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Fit your product to the right market

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

On my first startup, I made the mistake of not talking to customers at all until launch day. As a result, the product sucked – it was not fit for any market. And because it was unfocused, it was impossible to define any sort of effective marketing strategy, either. This is the kind of expensive mistake you don’t make twice, and I extracted it as a one of my “N tips” posts later (see tip number 4).

So imagine how surprised I was when I managed to make a variation on this mistake again with the next startup – albeit in a different flavour. We launched within 2 months, had active users from the right industry right away, saw the product spread… and yet when it came to charging people, the process of getting those happy users to pay was harder than pulling teeth from a cat! Moreover, when trying to sell to other potential customers, who had been unwilling to use the product for free but seemed more inclined to pay for it, there was always a feeling that the product was exciting and had potential, but it didn’t quite do what they needed in order to justify paying for it.

In startup lingo, that’s known as a product/market fit issue.

Fit the right market

It turns out that getting a prototype out there is not enough. You have to get the prototype into the hands of the right market. If you’re planning to sell a paid SaaS product, this means finding early users, from day one if possible, who will pay. Otherwise, you’re getting product-market fit – with the wrong market.

In that context, it was good to see, recently, the following story about SyncPad, who did launch to paying customers right away – which enabled them to discover that their paying market was not who they thought initially:

After Davide launched his app he hit the streets and began talking with his actual customers. What he discovered surprised him. Instead of taking the art world by storm, Davide discovered that his true customers for SyncPad were in the business market. He found that companies were using SyncPad to help manage meetings (both remote and locally), real time visual communication, and for presentations.

SyncPad made some wrong assumptions about who their customers would be, but by charging early, they found those assumptions out very quickly, and were able to pivot their product into the right market.

The price selector

Price is a very strong selector when it comes to users. The people who pay are often not the same as the people who want a free product. This is especially obvious in the B2B market, where “how much the customer wants to pay” allows you to select between enterprises, small businesses, freelancers, etc.

If you build a product with the feedback from free users, you’ll build a product that’s great for free users. If you want to build a product which users will pay for, you need to be charging them as early as possible so your product feedback comes from paying users.

Charging early

One approach for charging early is to ask users to pay from day one, even while your product is in early beta. Even though they’re helping you out a lot by being some of your first users, you need to validate that they are the right kind of user, and the only reliable way to do that is to ask them to pay you.

Of course, you can’t charge them the full price. They’ll laugh you out the door and you’ll lose a potentially very valuable relationship. So, what do you do?

You give them a steep discount. “We’re still early in the development, so you will get a 90% discount for the first three months, and we’ll review the price upwards as more features are developed.” This can also lead very nicely into a discussion of what feature they would most like to see in order to accept the price increase in three months. This can turn into your product road map, if you manage it well.

Of course, perhaps no one will want your product even at a 90% discount – but if that’s the case, you should revise your assumption that they’ll be willing to pay for it at full price, ever, and perhaps pivot into a different product, one that people are actually willing to pay for.

Thoughts from 2017

This article is still very relevant. I frequently bump into new founders for whom this is a useful idea, and who haven’t heard it from somewhere else. In particular, the idea that price is a selector seems sadly rare, given how many founders would benefit from it.

Are patents any good for entrepreneurs?

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

Yesterday, I attended an IP Review Event organised by the Intellectual Property Office in the UK. The focus was a review of “Intellectual Property” and how it impacted entrepreneurs. About 30 startup founders were represented in the audience.

Intellectual Hot Pot

Intellectual Property, of course, covers a great many different types of things.

Some (like Trademarks) are hard to argue against. If you start a company called “Daniel Tenner’s Widgets”, and register that name as a trademark, it is reasonable that your neighbour shouldn’t be allowed to start another company by the same name and compete with you.

Others (like copyrights and patents) are more nuanced. Entrepreneurs know, from everyday experience, that ideas aren’t worth a whole lot. Execution is everything. Some “ideas”, such as innovative mechanical inventions which require a lot of experimentation to get right, are clearly worthy of protection, but most ideas that earn patents are far too generic. And no one, not even the big boys, is immune to being sued by the owner of a spurious patent.

The first thing to do with this, then, is to split out the debate into its reasonable parts. Patents are not copyrights are not trademarks are not trade secrets are not design rights. Let’s take just one strand out of this hot pot and examine that: patents.

Patents and startups

A number of feelings were echoed by pretty much everyone at the event yesterday:

  • patents are effectively useless at protecting young companies; they are too expensive to acquire and too expensive to enforce;
  • on the other hand, patents can much more readily be used by larger competitors to squash smaller innovators; larger companies can afford the costs of enforcement and can register a lot of patents;
  • therefore, patents, as they exist, are a risk which startups must simply live with, and hope that it won’t turn into a full-fledged catastrophe, as that can easily kill their company if it comes at the wrong time.

All this is true whether you are in the US or the UK.

The feeling about patents was best captured by one attendant who stated, during the event “The more I learn about Intellectual Property issues, the less I want to do a startup”.

Another attendant, woefully optimistic, suggested that “we don’t want patents now (while we’re small), but we’ll want them in a couple of years (when we’re large)”. Actually, even large companies who have used patents to their advantage often don’t think they work as they are. Jeff Bezos, who applied the ridiculous One-Click patent against Barnes and Nobles, later (back in 2000) wrote a letter arguing for patent reform. Since then, things have only gotten worse, with countless ridiculous patents being awarded, and some companies even setting up shop as high-volume, highly structured patent trolls to exploit this gaping hole in the legal framework.

It’s pretty clear that companies large and small either dislike or just about get along with the patent system as it is, at least within the IT industry. It protects no one who needs protection, creates a constant threat for those who can’t afford the protection, and generally its main effect is to provide data for nice infographics about who is suing who in an industry (answer: everyone is suing everyone they can).

In short, patents are an overhead to innovation, one that smaller companies avoid paying by taking on an existential risk that could kill them, and an overhead that simply increases the cost of doing business for larger companies.

And what about everyone else?

The original purpose of patents and copyrights, according to the US constitution, was:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The purpose was to promote progress, which would make things better for everyone. In order to achieve this, the founders of the United States of America were willing to make an exception to their otherwise staunchly anti-monopolistic views. This seems like a valid purpose for any law: to make things better for everyone.

So, excluding for a moment the people who file patents and get sued by patent holders, do patents, as they are now, make things better for everyone else?

I believe the answer is clearly “no”. Patents, being an overhead, drive up the prices of goods and services, and reduces the amount of innovation happening. Everyone loses out, most of all consumers who don’t get new products and services or who pay more for them. The only ones who win out of the current system are the patent lawyers.


My conclusion is simple.

The patent system, as it exists today, both in the US and the UK, is a nuisance, an overhead, a problem that everyone could do without. I would cautiously advance that the system that we have in place for patents is worse than no system at all. That said, there is a place for a patent system, but it needs to go back to the fundamental principle of making things better for society.

Patents (or other forms of intellectual property law) should not be predicated upon moral considerations of who owns an idea. From a moral standpoint, ideas, unlike physical things, are owned by everyone and no one, and to impose a false economy of scarcity on ideas is a significant burden for society. However, this burden is reasonable so long as sufficient benefits come with it.

So, a review of Intellectual Property Law, whether focusing on patents or other areas of interest, should primarily concern itself with this fundamental question:

Is the system designed in a way that benefits society sufficiently to outweigh the costs to society?

As far as patents are concerned, the answer is a resounding no.

Thoughts from 2017

Six years on I don’t find that my opinion on patents has shifted much. There has been a little bit less high profile patent trolling (at least as far as I’m aware), but plenty of large companies flinging their patent portfolios at each other on various spurious grounds. I think patents are still a nuisance to startups and older tech companies alike.

How to use metrics in a startup

This article was originally posted on swombat.com in February 2011.

Over the past few months there have quite a few articles about metrics, which are, of course, a very important topic for startups. Metrics like these can and should drive your startup’s development, once you get past the initial part of the hypothesis testing phase.

Yet there seems to be a surprising lack of clarity in many people’s minds about what kind of metrics are useful, how to make them actionable rather than vanity metrics, how to use them, and when to use them. Here’s my attempt to clear things up.

1. Why you should care

Metrics have an aura of scientific validity about them, and they take effort to measure. This means that if you do measure metrics, you’re likely to care about them and act on them. If you measure the wrong metrics, or you measure them wrongly, or you draw incorrect conclusions from what you measure, you are quite likely to make incorrect decisions based on them.

So, if you’re going to look at metrics and act on them, do it correctly. If you spend time and energy calculating metrics and end up making the wrong decision because of those metrics, that is much worse than not measuring metrics and going by gut feeling.

2. When not to use metrics

The first misconception, which I fell prey to as well in the past, is when to use metrics. If your traffic is too low for metrics to be meaningful, then measuring metrics is largely a waste of time, and making decisions based on statistical noise is potentially harmful.

If your traffic is very low, you may still be able to measure things like conversion rates and run A/B tests over a long period of time, but it will be a very slow process, and you are likely to get much better and quicker results by observing user activity directly and letting your subconscious do the work of spotting potential patterns. Don’t forget to double-check those patterns before acting on them, though. The brain is a wonderful pattern-matching machine that will see patterns in the most unlikely places.

3. Actionable metrics

An actionable metric is one which directly leads to some kind of action. As Eric Ries put it, “if you cannot fail, you cannot learn“. If your measurement does not lead you directly to some kind of decision, it’s not actionable. And, if the measurement cannot lead to both outcomes for the decision (e.g. “build out the new feature” or “pull the feature”), it is also not a real actionable metric.

For example, measuring your monthly traffic is a classic vanity metric. Are you going to do something differently if the traffic is higher? Lower? The same? Why?

Another, less obvious example: if you put in a new feature, and you measure its usage, based on the idea that it is “testing your hypothesis that the feature is useful”, this measurement is not an actionable metric unless you’re willing to pull the feature if not enough people are using it. Many people will measure the new feature usage after they’ve already made the decision to keep the feature anyway, under the illusion that it’s a meaningful metric.

Measuring metrics without linking them up to a hypothesis that you’re testing is largely a waste of time, and may lead you to make incorrect decisions.

There are reasons to measure non-actionable metrics, but those are to do with managing the business).

4. Management metrics

There is a good reason to measure non-actionable metrics: managing the business. In order to manage the business effectively, you need to know how much money came in. You need to know how much tax you owe to the government.

A related point: you need management metrics when pitching your business. User count is largely pointless to measure, but if you’re pitching to investors, or even customers, it’s a metric that, if it looks good, will make them feel good (that’s what a vanity metric is…), so it is useful to measure it even though it is probably not actionable.

But, management metrics are not actionable. They are subject to external influences, and internal biases (you tend to see what you want to see in them). Don’t make the mistake of driving your product design on the basis of vanity, management metrics.

5. How to use metrics posts

How then, to use a post like this one or this one, which gives a set of metrics without actions. It looks useful, but is it?

Yes, it is. What these metrics posts do is tell you what are the fundamental metrics that your tests should boil down to. Measuring “how many people used a feature”, for example, is not a fundamental metric. What metrics posts really point out are KPIs for your type of business.

Measuring the KPIs by themselves can often be a useful management metric, but it is not actionable. However, any actionable metric should boil down to a KPI. So, when you put in a new feature, don’t measure “how many people used the new feature”, measure “whether people who had access to the new feature were more likely to pay” or “whether people who had access to the new feature stayed on the site longer”.

6. External influences

One more key point to make about metrics is that there are many external factors that can affect your measurements. Don’t be caught out like this guy. Any test should be run with both options presented in parallel to compensate for seasonable changes. If you measure conversion with one landing page on Friday and another on Sunday, what you’re measuring is a combination of your landing page changes with the weekly cycle of traffic. So, all tests must be run in parallel.

In addition to that, if your users are interconnected, you need to be careful about how you group users together. Don’t show one user one set of features, and a different set of feature to their colleague, or you will lose both and falsify your metrics. Remember that you don’t need to have the same number of people on the A and B sides of the A/B test – you just need enough people on either side.

Management metrics are particularly susceptible to external influences, so do not use them to drive product design decisions.

7. Unmeasurable things

Finally, no metrics overview would be complete without mentioning that there are many things in the running of a business which cannot be turned into statistics. You should measure everything you can, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can measure things like design, product vision or even the fitness of your first few key hires.

Trying to A/B test things which are not measurable is foolish and leads to bad decisions. Even worse, ignoring key things just because they’re not measurable is selective blindness. Be very aware that there are many things in the running of a business which cannot be measured but are worth doing.

In conclusion

I’ve made a number of points that I hope will be useful to you. The key takeaway is that using metrics incorrectly is worse than using no metrics at all. Metrics are a knife. Sharp, accurate, strong, useful – but make sure you don’t hold it by the blade:

  • Care about correct metrics usage; using them incorrectly will lead you to bad decisions.
  • Don’t use metrics when you don’t have the traffic; use user activity streams instead.
  • Actionable metrics are metrics which drive a decision directly; don’t act on vanity metrics.
  • It’s ok to measure management metrics, but be aware that they’re not actionable.
  • Metrics posts provide KPIs; make sure your measurements boil down to KPIs, but don’t measure the KPIs by themselves, except as a management metric.
  • Beware of external influences, they can falsify your tests.
  • Don’t discard unmeasurable things, and don’t force unmeasurable things into an A/B test mold.

This is by no means a complete list – there are many more articles even on this site, let alone in other places. It takes more than one article to learn how to use metrics correctly, but hopefully this is a good starting point.

Thoughts from 2017

I find myself much further from this topic than I was then, but I believe it’s still correct. In a way, I am neither more nor less skeptical of metrics: they have their use, and if you know how to use them they will make a big difference to your business.

I would add a note of caution from a few years of experience though: be careful when linking metrics to performance or even job security. This tends to lead to serious distortions in people’s behaviour – they will optimise for the metrics that they are being rewarded for, at the expense of everything else, including the long-term success of the organisation. When it comes to motivation, intrinsic motivators are far more powerful, lasting, and less distorting. They’re also a lot harder. Maybe check this page out for many thoughts on the topic.

How to write good startup advice articles

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

Startup articles, much like some other content niches, have a tendency to be addictive but content-free. Everyone is guilty of doing it. I’ve done it too. I don’t think there are any regular authors of startup-related article who don’t sometimes produce articles which are perhaps entertaining, perhaps even enticing, but which add nothing to the reader’s life.

Those articles are, by definition, a waste of time.

Since I spend a lot of time both reading and writing startup articles, here are some key points to bear in mind if you prefer to write articles of substance, which others can learn from and apply in their own startups.

1. Avoid over-generalisation

The most common flaw of pointless startup articles is over-generalisation. Entrepreneur brains are by necessity obsessed with finding patterns in chaos. That’s what we do every day. So it’s natural that we see many patterns that look like they could be general rules.

A wise man once said, “the plural of anecdotes is not data”. When writing a startup article, be very careful not to extrapolate from one experience that happened to you to a general rule for startup. “X startup mistakes” or “Y startup tips” are basically collections of generalisations based on personal experiences. Some of your points may even be correct by sheer luck, but the short-form nature of a list of tips means that even those don’t have the necessary context to be really useful.

2. When talking about personal experience, include context

Some parts of running a startup can be analysed scientifically, but a great many cannot. You cannot a/b test your ability to close a sale in person. You cannot a/b test your pitch to Paul Graham on YC interview day. Each sale, each pitch, anything involving person-to-person contact is unique. Some general principles may apply, but unless you repeat the process a lot (e.g. you’re a sales person who has pitched 500 enterprise customers), it is very hard to come up with any kind of reliable “law”.

Even things that don’t directly involve people are often contextual. “The best technology to build your statup” depends on the kind of business you’re building, the sorts of products you’re considering, available talent nearby, your long-term objectives, your budget, and so on. And it will change year by year, if not month by month.

That’s fine. Not every post needs to be declaring a new law of nature. But when you post something which is a personal experience or opinion offered up to others, be sure to include as much context as possible. Otherwise, people will not be able to properly make use of it, because they won’t know if it might apply to their specific context.

“This is what you must do so that your startup can be successful” is useless. “This is what I did and it helped my startup succeed” is marginally less useless. “In this context, I did that and I believe it helped my startup be successful” is potentially useful.

You don’t need to preface every sentence with “I believe” or “in my experience” – doing that will make your writing weak. But make sure you give the right amount of context, and qualify those of your statements which are really just wild guesses rather than tried and tested theories.

3. Avoid posts with no actionable points

Posts like this or this, listing attributes of successful entrepreneurs, or programmers, or businesses, or whatevers, are not actionable. They’re just entertainment – possibly even a damaging form of entertainment, since they contribute to the myth that successful entrepreneurs are heroes and goddesses that are out of the reach of the common man.

Whenever writing up advice for startups, ask yourself “what do I want readers to change about what they do after reading this?” If the answer is “nothing”, your article is entertainment, not advice. If the answer is not “nothing”, then make sure the advice is clear to the reader by the time they reach the end of your article (even if they skim!).

4. Be brief, but not too brief

Entrepreneurs are busy people. The ones who most need your advice are often juggling a full time job along with their startup. They don’t have the time to read a 3,000 word rant in order to extract a couple of meaningful points. Be respectful of your readers and their limited time.

After you’ve written your article, but before you post it, ask yourself “is any part of this outside the scope of this article? is any part long and rambling? is there any section that I added just because I wanted to talk about it, rather than because it’s useful?” Cut mercilessly.

At the same time, don’t cut too much. Seth Godin’s blog is a good example of advice that’s been cut down so much that it becomes useless. Startup advice is only useful with context. If you cut the context out, you might as well not post the article. (of course, Seth’s goal is probably not to post startup advice, but merely to maintain readership so he can sell his books)

If you just have too much content and all of it is relevant to your points, you’re trying to make too many points. Break the article up into several articles in a series. As a bonus, this is said to be good for getting RSS subscribers…

5. Present your article properly

Presentation matters. If you wrap your life-changing, mind-expanding point in a badly formatted post on a generic wordpress (or posterous, or tumblr) blog, you are hurting your chances of making a positive difference. Make sure your article comes in a credible package.

Consider also the visual appearance of your article before you post it. It should be clear, at a glance, what the article is about. It should not look daunting, with huge paragraphs and no subtitles. It should be possible to skim it and still get the gist of it.

In conclusion

If you have advice that you’d like to share with the community (and many entrepreneurs do), try to follow these points when doing so:

  • Avoid over-generalisation so you don’t give thoroughly incorrect advice by wild extrapolation
  • Include enough context for the reader to be able to decide whether this applies to their context
  • Avoid posts with no actionable points: they are just entertainment, not advice.
  • Be brief, but not too brief. Respect your readers’ time, but include enough context to be useful.
  • Get the presentation right, so that people take your article seriously and can read it efficiently.

Thoughts from 2017

This article has aged very well. If you’re writing or thinking of writing startup advice article, I would really encourage you to take these points to heart, for all our sakes (and your own too – you may end up reading your own blog posts some day, as I am doing now!). Sadly, content-free and context-free articles for entrepreneurs abound more than ever, even from sources who should know better. So the world goes.

How to evaluate and implement startup ideas using Hypothesis Driven Development

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

So you’ve come up with an interesting idea. You think it might work. You’ve sketched it out using various tools like the Business model generation  canvas, a business plan, an Excel financial model, etc. You’re still positive on the idea and think it’s probably worth giving it a shot.

What next?

One common approach is to visualise launch day and work back from there. Figure out what you need to launch some kind of initial product, and then start casting the spells and incantations required to get there (mostly in the form of code or application specifications).

A slightly better approach, which those who have tried the above method usually end up using next, after they built something that took them 6 months but was utterly useless to anyone, is to build the bare minimum that you need in order to get some users, any users, to use the system on a regular basis. This is better, and gets you feedback much more quickly than the previous method.

Even better is to aim not for something you can get people to use, but instead try to build something you can charge for immediately, even if the price is lower. This is often favoured by [Lean Startup](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_Startup) afficionados who haven’t quite taken the lean methodology the whole way yet.

What do all these methods have in common? They present the unfolding startup as a series of tasks to be completed to get somewhere.

Here’s a better approach.

Hypothesis-Driven Development

A startup idea is not a plan of action. A startup idea is a series of unchecked hypotheses. In essence, it is a series of questions that you haven’t completely answered yet. The process of progressing a startup from idea to functioning business is the process of answering these questions, of validating these hypotheses.

Let’s consider a theoretical startup to illustrate this. Let’s say we’re looking at building “Heroku for Django”. The initial three questions for most web startups will be in the form:

  • Can I actually build it?
  • Can I get people to know about it?
  • Can I make money from it?

Often, this is the order in which they will arise, if you have some experience of web startups but are fundamentally a builder type. Making money is the last concern. “If I can get lots of passionate users who are willing to pay something, then it will probably be alright.”

To apply Hypothesis-driven development properly, you will want to order your questions by priority before proceeding. This is especially essential once you break down the questions into sub-questions and end up with dozens upon dozens of questions.

The best way to prioritise the questions is by uncertainty. An initial order for these three questions might then be:

  1. Can I make money from it?
  2. Can I get people to know about it?
  3. Can I build it?

Your own prioritisation may vary, but if you’re technical, “Can I build it?” will probably be last on the list. Of course you can build it. If you couldn’t, you would probably have discarded the idea before even getting to this stage.

Before trying to answer the questions, you first break them down into sub-questions (please note this breakdown is nowhere near exhaustive enough, it’s just an example):

  1. Can I make money from it?
    1. How much will it cost me to serve the smallest users?
      1. Which cloud platform is best for this?
      2. How many instances will I need at a minimum to run the platform?
    2. How many users will I need just to break even?
      1. How much will I be able to charge per user?
      2. What proportion of paid vs free users will I have?
      3. How well will users convert from free to paid?
  2. Can I get people to know about it?
    1. What channels are there to get the message out?
    2. How much will each of these channels cost me?
      1. How competitive are the Ad-words for this?
    3. Do I have enough contacts to get the initial, core users so the service will be useful to real users?
  3. Can I build it?
    1. What are the hardest bits of technology I’ll need to put together?
    2. Can the scope be cut down so that I have a chance of building a version 1 with extremely limited resources?
    3. Which features can be put off until later?

You should keep expanding this list until you can start to see what the burning uncertainties are. These will be unique to your startup idea and to your skills and available resources. Two people evaluating the same idea will probably come up with different key questions. Once you’ve got those key questions (the ones which make you think “Hmm, I really don’t know this and it’s really important.”), shift those to the top.

Then, start working through the questions, one by one or even in parallel. Most of the time, the answer will not be found in code, but in good old-fashioned research, planning, and the dreaded Excel spreadsheets. You don’t need to answer all these questions with 100% certainty, but you should be clearly aware of the limits of your answers, and when the answer is really critical, you should make an effort to answer it as fully as possible. You can’t know everything, but you gotta know what you don’t know and how much it can hurt you.

At some point, if the idea has answered enough questions, the next most important question will require you to build something – be it a paper prototype, a landing page, or something else. When it’s the most important question, do it, and do just enough to answer the question. Later, if your idea is really good, you will probably, at some point, start to do the really expensive stuff: building a real application.

At that point, with so many critical questions having been answered, the likelihood that you build something that nobody uses or pays for should be low.

Of course, you may succeed by shooting from the hip and just going for it without a second thought, but more experienced entrepreneurs will usually look before they leap.

Thoughts from 2017

When I wrote this article, Eric Ries had been blogging about his Lean Startup ideas for a little while, but the book was still 9 months away from publication. It is obvious that this approach is one of the core components of the Lean Startup Methodology. That said, it extracts one of the key points and condenses it in a more readable format, which I think is valuable to be able to point people to.

All of the ideas in this article are still very much current – even more so, perhaps. Lean Startup, or Hypothesis Driven Development, is still the best way to devise a plan for building a new company: find the most risky assumptions, test them and update them until they are no longer risks, then find the next most risky assumptions and repeat until you have built a functioning company.

How to get better at writing

This was originally published on swombat.com on December 6th, 2010.

Writing is an essential skill for entrepreneurs. How do you get better at it?

Everyone can be good at writing, but not everyone makes the consistent effort to get there. Writing is not a skill that you can pick up overnight. Much like learning to speak a language, or like learning to start and run businesses, becoming a good writer is a journey measured in years.

This is a method to markedly improve your writing:

1. Practise often

If you look for them, you can find millions of occasion to write. Join almost any active online community and you will have many chances a day to write about whatever it is you have an opinion about. An active business will generate countless emails, each of which is an opportunity to write. And, of course, there are more traditional options, like blogging or otherwise writing for an audience.

You will not get better at writing without writing a lot, so the first thing to do is to make sure you’re writing something significant almost every single day. Find some excuse for it – any excuse will do – and keep it up.

2. Practise deliberately

Practicing is a start, but to be efficient you also want to extract the maximum amount of learning from your efforts.

For this, you need a way to evaluate your writing. Ideally, this needs to happen without involving anyone else; otherwise, you’ll find that your improvement depends on other people, which will slow you down or even stop you.

To evaluate your own writing, first you need to care. Most people who write horribly do so because they don’t care enough to even re-read their own words once, before sending them to some hapless recipient who will suffer through deciphering them.

Instead, do this:

  1. Read it out loud to yourself. Mark any points where you stumble in your speech as problem areas.
  2. Consider every sentence, one by one. Does it have a point? Is the point clear? Could it be more concise? Could it be cut entirely? Mark problem areas.
  3. Consider every paragraph. Does it have a point? Is the point clear? Could it be more concise? Could it be cut entirely? Mark problem areas.
  4. Go through all the problem areas and fix them.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you can’t stand looking at your own writing anymore (it can always be improved).

It’s often best to let writing rest for a day before evaluating it, too. Errors stand out more when you approach your writing with a fresh mind. Generally, it is better to review your writing before you publish it, but retrospective reviews work too.

3. Feed the machine

Last but not least, expose yourself to great writing continually. Read great books, particularly fiction (which tends to be better written on average). Read classics. Read modern stuff. Just read, read, read, every day.

When learning to write, every good book is a book about writing. Pay attention to the writing and you can learn from it. Look out for particularly good writing, or turns of phrase that you like. Also, look out for words that you don’t understand. Every time you’re not perfectly clear about the meaning of a word, look it up instead of guessing. You should only use a word when you know exactly what it means.

In conclusion…

  1. Write often – you won’t get better at writing without spending a lot of time writing
  2. Review your own writing – You’ll get better quicker if you deliberately look to improve
  3. Read often – exposing yourself to great writing will provide material to feed the automatically self-improving machine that is your subconscious

Do this for a few years and you will be, at the very least, a good writer. This will benefit not only your businesses, but all areas of your life.

2017 Thoughts

I think this article has stood the test of time. I stand by my advice. I would add a thought to it:

First, it now seems to me that once basic competency at writing is there, good writing tends to come from clear thinking. When we struggle to write something down or to explain it, it’s often because we don’t fully understand it ourselves. This clarity must cover not only the subject you are writing about, but also the impact you want to have on the reader. When you both know what you’re talking about and what you want to convey to the reader, good writing comes more naturally.

Even an amateur wordsmith, writing clumsily in a foreign language, but having mastered both topic and desired impact, will do a better job at writing than a poet who doesn’t know what they’re writing about and to what effect.

Adventures away from the Mac

When the new Macbook Pro was announced, I was not shy to judge it wanting. Those weren’t empty words, either – I went from being willing to spend £4.5k on a new machine, to hesitating, to buying a top spec Razer Blade for £2.7k instead. I was excited about the Razer – I even made an unboxing video!

The Blade was great – it played games smoothly at high resolution, was sleekly designed, and had a great showy gimmick in the form of the configurable LED backlit keyboard, which I soon configured to send shockwaves propagating across the keyboard with every key press. It ran Windows 10, which is the first time I actually used Windows in about 10 years.  That was a tolerable experience, though I wouldn’t call it great. I could certainly get used to it.

Unfortunately, about two and a half weeks into this new experience, I came back from a meeting to find the Blade stuck at the BIOS screen. It would not find its own hard drive. I restarted it a number of times, to no avail. It seems petty to mention that this was really disappointing, but it really was. My hope for a relatively smooth ride back towards the world of Windows after a decade on the Mac hit a deep pothole and went flying off the road. I contacted Razer to get help, and was hit with an abysmal support experience1. The poor support was a large factor in my decision to use my rights under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and return the laptop for a full refund.

With reluctance, I decide to stick with the Mac for now, and try a new Macbook Pro after all. It couldn’t be that bad, right? I ordered a 15″ MBP with 1TB SSD, the top CPU and 16GB of RAM. And dongles – 4 different dongles. Total cost with Apple care, £3.5k. Ouch. Delivery target – over a month away. In the meantime, I continued to use my late 2012 MBP.

After a month, the new MBP finally arrived just after Christmas, on December 29th. I had a couple of days to set things up on it before going on holiday, I also used it a little bit while away in Ireland, and then had about a week of usage back in the office before I decided to return it as well.

Here are my thoughts on the pros and cons, why I returned it, and what comes next.

The Pros

The new MBP is a beautifully designed machine. It looks slick, feels solid and futuristic. In terms of how the hardware looks and feels it’s hard to fault it.

The screen is amazingly bright and sharp. I never changed the standard background image with the mountains in the sunrise, because it looked so strikingly beautiful.

The new keyboard mechanism was surprisingly ok. I was dreading it being like the Macbook, which just feels wrong, but it somehow managed to tweak the balance to be alright. Not great, mind you. I still prefer the old keyboard. I don’t think it’s an improvement. But it works, and I could see myself getting used to it over time.

The USB-C ports are not a problem. Yeah, you need to get a few dongles, today. In a couple of years’ time, though, when everything has switched over to USB-C, this decision will look like what it is: a level-headed, sensible decision to help nudge the industry towards the future by being the first to go all in. Kudos to Apple on that.

The fingerprint scanner is nice. I don’t have a big problem typing in my password but it makes sense and is a nice way to log in.

The sound was really great, really loud and with more bass than the my 2012 MBP. If all laptops had sound like this the bluetooth speaker market would be mostly wiped out.

The Cons

Let’s go in order of increasing importance and culminate with the reason why, ultimately, I decided to return the machine.

The touchpad, while perfectly fine, was enormous. That in itself is not a problem, but there was actually no purpose to the touchpad being so large. I never derived any benefit whatsoever from the size of the touchpad. My hands rested where they normally did. I think in 2 weeks there was a single occurence of the palm rejection not working as expected. That’s not a big deal. But it feels a bit pointless. Apparently, they had to switch to haptic feedback to make it that big. The haptic feedback worked well, though I still prefer actually clicks – but I can see the sense in a haptic touchpad: we have about 30 Macbook Airs in the office and a couple of them have developed issues with the clicking mechanism. Mixed bag, this touchpad.

The speed was… not all that noticeably better than my late 2012 MBP. It was faster, sure, but not a whole lot. I would have expected a top of the range machine like this to feel speedy2. It didn’t really. Perhaps that’s because of the tasks I tend to perform on it – mostly Slack, Chrome (Gmail, Gcal), Tweetbot, etc, with TotalSpace set on 9 spaces. I also use Traktor, Beatport Pro and Ableton for music. Those were a little bit more snappy, but not 4-years-and-3.5-thousand-pounds more snappy. There were still moments where the window animations were jerky, when things froze up a little, when the beach ball of doom appeared. Perhaps I’m using the wrong software to get benefits from the last 4 years of hardware improvements.

For games, even the 15″ with the Radeon 460 with 4GB of RAM was disappointing. I only ended up having time to try one game on it: Xcom 2, hardly a beast of a game, being turn-based strategy. It has the odd cut scene 3D animation that’s reasonably complex, though, and while on the Razer (which has an Nvidia 1060) it was perfectly smooth, on the Mac it was perfectly not smooth – consistently jerky, sometimes dropping to maybe 3-5 fps3. That’s poor. Very poor. If this thing can’t cope with a relatively undemanding 2015 turn based strategy game, how is it going to run any game in 2-3 years? Maybe Apple shouldn’t have bothered with the graphics card at all.

The battery life was atrocious. With my typical usage I got about 2-3 hours. Maybe a little bit more if I didn’t do anything. Perhaps this is to blame on a software glitch with the GPU switching. Perhaps this is to blame on my usage of extraordinarily demanding applications like Dropbox, Chrome and Slack (this has been seriously suggested in a Mac repair shop I went to)4. The Razer got just under 6 hours of life under the same conditions, and it made no claims to have any decent battery life. So let me get this straight: Apple made the laptop thinner, put a significantly smaller battery in there, and now I get less battery life from their new Mac, while doing the same thing as I was on my previous Mac? I just paid £3.5k to get a downgrade in battery life?

If all the above was true, but nothing else, I would probably still have put up with it and kept the damn thing. It’s a poor showing from Apple, but it is still bearable in exchange for the warm fuzzies of having a nice new Apple laptop instead of my corroded old MBP. Just about. What tipped the scales, finally, was the Touch Bar.

Flop Bar

On a practical level, the main problem with the Touch Bar was that it never did anything useful for me, and frequently, several times a day, made my Mac experience inferior. I use my Mac as it comes, not with an external keyboard, so I could not ignore the Touch Bar. It was in my way every day. Every time I reached for the Escape key and hit… something weird. Every time I somehow rested my fingers in a way that made a long black rectangle appear on my screen, which I had to dismiss by breaking eye contact with whatever I was doing, finding an empty spot on the touch bar, and tapping that (and moving my fingers somewhere else).

I tried the Touch Bar in the mode where it gave app-specific suggestions, and I made the effort to look at it from time to time to see if there was anything of interest there. There never was. Not once. So after a week I flicked it to a static mode that looked like the Function Row. Even there it still got in the way from time to time and was an inferior experience to simply having a row of keys.

A week in, after I came back from Ireland, a weird problem developed with one key on the keyboard, which was somehow stuck down5. I tried hitting it from various angles to loosen it, but somehow it seemed stuck for good. I investigated getting that fixed, and in the process realised that I did not feel good about this laptop. Part of my mind was thinking about scenarios to return it. Why? The keyboard was surely just a minor problem.

After a bit of self-examination, I realised that the cause of that was the Touch Bar. Every day I liked it less. It was annoying, adding nothing to my experience but frequently getting in the way. Moreover, it was a daily reminder of how this MBP is not really a “Pro” machine (as has been covered ad nauseam in countless other blogs), but a sort of compromise based on Apple’s failing vision of what “Pro” users want. To put a final nail in it, I am convinced that in next year’s line-up Apple will either get rid of the Touch Bar or offer high end models both with and without, because in practice it’s just not that great an idea (I have yet to find anyone who is all that excited about the Touch Bar amongst my friends – at best they find it a non-issue). So if I kept my new MBP I’d be stuck with a high end, expensive machine that thumbs its nose at me every time I open it or rest my hands on the keyboard “the wrong way”.

One of the big reasons why people have been willing to pay extra money for Apple gear is that they get the “emotional” attachment right. They make devices that you get attached to, that create feelings in you when you use them. At least as far as I was concerned, Apple did get it right when they made the Touch Bar centrestage during the keynote (though I thought it was stupid at the time). The Touch Bar did create feelings in me. The feeling that this new MBP created in me every time I interacted with the Touch Bar was a growing awareness of my being an idiot for having bought an inferior, deeply flawed machine.

Everything else I would have put up with, but feeling like an idiot every time I use my laptop (i.e. most of the day every day) is not something I’m willing to pay £3.5k for.

So I returned it and got a refund.

What’s next?

The closest thing to the machine Apple should have put out, out there at the moment, is probably the Surface Book. But Microsoft is still getting their production chops together (they can’t even launch a device in the US and UK simultaneously yet). If the new Surface Book with Performance Base had been available in the UK, I might have given it a go. Maybe I will in a year or two if Apple continues to disappoint and Microsoft continues to get better.

As far as I can tell, there is currently no company that sells a Macbook Pro, i.e. a sleek, well designed, well supported professional laptop with solid specs and high desirability, a laptop that you can really feel good about buying – not even Apple. Hopefully someone (hopefully Apple) will soon, but right now there’s no laptop that is a significant upgrade on my 2012 Macbook Pro.

So for now, I will continue to use my 2012 MBP. It’s a good machine, it was doing alright, it can last another year, maybe two. And every time I open it I am reminded that I had the strength of will to return two laptops rather than spend a ridiculous amount of money on nothing just because I can.

I have bought an iPad Pro and am giving it a try for a couple of weeks as a device to use at the office6. It’s decent enough so far. I’m liking it. The battery life seems infinite. The Smart Keyboard case is tolerable (the Logitech one was too heavy). The lack of multitasking is, at the moment, actually helping me to focus better. It’s no good for “heavy work” but I no longer do heavy work at the office – most of my time is spent talking to people, sending emails and drafting documents7. I may return it, but at the moment, 4 days in, it feels like a keeper.

It is not, however, a “real computer” or a sufficient long term substitute. And I still do need a “real computer” – for DJing, for producing music, for managing my tracks collection, and perhaps even for playing games. I will have to get a new laptop, or a desktop, or maybe both, some day. At the moment, unless they really surprise me with next year’s lineup, it’s looking very likely that this next computer will not be made by Apple.

  1. After interacting with them over a few months, I am convinced that Razer’s support team programmatically insert a 24 hour delay in their responses. The hard evidence? Apart from the pattern of responses, an email sent on Friday will result in an auto-reply on Saturday afternoon indicating they’re closed for the weekend!

  2. The Blade felt a lot faster but it was a different OS so I couldn’t be sure if that was why it felt faster, or the hardware

  3. XCom 2 on the Mac, installed via Steam, doesn’t support changing the graphics settings, so I was just using it with whatever is the hardcoded default there.

  4. I should add that I left it plugged in on a high-speed connection to sync up Dropbox/etc initially, so this was not during the “initial sync”, but during regular usage

  5. This had never happened in 4 years of (ab)using my 2012 MBP

  6. I was ready to spend £4.5k on the MBP initially because I really want some sort of new gadget to play with, and my computer was clearly due for an upgrade. The iPad Pro is 1/3 the price of the Mac I returned, btw.

  7. As an aside, MS Word for iPad is an extremely well designed application!

Apple’s Ballmer phase

Some thoughts on the Apple Keynote yesterday, the new Macbook Pro, and its impact.

Background: I switched from Windows to Mac in 2006. Never looked back. People have called me an Apple Fanboy for years – to which I replied I’m just a fan of good technology and I’ll switch when Apple no longer makes the best stuff.

The Keynote

First, the keynote itself: it was the most ridiculously bad Apple Keynote I have ever seen. I could have forgiven the long build-up full of irrelevant announcements about Apple TV and tedious slide show reminders about iPhone and Photos if Apple had delivered on the main promise of an awesome new MBP, but Apple did not deliver. In that context, this level of hype and build-up was frankly stupid and harmful. The stilted delivery that others have commented on just made it all the more obvious.

This was a shaggy dog Keynote.

The Macbook Pro

Second, the goods: the new Macbook Pro is unexciting. The Touch Strip or whatever they’re calling it is positively lame in comparison to the full screen touch screens competitors are putting out. The use cases they demonstrated range from uninteresting to terrible1 – the point of a keyboard is touch memory. Without that, there is no point in having the buttons off the screen. Just make it a full screen touch screen! I can see this touch strip being helpful in some circumstances, particularly for non-power users who can’t remember shortcuts, but this is not the target market for the expensive Macbook Pro! On the technical side, the specs are ok, but not great. The prices, though, are eye-watering. Overall this was a very mediocre product announcement from Apple, after two years of silence.

This was meant to be a great computer for the early adopters, the geeks, the artists, the troublemakers and the crazy ones. It is not – it’s a massively overpriced, average piece of kit with a gimmicky touch strip that you’ll be embarrassed about every time someone asks you if you are enjoying your thousand dollar function bar that you have to carefully look down at every time you want to use it.

If Apple had said “we haven’t changed anything about the mac, but made it really awesome, it has the best specs and some USB-3 ports and a great graphics card that you can do VR with”, they would have gotten away with it for another year or two. But this? I was ready to spend £4k on a brand new laptop before the Keynote. Now, I’m ready to switch away from Mac and have already 99% settled on the new Surface Book.2

Slow clap for Apple – from “please take my £4k” to “I’m switching to Windows” in one keynote. This is not the kind of new ground they were hoping to break, though, I guess.

The Vision

Third, the glaring inconsistencies in Apple’s product range. If you buy a new Macbook Pro and a new iPhone today you will need a dongle to connect them. And to replace your current macbook you will need a multitude of expensive dongles that take up a lot of space in your bag and get lost all the time. Who thought that through?

Then there is the massive blind spot they clearly have about the Mac. Laptops and desktops aren’t gone yet. They’re still essential for most people. Maybe in 10 years we’ll all be using wearable computers exclusively but today, the laptop is at the top of the hill – I may love my iPhone, but I still do my creative and knowledge work on a computer. Even if I could get away with  using an iPad most of the time, I still need a computer enough of the time that I have to own one. Which computer I own makes a huge difference to which ecosystem I’m buying in.

In this context, Apple has neglected the Mac Pro for almost half a decade (that’s a hundred years in the tech industry), did not announce new iMacs, and made a half-arsed upgrade to the Macbook Pro with nothing exciting about it.

And if the Apple ecosystem is no longer the smoothly integrated experience it used to be, well, then, why should I stay with it? I’ll be exploring my options to get the best experience for me.

This is not a company with a clear vision any longer.

The Company

Finally, Microsoft seems to have just finally emerged from its 14-year long Ballmer age. Gates was a demanding visionary, and drove product design accordingly.  So was Jobs (even more so). Ballmer and Cook are great executives but not visionaries, it is now clearly the case for both of them, though there was some doubt about Cook previously, at least in my mind.

Satya Nadella seems to be a visionary, based on what’s coming out of Microsoft now. Microsoft could not have hoped for a better Apple Keynote to follow their exciting announcement of the Surface Studio (my, what a beautiful piece of kit) – a product Jobs would have been proud of I think.

On the mobile side, Google could not have hoped for a better timing for Samsung’s troubles, which may well establish the Pixel as the Android iPhone – and so make it easier for iPhone lovers like me to switch out of the Apple ecosystem.

The wolves are circling the Apple cart. But it’s a really big cart. It’s going to take them a while.

I think Apple will need another 5 to 10 years to realise that they need a different kind of leadership and culture than what is at play now, and another 5 years to change it. So I do not expect the Macbook Pro update in 6 or 12 months (if it comes) to be significantly better than what Apple have just delivered after 2 years of waiting. They did their best. And they’ll continue to do that. It’s just not good enough for me.

I don’t expect Apple to come up with anything as revolutionary as the iPhone or iPod or iPad in the next 10 years – at least while Cook is at the helm. I’m not going to hold my breath for it. I’m going to go look elsewhere for my shiny stuff.

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.


Time to switch! And of course the new Microsoft is totally on the ball with this. It’s almost like they have competent leadership and a clear vision of what they want to achieve.

I don’t buy shares at the moment, but if I did, I’d start shifting them over from Apple to Microsoft roundabout now.

It’s sad that as Microsoft finally wakes up, Apple is going to sleep. It would have been fascinating and exciting to see the old Apple and the new Microsoft go head to head at this game. Instead, from “Apple is the only game in town if you want a great computing hardware experience”, we’ve moved straight through to “Microsoft is the only game in town”.

Oh well.

  1. As a DJ, I shuddered while the DJ was demoing his skills – so many buttons so tight together is begging for a slip of the finger, and in order to avoid it the DJ has to keep looking down at the laptop – a hunched over look that makes no DJ look good.

  2. Worth adding that I am an influencer. My usage of Mac has resulted in many dozens of other people buying Macs and iPhones – including my own company buying over 30 Macs. This is not good news for Apple

An update on the Advice Process

Is it possible for everyone in a company to have the same power to make decisions as the CEO?

A year and a half ago I wrote an article about the Advice Process. We were a few months in the experiment at GrantTree, and it was going well enough that I wanted to share our findings.

Time has passed, and I have more findings and refinements. If the advice process is something of interest to you, my thoughts below may be worth reading.

First, has it worked?

Back then, I was confident, but not entirely sure that the advice process would work out. So the first question to answer is, is it working?

Absolutely. I won’t say that it is yet completely understood by everybody, or that all the challenges surrounding it are resolved (see below), but anyone who works here can observe for themselves that it is at the core of how we work. The experiment is certainly a success at this point.

How has our implementation of the advice process changed? Read on.


The first and most obvious thing that has changed about our implementation of the advice process is the phrasing. 18 months ago we were quite forceful about the definition:

Anyone can make any decision they feel comfortable making. However, before they make that decision, they must ask those who will be impacted by that decision, and those who are experts on that subject, for advice. They are free to disregard the advice and make the decision the way they wanted to anyway, but they must first ask for advice.

Important: this is about getting feedback/input into your decision, not about building consensus. Do not use the advice process to try and browbeat people into agreement or to build political support for your decision. You don’t need people to agree. You don’t need political support. You just need input to make sure that you make the right decision.

This definition spoke to our collective fear that the advice process would be misused or abused, that people would make controversial decisions without seeking the advice they needed to make a good decision, or that people might feel like their voice hasn’t been heard when making the decision (because they weren’t consulted at all).

In practice, we’ve not noticed that to be a problem. On the contrary, people typically seek too much advice for most decisions. This is not inherently bad except that sometimes it makes the advice process seem like a drag. So we changed the phrasing to say:

Anybody can make any decision if they have all the advice they need to make a good decision for the business. This includes asking those impacted or with expertise.

There, that’s it. No caveats, no footnotes. Just a simple statement and guideline with a bias towards actually making decisions.

Peer pressure

When I wrote the previous article, I was worried that I would be the one to undermine other people’s decisions, and hence my advice was directed towards founders, and other people with positions of implicit authority or status, to try and help them not undermine the advice process themselves.

That advice still stands – I still think that in a traditional top-down setting, the person deciding to put in the advice process can also very easily destroy its dynamic by revising other people’s decisions, but I am now aware that even if that doesn’t happen, there are lots of dynamics in the company that can undermine the process in practice, even without any status games.

The advice process is very challenging both for the people giving the advice and for those receiving it.

On the giving side, there is an implicit surrender of control in giving advice to someone that is hard to stomach for most people, particularly when they feel like their advice should carry weight. The person we’re advising may make a decision we disagree with. This causes fear. Fear leads to distrust and sometimes to attempts to influence the outcome of the process. This subversion can take many forms, but one of the more common ones I’ve observed is peer pressure and politics: when we fear the outcome, we might spend time discussing the decision-in-progress with a group, persuading them of the right outcome, and trying to enforce a sort of consensus-based resistance to the outcome that we fear.

As a consequence of that dynamic, instead of spending time trying to stop myself from revising other people’s decisions, I’ve found I’m spending far more time protecting other people’s right to make unpopular decisions, for example, by stating openly that whatever the decision the person makes, it’s their decision and I’ll stand by their right to make it.

Another extra layer of peer pressure is added when people give advice on behalf of others. Second-hand advice (“I don’t think you should do this because other people will disagree”) is generally poor, unconvincing, and also undermining.

My advice to the advice-giver would be:

When giving advice, accept that this is not your decision instead of trying to take control of the decision, speak for yourself instead of speaking for others, be clear that you’re just explaining your perspective instead of stating your opinions as universal truths.

On the advice-receiving side the process is also often challenging. Because most organisations operate by political processes, we feel tempted to discuss and justify our impending decision while seeking advice. I find that I fall prey to this a lot. It’s my biggest challenge when taking on decisions myself, perhaps borne out of the habit of making decisions via persuasion. So, a lot of my energy there is spent on myself to try and not fall into persuasion mode when seeking advice.

Why is that important? For two reasons. First of all, when I am trying to persuade someone else, I’m only listening to their arguments in the sense that they are obstacles I need to remove to convince them – so the advice that I get ends up being poorer, because of my own poorer listening skills. Secondly, the person giving the advice struggles to feel heard if they perceive that I am trying to convince them.

My advice to myself in this is:

When seeking advice, listen instead of arguing, ask questions instead of explaining, seek to fully understand the other perspective instead of seeking to change it.

This is a lot harder than it seems.


Although there has occasionally been grumbling when someone made a decision someone else disagreed with, it has generally been accepted that the decision was made.

Importantly, we used to state that a valid outcome of such a disagreement was a conflict resolution process. Then we moved away from that, because the threat of conflict looked like it was being used to coerce decisions (some people seemed more risky to have a conflict with than others). Right now we’re in an in-between state where we haven’t really defined what happens if someone makes a decision where someone else disagrees so vigorously that they can’t accept it – in part, because it doesn’t seem like that’s ever happened, even when very high-impact and controversial decisions were being made.

I don’t want to overextend myself here, but it is possible that this is a non-issue. Much like in top-down businesses, decisions that we disagree with, coming from the top, are accepted as decisions of the business. It appears that this may be true in open businesses too, for decisions coming from peers.

In practice, the few times when such controversial decisions were being made, the person who disagreed had a chat with the decision-maker to understand their reasoning and make sure their view had been heard, and then moved on, without demanding the decision be changed (which I believe wouldn’t have worked, but I never even got to find out).


Back when we set up the advice process, the first major road block we encountered was using it to decide pay. Back then, I wrote that I felt this could be tried again once there were no more major disagreements about pay in the company. Over the last year and a half, much of the company has, in turns, designed and implemented a pay system. Each time there were some who were happier and some who were less happy, but the result has been that the company really owns this central process, the apportionment of rewards.

Along with that, we also learned a lot about the advice process and how to use it. We developed our relationship to this core process. We also learned communication skills like Non-Violent Communications. We also had some major conflicts, some of which we resolved successfully and some of which we didn’t, but all of which we learned from.

We haven’t yet been able to implement the advice process for pay again, but I think we’re getting very close. Maybe this year.

In conclusion

The advice process is working very well for us. There are all sorts of nuances to its applications, that we’re learned over the last couple of years, and we’re continuing to learn.

To answer the question I opened with: Yes, it is possible to multiply the power of individuals in an organisation via the advice process, so they all have the maximum power that they are capable of wielding.

I hope your organisation is able to implement this process and give it a try.

GitHub: The quiet death of one man’s dream

When I first read Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux’s excellent study of open culture organisations around the world, I remember being moved and puzzled by the tale of AES. AES was (still is, I think) a publicly listed energy company that pioneered many of the concepts of open culture in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Then something went wrong: Enron. The stock market slid, and AES’s shareholders demanded that AES go back to more traditional management practices to fix this (even though it was obvious that AES’s stock decrease was environmental – the whole energy market was collapsing because of Enron’s speculation and (ahem) hard-edged “traditional management” practices).

Then I read Joy At Work, which was written by Dennis Bakke, one of the founders of AES and the main source of the pioneering culture work at AES. It’s a truly excellent book filled with useful ideas that we’ve applied at GrantTree, not the least of which is the definition of Advice Process which we use to make all decisions. And it is also a very bitter book.

Building open cultures is very hard work. It digs deep inside of us. It changes us. Like the Southern Oracle’s second, mirrored gate, it requires us to face all sorts of internal insecurities that we would normally ignore – things deeply specific to us and which are often very uncomfortable to deal with. Most people go their whole life without really facing themselves. Those who would create open culture organisations spend most of their time doing it, a rewarding but difficult habit.

If it is uncomfortable to face our shadows, it is doubly so to encourage others to face their own. It’s dangerous work too. Human change often requires dissolving what was there to build it anew, but when people are undergoing the first part of change, the dissolution, it feels like things they could once rely on are no longer there. They are afraid. They sometimes blame us for “making” them go through this. When you care deeply about every relationship (and to build an open culture, you must care), it is incredibly hard to go through this process with others too, always facing the risk that one of those people will refuse to change, blame you for it, and so attack you as the source of their suffering.

Part of what sustains me (and, I guess, other open culture advocates) while dealing with all this is the fundamental belief that what I’m doing is making a positive, lasting difference to those it touches, the belief that this way of working is truly better for all who experience it and that we all benefit from it.

I can only imagine what it must be like to spend decades building such a culture, only to have it wrenched from you, changed and corrupted back into a closed, hierarchical culture. The word “gutting” comes to mind. I am certainly not surprised that Dennis Bakke is bitter. It’s hard to see your life’s work defiled in this way.

I have previously linked to an excellent article about GitHub’s open culture. Today I read something far less inspiring, here:

Cofounder CEO Chris Wanstrath, with support from the board, is radically changing the company’s culture: Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers. This has ticked off many people in the old guard.

Its once famous remote-employee culture has been rolled back. Senior managers are no longer allowed to live afar and must report to the office. This was one reason why some senior execs departed or were asked to leave, one person close to the company told us.

Some longer-term employees feel like there’s a “culture of fear” where people who don’t support all the changes are being ousted.

These are all very clear signs of an open culture that’s being ripped to shreds. It’s tragic.

It’s also terribly ironic to see the old bullshit excuse that “well, it just doesn’t work at this scale” being deployed:

“There was a remote culture and very little hierarchical structure which worked wonderfully when they were 30 and 50 people, but at 500, it doesn’t work. Chris has decided that the leadership team needs to be in the building and managing, so remote is not an option for senior executives.”

AES had 40’000 employees all around the world and yet was successfully open. MorningStarCo has many hundreds. Valve (assuming it’s still open) has thousands. Semco – who knows, it’s now fragmented into a bunch of open culture companies and likely numbers in the thousands too. Yes, growth is hard. Things change when you grow. But transparency, trust, power and freedom don’t have to be among them.

Tom Preston-Werner’s dream

When did this start? When did the dream start dying? Who knows. But I have a hunch that it started before Tom Preston-Werner was ousted from the company, a couple of years ago, in a case of sexual harassment that was later dismissed as groundless. This smacks me of political play, a scenario very similar to what played out at AES, where an unrelated incident is used by those who don’t yet understand or trust open culture to weaken, attack or destroy it. GitHub was an open culture at the time. What did Tom do there? Why was it important to get him out?

Frédéric Laloux addresses the role of the “leader” in an open (also known as Teal), non-hierarchical organisation:

You might have noticed a major paradox: CEOs are both much less and much more important in self-managing organizations compared to traditional ones. They have given up their top-down hierarchical power. The lines of the pyramid no longer converge towards them. They can no longer make or overturn any decision. And yet, in a time when people still think about organizations in Amber, Orange and Green ways, the CEO has an absolutely critical role in creating and holding a Teal organizational space. But beyond creating and holding that space, paradoxically, there is not much a CEO needs to do; he can let the self-organizing, emerging nature of Evolutionary-Teal take over.


Teal operating principles run deeply against the grain of accepted management thinking, and so a critical role of the founder/CEO is to hold the space for Teal structures and practices. Whenever a problem comes up, someone, somewhere, will call for tried-and-proven solutions: let’s add a rule, a control system; let’s put the issue under some centralized function; let’s add a layer of supervision; let’s make processes more prescriptive; let’s make such decisions at a higher level in the future. The calls can come from different corners – one time it’s a board member who will call for more control, another time a colleague, a supplier or a client. Over and over again, the CEO must ensure that trust prevails and that traditional management practices don’t creep in through the back door.

And so it was with GitHub. Unfortunately, it is through the effect of his absence that we now know for sure that Tom was the leader who was “holding the space” at GitHub. In a way, I guess Tom was outmanoeuvred by someone who thought they knew better what GitHub’s culture should be. Whoever this someone is (probably not Chris Wanstrath), they took advantage of the situation and cleared the space for more “reasonable”, “grown-up” management to be put in. And so GitHub’s once open, innovating, amazing, world-leading culture is being replaced to create another workplace just like every other closed workplace.

Rather than analyse the causes of all this (I don’t know enough to do so anyway), I’d like to conclude the article by thanking Tom Preston-Werner. While it was open, GitHub was an inspiration that I (and no doubt many others) drew from to help open up the culture of our own companies. I have no idea what Tom is planning to do next – he’s still very young, I’m hopeful! – but I hope that he will be able to move past this failure, as tragic as it might be, and build another, even more amazing open culture company.

Thank you Tom. Best of luck with the next venture!

PS: Oh, by the way, if you’re a developer at GitHub, and you’d like to continue working remotely for an open culture company, we’ve been trying to hire a Python developer for a while. The old job ad is here. Get in touch if you’re interested! Filled (and thanks to this blog post)!

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