on swombat.com in June 2011.

I regularly get asked about my time in Accenture, and my transition into entrepreneurship, both by people who are trying to decide whether to apply to go there after university, and by people who are currently working there. Here’s an attempt to answer some of those questions in one place.

Background and overview

First, some background. I joined Accenture in 2003 as a Junior Software Engineer, on the basis of my mad Java skills (certified by Sun) and the undeniable fact that I didn’t have three heads.

I’d like to say the interview process was gruelling and that I succeeded where many failed, but to be honest, I think at the time they were hiring anyone that could write two lines of Java to grow the newly created Solutions Workforce (engineering people, basically), so I don’t remember the interview process being particularly hard at that stage.

On my first or second day, I sat in an induction presentation where they told us that the Solutions Workforce was designed so that “it’s ok to stay at the same level for 10 years if you want to, it doesn’t have the ‘up or out’ pressure of the Consulting Workforce”. From that horrifying moment onwards, I knew I had to get the hell out of the Solutions Workforce into Consulting.

Transition to Consulting

There was no process allowing people to do so, so it took me about a year to bypass the un-process (which included having to go through a whole new round of much harder interviews) and transform from a Software Engineer (I got promoted in the meantime) into an Analyst (which earned me some £10k a year more than other Software Engineers).

This was, largely, a very good move. I learned a lot in Consulting. I had always been a good programmer, but now I was able to take on all sorts of non-programming roles and round off my non-technical skills: client management, people management, planning, recruiting, processes, performance reviews, and all sorts of other “softer” tasks that I really wanted to learn how to do well. I’ve always liked being a generalist, and I’ve always liked pressure, and Consulting suited both those tendencies very well.

At the same time, something really bothered me about my work. It felt pointless. One project I did (whose output was basically a PPT and Word document outlining the successes and failures of a client project), which took two and a half months, had, as its only apparent purpose, the promotion of the person who had led the project. Accenture was paid (quite well) so that I would sit there and produce a piece of paper that justified this person’s promotion.

To me, that didn’t seem like a good use of the precious few years we have on this Earth. In fact, the feeling that I was wasting my time was really killing me inside (I’m not exaggerating).

The height of absurdity was reached, I believe, when I was asked to prepare the proposal for the preparation of a plan to produce a proof of concept for a module of a tool the client was implementing. Long before that, though, I had started to look for other things to do. Wherever I looked in the corporate world, though, I found more of the same (usually more of something even less good). As far as the corporate world went, Accenture was not so bad.

About two years into my four-year corporate journey, I started looking for other jobs, but found nothing I liked. Another year passed before I started considering the idea of starting my own business. From that point on I was looking for a partner to start it with (I knew I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to do it all by myself yet). Soon, my best friend approached me with a product idea. It was all I’d been waiting for, so we got started. Nine months of hard work and no sleep later, I handed in my resignation, and finally ended my stint in the corporate world.

Hindsight

Do I regret my time in Accenture? No. Not at all.

I think I should probably have planned my time there better, and exited sooner, but all in all, it wasn’t a bad experience. I learned a lot, both in terms of skills and self-knowledge. Accenture has some truly exceptional people working there, and they tend to be fairly accessible, so if you’re the kind of person who naturally strives to get advice, who reaches out to your network for assistance, you will get plenty of coaching from people at all levels.

Most of the managers I worked with, directly or indirectly, were excellent (some less so), and I learned a lot from them both. One of the most crucial things I learned in Accenture was how to hold back my habit of being blunt and direct with everyone. I learned to be smoother and far more effective. That’s a valuable thing to learn. I also gained a lot of confidence in my abilities to pick up and absorb new things and become productive quickly – something that I knew I could do with technologies, but which I saw I could now do with almost all subject areas.

So, in hindsight, would I do it again? I’m not sure. I was far from ready to join the startup world before I joined Accenture – but then, I was just as far from ready when I left Accenture, and in the end I’ve done alright, I think. You’re never ready to take that leap. You might think you’re ready, but you’re not, really. It’s impossible to say what my life would have been like if I’d joined a startup instead of Accenture, or if I’d simply tried to launch my own business.

I was already toying with some entrepreneurial ideas with a friend in Geneva before leaving for Accenture. Perhaps life could have gone differently.

Conclusion

My advice to people who are hesitating between startups and a company like Accenture is: don’t worry too much about it.

Big, prestigious corporations have their share of benefits. Accenture is probably not a bad choice amongst the selection of corporate masters. If you’ve got the bug for entrepreneurship, chances are a few years in a large corporation won’t distract you from it (and they might even strengthen your resolve). If you feel like you can start a business right away, you can try that too.

But don’t stress about it. You’re not making the most important decision in your life. There’ll be many chances to adjust the shot if you decide corporate life is not for you. Many entrepreneurs get started later in life, after having held steady jobs for decades.

If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood.

Thoughts from 2017

Not much to add to this article. It’s still a sensible look back at those years in Accenture, that seem rather more distant now (this year, I reached the “10 years since I quit my last regular job at Accenture” milestone).

Who am I, right now?

Over the last 6 months, finishing recently, I have been going through a leadership development course called the SAS, by CirclingEurope. It is built on the practice of Circling, which I won’t try to define fully here. For me, one of the essences of it is accepting and therefore being able to embrace the present moment and what it brings me.

About halfway through the course I wrote the following on the Facebook group page for my SAS cohort:

“Who am I, right now?”

Asked with curiosity, with acceptance of whatever the answer may be, with openness to discovering something new, with love for the asking and the answering…

This is the most powerful question I can ask myself in my life now. Every breath can bring a different answer, if only I can let go of the answer that came a decade, a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour, a minute or even just a breath earlier.

Another powerful pair of questions and answers that resolve to the same idea, for me, from de Mello:

> What is love? The total absence of fear. What is it we fear? Love.

Surrender into this absence of fear (which, paradoxically, may be full of fear), moment to moment, breath by breath. Immerse your soul in love (Radiohead). Gentle impulsion, shakes me, makes me lighter, fearless on my breath, teardrop on the fire (Massive Attack). Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me, confuse, the riddle gets solved, and you push me up to this state of emergency, how beautiful to be (Björk).

Language fails to quite express, but this one question captures it all.

Who am I, right now?

Who am I, right now?

Who am I, right now?

Who am I, right now?

Who am I, right now?

Meditation and other mindfulness practices like Circling can seem, to some people, divorced from the practical realities of being a person who lives in the real world, who works, who achieves things. Yesterday and today I had a brilliant example of this question, this openness, applied practically, and with impact.

I was at Pirate Summit (which just finished), and scheduled to give a talk about Holacracy. While rehearsing it yesterday, I felt uncomfortable, a clear feeling in my solar plexus that something was not right. It wasn’t obvious why I was uncomfortable. It came across first as a desire to do something else – anything else – other than rehearse the talk I was giving the next day. I had spent the whole day at the conference feeling a bit disconnected from things, not really engaging or getting into any great conversations, and now this. My first instinct was to simply flee the battle. I just didn’t want to be there, or to go to the next day. It seemed pointless. A step backwards! I don’t need to be here! There are other, better things I could be doing! Rationalisations and escape routes came easily, as they usually do.

There was such a strong desire to not give this talk! I could have just overridden it through force of will, and made myself rehearse and give the talk anyway. Or, I could have given into it and (quite unethically), found a reason to not be there the following day. But if the SAS course and now almost a year of Circling has taught me anything, it is to stay with apparently “negative” feelings and be open to letting them teach me something. For example: who am I, right now, as I feel this pain in my solar plexus? Is this discomfort telling me, perhaps, that there’s a deeper, greater version of myself that I could be, if only I could let it happen? Is there something I’m afraid of, that would be a truer expression of me?

This question, who am I, right now, symbolises an openness to finding out something new about myself, to being different, to letting go of who I thought I was and therefore more fully stepping into whatever I actually am at this present moment. It requires a trust that whatever I will discover in this process will be good for me. Experience has taught me that it always is, but still it is hard to let go of the ego’s fears. In fact, worse than that: the ego’s fears are usually the very thing that points the way to deeper truth.1

Thankfully, I had my wife with me, and she helped to circle me, and in the process, we discovered that yes, I felt wrong about the talk I was about to give, because it felt empty to me, free of passion or presence. I was just going through the motions. There was no challenge, no risk, no vulnerability in giving this talk. It was just a superficial act without any growth in it for me, at least in the way I had structured it.

So then the way forward became obvious: what talk would I have to give for it to truly challenge me, for it to be a developmental edge? I was definitely afraid of having to redo my talk from scratch at 9pm the night before (the talk was at 11:40am), but what was the talk that I was afraid of giving? After a bit of thinking, it was clear that the new version of the talk should start with vulnerability about this process, a willingness to admit my weakness and failure, not as a founder, but as a speaker and as a participant in the conference. This was what I had avoided saying to anyone all day, as I hung around in the conference, on my iPad, not talking to any of the wonderful people there: that I was bored, that I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there, that I felt disconnected from the tech scene, tired of it. Step into that truth, and let the rest of the talk flow from this place of vulnerability 2, combined with my honest desire to bring something of value to every audience I speak to, and with my actually useful knowledge of Holacracy.

And so instead of a flat, dispassionate talk that would have best been forgotten, I gave the talk below. And in the process of finding, preparing, and delivering that talk, I took the opportunity to grow as a person, to explore a new way to be fully present when giving presentations. All of which would have been missed if I hadn’t stayed with that discomfort and explored it. Instead, I imagine I would have left Pirate Summit with a vague feeling of disgust and unease, none-the-wiser as to what I might have done differently, perhaps deciding that the cause of my unease was the conference itself, rather than my present state of mind. Denying this state of emergency (or emergence), my life would have been less rich, and my audience would probably have gotten less out of my talk.

This is Circling applied.


  1. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson

  2. Admitting to an audience that you can’t bring yourself to care about what they care about feels pretty damn exposed!

What sort of entrepreneur are you anyway?

This article was originally published on swombat.com in May 2011.

From my father’s blog about wisdom:

The trouble with values is that they are all good.

Most people will swiftly agree with most of the high values of humankind: freedom, happiness, truth, respect, justice, equality, prudence, compassion, courage, modesty, patience, moderation, harmony, industry and so on; but ask them which is the most important and prevailing. You will suddenly find in the pattern the striking differences that tell fascists apart from communists and religious fanatics from tolerant free thinkers.

Bad people have no problem with good values. Irreconcilable opposites are made from the same handful of values representing goodness. It is the weight of each that differs.

The same is true for entrepreneurial values. Everyone but the most psychopathic entrepreneur will agree that a business should treat its employees well, shouldn’t waste money, should create value, should generate returns for its shareholders, shouldn’t kill people or make them ill, and so on.

And, more specifically in the tech startup world, a great many entrepreneurs will agree that startups should hire the best people they can, should iterate, should keep an eye on relevant metrics, should have automated test suites, should have automated deployments, should have backups of valuable user data, should be running on secure, well-administered servers, and so on. For B2B startups, everyone agrees that making sales, creating a good brand and building strong customer relationships are good things.

At the very least in public, very few entrepreneur will disagree with those values. But, as with the more generic human values, there is a world of difference in how each entrepreneur orders those values. Are backups more important than automated tests? Is saving money more important than implementing good metrics measurements? Is it ok to treat your employees harshly in the name of shareholder returns?

If you’re going to work in someone else’s business, it is wise to try and determine how they have ordered their values before doing so – this is why interviewing with people who work there already can be so important for the job seeker.

And, similarly, for yourself! What sort of entrepreneur are you (or will you be when you start your own business)?

To be aware of your values and to examine their worth with your own mind is yet another subtle source of freedom. Keep Nietzsche’s hammer at hand to gently tap on each value and to judge the sound. Depending on the place where they are hung, some of those bells may give an empty ding of hypocrisy. We tend to forget that values are man-made axioms agreed as beneficial. There is nothing God-given about them. You do have a right to examine them freely – in your head – to chose your own choices. This is not theory: your own chime, your arrangement of personal values chants who you are.

Thoughts from 2017

As time has passed, I’ve been able to see first-hand how important knowing yourself is, if you’re trying to build a successful company. Reading this article again, I see that it lacks a method by which you can know yourself – Nietzche’s hammer is a bit too abstract for most people. Ultimately, to know yourself takes the same thing as to know someone else: you have to witness the person’s actions, particularly when they need to make difficult decisions.

So my advice today would be that knowing your values is important and yet at the same time the only way to really get to know yourself is to go out in the world, do things, make decisions. Then, be sure to reflect on your choices regularly, and gain the self-knowledge available to you.

Don’t be yourself

A lot of advice given to people (and, to some extent, to companies) amounts to “just be yourself”, or “just be comfortable with who you are instead of trying to change”.

This advice is well intentioned, fundamentally, and yet I think it’s not all that helpful.

How can I be something that I have only a superficial understanding of? How can I be myself when I don’t know what “myself” is?

As a person, much of my life has been spent discovering who I am. I still don’t really fully know who I am, though I certainly have a better idea than I did ten years ago. Equally certainly, I have a less good idea than I will in ten years. It’s not just that the ten years will change me (though they will), but also that I’ll have a more useful map of “me”, both the “me” that I am now and the “me” that I will be then.

Similarly for companies, I have argued before that the right thing for companies to do, rather than trying to “be teal”, is to be true to themselves. But no organisation ever gets to total self-awareness. It’s an ongoing process, discovering what the organisation stands for, in ever more depth. Organisations are made of people and, like people, they have bottomless complexity.

Onto that I’ll add that I believe that when we know ourselves, we are naturally less inclined to try be something we know ourselves not to be. So knowing yourself more leads to being yourself more.

On the other hand, striving to be yourself without knowing yourself can lead to stagnation. If I believe I’m being myself, I might be less inclined to accept that my self could use a little improvement. Why are you putting all this pressure on me? I’m just being myself, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like doing this challenging, uncomfortable thing you’re suggesting I might do.

So I would like to suggest a revision of the standard advice to people and to organisations. Don’t strive to “be yourself”. Strive to “know yourself”. Being yourself is a consequence of better self-knowledge.

What will kill Facebook?

This article was originally posted on swombat.com in December 2010.

This question pops up regularly on Hacker News. What will kill Facebook? Before that, it was “What will kill Google?” There was no Hacker News before that, but if there had been, it would have been “What will kill Microsoft?”

Often, the question is asked with a combination of rage and envy. The questioner doesn’t like Facebook, they want it dead, and they wouldn’t mind if they were the one who came up with something that killed it. Aren’t entrepreneurs charming?

However, the question is fundamentally flawed. It’s the wrong question. It leads nowhere. The only company that can kill Facebook is Facebook. Here’s why.

Undead Facebook

First of all, let’s assume that right this minute there is a startup which is just like Facebook 5 years ago. Let’s call it Smashbook. Let’s further assume that Smashbook is going to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace. We don’t know how it might do that, and we don’t care. We just care that this is the Facebook Killer.

What then?

Take a look at the top 100 sites. What do you find at position 51? MySpace. Wait a minute, didn’t MySpace get “killed” by Facebook? They sure did, and Smashbook will have exactly the same effect on Facebook. It will drop from position 2 to position 10. Maybe. After a few years.

In other words, even if a Facebook killer was out today and ripped Facebook a new one, it would still take many years for this to be noticed by Facebook, and it would take decades before it finally did kill Facebook.

Ok, but how to kill it?

Is it even possible for Smashbook to exist? The evidence of Facebook killing MySpace would point to ‘yes’, but this is not so clear. When Facebook came on the scene, MySpace already had many issues. Due to MySpace’s design and its demographic, large groups of people were simply not interested in joining MySpace, and so MySpace already carried the baggage that would eventually cause it to get trampled by Facebook.

Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t have any such flaws. You might say that privacy is Facebook’s flaw – Diaspora and others are certainly betting on that – but, unlike design and demographics, privacy is not something that most people care about. The odd geek will get angry and leave Facebook, but for most, privacy is of no interest.

In this, Facebook is similar to Google: it has utterly dominated its market and has such a lead over its potential competitors that no one can catch it. Facebook is as unkillable as Google.

So how unkillable is Google?

To see whether Google can be killed, let’s look at the previous “unsinkable” title-holder: Microsoft.

Microsoft is far from dead (and probably will never die), but it has made a very good attempt on its own life in the last decade. With Windows Vista, Microsoft did what it could do commit suicide on its flagship product. Six years of delays, bugs, driver support issues, usability issues, and so on – Vista had them all. And yet even that didn’t work. Microsoft’s revenues barely took a hit. Like any company of this size, it will take decades for it to kill itself, and it will have countless chances to avoid death along the way (and probably will successfully take one of them).

No company is really “killing” Microsoft. What may be killing Microsoft is its own failure to adapt and evolve with the times. What will eventually kill Microsoft’s current cash cow is the slow but inescapable disappearance of the Windows/Office monopoly, to be replaced by “the cloud”, whatever form it eventually takes.

Google, similarly, will be killed not by a competitor rising out of nowhere, but by falling into irrelevance. This will take many, many years, and Google will have many chances to jump onto whatever the next wave of relevance is.

So, back to the beginning.

What will kill Facebook?

As I said at the beginning, this question is flawed. Facebook, like Google and Microsoft before it, has risen on a giant wave, that of social networks. As an entrepreneur, thinking about “killing Facebook” is unproductive. You won’t kill Facebook. No one will.

The right question to ask, instead, is:

What will be the next giant wave?

If you can figure that out, and execute the right business to catch that wave, and beat every other business who sees it too, and end up king of the hill at the top of the next wave, then you will have beaten Facebook in the only way which is meaningfully possible. Chances are, when you get there, you won’t care much about how to kill Facebook, or any other mega-company.

Thoughts from 2017

The points of this article are still true. The latest darling to kill is Apple, and many are predicting its demise. I joined in that, with a caveat1. The caveat is partly informed from the views in this article. You can’t “kill” giants like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc – you can only wait for them to fail to catch every single important wave of change. Eventually all things die, but category dominators like these companies take a ridiculously long time to die.


  1. “Like Microsoft, I think Apple will continue to make mind-boggling amounts of money for those 5, 10, 15 years. It just won’t be from my wallet, I guess.”

Being Teal vs Being Cool

“Teal” is a hot topic these days. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that everyone wants to be Teal, but it’s definitely something on a lot of people’s minds. Frédéric Laloux’s excellent book, Reinventing Organisations, has inspired many to meet the challenge of our times, and to create new kinds of organisations. The tech scene, as usual quite willing to experiment with new things, is intrigued, particularly given recent high-profile cultural car crashes like Uber.

No one wants to build the next Uber, culture-wise.

This leads to something that I’m very familiar with, having spent about 3 years in that phase, which is the desire to “be Teal”. Given that society tends to be organised in a top-down, traditional, closed “Orange” way, the natural first step was rebelling against the current order. We saw being Teal as being not-Orange, and so shunned anything that looked like a traditional management structure, because clearly it “wasn’t Teal”. Being more Teal mostly meant avoiding the trap of being Orange (i.e. top-down, traditional, closed) by shunning anything that looked like a traditional management structure, because it clearly wasn’t Teal. We even had a Hipchat & Slack (we transitioned during that period) emoji, “:orange_creep:”, which we used to flag to each other in a light-hearted way when an Orange concept was creeping in.

At the beginning of this phase, in late 2013, inspired by Ricardo Semler’s books, we first dissolved the link between Directors and specific areas of the business, eventually doing away with the concept of Director completely. People at GrantTree had no bosses. For a long period they had no job descriptions either. Everyone participated in decision-making (via a sort of consensus process). Yet things kept moving along, growing, developing.

Frustrated by the slowness of consensus decision-making, I looked for more information on how to build the kind of company culture we wanted. I found Laloux’s book, and upon reading it realised “aha, we’re actually Green right now, we need to be more Teal”. Fascinated by Laloux’s descriptions of Buurtzorg, FAVI, Morning Star, and other miraculous companies he called Teal, and in particular by how everything just seemed to work by itself if you removed the structures that were in the way, we continued our structureless journey, waiting for Tealness to emerge1. Some minimalist processes did come into place because we really couldn’t live without them, like a dismissals process and a pay process, but each of those stood kind of alone and was developed independently. Each process also seemed aimed at one thing in particular: protecting individuals from Orange-like authority.

This “we’re trying to be Teal” phase ended only in late 2016, when we decided that the structures of the business weren’t serving its needs and started putting the right kinds of structures in to serve the business as a whole. We stopped being terminally afraid of hierarchical structures and instead looked to get their benefit without their drawbacks.

People who have been on this journey may recognise that throughout this “let’s be more Teal” phase we were actually simply going through our Green (unstructured, consensus-based, egalitarian) journey, digging further in that direction. From today’s perspective I feel somewhat frustrated at this, and I choose to think that perhaps this was a necessary part of the learning journey, though at the same time I imagine it could have been shorter somehow.

Another consequence of this recent phase is that I’ve started to look at “Teal” as a somewhat suspicious term, one that doesn’t really serve our purposes very well. Ironically, I think this is a sign us being more like the companies in Laloux’s book than we were before. They don’t call themselves Teal: they are just structured in a way that makes sense for them.

Being Cool

There’s an interesting parallel between Tealness and Coolness.

Every teenager goes through a phase of wanting to be cool2. At first, wanting to be cool happens because they see someone else who is cool and they want to be like them. But of course, the way for them to be “cool” is just to be themselves – authenticity is what may lead to “coolness”. That’s pretty hard to do when they don’t know who they are (a common case for younger humans and organisations). If they don’t know themselves, the way to coolness is to work on finding themselves, and removing from their life things that stop them from doing this, rather than specifically on trying to be cool3.

Which is not to say that the desire to be cool or teal doesn’t serve any purpose: it does, in both cases. Similarly to a Zen Koan, each quest serves to highlight its own futility.

We can only “be cool” when we’ve stopped pretending to be someone who we think is cool, and are actually being ourselves, without all the bullshit and pretense, including the superficial desire to “be cool”.

We can only “be Teal” when we’ve stopped trying to adopt practices that we think are Teal, and are actually just being true to the purpose and context and work of the organisation without all the bullshit and pretense, including the superficial desire to “be Teal”.

Who cares about “being Teal”? Do you wanto to build a successful business with a clear purpose and motivated, happy people? Then work towards that rather than towards conceptual Tealness. If you wouldn’t define your mission as “being a cool business”, don’t define it as “being a Teal business”.

Thanks to Andrew Ormerod for the many discussions about the ideas in this article!


  1. Sadly, this is an easy thing to take away from Laloux’s book that is false: self-management does not emerge naturally from the removal of management any more than agile development emerges naturally from the removal of waterfall planning. Both take discipline and great structures.

  2. Sometimes in a very circuitous way, by denying they want to be cool at all, and hoping that’s the path to coolness.

  3. And of course this is not a quest with an end point: you don’t suddenly “become yourself” and then stop changing).

Principes of Pitching

This was originally posted on swombat.com in April 2011.

Learning how to pitch an idea effectively is an enormously useful skill that they never really teach you at university or at school. It’s the kind of thing you learn from personal experience. There are many articles providing formulae for pitching or presenting your startup, but few about the principles behind those formulae.

Back when I was still at university, I spent a whole Easter holiday building a prototype for a chemical spot auction site. In this I made many mistakes (among others, I started by building an elaborate user management system rather than focusing on the key dynamics of the auction process), but the real killer came when we pitched it.

I was working with a guy who was just as inexperienced on the business side as I was on the programming side. His father happened to be a top-level executive at a big chemical company, and so through this huge foot in the door we got an entire hour booked to pitch this product to a panel of senior people at this blue-chip company. I remember sitting on my bed and naively thinking of how we would spend the billions of dollars a year we were undoubtedly going to make from this surefire deal.

Golden opportunity

Was this meeting a golden opportunity, or just a formality to please the boss? I don’t know. But what I do know is how much we screwed up on whatever this was.

On the technical side, everything fell apart. This was the day the ILOVEYOU virus hit, and all the corporate networks were down. Our site was unreachable. I had not thought to have it running locally on the laptop so that I could demo it without internet access (über-rookie mistake). When the server finally became reachable again, the meeting was over, with only one sympathetic soul staying behind to have a look at it. I felt mortified. My entire purpose had been to build this prototype for the demo, and that had completely and utterly failed. Two months of work for nothing.

The real killer, though, was our pitch. To my partner’s credit, I must say that he handled the whole thing himself, and certainly did it better than I would have – but it was still a disaster, and unlike me, he had no technical difficulties to blame. As I watched the pitch unfold and observed the audience, I felt my heart sink further.

We had an hour booked. Here’s how my partner structured the pitch: for the first third of the presentation, about 10 minutes, he talked about how startups were changing the world (which was interesting timing, considering we were two months into the dot-bust); the second third focused on how B2B was a growth area and predicted to make many billions of dollars over the next few years; finally, the last third talked about the customer, and repeated things they knew about themselves, and finally maybe one or two slides were about the product we were pitching and what problem it would solve for them.

So, in short, out of about 30 minutes of presentation time, only 2 minutes answered questions that the audience actually cared about.

I can’t remember exactly what sort of questions there were, but if I recall correctly, the “panel” took the excuse that the prototype wasn’t working to leave before the hour was out. At the time, it seemed that they left because the prototype didn’t work, but, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure they left because they hoped to still be able to do something productive with the little bit of time left in that wasted hour slot.

Hindsight 20/20

Fast forward 11 years later, and I still remember this story, I can still bring back to mind the feeling of sitting through that disastrous meeting, and the insights I got from it. I’ve now pitched hundreds of times, various different ideas. I’ve watched our Woobius interns fumble together a pitch with no preparation (they did better than I did back in 2000). I’ve pitched at competitions, during sales meetings, sales calls, networking meetups, and so on. I even spent two weeks cold-calling 20 people a day to pitch them my “voice on the web” startup (I hate cold-calling).

But the most important lesson about pitching, I learned in this very first pitch:

1. You have to tell people what they want to hear.

With this, I don’t mean that you have to make up stuff. What I mean is, out of the vast infinity of facts at your disposal, you need to ruthlessly zoom into the small handful of key points that the people in front of you care about. Back in 2000, our audience didn’t care for startups, B2B, or well-known factoids about their company. In the context of this meeting, they cared about two, maybe three things:

  1. Are these guys pitching something I should care about?
  2. Are they credible?
  3. (probably) Can I get out of here sooner without pissing off the boss?

The whole pitch should have been focused on answering these questions quickly, smoothly, effectively. This could probably have been done in 5 to 15 minutes, with most of the hour left for answering questions and building up our credibility further.

Since then, when pitching anything, I always first try to figure out what the “audience” cares about, what they want to hear. For example, your pitch to a customer and your pitch to a VC must be vastly different. The VC cares about whether you’re building a startup worth investing in. The customer cares about whether you can solve their problems. Your friends care that you’re doing what you like and not heading for disaster. Your parents care that you’re not wasting your life chasing unicorns and rainbows. This brings us to the second most important lesson of pitching:

2. You have to know who your audience is and understand them before you can pitch them effectively.

Any pitch where you don’t know who you’re talking to is a shot in the dark. It might hit something, but who knows what that might be? So, before answering that oft-asked question, “So what do you do?”, make sure you first try and figure out what the other person does.

Finally, there’s a third critical aspect of pitching that we failed at, back in 2000, that I’ve become more aware of as the amount of sales work I do has increased.

A long time ago, Aristotle wrote about rhetoric that it was “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”. Pitches are a minor application of rhetoric. They do not exist in a vacuum. You don’t pitch just for the pleasure of it. To be described as “good” in any way, a pitch must have a purpose, something you’re trying to achieve, and a “good pitch” is one which achieves its purpose.

Let’s say that, against all odds, the chemical company’s executives had liked us and liked our product. What then? They would naturally have asked, “So what are you looking for?” And the reality is that, naive as we were, we hadn’t even thought of that before going into the meeting.

So this is the third most important lesson of pitching:

3. In order to deliver a successful pitch, you have to know what you want to get out of it.

There are many things you can honestly want out of pitching: customers, funding, esteem, friendship, rapport, advice, insight, introductions, and so on. Depending on what you want, your pitch will need to change. You don’t pitch for business in the same way that you pitch for advice or to build a relationship. Thinking about what you want ahead of pitching is not just helpful, it is essential in order to get anything out of it.

In conclusion

Ultimately, there is one great teacher of the art of pitching: practice. This is why entrepreneurs get very good at pitching: they do it all the time. But hopefully, these three principles can help make your practice more deliberate:

  1. Tell people what they want to hear.
  2. Know who you’re pitching so you know what they want to hear.
  3. Know what you want out of your pitch.

Thoughts from 2017

This article has aged perfectly. The principles within it are evergreen – I would argue they were as true a hundred or a thousand years ago as they were today, and so they’re likely to have some lasting power. I now have even more experience of pitching, and of being pitched (as a seed investor) and all of it supports those straightforward points which so many pitches fail at.

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