How to make your team love you for less than $10

During my time running product at KISSmetrics, I got to work with some awesome people. One of my favorite engineers was a guy named Nate. Nate lives in Ohio with his wife and two kids. He’s a good family man and a solid engineer. He’s always down to go the extra mile to make a feature awesome for customers. He also happens to be a HUGE Mark Price fan.

Nate had been doing some particularly awesome work with me lately and I wanted to thank him in a memorable way.  I had heard others in engineering talk repeatedly about how Nate was obsessed with retired Cleveland Cavalier Mark Price, even wearing his jersey during engineering standups. Having noted that weeks ago, I knew that was the key to a great gift.

Finding the Gift:

Living in San Francisco, there isn’t a lot of Mark Price memorabilia available, so I went to Ebay to see what they had.  Within minutes of searching, I stumbled upon Mark Price Figures and knew I had just the thing.

Mark Price Figurine

#Winning. I could make Nate’s day for less than $10!

The Results:

Using the Buy It Now feature, I quickly received the figure. I then added a personal note and shipped it off to Nate. When he received it, he reacted like a kid on Christmas:

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 1.49.40 PM

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 11.20.02 AM

Nate also texted me the day he got it.

Even better, Mark Price sits on Nate’s desk to this day.

Nate's desk

Nate’s desk with Mark Price mug and *figure*

You can do this too.

With just a few minutes of my time and less than $10 spent, I made Nate’s day. More importantly, I strengthened our work relationship. There is no amount of cash or gift card that would have meant nearly as much or had as deep an impact. And with it sitting on his desk, he is reminded every day of it.

How to give a great gift to a team member

What you’re saving financially is being made up for in thoughtfulness. Everyone wants to be recognized and appreciated as a unique individual and that’s why these gifts are so much better than money. There are a few keys to remember if you’re going to do this for a team member and want to have the same results.

1) Meaning

The most important thing is to give a gift that uniquely resonates with that person. A Mark Price figure to any of my other coworkers would have been meaningless, but to Nate, it was perfect.

These aren’t just things they Like on Facebook. Pay attention to what your team talks about.  What do they *love*? What are they passionate about beyond what most people are? Those are the things that matter. It could be books, board games, a fashion designer, their car, a certain sports team or player, or a restaurant they’re completely in love with. Just realize that the stronger the emotion, the more meaningful it will be when you present the gift.

2) Timing

Don’t just give the gift to them at a random time. Use it as a reward for great work or a behavior you want to reinforce in your culture. Nate had been going above and beyond on a number of projects and been really helpful in explaining technical challenges to me, a non-coding Product Manager.  It was the perfect time to thank him.

The best gifts are also unexpected. It’s great to use these on birthdays, work anniversaries and the like, but it’s even more powerful when they don’t expect it at all.

3) Reinforcing

If you’ve chosen a gift a team member will uniquely love and will present it to them at a time they’ve been doing great work, congratulations, you’re 90% there. The last thing to do is to reinforce the behavior you’re rewarding.

When I sent the figure to Nate, I included a personal note thanking him specifically for the the things I enjoyed working with him on and the help he gave in explaining technical challenges. This ensured that the gift that got such a positive emotional reaction was now tied to the behaviors I wanted to see more of.

But what about….

I know what you’re thinking. Your team is too big, too remote, too private, too busy, or too <excuse> to do this kind of thing.

If you want to really retain and motivate your best team members, these kinds of things pay massive dividends. You should make time for it. This took me about 30 minutes in total between ordering, writing the note, and shipping it. You cannot put a price on what a heavily motivated employee will do for your company, especially compared to one that feels unrecognized and unappreciated.

The Power of 1 on 1s

The best time to find out these kinds of things is in 1 on 1s. This is especially true if your reports are remote so you don’t get general office interactions. 1 on 1s are the one time a week an employee gets to talk about themselves instead of just what the company needs. Pay attention and you’ll learn what their motivations and passions are. Aligning work with those motives and recognizing their passions will pay massive dividends in team morale.

Nate wasn’t my direct report, but every 2 weeks we had a Google Hangout to talk about what was going on in the company, and catch up personally.  I did this while I was the only PM at a 35 person company often juggling 4 different projects. I also never met Nate in person while I worked at KISSmetrics. What’s your excuse?

Remember the little things

I have the memory of a goldfish (or at least the urban legend version of one). Even meaningful things like this can slip my mind if I don’t record them. That’s why years ago I started keeping track of the passions, interests and motivations of people I work with. The system, when combined with good 1 on 1s and goal setting has helped me be a much better manager and is why I’m starting a company to help others do the same.

If you’re interested in getting early access to my app that will help you be a great, thoughtful manager, you can sign up below:


Get LighthouseWant to remember what matters most to your team? Check out Lighthouse, the app to help you remember key personal details (like Nate’s love for Mark Price), as well as have great one on ones, and grow your team.

Learn more and sign up at GetLighthouse.com

What Viktor Frankl can teach us about managing teams

Viktor Frankl is a psychologist, author, and Holocaust survivor. In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he advocates for everyone to find their meaning of life. This is no small task for anyone, let alone helping someone else discover it, but it is the most important thing anyone can find if they want to be happy and successful.

Frankl’s 3 ways to discover your meaning are:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

As a manager and leader, you have people working for you who are giving almost half of their waking life towards your company. Fortunately, many of those tasks can fit into Frankl’s 3 ways.  To keep them motivated and engaged, you must find ways to align their meaning with the company. With a little work, this can be achieved.

How to align your employee’s work & meaning

1) Give them ownership

Have you ever been given a task that someone had everything spelled out to a T how to do it? How motivated were you to work on that? If it was something important to you, it likely felt very stifling to not be able to do it how you saw fit.  Don’t do that to your employees. Give them the opportunity to use their skills to accomplish tasks in the way they choose.

2) Help them see the big picture

People join companies for many reasons, and a company’s core mission is often one of them.  Once they’re settled in their job and the day to day grind, it can become easy to lose sight of that mission that attracted them in the first place. Don’t let that happen! Repeating yourself as a leader is very important, especially if it’s reinforcing the core mission.

3) Connect the company mission to their tasks

Having everyone on your team understanding the company’s core mission is important. Tying their specific job to that mission is just as important. When someone feels like what they do really matters and they can see the impact, you create a powerful, motivating feedback loop. And if you manage someone in a low level job and don’t think you can tie their work to what matters, you should watch this.

4) Listen to their personal goals

It’s not all about the company. Your employees have hopes and dreams of their own. The more you can align those dreams with their work and show them how the company furthers their goals, the more motivated they will be. Humans have a natural urge to work on things bigger than themselves and a company is an amazing vehicle for this if you seize the opportunity.

What about the suffering?

Yes, Frankl believes suffering in life is not only inevitable, but essential. It is during times of suffering that we grow the most.  If you’ve ever worked long hours on a project, you can empathize with how major challenges can help you grow tremendously. Often, you work those hours because you were motivated in some way, likely one or even all 4 of the above reasons.

Frankl loved a particular quote by Nietzsche that captures it well:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

It is when people lose their why that they can no longer endure the how that they are facing. At work, long hours or a project they’re struggling with can wear them down without the above alignment. When this happens, everyone loses as they will start looking for other jobs and their work output will rapidly decline.

Are you giving your team the whys they need?

Get LighthouseWant to help your team to find their meaning and reach their goals? Then sign up for Lighthouse, the app to help you be a better manager and we can help you stay on top of your team’s growth and career goals.

Learn more at GetLighthouse.com

The most important word for motivating your team

Progress. It’s a word that has driven man for generations to grow, develop, learn, and reach for the stars (sometimes even literally). It often feels stale and disheartening when progress isn’t being made.  There’s a reason that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson have all invested in space travel; NASA stopped making progress and they were all inspired to push to advance mankind to space.

For us mere mortals, progress may not be measured on a societal scale, but we all still have goals. These goals are what drive us and motivate us to get up in the morning. As a manager, you are not only accountable to your own goals, but that of everyone on your team.

Do each of your team members make regular progress on their goals? Do projects drag on for months, or do they see results of the fruit of their labors on a regular basis? Whether you’re in sales, marketing, engineering, design or support, progress is hugely important to the mental well being of every team member.

The stakes for progress on your team couldn’t be higher. Engineers that don’t ship product for months have a high propensity for burn out.  Employees in any department will become frustrated and seek challenges at new companies if they feel like they’re no longer growing, learning, and working on things they’re excited about.

As a manager, you need to help your team make progress: Ship. Close deals. Get wins. See results.

But how do you reliably do this? How do you get out in front of potential disaster?

How to ensure your team members are making regular progress

1) Remove Blockers

Few things are as frustrating as feeling like you can’t get your work done because of someone else. Waiting for decisions or dealing with someone who is a bottleneck in a work flow can quickly stall out even the most talented person’s ability to make progress.

As a manager, you can often be the cause of those blockers. Diffuse that source of frustration for your team as much as you can. A great lesson I learned from Jonathan Kay, CEO of Apptopia, is to regularly ask everyone on your team, “Am I blocking you?” and then follow through on anything they ask for you to help them with right away.

When you meet with your team, always ask them if they’re being blocked in any way. The more you can help remove the blockers (even when you’re not directly responsible), the more your team will be able to get done and feel productive.

2) Empower Your Team

Are you a dictator that rules with an iron fist, making every little decision for your team? Or do you delegate effectively to your team, trusting them to make decisions on their own in their areas of expertise?

As a manager, there are too many decisions to make to micromanage everyone. You become much more scalable (and less likely to block them), when you let your team make the little decisions in their jobs. You also are then empowering them to have ownership over their work and focused on accountability to you on the results.

Work with your team to set the goals and expectations, but trust them to do the work you hired them in the best way they see fit. If you can’t trust them to do so, you need to hire people you can trust.

3) Align goals

Every person has different motivations and interests. If you understand what their goals are, you can help them get on the right projects with the right responsibilities. When someone’s work is aligned with their personal and professional goals, you will see them operate at their highest possible performance level.

As a manager, you need to regularly talk about each team member’s goals and interests. Not only will they differ person to person, but they will also change over time. Yee Lee, VP of Engineering at TaskRabbit, reminds himself to check with every member of the engineering team at least every 3 months to see if their long term goals have changed (they often do for many reasons). This ensures that everyone is making progress on their goals and the company keeps everyone aligned with what their asked to do on the job.

4) Watch for warning signs

Every big problem started out as a small one. The more you can identify problems when they’re small, the more likely you are to avoid having to constantly triage major issues that will take up all the time you don’t have.

When projects are making less progress or dragging on, you can often tell based on a shift in morale. Look for signs that people are not as engaged in a project or seem to be growing in frustration. What seems small to you on the outside may be a big issue brewing for those on the inside on a project.

The best early warning is your one on ones. When you ask them how something is going one on one, they’re more likely to be candid than in a group and you can also dig a little deeper by asking revealing questions such as, “What’s the most frustrating part of our project you’re working on now?” Whatever you hear, act on it appropriately and you will not only diffuse the situation, but build trust in your team that they can bring important issues to you no matter the size.

5) Take no one for granted

It’s easy to think that someone who crushes it at their job will want to keep doing it forever. Unfortunately, times and motivations change for everyone and, if you’re not careful, you will lose people when those motivations shift.

You need a strong communication channel to keep your best people. If they trust you, they will tell you.  Joe Stump, co-founder of Sprintly, had a great engineer who told Joe that he wanted to try something new (in his case, marketing). As much as Joe hated losing an engineer, he hated losing a talented team member even more, so Joe worked with the engineer to shift to a growth hacking role they were excited to do and the company needed.

As a manager, it’s easy to spend all your time on weaker team members or people that need the most mentorship. Don’t forget to check in on even your best talents or you may find out when it’s too late. This is why you should do one on ones with *everyone* on your team.

Your people are motivated by one word: Progress.  Are you helping them get there?


Get LighthouseGreat managers help their team make progress on their work, their career goals, and fix problems while they’re small.

If you’re looking for help making *progress* on these things, then give Lighthouse a try. It keeps you organized and helps you follow the best practices of great leaders. Learn more at GetLighthouse.com

The 5 Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

Being a manager is hard. It’s an entirely different set of skills than what you learned as an individual contributor and good resources are few and far between.  Most companies, especially if they’re startups, have no leadership training, so you’re often on your own. Making matters worse, you often have more bad examples of management around you than good ones.

So what’s an aspiring great manager to do? It starts with understanding the harsh truths of the role and then getting the right help.

The Harsh Truths of Being a Manager

1) Leadership is service to your team.

When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you. You are judged based on how your team performs, not how you produce. The most important thing you can do is motivate your team and focus them on their most important tasks.

This is a hard mentality to set when you are used to only having to worry about yourself. However, if you shift your mindset to that of serving your team, you’ll find it a lot easier.

Service to your team means . . .

  • . . . removing blockers for your team so they can get things done.
  • . . . listening to problems and helping address them quickly.
  • . . . shielding your team from distractions.
  • . . . accepting responsibility if something goes wrong.
  • . . . showering credit and praise on your team when something goes right.

There’s a special kind of satisfaction that you get when you see your team excited after conquering a major challenge that you rallied them to complete.

2) Your best people are easiest to take for granted and most devastating if they leave.

You don’t have to work for long to recognize A players. They’re hard working, always learning and produce great results in their field. As a manager it’s easy to take these stars for granted while you’re fire fighting and dealing with struggling team members. Unfortunately, taking them for granted means that you may not realize they’re unhappy until they have another job offer and it’s too late.

To retain your team, you should never take anyone for granted or go too long without talking with them. One on ones are the most powerful tool in a manager’s arsenal to avoid this grave misstep, so start them today if you haven’t already. You can also use the Management by Walking Around approach to also accomplish some of this, although the privacy of a one on one will give deeper insights.

You need to challenge your best people regularly, create opportunities for them to grow, praise them, and give them work that excites them. These things will change over time, which is why you need to regularly talk with them and not wait for them to come to you. You also need to listen carefully as they are often your front line for detecting problems early; fixing problems while they’re small helps you avoid constantly triaging major problems that consume all your time.

3) Your team members are more than just cogs in your machine.

Even at a big company, 9-to-5 job your team members are still giving you one third of their current life by working for you. If you’re part of a startup, it’s often significantly more time. Appreciate this as well as the fact that there are things that happen outside their work hours that are important to them.

Members of your team are complete human beings. They have a family, hopes, dreams, hobbies and passions.  When you show you care about them as a complete person, it makes them more engaged with their work and more trusting in you. It will vary from person to person, but there is usually something personal that can lead to work “resentment” as Marissa Mayer calls it. And on the positive side, giving a small thoughtful gift based on their interests will be remembered long after an Amazon gift card or cash bonus.

When someone is extra excited, they often want to share it. When they’re upset, they may need someone to confide in or understand what they’re dealing with. We’re all human and sometimes things outside work (cancer, death in the family, bad breakups, etc) affect us no matter how hard we try.  Being there for your team members and recognizing when they need some help (time off, extension on a project or just someone to listen) will pay massive dividends in retaining and motivating your team.

4) Your example sets the tone for your team.

One of the most fascinating things I have observed in my career is how a company takes on the personality of their founders and leaders. For better and worse, you’ll see nuances in how people communicate, deal with good and bad news, and react to customers, clients and team members based on the example set by leaders.

Are you excited about your mission? Are you motivated each day? Do you show patience or are you quick to judge? Are you the first one in the office each day or the first to leave? When you are a manager or leader, the spotlight is on you and everyone is watching. If you watch carefully, you will notice people picking up on your behaviors and often mirroring many of them. You will also see how even something as simple as a sigh or negative body language by you can take the wind out of the sails of an excited team member.

Self-awareness is one of the hardest, but most important, skills you can develop as a manager. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to how your actions impact those around you. The more your team is picking up good behaviors from you, the higher they will perform.

5) A lack of consistency and follow through kills your credibility.

When a leader says one thing and does another or is perceived as playing favorites, they lose credibility quickly. Without credibility, a team will not be inspired to follow them nor perform at a high level.

So on top of all the above challenges, you have the need to be consistent in everything you do so as not to be perceived as a hypocrite. Of course, the challenge is that with all you have going on as a manager, it’s very easy to not be consistent. You may not mean to, but when things get busy and stressful, it’s easy to be forgetful.

This is the harsh truth I struggle with the most. Even knowing so well the above lessons, reading regularly and seeking the advice of mentors, it is still very hard not to slip up and fail to follow through or be consistent. Even the best leaders I’ve spoken to have to constantly work on this one.

How are you supposed to avoid all these harsh truths without any help?

There are apps to help you ship code, track projects, analyze your customers and manage your sales process. And yet, there’s nothing to specifically help managers like you motivate, engage and support your team.

Bloated HR tools like Success Factors are not the answer and were not built with a manager in mind.

I’ve developed a system that has helped me motivate and retain team members for my startup, Greenhorn Connect, and as product manager at KISSmetrics. I’ve learned these techniques from talking to great leaders at startups and publicly traded companies, as well as reading many books on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, sign up for Lighthouse:


align box Being a manager is tough. If you want help staying on top of what matters to your team and to follow best practices of great leaders of past and present, sign up for Lighthouse.

You can learn more at GetLighthouse.com.


Special thanks to Justin Jackson, Alex McClafferty, Rich Rines and Thomas Schranz for helping with this post.

The 2 Most Important Skills to Start Your Career

There is nothing harder than starting out or starting over. When you are new, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door and make a good impression. It can be hard to tell the difference between incompetence and a simple lack of experience.

Therefore, if you’re just starting out, there are two skills that are essential and will carry you farther than any others:

1) A Fierce Attention to Detail.

Any manager with a new hire has in the back of their mind the questions of, “Can they handle this?” and “How much do I need to keep an eye on their work?” If your manager knows you have an excellent eye for the details, they will be much more trusting in your abilities, knowing that you’ve taken good notes of their instructions, will triple check your work for careless mistakes and won’t do anything to make them look bad.  Building this trust can be the difference between a fast accelerating career with new responsibilities and languishing as an entry-level hire for years.

The longer I’ve been a manager and worked on product teams, the more I appreciate this trait. Over and over again we see the evidence of how the little details are what people notice and love (A great example is how Crashlytics built for Tweets which led to their viral growth). This is at the heart of great craftsmanship.

2) A Hunger to Learn.

Unfortunately, minding the details is not enough to succeed. You must also be eager to learn new skills. The faster you level up, the more likely you are to advance in your career whether always at the same company or at new ones. You need to learn from others and seek out sources of information on your own, which are skills in and of themselves to develop.

Many people in other careers have asked me how to get into product management, which isn’t always easy. However, one of the easiest ways to change your role is to work at a growing company and show how fast you can learn and grow.  This gives a company the confidence to give you more and new responsibilities.

The Combination is the Key.

When you combine an attention to detail with a hunger to learn, you will be unstoppable. Watching for the little details will make you more inquisitive and help you find the hidden gems and little secrets others gloss over. The little details are where life’s curiosities and greatest lessons lie.

As you grow the confidence of others and use curiosity to drive your learning, you will open new doors and build great relationships with others in your field. You are likely to attract great mentors who enjoy watching your development and love sharing stories and lessons to further your learning. They will also become your strongest advocates, either as great references, or the kinds of people that hire you again and again.

What do you think are the most important skills for those starting out?

Get Lighthouse
Want help developing great young talent? Managing new people for the first time and want to feed their hunger to learn and keep your own attention to detail?

Then sign up for Lighthouse, the app to help you be a better manager.

Why are there so many bad managers?

Nobody sets out to be a bad manager and yet so many fall into traps and become one; it’s counter-intuitive to realize that humans are not straight forward machines. What worked as an individual contributor will not help you as a manager.

It’s easy to focus on the mechanical elements of management like company outcomes, hours logged, and project results, but that’s only a small part of what makes a great leader.

It’s so easy to stay professional instead of getting to know your team and what matters to them, especially if you’re remote or don’t interact with them every day. When this happens, is it any surprise they not only get frustrated or burn out but they don’t come to you with problems? Is it any surprise many bottle it up until they quit or find another job, which can lead to company-wide retention problems?

What do you do? Why do so many managers frustrate their teams?

The human element is missing.

If you help people achieve their goals, they’ll work hard for you to achieve the company’s goals as well. If you can align what you need them to do with what they want to do, the results can be great. If you make them feel important and recognize what they care about, they’ll work hard for you.

But all of this takes effort and time. Something that you don’t have unless you make time for it, which isn’t easy with all the emails, meetings and other responsibilities that come with a management role.

And rarely do such efforts get rewarded like specific company results do. So how do you make sure you’re not forgetting these things that pay off in the long term? And are you sure you are doing everything you could be?

I believe there is a way for today’s technology to help us all be better managers and caring leaders. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up below:

Why you should read 100 books

When I was fresh out of college with a internship at E Ink (maker’s of the display screen for the Amazon Kindle) I emailed the founder and then CEO, Russ Wilcox, to see if he would meet with me to give me some advice on entrepreneurship. Lucky for me, he was willing to schedule a meeting before my internship ended. You can read the full story here, but one of the best pieces of advice he gave me during our meeting was simple, yet powerful: Read 100 Books.

At the time it almost didn’t make sense and led to more questions than answers. What books? Why that many? How fast? By when?

I remember frantically writing down a bunch of book titles he started mentioning and then he stopped me and said the important thing was that they were on a diverse set of topics with different viewpoints instead of any specific books. He suggested trying to read 5-10 on categories like sales, marketing, leadership, negotiation, etc.

Mission Accomplished.

5 Years and 4 months after that conversation, I’ve finally hit the number and now looking back, I realize it’s one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t read as much as I have. Reading 100 books has done all the following for me:

  • Helped me better understand the responsibilities of coworkers (especially important as a product manager and startup founder).
  • Being comfortable in a conversation on just about any subject due to what I’ve read.
  • Rapidly improved my skills in key work responsibilities helping me accelerate my career and avoid costly mistakes.
  • Met other great people who also read regularly.
  • Given me the confidence and framework to help me learn anything.

If you’re reading this, I encourage you to also read 100 books. But realize it’s not about the number, but a routine of reading regularly that will serve you well throughout life.

Here’s my quick advice on how to make it happen and make the most of it:

1) Read what you can apply immediately.

I’ve managed to read a wide variety of books that have helped in my career and I’ve always chosen books based on what my current challenges and interests are. This has helped me apply concepts I pick up as I read a book, usually over the span of 2-4 weeks, depending on the length.

When I was moving to SF to run product at KISSmetrics, I started out with a great book on Product Management, then dove into a few books on design, before finding myself diving into sales, marketing, leadership and strategy books depending on what was happening at work and my personal life. Every time, I found great ways to build on what I read in my life around me which has helped tremendously with retention and understanding.

2) Get good recommendations.

Not all books are created equal. In fact, most books are pretty terrible, especially business books. There are gems out there though, so it really pays off to ask others who read what the *best* books are they’ve read on a subject. This has saved me tons of time on books that aren’t worth my time. This is why I made a list reviewing of all the books I’ve read  and some of my all time favorite books for entrepreneurs here. You’ll also occasionally find posts about books that CEOs like Jeff Bezos has his leaders read, which are usually great.

3) Build a routine of reading.

I read on public transportation. First it was riding the T in Boston and now MUNI around SF. I love this for so many reasons:

  • It gives you something to look forward to even when a bus commute might be lengthy.
  • A book won’t get stolen like your cell phone might be when you have it out as you play Angry Birds/check Facebook, etc.
  • It gives you bite size chunks of reading as most rides are 10-30 minutes…just enough for a chapter or two.
  • A book is a great way to get just a little bit more personal space on a crowded bus.
  • It’s a great warm up and cool down to your work day if you read during your commute.

If that’s not an option for you, build a routine around it in some other way. Maybe it’s 20 minutes before you go to bed, while you eat breakfast or perhaps audio books while you drive to work. It is the routine of always reading something that will carry you through that many books over the years.

4) Carry your book around with you.

Nothing sparks a conversation like someone noticing what you’re reading. Often those that notice read a lot too, which is a great way to make friends and you can get more recommendations for books from them. This also means that if a friend is running late, you always have a productive way to fill the time.  I brought Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” with me to Bootstrap Live and ended up talking with Andrew Warner and the guy next to me about how much we all loved it.

5) Write all over your books.

Despite working in technology, I still prefer physical books in my hand. I underline, I highlight and dog ear all my books. Something about it helps me with retention of what I read. Even if you prefer to read on a tablet or Kindle, be sure to take notes and challenge yourself to think about how to apply what you’re reading. It helps a lot to review books you’ve read before when you have that subject come up. It’s amazing to me how often past events line up as examples (or counter-examples) of something I’m reading. I’m always sure to take a moment to consider it and write it down in the book.

6) Always make progress.

Life doesn’t always go as hoped or planned. There are times of frustration and stagnancy both personally and professionally in all our lives.  I’ve found one of the best things for me is knowing that no matter what is happening in my life I’m always learning because of what I’m reading. I can always look back and see progress there.

It has also helped that when I’ve had down times, if I read something related to it like a book on happiness or successfully navigating your 20s, I’m actually being proactive about the problem and getting advice from someone great who took the time to research and write a book about the subject.

Remember, this is not a race. The point of reading all these books is to absorb all the ideas and skills shared in the books, not race to the end.

I’ve heard some people like to skim books and think that doing things like reading the opening and closing paragraphs of a chapter and reading headlines in the chapter is enough. They’re either reading the wrong books or missing out on some deep lessons.

As a wise man once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” It is the journey to 100 books that I both enjoyed and grew tremendously from…not the milestone of specifically 100 that matters to me; I haven’t stopped reading and won’t anytime soon. My Amazon Wishlist is longer than ever (please suggest the best books you’ve read in the comments!) and I can’t wait to learn through more great books for the rest of my life.

3 Books Every Investor Should Read

As an entrepreneur, when I consider the ideal investor I would like to have, it’s a lot more than someone with money. I want them to have characteristics like:

  1. Able to make smart bets: Investments are largely made when it’s too early to tell with certainty who or what will win in a market. 
  2. Add value and insights: This is more than replaying personal war stories and biasing from your own experiences.
  3. Asking good questions: Someone who pushes founders to take a step back and recognize the things that matter often comes more from asking questions than providing answers.

Being great at those three things is no small task. Fortunately, there’s been some great books written that can supplement the knowledge and know-how of even the most veteran entrepreneur or get a new investor off on the right foot. These are books I’ve read and re-read because they’ve providing so much value to me and I believe can specifically help investors as well.

The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton Christensen

Disruption is a brutally abused word in tech these days. Clayton Christensen brings it back to reality and explains how it really works in this classic written in the 90s (and has arguably gotten better with age).

As an investor this is critical so you can call BS on an entrepreneur that claims they’re disruptive, but really are hopeless. This book will help you understand not only how to recognize disruptive technology in its earliest days, but what it means to get in the market, grab a position and successfully grow and take down the incumbents. Benjamin Tseng, a Bay Area VC, has a great post also discussing the value of this book for investors here.

Investor Scenario: A founder claims they have a disruptive innovation and are telling you about their immediate mass market plans, The research in Christensen’s book will help you guide them a better approach or to pass on the deal.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

Over the past 100 years, communication platforms have dramatically changed and evolved. During this time, we’ve seen the emergence of the telephone, radio, television, email, the internet and more. Without fail, every time one of these new mediums emerged, they fought an uphill battle to eventually win the market.

This book goes perfectly hand in hand with Innovator’s Dilemma by walking you through how many technologies were slowly commercialized and changed the world. By the time you get to the end the patterns will be impossible to miss and priceless to match against what you see in new markets emerging (some of which you hopefully can invest and place strong bets on).

Investor Scenario: A founder has a transformative technology. Knowing the patterns of past innovative companies, you can help them anticipate resistance they may face both in the market and legally.

Tribal Leadership by Logan, King & Fischer-Wright

A book on culture to go hand in hand with two on innovation cycles? Absolutely. While there are other books out there I’ve rated higher on culture, none are more powerful for an investor.

You only get a limited amount of time with a founder and their team, so knowing how to quickly tell the difference between a strong team culture and one struggling is huge. What makes Tribal Leadership special is how it helps identify the key words that you can listen for to tip off how a company is really doing. 

Armed with this information, you can help a founder get back on track if some of the team has issues.  It can also help you decide if you should pass on an investment that looked good otherwise; a motivated, excited team will be significantly more productive, work longer hours and help recruit the best talent. You need those for the characteristics for a company to hit deadlines and win the market.

Investor Scenario: You visit one of your investment’s offices. If you overhear employees talking about their excitement for the mission, they’re operating at a high level. If instead they’re complaining about how much their work or a project sucks, you may want to ask the founder some questions.

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Unfortunately, many business books are a complete waste of time. Luckily, gems like the 3 books above exist and help tremendously to educate us, change our perspectives and diversify our knowledge on important subjects. I’d love to hear any great book recommendations in the comments for investors or entrepreneurs.

Founders: You don’t own your employees

[Ed. note: This is in response to a post by David Hauser entitled, “The Startup Side Project Bubble” which you can read here: http://buff.ly/10Lw9ek]

So many founders forget something simple: You do not own your employees.

They are human beings with their own passions, interests and lives. You have a vision of a reality you want to create. After much labor and hard work to get it off the ground, either funding or your own revenue allows you to hire help. Those people are choosing to devote a significant portion of their lives to your cause to help make it possible. Take a moment to appreciate that. 

In David’s post he argues that employees having side projects is bad for them and his business. This is so backwards.

First, telling someone what they should and shouldn’t do in their free time is a tremendous insult to them and their personal judgment.  It’s also incredibly short-sighted.

You want employees with side projects.

Especially for the creators at a startup (ie- the people that design and build your product), there is tremendous benefit to them having side projects. A few of those benefits are:

  • Experimentation. An outlet to experiment with new technologies before suggesting the company use them; no amount of research compares to having used a new framework and being able to provide first person accounts of the tradeoffs.
  • Independence. A place where they can make all the decisions (for better and worse) versus the negotiations that often happen in a company. You can also call this their creative release.
  • Mastery. The ability to further hone skills in a self-directed fashion, getting them to the 10,000 hours to mastery faster than standard work hours alone would provide.
  • Relief. Providing some variety in their life’s work can help avoid the burnout that comes from only working on one thing for too long.
  • Focus. Motivating them to get their work done efficiently because they don’t have every hour of the day to work on it. The saying goes, “If you want something done, ask a busy person” for a reason.
  • Contribute. The ability to help the greater tech community through contributions to open source projects, which wouldn’t exist without many people having side projects.
  • Network. They’ll often work with people outside their day job on these side projects, which will grow their learning and network. It might even provide the next recruit when you need more help at your startup.

And I’m sure there are others.

Great employees are a package deal.

In the early days of a startup, you want athletes, which are often entrepreneurs themselves.  Later, you want specialists who have deep expertise in their skills. By their nature the same skills you value each day in either group’s work for you also lends itself to having these side projects: In early employees that means a breadth of knowledge, while later, the depth of knowledge that comes from side projects is what makes many great later stage startup employees.

I would not be running product at KISSmetrics if I had only put my head down and worked on my past jobs (I wouldn’t even be in tech now most likely…I have a degree in Electrical Engineering). The skills that are core to my job came from side projects like Greenhorn Connect, taking the time to learn new skills in my free time and reading voraciously. Every founder wants to hire people with passion for their craft and a wide range or depth of skills.  This is a package deal.

“Why don’t you quit your job already?”

Taking a step back and looking at David’s argument, it seems centered around the idea that if an employee has a side project, they should quit their job immediately and start a company. While they should definitely quit their job if they’re ready to make a run at it as a business, they may not do that right away because of a few reasons:

  • Funding. They lack the personal funds and see the foolishness in fundraising when they don’t even know whether an idea has legs whatsoever.  Not all side projects have clear paths to revenue/bootstrapping either.
  • Motivation. Many side projects are for fun and passion. Sometimes those become businesses worthy of full time attention, but usually they are just an enjoyable thing to do with only part of their time.
  • Stability. Depending on what else is happening in their life, it may not be the time to start a company. If they’re getting married, just moved to a new city or a close family member is on their deathbed, they may not want the upheaval of launching a startup on top of that.

None of these reasons prevent a person from being a valuable contributor to your startup. In fact, someone may work for your company and add tremendous value you’d otherwise never receive.

This is a seller’s market.

If you have hard to find skills like design, product management or engineering, it’s a great time to be a startup employee. Companies must compete for you. With salaries skyrocketing, it takes more than money to attract talent. Having a good culture, treating people well and supporting them as individuals become important factors as well.

David’s views may work for him, but I caution other founders from adopting his cynical attitude towards those with side projects. The potential gains far outweigh any losses in hours David seems so concerned with and run the risk of turning off potential great team members.

How to Become a Better Leader Instantly

Whether building a career at a large company or starting your own, if you want to advance and grow, soft skills like leadership are just as important to develop as hard skills like programming languages and sales tactics. Despite being a species evolved to live and work in groups, most of us struggle to effectively communicate with and motivate others. This is unfortunate, given how important and helpful a skill it is to master.

I’ve been studying leadership for a while and there are many techniques for motivating and effectively working with others. Many take some practice and skill. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to very quickly develop your skills, which I was reminded of as I was recently reading the excellent book, “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and Life One Conversation at a Time.”

One tip in particular stood out as something I’d heard many times before and I realized it’s the single easiest, yet important tactic to learn:

Give specific praise regularly

Animal trainers around the world know the best way to train animals is through rewarding good behavior. Just think about the last time you were at Sea World and the seals and dolphins got fish and other treats after each trick they did.

While humans are much more complex creatures, we still like rewards, just often in a different form: praise. Because this praise is written or verbal, the key is to be specific.  Don’t just say, “Good Job.” Instead, you’ll want to pull out exactly what was good so they know to do it again. Some simple examples could be:

  • “Great work on the folder feature, Susan. I really like how you made your code clean and easy to follow with comments explaining each section of the code.”
  • “Your report on quarterly earnings was great, Tom. Your graphics were perfect for explaining to the board how we recovered from the rough month.”

After praise like that, I guarantee you that Susan will continue to comment her code and keep it clean and Tom is much more likely to keep investing time to make great graphics for his reports.

This type of praise is powerful for a few reasons:

1) People want to feel appreciated.

Assuming you like your job even a little bit, you want to do good work. There are parts where you’ll put in extra effort. People just want to be recognized for that hard work and that will motivate them to do more of it. Think back to a time someone thanked you for a great job on a project you slaved over for weeks. Give others that feeling.

2) The absence of praise will be felt.

When someone does subpar work and you give no praise, they will notice and want to work harder to seek your praise they previously enjoyed. On the other hand, if you don’t praise people regularly, they are less likely to continue to put in the extra effort on projects. We have all had those moments where we went the extra mile on something and were disappointed when no one noticed. Chances are, you didn’t do it again for that boss or coworker. Don’t be that kind of manager.

3) People want to be noticed.

Especially in the startup world, it’s easy to take great work from your team for granted. Everyone just ships feature after feature, marketing content over more content and keeps grinding. This is also why celebrating wins as a team matters; it’s an opportunity to recognize both the collective efforts of the team and specifically who made major efforts to help the team get there. This is the key to making people feel like they’re “part of something bigger” that draws so many to the lower pay and longer hours of startup life.

Can you remember the last time you praised each member of your team? Were you specific with them or just a vague, “Good job”?

This is just one of the awesome tactics you’ll learn in the book, Fierce Conversations. It covers many excellent topics and will help you understand how to have productive and often difficult conversations effectively with others in both your personal and professional life. I scored it a 9 out of 10 on my ratings scale and highly recommend it.