Startup Founders: Don’t Forget to Sell the Dream

I’ve been speaking with some Y Combinator hopefuls as they prepare to interview for this coming batch. As usual, there are some really enthusiastic and super smart folks working to solve really interesting and important problems.

I love taking these meetings because I get to get back to the community that has supported me plus I learn a ton in the process. For instance, it was from all these meetings last time around where I wrote my most popular post of 2012: 11 compelling startup pitch archetypes.

This post addresses a very specific piece of the startup pitch: selling the dream.

The Final 10%

The vast majority of your pitch should be around the mechanics of your business: your customers, your product, your team, your distribution strategy. This is what’s going to make you successful: competent people who really understand the needs of their users and who have the ability to create the right product to address those needs and get it into the hands of their users.

But, there is a final 10% of your pitch which should be more aspirational. It’s about the vision, the dream, the magic. It’s the answer to the question “How is this going to be a billion-dollar business?” [1]

Two of the companies that I’ve spoken to were missing that part of their pitch. They had identified a market segment which had a burning problem, and their products all that problem, and they had good specific strategies to acquire those customers. This is a great start. [2]

But they were missing that aspirational story.
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Ignore the critics: Lean In should be required reading for everyone, including men

Disclaimer: as a man writing about gender inequality, I acknowledge my privileged (and biased) viewpoint in this discussion. I’ve run this post by several smart, awesome women and incorporated their feedback, but I know I still run the risk of getting things wrong. Still, this topic is so important that I felt I had to try to add to the conversation.

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I recently finished Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. [1] Everyone from the New York Times, Slate, TIME and a host of bloggers has weighed in on Lean In — and many of the reviews are quite critical.

Among other things, people have said it blames women, offers unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite, and dismisses stay-at-home moms.

Ignore the critics. They’re wrong and they’ve missed the fact that Sandberg has produced a powerful book that should be required reading. [2]

Incidents like the disastrous PyCon/Adria Richards debacle underline the fact that some men have little understanding of the unique difficulties professional women face, and some female professionals have struggled to find effective ways of dealing with these challenges. We need to bring more constructive voices to the table discussion. Lean In is a nuanced and highly relevant read for anyone who cares about building a more equitable world in tech and beyond.

A short summary

Sandberg is a total badass, and yet she has struggled with significant hurdles to achieve professional success. Many of these struggles were with confidence, advocating for herself and balancing competence with likability, as well as overt sexism. I was forced to reconsider how to evaluate outward appearances of confidence between men and women and recognize there are no simple answers for ensuring a meritocratic workplace.

Sandberg cowrote Lean In with Nell Scovell, a professional writer, and acknowledges the help of many experts in refining her arguments. The collaboration made for writing that’s leaps and bounds above your typical business-buzz-book fare: paragraphs flow well, stories contain appropriate detail, research is cited and explained.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share some highlights, but I seriously encourage you to read the book for yourself.

More women in power

Sandberg makes the mission of her book very clear. She wants to see women in board rooms and the halls of Parliament, running companies and nations.

In the first chapter, she recounts hosting a dinner party for Leymah Gwobee, the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize winning activist. Gwobee had helped lead women’s protests that toppled the dictatorship in Liberia and was asked what the best way to help her people and fight the mistreatment of women.

Her answer: “More women in power.”

Sandberg writes this book from a moral imperative. She wants to help ambitious women succeed, not just for their own sake, but to bolster the conditions of women across the globe.

Sitting at the Table

A phrase that frequently appears in Lean In is “sitting at the table.” Sandberg recounts a story of hosting a number of Silicon Valley executives along with Tim Geithnier, the Secretary Treasurer, and his staff at Facebook. While all the executives sat at the main table, Geithnier’s all-female staff seated themselves in chairs along the side of the room.

Sandberg was surprised and waved them over. They demurred and refused to “sit at the table”. Women often are unwilling to jump into the action, Sandberg claims, and this holds them back from moving their career forward and making their voices heard.

She says this not disparagingly from up high, but from the perspective of a woman who has sat on the sidelines herself more than once, and often feels doubts about her position as one of “the most powerful women in the world.”

Confidence versus Caution

There seems to be a disparity in how men and women value their abilities and approach job hunting. According to data from recent graduates at Northwestern, males were 8x more likely to negotiate their salary than women. At Hewlett-Packard, an internal report found that while men apply for open jobs if they think they meet about 60 percent of requirements, while women are more cautious and won’t apply unless they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria.

In the book, Sandberg shared her thoughts on negotiating once she received her COO offer from Facebook:

“My husband, Dave, kept telling me to negotiate, but I was afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal. I could play hardball, but then maybe Mark would not want to work with me. Was it worth it when I knew that ultimately I was going to accept the offer? I concluded it was not.” [3]

In discussing this post with a former female coworker, she told me how one time, after receiving a generous offer from a new employer, she made the decision to negotiate. However, her own mother actually tried to dissuade her from negotiating, saying “It’s already a such a high offer! Don’t push it!”

Ultimately she negotiated a better offer and accepted the position (woot!), but I thought this was a poignant example of how women are often discouraged from negotiating — a message rarely given to men.

Competent women lose points on likability

Sandberg cites a tremendous wealth of research around gender bias: the most memorable example is involved a real-life business case study about a take-charge entrepreneur/venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. In 2003, some Columbia business school professors had their class read the case study, but half the students got a version of the case with “Howard” switched for “Heidi.”

When polled, students found both Heidi and Howard equally competent, but Howard appeared to be a more appealing colleague. Both men and women felt that Heidi was more selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” This is a very clear example of gender bias: the students read the exact same case!

“When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted,” or “difficult.” At least, those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”

When you want to become C-level executive, having the support of your peers is crucial, and we must be aware of how competent women lose points for likability. This is the double whammy that makes it hard for women to advocate for themselves: because they’ll be docked points for seeming “too aggressive”.

When Sandberg finally did negotiate with Zuckerberg around her offer, she did it in a friendly manner, emphasizing that as COO, she would be doing Facebook’s deals and of course needed to demonstrate her ability to be a good negotiator.

Forming truly equal partnerships

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully— and I mean fully— supportive of her career.”

To get more women into power, they shouldn’t have to decide between raising families or advancing careers. [4] There has to be a way to do both.

On this point, Sandberg wants women to ask for truly equal partnerships (if they have a partner) and for men to respond and deliver on an equal partnership. In households where both men and women work full-time, women still do 30% more housework and and 40% more childcare than men. It is unsurprising then that women might feel more burdened by their jobs and struggle more professionally, as they just have a higher total workload than men.

And just in case you feel annoyed by Sandberg’s wealth and ability to hire nannies, note this anecdote:

“When I went back to my job after giving birth, other working mothers told me to prepare for the day that my son would cry for his nanny. Sure enough, when he was about eleven months old, he was crawling on the floor of his room and put his knee down on a toy. He looked up for help, crying, and reached for her instead of me. It pierced my heart…”

Being a working mom is hard, no matter who you are and while Sandberg has lots of money, it does not buy her unlimited maternal bliss.

Closing Thoughts

This book covers a lot of ground: Sandberg also discusses mentorship, taking initiative, seeking growth opportunities, stay at home dads, and a host of other topics. I’ve just scratched the surface with this blog post. I especially encourage men to read it because even if you think you’re “gender-neutral” [4] , I bet this book will led you to change the way you do things.

Here are some very unflattering examples of how Lean In has been relevant for me:

  • When discussing the business career prospects of a girl I knew growing up, I made an offhand remark that “it probably doesn’t hurt that she is an attractive Asian female.” I’m mortified those words escaped by lips, but even more disappointed that this line of reasoning made any sense even in my head.
  • When having a coffee meeting (not a date!) with a female I had previously only talked with online, I found myself wondering if the meeting was going well because she wasn’t smiling or sharing very much. Then I wondered if I would have the same concerns if I was meeting with a man. Probably not.
  • When I’m in conversation with any group that includes women, I am much more cognizant of how often I interrupt/talk over men vs women.

Lean In is an important book that should be read by men and women, in tech and beyond. Having more women in power will help unlock the abilities and contributions of a significant proportion of society that is often under appreciated. And making sure that talent surfaces and worthy ideas are heard is good news for all of us.

Thanks to Winnie Kao, Christine Yen, Margot Leong and Kat Li for reading drafts of this and Christine Lan for helping shape my thinking on this subject.

Footnotes

[1] This is an affiliate link. If you buy this book on Amazon, I’ll get a few cents. [2] To address those claims directly:
  • Blaming women: Sandberg acknowledges there is a chicken-and-egg issue with gender inequality, with external barriers and internal ones. As a woman who’s struggled with these internal barriers and an executive who’s seen hundreds of women struggle as well, she’s chosen to focus this book on the internal ones, without denying there are significant societal problems that prevent gender equality.
  • Unrealistic advice from a wealthy elite: while it’s true that Sandberg has more money, power and connections than your typical working woman, she routinely discusses her own struggles before she became one of the most powerful women in the world, and she also shares stories from younger, “more typical” women she’s mentored and how they’ve leaned in. Additionally, she shares some of her more recent struggles of being a professional and a mom. In my opinion, the fact that Sheryl-fucking-Sandberg, the TED-talking COO of Facebook, still sometimes cries at work over issues that probably relate to her gender go a long way in underscoring the far greater difficulties that “regular” working women must overcome.
  • Dismisses working moms: simply not true. First she says she’s grateful to the many volunteers, who are mostly mothers, that sustain our schools, nonprofits and communities, and calls for working mothers to “regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers.” She describes many of the painful the trade-offs she’s made as a mother in order to work full-time and recognizes it’s not a path everyone would want to choose.
[3] Sandberg ultimately decided to negotiate only after her brother-in-law made a striking point about how no man at this level would ever accept the first offer. [4] Sandberg makes it clear that not every woman wants to be a working mom, and that some people find full-time motherhood deeply fulfilling and she honors that. She does point out though that the more you can achieve before stepping away to bear your child, the more likely you’ll want to return to the workforce because you could have an exciting career lined up. [4] Actually, people who claim to have no bias are actually more likely to be biased, according to research Sandberg cites in Lean In. So people who think they’re gender-blind may need this book the most.

“When evaluating identically described male and female candidates for the job of police chief, respondents who claimed to be the most impartial actually exhibited more bias in favor of male candidates. This is not just counterproductive but deeply dangerous.”

Cronyism is alive and well (or why relationships matter)

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We tend to imagine that we live in a Just World. Especially in the field of technology and startups, we want to believe that the skilled, insightful and dedicated are rewarded and the suckups and sycophants are weeded out.

But people do not sit rows on a giant spreadsheet, with the best ones easily identified via a quick “sort-by” function. We are social creatures and treat those we know and like, better than strangers. Relationships matter.

And when considering people we don’t know, we are more likely to favor people similar to ourselves, often because we share the same race, social group, alma matter, or membership in a particular group, among other qualities.

I know someone who was hired a while back in an exciting new role at a large technology company in Silicon Valley. The guy who hired him was in member of a certain fraternity and confided that he was planning to fill his entire team with fraternity alumni. [1]

Is this fair? No. It’s complete bullshit. Do things like this happen all the time? Yes.

You can respond to the fact that cronyism [2] exists in two ways:

  1. Rail against it as unfair and stupid. Refuse to play games or get involved in politics. Struggle to gain influence over others and limit your potential.
  2. Realize that this is human nature, and make it work for you. Have coffee meetings with influential people, build social capital by making great introductions, create weak ties by working at companies like Google or joining startup communities like Hacker Dojo.

When I was younger, I fell into the first camp, hoping to avoid gamesmanship and stay ‘principled’. I eventually learned that to be effective with people, you have to enter the fray. Favors, friendships, fame — these things matter if you wish to enlist the support and involvement other people.

Lest someone misunderstand this article, let me be clear: the more we can operate in a world where positions are filled with the most qualified people, the better. We should do our best to bring about this kind of a world and avoid perpetuating corrupt practices. However, I believe that by refusing to play any kind of politics, one writes oneself out of the opportunity to gain any sort of power and thus will have little ability to influence the system toward becoming better.

Play the game, but don’t let the game play you.

[1] Now this newly hired person could be a fantastic fit and the best qualified person for the job. But because the hiring manager indicated a clear bias for an arbitrary quality in his team, the true qualification of the entire team could be called into question.

[2] The appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without regard to qualification

How to Avoid the Emptiness of Delayed Gratification

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Photo Credit: papalars via Compfight cc

As a Chinese-American immigrant, my parents ingrained upon me the idea of sacrifice. They sacrificed so much to uproot their lives and raise me in a foreign country where they knew no one. They both worked two jobs for a long time so we could live in a town that had great public schools. If I forgot my lunch, my mom would literally drive my lunch to school to make sure I ate, so I wouldn’t be tired and starving at gymnastics practice.

I appreciated my parent’s dedication, but at times it wore on me. Because their sacrifice meant I, too, had to make sacrifices. There was a path I had to follow and it went something like this:

  • Because my parents sacrificed for me, I would bust my ass to get good grades and get into a good college.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in college to get a good job.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in my job to rise through the ranks and increase my salary.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would have children and bust my ass so they could have a better and brighter future than I did.

At some point I realized there didn’t seem to be a real payoff. It was some living version of MC Escher’s eternal stairs — always climbing and never reaching the top. I knew I had to get off the staircase.

Beware of the eternal staircase of delayed gratification

The ability to delay gratification is an essential willpower skill, and children who are better able to delay gratification score higher on their SATs and are more socially well adjusted as teens.

But delayed gratification can go too far. Here’s a refrain that many-an-entrepreneur has said:

“Once we launch our product, I’ll be able to rest and appreciate the success I’ve achieved  Until then, I’m basically failing and need to bust my ass like mad.”

Once the product launches, the goal posts get moved to hiring an important team member, raising another round of financing, getting profitable, getting acquired, etc. I fell into this trap and I often see a lot of other founders do the same. And of course, this mindset applies to not just entrepreneurs but ambitious people of all stripes.

The game never ends

When discussing this topic with a friend, (specifically in regards to personal growth), he asked: “When is enough, enough?”

I’m not sure this is the right question.  There will always be more work ahead. There will always be more challenges to overcome. You will never be completely satisfied (for more than a very brief period).

Living is about growing, conquering, stumbling, recovering, reflecting, learning and so on. Delayed gratification is important because most big projects require sustained commitment over a long period. But you have to learn to appreciate each and every day too.

Maybe a better question to ask would be: “How can I work towards the future while enjoying what I have?”

Moment-to-moment Happiness

It’s definitely possible to be busting your butt for a big future win, and appreciating and enjoying your life on a moment-to-moment basis. It may not be easy, but it’s possible.

Partly inspired by my friend Kevin Gao, I started jotting down little score cards for each day. Over time, I’ve figured out that my daily happiness is more or less governed by four things:

  • How healthy I felt (eating well, working out, feeling energized)
  • How productive I felt (getting worthwhile things done)
  • How much I got to socialize (hang out with cool people, talk to friends over Skype, spend time with my girlfriend)
  • How excited I am for tomorrow (Life is good if you’re looking forward to the next day)

Just tracking these stats makes me more cognizant of opportunities to eat healthier or see someone I like. Trends have emerged: I should to plan fun activities so I can look forward to them. These things help me be happy.

Happiness Makes You More Productive

I think that ultimately, giving yourself the space to enjoy the day to day actually allows you to work harder. I’ve sometimes seen my work as a burden —  something I’m resentful of, because it’s the ugly crap I have to overcome to get to the perceived gratification that lies on the other side. Thinking of work that way doesn’t make me want to keep trying harder.

But alternatively, if I give myself a little room to read a book, work on a side project, exercise, and see friends, then I feel fresh and alive and ready to drive harder on that long-term challenge that will bring the big, distant payoff.

That’s my take — I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with delayed gratification?

How to Be Charming: Highlights from The Charisma Myth


Photo Credit: Shandi-lee via Compfight cc

I recently read a book called The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane. She’s an executive coach who trains people on developing powerful social skills to influence and connect with others.

I thought she brought up some really interested ideas about charisma: specifically that it’s a skill not an innate quality, and that it’s the confluence of three elements: power, warmth and presence.

One of my goals in 2012 2013 is to develop different forms of media, so I’ve put together a slide deck with some of the key highlights from the book. You can see it below, or click here to view the deck directly. You can find the book on Amazon.com here (referral link).